Why Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a cult classic



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Kaya Scodelario as Catherine Earnshaw in the 2011 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
Film 4 and UK Film Council/IMDB

Sophie Alexandra Frazer, University of Sydney

In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.

Nothing about the reception of Emily Brontë’s first and only published novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847 suggested that it would grow to achieve its now-cult status. While contemporary critics often admitted its power, even unwillingly responding to the clarity of its psychological realism, the overwhelming response was one of disgust at its brutish and brooding Byronic hero, Heathcliff, and his beloved Catherine, whose rebellion against the norms of Victorian femininity neutered her of any claim to womanly attraction.

The characters speak in tongues heavily inflected with expletives, hurling words like weapons of affliction, and indulging throughout in a gleeful schadenfreude as they attempt to exact revenge on each other. It is all rather like a relentless chess game in hell. One of its early reviewers wrote that the novel “strongly shows the brutalising influence of unchecked passion”.

Moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum claims, however, that “we must ourselves confront the shocking in Wuthering Heights, or we will have no chance of understanding what Emily Brontë is setting out to do”. The reader must give herself over to the horror of Brontë’s inverted world.

She must jump, as it were, without looking to see if there is water below. It is a Paradise Lost of a novel: its poetry Miltonic, its style hyperbolic, and its cruelty relentless. It has left readers and scholars alike stumbling to locate its seemingly Delphic meaning, as we try to make sense of the Hobbesian world it portrays.

Sir Laurence Olivier (Heathcliff) and Merle Oberon (Cathy) from the 1939 film adaptation.
Photoplay/Wikimedia Commons

The author remains as elusive as her enigmatic masterpiece. As new critical appraisals emerge in this, Emily Brontë’s bicentenary year, the scant traces she left of her personal life beyond her poetry and several extant diary papers, are re-fashioned accordingly.

Described as the “sphinx of the moors”, her obstinate mystery has lured countless pilgrims to the Haworth home in which she passed almost all of her life, and the surrounding moorlands that were the landscape of her daily walks and the inspiration for her writing. Brontë relinquished her jealous hold of the manuscript only after considerable pressure from her sister Charlotte, who insisted that it be published.

The Bronte sisters painted by their brother Branwell: from left to right, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte.
Wikimedia Commons

Wuthering Heights was released pseudonymously under the name Ellis Bell, published in an edition that included her sister Anne’s lesser known work, Agnes Grey. Emily was to die just 12 months later, in December 1848.

As Brontë biographer Juliet Barker writes, the writer stubbornly maintained the pretence of health even in the final stages of consumption, insisting on getting out of bed to take care of her much loved dog, Keeper. She resisted death with remarkable self-discipline but, “her unbending spirit finally broken”, she acquiesced to a doctor’s attendance. It was by then too late; she was just 30.

After her sister’s death, Charlotte Brontë wrote two biographical prefaces to accompany a new edition of Wuthering Heights, instantiating the mythology both of her sister – “stronger than a man, simpler than a child” – and her infamous novel: “It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”




Read more:
Why Charlotte Brontë still speaks to us – 200 years after her birth


A feminist icon

It is that property of wildness that has compelled artists from Sylvia Plath to Kate Bush, whose 1978 hit single, Wuthering Heights, was representative of the magnetic pull of Brontë’s fierce heroine, Catherine. The novel has maintained its relevance in popular culture, and its author has risen to a feminist icon.

Wuthering Heights has maintained currency in pop culture, most famously in Kate Bush’s haunting 1978 hit of the same name.

The elusiveness of the woman and the book that now seems an extension of her subjectivity, gives both a malleability that has seen Wuthering Heights transformed into various mediums: several Hollywood films, theatre, a ballet and, perhaps most incongruously, a detective novel. Brontë’s name is used to sell everything from food to dry-cleaning products.

Film versions have tended to indulge in a surfeit of romanticism, offering up visions of the lovers swooning atop windswept hills, most famously in the 1939 movie, with Laurence Olivier as a dashing Heathcliff, a heavily sanitised re-telling of what the promotional material billed as “the greatest love story of our time – or any time!” Andrea Arnold’s gritty, pared-back 2011 film is the notable exception; bleak and darkly violent, the actors speak in an at times unintelligible dialect, scrambling across a blasted wilderness as though they are animals.

Contrary to Charlotte Brontë’s revisioning, however, Wuthering Heights was not purely the product of a terrible divine inspiration, emerging partially formed from the granite rock of the Yorkshire landscape, to be hewn from Emily’s simple materials.

Instead, it is the work of a writer looking back to past Romantic forms, specifically the German incarnation of that aesthetic, infused with folkloric taboos and primal longings. Her tale of domestic gothic is housed in an intricately complex narrative architecture that works by repetition and doubling, at the fulcrum of which stands Catherine, the supremely defiant object of Heathcliff’s obsession.

At the novel’s core is the corrosiveness of love, with the titanic power of Shakespearean tragedy and the dialogic form of a Greek morality play. Two families, locked in internecine war and bound together by patrilineal inheritance, stage their abject conflict across the small geographical space that separates their respective households: the luxury and insipidity of the Grange, versus the shabby gentility, decay, and violence of the Heights.

A claustrophobic novel

It is a distinctly claustrophobic novel: although we read with a vague sense of the vastness of the moors that is its setting, the action unfolds, with few exceptions, in domestic interiors. Despite countless readings, I can conjure no distinct image of the Grange. But the outline of the Heights, with each room unfolding into yet another set of rooms, labyrinthine and imprisoning, has settled into my mind. The deeper you enter into the space of the Heights – the space of the text – the more bewildering the effect.

The love between Heathcliff and Catherine exists now as a myth operative outside any substantial relationship to the novel from which the lovers spring. It is shorthand in popular culture for doomed passion. Much of this hyper-romance gathers around Catherine’s declaration of Platonic unity with her would-be lover: “I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind.” Yet their relationship is never less than brutal.

What is it about their unearthly union, with its overtones of necrophilia and incestuous desire, that so captivates us, and why does Emily Brontë privilege this form of explicitly masochistic, irrevocable and unattainable love?




Read more:
How incest became part of the Brontë family story


Brontë’s great theme was transcendence, and I would suggest that it is the metaphysical affinity that solders these two lovers that so beguiles us. The greediness of their feeling for each other resembles nothing in reality. It is hyperreal, as Catherine and Heathcliff do not aspire so much as to be together, as to be each other. Twinned in that shared commitment and to the natural world that was the hunting-ground of their childhood play, they try, with increasing desperation, to get at each other’s souls.

Penistone Crag – a rock at the top of Ponden Kirk – is believed to have been Emily Brontë’s inspiration for the place where Cathy and Heathcliff went to be alone.
Aaron Collis/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

This is not a physically erotic coupling: the body is immaterial to their love. It is a very different notion of desire to that of Jane Eyre and Rochester, for instance, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which is very fleshy indeed. Both Catherine and Heathcliff want to get under each other’s skin, quite literally, to join and become that singular body of their childhood fantasies. It is a dream, then, of total union, of an impossible return to origins. It is not heavenly in its transcendence, but decidedly earthly. “I cannot express it”, Catherine tells her nurse Nelly Dean, who is our homely, yet not so benign, narrator:

But surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries … my great thought in living is himself. I all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be.

This notion of the self eclipsing its selfish form seems impossible for us to conceive in an age where one’s individuality is sacred. It is, however, the essence of Catherine’s tragedy: her search for her self’s home among the men who circle her is futile. Nevertheless, Emily Brontë’s radical statement of a shared ontology grounds the eroticism between the pair so that we cannot look away; and neither it seems, can the other characters in the novel.

The book’s structure is famously complex, with multiple narrators and a fluid style that results in one focalising voice shading into another. The story proper begins with Lockwood, a stranger to the rugged moorlands, a gentleman accustomed to urban life and its polite civilisations.

The terrifying nightmare he endures on his first night under Heathcliff’s roof, and the gruesomely violent outcome of his fear sets in motion the central love story that pulls all else irresistibly to it. Heathcliff’s thrice-repeated invocation of Catherine’s name, which Lockwood finds written in the margins of a book and mistakenly believes to be “nothing but a name”, works as an incantation, summoning the ghost of the woman who haunts this book.

The ConversationEmily Brontë speaks of dreams, dreams that pass through the mind “like wine through water, and alter the colour” of thoughts. If the experience of reading Wuthering Heights feels like a suspension in a state of waking nightmare, what a richly-hued vision of the fantastical it is.

Sophie Alexandra Frazer, Doctoral candidate in English, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Guide to the classics: Don Quixote, the world’s first novel – and one of the best



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The “Don Quixote” windmills in Consuegra, Spain. They were made famous by the novel in the 16th century.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC-SA

Ana Puchau de Lecea, University of Melbourne and Vicente Pérez de León, University of Melbourne

Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…

Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615) is commonly attributed to Juan de Jáuregui, yet no portrait of Cervantes has ever been authenticated.
Wikimedia Commons

This line, arguably the most famous in the history of Spanish literature, is the opening of The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the first modern novel.

Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, this is the story of Alonso Quijano, a 16th-century Spanish hidalgo, a noble, who is so passionate about reading that he leaves home in search of his own chivalrous adventures. He becomes a knight-errant himself: Don Quixote de la Mancha. By imitating his admired literary heroes, he finds new meaning in his life: aiding damsels in distress, battling giants and righting wrongs… mostly in his own head.

But Don Quixote is much more. It is a book about books, reading, writing, idealism vs. materialism, life … and death. Don Quixote is mad. “His brain’s dried up” due to his reading, and he is unable to separate reality from fiction, a trait that was appreciated at the time as funny. However, Cervantes was also using Don Quixote’s insanity to probe the eternal debate between free will and fate. The misguided hero is actually a man fighting against his own limitations to become who he dreams to be.

Open-minded, well-travelled, and very well-educated, Cervantes was, like Don Quixote himself, an avid reader. He also served the Spanish crown in adventures that he would later include in the novel. After defeating the Ottoman Empire in the battle of Lepanto (and losing the use of his left hand, becoming “the one-handed of Lepanto”), Cervantes was captured and held for ransom in Algiers.

This autobiographical episode and his escape attempts are depicted in “The Captive’s Tale” (in Don Quixote Part I), where the character recalls “a Spanish soldier named something de Saavedra”, referring to Cervantes’s second last name. Years later, back in Spain, he completed Don Quixote in prison, due to irregularities in his accounts while he worked for the government.

Tilting at windmills

In Part I, Quijano with his new name, Don Quixote, gathers other indispensable accessories to any knight-errant: his armour; a horse, Rocinante; and a lady, an unwitting peasant girl he calls Dulcinea of Toboso, in whose name he will perform great deeds of chivalry.

