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"Women & Power: A Manifesto" Author, Mary Beard, Keeps History on the Move
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=50540"><span class="small">Katy Waldman, The New Yorker</span></a>   
Tuesday, 25 May 2021 12:27

Waldman writes: "If you happen to be speaking with someone who is unfamiliar with Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire Mary Beard, it may take you a few tries to convey her cultural post."

Mary Beard. (photo: Royal Society of Literature)
Mary Beard. (photo: Royal Society of Literature)

"Women & Power: A Manifesto" Author, Mary Beard, Keeps History on the Move

By Katy Waldman, The New Yorker

25 May 21

For Beard, change has always been a part of the classics. We need to expose the field’s flaws to learn how we’ve inherited them.

f you happen to be speaking with someone who is unfamiliar with Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire Mary Beard, it may take you a few tries to convey her cultural post. “Classicist” doesn’t quite capture it. “Celebrity historian” inches closer. In a Guardian profile, a colleague of Beard’s recalls a crew of English schoolgirls glimpsing the scholar, a longtime pillar of Cambridge’s faculty, as she prepared to film a documentary about the lost city of Pompeii. “They went insane,” the colleague said. “It was like they’d seen a boy band.”

Stateside, Beard may be best known as the author of “SPQR,” a doorstop Roman history, and “Women and Power,” a trenchant study of ancient and modern attitudes toward female speech. She also contributes criticism to the London Review of Books and maintains a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement. On television, whether narrating the reboot of the BBC’s series “Civilisations,” demystifying classical attitudes toward immigration, or staging cultural debates from her study, Beard, now sixty-six, seems perfectly cast in the role of the public intellectual: incisive, personable, just shy of charmingly unkempt. She exudes modesty—she could not have been more polite when I mixed up Leonidas, the king of Sparta, with Scipio Africanus, a Roman general who lived some three hundred years later—and her voice slips easily into a storyteller’s rhythm. Online, Beard is a frequent user of Twitter, and as Rebecca Mead observed in a 2014 Profile, she’s found an unlikely hobby in taming Internet trolls. (“She should be able to analyze Augustus’s dictums, or early A.D. epithets / Without having to scroll through death, bomb, and rape threats,” a spoken-word poem uploaded to YouTube goes.) Yet Beard seems delighted to edify and even befriend her haters. Several years ago, a former Twitter adversary asked her for a job recommendation letter. She said yes.

In April, Howard University announced that it was dissolving its classics department, a move that punctuates a heated debate about whether Greco-Roman history should be taught separately or differently from the history of other ancient societies. A new wave of scholars, such as Princeton’s Dan-el Padilla Peralta, view the discipline as inextricable from the imperialist mind-set that created it; they claim that classics sustains a mythology of whiteness. As the field’s most famous practitioner, and a dedicated anti-racist and feminist, Beard takes a middle position: she believes neither that classics deserves a pedestal nor that it must be destroyed. Recently, in conversation, Beard defended her stance—and spoke about feminist translations, Internet manners, and the fluid properties of the canon. Our exchange has been edited for clarity.

I was looking over the list of subjects that you specialize in—things like civilization, empire, power, the exile of women from the public sphere—and thinking that this should be a light, relaxing conversation.

Oh, dear!

But you’ve also written about Roman laughter. Do you have a favorite classical joke to start us off?

Don’t get your hopes up—they’re not that funny. But what’s interesting about them, I think, is that they’re not incomprehensible; they fall on a spectrum of what might strike us as humorous today. Here’s a relatively clean one. A man runs into a friend of his in the city. The friend acts surprised; “I thought you were dead!” he says. “No,” the man says, “I mean, here I am. I’m alive.” And the friend gives him a doubtful look and says, “Well, the person who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you are!”

[Awkward laughter.]

No, it’s not going to make you a lot of money in comedy places, is it? But the joke is, for me, quite interesting, because it’s about one of the things that we forget about pre-modern culture, which is how difficult it was to prove who you were. There were no I.D. cards, no passports. The construction of an authentic, authoritative version of “this is me” was actually quite hard.

