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A few words in a book I’m reading set me to thinking. In The Solitary Sphere in the Age of Virgil (2021), Aaron Kachuck writes, “To reintroduce the solitary sphere to antiquity, therefore, is one way of ‘decolonizing antiquity’” (p. 22). The context is a discussion of ways of reading in the Greco-Roman world, and how our assumptions about them reflect a distinctly modern, post-Enlightenment, and European idea of the ancient world. Kachuck wants us to pay attention to what the ancient world tells us about itself—to center their voices, not ours. It’s a good idea with at least one surprising implication.

Nowadays, “decolonizing” some academic field usually means helping those in it to recognize that their view of “the other” is grounded in whiteness, Eurocentrism, racism, the patriarchy, and other bad cooties that cling to us as we trudge through this vale of woe, to repent of these sins, and to set out to do better by “centering the voices” of the formerly subaltern, colonized folks. Classics has been a prime candidate for this reformation because of its entanglement with European and American colonization and imperialism. (Way back in the 1960s, one of my teachers used to say, only half in jest, that the best answer to the question, “What is classics good for?” was “Governing India.”)

Calls to “decolonize classics” often include two elements: changing the name of the field, and deemphasizing or eliminating entirely the study of Greek and Latin. (See for example this article from the now-defunct but still influential online journal Eidolon.) Princeton’s recent decision that its undergraduate classics majors don’t have to know either language, which has its defenders and critics, seems to have come at least in part from the same impulse.

Kachuck’s aside, though, suggests a more radical approach to decolonizing classics. First, though, we have to find the country that needs decolonization. That turns out to be less easy than one might think. Most people, I suspect, would agree with Wikipedia’s tautological definition: “Classics or classical studies is the study of classical antiquity,” which in the western world is defined as ancient Greece and Rome. The more one looks at this thing called “classics,” though, the more it looks like art or pornography. Everyone knows it when they see it, but no one can say exactly what it is, or where its boundaries are. Ancient Greek cities, with agoras, theaters, and gymnasia, can be found in Europe, Africa, and Asia and from Sicily to Afghanistan; ancient Romans, speaking Latin and quoting Vergil, ranged from Britain to Libya and Iran. We lump these two cultures together, but on examination they, and their two languages that inhabit a single academic department, prove to be very different. Only by pruning and shaping this jungle of culture can we get to the idea of “classics” that animates curriculum in schools and universities: a culture, European and western (it was not entirely either), that established the foundations of science and philosophy and left an legacy of imperishable art and literature that can form and educate a human being. But that ideal, cherry-picked “classics” is a creation of the people who use it. We have made it in our own images—and if we have, can we then study it as though it was something separate from us, about which we can have objective knowledge? Classics, like God, often seems in danger of becoming a necessary illusion.

On the first page of his History of Classical Scholarship, Wilamowitz tries to get around this problem by turning his focus from the subject to its object, which he defines as “Greco-Roman civilization in its essence and in every facet of its existence.”[i] That definition begs at least two questions: does “Greco-Roman civilization” exist (and why is it “Greco-Roman”); and does a civilization have an essence? Wilamowitz then pivots back to the subject, the person doing classics, and suggests that classical studies has an aim that transcends a mere desire to know what was going in Athens, say, in 403 BC: “In this as in every department of knowledge—or to put it in the Greek way, in all philosophy—a feeling of wonder in the presence of something we do not understand is the starting-point, the goal was pure, beatific contemplation of something we have come to understand in all its truth and beauty.” Searching for the essence of Greco-Roman civilization, then, ends with the searcher standing before an almost Platonic ideal of truth and beauty.

In this case, I have quoted Wilamowitz not because he was the greatest practitioner of classical scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century, but because his attempt to juggle two ideas is representative of people who try to work out what classics is. The tension between object and subject, between classics as a thing we do and as a thing that does something to us, is fundamental to the modern discipline.[ii] It sometimes looks like an opposition between a scientific, historical, or positivist approach on one side, and humanism or liberal arts on the other. It sometimes looks, as it did to F. A. Wolf, August Boeckh, and the other founders of modern classical scholarship (and as it did to Nietzsche), like a tension between Bildung, formation of character, and Altertumswissenschaft, the scientific study of antiquity. And sometimes, as it did for me during the years that I taught at the Episcopal Academy, it looks like a question that all teachers sooner or later confront: am I teaching a subject, or am I teaching students?

