The introduction to
Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism
Crete’s premier tourist attraction, the fabled Bronze Age Palace of Knossos, enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the first reinforced concrete buildings ever erected on the island. Reconstructed by the English archaeologist Arthur Evans between 1905 and 1930, the walls of the palace are built of square concrete beams filled with limestone rubble masonry. Gray concrete floors, their edges molded in imitation of broken stone, are supported by squat, downward-tapering red pillars. Parts of Knossos are pure modernism: the throne room complex comprises three stories of unadorned square concrete pillars that rear up from the central court like a flimsy Le Corbusier exercise; a photograph of the west façade taken right after its completion in 1930 looks eerily similar to Alexei Shchusev’s Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow of the same date; the south flank of the palace is dominated by a subûBarbara Hepworth sculpture known as the Horns of Consecration.
A little north of the palace stands the Villa Ariadne, a lavish colonial bungalow that Evans commissioned in 1905 to serve as his headquarters. Named for Evans’s favorite character in Cretan mythology, the villa has a long garden wall running along the road that leads to Crete’s capital cit, Iraklion. Only a couple of undulating fields farther along, the postwar urban sprawl appears on the hills, threatening to engulf the palace and its environs and turn Knossos into a suburb. It will fit in well. Nearly eighty years after the completion of the concrete reconstructions and the rest of the country has caught up: today all of Greece is liberally studded with half-built, low-rise, skeletal modernist ruins, stairs climbing to nowhere, roofs bristling with rusting iron rebar.
Evans did not set out to reconstruct a Bronze Age palace using reinforced concrete. His excavation of the site began in the early spring of 1900. A few short weeks into the dig his workmen uncovered “the oldest throne in Europe,” a carved gypsum chair flanked by frescos. The chair—its back plastered right into the wall behind—could not be moved off-site, and so the following season a bit of scaffolding was run up to support a protective shelter over it. Desiring a more artistic effect, Evans then substituted wood-and-plaster columns for the scaffolding, their downward-tapering shape and red color based on the painting of a building on a fresco fragment. As the dig went on, more squat red columns were constructed to prop up the crumbling walls of other parts of the building. In 1905, work began on the Villa Ariadne, and as soon as Evans saw how quickly its reinforced concrete shell went up, he realized that he had stumbled upon the most practical solution to the problem of protecting and supporting the remains of the ancient palace. Inspired by the plasticity, indestructibility, and relative cheapness of the material, he eventually undertook the wholesale and highly speculative reconstruction of large areas of the building. By the end of 1930, modernist Knossos was complete.
According to Evans, Knossos was the true Cretan Labyrinth, the historical reality behind the myth of the virgin-devouring Minotaur. The excavations, however, seemed to belie the bloodthirsty legends. “The ogre’s den turns out to be a peaceful abode of priest-kings, in some respects more modern in its equipments than anything produced by Classical Greece,” he announced in the introduction to his four-volume excavation report, The Palace of Minos. In this epic work, Evans bequeathed to his war-torn age a scientific vision of life before the Fall—Minoan society reconstructed as Western civilization’s earliest blossoming, a gilded infancy suckled by a benevolent mother goddess, a time of peace and plenty on a beautiful island protected by the sea.
For archaeologists, Evan’s reconstructions and interpretations have always presented a profoundly ambiguous bequest. Although, in most places, the modern fabric of Knossos is easy to spot, the relationship between the forms that the concrete takes, and the shape of any Bronze Age building, is still far from resolved. Not only do the concrete reconstructions cover up the stones of the original buildings, but the paper reconstructions of the palace, in watercolor, pen and ink, and text, do not easily allow a perspective on the problem uncolored by the prejudices of Evans and his team. The aim of this book is the opposite of archaeological. Instead of searching beneath the modern reconstructions in pursuit of the limestone and gypsum temples built by the people of the Bronze Age, the present narrative attempts to understand the temple builders of the age of concrete—the archaeologists, architects, artists, classicists, writers, and poets of the twentieth century A.D. who reconstructed Minoan Crete in modernist materials.
