Sunday, 25 February 2018

Classics and Strike Action Ancient and Modern

Rameses III: forced to negotiate
Should a classics prof. publish her blog when going on strike? Why not? Blogging is not an activity I am contracted to do. It will have no effect on the speed at which my employers do or do not decide, finally, to return to the negotiation table. So in honour of my striking colleagues and our wonderful student supporters across the nation, here’s my potted retrospect of the relationship between ancient world studies and strikes.

The 'Turin Strike Papyrus'
The first known strikers were the Deir El-Medina artisans who worked in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings in the twelfth century BCE. Unpaid for six months, they laid down their tools and occupied a royal mortuary temples.  A record of their (ultimately successful! Yay!) strike survives on a papyrus in Turin’s Museo Egizio. This what the strikers said to the bureaucrats in charge of them: ‘The prospect of hunger and thirst has driven us to this; there is no clothing, there is no fish, there are no vegetables. Send to Pharaoh, our good lord, about it, and send to the vizier, our superior, that we may be supplied with provisions.’

The 494 BCE Secession of the Plebs
In ancient Rome, the procedure called the secessio plebis was invented in 494 BCE, when the plebeians underlined their objections to the ludicrous debt laws which the patricians refused to reform by organising a sit-in on the Mons Sacer (Sacred Mountain) just outside Rome. Also successful, the plebs won representation in the new office of the Tribune of the Plebs. H.G. Wells, an advocate of equality and human rights, wrote in 1920 of 494 BCE, ‘the plebeians seem to have invented the strike, which now makes its first appearance in history.’[1]

One of the landmark strikes in British Labour History was organised by the London dock workers in 1889. It resulted in pay concessions and the recognition of trade unions as a political force to be reckoned with. A peaceful approach to protests, especially carnivalesque processions, successfully engaged public sympathies. Dockers dressed up as figures from classical mythology—Neptune, a helmeted warrior she-god, and Hercules, a hero with whom dock workers,  as sellers of their own muscle power, often identified.
Liverpool Dockers=Hercules strangling Capitalism

Jump forwards to 1890, and the cartoon published in Punch to comment on a year of industrial unrest in Bristol.  Mr Punch takes Chronos on a tour of the planets. Saturn says that a new Titanomachy—fight between Zeus/Jove and the Titans—is taking place. Jove is Capital, sitting on the ramparts of Privilege, and ‘bastioned by big bags of bullion.’ He wants to treat all the Titans as his servants. But Labour-Briareus,  a son Gaia and Uranus with a hundred hands, is not letting Jove/Capital get off lightly: ‘But look at the huge Hundred-Handed One, armed with the scythe and the sickle, / The hammer, the spade, and the pick!’ However many hands Capital may succeed in removing, the Labour movement can sprout more.
Workers as Briareus

The leader of a Roman slave revolt was the chosen hero of the great novels of ‘Red Clydeside’, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Spartacus (1933). The way the narrative is framed made it impossible for readers not to draw parallels between Crassus’ army and the British Ruling Class during the Great Depression.
Spartacus in Clydeside Activism

And in 1980,Triton was imagined as working-class leader by an anarchist group in London. They used this still from Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) to protest against the threat that containerization posed to traditional dock-workers’ jobs. The fish-tailed god no longer parts the clashing cliffs for the Argonauts to pass through unharmed, but instead represents the power of the self-organised and unified dockers.

The predicted cold weather suggests that I won’t want to dress up as a sea-god, snake-strangler or gladiator on the picket line tomorrow in defence of reasonable pensions for university teachers in old age. But I do know that the classical image which has most inspired me personally is Aesop’s fable of the twig bundle, which often appeared on early Trade Union banners.

The fable said that a father, worn out by the quarrels between his sons, asked them each in turn to break a tightly bound bundle of twigs. Each son failed. Then he asked them to break a single twig, a feat which they easily accomplished, because strength lies in unity. So the fable was integrated into the banners of several unions, for example the 1898 banner of the Watford branches of the Worker’s Union and the Ashton & Haydon miners’ union. I knew all the research I did with Dr Henry Stead for our Classics & Class project would come in useful one day!

My preferred placard would reproduce this illustration—complete with the red pileus cap of the ancient freedman and modern revolutionary, from the beautiful Baby’s Own Aesop by socialist artist Walter Crane: striking colleagues, UNITY IS STRENGTH!! 

