A New Classics Blog is Born, an Old One Dies

Yesterday I received an email from a Classics’ enthusiast who has started blogging at The Lyre and the Lexicon asking me to add the blog to my Blogroll. I have of course done so: the blog is congenial, in so far as one can judge from its two posts so far, one of a general introductory character. 

The Lyre and the Lexicon blog is congenial because its author shares his or her thoughts without feeling the need to satisfy professional standards. An amateur Classicist may be able to publish material and thoughts which a professional might not share unless they are worked up into a paper, for fear of professional humiliation. On the other hand, The Lyre and the Lexicon is anonymous. The author wishes the blog to be ‘judged on its merits.’ My first reaction is that this is a pity. A blog should have persona, but that persona receives substance by being linked in the minds of readers’ to an identifiable person. To explain what I mean, consider the diaries of the British politician Alan Clark. They were somehow more interesting because one knew who he was, and which English constituents that arguably amusing philanderer with a picture of Hitler in his safe represented. Yet there are excellent anonymous blogs (for example the blog of Ms Hedgehog relating to tango: though I daresay some insiders know the blogger’s identity). Perhaps the blogger of The Lyre and the Lexicon has good reasons, though, for anonynimity, bearing, who knows, the burden of office, or enjoying the privilege of a public profile and prestige which might distract from the substance of the blog.

I think The Lyre and the Lexicon will find readers. My own blog (the present one!) did and I suppose does find readers. It has all but died because it has done what it was meant to do: it has enabled me to get some things off my chest. There was a strand of elitism in it, I suppose: having expended an inordinate amount of time acquiring skills in Classical languages, I may have permitted myself a touch of irritation that those selected for university posts in Classical languages sometimes have skills which lie elsewhere, or at any rate only to a modest degree in the technical aspects of the specialisms they profess. Most of my prejudices however, are positive. Classics is ‘in’; an oral element in language training is valuable; Classicists should and increasingly do feel comfortable about sharing their personal reactions to their subjection on the Internet.

And so, like Chandler who, in the preface to is second edition waves a last farewell to his much larger work (about which I have blogged), I feel I am waving a farewell to this blog, but not necessarily to Classics blogging. My plan was that classicsblog.net would be for this kind of highly personal reflection (personal to me, not to its subjects!). I acquired (at some expense) the classicsblog.com domain for a more general Classics blog, perhaps with a more didcatic element, and at any rate a less quirky one. Maybe I will make that website in Drupal, rather than WordPress, and do lots of Web-clever things in it. But will I or anyone find the time or inclination to write it? I have no idea.

In the meanwhile, head over and look at The Lyre and the Lexicon. Thanks for reading.

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?

An English View of the French Character

Some racially discriminatory thoughts about the French character follow! An American friend emailed from near Paris today to say “Tomorrow is our Independence Day 14 July, and I have a new feeling (of the heart) for France.” I suspect the Americans see the romance of France more readily, and the perfidy less readily, than the English. I am of course aware that perfidy is precisely the quality the French ascribe to the English, but that does not make them free of it!

France is indeed a wonderful country. The English tend to find the French have an infuriating quality, a combination of amour propre, a tendency to cheat at sport, and habit of seducing one’s wife while pretending they are just being friendly, and shrugging their shoulders with an unanswerably mendacious innocency. And yet on another level they have a gloriously civilized approach to life, to food, to sex, even to war, which leaves the English in the dust.

Americans en masse (perhaps not the minority of Americans who visit Europe frequently) turned on the French when they disagreed about foreign policy. French fries (‘chips’ to the British!) were renamed ‘freedom fries’, and the French renamed ‘cheese-eating surrender monkies.’ This recalled seventeenth century English views of the Welsh. Civil War pamphlets, in mock Welsh dialect, often equate the reluctance of the Welsh to fight with cowardice, and refer to their fondness for eating toasted cheese as if it was somehow connected. However, the English love-hate relationship with their neighbours is more chronic than that American flash of rage.

Does Anglicisation of global culture threaten the survival of the Gallic character? No doubt Sarkozy will make France as much like the Anglo-Saxon world as he can, but I doubt it. I rarely go to France and do not really know what is going on but the culture is sufficiently old and vigorous to have some life in it yet, I would have thought.

It does appear to me that the loss of French as the second language of choice in British schools, and the second language of choice for most adult students, (and perhaps as the language of choice for the European Union) makes French culture less visible. The teaching of languages in British schools is meaningless, beyond its symbolic value, but that is worth something: I seem to recall French was compulsory for all, we started at about eight years old with a native-speaker of French as teacher, and other languages were optional extras. But after eight years of near-daily French (and exam success), very few children could speak the handful of words required to communicate effectively with a Parisian waiter. I doubt if language teaching in English schools is much better now.

The deficiency of my own French was illustrated one day whan I was alone in a steak house at Victoria (London), and started talking to the young man at the next table. He said he was French. I told him in French that I thought the French were more civilised than the English. There was some confusion because he understood ‘siphilisé’, but I really had meant ‘civilisé’ So much for the hundreds of hours of French lessons I had undergone. There are many British, even English Francophiles, but our neighbours deserve more awareness.

Since my blog is mainly about Classics, if any classicist is still reading, I would be interested to hear what it is about French scholarship which is distinctive? There is something which makes the work and writing produced by the French different, but I cannot quite put my finger on what it is.