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Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism
Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism
Cathy Gere
University of Chicago Press, 2009
288 pp., 47.00

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Timothy Larsen

Make It New

The modernists' fascination with Knossos.

In 1893 it took Arthur Evans' fancy to excavate Knossos. A wealthy Englishman, on his very first visit to Crete he promptly tried to buy the land. When he realized that a more legitimate-looking operation was wanted, Evans instantly claimed to represent the "Cretan Exploration Fund," an organization recently founded in his imagination. Seven years later he was in complete control of the site, beginning his first season of digging in the wonderfully modern sounding year of 1900. An immediate priority was to have a grand residence built for himself. He named it the Villa Ariadne, after the ancient goddess-in-residence. (Decades later, when the Greek government fled the Nazi occupation of the mainland, King George came to live in the villa, clearly the best dwelling on the island.)

Evans' home was built using the latest method—reinforced concrete—and he quickly decided that this would also be ideal for "reconstituting" Knossos palace. It thus happened that the most modern-looking structures on Crete in the early decades of the 20th century purported to be the most ancient ones, resurrected. Evans had a genius for allowing his own sensibilities and desires to inform his ostensibly historical findings, and thus reborn Knossos is uncannily modernist in design. In her tour de force, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Cathy Gere provides photographs in which Evans' Minoan palace is shown to be the separated twin of the Lenin Mausoleum.

Gere has hit a scholarly vein so astonishingly rich and seemingly inexhaustible that it is a wonder that she did not die of gold fever while trying to capitalize on it. A near miracle in itself in today's academic climate, she avoids both the Scylla of pedestrian chronicling and the Charybdis of bizarre and untenable theoretical impositions. Instead, Gere provides something surprisingly rare in current monographs—genuinely insightful analysis.

The back story focuses on Heinrich Schliemann and Friedrich Nietzsche. Schliemann was "the charlatan archaeologist" who excavated Troy, pursuing his task in a way that made it difficult to discern where science left off and showmanship kicked in. (One of his more ominous fakes was adding a swastika to a goddess figurine.) In their own ways, both Schliemann and Nietzsche assumed that the old, Christian order was exhausted and that Europe's pagan past would provide resources for modernity.

An early find for Evans was a substantial chair, which he immediately proclaimed was "the Throne of Ariadne." Later discoveries made a female occupant of this seat untenable even for Evans' plastic mind, but this merely led him to insist that his envisioned Minoan matriarchal age had come earlier.

In the Iliad, Achilles' shield is described as having a scene on it reminiscent of the dancing floor made for Ariadne at Knossos. Evans seems to have taken it completely for granted that this was not only historically accurate, but a recoverable feature of his site. Like a bored homeowner, however, he kept moving Ariadne's dance floor around as he restlessly remodeled.

The interpretative point was that Minoa was pacifist, in contrast to belligerent Mycenae. The very first archaeological finds that Evans had made on Crete he had identified as a military road with fortifications, but he simply ignored these for the rest of his career and re-imagined the place as a prelapsarian paradise. (In a rare, later reference, the road and its posts were transformed into a sort of highway for interstate commerce.)

Evans hired the artistic worker, Émile Gilliéron, and his namesake son to reconstruct the frescoes. The Gilliérons were given tremendous latitude to fill out an incomplete picture. A warrior with a couple blotches of black paint near him became a Minoan captain leading a troop of African soldiers. Evans would then write extensive commentaries on the aspects of Knossos culture supposedly discovered in these scenes.

Evans was also unquestioning in his assumption (valid for some ancient cultures) that all white figures were female and all dark-red ones male. This unleashed a gender-bending wonderland. Most famously, he conjured up female, bull-leaping athletes. The fact that they did not have women's breasts—and indeed, as Evans admitted, were otherwise indistinguishable from male athletes—only served to underline for him the liberating androgyny of Minoan culture. He also bought faked antiquities from dubious sources, accepted them as genuine, and would build up extravagant plot lines based on what they revealed. Several firsthand sources claimed to have seen proof that the Gilliérons were themselves manufacturing these items, perhaps even with Evans' fantasies in mind. Thus the Gilliérons would start an imagined scenario in a fresco, Evans would extrapolate from it in one of his high-handed moods, the Gilliérons would take the theme to new flights of fancy in a forged statute, and Evans would then carry on the fantastical exposition yet further. All of this, of course, was muddled in with real historical finds and reasonable interpretations, making it even now difficult to untangle it all. (Gere at one point frankly confesses that she has not made up her mind on whether one key figure is a forgery, although much depends on such determinations for assessing the plausibility of Evans's interpretations.)

