Classics and pop culture / Events

Thoughts on the Invention of Love

On Wednesday of this week, Trinity College hosts a production of Tom Stoppard’s play “The Invention of Love”, a biographical drama about the great classicist and poet A. E. Housman.  While possibly best known for his poetic cycle “A Shropshire Lad”, Housman was also one of the foremost Latin textual critics of the 20th century, ending his life as Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge.

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The play opens with an elderly Housman, dead or dreaming on the shores of the river Styx, accompanying the cynical and wisecracking Charon through a retrospective of his life, from his undergraduate years in Oxford, his mysterious failure of his finals, and his eventual scholarly rehabilitation and eventual fame.  And always alongside his professional success, his unrequited and largely hidden love for his friend and classmate, Moses Jackson·

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Housman in old age

Housman’s sexuality and his scholarship are the two driving forces behind the play, and Tom Stoppard interweaves them with his usual brilliance.  In presenting the debates surrounding both, the play is able to serve up a powerful meditation on the nature of love, knowledge and happiness.

1.  “Spooniness”

First, sexuality.  Housman was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was very much the love that dared not speak its name.  Indeed, for much of his life it did not even have a name.  The term “homosexual” is only coined toward the end of the play, when Housman is an old man  (his reaction is philological disgust at the Greek-Latin hybridity of the word).  In the Oxford of Housman’s youth, same-sex attraction is referred to by students and fellows alike with vague and derogatory terms like “spooniness” and “beastliness”, and near the beginning of the play an undergraduate is expelled for composing homoerotic poetry.  While the rise of the Aesthetic movement presents some challenges to norms of gender and sexuality, the dominant point of view sees same-sex attraction as unnatural and destructive, at best a youthful aberration “left behind in school, like football.”

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Housmen, old and young, in our production.

Male, gay students like the young Housman were, ironically, able to find a counter to this chorus of disapproval in the very works of classical literature that their conservative professors set them.  Throughout the play, Greek and Roman precedents are repeatedly invoked as positive examples of male-male affection.  Achilles and Patroclus, Theseus and Pirithous, and the soldier-lovers of the Sacred Regiment of Thebes all serve to associate same-sex love not with perversion and effeminacy, but with heroism, virtue and masculinity, while Greek and Roman love poetry paint men’s love for other men as no less real or legitimate than men’s love for women.  In one particularly touching (if surreal) scene, the older, dead Housman meets his younger self, and shows the earlier Housman that the “comradeship” celebrated in pairs like Achilles and Patroclus or Theseus and Pirithous is no more or less than love, the same love Housman himself feels for Moses Jackson.

The prevalence of homosexual love, which they condemned, in classical literature, which they admired above all else, caused a great deal of mental anxiety to the classical old guard.  This awkwardness about “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” (to quote the novel of another gay Oxbridge graduate, E. M. Forster) is perhaps best embodied in the character I play, Dr. Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol and Regius Professor of Greek.  In the play, Jowett is forced to conclude a paean to the moral usefulness of Greek philosophy by sighing “buggery apart”, and boasts that, in translating Plato, he worked hard to “rephrase his depiction of paederastia into the affectionate regard as exists between an Englishman and his wife.”  When Jowett does bring himself to discuss ancient homosexuality, it is “the canker that brought low the glory that was Greece”,  linked to decadence,  decline and fall.  Once again, however, the classics themselves can be used to challenge this narrative.  Throughout the play, we find repeated references to the Theban Band, the elite army of 150 pairs of male lovers, who died defending the Greek cities from King Philip II at Macedon.  Invoking those soldiers positions homosexual affection not as leading to the destruction of Greek culture, but as motivating its most courageous defenders.  “They were never beaten,” the dead Housman tells his past self, “till Greek liberty died for good at the battle of Chaeronea.”

2.  “A futile business”

Another major faultline in the play concerns different attitudes toward classical scholarship itself.  Classics at Oxford in Housman’s undergraduate days is dominated by Jowett’s belief that ancient literature is morally and socially improving.  Three years of studying Latin and Greek authors Jowett asserts, fitted a young man with the moral fibre to take his place among the governing classes of the British Empire.  “What better example can we give them,” Jowett asserts, “than classical antiquity?  Nowhere was the ideal of morality, art and social order better realized than in Greece in the age of the great philosophers.”

For Housman, such sentiments are “Humbug.”  “Does it appear to you,” he asks his younger self, “that the classical fellows are the superior in sense, morality, taste, or even amiablity, to the scientists?”  Certainly, the fellows we see, with their camp pomposity, smugness and interdisciplinary sniping are hardly advertisements for the humanizing power of the classics.  Housman sees classics not as promoting moral virtue, but simply as knowledge for its own sake.  “It does not have to look good or sound good or even do good.  It is good just by being knowledge.”

