Bald Men Fighting Over a Comb: Arguments About the Classical Tradition

Bald Men Fighting Over a Comb: Arguments About the Classical Tradition

Sandra Kotta
Sandra Kotta
18 min read

Part II: A review of The Lesbian Lyre: Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century by Jeffrey Duban. Clairview Books (30th June 2016).

The classical tradition in literature is essentially dead. The English poet Alice Oswald may be the only prominent contemporary writer who has read deeply in Latin and Greek poetry. A few other poets (Ruth Padel, Anne Carson, Alice Stallings) have made names for themselves as classicist-poets; though their contributions to literature and scholarship have been uninspiring; their work is more often praised than read. Most of the praise comes only from Classics teachers, or others easily impressed by a thin veneer of learning. It is impossible to name a novelist, short-story writer or playwright active today who engages seriously with classical history, myth or literary form.

Jeffrey Duban tries valiantly to revive the tradition in his ambitious, pugnacious, eccentric, sprawling new book The Lesbian Lyre: Reclaiming Sappho for the Twenty-First Century. This is not all Duban tries to do: he also provides a learned introduction to ancient Greek lyric poetry, offers translations of his favourite love poems, surveys Latin and Greek literature more generally, explains the formal aspects of classical verse, discusses translation, surveys and criticises various translations, and explains how literature, art, Classics and everything else went wrong after World War One, with the advent of Modernism, and the inexplicable rise of the half-educated poet, critic and charlatan Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who is ultimately to blame for the decay in modern poetry, and the death of the classical tradition.

Duban has a great deal to say; much of it is immensely valuable. A former classicist, he trained at Brown University and Johns Hopkins, taught briefly in universities, then ended up as an attorney specialising in academic law. Having abandoned academia around the time of the “AJP Today” controversy, he knows the profession well, and understands how teaching and scholarship have changed over the past quarter-century. The Lesbian Lyre appears old-fashioned not because Duban is a reactionary, but only because literary criticism and classical scholarship have turned so sharply leftwards that even a moderately liberal intellectual stance seems a quaint novelty.

John Dryden (1631-1700), Playwright, Poet Laureate and Critic, by Godfrey Kneller

The Lesbian Lyre takes the English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) as its starting point. Dryden, England’s first Poet Laureate, worked tirelessly as a professional writer, turning out popular plays and learned translations of classical authors as well as commissioned poems, complex religious allegories and vigorously brilliant satires. The prefaces and introductory letters to his works are as important in the development of English prose style as of modern literary criticism. Not only is Dryden the most competent poet ever to turn Latin verse into English heroic couplets; he is also a thoughtful and intelligent analyst of how translation works. Dryden’s translations of Vergil and Juvenal set the standard for poets who want to produce an authentically ‘English’ version of an ancient poem, and capture the form, style and effect of the original, whilst faithfully reproducing its contents.

Poet-translators no longer need to aspire to Dryden’s erudition or sheer technical skill. Jeffrey Duban seems to have been provoked into writing The Lesbian Lyre because of the recent proliferation of bad ‘poetic’ versions of verses by Sappho of Lesbos (ca. 630-570 BC), where the translators have little or no ability to read ancient Greek, no ability to organise words into recognisable poetic form, and no knowledge of or respect for English literature. Many of these translators claim special insight into Sappho’s surviving verses by virtue of being women, even where they cannot read Sappho’s own words. Such politicised hocus-pocus goes unchallenged by classicists, who either agree with it or decline to express their dissent.

Since the displacement of Classics by English Literature (which is itself in current danger of being replaced by Creative Writing), classicists have lacked the authority and confidence to criticise contemporary literature. They have had no measurable influence on major literary trends at least since the advent of Modernism after World War One.

Traditional artistic conventions were radically disrupted by Modernists, not least in poetry, where formal restraints, including rhyme, regular rhythm and predictable, repeating line lengths, were made to seem obsolete. Verse had originally developed as a mnemonic technology, meant to record and transmit selected materials in an attractive, easily-remembered, repeatable form. This was before the advent of prose, written lists, or writing itself. In Duban’s view, poetry not meant to be committed to memory is not merely unattractive; it is pointless.

