On the morning of Sunday, June 10, 2012, the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Virginia were notified of a palace coup. The university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, had been forced to resign by a small faction on the board of trustees. The conspirators were led by the board’s chair (the “rector” in local parlance), a Virginia Beach real estate developer named Helen Dragas.
The motives for the coup have never been entirely explained, perhaps because those responsible were themselves not quite sure what they were trying to accomplish. But the mythology of the affair has emphasized two issues. Sullivan was viewed as insufficiently aggressive in pursuing what the conspirators on the board saw as the next big wave in education: massive open online courses (MOOCs), in which a single instructor teaches thousands or tens of thousands of students over the Internet. She was also said to have resisted proposals to close obscure and unprofitable programs—in particular the department of classics.1
The sequel is well known. After two weeks of protests by students and statewide criticism, the conspirators were forced to back down and Sullivan was reinstated. But the episode has come to symbolize a tension between classic ways of teaching (for what could be more classic than classics?) and new, “disruptive” technologies, symbolized by the MOOC. As Gregory Nagy’s new book illustrates, the reality is murkier.
Nagy earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1966. Still in his early twenties, he was immediately hired as a faculty member, and except for a brief stint at Johns Hopkins he has been there ever since. He has attained most of the honors to which an American classicist can aspire, including the presidency of the American Philological Association and the Sather lectureship at Berkeley. He has been a generous mentor to two generations of graduate students, an agile impresario of several series of scholarly monographs, and, most recently, director of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. Now over seventy, he has managed to become an éminence grise without ever quite ceasing to be an enfant terrible.
All of Nagy’s work has dealt with early Greek literature, and almost all of it, directly or indirectly, with Homer. Many of his characteristic concerns are already present in his first book, the austerely titled Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter (1974). Like all modern Homerists, Nagy starts from the demonstration by Milman Parry (1902–1935) and his then assistant Albert Lord that the Homeric poems reflect—and reflect on—a long tradition of oral composition and performance. Parry died tragically young, seven years before Nagy was born, but Lord was one of Nagy’s teachers and for many years his colleague at Harvard (he died in 1991).
Nagy himself has combined an emphasis on oral composition and performance with training in Indo-European linguistics and an interest in structuralism. The latter grows out of his linguistics background but has also been enriched by personal contacts with French classicists like Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne, and Nicole Loraux. The resulting approach achieved a wide scholarly audience in his acclaimed second book, The Best of the Achaeans (1979). His subsequent work has extended it and applied it to some new material, but not fundamentally altered it. Nagy’s publications, in fact, make up a self-contained (and highly self-referential) system; if one were handed a random page, it would be hard to guess whether it was written in 1980 or 2010.
Nagy has for many years taught a large lecture course on “the Greek hero,” both to regular Harvard undergraduates and to continuing education students. That course has now been transformed into a MOOC, to which his recent seven-hundred-page book serves as a kind of textbook. Its jacket promises “an exploration of civilization’s roots in the Homeric epics and other Classical literature, a lineage that continues to challenge and inspire us today.” In reality, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is a much stranger book than that, in both content and form.
Nagy’s central subject is the relationship of the Homeric poems (and, by extension, other Greek literature) to hero cult. This last term requires some explanation. In addition to the familiar Olympian and other gods, the ancient Greeks worshiped the shades of famous mortals. These “heroes” were not quite gods in the same sense as Aphrodite or Zeus: their power was less awesome, their influence more localized. Yet they enjoyed immortality, were capable of appearing to their worshipers at important moments, and were honored by rituals, including sacrifices and athletic contests.
A good example is the figure of Protesilaos, a warrior mentioned only briefly in the Iliad, though he appears elsewhere in ancient literature. Reputedly the first Greek to die at Troy, he was an object of cult worship at the town of Elaious on the Hellespont. There, during the Persian Wars of the early fifth century, he was believed to have punished a Persian governor who had made the mistake of appropriating his shrine. His busy posthumous career is also celebrated in a dialogue called the Heroikos by the third-century AD rhetorician Philostratus. When Nagy speaks of “the ancient Greek hero,” it is such cult heroes that he has in mind.
Now, Homer’s heroes are not explicitly represented as cult heroes. Indeed, they are explicitly not so represented: the final mortality of Achilles and Hector is central to the Iliad as we have it. Other sources imagine an Achilles transported after his death to a mysterious but pleasant-sounding “White Island,” where he marries Helen and lives happily ever after. Such stories have no place in Homer, any more than invulnerability or magic weapons do. Yet for Nagy, the poems are always aware of hero cult, and at certain moments they betray that awareness (rather as a detergent commercial might let slip the existence of “another leading brand”). Indeed, Nagy would go a step further: his Iliad and Odyssey actually do regard their main characters as cult heroes, albeit of a somewhat unusual kind. Characters like Achilles or Odysseus achieve posthumous immortality through Homeric poetry itself, and their cult worship consists of the ritualized recitation of that poetry at festivals like the Athenian Panathenaia.