While Don Quixote recovers from a disastrous first campaign as a knight, his close friends, the priest and the barber, decide to examine the books in his library. Their comments about his chivalric books combine literary criticism with a parody of the Inquisition’s practices of burning texts associated with the devil. Although a few volumes are saved (Cervantes’s own La Galatea among them), most books are burned for their responsibility in Don Quixote’s madness.

Jules David, ‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’, 1887.
Wikimedia Commons

In Don Quixote’s second expedition, the peasant Sancho Panza joins him as his faithful squire, with the hopes of becoming the governor of his own island one day. The duo diverges in every aspect. Don Quixote is tall and thin, Sancho is short and fat (panza means “pot belly”). Sancho is an illiterate commoner and responds to Don Quixote’s elaborate speeches with popular proverbs. The mismatched couple has remained as a key literary archetype since then.

In perhaps the most famous scene from the novel, Don Quixote sees three windmills as fearful giants that he must combat, which is where the phrase “tilting at windmills” comes from. At the end of Part I, Don Quixote and Sancho are tricked into returning to their village. Sancho has become “quixotized”, now increasingly obsessed with becoming rich by ruling his own island.

The cover of Don Quixote Part II (1615).
Wikimedia Commons

Don Quixote was an enormous success, being translated from Spanish into the main European languages and even reaching North America. In 1614 an unknown author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, published an apocryphal second part. Cervantes incorporated this spurious Don Quixote and its characters into his own Part II, adding yet another chapter to the history of modern narrative.

Whereas Part I was a reaction to chivalric romances, Part II is a reaction to Part I. The book is set only one month after Don Quixote and Sancho’s return from their first literary quest, after they are notified that a book retelling their story has been published (Part I).

The rest of Part II operates as a game of mirrors, recalling and rewriting episodes. New characters, such as aristocrats who have also read Part I, use their knowledge to play tricks on Don Quixote and Sancho for their own amusement. Deceived by the rest of the characters, Sancho and a badly wounded Don Quixote finally return again to their village.

After being in bed for several days, Don Quixote’s final hour arrives. He decides to abandon his existence as Don Quixote for good, giving up his literary identity and physically dying. He leaves Sancho – his best and most faithful reader – in tears, and avoids further additions by any future imitators by dying.

The original unreliable narrator

The narrator of Part I’s prologue claims to write a sincere and uncomplicated story. Nothing is further from reality. Distancing himself from textual authority, the narrator declares that he merely compiled a manuscript translated by some Arab historian – an untrustworthy source at the time. The reader has to decide what’s real and what’s not.

Don Quixote is also a book made of preexisting books. Don Quixote is obsessed with chivalric romances, and includes episodes parodying other narrative subgenres such as pastoral romances, picaresque novels and Italian novellas (of which Cervantes himself wrote a few).

Don Quixote’s transformation from nobleman to knight-errant is particularly profound given the events in Europe at the time the novel was published. Spain had been reconquered by Christian royals after centuries of Islamic presence. Social status, ethnicity and religion were seen as determining a person’s future, but Don Quixote defied this. “I know who I am,” he answered roundly to whoever tried to convince him of his
“true” and original identity.

Don Quixote through the ages

Many writers have been inspired by Don Quixote: from Goethe, Stendhal, Melville, Flaubert and Dickens, to Borges, Faulkner and Nabokov.

In fact, for many critics, the whole history of the novel could justifiably be considered “a variation of the theme of Don Quixote”. Since its early success, there have also been many valuable English translations of the novel. John Rutherford and more recently Edith Grossman have been praised for their versions.

RTVE’s adaptation of Don Quixote for TV (1992).

Apart from literature, Don Quixote has inspired many creative works. Based on the episode of the wedding of Camacho in Part II, Marius Petipa choreographed a ballet in 1896. Also created for the stage, Man of La Mancha, the 1960s’ Broadway musical, is one of the most popular reimaginings. In 1992, the State Spanish TV launched a highly successful adaptation of Part I. Terry Gilliam’s much-awaited The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is only the most recent addition to a long list of films inspired by Don Quixote.

M. Petipa’s Don Quixote by the American Ballet Theatre.

The ConversationMore than 400 years after its publication and great success, Don Quixote is widely considered the world’s best book by other celebrated authors. In our own times, full of windmills and giants, Don Quixote’s still-valuable message is that the way we filter reality through any ideology affects our perception of the world.

Ana Puchau de Lecea, PhD Candidate and Teaching Associate, University of Melbourne and Vicente Pérez de León, Honorary Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How Conrad’s imperial horror story Heart of Darkness resonates with our globalised times



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Heart of Darkness follows a journey up the Congo River, but equally critiques the imperial powers back in Europe.
USAID Democratic Republic of Congo/Flickr, CC BY-NC

John Attridge, UNSW

In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or “The Heart of Darkness”, as it was known to its first readers – was first published as a serial in 1899, in the popular monthly Blackwood’s Magazine. Few of that magazine’s subscribers could have foreseen the fame that Conrad’s story would eventually garner, or the fierce debates it would later provoke.

Already, in 1922, the American poet T.S. Eliot thought the book was Zeitgeist-y enough to provide the epigraph for his epoch-defining poem, The Waste Land – although another American poet, Ezra Pound, talked him out of using it.

The same thought occurred to Francis Ford Coppola more than 50 years later, when he used Conrad’s story as the framework for his phantasmagoric Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now. Echoes of Heart of Darkness can pop up almost anywhere: the chorus to a Gang of Four song, the title of a Simpsons episode, a scene in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake.

Consider one final Heart of Darkness allusion, from Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Exit West. In the novel’s opening pages, a man with “dark skin and dark, woolly hair” appears in a Sydney bedroom, transported there by one of the mysterious portals that have appeared around the globe, connecting stable, prosperous countries with places that people need to escape from.

The “door”, as these wormholes are called, is “a rectangle of complete darkness — the heart of darkness”. This is a more complicated kind of Conrad reference. Here, “heart of darkness” is a shorthand for European stereotypes of Africa, which Conrad’s novel did its part to reinforce.

Hamid’s line plays on racist anxieties about immigration: the idea that certain places and peoples are primitive, exotic, dangerous. For contemporary readers and writers, these questions have become an unavoidable part of Conrad’s legacy, too.

Up the river

Heart of Darkness is the story of an English seaman, Charles Marlow, who is hired by a Belgian company to captain a river steamer in the recently established Congo Free State. Almost as soon as he arrives in the Congo, Marlow begins to hear rumours about another company employee, Kurtz, who is stationed deep in the interior of the country, hundreds of miles up the Congo River.

Joseph Conrad.
Wikimedia

The second half of the novel – or novella, as it’s often labelled – relates Marlow’s journey upriver and his meeting with Kurtz. His health destroyed by years in the jungle, Kurtz dies on the journey back down to the coast, though not before Marlow has had a chance to glimpse “the barren darkness of his heart”. The coda to Marlow’s Congo story takes place in Europe: questioned by Kurtz’s “Intended” about his last moments, Marlow decides to tell a comforting lie, rather than reveal the truth about his descent into madness.

Although Conrad never met anyone quite like Kurtz in the Congo, the structure of Marlow’s story is based closely on his experiences as mate and, temporarily, captain of the Roi des Belges, a Congo river steamer, in 1890. By this time, Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Russian-ruled part of Poland in 1857, had been a seaman for about 15 years, rising to the rank of master in the British merchant service. (The remains of the only sailing ship he ever commanded, the Otago, have ended up in Hobart, a rusted, half-submerged shell on the banks of the Derwent.)

The remains of the Otago, the ship Conrad commanded, in Hobart.
John Attridge

Sick with fever and disenchanted with his colleagues and superiors, he broke his contract after only six months, and returned to London in early 1891. Three years and two ships later, Conrad retired from the sea and embarked on a career as a writer, publishing the novel that he had been working on since before he visited the Congo, Almayer’s Folly, in 1895. A second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, followed, along with several stories. Conrad’s second career was humming along when he finally set about transforming his Congo experience into fiction in 1898.

Darkness at home and abroad

Heart of Darkness opens on a ship, but not one of the commercial vessels that feature in Conrad’s sea stories. Rather, it’s a private yacht, the Nellie, moored at Gravesend, about 20 miles east of the City of London. The five male friends gathered on board were once sailors, but everyone except Marlow has since changed careers, as Conrad himself had done.

Like sail, which was rapidly being displaced by steam-power, Marlow is introduced to us as an anachronism, still devoted to the profession his companions have left behind. When, amidst the gathering “gloom”, he begins to reminisce about his stint as a “fresh-water sailor”, his companions know they are in for one of his “inconclusive experiences”.

Setting the opening of Heart of Darkness on the Thames also allowed Conrad to foreshadow one of the novel’s central conceits: the lack of any absolute, essential difference between so-called civilized societies and so-called primitive ones. “This, too”, Marlow says, “has been one of the dark places of the earth”, imagining the impressions of an ancient Roman soldier, arriving in what was then a remote, desolate corner of the empire.

During the second half of the 19th century, spurious theories of racial superiority were used to legitimate empire-building, justifying European rule over native populations in places where they had no other obvious right to be. Marlow, however, is too cynical to accept this convenient fiction. The “conquest of the earth”, he says, was not the manifest destiny of European peoples; rather, it simply meant “the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.”

A Belgian river station in The Congo.
Wikimedia

The idea that Africans and Europeans have more in common than the latter might care to admit recurs later, when Marlow describes observing tribal ceremonies on the banks of the river. Confronted with local villagers “stamping” and “swaying”, their “eyes rolling”, he is shaken by a feeling of “remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”.

Whereas most contemporary readers will be cheered by Marlow’s scepticism about the project of empire, this image of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants is more problematic. “Going up that river”, Marlow says, “was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”, and he accordingly sees the dancing figures as remnants of “prehistoric man”.

Heart of Darkness suggests that Europeans are not essentially more highly-evolved or enlightened than the people whose territories they invade. To this extent, it punctures one of the myths of imperialist race theory. But, as the critic Patrick Brantlinger has argued, it also portrays Congolese villagers as primitiveness personified, inhabitants of a land that time forgot.

Kurtz is shown as the ultimate proof of this “kinship” between enlightened Europeans and the “savages” they are supposed to be civilising. Kurtz had once written an idealistic “report” for an organisation called the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. When Marlow finds this manuscript among Kurtz’s papers, however, it bears a hastily-scrawled addendum: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The Kurtz that Marlow finally encounters at the end of the novel has been consumed by the same “forgotten and brutal instincts” he once intended to suppress.

