Sunday, 30 October 2016

A Classical Cure for Burn-Out in Spain

Unimpressed Persephone on Vase in Madrid
Feeling end-tetherish from anxiety attacks after a challenging 2016 so far, I nearly didn’t go to Madrid. I was invited to talk at the Complutense University on how mythology trained the emotional responses of ancient women. The violent sundering of Persephone from Demeter, before a partial reunion, prepared girls for marriage; Atalanta’s challenge to aspiring husbands showed teenage girls what to look for in a man (i.e. he is your equal, gives you golden apples, and is prepared to die for you).

Saving the Madrid Greek Vases in 1930s
Sites Where Greek Pottery has been Found
But I’m so glad I went. The National Archaeologic-al and Prado Museums revealed the Spanish angle on Greece and Rome. The collection of Greek vases, rescued from destruction during the Civil War, is exceptional. Few people outside Spain realise how commercially energetic the ancient Greeks were there: the cultural organisation Iberia Graeca holds nearly 7,000 records of Greek pottery found in the Iberian Peninsula in hundreds of sites including Empuries (the Greek for trading post was emporion) in Catalonia.

Crossing to Hades doesn't look so bad in Patinir's luscious landscape
The staggering Prado Museum holds some of the most famous classically-themed paintings in the world, including Velásquez’s The Forge of Vulcan, with its affected Apollo visiting sturdy, heroic smiths, and Joachim Patinir’s glorious Charon Crossing the Styx.

Spain’s unique classical perspective is best illustrated by its Two Dead Iberian Heroes. The execution by enforced suicide of Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, born in Córdoba, was given a horizontal feel like the classical frieze it helpfully includes at the back by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez in 1871. Viriatus, the Iberian equivalent of Caractacus and Boadicea, who led the indigenous Lusitanian resistance to the Romans in the second century BCE, was in 1808 revivified by J. de Madrazo y Agudo as exemplar of Spanish independence during the Peninsular War against Napoleon. His style,  paradoxically, was French classicism in imitation of Napoleon’s favourite painter Jacques-Louis David.
Detail of Death of Viriatus

But my favourite classical theme in the Prado is Titian’s The Feast of Venus (1518-20), in which Venus and her votaries are displaced by hundreds of baby Cupids. The flying ones, thus unswaddled, would represent a hazard like inner-city pigeons to anyone beneath them. Titian may have taken the theme from a solemn description of a painting penned by Philostratus, but it looks an advert for Pampers Nappies to me. 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Greek Roles of the 'Greatest Woman Actor of all Time'

Bernhardt as Hamlet
Watch out for the hype as former Labour MP Glenda Jackson kicks off her Lear at the Old Vic on Tuesday. It is gratifying to see women actors ignore the dearth of great female roles in classical theatre and play male parts anyway. What many youngsters don’t realise, however, is that in the 19th century there were several famous actresses who played male roles, above all Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), born 162 years ago today; by a beautiful coincidence, she was played by Glenda Jackson herself in a TV drama, The Incredible Sarah, back in 1976.

Raised by an unconventional Jewish single mother, but trained in Catholicism at Convent School, at her first visit to the theatre Sarah wept for the suffering of Alcmène in Molière’s mythological comedy Amphitryon. She debuted as Racine’s Iphigénie in 1862, and thereafter brought several heroines of classical myth and history to mass audiences.

The Sarah-Sphinx
Her philhellenism extended to her marrying a handsome Greek actor Jacques Damala (Aristides Damalas), who died seven years later of morphine addiction; a humourist and talented sculptor, Sarah also created herself an avatar as the mythical sphinx in this bronze inkwell after performing in  Feuillet's melodrama Sphinx.

as Cleopatra
She continued acting for a sixty years, and was intimately associated in the public mind with Cleopatra, the Byzantine Empress Theodora, Medea, Phaedra and Andromache, whose roles she took in plays by Shakespeare, Sardou,  Mendès and Racine respectively.

as Theodora
Bernhardt was a fantastic role model for women, since she lived independently of men for most of her life, ran her own theatre, dictated her own repertoire, brought up an illegitimate son successfully, made her own fortune, wrote her own autobiography, and above all never gave up: even after a traumatic leg amputation, she continued acting with a prosthetic limb.  She embraced new technology, starring in some early films; you can still hear her reciting Phèdre in a plangent, mellifluous mezzo on Youtube.

