The body beautiful in ancient Greece

The body beautiful in ancient Greece

As I stumble out of the urban swirl, through the usual madding crowds of tourists, into the British Museum’s new exhibition, I am met with a sudden and imposing sense of serenity and beauty. Three visions of the classical Greek ideal of the human form stand to face me – a Roman copy of a statue by the great Phidias, the infamous marble Discobolos of Myron, and the Doryphoros of Polykleitos. Despite their elegant pose and their quasi-Platonic physical perfection, despite the colours they have lost (most statues would have had at least some paint), they live and breathe before me – I find myself slightly disconcerted by the vacant, hollow gaze emanating from such vital forms. As I soon realise, this exhibition has a profound central concern, namely the unique and uniquely influential way in which the Greeks conceptualised the human form, and how that ideal evolved through the centuries.

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The first thing that strikes me, as I amble further through in amazement, is the way in which Greek society and art of the Classical period were so at home with nudity, at least of the male form. As I behold the juxtaposition of powerful nude Classical sculptures with reliefs from Assyria and elsewhere in the Middle East, where nakedness marks humiliation, failure or defeat, used in the depiction of victims and vanquished foes, the thought crosses my mind that there has been no other culture of such sophistication that has so completely banished the Edenic shame which has haunted us for so long, and perhaps haunts us still today. For us, nudity is usually the province of nudists and free lovers, of pornography and of our most intimate moments – we can scarcely imagine this tranquil, desexualised concept of nudity, this objective viewing of the naked form. As the curator has written: “the Greeks were the first to make the moral distinction between the nude and the naked body,” and it is perhaps a distinction that our highly sexualised culture has blurred.

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For all that, as I move into the next section, devoted to the female form, I am met with a much more restrained artistic attitude, perhaps unsurprisingly given the unequal rights of women in ancient Greece, especially in Athens. The statues of (mortal) women shown are always covered up, yet they are often depicted in a much more sexual way than the male figures, as the sculptors have wrapped them up tightly in sexualising drapery. The Greeks’ complex relationship with female nudity is palpable, and seems even more manifest in their willingness to build sculptures of naked gods – one of the most striking pieces in the exhibition is a 4th century statue of Aphrodite (also known as the Lely Venus), bending over and ineffectually trying to cover herself with her hands. Looking at it seems an almost deliberately disquieting experience – I feel as if I am being forced into the role of an intrusive voyeur, but at the same time the statue seems, especially given the associations of Aphrodite, to convey a highly self-conscious sexuality. An intriguing (albeit slightly disturbing) story told by Lucian (writing much later) sheds a strange light on all of this: apparently an Athenian sailor broke into the temple of Aphrodite in Cnidos, and was so entranced by the statue of her (made by Praxiteles, ca. 360 BC, famous for its aesthetic perfection) that he tried to have sex with her (leaving a stain on her leg), and ended up killing himself. A dark vision indeed of the phantom beauty of art and its destructive power.

I feel as if I am being forced into the role of an intrusive voyeur

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As I move on, there follows a series of pieces which have interesting implications for Greek thought about gender and sexuality in a wider sense. Images of bearded satyrs with absurdly enormous erect penises and grinning features, frolicking with each other on red figure vases (a far cry from the demure elegance of Keats’ Grecian urn) seem almost to parody the excesses of male sexuality; a statue of a seemingly female corpse on a slab of rock is revealed, when the viewer reaches the other side, to have male genitalia (this is the famous Borghese Hermaphroditus, a Roman copy of the Greek original). The sculptor of the latter seems to be playing significantly with the viewer’s expectations; when I see it, I think of the elaborate and bizarre myth unfolded in Plato’s Symposium by Aristophanes about three sexes of spherical double-humans (male-male, female-female, and male-female) who dared to attack the Gods and were punished with division in two, to which Aristophanes attributes the pangs of romantic love. Clearly the idea of the hermaphrodite was prominent in Greek thought, and indeed just as Plato’s Aristophanes uses it to explain the varieties of human sexual desire, so the sculptor of the Borghese Hermaphroditus almost seems to highlight the arbitrariness of sex and gender – there seems, even in a society with fairly clearly delineated gender roles, prejudices, and discrimination, to have been some reflection of such ideas going on, though perhaps this intuition I feel is merely my projection.