Adventure on acid

The European “gone native” on the fringes of empire was a stock trope, which Conrad himself had already explored elsewhere in his writing, but Heart of Darkness takes this cliché of imperial adventure fiction and sends it on an acid trip. The manic, emaciated Kurtz that Marlow finds at the Inner Station is straight out of the pages of late-Victorian neo-Gothic, more Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu than Henry Rider Haggard. The “wilderness” has possessed Kurtz, “loved him, embraced him, got into his veins” — it is no wonder that Marlow feels “creepy all over” just thinking about it.

Heart of Darkness was first serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine.
Wikimedia

Kurtz’s famous last words are “The horror! The horror!” “Horror” is also the feeling that Kurtz and his monstrous jungle compound, with its decorative display of human heads, are supposed to evoke in the reader. Along with its various other generic affiliations — imperial romance, psychological novel, impressionist tour de force — Heart of Darkness is a horror story.

Conrad’s Kurtz also channels turn-of-the-century anxieties about mass media and mass politics. One of Kurtz’s defining qualities in the novel is “eloquence”: Marlow refers to him repeatedly as “A voice!”, and his report on Savage Customs is written in a rhetorical, highfalutin style, short on practical details but long on sonorous abstractions. Marlow never discovers Kurtz’s real “profession”, but he gets the impression that he was somehow connected with the press — either a “journalist who could paint” or a “painter who wrote for the papers”.

This seems to be confirmed when a Belgian journalist turns up in Antwerp after Kurtz’s death, referring to him as his “dear colleague” and sniffing around for anything he can use as copy. Marlow fobs him off with the bombastic report, which the journalist accepts happily enough. For Conrad, implicitly, Kurtz’s mendacious eloquence is just the kind of thing that unscrupulous popular newspapers like to print.

If Kurtz’s “colleague” is to be believed, moreover, his peculiar gifts might also have found an outlet in populist politics: “He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.” Had he returned to Europe, that is, the same faculty that enabled Kurtz to impose his mad will on the tribespeople of the upper Congo might have found a wider audience.

Politically, Conrad tended to be on the right, and this image of Kurtz as an extremist demagogue expresses a habitual pessimism about mass democracy — in 1899, still a relatively recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, in the light of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Italy, Germany and Russia after 1918, Kurtz’s combination of irresistible charisma with megalomaniacal brutality seems prescient.

These concerns about political populism also resonate with recent democratic processes in the US and the UK, among other places. Only Conrad’s emphasis on “eloquence” now seems quaint: as the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated, an absence of rhetorical flair is no handicap in the arena of contemporary populist debate.

Race and empire

Heart of Darkness contains a bitter critique of imperialism in the Congo, which Conrad condemns as “rapacious and pitiless folly”. The backlash against the systematic abuse and exploitation of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants did not really get underway until the first decade of the 20th century, so that the anti-imperialist theme was ahead of its time, if only by a few years. Nor does Conrad have any patience with complacent European beliefs about racial superiority.

Heart of Darkness sees horror in the Congo’s rainforests.
Shutterstock.com

Nonetheless, the novel also contains representations of Africans that would rightly be described as racist if they were written today. In particular, Conrad shows little interest in the experience of Marlow’s “cannibal” shipmates, who come across as exotic caricatures. It is images like these that led the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to denounce Conrad as a “bloody racist”, in an influential 1977 essay.

One response to this criticism is to argue, as Paul B. Armstrong does, that the lack of more rounded Congolese characters is the point. By sticking to Marlow’s limited perspective, Heart of Darkness gives an authentic portrayal of how people see other cultures. But this doesn’t necessarily make the images themselves any less offensive.

If Achebe did not succeed in having Heart of Darkness struck from the canon, he did ensure that academics writing about the novel could no longer ignore the question of race. For Urmila Seshagiri, Heart of Darkness shows that race is not the stable, scientific category that many Victorians thought it was. This kind of argument shifts the debate in a different direction, away from the author’s putative “racism”, and onto the novel’s complex portrayal of race itself.

Perhaps because he was himself an alien in Britain, whose first career had taken him to the farthest corners of the globe, Conrad’s novels and stories often seem more in tune with our globalized world than those of some of his contemporaries. An émigré at 16, Conrad experienced to a high degree the kind of dislocation that has become an increasingly typical modern condition. It is entirely appropriate, in more ways than one, for Hamid to allude to Conrad in a novel about global mobility.

The ConversationThe paradox of Heart of Darkness is that it seems at once so improbable and so necessary. It is impossible not to be astonished, when you think of it, that a Polish ex-sailor, writing in his third language, was ever in a position to author such a story, on such a subject. And yet, in another way, Conrad’s life seems more determined than most, in more direct contact with the great forces of history. It is from this point of view that Heart of Darkness seems necessary, even inevitable, the product of dark historical energies, which continue to shape our contemporary world.

John Attridge, Senior Lecturer in English, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Jonathan Swift wanted to ‘vex the world’ with Gulliver’s Travels



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An ad for cotton thread drawing on the scene in Gulliver’s Travels in which Gulliver is tied down by Liliputians.
Wikimedia

Ian Higgins, Australian National University

In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.


Pick up Gulliver’s Travels expecting a children’s book or a novel and you will be unpleasantly surprised. Originally published as “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts … By Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships”, it is one of the great satires in world literature.

Jonathan Swift by Francis Bindon. Swift is pointing to Part IV of the Travels, Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms. Note the horses in the background.
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First published in London in 1726, the Travels was a sensational bestseller and immediately recognised as a literary classic. The author of the pseudonymous Travels was the Church-of-Ireland Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, Jonathan Swift. Swift wrote that his satiric project in the Travels was built upon a “great foundation of Misanthropy” and that his intention was “to vex the world”, not entertain it.

The work’s inventive narrative, exuberant fantasy (little people, giants, a flying island, spirits of the dead, senile immortals, talking horses and odious humanoids), and hilarious humour certainly made the work entertaining. In its abridged and reader-friendly form, sanitised of sarcasm and black humour, Gulliver’s Travels has become a children’s classic. In its unabridged form, however, it still has the power to vex readers.




Read more:
Why you should read China’s vast, 18th century novel, Dream of the Red Chamber


What’s it all about?

In Part 1 of this four-part satire, Gulliver is shipwrecked among the tiny Lilliputians. He finds a society that has fallen into corruption from admirable original institutions through “the degenerate Nature of Man”. Lilliput is a satiric diminution of Gulliver’s Britain in its corrupt court, contemptible party politics, and absurd wars.

In Part II Gulliver is abandoned in Brobdingnag, a land of giants. The scale is now reversed. Gulliver is a Lilliputian among giants, displayed as a freak of nature and kept as a pet. Gulliver’s account of his country and its history to the King of Brobdingnag leads the wise giant to denounce Gulliver’s countrymen and women as “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth”.

In Part III Gulliver is the victim of piracy and cast away. He is taken up to the flying island of Laputa. Its monarch and court are literally aloof from the people it rules on the continent below, and absorbed in pure science and abstraction.

Technological changes originating in this volatile “Airy Region” result in the economic ruin of the people below and of traditional ways of life. The satire recommends the example of the disaffected Lord Munodi, who is “not of an enterprising Spirit”, and is “content to go on in the old Forms” and live “without Innovation”. Part III is episodic and miscellaneous in character as Swift satirises various intellectual follies and corruptions. It offers a mortifying image of human degeneration in the immortal Struldbruggs. Gulliver’s desire for long life abates after he witnesses the endless decrepitude of these people.

Part IV is a disturbing fable. After a conspiracy of his crew against him, Gulliver is abandoned on an island inhabited by rational civilised horses, the Houyhnhnms, and unruly brutal humanoids, the Yahoos. Gulliver and humankind are identified with the Yahoos. The horses debate “Whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the Face of the Earth”. As in the story of the flood in the Bible, the Yahoos deserve their fate.

Gulliver taking his final leave of the land of the Houyhnhnms. Sawrey Gilpin, 1769.
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The horses, on the other hand, are the satire’s ideal of a rational society. Houyhnhnmland is a caste society practicing eugenics. Swift’s equine utopians have a flourishing oral culture but there are no books. There is education of both sexes. They have no money and little technology (they do not have the wheel). They are authoritarian (there is no dissent or difference of opinion). The Houyhnhnms are pacifist, communistic, agrarian and self-sufficient, civil, vegetarian and nudist. They are austere but do have passions. They hate the Yahoos.

Convinced that he has found the enlightened good life, free of all the human turpitude recorded in the Travels, Gulliver becomes a Houyhnhnm acolyte and proselyte. But this utopian place is emphatically not for humans. Gulliver is deported as an alien Yahoo and a security risk.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: Sappho, a poet in fragments


Wearing clothes and sailing in a canoe made from the skins of the humanoid Yahoos, Gulliver arrives in Western Australia, where he is attacked by Aboriginal people and eventually, unwillingly, rescued and returned home to live, alienated, among English Yahoos. (Swift’s knowledge of the Aboriginal people derives from the voyager William Dampier, whom Gulliver claimed was his “Cousin”.)

Politics and misanthropy

When it was published, the Travels’ uncompromising, misanthropic satiric anatomy of the human condition seemed to border on blasphemy. The political satire was scandalous, venting what Swift called his “principle of hatred to all succeeding Measures and Ministryes” in Britain and Ireland since the collapse, in 1714, of Queen Anne’s Tory government, which he had served as propagandist.

In its politics the work is pacifist, condemns “Party and Faction” in the body politic, and denounces colonialism as plunder, lust, enslavement, and murder on a global scale. It satirises monarchical despotism yet displays little faith in parliaments. In Part III we get a short view of a representative modern parliament: “a Knot of Pedlars, Pickpockets, Highwaymen and Bullies”.

Gulliver’s Travels belongs to a tradition of satiric and utopian imaginary voyages that includes works by Lucian, Rabelais, and Thomas More. Swift hijacked the form of the popular contemporary voyage book as the vehicle for his satire, though the work combines genres, containing utopian and dystopian fiction, satire, history, science fiction, dialogues of the dead, fable, as well as parody of the travel book and the Robinson Crusoe-style novel.

The frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
Wikimedia

It’s not a book to be judged by its cover. The frontispiece, title page and table of contents of the original edition gave no hint that this was not a genuine travel account. Swift and his friends reported stories of gullible readers who took this hoax travel book for the real thing.

