Our project’s book Anachronism and Antiquity, written collaboratively by Tim Rood, Carol Atack, and Tom Phillips, will be published in the new year by Bloomsbury Academic. The official launch date is February 6, 2020, but you can take a look inside now. Click on this link to read the opening prelude, ‘Look to the end’, in full.
The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’, released in 1977 as commentary on the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, offered a powerful warning of the dangers of political nostalgia. The message was reinforced by Jamie Reid’s powerful image of a familiar portrait of the queen with her features obliterated by the ransom-note rendering of the song title and group name.
God save the queen
We mean it man
There’s no future
In England’s dreaming
The song’s lyrics assess the consequences of monarchy as an element of the political imaginary, the shared ideas and images with which a community thinks about its political institutions and practices, the queen isn’t a ‘human being’ but is nonetheless loved (see music and culture website Louder than War for a detailed analysis).
As Jon Savage showed in his cultural history of the punk years, England’s Dreaming, nostalgia for an imaginary past was part of the culture of English decline to which punk’s ideology emerged as a response; when England dreams, it looks to the past. Savage opens his survey of punk with the observation that ‘first we need the location, the vacant space where, like the buddleia on the still plentiful bombsites, these flowers can bloom’.
In identifying this void, Savage tapped into a broader critique of democratic culture. The problem of sovereignty for republican democracy is that there is no figurehead. But even in a democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the institution of monarchy operates as much as part of the political imaginary as it does as a real institution. Witness, for example, speculation about the queen’s feelings about Brexit and parliament, as in this Guardian article about her blue and yellow hat.
Classical Athens handled the problem of the democratic void in a distinctive way, as cultural historians have shown. In the same year as the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols released their single, the French ancient historian Nicole Loraux completed her doctoral thesis, ‘Athènes imaginaire. Histoire de l’oraison funèbre athénienne et de sa fonction dans la cité classique’, which would be published in book form a few years later as The Invention of Athens, and which remains one of the most powerful explorations of the democratic Athenian political imaginary. The synchronism is not coincidental – this was a time when cultural theorists drew on new insights to explore societies ancient and modern. Loraux’s exploration of Athens was focused on a specific location – the public funeral speeches held to commemorate the war dead – in which Athenian politicians shaped the city’s political imaginary.
But location within Athens where some of the most visible work was done, as Cornelius Castoriadis, theorist of the political imaginary, noted, was the tragic stage. Athenian tragedy peoples the political imaginary and fills the democratic void, the lack of an identifiable individual holder of sovereignty. The citizens perform their politeia to themselves and the wider audience, but the Athens on stage is quite different from the Athens of the present. Athenian tragedy thus presents an intriguing anachronism, in the figure of the democratic king, who personifies Athenian virtues in his speech and actions. The Athenians’ self-image revolved around their support for those who asked for help, and tragedies such as Euripides’ Suppliant Women and Children of Heracles show Athenian kings, Theseus and Demophon, delivering that in person.
However, the figure of the tragic king is not entirely politically innocent. Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, written during the final stages of the Peloponnesian War when Athenian democracy was severely weakened, shows Athens at the point when it was newly united into a single political entity, with Theseus as its king. The citizens of Colonus are unsure of how to operate in this new environment, or how they should receive the problematic suppliant Oedipus. It falls to the king to assert the wishes of the unified centre, receive the suppliant and ensure the divine favour his cult will bring to the city. But, as the recent production of this play as the 2019 Cambridge Greek Play showed, the articulation of Theseus to the democracy is not entirely explicit in Sophocles’ play. This production opted to set the intricacies of Athenian political debate to one side, and to focus on the powerful story of Oedipus’ rejection of Thebes and of the successors fighting for control of it. Oedipus’ grant of support to Theseus and his successors asserts a continuity of Athenian rule from the king himself to the democratic archons who performed the religious role of the king in the democracy of Sophocles’ time.
