The first conversationalist was Socrates, who replaced this war of words by dialogue. Perhaps he did not invent dialogue, which was originally a Sicilian mime or puppet play, but he introduced the idea that individuals couldn’t be intelligent on their own, that they need someone else to stimulate them. Before him, the model of all speech was the monologue: the wise man or the god spoke and the rest listened.
The world is full of people who have so much to teach us. They can be young or old. They can be famous personages or obscure folks. They can be men or women. They can be rich or poor. They can fall anywhere in between. They can be professors or farmers. They can be teachers or soldiers. They can reveal vast bodies of knowledge. They can show us how it is produced in the most unexpected of places and in the most suprising of ways. They can humble the learned. They can add depth to our world with their philosophical edge. They can stimulate our intellectual curiosity. They can dazzle us with their distinctive narrative style. They can tell us some damn good stories. They can sharpen our wit. They can inspire us with their verbal generosity and willingness to share the most intimate details of their lives.
The problem is we often fail to hear what they have to say for we may have compromised the art of deep listening in our eagerness to be heard.
It was a lesson in the methodology of fieldwork: the most important things I had to offer were my ignorance and my desire to learn.
—Allessandro Portelli, Italian oral historian
Above all, conversations with other human beings recall the humble beginnings of cultural creativity and knowledge production. If we enter worlds of which we know very little or of which we have very little understanding, then, we are suddenly confronted not just by our own ignorance as human beings, but also by our potential to acquire new forms of knowledge by interacting with others. It is during those moments of not knowing- when we are feeling vulnerable- that we can sucuumb to the wise man and his gods or give in to the comforting temptations of the monologue. That is a distinct kind of listening. It is more likely to prompt reverence or obedience rather than dialogue.
When I embarked upon this project that involved interviewing people who knew Gregory Nagy more intimately than I ever could, I wanted to start a conversation about a man whom I admire greatly but whose multifaceted complexity I sought to capture. I use the word man quite deliberately for my objective was to learn about Greg not so much—or at least not exclusively—as a scholar but as human being who lived a full and productive life. There was much to be learned in adopting this holistic approach. The complex portrait that emerges from these interviews is not merely intended to be a celebratory tribute to an important and prolific scholar who has impacted countless number of people throughout the world with his formidable scholarship.
Rather, it is an attempt to chronicle the myriad ways in which Greg enabled some of his closest companions to be intelligent together and to further the study of classics and comparative literature in ways that expanded both fields. That is not to say, that all these accounts are devoid of ambivalence, unresolved conflicts and internal struggles.
The variant narratives that emerged from these interviews remind us that memories can somtimes converge, at other times they can diverge in the most interesting of ways and most often they end up generating debates about how events unfolded. We learn how similar experiences were often experienced differently by various individuals.
The practice of oral history—combined with a commitment to expanding the scope of possible conversations—allows us to gain better access to the textured experiences of individuals in particular historical contexts.
It can help us better understand how important social and historical transformations are played out in peoples’ private lives. The storytelling I tried to prompt with my interviews gave me access to material that couldn’t be found in libraries or archives. These interviews prompted dialogic encounters and allowed me to act on the assumption that everybody involved had a good story to tell and a unique perspective from which to tell it. Those were angles I simply couldn’t occupy and from which I could only begin to see with their much-needed assistance.
In other words, I had to become a more disciplined listener since I depended on my interviewees for aspects of the story only they could impart. (And those who know me well understand how challenging that can be given my propensity to chatter—forever) So if I wanted to learn about Greg in his capacity as a husband, for example, I had to approach his wife Holly and absorb her subjective experiences. I had to be drawn into their intimate world in ways that could feel awkward or intrusive given that these vignettes of domestic life might eventually reach a wider audience.
At the same time, another aspect of my task was to draw my subjects out and act as an intermediary for what Allessandro Portelli has described as ”this personal effort at composition in performance”.
The interview does acquire certain characteristics of a performance. For one thing, the narrator becomes conscious of the fact that he or she will occupty center stage for a short and typically intense period of time. Special arrangments have been made to mark it as being somehow different from the casual conversations that occur in our daily lives. The intensity of this encounter impacts both the storyteller/performer and interviewer/audience as they collaborate to produce a final product that possesses some sort of cohesion.
Being an attentive listener or audience member, however, is by no means the same thing as being a passive receptacle in this dialogic encounter. There is a steep learning curve that requires intense mental focus and frequent responses on the part of the interviewer. The act of listening itself needs to be punctuated with verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate active engagment with the narrator, if the interviewer is to elicit compelling material with a modicum of success. It is ultimately the responsibility of the interviewer responsibility to probe areas of significance, to allow for meaningful digressions, to detect revealing patterns, to manage moments of potential discomfort, to request further clarification for the sake of accuracy, to provide commentary where deemed appropriate, to provide moments of relief and to bring the narrative to a place of comfortable closure.
In the end, it is the verbal generosity of the narrators that has made this such a fun and fulfilling experience. I am truly grateful for their gift and hope that my response has been adequate.
But now I will let them speak for themselves as they/we all try to do justice to a man who lived well and enriched the lives of others.
Douglas Frame welcomes me to his office at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C where he has served as the associate director for the past eleven years. The CHS website states that its central mission is to bring together a variety of research interests centered on Hellenic civilization. The CHS is affiliated with Harvard University. Doug welcomes me to his elegant and spacious office. He has a dignified demeanor. Doug is both articulate and hesitant during the interview. I am hoping to draw him out for I have rarely had the opportunity to speak to a white man about his life.
Greg & Graduate School
My name is Douglas Frame and I am the associate director of the Center of Hellenic Studies where Greg Nagy is the director. I’ve been at CHS for the past eleven years as associate director so I’ve had a very close relationship with Greg during those eleven years.
Several decades earlier we had a close association that started in graduate school. Greg and I are roughly the same age. I am slightly older, by about a month. But he had already reached his last year of graduate school by the time I started my first year of graduate school for various years on his part and for various reasons on my part.
I’d taken a year off between college and graduate school. I was travelling in Europe. I had been an undergraduate at Harvard and I got a fellowship from the classics department. It allowed me to go to Italy and Greece for the year. Then I came back to graduate school. I went back to the same place; it was the same classics department at the same university. I was at Harvard again.
That’s when our association began. Greg has a very unusual biography too, it’s not the typical Midwestern American trajectory shall we say. So I really don’t know very much about the early part of his life—you know—other than what I’ve learned from him. I think he did skip a grade or two here and there. I’d say he was precocious.
At any rate, so there we were at Harvard, roughly the same age. He was just finishing up graduate school and I was just starting. I wanted to do historical linguistics. I just kind of knew that was what I wanted to do but I delayed it for one year until I acquired some French, which was necessary to study the subject. This was Greg’s first year as an instructor. He took over from Calvert Watkins and started teaching comparative grammar in Greek and Latin. That was my first real acquaintance with Greg as a teacher. I took the class. Lenny took it as well. It turned into a very collegial…. I don’t know what to call it exactly.
I ask Doug to explain what he means by collegial.
Greg was—you know—very un-Harvard like in the way he approached the class. Well, he just didn’t take himself nearly as seriously as—in some senses anyway—some other junior Harvard faculty and some senior Harvard faculty who were very conscious of where they were and who they were.
Greg was much less that way shall we say. I think everybody was charmed by it- you know- being treated that way with a great deal of distinction. Okay that’s the wrong word. It gives the wrong meaning in a sense. What I mean is that Greg didn’t make distinctions between himself and the students on some level, at least to a certain extent.
There were two courses in comparative grammar. They were offered in sequential years. We did one course with Greg that had a more formal structure. Then Lenny and I took the other one in a more informal structure, a one on one with Greg.
Would you characterize this as a mentoring relationship?
I’d say in some sense it was and in some sense it wasn’t. I am just saying it was informal. Greg was definitely—you know—the leader. It’s hard to explain exactly. He was the leader because he wasn’t. That’s one way of saying it. He was having an impact but his impact was due to the fact that he didn’t insist on being the leader. It was very collegial. That’s a key word for Greg—you know—that everybody is a colleague. It was very important for us as well.
You know Greg had done his graduate and undergraduate work all in linguistics. He himself came late to Greek literature and Greek epic. He had done—you know—very technical work with linguistics but not much with literature. This wasn’t until graduate school. As a graduate student he discovered Homer, which has become his lifelong passion I would say. Applying historical linguistics to epic, to Homer and to Greek literature is what we are all interested in. It’s what brings us together . That’s why we were together, in a way. It’s the whole idea that Greek literature is traditional, that there is a long tradition and history behind what we have. And if you study Indo-European linguistics, you’ll get a sense of that.
So as a graduate student I decided I was going to do Sanskrit. I audited the yearlong Rig-Veda course. I had some influence on Greg that way too. Well, the work he’d done involved some Sanskrit but he had never really studied the language formally. Somehow or other I got him to do the yearlong Rig-Veda course. So I got him to do that. That was my last year as a graduate student.
Sticking Around: Cambridge in the Late Sixties & Early Seventies
I stayed in the Cambridge area after graduate school. I taught at Wellesley College for six years with a year off midway through. This was in the seventies. I had really finished everything up in 1970 but the doctoral degree was awarded in 1971. The approval got the higher salary at Wellesley College where I was teaching and that’s really all I was interested in at that point.
The important thing is that I was still in the area teaching at Wellesley. Lenny got a job teaching at Brandeis where he still teaches. Mine ended in 1976 and then I went on and did other things. During this period—the 70s—it was a continuation of graduate school. The group—I don’t know exactly what to call it—the club continued to meet, especially as far as the three of us went. We continued meeting weekly, always in nice circumstances, you know at the Ha’Penny Pub in Harvard Square.
Other people were part of that Thursday group too. I guess Lenny, Greg and I would be the core, especially in hindsight if you look at us today. We’re still in touch with each other.
I recall that Greg sometimes referred to Doug, Lenny and himself as the three amigos but I don’t say anything and let Doug continue speaking.
Harvard and Cambridge were special in those days because it was the sixties and the sixties went right into the seventies, as you know. All of that was happening—you know—the Vietnam-era in Cambridge. That was just life. And we continued the intellectual part of it and combined it with the social aspects. We just continued that.
Well then various things start to happen. That’s life too. Greg leaves at some point because get tenure the first try at Harvard. So he went off to Baltimore. He was teaching at Johns Hopkins at the time. That must have been 1973.
Well, then it starts to get complicated but I think I’ve set the scene there.
It was a bit of a struggle for me because my job at Wellesley wasn’t a tenure track job. It came along at the last minute in 1970 when we were all looking for jobs. It was a difficult year for everybody. Before that jobs seemed to be plentiful. That year there were none. I had been planning to do an interim year in Ohio. I was on the verge of accepting that job when I got a call from Wellesley College. My friend Tracy was leaving for the year. They needed someone to replace him. Would I be interested?
