Part of the fun came from visiting Stanford. The immense campus — if you dropped Princeton here, you’d never find it again — is incredibly beautiful. The old buildings, the world’s great array of Bay Area Romanesque structures, are quirkily handsome. Many of the new ones, such as Foster & Partners’ Clark Center, with its gloriously curvy courtyard, are breathtakingly beautiful. And the students who make such creative use of every inch of outdoor public space seem as cheerful as they are smart. It all makes a delightful spectacle.
But most of the pleasure came from attending a conference on, of all things, “Subversive Classics.” The point of the meeting was to bring together scholars from all over the world, mostly classicists (I served as the historical cuckoo in this philological nest). In different ways, each of them examines not ancient Greek and Latin texts themselves, but the ways in which teachers and students, medical men and playwrights have used them in more recent centuries. In particular, the speakers were asked to explore the ways in which readers and artists have used ancient texts to challenge existing authorities in culture and society.
The great thing about Greek and Latin texts, you see, is that they never stop making trouble — even for readers who have no idea about the ancient world in which they came into being. Just ask the Christian theologians who tried to understand Aristotle’s universe in the 13th century, or Thomas Hobbes, who translated Thucydides’ terrifying account of war and revolution in the fifth century BCE and drew its lessons for his own century of revolution almost 2,000 years later, or the makers of the French and American Revolutions.
The great thing about this conference, though, was the speakers: An incredibly diverse lot, polyglot, multicultural and international, they all had certain things in common. All of them had amazing technical skills: Good humanists all start from a deep command of languages and texts. All of them wrote and spoke with clarity and elegance: Good humanists, it seems, don’t need jargon to make subtle points. Most important, all of them loved their work and their material, the modern as well as the ancient, and presented it with an infectious passion. We heard passages from a modern Greek playwright’s daring, frightening rewriting of ancient tragedy; from modern Egyptian scholars’ dangerous efforts to read the oldest Arabic poetry as the classicists they had studied with (in one case, in Princeton) read Greek and Latin; from Anglophone Caribbean writers’ passionate encounters with the classics, in school and in the kitchen; all of them presented with such love that you wanted to read every book, immediately.
The papers didn’t solve all the problems that this rich material raises, above all the 64-drachma one: Do ancient texts have any independent existence at all, as reactionaries like me believe? Or are always created, in effect, by their readers, starting with the scribes who copied them and the scholars who tried, already in ancient times, to correct the scribes’ errors? No consensus there or elsewhere, but lots of discoveries and revelations.
The speaker who excited me most was a British classicist, Andrew Laird, who works on the Latin histories, herbals and other texts written in the New World in the 16th century and after. He showed, with precision and panache, how the Latin rhetoric of New World writers adapted verbal patterns directly from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs: the classics transformed and enriched, in a most unexpected place and time, by fusion with a radically different tradition. But every talk gleamed with intellectual treasure.
A generation ago, classicists didn’t often look like the speakers at Stanford, a number of whom were men and women of color. More important, a generation ago, few classicists dipped their beaks into these seemingly foreign territories. This is classics for a globalized world. One of the central lessons it teaches is that the Greek and Roman texts have always had a global reach. It’s just that we scholars were too narrow-minded to see this — until scholarship itself was transformed.
One last, parochial point: Grant Parker, the South-African born Stanford classicist who came up with the conference plan and executed it so deftly, earned his Ph.D. in 1999 at Princeton, where he did amazing work on Roman relations with India. A former member of our society of fellows and Ph.D.s from our classics and religion departments also took part, with grace and eloquence that were a joy to behold — and skills that they mastered in New Jersey. Sometimes you have to schlepp to California to appreciate that you’re doing something right at home.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at email@example.com.