It is also not reader friendly. The revised 1735 edition of the Travels opens with a disturbing letter from Gulliver in which the reader is arraigned by an irate and misanthropic author convinced that the “human Species” is too depraved to be saved, as evidenced by the fact that his book has had no reforming effect on the world. The book ends with Gulliver, a proud, ranting recluse, preferring his horses to humans, and warning any English Yahoos with the vice of pride not to “presume to appear in my Sight”.

Readers might dismiss the unbalanced Gulliver, but he is only saying what Swift’s uncompromising satire insists is the truth about humankind.

The ConversationIn many ways Jonathan Swift is remote from us, but his satire still matters, and Gulliver’s Travels continues to vex and entertain today.

Ian Higgins, Reader in English, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Sappho, a poet in fragments



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Fresco showing a woman called Sappho holding writing implements from Pompeii Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

For those who have read the fragmented remains of the Greek poet, Sappho the loss of most of her poetic corpus is something to regret. With a mere two complete poems extant from nine books of verse, much is left to the imagination in the reconstruction of the output (and life) of this most mysterious of ancient poets.

In a world dominated by male voices whose view of life, the universe and everything was the loudest and most respected, Sappho’s songs were regarded as extraordinary. So revered was she that the ancients called her the Tenth Muse, and her songs were passed down over centuries, inspiring generations of poets, none of whom managed to replicate her command of metre and sensual artistry.

How Sappho managed to acquire the educational acumen to compose her masterpieces has sometimes baffled both ancient and modern scholars. Women lived quiet and controlled lives in ancient Mediterranean cultures with limited, if any, access to formal education. If there were any perceived need to teach a girl basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, it was only to equip her to run a household once she was married-off.

Fragment of a Sappho poem, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Part X.
Wikimedia Commons

Even if a girl demonstrated extraordinary artistic skills, there was usually no avenue to express them, as the aspirations of women were limited to marriage and motherhood. Females who displayed a talent were normally suppressed and regarded with suspicion. Why? Because men were the artists, intellects and leaders. Ergo, for a woman to possess such qualities meant she also possessed a masculinity that set her apart from nature.

So, where did Sappho come from? What strange land or culture gave her birth and permitted her extraordinary skills to flourish? While we know little that is certain of her life, we do know Sappho was born in the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey in the late 7th Century BC. Mytilene appears to have been an enlightened society compared to other communities in Archaic Greece. Sappho’s works clearly indicate that women – at least from her privileged social standing – had access to a formal education that included training in choral composition, musical accomplishment and performance.

Her estimated birth date places her sometime after the composition and transmission of the works of the Homeric poets, which told the stories of the Trojan War and are preserved in the epics known as the Iliad and the Odyssey.




Read more:
Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad


Love of women

But Sappho was no epic poet, rather she composed lyrics: short, sweet verses on a variety of topics from hymns to the gods, marriage songs, and mini-tales of myth and legend. She also sung of desire, passion and love – mostly directed towards women – for which she is best known. And it is for such poems that Sappho has come down to us as history’s first lesbian.

Was Sappho a lesbian? An answer depends on how one is defined. If love of women, even in a non-sexual sense, and an exclusive focus on the needs and lives of women define a woman as a lesbian, then – yes – Sappho was a lesbian. However, if a lesbian is defined more narrowly as a woman who has sex with another woman, then evidence to define Sappho as one is harder to establish.

Of course, these two binaries are inherently artificial and without nuance. They are also ignorant of social constructionism, which insists on understanding an individual in her or his historical environment, its values, and its cultural specificities. And, in the society of Archaic Mytilene, Sappho was not defined as a lesbian. After all, the word “lesbian” was not invented until the Victorian age.

Sappho’s contemporaries were not responsible for her synonymy with women-loving. That began with the Greeks and Romans of later centuries, who tended to interpret her skill as stemming from a perverted form of masculinity, which sometimes found expression in representations of her through the lens of a hyper-sexuality. Sappho’s reputation for sexual proclivity initially linked her to passionate relations with men, which later morphed into a stronger association with women.

Alcaeus (left) and Sappho. Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, circa 470 BC.
Wikimedia Commons

The Sappho mystique is further confounded by later testimonies such as the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda (or the Stronghold), which chronicled the history of the ancient Mediterranean. In one of two entries on Sappho, readers are informed that she was in love with a ferryman by the name of Phaon whose rejection of her caused her to leap to her death from the Leucadian Cliff.

This apocryphal history, which emerged in antiquity, went on to inspire artists, poets and playwrights for hundreds of years, despite the strange origins of Phaon as a figure of myth and legend. In the second entry on Sappho in the Suda, it is stated that Sappho was married, had a daughter by the name of Cleis, and was also a lover of women.

Turning to the fragments and scant number of complete poems from Sappho’s canon, there are references to her daughter, and to her close female companions – even her brothers – although the extant verses do not sing of a husband. In Fragment 132, for example, Sappho sings of Cleis:

I have a beautiful child whose face is like
golden flowers, my beloved Cleis …

Beauty, caresses and whispers

Sappho, following the poetic traditions of Archaic Greece, tended towards floral and natural imagery to depict feminine beauty and youth. Elsewhere, she evokes images of garlands, scents and even apples to convey feminine sensuality. Hers was largely a world of beauty, caresses, whispers and desires; songs sung in honour of the goddess Aphrodite, and tales of mythical love.

In Fragment 16, arguably Sappho’s most sublime poem, fortunately well preserved albeit a little tattered, her definition of beauty anticipates the maxim of the philosopher, Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things”:

Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry,
and others of ships, is the most beautiful
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
whatever a person loves.
It is perfectly easy to make this
understood by everyone: for she who far
surpassed mankind in beauty,
Helen, left her most noble husband
and went sailing off to Troy with no thought at all
for her child or dear parents,
but [love?] led her astray …
lightly …
[and she]
has reminded me
now of Anactoria
who is not here;
I would rather see her
lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her
face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed
infantry …

Sappho’s definition of beauty – that which a person loves – privileges the individual over the community. She extends her dictum with the example of the mythical figure of Helen of Troy, renowned in antiquity as the most beautiful woman in the world. As testimony to Sappho’s unique interpretation of the story, she removes the standard figures of blame for Helen’s role in the Trojan War – Paris, the Trojan prince who abducted her or, in other versions, Aphrodite who forced her to go with him – and gives agency to Helen herself. In Sappho’s world, where love is all, it is Helen who decides to leave her husband and elope with Paris. Consequences be damned!

A cropped version of Raphael’s 1511 fresco Parnassus, showing the figure of Sappho.
Wikimedia Commons

Sappho’s thoughts on love and desire extend to a personal reverie on a woman by the name of Anactoria. Sappho reveals that Anactoria is gone and is missed. She compares her, indirectly, to Helen and then evokes her beauty, namely her gait and her sparkling face. Sappho’s lyrics are sensual, gentle, intense. But they are also powerful, as she rejects the world of masculine warfare in preference for beauty and desire.

‘A tremor shakes me’

In another well-preserved piece, Fragment 31, Sappho evokes the sensations she experiences as a result of being seated opposite a beautiful woman:

He seems to me equal in good fortune to the
whatever man, who sits on the opposite side to you
and listens nearby to your
sweet replies
and desire-inducing laugh: indeed that
gets my heart pounding in my breast.
For just gazing at you for a second, it is impossible
for me even to talk;
my tongue is broken, all at once a soft
flame has stolen beneath my flesh,
my eyes see nothing at all,
my ears ring,
sweat pours down me, a tremor
shakes me, I am more greenish than
grass, and I believe I am at
the very point of death.

The power of the fragment, and indeed the meaning, are substantially derived from the Greek pronouns that denote three players in Sappho’s drama: Sappho, the man, and the woman.

Portrait of Sappho by Léon Jean Bazille Perrault, 1891.
Wikimedia Commons

The man is god-like because he can be in the presence of the woman and remain unaffected. Sappho, in contrast, is a physical, mental and emotional wreck. The fragmented condition of the piece includes a few words that indicate at least one more stanza followed.

Such was the power of Sappho’s poem that it went on to inspire various intellectuals and poets who followed her. The Roman poet, Catullus was so enamoured of Sappho’s work that he reworked Fragment 31, which he would have known in its complete form, into his own version that even rendered the original Sapphic hendecasyllabic metre into Latin [Poem 51].

Translating Sappho is no mean feat. Most of the work is in poor condition, pieced together by papyrologists to make readable texts for scholars to work from. Confronted with the Aeolic Greek of the poet, printed neatly on a page, the translator is immediately drawn into emendations, conjectures, broken lines, missing words, incomplete words, hypothetical punctuation and, in short, a philological headache.

And, after persisting, the translator is always dissatisfied. It is impossible to capture the poet’s genius in another language, especially if the translator is simultaneously striving for a metrical equivalent. Catullus, too, was a poetic genius – an artist with complete control over style, metrics and meaning – yet he was humble enough not to replicate Sappho’s words but to imitate them, to compose a response to them, to make them his own as a homage to the Tenth Muse.

New discoveries

But despite the hurdles and the intellectual heartache, there are rewards in recent discoveries that continue to add more words, more lines, more stanzas and sometimes even new poems to the canon. In 2004, the discovery of piece of papyrus that completed an existing fragment – thereby making a new poem by Sappho – received international media coverage. The process of repair resulted in Poem 58, which deals with the themes of youth and old age.

Sappho’s poem An Old Age (lines 9-20) LB 58. Papyrus from third century BC.
Wikimedia Commons

Sappho mourns the passing of her youth, and reminds her audience of the myth of Tithonos, one of the few mortals to be loved by a goddess. Struck by the beauty of the young man, the goddess Eos asks Zeus to permit her to take the young man to live with her eternity. But Eos forgets to ask that Tithonos be granted a second gift: eternal youth. And so, she is left with a lover she quickly finds hideous and repellent, and Tithonos is left alone, trapped in a never-ending cycle of ageing.

More and more of Sappho is emerging. In 2013, more new fragments were discovered that have assisted in reconstructing existing pieces, and bringing to light four previously unknown pieces. One relatively complete poem, Brothers Song is the most significant of the find because of its hitherto unknown status.

The piece is also important because it further develops the image of the poet as an artist whose themes extended beyond the sensual and romantic. While previously extant fragments and details in works such as the Suda reference Sappho’s brothers, the poem provides more insight into Sappho’s familial world. While the first three stanzas are missing, there are five complete ones, the subject of which is a speaker’s concerns for the safe return of her two brothers, Charaxos and Larichos from a maritime trading venture.

The discoveries of this century are testimony to the fascinating and random nature of such finds. Rather than being hidden away in obscure manuscripts in dusty archives or included in elaborate scrolls, the fragments have sometimes come from less salubrious environments.