Ezra Pound was instrumental in promoting poetry which was ‘unencumbered’ by verse. He not only helped wreck English poetry: he also made it respectable for poets to produce ‘experimental’ translations of original works which they could not in truth understand. If there was any value in the results they achieved, it was because of some mystical ‘poetic insight’ which could not be defined or identified, but which they knew they possessed. How they knew they had such a thing was never discussed; the question would be dismissed as philistine.

Pound’s Homage To Sextus Propertius (composed 1917; published 1919 and 1921) ought to have exposed him as a dishonest and incompetent translator. Sextus Propertius (ca. 50/45-15 BC) composed four books of elegies, which veer between delicate allusiveness and violent expressions of emotion. These are difficult to translate because for all his wild variations in tone Propertius never loses control of his style. His originals make Pound’s versions look childish, particularly where Pound uses ‘deliberate’ errors to try to cover up his failure to understand the original text. For all his boasting, Pound did not know Latin very well, as Homage To Sextus Propertius reveals. These translations are a mess.

The saving grace of Ezra Pound was that he was as much of a genius as he thought he was, at least until he began to go mad in his forties. His gift with words and images is undeniable, and even his most self-indulgently unintelligible work features arresting phrases. But his is clearly a bad example, because very few writers have the talent to succeed, as Pound did, with minimal skill and judgment. Jeffrey Duban is right to blame him for helping to kill off Dryden’s tradition of translations that were meant to be equally impressive as both learned interpretations and independent works of art.

Sappho has been hailed since antiquity as one of the very finest Greek lyric poets. Sadly, most of her work is known only second-hand: very little has survived, and most of what we have exists in short fragments. The scraps that can be read today justify her reputation. But to Radical-feminist academics Sappho’s poetic gifts matter much less than the fact that she was a woman poet who was known to be attracted to other women. Not much is certain about her poetry, let alone the details of her life; the absence of material has left her work particularly vulnerable to politicised interpretation, and in many instances outright fabrication, as scholars have tried to reconstruct her work to suit their own agendas, ideological or otherwise.

The Lesbian Lyre is meant as an introduction, not only to Sappho, but to Greek lyric poetry, if not Classics itself. In addition to providing a great deal of technical and historical data, Duban also supplies an anthology of verse translations, of poems by some of Sappho’s contemporaries, alongside some relatively substantial samples of Sappho’s own work.

Several poems are represented by multiple translations, particularly where Duban thinks his own versions fail to capture specific qualities of the original. He also includes work by translators whose work is unlikely to be equalled. One of these turns out to be Professor Lefkowitz, whose 1982 prose paraphrase of the Spartan poet Alcman’s enigmatic “Partheneion”, which has baffled scholars ever since its discovery, is surpassed only by Gloria Ferrari’s bold 2008 line-by-line version of the same poem.

The outstanding translation of Sappho into English verse is a free adaptation by the poet-philologist AE Housman (1859-1936), which captures the tone and music of the original Greek in a recognisable English idiom:

The weeping Pleiads wester,
And the moon is under seas;
From bourn to bourn of midnight
Far sighs the rainy breeze:

It sighs from a lost country
To a land I have not known;
The weeping Pleiads wester,
And I lie down alone.

If only more of the translations in The Lesbian Lyre were of this quality.

Jeffrey Duban has sound judgment, and any number of shrewd, wise opinions. But he lacks finesse as a translator of Greek verse. His instinct is surely correct that Sappho and other ancient lyric poets must be translated into regular verse, if only to have a chance of reproducing the original poem’s effect. Alas, Duban’s verse is obviously that of an inexperienced amateur.