Yes I would. I wasn’t keen on going to rural Ohio. This meant staying in Cambridge, which was an exciting place at the time but it, wasn’t a tenure track position. It was just something that came along and then turned into an extended stay. It was a difficult assignment- in a way- for me to get used to the teaching situation at Wellesley. It had something to do with the fact that it was so different from my experience as a graduate and undergraduate student at what was essentially an all male school, although it wasn’t. But that was my perspective of Harvard anyway.
I mean it wasn’t all difficult. Parts of it were very nice. I had some really positive experiences at Wellesley. One of them was teaching a historical linguistics course which was a success. I had a lot of fun doing it. Let me put it this way what was positive for me in all of this was outside of Wellesley.
It had everything to do with being in Cambridge. It was about being able to continue these relationships. So you can tell that I haven’t quite resolved all my questions about that experience at Wellesley. I was actually on leave for a year. That was one of the real benefits of teaching at Wellesley. I had time away. Well, that led to a lifelong project in an amazing turn of events. I just stumbled into something that year and it took me forty years to work through it.
In My Mind I’ve Done It
Let me show it to you:
1970: Ph.D. completed. The origins of this project are in Ph.D. thesis.
1971: Ph.D. awarded. Pay raise at Wellesley.
1973: Leave of Absence from Wellesley. Receives grant from National Endowment for the Humanities.
1978: Thesis Published as Book entitled The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic
2009: Publishes second book entitle Hippota Nestor
Let me flesh this out for you. It gets complicated:
The origins of this project are my Ph.D. thesis, which I completed in 1970. Everything- as far as I knew- was done with the thesis. So in 1973 I applied for a junior leave of absence from Wellesley and I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This meant that I had funding for the full year. I spent two months in Paris. It was very productive but it had nothing to do with being in Paris. As soon as the year ended, I read something that immediately flipped the problem 180 degrees. It was something that I didn’t know at the time.
The thesis was published in 1978 but five years before it was published I had really found a new angle. I was able to make a direct comparison between Greek and Indic in a very specific way that had very specific consequences. The comparison was between twin gods in Sanskrit and the epic figure Nestor in Greek. It was a linguistic comparison to begin with because Hippota Nestor —which is the name of the book—means the horseman Nestor. The names of twins- they have two names- in the Indic is the two horsemen. I knew that even when I wrote the thesis. What I didn’t know was that in the Indic you can show that the names related to two different twins. When you put it in the dual, it refers to the horseman and his twin. Then it becomes the two horsemen or two Nestors sort to speak.
What happened, then, is that I got very interested in the twin myth because it occurs in the Greek as well. The Vedic twins- everybody knows- go back to the same twin gods as the Greek dioscuri . You get the Greek dioscuri as part of the comparison and so they become part of the question too.
In 1978 all I could say is that there is more to this question than I can go into here. In other words, I had to leave the thesis intact. All I could do was rewrite the Indic chapter and put a footnote into it. In fact, I can show you the footnote. It’s number 72. In 1973 I thought I could wrap this up in a year. Remember I was writing this five years later. You have to remember The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic gets published in 1978.
Now finally in 2009 I am finished with that. I really feel I’ve said everything I had to say about it in Hippota Nestor and it’s a long book.
Doug reflects on what all this may mean for someone who aspires to have an orderly academic career.
This is not a good thing to have happen to you if you are interested in having an orderly academic career. If you want to have an orderly academic career- I don’t mean to sound demeaning again- then pick something you can do in a short span of time and show the results. Don’t pick something where the results will come forty years later because you won’t make sense to people.
I’m not sure I still make sense to people but anyway…
But in my mind I’ve done it.
Married Life & Moving Around
I met my future wife the month that I finished teaching at Wellesley. That was in 1976. It took me a year of still living in Cambridge and of being marginally employed- shall we say- before we moved to the Midwest. We ended up in Wisconsin and got married at the end of that year. With Lenny’s help, through Lenny’s good offices really, I moved back from Wisconsin and taught at Brandeis for a year. I was replacing Lenny. So I found myself back in the Boston area again. By that time Greg was back at Harvard.
Let me sketch for you how we continued to know each other in a rather distant manner.
I was still struggling at that point. I was married, living in Cambridge and without a job. I spent one more year in Cambridge at Wheaton College. It was one course in the spring and that was about it in terms of real employment.
Now here is where Greg enters the story again.
He could see what the situation was and he was doing his best to be helpful during that time. Well, Greg knew of the Senior Mellon Fellowship at Columbia University, which was for part-time teaching and part-time research. So he strategized. I went along. Long story short it worked.
In the fall of 1980 I got to New York. We got to New York, my wife and I. It looked like our ship had come in, at least in the short-term. There we were with a beautiful apartment on Riverside overlooking the Hudson River. The apartment had more rooms than we knew what to do with. It was a rags to riches story from Cambridge to New York. Yeah this was nice, especially for my wife. She’s a New Yorker working in the art world. Her mother was a New Yorker so she had family, friends and all sorts of connections.
So two years in New York—thanks to Greg—and then again I’m having trouble finding what is going to follow as my story moves along. Meanwhile my daughter—our daughter—is born in New York City.
Then we’re off to Middlebury Vermont, so we go from New York City to rural Vermont. Through the efforts of somebody else I was able to land this job. Again, it was for only for one year. I didn’t have a position for the following year. This was just replacing the chairman of the department at Middlebury who had gone off to Cornell for the year. So once the year was over that was done.
During this time I am working on aspects of this. Doug points to his book and gently with his hand . I actually found part five- there are five parts to the book in New York. Part five came out of my two years as a Mellon fellow at Columbia. So I’d written a paper up about it and delivered it at the convention. It didn’t do anything for me. I mean it didn’t help me land an academic job. I don’t think I was going about it in the right way anyhow.
I don’t think I was ever really cut out to be in Academia. I had a Family in Vermont. Academia has its rules. No I don’t think I was going about it in the right way. Of course I didn’t know that at the time because everything I was doing was supposed to put me in an academic position. Even at Wellesley I was having doubts that this was where I really belonged.
Back to Cambridge & the Second Beer
We wanted to get back to New York. That summer I left my wife and one-year old daughter in rural Vermont and went to Cambridge. I went to a new program at Harvard in business for Ph.D.’s who were not making it in academia. So I did this nice program. It was a little bit like summer camp; it was designed to get everybody excited about business.
It was well done. The main thing I learned from this program is that if you want to get into business, then, do something that you can actually do and that is banking. I wanted to get back to New York so for us to be in New York it meant that I had to get a job in banking. And the way you do that is by networking. Just find everybody who can help you. The reason I say that about banking is because it’s called the liberal arts of business. You don’t actually have to know anything . Doug laughs and at that point I’m thinking to myself why didn’t I ever think of going into banking . They train you.
It worked. Those jobs weren’t all that easy to get either. It was through somebody I’d heard about. So there was this career in banking.
Ah now we get back to Greg. Alright. Let me tell you about an incident. This was the summer I took that business course. It is 1983. So Greg was around. I didn’t see too much of him that summer because I was busy doing the business course. But before I tell you about this incident I’d like to backtrack to Vermont for a moment. It’s about Greg and it’s important that you put it in. We’ll try to figure out later why it’s important that you include it.
It makes me think about how Doug can choose to include this incident or not but once it has made public, then, the commentary it elicits takes on a life of its own.
It’s about Greg. I cannot remember how it came about exactly. I was at Middlebury trying my best to do a good job because there I was working with people I didn’t know. I told them I knew this really dynamic lecturer. He’s a friend of mine. He’s well known in the field already. I think it would be good to have him come up and talk to the community. Greg is always willing to do things like that so we had him come up to Middlebury. I cannot remember if he spent the night with us.
I cannot remember exactly what he was talking about when he spoke at Middlebury but I do remember that he just charmed them as not being a typical classicist. I remember what everybody said. Boy if everybody in classics were like that, the field wouldn’t be in so much trouble.
These are points along the way.
Now we can go back to my meeting with Greg at the end of the business course in Cambridge. It’s about the only time I’d seen him that summer. I have think about how to say this exactly.
Greg and Doug are having a beer in Cambridge.
Doug: There is nothing out there. There is no point in my even thinking about it anymore. I’m ready to leave.
The two friends have just finished drinking their first beer. Doug is about to leave.
Greg: No, let’s have a second beer .
Doug: Well, okay.
Doug reflects on what this might mean.
I was totally ready to leave after the first beer. I was ready to go off and find a banking job. There’s nothing out there for me. I remember saying it with a tiny bit of animus shall I say. I can see that Greg sees it otherwise shall we say. It’s not clear exactly how he sees it because he cannot argue with what I’m saying. There is nothing out there. This is not working. The second beer, it’s Greg not willing to let go.
Doug: It’s over.
Greg: Well, I am not quite willing to admit that. So let’s have a second beer.
The Sequel In New York
So I move back to New York with my wife and daughter in slightly difficult circumstances. This time relying on my sister who lives in White Plains with her husband. So we live with them. I’m looking for a job, doing my networking. That works in six months. In the spring of 1984 we move out of my sister’s house and get an apartment in Brooklyn. I’m working in a bank. I’m getting trained for the first year. It’s the international division in an international bank.
It’s a total mess in all New York banks because they are in the midst of the Latin American debt crisis. I get hired – and this is no exaggeration- because somebody in the bank died on the job. I can actually see the cigarette burns on the documents that I’m working with afterwards.
That’s how I land the job there. The job isn’t fun but there are some very colorful personalities. The man who hired me grew up in Hell’s Kitchen New York, he was a Yugoslav/Italian fellow. It took a lot of energy to get into this situation and it ended up being a difficult one because the business was basically covering up all the bad documentation that had been done before. I was supposed to be working with Greece. I mean what did I know about Greek banks? Nothing. I was there when somebody died. The networking worked. I was supposed to find the documentation that they’d really never put together. I didn’t like doing it. They were feeling the heat. These were people younger than me.
I’m in the midst of this electric situation. Greg and his wife Holly come to New York just after I landed this job in the bank. Greg is always interested in situations like that. It’s just another incident. He liked the idea of this colorful Italian/Yugoslav character. This guy was going to go to Harvard and talk about Yugoslav debt. I thought he could meet with Greg in Cambridge but it didn’t amount to anything.
We made a party of it in New York. We met in Manhattan where Holly’s mother has an apartment in the Upper East Side. Then we went out to dinner at an Afghani restaurant. I’d say that was the end of my knowing Greg for many years to come. From then on there wasn’t much.
I struggle along with Doug to figure what this gap in time might signify if it signifies anything at all.
I had been part of that scene—you know—working with Greg in Cambridge. That was a reality. I’m trying to figure out what that means. It was like my bringing Greg to Middlebury. You’re going to be wowed by this guy. I still had that kind of a thing about Greg. It really was kind of the end. In a way it was just playing out what had happened the summer before with the second beer in Cambridge. There’s nothing out there for me. I’m leaving. Goodbye.