The first half of Nagy’s book is concerned with epic: eight “hours” on themes from the Iliad (including some related lyric poetry), three on the Odyssey, one on Hesiod. The second half deals with Herodotus and Philostratus, various tragedies (Aeschylus’ Oresteia; Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus; Euripides’ Hippolytus and Bacchae), and Plato’s Apology and Phaedo. Each of the hours is built around an important Greek word or words. Some of these are notoriously untranslatable, like ate, the madness-leading-to-catastrophe that afflicts the House of Atreus.
Others have long been objects of fascination for Nagy. Prominent among these is kleos aphthiton, the “imperishable glory” Achilles will receive in exchange for his early death at Troy. For Nagy it is the poetic counterpart to the actual immortality Greek heroes receive in cult worship. And it has a cognate formula in the Sanskrit of the Vedas, suggesting that the idea goes back to Indo-European verse. Another important term for Nagy is sema, a word that can mean “sign” (as in English “semiotics”) or “meaning” (as in “semantics”), but can also designate the physical tomb or burial mound of a hero. This ambiguity prompts much extended meditation, not easy to summarize or even, sometimes, to understand.
One of Nagy’s recurrent tactics is the ascription to unexceptional Greek words of a specialized ritual sense. When Sappho tells us that “I seem to myself (phainom’ emautai) to be little short of dying,” we are instructed to render the initial phrase as “I am manifested to myself in an epiphany.” The term nostos (“homecoming”), so central to the Odyssey, is to be understood as “return to light and life,” following a 1978 book by Douglas Frame that most critics have found more eccentric than convincing. Therapon, a word used of Patroklos in relation to Achilles, is connected with an apparently related word in Anatolian and interpreted as not (or not just) “attendant, squire” but “ritual substitute.” When Patroklos’ ghost recalls his having committed an involuntary homicide, he describes himself as nepios (normally rendered “foolish”). But for Nagy the key phrase means not “I was an idiot” but “I was feeling disconnected.” As such Nagyisms pile up, they amount to a cumulative rereading of Greek literature; a deceptively placid landscape turns out to be mined with ritual undertexts to which the reader must be initiated by Nagy.
It’s true that Greek words don’t always map neatly onto English equivalents, and that’s particularly true of words that reflect significant mental or cultural concepts. In their very inelegance, such Nagyian retranslations have a welcome estranging effect. In such a context it becomes easier to see the songs written for Spartan maidens by the ancient Greek choral lyric poet Alcman as the Greek equivalent of the Navajo and Apache initiation rituals to which Nagy fruitfully compares them. But one often feels that Nagy is giving undue weight to remote and sometimes speculative etymologies. A revealing example—because not central to the argument—is the observation that many people still talk loosely of “records” when they mean CDs. “I suspect we speak this way,” comments Nagy, “because the idea of memory is embedded in the word records.” But of course this isn’t why we sometimes refer to CDs as “records”; the term has simply been extended from one technology to its successor. Initially the record store sold records, then it sold records and CDs, then, before it folded, just CDs. But in organizing a record collection, we don’t think of the heart (Latin cor) as the seat of memory, any more than we think of a carbon paper copy when we “cc” someone on an e-mail.
For the general reader, a more pervasive problem is the selectivity of Nagy’s interest. Because his aim is to expose a discourse that the text conceals or occludes, the book focuses on individual moments where that material seems to bubble to the surface: Odysseus’ planted oar, Electra bringing libations to her father’s tomb, Patroklos emerging from his tent “equal to Ares.” Nagy is a passionate close reader, but he reads passages, not works. And his interests cohere better with some texts than others. Alcman’s songs for maidens do have some kind of ritual background, for example, and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus really is about cult heroization. But woe to the readers who take up The Ancient Greek Hero expecting a general introduction to Homeric poetry or Greek tragedy, or who emerge under the impression that they have received one.
So much, then, for the ancient Greek hero. But why “in twenty-four hours”? The figure might remind us of Aristotelian unities. It also bears a suspicious resemblance to a conventional college lecture course. Throw in an introductory class—Nagy’s “Hour 0”—plus a midterm exam, and you have a standard thirteen-week semester. It is tempting, then, to see The Ancient Greek Hero as a book-of-the-course, like C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image or Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. Yet in some ways, the volume feels more like the course itself. Its style and presentation reflect time-honored strategies of lecturing. Each lecture is introduced in a similar way (“The key word for this hour is X…”). There is much use of the lecturer’s rule of three: time and again we are told what we are going to be told, then told it, then assured that what we have been told is now “in place” and Nagy can move on.
