The Visions Forever Green

This is another review essay published in 1983, the year before I came to Rockford,

Arnold Toynbee: The Greeks and Their Heritages; Oxford University Press; New York.

Mary Renault: Funeral Games; Pantheon Books; New York.

by Thomas Fleming

Modern man seems haunted by the specter of Greece. Like memories of childhood, the visions of ancient Athens and Sparta hold a place in our minds, forever green.  It does not matter how we first formed the image—a translation of Homer, the illustrations in Bullfinch, the tales we had to translate in first-year Latin.  However we were struck, the Greeks inevitably become and remain one of a civilized man's most splendid private possessions.

It is a rare body of literature—for that is what "Greece" really comes down to, literature—that can inspire such variegated poets as Chapman and Pope, Jonson and Shelley.  It is small wonder, then, that so many literary and political ideologues have claimed the Greeks as their precursors and—by adoption—the champions of their causes.  The citizens of Athens have been invoked as the patrons of liberal democracy, deism, free verse, and pederasty—not the best arguments for a classical curriculum. The Greek legacy, pulled and tugged in so many directions, has begun to resemble the corpse of Sarpedon over which so many Greeks and Trojans lost their lives, and, like Sarpedon—whom his father, Zeus, kept inviolate even in death—the legacy of Greece remains untarnished by its despoilers.

Arnold Toynbee, in his posthumously published The Greeks and Their Heritages, set out to explore the impact of Greek heritage upon the Greeks themselves. In only 270 pages, he managed to survey nearly four millennia of cultural history.  Only Toynbee, even in his decline, could combine the necessary learn- ing and audacity for such an undertaking.

The Hellenic Greeks—from Homer to Plato—were not unduly burdened by the past. They revered and sometimes worshiped the heroes of the Bronze Age: Achilles, Heracles, and Odysseus, whose memories were embedded in songs and rituals. But Hellenic cultural and social institutions were influenced very little by the civilization that collapsed soon after the Trojan War (after 1200 B.C.). So decisive was the "cultural discontinuity" in this so-called Dark Age that Greeks of succeeding generations, unable even to decipher the ancient scripts, were free to build their own civilization without the interference of their ancestors:

“The Mycenaeans did not dominate the Hellenes posthumously. So far from that, the Hellenes dominated Mycenaeans retrospectively. They reshaped, to their own liking, the image of the Mycenaean world.”

Subsequent generations were, in Toynbee's opinion, not so fortunate. The achievements of Homer, Sophocles, and Demosthenes had, he suggests, a stultifying influence on Hellenistic literature by forcing upon it an artificial dialect (Attic) and antiquated literary models:

"Athens was now replaced by Alexandria as the Hellenic world's literary centre, but this transplantation was fatal to the creative power of the Hellenic Greeks' poetic genius. . . . And academic Ersatz for genuine poetic inspiration was provided by an Alexandrian scholar, Apollonius."

Toynbee apparently regarded all Hellenistic literature—apart from Theocritus— as stale and unoriginal. If anything, the reverse was true. Poets like Callimachus, who made a rare synthesis of emotion and colloquialism, accomplished a revolution more thorough (and far more successful) than the similar experiment of Pound and Eliot. If all Greek literature were represented only by Hellenistic writers like the authors included in the Greek Anthology—Polybius, Plutarch, andLucian—it would still be a force with which to reckon.

Greeks of the Byzantine period— the millennium stretching roughly from Justinian down to the fall of Constantinople in 1453—labored under a double handicap: not only was the literature "stultified" by the language and forms of Athens (dead for over a thousand years), but their political life was over- shadowed by the Roman past (they even called themselves Romans). Toynbee, it must be said, is at home with the Byzantines. It is the one period he knew really well. In his chapters on Byzantium and modern Greece, he managed to convey a sense of the textures and qualities of Greek culture, something he was unable to do for earlier periods. Even so, it is hard to agree with his harsh assessments.

