Book Talk S05E01 transcript: The role of writers in Classical Greece and Rome |
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Book Talk transcript : S05E01 — The role of writers in Classical Greece and Rome

Jill Kitson: Hello and welcome to Book Talk, and they're back! Clive James and Peter Porter in the first of six programs on the artist and politics, from Plato to the present.

The Australian poets Clive James and Peter Porter are long-time Londoners who share an equally long friendship. They begin this new series of programs by talking about the role of writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Clive opens the conversation:

Clive James: Near the end of his life Thomas Mann gave a single and touching opinion about what he thought the artist should do about politics, and he decided the artist should do nothing. He said, 'abwenden, abwenden', turn aside. But of course earlier in his career he hadn't. That's how he got himself into trouble — he promoted German nationalism — and I think we could say, couldn't we Peter, that turning aside is impossible. The artist doesn't get out of politics, even when... especially when he presumes to isolate himself and become a hermit.

Peter Porter: That's true. You could adapt Marlow and say, 'Well, this is politics, nor am I out of it' and I think that it has to be like that. On the other hand, there is a kind of art which deliberately claims, in its sort of therapeutic value or its revolutionary value, to intervene in politics and therefore to cause things to happen in politics, as distinct from being informed about politics. And I think that almost all of the art that probably you and I admire is art which arises out of the situations of politics but not the art which is interventionist in politics.

Clive James: Well, let's go back to the beginning when interventionism was mandatory, which is ancient Greece, because that's where most of the art that we know about stems from, that was the original influence.

It was thought in ancient Greece (and we know it was thought because the thinkers were the philosophers and they said so) that politics was part of being the whole person, provided of course you weren't a salve, but politics and the arts and dancing and sports... and everyone was involved in everything to a large and integrated degree that's unknown to us now in a much more specialised time. But you'd get out of politics, you were a citizen and that was that, and the first great thinker that we pay attention to, Plato, that was his condition in the very early part of his life, he'd known what happens when democracy collapsed because it was a hiatus in Athens' democratic history when Plato was growing up, and he didn't like what he saw under tyranny and indeed, terror. And although he's never much liked democracy, he thought there was such a thing as an ideal state and that's what The Republic was.

Peter Porter: I think there has been a principle which has been followed by European politicians and European citizens ever since. We, most of us, esteem democracy as the least of the many evils in terms of governments. I mean, obviously society has to be governed. You can see that the psychiatrists have established this — you have to tell a psychopathic personality that the impulses which rise in him are not necessarily to be gratified simply because they arise in him. And that is a paradigm of what actually happens in society itself...

Clive James: That's what you have to tell children, for one thing...

Peter Porter: Yes, exactly. Of course, the problem arises when the extent to which the status quo or the extent to which the society is protected by stopping people going in for these independent reorganisations, actually helps establish a tyranny of existing power rather... I mean power has to be both eroded and established, and it has to happen at the same time in different ways, so it's a balance always, isn't it?

Clive James: Well, Plato's Republic, you could say, was a tyranny. Karl Popper in the 20th century, when he was an exile in Christchurch New Zealand, and developing his great theory of the open society, he defined Plato's Republic as a closed one and a kind of tyranny in itself because the enlightened people (that's you and me), the guardian class who'd be telling the others what to do (that's anyone but us), were actually exercising their arbitrary will, whatever they thought.

It's very interesting that Plato arrived at this idea of the republic which is nominally a democracy, only in the sense that it isn't a tyranny. He thought that rule by a military was bad. I think he called it the 'timocracy', and rule by the commercial elite was bad too, that was the oligarchy. The only thing worse than those was democracy because nobody knew where they were, but the one thing worse than democracy was tyranny. In other words, you had to stave off tyranny. But it's quite obvious that his guardian class, the ones who were awake literally day and night — they sit in council in the night, they never sleep, because they were telling everybody else what's right to do. That has to be some form of totalitarianism, there's no way out of it.

Peter Porter: But I must say Clive, I think it's nicely flattering to you and I to believe that we would be in the guardian class. One of my objections to the Platonic idea is that I wouldn't get within a thousand miles of the guardian class...