Important terms are dinned into us by repetition (“I repeat here my working definition of aetiology…”). Digressions dole out information in a just-in-time kind of way. (Who is Albert Lord? What is a performative utterance?) Allusions to popular culture link Homeric society to the audience’s own cultural world. A favorite touchstone is Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi movie Blade Runner (or Bladerunner, as Nagy rechristens it), but we also encounter The Catcher in the Rye, Roberta Flack, and George Harrison. (The cultural horizon of Nagy’s assumed audience seems to run from the late 1960s to about 1982.) Some formulations that one can imagine working in a lecture feel slightly embarrassing on the page. Thus Achilles singing the deeds of heroes in Iliad 9 “is pictured as a super-star performer.” Andromache in Iliad 6 channels the Temptations by telling Hector that “you’re my everything.” After defining henotheism as “the worshipping of one divinity at a time,” Nagy observes that “I think of the one-at-a-time mentality of henotheism as serial monotheism.” One can almost hear the Harvard students chuckle politely.
In an obvious effort at clarity, Nagy’s text often draws attention to its own internal workings: “Here is a thesis paragraph that is meant to encapsulate the argumentation in the exegesis that follows….” Digressions are neatly marked (“That said, I return to…”). A system of numbered paragraphs and lettered quotations allows for punctilious cross-references (“the decisive verse that I cite here from Homeric Hymn to Demeter will be quoted in Hour 8 Text C and analyzed in Hour 8 §§ 20-21”).
At such moments The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours feels less like a lecture than like the owner’s manual for a major appliance—a washing machine, perhaps, or a high-end photocopier. Here we might be reminded of other types of books that promise expertise in a limited amount of time: Computer Programming in Twenty Minutes a Day. Yet the impression of clarity can be deceptive. One of Nagy’s favorite transitions is “I find it relevant (pertinent, significant, useful) to compare (quote, evoke, return to) X,” where the relevance (pertinence, significance, usefulness) of X is not always easy to see. As a reviewer of an earlier Nagy book noted, “it never takes me long to lose the thread of one of N.’s arguments.”
Nagy at times seems to assume a fairly unpracticed reader, one who needs to be told, for instance, that eschatology “has to do with thinking about [the] afterlife—where one will ‘end up.’’’ Yet two pages later the same reader is expected to cope with the following:
Just as the word psūkhē signals the message of one tomb to be shared by Achilles and Patroklos as cult heroes in the Iliad, the same word signals the same message in the picture painted on the Münster Hydria. In the logic of that picture, the self of Patroklos as a psūkhē will become the self of Achilles, whose corpse will be placed inside the same tomb that is already occupied by the corpse of his other self, Patroklos. So the psūkhē is both the messenger and the message of the messenger.
At such moments one really wonders who this book is aimed at. Parts of it anyone can grasp; other parts you would probably have to be Nagy to understand.
The question of audience is complicated rather than clarified by another aspect of the book: its relationship to the MOOC version of Nagy’s original course. For despite the volume’s satisfyingly book-like feel, one is always conscious that The Ancient Greek Hero is not a self-contained or self-sufficient artifact. Nagy makes frequent reference to the online sourcebook that accompanies the MOOC. His own publications, he writes, have “fuller” or “updated” versions online. The course site already includes segments not found in the book, e.g., an animated video based on Bizet’s Les pecheurs de perles that is alleged to throw light on Sappho.
Indeed, the book itself leads a separate digital existence, as “H24H,” on the MOOC’s website. Some sections allude to visual or recorded material best accessed online. This is notably true in Hour Three, which includes rather unsatisfying descriptions of a modern Hungarian folk lament and of a lamentation scene from the 2000 Korean film Ch’unhyang. In the lecture hall, of course, these were actual clips, as they are in the MOOC. Similarly, the detailed analyses of vase paintings in Hour Seven, or of a Minoan frieze in Hour Twenty-three, cry out for camera close-ups, or at least a pointer-wielding lecturer. Those content with the book will be like the prisoners in the Platonic cave, watching not the thing itself but blurry shadows of it.
All of this prompts a larger question. What do we mean when we refer to Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero? Is it this book? The Harvard lectures on which it is based? The MOOC in its current incarnation? Or is it the whole tradition of Nagy’s thoughts on the topic, expressed in various formats (some no longer accessible), stretching back to the late 1970s?
In this uneasy oscillation between various technologies, The Ancient Greek Hero reminds one of nothing so much as the Homeric epics themselves: oral poems that are also, somehow, fixed in writing. Readers may already have noted that many of the book’s lecture-like techniques—repetition, circular digressions, brief comparisons to the audience’s own cultural world—are also characteristic of Homeric poetry. But the resemblance goes deeper. Like the Iliad, Nagy’s book is an ambitious work in twenty-four installments, developed over a long period of oral performance, alluding to and reworking earlier versions (themselves fluid), before finally taking on a more lasting form under the stimulus of a new technology. As Nagy’s Homer eschews local rituals in favor of Panhellenic appeal, so Nagy has transcended Harvard Yard and now addresses himself to an audience of thousands, from Poland to Peru.
