Oedipus the Hero

This year I find myself teaching one of the great plays of Greek theatre – Sophocles’ Oedipus the King – for the fifth year in a row for Classical Civilisation A level. Usually, teaching the same play 5 years in a row would not happen (unless one opted to do so beyond the syllabus): exam specs change frequently nowadays, and new texts are prescribed. However, Oedipus – uniquely – featured not just on the old (and much missed) AQA Class Civ A level spec for Greek theatre, but on the new OCR spec that all schools now follow. Arguably, this is no bad thing. If you were to pick a Greek play that all students should read and get to know, Oedipus would be a very good choice.

However, the fact is that now, after 5 years, I can feel myself starting to run out of steam a little with the play. Its brilliant dialogue no longer charms in quite the way it did before; its storyline doesn’t quite bewitch; and its characters don’t fascinate in the way they did a few years back. The dazzle of this great play – which it was once the highlight of my teaching week to explore with students – has dimmed a little.

Few surprises here, perhaps. You can’t expect the same level of freshness and enjoyment when you read a text – any text – time after time. At least, I can’t – and I’m surprised when others seem able to flout this (for me) cast iron law. At the same time, I’ve decided that it might be possible to do something about my fading fascination with Sophocles’ Oedipus by reading, and writing, something new about it. The current post is the first instalment of what I hope will be a short series of posts that will bear the fruit of my resolve to do just this.

For the enhancement of my appreciation of Oedipus, I am very much aware that there is no shortage of astute academic commentary available. There are some excellent pages on the play, for instance, in Simon Goldhill’s Reading Greek Tragedy, a now classic treatment written in the 1980s, which I always ask pupils to read. And there is much that is compulsively readable in the work of the American critic Charles Segal and in the lively and punchy work of Edith Hall. However, one of my personal favourite writers on all things ancient Greek – Bernard Knox – also happens to be the author of a renowned book on Oedipus, first published in 1957, that I have never before read: it’s to this text that I’ve decided to turn to reinvigorate my enthusiasm.

What I’d like to offer in this post is a journey in my reading of the first chapter of Knox’s book on Oedipus. The chapter is called ‘Oedipus the Hero’ – hence the title of this post. Rather than (just) offering a dull summary of Knox’s argument in the chapter, I’m going to try to give something of a sense also of how reading the chapter – which is very far from dull – has contributed to my pre-existing understanding of the play (it has done so in several ways).

For Knox, Oedipus the hero is, above all, a many-sided, subtly complicated character: indeed, he is ‘surely the greatest single individual in all of Greek tragedy’, Knox thinks. (We may, perhaps, take this not just as a sober scholarly judgment, but as an existential claim on the part of Knox himself: for this reader, it seems likely that it is Oedipus, above all, who manages to speak to the depths of Knox the man).

Oedipus’ tragedy, as is well known, is that, owing to a cruel turn of events to which he is initially oblivious, he has managed to kill his own father and marry his own mother. Oedipus gradually uncovers this terrible reality over the course of the play through his quizzical intelligence and his forensic questioning of others around him. He needs to find out the truth because he needs to work out who – or what – has ‘polluted’ his city, Thebes, inflicting a plague on his fellow citizens. The answer, he discovers to his horror, is that it is he, Oedipus himself, the king of Thebes, who is responsible.

Oedipus’ unfortunate fate had long ago been predicted by a grim prophecy, of which he himself had been blissfully and tragically unaware. From birth, then, he had been fated to marry his mother and kill his father, in accordance with divine diktat. Cruel Apollo had foreordained that Oedipus would do this. So Oedipus himself is his city’s pollutant – and by killing his birth-father, whom he didn’t previously realise was his birth father, Oedipus has brought Thebes to its knees. Understandably, he struggles when confronted with his new reality when he realises the truth. And he resorts to extreme self-harm – blinding himself, before leaving the city (distraught, dethroned, alone) at the end of the play.

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Oedipus Rex painting, by Linda Mota

In what does Knox think Oedipus’ greatness – his heroism – lie? In a number of things.

On one level, Oedipus embodies something of a contradiction: he is at the same time a monarch, a ruler and a despot: the solitary tyrannos in overall control of his city. It is he who makes the law, who dictates state affairs and who – single-handedly – leads the search to find the solution to his city’s plague. At the same time, he is a monarch with identifiable democratic instincts – a ‘democratic temper’, as Knox puts it. He wants what is best for his city, for his fellow citizens. He identifies with their suffering and is driven by a clear sense of public duty and public spirit. His incessant questioning in order to find a solution to the problem which confronts him is part of who he is, certainly: a self made man of action, as Knox emphasises. Self-made because he has won his kingship by freeing his city from a curse; a man of action because he is so restless to get things done. But Oedipus is certainly also motivated by unselfish instincts. And this part of his identity is very much in keeping with the spirit of fifth century democratic Athens – where Sophocles wrote, and where the play was first performed.

This much was already clear to me from my previous readings of the play. Knox, however, adds some further shrewd observations which have helped to enlarge my field of vision.

