Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Once Again for Thucydides



Some Thucydides resources I’ve come across.

First, I’ve been having another look at Peter Handke’s Once Again for Thucydides, which consists of a series of ‘micro-epics’ in which the Austrian writer (following the technique of Thucydides) with painstaking precision, anchored to time and place, observes the minutiae of human and natural life and ascribes epic meaning to them. These are intense pieces, parts of a travel journal taking in the Balkans, Spain and Japan, which invite you to (literally) see the world differently, more vividly, with the eyes of a painter, a good painter dedicated to detail and the pursuit of essence. (Read some of the 17 pieces here).

The classical historian Neville Morley has written this essay on the influence of Thucydides on
Handke, which I haven’t been able to access fully, but the abstract reads:
Noch einmal für Thukydides, a collection of prose pieces by the Austrian writer Peter Handke, invites reflection on the history of his engagement with this classical author. In Kindergeschichte [Child Story], he draws on a reading of Thucydides as a war narrative in order to solve the problems he experienced in telling the story of the relationship between a father and daughter, interpreting the History of the Peloponnesian War as an account not of violence but of decisive moments and the developing characters of two peoples. In this book as elsewhere, Handke is commonly read as repudiating all history in favour of myth and mysticism, but in fact he draws upon Thucydides’ approach to history as a means of describing, understanding and exorcizing the past. This theme is pursued further in Noch einmal, where he also combines critique and homage in an exploration of Thucydides’ style and the theme of ‘realism’ (and its limits) in the depiction of events. His reading of Thucydides differs significantly from the prevailing modern traditions of reception; and, unlike those who revere the ancient author solely as an analyst and critic, Handke explores what it might mean to write as a modern Thucydides.’

On the recent unveiling of a monument in London to RAF Bomber Command, Morley also had this piece published on Thucydides. It pays particular attention to Pericles’ funeral speech (i.e. the speech the Athenian statesman gave on the internment of those Athenian soldiers who fell in the early part of the war against Sparta). Morley describes the funeral speech as a ‘masterpiece of rhetoric’ deployed down the years to justify the sacrifices demanded of a population at war. It is striking, Morley says ‘how far the oration subordinates individuals to the collective good’ and how Pericles’ sentiments ‘reflect a thoroughly un-modern conception of the relationship between the citizen and his community. One might suppose that, at least within the portion of the ideological spectrum that is suspicious of state power, they would raise doubts about Pericles’ political tendencies.’

Morley adds:
‘the oration is extremely (and deliberately) vague about the actual machinery of the Athenian state. Its grand statements about the power of the people, equality before the law, and emphasis on ability rather than class can be co-opted by any nation that chooses to call itself a democracy.’
Now, anyone who’s read my post on Robin Lane Fox’s analysis of Pericles’ funeral speech – which Lane Fox says projects a laudable balance between individual freedom and collective responsibility – and my presentation (and critique) of the even more penetrating interpretation of the oration put forward by Cornelius Castoriadis – in which the Greek philosopher portrays Pericles as describing an entwined city and citizenry that aims to create human beings living with beauty, living with wisdom and loving the common good – will realise that Morley’s depiction of the speech as patriotic tub-thumping or a rationale for totalitarianism is banal, superficial and inept, utterly failing to grasp the power of Pericles’ oration and what it reveals about Athens, its state, citizens and democracy.

In fact, I have to say, that if people are going to write about Thucydides and Pericles’ funeral speech, then they should at least take the trouble to research extensively and read widely. Castoriadis is obscure, but not unknown; while Hellenic Antidote – with its well-crafted and accessible posts on Pericles, Thucydides, Castoriadis and so on – is available to anyone who knows how to use Google.

Finally, the video above is a BBC production from 1991 of John Barton’s The War that Never Ends, an adaptation/dramatisation of Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, with some Plato thrown in. It is quite good.

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