I was just listening to an author speak about humor. She said that writers can use it as a mark of in-groups and out-groups: you sort of know who your people are by who laughs at your jokes. So humor can be used to signal loneliness or absence, as when a character says something funny and there’s no one there to hear it.

That’s right. The aggression in humor is not just, Oh, people are laughing at you. It can be subtler—someone declining to notice that you’ve made a joke, withholding their laughter. That can be just as hostile as people piling on you, I think! And again, there’s quite a lot in Roman comedy about how other people know who you are, and how you know who you are, which is bound up, as you say, in laughter and the notion of identification.

What got you interested in classics? I heard there was an origin story.

There is, and yet I distrust it, because you start to tell origin stories and then they become mythologized. But I went to the British Museum when I was about five, with my mom. I wanted to see the Egyptian stuff—not just the mummies, which scared me, but Egyptian daily life. And my mom said, as we were going through this gallery, “In that case is a piece of ancient Egyptian cake, three thousand years old.” I couldn’t see it because it was far up, in the back of the case. And, at that moment, a guy came by, asked if there was something I wanted to see, got the keys out of his pocket, opened the case, and brought out the cake. He put it right up to my nose. And it was totally memorable—partly because, my God, it was a three-thousand-year-old piece of cake—but also because of his facilitation. There was a locked museum case and someone came and opened it up for me. It’s been quite a symbol for me, because I think everybody’s in a position to unlock museum cases for other people.

Of course, I realize that the charming little five-year-old white girl probably has a better experience than many others do. Museums can keep people out by suggesting versions of culture that aren’t inclusive. And yet I also know that they can get people in.

I want to ask you about whether you think that our approach to the past, or maybe our goals in studying the past, are shifting. It seems like contemporary historians are often trying not only to reconstruct history but to remake what the discipline does. There seems to be a strong corrective impulse, and more space for imagination or speculation. Does that sound off base to you?

I think that’s true. But I’m old enough to say that every generation has that corrective impulse, and that’s part of what keeps history on the move. I remember when I was a student and the person speaking to us in Cambridge was Moses Finley, a great historian of ancient Greece. And he just exuded that sense of wanting to rework the way we think about the past, by looking at slavery, debt, poverty, the fragility of democracy. History would be very dull if we weren’t always trying to change how it was done. It’s our conversation with the dead, and we practice a kind of ventriloquism in order to hear from the other side.

How has the field changed since you began?

Oh, it’s changed in all kinds of ways, hugely. For me, obviously, the history of women is one thing which comes to mind. When I was a student, I was at a women’s college in Cambridge, and so I was sensitive to the idea that there might be a history of our own. Back then, though, you would do work like that in the summertime, when the real work had finished. You knew that it wasn’t really serious. And that has been revolutionized in a way that is really productive, because it’s hard to think of a subject that’s more important than gender. The move from total marginalization to the history of specific women to something much broader and more challenging, which is the history of gender, the ideas and conflicts around gender. . . .

I spent part of my career lamenting that there weren’t more female authors in the ancient world. Well, you can mourn the lack of those authors forever, but you’re not very likely to find more. But you can engage with how gender is defined.

What is it like to see a new wave of feminist translations in your field? I’m thinking especially of the subtle vocabulary shifts in Emily Wilson’s “The Odyssey.” It reminds me of the lecture of yours that became “Women and Power,” when you invoked the moment, in Book I, where Telemachus hushes Penelope. You encouraged the audience to see that scene in a new light, as a kind of foundational representation of misogyny.

I think Emily’s translation is great. I think she’d be the first to say that translating is always a question of interpretation, of making the ancient text mean something for us. Emily succeeds brilliantly—and, in a hundred years, there’ll be somebody else translating the poem, and we’ll look at it differently again.

