Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Classical roots and cultural politics. The next far-in book?

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, by Martin Bernal. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 575 pp. $45 hard cover. $15 paperback. DIGRESSING from a lecture on art, I observed that the French philosopher Jacques Derrida profitably retooled the style of medieval commentaries. ``Anyone happen to have a copy of Derrida's `Glas'?'' I asked. Knapsacks smacked to the floor, their zippers chorused competitively. Silly question: Everyone raised their hands. My generation had totem books, too: Hesse's ``Steppenwolf'' and Marcuse's ``One-Dimensional Man.''

As this semester ends, I'd like to predict the next far-in book. ``Black Athena,'' by Martin Bernal, has been widely reviewed and generally well received in England. It is rumored to be the subject of a British television series coming in the fall. But in the United States, the book is little known, except by specialists who have been following the storms set off by Bernal's work. Rutgers University Press has taken a chance and produced a paperback version, all two pounds of text, charts, maps, glossary, and 1,315 footnotes.

About these ads

Bernal contends that the Ancient Model of civilization, the Greeks' notion of their polygenetic past, was gradually dismantled during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries by thinkers attempting to purify and Europeanize antiquity. Hence this volume of ``Black Athena'' (Bernal has substantively outlined two more volumes) is subtitled ``The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985.''

The result is a formidable work of intellectual history, one that demonstrates that the politics of knowledge is never far from national politics. Bernal moves easily through a plethora of works in mythology, philology, and history that sought to prove that Greek culture grew in splendid isolation from its neighbors. He reminds us that Johann Winckelmann's ``History of Ancient Art'' (1764) declared that the Egyptians were too bandy-legged, snub-nosed, and gloomy to have provided beautiful models for art.

When Bernal quotes Shelley's famous enthusiasm for Greece (``We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts all have their roots in Greece. But for Greece ... we might still have been savages and idolators....'') in the context of an increasingly ugly Hellenomania, this writer, who has spent her share of time musing on the Greeks, felt an unwelcome twinge of recognition.

Bernal argues that Nazi-era racism culminated a century and a half of stridently nationalistic calls for ``blood and soil,'' which produced both democratic revolution and economic imperialism. And all the while, classical studies provided the intellectualization of cultural superiority. Bernal insists that academic racism ``is not [now] very frequently found in liberal academia,'' yet the model of the past it produced, which Bernal dubs the Aryan Model, ``is being maintained very largely by its own tradition and academic inertia.''

One need only check H.D.F. Kitto's ``The Greeks,'' a text that many of us read as undergraduates, to see the inadvertent residue of the Aryan Model. Kitto notes the many borrowings that the Greeks made from the Persians and the Egyptians, yet he insists ``that while the older civilizations of the East were often extremely efficient in practical matters, and, sometimes in their art not inferior to the Greeks,... they were intellectually barren.'' The Greeks, he writes, ``showed for the first time what the human mind was for.''

Bernal acknowledges that the ``political purpose of `Black Athena' is ... to lessen European cultural arrogance.'' That is reason enough to get his book into the knapsacks of sharp students these days. But his place there is equally assured by his being an outsider.

Can a Cornell professor, a former fellow at King's College, Cambridge, be considered an outsider? Is a philologist who knows Greek, Hebrew, Coptic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Vietnamese, a variety of ancient Near Eastern languages, and a little Chichewa prepared to analyze the debt that the ancient Greek language owes to Phoenicia and to Egypt? It comes down to this: Can someone who has spent 20 years of his academic career in Chinese studies gain credibility in another field, especially with a book that declares somewhat messianically that classical studies have been conceived in sin and error?

About these ads

It is easier for nonacademics to influence academic studies than it is for an insider to change fields. The academic changeling is seen as the worst sort of poacher, one who has degrees that prove he should know better. Throughout ``Black Athena,'' Bernal is aware of his predicament. He wittily compares himself to the Ancient Mariner, who made a nuisance of himself. He grants that ``outsiders can never have the control of detail gained so slowly and painfully by experts,'' and he even gives some words of advice for distinguishing between ``a constructive outside radical innovator and a crank.''

In the end, Bernal asks only for comparable plausibility, hoping that his evidence bulks credibly against received ideas. I'm willing to bet that students who have come of age in an era of decreased Western economic and cultural clout will grant Bernal that plausibility long before their professors do.

Mary Warner Marien teaches in the fine arts department at Syracuse University.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.