Which books best represent Greek culture?
Beware, these books are dangerous! - Classics are not easy to read. This is exactly why it is worth reading it
White, sexist and glorifying violence: Feminists and postcolonial critics target Ovid, Shakespeare and Co. under fire. Your criticism is as ideological as it is conservative.
Just imagine: a seminar at an elite American university, students read a passage from Ovid's “Metamorphoses” with their professor. Perhaps the story of the nymph Daphne, who is pursued by the maddened Apollo and who is able to evade him at the last second because her father has turned her into a laurel tree. Perhaps the story of the Theban king's daughter Semele, who is besieged by Zeus and finally struck by lightning because she uttered a wish that she had no idea how pernicious it is: she wanted to see Zeus in his true form.
A piece of world literature. But somehow the professor is uncomfortable with it. Because it's about sexual violence. In a two thousand year old text, sure, but does that make a difference? After all, rape is rape, whether in ancient Rome or today, in a city on the east coast of America. #MeeToo and attacks by ruthless, powerful men are the talk of the day, and all universities have guidelines for dealing with sexism, harassment and abuse. The subject is burning. And tricky.
So the professor asks herself whether one can simply read texts like the "Metamorphoses" in class as if they were the lies of Odysseus returning home or the fable of the fox and the grapes. Ultimately, it could be that the participants in the seminar themselves have already become victims of sexual violence. She decides to address the problem.
And now it's getting interesting. Because now she puts on her ideological glasses. Gender, feminism. And then it gets dark. In the narratives of the "Metamorphoses", she notes, sexual violence is not simply portrayed. They are being played down. This is what it is called in the zeitgeist, vulgar feminist barracks tone. And that in turn, the professor believes, could be understood by misogynist readers as an argument that sexual violence is a trivial matter, a trivial offense.
No, this is not a joke. And yes, it was a literary scholar who asked these questions. One cannot quite imagine the seminar session, which was under such strange omens. And you don't know what to find worse: the awkwardness of a lecturer who has obviously given little thought to a text she wants to read with her students, or the intellectual climate at a university where one has to fear prospective students Literary scholars might come up with the idea of aligning the compass of their moral perception with a narrative.
The example sounds awesome. But that's not it. It reflects a tendency that has become normal in American universities and is spreading across Europe. Classics are under suspicion. What does suspicion mean, they are convicted: from Homer to Shakespeare, from Aeschylus to Goethe, from Plato and Cicero to Ovid and Horace to Kleist and Kant - all works that are in the poison cabinet in American university libraries. Provided with a trigger warning: "Warning, this book is the product of its time and does not reflect the values it would reflect if it were written today."
Young people, that is to say, cannot simply be handed over to the works of these white old men who are so patriarchal, so misogynistic and so sexist. In addition, belligerent and glorifying violence. The ancient writers also had a master-human mentality. In any case, none of them have explicitly distanced themselves from the inhuman social practice of keeping slaves. That there were different classes of people, free and unfree, was as natural for Plato as it was for Virgil.
Literature does not need monument protection
So these authors represent what is called European culture? That is exactly what they do, the feminist and post-colonialist critics scoff. And from that you can see what kind of culture it is! Ovid, Shakespeare and Co. stand for a civilization based on contempt for women, racism and slavery. That is why one should only read it with reservations, if at all. Books in which a father of gods with macho airs row by row raped young women or a cruel and senseless enterprise like the Trojan War is described - should speak from them the idea of a humanity that can still be binding today?
There is now also a dispute about this in classical studies. Especially since it is no longer just the domain of Western researchers from affluent backgrounds, but has also been run by people who view the cultural and intellectual history of Europe with different eyes. Feminism has changed the view - although the vulgar-populist levels of decline that are currently in circulation are tarnishing it again. And people of color who grew up in the Third World or in a slum in New York are not so easily impressed by noble traditions and resounding names from so-called "classical" antiquity, especially when European scholars carry them before them like a monstrance .
Luckily! Literature does not need monument protection, especially not antiquity. One shouldn't pay homage to it, one should read it. As critical as contemporary literature. It did more harm than good to the classics that they were passed around on a silver platter for decades. Not as works that one grapples with, but as an educational asset that one had to admire if one wanted to claim to belong. To those who know what is beautiful, true and good.
A god is freaking out
In itself, it is high time to scratch the paint with which the philologists of the 19th century painted over everything that comes from Greek and Roman antiquity. We don't make the texts speak by glorifying them, but by tapping them for what is in them. But that shouldn't happen without any specialist knowledge. And above all, you shouldn't be frightened if what you see at the end isn't quite as cozy as you imagined it to be.
Of course, to stick with the much scolded Ovid, it is about sexual violence when a lustful god pursues a defenseless nymph. But it would be expected from literary scholars that their reading is not just guided by personal sensitivities. The point of the story of Daphne is that a god is freaking out, to put it casually. Apollo is no longer himself, no longer knows what he is doing. He is driven, experiences what it means to be gripped by a power that he cannot oppose. Even though he's a god. And although the violence comes from the cute little Cupid, whom he would never trust.
What is being portrayed is neither beautiful nor good. But it dramatically shows that love can be a devastating power. That sexuality is a force that we cannot control - all the less since not even gods like Apollo can evade it. It also shows that gods show no consideration when putting one another in their place. Neither on their own kind nor on people who happen to stand in their way.
A punch on the skull
The feminist and postcolonialist criticism of the classics ultimately aims at nothing. On the one hand, because it is banal. It reveals things you never had to reveal. You just have to be able to read. Of course, ancient literature is - also - about violence, hatred, revenge and enmity. Children are murdered, women violated, friends betrayed and innocent people tortured. It's not cozy. Politically correct either. It is often threatening, worrying, outrageous, offensive. But what is the point of studying literature if we can't stand it?
On the other hand, the self-proclaimed guardians of virtue only show with their allegations how conservative their conception of literature is. Literature is not just a luxury item, but also an instrument for reflection. A book is a mirror that confronts me with everything that is human. Even with what I would rather not see. Great literature tells me something about myself that I didn't know myself. And maybe I would rather not have known because it doesn't fit into the picture I have of myself.
Literature is inconvenient. Also because nothing in it is clear. Odysseus is a likable trickster, but also a ruthless opportunist. The Greek gods are an entertaining company. And at the same time a horde of egoists who plunge righteous people into disaster without batting an eyelid.
In this sense, the trigger warning on the “Metamorphoses”, the “Iliad” or the “Aeneid” is not at all wrong. Franz Kafka once noted that you should only read books that bite and sting you. And further: "If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a punch on the skull, what are we reading the book for?" This is quoted again and again, not infrequently by the same, politically correct people who want to ban all literature that does not suit them. There is more to the classics than we are aware of. You are dangerous. This is exactly why it is worth reading it.
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