Friday, 17 November 2017

Manspreading Modern & Ancient

I’ve been on a lot planes lately, and so am unusually sensitive to manspreading at the moment. This week I spoke at Policy Exchange, a Westminster Think-Tank, on the enduring relevance of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987). I was manspread (manspreaded?) like never before by Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng. I note that I place my hands in a defensive-rampart postition. He also verbally interrupted me, but he wasn't alone in that.

The verb 'manspread' was not added to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2015, but my brief investigations of sitting postures in the history of art suggest that it is not confined to modernity. In Giovanni Belloni's 1514 'Feast of the Gods', for example, poor Amphitrite is wedged between a groping Neptune, and a manspreading Mercury. The satyr in the red cloak behind her looks as though his knees are pressing into her bottom, too. Her straight-ahead gaze suggests she is not enjoying her quince. It's supposed to be an aphrodisiac, but I don't think it's working.

More recent pictures of classical deities portray similarly exaggerated manspreading, for example this Hades and Persephone. Her hands are doing what mine were.

My hasty research into sitting etiquette in ancient art today suggested, however, that in ancient times themselves it was by no means as obviously gendered. 

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In  ancient Mespotamia and Egypt, for example, I have only (so far) found depictions of men sitting with their knees considerately together next to women in the identical posture. 

Indeed, the Mesopotamian woman seems to feel able to wedge her knee further into her boyfriend's space than he does into hers. The Egyptian couple look perfectly at ease: mutually touching elbows but legs nowhere near in contact.

The East Pediment of the Parthenon sculptures, probably depicting Dionysos, Persephone and Demeter, suggest that spreading was in Pheidas' day a matter of status:  all the gods, whatever their gender, are letting their knees loll apart regardless of what anyone else thinks. This would cause quite a difficult situation on Easyjet.

And here is Atalanta, admittedly not the kind of girl to be told not to do anything, let alone not to sit like a man. But her refusal to cross her legs or squeeze her knees demurely together doesn't seem to be disapproved of by the artist as a woman sitting like that would be censured today.

My final piece of evidence is the so-called 'Capitoline Triad' of Juno, Jupiter and Minerva. It is true that Jupiter has his knees casually apart, but he is not extending either leg into his wife or daughter's space. And they both apparently feel free to sit with their knees relaxed and apart, just like him.

Does this mean that we have actually gone backwards since the Renaissance in terms of sitting etiquette being dictated by patriarchy? I am certainly having a hard time figuring out how to translate 'manspread' into ancient Greek.* 

*[Colleagues have suggested several solutions since I first posted this, including ὀνοσκελίζομαι (Brady Kiesling), the adjectives πανταχογόνατος (Kevin Solez)χαυνόπρωκτος, or διαπεπλιγμένος (Pavlos Avlamis) and new portmanteau verb ἀν(δρ)οίγνυμι (Nirvanya Visnjic)] 

Friday, 10 November 2017

Week of the Unaccountable Oligarchs

A week where the full de-democratisation of Higher Education governance came sharply into focus for me after I watched the brilliant movie Death of Stalin, in which a cabal of unaccountable fellow oligarchs battle it out over control of the Politburo.

Management at our universities often takes no account of what even its most senior academic staff advise, even when they do it in unison. When challenged, as one was challenged by me this week, these unelected ‘leaders’ even admit it, implying that  it is fine for them to take (usually ill-informed) unilateral decisions with far-reaching implications.

What I do not understand is why Senior Leadership Teams and SManagementTs (unaffectionately known as Sluts and Smuts) bother going through the motions of consultation.  It is a sign of the times that I fear to say more because I want to keep my job for a few more years.

"Choice of Hercules", Adam Room, Grove House, Roehampton
I often feel guilty that in the 1990s, along with many other academics who might now be in positions of institutional power, I decided against climbing the management pole. I preferred to concentrate on the real business of university life: teaching, research, and communicating with the public. But that was before any of us realised that we were about to be annexed by a new professional Management Class who regard our views as worthless and our consultative procedures a Jurassic inheritance completely at odds with their commercialised concept of education and intellectual labour.

