How Peaches Geldof brought Greek tragedy into the tabloids

Well, not exactly. But it’s not often that aspects of Classical literature find their way onto the gossip pages of the Mail Online. That is precisely what happened in the wake of Peaches Geldof’s decision to name her younger son Phaedra.

Actually, his full name is “Phaedra Bloom Forever”, which is quite ironic. Ironic because, in the world of Greek mythology and tragedy, Phaedra most certainly does not “bloom forever”.

Greek mythology relates that Phaedra married Theseus, who already had a son named Hippolytus. Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, and (after he rejected her advances) committed suicide, having written to Theseus to accuse Hippolytus of raping her. Hippolytus, incidentally, later died after Theseus consequently cursed him. And there you have it: a summary of the Classical significance of the name Phaedra, as well as a crude spoiler of the plot of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus.

In fact, the resonance of Phaedra is not confined to Classical mythology and drama. She has since been invoked in the works of Racine, Tsvetaeva, Swinburne and many others. To that list of literary luminaries who have recalled the name of Phaedra, we add Peaches Geldof.

You might be inclined to ask what my point is here. Does not Peaches Geldof have the right to give her son any name she should choose? Is it really any of my business that Geldof Jnr. should be (perhaps rather inauspiciously) named after a mythological character whose tragic death was immortalised in the works of Euripides? Or, indeed, that his mother should choose a woman’s name for a boy?

Perhaps, though, the name of Phaedra might not be as inauspicious as all that. In the Hippolytus, Phaedra is not marked out only by her barely controllable sexual desire. In fact, her character is largely defined by the conflict between this sexual desire and her conscious attempts to preserve a good reputation as a virtuous wife. Though she feels an urge to commit adultery, she also fights it, and curses adulterous women powerfully and memorably:

“There is one woman who should die horribly –
the one who first polluted her marriage,”

(Euripides Hippolytus 407, trans. Robert Bagg)

Perhaps “die horribly” doesn’t quite do justice to the powerful anger and harsh aural effect of the original “ὡς ὄλοιτο παγκάκως”. An alternative translation might read “may she perish in utter disgrace” (replicating the harsh sounds with sibilance), and there is certainly something to be said for the gravitas and weighty formality of “may all the world’s curses fall upon her shameless head” (as rendered by John Davie in the Penguin edition).

In any case, what is clear is Phaedra’s strong belief that, as a wife, she must retain a good reputation. All the more so as an aristocratic wife:

“What seems chic in the palace
no matter how truly filthy
will swiftly thrive in every modest street.”
(Euripides Hippolytus 411-412, trans. Robert Bagg)

I might take this further. The dichotomy between the “palace” and the “modest street” in Phaedra’s perception can be equated with the difference between celebrities and the public in modern society. After all, Phaedra’s point does not necessarily relate to power or social rank. The timeless implication is that those in the public eye must set a good example to the rest of society by maintaining a virtuous reputation. This is part of Phaedra’s motivation, and encapsulates an attitude which sadly seems largely absent in modern-day celebrity culture.

I’m not expecting the full resurgence of an Athenian-style reputation-based moral
code in modern society. But when Phaedra Bloom Forever Geldof-Cohen grows up, perhaps he will show awareness of the value of a good reputation, the most beneficial part of his namesake’s legacy. And as such, maybe he could make some kind of a stand against celebrity scandals. Tragedy for the tabloids, perhaps.

Citations:

Euripides, ed. John Ferguson. Hippolytus. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1984. Print.

Euripides, trans. Robert Bagg. Hippolytos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Euripides, trans. John Davie. Medea and Other Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

 

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Review of ‘Plato: Letters to my Son’ (Dr Neel Burton)

Plato: Letters to my Son provides an approachable introduction to the life, works and context of Plato. However, its author, Dr Neel Burton, has not set out to achieve this alone. In fact, he categorised this book as “Fiction”, choosing to set it as a letter written in the voice of Plato to his son while on his deathbed. With the depiction of Plato himself sparse and unwieldy, I do not think that Dr Burton has succeeded in the implicit objective of writing a fictional work – of bringing the man himself to life.

