History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

23 March 2007

Hooked on Classics

Or, How Pam Develops a New Intellectual Passion

Michael, the bookseller husband, brings home a book Pam's never heard of, muttering about how he probably should never have ordered it, even if it did look so interesting in the publisher's catalog.

"Nobody's bought it in two years," he admits, "but I thought that you.... Well, here, you can take a look if you want to, before I send it back."

A total ingrate, Pam whines and grimaces about how she already has too many books to read, not to mention one to write. Michael nods sheepishly (or perhaps he's just bored with this old routine). Pam feels guilty now; it's not his fault, she chides herself, that she's behind on just about everything she's got to do.

Michael leaves the book within easy reach and wanders off. When Pam's sure he's not looking she peeks inside the covers....

The latest of these books was Erotikon, edited by Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer.

And speaking of covers, isn't this one wildly provocative?

And very apt, for a book subtitled Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern. Because the painting, "Amor Victorious" by Caravaggio, is simultaneously an allegorical portrait of the Cupid of classical mythology and a naturalistic one of a street urchin from Caravaggio's own time -- rough trade with a dangerous look in his eye.

The essays are from an academic conference on changing conceptions of eroticism. It's a dense and varied selection, including stuff on Freud, Plato, and Hitchcock's movie Vertigo.

I haven't nearly finished it. But thus far I've been thrilled by the poem by Susan Mitchell that opens the volume. Also called "Erotikon," it begins with the myth of the god Cupid and the human girl Psyche, and goes just about everywhere from there. And it includes a beautiful phrasing of what's one of my own most cherished beliefs about erotic writing:
...there aren't enough tenses for all this to happen in, the past and the present fragmenting as they bop off one another...
I've never believed that sex happens all in the same tense -- no wonder it takes me so long to write the erotic encounters in my book.

The volume concludes with the novelist J.M. Coetzee's comment on Mitchell's poem:
Love and death. The gods, the immortals, were the inventors of death and corruption; yet with one or two notable exceptions they have lacked the courage to try their invention out on themselves. That is why they are so curious about us, so endlessly inquisitive. We call Psyche a silly, prying girl, but what was a god doing in her bed in the first place? In marking us down for death, the gods gave us an edge over them. Of the two, gods and mortals, it is we who live more urgently, feel the more intensely.
Oh yes, I thought. And I remembered the sculptures I saw in the British Museum, the Parthenon Marbles that Lord Elgin brought back from Greece. (As to whether I should have said "stole from Greece" -- well, that'll have to be the substance of a later post.)

In any case, I remembered the stunningly active and busy humans (on parade and on horseback), the serene seated gods on their thrones.

But was Coetzee actually historically correct about these matters?

At this point I know so little that I can't say.

Except to tell you that the Erotikon book has inspired me to begin to study classical art and literature.

And yes, there is a novel of my own implicated somewhere in this too. But mostly, right now, I'm just trying to learn all I can, for the beauty of the stuff itself, and also because classical history (as it was understood, misunderstood, appropriated, or interpreted) was so important to the European ruling elites from the French Revolution through the Regency.

The British and French thought they were entitled to truck all that sculpture back to the Louvre and the British Museum because they imagined their nations and national cultures as the heirs to the great empires of Greece and Rome. And of course there were the clothes; we all know about that yummy draped, classically-inspired white muslin (though in fact the Greek sculptures were highly colored).

But what about us today? How about, at least, our own pop culture? The big, cruel, sexy fun that's Rome, the comic book version of the Persian wars that's 300.

While as for Athens and Sparta going off in their little ships to take and retake each other's colonies -- I've got this private little theory that Thucydides' history of the Pelopponesian Wars constitutes the basis for several generations of space opera. Wherein we can identify the sophisticated Athenians, the uncouth Klingons (oops, Spartans), and -- private reference for anybody else out there who's a fan of Battlestar Gallactica -- the wild people from Thrace (as I'm told the Greek historians always called them). But all that is just my own speculation right now.