But then I’d gotten the job in New York and part of it was to show Greg that I’d gotten the job. I definitely wanted to show somehow or the other that there was some continuity .
I ask Doug what he means by continuity in this context.
Well, continuity in the sense that the last time I’d seen him in Cambridge I was going off to find myself a job in New York. The continuity was that I’d succeeded and that maybe he could even be part of that continuity by attending the Yugoslav’s lecture at Harvard. I’m driving my own narrative as well. I’m not still the needy do something for me person. It has something to do with the way I relate to people like Greg. He isn’t the only one in my life like that. I tend to pal up with people that.
What does people like that mean?
Doug asks himself the question and then laughs. The story moves along. These are all points along the way.
I guess that was the spring of 1984. From 1984 until the year 2000 Greg and I didn’t see each other. We had—you know—maybe two phone calls when I was living in Brooklyn. These phone calls are about five years apart. That was kind of it. And Lenny the same. I remember Lenny came to visit me in Brooklyn once when my daughter was very young. We went up to Prospect Park.
Reconnecting with Friends
Then I got in touch—first with Greg and then with Lenny—in the year 2000 because I could sense that my life was about to undergo some upheaval again. I didn’t just sense it. I knew I was getting separated.
My wife was essentially leaving me. I remember writing a long hand-written letter to Greg in the New York Public Library, which is where I used to work in those days because I had really gotten back to this.
Doug points to his book once more and I glance at the time that anchors his narrative.
The banking was over. I had been teaching in a private secondary school for the past seven years. I did that from 1993 to the year 2000. Then in1996 I started going to the New York Public Library. For four summers straight I worked on this and I got quite far in this hand-written version. Well, my reason for being in New York was pretty much over. The banking and the teaching in New York were just part of that. My daughter was about to go off to Harvard. She had gotten early admission.
Then I met Greg in New York again. He was giving a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum. They had redone the Greek wing and he was one of three speakers. So I got in touch with him again. That was the first time I’d seen Greg in seventeen years. I complimented him on his gray hair, called him the silver fox. Doug laughs. Then he had to go off to dinner so it wasn’t a long or protracted affair. Months later Greg calls me up on a Saturday.
Greg: I’ve just been appointed Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies. How would you like to come down and be Associate Director?
I said yes immediately. We talked for a couple of hours because basically it was no longer working for me in New York. The summers just weren’t long enough for me to work on my project and then go back to ten months of teaching. I was so worn out, not that the teaching was difficult. I had gotten good at teaching kids that age. I just couldn’t do it anymore. The summers were too short. They hadn’t been at first. I was finding it frustrating. I was getting back into my research. I had reasons I wanted to be out of New York frankly.
The teaching had been fun but I didn’t want to go on with it. I had assumed I would go on with it but then this came along and I said perfect. Yes, I would do it.
We come back full circle to the Center where Doug and I are sitting.
I finished my book Hippota Nestor in 2009. My position here was half-time administration and half-time research. Half time is really all the administration needs. And it does need a steady presence. Somebody has to be here regularly and dependably. And that’s what I have done.
But I don’t think that’s what I want to go on doing once I reach age seventy. That will be a year from now so I’ve already told Greg. I want to keep an association with CHS but it won’t be as associate director. So I’m working on that now, getting everything set up so someone else will occupy this office.
There are other places to be and private lives to be lived. Doug’s description is shyly suggestive.
I have another life in Canada during the summer, a cottage by the ocean. I’m planning to take two extra months so it’ll be three months instead of one. I’m not sure Greg has heard about this yet but others around here have. Beyond that—well—I’ll have to figure that out.
Greg is working on me all the time. He wants me and Lenny to part of the core group working on the Homer Commentaries . It’s the second beer. I never say no but I never say a very strong yes either. The story goes on and it loops around.
Doug laughs and I would have liked to have a little more time. He tells me that he never wants to listen to the interview.
Lenny Muellner is a Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He is currently the IT and Publications person at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C where he is delighted to be working with his friends Gregory Nagy and Douglas Frame whom he considers his intellectual buddies. Lenny is a soft-spoken man committed to educating scholars and the public at large in the technology of online publication. That is one of the many ways he expresses his intellectual generosity and larger commitment to keeping the field of classics vibrant and alive.
Lenny speaks with great warmth about his lifelong friend Gregory Nagy:
The Three Amigos: That’s What We’ve Become
Yes, that’s what we’ve become in the last four or five years here at the Center for Hellenic Studies. For me—at least—it is the fulfillment of a dream to be meeting with Greg and Doug on a regular basis every two weeks. You know I cannot imagine… Lenny laughs with a touch of nervousness.
I feel like I am the most fortunate person imaginable— Lenny laughs again —in this way because these are the two people who are the most intellectually compatible with me and from whom I learn the most and from whom I have learned the most in my life when I think about what my professional interests are. So the fact that the three of us can get together and be together and talk about all aspects of our lives together in a friendly way that is a wonderful intellectual thing. It’s just a wonderful human thing.
I ask Lenny to reflect on the role talk has played in their intellectual lives.
I think and this is an ongoing thing. I think that as graduate students at Harvard we felt that the ideas we had and the kinds of things that we wanted to talk about were ruled out of discourse right. These were things we wanted to discuss in reading and understanding the texts that we were dealing with in the classics department.
They weren’t part of the teaching experience we had at Harvard except with Greg. They weren’t part of the scholarly experiences. There were exceptions of course, people who became your intellectual heroes. I don’t want to exaggerate or overdramatize but most of the teachers we had at the time had a very superficial non-theoretical and non-interpretative approach to classical literature okay.
It was also an approach that didn’t invite dialogue with students right. I think many of them had grown up in a tradition in which professors were the voice of authority and our role as students was to listen okay. He laughs . It was an approach that didn’t encourage dialogue. But I think as graduate students I think the quintessential interaction we had with Greg was dialogic.
I ask Lenny to give me an example of this type of interaction.
After class we’d go to Lehman Hall, which is this big cavernous open space with long tables where you could hang out and have coffee and sandwiches. We’d talk for an hour. We’d talk maybe for two hours. This turned into a regular meeting during the week until we all dispersed and went out into the world and got jobs. We also had a group that met on Thursdays. It included men and women.
The idea that a teacher would be interested in talking to graduate students after class was something that was totally exceptional at Harvard.
Can you speak about the impact that had on you as graduate students?
What he did for us was to break down a whole set of barriers okay. He did this in ways that were not easy for him but that made things easy for us. He saw students as people whom you interacted with and learned from and actively encouraged. This was very different from the more traditional approach. So if you have this model that you are the authority and the student is the one who should listen, then, if the student has the initiative it is scary to the authority. It could feel somewhat threatening right. I think it creates a kind of hostility and tension whereas what Greg did was to encourage us and compliment us ceaselessly but also engage us and really show us that he understood what we were doing. He took our intellects seriously.
Lenny, it sounds a bit like a pedagogy of the oppressed.
Oh yeah. It was very much like that.
There were students who were maybe more confident than we were- or at least more confident than I was- who were probably able to navigate the system with more ease. I think Doug was probably a more confident student than I was. But from the number of students who took part in these conversations and enjoyed them and flourished under them, I’d say they were having quite a positive impact on students.
I think Greg changed the pedagogical model for classics at Harvard.
He climbed off the pedestal.
We got encouragement of the sort we never had. I mean there are still plenty of people who think that’s ridiculous. It hasn’t been easy for Greg. The Harvard Classics Department is very conservative. It looks to European models. There are European professors- Germans and even some others- who come to the United States and still adhere to the model of the teacher as master whose students just listen.
Creativity, Rigor & Redemption
With Greg the emphasis was on academic rigor combined with freedom and imagination. You really had to know the literature and do the basic homework okay. If you were full of ideas but couldn’t back it up with texts and evidence, well, that isn’t what he was about right.
But Greg never used his knowledge to crush others.
That has been fundamental for me.
So while you were interviewing Doug, I was sitting here reading this article that got submitted to a journal. The major purpose of a journal article is to dethrone or debunk someone else. This is the general tenor of classics. What we are trying to do instead is build things. Any jackass can down a barn right. He laughs.
Explain that a little bit.
So we are trying to build new models that help us understand things. We are trying to open up the subject matter so that people can look at things in a new way. We are trying to encourage young people to take part in a field that is growing and expanding its horizons and enabling new approaches.
Can you talk about some specific examples?
One of the things Greg has always done, especially since he’s been at the center- is make all research projects intergenerational. And he taught us to do the same thing. Doug has had a different experience since his career ended in a bad way. He didn’t get tenure in his first teaching job at Wellesley. He replaced me at Brandeis for a while but he never managed to secure a tenure track job. It has been hard for him that way.
This is why it’s such a dream that we’re all together again, meeting on a regular basis. It’s just awesome!
Doug has an amazing story but it’s his to tell.
My career path has been different. I’ve basically been teaching at an undergraduate university for the last thirty-five years. We’ve only had a masters program for the last two years. My goal has been to send really good students to Greg if possible or to send them out into the world and to get them to know what Greg is all about. There are plenty of grandchildren from this approach, people who have gone on to make real academic careers for themselves. Greg has helped them just the same way he’s helped me and Doug okay.
I think he’s helped countless others who were on the verge of dropping their interest in academic life altogether. I mean look at Doug. He never gave up. Even though he didn’t have an academic job, he kept working in the New York Public Library on the book that he published two years ago. It’s amazing really.
So I’d say there has always been a process of renewal, of never losing confidence of people, of always encouraging them to do the things that seem possible and of urging them to return to those places where the impossible becomes achievable.
These weren’t just abstractions. He helped people in concrete ways.
Greg saved a lot of young people- that I know of anyway- from leaving the field. He enable people who frustrated and demoralized by the general way in which classics gets taught and perpetuated. There is a lot of negativity and a lot of despair in the field. And aggression as well. The CHS website has a periodical called Classicsat . It has themed issues so we decided to have an issue called Defense Mechanisms that addressed the problem of aggression in the field.
So the idea was to explore why scholarly discourse encourages attacks- I mean aggressive- but has no good way of letting people defend themselves. We wanted to see if there was a way to develop an academic discourse that allows people to defend their ideas without being offensive or defensive. In other words, we wanted to create a language and a space where this becomes possible.
Lenny and I both agree that such attacks can be devastating to creative types who care deeply about what others think of their writing and research.
It is verbal abuse. It’s a form of abuse. If it hadn’t been for Greg that would have been my major experience as a classics graduate student and I probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere. He really changed things for us at Harvard. Suddenly, studying the classics- doing this kind of work- became a creative and fulfilling experience instead of an exercise in negativity. It no longer felt like we were doing the impossible. Things that seemed to be only accomplishable by authorities who knew way more than I ever would, people who put themselves on a pedestal, suddenly seemed doable.
Lenny, it sounds like studying the classics with Greg became a liberating experience.
