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15 June 2007

Shards and Fragments: Still Hooked on Classics

The hero of the book I'm writing these days is a Regency-era classicist/antiquarian scholar -- middle-aged, bespectacled, but (need I add?) way brainy-sexy. Which is a terrific excuse for me to learn something about classical history and literature (about which I knew zilch), and also to try to understand what the classics meant for the cultural life of Regency Britain. All of which I've been finding so fascinating -- beginning, of course, with the Greek invention of eros -- that I know my interest will outlast the book.

It's all still bits and pieces right now, so I guess that this will be a ragbag of a post, more a progress report or a set of field notes than a finished thing. But what's also sort of a happy surprise is that since I first posted about classics (sort of as an oddball serendipitous pursuit of mine) I've begun to feel less alone in my interest.

There are the newspaper and magazine articles, for example, about the newly re-opened and greatly expanded classical wing at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. I hope to visit the collection this summer. Though it's so huge, I'm expecting vertigo and "art sickness."

Then there was the flap of interest in the movie 300 -- and of course the TV series Rome. And most lately there's Cullen Murphy's book, Are We Rome? I haven't read it, so I don't know the answer, but I do find it a relevent question to ask (and in the book I'm writing, I try to address how Regency-era Britons might have thought about that question).

And along with articles about the Met, there have been opinion pieces about whether ancient art pieces should be returned to their country of origins -- which was also an issue in Regency England. Predictably, it was Lord Byron who spoke out most loudly and most insultingly against what he considered art theft (particularly in the case of Lord Elgin, who brought the Parthenon marbles to Britain and sold them to the British Museum). But Byron was hardly alone and there's a lot to be said for his position; I hope to write about it in a future post.

I like to say that my work in progress is about eros, esthetics, and empire. I enjoy allowing my hero to get his hands dirty as we like our romance heroes to do, and also get a nice sexy un-Regency suntan digging up antiquities.

But by far the most important thing I'm learning is about classical Greek eros as the root of our own views of sexuality and desire -- most particuarly from an extraordinary book called Eros: The Bittersweet, by the poet and classical scholar, Anne Carson.

Carson makes the startling and rather totalizing claim that the whole notion of eros is deeply implicated in the beginnings of lyric poetry and the beginning of written (as opposed to oral) literature, particularly in the work of Sappho. I haven't finished the book; I'm taking it slowly and trying to be skeptical, though in truth I'm ravished by her argument (I guess I'm prone to vertigo and "art sickness" wherever I find it). But I did blog about it a little this week, at the Spiced Tea Party, in a post called "Applesauce." And as I said there, I found Carson especially thrilling and reassuring for helping me understand further my contention that desire inheres not only in the meanings of a piece of erotic writing but in its syntax, and that eroticism isn't only a matter of ends but of means.

And finally, in this mix of bits and pieces -- did all the rest of you know that in the first century AD the Greeks created the romance?

I had no idea. But I'm not kidding. There are only five of them extant, but they were written in prose (which otherwise was only used for non-fiction), they were called romances, and were wildly popular in their time, going through many papyrus editions. Perhaps the most famous was Daphnis and Chloe, by Longus (that's it in a 17th century edition) but it sounds like there's a certain similarity to the plots of all five of them of them: a beautiful young couple fall in love, are separated, meet many mishaps, almost always including being kidnapped, sold into slavery, captured by pirates -- until they're happily reunited on the very last page.

And do I need to mention that these Greek romances have always been dissed and/or ignored by the critics as well? (though not, interestingly, by Anne Carson)

9 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Ooooooo I had no idea about the Greek romances. I've big on the classics though (it's that darn philosophy degree, and my adoration for Plato; I can reread The Cave endlessly). ROME was such an amazing series. Anti-hero after anti-hero, and you loved them all.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

I didn't know about the Greek romances either. (I've heard of 'Daphnis & Chloe', but I had no idea it was written that long again). I got fascinated with the Julio-Claudian empoerors after watching and then reading "I, Claudius" and went on to read Suetonius and some other Roman historians. Later I took a year of Latin in college and we got to do some translations of speeches by people like Seneca, which was fun and definitely helped make the language come to life. I wish I knew more, especially since the classical world was so important, as you say, to Regency-era culture.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I didn't know about the Greeks and romance either. My knowledge is strictly Greek classical theater. Being an acting major in college, we had to read a great deal of Greek and Roman plays. I too read I Claudius after seeing the miniseries, and I have both series of Rome in my Netflix queue.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I keep picturing my friend Jess, who last week as we were having lunch made a comment about a newspaper story that had reminded her of "that Greek playwright with the unpronounceable name. The one who was killed by an eagle dropping a tortoise on his head."

Having no idea bout the eagle/tortoise thing I jumped in with, "You mean Aristophanes?" LOL! I still can’t find anything about his being killed by an eagle, but I love it when my liberal arts education is actually useful (or when it’s just funny, like today when I was reading off my booking # for an upcoming flight and I said “X as in Xanadu” and there was a sudden silence and then the operator said, “Well, that’s a new one, most people say X-ray.” :::blush:::).

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Pam,

I hesitated to post this, but thought you might find it interesting since you talked about the ancient Greek's view of love.

A homily actually inspired me to look up on the vatican's Web site Pope Benedict's first encyclical. The beginning is all about how the Greeks had three words for love, and he spent a long time analyzing the meaning of one or two of those words for love - and no, neither was eros if I remember correctly. But, I thought you might find it interesting.

-Michelle

12:26 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

The encyclical's here for those who want to read it.

the Greeks had three words for love

Are you thinking of agape and philia?

10:28 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the link, Laura -- you romance scholars are wonderful.

So I followed the link, and found that the Pope described eros as that love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.

Which between man and woman stipulation would leave out Sappho and Plato, wouldn't it?

I do think there's more to say about eros than the Pope is giving us. Do read Carson, those of you who are interested.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And thanks for the reference in the first place, Michelle.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

Which between man and woman stipulation would leave out Sappho and Plato, wouldn't it?

Ah, the love that dare not speak its name, or, in this case, the eros he does not dare to name.

1:35 PM  

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