And just as the Iliad aims to fold the entire war into the few days it actually narrates, so The Ancient Greek Hero summarizes its author’s entire career. The book’s bibliography includes four solid pages of Nagy (almost a quarter of the whole). Nagy items account for more than half the abbreviated titles, generating cryptic footnotes like “Nagy 2010a:189. See also GM 261–262; PH 285 = 10§18; PP 90, 102–203.” Like the Iliad itself, The Ancient Greek Hero is a bid for imperishable kleos, or “glory”—for its subject, and perhaps also for its composer.2
There has been worry in some quarters that MOOCs will have a narrowing effect on the academy. Most professors (it is feared) will be fired or become mere support staff. The spoils will go to a handful of superstars, the academic counterparts of the Iliadic “forefighters,” whose privileges are described in Sarpedon’s famous exhortation to his colleague Glaucus:
What is the point of being honored so
with precedence at table, choice of meat,
and brimming cups, at home in Lykia,
like gods at ease in everyone’s regard?…
So that we two
at times like this in the Lykian front line
may face the blaze of battle and fight well,
that Lykian men-at-arms may say:
“They are no common men, our lords who rule
in Lykia. They eat fat lamb at feasts
and drink rare vintages, but the main thing is
their fighting power, when they lead in combat!”
Among the Homeric warriors, Nagy’s persona is perhaps closer to that of the genial and talkative Nestor, the counselor to the Greeks who has seen off two generations of heroes and exhorts the third with lengthy accounts of his own youthful exploits. But the spotlight remains very much on him.
What, if anything, do experiments like Nagy’s tell us? Will the MOOC revolutionize education in a few short years, as the Virginia conspirators persuaded themselves? Will it remain a marginal though useful supplement to conventional college, like the Open University or the correspondence courses of the 1920s? Will it be merely a playground for retirees and intellectual hobbyists, the digital successor to “great lectures on tape”? Or will it prove an evolutionary cul-de-sac, like the fifth-grade filmstrip of the 1970s?
None of these questions really seems answerable as yet. In its current version, in fact, Nagy’s MOOC feels a lot like a conventional large lecture class: there’s a textbook, a professor who does most of the talking (sometimes alone, sometimes in obviously staged “dialogues”), a virtual discussion section, and tests in multiple choice and short-answer formats. As one browses the website one is struck by the ordinariness of the whole thing—even the classroom dynamics. Some participants are being lectured about courtesy on the bulletin boards, modern Greek students are insisting that only they can really understand Homer, and still others are—well, perhaps “disconnected” is the right word.3
None of this should surprise. It’s typical for new technologies initially to mimic an existing one; Gutenberg’s forty-two-line Bible is not easy to distinguish from a manuscript copy. It takes time to figure out what a new medium can do besides the same thing bigger, faster, or cheaper, and for its particular strengths and weaknesses to emerge. Fifty years after Gutenberg, printing had shown itself vastly superior for Bibles and legal texts, a cheap substitute for deluxe books of hours, and no replacement at all for wills, inventories, and personal letters.
It may turn out that MOOCs will work best for teaching a skill: basic accounting, say, or the non-lab components of college chemistry—or even first-year Greek. But it’s not at all clear that you can “learn” the Iliad in the same way you learn those things, or that a MOOC is any real improvement on a conventional course (apart from being vastly more expensive to produce and maintain, administrators’ dreams of cost-cutting notwithstanding). It is, after all, a medium, not a message. And as the typographer Alvin Doyle Moore observed, “if you’re really good, you can do it anywhere—even on the ground with a stick.”
Whether classics was actually on the block remains unclear. At the height of the protests the rector held a secret early-morning parley with faculty representatives. An individual who was present tells me that Dragas specifically disclaimed any designs against “the Classicism Department.” Ironically, it may have been President Sullivan who introduced classics into the dispute; in an April meeting with department chairs she had cited classics as an example of a field that was indispensable to a university even if not profitable, and some remembered the comment when the board’s corporate mentality became an issue in June. ↩
Nagy himself has hinted at this aspect of the project in conversation with Nathan Heller, envisioning “a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I mean dead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers…. Achilles himself says it in Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’” See Heller, “Laptop U,” The New Yorker, May 20, 2013. ↩
As Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker, “‘You have a group who are—they talk about Christ,’ Kevin McGrath, one of [Nagy’s] coördinators…told me soon after the discussions started up. ‘Or about pride. They haven’t really engaged with what’s going on.’” See “Laptop U,” May 20, 2013. ↩