My interest in classical poetry is not casual, but I haven’t let it take over my life either. In fact, I dropped out of a doctoral program in classical philology in 1965, with only a thesis between me and the Ph.D. Newsweek's Paris bureau was a better way to fund my life than grading paper’s and exams written by Harvard freshmen.
I fully intended to complete my dissertation on Theocritus's use of rare Homeric vocabulary (as a covert sign that by inserting these relics of the heroic into his poems of rustic and urban love he was signaling his departure from the Homeric mode.)
I did in fact read my way through the Theocritus scholarship, such as it was in 1965, at the Bibliothèque Nationale in wintry dark mornings before the Newsweek office came to life. Then I would take the Métro to my chic/shabby office in the Herald Tribune building, where I switched from Hellenistic Greek to mid-twentieth-century modern French.
Operating in a modern language was, for someone hitherto confined to Greek and Latin, a release into postclassical exuberance. For me, Racine was a blast from the present. Newspapers—I read seven a day—and magazines—30 a month—were artifacts of a Latinity gone mad over the millennium since Louis the Bald and his half brother Louis the German swore mutual allegiance in 842 at Strasbourg, in Latin, Old High German and Proto-French, forming an alliance against their elder brother Lothair, the Holy Roman Emperor. The French text is the first known written example of any Romance language.
But for a classicist, the French language that had subsequently evolved, the language I was immersed in all day at my desk and on the low-fidelity phone and in interviews, felt viscerally like a supercharged adventure in linguistic time travel.
At the most mundane level, the syntax of French as spelled out in a standard grammar was pretty much a replay of Latin syntax, slightly streamlined. Even the noun genders were mostly the same (Latin neuters had become masculine). But even in the fairly tight historical process that had transformed Latin words into their obvious French descendants (historia> histoire), there were plenty of faux amis, false friends. These traps were somehow more acceptable when they involved English-French cognates that looked the same but weren’t (fastidieux was a boring, annoying fellow, not a guy with overly meticulous standards of grooming or behavior). But words that had evolved out of their Latin sense into some new and unexpected meaning in modern French were embarrassing ambushes and simply unfair.
A female colleague came into the office one morning after a date with a Frenchman. “He tried to kiss me goodnight,” she said, “but I told him: ‘Je ne baise pas tout le monde.’ And then he really threw himself at me. I nearly had to call for help.”
It would not have been useful to her if she had known that baiser came directly from Latin for kiss. Catullus, for example, wrote to his beloved: “Da mi basia mille.”
Give me a thousand kisses.
And in other poems, he used the verb for kissing, basiare,(quem basiabis, who will you kiss?)
Both words came into French, superficially intact, but the resulting verb, baiser, coarsened over time, lost its kiss signification. The noun stayed clean and unchanged (the Bond film “From Russia with Love” played in France as “Bons Baisers de la Russie,” sweet kisses from Russia, echoing a thousand holiday postcard greetings. But the verb, by 1965, meant “fuck” and fuck alone. To say kiss me, nowadays, you have to co-opt embrasser, which can no longer mean hug. In 2002, facing forced early retirement after 19 years as the editor of the leisure and arts page of The Wall Street Journal, I remembered my long-abandoned thesis on Theocritus and his ironic intertexts pilfered from the Iliad and Odyssey. I still had my notes from almost 40 years back. Maybe I should finally write the thing.
I called Harvard. Did my graduate work still count? I thought I heard a yawn at the other end. “You want to reapply? We’ll send you the green form. But you know you owe $500 for each semester you haven’t registered.”
“We’re talking about a lot of money here. I’ve been away for 70 semesters.”
“Don’t worry, there’s a cap of a thousand dollars.”
So I filled out the single-page form, wrote the check—and waited for the university archives department to send me a paper copy, officially sealed, of my graduate school record (paid for by a $3 check), as well as a letter of recommendation from a member of the classics department. When I first noticed this apparently innocent requirement, I nearly abandoned the project. The professors I had known were either long gone from Cambridge or, in most cases, dead. Then I checked the departmental website, where I found a picture of Wendell V. Clausen, the expert on Hellenistic and Latin poetry who had been the original director of my dissertation, alive and emeritus.
He wrote the letter. I wrote the thesis and, as a white-bearded doctorandus, received my second Harvard degree on June 9, 2005.
Did this mean that in the lively world that now studies Theocritus and the other poets of 3d-century BC Alexandria, the few hundred unusual Homeric words I noticed lurking in decidedly unHomeric contexts in Theocritus, are now universally read as tacit declarations of antiheroic intent? If so, no one has told me about it.
I would be lying if I said that I have been besieged with fan mail from awed Hellenists around the globe. Nor have I heard that my name is on everyone’s lips at the biennial Groningen Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry in the Netherlands. I’m in no rush for recognition. After all, Theocritus waited 2500 years for me to notice what he did to Homer.