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Accidental classicist: Picasso (left) in Pompeii with Leonid Massine in 1917 (©Apic/Getty Images)

Frederic Raphael describes himself as “an accidental classicist”. He fell into the subject at prep school, when his family moved to England from Chicago shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, and stayed with it when he went up to Cambridge in 1950. Given that his father read Greats, Raphael’s path was perhaps not quite as accidental as he supposed, but he pursued it in his own way, keeping his classics on simmer when he proceeded in his career as a successful screenwriter, biographer and novelist. Two of his biographical subjects have been Alexander the Great and the Jewish historian Josephus, both of whom have cameo roles in his recent book, Antiquity Matters, a series of reflections on the classical world — “more a montage than any kind of a textbook”.

Eschewing the academy for the lyceum, he takes in the philosophy, history and literature of Greece and Rome while issuing the odd barb at the fustiness of scholarship. The third-century BC scholar-poet Callimachus is memorably evoked as “one of the first academics to use criticism as a way of fortifying his own supremacy”. Raphael gets away with the slur — his arrow is firmly embedded in a discussion of the poet’s skill in defeating his critics with his intelligence — but the undertone is there, neither cruel nor bitter, only mildly rebellious.

An unlikely rebel in his own time, Callimachus was born in Cyrene, close to Shahat in modern Libya, and came to work at the Library of Alexandria. He is said to have produced some 800 scrolls of papyrus on subjects as various as the names of fish, rivers of Europe, and Greek drama, but is more famous for his poetry, which he wrote with an appetite for novelty and concision. In one of his works Apollo appears to the poet and says: “Do not tread the path/Which carriages pass over or drive your chariot/Over others’ paths or a wide track, but along unworn/Roads, even if you drive a narrower path.”

He excelled at using his knowledge of the arcane and recherché against people less learned than himself. His clever invective inspired a host of later poets, not least Catullus, who crops up as Callimachus’s belated protégé towards the end of Raphael’s book. If Callimachus was academic, then Catullus was manifestly anti-authority, anti-expert, anti making it obvious to anyone but the cleverest how clever he really was. He skewered his enemies with erudition veiled by colloquialism and crudity. Wearing his learning as lightly as possible, he provided a lesson in writing outside the academy as much as against it.

Minus the explicit polemic, Raphael is a scholar in Catullus’s mould, concerned more with reinterpreting the classics for his own pleasure than masquerading as one of the “old, learned, respectable bald heads” whom W. B. Yeats mocked, wearing the carpet with their shoes and coughing in ink and thinking what other people think. He finds himself repeatedly drawn back to the myths of Crete, which seem to encapsulate for him the intricacy and excitement of the classical world. He writes particularly  well on Daedalus, the master craftsman who provided King Minos with an automaton to patrol the shores of Crete (“illegal immigrants”, says Raphael, “were grilled against the furnace caged in his brazen chest”), and his wife Pasiphae with a model of a heifer to climb inside so she could “be pleasured without being crushed” by the gorgeous bull. The Minotaur that resulted from this unnatural union has become an unlikely paradigm for modern man.

Raphael alludes in a footnote to the influence the Minotaur has had on artists such as Picasso. The myth, he reminded me, was formative.  “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line,” said Picasso in 1960, “it might represent a minotaur.” A few decades earlier he had produced a suite of prints inspired by the mythical beast for the art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard. He placed his Minotaur in the arena and in the artist’s studio, in the drawing room and on the bed. Wide-eyed and curly-tailed, his Minotaur engages in all the activities of human life, sipping debonairly from a glass of champagne and tenderly pillowing his mortal lover’s head. Only when he becomes very amorous does he express himself as a bull, rough, hirsute, and terrifyingly carnal. He is at his most human when he is defeated by a matador, cowering in the sand while the arena spectators turn animal in their exuberance.

For Picasso, the Minotaur represented the full range of human experience. It was the bacchanalian beast within him, but also the shape of his life, the uncontrollable narrative of events by which he came to define himself. The people of ancient Athens hailed Theseus as a hero for killing the bull-man who had feasted on its youth, but Picasso seems to have found him comparatively remote. He made the wild but vulnerable Minotaur more deserving of our sympathies, its flaws basic and forgivable by comparison with those of Theseus who, though victorious, lacked the intelligence and forethought of Daedalus. Theseus is said to have promised to raise white sails on his ship if he defeated the Minotaur, but forgot. At the sight of his black sails coming into port, his father hurled himself from a cliff.