Evidently Duban has a weakness for light verse: one of the first quotations in The Lesbian Lyre comes from the Broadway musical Kismet (1953). He is also fond of the once-famous musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962). As far as English verse is concerned, he clearly loves the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859-79), which was adapted from Persian by Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883). There is no denying the talent and ingenuity of FitzGerald, or the lyricists who contributed to “The Great American Songbook”; but this sort of middlebrow popular culture has little in common with the poetry of Sappho or her contemporaries. Could Duban think of no stronger parallels in English literature?

Duban loves Sappho more than any other Greek poet, and has been fascinated by archaic love poetry for decades. But he seems embarrassed into awkwardness by strong or delicate emotion. Had he written a book about ancient Greek soldier-poets he might have been more in his element: he would make an excellent translator of military elegies, where his plainspoken, forthright diction would match the original perfectly; he also has affinities with the statesman-philosopher Solon (ca. 638-558 BC), who has not yet found a worthy translator into English.

On the other hand, Duban does not necessarily enjoy the sort of verse that he would be best at translating. He dismisses the work of Hipponax (6th century BC) as coarse, crass and vulgar, which indeed it often is. Yet Hipponax is the author of at least one fragment of invective (often attributed instead to Archilochus) to which no poet has ever done justice, except in the eyes of those who favour Guy Davenport’s ‘free’ version from 1963. Richmond Lattimore’s 1954 translation accurately gives the sense, whilst missing the style and force of the poet’s cold fury:

[ …]
slammed by the surf on the beach
naked at Salmydessos, where the screw-haired men
of Thrace, taking him in
will entertain him (he will have much to undergo
chewing on slavery’s bread)
stiffened with cold, and loops of seaweed from the slime
tangling his body about,
teeth chattering as he lies in abject helplessness
flat on his face like a dog
beside the beach-break where the waves come shattering in.
And let me be there to watch;
for he did me wrong and set his heel on our good faith,
he who had once been my friend.

The original fragment would translate nicely into blank verse, if not heroic couplets. But perhaps Duban has no taste for this.

His translations of Archilochus of Paros (680-645 BC) are a particular disappointment. Archilochus’s fragments are sharp and direct; Duban’s attempts to render them into English seem strangely fey and coy. Archilochus’s longest fragment, known as the “Cologne Epode”, ends with a sudden sex scene, which shocks even a jaded modern reader because the tone shifts so abruptly. Duban needlessly kills the shock with prudish-sounding mock-Victorian circumlocution, when he should have translated the graphic final images of this poem into simple language.

In places The Lesbian Lyre lacks balance and order. This book needed an editor to cut out all the rambling, ranting and repetition: it could stand to lose about a third of its weight. Even with these flaws and weaknesses, The Lesbian Lyre should be applauded. Beginning classicists and interested amateurs can learn a great deal from it, and take confidence in Duban’s learning and judgment. The first twenty chapters are often magnificent, and provide an admirably thorough, sensible introduction to Greek poetry. This study ought to enjoy a wide readership; likely it will not. Not only is it too ‘old-fashioned’ to attract scholarly interest; it has made Duban some new enemies.

The only major review of The Lesbian Lyre so far has been Professor Edith Hall’s; it appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (4th January 2017) under the title “Sublime to the ridiculous”. Professor Hall describes this book as “an embittered assault on almost every development in literature since the late nineteenth century, and an atavistic plea for the reinstatement of an exclusionary approach to poetry”.

Professor Hall fails to substantiate her claims, or even examine the book very closely; instead she accuses Duban of using aesthetics as “camouflage for the savagely ironic iteration of ideological doctrines”. She further charges him with unfairness to non-classicists, and insinuates that he misunderstands both Radical feminists and Marxists or is simply paranoid about them. The remainder of Professor Hall’s review is an anguished lament for the lack of any coherent, even moderately effective aesthetic philosophy on the Radical Left. The reviewer ends up discussing Marx and his followers with far more depth than she does ancient Greek poetry, or the book under review.

