“The man-hunter and the job-hunter have succeeded the hunter and warfare and welfare merge in a way of life as completely as any Paleolithic or Stone Age society.”
–Marshall McLuhan, in his 1971 Convocation address at the University of Alberta.
26 December 2022
I had not previously been a radical job-seeker until April of 2020. Prior to this time, I had been active in seeking tenure-track jobs in Classics and Ancient History, but only rarely looked beyond these opportunities. (You can read about the present state of the job market in Humanities disciplines here and here.) It was in April 2020 that the university I was working for in Edmonton announced that they would not proceed with their scheduled courses for spring and summer, adapted to the pandemic-induced online mode of delivery.
This meant that my job for the summer, to teach Classical Mythology, had been canceled and I was out $7800 for July and August, on which my family of four was going to survive until my regular teaching resumed again in September 2020. We had our second child in September 2019 and my wife, a high school teacher, was just gearing up to return to work after her maternity leave. (Learn more about how maternity leave is punished in education and academia here.)
So, April arrived, and I had nothing lined up to carry us through beyond the first week of July. Luckily, the course I usually teach for a college in Cold Lake, AB, is set up as an online course, so that proceeded as usual, and I had a steady income from when teaching ended at my main employer in Edmonton until July.
At this time, I was working a three-year Sessional-Extended Contract, which includes guaranteed 3-3 teaching from September to April, compensated at 7800 CAD per course. Usually, I taught nine or ten courses per year between Edmonton and Cold Lake, bringing my income to what I would consider sustainable levels, between seventy and eighty thousand Canadian dollars.
The pandemic-related work stoppage was a big shock for me, as it came on the heels of two tenure-track searches for Classics faculty at my main employer, where they had passed me over. Now, I was laid off in the most sensitive time, when the Canadian Prime Minister was frequently on the news asking institutions to retain their employees as much as they could, and I realized I could not keep doing the same things and expecting different results.
I changed my academic job-search strategy to apply also for the short term, visiting positions. We had had a family agreement that we would only move if I got a permanent job, because my wife was happy with her work as a teacher. Now, because of the pandemic and hiring priorities, I could no longer rely on my main employer in Edmonton as a stable source of income. I needed to work at a different university, so I cast my net wide.
At the same time, I was idle and frustrated during the first pandemic restrictions, having only my online employment in Cold Lake as a connection to the outside world. I went looking for local jobs, and I started serving as a handyman for the condo corporation where we owned our home, and started delivering food for an organic food start-up in Edmonton.
This gave me renewed confidence. It felt OK that I had lost my ordinary work and picked up these odds and ends. But something else was about to change as my main employer, who had just laid me off, sent me a new contract for September, asking me to sign by a certain date, and Memorial University asked to discuss my application for the 8-month Visiting Assistant Professorship.
Long story short, I took the Memorial offer. I told my employer in Edmonton that I couldn’t teach for them in 2020-21, we sold our house, and moved from Edmonton, AB, to St. John’s, NL. The shock of moving from the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada to the highest, at the same time as living apart from everyone in our new home because of the pandemic, took its toll on my family. My wife doubted whether this had been a reasonable choice for us.
This shock wore off in about nine months and we started to enjoy our time here very much; life and work returned to normal. Everything was about 30% more expensive than we were used to, but we adjusted. What we, and everyone else on earth, did not expect was the massive inflation of late 2021 and 2022. The shock of that put me back in my April 2020 mindset.
We did the math. Over the course of 2021, I lost $7000 dollars in purchasing power. That’s a big hit to a $56,000 annual income. (Yes, I am one of those who moved across the country for lower pay and more prestige.) In 2022, my salary lost another $7000 in value. Now, I am working my visiting professorship for $42,000 in 2020 dollars. This is very bad.
I had free time coming after I submitted grades in December, so I took a risk and worked as a mall Santa for two weeks. That was the very definition of an “odd job,” but it bought our family what we would consider an ordinary Christmas, which we otherwise would not have been able to afford.
The Santa job ended, and here I sit, working as a security guard in a hotel. I hope that working this job part-time alongside my full-time academic work will help us survive the global affordability crisis, and I hope the best for everyone struggling with these issues.
Kevin Solez, PhD
Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador St. John’s, NL, Canada (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Father: That’s great, dear. We’re so happy for you. Tell us all about it.
Child: I’ve never felt this way about another person. I’m giddy with joy at the idea that we can be together forever!
Mother: Who is it? Do we know the family?
Child: I can’t wait for you to meet. I know you’ll love each other so much.
Father: Go ahead; describe your new love.
Child: I hope you will approve. Will you?
Mother: What do you mean? Of course we will approve.
Child: I mean… Well… I’ll just say it: It’s… a third declension.
Father: What?! I can’t believe it… our child falling in love with one of them?
Mother: Calm yourself, dear. I’m sure we can get our child to see reason.
Child: Reason? I’m in love!
Father: But see here, you know this is a shock to your mother and me. You must understand… Her family has been first declension for generations, and my own family has been second declension longer than anybody can remember.
Child: But we’re all NOUNS, right? Can’t we accept one another, no matter what declension we are?
Mother: Of course we’re all nouns, dear, but…
Child: And don’t we all have gender, number, and case?
Father: Yes, that all goes without saying, but the third declensions… Well…
They’re a DIFFERENT KIND of noun.
Child: But aren’t first and second declensions also different from one another in some ways?
Mother: Yes, of course we’re different in small ways, but we are compatible. It’s just… Well, you know what they say about third declensions… They’re… Well, they’re irregular.
Child: Are you prejudiced against the stem change? Is that it? Just because they have stems and endings a little bit different than yours doesn’t make them monsters.
Father: Yes, but a group that has all three genders is a bit tough for us traditionalists to handle.
Child: Don’t be hypocritical; what about some of my second declension uncles and aunts on your side who are masculine or feminine, depending on the context?
Father: Please, I told you not to mention them in polite company. Let’s not discuss that.
Child: And what about some of my first declension cousins who have what look like masculine endings, but are feminine? I won’t mention any names, but you know who they are. And now that I think about it, what about some of my cousins who are masculine first declensions (that’s your side Mom), who have what look like feminine plural endings? Do you call them irregular? Do you love them any less because of that little quirk?
Mother: Of course we love them, dear. They’re our family, bless their hearts. We accept them… But third declensions… I just don’t know. And what would our friends say?
Father: Now see here; we have known some third declensions, but never socialized with them, let alone become intimate with them. I just can’t imagine having them permanently in our lives. Would we invite them to the beach house? Imagine a bunch of them lying out there sunbathing – and
FULLY DECLINED – I don’t know if I could bear the sight. Sorry, I know that my saying this hurts you, but I’m only being honest.
Child: Well I love my third declension, and we’re going to marry and raise a family and be happy together for the rest of our lives, whether you like it or not.
Mother: You would have children with a third declension?
Child: I love my third declension, Momma! Don’t you remember what first love is like? Don’t you remember the thrill of first exploring all the cases of your beloved, both singular and plural? Remember when you first saw Daddy’s dative plural?
Mother: [sighs] You’re right. That gave me the shivers, in a wonderfully happy way. Yes, new love is a beautiful thing. And really, we all ARE nouns, aren’t we? And we should not let something like this break up our family.