[1]  H.G. Wells, Outline Of History, page 225

  1. Jump up

Friday, 2 February 2018

Why the Latest Trendy Theory in Classics is Crypto-Reactionary

Official Gospel of 'New Materialism'
I’m at Northwestern Uni, Illinois, where I’ve been asked to address the Latest Trendy Thing Classics has borrowed from other disciplines: ‘New Materialism’. New Materialism says inanimate things have agency. Humans oppress things. The trendiest New Materialist, Jane Bennett, wants ‘to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought.’ She thinks Matter needs to be discussed without thinking (yawn!) about ‘human labour and the socioeconomic entities made by men and women using raw materials’.

Prof. Bennett, Johns Hopkins Pol. Sci.
Old Materialists like me are obsolete narcissists, cosmic imperialists who oppress inorganic elements, minerals, liquids, and gases as well as organic flora and fauna. Bennett goes directly for the jugular of Marxism-influenced thought: ‘Is there a form of theory that can acknowledge a certain ‘thing-power’, that is, the irreducibility of objects to the human meanings or agendas they also embody?’

Please. The idea that academia been too focused on thinking about labour is preposterous. Only a scholar working in a country like the USA, where only about 20% of the workforce is engaged in agriculture or industry, the other 80% operating at a more or less extreme degree of alienation from the processes of material production, could possibly hold such an opinion. But try claiming that we are too focused on labour and the socio-economy to a citizen of Zambia or of Burundi, where the percentage of the workforce labouring in agriculture or industry is 96%. Globally, 40% of the workforce still works in farming, often at subsistence level in grinding poverty. Every year sees an increase in the number of humans involved in industrial labour.

New Materialists are Virtue Signallers who argue that they occupy higher moral ground than the rest of us anthropocentric narcissists. But Classicists—Be Warned! Ancient society, in terms of its relations of production, was far more similar to modern Burundi than to the UK or USA. If we are to understand the role of materials and objects in a play written in 458 BCE in Athens, then we would be well advised to ask how those materials were thought about in that society by—er, humans—as well as their ‘vitality’ or ‘thing-power’.  

The purple dye used to make the carpet which Aeschylus' Agamemnon tramples in his display of inter-class insensitivity crystallises millions of hours' labour, long before any weaving began. To obtain the amount needed to dye the TRIM of a SINGLE robe, 12,000 shellfish had to be culled alive and the vein containing the purplish mucus extracted and processed. The Phoenicians' most famous export was literally worth more than it weight in gold.

The Labour Theory of Value was not actually invented by Marx and Engels, but developed by them from the classical economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who sought to understand how commodities acquired prices relative to one another in early industrial capitalism.  No other theory has ever explained so satisfactorily the relationship between value of commodities and income distribution across classes.

When it comes to pre-industrial societies, the sheer scale of the man- and woman-hours needed to keep up the supply of commodities produced relationships between humans and humans (slavery) and material objects unimaginably different to our own. I, for one, will not be abandoning all the advantages of thinking about how ‘things’ crystallise human labour, at least when considering classical, pre-industrial society, by jettisoning it in favour of the allegedly ‘radical’ (i.e. dehumanised) ontology of matter which the New Materialists are trumpeting.

[This is a summary of an article soon to appear in Melissa Mueller & Mario Telò (eds.) The Materialities of Greek Tragedy. Bloomsbury].

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Genealogy of the Divisive Tyrant

It’s been week of the unaccountable autocrats. I gave my second lecture as Gresham Visiting Professor in Classics, on Sappho, viewable online, by contextualising her poems in the Greek ‘Age of the Tyrants’-the 7th-6th centuries BCE. 

Hereditary monarchs were deposed by tyrannoi-popular leaders who initially represented non-aristocratic interests but usually ended up behaving even worse than the posh people they'd displaced.

1851 'Apotheosis' of Louis Napoleon
I began with Sapho, a once-famous 1851 opera by Charles Gounod. It has a radical subplot in which Sappho's lover Phaon leads resistance against the local tyrant oppressing Lesbos. The libretto was brutally censored by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s bureaucrats, since he was about to stage his coup, overturn the elected National Assembly of the Second Republic, and soon announce himself Emperor. 

Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham from 1099
Next stop was Durham, where I was reunited with much-loved former colleagues in the Classics Department. In the Great Hall of the Castle, built to proclaim to the northern English that they were the grovelling subjects of the Norman absolute monarch and his deputy, the Bishop of Durham, I illustrated Aristotelian ethics from famous movies like Amadeus. I was housed in the astonishing Bishop’s Suite. The autocrat's rooms are gorgeous, but agoraphobia in such a massive space ensured total insomnia.

Creon, prototype of tyrant in political theory
In Nafplio at Harvard’s Centre for Hellenic Studies’ Greek outpost, I hit tyrants head-on, by talking about the definitive picture in Aristotle’s Politics of the tyrant whose power depends on fomenting distrust within the populace. This picture is fundamental to political theory since the Renaissance, and, through a 1598 English translation, to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Lear, plays Stephen Greenblatt discusses in his eloquent forthcoming Tyrant (May 2018). But Aristotle owed much of it to Sophocles’ Theban tyrant Creon, available to Shakespeare in a 1581 Latin version of Antigone by Thomas Watson. 

Aristotle's Tyrant in English (1598)
Tyrants, of course, come in many disguises, from self-seeking parents and narcissistic teachers to ‘democratically’ elected heads of 21st-century states. They all rely, sooner or later, on fostering animosity between their subjects—not just between the large groups Caesar meant when he advised rulers ‘divisa et impera’, but at every single level of society, in every relationship. One way to resist creeping tyranny is to be civil and kind to every other human, in every transaction. So, a month late, that is my New Year’s Resolution for 2018.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The One Circumstance where Prison really is Necessary

The vacation meant that I finally had time to catch up on the Prison Reform Trust’s admirable  Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile  for Autumn 2017. I have always thought that any alien landing on our planet would regard as insane our use of incarceration to deal with most malefactors, especially in prisons like those in Britain which expose inmates to terror, danger, toxic levels of boredom, and being deprived of supportive relationships and opportunities for self-improvement.

As a society we excel at producing criminals, the usual culprits being poverty, lack of education, and our orphanages: 31% of women and 24% of men in prison were brought up in ‘care’. But we are catastrophically bad at helping them become more constructive citizens.

The Factfile shows how things continue to deteriorate. 49% of adults reoffend within a year.  The summer saw a surge in the prison population to more than 86,000. Only 1 in 20 people in prison are on even the basic level of the incentives and earned privileges (IEP) scheme. The number of frontline operational staff employed in the public prison estate has fallen by 23% in seven years. Members of ethnic minorities are 81% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court. Etc. etc.

Then there is the gender issue. A staggering 83% of women entering prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence. In my idea of a sane society, hardly any of them should be in prison in the first place, rather than a rehabilitation system, or community service.

There is only one circumstance, in my view, where confinement in prison needs to be obligatory, and that is where a proven perpetrator, if at liberty, presents a real and present physical danger to other people. Despite my radical scepticism about the efficacy of imprisonment, I am finding it very hard to feel confident that John Worboys, convicted in 2009 of multiple vicious, cynical, premeditated sexual assaults on women in his black cab, is no longer capable of sexually motivated violence, whatever the Parole Board has decided.
The issue here is the notorious IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentence, inaugurated in 2005, and designed for offenders who posed a serious threat to the public but whose crimes could not be given a life sentence. Far too many IPPs were imposed, and the system was discontinued. But the Parole Board is now desperate to release IPP inmates, having been left with a backlog of over 10,000 prisoners (14% of the prison population) who do not know whether, or even if, they will be released.

I am certain that many of those 10,000 IPP inmates have no place behind bars. But, surely, John Worboys and others convicted of repeated incidents of sexual violence should not be at the front of the ‘exit’ queue. 

There is just one cause for optimism in this dismal case: it has got people talking, which rarely happens, about the actual purpose of our hopelessly anachronistic, brutal and creaking prison system.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Five Ancient Greek Rings for the 5th Day of Christmas

The Five Gold Rings of the Fifth Day of Christmas were originally Jesuit ‘code’ for the Pentateuch, the first five Old Testament books. But snow has confined me to an AIRBNB flat in Leith, so I've here assembled Five Pagan Rings.

1] A rich Mycenaean’s grave, recently excavated near Pylos in the Peloponnese, contained gems engraved with astounding intricacy and this fine gold ring. Our Mycenaean may have raided it from Crete, because its bull-jumping scene, with its mysterious links to the Minotaur legend, is typical of Minoan art.

