Sunday, 19 February 2017

On Receiving an Honour at Athens

After a winter beset by flu and medieval problems which I’ll divulge in due course, I ran away to Athens. Despite the obvious increase in homelessness and darned clothes, even since I last visited in October, the Athenians are resilient and still go for strolls to enjoy their lovely sunsets. Sunlight there has not (yet) been sold off to any global corporation.

On Tuesday I received the greatest compliment of my life, an Honorary Doctorate from Athens University. There is no institution in the world from which I would rather my work received recognition. Inducted by Professor Walter Puchner, I was given a beautiful scroll and a sash, blue with white goose feathers: serendipitously, my acceptance speech explored the possible reasons why it is a goose that Aristotle is waving a knife at on the university’s famous fresco.

Before the ceremony, the Rector and Deans took me upstairs to make sure I was lent the right size of gown. These are elaborate in design, reminiscent of stage stereotypes of Japanese or Chinese authority figures.  Looking back at other Athens Honorary Doctors gives me impostor syndrome, so vastly more important has been their contribution than mine. But it was size that was on my mind. It is obvious I did not wear exactly the same costume as tall Derek Walcott, nor the much lamented six-footer Umberto Eco. 

Vladimir Putin is less tall. I fear that I wore the very same garment as he did  in 2001. I hope I do not develop ambitions to invade Crimea. I do not know the height of soon-to-be fellow-Hon-PhD-Athens, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi; is it too much to hope he will wear the same one as I did and it transmits to him some sympathy for the Greeks’ plight?

Despite staying out late on a dance floor slurping Pina Colada, I scaled the Acropolis on Wednesday, with daughter Sarah, long-time co-conspirator Dr Rosie Wyles and her husband Mr Holmes. On the plane home I dreamed I was being directed by Mike Leigh in a performance of the Mikado’s song My Object all Sublime. Is it a sign of incipient megalomania that in the dream I was bursting with joy?

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Xenophon, Hallucinogens & the Hydra

Having gone down with flu the weekend Trump was inaugurated, I've just emerged from twelve days when I thought that the news reports penetrating my feverish consciousness were just the paranoid hallucinations of a Lemsip addict. Then yesterday I got out of bed  and discovered they were true.

This coincided with opening the new Cambridge Companion to Xenophon, edited by Professor Michael Flower of Princeton, a beautiful book in which I have a  brief say on the huge influence exerted by the writings of this Athenian soldier-adventurer. That article is available free on my website, as are as many of my other books & papers as I dare.

The Sea, the Sea!
Xenophon's most famous book was his account of his journey upcountry (Anabasis), when with ten thousand comrades he was stranded near Baghdad at the heart of the hostile Persian empire. The Greeks took two years to stagger to the Black Sea coast and ships to freedom. The Anabasis has been crucial to American military culture and national identity: George W. Bush’s covert plan to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein was codenamed the ‘Anabasis Project’. 

But the story resonates for different reasons now. The speech of the week was the Baghdad-born Kurdish MP Nadhim Zahawi lamenting that his sons, who are studying at Princeton, feel stranded at the hostile heart of the USA but dare not leave it for fear they will be forbidden to return. 

The Xenophontic text with even more painful relevance today is Memorabilia 3.4.1. Socrates argues that a businessman can make a good statesman. In an excellent blog published before the election, Dr Jon Hesk discussed what this might say about Trump.

A skill which Xenophon’s Socrates suggests a businessman could bring to statesmanship is delegation to well-qualified specialists. But even this skill has bypassed Trump. He has appointed climate-change-denier Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. An advocate of ‘Dominion Theology’ and schools privatisation, Elisabeth ‘Betsy’ DeVos, breathtakingly, is his Education Secretary.

Kellyanne Conway is the sole appointment where the individual is almost over-qualified. The Presidential Counsellor is petrifying (and I do not choose this word lightly—several journalists have compared her to Medusa because of what they perceive as her frequent ‘bad hair days’). This super-sophist for the digital age understands Big Lie theory perfectly. Even Jess McIntosh, Hillary Clinton’s Director of Communications, grudgingly admires Conway: ‘You have to be operating at Jedi mind-trick-levels of punditry to not sound completely insane while saying the sky is green, and she manages to do that.’  From a defeated rival, this is high praise indeed.

But I would read ‘Hydra’ for ‘Jedi’ here; it is to the head-sprouting Hydra that Socrates in another text, Plato’s Euthydemus, compares uber-sophists who can ‘prove’ that black is white: ‘the hydra—that she-professor who was so clever that she sent forth many heads of dispute in place of each one that was cut off.’ I fear that there are hundreds more hydra-heads equivalent to ‘alternative facts’ and ‘Bowling Green massacre’ remaining to sprout before we're done.