Homer will change us. Pericles will elevate our souls.
The Acropolis will inspire us. Virgil will move the heart. The stones of Rome are a highway to a time more illustrative—more archetypal, more dense with universal human significance—than any other past. All lost time is interesting, yes, and all history deserves respect, for in a wide range of conditions, real human beings lived and died. But ancient times, the eras of Greece and Rome, offer us glories and horrors that still thrum with consequence: electrical wires that glow, burning hot with all the meaning that passes through them.
Or so, at least, our educators used to say. Instill in poor children a little elementary math and reading, and you increase their chances of being employable. Instill in them Greek and Latin, and you increase their chances of reaching the fullness of human life and self-understanding. Their chance of being civilized.
You don’t guarantee it, of course: A torturer can study Latin, and good lives can be lived without an iota of Ancient Greek. But teachers always have to deal with probabilities. The best chance of raising up the people on whom the moral continuation of the world rests? The best chance of creating the unacknowledged pillars on whose wisdom and self-possession civilization depends? A little Greek, a little Latin, and a rich sense of an ancient world that gave us symbols of humanity: the moral highs to which human beings can reach, the moral lows to which they can fall.
Or so, at least, we used to say. And now we don’t. Who still believes that 18th- and 19th-century claptrap? In his 1869 Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold demanded that we teach “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” To intone those words today would be to submit oneself to relentless mockery as an elitist and an antediluvian fool. No culture is better than others, no art superior, no idea universal, we are regularly informed.
The Real Life of the Parthenon, a new collection of 10 essays by Patricia Vigderman, makes sense only if you keep those two senses of the past in mind. The author of an interesting if somewhat peculiar book on the Gardner Museum in Boston, and an even more interesting and even more peculiar book called Possibility: Essays Against Despair, Vigderman has been something of a peripatetic figure. Her undergraduate degree came from Vassar in 1964, her Ph.D. from Tufts in 1998, and in the 30-odd years between, she taught a little, traveled a little, and wrote beautiful, odd little essays for small literary magazines.
And now she’s taken on the Ancient World, recollecting the time she spent as a child with her parents in Athens back in the 1950s and contemplating her reactions both to revisiting the Greek site and to viewing the missing portions, on display in London since Lord Elgin shipped them to England in 1801.
On the question of the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles—the Greeks want them back, the British are ambivalent—Vigderman strives mightily to be evenhanded and broadminded. From time to time, that triggers a scatterbrained swing down one of the sidetracks to which she’s prone as a writer, but all in all, she presents both sides of the dispute fairly.
When an artwork forms an important part of how the world views the culture and history of a particular place—an important part of how the people who live there view their culture and history—shouldn’t the artwork reside in that place? But, she reasonably asks, what do the modern residents of the ancient Greek colony of Paestum in Italy have to do with the surviving remnants of Greek temples there? In 2007, the Getty Villa in Los Angeles sent back to Italy a marble sculpture of two polychrome griffins attacking a doe, and Vigderman recognizes both that the sculpture may be better positioned there in a small regional Italian setting, and that many fewer people will be able to see it.
“Fault lines run through any claims on antiquity,” she observes. She shies from, say, the hard conclusion of Tiffany Jenkins, who openly mocks the failure of nerve that has caused modern museums to shed their collections in fear of being called elitist and colonialist. But she does have a strong sense of the ironies in, for example, the new Acropolis Museum, which has become a Greek nationalistic project to boost tourism and dispense patriotic propaganda. If the Greek sculptures from the Acropolis are to be used for some purpose, why is modern Greek chauvinism a better purpose than the British setting that presents them as universal human art?
The answer, if answer there is, revolves around the rejection in recent decades of the idea of the universal in schools and museums: The British setting may claim to emphasize universals of human aspiration, but that is really an assertion of imperialistic power, the British Empire crowning itself the true definer of the universal.
Mary Beard has spoken of the ways in which the sculptures are now culturally important now precisely because they have been stripped of a modern-day cultural setting: “valued because of their deracination.” But the vast majority of academics these days believe that every claim of transcultural universality, every claim of broad human nature, is really just a power grab by a particular culture. The Ancient Greeks have no more to teach us than anyone else, the Ancient era no more than any other time. Logically, that should mean the modern Greeks have no better claim to universality in their old art than the British do. But the point lies elsewhere. The Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece if the act of returning them allows the British another chance to express their sorrow over their imperialistic past.
There’s some annoying coyness—that tired, old delicate-spooky-woman-that-I-am shtick—in Vigderman’s prose. So, for example, she speaks coquettishly from time to time of conversations with her traveling “companion,” without ever identifying who that companion is. Still, The Real Life of the Parthenon is a thoughtful book and well worth the reader’s time.
In the end, Vigderman reaches no strong conclusion about the puzzles of tourism, art, human nature, and cultural determination. She refuses even to decide about the repatriation of artworks. Partly that’s because she seems congenitally averse to writing a thesis-driven essay: Meander she wants to, and meander she does. But mostly she arrives at no certain destination because she wants to look at all the puzzle pieces. She wants to think about traveling while traveling: What does it mean to go see the Elgin Marbles in London? A sculpture of a savaged deer in Los Angeles and then in Italy? Greek sculpture in Sicily?
Perhaps most important, what does it mean to feel the pull of the Ancient world—sensing the ways in which Homer might change us, Virgil move us, the Acropolis inspire us, and the stones of Rome transport us? Once upon a time, we thought we knew what that meant, and we structured our schools and museums to take advantage of it. Now, not so much. If The Real Life of the Parthenon seems at times uncertain and indecisive, that’s because it’s a thoughtful book. An honest book, insofar as the present cultural age allows much thoughtfulness and honesty.