Father: Yes, dear; you’re right, too. [sighs] I remember the thrill when your vocative first crossed my lips. What love! Our child is right; we must love everyone in our family, regardless of the status of their stems or endings. Love is love. Besides, our older children have already married within their own declensions, so I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the youngest brings in someone different. Dear child, I’m sure we will learn to love your spouse. You have our blessings.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Daniel B. Levine (BA Minnesota 1975; PhD Cincinnati 1980) is University Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Arkansas, where he has taught Classical Studies, Humanities, Greek, and Latin since 1980. His publications include essays on Greek comedy, tragedy, and epic poetry, and modern literary receptions of ancient Greek and Roman literature, including works by Rita Mae Brown, V. T. Hamlin, and Michael Chabon. He has received teaching and service awards from the Society for Classical Studies, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, and the University of Arkansas. He has directed 19 study abroad programs.
Twitter and the tech world have been abuzz recently about ChatGPT, an artificial-intelligence conversation bot that will respond to your questions and prompts, often with surprisingly cogent language. It’s made by the same outfit that created DALL•E, the image-generation AI — look to your right for an example of DALL•E’s handiwork.
I took it for a spin through some of Classics’ greatest hits, and then got weird with it. Below are the best results, starting with a normcore but, again, surprisingly cogent bit of prep for comprehensive exams, and then progressing into glimpses of what the AI thinks about ancient Greek and Roman history, literature, and philosophy. The text in bold is what I fed to ChatGPT as prompts, and everything else are its responses, unedited.
Three prompts for essays about Greek comedy
“The role of satire in Ancient Greek comedy: How did playwrights use humor and mockery to critique society and political figures?”
“The evolution of Greek comedy: How did the genre change and develop over time, and what were the key influences and innovations?”
“Comparing and contrasting the works of Aristophanes and Menander: How did these two playwrights approach comedy, and what were the similarities and differences in their styles and themes?”
A Homeric Hymn to Beyoncé
Hear me, O goddess Beyoncé,
Daughter of the goddess Tina,
Born to greatness in the city of Houston,
Goddess of music and dance,
Your beauty is like the stars above,
Your voice a symphony of sweet sounds,
Your performance a sight to behold,
A vision of grace and poise,
You are the queen of all you survey,
A shining light in the music world,
Your talents and gifts known far and wide,
A source of inspiration and joy,
From your humble beginnings in Destiny’s Child,
To your rise as a solo artist,
You have conquered stages and hearts,
A true diva, the likes of which the world has never seen,
So sing a hymn to Beyoncé,
A goddess among mortals,
A shining star in the firmament,
A source of beauty, power, and majesty,
Hear us, O goddess Beyoncé,
And grant us a glimpse of your divine radiance,
A reminder of the greatness that lies within us all.
Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus go to a pizzeria. Who picks the toppings on their pizza, and what are the toppings?
with credit to my buddy from grad school, Derek Keyser, who liked asking versions of this question of visiting prospectives
It is difficult to say for certain who would pick the toppings on the pizza, as there is not enough information about the personalities and preferences of Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus. However, it is possible to speculate based on what we know about these historical figures.
Cicero was a Roman statesman and philosopher who was known for his eloquence and rhetorical skills. He was also a famous gourmet, and was known to enjoy good food and drink. Given his love of good food, it is likely that Cicero would have a strong opinion on the toppings for the pizza, and would likely choose something exotic and flavorful.
Caesar was a Roman general and statesman who was known for his military prowess and political ambition. He was also a well-known lover of luxury, and was known to indulge in rich food and drink. Given his taste for luxury, it is likely that Caesar would choose toppings that are expensive and high-quality, such as truffles or caviar.
Catullus was a Roman poet who was known for his passionate and emotional poetry. He was also known to enjoy good food and drink, and was known to be a bit of a hedonist. Given his love of pleasure, it is likely that Catullus would choose toppings that are rich and indulgent, such as cheese, bacon, and mushrooms.
Overall, it is difficult to say exactly what toppings Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus would choose for their pizza, as this would depend on their individual preferences and personalities. However, based on what we know about these historical figures, it is likely that their choices would reflect their love of good food and their enjoyment of luxury.
Who would have been a better drag queen, Plato or Aristotle?
It is difficult to say definitively who would have been a better drag queen between Plato and Aristotle. Both men were renowned philosophers and thinkers, and it is possible that they would have brought different strengths and talents to the world of drag. Plato was known for his emphasis on imagination and creativity, which could have made him a strong performer with a unique and imaginative style. Aristotle, on the other hand, was known for his logical and analytical mind, which could have made him a skilled and disciplined drag queen with a well-planned and polished performance. Ultimately, it is up to personal preference as to which of these philosophers would have been the better drag queen.
A dialogue in which Socrates asks Gorgias increasingly irritating questions about Seinfeld
Socrates: Greetings, Gorgias. I hear that you are a fan of the TV show Seinfeld.
Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, I am a fan of Seinfeld. It is a classic show that is still enjoyed by many people today.
Socrates: Tell me, Gorgias, what do you believe is the purpose of Seinfeld?
Gorgias: The purpose of Seinfeld, Socrates, is to entertain and to make people laugh. It is a comedy show that follows the everyday lives of a group of friends in New York City.
Socrates: I see. And do you believe that Seinfeld achieves this purpose?
Gorgias: Yes, I do believe that Seinfeld achieves its purpose. It is a funny and entertaining show that has been enjoyed by millions of people.
Socrates: But do you not find the characters in Seinfeld to be shallow and self-centered? Do they not constantly engage in petty squabbles and arguments?
Gorgias: Well, Socrates, I suppose that some of the characters in Seinfeld could be seen as shallow and self-centered. However, I still find the show to be funny and entertaining.
Socrates: And do you not find the humor in Seinfeld to be crass and tasteless at times? Do the characters not frequently engage in crude and vulgar behavior?
Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, I do believe that the humor in Seinfeld can be crass and tasteless at times. However, I still enjoy the show and find it to be funny.
Socrates: But do you not think that the constant emphasis on material possessions and shallow relationships in Seinfeld is harmful and unedifying? Do you not believe that it reinforces negative values and behaviors?
Gorgias: Well, Socrates, I can see how some people might view Seinfeld in that way. However, I still enjoy the show and find it to be entertaining.
Socrates: I see. It seems that you are willing to overlook the many flaws and negative aspects of Seinfeld in order to enjoy its shallow and vulgar humor. Perhaps you should reconsider your admiration for this show, Gorgias.
A story in the style of Herodotus about Solon’s experiences with speed-dating
Solon, the wise and noble Athenian lawgiver, was known for his wisdom and fair-mindedness. But even he had not yet encountered the strange and wondrous ritual known as speed-dating.
One day, a group of his friends convinced him to give it a try. He reluctantly agreed, and soon found himself seated at a small table with a group of other singletons. A bell rang, and the first potential partner approached him.
“Hello, I’m Daphne,” she said with a smile. “What do you do for a living?”
Solon was taken aback. “I am a lawgiver,” he replied, unsure of how to proceed.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Daphne replied, before quickly moving on to the next person.
