Breaking Out

The Throne of Labdacus

Gjertrud Schnackenberg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,101 pp., $23.00

In a devastating 1920 attack on Gilbert Murray’s translation of the Medea, T.S. Eliot bemoaned the fact that “the Classics have…lost their place as a pillar of the social and political system.” The complaint, of course, is an old one; writers have been grumbling about the decline of the classics since Aristophanes’ Frogs, in which the theater god Dionysus, dismayed by the sorry state of the Athenian theater, descends to the Underworld to fetch back Aeschylus and Euripides from the dead.

Still, times do change; it’s hard not to think that the deterioration of the classics’ influence between Eliot’s time and our own is even more marked than that between Aristophanes’ and Eliot’s. You suspect that the average English university student of the 1920s knew what language the ancient Romans spoke; as the poet Dana Gioia points out in a recent essay, the average American college student doesn’t. (Nor, apparently, does he know in which century the American, let alone the Roman, Civil War took place.)

It’s this deterioration that makes the rest of Eliot’s essay seem almost touching now. Here is his prescription for the ailing health of the classics:

If [the classics] are to survive, to justify themselves as literature, as an element in the European mind, as the foundation for the literature we hope to create, they are very badly in need of persons capable of expounding them. We need some one…to explain how vital a matter it is, if Aristotle may be said to have been a moral pilot of Europe, whether we shall or shall not drop that pilot. And we need a number of educated poets who shall at least have opinions about Greek drama, and whether it is or is not of any use to us…. Greek poetry will never have the slightest vitalizing effect upon English poetry if it can only appear masquerading as a vulgar debasement of the eminently personal idiom of Swinburne.

Good teachers, then, are what we need; but good poets, too. The irony is that starting almost exactly at the time of Eliot’s death in 1965—beginning, that is, with the intellectual upheavals and academic identity crises of the Sixties and Seventies, and continuing on through the Eighties and Nineties when the ” Culture Wars” raged inside and outside the academy—classics as a discipline has been faced with a dilemma that even the gloomy Eliot couldn’t have foreseen. Over the past forty years, the question hasn’t been (or hasn’t merely been) whether the Greek and Roman masterpieces justify themselves as literature, but whether high literature itself, to say nothing of “the European mind,” is still a legitimate and central object of study and of cultural preoccupation—whether they’re worth “expounding” in the first place. Because the very premises of Eliot’s argument about the importance of the classics are themselves now contested, his further assumptions about the “uses” to which …

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