CLASSICS IN EXTREMIS: The Edges of Classical Reception

Edited by Edmund Richardson

Bloomsbury (2018) h/b 272pp £76.50 (ISBN 97813500172690)

If the title of this volume begs the question of which ‘edges’ are being referred to, it is a deliberately tantalising provocation that is answered in a myriad of compelling ways by the contributors.  Whether it is the artists who are somehow marginalised or their works which push against the limits of creativity, each chapter considers classical reception in extremis; several also examine the complex implications of designating a work or an author as peripheral in this way. These kinds of nuanced considerations, combined with the focus on works that have been neglected, makes for a rich collection of essays. 

Ordered chronologically, the volume is ‘a manifesto for those who seek to engage the highly politicized classics of today’ (p.1). Yet in its examination of classics from the seventeenth century to the present and its geographical scope (which includes Latin America, Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe), the book is equally intent on reminding us that such political uses and abuses of classics are nothing new. The alterations that writers make as they engage with ancient texts allow us to see the role the reception of classics can play in shaping cultural memory and in facing the traumas of the past without being destroyed by them, as Lorna Hardwick argues in her chapter. Analyzing works such as Margaret Atwood’s stage version of The Penelopiad (2007), Colm Tóibín’s House of Names (2017), and Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990) and Odyssey (1993), we see how the balance of memory and forgetting is shifted, with the silenced in the ancient texts being given voice and other episodes being repressed.

Amanda Klause’s chapter explores Aphra Behn’s seventeenth-century poetic engagement with Virgil and Lucretius, arguing that Behn contested her marginalisation as a woman denied access to the classical languages by claiming translation as a particularly female domain. Focusing on another group of people who had been excluded from the appreciation of classical antiquity, Alexia Petsalis-Diomides examines the engagement with ancient vases by local communities in 19th C Greece across a broad social and ethnic spectrum. Scholars have often denigrated these communities, emphasising their destruction of ancient artefacts, but P-D counters such one-sided reports, refuting any notion that it was only elite Western collectors who preserved and safeguarded ancient vases. 

Edmund Richardson’s own chapter details the way in which the English spiritualist Daniel Dunglas Home exploited the Victorian era’s fascination with both classical antiquity and spiritualism. While Home claimed to summon ancient spirits at his séances, he also tried to marginalise his fellow mediums who alleged they could reincarnate ancient figures such as Alexander the Great before the very eyes of the audience. Jennifer Wallace’s chapter turns to a different kind of vision of antiquity: that of the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron, the reception of which went to the heart of the debate over whether this new medium was an art or a science. For Cameron, who syncretised the aesthetics of Victorian England and classical antiquity in works such as her ‘Circe’ portrait, photography was a form of storytelling which evoked a double absence, that of ancient Greece and of the model who fleetingly posed for the photo.  

Remaining in Victorian England, Jennifer Ingleheart’s chapter explores the tension between the prestige of Classics at the time and its reception in the doubly marginalised genre of homosexual pornography. Focusing on the anonymous 1881 novel, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, and the three essays with which it concludes, Ingleheart explores the work’s unusual turn to ancient Rome rather than Greece and its focus on sex rather than spiritual love, compelling us to rethink established narratives of Victorian engagements with antiquity. 

Next is Rosa Andújar’s chapter on the early 20th C Latin American intellectual, Pedro Henríquez Ureña, whose work includes the play El Nacimiento de Dionisos (The Birth of Dionysus), written in the style of the Athenian tragedian Phrynichus. Far from signifying a nostalgic yearning for a lost past, Henríquez Ureña’s manifold engagements with ancient Greece were part of a politically progressive initiative – but one which excluded all but educated, elite men. To consider him as being on the margins simply because of his geographical context is, as Andújar makes clear, to endorse a Eurocentric model and ignore his status as part of an educated, elite, male circle which excluded women and other social and ethnic groups.  

Edith Hall examines David Jones’ war epic, In Parenthesis (1937), which recounts and reflects the extremes of human experience. With its often oblique classical allusions, its resonance with mythical descents to the Underworld, and its Modernist aesthetics, it was held in high esteem by the likes of Yeats, Eliot, and Auden, but has subsequently fallen from favour. As Hall argues, this neglect is in large part because of its very extremes, which are manifested in the depth of the trauma it relates as well as in its startling aesthetics, its colloquialism, its length, and its acoustic effects. 

Henry Stead’s chapter explores miners who read and studied classical texts in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. Notwithstanding the extremity of the conditions in which they lived and worked, it would be wrong to regard these classical miners as exceptions, as Stead makes clear: some degree of classical learning was widespread in mining communities in the 19th C, often facilitated by courses run by the Workers’ Educational Association. It would equally be wrong to imagine that classical learning was prized as a way of distancing oneself from one’s roots: for miners such as Sid Chaplin, it enabled him to better represent the lives of his community.

Laura Jansen focuses on the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, whose playful reconfigurations of time and space in short stories such as ‘The Immortal’, compel us to think again about the closeness or distance between ourselves and classical antiquity. As in the chapters by Andújar and Stead, we once again find that firmly demarcated ideas of centre and periphery do not hold; Borges’ work pushes us to reject these in favour of a more cross-cultural, cross-temporal vision, which could be seen as ‘globalizing’.

The volume concludes with Maarten De Pourcq’s examination of far-right uses of Graeco-Roman antiquity by politicians in the 21st century, whose political ideology places them in extremis. Adding nuance to the familiar narrative that the appeal of classics for conservatives lies in its perceived prestige and elitism, and focusing especially on Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever’s almost ubiquitous references to ancient Rome, De Pourcq argues that it is also the more recent contestedness of classics which draws such right-wing politicians to it, in order to further their own cultural conservatism.

This is a thought-provoking, engaging volume. Its scope ensures that it will appeal to a wide range of audiences, while pushing us to think further not only about the reception of classics in contexts that have often been seen as ‘marginal’, ‘peripheral’, or in extremis, but also to see how these ‘edges’ have been altered and re-shaped by those engaging with Graeco-Roman antiquity.

Justine McConnell

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