Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones in Literary Review, December 2005-January 2006

This is the worst book I have ever reviewed. It reads as if it has been cut and pasted from a web-site by a semi-literate school-girl (in my proof copy, King talks of Greeks cities 'still under the [Persian] yolk'), struggling with her GCSE course-work. Doubtless a great deal of labour has gone into it, but to little purpose when the author's ignorance on many topics is encyclopaedic, her ability to clarify and marshal arguments based on evidence that demands careful handling almost non-existent, and her English style execrable (her favourite conjunction is 'and so').

Here, for example, King is struggling to say something about (i) the Athenian claim that their first king was born from the earth, and (ii) the absence of mothers from the Parthenon marbles (' … and so one can read the Parthenon as a statement of Athenian misogyny', she concludes, absurdly):

'The Athenians also thought of themselves as superior to all other Greeks, for they claimed that they had always inhabited Attica, and had not arrived as migrants, and so their race was the oldest. Athenian mythology is confusing, for it emphasises this notion of autochthony, and the lack of a human mother also of course emphasises how little the Athenians thought of women, and so we have not one king who sprang from the earth, but a whole series of them, so that a king almost didn't need a queen, or to bother himself with such trivial matters as procreation. Autochthony meant that Athenians could claim they were purer, allowing themselves to see other Greeks as pseudo-foreigners.'

Don't ask. I haven't the remotest, either.

Not only is the book unreadable, its title is also misleading. King begins her story millions of years ago with the formation of the Mediterranean basin, spends a hundred pages mangling Athenian history trying to describe the original Parthenon, and another hundred pages labouring through Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times, before finally arriving at the subject of the title, Elgin, two-thirdst of the way through. The subject of the title is then treated to a royal fifty pages before we turn to the controversy over the marbles' subsequent treatment and ownership (forty-six pages). The word 'history' would have been helpful somewhere.

King's views on this controversy continue to exemplify the seamless fit between prose style and logic evident from the rest of the book, i.e. she is against returning them, but then again, she isn't. The following points pop out like ping-pong balls from a lottery machine. Greeks: the marbles can be appreciated only in Athens. K: this is cultural nationalism. British Museum: we acquired them legally and have cared for them well. K: Greeks have made requests to get the marbles returned, rejected by various political and cultural bodies. Christopher Hitchens say that Greeks want only the marbles back, but we cannot know that. Greeks: we now want you to loan the marbles to us. K: they would never give them back. Their demand is cultural nationalism. BM: the marbles are better seen in the BM, in the context of other cultures. K: they have inspired poets and painters, and millions see them every year here. They are part of our culture. They have inspired philhellenism and led to the recognition of Greece as a country. They are part of our heritage. The city state of Athens no longer exists, but the marbles have been here for 200 years. Henry Moore and Selfridges have been influenced by them. Had Elgin not brought them back, they would not exist. BM: the trustees are not allowed to make permanent loans. Only an Act of Parliament will allow their return. K: states cannot return everything. Should we return things in chronological order? The marbles belong to the whole of humanity. To the Greeks they are a symbol of their imperial past. Should we destroy e.g. Venetian palazzi which contain bits of the marbles? The Greek and BM holdings could not be displayed next to each other because their quality is so different. The BM gets more visitors than Athens would. When I was studying Greek art, Greek authorities would not let me see material. The BM is open and free to all. The Parthenon was famous only to Athenians, not all Greeks. Greeks have not looked after their own material well, so ours and theirs could not be displayed next to each other.

And so the little balls continue popping out, some re-appearing two or three times, till she unveils a conclusion which she has already explained is constitutionally excluded, quite apart from contradicting everything she has said: 'When the Greeks can demonstrate that they too have done an admirable job of caring for the marbles in Athens then, perhaps, we can discuss a loan'.

I love that 'we'.

From The Independent, January 13 06, Paul Cartledge

This sorry book gets off to a very bad start. Actually, it is about the Parthenon marbles as a whole, not merely those marbles currently in the British Museum which may properly be called 'the Elgin Marbles'. Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl) does not enter 'the story' - or rather Dorothy King's version - until two-thirds of the way through. The question of whether, as it claims, the Elgin Marbles constitute 'archaeology's greatest controversy' is both ambiguous (greatest ever? greatest current?) and substantively moot.

After that bad start, it gets almost unbelievably worse. There are so many elementary errors of fact, transcription and description in the opening historical chapters that it is hard to credit that the author really did get both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in classical archaeology from a reputable university. For small instance: there was no democracy at Athens before 508/7 BC. Hope was precisely what did not emerge from Pandora's box - in fact pithos or jar. 'Erechthonios' should be 'Erichthonios', 'epastatei' is not ancient Greek, 'yolk' for 'yoke' would be funny were it not painful. And so on...

Her publishers, moreover, have let her down rather badly. It is becoming a cliché to lament the absence of the modern equivalents of editors such as the legendary Maxwell Perkins. But Dr King seems to have had no editorial guidance whatsoever.

Apart from faults of fact and style, there is a fundamental flaw in the book's conception. It is a very bad idea to write what purports to be history in the form of all-too undisguised propaganda. Nor is it a good idea to seek to counter what she takes to be defamation of Lord Elgin by an equal and opposite defamation of his adversary Edward Clarke (or anyone else whose common crime is not to agree that the Elgin Marbles should be where they now are).

The heart of the author's book - or case - resides in its final chapter 'The Debate over the Elgin Marbles: who owns them, and where do they belong?' Unfortunately for King, as is the way with matters of urgent political concern, events have moved on since she submitted her final draft. The British Committee which she crudely lumps with the despised 'restitutionists' is now the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. There's a huge difference.

'Restitution' implies a legal and moral status quo that has been impaired and should and can be rectified. Restitution must be to someone or some body, the state of Greece or 'the Greek People'. But when the sculptures were removed by Elgin's team in the 1800s, what was then left of the Parthenon after the 1687 explosion found itself in Ottoman Greece; and though there was a Greek People, it was a very different Greek People from the People of 2006, who are constituent members of an independent sovereign State within the European Union and subscribe to the articles of Unesco under which the overall programme of conservation on the Acropolis of Athens has been conducted since 1977.

It is that state which is responsible for constructing a dedicated museum near the Acropolis to house the reunited Parthenon marbles. Easily the largest single collection of the diaspora marbles is in the British Museum, but there are also more or less significant pieces elsewhere. To avoid the obfuscatory issue of 'ownership', the overdetermined issue of how can one pay restitution to a state or people that no longer exist, it is more fruitful to speak now of 'reunification', not 'restitution'. Though even that is unsatisfactory, since all that can be reunited is what's left - and, so far as the sculpture goes, not on the Parthenon itself.

Besides, what we mean when we say 'the Parthenon', is itself an issue, not a given. Even a non-philosopher like me can see that it can hardly be the same building as erected almost 2500 years ago. The moral-political issue of reunification must turn ultimately not on emotion, but on the scholarly issues of the study, conservation and communication of understanding of the available remains of this extraordinary building.

The Parthenon is 'as much a modern icon as an ancient ruin' (to quote Mary Beard, author of the best short book on the subject); it is or contains 'the most important ancient sculpture to survive from classical antiquity' (Ian Jenkins, writing then as the assistant keeper with responsibility for the Elgin Marbles); and it may even be 'the Western world's biggest cultural cliche' (Peter Green's typically arresting and pugnacious formulation). At any rate, it's famous for being famous, but its fame is in no way helpfully explicated by a defective work such as that under review here.

Paul Cartledge is a Syndic of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.

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