People often say, “Why do we need people to learn Latin and Greek? Everything’s been translated!” But go and look at Gilbert Murray’s early-twentieth-century translation of Greek tragedy, and see whether it says anything to you. It was hugely popular at the time; it was terribly important to the antiwar movement. And now it strikes us as some kind of awful rhyming verse. You see, history is always moving, because we’re changing the questions and it’s changing the answers. One very simple, and yet very important, thing about having this translation is that [Wilson] doesn’t call the slaves “servant girls.” You look through past translations and it’s always a load of euphemistic “servant girls,” as if to deny the hierarchy that is embedded so deeply in the “Odyssey.”

I was reading about how, in some scenes, Wilson’s word choice intensifies the misogyny and violence, as if to surface a kind of feminist critique that’s already there, in the text.

Oh, yes. When the enslaved women are killed. Margaret Atwood does something similar with the incident in her novella “The Penelopiad.”

I wonder if you see a difference between your feminist strategy, if that’s the right word, and Wilson’s. It seems as though she’s trying to rediscover feminism in the ancient world, but you’re more likely to be the source of the feminism yourself. In your art-history books, you’ve talked about bringing women into the frame by forgetting about the creator’s intention—since we’re not likely to know much about them, anyway—and asking, “What would it have been like to see this work through a Roman woman’s eyes?”

Yes, well, if you tell me to go away for two years and translate the “Odyssey,” the result will be terrible. Scholarship allows you a different rhetoric than translation. You’re right that I wanted to ask, “What is it like to look at this? What is it like if you’re an enslaved person from the Athenian empire?” One of the things that historical imagination can do is make you change perspective. I’m always struck by the way that even the most right-on historians will talk about the “great” general Scipio Africanus. What do you mean by “great”? Do you mean that he killed a very large number of people? The adjectives that people use when they talk about the ancient world are terrifically revealing.

Would you ever consider publishing your own translation?

I admire people who do. I obviously enjoy talking to students about how tricky and interesting the language of these Latin writers is. But, no, I just want to go on doing history. How boring.

How do you feel about canons? As a proposition.

They’re always changing, aren’t they? And what’s almost more important than what’s in them is the dialectical element: they’re what you react against. I know I sound like a tricksy academic, but in some ways a canon reveals to you not so much what is there as what’s not there. And so it changes itself; it’s self-destructive. The problem, of course, is that we can’t read everything, and so we have to be aware of what we are and aren’t reading, and why we are or aren’t reading it.

Obviously, there is conservative support for a particular version of the canon, and I think we all know what that looks like. But if you think about some of these apparently conservative institutions more radically, coming face-to-face with them makes you question what you ought to read. And so I think that paradoxically, although it’s easy to get upset about the dead hand of the canon, all the dead white men of literature, et cetera, I also, looking back, can start to say, “But that’s the canon doing its job.” It’s making me ask, “Why is it like this?”

The idea that a canon is fluid, that its job is to evolve, seems really useful. Do you have a personal canon, and how much has it shifted over time?

Oh, I’m probably the wrong person to ask about that, because, you know, one’s internal canon is not “I’m going to sit down and write a syllabus for the great books.” But I can see changes in terms of creative literature and fiction. We’re talking about what gets placed on the front table of bookshops. It used to be posh white men and then occasionally some not posh white men and a few women—all of them in the U.K. And that work is still considered quite important, but literature isn’t defined any longer by what happens to white people in the U.K.

You mentioned that our relationship to history changes when the present forces us to ask different questions of the past. Has any of the upheaval of the pandemic dislodged things for you, or caused you to shift your perspective more radically?

I can see why it might have. The shutdown didn’t make so much difference to me, I suspect, because I was desperately trying to finish a book. It was rather overdue and, awful and tragic as the pandemic was, I actually didn’t spend it exploring or having time to explore things but feverishly checking footnotes.

Can I ask about the manuscript?