For example, much of Sappho’s work, along with pieces from poets and writers ranging from Homer, the Greek playwrights, Plato and Saint Paul came from Oxyrhynchus – an ancient garbage dump in Egypt.

And while other pieces were preserved as quotations in more respectable formats, such as books on grammar, composition and philosophy, the 2004 poem originally came from the cartonnage of an Egyptian mummy.

Indeed, cartonnage – a plaster-like material made from material scraps, including papyri that was wrapped around mummified bodies and then decorated – has yielded rich results, Sappho’s fragments being just one example. Hopefully more garbage will be excavated to reveal more of Sappho’s poetic diamonds.

The ConversationFor a recent, reliable edition of Sappho’s works, see Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, translated from the ancient Greek by Diane J. Rayor, with an introduction and notes by André Lardinois (Cambridge University Press).

Marguerite Johnson, Professor of Classics, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars explores vice and virtue in ancient Rome


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Giovanni Cavino, I primi dodici imperatori Romani (‘The first twelve Roman emperors’), plaquettes produced at Padua, c. 1550.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University

In a memorable scene from the classic BBC TV series I, Claudius (1976), three frightened senators are summoned to the palace in the dead of night by the emperor Caligula. Rather than being executed, they are treated to a command performance by Caligula himself, who dances before them dressed in a shimmering gold bikini.

Caligula’s midnight dance routine is the climax of a sequence of horrors and indiscretions committed by the emperor. He has his predecessor suffocated to death with a pillow, executes his cousin because of his irritating cough, and engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister (they’re both gods, you see).

Caligula dances for Claudius and two other senators. Scene from the BBC TV series, I, Claudius (1976).

These outlandish scenes cannot be ascribed to the imagination of the scriptwriter Jack Pulman or to Robert Graves, the author of the original novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, on which the series is based. The incidents are adapted from Suetonius’s On the Lives of the Caesars, a collection of imperial biographies written in Latin in the second century A.D.

Latin edition of The Twelve Caesars published in 1541.
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Suetonius’s work describes the lives of Rome’s first 12 leaders from Julius Caesar to Domitian – hence it is best known today as The Twelve Caesars. This is the title it bears in the paperback Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Graves himself in 1957, and still in print today.

Suetonius’s unforgettable tales of sex, scandal, and debauchery have ensured that his writing has played a significant role in shaping our perceptions of imperial Rome.

The man and the work

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a scholar and intellectual who held administrative positions at the imperial court under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He was a prolific author, writing biographies of poets and orators, as well as works on topics as diverse as the games, the Roman year, bodily defects, and lives of famous courtesans.

He probably began to write the Caesars when he was Hadrian’s secretary of correspondence. However, the biographies were only published after Suetonius was dismissed from Hadrian’s service for being too familiar with the emperor’s wife.

Bust of Hadrian in the Musei Capitolini.
Wikimedia Commons

Political expediency meant that Suetonius wisely avoided writing about Hadrian. Instead The Twelve Caesars includes the Julio-Claudians, Rome’s first imperial dynasty (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero), three short-lived emperors during the civil wars of A.D. 69 (Galba, Vespasian, Otho), and the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

The structure of the individual biographies has often puzzled modern readers, who expect Suetonius to tell his story in a linear fashion from birth to death. Although Suetonius usually begins with an emperor’s family and upbringing, the bulk of each Life consists of an assortment of memorable, and sometimes salacious, anecdotes about an emperor’s public conduct and private life.

But this is no mere haphazard catalogue of sex and corruption. Instead, Suetonius tells his readers that he has carefully organized the stories “by categories”. These categories include the emperor’s virtues (such as justice, self-control, and generosity) and his vices (like greed, cruelty, and sexual excess).

Virtues and vices

In the second century A.D., when Suetonius was writing, there was no chance of a return to the Republic, but aristocrats still expected the emperor to behave as if he were merely the most prestigious citizen rather than an autocrat. The stories of virtue and vice in the Caesars are carefully selected to illustrate whether emperors measured up to this standard.

When Suetonius describes an emperor’s ancestors, he highlights how their qualities influenced the ruler himself. Early in the Life of Nero, the reader encounters Nero’s grandfather who staged particularly cruel shows in the arena. This helps to explain the later tales of Nero’s own savagery, because the reader would see that this vice was part of his nature.

Suetonius is fair and evenhanded in his treatment of his subjects. All emperors appear as flawed men with both virtues and vices, but the balance between them depends on the individual ruler. He even gives due credit to the notorious Caligula, who began his reign by publishing the imperial budget and showing generosity to the people. Suetonius then signals a change:

Thus far, it is as if we have been writing about an emperor, but the rest must be about a monster.

This “division” – a statement in which Suetonius clearly separates the anecdotes illustrating virtues from the vices – is a feature of several of his biographies. In Caligula’s case, it is from this point on that we read about his pretensions to divinity, his condemnation of aristocrats to hard labour in the mines, and his sexual immorality.

Emperor Tiberius, played by George Baker, in I Claudius.

The tales of the emperors’ sexual habits constitute some of the most famous passages in Suetonius. He chronicles Tiberius’s sordid behaviour on Capri, detailing how he forced men and women to engage in threesomes, had children perform oral sex on him, and raped young men who took his fancy.

When the Loeb Classical Library, which features the original Latin and the English translation of classical texts on facing pages, published their first edition of Suetonius in 1913, these chapters about Tiberius’s behaviour were left in Latin because they were considered too scandalous to translate. Although they are now translated into English, these graphic tales still have the power to shock and unsettle the reader.

An emperor’s private life and his sexual conduct were fair game because they reflected whether or not he was fit to rule. The same applied to members of his family. Augustus’s daughters were praised by Suetonius for spending their time weaving in his house. (Such gender stereotypes remain with us today, if one recalls the photo shoot of Julia Gillard knitting in Women’s Weekly). When his daughter Julia flagrantly flouted Augustus’s own adultery legislation, Suetonius reports that he had no choice but to exile her. The imperial family had to set standards for the entire empire.

Man or god?

Silver coin of the emperor Otho.
Wikimedia Commons

After the virtues and vices, Suetonius’s Lives usually conclude with a narrative of the emperor’s death and a detailed physical description of his body. Suetonius didn’t hold back in these passages, even pointing out that the emperor Otho sported a terrible wig to hide his bald patch (as his coinage also reveals).

The description of the emperor Nero is particularly memorable:

He was of a good height but his body was blotchy and ill-smelling. His hair was fairish, his face handsome rather than attractive, his eyes bluish-grey and dull, his neck thick, his stomach protruding, his legs very thin…

The different body parts were supposed to indicate character traits. Nero’s blotchy skin likened him to a panther (regarded as a deceitful creature); his hair colour suggested courage; the bulging beer belly had connotations of power, but also exposed his devotion to pleasure; his feeble legs indicated both femininity and fear. Nero was thus revealed to be a contradiction.

The emperor Claudius as Jupiter, Vatican Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

The descriptions of the bodies are also very funny. They undercut the divine pretensions of emperors, whose statues showed them in heroic nudity with six-packs that demonstrated their virility and likened them to gods. (Once again, not much has changed, as revealed by the images of Vladimir Putin’s shirtless hunting expeditions or Tony Abbott in his budgie smugglers).

Suetonius’s stories about the emperors’ faults and foibles exposed them as human beings. He even collected their famous sayings to shed light on their character – the famous line “as quick as boiled asparagus”, intoned beautifully by Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius, is straight out of Suetonius.

His account of the witty sayings of Vespasian shows that the emperor frequently joked about his own economic policies:

When his son Titus criticized him for putting a tax even on urine, he held up a coin from the first payment to his son’s nose and asked him if he was offended by its smell. When Titus said no, he observed: ‘But it comes from urine.’

Vespasian emerges as a rather avuncular figure. He even pokes fun at the deification of emperors, proclaiming in the days before his death, “Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god!”

Laughing at power

But the humour of Suetonius’s Caesars is often double-edged. He tells one story about the time Nero visited his aunt on her death bed, and she lovingly remarked that she would die happy once she had the hairs from the first shaving of his beard. Nero joked that he would shave it off immediately. He then gave his aunt an overdose of laxatives to kill her off and seized her estate for himself.

Head of Nero, with beard, from the Palatine Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

Roman aristocrats reading this tale would probably have laughed, given its absurdly comic elements. But it would have been nervous laughter. For such stories reminded them of the power of the emperor. While they might have chuckled at another’s misfortune, they would have been acutely aware that one day it could be them.

Suetonius’s Caesars is thus more than a haphazard collection of gossip and scandal, but a work that sheds light on the world of the Roman aristocracy and how they lived (and coped) with their emperors. The stories of the emperors’ virtues and vices illustrates what Roman elites considered to be acceptable behaviour by their leaders.

Suetonius’s biographies also cut the emperors down to size, revealing them to be men with human flaws, rather than gods. They offered a necessary means of escapism in a world where imperial fickleness could end one’s career – or one’s life.

The ConversationRecommended translation: Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Oxford World’s Classics edition by Catharine Edwards (2008).

Caillan Davenport, Lecturer in Roman History and ARC DECRA Research Fellow, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Virgil’s Aeneid



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Virgil reads the Aeneid to Octavia and Augustus.
Angelica Kauffmann/Hermitage/Wikimedia Commons

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil is an epic poem in 12 books that tells the story of the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy. It was probably written down in Rome from 30-19 BC during the period of the Emperor Augustus.

The poem is named after the Trojan hero Aeneas, the son of Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology) and Anchises, a Trojan aristocrat. Aeneas leads the survivors from the sack of Troy through the Mediterranean, and ultimately to the site of (future) Rome. The Aeneid is therefore a classic foundation narrative.

As with other ancient epics, our hero has to remain resolute in the face of significant divine hostility. Juno, queen of heaven and goddess of marriage, despises the Trojans because she lost a divine beauty contest known as the Judgement of Paris. Venus wins the Judgement by giving a bribe to Paris, a Trojan prince who acts as judge. The bribe is in the form of Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris prefers this bribe to the bribes of the other two contestants – Juno and Minerva.


Read more: Guide to the Classics: Homer’s Iliad


Unfortunately, Helen is already married to the Spartan king Menelaus, and so the Trojan war follows soon after. Juno takes badly her loss in the beauty contest, and hates everything Trojan, both during the war, and after. The hatred and vindictiveness shown by Juno to the Trojans anchors the whole Aeneid, and it only comes to an end in the final book.

Stealing from Homer?

The Aeneid is written in dactylic hexameters, the same metre as the two Homeric poems – the Iliad and Odyssey (although it is written in Latin, not in ancient Greek).