The bell rang again, and another potential partner approached Solon. This time it was a young man named Hector.
“Hi, I’m Hector,” he said, shaking Solon’s hand. “What do you enjoy doing in your free time?”
Solon was stumped. He had never been asked such a question before. “I enjoy contemplating the nature of justice and the laws that govern society,” he replied, trying to make conversation.
Hector looked confused, but before he could respond, the bell rang again, signaling the end of their time together. Solon watched as Hector moved on to the next person, feeling a sense of relief.
The rest of the speed-dating session passed in a blur of introductions and small talk, with Solon feeling increasingly out of his depth. By the end, he was grateful to return to his familiar world of philosophical contemplation and lawmaking.
As he left the speed-dating event, Solon shook his head in amazement. He had never before encountered such a strange and frenzied way of meeting potential partners. It was not for him, but he could not deny the ingenuity of those who had devised it.
I can remember almost exactly when I decided to stop pursuing a University job. It was sometime around 8am on a nondescript Thursday in February 2018 – and I was in the back of an ambulance. I didn’t know at the time, but the impact of a van driving into me while I was cycling to the station an hour earlier had broken my pelvis in several places, and was about to mean 10 days in hospital and another 3 months on crutches. It also made me realise that even thinking about turning down the full-time, well-paid, likely-to-go-permanent, school teaching job put on a plate in front of me just a few days earlier was sheer madness.
All this sounds very melodramatic – but it is absolutely true. For all the brilliant things about the still very new job which I was commuting to when the accident happened, I really did think it might have been in my best interests not to stick with it, but to take an enormous gamble on a lectureship coming up for the following September. How had it taken something as serious as hospitalisation to make me realise I’d had a genuinely very good deal already land in my lap, and that it was OK to stop pursuing the Elusive Permanent Academic Job which everyone kept telling me was within my grasp eight years after being awarded my PhD?
Don’t let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
Just one more application, one more term, one more year… I spent the next couple of days (it might have been more, or less – blame the morphine or oxycodone) idly following the UCU strike on Twitter and pondering my life choices. Maybe all this was a sign. I don’t want these reflections to be another sad tale of the woes of academia. There are enough of those, and many far sadder and more upsetting than mine. I’m not after pity in writing this. Instead this is a cathartic warts-and-all tale about my experiences of finding a life outside the Ivory Tower, a life that can be just as fulfilling intellectually – if you want it to be.
On paper I’d had a pretty good run: in 2010 from the September straight after the PhD three years at one place (actually a succession of three one-year jobs, because the Faceless Uni will commit as little long-term cash as possible), then a prestigious post-doc for three years, then a single semester job that then gave me another semester part time. This last job was actually in the city where I had been building a life with my partner for the previous 10 years or so: prior to this a lengthy weekly commute had been the norm.
Apart from getting a book out – that’s a whole other tale of woe, tardy reviewers, crying, and email-management ineptitude at an Unnamed Publisher – I felt like I’d done everything right. I was now getting shortlisted for the permanent posts I was applying for, but never quite making first choice. And by September 2017 I had had enough. I wasn’t about to apply for a(nother) temporary job 400 miles from home. I felt by this point I was worth more than this. As a former Head of School once said to me, ‘it’s a war of attrition’, before regaling me with tales of his back-to-back postdocs. And in this war my nameless enemies were starting to win.
So in November 2017 I went for, and got, a temporary, part-time school teaching job a short commute from home. And after a very short time, this place really felt like home. Maybe part of it is down to size: there are some 100-ish teaching staff, and I know most of them by name. I know who Senior Leadership are, the people actually making the decisions which affect me and my life. They speak to the staff – their colleagues – at least once a week. I have even spoken to them socially. At all of my other institutions I wouldn’t have been able to pick those running the University out of a line up. There is also as much free tea and coffee as you can drink, in actual pottery mugs rather than immediate landfill, and in the halcyon pre-COVID days, free cake and cheese straws: this was all far better than a sad brew in a paper cup from a soulless, expensively-branded University outlet – and you didn’t have to pay £1.50 a pop for it out of your own pocket. This job made me realise how utterly expendable I had been to my employers for most of the last decade. This school made enormous efforts to get me back after the accident when I was ready, rather than simply replacing me to suit their own needs because it would have been easier. That is not to say that my immediate colleagues in Uni Land had never fought tooth and nail to keep me at the end of my six separate contracts – I’m certain some of them really did – but in the end there is only so much academic departments can do in the face of The System, and the Giant Balance Sheet which must exist in all Higher Education Establishments. I’d simply been a faceless figure in the expenditure column. Here, I was Dr Coker, valued and respected Teacher of Classics, the one who keeps introducing herself by accident to students with her first name because old habits die hard.
And it’s not that I hadn’t felt good at my job before, but I was good at this job, and I enjoyed it. I even started to dare to have fun at work, discovering that there is almost nothing 15 year olds won’t do for a Party Ring (= type of cheap UK biscuit), and that there can be immense joy in teaching younger students.Nothing gives you more instant feedback than a room of teenagers, and nothing also says appreciation like a hand-made card with a drawing of a pelvis on it with a pink heart, seven weeks after you start your new job. Weird, absolutely, but also peculiarly endearing. It’s not that students of 18+ are incapable of such displays of affection – nor indeed those University staff who teach them – but there is a genuine sense of community at my workplace which I had not realised I had been missing. I’m not in need of constant praise, but more positivity in the previous decade would have been nice. I think of myself as mostly pretty emotionally robust, but my experience of academia is that it is fundamentally set up to make you feel like a failure, regardless of your status. Got a PhD? Well done, but you need to publish it. Got a your first temp job? Great, but, you know, it finishes in 10 months so get writing that postdoc application, sort your publications out, and then get applying again. Finished that article and sent it off? Good news! If you are really lucky, you’ll get some feedback within a year, and Reviewer B won’t question the entirety of your knowledge base with his (and I think the pronoun is more likely correct there than not) anonymous acerbic vitriol.
Four years on and for all the positive things about the now not-new job, the truth is I’ve only recently stopped feeling like a failure because I’m not in The Club any more. This change in status has been the hardest part of the transition, such is the way in which academia wraps up your own personal identity with that of your intellectual achievements. I’m still invited to give papers or public talks from time to time, and do various kinds of reviewing for well-known journals which definitely helps me prove to myself I have what it would have taken. I submit the odd conference abstract, and am beavering away when time allows on various publications including The Thesis Book (a.k.a. The Millstone Round My Neck). I’m doing this now because I want to, because there is a reason I went back to Uni to do an MA, and then a PhD, which was because the Real Jobs I had in between my studies were boring and unfulfilling.
But what am I now, what label do I put on myself? I have an Honorary Research Fellowship at my nearest University, which keeps me an academic email, unfettered library access and perhaps some small amount of kudos. ‘Independent Scholar’ sounds like I am deliberately claiming some kind of maverick autonomy which I’m not sure I am. ‘Gentleman Scholar’ of course is even worse, not least because I don’t define myself as a man, gentle or otherwise. I take heart from the acknowledgements which fill the early pages of LSJ (the big lexicon of ancient Greek) to all the ‘non-professional Classicists’ in non-University settings whose own expertise was invaluable to this monolith of scholarship. I’ll just have to be me, and pick my own way through this identity crisis. We’re beyond labels now, right…?