You may. I’m going to try and make it sound really, really interesting. It came out of some lectures that I did, in 2014, at the National Gallery in D.C., when I looked at modern representations of Roman emperors—mostly from the fifteenth-century onward. I wanted to say, “Well, why was it that people so often represented this series of men that they hated?” Certainly no one thought these murderers were nice guys. So what cultural role does the imagery of dead political villains play? And how are we supposed to regard a statue of someone abhorrent that has been expressly commissioned by people who disliked him? I had no clue, when I started, that there was going to be any modern relevance to this theme.

Have you been following the controversy in the States over Confederate statues?

Oh, yes. This is about Roman emperors, but I hope I’ve written it to point at the larger questions.

I’m struck by the diversity of platforms and genres that you’ve conquered. You do BBC documentaries and live television, and you write books, articles, and blog posts, and you go on the radio, and you teach. The conventions of each form must be pretty different. Do you find yourself code-switching a great deal?

Less than you might imagine. I use technical terminology in the lectures, because the students need to learn it, and I emphasize uncertainty, what we don’t know or aren’t sure about. But I remember someone telling me, quite early on, that if people turn on the television for a documentary on Rome, they don’t want to hear that we don’t know anything. That’s a real downer. And so I’ve learned to say, in a way that is honest, “Well, what is it that we do know?”

I think probably the telly has informed my undergraduate teaching at least as much as my teaching is important for the telly. A lot of first year undergraduates are smart but ignorant, and they need to be engaged. People think that, if you get up in front of students in Cambridge, you can deliver fantastically detailed lectures that are really boring, because the students have to sit there anyway. Well, no. They just get on their phones.

Do you have a favorite way to communicate with people who are interested in your work?

Face-to-face is the nicest. I think this is what we’ve missed so much recently. One of the most memorable face-to-face encounters I had was in a local prison. I went and spoke to the prisoners about Roman history, and hearing what they had to say about gladiators and punishment and criminality was wonderful. On the other hand, with television, you reach more people, so there’s a bit of a trade-off there. And that’s where Twitter is quite interesting, although people are rubbish on it. It used to be that you’d do a TV documentary and, a few weeks later, you got a letter. But now you can engage even on the simplest things. Someone might say, “I didn’t catch where that purple statue of Augustus was,” and you can just say, “This is where it was.”

You’ve also felt the wrath of trolls online.

Oh, it’s dreadful and cruel what people say to each other on social media, and I’m sure I’m guilty sometimes, too. But people excuse the awful misogyny and racism by saying that you feel particularly disinhibited on the Internet. And, really, what kind of an excuse is that?

In the States, there’s some intersection between classics and the worst of the social Internet. People on the right adopt the names of Roman generals, and there’s an idealization of militarism and “the West” that’s used as a sort of racist dog whistle. What do you make of the way that white supremacists online have appropriated aspects of Greco-Roman culture?

Well, I think they do it extremely badly. It’s probably worse in the United States than in the U.K.—we don’t have your Second Amendment—but I’ve developed a view that, if I see some real rubbish, I try to get back to the poster. “Just so you know, Scipio Africanus didn’t say that”—that sort of thing. And because my day job is being a professor, you sort of have to listen to me, because this is what I do. There is, I suspect, a quite small number of ultra-right users who are drawing on the classics, and a hell of a lot of people who might start to think that they’re right. I think you need them to realize that not everyone agrees with the supremacists.

The extent to which the left versus the right has drawn on classical traditions—has that been stable over time? Like, the scholars of the Enlightenment who more or less invented classics would have considered themselves liberals, right?

The classics have always been fought over. I don’t think there’s something more interesting about the Greeks and Romans than there is about the Persians. It makes little sense to give one culture a star and another a C-minus. But it so happens that the classics have been deeply debated, and because they’ve been deeply debated, they’ve been very important to the European and then the transatlantic West—and to a kind of a conservative, fascist autocracy, which has conscripted classics. But that’s only one side of the story. People have also said, “Look, there’s a way here of thinking about human freedom, democracy, et cetera.” There’s no doubt that Mussolini’s cultural hegemony rested on classics, and I think it’s important to remind people of that; the same would be true of Hitler. At the same time, many others were using the classical tradition to undermine a fascist ideology. So I don’t think it’s intrinsically radical, conservative, liberal, or oppressive. There’s a lot of people who want to use the discipline to discuss precisely those issues, and in some ways the two sides are symbiotic.