In many ways the Aeneid is written in emulation of Homer’s works by a poet who may have known them off by heart (that is my view, anyway). Scholars sometimes talk about the “Odyssean” Aeneid (Books 1-6, because Aeneas travels through the Mediterranean, a bit like Odysseus), and the “Iliadic” half of the poem (Books 7-12, on the theme of war in Italy).

A new reader of the Aeneid with a background in Homer can usually identify many passages that have Homeric resonances.

Virgil’s The Aeneid (2003 edition).
Penguin

Indeed many readers through time have felt that Virgil is too reliant on Homer. There is a story that Virgil needed to defend himself from this charge by saying that “it is easier to steal Hercules’ club than steal one line from Homer”.

It must be stressed, however, that in Virgil’s case, we are dealing with someone who was totally immersed in Greek and Roman literature, rhetoric and philosophy – not just the works of Homer. He was an astonishingly well-read poet, and this breadth of learning is embodied in his poems. In this sense the criticism of Virgil of plagiarising Homer, or quasi-plagiarism, seems rather unreasonable.

A deserted heroine

The Aeneid’s thematic connections to earlier myth and literature come to the fore in the depiction of Dido, the queen of Carthage. Dido is the great tragic figure in the first half of the poem (notably in Books 1, 4, and 6) after a romance and sexual liaison with Aeneas.

The figure of the deserted heroine was a favourite theme in Greek myth and literature, and Virgil duly draws on it for his depiction of Dido. Such heroines included Medea, Phaedra, Ariadne, and Hypsipyle. There was also an early Roman depiction of Dido by Gnaeus Naevius (270-201 BC) in his epic The Punic War.

Thus it would be a mistake to reduce Virgil’s Dido to some kind of re-creation of Homer’s Calypso, or Circe, or Nausicaa (all from the Odyssey). Indeed, Virgil’s audience may have responded to the tragedy of Dido in the Aeneid by thinking of another North African queen – Cleopatra (69-30 BC), with whom both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony had flings. So the general point here is that the reader of the Dido books is invited to engage with many different mythical and historical narratives.

Scene from Virgil’s Aeneid.
Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Virgil’s method of composition of his poetic works was slow and deliberate, and quite “un-Homeric” in all kinds of ways. “Homer” (ca. 700 BC) was a highly skilled oral poet who used this expertise to create his story, whereas Virgil (70-19 BC) lived in a thoroughly literate society. The pace of poetic creativity could be very slow.

The Georgics, an earlier poetic work by Virgil on the subject of agriculture (2,188 lines), seems to have been written at a rate of about one line a day. And the Aeneid itself (9,883 lines) works out to about three lines a day. Little wonder that it is so succinct and complex.

The Aeneid is certainly not the easiest read from the corpus of ancient literature. There is some evidence that Virgil wrote it first in prose, before developing the poetic version. It is also an unfinished poem, although still remarkably polished.

Returning home

Even though the Aeneid is a foundation narrative where the Trojans struggle to find a new home after the destruction of their city, it is important to stress that it is also a “return” (that is, a Greek “nostos”).

Troy was founded by Dardanus, an obscure mythological hero, and, in Virgil’s poem, he did so having left from a place called “Corythus” (perhaps modern Cortona in Tuscany). The story in the Aeneid is that many generations later – after the sack of Troy – Aeneas leads his people back to Italy as a kind of “new Dardanus”.

Aeneas’s quest, then, is both a new mission to a new land and a return to the ancestral land of the first Trojan. The return journey of a hero from war was a favourite Greek mythical narrative (including the Odyssey of course). Virgil follows suit in the Aeneid, but offers a much more complex notion of the heroic “return”.


Read more: Guide to the Classics: Homer’s Odyssey


Aeneas is a very different kind of epic hero from Achilles in the Iliad and Odysseus in the Odyssey, not the least because he is imbued with a whole series of distinctly Roman values. He is a much more “religious” kind of hero – someone who makes it his business to follow the path that has been ordained for him and his people.

A characteristic epithet for Aeneas is pius (“pious”, “duty-bound”, “dutiful”). Indeed his whole quest is really to unravel the mysteries of fate, and then duly to act upon them. He tends to focus on the “greater good”, sometimes with an element of personal suffering (perhaps along Stoic lines). For instance, he deserts Dido (in Book 4) because Jupiter reminds him through the god Mercury that Italy is meant to be his fated home, not Carthage in North Africa.

Image from Aeneid Book 1, translated by John Henderson (1886).
University of Toronto/Wikimedia Commons

The Aeneid looks back to a time well before the foundation of the city of Rome, and forward to the realities of Roman imperialism up to Virgil’s own day. The past and the future often seem entangled in all kinds of ways, and then there is the question of Virgil’s own political outlook. Is the poem designed to justify and support Rome’s imperialist agenda?

The English poet W.H. Auden was rather unsympathetic to Virgil in his poem Secondary Epic (1959):

No, Virgil, no:

Not even the first of the Romans can learn

His Roman history in the future tense.

Not even to serve your political turn;

Hindsight as foresight makes no sense.

No, Virgil, no:

Behind your verse so masterfully made

We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.

The Aeneid, therefore, is focused on the grand scale – on the city of Rome and its empire, its formation, and its destiny within the order of the Olympian gods. Scholars, poets and critics, often against a background of modern wars (such as WWII or Vietnam), have agonised over the question of Virgil’s own attitude to war and the Augustan imperial agenda, which receives some considerable attention at critical moments in the Aeneid.

Augustus, after all, seems to have been a generous patron of the poet, and a certain amount of text-specific adulation might have been expected. Auden certainly felt that Virgil traded in his poetic respectability (“your political turn”… “a Muse betrayed”). But there have also been plenty of others who are prepared to claim that Virgil yearns for peace, and actually undercuts the explicit patriotism about Rome and Augustus.

A violent end

The final scene of the Aeneid tends to polarise critical views on the basic thrust of the poem. Whereas the Homeric poems end in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity, Virgil’s Aeneid ends with unremitting violence.

Aeneas’s great Italian warrior rival Turnus has been wounded in single combat, and pleads for his life on his knees. Aeneas seems to mull over an act of clemency, but in a sudden fit of rage he kills Turnus on the spot. The poem ends with a description of Turnus’s limbs going slack and his life going resentfully to the shades below.

Virgil holds a volume of The Aeneid in a mosaic from the 3rd century AD, on display in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia.
David Bjorgen/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The sudden end of the Aeneid, with such a violent turn, has proved very challenging and unsatisfying for many readers. Virgil’s own death before the final completion of the poem in 19 BC added a further element of debate. Would he have changed the end of the poem? There was also a legend that he had left instructions for his assistants to burn the manuscript of the Aeneid, should he die before its completion.

The sudden and brutal end of the poem precipitated various sequels, most famously a Supplement to Aeneid Book 12 by the humanist cleric Maffeo Vegio (ca. 1406-58). This was basically a thirteenth book of the Aeneid told in 630 lines and written in 1428.

Vegio continues the narrative where Virgil leaves off, justifying the death of Turnus, and telling ultimately of the deification of Aeneas. The presence of sequels like this indicates just how confronting and original the Aeneid is – so much that later poets needed to “normalise” it.

There is every reason to think that Virgil’s Aeneid became a classic as soon as it was written and published. And it has remained so until this day. Many parts of the Aeneid have influenced Western literature and art: especially the sack of Troy and Aeneas’ departure from it (Book 2); the tragedy of Dido (Books 1, 4 and 6); and his journey to the Underworld (Book 6).

Virgil Reading the Aeneid, circa 1790-93.
Jean-Baptiste Wicar/Chicago Art Institute/Wikimedia Commons

The last of these, Aeneas’s journey into the Underworld in Aeneid 6, fundamentally influenced the poet Dante’s (1265-1321) own narrative of life after death. Virgil is his guide through Inferno and Purgatorio, which says something about the high regard of poet for poet – bearing in mind, of course, that Virgil was a pagan.

When Dante first sees the shade of Virgil he greets him in a way that could hardly be more fulsome:

Are you then that Virgil, and that fountain, that pours out so great a river of speech? O, glory and light to other poets, may that long study, and the great love, that made me scan your work, be worth something now. You are my master, and my author: you alone are the one from whom I learnt the high style that has brought me honour.


The Conversation*NB Virgil’s name is also sometimes spelt “Vergil.”

Chris Mackie, Professor of Classics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Dante’s Divine Comedy



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Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, inspired by Dante Alighieri’s vision of heaven and hell.
Wikimedia

Frances Di Lauro, University of Sydney

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!

So warns the inscription on the gates of the inferno, the first realm of Dante Alighieri’s celebrated work, now known as the Divine Comedy. “La Commedia”, as Dante originally named it, is an imaginary journey through the three realms of the afterlife: inferno (hell), purgatorio (purgatory) and paradiso (heaven).

Dante and Beatrice see the Empyrean at the end of their journey to heaven.
Gustave Doré & Kalki

It might not sound all that funny, but Dante called his epic poem a comedy because, unlike tragedies that begin on a high note and end tragically, comedies begin badly but end well. The poem indeed ends well, with the protagonist, also named Dante, reaching his desired destination – heaven – a place of beauty and calm, light and ultimate good. Conversely, the inferno is dark, morose and inhabited by irredeemable sinners.

Dante wrote the comedy during his exile from Florence between 1302 and his death in 1321. It is the first significant text written in the Italian vernacular and is written in terza rima, an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme invented by the author.


Further reading: Guide to the Classics: Homer’s Odyssey


Dante set the beginning of the story on Holy Thursday, 1300, when he was 35-years-old. He alludes to being “middle aged” in the opening lines of the poem:

Halfway through our life’s journey

I woke to find myself within a dark wood

because I had strayed from the correct path.

Oh how hard it is to describe

how harsh and tough that savage wood was

The very thought of it renews the fear!

To hell, and back again

At the beginning of Inferno, Dante alludes to the apocalyptic vision of the biblical Book of Revelation. In a dark wood, three menacing beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf – respectively symbolising lust, pride and greed – prevent Dante from climbing a mountain.

William Blake, Dante running from the three beasts, 1824-1827.
Wikimedia

As Dante despairs, the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, appears, announcing that he has been sent to guide him. They must first descend into hell, a cone-shaped crater that was caused by the fall of Lucifer.

Before beginning the journey, and in keeping with the classical epic tradition, Dante invokes the goddesses known as muses to inspire him, something he will do at the beginning of the next two books, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Dante and Virgil must pass through nine circles of hell, in which the punishments increase in severity to match the gravity of the vices being punished. In the first circle are mythological and historical characters who died before Christianity was founded and were therefore not initiated through baptism. Lingering here are noble and virtuous characters – like Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, Cicero, and Ovid.