Concrete Knossos may be the most eccentric archaeological reconstruction ever to achieve scholarly acceptance. Evans’s romanticism was made possible by his family’s industrial fortune. He bought the land and paid for the excavation out of the proceeds of his father’s paper mill, and he supervised the dig in a fine aristocratic fashion, floating down to the site in the evening to bestow mythological titles on the rooms and objects that had emerged that day. His methods were distinguished by a delirious interpretative incontinence that seemed to owe more to spiritualism than to science, and his self-fashioning—as an archaeological prophet and magician—was correspondingly grandiose. Evans embodied all the contradictions of modernism. He used industrial methods and materials to reinvent the myths of antiquity; he was a racist who argued for the African origins of Western civilization, an ageing Boy Scout who championed the theory of matriarchy. At the actual site of Knossos, the reconstructions proceeded in an absurdist counterpoint to the romantic rhythms of his prose, his utopian vision translating into a dystopia of “garages and public lavatories,” in the biting verdict of one eminent visitor.
But despite, or perhaps because of, their paradoxes and delinquencies, Evans’s Minoans left their footprints all over the wilder shores of modernist thought. The Labyrinth of Minos was one of the sensations of the age and became (especially for those devotees who never experienced firsthand its concrete reality) a site across which some of the most urgent political, spiritual, and aesthetic questions of the early twentieth century were asked and answered. Modernist Knossos ties together fascism, feminism, and pacifism; it appears in experimental literature and psychoanalysis; it unites Nietzsche and Freud, James Joyce and Giorgio de Chirico. Certain twentieth-century poets—Hilda Doolittle, Robert Graves—cannot be properly understood without knowing the Cretan archaeology through which they worked out their oracular neopaganism.
“Modernism” is, of course, a highly contested term. Some of its difficulties inhere in the very act of naming a past era with a word that means “of the present time.” There is certainly no consensus as to its chronological boundaries. For some architectural historians, modernism has its roots in the abandonment of the classical ideal by early nineteenth-century Romantics. For many literary scholars, the term denotes a movement restricted to a few decades in the beginning of the twentieth century. In the history of the visual arts its reach extends well beyond 1945. When we turn to the history of the human sciences, however, a consensus seems to have emerged that modernism denotes a distinctive and often self-conscious sense of generational crisis, beginning around 1870 and persisting until just before the Second World War. This was distinguished, above all, by a profound loss of confidence in the Enlightenment legacy of rationalism.
On the political front, this crisis comprised a rejection of the liberal tradition that privileged the rational, autonomous subject as the main unit of political and moral reasoning—modernism setting its face against modernity, so to speak. Denunciations of the bureaucratic, democratic, liberal state as a soulless dystopia were often accompanied by an “archaizing” impulse—a frantic search through the annals of the deep past for neoprimitive solutions to the problems of industrial capitalism. This book is centrally concerned with that impulse, as the archaeology of Bronze Age Greece provided much of the material from which the archaizing project drew its inspiration. From the fascist emulation of Homeric heroes to the feminist adulation of Minoan priestesses, the archaeology of Greek myth provided the blueprints for a series of future utopias.
On the philosophical front, the modernist crisis took the form of an acute anxiety about the relation of the external world with the individual’s internal perception of it. Arthur Evans played a key, if orthogonal, role in this crisis of knowledge. For the most part untroubled by deeper epistemological questions, he and his celebrated predecessor Heinrich Schliemann blithely projected the spiritual and philosophical concerns of their own times onto the deep past. Their very lack of self-awareness made the archaeology of Bronze Age Greece particularly important for modernism. By denying its own florid subjectivity, archaeology seemed to provide objective confirmation of some of the most irrationalist strains of modernist thought. Two important architects of modernist cognitive anxiety, Nietzsche and Freud, appear in these pages, and the narrative attempts to demonstrate the extent to which the archaeology of preclassical Greece provided their common cultural frame of reference.
