Maurizio Bettini (tr. John McManamon), Classical Indiscretions: A Millennial Enquiry into the State of the Classics. Duckworth, London 2001, Pp. 160. ISBN 0-7156-2970-0. UK£12.99.
Richard J. Evans
University of South Africa, Pretoria
This thin volume contains an 'enquiry into the state of the Classics' as human civilisation enters a new millennium. In order to pronounce on the health or otherwise of the subject, however, it is first necessary to define it (p. 7), although, while Bettini insists that 'the classics' are at home everywhere (pp. 12f.), his own definition immediately confines this phenomenon to the West: 'The classics have been studied for over two thousand years, and during that time they have been read in the most diverse circumstances and disparate places' (pp. 7f.). Since Bettini lists only Greco-Roman texts -- 'we measure their existence on a scale of millenia' (p. 7) -- the parameters of his investigation are somewhat limited: 'The classics comprise our "common language" -- shared not only with the past but with all who come from that past' (p. 7).
The author obviously believes that much of what he sees around him in contemporary society is derived from classical culture (Chapter 2: 'The Tyranny of Time', pp. 14-37) -- etymology, philology, philosophy, all contribute to the 'essential buzz' or 'sfizio' of modern café society (Chapter 3: 'The Urge for Instant Gratification', pp. 38-59). Alas this is more a feature of the Mediterranean than northern Europe where 'sfizio' doesn't quite capture the atmosphere of the pub or even the nightclub of temperate climates. While there may be a link in language and even in societal behaviour between the Greco-Roman civilisation and today there is surely quite a different connection between ancient and modern literature and how that bond is perceived. Here, Bettini may have stronger grounds for arguing that without Homer there cannot have been a Virgil, without Virgil no Dante, without Sophocles no Shakespeare, without Propertius no Ezra Pound, without Petronius no Scott Fitzgerald. The argument becomes futile, however, since presumably humankind would or should have produced other geniuses, better or worse, and one might counter the author's thesis by suggesting that original thought need not always be based on the past. If that were so then modern culture is worse than simply derivative -- it is entirely bankrupt. Nobody today would or should suggest that this is so, especially as fewer and fewer among us continue to advance the argument for the relevance of, or a pivotal role for, Greco-Roman civilisation.
Having established his link between ancient and modern, following a brief interlude (Chapter 4: 'Belated Invocation', p. 60, an appeal to a higher being -- a superfluous item), Bettini proceeds to Chapter 5 (pp. 61-77, 'Time and the Canon') though a canon of classical literature is not really forthcoming, while comments such as 'the classics as a source of excitement' (p. 66) are never fully explained. Chapter 6 ('The Search for the Classics', pp. 78-122), the most substantial section, tackles questions such as: 'What were classical authors really like?' (p.78), and Ovid (pp. 79-82), Homer (pp. 82-88) and Propertius (pp. 88-91) are presented as case-studies. To find the ancient writers' monuments (pp. 91-94), archaeological and legendary evidence must necessarily be explored, not always fruitfully. Furthermore, in equating Indiana Jones with a legendary hero, Bettini produces inaccuracy since the first adventure in which this archaeologist features was set in India and not in Egypt -- that was the second (p. 95). We have to be content with 'the classics have been around for a very long time. They precede all other Western literature.' (p. 111) 'Do not be alarmed. I am fully aware that I have already defined the classics as just something we happen to encounter, or 'bump into' along the way . . .' (p. 115). Perhaps it is just too easy or not entertaining enough to simply suggest a coherent classical canon, so rather 'bid farewell to definitions' and 'search' instead 'for surprise and for mysteries' (p. 117).
Finally, Chapter 7 ('The Classics in an Age of Indiscretion', pp. 123-130) Bettini turns to unmasking authors, but only Sophocles and Vergil are discussed, and so what about the sexual proclivities of Livy, Tacitus, or Ammianus Marcellinus? It truly doesn't bear thinking about, and although Bettini suggests 'that they deliberately made themselves safe from any denigration of their character' (p. 130), this contradicts the essence of his argument earlier in the chapter. Bettini concludes ('Epilogue', pp. 131-143) by noting that 'writing' is 'the most powerful tool we possess for the representation and conservation of our culture' and 'in the vast archive that we have slowly built up over the course of centuries, the body of our culture is enclosed.'
Read this volume for its entertainment value, it is thought-provoking in a rhapsodic sort of way, and is perhaps designed more for an Italian readership than any other. Whether there is a serious message or agenda here is questionable.