Less obviously bound into the structure of the exhibition, but implicit throughout, is a sense of the historical development of the Greek vision. Although, of course, it dwells on the idealised classical form which most of us think of when thinking about Greek art, we are given glimpses, however fleeting, of the full scope of its history. A figurine from the 8th century BC, seemingly of the hero Ajax about to kill himself, is the most alien item on display: two to three inches tall, with a vague sense of a nose and chin, a slender, straight torso, bendy spaghetti-like limbs, a peculiarly erect penis, and some sort of beret-esque headgear, it presents a potent contrast in its primitiveness to the immensely sophisticated visual language that had emerged little more than two centuries later. Nearby, an abstractly geometric female figure – reminiscent of (perhaps an influence on) works by Giacometti and Henry Moore – from 2700-2500BC also stands out in its strangeness. Black figure vases (6th century BC) show the Oriental, solemn and godlike figures that preceded the Classical vision, picked out in eerie negative; a few busts of Greek thinkers display the Alexandrian development of interest in individual features and expressions far beyond the Classical ideal type. These glimpses of the pre- and post-classical are compelling, and I find myself almost more fascinated by the alien and sharply geometric features of the pre-Classical than by the ‘humanist’ figures of the Classical period.

solemn and godlike figures…picked out in eerie negative

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At last, I walk into a pleasantly understated room that has chosen a few of the most striking echoes of the Greek concept of the human body. Astonishingly, I am confronted with a statue of a Gandhara Buddha (1st-2nd century AD) which looks conspicuously Greek, not only in the features, but also in the flowing, carefully arranged drapery: Alexander the Great reached India, after all, and it is from this interaction that figural depictions of the Buddha seem to have emerged. There could not have been a more powerful reminder of the invisible threads that bind the cultures of our world together, and of the fact that no culture ever can, or will, exist in a vacuum.Beside this, two colossal but fragmented statues face each other – a statue of Dionysus with worn-away features and stumps for hands opposite the ‘Belvedere Torso’, a muscular figure seated on a rock, headless and legless. In these sculptures, despite (perhaps because of) their anonymous dilapidation, Michelangelo (together with other figures of the Italian Renaissance and many others) sought a Greek ideal of physical beauty and perfection to aspire to: the statue of Dionysus contributed to his own sculptures (perhaps especially the prisoners emerging from the rock, as the Dionysus sculpture was itself carved from a huge rock), and he seems to have used the Belvedere Torso for his sketches for the Creazione di Adamo (The Creation of Adam). And so I float out of this exhibition, awash with both a sense of wonder at the aesthetic and humanist revolution the Greeks had wrought and its reverberations through time, and a sense of sorrow for what little remains; for just a moment, I feel the fingers of the rosy Greek artistic and humanist dawn brush against me.

Quoth the Master: A narcissist abroad

Day 0: David Townsend isn’t the only weird-but-sexy OUSU hack who has to make tough decisions in the near future. As I write this, I’m preparing for a short break to Greece, and I face some difficult packing choices. Such is the daily toil of the bourgeois everyman. My first problem is that I need to travel light, in case I encounter wild hydras or roaming gangs of the disenfranchised. But that means no Xbox, and QED no Skyrim on holiday: which kind of defeats the whole point of a holiday abroad. My second problem is currency. Should I bring euros? Drachmas? Cattle to barter with? Livestock would definitely get me fined at the airport for excess luggage weight; but at least a cow or two could be offered to Greece’s Europede insect overlords, if they demand a blood sacrifice. I hope they don’t.

Day 1: The airport isn’t on strike, which is a start. I’m feeling positive about this break. A middle-aged man at the airport asks me if I speak English, and whether I know where the toilets are. I punch him in the face.

Day 2: The Acropolis is on strike. The museum is however open, so we get a nice view of the Acropolis on a hill in the distance, and get to watch an interesting documentary about the Acropolis. The museum is packed with my two favourite historical items: pots and columns. One particular pot even had a picture of a column on it, which I was particularly excited about.

Day 3: Delphi is on strike. Lucky there are some columns just outside the place for me to occupy myself with. We phoned up the museum staff a week ago and they assured us there would be no strike. Weird that they didn’t see it coming (wheeeeey).

