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How can texts that are thousands of years old possibly still be relevant to people today? This is the question asked again and again by students and readers of classical literature, the fundamental problem that drives all historical discourse.

Dr Alastair Blanshard, senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney, facilitated a lively and engaging discussion on this central theme, in conversation with bestselling author and playwright, Robert Greene, Australian poet, novelist and former lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, David Brooks, and Richard Gill, esteemed conductor and music educator.
In the hopes of arriving at a response to the ancient world’s relevance, the panelists start by examining the beginnings of their own fascination with the classics. Greene acquired his longstanding interest in the past, he says, during his time as a student at Berkeley in California, where he happened to be given the opportunity to take one year’s worth of Ancient Greek classes in six weeks. “It was like being on drugs,” he laughs fondly. Brooks’ first introduction to the classics came with a haze of a different kind. Afflicted by a high fever as a child, he demanded that his English teacher bring him James Joyce’s Ulysees, which he read in the course of a week.
The myth of Orpheus in the underworld holds special importance to Richard Gill, with its explorations, both literal and metaphorical, of the power of music to redeem and to soothe. Brooks adds that the story of Orpheus in the underworld is essential to the discourse of poetry as well, and explains the special symbolic significance of the Sydney Writers’ Festival event “Poetry in the Caves”, held out at Jenolan Caves. With a descent of 350 steps underground to get to the Cathedral Cave, where the poetry readings were held, and 350 steps to get back out again, the experience was clearly designed to invoke this particular myth.
Greene recounts being 11 years old and deciding to read all the Greek tragedies in succession, and finding a common theme in all of them: “Humans are characters with limited vision. This is our failing.” One need only look at the political machinations going on in the world today, he says, to see how pertinent that theme remains, thousands of years later. Similarly, he argues, Stoicism continues to find popularity in times of instability and uncertainty, when people find themselves unable to believe in religion or politics. Brooks notes: “The classics supposedly embody the wisdom of the tribe, but the tribe doesn’t seem very wise. They also contain the stupidity of the tribe. We haven’t come very far … We need to read the classics critically.”
Even as classical literature continues to inform us about the modern world, so too can it provide a retreat from the structures and pace of our contemporary civilisation, and for true enthusiasts, Greece will always be mecca. Greene recalls his time living on the island of Crete straight after college as a way of vicariously experiencing the “the gods and Socrates”. Eventually, he, like a number of tourists, had to turn to construction work in order to pay his way off the island. “It was the opposite of L.A. You had all these blonde people doing the hard manual labour, and all these Greek people standing around yelling at them,” he jokes. Brooks recalls travelling to Greece with his father, and wandering around the Acropolis. As an adult, he says, the landscape of Slovenia, where he now spends part of every year, gave him the “feeling of being home.”
“This was the place in the stories I had been reading about all my life,” he says.
Anyone who doubts the continued importance of classical literature should have witnessed the packed out venue for this Writers’ Festival event. What’s more, the eagerness of these hundreds of audience members, listening and engaging with the panel, is palpable, compounded by their mews of disappointment at the announcement of its imminent conclusion. Richard Gill’s parting comment to the spectators, like the classics themselves, resonates beyond its original context: “The most important things myths teach us is the power of being imaginative, of being able to think things and invent things.”

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