Aspergers in ancient Greece

This post is pretty tangential to Classics: more of a review of the animated film Mary and Max, which involves Asperger’s Syndrome, though I do indulge a little speculation on Aspergers in the ancient world at the end.

Last night I went to the open air cinema, without much thought of what was on. It turned out to be, of all things, an Australian film, animated with clay figures, about Asterpger’s Syndrome (AS). Mary and Max by Adam Elliot.

In recent years there has been a spate, not to say a fashion, for books about Aspies (as some people with AS refer to themselves). My perception is that this 2010 film, although set at its opening in 1976, appeared at the end of that trend, but who knows, maybe the stream of works on the topic will continue.

The core message of every work on the subject can be summarised in a nutshell. There will be a list of symptoms and maybe of possible treatments. This film became distinctly didactic when the symptoms were presented in list form following Max’s diagnosis.

Beyond a list of symptoms, the central points which a work of this kind makes are that Asperger’s is at some level cool; that Aspies require understanding (though paradoxically on an emotional level they may be unable to give it); that their social isolation is painful and deserves pity; and ultimately that the Aspie who is the central character is a lovable person.

This film also included the fairly predictable message that Aspies are ‘differently abled,’ and that trying to ‘cure’ the condition may be hurtful or misconceived; along with the contradictory message that Aperger’s makes people unhappy, and not only because of lack of understanding from others.

A futher central point was that Max, the Aspie, was not in touch with his feelings. If that is really fundamental to AS, it is little wonder that modern evidence-based and analysis-driven approaches to treatment, useful as they may be at the margins, are so far from touching or treating the root of the difficulties which Aspies face. The only thing Max wanted to be ‘cured’ was his inability to cry. Modern psychiatry does not engage in deep emotional work, as far as I can tell from reading, and from meeting a few psychiatrists: it may develop insight into feelings, but not the ability to feel (although certain alternative procedures, for ecample The Presence Process, do).

Having summarized the all-too-hackenyed, if somewhat inconsistent apologia for AS which is the motif of this film, it is only fair to add that the film is full of heart, charm, humour and visual delight. I did enjoy it.

Leaving the film, and surveying the ancient world, there barely a trace of AS. Several scientists have delighted in listing talented persons who may have had AS. Michael Fitzgerald, in a 2004 book, included Socrates. A more obvious candidate may be Diogenes the Cynic, who notoriously lived in a barrel and offended everybody. It is a mark of a self-confident society to be able to learn from (rather than merely persecute) a person who is a social misfit. As far as I am aware, no ancient Roman has been suggested as an Aspie. However, when one reads Pliny the younger’s letter about his uncle’s obsesssive reading and organizing of information, he doea appear to be a candidate. His behaviour at the eruption of Vesuvius does nothing to dispel that impression.

Who else fron antiquity could on suggest for the Apergers roll of honour?

Where have I been? Drupal Websites, self promotion, & Greek Verbs….

The blog has been quiet for a few days. I have been busy assembling a website advertising web development services. Along with a friend who is a Java developer, we are calling our business Digit Professionals. We are focusing on offering Drupal websites. WordPress (which is used for this blog) is ridiculously easy to set up and maintain, but a bit limited unless one uses loads of plugins and customisation. Besides I still have the impression that a WordPress site always looks like a WordPress site, and it is difficult to put one’s finger on why that should be so.

Self promotion is essential. I often think the Classics as a whole would benefit if more Classicists had a good home page where they could interact with the wider public, as well as with professional colleagues. But of course it all takes time.

What else have I been up to? Well, I have been revising Greek verbs. It is nice that the paradigm of luō starts on page 100 of Goodwin: easy to remember. But I started by reading the various tense systems which he sets out, and which I never recall anyone teaching.

The fact I need to revise Greek verbs probably means I am not reading enough Greek! But how many Classicists will admit to not needing to revise Greek verbs? My guess as that those who never need to are in the minority.

Classics Students Blogging


Few academics blog. Even fewer students. Why?

One reason academics do not blog is fear. Fear of offending university authorities. Fear too of getting something wrong. If you make a casual comment face-to-face, and make a silly mistake, it vanishes into the ether. If you make a silly mistake on the Web, it may blemish your reputation for ever. Perhaps this is why Socrates and Aristotle preferred to teach orally.

