Remembering Martin Bernal

Remembering Martin Bernal
by Alex Joffe*

Buried deep in the footnotes of Martin Bernal’s first volume of Black Athena is a reference to an undergraduate paper about the Sea Peoples. I no longer have a copy of that paper, nor do I remember what I wrote back in 1980. But as someone who took several classes with Martin at Cornell University during the late 1970s, his death has caused sadness and has set me to thinking about those days and his scholarship.

Officially I was a History major specializing in American Foreign Policy. Unofficially I took most of my courses in Near Eastern Studies and Classical Archaeology and worked in the Dendrochronology lab. Martin’s official appointment was in the Government Department (itself a strange artifact but that is another story). I knew that his primary field was China. But he had taken Ancient Near Eastern studies at Cornell by storm and I happily signed on. By that time Martin’s ideas about the Egyptian origins of Greek civilization, which would be presented in the three volumes of Black Athena, were mostly formed. I recall seminars and lectures with Martin holding forth and being challenged by the likes of James Weinstein, David Owen, John Coleman and Jay Jasanoff, that is, from Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Greece and Indo-European linguistics. Martin held his ground.

Why did Greek city-states like Thebes have Egyptian names? Why were there Greek traditions of Phoenicians like Cadmus founding city-states like Thebes? What about the racism of 19th and 20th century Classical scholars towards the ideas of ancient Near Eastern connection and African origins? The word transgressive was never used, thank goodness, but Martin’s challenge to accepted scholarship was nothing but. He cast his challenge in terms of Kuhnian paradigms, the first time I had ever heard of such things. Throughout the 1980s the philosophy of science would grow in importance to archaeology, and it was on this foundation, however, that I proceeded. He was an outsider, pointing at anomalies in the accepted paradigm.

Martin was a charming, open and engaging man, passionate about his ideas but open to callow undergraduates such as myself. This combination was irresistible, certainly in comparison with other aloof and remote faculty that I had encountered. Though he was up front about his liberal politics and his British background, I had no comprehension of what these meant, either in terms of sheer celebrity or the impact on Martin’s thinking.

His father was J.D. Bernal, the creator of x-ray crystallography and one of the leading experimental scientists of the 20th century, as well as a famed commentator on science and society and social radical. His maternal grandfather was Sir Alan Gardiner, the great Egyptologist. This much we understood, and Martin had explained that he had come from a warm family with a deep love of learning and discovery. I recall, for example, stories about the family sitting in bed reading books on ancient Egypt.

These stories and many more are now to be found in his autobiography Geography of a Life. It is a book that reveals what might be called a deeply British life, the political and the intellectual are inextricably interwoven like strands of DNA, movement across the world is constant, along with open access to everyone and everything that mattered, and all this is taken for granted. Sitting next to CIA official Miles Copeland at the Cairo airport the day before during the Six Day War began, being friends with the Mitford sisters, meeting the French historian Jean Pierre Vernant, Communist and resistance hero, at a conference at Remini, all these are matter of fact events, at least for Martin.  

In class Martin also explained how he had belatedly discovered Jewish ancestry on both sides of his family. This was a deeper motivation for his scholarship and Martin’s anger at how antisemitism had shaped Classics was palpable. I suppose I also knew that his father was a member of the Communist Party, although I have only now learned of his Stalin Peace Prize. How Martin felt about his father receiving an award named after mass murderer and an arch antisemite remains unknown to me-it does not appear in his autobiography. None of this really registered at the time, but perhaps it should have.

Colleagues, I am told, found him charming but dogmatic, which is something that should have been obvious but did not register with me either. His dogmatism came across as passion, at least to someone underequipped to evaluate his arguments, or his style of argumentation. Only much later as a young faculty member when I reviewed a volume of Black Athena did I come to understand the differences.

Others are better equipped to write about Martin’s scholarship on China and Vietnam, subjects on which I knew nothing then and not much more now. But I remain struck by the fact that his interests were sufficiently broad, and his talents sufficiently muscular, to become a kind of native, if thoroughly heterodox, scholar in a field entirely different from his own. Evidently this impressed Cornell’s Near Eastern Studies department as well, which gave him a cross-appointment. I now see this was a lesson, at least to me, about the value of curiosity, breadth and persistence. I realize as well that I have unconsciously emulated it. I began in the Ancient Near East but have wandered and published far afield.

Martin took pains to emphasize that his ideas regarding the settlement of Egyptians in pre-classical Greece were not wholly original; he had rediscovered ideas that had been accepted (rightly or wrongly) during the 19th century. These had been driven out by racism and antisemitism, and the idea of a “Dorian Invasion” invented, largely by Germans looking to be the northern ancestors of the Greeks. Here too was a lesson. Martin was acutely aware of the context of knowledge (recall as well that this was still the blissful and innocent era before Edward Said’s Orientalism made all knowledge a series of political claims).

Martin’s contribution was to take ideas from the fringe and to try to move them towards the center, and indeed these were his terms. David Owen had been a student of Cyrus Gordon and Michael Astour, whose great book Hellenosemitica anticipated the work of Walter Burkert and others regarding the deep connections and east-to-west directionality of Ancient Near Eastern to Greek relations. It was thus not only students who felt a certain attraction to Martin’s ideas and his approach. Prompted in some unmeasurable way by Martin’s challenges, scholars from within various fields have since looked more closely and it is now accepted that Greek art, mythology, literature, crafts, the palatial system, all had deep roots in the east. But older ideas were driven out by better ideas and better data, as much as by essentially political challenges.

