Dumpster-Fire Retrospective: Hanson, Homer, Horseshit

The inscrutable nightmare factory of internet algorithms recently recommended to me a video of Victor Davis Hanson giving a lecture on Trump as a Tragic Hero. Reader, you will be surprised to know that I listened to it with rapt attention. During the last ebullient and optimistic time in our nation’s history, the early fall of 2016, I was aghast to see that he had written an article shilling for the orange man. There, he wrung all the soiled rag of his erudition dry, and the filthy excrescence which he had extracted from it was an elaborate intellectual justification for a pro-Trump vote. Recovering from my initial shock, I realized that this was just his job as a fellow at a conservative think tank – to save face by continuing the fight against “Hell”ary, and then to forget the embarassing episode once Donny T. had receded into country club obscurity. Yet, it was his ongoing series of Trumpian apologetics which made me think of him again, and made me think – more specifically – about that infamous little tome which he co-wrote with John Heath 20 years ago, Who Killed Homer?

Many who have read the book were already professors or graduate students at the time of the book’s release, but I was still an 11 year-old kid living one of the most joyous years of my childhood, so I entirely missed the early controversy. It was not until 2005, after I had taken introductory courses in Classical Literature and Classical Mythology, that the thought crossed my mind that I might want to study Classics. That spring, before I had even taken any more than a couple of the appetizer courses, Amazon’s recommendations algorithm was humming along reasonably well – WKH popped up onto my suggested purchases, and days later was in my hands.

It is hard for me to reconstruct exactly what effect the book had on me as a student about to start the study of classics. Some of it seemed silly, but I fear that I also unconsciously absorbed and internalized a few doses of codswallop along the way. Having not looked at it for the past fourteen years, I decided to read through it again today, and was struck by two things: first, that such a flaming pile of shit could both get published and be the subject of controversy; and second, that the line from WKH to MAGA looks clear enough when one reads the book today.

The pose of populism and unaffected scorn for coastal elites make up the central organizing theme here. In a particularly petty vein, they seem to suggest that scholars attending a conference in the northeast are detached from the Greek experience because the weather is cold. Thomas Jefferson’s defense of the classics is cited, while H&H remind us that he was “no elitist”. One may readily wonder why a millenial technocrat in a Manhattan office comes in for more “elitist” labeling than a Francophile political bigwig who owned a fucking mansion maintained by slave labor, but one could just as easily wonder how a real estate mogul became a gritty man of the people. Their point is simple enough – people studied the classics in early America, and they don’t today. While they would pin the blame on the professors in the field, one must not forget that verbal fluency and a familiarity with the classical tradition then conferred immense practical advantages which they do not today. This has nothing to do with the classics or the humanities, but with the structural changes in our society over the past 150 years which have decentralized verbal expression and elevated the status of more strictly technical skills.

Concerning the state of the profession, these two knobjobs write:

Of over one million B.A.s awarded in 1994, only six hundred were granted in Classics, meaning that there are now five or six Classics professors in the country for every senior Classics major…

This is either mathematical incompetence or cynical manipulation. If the case were as they would have you believe, then all of the field’s graduate students could expect not just to land a teaching position, but to have universities competing for them! Instead, each of those professors was likely in the business for some substantial time, as six hundred students graduated per year. Anyone at all familiar with the problems besetting any humanities PhD program knows that the glut of graduates far outstrips potentially available positions. Even in the 90’s, claiming that the field had too many positions in comparison to the student population seems wildly out of touch.

This numerical and structrual imbalance, the flight away from the classics, is of course blamed on the villainy of classics professors’ elitist condescension and publication records. According to H&H, no one cares about the classics because of Schroedinger’s Journal Article: the scholarly article in classics which no one reads but which, because of its horrifying theory and impenetrable prose has driven everyone away from the field.

The contemporary prejudice against big ideas (“assumptions” and “assertions”) and jargon-free writing (“middle-tone approach”) ensures that no one outside a tiny cadre of subspecialists will read Homer.

How does one even argue with such fatuous piffle? Are we to believe, then, that people begin by reading through articles in journals of philology and theory, and then – bogged down by the impenetrable mystery of it all – decide not to read Homer? Every academic journal would be wholly inscrutable and likely terrifying to anyone who didn’t already have substantial grounding in the subject. Generally, bookstores do not stock Hermes next to The New Yorker. Yet, I have never heard a physicist argue that we need more Neil deGrasse Tysons and fewer research publications to keep the field alive. The actual subject matter of classics has massive popular appeal, but the real work of studying it seriously has always been a bit of a recondite affair. So too, plenty of people watch science documentaries with rapt interest, yet I see comparatively few opt to become astrophysicists.

