Something’s been on my mind for a long time since I stopped lurking, but I need to say how I feel.
In our long argument about Odysseus, you ended it with “i know what I’m talking about; so there.”
No, you didn’t, because if you did, you wouldn’t have been a misanthrope. Reading mythology is what made me fall in love with humans, and it’s unsettling that you never acknowledged the irony of being a misanthropic archaeologist. The lessons the Oddessey taught me is that life is a journey full challenges and misery, but by keeping your wits and the strength to continue, you can reach your goals. Oddysseus’s goal was to reunite with the wife an son that he loved, and it’s so cynical to think he enjoyed having sex with women that kept him stranded on those islands, and it doesn’t mesh thematically when these are supposed to be a series of hardships. The optimist in me believes this was something to be overcome, either as a temptation like the lotus fruits and sirens, or a situation to get out of like the cyclops. His devotion and loyalty to his crew, his homeland, and family are values I live by, and I don’t like that being tarnished by accusations that he’s a scummy womanizer. I could just be satisfied with my own opinions and not be bothered by what anyone else thinks, but you know what the internet does to us.
I also was put off by your use of the vague buzz-word “western civilization.” It’s nonsensical to anyone with an understanding of geography, and condescending, as if any other civilization doesn’t count (and because I think an archaeologist/anthropologist would only use such a simplification of jargon when talking to a layman). Funny how people angry with the state of the world will defend “western civilization” as the best thing that ever happened.
I hope your outlook of your own species has changed since then, and if you want to reply non-publicly, my email is [REDACTED]
[This is what Billy is referring to – linking to the Tumblr version of the original question-and-answer post rather than the WordPress version because that’s where the relevant comment thread is, but I might actually move it over here for posterity’s sake]
The thing is, Billy, that when I talk to you I sometimes genuinely do not know who you’re arguing with, because I’m pretty certain it’s not me.
See, here’s the thing. I am what the internet calls a “content creator.” I stand here and continuously spout whatever vague bull$#!t I can come up with about my chosen topic, which happens to normally be Pokémon, in as entertaining a form and format as I can devise and with as much regularity and genuine passion as I can muster. But I can’t be my true, deeply personal, authentic self on the internet all the time – no one can, because that would be fµ¢£ing exhausting, and probably not psychologically healthy – so I cultivate a persona; I play a character. And it isn’t… “not me,” exactly, but it’s not the whole of me. It’s a facet of me, an aspect, an exaggeration. I happen to find it most amusing to play up my dark humour, because I do criticism and one way to get yourself in the mood for criticism is to be like “well, of course I hate this Pokémon; I hate everything and everyone, and I long for the day we all meet our destined fate in the Endless Void.” And… I think most people “get” that. Partly that’s because it’s kind of true of all creatives (and all teachers, actually, though obviously my teaching persona draws on very different aspects of my self), to a greater or lesser extent, and buying into it is just part of the process of consuming culture. Also, though, it’s because… well, because my portrayal of misanthropy is frankly pretty silly and unrealistic. But I guess that never registered with you, so now I’m going to be honest about something deeply personal and embarrassing and shameful that I’ve never really expressed before on this blog:
I… don’t hate people.
I don’t even dislike people; I can count on one hand the people I’ve met in the last year who genuinely rub me up the wrong way. I actually like people, for reasons and in ways that are partly just innate somehow, but also deeply informed by my experiences with the “great ideas” of ancient Greece and Rome. One of the most sincere pleasures in my life, aside from writing a particularly satisfying article for this blog, is to cook a nice meal for a close friend – because what the Odyssey taught me, what inspires me about the Odyssey, is that the act of preparing a meal for someone, whether it’s an impossible Phaeacian banquet or a hunk of stale bread in Eumaeus’ hut, is an enactment of humanity’s primal instinct of compassion that is sacred to all peoples, and participating in it renews my faith in human goodness. Socrates argues in the Gorgias that no one wants to be bad; people just… don’t always know how to be good, or understand why it’s better to be good. And that sounds naïve, and truly buying into it means forgiving, and feeling sympathy for, people who’ve done monstrous, horrifying things… but I think he’s right. People aren’t bad, just flawed, and it’s because they’re flawed that they’re beautiful.
I’m not a misanthrope, Billy. I’ve never been a misanthrope. I just play one on the internet.