The idea that I would be able to participate in that kind of debate or discussion or engage with them as equals seemed impossible, it seemed extraordinary at the time. They put themselves on a pedestal. I think that’s because they portrayed themselves or were portrayed by others as being geniuses beyond the reach of ordinary mortals right. Scholarship wasn’t viewed as an activity that normal people could engage in in creative and constructive ways.
I think to myself- as Lenny continues speaking with enthusiasm- that Greg was helping democratize scholarly debate at the time.
Greg climbed off the pedestal and talked to the student as equals okay. Then he encouraged us to do the same thing with our students. I mean he was the only teacher who allowed you to call him by his first name. You know I still have a hard time getting the kids to call me by my first name. It’s always Doctor Muellner or Professor Muellner. I tell them not to do it but it’s still hard for a lot of people.
What other qualities do you think contributed to his innovative teaching methods?
Well, Greg is an incredibly smart man but not in a way that defeats other people. He is incredibly welcoming to people who meet him and are able to relate to that, to deal with his inviting intellectual gestures.
He wasn’t the kind of person to hold grudges and he discouraged us from doing so as well. I remember his telling us to always be generous, even if your generosity didn’t always get you what you want. Be generous he’s say. It wasn’t always easy. Lenny laughs .
Working Together, Renewing the Field
What we tried to do was to renew the field on a one person at a time basis by getting good students and encouraging them to see this other model of scholarship. This is a generous model in which peoples’ intellects are liberated and they are encouraged to participate in scholarship because our field is an endangered one okay.
Has that been your personal experience?
Well, at my university- about six years ago- the dean announced at the first meeting of the year that he was going to eliminate the teaching of Greek. The dean announced in front of the whole faculty that he was going to do this. It wasn’t a matter of what do you think about doing this or here are my reasons for doing this. It was just going to happen. That was my job he was eliminating! There wasn’t anybody else doing it. It was very traumatic as you can imagine but it turned into a life-affirming experience.
How did it turn into a life-affirming experience for you?
The faculty played a positive role. The faculty said we want to review your proposal okay. They treated the dean’s announcement as a proposal. They gathered evidence- his evidence- and then they talked to people like me and other faculty members in my department. They gather data because this was a data-driven process and then they produced a report. The report stated that getting rid of Greek didn’t make any sense. It made the case that the discipline was fundamental to the study of the humanities, making it effectively impossible for the dean to move forward with what was an incredibly stupid decision. But that’s just one part of the picture. A lot of other things went on as well.
Have you been able to come up with other strategies to confront the challenges facing your discipline?
We respond to the challenges facing our discipline by taking concrete steps. That’s what we can control right. It’s hard to address an abstraction. So you try to keep the field alive one person at a time by cultivating students, by teaching well and by showing people the continuing value of your subject matter. Greg has been an enormously successful teacher in big courses throughout his career.
Of course you can justify getting rid of any academic field, if you put your mind to it but classics is more vulnerable. That’s because there is a cultivation in our society of what’s young and what’s new right. There is a sense that our world is different from anything that came before and that these old musty things are no longer helpful in today’s world.
The challenge is to make the ancient new to the young in a process of constant renewal.
Living the Life of a Humanist
Lenny, so how does one bring an ancient text to life? How can you make it real and vibrant given the cultural context you describe?
Well, you can talk about it in intellectual ways and that’s important but what works for Greg is combining the intellectual and the human. In other words, it’s not just the ideas that he can articulate so well but the way he relates to people, treating them with respect and recognizing them as individuals. If you are the kind of person who withdraws into a shell and cannot relate well to other people, it’s hard to express the value of your subject matter right.
You essentially live the life of a humanist. You engage with the ideas in your texts in a way that expresses the joy and value that you have for them. You impart that joy to others. I think that’s what’s effective.
A Humanist is a loaded term Lenny. Could you elaborate on your understanding of the word?
Yes, you’re right. It is a loaded term. It’s about being humane and being genuine and being a constructive person. It also impacts our work as classicists. I think at the heart of it is a fundamentally anthropological approach. You look at the ancient world in a way that is at once near and far, it is a sympathetic perspective but with some intellectual distance. You have to know enough so that you can reconstruct the way things worked internally. There is an internal consistency there. This is a crucial thing for studying Homeric poetry. Once you try to understand Homeric poetry on its own terms instead of reading it as a text written in English, then, you get the sense both of its strangeness and its familiarity.
That kind of tension and complementarity is a magical thing for me, absolutely magical. And Greg was the first person to show me this. Yes, there is a certain unmanliness there but it is also mind-bending. In other words, in order to understand the ancient world you have to think about things in a way that you aren’t used to thinking. It expands the mind. It’s like visiting a foreign country and entering into a different culture. I mean really entering a foreign culture with your eyes wide open and a sense of wonder instead of just saying these people don’t know how to behave themselves. You are trying to figure out why they are doing what they are doing, how things work internally in this foreign place. The idea is to avoid making harsh judgments and to cultivate a nuanced understanding of different worlds.
Lenny proceeds to contrast this approach with the older tradition of classics.
I think the older tradition of classics was always judging the ancient Greeks, considering them a more primitive version of ourselves. The British are a particularly strong example of that. In other words, their invective is the basic mode of scholarly discourse. There is always a slight arrogance toward people of the ancient world, as though they understood things better from the outside than the cultural did internally. So there’s this sense of superiority about their own culture built into the scholarship and an attitude of ridicule towards other scholars.
But there’s a lesson arrogant approach towards the ancient Greeks. This is a high culture with a huge amount of sophistication and lots of stuff to teach us about the way the world works. I mean there was plenty of technology in ancient Greece right. So that doesn’t make them less advanced or more advanced than us. People don’t always know about the technology the Greeks had. They invented some incredibly complicated musical instruments like the pipe organ. Some of them didn’t survive and others haven’t really been improved upon. Technology doesn’t justify our feeling superior to the ancients. Technology is—I think—a function of what your culture invests itself in. It’s nothing more or less than that. It’s a cultural expression rather than a larger universal contribution.
Cultures have their own integrity. A humanist recognizes that. And remember Greg identifies himself as a comparatist and a historical linguist. That is really important for him. He is a scholar who sees himself very much in anthropological terms as well. In other words, he is extremely interested in studying Greek culture in a comparative context next to other cultures, rather than understanding it exclusively as such. So studying epic traditions in Sanskrit, for example, becomes really important for Greg and it requires rigorous study of different cultures. It’s really important for Doug as well. It always has been but now more than ever.
Trying to understand a single culture by itself is like trying to find your way out of a paper bag. Lenny laughs . You’re trying to figure out why it’s do dark in there. You don’t know what’s there.
And that’s where Greg’s expertise as a historical linguist becomes so crucial.
You start to see —for example—that Greek as a language didn’t come from nothing. You get to get a sense of what’s out there. These are the first things that I learned from Greg. I learned about the history of Greek and what other cultures it was related to. Then you start looking at those cultures and what they did with those things they inherited that were similar to the Greeks. Then you begin to see what is peculiar about them and understand what the larger issues are. But you also see what the connections are.
What has happened – in the absence of this comparative anthropological perspective- is that classicists have historically understood the Greeks in terms of what was familiar to them. Only. That—I think—is part of the problem with universalizing Greek culture okay. You know people start saying things like the Greeks are like everyone else. They are vehicles for universal truths. It’s not part of our approach right.
In other words, it is not part of our approach to think of them as the bearers of a hegemonic culture or as the representatives of an idealized world or as a model for us. It’s just not part of our approach. Trying to understand ancient Greek culture cannot be done in a vacuum. The best comparanda for understanding Greek culture are the other Indo-European cultures.
Preserving the Past for Posterity
We see ourselves going forward but not forever. Lenny laughs . And Greg is always reminding us that life is short and that we’re growing old and that we have to think about our priorities.
Greg: And I am not going to be here forever.
He’s always reminding us that he’s not going to be here forever. So we’re trying to take advantage of the opportunity before us in the most effective way that we can. It means there is a sense of urgency. It means that we maximize our opportunities to talk to each other . It means that we encourage each other to get our work done, our lifework and yet again. It means that we encourage our students to continue working in the field. It means that we get our work out there and that can be something of a problem.
What do you mean that can be something of a problem?
Lenny continues speaking.
I think Greg is still. Let’s put it this way. In some parts of American scholarship Greg is respected as a great scholar okay. And in some parts of the European study of classics he’s respected as a great scholar as well but in other places he’s still marginalized. The way it works is that the scholarship is just ignored.
Does this happen in Europe as well as the United States?
Oh yeah it does. So people will write a book about Homer and there’ll be nothing in the bibliography, ever. Take the German commentaries on Homer that started about ten years ago. There is nary a mention of Greg. This is a person who’s a major scholar and who takes a whole network of scholars with him.
We all get ignored.
We will continue working on the commentaries but we will do it in a way that respects the change to new media. That is my role at the CHS. I am the IT and publications person. We’re trying to do things in the most effective way possible with new media.
Could you give me some examples?
We’re trying to do things with websites, with distance learning, with electronic publishing, and with open access. All our books and all the things on our website are archived in electronic format. We do this so they won’t die when we go away or when Microsoft and Apple disappear.
There are ways of preserving these documents for posterity. We have an archivist at CHS. It was really a great stroke of luck. We had initially hired him as an administrative assistance but as it turned out he was an archivist for a local community before he lost his job. His passion in life was doing archiving. With his expertise we’ve been able to make real strides. If you set up a Microsoft Word document, in ten years nobody will be able to read it. The computer language will change and they’ll be gone. There’s an international standard for what’s called Markup XML. We generate XML versions of all the things that we publish so that our collective work can be preserved for posterity. It’s not an easy thing to do but we’ve done that.
This is not software dependent. It’s an international standard. We’ve just developed a way, for example, in which we can take that XML and convert it to epod format, which is what you read on an electronic tablet like an ipad. So we can get books and articles that we publish for free on our website to young people who are comfortable reading on those toys.
The idea is to preserve and disperse knowledge of the ancient world in fresh ways that appeal to the younger generation. There are also a lot of people out there who are not formally classics scholars but who have a very keen interest in the ancient world. Our online open access publications allow them to follow the scholarship and participate in the intellectual debates. It’s part of our larger goal to keep the field alive long after we’re gone. Long after we’re all gone. And Greg keeps reminding us that life is short and that we need to prioritize and get our work out there. That’s why we’re all here at the Center. It’s awesome right.
At the time of the interview Olga Davidson tells me that she has been married to Gregory Nagy for thirty-six years. She is a tall slender woman full of self-confidence and an irrepressible zest for life. Olga—friends and family like to call her Holly—is a serious scholar who wrote a ground-breaking book on the Shahnama. Here in Dublin New Hampshire Holly likes to immerse herself in the beauty of the natural surroundings and to cultivate the continuing joys of domestic life. Holly is all too happy to care for her granddaughter — the Munch — who lives within walking distance in a small cottage. It gives her great pleasure to babysit the Munch so that her own daughter Toni can devote some time to her blog. Holly is a woman I associate with the word cheerful.
