I will find this series, and I will watch it. One of these days, when I get around to reconnecting with Greece, it’s going to be cataclysmic.
“The Owl’s Legacy”: delectations from an ancient Greek palate, by Prospero (The Economist)
The documentary series, produced in 1989 but little seen until now, explores the influences and interpretations of the classical world
THE PLAYS of Aristophanes, an ancient Athenian comedian, are scatological and lewd—anybody who cannot see that has simply failed to understand them. But when the cult of the classics was at its height in Victorian Britain, many a pupil did fail: the text was read in a bowdlerised version, one that skipped risqué lines or used footnotes to mask the meaning. In today’s more liberal climate works such as “Lysistrata”, which describes a sex strike by ancient Athenian women, are performed and enjoyed in all their bawdiness.
It is only one example of the way the legacy of ancient Greece, which is massive and diverse in itself, has been subjected to an even wider range of historical refractions and readings. That makes it maddeningly hard to figure out what the “real” classical Greece was, what it has meant for posterity, or whether such questions are even meaningful.
Still, these matters can be explored, and playfully. Such is the purpose of “The Owl’s Legacy”, a 13-part enquiry which was made for television in 1989 but was rarely seen before its release last month (the Onassis Foundation, the Greek funders of the series, were apparently unhappy with a contribution from George Steiner, a Franco-American literary critic, that questioned the link between modern and ancient Greece). The series is the work of Chris Marker, a French film-maker considered one of the best cinematographic essayists of his generation. Drawing on Plato’s account of the “symposium” as a wide-ranging, wine-fuelled discussion, he shows the contributors gathering round suitably laden tables in various settings: Athens, Paris, Tbilisi, Tokyo and Berkeley, California.
Each episode looks at one Greek-derived word or concept—democracy, nostalgia, amnesia, mythology, misogyny and tragedy, for example—and asks how it has played out in subsequent centuries. The series does not shy away from the fact that sinister uses have been made of the “glory that was Greece”. No regime made such a determined and ruthless attempt to monopolise the heritage of the Olympic Games as did Hitler’s Germany in 1936.
John Winkler, a classicist and queer theorist who died in 1990, memorably says that understanding ancient Greece is like finding a real person underneath a face which has been smeared with layers of makeup. But you could equally well, and perhaps more accurately, use the opposite image. Many of the statues of ancient Greece were covered with heavy pigmentation that has long since worn away. The white marble is probably more appealing to modern tastes, but Pericles and Plato beheld something much gaudier.
Perhaps the most coherent and forceful contributor is Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997), a Franco-Greek thinker who was one of the giants of the Gallic left. A psychoanalyst and sometime Marxist, he credits ancient Athens with the notion of autonomy—another Greek word—whether applied to a political unit or an individual. For him, to be autonomous is to have self-understanding and the ability to chart your future freely, as opposed to obeying the divine order.
But Castoriadis is intensely aware of the distorting lenses through which posterity has studied classical Greece. As he observes, modern admirers like to imagine ancient Athens as cool, deliberative and rational. This underplays the forces of chaos and elemental passion which were lurking in the background, and only just kept at bay.
How original are these arguments? “The Owl’s Legacy” is persuasive in asserting the Greek origins of speculative philosophy and depth psychology, perhaps less so in giving a Hellenic origin to mathematics and music. It must have occurred to many people that free-wheeling comedy, like that of Aristophanes, performed in the most public of arenas, is only possible in a fairly liberal democracy which can laugh at itself and at its powerful personalities. (Dictators are not known for their sense of humour.) But Castoriadis makes a more counter-intuitive point. In his view, tragedy is only possible in a democracy which has some sense of individual entitlement.
To view all 13 episodes in rapid succession, or even at weekly intervals, might be too much for many people. But in today’s YouTube age, when people can watch whatever they want, as long as they want, wherever they want, this series will enjoy greater success. Viewers no longer want to be told the meaning of civilisation, as Kenneth Clark, an art historian, did in a famous documentary series of the 1960s. They do need lots of variety and stimulation for jaded palates—and that is exactly what “The Owl’s Legacy” provides.