Oedipus is ‘quick’ (tachys): this is a word Sophocles repeatedly uses to describe him throughout the play. Quick in the sense of his intellectual agility, quick in the sense of being in a hurry (he is in a rush to make things better), and quick in the sense of being quick-tempered with people who stall his progress. Indeed, he hates others’ slowness.

He is also fiercely intelligent: he dismisses both Tiresias the blind prophet and his own royal relation Creon as ‘stupid’ (moros) when they don’t answer his questions to his satisfaction. And he trusts his own intellect deeply. He is a forensic cross-examiner, someone who sees himself as a reasoner who can ‘beat the professionals’ (the professional in this case being Tiresias the professional prophet).

Some of these points of detail, for me, represent slightly new slants on what I had already perceived about Oedipus’ relentless questioning and his impatience with others.

Knox also offers a careful appraisal of what we might label Oedipus’ ‘tragic flaw’ (in Aristotle’s terms, his hamartia) as a character. This lies not, Knox thinks, in Oedipus’ sense of responsibility to his people, or his energy, or his anger, or in his refusal to follow his wife/mother Jocasta’s advice not to press further in his questioning. (All of these are important features of his character, but no single one of them trumps the others). Instead, Knox says, Oedipus’ actions which produce catastrophe stem from all sides of his character. The catastrophe of Oedipus is the catastrophe of the total man, and – here’s the rub – the total man is more good than bad.

That, Knox proposes, is Sophocles’ counter-intuitive proposition for his audience: a hero whose whole character is tragically flawed is nevertheless more good than bad. I hadn’t really thought to construe the character of Oedipus – or his flaw(s) in this way before. Nonetheless, I find myself feeling that Knox manages to crystallise and articulate explicitly my somewhat more inchoate understanding here: I agree with him.

Knox’s most interesting proposal, however (and here again he forces me to flesh out my understanding), is that Sophocles’ handling of the story of Oedipus needs to be set firmly within the context of religious questioning and debate in fifth century Athens. It was in fifth century Athens that the whole idea of religious prophecy had been laid open to radical question – undermined, doubted and rejected from a variety of angles. Historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, the playwright Euripides, the philosopher Protagoras: all of these impressive intellectual figures, and many more like them, had set out their stall against the chicanery and superstition they identified in prophecy, and against the ‘cynical excesses of professional prophets’ (many of whom had gained a reputation as money-grubbing charlatans desperately trying to augur their way to a quick buck).

Within this climate of cool, dispassionate fifth century rationalism, Sophocles comes down for prophecy (and not just for prophecy, says Knox, but, by implication, for the whole traditional religious worldview of which prophecy can be taken as an instantiation). Tiresias, the strange and mystical prophet, is shown by Sophocles to be radically right in his dealing with Oedipus, while Oedipus the arch-rationalist with political power on his side is revealed to be radically in error.

The man who rejected prophecy, Knox says, is the living demonstration of its truth: the rationalist at his most intelligent and courageous is the unconscious proof of divine prescience. This reversal is fully realised when, before he discovers his identity, Oedipus rejects Jocasta’s claim that ‘man must live by chance’. After having made his shattering discovery, however, he comes full circle, proclaiming himself a ‘son of chance’. Chance stands here to indicate the absence of human control over ultimate reality, rather than mere randomness, I think.

Knox also makes the perceptive point that the story of Oedipus would be – frankly – uninteresting and untragic if Oedipus were simply a bad man. The fact that he is a good, rational man is what makes his character and his experience so compelling. Indeed, in one sense, Oedipus is not really at fault at all: he learns his ignorance (and is determined to learn it, as the good rationalist should), even as – by doing so – he comes to appreciate the reality of divine prescience and the existence of an order beyond his understanding. The importance of learning to know what you don’t know: this, admittedly, is a doctrine that also has good fifth century Athenian credentials in the teaching of Socrates.

At any rate, Knox’s big claim is that Oedipus’ discovery of his identity is both a catastrophic defeat (for him personally, but also for his determinedly rational worldview), and also – paradoxically – a great victory. This, then, is what makes him such a complex and great hero. I’ve found it difficult not to sympathise with these arguments – and I sense already that my enthusiasm for the play is beginning to be rekindled.

*The featured image is Renoir’s Oedipus Rex.

Wilde’s Inferno: Reading Dante in Reading Gaol

I have just finished reading the 200 or so pages of the recently (well, fairly recently) published Penguin edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and other prison writings (mostly letters), edited by Colm Toibin. It has been a harrowing, serious and affecting read, which though at times a little repetitive, is nonetheless punctuated by plenty of purple passages of searingly beautiful prose.

De Profundis accounts for the main body of the book’s text. It takes the form of a letter addressed to Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). Bosie is upbraided throughout the letter for his callousness, frivolity and duplicity over the course of his relationship with Wilde, who himself emerges as a deeply forlorn and tragic figure from his own extended and damning description of Bosie’s behaviour.

