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Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity

by Simon Goldhill
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2011
368 pp., illus. 16 col. Trade, $45.00; eBook, $45.00
ISBN: 978-0691149844; ISBN: 9781400840076

Reviewed by Jennifer Ferng
Faculty of Architecture, Design, and Planning
University of Sydney


Simon Goldhill’s Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity is a refined model of scholarship that strikes a graceful balance between the historiography and intellectual reception of classical studies. The persistence of classical antiquity, argued by this book, reaches well beyond well-known Greek references and moves into the modern age with effortlessness. For Goldhill, classical art embodies a temporal self-awareness that only increases over time through its multiple manifestations in press commentaries, critical reviews, and visual appropriations. Cultural traditions emerged within the complex circulation of myths, icons, and stories about the significance of the past. Enduring not only in the erudition of Greek and Latin and teaching of ancient history, classics at critical moments became revolutionary for artists, composers, and writers throughout the duration of the nineteenth century.

Moving swiftly between the realms of art, opera to fiction, the volume demonstrates masterful capacity in addressing the presence of classical tropes in Victorian aesthetics throughout a number of contexts: J.W. Waterhouse’s paintings of saint Eulalia and Hypatia, the female poet Sappho, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Richard Wagner’s The Ring, and the abstruse Fred Farrar’s Life of Christ. Goldhill’s nuanced interpretations are carefully interspersed between his own insights into the scholarly position of classics and meticulous textual readings of Victorian literature. He maintains a pronounced distance between these concurrent analyses and the self-awareness generated by these very same images. For instance, the dominance of Christian religion in Britain brought about precarious questions regarding the merits of classical thinking. According to novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward, the demise of faith could be traced back to the education of historic sense, and ancient history presented itself as a “profound threat” to the religious self that was prized by British society.

Citing Michael Baxandall’s statement that viewing is a “theory-laden activity,” Goldhill reminds us that seeing is foremost an intellectual task (26). Classical art reentered Parisian neoclassical architecture, for example, providing French theatre with imminent cultural possibilities and placing the audience at the heightened focus of the stage. These buildings of spectatorship became sites of performing citizenship, cultural monuments that assumed the appearances of classical columns, friezes, and open plazas. Gluck’s operas elicited copious tears from audience members evoking feelings of sensibility and empathy. His reception of Greek tragedy was constructed from a multifaceted relationship that includes Virgilian epic and Racinian theatre. An emotionally engaged audience often left the theatre with a heightened sense of communal experience. Gluck and Wagner’s reading of classical texts likewise turned out to be critical for the politics of reception.

Goldhill makes concerted efforts to resituate the field of reception studies and identifies classics through multiple frames of cultural reference (as well as differing questions of cultural significance). His equal devotion to the project of cultural history draws repeatedly on high and popular case studies, furthering his extended inquiry of how shared culture can become. Self-conscious adaptations of a work by one artist or writer serve to recall and amplify the meaning of the original. Classical works sometimes moved in separation from works outside the discipline. By broadening this non-linear conception of reception studies, he intimates that performances became as noteworthy as the cultural events that they simultaneously reinvented. Cultural forgetting gains credence, as Goldhill points out, through its position in performance studies; the speech acts of J.L. Austin and the definition of a dramaturgical approach to human interaction by Erving Goffman have gained prominence by theorists and historians interested in the concept of performativity in art.

An elastic definition of Victorian politics of cultural performance takes shape over the course of the book. Gazing, desire, and sexuality were not typically associated with the intellectual scope of the classics, and in response, Goldhill emphasizes the erotics of the fleshly body existing among Victorian ideals of the classical figure. The study of classics were central to staging modern sexual revolutions, whether through Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Sappho and Alcaeus or actress Pauline Viardot’s character as Orpheus. The knowledge we need in order to comprehend a work of art or literature moves fluidly between the creator and his intended audience.

The profusion of Victorian novels evoking the Roman empire of early Christianity is one such undervalued arena for Goldhill, numbering over two hundred exemplars authored by Charles Kingsley, Wilkie Collins, Bulwer Lytton, and Walter Pater (156). He sets out to demonstrate that religious texts were open to extreme scrutiny and as a source of history; historical novels were also imperative for the perspectives they shed on the past. Cultural imagination worked between stereotypes of the past and the “potential for more attentive and critical engagements.” (161) History writing not only expanded how the boundary between history and fiction became demarcated but also how fiction situated within academic history affected the framework of the novel. On the one hand, the Victorian reader, who is constituted as a historical subject, was always demanded to recognize the gap between the present and the past. On the other hand, a modern reader naturally would accept himself as part of the constructed physical world. For Goldhill, this strategy of locating fiction within an appearance of the real disrupted and broke the frame of narrative with a conscious sense of the construed nature of the narrative. Mapping a re-performance history of an artwork remains dependent upon the audience’s engagement. Reception studies, thus, emerges as a broad cultural process and at the same time, an individual’s interaction with classical works.

Classical antiquity constitutes an essential element in redefining modernity as a modern phenomenon, and in this sense, the act of self-definition must be measured against antiquity’s longevity. In the conclusion of this volume, the classical male nude resurfaces in the photographs of Andy Warhol as another cultural mode of expression that resists the teleological pull of modernism. Repetition of the object of desire recasts the sexualized body in line with modes of commodification and commercialization. The spectator naturally places himself within a literary tradition or performance tradition, which allows affiliations to the past to transport repressed tensions back to the contemporary moment. Audiences, in essence, catalyze the restaging of antiquity that resonates for one individual and many others, past and present.

Last Updated 1 October 2012

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