Asked by an academic friend to name one book I would save if the world were to collapse in an apocalyptic climate change scenario, I thought: ‘it’s too hard’, but then started going though my mental library. ‘You wouldn’t want to save an academic book, would you,’ said my friend, ‘surely a novel, an artist’s book…’. But in those few seconds I had already settled in my head for Salvatore Settis’ The Future of the ‘Classical’ (Polity, 2006, translated by Allan Cameron). Why? Because it is one of the few books I keep returning to, again and again, a treasure trove of lucidity and ahead-of-its-time, crystal-gazing brilliance. The pages of my copy have been underlined in pencil several times over to mark the moments of my cyclical light-bulb (re)encounters with this sharp volume. For me, it’s a ‘classic’.
He explores not only how uses of the ‘classical’ have shaped westerners’ conceptions of history, memory and identity in relation to our recent and remote past, but also the way in which western a-historical, mythological thinking is driving us into the future, with dubious geopolitical implications.
In little more than 100 pages, Professor Settis – an archaeologist and art historian, former director of Pisa’s Scuola Normale Superiore and Los Angeles’ Getty Research Institute – is able to outline how the ‘classical’ operates now as an ideological mechanism in the globalised western world, and how it operated through the ages since antiquity. He explores not only how uses of the ‘classical’ have shaped westerners’ conceptions of history, memory and identity in relation to our recent and remote past, but also the way in which western a-historical, mythological thinking is driving us into the future, with dubious geopolitical implications.
The Future of the ‘Classical’ offers intellectual instruments to mistrust current exploitations of the ‘classical’ as history-turned-myth, a so-called ‘timeless’ and ‘immutable’ system of ‘universal’ values. Settis analyses how the very idea of the ‘classical’ as the pinnacle of arts, civilization and educational systems came about; how it became associated with Greek and Roman antiquity, and then ingrained in western consciousness through narratives of its deaths and rebirth in the West (hence the West’s romantic love affair with ruins). The book sketches a cultural history of how the ‘classical’ was – and still is – used to define western identity in opposition to the ‘rest’ on the basis of a preconceived ‘superiority’. This initial analysis is the basis for Settis’ lucid elaboration of the task facing him and future scholars. Along the path shown by Hermann Usener (1834-1905) and his disciple Abi Warburg (1866-1929), he urges us to stop defining our identity through the so-called ‘classics’, and instead start to explore their profound otherness. Settis elaborates as follows:
‘The dates spanned by the lives of Usener and Warburg demonstrate the long pedigree of the need to study ‘classical’ culture on the basis of its otherness, and not of its identity with our own. The intuitive realization that comparison with ‘other’ cultures could help our understanding of the ‘classical’ has an even longer pedigree, and goes back at least to the eighteenth century, but the further we go back in tracing its roots, the more we realise how far we are from resolving the question. In spite of these precedents, the task of understanding the ‘classical’ by this route is still unfinished and highly topical. In the first place, this means relativizing the oneness of the ‘classical’ by acknowledging its inner fault-lines and many regional variants. In the second place but of no less importance, this means highlighting the extent of the contacts between the classical and ‘others’ and of its debt to them, as is revealed by each of those variants. Thus the decision to treat the ‘classical’ as comparable to other cultures means profoundly undermining and ultimately destroying that rounded a-historical classicism on which so many arguments and projects concerning history and modern culture appear to be firmly based’ (89).
In my book Reaching Athens: Community, Democracy and Other Mythologies in Adaptations of Greek Tragedy (Peter Lang, 2013), I applied Settis’ arguments to the field of contemporary European theatre to undermine the popular trend positioning revivals of ‘classical’ Greek tragedy as a timeless and immutable reflection of who ‘we, the people of Europe’ are today. Instead, I proposed that scholars and makers should reflect on the ways in which contemporary theatre can explore Greek drama for its otherness vis-à-vis contemporary culture and values, therefore questioning and critiquing a-historical conceptions of the ‘classical’ and its associated mythologies as the ‘origin’ of the West.
Salvatore Settis will be giving an informal public presentation at CRASSH on 12 February 2019 on the subject of the two exhibitions he curated in 2015 for the Prada Foundation in Milan (‘Serial Classic’) and Venice (‘Portable Classic’): http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/28303. All are welcome.
Serial / Portable Classic – The Greek Canon And Its Mutations’. Progetto Prada Arte.
Dr Margherita Laera is a Senior Lecturer in Drama at the University of Kent. See Margherita’s Research Profile.
Principal Investigator, Translating Theatre.
Co-Director, European Theatre Research Network.
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