Receiving the Classical Tradition; or, Three Weeks in Greece, and What Came After

As a tourist in Greece, it requires a double take to realize that the country is in a bit of a mess. After all, even a functional Greece wouldn’t look as clean and shiny and new as France or Germany, the US or Canada. It’s never been as wealthy, as full of luxury goods. The large number of men in late middle age who apparently do nothing but sit in cafes and drink iced coffee can be chalked up to cultural differences, and in Athens homeless people don’t beg in the street on anything near to the scale of Paris, London, or any of the large US cities. But look again, picking yourself off the floor whither you’ve fallen in shock at the sight of the insanely cheap food prices (I’m still reeling at the memory of one particular shopping trip, on which I bought for two euros an assortment of fruit and veg that would easily have cost ten in Paris). Then you’ll see how many storefronts, in Athens and outlying towns, are boarded up and empty, how many supermarket shelves are thinly stocked, how many services are inexplicably missing. The trains haven’t run in over a year, for instance, and on the rare occasion that you find a post office that isn’t shut due to strikes or lack of money, you may discover, as I did, that it inexplicably sells neither envelopes nor stamps. When I travelled round the Peloponnese for a week with two friends, we not infrequently found ourselves the only diners in a restaurant, even at peak mealtimes in touristy areas; more than once, we suspected ourselves to be the only guests at our budget-to-midrange hotels. Even what the internet suggests to be one of the best restaurants in Athens, where we ate twice, wasn’t more than half-full on either occasion, while I can readily imagine that at its US equivalent you’d never be able to get a reservation. The strongest reminder of the economic crisis came in Selianítika, the little village on the Gulf of Corinth that for two weeks played host to fourteen Americans’ study of written and spoken ancient Greek: we arrived to discover that the village’s only ATM had been recently blown up by thieves desperate for the cash inside it. But you’d almost never have known it, so loudly did the beachfront bars blast American pop hits and so enthusiastically did large bathing-suit-clad Greeks sling back cheap beers and plunge into the salty water as a respite from the scorching midday heat. Greece right now is a strange country—but at least, as far as this traveller could figure out, there isn’t any reason not to give it your badly-needed business.

The beach at Selianítika.

But what are the implications, then, for the tourist and would-be conversational Attic speaker? Well, as in so many other parts of elite academic life, it means cognitive dissonance. It takes exactly the same state of mind to walk past the Big Issue-seller on the way to the Bodleian as it does to settle, amidst economic crisis and large-scale unemployment, into a routine of climbing mountains in blazing 100-degree sun to view the ruins at the top, wandering through archaeological museums looking at Mycenaean pot-shard after Mycenaean pot-shard, and spending fourteen days in a fruit garden surrounded by a ragtag international collection of philhellenes, would-be opera singers, and the odd innocent holiday-maker, among whom (aside from we hapless English speakers) the lingua franca seemed to be German, with modern Greek, Italian, and even Latin thrown in. Just so have generations of young academics before me wound up their grand tours by traipsing round some ruins in the Peloponnese. Just so have centuries of Oxford reading parties blundered headlong into some rural area on the Continent in order to get to grips with Plato and Homer. Just so have they been met with strange Germans and Germanophiles intent on enthusiastic amateur cultural and artistic pursuits as combined with swimming and calisthenics. Just so have ancient adventures, philosophical quandaries, and the mysteries of the attraction of the relative pronoun come to seem more vivid and palpable than the daily lives of locals who pop up every once in a while to provide some essential service, speaking a modern language the philhellenes find impossible to understand. It isn’t pretty, and it’s certainly got the weight of cultural-imperialist history to it.

The Hellenikon Idyllion, home of spoken Attic.