Perhaps most pivotal for the present work, however, is the theological crisis of modernism—the death of the Christian God and the accompanying search for an alternative account of human origins. Minoan archaeology contributed a significant chapter to the scientific rewriting of the Old Testament, suggesting that European civilization had pagan roots in the island of Crete. Science, in this case, did not entail secularization. One of the most striking aspects of Evans’s prose is how infused and animated it is with a sense of spiritual hunger. His project was not the disenchantment of the Christian world but rather the pagan reenchantment of secular modernity.
The contribution of the present work to the history of the modernist human sciences is the gathering of all the themes discussed above under a single rubric. Without exception, all the archaeologists, psychoarchaeologists, and assorted archaeological devotees who appear in these pages fashioned themselves as prophets. Modernist prophecy was at once a neoarchaic device for utopian world making, a visionary and intuitive way of knowing, and a rhetorical strategy through which to dismantle and reconstruct the Christian narrative of human origins. The historical sciences as a whole—cosmology, geology, paleontology, archaeology—pieced together a secular narrative after the Biblical chronology lost its credibility; here I investigate the way in which various Minoan “books of genesis” attempted to take over that chronology’s prophetic as well as its historical role.
“Prophecy,” never the easiest of words to define, was an extremely complex notion at the turn of the twentieth century. The archaeologist him- or herself was an exemplar of the scientist as prophet, the wielder of an epistemological method first formally characterized by that great apostle of the historical sciences Thomas Henry Huxley, in his 1880 essay “The Method of Zadig: Retrospective Prophecy as a Function of Science.” Huxley presented the story of Zadig, a Babylonian philosopher famous for his deployment of a method of divination relying on the decipherment of tiny clues. Asked if he had seen the queen’s lost dog, Zadig was able to give an accurate description of the animal, despite the fact that he had never laid eyes on it. When he was arrested on the grounds that he must have stolen the royal pet, he protested that he had built up the image from her tracks in the sand:
Long faint streaks upon the little elevations of sand between the footmarks convinced me that it was a she dog with pendent dugs, showing that she must have had puppies not many days since. Other scrapings of the sand, which always lay close to the marks of the forepaws, indicated that she had very long ears; and, as the imprint of one foot was always fainter than those of the other three, I judged that the lady dog of our august Queen was, if I may venture to say so, a little lame.
The effect was magical, but the method was eminently rational. In order to underscore the wonder-working effect, Huxley gave the name “retrospective prophecy” to this technique, asserting that “it is obvious that the essence of the prophetic operation does not lie in its backward or forward relation to the course of time, but in the fact that it is the apprehension of that which lies out of the sphere of immediate knowledge.” To justify his terminology, Huxley explains that while the “foreteller” informs the listener about the future and the “clairvoyant” informs the listener about events at a distance, the retrospective prophet bears witness to events in the deep past. What unites them all is “the seeing of that which, to the natural sense of the seer, is invisible.” Huxley’s essay was included in a collection subtitled Science and Hebrew Tradition, which explicitly advocated retrospective prophecy as the proper method for calibrating and revising the Old Testament narrative.
In his 1983 article “Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes,” the historian Carlo Ginzburg makes the case that the method of Zadig was the defining epistemology of the late nineteenth-century human sciences, an interpretative technique immortalized by the wizardry of Sherlock Holmes and shared by Freudian psychoanalysis, Francis Galton’s new method of identification through fingerprinting, and the connoisseurial technique of the art historian Giovanni Morelli. The literary critic Gillian Beer offers an explanation for the predominance of this epistemology in “Origins and Oblivion in Victorian Narrative,” arguing that it represented an effort to come to terms with the immense vistas of prehistory implied by nineteenth-century geology and Darwinian natural selection: “No longer held in by the Mosaic time order, that history became a mosaic of another sort, a piecing together of subsets into an interpretable picture. Words like traces and decipherment became central.”
