Re-imagining Classical Study in the U.S.: Classics as Study with Equal Parts Antiquity and Reception
By Claire Yu (Undergraduate Student in Mathematics and Classics at Stanford University)
In the span of a 20-page academic paper, American dancer and drama professor Catherine Diamond argues that Asian theater makers steal from the Western canon, and poorly execute their renditions of famous Greek tragedies. Diamond labels these works as a “superficially exotic spectacle” with “barbaric splendor,” phrases that further the divide between the West and the East (Diamond 2008, 148). The divisive nature of her language choice creates distance between “Asianness” – which I shall define loosely as any Western connotation or perception of the East and its people regardless of historical or denotative accuracy – and the Western canon. Diamond’s paper is just one of many sources that give us a glimpse of the perception of “Asianness” in classical literature. In this blog, I am going to narrow the discussion and I aim at examining the literature that is available to students at no cost in America. In this regard, Diamond’s work becomes one of few accessible and contemporary scholarly works that highlight the Asian perspective interacting with Classical literature: most other U.S. sources from the 21st century either talk about something widely out of scope or have a high financial barrier. This lack of representation is precisely what makes Diamond’s paper so impactful: as one of the very few voices that are accessible to the public, her ideas and rhetoric are magnified tenfold.
As a Classics student with access to literature available to students at no cost in America, Diamond’s paper gave me the opportunity to 1) interrogate the current state of Classical Study in the 21st century America and 2) explore how select Asian-American authors have carved space within this field.
In this blog, I invite the reader to engage with me on the hypothetical. My questions are: what if the study of Classics in American higher education prioritized modern reception as much as it stresses ancient antiquity? What if the study of Classics in American higher education could be expanded to include other voices such as Asian-American voices in its curriculum? Through my research, I explore these hypotheticals. First, I shall provide a brief overview of both past and present examples of division between “Asianness” and the Classics, providing context of past perspectives and present work that puts the classical past in conversation with the East. Then, I shall provide some suggestions to create a more global and inclusive Classical curriculum in American higher education, which will include equal parts classical antiquity and classical reception.
A Glimpse into the Past: How Classics Was Utilized as Divider of East and West
Diamond is far from the first person to create a divide between “Asianness” and the Western classics. Among easily accessible sources at my University, I found two prominent historical figures: one English and one German, both of whom allow us a glimpse into past Western engagement with “Asianness” in the nineteenth and twentieth century respectively. In this book, “China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome: Classics, Sinology, and Romanticism”, author and literary studies lecturer Chris Murray takes us back to the nineteenth century, in which the prolific English writer Thomas de Quincey takes center stage. Like many of his peers, Thomas de Quincey was educated extensively in the Classics at an early age. The knowledge he gained allowed him to assert linguistic dominance over any person of Asian descent he encountered. This assertion of dominance was shown most clearly in his encounter with a Malaysian visitor at his doorstep. Thomas de Quincey “addressed [the visitor] in some lines from the Iliad” and then proceeded to attempt to kill him through Opium overdose (Murray 2020). In addition, Thomas de Quincey also wrote extensively about the Opium war between England and China. He asserted that the tension between the two countries “necessitates tragic resolution: ritual destruction that eventuates purgation.” But the destruction that he spoke of was not all-encompassing. Rather, it was China that needed to be destroyed. He argues for this by again drawing upon his Classics education, likening China to “an Oedipus who ridicules Tiresias, or a Pentheus who dismisses Dionysus” (Murray 2020). Both Oedipus and Pentheus are characters in ancient Greek tragedies who suffered horrific endings, the former losing his sight and the latter losing his life. By making this comparison, it became increasingly clear that Thomas de Quincey saw China and Chinese people not as a real country with real people, but as one of his favorite plays coming to life. His fascination with the realm of Classical study became so great that he viewed real world events through the lens of a fictional story, thereby reducing the humanity of Chinese people (and by extension, people of other Asian ethnicities) to characters on a stage.