The Wife Narrates her Life Story:
College Days in Boston
I wasn’t an adult. I was twenty-two years old. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was a Classics major and I had taken Arabic for fun. I didn’t have any particularly serious boyfriend or goal in life. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Part of me wanted to go to graduate school. Actually, I did want to go to graduate school but I didn’t think I could go to graduate school because I didn’t think I was a serious student because the classics department at Boston University didn’t take me seriously.
I ask Holly to explain why the classics department at Boston University didn’t take her seriously.
They didn’t take me seriously because I was lively and I wasn’t miserable . Holly laughs loudly and breaks into a vivacious smile. I wasn’t tortured. I was just a happy fun girl. Pretty degenerate. I was—you know—I had a very active love life. I was kind of like a guy. I had boyfriends who didn’t know about each other and who didn’t need to know about each other. They were all perfectly nice. They were all very good-looking. They were all very eligible. I remember my mother getting absolutely furious at me for letting these guys slip through my fingers. She just couldn’t believe it. I had good taste in men, good taste in the sense that they were all husband material. I wasn’t the kind of girl who would date the bad boy. I never went through the destructive I-want-the-bad-boy phase. Everybody I had was a total possibility, someone you could take home. My mother couldn’t believe that I wasn’t serious about a single one of them. I had been carefully instructed to play the field, not to get too serious, not marry until I turned twenty-five blah blah blah. I mean I had some great boyfriends and she couldn’t believe I just let them go. But they weren’t right for me.
I ask Holly to explain why they weren’t right for her.
Umm they weren’t right for me in the sense that I had very very strong intellectual and spiritual ambitions. I was pretty and I had a really really hot body which I knew how to work so to speak. So I didn’t think that anybody would take my ambitions seriously. It was like—you being a professor—what a joke! You being anything—what a joke. I was a great dancer. I loved going to parties. Yeah I was a terrific dancer. I was, umm, lots of fun.
Yes my body and my looks were an obstacle. And it isn’t that I’m the most beautiful person in the world but I was terribly sexy. And I knew I was sexy and I knew how to work my sexiness. I was very comfortable with my sensuality, even in high school. I was perceived as sexy and flighty and then I hid behind the facade of being sexy and flighty because I was too embarrassed to actually show anybody what I wanted to be. If I go back and look at my diaries—I’ve kept my diaries that I started writing at an incredibly young age—I see really BIG AMBITION there. I think I started recording my thoughts when I was only thirteen. I always wanted to be smart and do well. I wanted to become something.
Holly pauses for a moment and I ask her how her family felt about her ambition.
They were really enforcing the flighty and sexy part. They definitely reconfirmed that. Constantly. I was supposed to marry an investment broker and probably go through three or four marriages and be a marvelously flaky fun party girl. That’s how I was perceived. But it’s not what I wanted to be. That’s the direction I was pushed to be. I was supposed to be a trophy wife who was smart enough to do well for herself I guess. I mean nobody thought I was stupid but any kind of seriousness was heavily discouraged. Being worldly smart was fine. It was the intellectual ambitions that didn’t jive.
Why not I ask Holly. She continues speaking about her family.
I didn’t come from an intellectual family. That was one thing. Or anybody that was sympathetic to intellectual families. Or a spiritual family. My parents were proud of me because I came across as sophisticated, worldly, funny. I dressed well. I knew how to behave. I was full of self-confidence. I mean when I walked into a room people would notice me and want to find out who I was. I had presence. Yes my parents were proud of me for being self-confident. I come from a family that made money.
For me there is a spiritual dimension. It’s more than just being an intellectual. I mean—and this might sound a bit silly—but in the Inferno Dante says Virgil gets him out of hell. That to me is what the intellectual life is. It gets you out of hell. It makes life absolutely beautiful. I mean I’ve never gotten beyond the Inferno or read any of the others. I don’t need to be in heaven. Virgil led Dante out of hell. That has been wonderful for me and I wanted that in my life. The humanities get you out of hell. I suppose I was a little scared and a bit lost.
But I had cultural longings, strong cultural longings. I would do certain things to make myself happy. I’d play the flute, find friends who played the flute and play a duet with them. And then I drew a lot. I read a lot of novels and I’d discuss these novels with my friends. That’s the thing. I had great friends who read novels, played music and drew. I had really creative friends.
I was a wonderfully cultured kid in college. I certainly didn’t spend my time getting drunk or taking drugs. I wasn’t attracted to the self-destructive lifestyle, not even remotely. I mean I think there was only one time when I enjoyed getting stoned. I didn’t like smoking pot. I didn’t like that whole scene at all.
But I loved going to French movies. I adored going to French movies. And I’d go the ballet with my cousin Isabel and my cousin Bryon. I went to museums. I had great friends who loved doing stuff like that. We used to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston all the time. I cannot remember if it was free on Friday nights or Monday nights but we’d always go and look at the same stupid things. It was a ritual. We’d go to the Gardener to listen to concerts and look at the flowers.
I ask Holly if her family ever joined her.
I always did this with friends. Always. At home the cultural scene was pretentious. It would go something like this. We’ll go to the movies. Let me try to explain to you what the film is about and they didn’t know what the hell they were showing. My mother didn’t go to college. These are the Impressionists. You need to love the Impressionists but she had no idea what the Impressionists were about. She couldn’t look at a painting. She couldn’t find a painting interesting. It was cultural capital whereas I love art.
I am one of the few people who think that Fragonard is absolutely brilliant and frickin’ hilarious. I found them killingly funny. And I loved all those huge orientalist paintings in the Louvre. I’d spend hours looking at them I adored them so much. I obviously fell in love with Persian art and calligraphy and all that stuff.
And I’d go to cities. It was very cheap to go to Europe in those days. I’d travel to cities and walk non-stop all day long, go to the museums, go to everything and do tons of fun stuff. I loved it. I’d walk all by myself. Always by myself. But in college I’d do things with my friends. In college I had special friends. In college Pat Flynn was my museum friend. He was this very beautiful boy who was struggling with his sexuality and he thought I could cure him of his gayness. I want to find him and go to a museum with him he was that much fun.
Enter Greg: Courting Rituals at Harvard Summer School
Holly and her friend Sarah Morris decide to go to summer school at Harvard University for laughs. They had studied Latin together as high school students. The two friends are roommates and rent an apartment in Cambridge. They thought it would be really funny to do a class on the Satyricon which is a ” racy Latin novel” to echo Holly. Sarah is a Classics major at Sarah Lawrence and is taking a class on Homer with Gregory Nagy.
Holly proceeds with her narrative
That summer my friend Sarah was studying Greek with Greg and I was doing Arabic with Mahmud Ghul. Sari Nusseibeh was the TA. That’s how I got to meet him. I remember walking into the classics department. I was looking for the Petronius class and Greg opened the door for me. He asked me whether I was looking for the Greek class. I said no I was looking for the Petronius class. So Greg pointed the way to Glen Bowersock’s Latin class and I thought nothing of it. I was used to guys opening doors for me and sort of doing the double take.
A couple of days afterwards Glen Bowersock said that Professor Gregory Nagy wanted to meet me and talk to me. Would you stay after class and meet Professor Gregory Nagy? She laughs. Today that would be completely illegitimate but I was flattered. I was terribly excited to be singled out by Professor Nagy. Greg had asked Professor Bowersock to introduce us. Can you believe that? We both laugh. Greg fished out from Glen who his students were. So Glen went through all his students and said there’s this blond girl. God knows what she’s doing in Latin. She said she was writing her thesis on Heracles. So Greg used that as a ridiculous excuse to talk to me. I really need to talk to her. I am very interested in Heracles!
That’s how Greg got to meet me. When I met him, I was dressed like Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver minus the stupid little hat. I was wearing platform shoes, a halter top and short shorts. That was the summer of nineteen seventy four. Thank God I don’t have a picture of myself dressed like that. I thought to myself what the hell am I going to say to him about Heracles but not really because I was really self-confident. Then I remember being in line at a bank in Cambridge and Greg was somewhere in the distance. I had my back to him. He called out my name and I remember thinking to myself this guy really has my body memorized. I turned around and heard him say:
How lovely to meet you!
We were to meet at lunch. I wore a pair of jeans and this old t-shirt with paint on it. I wasn’t going to just sit there and be the bimbo for Greg but I knew right then and there that we would get married. I knew he was going to be the one. It had nothing to do with our conversation.
We just clicked and talked nonsense but I knew and he knew and we both knew. We just clicked. It was the way he responded to me the way I responded to him. We just talked about all sorts of nonsense but it was his real respect for my mind, his real interest in my mind and absolutely loving what I looked like. He saw no problem with the way I looked. I knew he was the one. He treated me like an entire person. We talked about nonsense then clicked. Other guys would say she’s really smart but she acts so dumb or she thinks she’s so smart but look at her. They couldn’t see the deep aspirations beneath the great packaging. So we clicked, Body, Mind and Soul.
And then, of course, I spent the entire summer avoiding him because I knew I was going to marry him but I didn’t want to get married just yet because I was only twenty-two years old and too young to get that serious that quickly. He did ask me to marry him a couple of weeks later. This was a hot and heavy thing. I trusted him unconditionally.
Greg Courts Holly and All Her Friends
I was an undergraduate but not really. I was sort of taking an extra year being an undergraduate because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write a thesis. I wanted to study Arabic. I was really biding my time and it was nice because my parents were letting me bide my time. But Greg wanted me BIG TIME and he knew not to come on too strong. He was really smart about it. So he courted me and all my friends that summer, boys and girls! He’d come over and say—oh I don’t know—Fellini’s Satryricon is playing and I’d like to take you and Sarah to see it and then all of a sudden there’d be five of us going, boys and girls. That lasted pretty much all summer. He met Isabel and Alessandra. He met my friend Ned Davis.
My technical boyfriend was out of town that summer. I don’t know what he was doing, mountain climbing or something like that. My ”boyfriend” at the time thought I was his girlfriend but I wasn’t really taking him very seriously. I had a ton of really really fun friends around that whole summer. We went to this really ridiculous place called Max’s to dance. I think they eventually shut the place down because there was a murder there or something. That’s the thing we danced all summer long. Constantly. There was a jukebox there. We’d go to Max’s and dance in our halter-tops, short shorts and platform shoes. Ned Davis was my great dance partner. I don’t remember what Ned was doing in Cambridge that summer. I remember listening to James Brown that summer. I loved dancing to James Brown.
Max’s was hilarious. It was white girls dating black boys and it was probably one of the biggest drug pick up places ever. And then there were all these Harvard kids hanging out. It was just ridiculous. Greg wasn’t exactly going to go there for us. He was already a tenured professor at Johns Hopkins. I think he was thirty or something when he became a full professor. He was very young at the time. He had already been offered tenure at Harvard but he was going back to Baltimore for a year. Word got around that Greg was hanging out in our apartment that summer.