Clive James: Peter, if I was in the guardian class, I'd make sure you did...

Peter Porter: But you wouldn't be in it either. I mean, the point about the guardian class is we do have something rather like that. In 18th century England, for instance, where either both the Whigs and the Tories are, in a certain kind of way, trying to look after the welfare of the state and look after the fortunes of Great Britain. But they wouldn't allow people who might be serving on the ships or people who might be tilling the fields to have any say in how that guardianship was maintained.

Clive James: Well that's true, and in fact Plato was fairly specific — they didn't want any poets (and that's you and me too) anywhere near the republic, probably because they cause trouble.

Peter Porter: Well, indeed. One reason why literature stands, always, as some kind of a danger to a guardian class rule is that poets, and not just poets, all kinds of people who actually pick up a pen or look at a computer or take up a typewriter, are looking at other ways and other alternatives to what already exists, and I don't mean to say that the poets are rebels. In fact, in many cases, the impulse to be a writer — you need the time, you need the security, you need some sense that what you're doing will not be interfered with by the people for whom you're doing it. Therefore poets always have just as strong a convention to support the status quo in the society as they have to upset it. But a myth's grown up, and has grown up particularly in the 20th century (it probably dates right back to the Enlightenment), that the poet is agin the state, he's agin whatever it is that seems to hold everything together. The truth of the matter is that the poet is an assessor and weigher of the state; he's not necessarily against it.

Clive James: Well, I think the main reason we're talking about Plato is that Plato himself is an artist, it's the real reason why we appreciate him — the early dialogues and specially the Symposium and the Phaedo and The Republic — you might say Protagoras — are great dramatic achievements, mainly because striding through them is this wonderful creation, Socrates, and Plato is an artist himself, and he found out the hard way when he himself got a chance at political power... I think he was invited to Syracuse... was it by Dionysius?

Peter Porter: Dionysius, yes.

Clive James: Dionysius invited him to Syracuse to give his political advice and Plato rapidly found out, as people started killing each other all around him, that things weren't quite as ideal as he thought, and couldn't be. He was an artist, in other words, mixed up in politics and finding it was a grim reality. It changed him, and in the last phase of his life was very different. But yes, he was a writer and it's why we appreciate him. We don't feel the same way about Aristotle. Aristotle is much more of a pure philosopher in the sense that we don't read him for joy, but Aristotle himself...

Peter Porter: He was a catalogue maker, Aristotle, really.

Clive James: But he himself got mixed up in politics and found out, again the hard way, that politics couldn't be bent to the will of the thinker or the speaker or the writer, that it was off on its own, and probably the most you could do was observe it, because he was invited by Philip of Macedon to tutor young Alexander, and of course gradually we see Alexander hasn't got time to listen because Alexander's busy — he's got a world to conquer.

Peter Porter: If we consider Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian war, he observed what Athens was doing, he observed it making the mistakes...

Clive James: Told them not to do it.

Peter Porter: Told them not to do it...

Clive James: That's why I love Thucydides because his work is shot through with the reality of politics from day to day. I think The Peloponnesian War is one of the great books I've ever read. It was a terrible disappointment to me when I tried to teach myself to read Greek. I got quite a long way with it — I could read Xenophon and even Herodotus but then the day came when I realised I'd never be able to read Thucydides, it's just too difficult. You have to read him in translation, but it made me sad because I'd love to get even closer to the magnificence of what he can do with the everyday event. The drama when he's really saying that the Sicilian expedition is a mistake, it's the kind we need now. Just before the invasion of Iraq would have been a good time to hear it.

Peter Porter: Well it's always very good policy for a historian to set out on his book at the time when the epoch in which he is writing is about to come to an end. I mean, after all, Thucydides' book wasn't really begun until the fate of Athens in the Peloponnesian war was pretty well settled, and I think when I read it, when I was very young (and once again, in English translation) the impression I got was of enormous sadness about rational human beings behaving irrationally, and it isn't just a question of reason either, it's a question of humanity. Once the Athenians became powerful and prosperous, they lost, as it were, their own humanity. Already, of course, there was built into their society lots of irregularities, lots of things which can hardly be called democratic by today's standards. But nevertheless, in the world into which they entered, they were the most democratic thing there was, and here was Thucydides telling us that even this democracy, which is a wonderful new beacon to the world, is going to bugger it up and get it wrong.