Throughout the book, H&H suggest that the study of classics is likely to improve a student’s moral character along with their verbal expression. “…the study of Latin continued to ensure knowledge of grammar, economy of expression, attention to detail, and absence of artifice.” If the authors are any example, it also teaches slyly packaged mendacity. What better represents artifice than a Ciceronian period? Milton’s highly Latinate style is one of the chief obstacles to English readers. Gibbon imbibed the spirit of the ancient historians so thoroughly that he rarely writes a sentence without perfect balance and some rhetorical trick, yet many readers find this a slog. Even today, Reginald Foster is a certifiable badass in the field of Latin, but a look at his Ossa textbook suggests that it had some deleterious effects on his English.

Taking a synoptic view of the book and the passages cited throughout for special approval, it is clear that H&H admire Greek sententiae which are brusque and direct. When railing against weak or hedging language, Hanson and Heath cherry pick some lines from the Iliad and comment approvingly:

“I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me to hack your meat away and eat it raw for the things that you have done to me.” Not much worry about “universal inclusivity” here either. No blush that it might be taken as uncivil, cruel, or unfair, much less depressing or harsh; no concern other than that it is believed to be true and so should be said, to sink or rise on its own merits.

Hanson and Heath enjoy blunt and brutal language with a demotic earthiness about it. They needn’t have studied Greek for that. Here in America, the rapper Scarface gave us the distillation of the heroic Homeric threat in his song No Tears:

Look deep into the eyes of your motherfuckin’ killer,

I want you to witness your motherfuckin’ murder…

Yet something tells me that Hanson and Heath would here recoil from bluntness and brutality, and their apparently populist pose would disappear as they attempted to explain why Scarface’s song did not possess the aesthetic merit to be labeled art. We could be sure, though, that they are not elitists, because such types only live in comfortable east coast enclaves.

But directness of speech and lack of ambiguity are hardly universal Greek characteristics. Plato is cited throughout the book, but Plato was an obscurantist mystic. They concede that Pindar, Aeschylus, and Thucydides were known for baffling expressions, but attribute this to the mysticism of genius. And what of the post-Classical period? H&H dismiss it out of hand.

The loss of Menander’s tepid New Comedies and most of Callimachus’ learned tomes (his work was collected in over eight hundred volumes) is not as tragic as the ambitious Hellenists would have you believe.

Even among thinkers from the Classical period, sophists like Gorgias and Protagoras aren’t even discussed, no doubt because their popularity would cut entirely through the argument that the Greeks had no truck with nonsense. The Greeks loved nonsense, they loved disputation, and they loved complex verbal wrangling. The notion that they were all a bunch of straight-shooting neoLaconic cowboys seems to stem from the latent masculinity issues which these two have in conjunction with their apparent obsession with classic westerns.

At least Gibbon had the decency to dismiss the Greeks only after the beginning of the Byzantine period. Hanson and Heath double down hard on the canon – you could fit their authors on a shelf. Their critical limits are imposed not just on the classics, but on the range of acceptable approaches to them as well. They are heavily dismissive of both Theory and traditional philology. At one point, they even write, “Almost all the major texts have been successfully edited.” As Bentley would say, this is enough to make a man spew.

Hanson and Heath do not want to see classics departments take a more panoptic view of all antiquity by including Syriac, Hebrew, etc. What is even left of the classics, though? Focus on the argument hard enough, and it looks like H&H are the ones who don’t feel much enthusiasm for the project, not the professors they rail against. They have chosen a narrowly and artificially delimited period, and expressed an aversion to linguistics, philology, and literary theory. Other languages are to be excluded from the department because they do not offer a trove of palatable ideology to extract in the form of sententious little nuggets. Ironically enough, H&H are advocating for Classics as a kind of grievance studies or ideological workshop – not a rational and scientific enterprise, but a training ground for inculcating a specific, cherry-picked worldview. That worldview is to be reinforced by the selection of sententiae from Homer and the Classical period in isolation, but what determines the selection process? Why, that worldview!

