Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Splendor of Greece by Robert Payne

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Robert Payne's The Splendor of Greece takes the armchair traveler back nearly fifty years to a time when writers of travel books came to their subjects with different intentions than their modern counterparts seem to do. Modern books recounting the adventures of an eager pilgrim in Paris, or romantic rural Spain or hidden and lovely Portugal, tend to focus on the private and the problematic. How I coped with a flat tire in this or that charming, dusty town; how my five-year-old learned to curse in patois while I grew fresh basil and got over my divorce.

Payne, a hugely prolific writer who seems to have had a penchant for seeing and describing the whole world (The Splendor of Persia, The White Rajahs of Sarawak, and Forever China are among his 110 titles), keeps to another tradition. In sixteen chapters, each set in a different part of Greece, he takes the reader on a tour of the most noteworthy parts of each stop, sketches some of its history and myth, adds perhaps some information about the archaeology done there, and then discusses -- sometimes over-rhapsodizes about, really -- its art and makes note of what its contemporary inhabitants are doing. With him we visit not only Athens, Crete, and the bigger islands of the Aegean like Rhodes, but smaller places which we feel slightly mortified at not knowing about before, because it turns out they were the sites of famed mythic tragedies (Mycenae, where Agamemnon's wife did not welcome him home from war happily), or divine communication (the island of Patmos, where St. John wrote the book of Revelation), or even the birthplace of Apollo (the island of Delos).

Payne's prose is the prose of a man who is going to pay attention to art and myth and history, to something other than himself, and yet who fully intends that we will see what he sees. Here he is on page one, describing the light in Greece: it "is a light that can be drunk and tasted, full of ripeness, light that filters through flesh and marble ... that fumes and glares, and seems to have a life of its own." The Splendor is a travel book with a thesis, in other words -- the book's subtitle is A Journey Into the Sunlight -- and the thesis is a simple one. Most Western ideas about freedom, beauty, and truth come from ancient Greece, and in the exhilaration of winning their liberty from the Persian empire in 480 BC, the Greeks knew this thesis to be true even as they shaped it. (Last year's movie 300 tells a part of this story.) Victory over Persia ushered in the classical age with all its art, its drama, learning, and science; human achievement became akin to holiness. As Payne tells it, "holiness must come again, for it has been too long from the earth."

1 comment:

  1. I remember an essay by Matthew Arnold where he lavishly praises Classical Greek culture as the epitome of human achievement.

    I liked your take on Jane Austen (who really doesn't probe the whys - but I still find her immensely readable)...many female writers before the 20th century seemed to have a similar upbringing (L M Alcott, the Brontes) and have led similar uneventful lives. Still waters run deep...

    Agatha Christie is one of my very favourite authors (I have and have read all her books - not the Mary Westmacott ones, though)....Come, Tell Me How You Live is unpretentious and funny with much self-directed humour. I also love her autobiography.