Holly can you describe your feelings for Greg at the time?
I felt that my friends and I were showing Greg a fun youthful time while he was teaching summer school at Harvard. My friends had started getting really interested in our relationship.
Holly remembers some of the things her friends told her.
Sarah Morris: That guy is madly in love with you! You better…Don’t lead him on if you aren’t serious.
Ned Davis: Greg is in love with you. You could do worse! You could do worse! If that guy is in love with you, just marry him.
I just pooh-poohed Sarah. I was laughing at them but I knew it would eventually happen. Greg Kept on asking me to marry him. I’d laugh at him. I’d laugh it off. I’d shrug it off. This went on for quite a while. I don’t know how many times he asked me to marry him.
But this is the crucial part:
Holly: I am not looking to get married until I am at least thirty.
Greg: I’ll wait for you. It’s teleology that matters.
Olga: Teleology — that’s a BIG WORD. I can figure this out. Let’s see. Telos that means end. Holly is delighted . What a perfect thing to say!
Summer school eventually ended and I called my sister Lindsey. I said I’ve met the man I am going to marry. I want you to come and check him out. We’re going to have dinner at Cafe Budapest. Come around 9:30, we’ll be having dessert. Just happen to be there. So she comes in scouting the whole restaurant. Oops what a surprise! Greg was perfectly calm and he invited Lindsey to join us. We had Irish coffee or something ridiculous. It was so much fun. Oh did I forget to tell you that Greg actually paid for dinner. He was the first guy I went on a date with who actually paid for it without wanting anything in return. I never used to let anybody pay for me, particularly older guys because they would always make presumptions.
We separated. I stayed in Boston and Greg went back to Hopkins. He called me once and asked me to come down to Baltimore and visit him but I said no quite deliberately. I didn’t want to seem easy. Then I was going down to Washington area to visit my friend Sarah Morris who had transferred from Sarah Lawrence to a college in the area but Greg was out of town. He was giving a talk in Santa Barbara. I remember my father and step-mother were there. I told them I was meeting somebody at Clyde’s but I was very hush hush about it. They realized it was serious but I was saying nothing. Oh it’s just some professor but they kept fishing and fishing.
Greg’s plane had been delayed and they were waiting with me at Clyde’s. They said Greg wasn’t going to come but I knew he would. I asked them to leave because they were driving me absolutely crazy. They left and I waited. Greg finally showed up. We went to my father’s place to pick up my stuff. It was late. My parents came down to meet Greg for the first time with their bathrobes on while I went upstairs to get my stuff. It was awkward but not really. We just left. There was no point in waiting.
So, dear reader, she told him she’d marry him the next day.
I went back to Boston, called my mother and told her I was in love. She was really irritated and said why don’t you just marry him?! She had been really irritated with me for letting all those guys slip through my fingers. I told her I was going to marry a Harvard professor. She was over the moon. She instantly went and bragged to every one of her friends. It was very prestigious. I couldn’t deal with my mother so I told Greg to take her out to lunch. You know Greg doesn’t have much time. He told me he’d take her out to lunch and he had me talk to someone about going to graduate school.
Graduate School: Why Don’t you Put Albert Lord Together with the Mu’allaqat ?
Greg had been pushing for graduate school from mid-summer. You know Greg. He is always pushing for graduate school. He wanted his wife to be an academic. He was the one who gave me the idea of doing Arabic and Persian. In fact, he told me to combine the study of pre-Islamic poetry and Albert Lord. Greg gave me his copy of Alberry’s translation of the pre-Islamic Mu’allaqat . I had already seen miniatures of the Shahnameh and I was becoming very interested in Persian, though I hadn’t studied it yet. Greg didn’t care whether I did the Mu’allaqat or the Shahnameh . He just wanted me to apply Albert Lord to Middle Eastern literary traditions.
It was Greg’s way of inviting me into his world.
I had coasted through Greek. I thought Arabic was going to be much more challenging. Greg said just switch to Arabic. It’s very doable.
I mean the people who were doing Arabic in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department at Harvard were Arab jocks.
They’d been to Egypt already. It was very intimidating. I didn’t think I could remotely do this stuff. It was a very sexist environment at the time. It was very much of an in-crowd scene. And I wasn’t political at the time at all. I just liked the language. I took Arabic very seriously and I was good at it. Greg was very supportive. Greg was the one who encouraged me to apply to graduate school and do what I wanted to do and to say exactly what I wanted to do.
He had opened up something for me. It’s as if you were standing outside a house and you really wanted to get inside. Well, Greg opened the door for me and he said this is how you go about doing it. He showed me how to do it and he had really big ambitions for me. He was smart and was thinking ahead. It was wonderful that he opened up the possibility for me of not doing classics and of going into Middle Eastern studies instead. It was taking me to a different world. I started studying Arabic as an extension of classics, as a classical language.
So he didn’t want me to be a little Greg.
I remember going and telling someone that I was going to apply for Arabic. That person said great. Now you can forget your Latin but don’t forget your Greek. Keep the Greek.
Holly: I will because I am marrying a Greek professor so I’ll never lose my Greek.
And to this day I’ve always used the methodology that classicists use. It has served me well when I do Persian and Arabic because these are traditional societies. I was way ahead of the game. People trying to de-construct a pre-Islamic ode using Derrida is just nonsense. And ditto for Persian stuff. You know people trying to say that Ferdowsi was like Milton and then trying to use a Freudian analysis to say the father kills the son. That’s such bogus crap. BUT if you use a strict comparative approach it makes a tremendous amount of sense. Greg was the one who introduced me to Georges Dumézil.
Greg: Here you need to read this.
Holly: But it’s in French.
So I read it! I mean I had French in high school. It wasn’t easy. But I did it and whatever I didn’t understand I’d ask Greg. I never felt stupid asking Greg. I really really got into Georges Dumézil. I really got good at understanding where Georges Dumézil came from.
Greg: Very doable, even in French.
He had me so focused that I came across as an arrogant little you-know-what at Princeton where I eventually ended up. I remember my thesis advisor had me read—oh I don’t know— The Well-Wrought Urn . I’d read that stuff but I never applied it. To this day I’m still stubbornly using Dumézil, Albert Lord and people of that ilk. There is a whole industry of that now but in the beginning people thought it was crazy. I mean I didn’t get into Harvard because people told me there was no way I could show that Ferdowsi was an oral poet. So I didn’t go to Harvard I went to Princeton. I was so pig-headed about what I wanted to do. I was very focused and that’s what’s made me so successful. I just knew I was right. I knew I was going to be fine.
And I did it.
Love and Marriage
During our first year of marriage I was a special student at Harvard doing a lot of Arabic and then I started studying Persian. That’s when I began getting really serious. I worked really really hard and I was ridiculously competitive, fiercely competitive. It was the beginning of summer. Greg and I were driving to Nova Scotia. I was going to Princeton in the fall and he was going to teach at Harvard.
Holly: Greg I have something to tell you. I think I’m going to have a baby.
Greg: It’s your decision.
Holly pauses. She thinks about a woman they both know who had children, the worst husband possible, and who managed to get her Ph.D. If this woman can do it, then, surely I can pull it off.
Holly: We can do it!
Greg: Well of course we can do it but it’s your decision…
Holly reminds me that Greg is Catholic.
He doesn’t favor abortion. It’s not that he’s against abortion. I just don’t think Greg would want to be in a position of having to make anybody go through an abortion. And my thinking at the time was I wasn’t going to start my marriage by having an abortion, especially when we don’t need to.
Holly: We’re going to have a baby. I am just so excited and so happy!
And I was so happy. Greg was scared. He thinks to himself she is so young. What have I done? But he doesn’t share his fears with Holly. She finds out about them years later. He has to get her through it.
Greg: It’s your decision. It’s doable.
Greg took me down to Princeton. We got an apartment going. We made a home for ourselves. I was registering for classes and I remember feeling so alone that I suddenly burst into tears because he wasn’t there. You have to remember I had been in this wonderful environment. I was Gregory Nagy’s wife. I had all these great friends around me in Cambridge. I walked into the department at Princeton, and the secretary told me that two blonde girls — my friend Alessandra and Robin whom I would meet as a graduate student — had asked about me. It made me very cheerful. They would be my best friends at Princeton and Greg would come down and visit me.
Princeton was the better place for me. At the time I wanted to go to Harvard because I didn’t want to leave Greg. Now I am soooooo glad I went to Princeton because I didn’t want to be the faculty wife. It’s awkward and I cannot tell you how young I was. I could be my own person at Princeton. They knew I was married to Greg. They knew I was having a baby but I could be a grown-up at Princeton. He was very supportive of that. I mean Greg was the one who insisted that I keep my name . He insisted that I keep my name professionally because if I ever decided to divorce him, then, why should I publish under his name. She laughs. It’s so typical.
We had so much fun at Princeton. Let me tell you what Greg did for me when I was pregnant with my son Lazlo. It was two weeks before Lazlo was born. It was my birthday. Greg went to Saks Fifth Avenue and bought beautiful gorgeous sexy lingerie. He got me the most beautiful lingerie and it had absolutely nothing to do with being pregnant. There was nothing maternal about it. Most people —when I tell them this story — say what a cruel thing to give somebody who is about to give birth. But it wasn’t like that at all. He was acknowledging my sexuality and recognizing everything about me.
And the beauty of it all is that I was wearing that sexy lingerie one month later. It was such a wonderful thing. That’s what Greg was like. I remember thinking—oh my God—it’ll be so much fun to wear this stuff, to not be pregnant anymore. Greg was always taking me to the next stage.
Lazlo was born. We had so much fun with Lazlo. We went and spent the summer in Berkeley. Greg was teaching a summer course and I was studying for my generals. He was an excellent father, especially with young babies. He was very engaged. He babysat. I was nursing but he’d encourage me to go out and do things. My daughter Toni has no idea what a great father he was. He was so involved with the children when they were young. He was so hands-on, feeding them, giving them baths, changing diapers. Greg used to work at home so he was there for them all the time. They don’t remember this but he was very hands-on with both children when they were babies.
After my daughter Toni was born I went through this phase of becoming an uber-mom. I was going to start gardening and growing tomatoes and planting roses and stuff like that. Greg was terrified. He didn’t want me to do that. He was terrified that I wouldn’t finish writing my thesis.
Holly finish your thesis.
So he gave me my briefcase and told me that I wasn’t allowed to come back into the house until six o’clock that evening. I kid you not. I obviously went to the library and then I started working on my thesis. He really pushed me. So I spent that whole summer getting up at eight o’clock, going to the library and working all day. I wasn’t allowed to come back until six, literally. Toni was an infant. I had just weaned her. So Greg was home working with a toddler and an infant. We had someone living with us to babysit but I literally wasn’t allowed to go home until six.
