Monday, November 22, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Susan A. Stephens, Phiroze Vasunia (ed.), Classics and National Cultures. Classical Presences. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 373. ISBN 9780199212989. $115.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Stray, Swansea University


This collection of sixteen essays provides a substantial contribution to the study of its subject: in the editors' words, 'the complex engagement that modern nations have had, and continue to have, with classical antiquity' (1). The quality of the contributions is generally high, and the editors have done a good job in organising them and in providing a thoughtful Introduction. The range of the volume is considerable: the national cultures discussed include Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Trinidad and the USA. This list in itself indicates the extent to which the editors have gone beyond the traditional heartland of European nationalism and of the mainstream history of classical scholarship. In fact, they have been adventurous in three distinct ways. First, they have included explorations of national cultures remote from the histories of classical reception with which we are most familiar (for example, Japan, Bulgaria, Mexico, India). Second, they have recruited half their contributors from outside the discipline of Classics. Third, they have turned a spotlight on what one might call the hidden heart of classical reception, the use of classical ideas in Greece and Italy. Greece benefits especially, three chapters being devoted to its nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural life. The book is organised in alphabetical order of author, an interesting choice which avoids an imposed editorial structure and, with the help of the substantial Introduction (1-15), avoids shapelessness. As in a hypertext, routes through the material are suggested, but readers are free to make their own connections.

To summarise the chapters:

