Walter Cohen: Black Athena is the center of a massive research project begun about fifteen years ago. Could you explain its scope and argument?
Martin Bernal: The project is on the origins of ancient Greece; it's both historiographie and historical. I set up two accounts for those origins, which I call the Ancient and the Aryan models. We've been schooled in the Aryan model, according to which Greek civilization is the product of conquest from the north by Indo-European speakers, or Aryans. This differs from the accounts by Classical Greeks, who say their ancestors lived in idyllic simplicity until people from Egypt and Phoenicians arrived, built cities, sometimes conquered the local population, and introduced civilization. Volume one is initially concerned with establishing this Ancient model, showing that most Greek descriptions of their distant past fit into this scheme, and seeing how this model fared from early Christianity through the eighteenth century.
How did it fare?
Up to 1800 there was little questioning of the Ancient model. Egypt's reputation actually soared in the eighteenth century as the center of Freemasonry and rationalism.
As evidenced by representations on dollar bills, for instance?
Yes. The pyramid and the eye, the layout of Washington, D.C., the Egyptian symbolism in the Washington monument—all attest to strong Egypto-Masonic influence, particularly on the founding fathers. Masonry was also very influential in the French Revolution, and I think this is one of the reasons for the violent reaction against the Egyptians after 1815. Masonry was seen as a source of revolutionary, secular, antireligious ideas, and of course it contradicted the revival of Christianity that you find in both Catholic and Protestant countries after 1815.
What other forces came into play against Egypt?
Even earlier, in the 1780s, German academics in the new, professionalized universities began to argue that the Greeks had invented philosophy. This was a very bold move to make, particularly because of the unanimous opinion that they had learned philosophy from the Egyptians. So you get some fiddling with the meaning of "philosophy" and redefinitions of it. It was hard to make
the case of Greek origin, but it was done. To sum up: the fall of the Ancient model, which dates from the 1820s and 1830s, was due to external forces—Romanticism, the revival of Christianity, and, underlying everything, a persisting racism.
Let's take up a couple of these points. What about Romanticism?
There was clearly the desire, at least in Germany, to connect intellectual activity and temperate climates. For the Romantics, the idea that cold climates promote thought is absolutely central. They built on the Classical tradition that northern or mountain peoples are more virtuous—as found in Tacitus's Germania, for instance. But Aristotle was quite clear that though such people might have been braver and perhaps more virtuous, they were less intelligent than southern peoples, whereas the Greeks were, happily, in just the right position—the middle—and therefore had the virtues of both. Now in the eighteenth century, you begin to get the idea that the farther north or up the mountain you go, the better people are—not merely in the virtues of simplicity, but also in the virtues of high and pure thought. That's something I experienced as a student. We went on walking parties in the Lake District, we went to the North and up the mountains, and we went to Switzerland. We thought that Cambridge was better than Oxford because the wind was sweeping down straight from the Pole. The idea that the cold helps the brain cells was and remains quite powerful. Thus there had to be some way to explain how the Greeks, who were now so admired, should actually have been living around the Mediterranean. So the Romantics placed their origins as far north as possible. The Greeks, or Hellenes, were formed in more demanding climates and preserved this northern essence even in comfortable Greece. This argument becomes increasingly biological, even though in the beginning it was cultural.
Could you say a little bit more about the consequences of this particular brand
Egypt's presence on the continent of Africa was awkward for northern Europeans, who had to be systematically racist after the introduction of racebased slavery. But slavery is obviously a big business long before 1820. Its heyday is the eighteenth century, and it faces serious challenges by 1820.
Could you clarify the time scheme?
For a long time it was possible to exempt Egypt from racist denigration. There were three options in viewing it. Either Egypt was civilized but not part of Africa (and hence was white), or Egypt was part of Africa but not civilized, or best of all, Egypt was neither black nor civilized. During the Enlightenment, people essentially took the view that Egypt was civilized and white. We can see that in The Magic Flute: Egypt is the source of philosophy and civilization.
But it is also strikingly white, and in fact the contrast is drawn very categorically by contrasting the high priest of Isis and Osiris with his black slave, who is seen as wicked and the child of his passions. Now it's true—and I miss this in my book—that in the original full libretto, Monostatus's behavior is specifically said to be the result of his slavery, not his color. But this is left out of the standard libretti, and the overall image is of the "lustful Moor," as opposed to the rational white master. The Romantics claimed exactly the opposite—that Egypt wasn't civilized.
Winckelmann argues that one reason why Egyptian art is so bad is that the Egyptians only had ugly people to draw, and he then proceeds to give a stereotypical, grotesque image of blacks. So you had these alternatives being practiced.