Then the roles switched because I put my foot down . He almost took over parenting and I actually began to push back on that. I got my Ph.D. and he was pushing me to do Sanskrit, to do Avestan. He was constantly pushing me. I was teaching at Hopkins and at Brandeis. I was working really hard and I began to resent the pressure.
Holly: Stop trying to turn me into a superstar. I want to enjoy my children.
I took a semester off from Brandeis and I got my real estate license. That’s when we bought this place in Dublin New Hampshire overlooking the lake. He pushed me to apply for academic positions. I was a finalist at Ohio State. I was a finalist at Columbia. I was a finalist at Michigan but I didn’t want to commute. I didn’t want to have that kind of family life. I wanted to be home. I wanted to create a really wonderful home for Greg and for my children.
Being tenured at Brandeis didn’t matter to me. What mattered to me were my publications, my reputation as a scholar and being a good mother. I wanted to be taken seriously. Being recognized as a scholar mattered more to me than the whole ladder thing. It would have been nice but that’s not really what I cared about.
I knew what it could be like. I had watched another faculty wife and academic do that whole thing. Her husband was in Chicago and she is in Indiana. They had three children. I saw her suffer like it’s nobody’s business. I saw that and said I don’t want to be like that. That’s not how I want to live my life.
Greg wouldn’t even let me cook! And I love to cook. I literally had to fight for the right to cook and raise children. She laughs. I dug in. I felt very strongly about that. I wasn’t going to be pushed onto a track that I didn’t want to be on. I started writing applications to get the children into good schools. I took their education into my own hands. I’d go to the interviews. I was very successful at that.
I remember spending the summers in Dublin. Greg would be teaching summer courses. He didn’t need to but he always wanted to teach. I loved being up here. I loved being with the children. I remember running around Dublin with ratchet clippers because this place was so overgrown. Greg was almost mad at me for putting so much effort into making this place beautiful . He was terrified that I’d be distracted from working. That’s where we fought.
I cannot be a single-minded person like you. It’s not enough.
Matching dishes aren’t that important.
There’s a creative side to me. I really wanted to be an artist at one point. I had a bed in my bedroom. That was it. My artistic creativity manifests itself in making beautiful homes. There was a couch in my living room. Nothing else. I think there was a table.
Holly laughs and continues talking . I always made my apartments look pretty, even as an undergraduate. Greg used to not notice things like that. It wasn’t until I started decorating the Center for Hellenic Studies down in Washington that Greg began to see the importance of what I was doing. I went nuts with that. I gave the center a big financial gift to make it as beautiful as it is. Greg didn’t hinder me because he loved me so much.
It’s taken him a very long time to appreciate the importance of aesthetics. It has finally clicked. He didn’t realize how important it was for me not to be single-minded .
Memories of Home: Single & Collective
I mean Greg used to not understand Christmas. He didn’t understand Christmas trees. He didn’t understand gingerbread houses. He used to be totally unengaged around Christmas time and that’s where his children will remember his absence. They didn’t realize that Greg was unhappy. It would have been difficult for them as children to grasp what he was going through as an adult.
That was the time he wasn’t being treated well by the department. He was frustrated because he was being held back. He wasn’t being respected. They were awful to him. They were also preventing him from becoming the chair. It was only after he became chair that things started to really change. He was nurturing this place and it was becoming glorious. It was the most wonderful classics department. That’s where our children will remember him as never being at home. We were living at Currier House. There was always one thing or the other. Meetings had to be attended. Guests had to be wined and dined. So Greg was never ever home.
As the children were growing up and becoming more conscious of their surroundings, they started to notice that their father was never around. That’s how they’ll remember it but they had no idea how much time he spent at home taking care of them when they were babies.
I didn’t want Greg around. It suited me just fine. I didn’t want to be an under-Greg at Currier House. I wanted to have the experience of running a dormitory of five hundred people. It became a real learning experience. I learned so much about committee work. I learned about how Harvard works. And I learned about how power works. I loved running Currier house. I grew at Currier House. That’s where I became a matriarch. I was very much a presence at Currier House. The assistant and I really ran the place.
And Toni was amazing at that time. If somebody was doing a delivery, she’d know exactly what was going on and she’d start telling people what to do. We used to have these teas at Currier house. I remember — and this is God’s honest truth — taking Greg’s suit down and hanging it on a shelf so people could come and talk to him. It became something of a running joke. That’s where Toni will remember him as never being around but Greg wasn’t going to come to these teas. The suit came to symbolize his absence.
He was really engaged and fighting his battles in the department. He wanted to mold the department. You know he’d get into real fights with his colleagues. Sometimes he’d piss them off and at other times he’d be pissed off by them. Then he became Chair of the classics department. That lasted for about seven years or something like that. I cannot remember exactly. And while he was chair, he was never around.
That’s where the children have those memories of his prolonged absence. It’s unfortunate but he was ever-present with me. We parented one hundred percent together. He was the ultimate support system for me. Greg parented from behind. We never argued about the children as we navigated them through adolescence. They weren’t aware of his active, active, parenting because I was the one at home. I was the one making dinners but there wasn’t a single thing that Greg didn’t know, that he wasn’t completely aware of. He just happened to be the one who came home.
We constantly talked about the children. There’s a real reason for that. He had such a repressed adolescence that he couldn’t be the relaxed tolerant father of adolescents who didn’t completely freak out because our children were sexually active in high school and were actually experimenting with drugs. He knew it but he couldn’t be calm about it.
He took his cues from me and he never once contradicted me. So—in a sense—he had me being the calm one as we went through this together.
We’d take long walks in the Mount Auburn Cemetery, discussing things and weathering the storms. Greg just wanted the children to have healthy relationships. He wanted the children to be happy. He wanted them to be happy as teenagers. He didn’t want them to be repressed. It was doable but from a distance. So Greg would come across as the daffy uninvolved parent but he was always there, like something of an invisible presence. One hundred percent of the time.
The children couldn’t see it at the time because he didn’t want to be the overwhelming Harvard professor dad, this is the only way to be. I don’t think the children realized how famous their dad was until they went off to college. Then they could step into the library, see how many books their father had written and say wow this is cool.
Toni may not remember this but Greg once took her to Greece for the whole summer. She was very much in her own world. I was going to be in Middlebury doing Arabic for nine weeks. That was a long time for a little girl. You have to remember I could be an uber-mom and Toni was very attached to me.
Greg: What am I going to do with an eleven-year-old girl for the whole summer?
Holly: Greg just relax. I’ll walk you through it. It’s very doable.
Greg: How the hell am I going to relate to an eleven-year-old girl?
Holly’s Survival Guide:
- First, you are going to have to stop being so single-minded.
- Then you’ll have to learn how to braid hair.
- You’ll have to start listening to really stupid music.
- Learn about earrings and sneakers.
- Betsey Johnson. Learn about children’s clothes.
And he did it. Greg delivered. He learned all these songs. He could actually be heard singing.
Girl I am going to make you sweat till you cannot sweat no more.
Our house was full of teenagers. We always had at least seven kids sleeping at our house on the weekends. I could be the watchful objecting mother and he could play the role of clueless dad. Adolescence was not a good time for Greg to stage his usual shit-fits. They didn’t work at this stage and he understood that. Toni had lots of friends and we were dealing with a lot of hysterical parents. I couldn’t take hysterical parents seriously for the life of me. We’d already done that at Currier House.
But I remember to play the role of watchful parent so I had to be really patient.
The only thing I didn’t want my children to do was to be stupid about drugs and alcohol. They were not allowed to drink until they threw up. I had hard and fast rules about that. Toni and I sometimes had heated arguments but if Greg told her not to speak that way to her mother then both our hands would fly to our hips and we’d tell him to butt out in no uncertain terms.
Toni remembers our talking a lot during adolescence. I say thank God she remembers it that way because I only remember her telling me to shut up and get out of her room. Both kids had their rebellious anti-intellectual moments. Toni watched True Lies all summer and kept telling me how great it was. Lazlo would watch Chuck Norris movies. But their anti-intellectual rebellion didn’t last very long. They were fantastically intellectual but they weren’t nerds. They were fun. They were naughty. They went to parties. They were good-looking and they had sex. They were definitely cool.
When Toni went to Sarah Lawrence, Greg used to go down and see her. I think that was when they started getting close. At least that’s how Holly remembers it.
Moving Forward: Dinner at Scompo
I was invited by the KAMA institute in Mumbai to participate in a Ferdowsi conference. I was very excited and then I suddenly thought this is the time to go to India. Greg and I need to go to India. We’ve always wanted to go to India. Now is the time to go and discover India together.
Holly is an exuberant woman. She can hardly contain her excitement. She gets on the phone with Greg to tell him about the trip to India.
Holly: Greg I’ve been invited to this Ferdowsi conference in India. Greg you’ve got to come with me. The moment Harvard ends we get on a plane and go.
Greg: I cannot. I am doing Jan term.
Holly: What do you mean you’re doing Jan term?
Greg: I’m doing Jan term.
Holly: Why is he doing Jan term? We aren’t getting any younger. This is important to me. We’ve always wanted to go to India. Cannot he see that I want to discover India with him? I want to go there with someone who means something to me. Jan term? Really Greg?
They meet at Scompo’s and Greg makes a speech act
I panicked. You just said it so fast. Of course I can come to India with you. I want to go to India with you. It’s just that I panicked. I cannot be spontaneous and just say I will go to India with you. You said it so fast. I made a mistake. It was really stupid of me to say that. I shouldn’t have said that and I will go to India with you. I apologize for panicking. I apologize for not living. I apologize for holding back. I apologize for being so stuck. I apologize for being so single-minded. There is such a thing as life you know.
India turns out to be a perfect his and hers moment. It was the Mughal empire. Holly does her Persian. Greg has the Dravidian stuff. There’s Sanskrit. He does his stuff. She learned so much. He learned so much. They learned so much in India. It has been an intense interview. Holly is animated. She tells me.
We fell in love all over again in India, fifty times fold. And we had so much fun. Greg would happily walk through the streets of India and buy fabrics. He enjoyed walking through the crowded marketplace touching the soft textiles with his newly awakened eyes. I could see him inhale the fragrances of India and I remembered the first time he opened the door for me at Harvard. I lead him through the winding streets and he no longer appeared timid or shy. Perhaps he had begun to grasp the beauty of the ancient textiles with all his sense. For curtains maybe?
There are moments when it is just better to go with the flow and not hold back.
I remember a time when Greg was nervous walking around in Istanbul. I mean he was admittedly protective of me and felt awkward when the men eyed his blonde babe. It can be really annoying. I am quite sympathetic but I mean he thought Turkey was exotic and oriental. For heaven’s sake Greg Turkey is part of frickin’ Europe as far as I am concerned. And in Alexandria I had to walk him through the crowded city but he was secretly proud of my Arabic and the skill with which I navigated the streets and opened doors.
Stay well for me. I am ten years younger than you. We still have a lot of living to pack into this crowded life of ours! I can still show you some great times. You know Toni once told me that she wants what I have. I think it was during late adolescence. She said I want a man who’ll love me unconditionally and send me roses for my birthday and roses for Valentine’s Day. Mom I want what you have. You know Greg that is probably the best compliment a young woman can give her father.
