Homeric Advice for Starting a Conversation at #AIASCS

Across the academy, conferences are famous for being hierarchical, expensive, humiliating, of questionable worth, and a general venue for all sorts of debauchery. (There are papers too.) This week, the world of Classics descends upon the unsuspecting paradise of San Diego. Fortunately, Amy Pistone has generated some good advice for people attending conferences.

But professional conferences often require social engagement! Talking to new people can be hard. If you find yourself at a loss for words this conference season, why not try something new by using an old script?

Diomedes: Il. 6.123-129

“Bestie, who are you of mortal humans?
For I have never seen you before in this ennobling battle.
But now you stride out far ahead of everyone
In your daring—where you await my ash-wood spear.
Those who oppose my might are children of miserable parents!
But, if you are one of the immortals come down from the sky,
I don’t wish to fight with the sky-dwelling gods!”

τίς δὲ σύ ἐσσι φέριστε καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων;
οὐ μὲν γάρ ποτ’ ὄπωπα μάχῃ ἔνι κυδιανείρῃ
τὸ πρίν· ἀτὰρ μὲν νῦν γε πολὺ προβέβηκας ἁπάντων
σῷ θάρσει, ὅ τ’ ἐμὸν δολιχόσκιον ἔγχος ἔμεινας·
δυστήνων δέ τε παῖδες ἐμῷ μένει ἀντιόωσιν.
εἰ δέ τις ἀθανάτων γε κατ’ οὐρανοῦ εἰλήλουθας,
οὐκ ἂν ἔγωγε θεοῖσιν ἐπουρανίοισι μαχοίμην.

Glaukos, 6.145-151

“Oh, you great-hearted son of Tydeus, why are you asking about pedigree?
The generations of men are just like leaves on a tree:
The wind blows some to the ground and then the forest
Grows lush with others when spring comes again.
In this way, the race of men grows and then dies in turn.
But if you are willing, learn about these things so you may know
My lineage well—many are the men who know me.”

Τυδεΐδη μεγάθυμε τί ἢ γενεὴν ἐρεείνεις;
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
εἰ δ’ ἐθέλεις καὶ ταῦτα δαήμεναι ὄφρ’ ἐὺ εἰδῇς
ἡμετέρην γενεήν, πολλοὶ δέ μιν ἄνδρες ἴσασιν

Then switch nametags!

Image result for diomedes and glaucus

This post was inspired by the ever dynamic Rogue Classicist:

The conference equivalent of exchanging armor would probably be switching handouts with someone else and then giving a talk based on their handout. Aha! a new career goal!

If you are serious about getting to know new people (and there are always a lot of nice, interesting people at the annual meeting), Zeno has some great advice:

“We have two ears but one mouth so that we may listen more and talk less”

δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείω μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν

“This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity

How did I get here?

When Telemachus invites Athena-in-disguise to sit in his hall at the beginning of the Odyssey and he has already complained to her about the suitors, he asks, “Who are you and from where among men? Where is your city and your parents?” (τίς πόθεν εἰς ἀνδρῶν; πόθι τοι πόλις ἠδὲ τοκῆες; 1.170). This line is repeated on several occasions during the Odyssey and forms of it echo throughout Greek literature. It even shows up in Roman literature as a bit of a proverb: Seneca has Herakles use this line to hail the dead Claudius when he arrives on Olympus (Seneca, Apocolocyntosis 5). My friend Justin Arft is working on the poetics of this line, exploring how it engages with larger poetic traditions and functions as an authoritative marker for speech. It elicits a particular type of story and signals a special kind of world view.

For me, this line has always also functioned metonymically for social hierarchy. It is an indexing question to establish the addressee’s cultural position. The initial “who” of “who are you” turns out to be a mere introduction, signaling an insufficient framework. The subsequent questions flesh out acceptable parameters for defining this particular “who”: a generic person, a tis, requires a geographical origin (invoking tribal connections as much as spatial associations), a civic entity (the city here is certainly a type of state), and a family. And, given the importance of genealogy in myth and the flexibility of place and state, I think we have a rhetorical structure of increasing importance: space, state, and family. The last question, in epic at least, is about fame and noble birth.

During the past few years, I have been thinking about this question when I find myself out and about in the world, asking and being asked who I am. How we elicit information about people tells us something about how we organize the world in our minds. And how we answer these questions tells us something else about how we view ourselves and our comfort with this view. Social context alters the meaning of deceptively simple words. For instance, when people ask addressees of color where they are from, it often is a coded or subconscious attempt to establish an ‘ethnic identity’ or some hierarchy of citizenship. Who are you and where are you from is always potentially a probe to evaluate political status and social cache.

The functional question that communicates our modern values and social structures is that ubiquitous “What do you do?” This innocuous conversation starter (or staller) is a metonym for our capitalist values: we are defined by what we contribute to society, by what we produce, by how we may be commodified. Of course, we can put this another way: in a ‘post-aristocratic’ world, we are allowed to define ourselves by how we spend our time—what we decide to dedicate our lives to communicates our values. (This second take assumes that we have the power and resources to make these choices in such a way that there is a meaningful correlation between our activity in the world and our values; and, secondly, that vocation and avocation may necessarily overlap.)

Even though the Odyssey is a narrative of disguises and forestalled recognitions, it is one in which the question “who are you, where are you from” also points to established and accepted social boundaries (even if they are eventually transgressed or subverted). When we ask “what do you do”, it seeks to instantiate social relationships. I have spent so much time thinking about this because my life’s work is in a field where the boundary between life and work is blurred to the point of there being almost no distinction. And, although we live in a period where the answer to “what do you do” is more fluid than in the previous generation, the line between the workaday doing and the non-work living is less clear. (And, to be fair, for the working poor and a great number of people throughout the world, the whole notion of such a boundary to begin with is one of incredible privilege.)