Clive James: It is immeasurably sad but it's a sadness we need to make us mature and strong. I like to think of Thucydides the same way I think of Tacitus, that they recorded terrible events in a way that would lead us to despair if the way they recorded them hadn't led them to a perfect sentence. There's a passage near the end of Thucydides, after the victory or the defeat or wherever it is, when the losers have been penned in a rock quarry and the victors are sitting around the quarry just watching them starve, and it's a sort of precursor of the concentration camps of today.

And this brings us smoothly to Tacitus who's my great admiration among the Romans. Tacitus records events that would make us desperate if it wasn't for the eloquence — well, eloquence is the wrong word because he was compressed — for the terseness and the solidity of the prose in which he recorded them. There's a terrific moment, I think it's in the Annals, just before the death of Sejanus, when Sejanus' daughter is brought to trial. Sejanus' daughter is ten years old or something, and she points to herself and says what her age is and she's really saying, you know, must someone as young as this die? And of course she did have to die, and because they weren't allowed to execute virgins, they raped her first. And it was an uncanny forecast of that moment in Babi Yar when the young girl, being led naked towards the pit, turned to the German sergeant of engineers, pointed to herself and said, 'I'm only 14.' The event is just dreadful and yet the way it's recorded is great art and it leads us into a kind of paradox. There is a kind of excitement in watching these great minds face the worst on our behalf.

Peter Porter: There is still something radically different between a person who could order an event and a person who could record the event. I greatly admire the historians but at the same time I have a feeling that I'm looking into a mind which likes to speculate but has never had to give the orders, and this is the great problem, it seems to me. The Greeks probably had a better, shorter control system between thought and action than the Romans. The Romans had such a manifest sense of destiny. I mean, you don't really feel that the Greeks had a manifest sense of destiny because the gods were always there to intervene.

It's interesting that the Romans took over the Greek gods and yet the Romans don't seem to have really cared too much about them, except that they were rather like traffic cops who were making sure that the empire worked smoothly. But the Greeks had a strong sense of the intervention of the gods. I think it's interesting that somebody pointed out years ago that the concept of Zeus, the king of the gods, could be on the one hand a comic adulterer, and on the other hand some incredibly powerful force that could intervene and change the whole history of the world. And to have these two abilities in the same deity does give the Greeks a greater sense of what life is about. The Romans, on the other hand, knew how to constitute societies and put them together. Well, it's interesting for instance, that Tacitus records many of the things that happened in the reign of the Emperor Trajan as well, and greatly admires Trajan, who was an organiser, but at the same time he doesn't seem to be worried about what Trajan was doing, in some respects.

Clive James: Well, Trajan was doing a lot less than Domitian had. We have to remember about Tacitus that, though he grew up and flourished under Trajan, he had actually seen, as an eye-witness, the last three years of the terror of Domitian, and he'd seen things so horrible that he was able to put them on the page when he was looking back into history at Tiberius and said that Tiberius must have looked like that. He had actually seen society in its extremes, and of course when things are at their most extreme, that's when you really start believing that the gods must intervene, otherwise how can we live with this? And you could say that one of the reasons why Zeus is so much more interesting than Jove or Jupiter or whoever his Roman version, is that the Greeks had simply more to put up with. But I do want to raise, when we talk about Tacitus, who I think is a very great writer about politics, the possibility that you could be a great writer and simply go along with the political situation because it favours you, and that's Virgil. Where does Virgil stand in your mind and in the history of poetry?

Peter Porter: He stands in my mind as a paid pen, really. Not just, of course, for the Emperor Augustus and the forthcoming Roman Empire, because Augustus was setting it up, but he also stands for Rome's own sense of what it was to be Roman. English patriotism one got used to as a child, one listened to all the speeches in Henry the Fifth and things, and somehow the fact that they were rampant and absolute jingoism didn't particularly upset one.