By knowledge, Housman means not abstract wisdom but measurable facts.  For him, the only thing worth doing in the classics is textual criticism, attempting to reconstruct what the ancient writers actually said after centuries of copying and the inevitable errors that come with it.  Housman has an almost religious faith in the capacity of the human mind, and his own mind in particular, to reach back in time and draw the original words from the ocean of confusion in which they are sunk.  Textual criticism, for Housman, is “a science whose subject is literature”, not fundamentally different from the physical sciences practised by his beloved Moses Jackson.

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Housman vs. Jowett

Housman’s enthusiasm for classics as a science brings him into direct conflict with Jowett and his belief in classics as moral exemplar.  For Jowett, textual criticism is a mere intellectual game, “a futile business, suitable to occupy the leisure hours of professors at Cambridge university.”  Nor are Jowett’s criticisms only the grumbling of a reactionary don.  Stoppard gives Jowett a brilliant speech spelling out exactly what the attempt to learn “what the ancient authors really wrote” is up against, as he describes the works of Catullus

“Running the gauntlet of changing forms of script and spelling, and absence of punctuation, not to mention mildew and rats and fire and flood and Christian disapproval to the brink of extinction as what Catullus really wrote passed from scribe to scribe, this one drunk, that one sleepy, another without scruple, and of those sober, wide-awake and scrupulous, some ignorant of Latin and some, even worse, fancying themselves better Latinists than Catullus.”

Faced with 2000 years of such confusion, how can Housman or anyone else claim with absolute confidence to know what the ancient authors wrote?  For all Housman’s fulminations against his scholarly rivals, this question never receives a clear answer.

And indeed, for all his protestations of scientific objectivity, the play shows that Housman the scholar cannot escape the influence of Housman the poet.  Housman, in both his old and young incarnations, finds the love-poetry of writers like Catullus, Horace and Propertius which he studies “scientifically” profoundly moving, powerfully echoing and informing his own unrequited passion for Moses Jackson.  Though Jowett would have been horrified at the specific lessons Housman draws from the ancient authors, his principle of the applicability of classical literature appears to be vindicated.

Both Jowett’s and Housman’s positions are, of course, extreme.  Few classicists nowadays would claim that the study of classics in and of itself is automatically morally improving (though I must confess I find myself more in sympathy with Jowett than Housman);  on the other hand, few would claim for textual criticism the degree of absolute, scientific accuracy with which Housman invests it.  But by dramatising the clash between these two rigid positions, Stoppard invites us to think about the role of classics, its power to move and provoke, and its ability to inform and support radically different ways of looking at the world.

The current production is a sensitive and thoughtful one, supported by an excellent cast (which I would say even if I were not myself a member of it).  It is also very funny.  I have greatly enjoyed being in it, and the reflections it stimulates, and I hope those who see it in Cambridge this week will do the same.

A final note:

The title of the play refers to the assertion, repeated several times in the play, that the love poem as we know it, focussing on the the emotions of the person in love, was invented in Rome in the first century BCE, whether by Catullus or Propertius or Cornelius Gallus.  As a hellenist, I have to take exception to this;  if any classical writer can be said to have invented the love poem (a claim I highly doubt), it is surely Sappho–also, of course, a writer whose focus is on same-sex attraction.


“The Invention of Love” runs from Wednesday the 4th to Saturday the  7th of February, 2015, at 7:30 pm.  For tickets, visit http://www.adcticketing.com/whats-on/drama/invention-of-love.aspx

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Invention of Love

  1. Pingback: GIS report 30/01/2015: characterisation in Herodian and the story of the Oxford Fragment(s) | res gerendae

  2. Thanks, Daniel for writing this up. I really enjoyed both your comments and the play itself, which I hadn’t seen or read before. It was a thoughtful production of a play that should interest any classicist.

    There’s an interesting exchange in the New York Review of Books between Stoppard and Daniel Mendelsohn, which is every bit as prickly as the comments Housman used to write about other scholars.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2000/sep/21/the-invention-of-love-an-exchange/

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2000/oct/19/on-the-invention-of-love-another-exchange/

  3. My goodness, what a deal of pointless bickering! It reminds me of how someone ancient (I forget who) described a pointless war between two cities: “Two bald men fighting over a comb.”

  4. Actually, does anyone know the origin of that phrase? Google mostly turns up Borges on the Falklands War, but I swear I’ve seen it quoted in a classical source.

    • I seem to recall that collections of ancient jokes/fables are quite fond of poking fun at bald men. Not sure if that’s at all relevant, though.

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