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Archive for June 6th, 2020


Mary Beard

The truth is that ‘peeling away the encrusted myth’ of Cleopatra reveals there is very little underneath the ancient fictional surface, and certainly nothing that can be the stuff of a plausible life story — unless it is padded out with half-relevant background … the best we have is a possible ‘signature’ on a document authorising tax concessions and the report that in her final days she muttered again and again ‘I shall not be led in triumph — Mary Beard, “Cleopatra, The Myth,” Confronting the Classics

I don’t remember when I first heard the name, Mary Beard, nor how I came to acquire and read her Confronting the Classics (a short review), but since then I’ve followed her, nowadays on twitter, as well as off. I remember how I was bored silly by the to me inane Epic of Gilgamesh, and couldn’t understand how anyone could substitute this as an assignment in college as from the ancient world instead of Virgil’s profound, beautiful, intelligent Aeneid. And then I read Beard’s defense of Roman or Latin literature not as opposed to but as texts as interesting as these originally Greek ones. Beard was, is, also continually a fresh thinking original feminist. She is still the only writer I read, to talk about women in the ancient world in ways that make them living relevant presences.

Then years later, since my younger daughter, was a lover of Latin, minoring in it in college, and is a reader, I was actually anxious that she should want to read and enjoy Beard’s SPQR.  When I bought it for her for Christmas, was so relieved when I’d see her reading it — with avid interest. Tonight I was reading Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison, and am not surprised to find that she is writing about this woman and her peer, Eugenie Sellers, in ways no one hardly ever writes about admired people: telling the inward petty and crucially important personal politics that shaped their careers. It takes hard research to get to that sort of information. Were they and most of the people she is writing about not dead, Beard would now have as many enemies as the maligned journalist, Julian Assange, for this is how he began.


Don’t be satisfied with the tale of Harrison in Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, for, good as Wade’s book is, she falls for the myth of Harrison as exposed by Beard; there is even more to Harrison’s achievement than is recorded by Wade

Then recently I opened up her Women and Power, two essays. The first is about how the public voice of women is treated: their sound is too high-pitched, so shrill, and not acceptable, their content emotional and when obviously knowledgeable school-mistress-y. She offers example after example of men silencing women, and several were close to my own experience. One happened the other day on Trollope&Peers! a male bully who hardly ever posts, suddenly got on to excoriate me for writing about Australia: how dare you? you are not Australia and show what an ignorant moron you are. No compunction whatsoever. She had the effect of validating my sense of this insult and revealed the pattern beneath it —

There are so many reviews of her books, that while I have needed her, I decided she does not need me or another blog or review to tell people what you are missing out on – for she is witty, idiosyncratic in her choices, personal, and I’m ever learning new information about another place, another figure, another work, or some unexpected insight. I also thought to do justice to her would take a book. All I could do is cite the books and urge you not to miss any. But about a year ago I started to feel compelled to write something when I came across an excoriating attack on one of her TV entertaining documentaries. Women as well as men castigating her for exposing the fallacy that when we look at naked bodies of women in art, we react to them viscerally as bodies, even when they are ever so tastefully done, and given learned names to obscure that they have most often functioned as pin-ups. The idea of the pompous Kenneth Clark unclothed (so to speak) was gratifying.


She allowed a drawing of her naked: this Guardian article brings out the Berger-take of the program

But when I started to watch her Shock of the Nude, I found she was misrepresented: far from dwelling on this (as it is so obvious) the programs were about how a single type of European woman has filled the space of what is reproduced when there are so many types of bodies, not to omit gene pools and ways of depicting bodies. It’s an elaboration on the specific topic from the perspective John Berger developed in his Ways of Seeing. We glimpse the actual motives of the people who made the object, the politics projected at an audience by an establishment “voice.” But to be as frank as she, what the men especially hated most of all is the way she looks. They cannot stand that she refuses to turn herself into as close a version of the Barbie Doll or socially comely academic woman in interview outfit for her shows. Her hair is unstyled (would be the word), her body lumpy, she wears only what make-up the film-makers must put on her to withstand film lighting. Those are her real long and discolored teeth. Of course it’s a pose, and she now has a trademark with her bike, but it’s a pose in another cause for candor as the only humane wisdom: this time what aging and other women actually look like.