My problem is not really with the impact of this fading boundary on me: one of the reasons I avoided pursuing other careers early on is I believed, correctly or not, that my current pursuit would not force some of the same stark choices as others—despite much evidence to the contrary, I still believe that my career as one where we are supposed to think about what life is for (even if we are not often encouraged to do so). My problem is with talking about what I do outside the academy, with naming it, with answering that question, what do you do?

*                                   *                                   *

Odyssey 19.203

“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·

Who are you and What do you do? I don’t come from a family of academics. I grew up in a lower middle class, rural area where most high school graduates did not go to college (and where high school graduates were only recently the majority). To say that I have class anxiety about being a Professor, much less a professor of Classics and one of Ancient Greek, is quite the understatement. I rarely use a title outside of work—my self-naming is so muted that when my son grabbed the mail one day and saw something addressed to “Dr. Christensen” he said “you’re a doctor?” To this I responded, “well, kind of.” In his consternation, he looked at the envelope, looked back at his mother—who is a dentist—and said, “wait, boys can be doctors?”

Where are you from? This is a question for people who are out of place, whose dislocation is clear enough as to be recognized before even hearing a name. How did I get here? Leaving home, getting a BA in the humanities, moving to New York and getting a PhD has separated me physically and ethically from all the people I grew up with and it has in many ways alienated me from my family. Anyone who has gone to graduate school knows that the process is intense and transformative intellectually; the part we don’t talk about enough is that it also constitutes a social metamorphosis: you are not only what you do, you are the people you engage with. ‘Who are your people’ and ‘where is your home’ are a critical part of Telemachus’ question—both communicate values and allegiances. Getting a PhD in the Classics complicates answers to both of those questions. The PhD changes the appearance and performance of social class; the rarefied air of that title “the Classics” makes us strangers even among our professorial peers.

The depth of my class and social anxiety is particularly felt in the way I change my answer to the question “what do you do”. When I go to birthday parties for my kids, while talking to other parents I almost always answer, “I am a teacher” and, more often than not, I consciously steer the conversation somewhere else. Part of the reason I do this is I don’t always handle the follow up question well.

True story: I was in a Starbucks in Milton, MA and I saw Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block. At my sister’s urging over text messages (she has seen NKOTB multiple times as an adult), I went and asked for a picture and had a fine conversation going until he asked what I do. I said, “I teach at Brandeis.” To the inevitable “what do you teach?” and the true answer (“Classics. Um, mostly Ancient Greek”) the response was a typical, awkward silence.

knight 2

Continue reading ““This is Not My Beautiful House…”: Classics, Class and Identity”

Parenting While Teaching Greek Badly

This week Eidolon started a special series on “Parenting and Classics”. I thought about submitting a proposal when they put out a call for this subject, but I was too busy finishing a book and spending the waning days of summer with my children. When I read Donna Zuckerberg’s moving series of impressions of learning to be a parent and a writer in “This is How I have It All“, I remembered those earlier days of parenting with both fondness and frustration. And Jason Nethercut’s piece “Her Absence is Like the Sky”, reflecting on the loss of his mother, took me back to how I found comfort in reading and teaching the Odyssey after my father passed.

I am interested to see what others write in this series because my life has been defined over the past decade by being a parent and a Classicist. And, for me, there have been ways in which playing these two roles has made me better at both. I re-learned wonder and patience from parenting–so much so that students who had me before I became a father noted the difference in the way I paced classes and engaged with students.

I also think that what Eidolon is doing with this series is critical. As ‘scholars’ we often assume a falsely objective pose that denies we inhabit experiences and bodies which shape the way we see the world. Being a parent as a fact and a process shapes us critically as readers, writers and teachers. And classicists with children occupy a wide range of positions in the precarious academic economy.

Euripides, Supp. 1101-2

“Nothing is sweeter to an old father than a daughter”

πατρὶ δ᾽ οὐδὲν †ἥδιον† / γέροντι θυγατρός

I also hesitated to submit a proposal to Eidolon because I feel guilty about claiming much credit or authority for my story. I have been really lucky in my career and exceptionally fortunate to meet a life partner before graduate school who has been a constant and positive presence for over 20 years. Like most couples of our generation, my wife and I have a two-career household. One of us is a dentist and works year round, earning considerably more than the other. Dentistry is a physically demanding job; being a professor gets us good health insurance. On paper, this is a sweet deal.

In real life, however, we often face gendered questions about parenting from friends, family members, colleagues and our children’s teachers. Even though my wife is the one with the Ivy-league credentials and the social cache of being a ‘real’ doctor, expectations still weigh more heavily on her as a mother: she is expected to be the primary parent. But given the demands of our jobs and the eminently flexible schedule I have, this is not how it works.

Early on when our daughter was 2 months old or so, we had that conversation most couples do in the deep AM. It was definitely my wife’s turn to get up and tend to the infant. When I mentioned this, she said “if I am too tired when I go to work tomorrow and make a mistake, I can paralyze someone’s face. What’s the worst that you can do, teach Greek badly?”

One of the reasons I always found being a teacher attractive is that it is one of the few careers that lets us be parents. I always knew I wanted to have children and when I thought about other careers I couldn’t imagine that all of the sacrifice of time and human experience was worth the money they paid.

Euripides, Fr. 685 (Phaedra)

“Children are the anchors of a mother’s life”

ἀλλ’ εἰσὶ μητρὶ παῖδες ἄγκυραι βίου

As our children have grown older, parenting has been less about getting up in the middle of the night and more about actually thinking about how these little beings are developing. My own work as a classicist has been deeply affected by this process because it has led me to think more about cognitive development, education, and how the stories we tell shape us.