Francesca and Paolo, adulterers, Gustave Dore, circa 1860.
Wikimedia

In the second circle, Dante is distraught by the cruelty of the punishment he observes. There, he encounters the souls of the lustful, including the legendary Tristan and Isolde and the historical Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo. Murdered by Francesca’s husband and Paolo’s brother, Giovanni Malatesta, these two souls drift aimlessly, their bodies fused together as punishment for adultery. They are joined for eternity, inverting the biblical prescription in Matthew that “what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

In the remaining seven circles of hell, Dante and Virgil observe punishments that are so grisly that sinners are reduced to grotesque conditions. These inspired the frescoes depicting the final judgement day that the painter Giotto painted around the walls and ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

The writer Dante’s friend and compatriot, Giotto was commissioned to paint the inside of the chapel by the son of an infamous usurer that Dante identifies in the seventh circle of hell. There, men with moneybags hanging round their necks flick off flames, just as dogs shoo away insects in summer.

In the next, the circle of the fraudulent, Dante and Virgil encounter popes guilty of simony (or the selling of church services). Having inverted the moral order, they face an eternity buried upside down with their heads in the trenches. Only their legs can be seen from above, waving around frantically.

Ugolino and his sons. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1865-67.
Wikimedia

In the ninth circle, the pilgrims see the Count Ugolino chomping on the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, the punishment for treachery. In reality Ugolino conspired against his party, the Ghibellines, to bring the opposing Guelfs to power. The Archbishop later betrayed and imprisoned Ugolino with his offspring, gradually starving them to death.

Finally the pilgrims arrive at the centre of the earth, where they must scale the hairy sides of Lucifer to be able to ascend to the surface of the earth to get to purgatory, where they must be cleaned of the stain of hell. At the entrance of purgatory, an angel inscribes the letter “P” on Dante’s forehead seven times with the tip of his sword, saying “Make sure you cleanse these wounds when you are inside”. Each “P” stands for piaghe (wounds) that form from peccati (sins). Dante must work off and cleanse away each of them in the seven terraces of purgatory. As he leaves each terrace repented, the angel brushes his forehead, removing one of the letters.


Further reading: In spite of their differences, Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God


Renewed and purified, Dante is now disposed to rise to “the stars”. Drawing on the writings of Saint Augustine, a woman called Beatrice, who has taken over from Virgil and guides Dante through heaven, explains that God’s creations, exiled to earth, long to return to their place of origin. Dante and Beatrice ascend through several heavens, the moon, and the planets, to the Empyrean, the heaven of divine peace. Like Inferno and Purgatorio, Paradiso ends with a reference to the stars:

Here high fantasy lost its impulse but my will and desire were already propelled, as a wheel is equally moved by the love that moves the sun and other stars.

Dante through the ages

Early commentators focused on interpreting the work as an allegory for the life of Jesus. In his Life of Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, classified Dante as a prophet and his poem a prophecy. Humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424-98) viewed the poem as a metaphor for the soul’s journey back to God, and Neapolitan political philosopher Giambatista Vico (1668-1744) saw the Divine Comedy as a product of its barbarous time and Dante as the historian of his age, labelling him the Tuscan Homer.

More recently the Divine Comedy has inspired many creative works including art, architecture, literature, music, radio, film, television, comics, animations, digital arts, computer games and even a papal encyclical, Deus caritas est (2006), which, according to Pope Benedict XVI was inspired by the final verse of Paradiso.

It is most often Dante’s Inferno, its graphic imagery and twisted characters, that has inspired litterateurs like Chaucer, Milton, Honoré de Balzac, Marx, Elliot, Forster, Beckett, Primo Levy and Borges.

Few films have incorporated the entire epic tale. The earliest silent films, in 1911 (L’Inferno) and 1924 (Dante’s Inferno), and the first motion picture in 1935 (also Dante’s Inferno) all focused on the creatures and events of the inferno.

Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips’s multi-award winning 1990 A TV Dante juxtaposes narration by John Gielgud, electronic images and sounds, with asides by experts, such as explanations of the three “beasts” by David Attenborough. A 2010 animation and 2012 documentary focus on the horror of the inferno, while another terrifying 2010 animation is based on a video game and departs considerably from the original.

The ConversationNor must the inferno be the focus to instil fear or terror. The film American Psycho is among 33 films with no connection to the Divine Comedy that contain, collectively, 64 occurrences of the iconic phrase at the gates of the inferno: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” a phrase that still inspires dread and terror in the audience almost 700 years later.

Frances Di Lauro, Senior Lecturer, Chair, The Department of Writing Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the Classics: Homer’s Odyssey



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Odysseus and his crew escape the cyclops, as painted by Arnold Böcklin in 1896.
Wikimedia

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The Odyssey of Homer is a Greek epic poem that tells of the return journey of Odysseus to the island of Ithaca from the war at Troy, which Homer addressed in The Iliad. In the Greek tradition, the war lasted for ten years. Odysseus then spent a further ten years getting home in the face of hostility from Poseidon, god of the earth and sea.

Odysseus’s return to his island, however, is not the end of his woes. He finds that 108 young men from the local vicinity have invaded his house to put pressure on his wife Penelope to marry one of them. A stalemate exists, and it is only resolved by a bow contest at the end of the poem, which then leads to a slaughter of all the suitors by Odysseus and his son Telemachus. Peace on the island is eventually restored through the intervention of Athena, goddess of wisdom, victory and war.

Penelope, waiting on Ithaca. Painted by Domenico Beccafumi circa 1514.
Wikimedia

The quest of Odysseus to get back to his island and eject the suitors is built on the power of his love for home and family. This notion of love conquering fear and hatred is a common theme in Greek quest mythology.

The Odyssey, like the Iliad, is divided into 24 books, corresponding to the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. Within the middle section of the poem (Books 9-12), Odysseus describes all the challenges that he has faced trying to get home. These include monsters of various sorts, a visit to the afterlife, cannibals, drugs, alluring women, and the hostility of Poseidon himself. These challenges resemble those of earlier heroes like Heracles and Jason. In the Iliad, the hero Achilles faces no such challenges, indicating that the Odyssey has a very different idea of heroism.

Cunning and courage

The critical episode on the way home is Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus, a Cyclops and son of Poseidon (told in Book 9). He and his men enter into the cave of the Cyclops, get him drunk on some seriously potent wine, and then stick a large burning stake into his eye. Polyphemus is blinded but survives the attack and curses the voyage home of the Ithacans. All of Odysseus’s men are eventually killed, and he alone survives his return home, mostly because of his versatility and cleverness. There is a strong element of the trickster figure about Homer’s Odysseus.

It is very important in the Odyssey that the hero’s renown as the destroyer of Troy has quickly entered into the oral tradition of the world through which he travels. On the last leg of his return he is entertained by the Phaeacians on the island of Scheria (perhaps modern Corfu), where Odysseus, his identity unknown to his hosts, rather cheekily asks the local bard Demodocus to sing the story of the wooden horse, which Odysseus had used to hide the Greek soldiers and surprise the city of Troy.

Odysseus resists the Sirens.
Carole Raddato/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Odysseus is more than keen to hear about his own heroic exploits. And so well does Demodocus sing the story of the horse that tears run down Odysseus’s cheeks and he groans heavily. His reaction to the bard prompts his host, the king Alcinous, to ask him who he is and what is his story?

Odysseus can rightly claim to be the conqueror of Troy based on his creative thinking in dreaming up the idea of the horse in the first place, not to mention his courage in going into its belly with the other men. His role in breaking the siege at Troy is a precursor to breaking the stalemate in his own house. He is a kind of “breaker of sieges” in early Greek epic. His heroism is characterised by these two elements – his cunning intelligence, and his courage in the darkness of confined spaces.

This kind of heroism is very different from Achilles in the Iliad, whose renown is built on his use of the spear and shield in single combat in the bright light of day. Achilles never sees the fall of Troy because he dies beforehand (unless one watches the 2004 film Troy). One might say that Achilles wins his Trojan war by killing Hector, with Athena’s support, but it is Odysseus who is the real destroyer of the city by virtue of a new and different kind of heroism.

Just as Odysseus is too clever for the Trojans – and the suitors – so his wife Penelope is a model of cleverness and circumspection. She tries to avoid re-marriage and delays the event by a clever ruse: she agrees to marry a suitor only after she has finished weaving a death shroud for Odysseus’s father Laertes. The suitors agree to this, but little do they know that she weaves the shroud by day, and un-weaves it by night. She is eventually betrayed by one of the maids in the house, and forced by the suitors to complete it, although the ruse does last for three years.

Penelope keeps her suitors at bay by spinning a shroud for three years. Painted by Pinturicchio circa 1500.
Wikimedia

The Greeks had no illusion that the characteristic cleverness of Odysseus had a sinister aspect to it, not the least in the way that he deals with the Trojans after the war. Some of the atrocities at Troy, notably the killing of the young boy Astyanax (son of Hector and Andromache), are sheeted home to Odysseus by the poets. In late-5th century BC Athens (over 200 years after Homer’s Odyssey) the rise of demagogic politicians, like Cleon, seems to have affected the portrayal of Odysseus in Greek drama. In works such as Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ Trojan Women the focus is on his appalling cruelty and duplicity. Likewise, the Roman poet Vergil in his Aeneid (Book 2) emphasises the dark trickery of Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus) in getting the Trojans to drag the Wooden Horse inside the city walls.

Returning from war

The Odyssey, therefore, is a maritime epic right up to the point where the focus of attention is the siege in Odysseus’s house. The return journey of the warrior from Troy was a favourite theme in Greek mythology, and we know of another early epic poem (simply called Nostoi, meaning “Returns”) which told a similar story. Even within the Odyssey there is a significant contrast between the careful and clever return of Odysseus, and that of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, who is murdered as soon as he gets home.

There are a number of signs that the Odyssey is a later poem than the Iliad, and not necessarily by the same poet (despite the Greek tradition that they are both by “Homer”). The gods are far less prominent in the Odyssey than the Iliad, although Athena in particular has her moments. She is associated with cleverness (metis in Greek) and victory (nike), both of which are germane to the story of Odysseus’ survival, and that of his family. In many ways Odysseus and Penelope are models of the sorts of things that Athena represents.