Now I’ve just watched (and re-watched — a habit of mine) her early series, Meet the Romans, her contributions to Civilisations, and her [Ultimate?] Rome: Empire without Limit, and feel I ought to say something relevant to this dangerous and destructive era the Republicans, their Trump mascot, and all the wealthy and powerful people increasing a stranglehold of immiseration and downright murder on not only the US but people around the world variously connected to us: the theses of her two Roman series, which she makes convincing is that this ordinary village on this boot-like peninsula in the Mediterranean became a successful society, and extended out to become prosperous, educated, and (dare I say) a comfortable people because they were inclusive.

It was their original idea to make everyone who came within the purview of their power and ever extending land-mass Roman, to welcome into their civilisation all sorts of people, and thus circulate the knowledge, skill, and yes labor and natural products of lands across the globe. Indeed much that the vicious regimes of the world today are doing (except the step-by-step process in the US, and jump elsewhere into terrifying dictatorship) is what what the Romans didn’t do: race hatred especially. I took down my daughter’s book for the first time and found that in SPQR are the theses for these documentaries (read Emily Wilson’s more detailed review). They were flexible when it came to changing laws; they went in for people power. It was a genuinely mixed society because in the province power was given to local elites. Join with Rome, and you too can have this salary, these benefits. Everyone above say the working class level and the enslaved gets a percentage of the take. And the enslaved can buy themselves back.

The book and these series are not about its decline and fall (which it did) but about why it succeeded for so long — besides ruthless fearful military brutality — she does not mince words over the cruelties and harshnesses of this empire. In one episode (Part 3 of Ultimate Rome) we see a frieze of a fierce Roman soldier subduing and about to rape a supplicant woman, an image of Rome triumphing over Britain. One episode of Meet the Romans she seeks out how the average Roman who lived in the city survived & shows them in tiny dark flats in apartment houses, where just about nothing was in the space except room to sleep: all other functions, including drinking water, bathing (defecating), eating had to be done outside this space which was heavily peopled. To her credit, she does bring out what life was like for the average person.

Perhaps the Roman story is still too upbeat. Unlike the books, she does omit women. She doesn’t lie. She warns that stories about the fun adulteresses might have had are masculine bad dreams; stories of fiercely violent Amazons are probably glamorized fantasies based on what the Romans saw in the violent tribalism of Scythian groups. (Anyway who wants to idolize violence?) It was not the brutality of the Romans that made for their ultimate success, just a first step (bad joke alert). In her Pompeii, she takes us into excavated homes of the victims; she tries to realize what a family life might have been. The figures chance immortalized at moments of terror do convey what people are up against in nature (as well as what is often missing in other episodes from one another)


Pompeii people

These programs have our present era very much in mind.


From Ultimate Rome, Episode 3

They are also wondrously enjoyable because they are travelogues to places you, I, or your package tour company is not going to think of going to. I did not feel as if I was looking at fake pictures of landscapes, but genuine filming of out-of-the-way places where Roman buildings, forums, monuments, roads, these circular stadiums (levels upon levels), acqueducts, left over remnants of households are still extant. She films in Northern England, along the Hadrian wall where archeaologists have been very busy, in Algeria, southern Spain, Turkey, western Germany. Even if I had the money and the profound unhealthiness of airplane and modern boat travel had not been exposed, as an ordinary person I could not see what she shows in museums, factories, not to omit Pompeii and Herculaneum. She is invited to go where the rest of us who are not in the profession can’t. You see people in the marketplaces and in Rome today too — in France, in London.


In Bath — where I have been

I admit I sometimes enjoy her straight lectures on YouTube more than I do her documentaries, which are meant for a much wider audience than my taste. Her patter to me can be contentless; if there is a line of argument, sometimes it is obscured by gnomic suggestiveness. She is unwilling to criticize where I think she should. One of her assignments on Civilizations was to showcase (would be the word) religious buildings around the world once Roman (Europe and the middle east as it’s called mostly), but had it been Simon Schama (he is the main presenter) he would have managed to include sharp observations on what religious practices can mesmerize people into accepting. Her books provide more honest scrutiny. She is inclined to be optimistic, altogether too cheery — during this pandemic, she has had BBC shows in her kitchen. That sort of thing …

But she is always intelligent. During the Brexit controversies when there was still time, to put a stop to this lunacy of some segments of the British upper classes and the ignorant deluded nationalist solutions to economic distress in working class people, her TLS columns were ever on point and I wished she was in Parliament. I still do. Probably my favorite book is also still Confronting the Classics.


Filming in Rome

The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all — Elizabeth Bishop
“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”

Ellen

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