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The Parthenon – More myth than monument?

Mary Beard’s [1] new book on the Parthenon covers many aspects of its history, looking at issues from a range of perspectives in order to try & present a balanced account of how things have ended up the way they are today. It definitely makes it onto any list of required reading for anyone interested in either the Acropolis site or the Elgin Marbles. In this article, she looks at the way people’s perceptions of the monument are influenced by many external factors & pre-conceptions.

The Guardian [2]

Gladstone on the Acropolis
How does one approach a place that is more myth than monument?
Mary Beard
Saturday February 7, 2004

In September 1886 a recent visitor to Athens penned an outraged letter to The Times, complaining about what archaeologists were doing on the Acropolis. The problem was not the zeal with which they were stripping through thousands of years of buildings, defences, litter and topsoil to reveal the barren bedrock on which the modern visitor to the site must now perilously slip and slide. The complaint was that they were tipping the spoil down the side of the hill.

This was more than an unsightly mess. It risked, the correspondent explained, destroying the distinctive profile of one end of the Acropolis: “It may interest your readers to know that the NE angle of the rock… presents a capital profile likeness of Mr Gladstone, which may be obliterated by the casting of rubbish over the walls.”

It would be easy to sneer at such a classic piece of cultural imperialism that manages to project the Grand Old Man on to an innocent Greek rock formation. In a sense, this is the visual equivalent of assuming that the natives will eventually understand you if you shout in English. But it also captures the problems of any writer who takes on a monument that has long since transcended its disappointingly ruined reality to become an icon of western culture, a myth embedded in the global unconscious.

How do you get readers to make sense of it afresh? What kind of compromise can you make between the sheer alienness of the monument and its everyday familiarity as symbol and slogan? How do you negotiate the treacherous path between sentimental admiration and the understandable, if slightly unworthy, desire to “take the building down a peg or two” (“the bloody Parthenon”, as William Golding dubbed it). These are not questions that apply here alone, of course. It was just these issues that Dalí exposed when he repainted the Mona Lisa with his own features and trademark moustache. But over the last two centuries the Acropolis and the Parthenon have seen more than their fair share of British writers struggling to cope with their mythic fame.

It has not only been in the huffing and puffing of the letters pages that comparisons with the British Isles have been trailed. Virginia Woolf found the Acropolis a dead ringer for her favourite Cornish cliffs. JP Mahaffy, the celebrated Irish classicist of the late 19th century (and the man who had the unenviable task of escorting the young Oscar Wilde to Greece), preferred to liken it to the Rock of Cashel. Evelyn Waugh, predictably enough, picked an analogy closer to the British dinner table: for him the colour of the Parthenon was like “the milder parts of a Stilton cheese into which port has been poured”.

Others have opted for exotic hyperbole. Wilde drooled over the naked columns and versified about a young “Grecian” lad who makes love to the image of the goddess Athena in the temple. Not much better has been the mystical emphasis on the Parthenon’s architectural “refinements”: witness, for example, the repeated mantra that the columns lean so delicately that, if continued upwards, they would meet 5,000 metres up in the sky. It is no surprise that some have chosen instead to write about not seeing the Parthenon, or the anticipation of it, rather than the face-to-face encounter. Freud started this trend, writing of his own uncertainty about whether or not to visit the monument, and his anxiety that it might not really exist at all.

There is only one aspect of the Parthenon myth that British writers have taken on with unwavering self-confidence: the debate about whether the “Elgin marbles” should be returned to Athens. Woolf was one among many who – following the lead of Byron, with his famous jibes against Elgin – have lamented the sadness of these fragments of sunny Greece exiled to dreary London; Thomas Hardy (who penned some dreadful doggerel entitled “Christmas in the Elgin Room”) was another.

The rights and wrongs of this turn out to be extremely complicated. There are good reasons both to regret the dismemberment of the Parthenon and to celebrate its European diaspora combined with its role in international museum culture. But, whichever side one takes, it is hard not to suspect that we have seized on the “marbles debate” as a way of writing about a building, and a myth, that we find very difficult to discuss head on.

· Mary Beard’s The Parthenon is published by Profile