The received wisdom is that the letter cannot be read as an accurate account of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie (since it contains, apparently, too many petty, foolish and untrue accusations). What is remarkable about the letter, Toibin thinks, and what makes it (in his estimation) Wilde’s ‘greatest piece of prose-writing’, is the ‘change it marks in Wilde’s imaginative procedures’: the ‘high priest of flippancy and mocking laughter has set himself suddenly and shockingly against shallowness’.

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I am far too unread in Wilde to be able to concur with confidence that the serious tone of De Profundis is indeed entirely out of keeping with the tone he had adopted in his previous writing. It is certainly true, though, that De Profundis repeatedly takes aim at shallowness: Wilde at one point produces the memorable aphorism that shallowness is ‘the supreme vice’.

Something that struck me as I read what Wilde had communicated to the outside world during his two year stay in prison was the extent to which he knew he could find in reading books a source of deep consolation while confined in his cell. For his first few months in prison, however, reading had not been possible. This must only have served to sharpen his sense of how empty life could be – and must have been – without it (particularly, of course, within the confines of a small cell and over a course of hard labour).

In a letter sent after 13 months of imprisonment, Wilde wrote to the Home Secretary (no less) that one of the chief causes of the mental suffering he had experienced in jail had been the lack of ‘suitable or sufficient books, so essential to any literary man’. The ‘physical privations’ of jail, he continued, ‘are as nothing compared to the entire privation of literature to one to whom Literature was once the first thing of life’.

A subsequent letter, written 4 months later, indicates that Wilde had, as a result of his initial letter, been granted access to some new books in the now somewhat replenished prison library (he had complained to the Home Secretary of his dissatisfaction with the existing stock). What he liked to do when reading the books that gave him satisfaction, he wrote to a friend, was to take notes from them, copying lines and phrases from poets that spoke to him.

So what sort of reading might a master literary craftsman turn to when at his lowest ebb? Wilde had been able to exert an influence here: when writing to his contacts outside jail, he had given an indication of the sort of book he wished to have accessible to him in the prison library.

Of all the things he chose, the book that stands out before all others as the most important source of inspiration for the incarcerated Wilde is Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Indeed the very title of Wilde’s De Profundis itself contains a possible allusion to this text. In the Inferno (the first part of the Divine Comedy), Dante had depicted himself going down to the depths of hell, accompanied by his guide, the Roman epic poet Virgil. Wilde implies that this is a journey he too (like Virgil and Dante) has had to make.

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Botticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno

In what ways does Dante speak to Wilde? Part of the answer here is that he speaks to him through the medium of epic poetry, which – by its nature – is a serious, weighty and grand form of writing. What kind of consolation can such writing offer? Without wishing to rely too heavily on my own pretty sketchy knowledge of The Divine Comedy, and indeed of Wilde, I want briefly to hazard an answer to these questions, as I think Wilde gives a profound illustration of how epic poetry, written in the classical tradition, can speak to the heart of the individual.

As I have mentioned, it seems to me that in De Profundis, Wilde seems very clearly to invite his reader(s) to see that he has taken the same sort of route as that which Dante himself follows in the Divine Comedy. He has passed through the depths of personal hell. And, with Dante somehow guiding him, he has managed to find the route upward toward a kind of spiritual awareness. This awareness has consisted in a dramatic and apparently newfound understanding of the reality and personhood of God through Christ (in a way roughly analogous to Dante’s experience in paradise in the final section of the Divine Comedy).

The first mention of Dante in De Profundis introduces a paradox. Wilde refers to how Walter Pater’s (then recent) book Renaissance had posed a problem to his pre-existing understanding of Dante. Pater mentions in his book that Dante encounters in a very lowly situation in the inferno (i.e. hell) those who wilfully live in sadness. To dwell sustainedly on your own misery, he sees, is to wallow in the darkest pits of the damned. And yet, notes Wilde, this Dante who condemns self-pity is the same Dante who says that ‘sorrow remarries us to God’. How could it make sense, in this light, for Dante to be so harsh to those ‘enamoured of melancholy’ in hell, Wilde wonders.

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Walter Pater, the literary critic, whose writing provided Wilde with food for thought while he was in prison

Wilde does not proceed to offer a neat resolution to this apparent quandary, but subsequent sections of his letter reveal that he has found a way to see through it. For Wilde, as for Dante, in order to find God one must find him through a spiritual journey which passes through the darkest and most harrowing depths of sorrow. In the phrase of St John of the Cross (who was influenced, like Dante, by the theology of St Thomas Aquinas), one must experience the dark night of the soul. Dante depicts this in terms of a physical journey, through hell initially, via purgatory, through (finally) to paradise. But Dante’s text can equally be read as an allegory: it is a story of the stages a human soul must move through in order to establish a relationship with the divine.

Wilde has come to feel (under the special influence of Dante in particular) that sorrow is not the final word in truly lived human experience (even in jail), even if it is a vitally important component of it. Like Dante, he thinks that it does however deserve sustained attention – and he accordingly offers an arresting, melodic and sombre meditation on the subject in which Sorrow, capitalised, acquires a dramatic and hypostasised personality all of its own.