"Hercules and the Hydra", Joseph Kirsch, 1937
I also heard this week from an excellent middle-aged classicist at an English university, a man for whom I write references, that he and one other lecturer have been made redundant as of 30th June 2018. This would be bad enough at the best of times, but in this case he had only recently signed a contract for a full-time continuing post. He had given up some other non-recoverable lucrative teaching contracts in order to accept it. Some administrative cock-up at Management level meant that the financial implications of the appointment were realised in the local Kremlin far too late, and so two individuals’ futures have been abruptly and arbitrarily sacrificed.

I may not be hearing the sound of physical corpses being kicked down the back stairs by the KGB. But the movie seems painfully relevant, and not only to the Tory Cabinet.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Diary of a Peripatetic Classicist in Ulster & the Midwest

A longer blog than usual after a week dashing between events in Belfast, Ohio and Philadelphia. A public discussion on Saturday of the vitality of ancient Greek stories was organised by BBC Radio Northern Ireland. It was a joy to meet the author of the bestselling Orchard Book of Greek Myths—the eloquent Geraldine McCaughrean. And to have an interviewer as well-read in Homer and Aristotle as William Crawley was a delightful surprise.

The venue was Mount Stewart, an elegant 19th-century stately home and garden decorated by Edith, the 7th Marchioness Londonderry, who liked to cavort as Circe alongside her daughters dressed as Sirens. The family’s Greek obsession goes back to the 2nd Marquess (Lord Castlereagh) who masterminded the nation’s purchase of the Parthenon marbles from Lord Elgin. The Scottish opportunist gave Castlereagh this exquisite  fifth-century Athenian funerary sculpture as a thank-you present.

Inter-Aristocratic Backhander
On Sunday I faced the most unpleasant airport staff I have ever encountered. Two British employees of Air Canada, who appeared to be having a lovers’ tiff, refused to let me board my flight to Toronto airport at which I was ticketed to transfer onto a flight to Columbus, Ohio. 

I failed to acquire a visa on my mobile phone. The Father Of My Children managed to sort it out at home, but too late. I did finally arrive at Columbus, in a foul mood, many hours later than expected, but in time to lecture on what movies Aristotle would have chosen to illustrate his moral philosophy.

My Columbus host, Professor Fritz Graf, is a world authority on ancient religion, magic, and inscriptions. I was treated to a private viewing of some of his centre’s best ‘squeezes’ (papier-mache impressions of inscribed stones). My favourite was the epitaph for a 17-year-old African girl, a weaver in Rome. She must have been excellent at her craft for her employer/owner to commission this monument.

Edith Espinal in Sanctuary
The Columbus TV news was dominated by the riveting headline BISON ESCAPE FARM and the sad case of another Edith, Edith Espinal, who is at risk of deportation to Mexico, despite having two children born in the USA. She is in permanent sanctuary at a Mennonite Church while the politicians squabble over her immigration status.

Edith Hall in Vrokastro, Crete
On to the Penn Museum at Philadelphia. Its classical collections owe much to my Pennsylvanian true namesake Edith Hall (after marriage Edith Hall Dohan). She was an expert on Cretan archaeology, and an indomitable donkey-rider. I am not a natural digger and talked instead about Aristotle and Environmentalism.

So now I’m back at Philadelphia airport, watching round-the-clock reporting of the US President’s inattentiveness to the emotions of everyone and anyone with whom he interacts.  But I have discovered a new hobby—impersonating the huge repertoire of completely dejected facial expressions used by his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I could happily watcher her glower, grimace, scowl, sneer, frown and sigh miserably, all day long, every day.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Was Homer a Sicilian Woman?

Butler MS--Cave near Trapani 'where the Cyclops lived'
An invitation to speak at Trapani in north-west Sicily proved irresistible. The topic was Victorian eccentric Samuel Butler. The manuscript of Butler’s notorious book The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) is in Trapani’s gorgeous Fardelliana Library. It argues that this epic was penned by a young Sicilian woman. After worshipping the manuscript we spoke at a standing-room only public event in the presence of The Mayor.*
With speakers Dr Christiano Turbil & Renato LoSchiavo

Butler was thrilled that one scholar in antiquity, Naucrates, thought Homer was a woman too.** Naucrates claimed both ‘Homeric’ epics were by Phantasia, child of Philosophy Prof. Nicarinos. She put them in the temple of Hephaestus at Memphis. Homer acquired copies and published them under his name. But I argued that Butler had been persuaded of the Odyssey’s feminine authorship for three other reasons.