About a month ago my daughter (7, now 8) tried to jump from a dresser to a bed and missed. She lacerated her leg 5 inches long and down to the bone. The wound had trouble healing and it took almost four weeks and several visits with plastic surgeons to get it closed and all the stitches out

I told her the scar gives her character and told her the story of Odysseus and the boar, how the scar he won as a child became the marker of who he was and the beginning of his famous story.

I also told her that some people think that the Roman name Ulysses may be related to the Greek word for scar (oulê) and that who he is was tied to this mark on his body. Now she sees the scar as something that is uniquely hers as something that marks her out as special, as giving her her own story.

Arsenius 12.42a

“Whatever love you bear for your parents expect the same kind in old age from your children”

Οἵους ἂν ἐράνους ἐνέγκῃς τοῖς γονεῦσι, τούτους αὐτοὺς ἐν τῷ γήρᾳ παρὰ τῶν παίδων προσδέχου Πιττακοῦ.

It is hard to write about being a parent while being a classicist without also acknowledging the extent to which my ability to do so and my experience of doing so is marked by privilege. As a man, I get to be a parent without undergoing the primary physical and emotional labor of pregnancy and birth. I also avoid nearly all the secondary labor of recovery and social/emotional stigma of going back to work and not being an ideal mother. What has been clear to me for a long time has been backed up by research—men in the workplace earn social and economic capital from having children while women lose it. This is equally true in the University where men are expected to do less service and get more of a pass for attending to parenting.

The gendered structure of our society lingers with us individually and shapes our institutions. When I bring my children to a meeting or to a class, people smile and think what a good father I am. And I do often get questions about what my spouse is doing. Women in the same position, however, receive fewer smiles and rarely a question about why a partner is not available for childcare.

Euripides, Suppliant Women, 913-917

“For even an infant learns to speak
And listen to things he has no understanding of.
Whatever someone learns, he wants to save
For old age. So, teach your children well.”

..εἴπερ καὶ βρέφος διδάσκεται
λέγειν ἀκούειν θ᾿ ὧν μάθησιν οὐκ ἔχει.
ἃ δ᾿ ἂν μάθῃ τις, ταῦτα σῴζεσθαι φιλεῖ
ἐς γῆρας. οὕτω παῖδας εὖ παιδεύετε.

So, for me, talking about being a parent and a professor is over-determined. I ‘win’ if I talk about it; I win if I don’t. Yes, I am a primary caregiver; yes being a professor is mostly a full time job. But I am privileged again because I have never been outside the tenure track and was already in a secure position vis a vis tenure when we had our first child. I have had to be bad at my job at times to be an acceptable parent; I have often been a mediocre parent in order to be competent at my job. The two worlds I inhabit are always intersecting and overlapping. But this is the type of life I wanted.

In all the talk of the casualization of academic labor and the lives the majority of our PhDs are given to live, we do not acknowledge enough that there is a human cost in lives foreclosed. A generation of PhDs in precarious financial and social positions face difficult and sometimes impossible choices when it comes to starting and raising families.

Seneca, EM 3.3 (24)

“What you see happen to children happens to us, too, who are but slightly greater children.”

quod vides accidere pueris, hoc nobis quoque maiusculis pueris evenit.

I don’t really know where I meant to end up when I started writing this. I am really, really happy to be a parent and almost equally so to actually have a career as a classicist. I am often exhausted and I find myself sometimes anxious that I am not doing either thing equally well, but I know that my experiences in each have enriched my enjoyment of the other.

My lament is that we do not endeavor as a society and in the academy to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to live both lives fully. There are hundreds of changes we as a society need to make, such as guaranteeing paid maternity leave (longer than 8 weeks by at least 42 more), providing universal health care, universal early childhood care for parents who choose to go to work, and universal pre-k nationwide. We cannot be a nation that cares about families while also legislating to punish (non-wealthy) people who choose to have them.

Many of these needs are outside our influence in the academy. But we can do more in our home institutions. We need more support for adjunct labor and graduate students who have families (or, let’s do away with adjunct labor in general and just pay college teachers living wages). We need childcare centers on all campuses for students, staff and faculty. We need to treat our staff with the same dignity we treat our faculty. We need to be models of the fully lived and enlightened lives we think the humanities can guide us to live.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.218-227

“Why does nature nourish and increase the races
of horrible beasts, enemies to humankind on land and sea?
Why do the seasons of the year bring diseases?
Why does an early death come suddenly?
So a child, just like a shipwrecked man tossed by savage waves,
lies naked and speechless on the ground needing everything required
to support life at the very moment when nature pours him
from his mother’s womb into the world of light,
he fills the room with a sorrowful wail, as if he knows
the measure of troubles that still remain for him to endure in life.”

praeterea genus horriferum natura ferarum
humanae genti infestum terraque marique
cur alit atque auget? cur anni tempora morbos
adportant? quare mors inmatura vagatur?
tum porro puer, ut saevis proiectus ab undis
navita, nudus humi iacet infans indigus omni
vitali auxilio, cum primum in luminis oras
nixibus ex alvo matris natura profudit,
vagituque locum lugubri complet, ut aequumst
cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum.

20180824_120552
Children make a new friend at Delphi Museum.

Living Today and Talking About Death

Gnom. Vat.160 “Biôn used to say that [we have] two teachers for death: the time before we were born and sleep.”

Βίων ἔλεγε δύο διδασκαλίας θανάτου εἶναι, τόν τε πρὸ τοῦ γενέσθαι χρόνον καὶ τὸν ὕπνον.