(1) Nicholas Allen gives a perceptive account of the interaction between the Irish independence struggles of the early 20th century and the classically-soaked writing of Joyce, and goes on to look at later writers (Yeats, MacNeice, Heaney, Friel, Longley). (2) Richard Armstrong's excellent chapter explores the role of classical knowledge in the struggles of Freud and other learned Jews to cope with the problems of their status and identity in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Freud's strategies are illuminated by a comparison with his friend Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. (3) Giovanna Ceserani looks at attempts to deploy the classical past within the cultural politics of 18th- and 19th-century Italy. Her discussion is framed by representations of Paestum by film-makers and local guides, but focuses largely on the epistolary novel Plato in Italy by Vincenzo Cuoco (1804-6). Here and elsewhere, Etruscan culture features as an imagined precursor to a longed-for united Italy. (4) Joy Connolly surveys the use made of the Graeco-Roman cultural repertoire by the early American colonists, who were keen to make a new nation but also, in many cases, held to elitist ideals. Challenging previous claims that the use of classical writers was 'illustrative, not determinative' of their thought (91), she argues for the centrality of rhetorical training in the forming of the republic. (5) Emily Greenwood examines the use of classical allusion in V.S. Naipaul's novel The Mimic Men. She teases out the subtle role played by literary allusions, especially to Virgil, in this fictional autobiography, where British colonial power as experienced in Naipaul's home country of Trinidad is satirised. (6) Constanze Güthenke tells the story of a Greek classical scholar, Iannis Sykoutris, who in the 1930s planned and edited a series of parallel texts (ancient/modern Greek) designed to provide a Greek equivalent of the Loeb and Budé series. Trained in Germany and already a translator of Theodor Zielinski and Max Weber, Sykoutris was well equipped for the talks, but ran into fierce opposition for his use of demoticising Greek. His choice of the Symposium for his first volume reflects his vision of a new national and scholarly life, usefully compared by Güthenke with Jaeger's Third Humanism. (7) Asen Kirin surveys the deployment of Classics in the cultural politics of Russia and Bulgaria since the 18th century. Adjacent lands and sites (e.g. Thrace) were investigated and invoked, while Constantinople offered an obvious legitimating site for Byzantine roots. Kirin includes a useful account of the short-lived Russian Archaeological Institute there (1895-1914), and of the contested definition of Thracian culture in communist Bulgaria. (8) Andrew Laird describes the interaction of Classics with humanist culture, 19th-century patriotism and 20th-century in Mexico. The last, especially, is explored in detail, and Laird points to the variety of ways in which creole (American-Spanish) groups appealed to selected aspects of antiquity to bolster their own identities. (9) Vassilis Lambropoulos asks what Greeks have thought about that adored and notorious focus of philhellenism, the Acropolis. His survey of prose, poetry and photography from the 19th and 20th centuries reveals responses ranging from indifference to alarm and ridicule. The iconic symbol of Hellenism came under particularly attack from the modernist generations from the 1920s to the 1940s, while Gouroyannis' novel Sacrilegious Flight (2003) hilariously deploys postmodern allegory. (10) Fernanda Moore's subject is the Digenes Akrites, a Byzantine Greek epic discovered in 1868 which became the focus of fierce debate over Greek nationhood after its publication in 1875. Moore usefully compares this case with that of the Song of Roland, an epic of similar date which like Digenis deals with struggles between insiders and invaders. (11) Grant Parker gives an account of the South African scholar T.J. Haarhoff, a pupil of Gilbert Murray who shared with W.F. Jackson Knight a spiritual vision of Virgil (in his case, maintained by a medium in Johannesburg). Parker deftly explores the many and conflicting elements of Haarhoff's scholarship and ideals in a violent and divided society, where the black majority was oppressed by a white elite which was torn by tensions between Afrikaner and English elements. (12) James Porter's study of Erich Auerbach, Homer and the Jews focuses on Mimesis (1946). This famous book, written in exile in Istanbul after Auerbach was forced out of Germany in 1935, gave a magisterial survey of the Western literary tradition. Porter argues cogently for the centrality of a 'Jewish philology' in the work, pointing out that in Germany Auerbach was as a Jew already an exile. (13) Han Saussy discusses the anti-modernising Chinese journal Critical Review (1922-33); many of its contributors, who clung to both Chinese and Western traditional learning, had been pupils of Irving Babbitt at Harvard. The chapter throws valuable light on the little-known story of Babbitt's 'New Humanism' in a remotely transplanted form. (14) Susan Stephens' subject is the new Alexandrian Library founded as a result of the Aswan Declaration of 1990, a UNESCO-based manifesto supported by Egyptian efforts to gain international visibility. The paucity of evidence about the ancient Library has encouraged fantasy, while the modern political situation has made the new one Egyptian as well as Graeco-Roman, something reflected in its architecture. As Stephens points out, the ideals of freedom of learning embedded in the project are in constant tension with the censorship and political constraints of its host society. (15) Yasunari Takada tells of the importation of Western classical learning into 20th-century Japan. Its early stages were dominated by the influence of German scholarship, in part through the work of the well-known Karl Löwith and the obscure Raphael Koeber, here usefully brought to light. After World War II, Classics became organised in university departments and in a Classical Society (1950), contributing to international scholarship while retaining a distinctively Japanese focus on philosophy. (16) Phiroze Vasunia's chapter focuses on the Indian film Sikandar (1941); several of the film's scenes are illustrated, one of which adorns the book's jacket. Vasunia gives a clear account of the long history of Indian interest in and versions of Alexander, tracing the impact of changing political and religious interests, up to the anti-colonial context of the film itself.

These bald summaries are meant to indicate the coverage and content of chapters; they cannot adequately convey the richness of the discussions nor the generally high quality of the analysis. To the variety of location and tradition already mentioned can be added the range of genres and means of transmission: buildings, books, texts, institutions. Several of the chapters also highlight the complexities of the book's subject by focusing on crucial moments of transition and/or conflict, moments when the tensions between alternative modes of cultural legitimation are laid bare. The volume promises to provoke further discussion and exploration; one could not ask for more.

The level of copy editing is generally high, though in a book published in Britain one does not expect to find 'an alternate space' (16) or 'analyzed' (207) – a spelling explicitly proscribed in OUP's guide for authors. In a serious academic book, it is depressing to encounter 'disinterest' for 'lack of interest' (19), 'mitigate' for 'militate' (79) or 'discrete' for 'discreet' (14, 280, 283). Constantine Cavafy was not named 'Alexander' (283), though his son and his lover were. A few phrases would have benefited from glossing – in my innocence I had to search for the meaning of 'six-o-six' (185), an old-fashioned remedy for syphilis.


  1. C P Cavafy had no son.



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