Toni Nagy, daughter
She is a tall slender woman who takes mothering very seriously and writes a daily blog about her experiences. The blog features her own daughter whom she calls the Munch. Toni’s dedication as a mother is unmistakable. Before our interview in Dublin New Hampshire , we drive to the lake where Toni finishes filming her video about baby thongs.
The daughter speaks:
The Gift of Childhood
I am Toni Nagy. It’s Toni with an i. Gregory Nagy is my father. My mom just came in with the baby. I’m just going to nurse her for a moment. Sorry. Toni brings the baby into the room, sits down on the couch next to me and begins to breast-feed the Munch . You want to have some booby-time? Yeah. You’re having a hard day.
The baby appears calmer after Toni’s comforting words. Toni turns her attention to the conversation. The Munch’s softening cries weave their way in and out of our unfolding conversation. Toni’s mother Olga Davidson — an equally slim and slender woman — sits in the next room. Her nickname is Holly and Holly dotes on the Munch. We hear her soft echoes moving softly through the small cottage. Toni, I’ll send you the song I sang for her this morning. It’s a brilliant song. Holly will soon be taking the Munch back to the main house so we can continue our conversation in the privacy of the little cottage that abuts the barn. It is an idyllic place to raise a child. I’ll take the baby back to the house and babysit her because she’s so cute.
I begin to get a feel for the soothing rhythms of life here in Dublin New Hampshire where Toni spent many of her summers growing up. There is a scenic view of the lake and the landscape hugs a child who chooses to wander. Toni remembers what it was like.
I would say that my childhood was full of a lot of independence. My parents definitely allowed me and my brother to explore, especially up here in New Hampshire we did a lot of things on our own. We didn’t have a television so we did a lot of playing outside. I was very interested in my friends at one point. I’d say we were very independent.
There are memories I have that specifically involve my dad. I remember we’d play Trivial Pursuit together and he’d never dumb himself down. He’d always win at Trivial Pursuit because he always knew the answers, which I think is kind of hilarious in retrospect. She chuckles . And we’d play chess. He tried to play chess with me a couple of times but he’d beat me in three moves. I would definitely say our games were cerebral. There was a dictionary game where he’d look up a word and I’d have to find it. Actually, there were other sorts of activities as well. He’d play tennis with me which I thought was really fun. That was very rare but I have memories of doing that with my dad. And we’d draw together sometimes.
But I cannot really say that he was involved in my childhood.
I ask Toni to clarify.
Well, I would have to demand attention. I would say I still have to demand attention. I get attention when I ask for it because he’s living in his own world. I just think he’s always working. So you’d have to interrupt him to engage.
Toni could you please elaborate on some of the strategies you used to get his attention?
When I was younger, I’d say things like I’m bored to get his attention. Then when I got older it would be more like help me with my French homework and he’d always help me with my homework when I asked for help. I think he cared about that so I wouldn’t shame the family by going to a bad college. It was twofold. Yeah he cares about eduction. I mean he didn’t want me to be an idiot or anything like that but he didn’t sit down and say I want to teach you this. It was more like I want to help you with this so you go away. I know that sounds kind of harsh but…
He was in his own world.
I remember when we all lived in Currier House. My bedroom was next to his office. My dad would stay up really late typing. I remember hearing the typing which was sort of comforting but I also think the mental energy that was going on next to me really fanned the flames of my already existing childhood insomnia. I think I would stay awake because of the excessive mental energy that was occurring right next to me.
I Understand the Choice
I didn’t understand the importance of the work my dad was doing. Maybe I still don’t understand the importance of the work he’s doing but I knew that he worked really hard and that he was an accomplished man. I was proud of that. When I took ancient Greek in college my teacher was just obsessed by the fact that I was my dad’s daughter. My dad was really nice about that. He invited my class to a Greek talk that he did. I think it was at the Museum of Fine Arts. I remember when they were reading his bio. It took ten minutes for him to come on stage. I remember being really impressed like wow my dad’s really done a lot.
Anyone that’s a specialized thinker is going to have to make sacrifices in order to achieve his goals so I understand the choice. He made the choice of being the best in his field. He picked something and became the best in it. Now I think that is admirable but it doesn’t come without sacrfice. It’s his price to pay.
I think he’s at peace with his lifepath so who am I to question someone else’s lifepath.
Toni glances at the Munch whom she continues to breastfeed as our conversation progresses.
Look it’s like I have a child now and the time I choose to spend with her is my gift. I understand my dad’s choice. I choose to have someone watch her sometimes so I can work as well but I just think it’s a different relationship being a mother. And then having come from a family in which the parents worked a lot, I think I’m probably more sensitive to wanting to be more emotionally available.
In a weird way it has to do with feeling like a priority. I just go back to what I was saying before. If I ask my dad for anything, he’ll do it for me. So if I say can you read this over for me in twenty minutes, he’ll do it right away. But he doesn’t just email me to say how are you doing. He doesn’t call. He just doesn’t offer himself so it kind of puts the burden of how much we relate on me. In some ways he’s been really generous with his time. But I am not a man so I have no idea what’s it like to be a father. I cannot even pretend to know.
His priority in his life has been work. And his wife. I think I’d say he’s been more of a husband. But I don’t know what his motivation for work is. If his motivation is, on some level, to hide something from himself and to avoid dealing within his own state of mind, then, it’s problematic. But sometimes you have something in your soul that you have to manifest . Today, for instance, I had to make this baby thong video. I cannot explain it. It was a vision I had and I had to create it. And I obviously made some micro-sacrifices today in order to do that. So I definitely understand the impulse of having something in your mind that you have to actualize.
I think my dad and I are really similar in that way. I know who he is. I have a sense of why he is the way he is. I can be empathetic to who he is. I know his upbringing. I know his mother. I have the sympathy but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been disappointment.
Because a part of him is in me.
I’ve made choices like breast-feeding the Munch and we have a dependency. That’s a priority for me. I mean she’s only one. I don’t know what life is going to be like when she’s ten years old. I think I am trying try to find a balance between being a mom and being an accomplished person. There are things I want to achieve in my life. I have the same drive and ambition that my dad has. I am just not as specialized a thinker as he is.
Because of my financial circumstances I’ve never felt the same pressure to institutionalize my education, to get a job and support a family. I have economic freedom. I’ve been much more experimental with my talents but I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. When my dad got into Harvard to get his Ph.D, he was on a track. The pressure was on. He came from an immigrant family. He had to work hard and figure out how to support himself, how to support a family. These are problems I’ve never had to deal with.
I grew up with a silver spoon. My brother and I are spoiled. I think that has made it hard for my dad to relate. A part of him is probably bothered by the fact that I didn’t pursue a more traditional career path, that I am not traditionally employed. But he doesn’t interfere in my life much. That’s because I haven’t just been sitting around doing nothing. First there was the restaurant business, then the skate boarding and now I’m working on my writing. I mean I’ve always worked very hard but I think I am spoiled in the sense that I’ve always thought I could try to do whatever I wanted.
My dad worked really hard. He is an accomplished man.
I think it would have been nice for him to see us more traditionally employed. But you know I feel he was so busy working he never really had the time to instill his work ethic in us. It’s like Hungarian. He never taught me Hungarian.
The reality is a child is only a child for a very short time. For most of the relationship you are both going to be adults. Your father is an adult. Your mother is an adult. So you want to raise the person you can hang out with and relate to as an adult on a human/friendship level.
If I choose not to spend time with Adele, then, I know I am going to regret that. That’s obvious to me. I know I am going to regret that. I make choices that I can live with and that I can sleep with at night. And maybe my dad feels the same way about his work. In a way having a child gives you the full human experience but it also changes your life and limits you and brings you to another place within yourself where you have to prioritize another human being. It’s really a gift being a parent. It’s a different relationship being a mother.
Yes, as I said before you want to raise the person you can hang out with and relate to as an adult. And I think my dad has achieved that. I think we get along intellectually and bond and laugh and have a good time together. Does my chilhood matter anymore? Not really. It’s just a fifth of my life if I’m lucky.
It’s like I have the baby. I have the writing. I go to yoga. I go to bed. It’s the only thing that feels right. It’s what’s happening. It’s like you made your bed and you have to lay in it. You had a child? You frickin deal with it! It’s the only way to be. I’m not going to go out in the world and be like, “Pay attention to me. Call me. Visit me. Teach me Hungarian.”
There are some resentments, maybe a macro-feeling that he always took my mother’s side in any argument that we got into and that he never really heard me out. I think that goes back to being more the partner than the father. It’s hard to say how much disappointment I feel because of all the anger and resentment you go through in your twenties but you cannot hold on to that shit…
You cannot look back and say I wish things were done differently because there is no point in that. Every decision that was made to socialize you has created the person you are and given you the vocabulary which you use to write the story of your life.
I’ve had a lot of independence and that has been a great gift.
I’ve had a lot of independence and that has been a curse.
It’s been a great gift because I’m self-sufficient and I don’t rely on anyone. It’s been a curse because I’m self-sufficient but at times I feel lonely. I become the mother to other people in relationships. Sometimes that can be a positive thing. Sometimes it can be tiresome. There’s a balance in life. It just depends on your perspective. Anything that happens has a positive impact and a negative impact. I don’t think my dad was really anticipating what his impact was going to be.
The hard thing about having kids is that you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you actually do it.
I’m talking about the full human spectrum. The objective of every living being is to breed. I mean we are no different than cockroaches or ants or bees or mamals. Of course reptiles eat their offspring but breeding is integral to life. So breeding gives us the full spectrum of the human experience in the sense that we are animals. It’s the full spectrum of the animal experience. Except for domesticated cats and dogs all animals breed.
Looking Forward & Back
You innately know who your parents are.
I can laugh at my dad in a really unique way. I can laugh at his anxiety and at his eccentricity. I like annoying him because it makes me laugh. It makes him laugh too. We both know what is happening. I remember doing things to annoy him when he was helping me with my French homework. The more agitated he’d get, the more it’d make me laugh. Sometimes I’d do socially unacceptable things — like spitting in public — just to annoy him. I have a rebelliousness or defiance about me that is really more comical than bitter.
So yeah I really like him as a person. I enjoy spending time with him. I feel like I know him really well. We have things to say to each other. We get along really well. We think alike. We have a similar sense of humor. We’ve gone on a couple of trips together. We had fun. We don’t fight. We don’t argue. Yeah in some ways he’s been generous with his time. But I don’t really know him as a teacher. Other people probably know him better as a teacher. I don’t ever have a problem with him when I’m with him. The issues I’ve had with him involve expectations, things in my own head. It’s only when I’m not around him and am in my own head that I have issues.
But at the end of the day it is my responsibility to get to know him and it’s his responsibility to get to know me.
It would be good to have more time together in the future …