446 “Plato said that sleep was a short-lived death but death was a long-lived sleep.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἔφησε τὸν μὲν ὕπνον ὀλιγοχρόνιον θάνατον, τὸν δὲ θάνατον πολυχρόνιον ὕπνον.

Recently, I saw my grandfather, who is 91, at a family wedding. He told me he does not even like to buy green bananas any more because he can’t be sure he will be around to eat them when they ripen. This made me remember and then question that old Ciceronian claim that “no one is so old that he does not think he will live another year” (nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere, de Senectute 24)

A few of my students do this thing where they—only half-jokingly, I think—ask if I am ok, like really, really ok, after I make some quip about how we are all going to die or mention Seneca’s or Plutarch’s thoughts on life and death. When I talk about the Odyssey being obsessed with the death of Odysseus, or the Iliad deeply impacted by the precarity and scarcity of human existence, they seem to worry instead that I am the one obsessed, that I have some sort of morbid fixation.

Indeed, I would not be surprised if readers of this blog or the twitter feed have a similar suspicion when I ask questions like what text you would read if you knew you could only read one before you died or when I repeatedly post the dirges of Simonides. But the fact is, I am really acting with restraint here. If I were not sure that it would alienate most followers, I would set up the twitter feed to remind us of death every day, if not every hour.

Ok, this might be a little obsessive. But unlike what I think my students fear, I am not depressed about it. And I know I am not depressed because I spent a large part of my life depressed and fighting the feeling of the ultimate futility of life. One of my earliest memories of this is of being in third grade and lying awake at night trying to imagine what it was like to be nothing. I grew up in a fairly (but perhaps not deeply) religious family. We were Scandinavian protestants, though. This means we went to church frequently, but we didn’t really talk about it.

In fourth grade I remember talking with our minister about my doubts and objections. We went through the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds line by line and she told me I could leave out the words I did not believe in if it really bothered to say something aloud when I was uncertain. When I told her that I just could not make sense of the resurrection as a phenomenon, she told me that doubt was an important part of faith.

This kept me going for a long time. But my doubts did not fade and talking about them in a religious context seemed only to make things worse. By the time I was in high school, I would regularly spend nights awake nearly paralyzed by fear and sorrow. Even though I had a delightful undergraduate career by all measures, some of my strongest memories from those years remain breaking down and laboring under the weight of the depression.

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

Graduate school is not a good place for mental health. It is a great place to develop harmful coping mechanisms (narcissism, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.). Again, I think I probably seemed functional as a graduate student (and early career professor), but like many of us I was on a very precarious tight-rope. Even to this day, I know it was sheer luck that I did not suffer some kind of irreparable harm.

In graduate school, however, I did start to read more widely and to lean on my reading more to make sense of life in general. I started reading pre-Socratic philosophers and Roman writers like Seneca. When I was an undergraduate and I first read Plato’s Socrates asserting that “death is one of two things” either a dreamless sleep or the transformation of the soul in Greek, I was elated because here was something I could relate to. When we talked about Plato in philosophy classes, however, this topic rarely came up. When it did, it was discussed only briefly and almost elliptically.

But what is more important than talking about death? How many errors do we make because we refuse to do so? How many days are wasted in pursuits we might otherwise discredit if we really considered our lives in their entirety?

We have a cultural taboo about talking about death. When we do so individually and outside rather narrow confines, we are pathologized as quirky, morbid, or mentally ill. Even in psychological research, there is a reluctance to study how we think about death and its impact on our lives. As Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski 2015 argue, however, this taboo itself is pathological and it has a wide impact on the well-being of individuals and whole cultures. We don’t want to talk about death because it is painful; but by not talking about death we collectively suffer more pain than we need to. Even Galen notes the paradox that fear of death can become a depressive obsession which robs us of the very thing we don’t want death to take.

So, for a great part of my life I did not talk about death because no one else wanted to. But this had a harmful effect–it meant that I bottled it up, I ruminated over it, and it would come bubbling out, uncontrollably, at the worst times.

In graduate school, I did finally find some professors who would talk about death, but only in the terms laid out by ancient authors. Here, there was an acceptable, but indirect way to have a conversation. There is this basic idea which I have seen described as Epicurean and Stoic but which really emerges as a regular part of Roman eclecticism that death should not be feared because when it comes we will not experience it. Seneca (EM 30.17-18) asserts that we do not fear death itself, but the thought of death (Non mortem timemus, sed cogitationem mortis), which I guess is true in a way, but it is still a prevarication. Is it not the thought of anything that we initially and mostly fear or desire? (Seneca actually cites Lucretius here, not a Stoic exemplar.) Of course, Plutarch rightly asks us whether we are more moved by fear of death or love of life.

Sophocles, fr. 65

“No one loves living as much as a man growing old”

τοῦ ζῆν γὰρ οὐδεὶς ὡς ὁ γηράσκων ἐρᾷ

Elsewhere, Seneca says that death is either “the end or a transformation” (EM 65) and that the former should not be feared because it is the same as never having begun (Aut finis aut transitus. Nec desinere timeo, idem est enim, quod non coepisse). This is the same as the basic assertion that we know what death is because it is a return to what we were before we were alive. In response to this notion, even the Stoic master Marcus Aurelius insists that we should consider we might die in every action we take. But, as Erik notes in an essay on “Frost, Horace and Death”, lyric poets like Catullus and Horace muse on the cyclical nature of the natural world only to conclude that our conscious lives are something different—As Catullus puts it, when the time comes “we must sleep one endless night” (nox est perpetua una dormienda, Carm. 5)

I wish my story involved going to therapy because I think that step is something which is a little easier to offer to others instead of prescribing that people spend a decade reading Seneca and Greek poetry. But this would be a lie. Like many of my generation, I was raised considering therapy for mental health a sign of weakness. I don’t rationally believe this, but the level of my disinclination to seek any kind of assistance is certainly problematic. Also, I do believe that, while therapy is absolutely the right move for people afflicted by depression, the injunction to do so is unrealistic for so many people because of costs and access issues.

