We worship the body, watch ancient battles at the multiplex, and bow down before the gods of celebrity. Mark Simpson marvels at how much our culture owes to those skirt-wearing olive-munchers, the Greeks
(Independent on Sunday 30 May 2004)
Philhellenes are everywhere, and everywhere they look they see the glory that was Greece. “Today we are again getting close to all those fundamental forms of world interpretation devised by the Greeks…” enthused one of the more famous examples; “we are growing more Greek by the day.” No, not Camille Paglia, but jolly old Friedrich Nietzsche back in the 19th century. According to Nietzsche, even then we were growing more and more Greek: “At first, as is only fair, in concepts and evaluation, as Hellenising ghosts, as it were; but one day in our bodies too.”
That day appears to have arrived – or at least the enthusiastic uptake of this aspiration by the masses has. The Greek legacy in the arts and sciences is almost forgotten in the scramble to achieve a body like Apollo’s; the state itself, like that of Athens, has begun to exhort its members to join gyms and take regular exercise, while the idealised, boyish form has all but usurped the female in public art, in advertising and fashion (often even when the models are actually female).
Leather mini-skirts and flashing smooth brown thighs will be all over the big screen this summer with the release of not one but two blockbusters set in Ancient Greece: Alexander The Great and Troy (in which Brad Pitt plays the parts of both Achilles and Helen). Some might say that we have already seen the Greeks’ ill-advised Trojan adventure remade in last year’s blockbuster, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of course, in the version of Homer’s epic directed by Donald Rumsfeld, Troy has opened up her gates to the gift-bearing Coalition Greeks immediately – only to lock them shut behind them and promptly burst into flames.
Today democracy (another Greek inheritance) may have conquered almost all, but ironically (yep, there’s another) the standard-bearer for democracy, the USA, is compared increasingly by its critics to anti-democratic Imperial Rome, and its selected rather than elected leader is often dubbed Emperor George Bush II. In other words, both sides of contemporary political debate refer to the ancient world. With the collapse of modernist grand narratives of Socialism and Progress, ancient reference points seem to be the only ones we have.
Hence ancient beliefs are also making a comeback. The decline of Christianity has led to a dramatic increase in the kind of pantheism it (supposedly) supplanted, with more and more people literally worshipping their own gods – even if those gods are often merely celebrities. Sex and horror, to quote Frankie, are the new (old) gods. In the eyes of traditionalists, the Anglican church itself has gone stark raving pagan with the ordination of women. The Christian Blairs have their own Delphic high priestess in the form of “personal guru” Carole Caplin, though maybe she would make rather more sense if she inhaled the smoke of burning bay leaves as the priestesses of Delphi used to.
You might be forgiven for wondering why we need any more philhellenism. But Simon Goldhill’s book, Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the ancient world shapes our lives isn’t just a list of things that he and we love about Ancient Greece (and Rome). Yes, “to speak of culture in the modern West is to speak Greek”, as he writes, but fortunately Goldhill’s book is rather more than a “What the Greeks Did for Us”, or “What the Greeks Can Do For My TV Career”.
Philhellenism may be turning into a gangbang, but it is largely a gangbang in the dark: most philhellenes don’t even know how much contemporary culture owes to those skirt-wearing olive-munchers. Paradoxically, we appear to be experiencing a renaissance of interest in the ancients while entering a new dark age.
Goldhill, Professor of Greek at Cambridge, is of course making the case for the lights of classics in a darkening world that might go to the multiplex to watch ancient battles rendered by modern CGI, but which doesn’t study classics any more. As with everything else, we like the fashions and the fads but not the ideas or the implications. We don’t want to do our homework. Most of all, we don’t want to know ourselves.
Luckily though, Goldhill is a great communicator and the kind of classics master whose lessons you wouldn’t want to skip. Explaining the point of studying the ancients he quotes, as my Latin master used to, Cicero: “If you don’t know where you are from, you will always be a child”, and the famous motto of the Delphic oracle: “Know thyself.” Adding, “Myth and history, sex and the body, religion and marriage, politics and democracy, entertainment and spectacle: these are basic building-blocks of the modern self.”
If this preoccupation with identity sounds slightly Freudian, that’s because it is. There is an excellent chapter here on Freud and the story of Oedipus (a soap-opera star in Ancient Thebes who killed his dad and married his mother), but more than this, Love, Sex and Tragedy is offering a kind of archeological psychoanalysis of the past (Freud himself compared his work to archaeology). Hence Love, Sex and Tragedy is divided into sections which ask the same uneasy questions as Greek myth: such as “Who do you think you are?”, “Where do you think you are going?” and “Where do you think you came from?”
He also cites another Greek play of fragmented identity, Euripides’s The Bacchae, in which Pentheus, young, over-confident ruler of Thebes (Q: Why is it always Thebes? A: Because most of the playwrights were from Athens) is told by the god Dionysus, whom he fails to recognise: “You do not know what your life is, nor what you are doing, nor who you are.” Later Pentheus is ripped to shreds by his Dionysus-worshipping mother who fails to recognise him. We fail to recognise that we are not masters in our own house, that we have a pre-history, at our peril.
Consistent with this, Goldhill is at his best when he reveals the past to be a foreign country that is as unfamiliar as it is familiar. For instance, because of their rude pottery and our prudish Mother Church’s hostility towards paganism, we tend to associate the ancients with sexual license and colossal phalluses a-go-go, but in fact the Greeks had a great suspicion of and respect for desire which we might be advised to consider in our “sex positive” era. The evil suitors of Penelope feel desire when they are being tricked towards their death. Paris, the seducer who brings destruction for Troy, is led by his desire for Helen. In Greek tragedy “every woman who expresses sexual desire, even for her husband, causes the violent destruction of the household. In comedy there are many lusty men, and some even lust after their own wives – but they are, to a man, figures of fun, who are humiliated by their desire, led by their erect penises into scenes of more and more outrageous ridiculousness.”
Even marriage was not meant to be based on desire: “To sleep with one’s wife like a lover is as disgusting as adultery,” harrumphed Seneca, Roman moralist (who would have made a good wife for St Paul, founder of the Christian Church). In the ancient world the hierarchical bond of husband and wife left no place for shared and reciprocal sexual desires. Hence “for a Greek man in the classical city the desire which a free adult citizen feels for a free boy is the dominant model of erotic liaison.”
But, raining on the gay parade, Goldhill also demonstrates how mistaken we are to think that we can use the modern words “gay” or “homosexual” to describe the complex and finally unknowable erotic relations that existed between men and youths in ancient Greece. ‘Greek love’ is in the end Greek, and not a euphemism or standard-bearer for modern obsessions.