Monday, 9 January 2012

Fry, Hitchens and the Parthenon Marbles

Below is a piece written by British actor, writer, broadcaster Stephen Fry on the justice of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, which was published shortly after the death of Christopher Hitchens, another prominent campaigner for the repatriation of the works to Athens (See Hitchens’ piece The Lovely Stones, here).

Fry largely bases his case on philhellenism – ‘we owe the Greeks; they made us who we are’ – which is fine and laudable. However, in his book on the subject – The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification – Hitchens, while sharing Fry’s fascination and admiration for the achievements of classical Greece and, indeed, affection for modern Greece, emphasises a subtler point that goes beyond the argument of which country should possess the marbles and that point is an aesthetic one; that they should be reunited because we would be able to appreciate and enjoy them more as a whole and not partitioned as they are now. In this respect, Hitchens portrays the British case for holding on to the marbles as an act of gross philistinism.

A further point: while Hitchens (and, to a lesser extent, Fry) is more than adept at elucidating the Greek case for the return of the marbles and exposing the obvious flaws in the British case for keeping them; he seems to ignore one of the shabbier truths behind Britain's determination to keep the stones: which is that the British arguments for their retention ultimately emerge from the same mindset that is determined to retain sovereignty over Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and even the military bases in Cyprus, i.e. other forlorn remnants of Britain's defunct empire.

A Modest Proposal, by Stephen Fry
I have a modest proposal that might simultaneously celebrate the life of Christopher Hitchens, strengthen Britain’s low stock in Europe and allow us to help a dear friend in terrible trouble.

Perhaps the most beautiful and famous monument in the world is the Doric masterpiece atop the citadel, or Acropolis, of Athens. It is called the Parthenon, the Virgin Temple dedicated to Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom who gave the Greek capital its name.

The Acropolis contains other temples and represents in the minds of scholars, historians and all who care about our past and the source of our civilisation, the pinnacle of Athens’s Golden Age under the leadership of Pericles; that period of peace between the wars against Persia which they won, and the wars against their neighbours Sparta, which they lost.

For students and lovers of architecture the Acropolis (over which I made a spectacular fool of myself some years ago) will always remain one of the most perfect examples of the Doric order ever constructed. The Romans and Arabians later added arches, ogees, domes, pendentives, barrelled vaults and squinches to the basic elements of architecture, but the Parthenon’s grace has never been surpassed. Its influence is all around us. Pillars, pilasters, porticos, pediments, architraves, entablatures, triglyphs and metopes may sound strange but we see them every day in high street buildings, town halls, 18th century churches, squares and crescents. Some people who spot trains or birds are called sad. I am a sad corbel, buttress and apse spotter – one who loves that there is a name for everything in architecture, a full and rich anatomy…

Read the rest here

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