In The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece, I explore the developing role of the image of the king in critical discussions of Athenian Democracy. Theseus was, in democratic Athens, as much of an iconographic presence as Queen Elizabeth II is in the contemporary United Kingdom. His statue appeared on temple pediments, his deeds were illustrated on temple friezes, as did paintings in public buildings. The labours he performed on behalf of the city were often depicted on painted pottery; he was often presented in similar clothing and poses to the tyrannicides, his clothing used to connect him to the iconography of democracy, rather like the queen’s hat. Like the Sex Pistols’ queen, Theseus could be a beloved monarch of Athens without being a human being, a living presence in the city. And Athenian nostalgia for the imaginary political past was often invoked and manipulated during times of civil strife, as is its contemporary British equivalent.
‘Who would you invite to your ideal dinner party?’ is a familiar stock question from magazine celebrity profiles, usually eliciting an anachronistic assemblage of historical and even fictional figures who could never possibly have shared a meal at the same table. The creation of such groups goes back to classical antiquity, with the anachronistic groups assembled as the cast of dialogues such as Athenaeus’ Sophists at Dinner and Macrobius’ Saturnalia. More recently, in the 1970s the artist Judy Chicago (1939- ) used the idea of the fantasy dinner party to construct a celebration of often untold stories of women’s history and skills, in The Dinner Party (1974-79), an installation now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. The monumental work presents table settings at a celebratory banquet for 39 women from the past, a refreshing and informative alternative to male-dominated groups, and a visible version and expansion of new feminist research into women’s history. Chicago has described the work as ‘an imaginative picture of women’s long struggle for freedom and dignity’, which she hoped would help both men and women to develop ‘an understanding of the full history of the human race’. The imagined women diners stretch back into mythical prehistory – the ‘Primordial Goddess’ of a posited matriarchal past society – and reach to the present, to the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who was still alive when the work was created.
The organisation of the Dinner Party repays attention for its simultaneous subversion and deployment of historiographic and genealogical structures from literature and art. It challenges some cultural practices – the traditional focus on male achievement in historiography, and the privileging of fine art in art history – while replicating others. Its strict periodisation of the past is not the only hierarchy in play, although it is the most visible. The triangular arrangement of the table groups the women into three periods: from ‘prehistory to Classical Rome’, from the beginning of Christianity to the Reformation, and from the American Revolution to the Women’s Revolution.
This periodisation itself is strongly marked, suggesting a traditional connection between the Roman and American republics, and also the privileged position of Christianity in historiographical organisation, also suggested by the choice of 13 seats at each table, as at the Last Supper. The first group shows how historical periodisation can overwrite other forms of organisation of the past. The Primordial Goddess is the first in a sequence which moves from women identified as ‘mythic’, including named goddesses Ishtar and Kali, to the ‘legendary’, Sophia and Amazon, to the historical, starting with Hatshepsut, one of few women to have ruled Egypt as pharaoh, and including Sappho, Aspasia, Boadicea and finally Hypatia, who appropriately marks the boundary between the pagan and Christian pasts.
The ends of each table meet, so Georgia O’Keeffe is also sitting next to the Primordial Goddess, which implies a cyclicality and an achronic view that surmounts the temporal divisions; but the plates in each place develop from flat surfaces to the fully three-dimensional and non-functional ‘plate’ representing O’Keeffe. The imagery of the vulva and the butterfly which runs through the plate designs links them to Chicago’s own artistic practice, in turn criticised for its essentialist emphasis on the body by later feminist critics such as Rozsika Parker and Grizelda Pollock in Old Mistresses (1981: 127-130). The plates also led to controversy, being described as ‘pornographic’ by politicians seeking to deny funding for the work’s continuing display.
Another hierarchy emerges from the installation’s ‘Heritage Floor’; as well as the 39 women seated at the dinner, the names of 999 ‘women of merit’ are painted in gold on the floor, organised into ‘streams of influence’ and each related in time and action to one of the seated diners. In a similar way, Judy Chicago as creator represents the many women who worked on researching and making the installation, many of them working the intricate embroideries that customise each place setting. Photos of each originally appeared on ‘Acknowledgement Panels’ which are an integral part of the work, but not currently on display (though accessible online). The impact of Chicago’s attempt to make visible the collaborative labour of making art has been lessened.