You’re allowed to be inspired by the Odyssey. I’m glad you’re inspired by the Odyssey! But when we honestly love a piece of culture we have to be prepared to see its flaws. There is no greater mark of respect for a cultural work than to absolutely rip into it, with full consciousness that it will survive you (that’s what this whole blog is!). This is the single greatest tension of studying classics – really, of studying anything under the umbrella of the humanities: in truly knowing something, in truly loving something, you come to see its every flaw, its every failing, in exquisitely painful detail. And you go on loving it anyway. Democracy doesn’t fall apart at the seams because we remember that the Athenians owned monstrous numbers of slaves. The Parthenon is no less beautiful because we understand that its construction was financed by the profits of an oppressive colonial empire run by rabid, narcissistic demagogues. The achievements of Roman imperial infrastructure are no less impressive because we mourn the millions of innocents who were slaughtered by Roman legions. Virgil’s Aeneid is no less inspirational because we see how it became a propaganda tool of the man whose rise to power was literally the template for the character of Emperor Palpatine. And Odysseus is still a hero who does great things and embodies great virtues even if we recognise that he is, on occasion, by the standards of modernity… kind of a misogynistic fuckboi.
And I’m not going to rehash the argument on that point, because, like, it’s still there, people can read it if they’re interested in the question, and honestly I think I’m still pretty happy with everything I said at the time, so anyone who wants to read through it can go and do that; I’ll still be here when they come back.
What I will take issue with is that I didn’t just declare you wrong and try to end the discussion by force of my authority as a real-life classicist; I explained my position and then answered your questions about it until you stopped asking them. I mean, yeah, fair, I did include this line: “All of which is to say… Billy. Dude. I have a master’s degree in this $#!t. I do actually know what I’m talking about,” which I assume is what you’re referring to, and I admit that was snarkier than strictly necessary, but it wasn’t the end – it was near the beginning of what turned into a much longer discussion – and did come on the heels of your accusation that I was “twisting what was written to aid the SJWs’ dark agenda.” [note for readers: SJW = social justice warrior, a derogatory term for socially progressive activists, carrying connotations of insincerity and self-aggrandisement] So… y’know, you opened with a baseless accusation that I was arguing in bad faith; I replied with a snarky assertion of my professional credentials; fair’s fair; I think we should call that a draw.
So, on “western civilisation”… well… YES! ALL OF THAT! I mean, just for posterity’s sake, here is the context within that conversation of my “use of the vague buzz-word ‘western civilisation’”:
“…in a world where we mostly study Greek and Latin literature because of their supposed morally uplifting effects and their place at the beginning of this thing we call “western civilisation,” it *is also important* to call the Greeks out when they say, do and believe things that are morally repugnant from a modern perspective. Putting these people on a pedestal because of their ancestral status in our own culture is dangerous and irresponsible.”
This thing we call “western civilisation.”
In scare quotes.
Followed by a comment on how the idolisation of “western civilisation” is “dangerous and irresponsible.”
I mean… really, how much signposting am I supposed to give that I know it’s a vague buzzword and I know it’s problematic and I haven’t said “western civilisation” unironically in almost fifteen years? It’s a useful term because people have some inherent sense for what it means, and it helps to have a phrase that succinctly refers to “the whole godawful mess that started when a bunch of mediaeval Italians decided to devote their entire culture to resurrecting Greece and Rome out of a misguided belief that they represented the high point of all human achievement” because frankly that’s a mouthful. And whether I use it or not, it’s a term that exists in the discourse, and is currently a rallying point for literal neo-Nazis, and if we don’t talk about it then they’re the ones who get to decide what it means.
The fact that “western civilisation” is a dangerous jingoistic myth is what I was trying to explain to you. Because… those “people angry with the state of the world [who] will defend “western civilisation” as the best thing that ever happened,” Billy? I have to deal with them too. And when you start a conversation by complaining about how feminists are ruining your Odyssey, insist that Odysseus never did anything wrong, take personal offence at the idea that he could be anything less than a perfect role model for all time, and dismiss arguments to the contrary as part of “the SJWs’ dark agenda,” you sound exactly like them.
And they scare me.
But some of them are my students. “My children.” And so I have to explain to them, as patiently and kindly as I have it in my power, that the world isn’t black and white. That “the West” is a fiction. That every great legacy we inherit from Greece and Rome, cultures that I love and have devoted my life to studying, is balanced by an unspeakable sin. That countless precious texts of those civilisations would have been lost forever if not for the work of Muslim scholars of the mediaeval Near East. That ownership of great ideas rests on the ability to understand them and build on them, not on a myth of ethnic purity or unbroken descent. That the Greeks and Romans were not, in any meaningful sense of the term, “white,” nor a fundamentally different kind of human from the Persians, Egyptians or Carthaginians. That change, not stasis, is what makes cultures great.
And then they leave, and I may not see them again, and I have no idea whether any of them were listening, or whether anything I’ve said will make a blind bit of difference.