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The Fabrication of Ancient Greece - An Interview with Martin Bernal - by Walter Cohen 3/9

You ve now published three books on the subject—Cadmean Letters and two volumes of Black Athena—as well as various articles. In the preface to volume two of Black Athena, you speak of "devoting the second half of my life to this project. Is that how long you expect it to take?

I think volumes three and four will take eight to ten years. Then I'm not sure. Perhaps learn astronomy in order to explore the influence of Egyptian and Mesopotamian science on Greek culture—although the Mesopotamian case has already been made. On the other hand, there's a temptation to "march on Rome," to look at some Semitic influences on the formation of the city. Many key place names—like Rome itself and Tiber—have plausible Semitic origins and very implausible Indo-European ones. The Phoenicians were trading down the west coast of Italy in the seventh century and almost certainly in the eighth."

It does put a slightly different twist on things to imagine the battle for control of the Mediterranean in the third and second centuries B.C. as a struggle between two Phoenician colonies.

Well, the natives gained slightly more control in Rome than in Carthage. But if one looks at the constitution of Rome, it's closer to the constitution of Carthage, as described by Aristotle, than it is to that of any other Italian city or any Greek city. So there is something to that.

Your mention of Rome, regardless of its ancestry, raises questions about the centrality of Greece for Western civilization. Certainly, that is the way Western civilization has been taught. But there isn't anything historically inevitable about that, is there? Greek civilization was venerated and admired by Western European intellectuals in the Middle Ages, but they didn't know much about it.

And on the whole, they felt that Greece was inferior to Rome.

The shift begins in the late fifteenth century, but it's a pretty gradual one. It isn't until the eighteenth century—the period you're primarily concerned with—that Greece triumphs.

That's right, but there's no doubt that there are substantial Greek components in Roman civilization. Through Rome, Greece reached western Europe; and it reached eastern Europe directly through the Byzantine church. So Greek culture has a pivotal role in the development of European culture as a whole.

All I meant was not that Greece was unimportant for European civilization, but that the particular status accorded to it. . .

... is exceptionally high.

And that status does not much depend on Greece having been a conduit of earlier civilizations or having passed through other cultures that modified it.

I think that's absolutely right: Greece is not unmodified Egyptian culture, nor is Rome unmodified Greek culture. There are interesting modifications going on all along the way. But I'm not sure what the ideological significance would be. I think it would be a broad and antiracist message.

Let's consider this matter of your message, then. You've talked about the racism of the Aryan model. What's at stake in the argument—considering that the second millennium B.C. is a specialized area, from which almost no books are read? What contemporary positions are you arguing against? Why do you consider it important to argue against them?

In volume one, I didn't bring out the influence of Allan Bloom on my work. Coming into Telluride, a scholarship house at Cornell, where his influence and the whole Straussian cult of Greece were still felt strongly, made me realize the reactionary potential of the Romantic interpretation of Greece. I had been brought up in Cambridge, where the classicists were stuffy liberals, but not harmful in any sense. But here, though this was the mid-seventies, I suddenly saw a potential for the extreme right-wing intellectual movement that didn't actually take power until the 1980s. One of the first students I met when I set foot in the house was Francis Fukuyama, who has more recently made his reputation with his essay (and now, book) celebrating American democracy as the true realization of the Hegelian ideal of the end of history. I asked him about Japan, and he didn't want to know. The European provincialism in Telluride was a provocation that set me going. This was because I had looked forward to finding in America an openness to East Asia—which was my area—that I didn't see in England.

But will it matter much if you win the argument—given our system's ability to neutralize heterodox ideas? After all, you re primarily concerned with events that occurred between three thousand and four thousand years ago, and you re living in a society with a rather modest concern with history. Though you spend considerable time delineating the racist treatment of those events in scholarship of the last two centuries, why couldnt a nonracist treatment be comfortably assimilated without major consequence?

Five years ago you said to me, "You put in these non-European elements, but you still have a certain European 'something' that synthesizes things." All I could answer then, and all I can answer now, is that it's a step forward. But I think it is an important one for blacks, who have been told, 'There are no—and never have been any—black civilizations." The implication is that there never can be: "You blacks are inherently uncivilized, and if you want any civilization you must become like us whites." I think recognition of Egypt as an African civilization with a central role in the formation of Greece—the critical culture in the making of European civilization—changes black self-perception. To put it another way, I hope to oppose this view to négritude—Leopold Senghor's notion that black Africa is feeling and Greece is intellect.

Has your sense of the project changed over the past fifteen years? Since you ve just mentioned "black perception," how do you see your work in relation to contemporary African-American thought?

Well, Afrocentrists have appropriated the name Black Athena. In some ways I'm very pleased to provide ammunition for them.

You seem to be distancing yourself here from Afrocentrism, and you ve opposed négritude. Would you say a little more about your positions on these matters?

I am not an Afrocentrist because I do not believe that all good things come from any one continent. However, I have a number of points of agreement with Afrocentrists. I believe that humans in Africa have been very culturally productive and that African cultures have had a major impact on those of other continents. I also agree with them that there has been a systematic playing down of these contributions. On a political level, I believe that the dangers of Eurocentrism are far greater and more urgent than those of Afrocentrism.

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