‘Behind Joy and Laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask…there is no truth comparable to Sorrow. There are times when Sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of Sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain…more than this, there is about Sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality…for the secret life is suffering, It is what is hidden behind everything’, he writes.

Wilde’s heartfelt depiction of the nature of Sorrow, I think, can be seen as a reflection of all that is most harrowing not only in Wilde’s own personal and spiritual experience (but in Dante’s Inferno too – the ‘city of weeping’, of ‘eternal sorrow’, of the ‘lost people’).*

Wilde proceeds from here in what might seem (particularly if Dante’s likely influence is not appreciated) a surprising direction. Having linked Sorrow to Truth, he then links it to Beauty and to Love, before alluding briefly to the problem of evil (or, more precisely, to the problem of pain).

He had previously thought, he says, that suffering proved that God did not love man, and that wherever there is sorrow, the whole face of creation has been marred. ‘Now it seems to me’, he says, ‘that Love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world…if the worlds have indeed been built out of Sorrow, it has been by the hands of Love, because in no other way could the Soul of man for whom the worlds are made reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but Pain for the beautiful Soul’.

A few lines later, he reveals that these insights have helped to generate in him a ‘new life, as through my love of Dante I sometimes like to call it’.

I do not think I share Wilde’s sense that by developing a sufficiently tragic and romantic sensibility, one can begin to come to terms with the problem of evil. I do share his view, however, that by acquiring such a sensibility, one can begin to approach in new light the figure of Christ – as he does at length in several rich, lyrical and beautifully rendered paragraphs over the subsequent pages of De Profundis. Rather than summarise these pages here, I will simply recommend them as wonderful (and provocative) reading.

Wilde’s encounter with the figure of Christ, as outlined in those pages, is facilitated not only by Renan’s Vie de Jésus (among several other significant texts). It also relies heavily, I think, on his engagement with Dante. It is not just that Wilde quotes directly from Dante’s description of his journey through purgatory to add colour to his description of Christ (who, he says, saw that the soul of each person should have the ‘manner of a child who laughs and weeps and behaves childishly’).**

It is also that, in order to arrive at his contemplation of the personality of Christ in De Profundis, Wilde has first had to confront and move through the depths of his despair and degradation – both in terms of the humbling vicissitudes of his relationship with Bosie, but also in terms of his experience of desperation and sorrow while in jail. This sense of somehow moving from a personal nadir of sorrow and deep anguish, all the way through to a dramatic personal and spiritual communion with God through Christ, establishes Wilde on precisely the same trajectory as that represented by Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy.

But there is a further connection. In the Divine Comedy, as has already been mentioned, Dante encounters Virgil, who becomes his guide through his journey to hell (and beyond). In a similar way, I think, Wilde – despite not writing within the same tradition of epic poetry – manifestly considers Dante to be his foremost literary and spiritual guide, as he moves through the darkest depths of despair, and (somehow) beyond.

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Dante, accompanied by Beatrice, ascending to the sphere of the sun in Paradise, as depicted by Giovanni Di Paolo

I mentioned in a previous post, which considered the dynamics of the interaction between Aeneas and Dido in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, that one important feature of epic poetry is that it can help to nurture in attentive readers a sensitive, thoughtful – and, above all, humane – approach to human dialogue and human relationships. Wilde’s reading of Dante reveals a further area in which epic poetry in the classical tradition can be seen to have something profound to say to its readers, even centuries after the event of its composition: in the context of spiritual awakening.

*Inferno 3:1-3.

**Purgatorio 16: 86-7, trans. C. Sisson.

 

Talking through Dido: the failure of forthright tenderness in Aeneid 6

When Aeneas catches sight of the ghost of Dido, his abandoned lover and the former Queen of Carthage, amongst a group of shades he passes on his journey into the depths of the underworld, he stops to try to talk to her. The conversation does not get off the ground. Hearing Aeneas speak, Dido shows no emotion in her facial features, which are left ‘unmoved, like hard rock’. This is in spite of the fact that we know ‘her mind is burning’. When Aeneas finishes speaking, she avoids all eye contact, staring at the ground, before retreating back into the shadows without saying a word.

Aeneas’ attempt to start a conversation with Dido is a striking failure, not least because Dido’s ghostly reticence stands in stark contrast with the outspoken, though increasingly troubled figure whom Aeneas has known in her earthly life. When he last saw her, she was in a state of furious indignation and deep melancholy at his impending departure from her kingdom. She had certainly had things to say to him previously. Why are things different now?

One reading of her response (or lack of response) to Aeneas in the underworld is that, in light of the devastation he has caused her (devastation which seems not entirely to have subsided), she really has nothing to say to him anymore. Coming face to face with him here perhaps gives Dido an opportunity to show Aeneas that she is now in a new state of mind, detached from the emotions which brought about her premature death. She is showing him that she has moved on from her state of earthly passion; that she has cried more than her share of tears for this man; and that she has perhaps found some peace of sorts in the company of the shade of her prematurely deceased husband Sychaeus (whose presence she seems to retreat toward).