In the twentieth century, the development of “Asianness” explored through the lenses of Diamond’s critique and de Quincey’s ideology also extended to Western theater. In “The Other Other: Brecht’s Asia,” Classicist and Theater Studies Scholar Martin Revermann interrogates German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s fascination with Asia. Unlike de Quincey, Brecht believed Asia to be “rich and complex”. However, despite his new perspective, he only tried to learn about the continent and its cultures through the “chronological distance and ideological otherness of Greek tragedy” (Revermann 2022, 219). In other words, the lens through which Brecht viewed Asia was ostensibly Greek in nature. Ancient Greece served as a reference point and anchor for all Asian study. This dichotomy between Asia and Greece, one easy to digest and the other hard to digest, further pushes Asia, Asian culture, and Asianness into the hands of a Eurocentric thought process. According to Brecht, any sort of engagement with the East must first be contrasted against the Western canon. Through examining the ideology and methodology of prominent figures de Quincey and Brecht, we emerge from a past in which Asianness and the study of Classics might as well be likened to oil and water, as they are portrayed as two entities that are physically incapable of meshing together.
Acknowledging the Present: How Scholars Are Bridging the Divide
From 2010 and onwards, though, we see that several American scholars are emerging from the woodworks and challenging this narrative. With the rise of the internet and an increasingly streamlined dissemination of thought-provoking opinions, American scholars in Classical study have published open-access articles that bring attention to the past. One such article written in 2017 is “We Condone it by Our Silence,” written by Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a Classics Professor at Denison University. Kennedy leverages the online platform to interrogate the Western canon, asserting that the field of Classics has a long history of being used “as a tool of oppression and exclusion” (Kennedy 2017). She calls out the “shameful lack of diversity” in this field of study and, in doing so, she opens the door for more honest reflections from within the field. This call for reflection was answered by Johanna Hanink, a Classics Professor at Brown University. In the same year, Hanink publishes the article “It’s Time to Embrace Classical Reception,” in which she outlines this rather new term: Classical Reception.
The brainchild of German literary scholars Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser, the term reception describes the act of studying “the reading, interpretation, (re)fashioning, appropriation, use, and abuse of past texts over the centuries.” (Oxford Classical Dictionary) When deployed in practice, reception centers the reader’s lived experience and is an ever-changing, constantly shifting form of interpretation. Thus, by applying this definition of reception onto the existing field of Classical studies, we make room for more modern-day voices. Hanink urges Classical scholars to welcome a wider range of interpretations. She asserts that the study of Classical Antiquity should exist “while at the same time acknowledging, and further exposing, the damage done by the old hard line on Classics and Western civilization” (Hanink 2017).
Two years later, the momentum generated by Kennedy and Hanink found its way into the Asian-American Classics community. In 2019, Stephanie Wong, a Ph.D. student in History at Brown University, introduces the newly founded Asian American Classical Caucus in her article “The Life of The Oriental Mind.” Nicknamed the AACC, this group became the first established community that brings together Asian-Americans within the Classics community, from scholars and professors to undergraduates and even high-school students with an interest in Classical study. The unique positionality of the AACC as both a scholarly community and an identity-focused group allowed more Asian-Americans to find their voice and work towards building safer and more inclusive spaces. Through introducing this newly-formed group to the broader Classics community, Wong begins to build bridges between Asianness and the Western canon as it is studied in America. Wong focuses on the similarities, rather than differences, between the two concepts. She draws parallels between stories of travel in Classical literature and stories of Asians immigrating to or seeking refuge in America. She points out that “stories of Asian America and Classics have their roots in stories of arrival,” showing that the idea of trespassing and being in a liminal space can apply to both ancient Greek tragedies as well as the modern Asian American and Asian immigrant experience (Wong 2019). Wong shows the American Classics community that there exists a common thread between “Asianness” and the Western canon, if one knows where to look. Wong shows us that these two entities can coexist and inhabit the same space, that they are not as distanced as Diamond, de Quincey, and Brecht argued them to be.
