‘There are more people teaching Ancient Greek in China than there are in Britain,’ declares Professor Edith Hall from the distinctively academic chaos of her study at King’s College, London. ‘Now you can either wring your hands about this, or do what I intend to, and go and talk to them! At the Zhejiang University [one of China’s C9 universities, their Ivy league] they’re translating Greek philosophy — Plato and Aristotle. They’re also looking at ancient Athens with a view to instituting a big discussion about democracy. This is the next frontier for Western classics.’
Professor Hall is in a particularly strong position to appreciate the irony that while funding for Classics shrinks in the UK, across the world people ranging from Iranian feminists to Maori warriors are happily embracing the works of Homer and Euripides. Last year she hit headlines when she resigned from the Royal Holloway, London, because ill-conceived budget cuts decreed that a Classics department was no longer necessary. If the relevance Nazis are in any doubt as to how Classics can continue to be the lifeblood of our culture, rather than an embarrassingly dusty appendage, they should pop down to the British Academy to the conference Hall has organized called ‘Ancient Greek Myth and Modern Conflict in World Fiction.’ Here a pantheon of writers and academics are demonstrating the way that Greek tragedy and epic continue to shine a light on difficult topics ranging from the Holocaust to Latin American gang culture.
‘For a long time Classics has been viewed as the curriculum for the European imperial elite, everyone knows that,’ continues Hall. ‘But what we want to know is why, for example, countries that have been under imperial rule, and have been negative about the Western realist novel, now think it’s OK to use the Greeks. There’s a ‘new classics’ that really emerged with the new world order at the end of the Eighties — after [the Caribbean poet] Derek Walcott published ‘Omeros’ in 1990. At that point Classics-inspired fiction takes off in an extraordinary way: now there is quantitatively more Greek myth going on in prose, film, and theatre internationally than any other genre [the range and diversity of these works can be seen in Rita Dove’s Oedipus-based play The Darker Face of the Earth (1994), the Nigerian Femi Osofisan’s drama Tegonni: An African Antigone (1999) , and the Odyssey-inspired movie Cold Mountain (2003)]]
Hall’s co-convenor for the conference is Katie Billotte, a King’s PhD student whose studies have focused on the reception of Greek and Roman tragedy in modern Latin American culture. She is also interested in the way such works play out in the Middle East. ‘In Iran there’s a lot of Odyssey fan fiction written in Farsi,’ she says. ‘I find that fascinating — you don’t want the Culture Minister to come down on you, so you’re writing anonymously on the internet, and using the Odyssey to express yourself even though you’ve been brought up in a very different tradition. At the conference we’ve also got [the Iraqi scholar] Feria Gazhoul speaking about women and violence in Arab culture as understood through Greek tragic figures like Iphigenia [who was famously sacrificed by her father Agamemnon] and Medea [who murdered her children]. The Greeks have a lot to say about cultures where female oppression and associated violence is still legitimized.’
It’s of course not just women in conflicted situations who find the Greeks speak directly to them. Cultures dominated by chest-beating ‘call-me-a-metrosexual-and-you’re-dead’ masculinity also respond strongly. ‘We have a speaker, Simon Perris, from New Zealand, who is going to be speaking about how The Oresteia speaks loudly to Maori culture,’ declares Hall, ‘because the Maoris are seagoing, and there are very strong definitions of masculinity, family, and the importance of legitimacy in their society which resonate with Greek myth.’ Billotte adds: ‘A lot of Greek tragedy maps very strongly onto youth gang culture. In Los Angeles there’s a writer [playwright Luis Alfaro] who wrote Electra from a gang perspective. [The play, Electricidad, is the sequel to Oedipus el Rey which also looked at gang and prison culture]
The sheer breadth of material available for the conference illustrates an amusing paradox for cultural relativists. While unabashed championing of the Classics might be dismissed as elitist and imperial, not to champion Classics, when it speaks so strongly to such a diverse range of individuals across the globe, seems blinkered and parochial. ‘I don’t want it to be seen as a situation where we say that classical myths are superior to other mythology,’ says Hall. ‘I just want to hear why there are more Odyssey novels and Oresteia novels than there are, for example, Ramayana novels. For years we haven’t been allowed to be exceptionalist about the Greeks. But this is a fruitful question, not a problematically imperial one.’
Ancient Greek Myth and Modern Conflict in World Fiction since 1989 – is at the British Academy today.