Antiquity Matters

Achilles fighting against Memnon, Leiden Rijksmuseum

Antiquity Matters

Antiquity Matters, Frederic Raphael, Yale University Press, 2017, £20, 376 pp., $26.00, reviewed by STODDARD MARTIN

At first glance, this is a work of almost bewildering erudition. Reminded of Roberto Calasso’s Cadmus and Harmony, one prepares to sit back and enjoy a flow of superior knowledge, relinquishing desire for too many sign-posts and reposing faith in the pilot to steer the bark he sets us in towards a sound destination. Shoals and rapids will be crossed, and you may have to hang on. Indeed, at some moments, as in a riverine disaster film, survival may oblige you to bail out the bottom and caulk holes in the planks.        

Frederic Raphael is an author who has penned numerous screenplays, novels, studies of gestural romantics – Byron, for example, to whom he alludes, as befits what is in part a paean to Greece. Raphael came of age in an era when the fictive odyssey of James Joyce was seen as a ne plus ultra of the Word. Now ostensibly nearing his end – he is 87 – he does not have the time or urge to write for pedestrian intellects. Men of wit are his chosen: notably those trained in the classics, or at least familiar with them. A dying breed these days, they were alive and well when Wittgenstein impressed him at Cambridge; and nostalgia for the back and forth of ephebes and cognoscenti speaks through his remarkable book.

One may fall prey to motion sickness at times, then recover, resolving to concentrate more. A perception is grabbed onto, some apparently extraneous allusion, and one is carried away again in an exuberant flood, colliding against rocks that remind of distant matters – connections to Arthurian legend, Nazi aspirations or such flotsam from the day-before-yesterday as hove into view. These are conveyed often via footnotes, many of which are delights in themselves. Slowly it emerges that Raphael’s initial purpose is syncretic – that like some theosophist of more than a century past he is intent on showing us where and how our great metaphysical traditions intersect, forming an essential prisca theologia.

That, however, is subdominant. His main motive is to navigate through lore he has loved all his life and to underline its relevance still. Chapter headings might have helped, but as in Ulysses they are absent, perhaps deleted in the interests of free-play of the mind. Numbers instead mark our progress, up to 79, though Raphael casts a cold eye on Pythagorean mystics of numerology. As we eddy and swirl, we realise that early confusions were owed mostly to being in a realm of pre-history: myth and god. Gradually, as in human development itself, the course of the stream widens to accommodate legend and fact, or anyway written commentary. We are sped on now at a less raucous rate through the rise and fall of Hellenic civilisation, advent of city-states, leagues and wars with Persia, Athens vs Sparta and ultimate dispersal following the scourge of Alexander’s Macedonian hegemony.        

Ashore we are enabled to glimpse Aeschylus, Plato, Pericles, Alcibiades, Aristotle, Demosthenes and many less illustrious figures from times B.C.E. Past this pantheon, Raphael glides as by a gathering of informed friends, sharing banter and, since he is a time-traveller, tossing asides to reincarnations of classical confrères in Voltaire, Disraeli, Orson Welles and the speechwriters of George W Bush. The exercise of learnèd wit is not mere showing-off: Raphael is establishing the credibility of what Nietzsche dubbed ‘eternal return’, notably of human types and historical cruxes such as W. B. Yeats tried to chart in his oft-neglected, too derided late great work, A Vision. Raphael accomplishes this without recourse to séance or gyre. His version of the all-embracing (‘Anything less than the all-embracing might be a pretension,’ Mallarmé mused) is a bookman’s return to a kind of high table chat once familiar in college while post-prandially finishing off a flask of rare claret.        

Devotion to Greek civilisation is a mark of the true classicist; thus its Latin successor is ‘properly’ confined to a last fifty-plus pages – about a sixth of this book. The Greeks formed a charismatic phase, the Romans an organisational, we could add, adapting Max Weber. This betokens no reduction in Raphael’s zest as he steers us through flatlands debouching to sea, noting en route the Latin poets’ knack for lyric, satire and invective with further repartee and asides, about Wilde, Pound, Kafka etc. as well as Gore Vidal’s script for a film on Caligula’s ‘bisexual debaucheries’. A high point in passage through decades of consuls, emperors and their feared or fêted literary stars is Catullus, of whose poems Raphael once co-edited a volume. Mini-portraits of Cicero, Virgil, Seneca and more trigger piquant reflections, not least in regard to their motives – often as opportunistic as those of well-known names in our time, by which I do not mean the author himself, though an intriguing note on the book’s verso page tells us it is ‘published with assistance from the foundation established in memory of Amasa Stone Mather of the class of 1907, Yale College’.

The Maecenas of now need not be a favoured fixer for Caesar, nor should descent from a famed family of witch-fearing Puritan theocrats dissuade a soul from delving deep into this Mather-backed maelstrom of wonders, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible notwithstanding. Such is the sort of link Raphael himself delights in dumping onshore for us to marvel at, like a net-full of gleaming sardines. All is encompassed by his desire to fasten ties forward through time from the first generations of occidental culture. The accomplishment may graciously cap a career evidently as invigorated as it is invigorating. But who knows? From a sensibility so clearly unbound by age, future excursions may be on offer. Raphael concludes with Tacitus and his perversely influential Germania.

Illusions of culture and motivations of race have ever been useful in fostering war, as Greek chieftains knew. Seldom, however, have they led to ends so apocalyptic as what Himmler, Rosenberg and the rest of an evil, envious crew perpetrated, via mistaken Nietzschean riffs on what they had been taught of the classics. ‘When we talk or write about the Mediterranean world in modern terms,’ our guide warns us in a last sentence, ‘we should be aware that its inhabitants would not be at home in what wishful ingenuity or tendentious hindsight chooses to parade as the restored face or translated logos of antiquity’. Sage counsel.

Elgin Marbles, British Museum

Dr Stoddard Martin is an academic, author and publisher

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