The Center for Hellenic Studies

Remarks on Gregory Nagy at age 70

Laszlo Nagy
Contemplating my father at age 70, I think to him when he was my age, 35, thirty-five years ago. This means I find myself in the odd situation of contemplating him when he was my age at my birth. I am reminded already then of his having a newborn son, something that I lack at the moment, realizing that I will be 70 without a 35 year old son to conduct a speech in my honor.
In making a speech about my father, the Francis Jones Professor of Greek, the Homerist, the Classicist, the dedicated teacher of undergraduates, the pioneer in Harvard's Common Core Curriculum, the dedicated teacher of high school teachers, the dedicated mentor of countless graduate students, the prolific one, I wish to write of him now not as the loving father of two children, but rather as my own mentor, a role that he has taken up and that grew out of his being father to me, but a role, nevertheless, that I feel prepares me to offer some thoughts about him. This all being said, as I commit these words about him, I struggle to suppress my feelings toward him as father, tender feelings that come out of my heart, but that I don't wish to bother the esteemed company with, lest such feelings come out in a maudlin way, serving as tiresome drivel.
By the time this edition is tendered to him, I imagine I will be on a road toward myself becoming, to put it minimally, an academician. The ways in which I approach my subject (which I prefer to think of as the 1400's, with their millennium old Byzantine, Latin, and Islamic components all interacting and defining one another in this singular and important century) owes to him in ways that are to me indescribable, in the sense that much of what motivates me now I think stems from the breath breathed into me in a long ago then that, contrary to my earlier promise, I can't help but see coming just as much from childhood memories of him reading Greek Mythology, to memories of him in High School contemplating Stoic pronouncements found in Wheelock's Latin Grammar, to memories of him more recently translating Sanskrit slokas.
But these impressions of a son I think speak to the broad sweep of my father's thought and approach as it should concern things within what are called the Social Sciences and Humanities (the distinction itself being something I know my father would not succumb to).
Being something of an encyclopedist, I have often tried to interview my father, asking him for labels and paragraphs that would be appropriate for a Wikipedia entry on him, such as, for instance, how it might be that he understands a given topic. In such interviews, I am keenly aware of how much of the language that one might deploy in such an interview would use language itself far beneath the inquiry and its magnitude. One such detestable example of this would be talk of "orality" and, to give an even more baneful example, "oralists." The very term itself, "oralist", has the implication built within it of someone seeing the world through a given prism, which we can call, to follow along with the thinking, "oralist."
But it was at one of these interviews that he said something to me that had a lasting impression on me, but probably not on him, said, as it was, with a great degree of matter-of-factness and gentleness characteristic to how my father approaches almost any kind of topic. What he said to me, and this was, again, after my own urging that he set a label upon himself, was that he was, perhaps, a kind of inductivist. A problem would present itself to him in a given line or word. And another problem would present itself in another line or word.
And so I think it would be at this juncture that I can say with a good degree of certainty that to talk of the thought of Gregory Nagy is to talk about every word or every line that he has ever looked upon and examined and written and spoken about. This would be the thought of Gregory Nagy, not any kind of thing that a son could say about him, or that I would imagine that even close colleagues could say about him.
By analogy to how a thick-description or account of my father the intellectual would content itself with an exhaustive analysis of every single sentence he has ever written or said, I am left with what I had earlier intimated to you, which is that an account of mine that would try to describe the extent to which he has influenced me would be for me to talk about every single phone conversation I have had with him, every single meeting I have had with him in Starbucks, and again, to stray into the sentimental, every single early memory that I have of him, so great and enduring of an influence, and so nutritive of an influence, he has been on me.
My suggestion that his influence has been "nutritive" is meant to communicate the remarkable phenomenon of one being able to return to one's having been influenced upon (an idea that could be rendered quite well with a perfect passive participle being possessed by the same agent as the one making, at one's own whim, the movement).
His influence upon me is a kind of living legacy for me, one that lives within me and keeps me company, a thought that instills me with both sadness as well as comfort if I allow myself to contemplate my own eventual future without recourse to him the person, a future that will perhaps be all the more difficult for me precisely because I return to his legacy, as discussed in the above, so often.
And so it would be at this juncture that I would shyly yield the floor to others, and to celebrate with them their own living legacies that I would imagine come from their having countless talks with my Dad. If I should be unduly shy over speaking about my father, it is perhaps because I feel slightly embarrassed and ashamed for having had and for having now the privilege of being his son for all these 35 years of mine. I feel as though my having done this might have taken away from further legacies that he might have left onto you.
And so, I leave my thoughts then at this, without any kind of conclusion, but perhaps an expression of gratitude toward all those in attendance that they would see what I see in my father and that they are all here to celebrate with him the arrival somewhere (here, meaning "age 70"), an age which, I can almost say jokingly to you all, might mean very little to him, except for perhaps the fact, stated as a tautology that when one reaches the age 70, you do indeed reach the age 70. At this, I know my father could laugh and be very happy to know that we are remembering and celebrating him now.