Feminism has moved on since the creation of the Dinner Party, and some of its juxtapositions present imagery jarring from present perspectives. The idea of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) as dining companions is an intriguing example of the work’s creation of an anachronistic community, but their adjacent place-settings point to some limitations of feminist analysis of the 1970s. The English writer and campaigner Wollstonecraft is depicted with a particularly fine instance of the embroidery skills she despised, showing her calling girls to exercise their right to education, and featuring embroidered versions of her words; the back of her place setting uses the same techniques for a moving depiction of her death in childbirth. The plate for Sojourner Truth, the black and formerly enslaved American campaigner for the emancipation of slaves and for women’s rights, on the other hand, puts images of African art on the table, acknowledging an important connection – but the central image is a mask; Truth’s runner is entirely non-figurative, drawing on the traditions of African textile art but making no direct personal connection with her works. While this represents the original cultures of African Americans and responds to the experiences of the enslaved, it turns Truth into a cipher for the suffering of slavery, gazing on her otherness rather than representing her unique campaigning voice.
The monumental installation was first exhibited in 1979, and toured the world during the 1980s, but was not then exhibited again until it became the centrepiece of the Elisabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at Brooklyn Museum in 2007. The temporary exhibition galleries surround the triangular space in which the Dinner Partyis displayed; they surround its permanent and anachronic narrative with changing questions. This is particularly true of the Center’s current exhibition, ‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall’, which offers a very different history of a liberation struggle, that for LGBT rights. The contrast between the two displays materialises changes in debates on women’s and LGBT liberation struggles in the past fifty years. The protagonists of the Stonewall Uprising are not a presence at the Dinner Party; but in the temporary Stonewall exhibition, titled after the words of activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945-92), the complex temporality of queer liberation struggle is evident in works recognising the impact of social precarity and the AIDS crisis on queer communities and celebrating their activism. This complicates artists’ urge to connect with a past beyond that told by conventional histories, both to explore the historical context of the Stonewall riot and its cultural legacy, and to reach into a deeper mythic past. The rich range of media deployed by artists includes textile banners, which in this display context can be seen to converse with those of the Dinner Party.
And one colourful and optimistic work in particular connects the present with the mythic past, Instructions for a Freedom (2015) by Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski (1985- ). In this painting, a femme figure – perhaps a primordial goddess like those Chicago evokes? – mounted on a rainbow-tailed horse leads a riotous assembly of bodies across the cosmos. While Chicago’s structure offers a closed loop of history, and other queer art on display reflects a crisis of futurity, Moleski’s figure points joyfully into a colourful future.
The Elisabeth A. Sackler Center’s web page for the Dinner Party contains all the images and detailed, thoughtful commentary, often pointing towards some of the issues discussed here.
Alexander may be the given first name of the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, but he prefers himself to look to Athens rather than Macedon for political inspiration. During the Tory leadership campaign, at least, during the now famous TalkRadio interview in which he professed to a hitherto unsuspected bus-painting hobby, Johnson said (to use the transcription on the TalkRadio website):
I’ve always greatly admired Pericles of Athens because he was the guy who said, uh, that politics was about the many, not the few. He was the first to use exactly that… a great orator. And, uh, he, uh, it was said that he thundered and lightened when he spoke. But what he did is he used great infrastructure. He invested in fantastic infrastructure. Uh, he developed the, the, not just the Acropolis, but the Piraeus port which was integral to the success of a lot of Athens.
Nor was this the first campaign during which Johnson invoked the name of Pericles. According to a feature in the Spectator magazine in May 2016, Johnson ‘contends that Pericles, the great Athenian statesman he so often cites, would also have been an Outer. Boris argues that “to stick up for democracy is entirely Periclean” and that the referendum ultimately comes down to whether you believe in “rule by the many, not the few”’. Johnson is said, moreover, to have a bust of Pericles in his office.
