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?