Professor Hall has attacked Jeffrey Duban on her personal blog (“Can the Left Appreciate Literature? A Reply to the Alt-Right of Classics”, The Edithorial 5th January 2017), calling him “an embittered person who left an apparently unsuccessful academic career for the law”. She adds further:

The most painful aspect of the book is its (almost) unbelievably reactionary position on literature in general and ancient Greek poetry in particular. Duban is convinced that The Classics belong to a favoured few Very Intelligent People Like Himself and that nobody else has any right to study, translate or pollute them by any form of contact whatsoever. He particularly singles out for vilification ‘modern’ Greeks, ‘triumphalist feminists’, adult learners and ‘amateur’ classicists without expensive private educations.

Professor Hall deliberately misrepresents Duban here as a snobbish, entitled bigot, and distorts his views to suit a dishonest caricature. Duban himself happens to be an amateur classicist without an expensive private education. In fact his background turns out to be rather humbler than Professor Hall’s, despite the impression she seeks to create. To associate him with the ‘Alt-Right’ movement is an outrageous smear: Duban’s political views are self-evidently moderate. He is not an ethnic nationalist, economic populist or neo-reactionary; he simply disagrees with Professor Hall about certain issues.

It may be relevant that the author whom the reviewer scorns as a mere angry failed academic has devoted his legal career to defending scholars who have been involved in disputes not unlike the one that caused Professor Hall to leave Royal Holloway, University of London in 2011. Otherwise it is difficult to explain why Professor Hall subjects Duban and his work to such a vitriolic outburst. Yet Progressive and Radical classicists seem to feel their position increasingly threatened, to judge by their recent public statements. This is peculiar, given how they dominate their profession.

All the most influential classicists today are Progressive, feminist women: Professor Mary Beard and Professor Hall in the United Kingdom; Professor Martha Nussbaum, Professor Froma Zeitlin and Professor Joy Connolly in America. It would be difficult to name any men or conservatives in Classics of even comparable stature, unless the politician Boris Johnson counts. He emphasises his classical education precisely because it seems so charmingly obsolete.

This year, the AE Housman Memorial Lecture at University College London was given by the Postmodern gender theorist Judith Butler. Professor Butler may not know Greek or Latin very well; but she is far more prominent than any classical philologist could hope to be. The Classics Department at UCL has forgotten that Housman, whom this lecture is supposed to honour, was one of the foremost philologists England ever produced. Apparently not even classicists have much use for Classics now. They think the discipline is too badly tainted by its own history.

Judith Butler, pioneer of Queer Theory, gave the 2017 AE Housman Memorial Lecture at University College London

Donna Zuckerberg is a scholar of Greek drama. She does not currently hold an academic post; though she remains active in the Society for Classical Studies, and edits Eidolon, an online Classics journal associated with the Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study, which was founded in 2010 to help promote Latin as a spoken language. Although Eidolon only began in 2015, it is already the most widely-read specialist Classics journal in the world. Ambitious young scholars want to write for it, because they know it has some influence in the academic world: Dr Zuckerberg is the sister of Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook.

One of Eidolon’s more frequent contributors outlined the journal’s aims in a recent post (Johanna Hanink, “It’s Time to Embrace Critical Classical Reception”, 1st May):

  1. an “open activist agenda”;
  2. encouragement of a “strong personal voice” which “engages in storytelling” and avoids the “pretended objectivity” of traditional, neutral-seeming third-person exposition;
  3. acknowledgement that “that Greek and Roman antiquity have played a major role in constructing and authorizing racism, colonialism, nationalism, patriarchy, Western-centrism, body normativity, and other entrenched, violent societal structures.”

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Dr Zuckerberg posted the most widely-read Eidolon essay to date, “How to Be A Good Classicist Under A Bad Emperor” (21st November 2016). The piece begins with an apparently ironic paraphrase of the opening of the Communist Manifesto. The “Alt-Right” are described here as a community of several hundred thousand politicised internet users, who may broadly be labelled as ‘misogynists’ or “men’s rights activists”. Dr Zuckerberg describes them in further detail:

They are younger than the typical conservative establishment, white, and male. They are anti-Semitic, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic. Some are self-described Neo-Nazis. They also love the Classics.