Theseus collects Minos' ring from Amphitrite on Ocean Floor
2] It was when sailing to Crete to kill the Minotaur that Theseus became star of my favourite ring-myth, told by an undervalued poet called Bacchylides. The sexual harasser King Minos tried to terminate Theseus. He threw his golden ring into the sea and ordered Theseus to retrieve it. This was silly, since Theseus was a champion underwater swimmer and the son of Poseidon. Assisted by friendly dolphins, he surfaced with the ring and a new outfit his stepmum Amphitrite gave him in her sea-floor palace.

3] Why do engagement and wedding rings symbolise fidelity? They often signified treachery and falsehood in antiquity. The most famous ancient ring belonged to Gyges. Plato tells the story while asking whether we would all misbehave if we could do so with impunity. 

Gyges was a shepherd who came across a ring of invisibility which enabled him to have sex with the queen, kill the king, and take over the throne.  It can be a good party game to get people to confess how they would use a ring of invisibility: I would reserve it for forcibly redistributing wealth and Bad Hair Days.

4] In Lucian’s dialogue Lover of Lies, a pathological liar called Eucrates describes how an iron ring, given him by a mysterious Arabian, allowed him to visit Hades. He inspected the River of Fire, the Acheron and Cerberus. He recognised his own dad because ‘he was still wearing the same clothes in which we buried him’.

Chaircleia, heroine of Heliodorus' Novel
5] The Fifth Ring belongs to Charicleia, the heroine of the novel An Ethiopian Story. Its gem is an Ethiopian amethyst, ‘more beautiful than those of Spain or Britain’.  The intricacy of the scene engraved on it is literally incredible. A shepherd boy supervising several pastures plays his pipe to his flocks. Lambs jump, climb rocks and dance in a circle round the shepherd. The youngest lambs try to escape but are prevented by a golden band representing a wall.

The dancing sheep are explicitly described as creating ‘a bucolic theatre’. This has excited historians of the ancient theatre who have used it as evidence for a genre of ancient pastoral drama. This is, sadly, to miss the point: the scene on the ring represents fiction’s power to write things into existence that are impossible in reality.

But there are times when I want to go with the more literal-minded amongst my academic colleagues. Having been appalled by the expensive mediocrity of Shrek: the Musical on Boxing Day, and since our TV aerial became detached in shock at the appearance of the new Dr Who, I would much enjoy a pastoral show with dancing sheep right now.  

Sunday, 10 December 2017

New Wave Anti-Democrats, Aristotle, and Winter Snow

The first snow of winter falls as I hear evasive politicians talk specious rubbish about sovereignty and referenda on the Andrew Marr Show.  I have not watched Game of Thrones, despite my usual enthusiasm for ‘popular culture’, yet one line in it, ‘Winter is Coming’—I am told the motto of the wholly undemocratic House of Stark—has become emblematic for our political times.

Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has to sell her lovely hair and plunges into the last lap of her race to premature death, thus orphaning her little daughter, because she has no money in winter. ‘In winter there is no heat, no light, evening touches morning… Winter changes into stone the water of heaven and the heart of man.’  

My own heart feels turned into stone because not one but four intelligent, educated and mildly famous individuals—a BBC Radio presenter, a young but celebrated theatre director, a Professor of Classics and an MP—have over the last few weeks all said to me privately that they are no longer convinced that democracy is A Good Thing. Two of them cited Aristotle, who says in his Politics that democracy can lead to tyranny. Yes, but democracy is also the constitution that he finds fewest faults with, and which he says fails when there is too much inequality between rich and poor.

Once the leftist-liberal middle class who lead the British thought-world give up on democracy as a system worth preserving, then winter for our sceptred isles may indeed be coming. What concerns me is that these people have never been crypto-oligarchs, like the Etonians in the Tory government, but sincere democrats. I now see that this was only because democracy was producing the results that they wanted. The minute the ‘masses’ start asking for things that such influential opinion-makers don’t like, the system which gives ‘the masses’ some form of say in how things are run must itself be brought into question.

"We can't have housewives deciding things"
All four acquaintances reminded me of Jean Rey, once President of the European Commission, who annoyed me when I was a teenager in 1974 by bemoaning the use of a referendum on EU membership in the UK: ‘I would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country should be left to housewives. It should be decided instead by trained and informed people.’
And the trouble is that our modern version of democracy, instead of meaning that the people (demos) gets real executive power (kratos), worked for such successful individuals as now criticise democracy only because it safeguarded the monopoly on most of the money, nice jobs and privileges enjoyed by their (and my) section of the population. There was always going to be a backlash, and in countries like the UK and the USA, creaking public education systems means that the backlash has sometimes been ill-informed.