Resurrected Knossos was an inspirational treasure trove for modernists. Let's begin with Hilda Doolittle (known as H.D.), a founding voice of modern poetry. She had been engaged to Ezra Pound. A subsequent lover was D. H. Lawrence (who was peeved to discover that she took his cant about free love to mean not just that she should ignore his wanderings but also vice versa). Not only her poetry but also H.D.'s understanding of herself and her generation was indebted to Evans' work.

In 1933 she became a patient of Freud's. During their first session she cried. By the third, he broke down. Soon they were in complete harmony: "we sobbed together." Freud himself read Evans avidly. Moreover, in a passage that could only refer to what was happening at Knossos, Freud compared the work of a psychoanalyst to that of an archaeologist reconstructing ruined buildings from the evidence provided by the existing debris.

Freud had his own collection of antiquities. He created a little semicircle pantheon on his desk, as my junior high school son does with his own action figures. Evans had convinced Freud that there was an earlier, matriarchal age, and on the groundless theory that individuals recapitulate the history of their race, he diagnosed that H.D.'s difficulties lay in this pre-Oedipal stage. Clearly flattered, she took it as a sort of personal achievement to have "got stuck" at "the absolutely First layer." Later, though, H.D. decided that Freud was not mystical enough. She spent World War II learning more about Minoan theology through insights gleaned at séances. (The Theosophist medium, apparently becoming bored with merely recovering a lost civilization, took to spicing things up by offering prophetic pronouncements about startling, new archaeological discoveries that would happen at Crete.)

The modern artist Giorgio de Chirico painted scenes inspired by Evans' work. This, in turn, prompted Andy Warhol to create Italian Square with Ariadne (after de Chirico). Picasso's images of the Minotaur were indebted to the Knossos excitement. Isadora Duncan, the founder of modern dance, showed up in situ and gave an impromptu performance on the steps of the palace. Oswald Spengler built a chapter of his The Decline of the West on Evans' contrast between warlike Mycenae and peace-loving Minoa. Robert Graves turned Evans' interpretations into the key to his life, producing not only his bestseller The White Goddess but also Watch the North Wind Rise, a novel about a utopian future in which the "New Cretans" revive paganism.

It would have been illuminating if Gere had put her story in conversation with the standard one about biblical archaeology. She assumes that classical archaeology was all in the service of a pagan agenda, despite mentioning that A. H. Sayce wrote the preface for one of Schliemann's books. Sayce was a Christian apologist who was convinced that archaeological discoveries were supporting a conservative view of the Bible.

Biblical archaeologists from this era are routinely accused of allowing their wishful thinking to distort their interpretations. Yet they did nothing remotely as flagrant or irresponsible as Schliemann or Evans. Imagine if one of the most respected archaeologists of the early 20th century had been someone who had gone to Bethlehem and found a chair and announced it was David's throne, dug up a baby's grave and proclaimed it was one of the innocents slaughtered by Herod, accepted as a genuine, 1st-century artifact a Babylonian-looking box of frankincense he had bought in a local market, and so on.

Even Freud, sounding just like the stereotype of a fundamentalist crowing about the findings of biblical archaeology, proclaimed that what he believed by theory alone had been scientifically proven: "The archaeological researches of these days have now confirmed our suspicion." Evans' mother died when he was only six, and Gere observes that Freud accepted Evans' interpretations uncritically as historical facts: "did it never occur to him that it might be the archaeologist who suffered from a mother fixation?"

Not everyone fell completely under Ariadne's spell. When Jane Ellen Harrison wrote an influential book presenting Knossos as a hive of militant feminists, Bertrand Russell offered to buy her a wild bull if she would tear it apart with her bare hands as the Minoan female athletes were allegedly wont to do. When Evelyn Waugh arrived in Crete he observed that Evans' reconstitutions bore the regrettable marks of having been influenced by the covers of Vogue. And the spell, of course, was not permanent. Archaeologists today believe that Mycenae and Minoa were remarkably alike—there was no matriarchal, pacifist, androgynous island oasis.

Taken as a whole, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism exposes the astonishing willingness of an entire generation of intellectuals and artists to deceive and be deceived. Gere's title is prompted by this observation: "Without exception, all the archaeologists, psychoarchaeologists, and assorted archaeological devotees who appear in these pages fashioned themselves as prophets."

Here then is a faithful saying, worthy of all acceptance: as one of their own prophets ought to have said, All New Cretans are liars.

Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, is the author of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford Univ. Press). His A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians is forthcoming in January from Oxford University Press.

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