Another key theme that had unmistakably emerged by the end of the first day of Deep Classics (see previous post) is the nature of the (our) desire for the past, and its possible consequences. As Adam Lecznar remarked early on, “aren’t we just here to talk about our feelings?” One implication of developing a Queer Classics is a greater emphasis on the personal response and a concern about how to communicate this – should we be moving away from traditional academic impersonal pseudo-omniscience in favour of polyvocality, or does that risk oppressing or erasing our personal voice? Why is so much of our engagement with antiquity a purely intellectual, or at least mental, experience, when we really want to fondle it?
Several papers emphasised the gap between our own, arguably impoverished and certainly quite restrained, encounters with the classical past and/or its remnants, and the full-bodied, heartfelt engagement of some earlier lovers of the classical. The most striking was Ed Richardson’s account of the relationship between spiritualism and classics: the power of the dream that nothing is really lost forever, that ancient painters might be summoned back to create new works of art, that Aristotle might continue to offer sage advice on everyday problem, and that Euripides might return to help with some knotty questions of textual emendation. The punchline, tantalisingly hinted at but never quite expressed overtly, was clearly that the gap between those 19th- and 20th-century classicists who speculated on Socrates’ daemon as a precursor of spirit voices or nervously asked for reassurance that Vergil was happy with his Penguin translation was not as great as we might smugly assume. But that does raise the question: if we are like them, are we the credulous audience, desperate to hear something that reminds us of our lost loved ones and so easy prey for the unscrupulous – or the fraudulent mediums, claiming to present the authentic, 100% objective reality of a past that is actually gone for ever? Or, more likely, both: con artists who believe their own spiel, drug pushers addicted to their own product..?
A striking take on the general question of the desire for the past was offered at the end of the day through the medium of Josh Billings, channelling J.J. Winckelmann:
As a beloved on the shore of the sea follows with teary eyes her departing lover, without hope ever to see him again, and even believes that she sees the image of her loved one on the distant sail, so we, like the beloved, have as it were only the shadowy image of the object of our wishes left; but this awakens an even greater longing for what is lost, and we observe the copies of the originals with greater attention than we would have done if we were in full possession of the originals. We often act like people who want to meet ghosts, and believe they see them where there is nothing.
This is a salutary reminder that the receptions of past centuries can be at least as complex, sophisticated and self-aware as our own; far from the naive adoration of a (largely imaginary) Greece that is so often attributed to Winckelmann, here we have a perceptive insight into the psychology of classical studies. It is the very absence of the past that heightens our desire for it (and as someone, I think Helen Slaney, had remarked earlier, would we actually want a complete, non-fragmentary antiquity? wouldn’t that spoil our fun as researchers and interpreters?). But at the same time, this longing (for which we ourselves are responsible, but which we project onto the absent object) may cause us to hallucinate, to see imaginary things and ascribe real existence to them. If we are haunted by the ghosts of classical antiquity, it is in part because we want to be.
Of course, the very contemporaneity of Winckelmann’s insight might make us suspicious, just as the medium’s credibility ought to be thrown in doubt when Cleopatra speaks cockney or Aristotle has an intuitive understanding of modern business practice…