Dr Zuckerberg warns her readers:

Classics, supported by the worst men on the Internet, could experience a renaissance and be propelled to a position of ultimate prestige within the humanities during the Trump administration, as it was in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Classics made great again…. These men are positioning themselves as the defenders of Western Civilization. Classicists, when you see this rhetoric, fight back. We must not allow the Alt-Right to define what Classics will mean in Trump’s America.

From here Dr Zuckerberg attempts to sketch the outlines of the group wishing to steal Classics: it includes White House Chief Strategist and former Executive Chairman of Breitbart News Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News celebrity Milo Yiannopoulos, an erudite anti-feminist blogger who calls himself ‘Quintus Curtius’, a controversial ‘pickup artist’ known as Roosh V (né Daryush Valizadeh), and anybody who agrees with these or vaguely similar figures.

Dr Zuckerberg provides suggestions for resisting white supremacists, neo-Nazis, misogynists and the “Alt-Right” in general. One involves challenging anybody who claims to study Classics because it is “the foundation of Western civilisation and culture”, because the terms ‘foundation’, ‘Western’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ are all ‘problematic’, and in Dr Zuckerberg’s eyes may lead directly to white-supremacist views. Another suggestion:

In your scholarship, focus on the parts of antiquity that aren’t elite white men. Read and cite the work of scholars who write about race, gender, and class in the ancient world. Be open about the marginalisation and bias that exists within our discipline.

Most of these guidelines amount to old-fashioned Progressive activism, because “Classics has a long history of regressive politics, and if we are serious about social justice and activism, we must speak out.”

Dr Zuckerberg fails to make a convincing case for a credible threat to Classics from the Alt-Right, neo-Nazis or anyone else. Breitbart News does not focus on ancient culture at all; neither Milo Yiannopoulos nor ‘Roosh V’ has a classical education, training in Latin or Greek, or any obvious interest in the ancient world beyond a few anti-Radical platitudes about preserving Western civilisation; Steve Bannon is said to be deeply devoted to the Catholic Church, but has no demonstrable interest in Classics either.

As for ‘Quintus Curtius’: he has around three hundred subscribers on YouTube; most of his videos have been watched fewer than a hundred times. This is a figure to be pitied, not feared: he has no influence, on Classics, the ‘Alt-Right’ or anything else. Luckily for him there are more A-level students in Latin in the UK than there are Eidolon readers worldwide. The influence of Dr Zuckerberg’s essay, and indeed of Eidolon itself, remains almost as modest as that of Quintus Curtius’s blog. A wide circulation among professional classicists does not mean a wide circulation in the real world.

Perhaps Progressive and Radical control over Classics is less complete than it might seem from a purely academic point of view. After all, most classical educations do not lead to careers spent teaching Latin and Greek; Jeffrey Duban is not the only man in the world who reads and thinks about ancient literature in his spare time without making a living in a universities. Certainly the most influential single engagement with the classical tradition over the past year turns out to be a blog piece by an amateur historian who wrote under a pseudonym to avoid offending his employers.

Early in 2016 someone calling himself ‘Publius Decius Mus’ began writing essays for an obscure website called The Journal of American Greatness. The site was created by anonymous conservative intellectuals who supported Donald Trump’s attempt to become the next President of the United States but were afraid or embarrassed to admit this in public. They sought to develop the intellectual case for ‘Trumpism’, which they defined as:

[S]ecure borders, economic nationalism, interests-based foreign policy, and above all judging every government action through a single lens: does this help or harm Americans?

On 5th September 2016, the Claremont Review of Books published a learned, stylish, inflammatory opinion piece by ‘Publius Decius Mus’ called “The Flight 93 Election”. It was instantly notorious; much of it was even read out on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, which reaches over thirteen million listeners a week across America.

‘Publius Decius Mus’ compared the upcoming election to the story of United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked on 11th September 2001 by Al-Qaeda terrorists who would have flown the plane into the White House had the passengers and crew not decided to storm the cockpit. The plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. At least the White House was saved. “The Flight 93 Election” began:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

Conservatism, the author said, was “headed off a cliff”. The conservative establishment had done nothing to protect or defend conservative principles. Instead they had given in to Leftists on virtually every major cultural political issue.

