On the Greek-Talking Birds: Virginia Woolf and the Greek-Talking Men
That the attitude towards Greece in England in the first decades of the 20th century was as
gendered as classical education had been for centuries, and that the latter is the reason for the former, can be glimpsed when one reads, side by side, two hauntingly similar yet disconcertingly different essays on Greece: Virginia Woolf’s “On Not Knowing Greek” (1925) and W.H. Auden’s “The Greeks and Us” (1948). Both authors reflect upon spiritual and intellectual indebtedness to Greece and both reveal a deep admiration for the Greek heritage. Yet, they do so from two different angles. Whereas Auden writes about Greece from the perspective of an insider who belongs there, confidently and unquestionably, Woolf does so as an outsider. To Auden, the Greeks and “us” share the same emotional and intellectual continuum; to Woolf, the distance between them and us is unbreachable. In her withdrawn admiration she refrains even from admitting that she is quite fluent in ancient Greek, suggesting –with the very title– the contrary. These opposite perspectives on equally beloved tradition are all the more striking because Woolf, as much as Auden, was a connoisseur of Greek literature. Exploring this issue, it is necessary to look at the significance of the classics in the traditional model of education with its gender division, at English literary tradition, and at psychological and artistic reactions to the pressure exerted by the patriarchal discourse, such as the “Greek-talking birds” from Woolf’s hallucinations. As I demonstrate in this article, the Greek-talking birds are one key trope in Woolf’s fiction that suggest her obsession with the language and her fear of gender exclusion, but perhaps more than anything they evoke the mythical figure of Tiresias, the shadowy model for all sex-shifters.