BOOK REVIEW / Small sparks set off the explosions: 'Backing Into the Future' - Bernard Knox: Norton, 19.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
For all its impressive title and subtitle - 'The Classical Tradition and its Renewal' - this is only a collection of essays and reviews. Yet since most of the reviews were written for the New York Review of Books they are substantial; and they are, moreover, written by a man whose combination of scholarship and persuasive skills few can match. In a field often criticised for dullness, but where nowadays are to be found some of the most dazzling and rhetorically adept guardians of tradition, Bernard Knox has long been a star.

The pieces in this new book, which have all appeared elsewhere, cover Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Pindar, Catullus, Ovid, Athens in the fifth century BC, the relations of ancient Greek literature and philosophy, Derek Walcott's Omeros, and much else besides. The Foreword is a cri de coeur to which many embattled academics, on both sides of the Atlantic, will respond with approval.

'Today,' Knox writes, 'our literary curriculum is under attack by educational reformers who, though expressing themselves in language more arcane than the plain speech of Henry Ford, are planning to abolish the cultural tradition on which the West's sense of its unity and identity is founded. They propose, in the name of multi-culturalism, feminism and political correctness, to replace such patriarchal and racist texts as Homer, the Bible, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe and Flaubert with works that will presumably direct the eyes of the young forward to the new world of universal sister- and brotherhood.'

This, he suggests, is very similar to the kinds of programme advocated by the French and Russian revolutions and, if history is anything to go by, it is likely to lead to disaster. Of course, he insists, 'a cultural tradition must not be allowed to ossify, to become an oppressive orthodoxy. It must be continually renewed and expanded, to include new masterpieces, embrace new aspirations, new visions of the human condition. But renewal, in the words of one of the great innovators of modern music, Igor Stravinsky, 'is only fruitful when it goes hand in hand with tradition.'

Classicists, he argues in his address to the American Philological Association, have to fight on two fronts. They must not give way to populism or to the desire, natural in this fund-driven age, to impress upon those who hold the purse- strings that what they teach is immediately relevant: 'Our understanding of our subject-matter has been continuously enriched by the application to it of new insights and methods drawn from modern disciplines. . . But the enrichment comes only when these approaches to our material have been thoroughly absorbed, critically assessed, and selectively adapted.' At the same time classicists must face the fact that it is up to them to make their subject interesting not just to scholars but to the largest possible audience: 'Our task is a missionary one: to bring as many students as possible in contact with the great writers of the ancient world to whom in later life they may return, even if they do not broaden their acquaintance with them while still at school.'

There is no better missionary than Knox, because for him the past is as alive as the present. Thus he deftly corrects what he sees as a misreading of Catullus by reference to the topography of Athens: 'Catullus does not mention the sea, for the very good reason that Aegeus could only have negotiated the five kilometres or so that separate the Acropolis from the nearest salt water with a pair of wings made by Daedalus.' He insists that the complaints of some critics about the flattery and adulation to be found in Ovid's poems from exile 'do not sit well on the lips of scholars comfortably at home in their studies.' Trying to make sense of Euripides (an artist, he suggests, with whom we have more difficulty coming to terms with than we do with either Aeschylus or Sophocles) he brings to life the political background out of which his work emerges.

'It had been a tense winter,' he says of the spring of 431 BC, and, after quoting Thucydides on the growing tensions between Athens and her neighbours, he goes on: 'We know this atmosphere very well: we lived in it from the end of World War II to the breakup of the Soviet Union - the Cold War, we called it. It did not, mercifully, turn into a hot one, a full-scale conflict. In Greece it did, and the spark that set off the explosion was, as usual, an insignificant episode in itself - the Theban attack on the small city of Plataea on a rainy night in March 431 BC, the month and the year in which the Medea was produced.'

Knox teaches in the best way possible, by making us sense how classical culture has quickened his own response to the world and been itself quickened by his experiences as a citizen of the 20th century. The essays take us beyond the tired polemics about old and new, canon and authority, to which we have become accustomed and simply make us want to read and reread this wonderful literature. They even - for he is not afraid of tackling knotty philological points if they are necessary to his argument - make those of us who did not have the good fortune of a classical education burn anew with the desire to learn Greek and Latin for ourselves. We will never be proficient, but to struggle with Homer and Aeschylus with a crib is better than relying on translators, admirable though many of them are.

The final essay, though, on Walcott's Omeros, is a disappointment. Not that it is not admirable in itself; just that it is all too predictable. Walcott, like Joyce and like so many bad French dramatists of this century, imagines that he can give significance to his work and avoid facing up to what it means to compose a work of art today by basing himself on the classical past. That was never the manner of Stravinsky, Eliot or Beckett. Pulcinella, 'Sweeney among the Nightingales' and Endgame will be listened to, read and seen a thousand years from now, if civilisation still exists, not because they leaned on the past but because they sensed that a radical break with the past had occurred - and only those with a deep attachment to the past, to adapt Eliot, know what it means to lose it.

The tension between past and present in Eliot or Stravinsky is not the result of attacks on the canon by educational reformers - merely to put it like that is to see the folly of the suggestion - but of something far more deeply rooted. The unease one feels in Knox's more polemical essays and in his Foreword does not come from a sense that those who would do away with the Classics are right, but rather from the feeling that both sides in this debate do not take seriously enough what it means to live in a time when tradition has begun to lose its authority. Instead of using Stravinsky's dicta as a stick with which to beat his enemies, Knox would have done better to examine how and why Stravinsky's Oedipus, for example, is a living work and Carmina Burana nothing but pastiche, or why Kafka's Prometheus feels as if it was written yesterday while Anouilh's Antigone seems so dreadfully dated.

(Photograph omitted)

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