On Timon, D. L. 9.12

“Antigonos says that Timon was fond of drinking; and, whenever he had free time from philosophizing, he wrote poems”

Ἦν δέ, φησὶν ὁ Ἀντίγονος, καὶ φιλοπότης καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν φιλοσόφων εἰ σχολάζοι ποιήματα συνέγραφε

The truth is that I only emerged from what was almost decades of suffering through slow, deliberate change. And reading—especially reading philosophy and poetry—was instrumental in helping me along the way. At some point, I learned to make thinking about death a practice. Obviously, some of this is just growing older and more stable—one chief antidote to depression is having a sense of belonging and something to do. And having children is a double-gift: it provides that sense of belonging and purpose while also allowing us to remember that life is full of real, precious wonder.

(The importance of belonging and purpose should make us even more aware of the position we put undergraduate and graduate students in: they are necessarily in precarious positions when it comes to social roles and cultural capital; but they also often have limited access to support services.)

Cicero, de Senectute

“Every age is burdensome to those who have no means of living well and happily”

Quibus enim nihil est in ipsis opis ad bene beateque vivendum

It is not really classical reflections on the nature of death that I have found especially enlightening or moving, but rather the constant reminder that, given what we know (or don’t know) about death, learning how to live is critical. Once you absorb this lesson, it seems like it should have been patently obvious from the beginning. It is as simple as this: we really don’t know anything about what happens after death, but we are certain we are alive now and that this life is limited. Is it not absolute insanity to do anything but try to live it well?

I don’t want to moralize much here or in any way denigrate systems of thought that bring people comfort when facing that starkest of uncertainties, but belief systems that deprive us of joy and (non-harmful) pleasure in this life steal from us by trading on the promise of the unknown. Yes, these systems of thought can do us good by enforcing standards of behavior that make us treat each other better than we would in a state of nature. And, yes, many of them do provide true comfort against that chilling fear of the endless night. But I think many of us make this deal before we can possibly understand the value of what we are bargaining.

The problem is that we wonder at death and we think it is something remarkable. What is remarkable is that each of our individual consciousnesses exist. The miracle is that we live at all. This should be celebrated and life should be enjoyed—we should revel in the fact that we are because we know for certain that we once were not and must understand the very good chance that we will not be.

This does not, of course, mean we have to be destructive. We can live fully and experience life well without taking the same opportunities from others. We don’t need to wear out life, heeding a refrain we hear from Pliny who admits his own fear of death and implores “So, while life remains to us, let’s make it so that death discovers as little as possible to destroy.” (Proinde, dum suppetit vita, enitamur ut mors quam paucissima quae abolere possit inveniat, Epistle 5.5). But we must take some stock of what it means to live.

Plato, Critias 108d

“I need to do this already, I can’t procrastinate anymore!”

τοῦτ᾿ οὖν αὐτὸ ἤδη δραστέον, καὶ μελλητέον οὐδὲν ἔτι.

This is in part why I love the two epitaphs assigned to Ashurbanipal in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. Both feature the King known for his legendary wealth reminding his addressee that we are mortal and that even the wealthy and powerful like himself die. He continues by asserting “I kept whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy / I took from sex. My wealth and limitless blessings are gone” (κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι / τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται). The variant has a slightly less hedonistic take: “I keep whatever I learned and the thoughts I had and the fine things / I experienced with them. Everything else, however pleasing, is gone.” (ταῦτ’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔμαθον καὶ ἐφρόντισα καὶ μετὰ τούτων / ἔσθλ’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ καὶ ἡδέα πάντα λέλειπται).

I think that these two options belong together—that the dueling versions do not present opposite ways of living, but instead mark out that one life is incomplete without the other. We are bodies and we are minds and the two are entwined. This is why the extreme Cyrenaic claim that life’s balance of pleasure and pain should be considered as a reason for suicide is suspect. It underestimates the value of being able to ask and answer this question in the first place.

When people ask how I ended up pursuing a career in academia in general and, in particular, why Classics, I usually tell them about my deep love of literature and how I ended up pursuing Classics as an undergraduate degree because I wanted the same type of education as my favorite authors. This is true, but not complete. When I was younger I decided that a life spent doing something that did not have a meaningful connection to what I believed life was all about was a life wasted. (Yes, I was a lot of fun in high school too.)

Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon 18

“For when beauty, wealth and sex converge upon you, you better not sit or procrastinate!”

κάλλος γὰρ καὶ πλοῦτος καὶ ἔρως εἰ συνῆλθον ἐπὶ σέ, οὐχ ἕδρας οὐδὲ ἀναβολῆς

The problem with this statement is figuring out what life is “all about”. My short answer was—and remains—that having the time and allowing yourself the freedom to think about what life is for is an essential part of living fully and well. When I considered a future life as an adolescent, I wanted more time and I did not want to be in a subculture where thinking was discouraged. I wanted to be able to read and write. I wanted to have access to ancient thoughts on the same problems. Moment by moment, becoming a Classicist became almost inevitable. Indeed, Petrarch certainly sees the transience of human life through a Classical frame.

Instead, what I want to point out is there is at the base of Classical Humanism a deep and abiding contemplation of what it means to be human (including what it means to be mortal). I fear too often that Philology and many current academic practices emphasize minutiae and actually disincentivize any thought about larger pictures. To return again to Seneca, he laments that too many of us turn “to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology” (adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est, EM 108).

