Criticism & Features


NBCC Criticism Finalist Mary Beard in Conversation with Kristin Steele


Thanks to The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of their students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2013 in our 30 Books 2013 series.

Kristin Steele, on behalf of the School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Mary Beard about her book Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations (Liveright), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2013 NBCC awards.

Kristin Steele: Each chapter in Confronting the Classics originated as a review or an essay. Tell us a little about the process of adapting each of these for the book. What was the most challenging aspect of that process, and how did you make it work?

Mary Beard: The changes weren't perhaps as radical as you might think. Each of these reviews were written for papers or magazines which publish 'essay-style' reviews (in fact some people have been known to complain that they are more essays than reviews). So the original aim was to introduce general readers to a significant area of the ancient world and its controversies (not to tell the author off for his/her shoddy footnotes). That made them much easier to adapt here, and to make them coherent parts of what I hope has become a coherent whole. Of course, there were some changes—some of those little topical references (no longer topical) that you find in most reviews, comparisons with other books, and—yes—the occasional pedantic nit-picking!

KS: We often think of conflict when it comes to classical study, but you point out the importance of humor in the ancient world. In Chapter 5 you write, “Laughter was always a favourite device of ancient monarchs and tyrants, as well as being a weapon used against them.”  Tell us a little bit about the place of humor in their daily lives. More specifically, how did the culture of jokes differ for ordinary people versus those in power?

MB: The Greeks and Romans put great store by humor and laughter. And you're right, it's an area that has suffered rather by our modern sense that—with the exception of some not very approachable comedies—the ancients were terribly 'serious.' (The best example of a casualty here is Marcus Tullius Cicero, a man we now know as Rome's greatest, and probably most pompous, orator. In the Roman world he had the reputation of being a persistent jokester—in fact, they used to say that his trouble was that he couldn't stop joking.) There is a considerable amount of ancient writing on laughter, when it was useful or dangerous, and what caused it. But it is still hard to get face to face with the real laughter of the real Roman street. One of the most intriguing ways into that is a surviving Roman joke book, probably compiled in the fifth century CE, but going back much earlier. It's a collection of some 260 jokes, ranging from the feeble to the quite funny. (One of my favourites goes: “A man meets a friend whom he thinks has died. 'Hello,' he says, 'I thought you were dead.' 'No,' comes the reply, 'You can see I'm alive.' 'But the man who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you are,' says his friend.) This may represent the kind of joke that was bantered backward and forward by ordinary people. But it is possible that this joke book itself is a rather academic compilation, assembled by some Roman intellectual trying to classify different types of humor.

KS: In the last section of the book, scholars themselves are examined. Chapter 30 asks the question: “What gets left out?” and more specifically, “What gets included, what excluded from the retrospective accounts of famous lives?” Tell us a little about how you approach both finding and filling in those holes. As a critic, where do you begin?

MB: This question raises all kinds of issues about biography and how we tell the stories of people's lives, and how we make them fit our own purposes and agendas. I first thought about this years ago when I worked on the life of a pioneering woman classicist in the UK, Jane Ellen Harrison. I soon found how the orthodox version of her life had simply left out great chunks of her experience (particular friendships for example)—and how her memory had been fought over, between her rival pupils, almost from the moment she died. I wrote a book which tried to write some of those conflicts back into the story and to fill some of the gaps. The essays in Confronting continue that work. It's partly a question of trying to bring some of the more difficult aspects of a person back into the light. (Eduard Fraenkel was a great professor of Latin. He also—to put it in our terms—harassed his female students. We have to decide to face that.) It's partly a question of not oversimplifying the complexity of past lives. I hate such phrases (often found in obituaries) as “He was never happier than when teaching his pupils the niceties of Greek grammar.” That cannot possibly be true!

KS: In several chapters you comment on the portrayal of the classical world within fiction, film, and fine art and, for example, reference key historical moments in Everitt's Augustus as “over-imaginative reconstructions.” Do you find that most artistic renditions of this kind are overly embellished retellings? If so, can these retellings be of value, anyway?

MB: The important thing is to recognise the reconstructions and embellishments for what they are. The pleasure that we take in the classical world would be much poorer if we restricted ourselves to the bare 'facts.' Part of the fun of classics lies in our imaginations (I loved the movie Gladiator, for example). My irritation, however, rises when we confuse those reconstructions with the facts.

KS: Throughout the book you point out many of the misconceptions, exaggerations, and skewed appropriations of the classical world. For example, in Chapter 24, you point out Bobby Kennedy's quoting a slight mistranslation of Aeschylus in a speech upon a tragic event. To what extent can scholarly discourse help correct problems such as these? Are certain misconceptions so viral that we can expect continued misrepresentation of the classical world?

MB: The classical world will continue to be misrepresented, and skewed. In many ways I hope it does, because it shows that it is still being constructively used within our culture. That said, it is sometimes the job of the classicist to say “Hang on, that's not actually what Aeschylus wrote!” The worst victim here, I am afraid, is Thucydides. It is hard enough to understand what Thucydides was trying to say in the first place—but it sure isn't what a load of modern international relations students think he said.

KS: Confronting the Classics seems to speak to both the scholar and the student. In the afterword, you explain that your hope is to “bring both old hands and new into the classical conversation.” Why is accessibility to this material important you?

MB: If subjects are to thrive, they have to have a resonance outside the academy. In the case of classics, it is so important to the very building blocks of Western culture (try thinking Dante without Virgil, or James Joyce without Homer) that we will (culturally) impoverish future generations, if we don't keep it a subject that is accessible to many. That's not to say the whole world should be forced to learn Latin, but we do need to keep the access to our deep cultural history wide open.


mary beardMary Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, and Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Her books include The Invention of Jane Harrison (HarvardUP, 2000) and The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (HarvardUP, 2009). Her Sather lectures (UCBerkeley) on Roman Laughter will shortly be published by UCPress. She is currently working on a history of ancient Rome for Liveright.

kristensteeleKristin Steele is a second-year MFA creative writing student in nonfiction, where she is writing a thesis on central Appalachian culture. She is currently working on a collection of essays about growing up in southern West Virginia. She lives in New York City.