However, the current generation of students grew up feeling it is OK to hold conversations on the net, so one would expect a few students to blog about their subject. Since starting this blog I received emails from one PhD student in Scotland, whose blog covers ancient world, ancient philosophy and early Christianity. Erlend MacGillivray’s blog is called Didaskelion.

Yesterday I had an email from Victoria Boorman drawing my attention to her blog Diary of an Ancient Geek. I am guessing an undergraduate student. She does not say which college. Recommended for an enthusiastic and fun conversation about studying Classics. Her opening posts invites the reader, ‘Take a look, feel free to send me your thoughts, ideas and suggestions and “aut disce aut discede” (Either learn or leave).’ None of the fear of error and loss reputation, then, which is one of the factors deterring some professional classicists from blogging!

Both those blogs are in my blogroll, on the left hand column of my homepage. I look forward to hearing of other chatty blogs. To be kept informed, rather than just to engage in sharing ideas and experiences, refer to Rogue Classicist, and Ancient World Online, both in my blogroll.

Vates: The New Journal of New Latin Verse


Christopher Stray, in Classics Transformed (Oxford, 1998, 68-74 and elsewhere), has a lot to say about verse composition in the history of English classical education. For him, verse composition was primarily a signal that its practitioners belonged to, and earned respect in, an exclusive social group. At no point does he stop to ask, ‘Was it any good? Is it Art?’ Analysing the practice of composing Greek or Latin verse from the point of view of social structures is interesting, provided one is not so distracted by structural or sociological theorizing as to miss the value of the content.

What, I wonder, would Dr. Stray make of the social significance of a journal of Latin verse composition founded in 2010? It is called Vates (and can be read online here). And what would the literary student make of the content?

The first piece in the first issue contains advice from Frank Lelièvre for the student beginning Latin verse composition. That advice is in Alcaics.

The first stanza (for those who want a taste before deciding whether it is worth clicking on the link!) reads:

perstare, credo, Musa suos iubet,
utcumque chordis dulcisonos negat
cantus et, exoptata quamuis,
peruigilem refugit lucernam.

Is it worthy of Horace? I am not sure. I have to say I find the poem as a whole satisfying and delightful.

The journal is not limited to classicizing pieces. The above lyric is followed by a lovely Haiku by Ginny Lindzey:

sola sedeo
tua in umbra grata
sed tu non ades.

For the reader of Latin verse, a little writing practice could surely teach as much as a shelf of criticism. Why do universities so rarely teach creative writing in Classics degrees, in spite of its obvious value? There are two reasons. First, many teachers have not the skills to pass on. They like me were brought up in an age when this skill was pruned away, perhaps because it was felt there was too little time for it in the curriculum. I was taught that to get good at the skill, and to maintain it, one really needs to practice it daily. Greek and Latin verse composition is an endangered skill. I was taught neither at school, though I had a little training in Latin verse at university with with the late D W T Vessey, who I believe was noted for his skills in composition while still at Eton (and whose Housemanesque English verses are charming). An endangered and ancient skill should be nurtured and revivified before it dies. It is central to the profession of a Classical scholar and teacher to maintain traditions (of texts, of teaching, of language), as well as to innovate. Second, teaching this skill requires either one-to-one teaching, or at most a very small group. Few universities can afford to offer this individual attention. The loss of verse composition, for all the more or less specious arguments which can be mounted for killing it off, is surely a major casualty of the current difficulty in funding individual attention for students in our universities.

Vates, at any rate, should be supported, encouraged, and (for anyone interested in Latin verse) read!

The ‘Support Classics at Royal Holloway’ Blog


Many American academics blog. British academics don’t on the whole. But the threat to Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, has spawned a Support Classics at RHUL blog as part of the campaign to save Classics at RHUL. I see two wholly disparate benefits which this blog, posted by Edith Hall, may bring: first, there are good arguments, to which I make a small contribution here, for keeping the subject alive at RHUL; second, the blog–generated by an unfortunate emergency–may turn out to represent one more small step in encouraging British academics to be more positive, and less resistant, to blogging and other informal conversations held publicly on the Net.