Brian Magee, the philosopher, once said to me, 'We all think Wagner was such a monster, but there's nothing in Die Meistersinger nearly as much glorifying of holy German art as there is in Henry the Fifth, British audacity and things of that sort.' But to come back to Tacitus for a second — he shows the other side, the treasonable side of the clerks of the Roman Empire. Not himself but his contemporary Marshall, who was a very fine fellow, I have read and translated Marshall. He contributed to unreadable, to unspeakable, to absolutely vile books of praise of Domitian. Now, of course he had a hard life to live in, he was a PR man really, I suppose...

Clive James: It might have been wise to do that when Domitian was around.

Peter Porter: Oh it was. Because he was recording the actual life in Rome at the time, he had his mind fixed on quite different things from either the philosophy of empire, or the practical governing of empire. He was interested in what was going on in Rome itself, how people lived in Rome, but in order to get the freedom to do that, he had to be amenable to this vile... and indeed Domitian was one of the vilest of the emperors.

Clive James: Well, it raises a question which we'll find again in the 20th century — what the poet is to do under the totalitarian regime — and if he's lucky he can do nothing, and if he's very unlucky he gets killed, and if he's even more unlucky he sees the advantage of going along. And it's been pointed out that remarkably few people under Nazi Germany did continue their careers and flourish. And we'll get to that, but it was already showing up in ancient times. What do you do when a real madman is around?

I'd love to have read Tacitus' account of Rome under Caligula. Unfortunately it's one of the missing books of the Annals, but something that we tend to forget is that great chunks of Tacitus' history and Annals are missing; we've only got the fragments. We never do get to read about the fall of Sejanus, we never get to read his account of what life was like under Caligula which is arbitrary power at its maddest, and he might have actually have approached the problem of what is the independent intelligence to do? And sometimes it simply has to be quiet. It also might be assumed to be rebelling by authority, even when it isn't. Is that what happened to Ovid? Ovid got sent into exile but what for?

Peter Porter: Well, it appears that he was encouraging certain forms of sexual laxity, which of course the court was up to and which of course Augustus knew well about. It's just that he simply didn't want it sort of promulgated around. I mean, it's a bit like Tony Blair today who keeps telling us things... I mean, he knows the society's not under threat from many of the things which he fulminates against. It's the old problem with decorum in society. Decorum in society is valuable because it stops us killing each other. It's not valuable in the sense that it leads to a strong powerful nation that plays a lot of sport and wins in games.

Clive James: So you think Augustus was just setting an example by banishing Ovid? Where did he send him to?

Peter Porter: He sent him to the Black Sea where he met all the Syrians who were practically incapable of doing anything except sit on a horse. He had a very bad time there, and he was never allowed back though he sent petitions back to Rome.

Clive James: Well some of his poetry... they're petitions, aren't they? The Tristia, the ex Ponta, 'the sadness from across the sea'.

Peter Porter: But the thing which, later, people loved so much about Ovid was the fact that he'd looked into the gods and, without being deliberately sacrilegious, he looked into all the myths (mostly inherited from the Greeks of course) and he turned them upside down and he turned them into new forms and new manifestations, and so, the whole idea of the Metamorphoses is simply that nothing is quite what you think it is, and if the myth says this then, ahh well, maybe the myth meant that. This, in turn, is a sort of relaxation and irregularity which he also advocated in the question of sexual morality, and therefore, he was far too much an equivocator to please a man who was trying to mould a new imperium.

Clive James: And of course the emperors were desperate, that's why there was so much republican regret about the rise of despotism because it was the return of the kingdom and the republicans hated nothing more than the kingdom. But what about the enlightened despot? Because we're going to really face that when we get to the Renaissance later on, and Julius Caesar was an enlightened despot in the sense that he let Catullus live. Did Catullus guess that he would? Because Catullus satirised Julius Caesar, and satirising Julius Caesar must have been a lot more dangerous than satirising Tony Blair or George Bush. It's rather like satirising Saddam Hussein, in fact.