An accidental classicist in his own right, Picasso knew the ancient world predominantly through its art, visiting the sites in Rome, Pompeii and throughout Naples, as well as collections of antiquities in museums. It was at the Louvre that he first saw the Geometric Greek vase paintings which inspired so many of his paintings. An eighth-century BC Dipylon Vase with big-bottomed, triangular-torso women was reimagined in his Demoiselles d’Avignon. Early “Black Figure” amphorae paintings of the blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus may also have inspired his rendering of the Minotaur myth. In one of Picasso’s prints for Vollard, the Minotaur staggers as he is blinded like the one-eyed giant of Homer’s Odyssey. Picasso was unafraid to roll different myths together to capture the complex ego. His Minotaur came to embody the spirit of the ancient world and its haunting of modernity.

Not so long ago, one found inspiring university classicists with decades of teaching experience, dozens of books and scholarly papers to their name, but no DPhil. Times have changed. Holding a doctoral degree is now usually a prerequisite to embarking upon a career as a classicist in a university department. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — producing 100,000 words on a topic you have read almost everything about is excellent training, even for those who then choose to pursue work outside academia — but inevitably faculties become less varied in their professional make-up than they once were.

Sir Basil Markesinis QC, a lawyer with no academic background in Classics who has recently published a three-volume series on Ancient Greek Poetry from Homer to Roman Times, confesses to feeling more liberated than today’s university classicist: “I can afford more easily than the professional to fly kites, take risks and be wrong in the process of striving to be original.” The self-confessed novice needn’t worry about getting his facts wrong when he faces a more threatening risk in the form of falling prey to some of the more outlandish “academic” studies out there. Few familiar with the history of classical scholarship would be as open as Markesinis is to engaging with a late American professor’s theory that Homer’s Odysseus was a psychopath, for example. It is to Markesinis’s credit that he battles through the arguments to find the diagnosis ultimately unconvincing.

There is also a problem, both inside and outside academia, with striving too hard for originality, which is that it can produce rather strained comparisons. The scene in the Iliad in which Hector and Andromache laugh to see their infant son flinch from his father’s terrifying war helmet, for instance, leads Markesinis to the conclusion that “only a musical composer of the calibre of Beethoven could recreate this succession of feelings, probably by making use of strings in a slow tempo”.

But being liberated from the facts can also produce some interesting interpretations of the classical world. Markesinis comes to the subject with considerable enthusiasm and a particularly keen eye for the revival of classical themes in art. Among the dozens of beautifully reproduced paintings in his series is Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting of Phidias presenting the Parthenon Frieze to Pericles and his mistress Aspasia. Alma-Tadema was an astute classicist, but felt no pressure to limit himself to the historical accounts. His painting, which features Socrates and Alcibiades as curious onlookers, celebrates the process of invention and reinvention that lies at the heart of Classics.

It is a painting that reminds you how easy it is to be overly reverent towards works of antiquity. The Parthenon marbles are so iconic that one forgets the obvious point that they were based on human models; that Phidias was even said to have been accused of impiously incorporating portraits of himself and Pericles into the shield of his colossal Athena. Myths, shape-shifting since before Homer’s time, belong as much to Alma-Tadema and Picasso as they did to Sir Arthur Evans, as much to the sculptors of antiquity as to the 21st-century commentator on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Classics is a subject that thrives on creative interpretation. If one needs a certain depth of understanding in order to keep the material alive, the vision and skill to reimagine them for one’s own time are just as important.

Only recently, 2,000 years after his death, Ovid received something close to a pardon for the carmen et error (“poem and mistake”) that led him to being relegated to the coast of south-eastern Romania. Reflecting on his earlier life in his exile poem, the Tristia, he described how naturally his brother had tended towards a career in the senate or law court, while he had struggled to avoid the lure of poetry. “Why pursue a useless subject?”, his father had asked him, establishing a damaging precedent for countless parents since. Ovid might have entered the senate but resisted, preferring to follow the Muses along a path that would rob him of the very freedom he sought in writing. “The once cynical amorist,” as Frederic Raphael puts it, “was left to weep away his last years in solitary uxoriousness.” Ovid remains to my mind one of the great trailblazers for the rebel classicist. As unpretentious as Catullus, as endearingly flawed as Picasso’s Minotaur, but as cultivated as the Alexandrians, he showed just how much fun can be had in breaking the rules you once learned.
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