For that matter, everywhere I went in Greece, I found myself wading waist-deep through my own palimpsest. I thought of Schliemann and Byron, of course, revisited Cavafy, and read Symonds’ travel narrative about Athens. Atop the Acropolis, I thought of Freud’s “Disturbance of Memory” there in 1904; when a sudden downpour at Epidaurus sent my travelling companions and me running headlong for the archaeological museum, and we stood in sopping-wet silence in its main hall, dripping on the tile floor and looking at the remains of shrines to Aesclepius, I made a less-predictable connection (though perhaps one no less redolent with a sense of the uncanny!) to the eerie shots of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in the planetarium in Manhattan. Greece does funny things to the spirit. Some of them are wonderful: in the sculpture gallery in the Acropolis Museum, the conviction pierced me like a thunderbolt that it is utterly wrong for the British Museum to keep hold of the Elgin Marbles when they so obviously demand to be seen here, in their proper context—something that it is quite impossible to appreciate when you’ve only seen the ghostly parade make its way across the wall of the gallery in London. At the top of the hill at Delphi, looking down at the lean white columns half-restored out of the ruin of the Temple of Apollo, standing starkly erect against the backdrop of the lush green valley below, I could easily see why, when, in an apocryphal (albeit plausible) story related by one of our teachers, the great classicist Kenneth Dover beheld that same view, he felt himself moved to the point of literal orgasm. But at the same time, I can’t say that I was surprised that my struggles with reading and speaking ancient Greek left me exhausted in body, mind, and spirit, as easily overwhelmed by a variety of personal issues as by my efforts to keep up with Attic-immersion conversations about Plato’s concept of τέχνη. Disturbances of memory crowd upon one in a country where you can walk through the physical remnants of civilization from a thousand years before Homer; where recent history is fraught with all sorts of conflicts and questions of national identity that seem at once foreign and familiar, at once of a piece with the longer history and separate from it.

On the Acropolis.

So, on the one hand (μὲν), Greece was wonderful, utterly unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, a rich learning experience. But on the other hand (δὲ), I spent a lot of it sad and confused—which I remain now, despite being back in the mind-clearing, noise-free world of my usual close of summer in rural Canada. Being somewhere so puzzlingly unheimlich heightened the sense that this has been a very difficult, unheimlich summer, spent floating back and forth across the western hemisphere with no fixed address or institutional affiliation, no motivation to make academic progress, and no shortage of personal conflicts through which to struggle. The contrast with a year ago—coming to Canada to piece together six weeks spent in English archives and to start writing my first chapter, before I fell headlong into the whirlwind of thesis year—is stark. It leaves me wondering if this deadened feeling of writer’s block that has resulted in an unproductive summer is travelling’s fault, or growing-up-and-graduating-college’s fault, or my own. It leaves me wondering how real academics manage the tendency of summertime to leave one at loose ends, and the tendency of real life and its accumulation of small troubles to intercede upon one’s ability to sit down and write. It leaves me wondering if real academics ever see their work the way that novelists and poets and visual artists see theirs: something that can be done as much by being thoughtful and reflective about one’s life as by sitting at the computer and banging out words, something that takes time and quiet and country walks and human relationships for it to percolate, something that can act as its own form of therapy, helping the writer to understand all that is most unheimlich about other times, other places, and herself in relation to them.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

I spend a lot of my academic life—one which, like many academic lives, observes no distinction between work and home, between the professional and the personal—thinking about how many other young women and men before me sat at desks scattered across the western hemisphere and weighed their life’s ambivalence in μὲν… δέ clauses, thereby managing to cope somehow with the (admittedly relatively softball) pitches life throws at them. Thus, on my last night in Greece, my program had a talent show of sorts, and I stood up in front of ragtag mix of American students and teachers, Greeks, and the odd German, and gave a performance at which I wasn’t particularly talented, but which meant the world to me. As I said to my audience, barely able to look them in the eye, I started wanting to learn what the classical tradition had to do with me, started realizing how deficient my education had been in this regard, and thus took up Greek, for a wide variety of reasons academic and personal. But all of them could be summed up synecdochically (there’s a nice Greek word!) by my desire to understand what has since become my favorite passage in the Greek corpus, Phaedrus 251-252. Almost eighteen months since I bought my first Greek textbook from the Turl Street Oxfam shop in the Easter vacation and one of the various Indo-European philologists who suddenly and coincidentally appeared in my life taught me to notice “Ο ΠΑΙΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ” (“the beautiful boy”) inscribed on the red-figure vases in the Ashmolean, almost a year since the start of the most intense nine months in two decades’ worth of schooling, I read my passage aloud to thirty or so philhellenes, in Greek and in my own English translation—and I could claim to understand every word of it, in heart and in mind.

Statue of Antinous, one of the most famous τῶν παιδῶν κάλων, in the Delphi Archaeological Museum.