Hillary Clinton’s presidency would not only mean the triumph of a Progressive-leftist political agenda; ‘Publius Decius Mus’ thought it would be—

[C]oupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most ‘advanced’ Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England.

He argued that conservatives had been “losing consistently since 1988”. Universities, the media and “opinion-making elements” in society were “overwhelmingly partisan and biased”, “wholly corrupt and wholly opposed to everything we want, and increasingly even to our existence”. Meanwhile, the conservative establishment had “bent over backward to play by the self-sabotaging rules the Left sets for them”, censoring and checking themselves instead of asserting confident, principled stances. ‘Publius Decius Mus’ saw their orthodox views on culture and society as insanely, nihilistically self-destructive: “this is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilisation that wants to die.”

The original Publius Decius Mus was a Roman general who died in battle in 340 BC. His death was an act of ritualised self-sacrifice; by offering his life to the gods he hoped to ensure victory for his men. He did; his troops took heart and rallied, the enemy was crushed, and Publius Decius Mus was celebrated as a hero of the Roman republic.

The Death oF Decius Mus, Peter Paul Rubens (1616/1617)

The modern American ‘Publius Decius Mus’ was recently revealed to be Michael Anton, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush’s National Security Council. He worked for the financial-services firm BlackRock before being hired in 2017 by the Trump Administration’s National Security Council.

Anton’s pseudonym was singularly ill-chosen: however brave his covert support for Donald Trump may have seemed in 2016, it involved no self-sacrifice in the end. In fact, Anton’s career and reputation have only blossomed as a result, particularly after he was exposed as the real ‘Publius Decius Mus’.

Whatever else one might say about Michael Anton, he has undeniably learnt from the classical tradition, and put this knowledge to effective use. Yet there is nothing pretentious about his classicism: he wears his learning lightly. He writes forceful, entertaining prose, and has the skill of putting even the most objectionable or unpalatable ideas in persuasive, attractive form. His work is copiously illustrated with examples from classical history and references to the ancient philosophers; but selects these with great taste and wit, so that his readers can learn from them. He has no equal in his command of Roman-style rhetoric, certainly among professors who claim to be experts in Roman rhetoric.

Anton’s style matches his substance: his views on issues such as mass immigration seem reactionary not only to Radicals, Progressives and liberals, but to many conservatives as well, including ‘establishment Republicans’. Still, his magical eloquence makes them sound convincing, and even reasonable. Who could argue against such a powerful writer?

Classicists have not sought to respond to Anton’s ‘Publius Decius Mus’ essays so far. They may not be aware of them. More likely they simply lack the equipment to engage with his ideas. A great number do not even know who the original ‘Publius Decius Mus’ was. Classics postgraduates at most universities are trained in sophisticated-looking techniques for historical analysis and literary criticism, rather than history and literature. They cannot talk about their subject to anybody who is not a colleague, or does not share their specialised point of view. Whilst they may be ‘politicised’ today to an unprecedented degree, they are useless at politics. There might not be any academic classicists left who can answer Michael Anton’s essays point by point, or refute him in a way that convinces anyone.

The Progressive and Radical-left takeover of Classics, at least in universities, has been successful. All opposition has been neutralised or removed. But victory has come at a terrible cost. The discipline is more unpopular than ever, and attracts minimal public interest; classical influence in culture remains negligible, even in the most rarefied fine arts. Bright, capable, ambitious students rarely see themselves as potential classicists, particularly when they what the current ones are like. No wonder Latin and Greek are so marginal, when professional classicists cannot defend what they study, and are ashamed of Classics itself.

One can only hope that Dr Zuckerberg is at least partially correct about a revival of interest in Classics among those who reject Progressive politics and Radical ideologies. Because if the classical tradition remains exclusively in the hands of Eidolon readers then it is doomed.

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Sandra Kotta

Sandra Kotta works at an American university.