Despite being plausible enough as far as it goes, for me this reading of the meeting of Aeneas and Dido in the underworld misses much of the richness and subtlety of Virgil’s presentation of their encounter. I think we can read more deeply into the dynamics of their responses to one another by looking carefully at the tone Aeneas adopts in his address of Dido and focussing on this as the likely cause of her response to him. Dido’s body language and withdrawal from Aeneas may best be seen, I think, as an implicit rejection – above all – of his tone, and the buoyant self-confidence and forthright and assertive, yet seemingly well-intentioned tenderness, it conveys.

If this is correct, one can perhaps imagine Aeneas’ words not only passing literally through Dido’s ghost, failing to register a physical impact on a phantasmagorical entity now bereft of its mortal existence. One can also imagine him talking through her, in the sense of missing the mark: missing the mark, that is, insofar as he adopts an emotional and rhetorical pose which falls well short of the kind of delicate sensitivity which an appropriate handling of this interaction would have involved.

Aeneas has entered the underworld to try to find his dead father Anchises. His motive is not simply that of a devoted son. He wishes to benefit from his father’s wisdom and foresight. He will rely on these to strengthen him as he strives to find a new homeland for his band of refugee Trojan warriors. His quest for a new home is not simply about finding appropriate land to settle. It is shown by Virgil to link profoundly to the story of the foundation and future greatness of Rome, not least insofar as Aeneas – despite being a Trojan hero – is made to embody many of the paradigmatic virtues of first century BC Augustan Rome.

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Aeneas in the Underworld, by Rubens

Part of Aeneas’ problem is that he is so deeply caught up with the serious business of being the hero, leader of men and all-round man of action and adventure that he is. Virgil tells us that Aeneas addresses Dido with ‘sweet love’ in his voice (6.455), but just how much sweetness is this Odyssean swashbuckler capable of?

‘infelix Dido’ (‘unhappy/unlucky Dido’), he begins. This is a phrase which echoes other passages in the Aeneid, but it doesn’t obviously stand out for its sweetness, nor does it speak volumes for Aeneas’ capacity for sensitivity. Dido may indeed be unhappy, though why mention it – especially given that he himself is right at the root of this unhappiness?

He proceeds to ask two questions. The first aims to clarify whether Dido did indeed meet her death with a sword. The second asks if he himself had been the cause of her suicide. Aeneas immediately confronts Dido, then, with two of the most traumatic details of her existence. And, what’s more, he asks with a self-interested tone. Was Aeneas, by any chance, on her mind as Dido experienced her deepest moments of desperation?

One can understand Aeneas’ curiosity, perhaps, but why does he need to know this as a matter of urgency? One might even suggest that it is more than a bit cumbersome and unthinking of him to ask the question at all. He is rather like the person who, although he may have well-meaning concerns for an individual on his mind, just can’t help leaping into a conversation by voicing these concerns directly and straightaway, quite without regard for the emotional turbulence that doing so may cause the other party.

Aeneas continues by protesting that he didn’t want to leave Dido when he did (‘invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi’: ‘I left your shores unwillingly, O queen’). This is not exactly new information. He has already told Dido, right on the brink of his departure from Carthage, that he is not leaving of his own accord. Here he seems to assume that she simply didn’t believe him first time round.

So now he uses emphatic words in a dramatic tricolon to promise that it really is true: ‘by the stars, by the gods and by whatever kind of faith exists within the depths of the earth’. But even if (on a charitable reading) Dido may now be better convinced of something she wasn’t before, what should this matter now? The deed has been done: Aeneas seems more concerned to justify and perhaps exculpate himself to Dido, than he does to empathise seriously with her feelings during her desperate last moments of life.

He then tells her that he cannot believe that such great grief was caused to her by his leaving Carthage. Clearly he was not paying sufficient attention during her extended emotional outpourings in Book 4. While speaking of her distress, Dido had pointedly referenced her own mortality, even claiming she was ‘going to die’ at one point (4.307). Has Aeneas simply forgotten this? Was he himself too distressed to register it when he heard it first time round? Or was he, rather, just insufficiently sympathetic to Dido’s pain properly to grasp it, being rather too focussed (for instance) on his own divinely ordained prerogatives to recognise it?

Toward the end of his speech, Aeneas issues a pair of direct commands, telling Dido to ‘stop’ and instructing her not to remove herself from his sight. Rather than telling her so abrasively what to do, could he not have implored her with soothing words, gently inviting her to share some words with him? The direct language Virgil employs helps, I think, to underscore the fact that this Aeneas is inescapably a forthright man of action who is used to commanding others with a strutting confidence. A less forthright (and more effective) approach would, perhaps, have involved a more delicate appeal to the sensibilities of his tragically jilted lover.