Peter Porter: I think one of the problems that people have today in writing satire is that our rulers don't resent it. There's a lot of very cynical jokes about, aren't there, like, 'if politics made any difference they'd abolish them' — and all this sort of thing. To some extent that reflects what people do feel, but the moment you are taken out of a society which is tolerant of your satire and enter a society which is intolerant of it, you suddenly begin to appreciate the value of the tolerance, but the price you have to pay for that value is that you know you're not going to make much difference. I think that one of the things which I would always look for in a definition of freedom is your inability to actually change things. Now, this is a defeat of course, this is a terrible defeat, but on the other hand, we don't want people changed against their will.

Clive James: Auden was within a democracy and a democratic tradition and a democratic memory and a democratic future when he said, 'Poetry makes nothing happen.' That isn't, for example, what Joseph Brodsky would have said. Joseph Brodsky said that the reason why Stalin murdered Osip Mandelstam wasn't just because Osip Mandelstam had written a small satire about Stalin, it was because Mandelstam represented lyricism, and lyricism (as Brodsky said) is the ethics of language and no tyrant can live with it, and will abolish it when he can.

Peter Porter: The thing about aphorisms though is that one automatically wants to keep adapting. In my new book of poems (I'm giving myself a plug here) I have a section called Seminar Scratch Cards, which are designed for upsetting aphorisms, and one of them goes, you know, 'Auden said that politics makes nothing happen — would that that were true of religion'... and that the answer is that, all the time, you are up against the fact that the things that do make society different are seldom works of art, or seldom even subject to the kinds of conditions which we look for in art. Art is partly inevitability and partly resistance to inevitability and that is something which neither proper politics nor religion ever allows.

Clive James: I think art has immense powers to change things but not in ways that anyone can predict. We work on the assumption that eventually what we have will have some kind of effect, no matter how distant, on suitably receptive minds. What we can't do is work as if the art would have a measurable political effect within a foreseeable time, and we know usually that it's bad art that does that. But quite a lot of very great artists, when it came to the 20th century especially, worked on that assumption. Mayakovsky wrote poems on the assumption that they would affect policy in the Soviet Union. Bertolt Brecht wrote his plays on the assumption that it would usher in the fall of capitalism and the triumph of the collective state. Neruda in the same way... it came quite common in the 20th century. I think it was as wrong as wrong can be. I think it's almost a measure of bad art, but it certainly became an assumption. It probably answered a long-term longing that goes back to the Romantics, and even beyond that, where the poet would be the unacknowledged legislator of mankind. The operative part of that phrase is really 'unacknowledged' — it's not going to happen.

Peter Porter: No. I take a cynical view of a lot of this. I think that just as the most intoxicating form of narcotic substance is indignation, I think one of the things that people feel when they set out — these people like Neruda or like Brecht or even like Mayakovsky — what they are doing is actually exciting themselves with the thought that they will change things. I think that they are getting into a sweat of seeing themselves as influential, rather than actually believing that they are influential. I mean, you can tell immediately why you're not going to be influential because not enough people read you, you wouldn't get that across. On the other hand, there is the idea (and this goes back to Plato again) that if you have the ear of a ruler and you are a wise man, then the ruler, the one person with the central power, can take advantage of your feelings and bring something about. But that of course is the opposite of democracy because the ruler has to be a tyrant to have that power to make this thing happen. In between, there may be benign rulers who have got enough power, not too much, and they can produce these advantages. I just, myself, think that the moment a writer sits down to compose anything, whether it be a story or whether it be a poem or even if it's an essay or even if it's a piece of history or a biography — any of these things which require organised thought expressed in language — you're separated immediately from the world of action the moment you set out to do it.

Clive James: We talked a lot about writers in this opening instalment because writers, as far as we're concerned, is mainly what ancient Greece and Rome had. We might have pointed out that Praxiteles would never have put up those beautiful sculptures unless there'd been a Parthenon to put them on. He needed a government, and I think in the next instalment we might move on towards pre-Renaissance times and really turn our attention to the visual arts — great figures like Raphael and Michelangelo — and see what relationship they had to power, because the enlightened despot, there, really does come in doesn't it?

Peter Porter: He does.

Jill Kitson: Peter Porter, ending that discussion with Clive James, the first of six programs on art and politics, from Plato to the present. The second to be broadcast next week.

The title of Peter Porter's new collection of poems is Afterburner. Clive's latest is The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958–2003.

And that's all for this week's edition of Book Talk.

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