Dr Burton’s research and background context are solid. A particularly crucial formative experience for Plato, for example, would have been the trial and execution of Socrates. The chapter of Dr Burton’s book dealing with this is based on Plato’s Apology, faithfully relaying Plato’s original account and embellishing it with descriptions of how the jurors could have reacted to some of Socrates’ claims. However, it is very difficult to bring Plato to life. After all, Plato “never spoke with his own voice” – this from the synopsis of another of Dr Burton’s books, Plato’s Shadow: A Primer on Plato. Ultimately, if the reader is not persuaded by Dr Burton’s attempt to replicate the voice of Plato, even well-researched explorations of Plato’s philosophy, character and cultural context (which this book undoubtedly contains) will appear didactic rather than gripping.

Of course, Dr Burton’s work is a novel, as well as an exploration of Plato’s philosophy and socio-historical context. Therefore, we might expect Plato to be introduced to the reader not purely as a source of philosophy, but with depth of character in himself. In fact, the book’s status as a novel depends on Plato being brought to life as a believable character. In my opinion, a gold standard has been established by the fictional works of Robert Harris, centring on the life of Cicero. Though based on the surviving actions, speeches and writings of Cicero, Harris’ works set this against a sensitive portrayal of Cicero’s characteristics and personal traits. Though Dr Burton has chosen a writing style well-suited to introducing gobbets of philosophy to the reader, it fails to make Plato’s character come to life enough to be gripping for the reader. An example:

“It is not until the cold bath that I began to reflect upon the slave boy’s impromptu lesson in geometry. On the face of it, it seems that all learning is impossible…”

In a novel, as opposed to a translation or summary of Plato’s works, I consider it more important to add depth to Plato’s character than to imitate his voice from surviving writings. Rather than a character, Dr Burton’s construct sometimes veers dangerously close to becoming a mouthpiece for what Plato believed. In the above example, a description of a daily routine merely serves as an excuse to introduce more philosophical musings. Later, he describes how his half-brother (with whom he apparently “developed a close bond”) drifted away from philosophy:

“Antiphon abandoned philosophy in favour of raising horses, thereby proving that he had never really understood the essential nature of our endeavour.”

But does this rather pompous pronouncement come from Plato the character, or Plato the mouthpiece for philosophy? This seems unexpected, and perhaps disappointing, in a character who pledged “not so much to counsel you as to furnish you with an account of my life and thought” at the very beginning of the first chapter.

Overall, for an approachable introduction to Plato’s writings, their context in Athens at the time, and the experiences which may have influenced his thoughts, this book would certainly be a good place to start for the unfamiliar reader. And, indeed, that may be what the majority of prospective readers are looking for in a novel about Plato. But does it bring the man to life? This is what one would expect of a novel – but, fundamentally, I don’t think it achieves this.

Govi, Govisti, Govit: English-to-Latin translation in the GCSE curriculum?

Let’s start with the facts.

The facts, in this case, are the proposals given in June by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education), which included English-to-Latin translation as a part of the GCSE Latin curriculum.

Cue political fireworks? Unfortunately not.

I should clarify this. Gove’s suggested reforms did indeed meet with their fair share of criticism; however, isn’t this particular proposal something of an opportunity for political opponents? After all, some would consider this the epitome of an out-of-touch government: the inclusion of an at best esoteric and (some might add) irrelevant academic discipline in a GCSE curriculum. I disagree, and think that Gove’s suggestion is a laudable one.

In a way, it’s a shame that the political furore was absent – hence my use of “unfortunately”. Admittedly, GCSE Latin can hardly be considered a mainstream academic qualification in the grand scheme of the UK population. The debate surrounding English-to-Latin translation, however, is a valuable one. It has implications for the purpose of studying classical languages – and, beyond this, for the purpose of education as a whole.

Three years ago, my long-time interest in competitive debating saw me speaking in favour of compulsory modern language lessons in schools. My speech was, I think, fairly forgettable – certainly I have long since forgotten it, and I don’t think I said anything of particular note. However, the best speech of the day was delivered by my team-mate, who encapsulated his powerful summary speech with the memorable words, “Education is about opportunity”.