Breeches Actress plays Mercury in Victorian Burlesque
First, he was influenced by the gender-subverting popular burlesques on the Odyssey and other classical myths which were the mid-Victorian rage at the Strand Theatre, on the corner of the Strand underneath my office where the Aldwych Underground station was built and the KCL merchandise shop now stands. Butler lived a stone’s throw away at Clifford’s Inn. The most popular Odyssey burlesques were by his exact Cambridge contemporary F.C. Burnand. Young women played the heroic male roles and spoke in the street-smart contemporary English which Butler used for his own Homer translations.
Strand Theatre, left corner where KCL now is

Second, femininity is a ‘mask’ for social class.  Butler’s theory and 1900 Odyssey outraged scholars because  he implied that ancient Greeks heroes were working and lower-middle class. His gods, Professors sneered, spoke ‘like angry housemaids’. In Butler’s mind, the plebeian London theatre audiences had fused with the Sicilian peasantry and residents of ancient Ithaca.

Third, in 1882 a student at Butler’s own Cambridge college published the first English translation of the massive Japanese 11th-century epic romance Genji Monogatari, sensationally written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu. The translator was Kenchio Suyematz, a high-level Japanese aristocrat whose residency at St. John’s attracted national attention.  If the Japanese national epic was authored by a woman, why not the ancient Greek one?

A perfect trip, rounded off by visits to the nearby ancient theatre and temple at Segesta. Then I returned to launch this year’s undergraduate course at KCL and, in Kent, my ACE campaign to get Classical subjects into every state school in the land, on which see the project website. Constant activity, but, however knackering, that's the way I like it.
* Organised by the super-efficient and super-hospitable Renato LoSchiavo and Diego Grammatico.

** As cited by the mythographer Ptolemy Chennos, himself quoted by  Photius of Constantinople.

Segesta Theatre--Diego Grammatico and Christiano Turbil

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Medea and the Gender Realignment of Georgia

Cutting Medea-themed Cake with Prof Darchia
I’ve been Tbilisi to lecture on the most famous female Georgian of all time, Medea—sorceress, murderess, and agent of the Justice of Zeus Oath-God when her morally invertebrate husband Jason breaks his marriage vows. An international conference run by the extraordinarily enterprising classicist Professor Irine Darchia explored the complex ways in which Medea has fired cultural imaginations across time and the planet.

On a steep learning curve, I discovered that Georgians get cross when people say their only famous native son has been Stalin, aka Ioseb Jughashvili. On the contrary, women authority figures are a Georgian tradition, far more so than Medea-obsessed classicists have realised.

Nino, Georgeia's She-Enlightener
So you thought that the most important saint in Georgia was obviously dragon-slaying George, also chosen as England’s national patron by Edward III in 1327? Forget it—the individual who brought Christianity to the Georgians was not George at all, but his cousin Saint Nina (aka Nino), ‘Equal to the Apostles, Enlightener of Georgia’.

Tomb of Nana, Converted by Nino
Nino was trained in her faith by a wise woman called Nianfora, went to the Caucasus, was aided by a gardener’s wife called Anastasia, and converted the people there, starting with Sidonia, six other prominent Jewish women and Royal Consort Nana (previously a Venus-worshipper). Georgia should really be called Ninopolis. George never even visited.

Georgia's Best She-King, Tamara
And the most effective monarch of Georgia in history was King Tamara (there was no word for Queen) in the 12th-13th centuries. She was such a capable child that her father George III made her his joint ruler at the age of 12. She led the successful defence of her people from serial invasions, expanded their territory, banished her first husband for immorality, married a better one, had two fine children, and oversaw the ‘Golden Age’ of Georgian culture.

Unsmiling Medea waves the fleece at western exploiters in Batumi
As a result, the country’s national epic, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, was composed in her lifetime. An allegorical embodiment of her, the exquisite Nestan-Darejan, is the inspiration of its courtly action. 

Move over, George and Joseph: it is Nino, Nana, Sidonia and Tamara as well as the defiant Medea who are the real representatives of your country. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Ancient Nomads, Modern Travellers

Siberian Scythians' Self-Portrait, c. 400 BCE
It has been Week of the Nomad. The new British Museum Scythians exhibition is revelatory. It reminded me of Tom Gunn’s immortal poem ‘Hedonism’:

   After the Scythians, how advance
      In the pursuit of happiness?
   They went around in leather pants,
    And every night smoked cannabis.

