First in Line

Victor Bers
For many years, in fact many decades, I thought that Doug Frame was the first of Greg Nagy’s Ph.D. students. Only after Greg had settled in at the Center for Hellenic Studies and the three of us were sitting together in the living room did the matter of priority between the two of us finally get thrashed out. Doug’s recollection seemed to establish that I stand at the head of that long line, #1 sheep, as it were (but see below for the limits of this metaphor). Or so I thought, until Catherine Prince Roth let me know that Greg also advised her thesis for a Ph.D. awarded at the same time, spring 1972. To any other first-crop Greg doktorbub I have overlooked, my apologies, offered with the explanation that Harvard does not list advisors in HSCP reports of degrees or on its online library catalog , and I saw no way to ask Greg about it without running the risk of blowing our cover. Relying on the symbolic strength that I claimed as conferred on me by, admittedly, mere chronological primacy, I once proposed christening this tribute (if a Jewish atheist may use the word for the performative utterance par excellence) Grex. The pun on the name of the laudandus will escape no one, and some alert readers into or past middle age will be reminded of Crux, the festschrift for Geoffrey de Ste. Croix. The many contributors to what I called Grex all know that Greg is, if not for all of us our only shepherd, and not only our shepherd, beyond question a pastoral personality devoted to seeing herd members do well. As vehicle of this comparison is not perfectly clean, I will add programmatically (here I follow Greg’s style) and prophylactically that the herding analogy only works in part: Greg does care about his charges, no matter when and how they entered the flock, even the most elderly, but he is innocent of any sinister plans for their future. He does not demand even a small-sized symbolic bag of wool, to say nothing of a whole haunch of lamb. He does not require sincere adherence to, or even outward acquiescence in, his core scholarly beliefs. You can tell Greg to his face that κλέος ἄφθιτον really means “remarkable goulash” [1] and not get shunned, shouted at, or escorted from the room by CHS security. In this habitual tolerance he is utterly unlike some of my other revered teachers—none of whom I will name. To hear Greg raise his voice you have to be on location when he speaks Hungarian, particularly on the phone to one his brothers, or confront him with a rat, dead or alive, that has entered the basement of his Beacon Hill house. Greg is not good with rats.
I arrived at Harvard in 1968 with a definite idea of what sort of dissertation I would write, and with which member of the faculty as director. Within a month or two it became clear to me that my putative advisor would not be a good choice; worse, given the department’s faculty as it was then, that realization threw me, panicking, into the unwelcoming arms of Ἀπορία, an imperious woman-in-a-bed sheet/abstraction whom Hesiod could have, and should have, worked into hexameters. And there I hung–or nearly hanged–for close to two years. Deliverance came suddenly and unexpectedly in Greg’s Comparative Grammar course, not exactly in the manner he thinks marks epiphanies (his feet, for one thing, were not in motion), but in the form of a stray remark about Wackernagel’s argument that the genitive function appeared first in Greek adjectives before nouns (Vorlesungen über Syntax: II 8). That triggered something in my preconscious (my psychoanalyst wife long ago trained me not to say “subconscious”), the curious figure of speech most properly called enallage or enallage adjectivi or attributi that Benedict Einarson, one of my teachers at Chicago had once mentioned as a phenomenon worth studying. Within a day I convinced myself that what Greg had said about the genitive function of adjectives was plausibly involved in the birth of enallage, and then went to him and asked whether he would be willing to direct my thesis, even though it would center on texts that often exhibit the figure (Pindar and Attic tragedy), not in those days the poetry he talked about most, and even though my approach would not be at all like his own research. He agreed at once and off I went, hoping to finish my degree very quickly, as my draft status and family situation made finishing graduate school and finding a job urgent. I found out very soon that Greg could be relied on to return drafts quickly and to pounce on mistakes decisively, yet with a courtesy and clear handwriting I have difficulty replicating for my own students. Once I started serious work, Greg gave me a second substantive suggestion, that I examine the distribution of Wortfelder that W. Kastner had pretty convincingly connected to a morphological archaism. Not an epiphany this time, but a pleasant surprise involving material that an advisor with a traditional literary orientation would not be likely even to have heard about.
When I started on my thesis I was twenty-six and Greg twenty-eight. That could have been uncomfortably close, especially since my far slower pace to adult professional status could not be proudly justified as the consequence of time in the army or prison, mastering Finnish, playing outfield for the Riga Radicals , vel sim. But I can swear, perhaps laying a hand on the Vorlesungen über Syntax, that I never once felt any affront to my narcissism. The very small absolute difference in our ages, as I have often said introducing Greg at lectures, has remained perfectly constant. This is more than a tedious joke, since Greg moved rapidly to great prominence in our field. Scholars far less accomplished than he have felt themselves entitled to swagger, some brazenly, some with a restraint betraying satisfaction with their own finesse. As a humanist prodigy–Greg very early on was describing himself as an “aging wunderkind”—who executed the steep ascent far more common among mathematicians than Hellenists, Greg had grounds for swaggering as early as age fifteen, when he began college. He did not then, and he does not now swagger (or totter) as he approaches seventy. We are still waiting for some sign of arrogance, or if nothing else, at least a hint of impatience with an irritating undergraduate.
This consistency of manner corresponds to, and in some way might derive from, the same source as Greg’s consistency of intellectual direction. Many scholars spend their whole lives working over a single, often small, idea. The unity of Greg’s work is something different. With the possible exception of some early technical work on Indo-European, he seems to have arrived at Harvard carrying a long, tightly wound carpet, a σῆμα of his poetics, as it were. He has been unrolling that carpet for more than forty years; and as he unrolls with one hand the fabric that he wove at some indeterminate time in the past, his other hand keeps moving back to the already revealed part, stitching in new elements he has just discovered. (This metaphor, some readers will realize, is offered as a counter to the image of “ivy up the wall” adduced by one of his critics in a largely hostile review.) As I understand Greg’s work, his most salient qualities as scholar and personality have grown in tandem from, (a) that carpet’s strongly focused central vision of Greek poetry, poetry as radically traditional and incessantly evolving and (b) a respect for the humanity and intelligence of other scholars, novices included. He is an improved version of Archilochus’ monist hedgehog. He surpasses the common European hedgehog by having the confidence that lets him dispense entirely with the animal’s “one big trick” of rolling up into a prickly ball. At the same time, he is fully capable of a pluralist fox’s adroit maneuvers, provided they are honest and productive, and he employs them without suffering the bad conscience of Isaiah Berlin’s Tolstoy.
βῆ βῆ, ὦ φίλε Ποιμήν[agy] . χάριν σοι ἴσμεν.


[ back ] 1. I am recalling a rare linguistic faux pas on Greg’s part: praising a hostess’s cookies as merkwürdig. Note that the related word in Yiddish, merkverdik, would have conveyed the intended compliment.