Johnson’s Periclean self-projection has unsurprisingly been picked up ‒ and tweaked ‒ in newspaper discussion on his leadership. Patrick Kidd in the Times wrote a piece the other day entitled ‘Boris Johnson could prove more of a chancer than his hero Pericles’. In this column he referred to the TalkRadio interview, writing: ‘Asked recently why he so admires Pericles, Johnson said that the Greek believed government should be conducted “by the many, not the few” (a phrase subtly different from “for the many”), that he was a magnificent orator who “thundered and lightened when he spoke” and that he “invested in fantastic infrastructure”.’ Kidd then develops the thesis that Johnson may be more of an Alcibiades ‒ arrogant, spoiled, charismatic to some, a disaster to Athens. The same suggestion is made by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. The more learned of the online comments go a bit further and invoke the name of Cleon.
Two names stand out in these discussions for their absence: Thucydides and Plutarch, the two key authors through whom we derive our varied pictures of Pericles and his successors. The public debate carries on as if we have unmediated access to the world of Athenian politics. Our main sources, however, make Pericles central to strong historical plots, and it is they who are responsible for the words which are sometimes attributed to Pericles himself.
Plutarch’s Life of Pericles adds a dimension not found in Johnson’s idealization of Pericles: time. Plutarch posits a change between the early and the late Pericles – a change from a more demagogic to a more aristocratic mode of government. This change solves the problem of the divergence between the Thucydidean and Platonic image of Pericles: the negative Platonic image of Pericles’ pandering to the people is restricted to the early portion of Pericles’ life; for the later stages, Plutarch explicitly supports the Thucydidean picture of a Pericles who resists the people’s whims.
Johnson recuperates as positive much that in Plutarch is highly ambivalent. The imagery of thunder and lightning applied to Pericles’ rhetoric is taken from Plutarch, via the comic playwright Aristophanes’ Acharnians. In Aristophanes, the presentation of Pericles’ powers of persuasion is highly negative. He is arraigned for using his linguistic skills to foist the disruption of the Peloponnesian War on the Greeks, and all for petty personal motives. Similarly ambivalent in Plutarch is the presentation of Pericles’ spending on infrastructure. Though Plutarch acknowledges the beauty of the temples that Pericles had built, he also reports strong criticisms of Pericles for spending the allies’ financial contributions on beautifying Athens like a ‘vain woman’.
As for the language of the many and the few, the source for that lies in the famous funeral speech that Thucydides places in the mouth of Pericles during the first year of the Peloponnesian War. In this speech (written up by Thucydides perhaps a quarter of a century or more after it was supposedly delivered), Pericles is made to say that Athens is called a democracy because it is governed ‘for the many rather than for the few’. Pericles’ language is in fact evoked most closely by the slogan of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the party’s 2017 election manifesto. But in Thucydides’ speech Pericles grants democracy this definition as a concession. He explains that Athens’ constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests of the many, but he immediately qualifies this claim by stressing that it allows individuals to achieve a status that matches their personal excellence. It is a definition that prepares for Thucydides’ own claim that Athens under Pericles was in name a democracy but in fact rule by the first man. Pericles, on Thucydides’ reading, had the strength to resist the changing moods of the people (he notably fails to call an assembly when he sees that they are angry at the immediate results of the Peloponnesians’ first invasion of Attica).
Would Pericles have been an ‘outer’? Obviously not … but perhaps it is better to dismiss that question as an anachronistic absurdity. A more productive use of anachronism may be to explore the similarities and differences between Pericles’ imperial Athens, imposing standardized measures on the subject allies that she (in Thucydides’ view) tyrannically enslaved, and the fantasy image of Brussels cooked up by irresponsible journalists like the young Johnson. Anachronisms aside, it is worth dwelling on (Thucydides’) Pericles’ boast that his generation handed down a city more powerful than the one it inherited, and wondering on the prospects that future historians will say the same of the United Kingdom during its current rule by a Conservative and Unionist Party controlled by the products of 1980s Oxford.
• In a 2011 feature for the Mail on Sunday, as shown in the screenshot above, Johnson offered a section of the Funeral Speech given by Thucydides’ Pericles as one of his favourite Greek quotes, although readers should note that in this ghost-written piece placed to support an educational initiative, the task of finding the actual Greek quotes was outsourced to a member of the Anachronism team.