Day 4: Wild Boar with Onions is on strike. I have to settle with beef. This been a fun holiday overall, but it hasn’t all been strikes and sunshine: as an astute amateur anthropologist, I have made several observations, which I believe shed a piercing light onto the current Greek debt crisis. The biggest surprise, I must say, is that olives and feta cheese aren’t middle-class in Athens at all: they are eaten by virtually everyone. Which is ridiculous. No wonder their economy is spiralling into a debt crisis! There’s only so much more of this wanton spending the rest of Europe will take. If Greece continues down this path, then just like my answer to the questions “Who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, and what did you think of the novel?”, Germany’s response will be swift and terrible.

-Alexander Shattock

Alistair Darling on the Eurozone crisis

Britain’s former Chancellor has all the answers to the Eurozone crisis – he’s been there and done it before. Unfortunately, his experience and talent isn’t being used to help solve the problem.

Darling on the Eurozone

When I interviewed Alistair Darling last Wednesday, in the midst of the Greek referendum chaos, he was – as you might expect of a seasoned politician speaking to a rookie journalist – incisive, articulate and self-assured. Asked what lies at the heart of the Eurozone problem, he didn’t blame the unfairness of capitalism (the ‘Red Ed’ argument); he didn’t think the underlying problem was nasty chancellors slashing spending (the Ed Balls point scorer); he didn’t point the finger at lazy Greek people (the Norman Tebbit accusation). Instead, he suggested something somewhat deeper: a problem with democracy. Pointing out the obvious – but often overlooked – concern that a country of just over 11million people has the power to “derail the world economy”, Darling offered the following plan to save the world: policies to stimulate economic growth; recapitalisation of the banks; and a rescue fund that actually exists (as opposed to the highlt-leveraged version we hypothetically have now). Oh, and a stick with which Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy can beat George Papandreou and his chums over their annoying little heads. The leaders of the Eurozone countries, he argued, have simply “failed to do enough” in solving the immediate problem, allowing the sore to fester into a sticky mess. While he admittedly didn’t put it in quite these terms, the effect of Mr Darling’s argument was that we need to summon the ‘spirit of 2009’ (when he and Mr Brown (I like to think of them as Batman and Robin) saved the world economy), bash a few heads together and tell those nice people on the Mediterranean that they’d better like it or leave it. Of course, this isn’t the sum total of his prescription: he tackled the delicate issue of austerity versus investment with sufficient assurance to leave me ruing the follow-up questions I hadn’t asked him; noted that Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio is forecast to be higher in 2020 than it is now; and acknowledged that a “combination of measures” in concert is required if we want a sustainable return to growth. So, the Eurozone problem pretty much solved, then.

Darling on Ed Miliband

Moving onto a more difficult question, and not wanting to pass up the opportunity to be cliched, I moved onto UK politics: “Don’t times like these call for people with more experience than, say, Ed Miliband?” Darling assured me that leader of the opposition is “one of the most difficult jobs in politics”, and that Cameron and Thatcher had equally struggled to assert themselves from the off. “But aren’t you worried about the lack of progress he’s made so far?” He explained this away by joking that the the Liberal Democrats triggering a general election would be like turkeys voting for Christmas, so Ed has plenty of time to prepare himself before he gets to the business end of things. In an echo of his critique of democracy, the former Chancellor told me that “politics is like that”, perhaps implying that naïve journos like myself shouldn’t waste so much time over-analysing and second-guessing.

Darling on the Tories

So what does he think of the other side? Perhaps the recent figures showing the UK’s (admittedly anaemic) economic growth, set against the backdrop of Euro meltdown, gives weight to the arguments of slasher Osborne and his rigid ‘Plan A’ doctrinaires, I mused. Not so, came the predictable reply: “After such a deep recession, you would expect to see a bounce back… other countries, such as Germany are growing… the real problem is that we’re planting the seeds of youth unemployment.” On this last point, Darling became more animated, expounding his thesis of the lack of adequate housing, detachment from society and a lost generation. While keen to avoid the link between this and summer’s riots (“they weren’t a political protest”), he stressed the social impact of joblessness, implying that steady employment is one of the necessary conditions for the peaceful rise of today’s youth. The man we regard as sensible, unruffled and centrist (in comparison with his successor as Labour’s economic-policy figurehead) was also quick to preempt the politics behind this: when asked if a measure such as the Living Wage would squeeze even more young people out of the jobs market, he drew on the example of Michael Howard, who had argued similarly when the National Minimum Wage was introduced. Rather than damping economic growth and excluding those currently unemployed, Darling assured me that employment had increased when the minimum wage came in; I didn’t think quickly enough to question the conflation of correlation and causality.