Remember that to change your mind and to follow a new directionis not to sacrifice your independence. It’s your own action which brings this about, through your own impulse and judgement, and your own mind.
Most importantly, and this shouldn’t be unsurprising but somehow I feel I need to say it, loudly enough that those those who are thinking about jumping ship and doing something beyond academia can hear: I Am Ok. I haven’t lost all my intelligence and experience. I still have Dr in front of my name, which perhaps ironically is used far more now I’ve left HE than when I was in it. My publications still count – though just for me and some higher ideal of the search for knowledge, not for any bureaucratic exercise (UK-based folks will know all about REF) or because I need them for a promotion.
My friends and family still love me, and am proud of me, even my friends who still work in the sector (of course!). Some of them are actually more proud of me now for having had the confidence of my convictions to decide to follow a different route than one which is, let’s face it, not always what it is cracked up to be. What’s really empowering is that once you’ve escaped the Ivory Tower, you may well be invited back in from time time, but you don’t have to say yes unless you want to. Leaving academia teaches you that it’s ok to say no – and incidentally makes you realise how much of the academic discipline operates through good will and favours beyond formal contracts of employment.
Four years on, do I regret any of my time in academia? Absolutely not. Do I think it’s a ‘waste’ not having ended up in Uni-world? No, no education or experience is a waste. And, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t try my best. If it is a waste, then that’s not on me. At the very least, those jobs all paid the rent ,then the mortgage, and led me to see places I would never otherwise have been. I’ve also picked up some wonderful people along the way, whom with any luck I will keep by my side for the rest of my life.
But let’s not pretend academia is peopled entirely with the great and good, since we all know absolutely that it is not. There are plenty of low-level miscreants alongside the infamous headline cases. I’ve met some people who should never be in charge of anything, yet somehow are running the show, and regardless of this a few of these people will probably end up with buildings named after them. I’ve sat in front of interviewers who were on their phones under the table (I’m pretty sure this guy does now have a building named after him, or at least moved on with a massive promotion), and others who genuinely nodded off during interviews.
I’m sorry, I’m really not that boring: if you have so much work to do that you can’t stay awake in my interview – and by the way, I’m sure that work didn’t involve reading the course materials you requested I painstakingly prepare for this interview which you clearly haven’t even bothered to open – then the system really is broken. And also, by the way, as someone in charge of that system or at the very least complicit in it, maybe you should try leading from the top and enacting change? Earn your massive salary by thinking about those who might need you to represent them for once. Has academia has left me bitter? Yes, and disappointed that my experience of working in it was not what I had hoped it would be.
I still occasionally look at adverts for positions when they come round, but with an odd mixture of masochistic voyeurism and relief. The job market has only got worse in the last four years, compounded now of course by the uncertainties of Brexit and COVID-19, which in all honesty makes me realise that my decision in the back of that ambulance four years ago was undeniably the right one. Never say never, but at the moment I’m glad to be out of it all.
As I sit here at my desk at home in my very comfortable study pondering the last decade or so, the story of the last decade doesn’t look like failure, even though from time to time the pangs of self-doubt whisper in my ear that it is. Carving your own path is hard, but untrodden ways can come with their own sometimes-unexpected rewards, and be absolutely worth it.
Amy Coker has a PhD in Classics from the University of Manchester, UK. She taught and held research positions in University-land for the best part of a decade after her PhD, before jumping ship to school teaching (11-18 year olds) in 2018. She still manages to find time to think and write about Ancient Greek offensive words, pragmatics, and historical linguistics, and to do what she can to make Classics a better place. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.
Nandini: I was going to ask if you wanted to play a little game with me. I do this one midterm evaluation that asks every student to pick one thing they’d add to your course, one thing they’d drop, one thing they’d change, and one thing they’d keep the same. And I wondered if we could do that for “classics” as a field right now. What would we add that isn’t already happening?
Ethan: One thing that I would like to see is more courses that cover broader topics in antiquity, [like one we teach at UT-Austin] called “The Ancient Mediterranean World.” The first thing we talk about is how the idea of “the West” or “the Mediterranean” is extremely problematic because that spans multiple continents and multiple climates and multiple cultures … from Babylon, Sumer, Egypt, Israel, all the way up until Greece and Rome. And we end up forming links between all of those cultures. I think courses that help you see similarities and share experiences between cultures are super cool and underutilized in colleges in general.
Nandini: I love that. And I would add to your “add” that I would really love more training in grad school or at other levels to prepare us to do that kind of teaching [in keeping with recent interest in global antiquities]. I know it’s intimidating for any of us, after the depth of training we receive in a couple cultures, to branch out and feel like amateurs. I think it’s actually okay to be an amateur; I wish that we would embrace the fact that we’re always learning and we don’t need to stay forever within our dissertation fields. But I would love serious training on those cultural interactions really emphasized as part of the curriculum instead of [treated as] a throwaway option. [The same goes for interactions between antiquity and the present.] My students always love when we add some thought to the modern world — conversations about cultural interactions or appropriations or intersectionality with a classical twist. So I find that using Eidolon articles or bringing up modern angles is a great way to start or end discussion [that could also be better modelled in graduate school].
<We rave about Antigone in Fergusonand the brilliant discussions it’s generated in our classrooms, then move on to what we’d drop.>
Ethan: One thing I would drop is the idea that you need a fully complete resume to get into graduate school. And what I mean by that is a lot of professors, when a student comes to them with an interest in graduate school in classics, say, “Okay, you need four years of one language, three years of another. You need experience in this and this. … And it would also help to know either French or German or Italian.” And that can be severely limiting to students who didn’t have access to that sort of thing in high school. … If you put all of these qualifiers in, then it’s frankly impossible for a student who comes into college without any knowledge or practice in classics to go to graduate school … and become a professor or be a part of the field, right? And that can be severely limiting and it’s frankly not true. I mean, I was lucky to have a lot of high school experience in Latin, but I didn’t take any classics courses my freshman year … by the time I was doing advanced Greek, I was a second-semester junior. I didn’t have any German or French. And I got into a good program out of undergrad because I worked hard and I had a lot of confidence in myself and I had people tell me that I could do this — but I don’t think everyone has that. A lot of places, professors tend to gate-keep the field, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Nandini: And even your saying that you “only” had a certain amount of Greek by your junior year is already amazing, right? Many people, especially ones who fall in love with classics late in their college career, might not have access to even one Greek class — but they could have so much to bring to the field. So I fully endorse that and I want to add for the record that you may have more Latin right now than I did by the time I became a professor. <They laugh; Nandini attended a public high school with no Latin program and stumbled into classics as an undergraduate.> But there’s a kind of virtue in coming to the field from a background that wasn’t about rigorous language training from the very beginning. I think that actually you sometimes have more insights or you can be a little more creative in your outlook.
So I totally agree with you and I would add, as a corollary, that I’d love to change our ideas of what expertise looks like, but also drop the expectation of total comprehensive synthetic knowledge of everything ever written on a particular author. Which is something that [we faculty often] perpetuate with the way that we do grad school reading lists and design exams and [compose] footnotes that last pages. It creates so much fear and intimidation. I mean, if you’re a Vergil scholar like me and you feel you need to read every one of the hundred thousand things ever written about a particular passage, you would never write a word. So I think that we need to start modifying that culture for sure.