The movement of ideas, ancient and modern, was the key, but the devil was in the details. If Martin eagerly challenged accepted dogma, the purely European origins of Classical Greece, its civilization, myths, literature and very alphabet, his methods betrayed his own dogmatism. He had come relatively late to the field, and despite his prodigious talents had equipped himself with somewhat irregular meta-knowledge. He was also propelled by an obvious anger and predisposition toward certain conclusion, and was thus impatient with details. He knew enough to challenge accepted paradigms, but he rarely drilled down into the local debates and quandaries, the date of an artifact, alternative explanations for the shape of a letter. And the racist nature of 19th century Classics, so ably discussed later by Suzanne Marchand and others, was a kind of trump card Martin played often.

But his indignation did not equip him with a fuller understanding of archaeology or linguistics. He had little understanding and less time for the intricacies of stratigraphy, chronology or typology, or the exceptions to linguistic rules. His dogmatism was a source of strength but also a source of blindness to the weaknesses in his own arguments. The possible became the likely, the suggestive became the probable, and the heterodox nature of the argument itself became confirmation of the truth while opposition was simply reactionary. Why else would he cite an undergraduate paper except if it seemed to support his views?

Part of this, I think, was a function of his being a contemporary historian rather than an ancient historian or an archaeologist. The data in these realms are simply and fundamentally different and must be treated differently. There are precious few revelations, smoking guns, or absolute conclusions in fields where data are so scattered, fragmentary and indifferent. Archaeologists are also trained to think about alternate explanations. Just how did that artifact get there? What really can be extrapolated from a single inscription?

But such equivocal data points were eagerly seized upon by Martin. It was as if archaeologists five thousand years from now used scraps of auto club maps and a few road signs to determine that North America had been settled by Greeks and Jews, who built Spartas and Bethlehems across a new continent. Respect, admiration, emulation, and a desire to create linear, living connections to traditions to which they saw themselves as heirs, was not enough. And that is precisely why this continent is filled with such place names. But the fact of Egyptian place names in Greece, ancient Greek traditions of Egyptian origins, and forgotten scholarly traditions were enough for Martin. Dogmatism, coupled with a meta view of the issues, is not sufficient.

He could not take his own ideas and integrate them in a measured way into existing models. This was not simply an intellectual but a kind of political or moral compromise. Martin’s politics, which I do not claim to fully understand, were at the root of his epistemology and gave his Ancient Near Eastern scholarship a literal quality. His desire for justice and restitution – understood in political terms - was obvious and thus blinding. His provocation of “Black Athena” was a search for Truth with a capital T, not simply an intellectual exercise but a social act to establish justice, and hence unchallengeable. His role in promoting Afro-centrism was thus well-intentioned but ultimately destructive, substituting new racialist myths for old racist ones. Raising self-esteem is valuable but the simplistic arguments of a “stolen legacy” (the title of George G.M. James 1954 book on the subject that Martin touted) have, as Mary Lefkowitz has shown, neither advanced complex understanding of complex problems nor brought Americans closer to overcoming racism. Scholarship in the name of justice rarely accomplishes either.

It is undeniable that some ideas are unfairly repressed and forgotten, confined to the fringe until such time as they can be brought to the center. As it happens, I had one other such encounter at Cornell, and that was with Alfred Wegener’s idea of continental drift. Only a few years before Wegener’s idea was still derided as nonsense, but by the fall of 1977, it could be cautiously taught as demonstrated reality in freshman geology class. Professor John Bird confirmed my memory of this many years later, and I suppose this is as good a time as any to publicly apologize to him for having slept through too many of his 8 AM classes.

I don’t know the last time I was in touch with Martin, but certainly in the years since I was his student academia as a whole has become more specialized, more compartmentalized, and more shrill and hysterical about challenges to its authority, even as those challenges have become nearly overwhelming. But it seems to me that at least some of Martin’s lessons hold more than ever. Humanistic knowledge is constructed through a social enterprise, but relies on a foundation of facts generated by specialists and whose nature and reality must be accepted before higher order debates can begin. Disciplinary outsiders, by virtue of bringing fresh eyes and open minds can see connections and structures that insiders cannot, and can bring ideas that advance scholarship. For me this has been a powerful insight, and I have taken it to heart in my own life, even as I have moved far from the academic environment and the Ancient Near East. We are only as limited as our skills and interests make us. Conversely, the self-regulating nature of the scholarly enterprise weeds out bad ideas as well as good ones that the guild cannot for whatever reason accept. What is required is passion and persistence, creativity and thoroughness, to break through the reigning paradigm, or to circumvent it altogether.

I wish that I had been in touch with Martin and had told him these things. He meant more to me than I knew, and I suspect others feel the same way.

*Alex Joffe received a BA in History from Cornell in 1981 and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. He edits the American Schools of Oriental Research e-newsletter The Ancient Near East Today.

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2 thoughts on “Remembering Martin Bernal

  1. very interesting. However, having read Black Athena very closely, I would not say that Bernal was 100% honest about his written sources, such as the Church Fathers. The subject is a very big one but neither Bernal nor Mary Lefkowitz said the last word.

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