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Some while ago, back in January last year, whilst still on my Masters course, I did a module on Classical Receptions. As part of that, we were required, inevitably, to write an essay on some form of reception of the Classical world; and, as this blog demonstrates, I have a strong interest in comics. At the time, Kieron Gillen’s & Ryan Kelly’s Three was just coming to an end (issue #4 came out in January 2014), and was in very explicit and direct conversation with Frank Miller and Lynne Varley’s 300, so I decided that – since I had the opportunity to do so, I would compare the two works in one specific aspect.
The aspect I chose was perhaps not the best; the Spartan rite of passage known as the κρυπτεία (krypteia) is shrouded in mystery, even down to what it actually consisted of or who took part. However, both 300 and Three attempt to show it, and use it for dramatic purposes; and while an essay on their presentation of helotage would have been interesting, in light of the fact that 300 completely ignores it would also have been a rather unbalanced piece.
So, I’m attaching here a piece of work I handed in on January 17th, 2014 to the University of Glasgow, about the comparative presentation of the κρυπτεία in 300 and Three. It’s long, and written in academese, but I hope you enjoy anyway!
For many of us, Byzantium remains “byzantine”—obscure, marginal, difficult. Despite the efforts of some recent historians, prejudices still deform popular and scholarly understanding of the Byzantine civilization, often reducing it to a poor relation of Rome and the rest of the classical world. In this book, renowned historian Averil Cameron presents an original and personal view of the challenges and questions facing historians of Byzantium today.
The book explores five major themes, all subjects of controversy. “Absence” asks why Byzantium is routinely passed over, ignored, or relegated to a sphere of its own. “Empire” reinserts Byzantium into modern debates about empire, and discusses the nature of its system and its remarkable longevity. “Hellenism” confronts the question of the “Greekness” of Byzantium, and of the place of Byzantium in modern Greek consciousness. “The Realms of Gold” asks what lessons can be drawn from Byzantine visual art, and “The Very Model of Orthodoxy” challenges existing views of Byzantine Christianity.
Throughout, the book addresses misconceptions about Byzantium, suggests why it is so important to integrate the civilization into wider histories, and lays out why Byzantium should be central to ongoing debates about the relationships between West and East, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the ancient and medieval periods. The result is a forthright and compelling call to reconsider the place of Byzantium in Western history and imagination.
Averil Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Late Antique and Byzantine studies at Oxford, is probably the foremost authority on the late antique period in the scholarly world (possible exception: Prof. Peter Brown). In Byzantine Matters, she has worked a series of lectures into chapters illuminating some of the controversies in Byzantine studies and areas of neglect.
This isn’t a history of the Byzantine period, and indeed, historically, it is rather slight; Cameron tends to brush over the history to talk more about the historiography, and while her use of history shows a deep understanding of and engagement with it, Byzantine Matters won’t pass much of that on to the reader. Instead, she addresses in turn and in connected fashion a series of what she sees as the biggest issues facing Byzantine studies, including the neglect of Byzantium, the role of Byzantium as an empire, the originality or Greekness of Byzantine culture, the art of Byzantium, and the religion; this review will discuss each chapter in turn.
The first is, perhaps, the most fascinating. Byzantine Matters posits that in scholarly and general literature of the ancient and mediaeval worlds, Byzantium is passed over, excluded, and neglected. A glance at the bookshelves of any bookshop will back up this assertion; Byzantium is represented minimally at best, and normally with histories of specifically Constantinople. Cameron discusses both the reasons for this historically, and the problems it causes; in so doing she draws on multiple historiographical traditions and demonstrates why Byzantium fits with none of them well enough for full inclusion. Her discussion is heavily focused on Western scholarship, but one suspects it holds true for non-Western scholarship just as strongly and for many parallel reasons.
The next chapter draws much more heavily on theory, including from luminaries such as Edward Said. In discussing Byzantium as empire, Cameron also has to tackle the questions of what makes an empire, and how Byzantium related to its neighbours and vassals. Inevitably, Byzantine Matters collapses an awful lot of material into a very short discussion, but what Cameron very fruitfully achieves in this chapter is a demonstration of the way scholarship on the Byzantine empire has not advanced through the twentieth century, and must take proper account of post-colonial historiography and of new theoretical frameworks for understanding empire that historians have as tools; while not doing so herself, she points the way for others.
A similar pattern is on display in the chapter on Byzantine art and, indeed, on Orthodoxy; in each case Cameron draws out the scholarly orthodoxy, demonstrates its shortcomings, puts it to the test, and shows how modern scholarship in other disciplines (art history especially) must co-ordinate with late antique/Byzantine studies lest each fails to recognise the importance of the other. Byzantine Matters remains inevitably light on these fronts but does deal very well with the Orthodox church, discussing the shortcomings of the standard model of it as monolithic and heirarchical; and Cameron’s fruitful comparisons with the Western tradition of Christianity are fascinating.