I recently had the chance to chat with Kelly Nguyen, an IDEAL Provost Fellow at Stanford University and a co-founder of the AACC. Nguyen is also at the forefront of exploring Classical Reception in Vietnamese history. Through her research, she analyzes Classics as a way of understanding a past rooted in imperialism and colonialism. An example she gave was how the Vietnamese elite under French colonial rule were taught the Classics as mandatory curriculum within the French education system. The Vietnamese elite soon realized that knowledge equated to power, that mastering the Classics could be their entry point into perceived high standing within French society. The French soon caught on, and began pushing back. Soon, the French put in high barriers to entry in their education system. These barriers could only be overcome by people of French background.
This is a powerful example in which the reception of Classics was used as a tool of understanding and learning about the past. It was simultaneously a tool of both oppression and liberation. With this in mind, I now turn towards a hypothetical re-imagining of Classical study as it is taught at American institutions.
Re-imagining Classics as Equal Parts Antiquity and Reception:
The call for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives rings loud and clear across the U.S. It is a call that has penetrated the ivory tower of academia. Our field of study is not impervious to it. The study of Classics, in its entirety, must make room for more voices and more dialogue, especially from people who have been historically marginalized and othered by the study. Repeatedly in history people from across the world have been affected by Classics. Some, like German playwright Brecht, engage with Classics voluntarily. Others, like the Vietnamese subjugated by French imperialism, engage with Classics out of necessity. In hopes of inviting the reader to re-imagine with me a Classical curriculum that can value reception as much as it does antiquity, I want to utilize this space by shining a spotlight on three Asian-American authors, highlighting their invaluable contribution to Classical reception. The authors in question are Tarfia Faizullah, Ocean Vuong, and Sally Wen Mao, who each hail from different cultural backgrounds that prove essential to shaping their – and subsequently, our – understanding of Classics.
In conversation with Stephanie Wong, Tarfia Faizullah, a Bangladeshi-American poet, discusses her work, “Elegy with Her Red-Tipped Fingertips” and how it turns our expectations as Classicists waiting for a reference to antiquity completely upside down. Faizullah opens her poem with the following: “In two weeks I’ll cross two oceans wide as the funeral processions to your grave,” depicting the narrator’s journey to her motherland in order to visit her grandmother’s grave (Faizullah 2012). Wong writes that, as a trained Classicist herself, she assumed that the poem would reflect an ancient Greek epic, complete with displays of energized heroism and a triumphant homecoming. But, as she flipped through the pages and was drawn deeper in Faizullah’s work, she realized that “it invoked the feeling of homecoming or homegoing, but from this diasporic lens that I had never seen before” (Wong 2019). Suddenly, Wong’s understanding of the Classical world was flipped upside down. By breathing voice and life into a narrator that crosses the physical and liminal space between one home and the next, Faizullah simultaneously reinforces the notion of “homecoming” as it is commonly understood within Classical antiquity yet subverts all the familiar landmarks that is associated with this understanding.
After all, what is home to an immigrant or a refugee? Is it one place, or is it many? Is it no place at all, or is it simply a state of mind? Does home even exist? What are the necessary ingredients for someplace to be called home? If you no longer call it home but still decide to return to it decades later by crossing oceans, is the act of journeying a homecoming journey? Can you choose where to call home and where not to call home? Can you choose to travel to a place with great significance but refuse to give it meaning? In the absence of labels, what is lost? What is gained?
By asking the reader to engage critically with these questions through the medium of poetry, Faizullah’s work opens our eyes to different definitions and expansions of the concept of homecoming in Classical antiquity. She challenges us to reconsider any preconceived notions we as readers may have of the Classical hero’s homecoming journey. Faizullah is one of many Asian-American authors who flip the script on many Classical myths and tropes, ideas that are often regarded as pillars of the Classical world. By analyzing core archetypes from these myths and breathing into them a new context and lived experience, Faizullah walks right up to the fence that divides Classics and its reception, and tears it down through the power of her lived experience channeled through the poetic medium.