At the foundation of this subject, however, stand two cornerstones: Greek and Latin. Without exact knowledge of these languages, any connection between object and subject, between the scientific study of antiquity and the education of those who study it, becomes impossible. Just as language connects us as human beings to one another, so language makes the only connection that we can have to the human beings who created Greece and Rome, and it is the only tool that we have to see them, as best we can, in their own image, not in ours, and to center their voices—that is, to decolonize them. If we classicists want to decolonize our field, we might begin by renewing our commitment to life-long study of classical languages and to learning them as well as we can.[iii]

~Lee T. Pearcy
April 9, 2022

[i] U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, History of Classical Scholarship, tr. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 1.

[ii] Fundamental as well to the humanities in general, as argued by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2021).

[iii] This is not to say that the two languages are not subject to the same idealizing and systematizing impulse that created the entire discipline. Greek is not very like Latin and resembles it only because traditional grammars impose a resemblance, and Latin itself is “classical” because the Romans created an idealized form of it.

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For about five years now, I’ve been trying to learn to draw and paint, mostly through the Continuing Education program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Last week my instructor suggested that I try copying paintings.  What I learned when I tried taught me something about painting and art criticism, but also something about what is, depending on how you look at it, either my job or my chief vocation: classical studies.

I set out to copy William Merritt Chase’s “The Big Brass Bowl,” now in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  I had seen it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the exhibit “William Merritt Chase: Modern Master” and had a copy of the catalog.  Here it is, courtesy of Wikiart:

 

First I made a very quick—about 15-minute—watercolor sketch.  That taught me that there are five important things in the picture.  Three of them stand out when you see the painting: the bowl, the plate (but not, I thought, the fruit in it), and the red box.  Doing the sketch showed me that two other things matter to the painting just as much: the reflection of the box in the bowl, and the background along with the table surface, treated as a single graded area of color from black at the top to dark yellow ochre at the bottom.  It’s also important that the black of the background is almost impossible to distinguish from the edges of the bowl.

Then I taped a piece of oil paper to my easel and set to work.  Here’s what happened:

 

Painting this copy taught me a great deal more than the watercolor drawing had.  First, I learned that the proportions of Chase’s canvas help to make the painting work.  The original painting is almost square, about 35″ x 40″.  My sketch was 9″ x 12″, and my painted copy is even smaller at about 7″ x 8″, but its relative proportions are the same as Chase’s.  Keeping Chase’s proportions allowed me to understand how carefully he had arranged the objects on his field, with the right-hand edge of the plate and the left-hand edge of the bowl each overlapping the center line of the canvas.  Then, when I’d laid in the five important pieces that emerged from the sketch, I saw that the fruit in the bowl really had to be there.  The grapes on the tabletop in the left foreground are essential to giving a sense of depth and taking your eye into the painting, along a diagonal from the reddish grapes to the red box, and beyond it to its reflection in the bowl.  Without them, there’s just too much tabletop.  (And look how the red box on the other side sucks up the energy in that part of the painting, so that the wrinkles in the fabric in front of it are enough to fill the space.)  The grapes on the table make no sense without the other fruit on the plate–and in the much larger original, the wonderful still life that Chase embedded in the left center of his canvas matters even more.

I also learned a lot from what didn’t succeed in my copy; in fact, I probably learned more about painting from the copy’s failures than from its successes.  I didn’t, for example, succeed in copying Chase’s tonal gradations; there’s too much contrast in my copy between the foreground tablecloth and the black background, and between the midtones of the bowl and the dark edges, and not enough between the fruit and the rest of the painting.  You’ve probably noticed that I left out the wineglass; the truth is, I don’t understand what its job is in the painting.

This exercise may have made me a little better as a painter, but it made me a much more perceptive critic of Chase’s still life.  I have, in a way, begun to reverse engineer it to see how it works.  And this takes me to classics.  When we classical scholars—and I’m going to limit my subject to scholars of Greek and Latin literature—practice our craft, we are critics, and with rare exceptions we are analyzing things that we do not know how to make.  Few if any scholars of Greek or Latin poetry also write poetry in any language.  A few more engage in the wonderful parlor game called “composition,” which consists of translating from a modern language into Greek or Latin verse, but I have a sense that even that practice is now uncommon.  That’s why I have been glad to see the move toward “active Latin” or “living Latin” gain steam, thanks to the work of the Paideia Institute and others.  It’s not terribly important to be able to order a hamburger in Latin, although it’s fun to be able to get elaborate public jokes like the signs at the Wallsend Metro Station.  it is important, though, to have some sense, however imperfect, of what Vergil or Ovid were up to.  A few years ago I had a group of students who got far enough in Pantin’s First Latin Verse Book to be able to turn English translations of some of Ovid’s poems into Latin verse.  Reverse engineering Ovid’s work and then comparing their copies to his original gave them a better insight into his artistry than anything I could have said in class.  So let’s write Latin and copy paintings—not because we want to become poets or painters, but because the better we are at reading and thinking and seeing, the better we will become at being human.

–Lee T. Pearcy

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