For all our love of novelty and innovation, in times of change and disruption many of us find ourselves looking to the far distant past for comfort; to the works and the words that have inspired people for thousands of years. Dr Cora Beth Knowles FRSA asks whether the ancient world can be drawn on in this time of pandemic and what lessons can we learn from the experience?
At the start of lockdown I received a string of phone calls from some very upset and frightened students. I’m a distance-learning tutor with the Open University, teaching Classical Studies to adult part-time students around the UK and overseas. Many of my students have disabilities or long-term health conditions, which required them to go into full shielding mode when lockdown came into effect.
When this was announced, people were scared of what might happen and worried about how they were going to cope with the loneliness and the loss of human contact.
One student said to me that she was holding on to her Open University studies as a way to focus and escape the worry; but she wondered how she was going to manage when the module came to an end in April.
Although I couldn’t help my students in person with their day-to-day needs, might there be a way for me to give them something to focus on? This was where the idea for the ‘Comfort Classics’ project – which brings together academics, students, writers and artists to share their enthusiasm for ancient sources – came from. It occurred to me that I could use my personal website to put out a daily post about comforting things (objects, texts, places or inscriptions) from the ancient world and that I could call on other classical scholars to help me. If I could just manage to find enough people and enough material to put out a daily post for a couple of weeks, I might be able to help my students through the isolation adjustment period. And lockdown wouldn’t last all that long…would it?
Well, lockdown stretched on – and for many still does – but somehow I didn’t run out of contributors or material. As the series of daily Comfort Classics interviews continued, more and more people – inside and outside academia – came forward to contribute their happy thoughts from the ancient world. Eleven weeks in, the series is still going strong.
The range of comforting sources chosen by contributors has been huge and diverse. One of my Classics heroes, Dame Mary Beard, chose Homer’s Odyssey, and many other contributors have also selected the great epics from the ancient world, which have been bringing comfort and consolation to readers for thousands of years. But other contributors have chosen much more personal things; a woolly child’s sock from Roman Egypt, for instance, or a little Greek poem written by a woman about a girl and her dog. From the grand sweep of mythical narrative, to the little insights into the lives of children, the ancient world holds fascination for different people in many different ways.
Other contributors to the series have chosen funny things: the bawdy comedies of Aristophanes; an ancient joke book; a humorous poem about losing a race; even a picture of a defecating dog from ancient Athens. The things that made people laugh more than two thousand years ago still have the power to make us smile today.
One of the nicest things has been the way people have shared small details of their own lives. Professors, writers, teachers and students have been sending in pictures of their dogs and their gardens. They write about what they like to cook or watch on TV, and share details of hobbies and family life under lockdown. Scholars I’ve only known by name have turned into real people who watch classic sci-fi movies or grow their own vegetables. For me, and for a lot of my readers, that is the real delight of the series.
Are there lessons to be learned from Comfort Classics for us all in a post-Covid-19 world? I think there are. One is that the arts have the power to bring people together, in the very simplest sense of sharing the things that make us happy. We always knew this, of course, but under lockdown we have seen it in action on a grand scale, and in so many fabulous ways. From the Getty Museum Challenge to the #MuseumsUnlocked daily schedule of themes, to the Shakespearean sonnets read by Sir Patrick Stewart, the arts have been bringing comfort to millions of anxious and struggling people.
Comfort Classics has taught me that even in isolation we can listen to voices from the past and feel a little less alone. Other people have been exploring this in different ways. All over the internet, the voices of the past are being shared; the Center for Hellenic Studies is hosting a weekly online reading of Greek tragedy, for instance, while the Actors of Dionysus have been running a ‘daily dose’ of readings from ancient literature. The ancient world itself was not a comfortable or a comforting place, and we should never gloss over that; but still we find in it wisdom, humour and a wider perspective on our current challenges.
Finally for me this experience has shown that when people write in their ‘normal’ voices, sharing a simple enthusiasm, there is a connection with readers that doesn’t always come through in the careful objectivity of an academic article. In our professional contexts we are often so conscious of projecting the right image and using the right voice that we can fail to connect with people on a personal level; and that is particularly true in academia. Covid-19 has made a lot of people reach out to others, to help and support and share. I hope that when we find our way back to some kind of ‘normal’, we manage to retain some of that warmth and enthusiasm.
Cora Beth Knowles is an Associate Lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a member of the Lego Classicists Family.