When I read Seneca’s Moral Epistles now, part of what emerges is the sense of a writing practice to remind oneself that life must be lived. From his first letter to Lucilius, Seneca emphasizes that time is the only thing we really have and that most people do not realize how valuable it is. Even though he insists in the de Brevitate Vitae that life is plenty long and the problem is that most people waste it, it argues in the Epistles that we must still “embrace every hour” (omnes horas complectere). Indeed, in a different essay, Seneca begs his reader to seize life because not even the next hour is guaranteed.

And how Seneca himself does this is an object lesson. He does not mean we should spend every hour in pleasure or its pursuit—indeed, he would be a hypocrite if he meant this. No, what he means is the living of life with intention and meaning. His writing of the Moral Epistles is actually a demonstration of this, of a life lived through and for contemplation but not in contempt of the experiences of the body and of others.

Seneca, Moral Epistles 76.3-5

“You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb, as long as you live. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.”

Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum.

Plato famously has one of his speakers say that “In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying” (τῷ ὄντι ἄρα, ἔφη, ὦ Σιμμία, οἱ ὀρθῶς φιλοσοφοῦντες ἀποθνῄσκειν μελετῶσι, Phaedo 67e). I cannot disagree with this, but I think that it needs to be explained a bit. Cicero’s gloss on this “that the life of philosophers, as the same man says, is a contemplation of death” Tota enim philosophorum vita, ut ait idem, commentatio mortis est (Tusc. Disp. 30.74-31.71.5) gets a little closer to what Montaigne understands: that without understanding death and acknowledging it for what it likely is, we make the mistake every day of not remembering to live. To contemplate death is to remind ourselves every day that life must be lived and should be lived well. To ignore it, is pretty much the opposite. This practice is not about learning how to die but instead about learning to accept that we are mortal and through that acceptance to learn truly how to live.

I started writing this in honor of turning 40 this week. I am not delighted about this number—even though I know that this is irrational and that 39 was in no real material way that different. Oh, how strange the number 40 is! My students think I’m old; my older colleagues think I am still young. I feel generally the same as I have for years, except I know rationally that the number of years which have passed are most likely now to outnumber those that remain.

To celebrate this, I am leaving the country. My wife surprised me with a trip to Greece and this is a big deal because, somehow, I have never actually made it to Greece. I know it is ridiculous that a Hellenist has never been to Greece and I am sure that this among many other things exposes what a charlatan I am, but there are plausible explanations. My parents never possessed passports; a good deal of my travel abroad was funded by someone else. Etc. etc.

When my wife told me she had booked a trip to Greece to mark (or perhaps avoid?) this auspicious occasion, I had to wonder aloud if we could afford to go. She said, can we afford not to? Who am I to argue with wisdom so deep?

So, for the next week there will be a series of pre-scheduled posts about Athens, a place I deeply love from texts, but a world to which I have never truly been. Until then, a reminder from Martial.

Martial, 5.58

“Postumus, you always say that you will live tomorrow, tomorrow!
But that ‘tomorrow’ of yours – when does it ever come?
How far off is that ‘tomorrow’! Where is it, or where should it be sought?
Does it lie hidden among the Parthians, or the Armenians?
That ‘tomorrow’ is as old as Priam or Nestor.
For how much can ‘tomorrow’ be purchased?
You will live tomorrow, you say?
Postumus, even living today is too late;
he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.

Cras te uicturum, cras dicis, Postume, semper:
dic mihi, cras istud, Postume, quando uenit?
Quam longe cras istud! ubi est? aut unde petendum?
Numquid apud Parthos Armeniosque latet?
Iam cras istud habet Priami uel Nestoris annos. 5
Cras istud quanti, dic mihi, possit emi?
Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est:
ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri.

06d31-mosaic2bhatay

Classics and Theory: A Monday Rant

This is a slightly adapted and expanded edition of my #classicsandtheoryrant from twitter

One of the things I love about social media is that it has allowed me to connect with people who love the Classics and know a lot about it all over the world. Some of these people have ‘credentials’ and experiences similar to mine, but many do not. Across the board, I try to ignore these conventional markers of intellectual authority on twitter etc. and just listen to what people say. And, really, I have learned a lot.

But one thing that has been increasingly frustrating  over the past year is a small but insistent chorus of voices who insist that Classics is being ruined by “post-modern theory”. Generally, these voices come from outside the traditional academy or from more conventional corners within them. But most often they represent ‘threatened constituents’ of the modern world–by which I mean people who also object to ‘diversity’, ‘political correctness’ and a whole bunch of buzzwords and phrases that are popular media shorthand for a world that is not dominated by traditional, male, Eurocentric perspectives. (And, you know, white supremacists. This does not mean that all anti-theory people are white supremacists, so, dude, chill.)

This is in part frustrating because I thought we were past this. I know this is naïve and I know that Classics is way behind other disciplines in the aggregate when it comes to using critical theory, but we have long had a small and influential group of people pushing our field to respond to the modern world and engage with new ideas.

But it is also infuriating because it attests to an essential fragility (also, read this if the term is upsetting). Is our confidence in the way we have received the past so shaky that it can brook no challenge? Often, the knee-jerk or even committed aversion to theory is really a desire to exclude others. I almost respect those supremacists more because they at least admit it. (But let me be clear, I really, really don’t like ethnonationalists and white supremacists.)

Engagement with theory is critical because it acknowledges that as interpreters we are subjects who are shaped by our experiences and the narratives and discourse through which culture shapes us based on our gender, sexual identity, race, (dis)abilities, age, etc. Our bodies are not instruments we drive through the world, they are part of us and mediate our experience of everything. The world treats us differently based on the bodies we inhabit. These two facts shape the way we respond to everything.