In “Queering Telemachus: Ocean Vuong, Postmemories, and the Vietnam War,” a scholarly article published through the International Journal of the Classical Tradition, author Kelly Nguyen engages with poet Ocean Vuong’s retelling of the Homeric Odyssey in his poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Through poetry, Vuong centers queerness and his own unique yet simultaneously resonant lived experience and maps it onto Telemachus, a character in the Odyssey that struggles to return to his homeland after a war. An example of this is the following excerpt from his short poem Telemachus, in which he opens with a vivid description of a son attempting but ultimately failing to save his father from death: “Like any good son, I pull my father out of the water, drag him by his hair through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail the waves rush in to ease,” (Vuong 2016, 7). In the act of trying to breathe life into someone who was beyond saving, Ocean Vuong comes to the realization that he may grow up to be just like his father, furthering an endless cycle of internalized trauma. As a queer refugee, Vuong forges his own Telemachus against the backdrop of the sea, symbolizing the fraught relationship between father and son when both are entangled in displacement and violence. In her analysis of Vuong’s work, Nguyen argues that “Vuong reworks the Homeric Odyssey in order to create his own ‘postmemories’ of the war that challenge historical erasure by defiantly placing the queer refugee at the centre, rather than the periphery, of an American narrative,” (Nguyen 2021). At its core, Nguyen’s review of Vuong’s work is a poignant and resonant example of the positive relationship between Classical reception and antiquity. Through reading and re-reading Vuong’s work with an open-mind, Classicists can re-approach Homer’s Odyssey with both new perspectives and new questions. Who is deserving of being a main character in an Odyssean journey? How does the canonical relationship between Telemachus and Odysseus change when both father and son are marginalized?
In an interview with Christopher Waldo, an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Washington, Chinese-American author Sally Wen Mao states that there should be less distance between poets and scholars. She remarks that “the poets are doing their own thing and the academics are doing their own thing” (Mao 2019). As a challenge to this status quo, Mao’s poetry collection, “Mad Honey Symposium,” utilizes references to Greek mythology and even ancient Greek traditions, inviting those in academia to challenge, criticize, and discuss her work.
Mao interrogates the word symposium, a word originating from Ancient Greek that invoked both a conference of the minds and a wild drinking party. Classicists have put emphasis on both aspects of this word. They have accepted this dual definition, of a symposium being a space for people to party and drink but also to have philosophical conversations. But Mao, by researching this tradition and bringing it into her own poetry, begins to breakdown this dual definition, instead categorizing the nature of symposium as an inherently unequal balance: the wild aspect of the symposium engulfs the civil aspect, and as a result creates a “negative aesthetic”, one that “prioritizes the wilderness and the sort of monstrous” instead of prioritizing the civil. This interpretation, of metaphoring the literal event itself, can then be used as a new lens through which to analyze ancient Greek culture and civilization. Did they prioritize harmony and preservation of the city-state, or was there a darker, innate nature to create discord and chaos? Because of this contribution from Mao, the study of Classics is given new fuel to be potentially propelled forward into a new direction.
Why Re-imagine Classics?
Through giving examples of both past and present engagement with Classical antiquity, as well as highlighting present day examples of Asian-American authorship in Classical reception, it is my deepest hope that the reader feels marginally more inclined to re-imagine Classics as a study that is equal parts antiquity and reception. However, I imagine that there will still be lingering questions about the field as a whole: why study Classics in the first place? Why does Classics matter in a broader context? How does Classics position itself in relation to other fields of study in the humanities, such as Comparative Literature?