A useful starting point. If we assume that opportunity is the purpose of education, what implications does that have for the study of English-to-Latin translation?

Unfortunately for Mr Gove, “opportunity” (which, I admit, is a nebulous concept) does not seem very closely intertwined with English-to-Latin translation at GCSE level. By learning ancient languages, we can develop the facility of understanding ancient texts – and gain the opportunity to learn from the fascinating evidence and opinions expressed therein. But by learning to translate from English into Latin, we gain the opportunity to…translate from English into Latin. Indeed, the apparent futility of this academic discipline is encapsulated by the following words:

“There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.” (Mary Beard)

Surely a more direct way of learning from Latin texts would be continuing to translate from Latin to English? Indeed, studying the preface to a book on Latin Prose Composition (by J. Arbuthnot Nairn, published by Cambridge University Press 1928) actually seems to bolster this argument. Nairn claims that “as we train our minds by study of the vigour and clearness of Latin, so we train our character by the great moral ideals which are so strongly represented in the great Roman writers.” But would it not be more efficient to study the “great moral ideals” as presented by these writers, rather than imitating their language and writing style? To employ an example: a current GCSE Latin set text is Cicero’s description of Verres’ vindictive corruption from in Verrem. Do we understand Cicero’s moral outrage more clearly by attempting to emulate his language and style, or by actually reading and analysing what he says?

I am conscious that I am not doing a very good job of defending my instinctive feeling that translating from English into Latin is beneficial. However, fortunately for my instinctive feeling (and for Mr Gove’s proposals!), Nairn has more arguments to come. His very first chapter opens with the following statement:

“Latin prose composition is the best method of learning Latin…”

An assertion which forces us to consider: what does Latin prose composition bring the student that the current GCSE Latin prescription does not?

The practical use of language.

Case endings in Latin make the subject/object relationship abundantly clear. The use of participles and verbs with different moods elucidates the difference between main and subordinate clauses. This has an inevitable effect on how students use language in general – not least their first language (English, for the sake of argument). Nairn observes tactfully that “our language is often written without that precision which is the main feature of Latin”. And his words were published in 1928. What, I wonder, would Nairn say now, after the much-deplored advent of text-speak and the equally-deplored deficiency in teaching of basic English grammar?

Some might argue that learning English grammar directly would be a more effective way of improving use of the English language. English, I would counter, is by no means an easy language to learn. It is the clarity which Latin grammar brings to universal grammatical structures that makes it so valuable.

But I’m still not proving the crucial point of my argument. Why doesn’t the current GCSE Latin provide enough grammatical knowledge to encourage greater accuracy in use of English? As it stands, a Latin GCSE encourages students to learn grammar, and by its very nature gives them an instinctive grasp of it. But I don’t think this is enough. It is possible to get through the translation element of a Latin GCSE with an instinctive, implicit grasp of grammar. By contrast, an English-to-Latin translation element would force students to think consciously about grammar – and this process, I think, means that grammar is learned more quickly, and becomes a more effective accomplice to the students’ use of any language in everyday life.

If education is about opportunity, then surely the opportunity to use language more effectively is well worth adapting the educational system for? Do not consider this merely a pie-in-the-sky idealistic dream of a world in which language is used in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In the practical world, the ability to use language well opens doors. Like it or not, it makes university interviewees more convincing, job applicants more impressive, and speakers more persuasive. All this stems from greater awareness of accurate grammar. And this can be derived from spending a small percentage of the Latin GCSE learning how to translate from English into Latin.

At the very least, if more students were forced to think consciously about grammatical points such as subject/object case endings, perhaps we would see the extinction of grammatical fallacies such as “me and my friend are going to see a film”.

Citations:

Beard, Mary. “Do Classics Have a Future?” 2011. Confronting the Classics. By Beard. N.p.: Profile Books, 2013. 1-14. Print.

Jones, Peter. “Found in Translation.” Spectator 22 June 2013: 16. Print.

Nairn, J. Arbuthnot. Latin Prose Composition. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 1928. Print.