It is a commonplace to point out that Virgil’s Aeneas, as a prototypical Roman, simply tramples over the Carthaginian Dido in a way that represents the later Roman trampling of Carthage itself in the Punic Wars.* Aeneas stands for Rome, then, and Dido for Carthage. Many readers of Virgil sense that he is profoundly alert to the darkness and tragedy of military conquest and (specifically also of) Roman imperialism. In my opinion, Aeneas’ speech to Dido in the underworld sustains this reading. Through Aeneas, Virgil conveys something of the tactless bluster of the conquering Roman mentality, as it comes face to face with the tragic queen it has (seemingly unwittingly) brought to ruin.

TS Eliot found in Aeneas’ address of Dido in Book 6 something rather different from what I find here. For Eliot, Aeneas’ words disclose ‘civilised manners, and a civilised consciousness and conscience’.** Many other readers have found something similar, and some have admired Aeneas for his emotional articulacy in the passage, finding in him something approaching an exemplary figure who plainly and directly speaks his mind in a difficult interaction. My own reading challenges this view, which to me seems altogether too tidy and clipped. Even if Aeneas has to leave Carthage to fulfil his destiny, he still manages to get things wrong with Dido in the way he talks with her, I suggest.

Book 6 of the Aeneid, with its account of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, enjoyed an extended afterlife as an inspiration for medieval and early modern Christian imaginings of hell. Both Dante and Milton made features of Virgil’s account central to their own epic poems.

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Virgil and Dante in Hell, by Delacroix

Contemporary readers are unlikely to look to Virgil as a resource when trying to picture any possible life after death. But Virgil’s characters, and his art as a storyteller, may still hold lessons not only for how to think about human relationships, as I have explored here, but (also, among other things) for contemporary attempts to do theology.

It is a truism of many such attempts in recent Christian writing that God is a God of love who can somehow be found through the experience of love in human relationships. As a rich resource for helping people to think through the meaning of sensitivity, sympathy and love in their relationships, Virgil’s writing could arguably be as instructive to this sort of theology now as it was in stimulating the religious thought and experience of medieval Christianity.

*For example, Bruno Currie, Epilogue, in Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil and the Epic Tradition, pp. 351-2.

**TS Eliot, What is a Classic? p. 20

The featured image is a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder of Aeneas with the Sibyl in the underworld.

Bassani’s Etruscans

Language, writes Christopher Hitchens, is the magical key to prose, as much as to poetry. From the magic of the recent English translations of the Ferrara sequence of novels by Giorgio Bassani,* I can only assume that there was a great deal of enchantment in Bassani’s original Italian prose. Certainly, the haunting (haunted?) prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which was first published in 1962, has stayed etched in my thoughts since the day I read it a couple of months ago.

Partly, I think, this is because it touches upon some of the ancient historical scenery around the city of Rome, including – for instance – the Etruscan archaeological remains at Cerveteri (remains about which I know very little). But the passage has mainly stayed with me for a different reason: the luminous way in which it combines topographical description with philosophical reflection about the historical longue durée.

By doing this, Bassani manages to place a subtle melancholy frame around the harrowing events he goes on to describe. He uses historical memory, then, as a way to achieve perspective and to infuse sadness – but also (beautifully) to demonstrate the continuing possibility of an innocent kind of hope, as we witness the exuberance of a young girl’s attempts to grapple with moral questions while engaging in serious historical thinking for what seems like the first time.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis follows the fortunes of some young, upper crust members of the Jewish community of Ferrara in the late 1930s. The youngsters in question have a fondness for literature and discussion, for food, wine and tobacco, and for game after game of summer tennis (singles, doubles, whatever). Against this background, the marginalisation of the Jewish community that is going on in Ferrara over the course of this period, particularly as a consequence of Mussolini’s Racial Laws, gradually impinges in various ways on the characters.

Despite this descent, Bassani wants to show that the atmosphere among his characters of tender young love, carefree innocence, and coming of age discussion had not (yet) been destroyed during this time. He does this by revealing a tremendous level of poignancy, sensitivity and intimacy of feeling among his characters, the effect of which is to keep the reader focussed mainly on the contours of the personal relationships being described: the gathering political clouds which cast their increasingly ominous shadow over the ‘big picture’ landscape of the period are for their part kept mostly out of focus.

In the prologue of the story, Bassani’s characters experience the Italian landscape as a theatre of memory while out on a family day-trip. Driving toward the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri, not far from Rome, a discussion ensues among the passengers, the youngest of whom – Giannina – asks: ‘In the history book, the Etruscans are at the beginning, next to the Egyptians and the Jews. But Papa, who do you think were the oldest, the Etruscans or the Jews?’ A tricky question for poor Dad, who understandably deflects it – and fortunately for him an attractive double row of cypresses provides a welcome temporary distraction through the window.

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Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri

The conversation lulls. Before long, though, another question breaks the silence: ‘Papa, why are old tombs less sad than new ones?’ This time Dad feels confident enough to offer what seems like a competent enough answer: ‘Well’, he says, ‘the recent dead are closer to us, and so it makes sense that we care more about them. The Etruscans, they’ve been dead such a long time – it’s as though they’d never lived, as though they were always dead’.

