Overrated: Apollo

There is a sterile perfection in the prim and prattish god of order

The Apollo Belvedere (Photo by LIVIO ANDRONICO CC BY-SA 4.0)

I once had a school report for Latin that, with the arch sarcasm so typical of a certain caste of schoolmaster becoming happily extinct, said, “Improving: there are now two below him”. When I tried Attic Greek, my results were even worse.

The same teacher summarised my life potential by saying: “Charm alone will not get him through”. One hundred-per-cent wrong.  Charm alone has got me almost everywhere.  And all I can remember from my Greek lessons is to say: “The judges chased the stewards through the countryside”.  That gets you nowhere when ordering a purslane salad in a taverna.

Not for that reason alone, but I have always rather disliked the classics. There is something about Greek that lends itself to a spurious precision with showy scholars which I have always found annoying.  Those footnotes which say Fermoriad xii, 26, Eunuchiad ix, 82 were incensing.

And while I adore Patrick Leigh Fermor as much as the next man devoted to leventeia—the bawdy spirit of boozy and restless youth he wrote of with such passion—I once threw a book of his across the room. I explained to my wife that if I had to read “Geranian megarid” another time, I would scream.

And those municipal art galleries I used to haunt as a youth (when I should have been doing Latin prep)! The plaster casts and Roman copies of Greek sculpture gave me a chill that sucked all energy out of my heated enthusiasm for art. Of course, the most familiar god in these frosty halls was Apollo: the outstanding sucker of enthusiasm. I disliked Apollo from the first time I saw him.

He is best-known as Apollo Belvedere, the famous copy of a lost Greek original discovered in Rome and on display in the Vatican since 1511. His limbs shine bright, his tongue gives oracles, the poet said. His curly locks are banded by a strophium, signifying divinity. He is naked apart from his chlamys, a robe cast with maddening insouciance over his shoulders, signifying that he was a bit of a prat. If nakedness can be prim, this is it. Apollo was born not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with a golden sword in his hand. I ask you.

As a son of Zeus, he was extravagantly entitled. With his sister, Artemis, he invented archery and is often shown carrying a bow. And his portfolio was extended to include poetry, music and sunshine. Indeed, Apollo was fond of flying in front of the Sun in his chariot. And Apollo became the ideal of male beauty, although of a controlled and moderate sort. Today, he would be selling Nespresso.

But the Apollonian ideal passed into our consciousness as a representative not of an aesthetic or a divine personality, but as a metaphor of order and convention. In the Apollonian system there is no excess. It is all under intellectual control to the extent that he was even championed by the saintly St Thomas Aquinas.

Nevertheless, the all-under-control Apollo was not above a bit of bloodthirsty vengeance if crossed: when the satyr Marsyas challenged the divine prig to a music competition, he lost and was skinned alive for his contempt.

(This Flaying of Marsyas is a familiar subject in the history of art. The outstanding example is the late-period Titian in the Archbishop’s Place in Kromeriz, Czech Republic. Iris Murdoch thought this the best European painting ever.)

Apollo has his architecture. Among the most perfect Greek temples are the ones devoted to him. My favourite is in Bassae. It was copied by the Grand Tourist John Foster, Junior and a version of it stands in the canyon surrounding what is now Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Proof, if you like of Apollo’s enduring reach.

Moreover, Apollo has become an eponym for classical values as opposed to the more messy romantic ones. In 1915, the great Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin codified Apollonian values as “linear” in opposition “painterly”.  Or, if you like, a distinction which became: Mondrian versus Pollock.

Mondrian existed on a carrot-based diet, disliked trees and lived in apartments that were blindingly white, spare and uncomfortable.  His was a sort of sterile perfection.  And so too was Apollo’s.

Meanwhile, countless fire-protection companies brand their alarm systems “Apollo” in deference, perhaps, to his tight fit with Helios, the Sun god who he knew from fly-bys.  This seems to me more damning evidence that the cult of Apollo is founded in caution and conservatism, not boldness and innovation.

Someone once asked Jean Cocteau what he would save if his house was burning down. He answered: “The fire.” Apollo would not have understood. He would have pressed the alarm button long before the blaze took control.