Odysseus and his son slaughter Penelope’s suitors on Ithaca.
Wikimedia

The Odyssey also has a more elaborate structure and chronology than the Iliad. The first four books deal with the situation of the house invasion on Ithaca, and the travels of the young Telemachus to mainland Greece. Athena takes Telemachus from the female space of the house to the outside world of male politics. Thereafter, Odysseus himself is the centre of the poem’s attention as wanderer, tale teller, and siege breaker in his own home. The folktale world through which he travels (in Books 9 to 12) is told indirectly by Odysseus on his journey home to a Phaeacian audience, rather than directly by the poet. This notion of Odysseus as tale teller is central to the Odyssey.

In many ways the Odyssey is the most renowned literary work from Greek antiquity, even though some people would say it lacks the radical brilliance of the Iliad. The fact that the word “odyssey” has come into our language from Homer’s poem speaks for itself. The story of the Odyssey is a quintessential quest that relates to the passage through life and the importance of love and family and home. Many readers today find the Odyssey more accessible and more “modern” than the “archaic” Iliad.

Modern interpretations

The rich variety of mythical narratives in the Odyssey (especially his wanderings through a world of wonder and mystery in Books 9 to 12) has meant that the cultural history of the poem is astonishingly large, whether in literature or art or film. Whole monographs have been written on the reception of Odysseus in later periods. When one bears in mind that Odysseus’s name at Rome, Ulysses, is often used by artists and writers, as it was by James Joyce, then we get a sense of how dominant a figure he is in western cultural history.

Creative re-tellings of the Odyssey in a modern context include films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paris, Texas, and O Brother Where Art Thou? Likewise the theme of the returning war veteran has Homeric overtones in films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Deer Hunter and In the Valley of Elah.

Odysseus, moreover, probably influenced the early comic book superhero Batman in the late 1930s and 40s, just as Greek demigods, such as Heracles and Achilles, help to inform the extra-terrestrial background of Superman. As a human bat, Batman uses disguise to good effect, as Odysseus does, and he thrives on conducting his challenges in the darkness of night.

But the last word on the subject of Odysseus and his adventures should go to Bob Dylan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Dylan wrote a lecture in honour of his Nobel victory, focused on some of the literature that influenced and affected him. One such work was the Odyssey, and with echoes of Constantine Cavafy’s magnificent poem Ithaca, Dylan reflects on Odysseus’ adventures and their immediacy as a lived experience:

In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.


The ConversationSuggested translation: The Odyssey of Homer, Richmond Lattimore.

Chris Mackie, Professor of Classics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: the Epic of Gilgamesh


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Gilgamesh explores what it means to be human, and questions the meaning of life and love.
Wikimedia Commons

Louise Pryke, Macquarie University

“Forget death and seek life!” With these encouraging words, Gilgamesh, the star of the eponymous 4000-year-old epic poem, coins the world’s first heroic catchphrase. The Conversation

At the same time, the young king encapsulates the considerations of mortality and humanity that lie at the heart of the world’s most ancient epic. While much has changed since, the epic’s themes are still remarkably relevant to modern readers.

Depending upon your point of view, Gilgamesh may be considered a myth-making biography of a legendary king, a love story, a comedy, a tragedy, a cracking adventure, or perhaps an anthology of origin stories.

All these elements are present in the narrative, and the diversity of the text is only matched by its literary sophistication. Perhaps surprisingly, given the extreme antiquity of the material, the epic is a masterful blending of complex existential queries, rich imagery and dynamic characters.

The narrative begins with Gilgamesh ruling over the city of Uruk as a tyrant. To keep him occupied, the Mesopotamian deities create a companion for him, the hairy wild man Enkidu.

Gilgamesh in his lion-strangling mode.
TangLung, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Gilgamesh sets about civilising Enkidu, a feat achieved through the novel means of a week of sex with the wise priestess, Shamhat (whose very name in Akkadian suggests both beauty and voluptuousness).

Gilgamesh and Enkidu become inseparable, and embark on a quest for lasting fame and glory. The heroes’ actions upset the gods, leading to Enkidu’s early death.

The death of Enkidu is a pivotal point in the narrative. The love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu transforms the royal protagonist, and Enkidu’s death leaves Gilgamesh bereft and terrified of his own mortality.

The hero dresses himself in the skin of a lion, and travels to find a long-lived great flood survivor, Utanapishtim (often compared with the biblical Noah). After a perilous journey over the waters of death, Gilgamesh finally meets Utanapishtim and asks for the secret to immortality.

In one of the earliest literary anti-climaxes, Utanapishtim tells him that he doesn’t have it. The story ends with Gilgamesh returning home to the city of Uruk.

Mesopotamian mindfulness

Gilgamesh and his adventures can only be described in superlative terms: during his legendary journeys, the hero battles deities and monsters, finds (and loses) the secret to eternal youth, travels to the very edge of the world — and beyond.

Despite the fantastical elements of the narrative and its protagonist, Gilgamesh remains a very human character, one who experiences the same heartbreaks, limitations and simple pleasures that shape the universal quality of the human condition.

Gilgamesh explores the nature and meaning of being human, and asks the questions that continue to be debated in the modern day: what is the meaning of life and love? What is life really — and am I doing it right? How do we cope with life’s brevity and uncertainty, and how do we deal with loss?

The text provides multiple answers, allowing the reader to wrestle with these ideas alongside the hero. Some of the clearest advice is provided by the beer deity, Siduri (yes, a goddess of beer), who suggests Gilgamesh set his mind less resolvedly on extending his life.

Instead, she urges him to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, such as the company of loved ones, good food and clean clothes — perhaps giving an example of a kind of Mesopotamian mindfulness.

The king-hero Gilgamesh battling the ‘Bull of Heaven’.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The epic also provides the reader with a useful case study in what not to do if one is in the exceptional circumstance of reigning over the ancient city of Uruk. In ancient Mesopotamia, the correct behaviour of the king was necessary for maintaining earthly and heavenly order.

Despite the gravity of this royal duty, Gilgamesh seems to do everything wrong. He kills the divinely-protected environmental guardian, Humbaba, and ransacks his precious Cedar Forest. He insults the beauteous goddess of love, Ishtar, and slays the mighty Bull of Heaven.

He finds the key to eternal youth, but then loses it just as quickly to a passing snake (in the process explaining the snake’s “renewal” after shedding its skin). Through these misadventures, Gilgamesh strives for fame and immortality, but instead finds love with his companion, Enkidu, and a deeper understanding of the limits of humanity and the importance of community.

Reception and recovery

The Epic of Gilgamesh was wildly famous in antiquity, with its impact traceable to the later literary worlds of the Homeric epics and the Hebrew Bible. Yet, in the modern day, even the most erudite readers of ancient literature might struggle to outline its plot, or name its protagonists.

A statue of Gilgamesh at the University of Sydney.
Gwil5083, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

To what might we owe this modern-day cultural amnesia surrounding one of the world’s greatest works of ancient literature?

The answer lies in the history of the narrative’s reception. While many of the great literary works of ancient Greece and Rome were studied continuously throughout the development of Western culture, the Epic of Gilgamesh comes from a forgotten age.

The story originates in Mesopotamia, an area of the Ancient Near East thought to roughly correspond with modern-day Iraq, Kuwait and parts of Syria, Iran and Turkey, and frequently noted as “the cradle of civilisation” for its early agriculture and cities.

Gilgamesh was written in cuneiform script, the world’s oldest known form of writing. The earliest strands of Gilgamesh’s narrative can be found in five Sumerian poems, and other versions include those written in Elamite, Hittite and Hurrian. The best-known version is the Standard Babylonian Version, written in Akkadian (a language written in cuneiform that functioned as the language of diplomacy in the second millennium BCE).

The disappearance of the cuneiform writing system around the time of the 1st century CE accelerated Gilgamesh’s sharp slide into anonymity.

For almost two millennia, clay tablets containing stories of Gilgamesh and his companions lay lost and buried, alongside many tens of thousands of other cuneiform texts, beneath the remnants of the great Library of Ashurbanipal.

Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, Wikimedia Commons

The modern rediscovery of the epic was a watershed moment in the understanding of the Ancient Near East. The eleventh tablet of the Epic was first translated by self-taught cuneiform scholar George Smith of the British Museum in 1872. Smith discovered the presence of an ancient Babylonian flood narrative in the text with striking parallels to the biblical flood story of the Book of Genesis.

The story is often repeated (although it may be apocryphal) that when Smith began to decipher the tablet, he became so excited that he began to remove all his clothing. From these beginnings in the mid-19th century, the process of recovering the cuneiform literary catalogue continues today.

In 2015, the publication of a new fragment of Tablet V by Andrew George and Farouk Al-Rawi made international news. The fragment’s discovery coincided with increased global sensitivity to the destruction of antiquities in the Middle East in the same year. The Washington Post juxtaposed the “heart-warming story” of the find against the destruction and looting in Syria and Iraq.

Ancient ecology

The new section of Tablet V contains ecological aspects that resonate with modern day concerns over environmental destruction. Of course, there are potential anachronisms in projecting environmental concerns on an ancient text composed thousands of years prior to the industrial revolution.

Yet, the undeniable sensitivity in the epic’s presentation of the wilderness is illuminating, considering the long history of humanity’s interaction with our environment and its animal inhabitants.

A cedar forest in Turkey.
Zeynel Cebeci, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In Gilgamesh, the wilderness is a place of beauty and purity, as well as home to a wild abundance. The splendour and grandeur of the Cedar Forest is described poetically in Tablet V:

They (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) stood marvelling at the forest,

Observing the height of the cedars …

They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain, the dwelling of the gods, the throne-dais of the goddesses …

Sweet was its shade, full of delight.

While the heroes pause to admire the forest’s beauty, their interest is not purely aesthetic. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are aware of the economic value of the cedars, and the text provides a clear picture of competing commercial and ecological interests.

Where to read Gilgamesh

Since Gilgamesh’s reappearance into popular awareness in the last hundred years, the Standard Babylonian Version of the epic has become accessible in numerous translations. This version was originally compiled by the priest, scribe and exorcist, Sin-leqi-uninni, around 1100 BCE.

The scholarly standard among modern translations is Andrew George’s The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts (2003).

Despite its all-around excellence, the two-volume work is decidedly unwieldly, and the less muscle-bound reader would be well directed to The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (1999), by the same author. Most readable among modern treatments is David Ferry’s Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (1992), which gives a potent, poetic interpretation of the material.

Like the snake that steals Gilgamesh’s rejuvenation plant, the Epic of Gilgamesh has aged well. Its themes – exploring the tension between the natural and civilised worlds, the potency of true love, and the question of what makes a good life – are as relevant today as they were 4,000 years ago.

Note: Translations are sourced from Andrew R. George 2003. The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Louise Pryke, Lecturer, Languages and Literature of Ancient Israel, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.