I regret that she did not have a go at the great male roles of the ancient Greek theatre—the lame Oedipus and Philoctetes spring rather tastelessly to mind. But I regret even more that nobody has made a blockbuster movie about her. Perhaps there simply isn’t a woman up to impersonating the female actor commonly regarded as the greatest of all time. But Marion Cotillard’s performance in Justin Kurzel's Macbeth movie (2015) proved she could do it. She also learned about prosthetic legs in Rust and Bone (2012). Now I just need a screenwriter.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

AQA and the Slow Death of People's Classics

The decision this week announced by AQA (Assessment & Qualifications Alliance) to stop offering Classical Civilisation at AS and A Level could be the penultimate nail in the coffin of classics for the 93% of British Children who do not attend private school.

I say ‘penultimate’ because Classical Civilisation, thankfully, is still offered by the other exam board, OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA), which has just revised its specs from 2017 and as yet shows no sign of pulling out on the Greeks and Romans in British schools.

But the AQA decision, surrounded in secrecy, is a body blow.  It comes while I am anxiously waiting to hear the results of a major funding application to support a nationwide campaign, starting next May, to get Classical Civilisation and Ancient History teaching expanded and into as many schools as possible.  

It is easy to criticise AQA, which claims on its website to be ‘an independent education charity’ (the impression is spoiled by all the links to the businesses in what AQA calls its ‘family’, selling resources you can buy for the classroom or your teenager).

The AQA Council is in charge of its ‘overall strategy, policy, educational initiatives and development, and for steering AQA to fulfil its educational and charitable objectives’.  Unfortunately, these objectives are nowhere stated, and when one discovers the identity of the Chair of the Council, things begin to become clearer.

Paul Layzell Walks through RHUL Sit-In for Classics, 2011
He is Paul Layzell, the charisma-free Principal of Royal Holloway University of London, whose first step on arriving there in 2011 was to try to close the Classics Department of which I was then a member. It had roots in Bedford College for women in London going back to 1849, and was the place George Eliot learned her Greek. My blogging habit started as part of the campaign, which was ultimately successful, to keep the department open and every single classicist in post.

But the problem is systemic rather than personal.  Layzell and the other bureaucrat-profiteers who have taken over our national education system can only do so because we have let them. Aristotle, no political ‘leftie’, was astonished that any self-respecting society should allow the curriculum followed by all its children and young adults to be determined by anything other than informed public interest—it is simply far too important to be left to ‘market forces’.

Members of all the constituencies—academics, teachers, subject associations, educational charities—believing that the Greeks and Romans belong to everyone need to react publicly to this development and unite to prevent OCR from following AQA’s suit and killing off Classical Civilisation in UK schools for good. We do not want to suffer the same fate as Art History and Archaeology, for which AQA has now ensured no school qualifications are available in the UK at all.

Simon Schama is Defending Class Civ
AQA, nauseatingly, tells us on its website that its ancestral exam boards helped to change a situation in which education and exams ‘were only available to a small group, characterised by social class, age, and gender, rather than ability’. For once I find myself agreeing passionately with Simon Schama, who on Thursday tweeted, 'It's the new class war, as in classroom war: classics and art history OK for private school students but state school kids, hey why bother?' 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

How to Disembowel Higher Education

After months deliberately avoiding unnecessary trauma, I have finally read the UK government’s lengthy and repetitive White Paper proposing drastic reform of Higher Education, Success as a Knowledge Economy. I am aghast. And it’s not just the shocking verbosity of whichever Whitehall bureaucrat is responsible, although s/he has a peculiar taste in mixed metaphors which a short course on classical rhetoric would have zapped: our economic landscape apparently needs a level playing field with sustainable financial architecture.

The ‘success’ of graduates from different institutions will be officially and solely measured financially through tax data to yield ‘information about the rewards that could be available at the end of their learning, alongside the costs’.   So much for all the evidence that Higher Education is linked to other ‘rewards’ including better health, longevity, life satisfaction and happiness levels, and the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of communities within which universities operate. The implication is also that the students only come from and subsequently live in areas taxed by the UK inland revenue, rather than from all over the world. Little Englandism again.
"Satisfied Minds": Early Women Undergrads at Bedford College

I do not understand how little protest there has been from the HE community and especially from the smaller Humanities subject areas like Classics. These are always the first to be threatened if decisions with long-term implications for the self-destruction of British culture are determined by short-term financial exigencies. I can only assume that the revolting xenophobia of the current cabinet has made it difficult for HE staff to think about much else.