Throughout the book, one gets the sense that H&H deeply regret not pursuing a more manly career. One is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s justification of his own reading program: “What he read during these two years he told me, was not works of mere amusement, ‘not voyages and travels, but all literature, Sir, all ancient writers, all manly…’” There is a reference to Clint Eastwood here, a tired general there, some gunslinger elsewhere. This reaches its logical and quite frankly disgusting apogee in this passage on the struggles of the Greek student:

It is too quiet an existence, mitigated not even by a battle-scarred centurion who – even if wrong – could at least have slapped you silly with “You are learning Greek to understand doomed courage from Socrates; the lot of man, courtesy of the words of Jesus. You study Greek to communicate to the uninitiated that there were always better, more mysterious things in the world than interest, depreciation, and Reeboks.” Red-faced and sore, surprised that someone wanted you to learn Greek, you could have then at least saluted at the failed effort and snapped back, “Thanks, Sarge, I needed that.”

I recur to an earlier point: these guys watch too many movies, and have fetishized John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. In case you’re unconvinced, here’s another:

If we are going to lose Greek, let us do so with burly, cigar-chomping professors, red-eyed from overload classes, wounds oozing from bureaucratic combat, chests bristling with local teaching medals and complimentary Rotary pens from free lecturing, barking orders and dragging dozens of bodies forward as they brave administrative gunfire, oblivious to the incoming rounds from ethnic studies and contemporary cinema.

A marginal annotation on the above selection.

In his lecture on Trump as a tragic hero, Hanson subtly elides the difference between a tragic character and an amoral antihero cowboy in western movies to make the point that Trump is some sort of necessary evil needed to rectify some unsustainable situation in America. But really, it seems to stem from some bizarre fascination with the distillation of machismo. H&H seem deeply to regret being part of a profession which is elite and effete, and wish that Classics were a little more hard, a little more sweaty, a little more muscular: “Let us end the breast-beating and take a more muscular and honest approach…” The throbbing, pulsing masculinity just drips off the page, but it is all a projection, a pose. Though they would never admit it, they are not making the case for Classics – they are making the case for some new field of Manliness Studies.

Most of the book reads like it could have been written by Steve Bannon after he read Thucydides, and most of the justifications of western civilization recur to the old intellectually dishonest Greeks invented democracy trope without emphasizing how rare and short-lived it was even then, how disastrously it worked, and how the major writers of the canon were less than ideally keen on it. All of these universalizing Greek sententiae appeal to them as privileged intellectual power brokers who can sympathize with the aristocratic assholery dolled up in demotic dress. The jump from WKH to MAGA is really more of a slight shuffle. Hanson and Heath didn’t care about Classics then, and Hanson at any rate certainly doesn’t today. Homer is still alive; Hanson and Heath were just thinking of He-Man.

Portrait of H&H’s ideal classics teacher.

10 thoughts on “Dumpster-Fire Retrospective: Hanson, Homer, Horseshit

  1. Re the “glut” of positions, one of the main reasons I left my Ph.D. studies in classics behind in the early ’90s was because I took a look at the numbers. At the time, there were circa 100 Ph.D.s granted in classics each year, and approximately 60 job openings. I didn’t like the odds.

    And as for reading Homer, I’d read both the Iliad and the Odyssey, in at least three different translations each, long before I ever made it to college and started to learn Greek. I guess I managed to sidestep all those “big ideas” and “middle-tone approach” roadblocks. Or maybe because I’m not hyper-masculine in the vein of H&H I was less concerned about “big dick energy” and more concerned about some really awesome prose.

    And as for H&H themselves, had Homer written about them, I suspect the work might have started something like “μῶροι ἄειδε θεὰ…”

  2. There is a lot here that is brilliant but from the first few sentences I knew I was in for some brilliance: ” he wrung all the soiled rag of his erudition dry”. What a turn of phrase.

    Bravo for the whole essay. I don’t know who else could have written this.

  3. I confess that I never finished WKH because the writing (like that of Steve Bannon, now that you mention him) just didn’t make sense to me. Specifically, I can’t always figure out how one sentence follows from the previous one. Back then, I thought I was just dumb or clueless. Now I’ve decided I’m not the one with the problem.

    1. “Specifically, I can’t always figure out how one sentence follows from the previous one. Back then, I thought I was just dumb or clueless.”
      I had the same same experience with VDH. Because I had read The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command, both by John Kegan and both well-made arguments, Amazon recommended The Soul of Battle by VDH and I read it. I thought at first there was something wrong with me, but I soon realized, as you said, the writing just didn’t make sense. There was no argument, there was just one sentence after another.

  4. Brilliant and very funny critique of a truly worthless individual. Thank you! I saw his book WKH displayed among the newest acquisitions at Barnes and Noble one day, many years ago, after I had just turned in a 25-page proposal to start a Classics Program at a small school in the Midwest. I took every copy they had and dispersed them in the Pornography & Society section. Luckily nobody at my new school had ever heard of him and our Classics program has survived (albeit on fumes) for 25 years.

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