I think that, at the moment, there is an over-tendency to come down on the negative side of the history of classics. I suppose that’s balanced by the odious approach that says classics is the foundation of Western culture—so, you know, Athenian democracy, with no women and a load of enslaved people, is where it’s at.

I think the critique from scholars like Dan-el Padilla Peralta might be something like: but what if those unrealized ideals—democracy, liberty, et cetera—have only ever been used as fig leaves over institutional rot? It’s not that the field of classics, or even Western society itself, has fallen short of its articulated goals; it’s that the goals themselves provide a sort of cover for their precise opposite.

First, I think Dan-el is extremely smart, and I respect him enormously. And it’s not just him; a lot of people are pointing to all kinds of places where the discipline needs to change. If you come to my university, it is not a diverse enough culture. There are a lot of people trying to do something about it, but probably not quick enough, and probably not with enough money behind them. Really, we need a bit of action, not just talk.

But, to return to where we started, the strength of a discipline is knowing that it’s going to be different. With classics, we’ve seen it happen with gender. For a time, I was the only woman lecturer in Cambridge’s classics faculty, and now—again, the change has been far too slow—there’s more of us. But here’s the other thing: I don’t think that an overly gloomy view of the history of a discipline helps to change it. I think that you have to diagnose what the problem is correctly, or you’re likely to solve the wrong problem. Classics has been implicated in terrible things, which we need to make people more aware of. And yet where did the legitimization of gay rights in the nineteenth century come from? And when the U.K. started its very slow path to what you might call democracy, where did that come from? It was the classics; those guys were studying Athenian democracy. They were a bit starry-eyed about it being a democracy. But it was what drew those dreadful translations from Gilbert Murray, who was trying to use Greek tragedy to bring peace to Europe during and after World War I. The antiwar slogans on the London buses were in Latin.

Classics is what we make it, and the fact that the classical world has been misrepresented should not be used against it. I don’t think many people would say that we’d be better off without Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey” and what it shows us, or what Derek Walcott shows us, working from the same material, or what Romare Bearden shows us, with his images. These artists reveal, embedded in a formative work of Western literature, a version of the colonial ghost. We need to look at that and see what we’re the inheritors of.

You’ve written and broadcast a lot about this indefinable thing civilization. I wonder if the experience of the pandemic has changed your attitude toward it, its fragility or durability or—

I’d say two things. The first is that, unless you have a degree of relativism about civilization, you’re lost. One person’s civilization is another person’s barbarism; history teaches that civilization is always the insiders’ view of themselves. As for the pandemic, rather than “civilization,” let’s say it’s perhaps challenged the role of “arts and culture.” There’s been a bit of a blindness to those things—a sense that what was really keeping us on the road was, of course, the work of scientists, who were working on the vaccine and on better treatment. And in no way would I like to suggest that that wasn’t important. But people tend to think that music, literature, and so on is icing on the cake.

But the arts are essential. They help you understand what you are experiencing. Look at ancient history. Where does Western literature start? It starts, in the “Iliad,” with a bloody plague!

Do you have any fantasies about what you’ll do once everyone is vaccinated?

I have terribly limited ambitions. I’ve got a large house with a garden; I’m not living in a small flat with three kids under six. And I didn’t lose my job. So I think it’s very important for people like me to be humble. You just want the pandemic to be a wake-up call. This is a tiny example, but in the U.K. we have our exam system. We think the only way we can grade students is by making them sit down for eight hours in the Great Hall, where they do everything from memory. I grew up with a slight affection for it because I was good at it; people always have affection, I think, for the things they take to as children. But we didn’t do it last year. We’re not going to do it this year. We’ve got a much more trimmed down version, and I don’t think any injustice has been done. It’s gone, and perhaps it should stay gone—perhaps that would be no bad thing. your social media marketing partner