Darling on himself

What I really wanted to ask Alistair Darling was about his own future. If you followed UK politics closely last Wednesday, you’ll have noticed a bit of a storm (so much so that I thought fit to congratulate him on again outshining his party leader (“not what I was trying to do”)) around the man in question, who, strangely enough, was the only person to question David Cameron on the Eurozone during PMQs. Conservative Alan Duncan even described it as “better than all six of Miliband’s questions”. It was’t really the question – essentially “when are we going to see some details of the Eurozone deal?” – that intrigued me, but the fact he’d asked it. As Darling himself pointed out, it was the first time he’d questioned the Prime Minister in PMQs for thirteen years (admittedly he’d be less likely to do so of a Labour PM), which made me think ‘why now?’

Perhaps too simply, I drew the connection between this, his revealing smile on Daily Politics when asked about a return to front bench politics a year ago (he seemed to suggest he only wanted a year out:, the release of Back From The Brink a month ago and that he’s apparently so hungry for publicity that he’d spend 20 minutes talking to me. Is Alistair Darling going to get back into the issues that really matter? Apparently not. He seems happy, nay relieved to be out of the cut-and-thrust of party infighting, cheap political point scoring and parliamentary intrigue. That much is understandable. But when I asked whether he ought to do more with his experience, he seemed a little quick to retort that he can have great influence as a backbench MP, and that he can now “pick and choose” the issues in which he wants to get involved. But isn’t it a shame that such an obviously-talented and highly experienced operator isn’t doing more to help solve some of the potentially catastrophic problems that are affecting each one of us every day? Perhaps this is a reflection of my own naïve belief in the potential for politics to deliver change for the better – I’m a 22-year-old PPEist, after all. But maybe the Darlings of this world ought to be helping out the Papandreous a bit more. Britain’s former Chancellor is difficult to read: he certainly talks down any prospect of a return to front-line politics, but some of the evidence seems to point the other way.

Unsatisfied by his position, I thought I’d use the last few seconds of our interview to draw the former Chancellor back into the world of serious politics: “Will you pledge right now that if the Eurozone crisis is finally resolved, you’ll dye your eyebrows blue and gold in celebration?” “Certainly not!”

Alistair Darling on deficits, democracy and dying his eyebrows

This week’s print edition of the Oxford Student will feature an interview with Britain’s former Chancellor Alistair Darling – the architect of the 2009 G20 rescue plan, Labour’s sanest economic spokesperson and the owner of the most distinctive pair of eyebrows in politics.

We spoke to Mr Darling last Wednesday, right in the middle of the meltdown in the Eurozone and the Greek parliament, and got his views on a whole range of subjects over the course of a 20 minute interview. He told us what’s holding back the rescue of the Euro (“the difficulty with democracy”), what he thinks of Ed Miliband’s leadership (“there’s plenty of time before the next election”), what’s wrong with George Osborne’s economic plan (“creating problems with youth unemployment”) and why he’s not considering a return to front bench politics…yet.

Rather than laying blame at the door of capitalism or self-interested financial speculators, Darling argued that the real problem with the Eurozone is democracy itself, highlighting the danger of Greece’s disproportionate influence on the world economy.

He also cautioned against over-analysing Ed Miliband’s leadership, seemingly content to let things bubble along until the next general election, and apparently more concerned with the youth unemployment he considers to be the result of George Osborne’s deficit slashing.

And on the same day he put his first question to the Prime Minister for thirteen years – outshining his party leader and gaining heaps of media attention – Darling told us why he’s content with his less prominent role, influencing policy from the wilderness of Edinburgh South West.