The smug Preface by our Etonian and Oxonian Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson, claims that British Universities can only stay excellent if they  

1.   are set in brutal competition with one another as businesses and undergo ‘market exit’ as soon as they become unprofitable;
2.   hand over all power for determining what is studied at universities to teenaged ‘consumers’, i.e. university applicants deemed by the nation to be too immature to vote on anything else;
3.   infantilise young adults by increasing contact time between teachers and students and cutting down independent study;
4. foster a fear culture by submitting to Kafkaesque ‘measurements’ of teaching quality by unspecified government agents;
5.   allow HEFCE etc to be replaced not by a funding council but ‘a single market regulator’, a new Office for Students;
6.   allow the seven discrete and autonomous Research Councils  to be disbanded and rolled into one, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI); this will inevitably mean less funding for the small Humanities research areas--Philosophy, Classics, Pre-Modern History--in which the UK has always excelled and on which much of its reputation for having great universities rests.

Jo Johnson (second from right), our Universities Minister
Some of the most sinister language concerns swift closure of unprofitable courses or institutions: ‘we must accept that there may be some providers who need or choose to close some or all of their courses, or to exit the market completely. The possibility of exit is a natural part of a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market.’ The psychological effects on current and former students of the public ‘failure’ constituted by the 'exit’ of their course or university are of course not addressed.

Aristotle's Lyceum, the First Uni to combine Research & Teaching
I left a well-paid job in business after I graduated because I was bored, miserable and unfulfilled in a way for which no amount of cash could ever compensate.  As a university teacher I have enjoyed rich ‘rewards’ from helping hundreds of students stand confidently on their own intellectual feet. I am proud to say that few of those to whom I have taught basic Greek philosophy will have any difficulty spotting the logical flaws, ideological constriction and impoverished vision of humanity in this nauseating tract.
'Education' at Yale (1890) by Louis Comfort Tiffany: Truth, Labour, Devotion, Science, Intuition, Research, Light, Life

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Caliban's Original Language

Carib Natives through European eyes
I write in sympathy with Haiti and Jamaica as they brace themselves for Hurricane Matthew. That ancient noun hurricane reminds me of the nearly forgotten language of the indigenous people of the Caribbean.  Hurricane comes, via Spanish, from the ancient Carib word for a tropical cyclone. Other Carib words which keep the ghostly presence of the First Nation of the Caribbean alive in English today include canoe, hammock, tobacco, maize, yucca (plant), maroon and buccaneer.

Kari'nja girls in Surinam
Carib, now an acutely endangered tongue spoken by fewer than six thousand  people scattered across Surinam, Guyana and Venezuela, was spoken by the Neolithic natives encountered by Columbus across the islands and coasts of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish and Portuguese heard and transcribed as Carib or Calina or Calinago the ethnic name today written Kari'nja.  

This name was quickly conflated with the idea of the human who eats other humans (the technical name for which is anthropophagy), giving rise to the term cannibal: the Kari’nja’s conquistadors alleged they had seen evidence of this practice. The name Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a muddled derivative, and the cruelty of the play’s colonial agenda, as symbolised in the humiliation and debasement of Caliban, was eloquently exposed in the Martiniquan Aimé  Césaire’s  1969  French  version, Une  Tempête.

Shakespeare’s Prospero patronisingly claims that he taught Caliban to speak:

                      I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes
With words that made them known. 
Caliban in Moscow, 1905

Caliban is not impressed: ‘The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!’  What is never clarified is this: what language did Caliban ‘gabble’ so unintelligibly to white people before Prospero imposed on him instead the English of early Jacobean blank verse? 

The most fascinating feature of Carib as a language is that there are separate male and female dialects (the word tobacco, interestingly, was a woman’s word). I like to think that Phyllida Lloyd knew this when she decided to stage an all-female cast in The Tempest, which has just opened at King’s Cross Theatre. Her Caliban is apparently played as a rather crazy bag lady by Sophie Stanton. I can’t wait to see whether hammocks, buccaneers and tobacco feature in the production as well.