A Day in the Life of a Classicist

This week, Philippa speaks with MARCO BENOIT CARBONE, a doctoral student from University College London who is engaged on research into the myth of Scylla and Charybdis.





Marco tells Iris about growing up in a town surrounded by myth, his take on how the ancient languages have been viewed in recent times and the interpretation of myth through media. 


What is the subject of your thesis?


My research subject is the myth of Scylla and Charybdis. I work in the field of reception studies. Therefore, I am focusing on the theories of mythology, and specifically, on the transformations undergone by this particular myth in modern media as I rely on the ancient sources comparatively. It’s fascinating to see how an apparently minor myth, enjoying relatively little coverage in scholarship, has catalysed so many meanings over different ages up to the present day, from the points of view of folklore, horror, psychology, and even cultural heritage. Scylla and Charybdis can be employed as a visual trope, function as one of the cornerstones in the construction of Homeric geography in the Mediterranean, or resurface in horror film. I am really caught between the past and the present as I compare the classics and modern-day equivalents and see how the understanding of one is strongly tied to the other.


What made you choose this subject?

I chose to focus on Scylla and Charybdis as I narrowed down my initial research project on the demonic feminine in ancient Greek myth. My supervisors Maria Wyke and Charles Stewart helped me out in focusing on a mythical unit from an otherwise overwhelmingly large subject, although they also encouraged me to develop a complex understanding that challenges the idea of “unity”.
This represents one of the most fascinating theoretical aspects and the reason for picking up this topic, although there are more personal reasons as well. I was actually born and raised in Calabria, in the South of Italy, a few miles off the town of Scilla, which has often been seen as the alleged source of inspiration for the abode of one of the two mythical monsters. Therefore, it is probably safe to assume that to me, this research might be the carrier of peculiar idiosyncrasies.


When did you begin learning Latin and/or Greek?

I attended the Liceo Classico (classical high school) in Reggio Calabria, where I had the chance to study Latin and Greek. During those years I was also exposed to the reworking of ancient myth in contemporary film, role playing, games and literature. Moreover, the town of Scilla lay just a few miles off, and Medusa-like heads punctuated the decorations of buildings as much as they survived in the apotropaic masks that people would hang outside their doors.
When I moved to the University of Bologna I chose media and communication sciences in order to match my interests in journalism and writing. However, my fascination for the ancient world never waned. By the time I graduated and decided to pursue a PhD, I moved back to the classics through my own route of media studies. I guess I might make an interesting case study in reception myself!


Did you find a particular aspect of Classics difficult at any point during your studies?

Given my course of studies focusing on media and communication, I am not exactly an expert on the ancient languages. Both in their linguistic aspects and as a cultural products, they can be a barrier because they are the complex remnants of an ancient world, with which they establish a series of relations that defy issues of simple grammar and extend to the literary canons, the authors, and the audience – ultimately, human formations. The more we believe that these languages reflect and entail structures of existence, gender, and thought which reflect the complexity of those societies, the more we should regard the continuous efforts of the community of classicists to engage with the classical languages as an incredibly precious tool for scholars of other disciplines. I am not just thinking about those which are traditionally closer to the classics (archaeology, philology, and history). I also believe that Classics could be increasingly useful to areas traditionally, not directly, or “peacefully associated” with the subject (modern social sciences, anthropology), and that some of the difficulties implied lie on the level of interdisciplinary communication.


What methods of research do you employ in working for your PhD?

I make use of a comparative method that consists in “asking questions” from many different angles and different disciplines: Classics, reception studies, historical anthropology, media and social studies. Scylla and Charybdis represent a subject of research that cannot but be approached interdisciplinarily. It’s also quite useful to approach it from a perspective such as thematic criticism, like when you follow a visual or literary trope and you trace its occurrences through the ages. However this particular research cannot simply stop at linguistic, literary, or artistic aspects. It has to strive and achieve an understanding of these mythical occurrences in their social and anthropological context whenever that is possible. This kind of research would not be possible without the collaboration of my supervisors, sharing a part of their background while providing leading expertise on two distinct disciplinary areas (Classics and anthropology).


Would you recommend a PhD in Classics to others?

Despite the reputation they often enjoy as the very epitome of untimeliness, I believe that to a certain extent Classics are a key to accessing the present. I am not dealing with the subject of the future, but at least as far as the present is concerned, in many cases they still represent or reflect structures of existence and thought that permeate the most timely or apparently future-oriented subjects in the humanistic field. Moreover, philosophically, the information we have on the ancient world is incomplete. Therefore, we are constantly forced to develop a sceptical attitude and an open-minded approach to texts, artefacts, notions. This ultimately incomplete nature makes it an open-ended territory of struggle towards what we may try and define as “facts” and I believe that is one of the most impressive epistemological training fields imaginable. I would emphatically recommend a PhD in Classics as long as those who are entertaining the idea are moved by a strong personal passion and are willing to face the huge and occasionally daunting amount of dedication (and sometimes, the financial hardships) it requires in any of its subfields. 


What do you hope to do following completion of your PhD?

I would like to continue my studies in academia, although I am extremely interested in working in heritage, preservation, and cultural development and I have always been fascinated by the creative practices of film making and the arts.


People are always wondering about the use of 'dead' languages in the modern world. What would be your response?


I believe that you could assume a language is dead so long as the world it represents is actually dead. Undoubtedly, the people who lived in the past are dead. The community of scholars and classicists involved in these languages however is quite alive and far from being endangered. Actually, it might be worth investigating whether or not users of Latin and Greek today may currently outnumber the speakers of other living (and sadly, in some cases, endangered) languages. The two things can actually be related. I think of the fast-shrinking speakers of medieval variants of Greek in the Bova area in Calabria or Puglia: many aspects of these communities’ beliefs, stories, and material culture are still alive, but they may not stay like that for long. Any effort for the preservation of their cultures might certainly benefit from the work of linguists as much as classicists.
In a case like this, it’s hard to draw a line between a dead and a living language. But first and foremost, and despite any claim for the “utility” of these languages, I believe that we should maintain an interest in all of them for their sheer beauty and ability to unleash their worlds.


Would you like to see Classics made more widely available to young people?

Yes, of course. However, I believe that it might be worthwhile to expand and question what we define as a “classic” today and what it means to make them “more widely available”. What we refer to as Classics are texts (in the semiotic sense) that are being increasingly digested and made available to young audiences by the unguided trajectories of popular cultures; whether or not you are inclined to regard the reworking in a film or video game as a dignified transformation of a classic, that representation might probably be enjoying a larger popular success than the classic itself at that moment. As a scholar you will have to face this reality and bring your understanding of the classic to a confrontation with the new models.
Of course I am speaking from my personal background and subjects of study, which happen to be quite mercurial and defy semantically and psychologically any barrier in terms of media or genre. Classics are not a monolithic unit, but a complex world of their own, and they deserve to be popularized and problematized for as many audiences as possible with both openness and rigor. 


Is there a character, personage or author from the ancient world who has especially inspired you in your Classics career?

That would most definitely be Medusa, for the way She condenses, articulates, and spreads out infectiously the mystery of the gaze and a series of unsolved contradictions that go deep down into the abyss of our existence.


Marco has written for and edited Italian film journals and has recently published his first academic work.