At the same time, Travellers have been encamped in two fields beside our home in Cambridgeshire. They have been polite and friendly. They are unobtrusive but have a laugh with me when our dog plays with theirs.

The prejudiced coverage in the local press has been shocking. So have the expressions of terror and outrage amongst my non-nomadic fellow villagers. Travellers have always faced harassment, and difficulty finding places to park caravans, but the drastic decrease in available Common Land over the last decades has made their situation much tougher. The pernicious Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 eroded the duties of local councils to furnish adequate sites for them and expanded police powers of summary eviction.

Spencer: Divisive and Unhelpful Remarks
Members of one Traveller family received sentences this week at Nottingham Crown Court for running a slavery racket in Lincolnshire. Their behaviour to the workers they abused  was appalling, and so was their defence claim that they were ‘only’ doing what other Travellers did all over the country.  But I could not believe the irresponsibility of Timothy Spencer QC when he said, on no evidence whatsoever, that he feared they were correct ‘that all Travellers had workers operating under similar conditions.’

There are at least 300,000 Travellers in Britain. As Bill Forrester of the National Association of Gypsy and Traveller Officers said in response to Spencer’s outburst, ‘the vast majority of them ‘are just as outraged by modern-day slavery as the vast majority of the non-Traveller communities.’ There are plenty of modern-day slaves exploited in Britain by people living in houses.

So why do Travellers of all origins—Roma, Irish, Eastern European—arouse such hostility? Ignorance of their way of life is one factor, but I believe another is unacknowledged envy. I suffer from no romantic illusions about Traveller lifestyles. Yet I do not think I am alone in feeling that the 60,000 years during which every Homo Sapiens wandered the planet in pursuit of food, eventually with portable tents and in company with herds of livestock and cooperative dogs, were in many ways preferable to the sedentary life of the modern city-dweller.

My Idea of a Good Time
The ancient Greeks saw nomadic peoples of Scythia, Libya and Ethiopia as utopian—more egalitarian, more virtuous and more just—than the agriculturalists and bricklayers of the great ‘civilisations’ of Sumer, Egypt and Iran. I know that I often long in the morning to emerge from my tent to watch the sun rise over a different valley from yesterday. I get depressed if I have no travel lined up in my diary for a month or two. We all need to acknowledge our Inner Hunter-Gatherer-Itinerant-Pastoralist and stop fanning the flames of prejudice like Judge Spencer did this week.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

A Serious Response to Rees-Mogg's views on Abortion

The Etonian MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who claims to have become a Tory at the age of five, and has burdened his own sixth child with the name ‘Sixtus’, told us this week that he is opposed to abortion. This means abortion at any point after conception and under all circumstances, including where a pregnancy is the result of rape.

Much as I disagree with him, I acknowledge that his views are internally consistent. I do not understand the idea that abortion should be illegal except when a woman has been raped, when she should be ‘allowed’ one. Either you think abortion is equivalent to the killing of a post-partum human or you don’t. If abortion is equivalent to murder, then it is indefensible under any circumstances.

The one position which is entirely inconsistent is to say that abortion is absolutely wrong ‘unless the woman was raped’. According to this view, child murder is fine if the woman did not want the sex. Such a view would clearly be motivated by a desire to control women’s sexual activity and punish them for having sex voluntarily.

But most Britons think abortion is not equivalent to the murder of a post-partum human, which means that other reasons for abortion may be valid. Under current UK law, there are several reasons why the two required doctors can ‘agree’ to ‘let’ a woman have an abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, and these do indeed rest on the premise that a woman’s mental and physical health is more important than the unborn potential human. Moreover, doctors may take financial and social factors into consideration.

The current law in the UK (excluding the antediluvian state of affairs in Northern Ireland) works well enough in practice. But it is surely wrong that abortion is still a crime unless signed off by those two doctors.  Along with the British Medical Association, I am convinced that it is a medical rather than a legal issue. We are currently in the situation where a woman who succeeds in taking an abortion pill without ‘permission’, however early in the pregnancy, is committing a crime for which, unbelievably, there is a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

This needs to change. It would be a sign of a healthy democracy if all the journalists filling columns with responses to Sixtus’ dad could use those inches to discuss potential reforms to the Abortion Act 1967 instead.