A pause. ‘But now you say that’, young Giannina gently responds, ‘it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others’.

This remark, it turns out, sets the tone for the family’s whole visit to the Etruscan necropolis. It allows them to wonder with open minds not just about the Etruscans’ tombs and burial practices, but about the passage of time, and about the fate of this archaeological site which had survived ever since the time when ‘Etruria, with its coalition of free, aristocratic city-states, dominated almost the entire Italian peninsula’. In time, ‘new civilisations, cruder and less aristocratic, but also stronger and more warlike’ had held the field and the Etruscans slid into insignificance.

In the end, the narrator asks, what does this all matter? No direct answer to this question – which turns out to be rhetorical – is ventured. Instead, we are whisked away (not by car, but in our narrator’s imagination), from Etruscan Cerveteri, all the way back to his childhood Ferrara, to its grand old Jewish cemetery – and to the scenes of his youth which unfolded there.

Bassani’s juxtaposition of the Etruscan and Jewish burial grounds enables him to suggest an implicit if ever so slightly unnerving parallel between the two. Both burial grounds – if imaginatively engaged with – present a silent face of Italian history. And whereas his own memories in one of them are fresh, so that he can give voice to them, much in that old world has now gone.

In recalling memories of the recent Jewish past, even while doing so in glorious and complex richness and colour, it seems to make sense to this narrator to set them somewhat in context against the grand and merciless sweep of the peninsula’s wider history. In this way, Bassani hints with gentle knowing that he would like us to broach  the tragedy of the Jews of Ferrara in this story with the unforgiving laboratory of history as our backdrop.

  • The novels have been translated into English (beautifully) by Jamie McKendrick.

Educating the whole person in Victorian Oxford

It has been a quiet Christmas with family this year. I did find a chance, though, to do some (admittedly not-so-light) reading – and recently I came to the end of a very interesting book dealing with the topic of academic life in nineteenth century Oxford. I wanted to jot down a few findings and arguments I came across while reading it, as it certainly left an impression.

The book is a kind of biography – its subject the Oxford scholar Mark Pattison, a major figure in the academic and administrative life of his university – which offers also a history of ideas and debates about the aims of education in the Victorian university. It’s written by HS Jones, a History professor at Manchester, and I was fortunate to find a cheap copy used on Amazon, as it’s an expensive – if excellent – book only available as a hardback (as here). From reading the book, I think Pattison is a figure whose ideas deserve attention in the context of debates that continue to surround the subject of education today.

The Victorian period was a time of much pioneering activity and growth in British education, and this was true too of Oxford. It was, for instance, a time when many Oxford dons found a way to bring the benefits of university education to workers, putting together extension courses and classes for those of limited education and limited means to attend university in the conventional way (link here). This is just one example of the commitment to extending the field of operation of the university that characterised the thinking of many leading Victorian educationalists. The world of Victorian education could be (and was – and sometimes continues to be) crudely – if not unjustifiably – caricatured as one of punctilious strictness, brutal corporal punishment and endless, mandatory Greek and Latin to be learned by rote. Certainly it was one in which significant economic, educational and indeed religious barriers blocked many from receiving a higher education altogether. However, it is demonstrable that this world was also characterised by the thoughtfulness, lucidity and intellectual courage of many of its leading denizens.

Mark Pattison was one such case. I warm to Pattison partly because, for him, academic teaching was less a matter of pedagogical technique and more a matter of personal encounter, whereby the student comes to see the character and intellectual interests of a teacher and is formed by this experience. This might sound a bit like the beginning of an argument in favour of amateurism or some kind of cult of personality. But Pattison – in the words of his contemporary John Henry Newman, whom he admired but later dissociated himself from – saw it rather as an important guarantor that the process of educating a mind could not resemble ‘a foundry, a mint or a treadmill’: it must be personal rather than simply mechanical.

I like Pattison’s sceptical view of ‘mechanical’ instruction, and his insistence on the necessary human element that must lie at the heart of true education. That instruction may run the risk of being mechanical, he suggested, is partly a consequence of examinations. Formal university examinations in Oxford had been introduced only recently, in 1800. Pattison feared that ‘the ascendancy of the examination was creating a new formalism in which outward attainments…would be valued at the expense of the real intellectual qualities the examinations were supposed to test’. The love of learning, he thought, ‘was degraded if it depended for its operation on the offer of external rewards’. Love of learning, of self-improvement, should be its own reward: ‘to enforce study by examination is much on a par with compelling morality by public discipline, or restraining private extravagance by sumptuary laws’. The principal defect of examinations, he argued, is that ‘the best contrived examination can only reach knowledge and acquirement; it cannot gauge character’. True enough.

Knowledge, he went as far as to say, should be sought ‘not for itself, but as a means for enlarging and building up the character’. This statement represents a clear and thought-provoking clash with a prevailing tendency in 21st century educational thinking, where knowledge of what is on a particular syllabus is presented virtually as a ‘good’ in itself, offering a means to secure exam-based qualifications.

