Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Classics are Australia, too!

Ancients back from the deadFont Size: Decrease Increase Print Page: Print Luke Slattery | September 24, 2008

SIMON Goldhill, the rock star of the classical revival, has the head of the Farnese Hercules -- though not, mercifully, his heft -- and an almost Periclean love of an audience.

Professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, and the author of numerous scholarly and popular books on the classics, including Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shaped our Lives, and Who Needs Greek?, Goldhill is a powerful communicator. His boosterism for the classics could even be described as evangelical, if that word didn't invite a certain mixing of cultural metaphors.

In Goldhill's view, Roman orator Cicero best explains the danger of ignoring the past.

"If you don't know where you come from you are destined to spend your life as a child, and by being a child, Cicero means being disempowered, ignorant, at sea," Goldhill says. "It is impossible to understand the development of Western thought, religion and culture without engaging with its obsession with ancient Greek and Roman culture."

The HES catches up with Goldhill as he prepares a talk on Sophoclean ironies for the University of Sydney's Nicholson Museum. That night he warns a spellbound crowd never to fall into the trap of imagining the ancients as children in relation to us; as less sophisticated in their appreciation of their texts and, in this case, Sophoclean subtleties.

Julia Kindt, a lecturer in the department of classics and ancient history, remarks afterwards: "Goldhill truly performs his lectures and is not afraid to challenge his audience with those questions that concern the very core of our engagement with the classical past."

Goldhill has no doubt there is a revival under way of interest in the classical world, but he's not entirely sure why.

"Greek tragedy has had a remarkable renaissance, which is hard to explain," he tells the HES. "There have been more productions in the past 50 years than the five centuries before. It's something to do with tragedy's ability to get past the censor: that is, to reach moral and emotional levels that plays apparently more relevant can't reach.

"Also they treat big themes of gender, power, violence, extremism -- themes that are really relevant -- and do so with more intelligence and greater poetry than many modern plays.

"Long may it last."

Classicists such as Goldhill have been cheered by the rising enrolments in ancient history at school and university -- "booming in England and Australia" -- and the public's apparently inexhaustible appetite for books, films and exhibitions on aspects of antiquity. An exhibition on the legacy of Hadrian, for example, is drawing big crowds at the British Museum, while Melbourne's Victoria Museum is preparing a show for 2009 on a day in the life of Pompeii.

The revival has also helped to stir the coals of classical studies at Monash University, the institution sponsoring Goldhill's visit.

Classics was axed from Monash in 1998. Four years later it was revived and placed under the leadership of Jane Griffiths, a self-confessed Goldhillian.

"He taught me as an undergraduate and has been immeasurably influential as a friend and mentor: the sort of man who has the ability to teach you how to think, not what to think," she says. "I've tried to pass on to our students some of the passion, original thinking and intellectual engagement that Simon passed on to me when I was his student. Classics generally owes him a great deal for his ability to engage an audience while forcing them to shake up their preconceptions."

On Saturday night Goldhill delivered the Trendall lecture at Monash, named after the internationally renowned Australasian classicist and expert on the redfigure pottery of Magna Graecia, Dale Trendall.

Classics and ancient history are fizzing at Sydney, in part because of their popularity at school. At Monash, interest in classical antiquity is rebounding from its nadir of 1998: the department now boast about 200 students and 40 majors.

Goldhill is only too well aware that the classical revival comes at the end of a long period of decline; classical languages, once the heart of the liberal arts curriculum, remain a minority interest. And while the bridge between the present and the antique past is being rebuilt, it is only suitable at present for light traffic.

"This is the first generation since the Renaissance where it is somehow thought acceptable for an intelligent and educated person to be ignorant of the ancient world," he says.

"I don't mean just picking up the occasional reference to mythology. I mean what is it like to think about democracy, sexuality and religion without appreciating where these ideas come from and have come about?

"So for me learning seriously about the ancient world is a must."

But Goldhill, a scholarly innovator with a conventional pedigree, envisages any permanent revival of classical literacy in a particularly exacting way.

For him the "royal road" to understanding Greek and Roman antiquity threads through the ancient languages themselves. "Greek and Latin may not regain their position in the curriculum, but to shut them down or make them unavailable to kids who do want them is a real pity and very short-sighted," he says. But he warns of the classical "name dropping, mythology and etymology mongering" that is, and always has been, more about acquiring some prestige from the glamorous past than any nuanced understanding of it.

Despite his injunction against name-dropping, Goldhill is prepared to contemplate an Epicurean version of the desert-island question: Who from the classical world would you invite to a dinner party, or symposium?

"Sappho to sing and play," he shoots back. "Hypatia (late antiquity's first woman of mathematics) to talk shop; Aristophanes to keep it light; Alcibiades (orator, general, and intimate of Socrates), to make sure everyone else hears about it; and Phryne (legendary Athenian courtesan) for Sappho to sing about. That would be more fun than Augustus, Caesar, Jesus, St Paul and Cicero."

No comments: