JANUARY 12, 2012
The year 2011 has been an unusually good one for the late Terence Rattigan: Frank Langella starred on Broadway in his play Man and Boy (a topical tale of the collapse of a financier), its first production in New York since the 1960s; and a movie of The Deep Blue Sea, featuring Rachel Weisz as the wife of a judge who goes off with a pilot, premiered at the end of November in the UK and opens in the US in December. It’s the centenary of Rattigan’s birth (he died in 1977), and it has brought the kind of reevaluation that centenaries often do. For years—in the eyes of critics, although not of London West End audiences—his elegant stories of the repressed anguish of the privileged classes were no match for the working-class realism of John Osborne and the other angry young dramatists. But we are learning to look again.
I have been looking again at another Rattigan play, The Browning Version, first performed in 1948. It is the story of Andrew Crocker-Harris, a forty-something schoolteacher at an English private school—an old-fashioned disciplinarian who is being forced into early retirement because of a serious heart condition. The Crock’s other misfortune (and “the Crock” is what the children call him) is that he is married to a truly venomous woman called Millie, who divides her time between an on-off affair with the science teacher and devising various bits of domestic sadism to destroy her husband.
But the title of the play takes us back to the classical world. The Crock, as you will already have guessed, teaches the classics (what else could he teach with a name like Crocker-Harris?), and the “Browning Version” of the title refers to the famous 1877 translation by Robert Browning of Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon. Written in the 450s BC, the Greek original told of the tragic return from the Trojan War of King Agamemnon, who was murdered on his arrival home by his wife Clytemnestra and by the lover she had taken while Agamemnon had been away.
This classic is, in a sense, the real star of Rattigan’s play. It is given to the Crock as a retirement present by John Taplow, a pupil who has been taking extra Greek lessons, and who has gradually come to feel some affection for the crabby old schoolmaster. The giving of the gift is the key moment, almost the moment of redemption, in the plot. It is the first time that Crocker-Harris’s mask slips: when he opens the “Browning Version,” he cries. Why does he cry? First, because it forces him to face how he himself is being destroyed, as Agamemnon was, within an adulterous marriage—you’ll have gathered by now that this is not exactly a feminist play. But he cries also because of what young Taplow has written on the title page. It’s a line from the play, carefully inscribed in Greek, which the Crock translates as “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” He interprets this as a comment on his own career: he has made sure not to be a gentle schoolmaster, and God has not looked graciously upon him.
Rattigan is doing more here than exploring the tortured psyches of the British upper-middle class (and it’s not just another “school story,” which Americans often think a quirky fixation of British writers). Well classically trained himself, he is also raising central questions about the classics, the classical tradition, and our modern engagement with it. How far can the ancient world help us to understand our own? What limits should we place on our reinterpretation and reappropriation of it? (When Aeschylus wrote “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master,” he certainly did not have a schoolmaster in mind, but a military conqueror; in fact, the phrase—and this too, I guess, was part of Rattigan’s point—was one of the last spoken by Agamemnon to Clytemnestra before she took him inside to kill him.)
To put it another way, how do we make the ancient world make sense to us? How do we translate it? Young Taplow doesn’t actually rate Browning’s translation very highly, and indeed—to our tastes—it is written in awful nineteenth-century poetry-speak (“Who conquers mildly, God, from afar, benignantly regardeth,” as Browning puts the key line, is hardly going to send most of us rushing to the rest of the play.) But when, in his lessons, Taplow himself gets excited by Aeschylus’ Greek and comes out with a wonderfully spirited but slightly inaccurate version of one of the murderous bits, the Crock reprimands him—”you are supposed to be construing Greek“—that is, translating the language literally, word for word—”not collaborating with Aeschylus.”
Most of us now, I suspect, are on the side of the collaborators, with their conviction that the classical tradition is something to be engaged with, and sparred against, not merely replicated and mouthed. In this context, I can’t resist reminding you of the flagrantly modern versions of Homer’s Iliad by the English poet Christopher Logue, who died on December 2—Kings, War Music, and others—”the best translation of Homer since [Alexander] Pope’s,” as Garry Wills called them in these pages.* This was, I think, both a heartfelt and a slightly ironic comment. For the joke is that Logue, our leading collaborator with Homer, knew not a word of Greek.
Many of the questions raised by Rattigan underlie what I have to say. I’m not here to convince you that classical literature, culture, or art is worth taking seriously; I suspect that would be preaching to the converted. I’m here instead to suggest that the cultural language of the classics continues to be an essential and ineradicable dialect of “Western culture” (embedded in the drama of Rattigan, as much as in the poetry of Ted Hughes or the novels of Margaret Atwood or Donna Tartt—The Secret History couldn’t, after all, have been written about a department of geography). But I also want to examine a bit more closely our fixation on the decline of classical learning. And here too Rattigan’s Browning Version, or its sequels, offer an intriguing perspective.
The play has always been popular with impoverished theater and TV companies, partly for the simple reason that Rattigan set the whole thing in Crocker-Harris’s sitting room, which makes it extremely cheap to stage. But there have also been two movie versions of The Browning Version, which did venture outside Crocker-Harris’s apartment to exploit the cinematic potential of the English private school, from its quaint wood-paneled classrooms to its rolling green cricket pitches. Rattigan himself wrote the screenplay for the first one, starring Michael Redgrave, in 1951. He used the longer format of the film to expand on the philosophy of education, pitting the teaching of science (as represented by Millie’s lover) against the teaching of the classics (as represented by the Crock). And he gave the Crock’s successor as the classics teacher, Mr. Gilbert, a bigger part—making it clear that he was going to move away from the hard-line Latin and Greek grammar grind, to what we would now call a more “pupil-centered” approach.
In 1994 another movie version was made, this time starring Albert Finney. It had been modernized: Millie was renamed Laura, and her science-master lover was now a decidedly preppy American. There was still some sense of the old story: Finney held his class spellbound when he read them some lines of Aeschylus and he cried at the gift of the “Browning Version” even more movingly than Redgrave had. But in a striking twist, a new narrative of decline was introduced. In this version, the Crock’s successor is in fact going to stop teaching the classics entirely. “My remit,” he says in the film, “is to organize a new languages department: modern languages, German, French, Spanish. It is after all a multicultural society.” The Crock is now to be seen as the very last of his species.
But if this movie predicts the death of classical learning, it inadvertently appears to confirm it too. In one scene, the Crock is apparently going through with his class a passage of Aeschylus in Greek, which the pupils are finding very hard to read. Any sharp-eyed classicist will easily spot why they might have been having trouble: for each boy has on his desk only a copy of the Penguin translation of Aeschylus (with its instantly recognizable front cover); they haven’t got a Greek text at all. Presumably some bloke in the props department had been sent off to find twenty copies of the Agamemnon and knew no better than to bring it in English.
That specter of the end of classical learning is one that is probably familiar to everyone. With some trepidation, I want to try to get a new angle on the question, to go beyond the usual gloomy clichés, and (with the help in part of Terence Rattigan) to take a fresh look at what we think we mean by “the classics.” But let’s first remind ourselves of what recent discussion of the current state of the classics, never mind their future, tends to stress.
The basic message is a gloomy one. Literally hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and Op-Ed pieces have appeared over the last ten years or so, with titles like “The Classics in Crisis,” “Can the Classics Survive?,” “Who Killed Homer?,” “Why America Needs the Classical Tradition,” and “Saving the Classics from Conservatives.” All of these in their different ways lament the death of the classics, conduct an autopsy upon them, or recommend some rather belated life-saving procedures. The litany of gloomy facts and figures paraded in these contributions, and their tone, are in broad terms familiar. Often headlined is the decline of Latin and Greek languages in high schools (last year fewer than three hundred young people in England and Wales took classical Greek as part of their high school leaving exam, and those overwhelmingly from private schools) or the closing of university departments of the classics all over the world.
In fact, in November 2011 an international petition was formally launched to ask UNESCO—in the light of the increasing marginalization of the classical languages—to declare Latin and Greek a specially protected “intangible heritage of humanity.” I am not sure what I think about treating classical languages as if they were an endangered species or a precious ruin, but I am fairly confident that it wasn’t great politics, right now, to suggest (as the petition does) that their preservation should be made the particular responsibility of the Italian government. I think Mario Monti has rather too much on his plate already.
What has caused this decline attracts a variety of answers. Some argue that the supporters of the classics have only themselves to blame. It’s a “Dead White European Male” sort of subject that has far too often acted as a convenient alibi for a whole range of cultural and political sins, from imperialism and Eurocentrism to social snobbery and the most mind-numbing form of pedagogy. The British dominated their empire with Cicero in hand; Goebbels chose Greek tragedy for his bedside reading (and, if you believe Martin Bernal, he would have found confirmation for his crazed views of Aryan supremacy in the traditions of classical scholarship itself). Chickens have come home to roost, it’s sometimes said, for the classics in the new multicultural world. Not to mention the fact that, in England at least, the learning of the Latin language was for generations the gatekeeper of rigid class privilege and social exclusivity—albeit at a terrible cost to its apparent beneficiaries. It gave you access to a narrow elite, that’s for sure, but committed your childhood years to the narrowest educational curriculum imaginable; nothing much else but translation into and out of Latin (and when you got a little older, Greek). In the movie of The Browning Version we find Crocker-Harris making his pupils translate into Latin the first four stanzas of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott”: an exercise as pointless as it was prestigious.
Others claim that the classics have failed within the politics of the modern academy. If you were to follow Victor Davis Hanson and his colleagues, you would in fact lay the blame for the general demise of the subject firmly at the door of careerist Ivy League academics who (in the pursuit of large salaries and long sabbaticals) have wandered down some self-regarding postmodern cul-de-sac, when ordinary students and the “folks out there” really want to hear about Homer and the other great paragons of Greece and Rome. To which the retort is: maybe it is precisely because professors of the classics have refused to engage with modern theory and persisted in viewing the ancient world through rose-tinted spectacles (as if it was a culture to be admired) that the subject is in imminent danger of turning into an antiquarian backwater.
The voices insisting that we should be facing up to the squalor, the slavery, the misogyny, the irrationality of antiquity go back through Moses Finley and the Irish poet and classicist Louis MacNeice to my own illustrious nineteenth-century predecessor in Cambridge, Jane Ellen Harrison. When I should be remembering the glories of Greece, wrote MacNeice memorably in his Autumn Journal,
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys…
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
Of course, not everything written on the current state of the classics is irredeemably gloomy. Some breezy optimists point, for example, to a new interest among the public in the ancient world. Witness the success of movies like Gladiator or Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra or the continuing stream of literary tributes to, or engagements with, the classics (including at least three major fictional or poetic reworkings of Homer in the last twelve months). And against the baleful examples of Goebbels and British imperialism, you can parade a repertoire of more radical heroes of the classical tradition—as varied as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx (whose Ph.D. thesis was on classical philosophy), and the American Founding Fathers.
As for Latin itself, a range of different stories is told in the post-Crocker-Harris world. Where the teaching of the language hasn’t been abolished altogether, you are now likely to read of how Latin, freed of the old-fashioned grammar grind, can make a huge impact on intellectual and linguistic development: whether that’s based on the studies from schools in the Bronx that claim to show that learning Latin increases children’s IQ scores or on those common assertions that knowing Latin is a tremendous help if you want to learn French, Italian, Spanish, or any other Indo-European language you care to name.
But there’s a problem here. Some of the optimists’ objections do hit home. The classical past has never been co-opted by only one political tendency: the classics have probably legitimated as many revolutions as they’ve legitimated conservative dictatorships (and Aeschylus has over the years been performed both as Nazi propaganda and to support liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa). Some of the counterclaims, though, are plain misleading. The success of Gladiator was absolutely nothing new; think of Ben-Hur, Spartacus, The Sign of the Cross, and any number of versions of The Last Days of Pompeii right back almost to the very beginning of cinema. Nor is the success of popular classical biography; countless people of my generation were introduced to antiquity through the biographies by Michael Grant, now largely forgotten.
And I’m afraid that many of the arguments now used to justify the learning of Latin are perilous too. Latin certainly teaches you about language and how language works, and the fact that it is “dead” can be quite liberating: I’m forever grateful that you don’t have to learn how to ask for a pizza in it, or the directions to the cathedral. But honestly, if you want to learn French, you’d frankly be better off doing that, not starting with some other language first. There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.
That’s not quite what I mean, though. My bigger question is: What drives us so insistently to examine the “state” of the classics, and to buy books that lament their decline? Reading through opinion after opinion it can sometimes feel that you are entering a strange form of hospital drama, a sort of academic ER, with an apparently sick patient (the classics) surrounded by different doctors who can’t quite agree on either the diagnosis or prognosis. Is the patient merely malingering and really fighting fit? Is a gradual improvement likely, but perhaps never back to the peak of good health? Or is the illness terminal and palliative care or covert euthanasia the only options? But why are we so interested in what’s going to happen to the classics, and why discuss it in this way, and fill so many pages with the competing answers? There’s something a bit paradoxical about the “decline of the classics debate” and the mini publishing industry that appears to depend on large number of key supporters of the classics buying books that chart their demise. I mean, if you don’t give a toss about Latin and Greek and the classical tradition, you don’t choose to read a book on why no one’s interested in them anymore.
You will, I suspect, already have spotted all kinds of different assumptions about what we think “the classics” are underlying the various arguments about their state of health: from something that comes down more or less to the academic study of Latin and Greek to—at the other end of the spectrum—a wider sense of popular interest in the ancient world in all its forms. Part of the reason why people disagree about how “the classics” are doing is that when they talk about “the classics” they aren’t talking about the same thing. I don’t plan to offer a straightforward redefinition. But I am going to pick up some of the themes that emerged in Terence Rattigan’s play to suggest that the classics are embedded in the way we think about ourselves, and our own history, in a more complex way than we usually allow. They are not just from or about the distant past. They are also a cultural language that we have learned to speak, in dialogue with the idea of antiquity. And to state the obvious, in a way, if they are about anybody, the classics are, of course, about us as much as about the Greeks and Romans.
But first the rhetoric of decline, and let me read you another piece of gloom:
On many sides we hear confident assertions…that the work of Greek and Latin is done—that their day is past. If the extinction of these languages as potent instruments of education is a sacrifice inexorably demanded by the advancement of civilisation, regrets are idle, and we must bow to necessity. But we know from history that not the least of the causes of the fall of great supremacies has been the supine-ness and short-sightedness of their defenders. It is therefore the duty of those who believe…that Greek and Latin may continue to confer in the future, as they have done in the past, priceless benefits upon all higher human education, to inquire whether these causes exist, and how they may be at once removed. For if these studies fall, they fall like Lucifer. We can assuredly hope for no second Renaissance.
Now, as you will have guessed from the rhetorical style, that was not written yesterday (although you could have heard much the same points made yesterday). It is, in fact, by the Cambridge Latinist J.P. Postgate, lamenting the decline of Latin and Greek in 1902—a famous lament, published in an influential London magazine (The Fortnightly Review) and powerful enough to lead directly, over one hundred years ago, to the establishment in the UK of the Classical Association, whose aim was to bring like-minded parties together explicitly to save the classics.
The point is that you can find such lamentations or anxieties almost anywhere you look in the history of the classical tradition. As is well known, Thomas Jefferson, in 1782, justified the prominence of the classics in his own educational curriculum partly because of what was happening in Europe: “The learning Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.”
All this seems almost preposterous to us; for, in our terms, these are voices from the Golden Age of classical study and understanding, the age that we have lost. But they are an important reminder of one of the most important aspects of the symbolic register of the classics: that sense of imminent loss, the terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity (always in danger of rupture), the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value. That is to say, tracts on the decline of the classics are not commentaries upon it, they are debates within it: they are in part the expressions of the loss and longing and the nostalgia that have always tinged classical studies. As so often, creative writers capture this sense rather more acutely than professional classicists. The sense of fading, absence, past glories, and the end of an era is a very clear message of The Browning Version.
But another side of the fragility is a major theme of Tony Harrison’s extraordinary play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, first performed in 1988—featuring (in one part of a complex plot that mixes ancient and modern) a pair of British classicists who are excavating in the rubbish dumps of the town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt for the scraps of papyrus, with all the “new” bits of classical literature that they may contain, or the precious glimpses they might give of the mundane and messy real life of the ancient world. But as Harrison insists, all you ever get are the fragments from the wastepaper baskets—and the frustration and disappointments of the process send one of the excavators mad.
The truth is that the classics are by definition in decline; even in what we now call the “Renaissance,” the humanists were not celebrating the “rebirth” of the classics; rather like Harrison’s “trackers,” they were for the most part engaged in a desperate last-ditch attempt to save the fleeting and fragile traces of the classics from oblivion. There has been no generation since at least the second century AD that has imagined that it was fostering the classical tradition better than its predecessors. But there is of course an up-side here. The sense of imminent loss, the perennial fear that we might just be on the verge of losing the classics entirely, is one very important thing that gives them—whether in professional study or creative reengagement—the energy and edginess that I think they still have.
I am not sure that this helps us very much in predicting the future of the classics, but my guess is that in 2111 people will still be engaging with the classics, edgily and creatively, that they will still be lamenting their decline—and probably looking back to us as a Golden Age of classical studies.
But the question still remains: What do we mean by “the classics”? I am conscious that I have been almost as inconsistent as those I have criticized. Sometimes I have been talking about Latin and Greek, sometimes about a subject studied by people who self-describe as classicists, sometimes about a much more general cultural property (the stuff of movies, novels, and poetry). Now definitions are often false friends. The smartest and most appealing tend to exclude too much; the most judicious and broadest are so judicious as to be unhelpfully dull. (One recent attempt to define the classics runs: “the study of the culture, in the widest sense, of any population using Greek and Latin, from the beginning to (say) the Islamic invasions of the seventh century AD.” True, but…)
I’m not going to construct an alternative. But I do want to reflect on what the coordinates of a definition might be—on a template that might be more helpful in thinking about what “the classics” are, and how their future might lie. At its simplest, I think that we have to go beyond the superficially plausible idea (embedded in the definition I’ve just quoted) that the classics are—or are about—the literature, art, culture, history, philosophy, and language of the ancient world. Of course they are partly that. The sense of loss and longing that I described is for the culture of the distant past, the fragments of papyrus from the trash cans of Oxyrhynchus. But not solely. As the nostalgic rhetoric makes absolutely clear, the sense of loss and longing is also for our predecessors whose connections to the ancient world we often believe to have been so much closer than our own.
To put this as crisply as I can, the study of the classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world (whether Dante, Raphael, William Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon, Pablo Picasso, Eugene O’Neill, or Terence Rattigan). The classics (as writers of the second century AD had already spotted) are a series of “Dialogues with the Dead.” But the dead do not include only those who went to their graves two thousand years ago. This is an idea nicely captured in another article in The Fortnightly Review, this time a skit that appeared in 1888, a sketch set in the underworld, in which a trio of notable classical scholars (the long-dead Bentley and Porson, plus their recently deceased Danish colleague Madvig) have a free and frank discussion with Euripides and Shakespeare. This little satire also reminds us that the only actual speakers in this dialogue are us; it is we who ventriloquize, who animate what the ancients have to say: in fact, here the classical scholars complain what a terrible time they are having in Hades, because they are constantly being told off by the ancient shades who complain that the classicists have got them wrong.
Two quite simple things follow from this. The first is that we should be much more alert than we often are to the claims we make about the classical world—or, at least, we should be more strategically aware of whose claims they are. Take, for example, the common statement “The ancient Athenians invented democracy.” Put like that, it is simply not true. As far as we know, no ancient Greek ever said so; and anyway democracy isn’t something that is “invented” like a piston engine. Our word “democracy” derives from the Greek, that is correct. Beyond that, the fact is that we have chosen to invest the fifth-century Athenians with the status of “inventors of democracy”; we have projected our desire for an origin onto them. (And it’s a projection that would have amazed our predecessors two hundred years ago—for most of whom fifth-century-BC Athenian politics was the archetype of a disastrous form of mob rule.)
The second point is the inextricable embeddedness of the classical tradition within Western culture. I don’t mean that the classics are synonymous with Western culture; there are of course many other multicultural strands and traditions that demand our attention, define who we are, and without which the contemporary world would be immeasurably poorer. But the fact is that Dante read Virgil’s Aeneid, not the epic of Gilgamesh. What I have stressed so far is our engagement with our predecessors through their engagement with the classics. The slightly different spin on that would be to say that it would be impossible now to understand Dante without Virgil, John Stuart Mill without Plato, Donna Tartt without Euripides, Rattigan without Aeschylus. I’m not sure if this amounts to a prediction about the future; but I would say that if we were to amputate the classics from the modern world, it would mean more than closing down some university departments and consigning Latin grammar to the scrap heap. It would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture—and a dark future of misunderstanding. I doubt we’ll go that way.
I would like to finish with two final points, one a slightly austere observation about knowledge and expertise; the other something rather more celebratory.
First, knowledge: I have referred several times to the way that we ourselves have to ventriloquize the ancient Greeks and Roman, and to animate their writings and the material traces they have left; the dialogue that we have with them is not an equal one; we’re in the driver’s seat. But if it’s going to be a useful and constructive dialogue, not an incoherent and ultimately pointless Babel, it needs to be founded on expertise in the ancient world and in ancient languages. Now I don’t mean by that that everyone should learn Latin and Greek (any more than I mean that no one can get anything out of Dante unless they personally have read Virgil). Luckily, cultural understanding is a collaborative, social operation.
The important cultural point is that some people should have read Virgil and Dante. To put it another way, the overall strength of the classics is not to be measured by exactly how many young people know Latin and Greek from high school or university. It is better measured by asking how many believe that there should be people in the world who do know Latin and Greek, how many people think that there is an expertise in that worth taking seriously—and ultimately paying for.
My one concern, I suppose, is that while there is still a huge and widespread enthusiasm for the classics, expertise in the sense I have just mentioned is more fragile. Christopher Logue knew no Greek when he embarked on the Iliad; but he knew a man who did know it, very well—Donald Carne-Ross, who went on to become professor of the classics at Boston University. Compare that collaboration to the way, even in significant publications in academic disciplines bordering on the classics (in art history, for example, or English), you repeatedly find misprinted, garbled, wrongly translated Latin and Greek. I don’t mind the authors not knowing the languages; that’s fine. But I do mind that they don’t bother to call on someone else’s expertise to help them get it right. Most ironically of all, perhaps, in my own recent copy of Rattigan’s Browning Version, the bits of Greek that are central to the play are so misprinted that they make little sense. The Crock would be turning in his grave. Or to put it my way, you can’t have a dialogue with nonsense.
But I don’t want to end with that curmudgeonly thought. As I looked over what I had written, I thought that there was one thing about the classics that had got left out in this lecture: a due sense of wonderment. Professional classicists are not good in this respect. You’ll most often hear them complaining about all the things we don’t know about the ancient world, bemoaning that we have lost so many books of Livy, or that Tacitus doesn’t tell us about the Roman poor. But that is to miss the point. What is truly amazing is what we have, not what we don’t have from the ancient world. If you didn’t already know, and someone were to say that material written by people who lived two millennia ago or more still survived in such quantities that most people wouldn’t be able to get through it in a lifetime—you wouldn’t believe them. It’s astonishing. But it’s the case; and it offers the possibility of a most wondrous shared voyage of exploration.
At this point in my reflections I picked up Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon and looked more carefully at how he introduced it. “May I be permitted,” he writes, “to chat a little, by way of recreation, at the end of a somewhat toilsome and perhaps fruitless adventure?”
Toilsome? Probably. Fruitless? I don’t think so, despite the very old-fashioned ring of Browning’s language. Adventure? Yes certainly—and adventures in the classics are something we can all share.
Νew York Times Review of Books