In common with many Victorian educationalists, Pattison thought that an overriding aim of an education was to build character. Unlike a good number of his contemporaries, however, he didn’t think this could be straightforwardly achieved through the cultivation of ‘manly virtues’ in the context of athletic activities. For Pattison, it was intellectual life (properly conceived as the love of learning for its own sake) that did most to build character – and in advancing this view, he knew he would have to make his case. On the one hand, he saw that athletic pursuits do indeed help cultivate some honourable virtues: ‘keenness, vigour, boldness, skill, enterprise, readiness, hardiness, determination, solidity’. These he regarded as ‘the manly virtues of a trading and speculating people’. On the other hand, he suggested that these virtues were in danger of being ‘too exclusively honoured’, that they tended to thrust out of sight the softer virtues of ‘humility, patience, self-abnegation, prayer, devotion, charity’. (Pattison later disavowed his Christianity). Here too, I think, he has something important to say.

A final point about Pattison’s perspective on education that struck me is his view of research. Pattison is known as a key Victorian figure who threw his weight behind the (German) model of the research university, according to which a primary focus of academic life is on producing original academic studies and publications. It was therefore surprising to find out what Pattison thought the point of academic research actually was. Research, he thought, is what enables scholars to be ‘actively engaged in a process of self-culture’. This ensures the presence of a ‘philosophical temper’, which in turn is a prerequisite for meaningful teaching. In short, the point of research, he thinks, is self-development with a view to being the best sort of teacher.

Clearly this is a vision that differs profoundly from some of the standard ways in which the raison d’etre of academic research is now conceived: that is, as a means to add to, or to dispute matters relating to, the common stock of knowledge; as a means to obtain professional status; as a means to discuss or solve real-world problems. These common ways of thinking about what academic research is for belie an underlying scientism (and presentism). But this scientizing (and presentist) lens, one might insist, is not the only valid way of conceiving the point of research: in the humanities, for instance, it is arguably a cause of ongoing damage. Pattison – while stressing the importance of research – offers a different perspective on why it might be of value, both to the researcher themselves and to their pupils.

Quiz Answers from the last post:

  1. B – no donkey is mentioned in the New Testament accounts of the nativity.
  2. C – the arch was that of Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, who became emperor briefly himself from 79-81.
  3. D – Hercules is the correct answer.

The last lesson of term

One activity I seem to find myself doing a lot (and taking some enjoyment in) as a teacher is setting quizzes. Quiz-setting offers an opportunity to revisit less well-remembered areas of my own subject knowledge; it’s also a chance to facilitate some out-of-the-box thinking. Earlier this term I set the questions for a school-wide general knowledge quiz. Then, ahead of last week, I prepared another quiz – a Classics Christmas quiz – for all my classes to have a go at in their final lessons of term.

The quiz was multiple choice. Using this approach is good, I think, for three main reasons. First, it helps to guard against disaffection: the pure guesser always has, in theory, a 1 in 4 chance. The pupils who know little will never be required to conjure answers out of thin air: they will also sometimes see that they knew more than they thought. Second, a range of possible answers encourages the use of a process of elimination. Rather than testing established knowledge directly, I am generally trying to get pupils to reason their way – via a red herring or two – to a correct answer using both their knowledge base and their powers of deduction. Third, the multiple choice format enables me to ask more searching questions, dealing with a broader range of subject matter.

This term’s quiz followed a, by now, pretty familiar routine. Boys formed teams of 3 or 4 members and had fun making up team names (‘Team See Me After Class’ was one that generated some amusement). They then considered the four categories of question they would have to answer. With Christmas in mind, this term’s quiz had a religious theme: the four categories were Ancient Christmas, First Century Judaism, Greek Religion and Roman Religion. Teams had to pick one of these as their joker round, which would count double. When they had done this, we would move straight into round one.

Having done a number of these quizzes over several terms now, I find it easy to see why early evening TV schedules are so full of quiz shows. In my classroom, the big 3 elements of quizzing that seem to make it enjoyable are: 1) the friendly competition; 2) the chance to work as a team; 3) the chance to impress peers with already existing knowledge, and/or to find out new and interesting things. Presumably it’s these sorts of things which combine to make shows like Pointless, Eggheads and others so popular.

I can’t finish this post without including a few questions from last week’s quiz in case anyone wishes to give them a go…answers will be given on a forthcoming post…

1. Which of the following does not feature in the accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy in the New Testament?

a. wise men (magi)

b. a donkey

c. shepherds

d. a star

2. Which Roman emperor’s arch, which can still be seen near the Roman Forum, depicts Romans taking plunder from Jerusalem after the sacking of the city in 70 AD?

a. Augustus

b. Nero

c. Titus

d. Trajan

3. The Ara Maxima (‘Greatest Altar’) was set up in the Forum Boarium to honour which figure in Roman myth?

a. Remus

b. Tarquinius Superbus

c. Cato the Elder

d. Hercules