Peter Washington

‘These Fragments I Have Shored Against my Ruins’

Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism


University of Chicago Press 272pp £16 order from our bookshop

In Darwin’s bicentenary year the cultural chatter is inevitably all about the importance of evolutionary biology to our understanding of the world, but it could be argued that other Victorian sciences were at least as significant, especially geology and archaeology. The three are closely related and Darwin drew on them all. Each reconstructs a version of the past from evidence in the present. As anyone who reads Poe and Conan Doyle will know, these disciplines flourished at the same time as the new genre of detective fiction, which adopted a similar approach to crime. But forensic criminology is not only reconstructive; it is also prophetic. At a certain point in the investigation the detective often finds himself able to predict the identity of the criminal and even his future behaviour. In some cases the denouement of the story depends on this ability, most touchingly in ‘Silver Blaze’, which turns on Sherlock Holmes’s feeling for equine psychology.

The notion of history as the source of augury is hardly new – the Old Testament could not exist without it – but, except for a few individuals little regarded at the time (Boehme, Blake, Herder), the Enlightenment silenced prophetic voices from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century with the authority of reason. Prediction was made a matter for rational discourse rather than vatic pronouncement, while a narrow notion of science as method applied to matter replaced the older view of science as divine wisdom. Darwin was an exemplar of the new approach, laboriously gathering evidence to support his theories over the course of half a century. Yet only fourteen years after he published On the Origin of Species, prophecy was to come roaring back into Western consciousness through the work of the man whose writing underpins Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism.

In The Birth of Tragedy, which appeared in 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed a new theory of Greek drama, overturning the prevailing image of noble Hellenes devoted to the life of the mind, as embodied by the figure of Socrates. Instead he suggested that the characteristic product of Athenian culture was not philosophy but tragedy, in which, at its best, the influences of Dionysus and Apollo – very roughly translatable as feeling and form – are precariously balanced. According to Nietzsche, this balance, which reached perfection in the work of Aeschylus and Sophocles, was disturbed by the pernicious cult of reason ushered in by Socrates, whom he casts as the Dr No of Western culture. Fortunately, the work of German artists and thinkers, above all Wagner, was bringing the Age of Reason to an end, and with it the post-Renaissance dispensations of liberal humanism. Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy was thus also a theory of history and a critique of contemporary morality and politics, based on the stark equation: reason = decadence.

Central to Nietzsche’s argument about the continuing relevance of the Greeks is his notion of retrospective prophecy. Profound knowledge of the past enables prediction of the future: to know the future is to shape it. The true prophet is therefore not merely a visionary but a man of action: a professor of linguistics can be the new Napoleon. 

Cathy Gere’s book takes this notion of prophecy as her starting point. Somewhat confusingly, Nietzsche is for her both a prophet of modernity and a sort of Modernist, a claim that causes some trouble with her argument, not least because there are so many versions of Modernism. The best known is the Pound–Eliot–Joyce variety, revolutionary in technique, reactionary in social outlook, rejecting liberal aesthetics and flirting with the politics of fascism. Like Nietzsche, these writers derived their ideas of modernity from antiquity, and like him they were prophetic, but the new order they foresaw has for us today uncomfortable echoes of the New Order ordained by Hitler and Mussolini, themselves Modernists of the brutalist sort.

A very different style of Modernism is to be found in, say, the work of Virginia Woolf: intuitive, inward, impressionistic, pluralist, feminist; rejecting liberal humanism not, like Eliot and Pound, because it was too feeble and permissive but for the opposite reason, that it was seen to be the embodiment of repressive male rationality. 

Both Modernisms find warranty in Nietzsche, but their consequences are very different. And that is where Gere’s hero comes in – if hero is the right word. While Nietzsche provides a theoretical background to her book, its narrative foreground is supplied by the fine figure of Sir Arthur Evans. There is more than a little humour in the juxtaposition, and in the characterising of Evans as a precursor of Modernism. In many ways he was the classic Great Victorian against whom Modernists were rebelling: rich, comfortable, courteous, self-confident, noble-minded, patriotic, utterly British and a bit of a fraud – but a liberal humanist to his bootstraps and about as far as one could get from the mad sage of Basel or the barking bard of Pisa. The son of a prosperous industrialist, Evans was inspired to take up archaeology by the study of geology necessitated by his father’s business, a circumstance that allows Gere to introduce the metaphor of stratigraphy, which informs her whole book, itself multilayered. Evans made his reputation with excavations on Crete, beginning in the years before the First World War. Digging up the royal palace at Knossos, he claimed to have unearthed an early Greek civilisation that differed utterly from both the philosophical republic of Athens panned by Nietzsche, and the Homeric warrior tribes recently excavated at Hisarlik by Nietzsche’s fellow countryman, Schliemann. According to Evans, his discoveries belonged to a third, much older world that had been suppressed by thinkers and soldiers. He claimed that the subjects of Minos had been votaries of a mother-goddess, proto-feminists who worshipped the female virtues of fertility, beauty and peace, not war or reason. This was the basis of the modernism he foresaw. 

The timing of the work at Knossos was crucial. The catastrophe of the First World War induced a frenzied self-questioning about traditional standards. Pacifism and feminism, formerly unpatriotic, became fashionable after the war. Decadence was all the rage. Even the sexual ambiguity of figures in Minoan art chimed with the prevailing mood of rebellion against Victorian values and longing for the paradise lost in the carnage. The news from Crete was received with enthusiasm by intelligentsia and public alike. The only problem was that Evans, in the grip of his own passion for retrospective prophecy, did not merely rediscover his goddess-worshippers: he modified them to suit his own vision of the future, twisting evidence to fit preconceptions and even enabling the production of spurious artefacts (though Gere seems undecided as to how conscious the frauds were on his part).  

The second part of Gere’s book is concerned with the legacy of Evans’s work, which is still reverberating through the scholarly world more than half a century after his death. It has attracted every sort of interest from the serious to the dotty. Much of the archaeology is now challenged, but his cultural influence seems to have more of a hold. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena is only its most recent manifestation. More amusing are Gere’s accounts of how Robert Graves and HD responded to the work at Knossos, Graves with The White Goddess, HD with rebirthing as an ancient Greek. Like Yeats, HD went in for séances, and the description of her attempts to interest Air Marshal Dowding (a fellow spiritualist) in spirit messages about RAF tactics during the Second World War is worth the price of the paperback.

This is a fascinating book with an impressive cast of crazies and sillies (and even a few serious people), but it isn’t easy to read. Cathy Gere takes a refreshingly mordant view of her characters without being unsympathetic, and she can write pithily and humorously about complex matters, but it never becomes quite clear where her focus is. The uses of science? Culture wars? Intellectual history? Scholarly fraud? Biography? Feminist iconography? This uncertainty results in frequent changes of direction, often signalled by changes in register, from the scholarly to the chatty. Despite that, I enjoyed her book and I hope she gets the chance to write it again.

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