Boris Johnson and the Mnemosyne Fraud

Some time ago I clattered down some internet stairs and fell on this video of Boris Johnson at the 2013 Melbourne Writers' Festival, reciting a great chunk of the Iliad to an audience who clearly loved the display.


But I'm on the Left and it bugged me. Actually, if I were on the Right it would have sat uncomfortably.


Before I unleash the Dogs of Woke, it has to be acknowledged that it’s a helluva recital, and certainly a show of some intelligence. Anyone who can recall a solid two and a half minutes of any text is doing something impressive. Mnemosyne would have been proud.


In principle, though, it's no more impressive than reciting your times tables, and most people can manage that. Some people can reel off pages and pages of lyrics by their favourite singers. It’s that kind of learning.


In my time I have learned chunks of the Aeneid in Latin, Shakespeare soliloquys, poems, and so on. I derive similar pleasure from reciting the “I have of late” speech from Hamlet (though, in the spirit of full disclosure, I learned most of it from watching Withnail and I a hundred times). As any of my friends would tell you: I have a terrible memory. Yet still I can do these little performances.


But there are entire worlds of information which are baffling to me. Proper information. Proper learning. Genuinely useful information: How to behave when someone is crying. When to bite my tongue.


Johnson’s recital seems to me a failing on two levels.


First, it requires an audience who is impressed by such things. I’m not arguing that it’s not lovely that a Prime Minister can recite Homer, it really is; but people impressed by it have a kind of deference in them. Ground in. Deep. "How amazing that someone could do that! I could never do that!" But, given the right circumstanes, you could!


Second, this show was about Johnson, not the Iliad. If it was about the wondrousness of the lines, why not do it in English? If it was about the solace drawn from poetry, why shut out the audience? And this, I think, is the big issue: it was about exclusivity. It was about the speaker appearing to have power over the audience, a perfect storm of intellectual ego and deferential spectators, and it is exactly the kind of situation Johnson has been groomed for - a chance to exhibit his expensive education to people who do not understand what he is saying, and thus cannot participate in the pleasure of the poetry, and to convey the impression of intelligence. (Most - let's be frank - can't even tell if he's making any mistakes.)


Real intelligence invites the audience to share. Real intelligence tries to break down boundaries of language, class and so on. And as a Classicist, I am painfully aware of the damage being done to my subject by the appearance that Classics is a subject only for private schools.


Johnson showed us a really good feat of memory, rehearsed since he was a boy. But how about the memory that matters? Remember him making a huge deal out of what was in GATT paragraph 5B, apparently showing he was a man with capacious memory for details, only to be forced to admit he had no idea what was in paragraph 5C.


The comparison of the two clips is telling. In the first, he is keen to show his massive intellect through a recitation of a text which - to most of the audience - is the preserve of "elite" education, and thus is proof that Johnson is "clever". The second clip demolishes this impression, and shows only the emptiness of his recall.


Knowing some Homeric Greek is a terrific thing, and I’m pleased Johnson wants to talk about the Classics. But the reality is that Classics, to him, is a way of pointing out other people’s ignorance, and his own superiority.


It is not, as it should be, a way of talking about our shared humanity.


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