The problem lies not in democracy as such, but in the ultimate failure of post-war democracy to stop large sections of the population being frozen out of basic necessities of life and a decent education.  Aristotle, who believed everything in nature had an objective, never answered to his own satisfaction exactly what purpose was served by rain and snow in winter. I feel I understand his bewilderment, at least on a metaphorical level.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

An Epic Week, in Several Senses

An epic week. Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule in Zimbabwe ended, an event headlined in NewsDay Zimbabwe as ‘Epic Fall of a Dictator’. Less epically, I helped host Professor Emily Wilson when she came to my university to talk about her superb new translation of the Odyssey.

It's a literary landmark and an epic achievement which I predict will rival previous stellar Odysseys by Alexander Pope and E.V. Rieu. Rieu’s was only knocked off the top of the list for bestselling paperback in the UK by Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I discuss Wilson’s version in a Telegraph review which I was told would come out this weekend, but haven’t yet seen as it is, er, not my regular newspaper. I will provide a link here soon.

On Thursday I felt like the academic equivalent of an epic warrior since it was the most strenuous day of my entire working life. In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg and my mates Paul Cartledge and Sam Gartland was about Thebes, believed by the ancients to be the oldest Greek city of all. Epic poems about its serial sieges and ‘epic fail’ royals were composed from the Bronze Age to Statius’ Thebaid and beyond.

First Gresham Lecture
From Broadcasting House I dashed to Gresham College in Chancery Lane, where at 1300 I gave my inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor. It was on the epic movie Troy, the epic poem the Iliad, and the Mycenaeans they both portray. It can be watched here

The best thing about the movie is the casting. Brian Cox’s Agamemnon is always in my head when I teach the Iliad: this Mycenaean monarch combines the raucousness of Cox’s working-class Dundee childhood with the nastiness of President Snow in The Hunger Games. Even our pets look terrified when he raises the war-cry on our TV (the epithet 'good at the war-cry' is not actually used of him in the Iliad, rather of Menelaus and Diomedes, but Cox is so good at it that I'll tolerate the inaccuracy).

Brian Cox, the Definitive Agamemnon
Thence quickly to Nottingham, where at 1800 I lectured to the local Classical Association on Virgil’s Aeneid and possible Carthaginian sources—even epic poems?—lost when the Romans ‘deleted’ the library of Carthage along with the rest of the city in 146 BCE. The venue happened to be Nottingham Girls’ High School, which I attended in the 1970s. This brought back memories of reading Virgil there myself, and already preferring Homer.
Annihilation of Carthage 

But the week ended with Mother Courage at the Southwark Theatre, directed by Hannah Chissick. It is the best production I’ve ever seen of my favourite piece of Brechtian Epic Theater. It was influenced by both Euripides’ Trojan Women and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.  Josie Lawrence is remarkable as the woman whose real name was Anna Fierling: Courage got her nickname after braving the non-stop bombardment of Riga to keep on selling bread.
Lawrence: Unforgettable as Mother Courage

Brecht invented the term episches Theater in 1926 because he wanted a new type of non-realist drama that would make audiences think about class oppression rather than sentimentally relate to characters’ plights. But I clearly don’t know how to appreciate Brecht. I ended up with wet eyes both when Courage is forced to disown the corpse of her son Swiss Cheese and when her daughter Kattrin is shot dead at the end.

The word epos  originally began with a 'w' (digamma) 
The ancient Greeks rarely used the adjective ‘epic’, epikos, even to describe poetry. Their noun epos, plural epea, which in Mycenaean times still had its initial w, wepea, meant words of any kind, but especially significant words such as those used in prophecies or promises. Nowadays epic can just mean ‘notable’. 

I also wrote a review, published in the Guardian Wednesday, of Stephen Fry’s charming new retelling of classical myths mostly drawn from epics: Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And I was delighted to read the excellent new book, developed out of a doctoral thesis I supervised, by Miryana Dimitrova. It discusses sources, including Lucan's epic Pharsalia, for Julius Caesar's own epic afterlife on the stages/screens of the world.  This means I have engaged within 5 days on almost all the major classical epics besides the Argonautica. It certainly feels appropriate to describe my own exhaustion today as wepic.
Finlay and Satan Watching Troy