I append the relevant passage below. It’s a fitting note on which to close this summer, and one which, as I look out on the sun-dappled Pacific Ocean (to which no poet, so far as I know, has ascribed the darkness of wine), doesn’t make me feel so bad. Not so shabby for eighteen months of Greek. Not so shabby for twenty-two-and-a-half years of life.

Rosy-fingered dawn over the wine-dark sea at Selianítika.

ὁ δὲ ἀρτιτελής, ὁ τῶν τότε πολυθεάμων, ὅταν θεοειδὲς πρόσωπον ἴδῃ κάλλος εὖ μεμιμημένον ἤ τινα σώματος ἰδέαν, πρῶτον μὲν ἔφριξε καί τι τῶν τότε ὑπῆλθεν αὐτὸν δειμάτων, εἶτα προσορῶν ὡς θεὸν σέβεται, καὶ εἰ μὴ ἐδεδίει τὴν τῆς σφόδρα μανίας δόξαν, θύοι ἂν ὡς ἀγάλματι καὶ θεῷ τοῖς παιδικοῖς. ἰδόντα δ᾽ αὐτὸν οἷον ἐκ τῆς φρίκης μεταβολή τε καὶ ἱδρὼς καὶ θερμότης ἀήθης λαμβάνει: δεξάμενος γὰρ τοῦ κάλλους τὴν ἀπορροὴν διὰ τῶν ὀμμάτων ἐθερμάνθη ᾗ ἡ τοῦ πτεροῦ φύσις ἄρδεται, θερμανθέντος δὲ ἐτάκη τὰ περὶ τὴν ἔκφυσιν, ἃ πάλαι ὑπὸ σκληρότητος συμμεμυκότα εἶργε μὴ βλαστάνειν, ἐπιρρυείσης δὲ τῆς τροφῆς ᾤδησέ τε καὶ ὥρμησε φύεσθαι ἀπὸ τῆς ῥίζης ὁ τοῦ πτεροῦ καυλὸς ὑπὸ πᾶν τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς εἶδος: πᾶσα γὰρ ἦν τὸ πάλαι πτερωτή. ζεῖ οὖν ἐν τούτῳ ὅλη καὶ ἀνακηκίει, καὶ ὅπερ τὸ τῶν ὀδοντοφυούντων πάθος περὶ τοὺς ὀδόντας γίγνεται ὅταν ἄρτι φύωσιν, κνῆσίς τε καὶ ἀγανάκτησις περὶ τὰ οὖλα, ταὐτὸν δὴ πέπονθεν ἡ τοῦ πτεροφυεῖν ἀρχομένου ψυχή: ζεῖ τε καὶ ἀγανακτεῖ καὶ γαργαλίζεται φύουσα τὰ πτερά. ὅταν μὲν οὖν βλέπουσα πρὸς τὸ τοῦ παιδὸς κάλλος, ἐκεῖθεν μέρη ἐπιόντα καὶ ῥέοντ᾽—ἃ δὴ διὰ ταῦτα ἵμερος καλεῖται—δεχομένη τὸν ἵμερον ἄρδηταί τε καὶ θερμαίνηται, λωφᾷ τε τῆς ὀδύνης καὶ γέγηθεν: ὅταν δὲ χωρὶς γένηται καὶ αὐχμήσῃ, τὰ τῶν διεξόδων στόματα ᾗ τὸ πτερὸν ὁρμᾷ, συναυαινόμενα μύσαντα ἀποκλῄει τὴν βλάστην τοῦ πτεροῦ, ἡ δ᾽ ἐντὸς μετὰ τοῦ ἱμέρου ἀποκεκλῃμένη, πηδῶσα οἷον τὰ σφύζοντα, τῇ διεξόδῳ ἐγχρίει ἑκάστη τῇ καθ᾽ αὑτήν, ὥστε πᾶσα κεντουμένη κύκλῳ ἡ ψυχὴ οἰστρᾷ καὶ ὀδυνᾶται, μνήμην δ᾽ αὖ ἔχουσα τοῦ καλοῦ γέγηθεν. ἐκ δὲ ἀμφοτέρων μεμειγμένων ἀδημονεῖ τε τῇ ἀτοπίᾳ τοῦ πάθους καὶ ἀποροῦσα λυττᾷ, καὶ ἐμμανὴς οὖσα οὔτε νυκτὸς δύναται καθεύδειν οὔτε μεθ᾽ ἡμέραν οὗ ἂν ᾖ μένειν, θεῖ δὲ ποθοῦσα ὅπου ἂν οἴηται ὄψεσθαι τὸν ἔχοντα τὸ κάλλος: ἰδοῦσα δὲ καὶ ἐποχετευσαμένη ἵμερον ἔλυσε μὲν τὰ τότε συμπεφραγμένα, ἀναπνοὴν δὲ λαβοῦσα κέντρων τε καὶ ὠδίνων ἔληξεν, ἡδονὴν δ᾽ αὖ ταύτην γλυκυτάτην ἐν τῷ παρόντι καρποῦται. ὅθεν δὴ ἑκοῦσα εἶναι οὐκ ἀπολείπεται, οὐδέ τινα τοῦ καλοῦ περὶ πλείονος ποιεῖται, ἀλλὰ μητέρων τε καὶ ἀδελφῶν καὶ ἑταίρων πάντων λέλησται, καὶ οὐσίας δι᾽ ἀμέλειαν ἀπολλυμένης παρ᾽ οὐδὲν τίθεται, νομίμων δὲ καὶ εὐσχημόνων, οἷς πρὸ τοῦ ἐκαλλωπίζετο, πάντων καταφρονήσασα δουλεύειν ἑτοίμη καὶ κοιμᾶσθαι ὅπου ἂν ἐᾷ τις ἐγγυτάτω τοῦ πόθου: πρὸς γὰρ τῷ σέβεσθαι τὸν τὸ κάλλος ἔχοντα ἰατρὸν ηὕρηκε μόνον τῶν μεγίστων πόνων. τοῦτο δὲ τὸ πάθος…, πρὸς ὃν δή μοι ὁ λόγος, ἄνθρωποι… ἔρωτα ὀνομάζουσιν….