Ethan: Also, to add onto that, letting students know that it’s okay to skim articles. Because I think this is one of the dirty secrets of academia, especially when you first get into graduate school. You have a thousand lines of Latin to read for one class, plus five or six articles and you’re not going to be able to physically do that with two or three other classes. And I think a lot of professors try and keep the secret that people skim … and that’s okay. You don’t have to read every single word of an article. If you can understand what the author is doing, the logic they’re using, and at least some of the references they’re making or some of the source material they’re citing, that’s good. And that’s especially good for a college student.
Nandini: Absolutely. And there’s this old ethos, or maybe it’s more an aesthetic, where [professors] would cultivate the aura of somebody who has completely memorized the entire classical corpus. They would sit in the front at lectures and trot out verbatim citations in the original language. There is something incredibly cool and wonderful about that and I love many of those people who can do that. But for a long time, that was what I thought was the only way to be good at this field. And the truth is that in our information age, where we can instantly call up any article or look up any text, that kind of memorization expertise is getting not outdated but replicated. Because as you say, it’s more important to know how to read than to have fully memorized every single thing, because you can always [look them up if you need]. Or if you have the skill set of designing a good argument and understanding where it needs evidence, and understanding how to critique the scholarship — if you have all that, that’s actually much more important than having a bunch of bibliography at the tip of your tongue.
Ethan: One thing we would change — do you want to go first on this one?
Nandini: I think this current digital age allows a lot more potential for conversations and collaborations across institutions. I’ve gotten so much during the pandemic from chatting with other BIPOC classicists or grad students at different programs than mine [often while] giving visiting talks from my living room. I really love the ability to move around so freely in terms of conversations and support networks. And so I guess I would just keep going in that direction. I think it’s really healthy [that WCC, AAACC, and other organizations] are building mentorship relationships that reach beyond your specific department. Because in some of my darkest times as an academic, when I felt bullied or harassed — and believe me, this happens in grad school, but it keeps happening; getting a job is not the end, getting tenure is not the end of microaggressions or gatekeeping — in those situations, it’s having friends outside of my institution that has really saved me. And I would wish that for anybody else in this field.
[Academia] can be very isolating, and there’s this false perception that everyone gets it except for you — that they all know what they’re doing and they’re all understanding that article or writing that paper perfectly on the first try. I think that we need to make [classics] a less lonely endeavor — we need to make it much more supportive, much more sociable. And we need to break those little monopolies on authority and power that are the academic department, and reward and compensate the time that people spend on [building relationships and support structures that cross institutional boundaries].
Ethan: Bouncing off of that … another thing I would change is broadening the requirements for the [undergraduate] major. So not necessarily saying, you need this many hours of Latin and this many hours of Greek, and this and that specific class. Because while it’s definitely helpful and while that could make you a potentially attractive candidate to graduate school, there are a lot of people who know [canonical authors] like Ovid and Vergil really well … People who are interested in something different like bioarchaeology or digital humanities are also super attractive to graduate school. … And that could be beneficial because it helps students develop skills to be competitive in and get jobs outside of academia too. Because if we’re trying to get students to come and get Ph.Ds in classics, then promise them all tenure-track jobs afterwards, then we’re kidding ourselves and them. So developing skills that can be attractive in other fields and other endeavors after the Ph.D is something that I would like to see.
Nandini: Absolutely — there’s no categorical difference between academic and “alt-ac” skills. There never has been nor is it healthy to act as though there is. We need to make sure that graduate school is always helping people develop skills for a [range of future job possibilities]. And we should start welcoming and rewarding different kinds of output … than just the standard dissertation. There’s this standard format that frankly is not even a book — [most dissertations] require years to become good books. We could encourage writing that’s a little less formulaic, a little less self-credentialing and boring, and start helping [grad students] make products that people [outside our narrow band of academia] actually want to read or use. We can reward more public-facing work, but also applied projects like digital humanities or commentaries or pedagogical projects or art installations or programs that are aimed at bringing more diverse students into classics. I think all of those things should count as end goals of your time in a Ph.D program … because obviously the model that we have is not working for all but a very few.
Last question — what would you keep the same?
Ethan: One thing I’d keep the same is the growth in discussions like this. Because as you said, for the longest time, [grad school was considered] this pipeline toward a job in academia … but that’s not realistic [for all]. That’s not saying that you shouldn’t pursue that goal, but you should also know about other options available to you. And I think this growing conversation has been super beneficial for graduates — it’s definitely been beneficial for me.
Nandini: I couldn’t agree more. And my answer for “what I would keep the same” is you. I just want to ring-structure back to the email that you sent me all those years ago [when you read my 2018 Eidolon piece about diversity in classics]. That really helped me at a time when I was feeling very isolated in a red state after the Trump election. I started writing publicly because I didn’t know what else to do with my time and frankly, digging deep into footnotes and spending time in the library on the commentaries started to feel less fulfilling intrinsically. I needed to figure out a way to reach out and reach more people. And so I started writing for Eidolon in a really dark place, but I had no anticipation of how much uplift I would get from people like you and how fulfilling it is now for me to watch you grow and change and do the great work you’re doing — and have this wonderful conversation with you. So thank you very much.
Ethan: When I encountered your article, I was also in a dark place. I was interning and we had just had a lecture where I had been singled out by someone. They had later asked me where I was from and when I told them Wisconsin, they did the classic, “Oh, well, where’s your family from?” It was a stressful time because I had been getting that a lot. And I read your article and feeling that someone understood what I was going through really helped me continue on in the field. So thank you for that.
Nandini: And turning back to ancient thought: to know that other people have dealt with [these questions of identity and belonging and path-finding] before, even if they didn’t look exactly like us — that gives me a sense of radical continuity and compassion across cultures and across generations and across space now too. So here’s to many more such conversations.
“…the egg that Orpheus claims was created, projected from the boundless matter, was born like this: the quadruple matter is alive and all of the endless deep flows eternally but it moves in an unclear war, pouring forth here and there endless incomplete mixtures from one time to another. For this reason, it pulls them back too and then opens wide as if for the birth of a creature that cannot be bound.”
The poet and classicist Anne Carson has an essay that sticks like maple syrup to your subconscious, called “Essay on What I Think About Most.” She begins the poem by addressing the idea of the error and what we can learn from it by dissecting a bit of poetry from Alcman of Sparta, a Greek lyric poet from the 7th century BCE.
[made?] three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not (trans. Carson)
Carson notes that the verb in Alcman’s laconic rumination on hunger seems to have no subject. She addresses whether this was a grammatical mistake caused by transmission and fragmentation; a way modern philologists can scrub away “errors” of the past. “But as you know, the chief aim of philology,” she says, “is to reduce all textual delight / to an accident of history. And I am uneasy with any claim to know exactly / what a poet means to say. So let’s leave the question mark there “
The lack of any punctuation is the kicker there. The absence does more work than any ellipsis or period ever could. Carson demonstrates how, for her, Alcman “sidesteps fear, anxiety, shame, remorse” connected to mistakes in order to engage with a truth:
“The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection.”
What is Pasts Imperfect? It is a column and a space for commentary, reviews, essays, reflections, statements, and any other words needed to help us negotiate between the past and our present world. We talk about pasts because antiquity isn’t just one land, timeline, or narrative; it is multiple and multiplied by the perspectives we bring to bear on it. Our Pasts are not just Greek, Roman, and Mediterranean; they are not just elite, white, and male. The past includes these people and perspectives, but also those who were silenced or left behind: the people, the languages, and the histories in or beyond the margins.
Imperfect is about value and aspect. We acknowledge that the past is far from perfect and we study antiquity to help us understand ourselves and the causes of things, not to render fictive, to emulate, or to praise simply because something has been praised before. To be human is to be imperfect; to love as a human is to love imperfectly. Our studies of the past and ourselves must honor and inhabit such complexities.
Imperfect is also about incompletion. We see the study of the past as a process that is ongoing and never truly done: each generation, each embodied person, each new perspective contributes to challenging what we think we know about what has come before.
Pasts Imperfect seeks to bring critical and transparently progressive reflections and scholarship on antiquity to a wider audience. It is a column, a space, and a developing network for those who want to engage in challenging discussions about antiquity, its construction and reception in scholarship, and its impact on the modern world. As our editorial college and paid writer-network begins to expand and to take pitches, we hope to venture into a more global understanding of the past while also making space for imperfection.
Plutarch, On the Affection Offspring (Moralia 496b)
“There is nothing so imperfect, helpless, naked, formless, and unclean as a human being glimpsed at the moment of birth, someone to whom nature has not even given a clear path to the light.”
“Erato, come and stand by me and tell me how Jason
took to fleece back to Iolkos with the help
of Medea’s love. You share in Aphrodite’s realm
and you bewitch the unmarried girls with worries
and this is the very reason you won your name.”
In the first year of Reading Greek Tragedy Online, we wandered on our path a little bit to comedy, fragments, and even to epic. This year we are moving out of the archaic and classical worlds to the Hellenistic period, turning to our only full telling of the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodes.
There were certainly versions of the tale before Ap. Rhodes made his break with Callimachus for epic’s rushing river. Indeed, it is pretty clear that the story of the Voyage of the Argo was an ancient one that was told in many forms, likely influencing and being influenced by Homer’s Odyssey and many other lost traditions. But the way we name the tale is important: it is not just the story of Jason and his crew. It is also the story of Medea, a quest, and a love affair arranged by scheming gods.
In a way, there are elements of Argonautica in the Iliad, the Odyssey, and in Vergil’s later Aeneid. And its story blends into theirs as well. As Catullus frames it in Carmen 64, it was the voyage of the Argo that brought Peleus to Thetis, one domino that needed to fall to lead to their marriage banquet, the arrival of Eris, the golden apple, and so much more.
But Ovid probably encapsulates one view of the voyage best, in Amores 2.11:
“As waves watched, shocked, the pine cut down from Pelion’s peak
Was the first to teach us the evil ways of the sea—
That one that raced madly through crushing cliffs
And made to steal the gold-marked fleece.
I wish the Argo had been overcome, drawing a deep funereal drink
Then no oar would have troubled the broad water’s peace.”
Prima malas docuit mirantibus aequoris undis
Peliaco pinus vertice caesa vias,
Quae concurrentis inter temeraria cautes
Conspicuam fulvo vellere vexit ovem.
o utinam, nequis remo freta longa moveret,
Argo funestas pressa bibisset aquas!
Apollonius Rhodes, Argonautica 3.1405-7
He went back into the city, mixing into the Kolkhians,
turning over how he might oppose them more swiftly.
The day ended and Jason’s labor was finished.”
Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre) Host and Faculty Consultant: Joel Christensen (Brandeis University) Executive Producer: Lanah Koelle (Center for Hellenic Studies) Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society) Production Assistant: Francesca Bellei (Harvard University) Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University) Dramaturgical Support: Emma Pauly and Emma Joy Hill Associate Directors: Beth Burns, Liz Fisher, Tabatha Gayle, Laura Keefe, and Toph Marshall Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies) Poster Illustration Artist: John Koelle
“Now I would like to recite the family and names of the heroes
their journeys through the treacherous sea and all the things
they did while they wandered. I hope the Muses will be supporters of my song.”
Last month, the College faculty of Wake Forest University formally approved a major decision by the Wake Forest Department of Classics: starting in the coming academic year, all majors and minors in the department, whether in the languages or in Classical Studies, will be required to take a course called Classics Beyond Whiteness, which, according to its official catalog description, “Studies misconceptions that ancient Greeks and Romans were white; race in Graeco-Roman societies; the role of Classics in modern racial politics; and non-white approaches to Classics. Considers race as social construct; white supremacy, fragility, and privilege; and critical-race-theoretical study of ancient cultures.”
I sat down with T. H. M. Gellar-Goad — the faculty member who developed the course, and co-founded the Classics Beyond Whiteness series at Wake Forest — to find out more about the course, the series, and the curricular change.
1. So, to start off, tell us what exactly “Classics Beyond Whiteness” is.
Classics Beyond Whiteness is a multi-modal series of departmental programming that aims to decenter the whiteness of the field, both in the discipline’s history and its future. It began in the 2019–2020 academic year with a series of talks and workshops, reading groups, art exhibits, public art commissions, and the course Classics Beyond Whiteness itself.
The three threads of the Classics Beyond Whiteness series were race and ethnicity in the ancient world; Classics and white supremacy; and nonwhite receptions of Classics. The course I taught in fall 2019 — which is the one now on the books as a permanent departmental offering, and required of all Classics majors and minors at Wake Forest henceforth — had the same title as the series and the same threads of inquiry, with an intersectional, critical-race-theoretical lens. Although it was a new, half-term course that fulfilled no degree requirements, it over-enrolled almost immediately. The discussions were always rich, and the curricular and extracurricular components of the Classics Beyond Whiteness series worked synergistically to engage the students outside of the class meetings.
One of the signal achievements of Classics Beyond Whiteness is a series of three portraits of Black classicists from North Carolina by Winston-Salem artist Leo Rucker. These are the first painted portraits of these subjects–Helen Maria Chesnutt, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Wiley Lane–and the portraits represent a lasting testament to the often-overlooked impact of Black classicists on our discipline, locally and worldwide.
2. Tell me a little bit about what prompted you to design Classics Beyond Whiteness in the first place.
In the 2018–2019 academic year, my department decided on the theme “Classics Beyond Europe” for its series of teleconference guest lectures. So we had speakers on the reception of Classics in Brazil and in the United States; on contemporary issues of race and racism facing Classics as a discipline; and on Black scholars of Classics connected to North Carolina. That series was such a success with our students and our campus community that we decided to continue in the following year with a series focused on questions of race and ethnicity in the ancient and modern worlds. This decision was in part prompted by a talk Patrice Rankine gave for us in February 2019, in which he connected Athens, the early United States, and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s racist yearbook photos. A mere week after that talk, Wake Forest had its own Ralph Northam incident, as the Dean and Associate Dean of Admissions were found to have posed for photos in front of Confederate flags when they were undergraduates at Wake Forest.
The phrase “Classics Beyond Whiteness” is first and foremost a provocation — it is not a state of where the field is or my department is, but both a vision and a call to action.
Over the summer of 2020, in response to the worldwide protests for racial justice in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others, a contingent of alums of Wake Forest Classics sent a letter to our faculty encouraging us to adopt new measures for racial justice in our own department. One decision we made in response to that letter was to add Classics Beyond Whiteness as a requirement to all our majors and minors. From now on, no student who earns a degree in our department will do so without encountering critical race theory or grappling with the crises in which our discipline is entangled.
3. What resources did you find most valuable or helpful in designing the course? Which would you recommend to others thinking of doing the same thing?
4. What did you find most challenging and/or rewarding about the experience of designing the course and the series?
I said earlier that Classics Beyond Whiteness is not a statement of where the field is, but rather a challenge to think about what it could be. The whiteness itself was a challenge — both my own, in errors that I made in framing and organizing events, and also in the fragility that white colleagues and administrators demonstrated in different ways, minor and major, throughout the process. The corollary to this is that, ultimately, Classics Beyond Whiteness did secure the funding and institutional support needed for its various extracurricular events, and especially for the public art commission. The meeting the minds and the debates and discussions prompted by Classics Beyond Whiteness were both intellectually rigorous and stimulating, and they were, for myself and for many of the participants, eye-opening.
5. What advice or guidance would you offer to those thinking of designing similar initiatives at their own institutions?
Think big. The planning of the series started with a blue-sky vision of what it would look like if there were no constraints on resources. It turned out that, when I pulled together smaller chunks of funding from various sources within the university and the discipline, every piece of that vision was able to be realized. Being white is not an excuse for not pursuing programming like this: it’s past time to shift what’s been traditionally centered in Classics, beginning at home in our departments. We had more people at these talks and workshops than we ever did before, from first-year students to majors to colleagues across the university to high-level administrators to community members — this is not to say, “do this to increase your numbers,” but rather, “do this because it is the right thing to do for all of our community, and there are many, many people who want this.” The interest in the Classics Beyond Whiteness course and event series at Wake Forest speaks to the desire of the current generation of college students to rethink and reshape the field.
Artist Leo Rucker and Postdoctoral Fellow Caitlin Hines unveil Rucker’s portrait of Helen Maria Chestnutt
T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Associate Professor of Classics and Zachary T. Smith Fellow at Wake Forest University. He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius. He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Satire and Plautus: Curculio.
Amy Lather is Assistant Professor of Classics and Dunn-Riley Fellow at Wake Forest University. Her research focuses on aesthetics and cognition in archaic and classical Greek poetry, and her monograph, Materiality and Aesthetics in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry, is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press.
“…Look to Tantalus and Pelops—
My hands beg for their examples.”
Tantalum et Pelopem aspice;
ad haec manus exempla poscuntur meae.
Seneca, Thyestes 18-20
“Now a mob is is coming on from our family
Which will outpace us all and make me innocent,
Daring the undared.”
….iam nostra subit
e stirpe turba quae suum vincat genus
ac me innocentem faciat et inausa audeat.
Last year as the COVID19 pandemic closed theaters and sent all classrooms into digital space, Out of Chaos Theatre in collaboration with the Center for Hellenic Studies presented over 40 episodes of Reading Greek Tragedy Online: performances from every extant Greek tragedies, a few comedies, a satyr play, fragments and even some epic too.
2021 brings us an ongoing plague and a new season of Reading Greek Tragedy Online. This year we’re sticking with Greek myth, but getting Roman with it to start, turning to the early Empire and Seneca’s Thyestes.
Seneca, Thyestes 29-36
“Let no one have time to hate an ancient crime,
Have a new one always replace it and not
Merely one at a time but while a crime is punished
Let it grow! May the power slip from the arrogant brothers
And return when they’re exiled. May this house slip
On uncertain chance of violence among unsafe kings.
Ah, may the powerful fall low and the low get power.
May chance toss the kingdom on churning waves.”
nec vacet cuiquam vetus
odisse crimen: semper oriatur novum,
nec unum in uno, dumque punitur scelus,
crescat. superbis fratribus regna excidant
repetantque profugos; dubia violentae domus
fortuna reges inter incertos labet;
miser ex potente fiat, ex misero potens,
fluctuque regnum casus assiduo ferat.
GHOST OF TANTALUS (grandfather of Atreus and Thyestes) – Paul O’Mahony
FURY (a goddess from the Underworld) – Evelyn Miller
ATREUS (king of Argos) – Sara Valentine
ATTENDANT to Atreus – Paul O’Mahony
THYESTES (exiled brother of Atreus) – David Rubin
TANTALUS (son of Thyestes) – Evelyn Miller
MESSENGER –Tim Delap
Special Guest: Helen Slaney
Seneca, Thyestes 192-96
“Come, spirit, do what no future age will approve
But none will fail to mention. I must dare some crime
A fierce, bloody kind, one that my brother would want
To call his own. You do not avenge crimes unless
You commit greater ones.”
Age, anime, fac quod nulla posteritas probet,
sed nulla taceat. aliquod audendum est nefas
atrox, cruentum, tale quod frater meus
suum esse mallet. scelera non ulcisceris,
Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre) Host and Faculty Consultant: Joel Christensen (Brandeis University) Executive Producer: Lanah Koelle (Center for Hellenic Studies) Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society) Production Assistant: Francesca Bellei (Harvard University) Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University) Dramaturgical Support: Emma Pauly and Emma Joy Hill Associate Directors: Beth Burns, Liz Fisher, Tabatha Gayle, Laura Keefe, and Toph Marshall Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies) Poster Illustration Artist: John Koelle
Seneca, Thyestes 247-8
“A mild tyrant murders: in my kingdom, people pray for death.”
perimat tyrannus lenis; in regno meo
Scenes (translation, Paul Murgatroyd)
ACT ONE (1–121) – Ghost of Tantalus, Fury
ACT TWO (176–335) – Atreus, Attendant
ACT THREE (404–545) – Thyestes, Tantalus, Atreus
ACT FOUR (623–788) – Messenger, Chorus Leader
ACT FIVE (885–1112) – Atreus, Thyestes
Seneca, Thyestes 348-353
“A king is someone who can put fear aside
Along with the evils of a harsh heart—
Someone over whom ambition has no power
And the fickle love of the raging mob
Can never move…”
rex est qui posuit metus
et diri mala pectoris;
quem non ambitio impotens
et numquam stabilis favor
vulgi praecipitis movet
“So he spoke, and a dark cloud of grief covered Achilles.”
῝Ως φάτο, τὸν δ’ ἄχεος νεφέλη ἐκάλυψε μέλαινα·
I don’t know why I’m surprised that I find it hard to write about the Iliad. Or rather, why I find it so much harder to write about the Iliad than I do to write about the Odyssey.
Everything around the Iliad has always been harder and heavier for me as a classicist and a modern bard. And as a human being.
From the first time I read it as an undergrad studying Classics at UW-Madison, I’ve felt that the Iliad punishes the reader in a way that the Odyssey (which to be sure, itself has plenty of punishment) doesn’t.