It is my belief that Classics should be studied because it is a field of study and way of thinking that allows us to look inwards and wade through our own lived experiences to explore both ourselves and the world around us. It is both a subject to be studied and a methodology and framework that can then be wielded to study other subjects. Over the ages, Classics has been repeatedly utilized, by countries (such as France) and influential people (such as Thomas de Quincey) alike. Because of its usage, Classics continues to hold power to this day, as seen through the modern examples of its reception. For the final time in this blog, I want to invite the reader to re-imagine with me. Classics is a field of study that has existed for thousands of years, and, as a result, it is rooted in a vast array of clashing ideologies and historical beliefs, some of which are deemed appropriate and safe in our current world, and others which are not. Digging through the long-standing roots of our study is no easy task. It will require patience, open-mindedness, and a lot of people. In other words, if we want to do this work, we are going to need to get more people involved with the study. Unfortunately, due to having historical ties with upholding the importance, prominence, and perceived superiority of ancient Western civilization, Classics has consequentially been a field that was not inclusive for people with marginalized identities. This must change, now more than ever. After all, we just saw how much value Classics can have if we bring more voices to the table. With the addition of three Asian-American authors, we suddenly found ourselves situating Classics within a much broader context, discussing the rhetoric of homecoming as it relates to someone who has more than one home, where such homes are separated by oceans. We found ourselves reading poetry that could very likely be studied by the Comparative Literature class next door. I would love to re-imagine a Classical curriculum that makes room for that kind of interdisciplinary approach, for its own critics, and that engages with other departments in the humanities. A Classical curriculum that makes room for those whose lived experiences have been shaped by it, both positively and negatively; that values both antiquity and its reception, and includes us, so that we can progress intentionally and impactfully towards a brighter and more colorful future.
With this blog, I hope I have prompted the reader to reflect on the current status of Classical study in the U.S., but also provoked some ideas to create a better curriculum, in which the relationship between Classical antiquity and Classical reception is symbiotic and collaborative. Through the process of understanding and valuing Classical reception, we can further understand and value Classical antiquity— and vice versa.
Diamond, C. (1999). The Floating World of Nouveau Chinoiserie: Asian Orientalist Productions of Greek Tragedy. New Theatre Quarterly, 15(2), 142-164. doi:10.1017/S0266464X00012835
Faizullah, T. (2012). Elegy with Her Red-Tipped Fingers. Blackbird.
Hanink, J. (2017, May 1). It’s Time to Embrace Critical Classical Reception | by Johanna Hanink | EIDOLON. Medium; EIDOLON. https://eidolon.pub/its-time-to-embrace-critical-classical-reception-d3491a40eec3
Hanink, J. (2021, February 11). A New Path for Classics. Chronicle.com. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/if-classics-doesnt-change-let-it-burn
Kennedy, R. F. (2017, May 11). We Condone It by Our Silence. Confronting Classics’ Complicity in… | by Rebecca Futo Kennedy | EIDOLON. Medium; EIDOLON. https://eidolon.pub/we-condone-it-by-our-silence-bea76fb59b21
Mao, S. W. (2014). Mad honey symposium. Alice James Books.
Murray, C. (2020-08-13). A Greek Tragedy in China: Thomas de Quincey’s Opium Wars Journalism. In China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome: Classics, Sinology, and Romanticism, 1793-1938. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 10 Apr. 2022, from https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780198767015.001.0001/oso-9780198767015-chapter-6.
Nguyen, K. Queering Telemachus: Ocean Vuong, Postmemories and the Vietnam War. Int class trad (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12138-021-00605-3
Vuong, O. (2016). Night sky with Exit Wounds. Copper Canyon Press.
Waldo, C. (2019, October 22). Scattered across: Sally Wen Mao with Christopher Waldo. Medium. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://eidolon.pub/scattered-across-sally-wen-mao-with-christopher-waldo-59d69b62bbd0#:~:text=Sally%20Wen%20Mao%20is%20the,George%20Washington%20University%2C%20and%20Kundiman
Wong, S. (2019, April 8). The Life of the Oriental Mind. Introducing the Asian and Asian… | by Stephanie Wong | EIDOLON. Medium; EIDOLON. https://eidolon.pub/the-life-of-the-oriental-mind-609e3d2dde7
Wong, S. (2019, September 24). Tarfia Faizullah with Stephanie Wong. Medium. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://eidolon.pub/tarfia-faizullah-with-stephanie-wong-dbbbd187b20
Revermann, M. (2021). The Other Other: Brecht’s Asia. In Brecht and Tragedy: Radicalism, Traditionalism, Eristics (Classics after Antiquity, pp. 217-229). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108779210.006