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The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification by Christopher Hitchens (1987)



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A short but densely-written book providing a competent overview of the controversy regarding the so-called 'Elgin' Marbles: ancient Greek treasures hewn from the Parthenon in 1801 by the British ambassador Lord Elgin and still on display in the British Museum in London.

Previously published under the title Imperial Spoils in 1987, Hitchens freely concedes in his introduction to the updated 2008 edition that he hasn't changed a single word of the book (pg. xii). In one way this is unfortunate, as Hitchens' earlier works often lack the polemical flair of more recent ones. However, the argument is sufficiently strong not to need more than cursory factual updates and, sadly, the controversy remains as intractable now as it was then.

I had initially feared that the book would be a hyper-political screed about the evils of British imperialism but, with the exception of a single-minded and emotional introduction by Nadine Gordimer, this thankfully wasn't the case. Hitchens wisely focuses on the "aesthetic revulsion against the dismemberment" of the statues (pg. 22); he reminds us that the Parthenon and its adornments – the pinnacle of ancient Greek architecture and stonework – were designed with the fundamental idea of "balance and symmetry" in mind (pg. 21). With half the marble carted off to London, this artistic symmetry is undermined; Hitchens' description of "a marvellous canvas arbitrarily torn across" is completely valid (pg. xxii) and he is right to pose the hypothetical of whether we would like to see the Mona Lisa treated in this way (pg. xii). There is certainly a perverse ridiculousness in having, for example, part of the torso of one statue in London and the other half of the same torso in Athens.

There are other arguments in favour of restitution that Hitchens elucidates, and he also ably demolishes many of the opposing arguments. But, speaking personally, it is this matter of the "indivisibility of art" (pg. 106) which is the clincher and with the more recent construction of a new purpose-built museum neighbouring the Acropolis this argument becomes even more powerful. On the whole, the side of the restitutionists in both Britain and Greece carries the air of natural justice. I imagine that if the decision were made tomorrow for the return, the atmosphere in the British newspapers and public opinion would be one of overdue benevolence and relief. Not only is the argument logically stronger, it also just feels right. So much art and culture has been destroyed over the millennia to war and ignorance and lack of appreciation, from the lost fragments of Sappho right through to the current rebuilding of Palmyra after its destruction by Islamist thugs. This makes the case of the Parthenon Marbles even more immediate. Here is a rare chance to strike a blow for art over destruction, and it is in the hands of my own countrymen to do so. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Sep 18, 2016 |
I must admit to having originally acquired this book more for the author than for the subject matter, but having read it I find myself – quite unexpectedly – with much stronger (and somewhat different) feelings regarding the 'Marbles Debate' than I posessed beforehand. It is fair to say that this book has changed the way I think about the subject, which is surely the highest praise one can bestow upon any author of such a work.

Now, I must go and find someone to argue with...
  benjamin7857 | Apr 21, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Christopher Hitchensprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bouras, CharalambosContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Browning, RobertContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gordimer, NadinePrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This edition is dedicated to the memory of James Cubitt RIBA (1914-1983), founder of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. [Verso, 2008]
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