Anybody else out there fascinated by classical art and history? And wonder how it influenced other periods, including our own?

8 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

If I was not fascinated by classical history and culutre before before, I am now. The bit about the gods "lacking the courage to try death" is a persepctive I never considered. Love a mind that thinks that way.

In all honesty, I am overwhelmed but what I do not know. Though I did once write down a series of quotes from classical writings (probably from a quote-a-day calendar which shows you how intellectual I am). I had hoped to use them in a book since I know that our Regency pals were much more knowledgeable than we are.

There was the rub -- I did not think the modern reader would care. I may have to rethink that, thanks to your post.

Mary Blayney

9:08 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Quoting from Coetzee's comments: "The gods...were the inventors of death and corruption; yet...they have lacked the courage to try their invention out on themselves. ...what was a god doing in her bed in the first place? ...Of the two, gods and mortals, it is we who live more urgently, feel the more intensely."

Reading Norse or Indian mythology, it's sometimes difficult to agree with this classical view of the multi-deitist cultures. The gods had just as many foibles as the men, regularly came to earth and mated with humans, fought wars, entertained jealousies, were as a rule promiscuous, cheated, lied, and so on and so forth. I wonder if this classical view isn't more a Christian point-of-view superimposed upon Greek culture, much like that fine white cloth, instead of the reality of Greek gods being rather like Greek society was at that time, frolics and foibles included.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

It's so true that often we do not think in broad enough terms on this subject. My characters even less so. As uneducated as we might be, we know that the world does not revolve around us. In the Victorian era "God is an Englishman"

From my writer's perspective the Regency was as much an overture for the Victorian era as it was a coda for the Georgian. And the idea of the surperiority was firmly entrenched certainly by the end of the Napoleonic wars, especially among those who did not travel outside the country.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The gods had just as many foibles as the men

I think that's Coetzee's point, Keira. They had the foibles but not the guts -- big, spoiled, perfect children. And they were bored sometimes as well (like a Regency Corinthian). But yes, I'm just spritzing through my manic ignorance and the thrill of discovery.

As uneducated as we might be, we know that the world does not revolve around us. In the Victorian era "God is an Englishman"

I'll leave aside the temptation to match that one with contemporary quotes from Presidential press briefings, Mary. But I will say that there was more 19th century British opposition to Lord Elgin sawing the marbles off the Parthenon than I would have suspected. It wasn't a majority position by a long shot, but Lord Byron wasn't alone in his objections either. (A lot of what I've been learning, oddly, comes from a book called Imperial Spoils in one edition and The Elgin Marbles in another, by the cantankerous and brilliant political commentator, Christopher Hitchens.)

8:32 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Pam wrote, " But yes, I'm just spritzing through my manic ignorance and the thrill of discovery."

I'm apologize, Pam, if you felt that my position was too strong. I was merely sounding out an idea, with no basis on anything factual that I'd read or could quote.

Mary wrote, "the Regency was as much an overture for the Victorian era as it was a coda for the Georgian"

Ooh! I really like this musical analogy!!

Mary wrote, "In the Victorian era 'God is an Englishman'."
Pam wrote, "I'll leave aside the temptation to match that one with contemporary quotes from Presidential press briefings"

Too funny, you two.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Pam, many congratulations to you for finaling in the RITAs!!

4:15 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wonderful post Pam. I'm fascinated by classical history, too. I was GLUED to I Claudius on PBS back in the '70s. Hooked ever since. One of my great travel dreams is to someday visit Pompeii.

And it's so cool your husband buys you books. So does mine---and he does an amazing job of figuring out what will get me going!

Anyway, I want to echo the others---CONGRATS on the the RITA nomination. I knew that beautiful cover had to have a beautiful story inside.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I also loved I, Claudius, Kathrynn.

And thanks for the congrats re the Rita. I'm thrilled and astonished.

8:48 PM  

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