The Right Coast

May 21, 2005
Dr Jekyll I Presume
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Extremely interesting review in the (London) Times Literary Supplement of a "Dictionary of British Classicists" -- several volumes of short biographies of classical scholars. The reviewer skewers academic biographies in general for bloodlessness: a bland avoidance of what is often most interesting about the people in question.

One of the Dictionary entries, for example, is about a German Jewish refugee at Oxford from 1935 to 1953 named Eduard Fraenkel. The bio gives almost no information about Fraenkel's personal life. There have been other short biographies of him elsewhere, but they are almost as unrevealing. A typical one describes him as working hard at his desk all day, going back to work after dinner "unless a guest claimed his attention", and then walking home to his wife Ruth. "The other aspect of Fraenkel which completes the standard picture", says the review, "is his suicide, just a few hours after the death of Ruth. 'Fraenkel chose not to survive her and died at his home', as [one bio] elegantly puts it"; another, more "extravagant", says "We revere his suicide, for love".

In fact, says the reviewer, it was well known to everyone in the tight-knit world of Oxford classicists that Fraenkel was an insistent "groper" of female students, often in private after-dinner tutorials, a "predilection" well known to Ruth.

Says the reviewer:
Any academic woman older than her mid forties is likely to have an ambivalent reaction to this. On the one hand, it is impossible not to feel sisterly outrage at what would now be deemed a straightforward case of persistent sexual harassment and the abuse of (male) power. On the other hand, it is also hard to repress a certain wistful nostalgia for that academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy – which had flourished, after all, since Plato – was firmly stamped out. Mary Warnock [a distinguished former student of Fraenkel's] herself shares that ambivalence, weighing the damage done - to Fraenkel’s wife no less than to some of his “girls” - against the inspirational teaching which came with, and was inextricable from, the “pawing”. In more than one newspaper interview she has singled Fraenkel out as the best teacher she ever had.
As for Fraenkel's suicide,
It would be foolish to imagine that love for one’s wife is necessarily incompatible with “pawing” one’s female students. But Fraenkel’s uxoriousness does look rather different in the light of the experiences of Mary Warnock (who refers directly to Ruth’s unhappiness at Fraenkel’s “predilections”). At the very least, the authorized version of Fraenkel's career and character fails to do justice to what was obviously a much more complicated and interesting reality.
This is an exceptionally intelligent and humane review. It is light years away from any sort of crude "political correctness". Far from picking on Fraenkel, the reviewer evinces sympathy toward the Jewish refugees in Oxford who had fled the Nazis, "many of whom, whatever we like to think, found acceptance here difficult".

Who is the reviewer? It is Mary Beard, the Oxford classicist. Beard was the most egregious participant in the notorious "Symposium" in the London Review of Books a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Symposium offered dozens of short essays on the attacks by regular LRB contributors, almost all of them extraordinarily ugly: seething with anti-Americanism, paranoid, and obsessive in expressing hatred for the State of Israel, whose existence -- in the clear opinion of many of the contributors -- was the reason if not the justification for the attacks. But the ugliest of all was Mary Beard, whose explicit view about Americans under attack was "They had it coming". (The LRB has never posted the Symposium online. I won't speculate why...)

Does Beard's very impressive review in TLS soften my feelings toward her? It would if anything could. Nothing can, I'm afraid. She has all but formally announced, after all, that she would rejoice if I and everyone like me were murdered. But perhaps there is something here, as Mary Beard says of Eduard Fraenkel, along the lines of "a complicated and interesting reality".