Michael Dirda reviews "The Classical Tradition," edited by Anthony Grafton et al

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, October 14, 2010


Edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, Salvatore Settis

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 1,067 pp. $49.95

Now here is a fabulous book -- and a bargain to boot. Harvard has produced this gigantic volume, packed with color plates and essays by some of the greatest scholars alive, for the price of a couple of hardback thrillers. Better still, while "The Classical Tradition" may look like a work of reference, it's actually one of the best bedside books you could ask for. I know because I've been browsing around in it with immense pleasure for the past two weeks.

"The Classical Tradition" aims to "provide a reliable and wide-ranging guide to the reception of classical Graeco-Roman antiquity in all its dimensions in later cultures." This means that this "guide" -- the editors are careful not to call it a full-scale lexicon, dictionary or encyclopedia -- examines "the continuing influence of ancient Greek and Roman culture in the post-classical world." The back cover shows, in miniature, what they mean: On the left is a picture of the famous sculpture representing Laocoon and his sons being strangled by a serpent. On the right is a Charles Addams cartoon depicting a butcher and two assistants struggling with a huge length of sausage. It's the very same pose.

The arts have always gone back to the classics for inspiration and templates -- think of James Joyce's "Ulysses" or the great Brazilian movie "Black Orpheus" or the recent epic films "Gladiator," "Troy" and "300" or even DC Comics' Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Princess Diana of the Amazons. Here in Washington we work in buildings modeled after those one might find in ancient Rome. Fraternities and sororities are commonly called "Greek" societies. Gay theorists regard Plato's "Symposium" as a sacred text. Even in the digital age, anyone with any education whatsoever deeply envies those with a solid knowledge of Latin and Greek. Antiquity pervades our 21st-century lives, whether we realize it or not.

"The Classical Tradition" is organized as a series of 563 articles by 339 scholars and ranges from "Academy" and "Achilles" to "Xenophon," "Zeno's Paradoxes" and "Zoology." Besides the very distinguished editors, the contributors include esteemed figures from Britain (Mary Beard, Simon Hornblower), dozens of academicians from around the world and such eminent local heavyweights as Walter Stephens and Marcel Detienne (Johns Hopkins), Martin Winkler (George Mason), Mortimer Sellers (University of Baltimore School of Law), Jan Ziolkowski (Dumbarton Oaks), James O'Donnell (Georgetown), Philip Jacks and Elizabeth Fisher (George Washington) and independent scholar Pamela O. Long.

While some of the articles in "The Classical Tradition" are just a few paragraphs long, many of the best are substantial essays. I can't pretend to have read every entry, but I've already gobbled up 30 or 40 on the subjects that most interest me. These include "Apuleius," "Astérix," "Automata," "Richard Bentley," "Circe," "Comic Books," "Homosexuality," "Horace," "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili," "Leda," "Liberal Arts," "Loeb Classical Library," "Magic," "Melancholy," "Novel," "Ovid," "Presocratics," "Rhetoric," "Joseph Justus Scaliger," "Sexuality," "Sirens," "Suicide," "Translation," "Ut pictura poesis" and "Urlich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff."

At the very least, such a short and highly personal list does give some inkling of this guide's enormous sweep. "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili," by the way, is a hauntingly suggestive and erotic Renaissance allegory -- full of classical motifs -- that has attracted several modern fantasy writers, including John Crowley and Elizabeth Hand. Horace's catchphrase "Ut pictura poesis" ("as is painting, so is poetry") embodies the influential doctrine by which a work of visual art is read as a "mute poem" and descriptive poetry is seen as a "talking painting." J.J. Scaliger (1540-1609), Richard Bentley (1662-1742) and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931) are, arguably, the three greatest classical scholars of all time. I was sorry that America's most influential classicist, Johns Hopkins's astonishing Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924), was left out.

Much of the information contained in "The Classical Tradition" is simply nifty stuff worth knowing. Heraclitus is remembered for the observation that you cannot step into the same river twice. Why? Because his philosophy is built around the notion that "everything flows." The Greek for this phrase, the Heraclitus entry tells us, is "pantha rhei." Saint Jerome complained that monks concentrated so much on sacred texts, ruminating on every word, that the result was "lugentes non legentes" ("mourning, not reading"). Apuleius's story of Cupid and Psyche was not only used for an opera libretto by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies but also served as the model for Eudora Welty's "The Robber Bridegroom" and C.S. Lewis's "Till We Have Faces."

Within limits, the authors of the various entries are allowed to be as individual as they like. In the course of a superb brief account of Horace's poetry and its afterlife, Glenn Most tells us that Milton's translation of the famous Pyrrha Ode "is generally regarded as the worst rendition in English." In the article on translation, Stuart Gillespie notes that "a recent bibliography records more than 40 book-length translations and imitations of Ovid in English from 1950 to 2004." Throughout this same essay, Gillespie returns again and again to the various styles of classical translation, a polarizing issue made famous in a debate between Matthew Arnold and F.W. Newman. "Should the archaic and alien be registered by a translator, disrupting the English-language norms of his days (as Newman argued), or should Homer be made to sound simple, natural, unquaint (as Arnold did)? Subsequent English versions of Homer -- and there was no shortage -- could go in either direction."

To repeat, every page here provides some fascinating bit of information. Who are the five figures who kept alive the liberal arts during the Dark Ages? Answer: Saint Augustine, Martianus Capella, Cassiodorus, Boethius and Isidore of Seville. There are individual essays on all of them (except the 6th-century Cassiodorus, who founded a monastery called the Vivarium, or Fishpond, where the monks preserved and studied the ancients as well as the Bible and church fathers).

Certainly anyone even mildly interested in the Western cultural heritage will find "The Classical Tradition" a necessary purchase. It belongs on the shelf next to the similarly organized, and similarly essential, "A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature," edited by David Lyle Jeffrey. Together these two books show us how deeply the stories, iconic figures and ideas of antiquity succor our imaginations and still suffuse the world we live in.

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