To be sure, the context in which I’m writing about performing my Homer-inspired musical works has changed. “A Penis on the Screen” was written at the beginning of the first full escalation of the pandemic, more than nine months and three hundred thousand US deaths ago.
It was also written after only a single virtual performance of my one-man musical Odyssey, and before any virtual performances of my one-man musical Iliad, “The Blues of Achilles. Since that initial phallus-inscribed voyage I have completed fourteen virtual Odysseys and eleven virtual Blues of Achilles shows.
In a way these two blogs mirror how the creation of my two epic works unfolded. I wrote “Joe’s Odyssey” in the naive afterglow of my undergraduate studies when I didn’t know any better, when I was too young to understand how audacious it was to create a thirty-five minute non-narrative modern folk opera telling of the Odyssey, let alone to ask folks to sit still for it. That actually worked in my favor, as youthful ignorance sometimes does. I wrote a prompt in my songwriting book that read “create a one-man 24 song folk opera retelling of Homer’s Odyssey” and three months later I premiered it in my parents’ living room, with a full performance for a group of students less than two months after that.
By contrast, sixteen years later when I decided to take on the Iliad, I spent almost a full year reading, researching, even interviewing veterans, before I wrote a single song. Once I composed the songs that comprise “The Blues of Achilles,” I played small samplings of them in modest workshop scenarios for another year before I finally debuted the full cycle in San Francisco in early March just as the pandemic took hold (a selection of songs from that performance can be viewed here on YouTube).
All of this is to say that these two pieces came from and were in two wildly different places in March as I started to consider how I would continue to perform them in a streaming environment: on the one hand, I had 300 plus Odyssey shows under my belt, on the other I had the Blues of Achilles with… one single show (and one in which I performed with an ensemble).
In reading my initial impressions of performing virtually as detailed in the Penis on the Screen blog, I have to give myself a little credit: almost all of what I wrote there about the Zoom performance environment bore itself out as correct over the course of repeated performances of my Odyssey.
(NB: I am so infrequently right about things I have to make a big deal of times when I am. For instance, as she will vouch for, I saw where the pandemic was going early on and told my wife to stock up on canned goods and alcohol for quarantine in early-February. I also correctly predicted that Dwyane Wade would be an NBA Hall-of-Famer after watching the 2003 NCAA tournament. Take that, Calchas).
But while my routines around my virtual Odyssey shows were immediately informed by the hundreds of previous live shows and discussions, The Blues of Achilles was a blank slate. Would I perform all the songs without stopping? Would I work in spoken narrative passages as I did in the public debut in San Francisco? Would I talk about all the works that informed my songs ahead of the performance, or let the audience lead me to such considerations in a discussion?
My Odyssey performance had years and years to develop organically along with my abilities, going from a living room to high school classrooms to university settings over the course of more than a decade. In contrast, The Blues of Achilles had immediate opportunities with very high level college audiences.
Luckily, I had the songs I wrote for the characters we know most intimately from Homer’s Iliad: a number of songs for Achilles of course, but also songs sung by Chryseis, Bryseis, Agamemnon, Hector, Hecuba, Priam, Helen, Andromache, Patroklus, and Thetis. Songs sung by the bard (me in this case) telling the story as well as other more impartial observers to the human suffering portrayed in the poem.
I had these songs that I loved very deeply and I felt said something interesting, deep and most importantly true about the characters and story, something that modern audiences might have a harder time accessing when considering them in millenia old translated texts.
(There should be a word for when you read a sentiment similar to one which you’ve arrived at entirely independently, especially when it is confirmed by a lauded source. Joel suggested “serendipity” which is true and good but doesn’t quite capture the validation and confidence boost such an occurrence can confer upon an artist or intellectual.)
If excavating love from the grief of the Iliad was good enough for Simone Weil, it was certainly good enough for me. I thought perhaps this relationship between love and grief was the heaviness that had created such apprehension in me about considering the Iliad.
It was actually several months into these pandemic performances of The Blues of Achilles that I fully realized why adapting the Iliad scared me more and was so much harder for me than adapting the Odyssey.
In April, the songwriter John Prine died of Covid complications. In a beautiful New York Times tribute to this amazing artist, Jason Isbell (a brilliant songwriter in his own right) wrote about the genius of Prine’s writing in general but in particular the song “Angel From Montgomery,” which opens with Prine singing “I am an old woman/named after my mother.” Isbell has this epiphany: “songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right.”
When it came to the Iliad, my anxiety was (and is) rooted in the fear that I couldn’t get the details right. And I knew that for these characters deep inside the machine of war and their legacies, the details were a matter of life and death. This was why I spent a year reading any war literature I could get my hands on from All Quiet on the Western Front to Catch-22 to Slaughterhouse Five. I read Achilles in Vietnam and The Things They Carried and Letters Home from Vietnam and Dispatches. I interviewed veterans who served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Enduring Freedom. I interviewed a Gold Star father who lost his son in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I found myself by chance in a hazy whiskey-fueled late night conversation with a veteran military journalist who turned me on to the album Soldier’s Heart, a set of songs by Jacob George, a veteran of OEF who wrote and recorded this album of the truest war stories I’ve ever heard before he died by suicide in 2014.
And with these details and a new vocabulary, I went back to the text and as is the case over and over with Homeric epic I found truths hovering in the spaces around the words, waiting for me. I thought about some of the other Iliad adaptations I read: Memorial by Alice Oswald, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, the play An Iliad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. Casey Dué’s Achilles Unbound helped me recognize the multiplicity inherent in oral tradition and gave me even more confidence to find my own Achilles.
And out of me in less than 30 days in early 2019 came tumbling my 17 love songs. If Homer’s Iliad tells of the Anger of Achilles, my Blues of Achilles makes its focus the Grief that is prominent in the first syllable of Achilles’ name and the Love that is so inextricably connected to Grief (for more “serendipity,” see Emily Austin’s work in particular the forthcoming Grief and the Hero.)
Frank Zappa purportedly said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and whether or not he actually did, the sentiment is correct. I write songs to capture something that other types of writing cannot convey so I won’t try to describe what my online Blues of Achilles shows are like in detail other than to say they are heavy, connected, and beautiful. I break the songs up to allow for audiences to ask questions and contribute to the meaning as we go rather than waiting until the end for them to participate and engage. Pandemic audiences seem particularly attuned to the less central characters to whom I try to give voice, to the characters who have been pulled into the grievous orbit of the principle tragic figures of the story.
I’ll be doing these shows (both Odyssey and Blues of Achilles) online for at least the first half of 2021: while I’m hoping that later in the year conditions might allow for safe travel and gatherings, it might be even into 2022 before that’s possible. But I know that eventually I’ll be able to bring The Blues of Achilles (and my Odyssey) to audiences in-person.
Whereas my online Odyssey shows were informed by live in-person performances, my live in-person Blues of Achilles shows (when they happen) will be informed by my online performances and I’m interested to see how this inversion impacts the futures of both pieces.
I return to one of my first impressions of performing online which is that these stories are so durable and rich and full of possibility that they can thrive in any sort of performance environment. Maybe better put: making the change from in-person to virtual is no big deal when a story has survived the transition from oral performance to written text and the thousands of years since.