The full interview – along with Mr Darling’s response to our question about his eyebrows! – will be published online and in print on Thursday.

Debate: the Euro crisis

We can’t afford to let the Euro fail

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of collapse. The Eurozone sovereign debt malaise could have been stopped in its tracks at numerous points through decisive and bold leadership. Yet, more akin to students with an essay crisis than the dons they are meant to be, Eurozone leaders kicked the can down the road, doing just enough to scrape by.  This approach is no longer enough.

To slightly twist Marx’s famous phrase encapsulates the scale of the existential crisis currently facing the continent. With Italy and Spain, the 3rd and 4th largest Eurozone economies respectively, now bridled with the contamination of contagion, Europe is starting to approach the crossroads, with, in essence, two choices: dismemberment or greater union.

In reality, though, there is only one. However unpalatable closer union may seem, it is nothing compared to the consequences of breaking apart.

It’s often said it’d be fine if Greece pulled out. They’re small, and fuck their ‘fecklessness’; we only want their sunshine and souvlaki, anyway. But any exit from the Euro by any country, however small, would compound panic: would it mean a giant like Italy, at the very heart of Europe, could leave?

The other possibility, of Germany getting so pissed that it calls it a day and returns to its beloved Deutschmark, thereby losing the burden of countries that like chilling hard a little bit too much, is as worrying.

Exiting the Euro would entail exiting the EU, and an EU without Italy or Germany would threaten not only the existence of the European common market, but the last 66 years of European integration. Although predicting conflict may be a little bit Glen-Beckesque, we all know that European countries haven’t always been best friends. And however much we complain about Europe, a closed off continent is not what we want, even if it means we would see less ‘Malia 2k12 Ladz on Tour’ shirts next year.

Further, a catastrophic global double-dip recession and depression would occur, as Europe retracts itself from the world and confidence plummets.

Action must be taken, meaning more bailouts, of both countries and banks. It will also mean greater political union and a greater democratic deficit. It might be unpleasant – but the spectre of collapse is so much worse.

Anirudh Mathur

We should let the Euro collapse; it wouldn’t be as bad as we fear

Suggesting that greater European integration is a good idea at a time when Europe precipitously circles the plughole of irrelevancy is about as wise as recommending playing ‘sardines’ as an effective method of containing bird flu. Any novice ice-skater will be aware of the utter fallacy of the ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ philosophy. The wheels of the Eurozone are starting to grind, and rather than liberally apply WD40 from a distance, it’s time to retire this monolithic vehicle and, in the words of Fleetwood Mac, ‘go your own way’.

While the papers scream their apocalyptic headlines with convulsive cries of ‘economic meltdown’, I am left wondering whether I should feel guilty for the plight of the Euro. Should I empty my rather underwhelming money box into an envelope and send my £3.46 to the ‘George Papandreou moustache maintenance fund’? As the debt crisis deepens, a – once razor sharp – moustache and a source of intense national pride now lies with an air of dishevelled inadequacy as a sad symbol of a nation plunged into economic dire straits.

The answer is no. Proximity is not reason enough to sustain a union. The Euro has become an unpleasant game of ‘pass the parcel’, with the final gift being yet more sovereign debt.

A spectre does haunt Europe, though. The slightly disturbing spectre of Angela Merkel charging forth on her pure white stallion of economic relief. The thunderous hooves are not quite enough to mask the cries of dissatisfaction from the German electorate but Merkel has an intriguing glint in her eye. She trails behind her a web of salvation, favours and the promise of indebtedness.

Dependency is not unity. Mutual suspicion of motives is not cooperation. In a world of international interdependency, Europe must begin to look outwards as a loose collection of disparate nations, rather than force ourselves into the uncomfortable arranged marriage of the Euro.

What would the terrible consequences of breaking apart be? Would ‘Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents’ have to relocate to Margate? Would our supermarket shelves find themselves stripped of paella and pastitsio? Would Brendan from ‘Coach Trip’ suffer a mental breakdown, present himself with his own red card and stagger down to the nearest job centre?

The reality is that the consequences would quite probably be rather less than we imagine. The only foreseeable issue is that it would leave us rather hollow, with that favourite question of people, papers and politicians ringing in our ears: what shall we complain about next?

Matthew Reynolds