The weakest chapter is that on Greekness. Hellenism is a key part of Byzantine cultural identity, and Byzantine Matters accepts this; however, Cameron wishes to challenge the scholarly consensus of a period of imitation, derivation, and lack of innovation. However, her approach to this is flawed; looking at Byzantine self-definition she contradicts herself, especially in the context of her later discussion of empire, and her model of discussion here is much more limited and less elucidating than in other works. Indeed, she seems drawn very much into the question of modern Greek inheritance from Byzantium, a wholly separate discussion from Byzantium as inheritor from Greece.
The whole work is both very engaged with scholarship, but also very accessibly written; Byzantine Matters requires very little knowledge of Byzantine matters, instead starting from a position of familiarity with the general outline of the post-Roman/mediaeval world and with Classical history. Cameron’s style is both engaging and fresh, startling in its clarity and simplicity; for a work grappling with some very complex issues, Byzantine Matters is stunningly readable and clear, with enough explanatory material around its meat for the casual reader to understand what is being driven at, and enough discussion of other scholarship to point where one might wish to go next.
All in all, at less than 120 pages (with another 26 pages of notes), Byzantine Matters is inevitably not a book with all the answers, but Cameron does pose the questions in a most fascinating, accessible, and, for students of late antiquity, disquieting manner.
Alex Jeffers’ A Man Not of Canaan is an interesting story for me on a number of levels. It is a queer, kinky Lovecraftian story set in the Bronze Age Aegean, among the community of Thira at the time of the eruption; as such, it ought to be something I really enjoy. Instead, it has layers and layers of problems, rather than good execution; some are problems of research, some of presentation of alternative sexuality.
The story is the discovery by our nameless narrator that the man whom he has treated as his lover and who has introduced him to what we would call BDSM is also a Lovecraftian mage going by the name Nuh. Jeffers draws directly on the traditional Lovecraft mythos with the cry of the alien monsters Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” and introduces an almost Ickeian race of humanoid crocodiles (worshipped by proto-Arabs, naturally) to build his horrific universe of uncaring beings; and he zooms out on the world to show us that the effects of human habitation are “scabs on the earth’s flesh… that would heal and slough off and leave no mark” (despite, even then, the clear effects of human habitation on the environment).
So, the problems – perhaps unsurprisingly – start with the degree to which Jeffers’ story hangs on a Gravesian model of the Aegean Bronze Age. Mother worship is likely true, and the trading cultures almost certain, but the lack of wars claimed in the story is unattested and based on an absence of evidence, not actual evidence of absence. Furthermore, the bull-dancing and the nature of social structures are drawn from equally early attempts to understand the Minoan civilisation, and feel more like the writing of treasure-hunters than of serious scholars. We’re even treated to our nameless narrator’s horror at the idea that the world is a gloe, despite attestations of that going back millenia, and despite it being a necessary part of the knowledge of a seafarer – indeed, Jeffers’ explanation of why the narrator finds it uncomfortable is exactly why seafarers knew the world was a globe: the horizon.
That’s without getting in to the ritual by which young men are kidnapped and married to older men as a rite of passage – notably, with no apparent choice in how those men are selected; A Man Not of Canaan completely refuses to problematise this and embraces it as a full-blown societal good, rather than rape; the narrator relates being
carried away at midnight from my mother’s house… made drunk on unwatered wine… made [to] swear awful oaths, and wed… to my father’s youngest, handsomest, merriest friend. And then… my first beloved carried me into the croft and on soft sheepskins fucked me very soundly, made me a man. As has always been done among my people.
That leads onto the problem with the portrayal of BDSM in the story. A central tenet of modern kink culture is Safe, Sane and Consensual – SSC. That means all parties must be in their right minds (so not drunk, drugged, etc), informed about what’s happening, must agree to the boundaries of what will happen in a scene, and it must be safe (the limits of safety are pretty flexible, though). Instead, A Man Not of Canaan presents a scene in which the narrator seems to this reader not in his right mind:
It was not clear in my mind… Frequently I was overwhelmed by dizzy blackness
This is part of a passage in which the narrator doesn’t really understand what’s happening, is going beyond what he’s done before without any discussion, and doesn’t actually appear to consent; but again, none of this is problematised, even if it is also not heavily portrayed in an erotic light. Indeed, this scene is part of a magical ritual to allow Nuh to assume another form and travel; thus BDSM becomes not sex, but a dark magical rite. The subsequent part of the story, which describes our narrator’s lovers (including prostitutes) “horrified by the practices of love that would soothe me”, only cements this imperssion of BDSM as Other, dark and strange.
Having said that, A Man Not of Canaan does have its good points. The writing style is a smoother Lovecraft, with the personality and immediacy of his works but without the stilted prose; and the level of description, especially of the horrors encountered, is brilliant, as they’re conveyed in their horrific amorphousness and mutability. The descriptions throughout are beautiful and evocative of the far-off past, even where they strike even a half-serious scholar as outdated or outright inaccurate.
A Man Not of Canaan is one of those stories where the technical achievements are so at odds with the contents it is hard to assess; but in this case, the content is so poorly researched, and so offensive, that it wins out, and this story just ends up bad, sadly.