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Review of 'The Classical Greek Reader', 'Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World'

Review of 'The Classical Greek Reader', 'Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World'

The Classical Greek Reader
edited by Kenneth J. Atchity
with associate editor Rosemary McKenna
Henry Holt, $37.50

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
David Denby
Simon & Schuster, $30

At 3 o'clock one summer morning, a young classics scholar was crashing around in the underbrush, making his way up a winding trail on the Cycladic island of Naxos. Kenneth Atchity was in pursuit of nothing less than Homer's dawn. "It was very dark," he recalls, "but somehow I made it up the twisted path, hampered from time to time by the undergrowth and by my vivid imagination of unpropitiated Harpies rooting in the eerie darkness."

Suddenly, from the summit of the island's highest hill, he spied the "rosy-fingered dawn": "I fixed my gaze on the eastern horizon," he writes, "and saw the first glimpse of light, which indeed illuminated in pink a hand-like spread of perpendicular cirrus clouds."

Atchity's passionate connection to a lost and compelling world underlies every entry in his page-turning Classical Greek Reader. In a refreshing departure from the standard anthology format, he draws us into the realm not only of Plato and Aeschylus but of lesser-known figures who chronicled the ancient world in vivid and unexpected ways. Across the centuries, ranging from the Homeric poets to Graeco-Roman writers of the third century A.D., we find ourselves in the company of physicians and storytellers, herbalists and romance writers--and women.

Atchity is mining a tradition of inexhaustible riches: the voices we encounter here offer passage to the literary, artistic, social, political, religious, scientific and philosophical texts that underlie Western intellectual tradition.

Certainly, one can return with the pleasure of renewed acquaintance to the forceful, brooding eloquence of Socrates or Thucydides. The historian's masterful meditation on the folly of war bears reading a thousand times over. And the deathbed oration of the doomed philosopher remains eternally transfixing: "The difficulty," Socrates reminds his companions, "is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me, and my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, who is unrighteousness, has overtaken them. And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death; they too go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong."

Under Atchity's tutelage, we can turn, also, to a source as remote and yet familiar as Euclid, marveling at the spare contemporaneity of his defined terms: "A line is length without breadth"; "A triangle is a rectilinear figure included by three sides." The Elements of Geometry, "still in use today," as Atchity reminds us, dates from 300 B.C.

Rewarding as these encounters with the undisputed luminaries may be, it is Atchity's introduction to minor, yet memorable, characters that lends a distinctive poignancy and charm to this survey. Take, for example, the lyric poet Archilochos, cantankerous, impecunious and often forced to make ends meet as a mercenary, writing around 650 B.C. There was, as he saw it, no glory in war: "Well, what if some barbaric Thracian glories/in the perfect shield I left under a bush?/I was sorry to leave it--but I saved my skin./Does it matter? Oh hell, I'll buy a better one." Or one Alcaeus (590 B.C.), a fellow bard who devised the ideal formula for weathering a bone-chilling night: "Damn the winter cold! Pile up the burning logs/and water the great flagons of red wine;/place feather pillows by your head, and drink."

From the pen of the distinguished Theophrastus, student of Plato and protégé of Aristotle, we possess a sharp and satirical portrait of late-classical Athens' citizenry. In The Characters, Theophrastus attempted to provide a systematic (according to his perceptions, anyway) description of the various types one might meet in the street, singling out his particular objects of derision. There is, for instance, "the boor"; he's "the sort of man who drinks barley-brew before going to the Assembly; who asserts that garlic smells as sweet as any perfume; wears shoes too big for his feet; and can't talk without bellowing." Inevitably, too, one will cross the path of "the skinflint," the fellow who "would never let you eat a fig out of his garden, or walk through his land, or pick up one of his windfall olives or dates. . . . He forbids his wife to lend salt, or lamp-wick, or herbs, or barley-grains, or garlands, or holy-cakes." Theophrastus' text in fact became a reference much sought out by playwrights, who drew heavily on his material, especially in the creation of believable buffoons.

Another everyday preoccupation of the ancients, a fascination with folklore and a reliance on folk remedies (the two arenas often intersected), is represented in the obscure and quirky Theriaca (On Poisonous Animals). Compiled by the herbalist Nicander around 170 B.C., the entries provide "unique insight into the herbal industry both of his own time and earlier antiquity." To this earnest chronicler we owe our knowledge of a charm for warding off snakes, addressed to any traveler stranded in a forest. "If you rub a caterpillar from the garden in a little vinegar, the dewy caterpillar with a green back, or if you anoint your limbs all about with the teeming fruit of the marsh mallow, then you will pass the night unscathed."

The celebration of virtue, another theme sounded from Homer onward, also reverberates throughout these texts. In the first century A.D., one Dio Chrysostomos, an aristocratic philosopher who traveled to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire, constructs a riveting version of the Good Samaritan tale. In his Euboean Speech, a paean to the simple and generous peoples of that peninsula, he recounts the good deeds of an impoverished shepherd. Despite his straitened circumstances, the peasant offers what food he has, even a tunic from his daughter, to shipwrecked travelers cast up on his shore. "I knew the houses and tables of the rich . . . of vice-regents and kings," reports Chrysostomos. Yet, he avers, with a forcefulness and yearning that ring true, "I . . . thought their life blessed beyond any I knew."

The classical canon, in an even wider sense, is also the province of David Denby. In the autumn of 1991, 30 years after he had entered Columbia as a freshman, Denby returned to the lecture hall. His mission was to read the books required of all undergraduates in the university's Western civilization courses. The result of his foray into academia is an account of that year, set out in his highly entertaining and instructive Great Books.

Denby is a film critic; for the most part, he continues to work while attending Columbia: "the point," he observes, was "not to become a hermit" but "to see how the books fit into the preoccupations and trials of an American middle-class male."

He finds, despite misgivings that assail him at the outset, that he is able to recover a deep connection to writers from Homer onward. And he discovers that he is undergoing an exercise in humility as well. "When I took one of the exams, living every adult's anxiety dream," he writes, "I nearly had a nervous breakdown."

It is, altogether, a year of revelations. He opens the Odyssey, recalling "a tiresome masterpiece. . . . Penelope weaving, unweaving . . . all those years at the loom while Odysseus was out there at sea fornicating and pretending to get home." Instead, he finds himself ravished. "I read," he reports, "to my amazement, without stopping." The poem, he finds, "was an astonishing work, every bit as demanding, as crazy, as wildly beautiful and finally ungovernable as the Iliad. . . . [It was] an after-the-war poem, a plea for relief and gratification, and . . . a sensual, even carnal, celebration."

Odysseus himself, rising from the sea in Book VI, has taken on a stature that seems almost cinematic in its intensity: ". . . so Athene gilded with grace his head and his shoulders,/and he went a little aside and sat by himself on the seashore,/radiant in grace and good looks; and the girl admired him." Denby can't help but bestow the ultimate accolade: "MGM in its heyday could have done no more for Gable."

As the year unfolds, Denby ranges far beyond the classical world, into the terrain of Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf. But the territory he traverses begins in the sunlight, shadow and incantatory power of Homer.

Kathleen Burke is the book review editor of Smithsonian.

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