For Huxley, the rationalism of the historical sciences was secured with respect to the arrow of time. In his Zadig essay, he explicitly repudiated “fore-telling” and lamented that there was no such term as “back-telling” to capture what he meant by retrospective prophecy. Huxley’s Zadig was a rationalist whose divinatory powers consisted of interpreting the physical traces of events that had already taken place. The past was in principle knowable; the future—with the notable exception of the rigorously law-like movements of the planets—was not. For his pains, Zadig was condemned to death by the Babylonian Magi: “If his method was good for the divination of the course of events ten hours old . . . might it not extend ten thousand years and justify the impious in meddling with . . . the sacred foundations of Babylonian cosmogony?” Similarly, the retrospective prophets of the late nineteenth century threatened to rewrite the Biblical narrative according to the canons of scientific rationality.
Zadig was actually a proxy for Voltaire, who had published a biography of the Babylonian sage in 1747, extolling him as the embodiment of all Enlightenment virtues. As Huxley admits:
Our only real interest in Zadig lies in the conceptions of which he is the putative father; and his biographer has stated these with so much clearness and vivacious illustration, that we need hardly feel a pang, even if critical research should prove King Moabdar and all the rest of the story to be unhistorical, and to reduce Zadig himself to the shadowy condition of a solar myth.
Huxley seemed unruffled by the conundrum that retrospective prophecy itself—“critical research”—might reveal its inventor to be no more than a “solar myth.” For the archaeologists, anthropologists, and ancient historians of this period, however, mythology constituted a sinkhole that sometimes threatened to swallow their Voltairean rationalism altogether.
Evans’s prophetic archaeology was certainly consumed by its own founding stories. He united Zadig’s method with a visionary tendency that betrayed a passionate identification with the mythic exploits of the ancient Cretans. The reconstruction of Minoan religion, in particular, called upon an epistemology that combined the methods of the detective with the inspiration of the nature-worshipping mystic. In this, he was not alone. As the great tide of Christian faith gradually receded, scholarly investigations of non-Christian and pre-Christian religion took on a new status as suppliers of a pagan alternative to the disenchantments of modernity. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and armchair compilers of catalogs of religion like The Golden Bough became the de facto theologians of modernist paganism, and they brought to their task a mixture of irony and enthusiasm, skepticism and passion. Evans, one of the least ambivalent of these scholars, took to his priestly role with gusto, producing long, elegiac passages about the Great Cretan Mother Goddess that read more like prayers or invocations than archaeological analyses.
Along with the destabilizing effects of mythological subject matter, a further difficulty presented itself to the archaeologist desirous of following the method of Zadig. The premise that grounded Huxley’s rational divination was that all worldly phenomena were law-like. The laws of gravity enabled astronomers to reconstruct and predict the movements of the planets over millennia. The laws of “co-ordination of structures” enabled the paleontologist Georges Cuvier to deduce the form of a pelvis of an extinct marsupial from the shape of its jaw. The absolute consistency of the operations of “water, heat, gravitation, friction, animal and vegetable life” made the geological record intelligible to the modern paleontologist. Huxley extended the same principle to archaeology, declaring that the discipline “could have no existence, except for our well-grounded confidence that monuments and other works of art and artifice, have never been produced by causes different in kind from which they now owe their origin.”
But what exactly were the inexorable laws of human life whose consistent operation enabled the retrospective prophet to ply his divinatory art? By the time Huxley was writing in the 1880s, these laws were increasingly defined in racial terms. Despite being grounded in the historical sciences, this discourse showed scant respect for chronology, deploying instead a network of interlocking agreements between the human sciences to rearrange past, present, and future into another grid based on a racial hierarchy. The ancient Greeks (the “chosen people” of secular modernity) were at the top of this ladder, indigenous Australians usually languished at the bottom, and each rung represented a unit of cultural and physical evolution. As the armchair anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor, foremost proponent of the “doctrine of survivals,” remarked: “the condition of modern savages illustrates the condition of ancient stone age peoples.” While the word “savage” was employed to make connections between the past and present, terms like “atavistic” and “degenerate” were mobilized to proclaim doom-laden prophecies of the future. An oracular system of correspondences emerged that collapsed the primitive past of Europe, the primordial savagery of the non-European periphery, and an onrushing modernity that seemed about to throw overboard the achievements of the Enlightenment.