But the newly-initiated man, who has then seen much, whenever he sees a godlike face or bodily form that represents Beauty well, first thrills at the sight, and then some awe overcomes him. Beholding his beloved, he reveres him like a god. If he did not fear a reputation for excessive madness, he would sacrifice to his young beloved [παιδικοῖς], so as to worship him. And, seeing his beloved, he is so changed from the thrill that he is possessed by sweat and unwanted heat: for, when he accepts the flow of beauty into his eyes, it moistens the roots of the feathers; growing warm, these roots, which once had been closed through their hardness and prevented from growing, are melted. Having nourishment poured upon them, they become swollen and begin to bear forth from their roots the stems of feathers across the entire form of the soul, for all of it was feathered long ago. Then the whole soul seethes and throbs, just as, when growing teeth, one suffers pain around the gums. Just like this scratching and irritation in the gums, is the pain that the soul has when it begins to grow feathers: it seethes and throbs and tickles, as it produces them. Then when the soul regards a beautiful youth [παιδὸς κάλλος] and the thrilling feeling comes upon it, it receives this nourishing yearning. As it does so it is watered and warmed, ceases from its pain and is filled with joy. Yet when it is separated [from the beloved], the soul becomes dry and unkempt, dehydrating and closing up the buds of the feathers; and inside, having been shut up with the yearning, the feathers spring and throb, each one pricking the passage accorded it, so that the soul, having been stung all round, is caused to ache—until, once more recalling the memory of the beautiful one, it rejoices. And, out of the mixture of these two things, it is perplexed by the strangeness of its feeling and springs up in anger; and, driven insane, it can neither sleep at night nor remain anywhere by day, but, in longing, runs whenever it thinks to see the beloved; seeing him, the soul is bathed in the waters of yearning. The obstructed passages are let free, the soul has respite from its stings and relief from its pains, and this brings forth the sweetest pleasure there is. Indeed, such a man is incapable of being left alone by he who remains more beautiful than all others, but forgets his parents and siblings and all his friends, and neglects his property, caring nothing for its destruction, nor for the customs and manners in which he took pride before. Disdaining everything, he is prepared to be a slave to the one whom he desires, and to sleep anywhere it is permitted so as to be as close as possible to him: for he is in awe of the one who possesses beauty, and finds him the only healer of his greatest troubles. And people call this suffering about which I am speaking Love.

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