It is true that Byzantine literature has few charms for the modern reader. The historians are regularly consulted and acknowledged as "significant," and the peculiar (Byzantine is the only epithet that comes to mind) charms of Michael Psellos and the Princess Anna Comnena are sometimes recognized. Still, the Greek imagination found its best expression in the liturgies and hymns of the orthodox church. A literary assessment which leaves those out (as seems inevitable in our era) is like a treatment of Southern literature that ignores political oratory. Toynbee—who judged all literature by the standard of Matthew Arnold —attributed the Byzantine failure to the persistence of koine, and even Attic Greek, as the exclusive literary language:

“There is no parallel in Greek cultural history to Western Christendom's successful effort . . . to liberate itself from the grip of the classical languages and literatures.”

Toynbee, who has often insisted that his own education was essentially Greek, displays a fine sort of gratitude to the classical languages and literatures that made him what he was. But it is part of his Victorian illusion that cultures should be progressive and conform to the European model. There is, after all, nothing very strange about the retention of an ancient language for literary and educational purposes. In the Near East, we have the example of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew; of Sanskrit in India; of Chinese in Japan; and, in medieval (and modern) Europe, of Latin. It is pointless to speculate on what might have happened if Byzantine writers had written in demotic (colloquial) Greek. Perhaps a Dante or Shakespeare would have emerged, but it is just as likely that Byzantium would have sunk into the comfortable barbarism which most of the world's peoples—then and now—have enjoyed.

Contempt for formal language and literary tradition is an unfortunate part of our Romantic heritage, as it has been refined into the gospel of progress. The trouble with giving up the past is that it subjects us to Cicero's condemnation that ignorance of the past makes us eternal children. By ourselves, in a single generation, we can do little or nothing of value. When we fail to preserve what our ancestors have handed down to us, we find ourselves refighting their wars, re- thinking their thoughts, and rediscovering their wheels. Generations that seem to accomplish the work of an eon always owe their success to a rich inherited tradition. Try to imagine Periclean Athens without Homer, Solon, and Cleisthenes, or the Renaissance without the Middle Ages.

We live, to be sure, in an age that takes pride in its liberations from the past. Our poetry and our music owe little, if anything, to tradition. Our poets have succeeded in abandoning all the trappings of rhyme, meter, structure, form, and—most recently—English syntax. Theirs is a pristine and private art, utterly individual, absolutely ignored; given another millennium of development, Charles Olson's disciples might well produce poetry equal to the best of the Earl of Surrey, but it will be an enormous task.

In the end, Toynbee's vision of classical Greece was simply progressive. To that exacting standard, no age of successors can measure up. Mary Renault's latest novel, Funeral Games, offers another sort of impossible standard by which to condemn the Hellenistic Greeks: the internationalist dreams of Alexander the Great. With this novel, Mrs. Renault completes the tribute to Alexander begun in The Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy. Like its predecessors. Funeral Games has nothing that could be called a plot. It is the story of Alexander's successors, the generals and relatives who dismembered his short-lived empire. Although the story begins with his death, this is still a novel about Alexander. His successors are haunted by the memory of their great leader, whose corpse is so significant that his generals are willing to fight for it.

There are certain periods of history so interesting that no one, not even a novelist or a historian, can make them dull: Rome in the days of Cicero and Caesar, England under the Stuarts, Japan under leyasu Tokugawa.  The Mediterranean world in the time of Alexander was not blessed with Cicero's speeches and Caesar's Commentaries: its history was preserved by such valuable writers as Arrian, Plutarch, and Quintus Curtius. To be candid, a literate reader is more likely to derive pleasure from rereading Arrian and Plutarch than from looking through Mrs. Renault's trilogy.

It is not that she does not know how to write a novel—her arrangement of material is often very clever—or that she has not mastered the sources—errors are rare indeed. The problem lies in her vision of the Greeks and her perception of their characters. After reading one of her novels, the reader is likely to feel that Alexander, Ptolemy, and Aristotle are real men, not of the 4th century B.C. but of the 20th A.D. In the novels of the trilogy, any character that conflicted with Alexander is revealed as flawed, narrow- minded, and self-serving. Alexander may have condescended to Aristotle and Demosthenes; it is not an attitude that suits a writer of best-sellers.

