Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Book Review: Love, Sex and Tragedy

Love, Sex and Tragedy by Simon Goldhill *****

The title sounds like either a soap opera or a really tacky popularization of history, but this book is an erudite and eminently readable examination of the multiple cultural threads that connect us to the ancient world, in areas from politics to entertainment.

The “love and sex” part is somewhat graphic, with several pictures of artifacts which, while in common use in the ancient world, could never be put on public display in museums lest they shock our oh-so-sophisticated 21st century sensibilities. In this first section Goldhill also talks about the real meaning of “Greek love,” which comes off as much more restrictive than modern gay rights activists would like to portray it, as well as the role of ancient statuary in creating the ideal of the male body, and the multitudinous ways in which the poetess Sappho has been “used to express female longing in a man’s world.”

The next section deals with Christianity and the ways in which it could not help being influenced by classical culture and philosophy, which at its most austere could have a lot in common with Christian ideals, in spite of itself. Goldhill’s comparison of the “adventures” of the early Christian St. Thecla, a follower of Paul, to racy Greek novels is fascinating. He also discusses more highbrow subjects, such as the importance of more accurate translations of Greek in the Renaissance (notably by Erasmus) to the breaking of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on scriptural truth.

In politics, as Goldhill points out, our debts to the classical world are many and so are our differences with it. After explicating the background and workings of the original democracy, he recounts the harsh criticism it attracted from such significant figures as Plato. He notes ironically that Socrates, for whose death Plato blamed Athens, never would have been allowed into Plato’s Republic.

Where entertainment is concerned, Goldhill seems to feel that we have abandoned some of the best aspects, such as the communal feeling that he attributes to the the Great Dionysia, the Athenian festival at which the great tragedies were staged, while retaining the worst, such as the fascination with violence epitomized by the gladitorial games. He does tell a wonderful story of tragedy working its magic in the modern world, when an audience in Northern Ireland, attending a performance of Sophocles’ Electra after a week of sectarian violence, insisted on remaining afterwards and discussing the devastating effects of revenge both on societies and the individual.

The book ends with a look at the story of Oedipus, in both its ancient and modern (Freudian) manifestations, and the importance of knowing our origins. From Clark Gable’s bare chest to George Washington as the Roman farmer/dictator Cincinnatus, from Mussolini’s appropriation of the fasces of ancient Rome to the Passover seder as Greek symposium, they are all around us.

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