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The Fabrication of Ancient Greece - An Interview with Martin Bernal - by Walter Cohen 6/9

This can partially explain the extraordinary number of errors and misrepresentations of my work in her piece. Many of these are trivial. My grandfather wrote a grammar, not a dictionary, of Ancient Egyptian. I did not, as she maintains, claim to derive the name Hiketai ("Suppliants") from the Egyptian ißßJ) 3st Hyksos. I merely argue that there was paranomasia between Hyksos and Hikesios, the title of Zeus the "Suppliant." The more substantial misrepresentations, which come from a desire to caricature my work to make it more vulnerable, include her claim that I have "an endearingly childlike faith in the absolute historical value of Greek myths." As I have written many times, I am convinced that the principal function of myths is to explain and justify the present, not to chronicle the past. However, many myths do contain historical information, and therefore I believe that they should be taken into account in conjunction with other sources when one is trying to reconstruct the prehistoric past on a basis of competitive plausibility.

To my mind her most outrageous misrepresentation comes when she writes that in volume two of Black Athena "the entire profession of Bronze Age Aegean and Classical archaeologists is condemned as ignorant, prejudiced, and racist." She had only to open the book to see that it was dedicated to the distinguished archaeologist Gordon Childe. With one exception, all my interpretations of archaeological finds are based on those of professional archaeologists and are acknowledged as such. At the opening of the book's conclusion, I write that "in this volume I have frequently found myself championing the views of scholars working at the high tide of racism, 1880-1940." One of Vermeule's criticisms is that my work is redundant because archaeologists and ancient historians have admitted or even welcomed the idea of oriental influences throughout the twentieth century. As this point has been made by other critics, who have read the book with care, it is evident that I did not make my case on this sufficiently clear, although I do address the issue on pages 72-73.

My argument is that the taboo has not been against the idea of oriental influences on the Aegean but against such influences on Greece. Scholars like Arthur Evans and Gordon Childe saw categorical breaks in Cretan and Aegean civilizations during the second millennium B.C., separating the Bronze Age from the later Hellenic cultures. Thus, they were quite happy to see substantial Egyptian and Levantine influences in the earlier period. They were also prepared to acknowledge that Hellenic civilization could have been influenced indirectly from the Orient through the filter of the Pre-Hellenes. However, scholars like Martin Nilsson, the historian of religion, and the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who—rightly, to my mind—saw cultural continuities in the Aegean going back to the third millennium, were and are much less eager to see oriental influences even at the earlier stages. The important thing for both groups is that Hellenic civilization should not have received Egyptian and Levantine influences directly or on an equal footing.

It seems to me Vermeule's review is doubly unfortunate. It might well lead people who haven't read your work to dismiss it. On the other hand, it makes it hard for nonspecialist readers of your books—obviously, I include myself in this category—to avoid the conclusion that, if this is the best the specialists can do, you must be right. But that conclusion, too, doesn't necessarily follow. What do you think are the prospects for a serious intellectual debate? Have there been any substantive specialist critiques of your work?

I agree with you in that I think that Vermeule's review will merely polarize the issue. Although it is very confused, it does express the feelings of those who have been deeply offended by my project because of both its relativization of their work and what they see as its linking of Classics to unsavory political beliefs. It is altogether to be expected that they should want to strike back. I have been more surprised by the openmindedness my ideas have received than by this kind of blind passion. There have been some serious critiques of my work. The journal Arethusa brought out a special issue containing the papers given at the Presidential Panel on 'The Challenge of Black Athena" held at the American Philological Association annual meeting in 1989. The Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology devoted an issue to the topic in 1990, and both journals have continued to publish critiques followed by my responses in later issues. The American Research Center in Egypt is publishing a monograph with papers given by Egyptologists at a special session of their annual meeting on my work. The next issue of the Journal of Women s History (1993) will also contain a symposium on my work.

Most of these articles are critical but rationally so, and I really believe that our debates are clearing my mind and theirs. In general things seem to be going my way, and there is an increased willingness to see (a) that the relevant disciplines were affected by racism and anti-Semitism, and (b) that there were substantial oriental influences on Bronze Age Greece. The lines now being drawn to defend the conventional wisdom seem to be the following: that Classics and the other relevant disciplines were moving in this direction anyhow, that contact and influence do not constitute "roots," and that the "Hyksos" settlements in Greece remain unproven. Scholars in these disciplines still find my method of competitive plausibility very difficult to accept.

The archaeologists tend to be upset that I do not work in the approved professional manner. A recent review of volume two in Antiquity summed up their problem: "Bernal has the alarming habit of being right for the wrong reasons." A couple of lucky breaks is not upsetting, but finding the "right answers" is the raison d'être of archaeology. Therefore, my "habitual" success poses a major threat to their "reasons" or method. On the political level, the lines have been drawn much more starkly. As I've suggested, the crusaders against "political correctness" detest the books, and I am sure that they will be delighted that they can now cite what they see as the liberal New York Review of Books against my work. In fact, the New York Review's position has been very much on the side of the crusaders. See Van Woodward's laudatory review of D'Souza and, long before that, Bernard Lewis's attempt to blow Edward Said out of the water. And in the early 1970s, it stopped publishing Chomsky. Fortunately, however, there are a number of journals to the left of the New York Review, including Newsweek and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thus the blockade on the ideas I express has not been complete or effective. I can't see a general conspiracy, but I think there is passionate hostility in rightwing ideological circles.

If you re right about where the line is being drawn, perhaps that is because traditionalists no longer have any countermodel to propose.

Despite the concessions I've mentioned, most classicists still deny that Near Eastern influences were significant in the formation of classical Greek culture. There is also considerable reluctance to give up the notion of a substantial pre-Hellenic substratum—which is needed to explain why so many aspects of Greek culture, including language and religion, deviate so far from the Indo-
European norms. You can still say it's all pre-Hellenic, but now that's somehow unsatisfactory.

The general rule in things like this, which I think is part of the impulse behind volumes two and three, is that when you want to trash a strong position, you don't complete the job until you come up with a stronger position. Similarly, if someone attacks you by saying, "In 60 percent of the cases I find your argument unconvincing," it produces a question, but doesn't demolish your model.

Actually, I have a letter from an Indo-Europeanist who makes an argument of precisely that sort about my etymologies. It's a very unsatisfactory refutation.

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