We do not turn to imaginative literature for academic and balanced verdicts on historical personages; we look for conviction. Shakespeare's Richards and Henrys may be worthless as historical studies, but they do embody a sort of English prejudice which is the next best thing to intuition. There is more to Johnson than Boswell's life, more to Scott than his son-in-law could comprehend, but Johnson and Scott live for us today principally as their biographers' creations. None of Renault's characters carry the conviction either of the dramatist or of the biographer. Her generals are thoroughly modern men, corporate schemers whose lives have been spoiled by their parents.

It may be unfair to blame a novelist for sharing the vices of an age. The trend of modern fiction requires a novelist to render all the tics and quirks of a character. Publishers hand out checklists of 37 character traits (I have seen one) that a writer needs to establish for each character. Even more enervating is the compulsion to "analyze" characters by establishing probable motives and causes in the character's psychohistory. Alexander is scarred—most improbably for a Greek or a Macedonian—by the sight of his naked father, whom he grows to hate. Ambitious sons do not usually need Dr. Freud to tell them that they envy their father's power. All these quirks and motives succeed only in diminishing Alexander's stature. Plutarch, one of the greatest gossips of ancient literature, recognized that "a trifling incident" can "show more of his character than the battles where he slays thousands"; nonetheless, he knew the value of selection, and he concentrated, "as portrait painters concentrate on the eyes and face," on things that "express the soul." In Mary Renault's treatment, Alexander emerges as genuinely heroic only after his death makes further description and analysis impossible.

It is hard to imagine a successful novel about Alexander. The great historical novels—Scott's Waverly, Thackeray's Henry Esmond and Barry Lyndon—conspicuously avoid great men as central characters. It is interesting to compare Thackeray's failure to bring off George Washington in The Virginians, where he is a major character, with his success in catching something of Samuel Johnson in Barry Lyndon's recollections:

“He drank tea twice or thrice at my house, misbehaving himself most grossly; treating my opinions with no more respect than those of a school- boy; and telling me to mind my horses and tailors and nor trouble myself about letters."

It is a cliche of criticism that Homer displayed his genius nowhere so much as in his portrait of Helen. Since no one could describe her divine beauty, he let the whole Trojan War stand as her memorial.

Still, there is something to be said for Mrs. Renault: she sells. Her career, based on one gimmick and a modest talent, is a  real tribute to the power which the Greeks still have over our imaginative life. Think of it: Chapman's and Pope's Homer, Byron's stanzas on the Isles of Greece, the novels ofMary Renault.  Each generation makes its judgment on the Greeks, and—in the declension from Pope to Renault—what a judgment the Greeks have made on us.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. John Isham says:

    Very interesting–thank you! And this hits home for me in a funny way: in the Fall of ’82 (when I was a sophomore in high school) I rather arbitrarily selected a book by Mary Renault (*The King Must Die*) for a book review. Even at that age I was able to detect that “something was up” with the book–no appearances by the gods or any other supernatural occurences. Precisely her point! The book was both interesting and challenging for me at the time–because in accord with her purposes it frustrated ones expectations. All in all, it seems she was kind of doing the “Historical Jesus” thing to the ancient Greek figures and “demythologizing the myths.” I then went on to read the book’s sequel (*The Bull from the Sea*), of which I can remember the encounter Theseus has with the blinded and wandering Oedipus.

    I had been actually planning on revisiting her works a bit–just because they are fun in their own way–and it would be interesting to see her pull this sort of number on other figures and periods from antiquity.

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    It’s interesting how Toynbee’s treatment of Byzantine literature echoes among later researchers, especially among podcasters doing amateur research on Byzantium.

    Much of what is said here about Mrs. Renault may well be applied to Gibbon and his Decline and Fall, at least as far as trying to judge the Byantines by modern ideas is concerned. I remember some brief discussion about it with commenters several years ago on another website with which you used to be associated. I have had the complete set for years but have yet to read it, because I like the Byzantines too much to tolerate the idea that the entire thousand year history of East Rome was a long decline. Anyway, there is so much there in the corpus of Byzantine literature that the West is missing out by not adding at least some of it to it’s own literary canon. Speaking of liturgies and hymns, is not the Book of Common Prayer a great work of English literature? But of course, people who choose to forget Cranmer are sure to overlook Chrysostomos.