Why Save Classics at Royal Holloway?

Ending Classics at RHUL would be a mistake. The department has a distinguished history, and for reasons which are difficult to analyse precisely, the reality is that universities and colleges with a strong history of excellence in Classics tend to continue and transmit that excellence from generation to generation. That light should not be put out.

Universities must face financial realities. Not commercial realities: universities are not, at least not primarily, businesses. Financial realities, yes. Within that context, the manager motivated by money will ask, ‘What can Classics do for Royal Holloway?’ The manager motivated by academic values will say, ‘I do not ask what Classics can do for the college, but what can the college can do for Classics?’ If the management are so strapped for cash that they simply cannot pay salaries, they may be forgiven for destroying value. But the managerial team motivated by academic values will of course do everything in their power to maintain that excellence whose stewardship has been entrusted to them.

Classics is not in decline. I can remember a time when it was. The current generation of senior university managers formed their assumptions and perceptions of academic life in a generation when Classics was in decline, and it would be understandable if academics from other fields were not aware of how times have changed. They need to be made more aware of the vigorous interest the subject is attracting in the twenty-first century.

British academics have been sceptical about blogging

As said, part of the campaign for the subject is a blog. There are various reasons academics are suspicious, nervous, or dismissive of blogging. I understand those reasons, discussed in this Times Higher Education Supplement article from 2008, entitled By the blog: academics tread carefully. Only last night, a friend who holds a university post in Classics said ‘If you are going to blog, you need to get it right.’ I suggested in reply that there should be room for informal academic conversations, where there is space for error (and for replies correcting errors), to be held not only in private, or in seminars, but also in the broader and more public sphere of the Internet.

Getting the message out on the Net is important

The Royal Holloway blog is clearly not directly about the substance of what Classicists do. It is about an administrative and institutional matter. Nevertheless, as academics see the value of turning to the Net as a forum for advocacy for their work, it is likely some will be increasingly convinced of the value of not only of more or less technical publication in peer-reviewed journals and books, but also of more informal conversations about the substance of their work, on the Net. This will turn out to be a central to advocacy for the public and institutional support for, and interest in, their subject.

I do not mean to suggest that academics should blog about their work on the RHUL Classics campaign blog. In the context, that might be valuable, but it might be distracting and inappropriate. I am in no position to judge. But if this blog contributes to an increasing awareness of the value of Internet conversations, those conversations will come and they can only be fructifying for the academics themselves, and for Internet users (who are numerous) generally.

Social Net as a method of persuasion

Incidentally, I did look for a Save Classics at Royal Holloway Facebook page. Perhaps that would seem frivolous, yet marketers know the value of such networking. Today I heard Stephen Fry’s programme on Radio 4, on Persuasion. An advertising expert said that we know advertising works, even though we often do not really understand why. Persuasion works at a subliminal level. Speaking for myself, I do not see that any route to getting the message out is ‘inappropriate.’ Non-Classicists brought up at a time when Classics was in decline need to be persuaded of the current health of the field by reason, but also by effectively presented reasoning. These days, Internet conversations are key to persuasion. A blog, like a Facebook page, is not just an advertisement, it is social in the sense that it engages in a conversation of sorts. For example, the latest post on the RHUL blog is a comment from Ian Hislop. By contributing, he has engaged in and continued a conversation.

Such conversations have great persuasive power, which marketers understand. One of the blogs on Mary Beard’s blogroll purports to be by a young lady interested in fashion. It is (I believe) written by professional hacks as a marketing tool. 99.9% of its readers assume they are engaging with a real person when they read the blog: Internet marketers are so desperate to promote conversations on the web that they fake them, it is one of their secret weapons. Real conversations held by academics on their subject will be hugely valuable both for the matter they contain (not only didactic matter: bloggers, like geniuses, flourish when they risk mistakes); they will also be valuable for promoting public awareness of the subject. The student of classical Greece also knows the value of conversation: would a twenty-first century Socrates have published in peer-reviewed journals, or would he have held conversations on the Net? The answer is obvious

In conclusion, this post, having strayed into the topic of academic blogging, might seem a little tangential to the RHUL Classics campaign, but my support for it is direct.