Acknowledging the primacy of subjectivity is only one part of modern theory which is dismissed. I won’t even bother listing all of the theoretical approaches that have helped us understand the ancient world better. It is a type of retrograde derangement not to use new tools to look at old things. Imagine if people were railing against the use of spectral imaging in archaeology or the application of new chemical testing or any one of a range of technologies that have developed over the past generation. We would all be incredulous.

Many of the same people, however, who champion what aDNA testing might tell us about ancient peoples, also deny the validity of applying new tests to ancient literature and culture which have been developed in respectable fields like anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, English, sociology, and others. The reason for this is clear: the process tells different stories about the past than many of us were raised with. This is uncomfortable.

If art does not make us uncomfortable or question the past at all, then it is merely entertainment. Scholarship that merely repeats or reinforces what we already know is essentially masturbatory.

The argument over who gets to interpret the past and how is political. “Post-modern” is a catch-all phrase for many different approaches which are dismissed by conservative traditionalists. This argument raged through the field in the 1980s as Eric Adler documents well.  There was another major flare up with the Who Killed Homer? nonsense. I think we might have missed a renewal of these complaints in the late 2000s because of the severe economic downturn.

But this debate is all about power: The power to interpret and possess meaning; The power to have meaning in the world; The power to be a full and equal subject in a flawed society. Such striving has been going on since some literary theorists had the gall to imagine that texts were more than pristine aesthetic objects with timeless secrets for the properly initiated to unlock.

I have a few simple points to make in closing. The first is that scholarship is not a zero-sum game. Applying new theoretical frames does not wipe out the old ones or render them useless. If we apply the analogy of biodiversity to ideas, then the more voices and ideas we can explore within a productive system, the more variety and understanding we can get out of it. This is destined to be chaotic and painful, but it is creative and exciting.

New ideas build upon older ones. Some gain purchase for more than a few years become part of the tradition. Some ideas are as Glaukos says like leaves on the tree which grow for a brief time and then wither and die. Others somehow become evergreen, in the moment we cannot know. We can argue for what we believe and push back against other ideas—but we need to acknowledge that sometimes our need to push back against other ideas is driven by a desire to exclude people not the ideas.

A second point which is by no means original is that you can love something and see that it might be bad for something or need to change. E.g. chocolate cake is delicious, but it can kill you. Cigarettes are delightful, but they will give you cancer. Anything made by humans is imperfect because we are not perfect. Saying the Homeric epics are misogynistic or using Marxist theory to show how they (re-)produce structural oppression does not erase their beauty or their impact. Instead, it shows that their beauty may also have a harmful impact. It helps us understand how they work and how we work as human communities.

And if you cannot love something flawed, you simply cannot love. Let go of the Platonic nonsense of perfection in the mind of a distant god. Real, human love embraces the ways in which we are flawed and celebrates that despite the horror, baseness, and temporariness which is our inheritance, we are still capable of beauty.

A third point is also not original: all methods of interpretation are ideological and have a theory. If the theory is not explicit, that does not mean it is not there. It means it is naïve and unquestioned. Philology is a means not an end. We classicists are trained in philology so we don’t make basic mistakes and we can distinguish good arguments from bad ones. But we are at a point in the production of knowledge that no one can learn everything which is required to understand the ancient world. We need to work together. We need polymathy and polyphony.

The practice of classics as developed in Europe around the enlightenment is ideologically connected to a particular time, a set of bodies and languages, and a cultural apparatus distinct from ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘Classics’ created by the Renaissance and Enlightenment is not coterminous with the beliefs, practices, and texts of actual Greece and Rome. In a way, to emulate a 19th century German classicist in everything is little different from strapping on some leather armor and LARPing at a Renaissance Faire. Both are fun and can require a lot of expertise. But both are still play-acting.

It is not ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’ to treat ancient texts in this way any more or less than it was authentic and correct for Plotinus and Porphyry to say the Odyssey is an elaborate allegory for the mind.

All reading is reception. All interpretation is ideological. Being explicit about our ideological receptions helps us communicate better with each other and through the generations.

When we allow new perspectives and viewpoints, we enrich our reception of the past. Some of this enrichment might turn out be misleading or start out as bewildering; indeed, it might be only temporarily insightful. But striving to make new sense of the old, to try to surpass those who have already labored, is better than sucking on the marrow of corpses and wallowing in mute ash.

Миниатюры.: philologist
f. 305v. The Fouquet Missal. Bourges, c.1470-1475

Seneca Moral Epistle 108

But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

Let’s Talk about [Death] Baby: #DeathAndClassics

Roman Epitaph, B808

“[Hey,] you who are reading this epitaph, remember that you too will be dead.”

Qui legis hunc titulum, mortalem te esse memento.

A few days ago I posted the following tweet.

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

There were lots of interesting answers–it would be annoying to post all the tweets here, but I have added some to give an idea of the range of responses.

Simonides, Fragment 15

“Human strength is meager
Our plains incomplete
Toil follows toil in our short lives.
Death looms inescapable for all—
People who are good and bad draw
of that an equal portion.”

ἀνθρώπων ὀλίγον μὲν
κάρτος, ἄπρακτοι δὲ μεληδόνες,
αἰῶνι δ’ ἐν παύρωι πόνος ἀμφὶ πόνωι·
ὁ δ’ ἄφυκτος ὁμῶς ἐπικρέμαται θάνατος·
κείνου γὰρ ἴσον λάχον μέρος οἵ τ’ ἀγαθοὶ
ὅστις τε κακός.

Fragment 16

“Since you are human, never claim what tomorrow might bring.
Nor, if you see a fortunate man, how long it will last.
For not even the time of a tender-winged fly
Is not as fast.”