According to this scheme, European explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists were engaged in a sort of living archaeology. To take just one example among many, Bronislaw Malinowski pleaded for the preservation of the culture of the Trobriand islanders on the grounds that it represented “antiquities more destructible than a papyrus and more exposed than an exposed column and more valuable for our real knowledge of history than all the excavations in the world.” The actual archaeology of Bronze Age Greece engaged in this same temporal reasoning in reverse order: as the racial forebears of modern Europeans, the pre-Hellenic Greeks were hailed as protomoderns. Indeed, enthusiasm for the “first Europeans” sometimes exceeded the strict terms of the doctrine of survivals, when they were extolled as models to be emulated for the sake of the future vitality of the white race.
In an earlier book on the ruins of the ancient city of Mycenae, I sketched how Heinrich Schliemann’s archaeological exploits set the tone for this exuberant celebration of the Greek Bronze Age. His avid pursuit of the material truth behind the Homeric epics led him to pour his considerable fortune into excavating the legendary cities of Mycenae and Troy. Partly as a result of Schliemann’s spectacular discoveries and his knack for publicity, the Iliad began to assume a new significance as an alternative, pagan origin story for Western civilization. The warrior ethic of the Homeric poems resonated with the social Darwinism and nationalism that was beginning to define post-Christian Europe, and the archaeology of Greek myth took on a futuristic cast. This took many different forms, but the most politically explosive appropriation of Homeric archaeology was in the newly unified Germany, where Schliemann’s admirers claimed that the Bronze Age Greeks were fair-skinned, fair-haired Aryans, ancestors of the modern “Nordic type.” From there it was but a short step to reason from Agamemnon’s victory over the Trojans to modern Prussian conquest of their racial inferiors.
When the excavation of mythology moved from the Greek mainland to the island of Crete, however, the politics of European origins underwent a decisive shift. Far from being recreated in the image of Aryan military victory, Minoan society was reconstructed as Semitic and North African, matriarchal and unfortified, prosperous, peaceful, and law-abiding. Much of this change is attributable to the individual into whose hands Knossos fell. Although Evans was as instinctively racist as any of his contemporaries, he was also extremely politically liberal and had no truck with Aryan theory. His Minoans were immigrants from Libya, Egypt, and Anatolia, the lands to the east and the south of Crete. He was certainly an “unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort,” with sexual politics that were correspondingly androgynous, and he recreated Minoan Crete as an inverts’ paradise of female deities, cross-dressing priests, and girl athletes. Above all, he was a pacifist, prepared to sacrifice even his scholarly integrity for the cause of peace.
The famous prelapsarian pacifism of the Minoan world started out as a deliberate political decision on Evans’s part. The excavation of Knossos could only proceed after Crete had won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. Horrified by the devastation wrought by the fighting, Evans organized his dig as a site of Christian-Muslim reconciliation, employing workers from both sides of the political divide and offering them their shared pagan heritage as a way to heal their religious strife. He also suppressed the evidence he had already amassed for Minoan military installations and set about resurrecting Bronze Age Crete as an unfortified idyll in the best British style—internally peaceful under the benign administration of the Palace of Knossos, and protected from its enemies without by the “wooden walls” of King Minos’s legendary navy.
That the “first Europeans” were unwarlike quickly became a cherished myth. As the twentieth century launched conflicts of ever greater reach and ferocity, the Minoan epoch came increasingly to be celebrated as the pacifist precursor to Homer’s militaristic age of heroes, a luminous, feminine, fairy-tale exception to an otherwise lamentable human record of violence and hatred. The crisis of rationalism that began to gather steam in the 1870s turned into a full-blown repudiation of scientific progress in the face of the spectacle of the “civilized nations” systematically slaughtering each other’s young. There arose a divinatory alternative epistemology, allied to avant-garde artistic practice, in which the line between fact and fiction was crossed and recrossed in the pursuit of archetypes that straddled the civilized and the savage worlds. Evans’s visionary reconstruction of Knossos was the product of a time and place in which poets—charged with the task of making sense of a culture-annihilating descent into violence—became for a fleeting, fragile moment the acknowledged legislators of truth.