ἄνθρωπος ἐὼν μή ποτε φάσηις ὅ τι γίνεται 〚αὔριον〛,
μηδ’ ἄνδρα ἰδὼν ὄλβιον ὅσσον χρόνον ἔσσεται·
ὠκεῖα γὰρ οὐδὲ τανυπτερύγου μυίας
οὕτως ἁ μετάστασις.

Here are the tweets I sent to try to contextualize the question:

I ask the #deathandclassics question in all seriousness because it is a question I actually consider often (1/8)

I actually have been memorizing the opening lines of the #Odyssey to recite to myself in times of agitation. And I think, if I know I am going to die, I will recite it to myself. (2/8)

Why the #Odyssey? I think the #Iliad is the poem of death and the Odyssey is the poem of life. Both poems are at some level about what it means to be a person, but the Odyssey is about how life is lived. #deathandclassics (3/8)

In a way, it will be like a replaying of my life through a story I have read many times. There is also the ancient allegorical tradition that the Odyssey is about the transition from one realm to the next, the movement of a soul from one plane to another #deathandclassics (4/8)

Even without the allegory, the Odyssey is about the journey of a person and the journey that IS the person. #deathandclassics (5/8)

I think that this might be nice to think about in the final moments—that even though I individual am passing on, I am drifting away on words that have moved through a thousand years #deathandclassics (6/8)

Continue reading “Let’s Talk about [Death] Baby: #DeathAndClassics”

Finale Verbum? Who Killed Famae Volent?

Piccolomini, de Educatione Liberorum XXXV

“What then should we say, considering that there is great utility in both silence and in speaking? We would have you hold to the middle course, and find yourself neither always speaking nor always quiet.”

Quid ergo dicemus, cum et silentii et orationis magna utilitas sit? Tenere te medium volumus, neque tacere semper neque loqui semper.

FV screenshot

Fatalis Vetustas? Unanticipated Consequences

When Aristotle was asked what the most burdensome thing in life is he said “staying silent.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθείς, τί δυσκολώτατόν ἐστιν ἐν βίῳ, εἶπε· „τὸ σιωπᾶν”. Gnom. Vat. 58

A few months back I posted a personal reflection on the blog and message board related to the Classics Job Market. The resulting piece on Famae Volent was too long, filled with ‘hand-wringing’, and probably more than a little self-indulgent. Apart from a few snide comments on the message board itself, however, I was surprised by the eagerness of people to talk about FV—it is almost as if many of us were just waiting to be given permission to talk about the blog and what it means to us.

But over the next few months, the situation changed. To cut to the chase for those of you who don’t already know, the website has careened to the brink of closure. The turnaround was sudden enough that a student of mine asked me if I was responsible for killing FV!

I really don’t think anything I have written is nearly that important: I was on the crest of a wave. For reasons that will become immediately clear, I have more to say about FV and its imminent demise. In Classics and Higher Ed, we are in the midst of many different clashing tides—I want to give a different perspective (or two) on Famae Volent and make the rather surprising suggestion that it should be saved.

Fusilis Vexatio: Some background

“Silence works as wisdom for a foolish person”

Taciturnitas stulto homini pro sapientia est, Publilius Syrus 692

 One of the many surprises that followed the FV blog post was that the current editors—the Servii—contacted me. I must confess to longstanding curiosity about the identity of the blog moderators—they refer to an ‘ur-Servius’ (the original) and other Servii before them, but it seems that this group has been in control for a few ‘seasons’.

In truth, I was happy both to be contacted and to hear their comments which were both kind and justly critical. From our exchanges, I got the sense of thoughtful people who were trying to do good.. I think we forget that beyond the deletions and clever comments are people who haven’t done this job for money or glory or anything other than their own vision of service to the field.

They started by (1) apologizing for deleting a post that seemed to have come from me or Erik and (2) offering to have a conversation because… “We agree with parts of it, want to push back on other parts, and are more generally interested in hearing your thoughts on whether you think it is possible to improve the climate within the framework of FV’s basic system” [all quotes excerpted from email exchanges].

(They also asked to preserve their anonymity. I have not confirmed their identities beyond observing coordination between the emails and the site. Early on, we discussed possible public methods of confirmation; but after our multiple conversations, I have no doubt that they are who they say they are. The paranoid and conspiracy-minded might think I am making this all up—well, that would be interesting too.)

I was interested both (1) in hearing the moderators’ responses to my post and (2) in just listening to their own reflections on what FV does and what it is for. I must confess that I lost almost all objectivity after reading the following.

“One thing that we thought might be helpful to you from your end is to keep in mind that there’s no one group of Servii — we’ve been running it the past two years, and it was many different groups before us (with whom we have had no contact). So when you see an increased level of moderation over the last few years, what you’re really seeing is that we’re more active in enforcing community standards than past generations have been, not that there’s been any change (necessarily) in content. We’ve been taking a more active role than our predecessors, and have actually had complaints and attempts to out us because of our “fascist” over-moderation — not kidding.”

Even as I re-read this I appreciate their honesty and imagine the difficulty of being in their place: they conceded that “a lot of FV commentary is by nature cowardly” but pushed back a little on my emphasis on morally repugnant material, explaining that while I had sensed “an increasing amount of negativity directed at PoC, women, traditionally underrepresented social classes and people from marginalized groups”, they had tracked more voices objecting to the “dark corners” of FV than a few years back. So, in their words, before they made the decision to close the site, there is “a certain amount of polarization– but it is not exactly because the ideas are somehow new: rather, it is that the actual conversation about them is.” In fact, they insisted that most of the material they deleted (prior to mid-March) was actually aimed toward senior white men. (A pattern not necessarily supported by subsequent events).

Fluxuosum Vallum: A Conversation

  Continue reading “Finale Verbum? Who Killed Famae Volent?”