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What was the Name of that Nymph Again? or Greek and Roman Studies Recalled

Index ID: WNNA — Publication date: April, 1998

I enquire now as to the generis of a philologist and assert the following:
1. A young mang cannot possibly know what Greeks and Roman are.
2. He does not know wheter he is suited for finding out about them.

Friedrich Netizsche
Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen

There is nothing like a pithy quotation to get the bal rolling, so, in the noble tradition of undergraduates anxious to give the impression of extensive background reading, I have stolen one from a book I have never read. By happy chance, Donna Tartt chose this very gobbet to preface her novel The Secret History, which I have read. Tartt’s story concerns a group of American classics students who decide to recreate a bacchanal; the experiment goes awry when they inadvertently muder a farmer whilst cavorting across one of his fields late at night, accompanied by Dionysus and wearing nothing but bedspreads. If you ask me, the book would have benefited from the attentino of a scissor-happy editor, but it is undeniable page-turner and I doubt wether Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen is half as informative on the subject of hallucinogenic drugs.

However, I was not asked to contribute a book review (“asked to contribute”, how I love that phrase… that I should be asked to contribute to the Classics department magazine… the irony…) The point is that Nietzsche’s, ominous assertinos gave me pause for thought, and then a heaert gufaw, because the reason the Classics department of Exeter University ever let me in is a mystery right up there with anything the Bacchae got up to, a feeling I probably shared with the department once it reliased what it had done.

I arrived at Exeter enrolled for joint honours French and German, but it soon became apparent to me that what German and I needed was a clean break, with no empty promises about staying friends. It was then that I turned thoughtfully towards the Classics department. Somewhere along those unknown corridors, it was whispered, lurked a subsidiary course which went by the ngame of “Greek and Roman Studies”, and the word on the street was that one did not need any Greek or Latin to join up. This was fortunate, as my Latin consisted of the word cave, which I had gleaned from the Molesworth book.

I was uncomfortably aware as I entered the unfamiliar department that I knew pitifully little about what the study of Classics might involve. The Comprehensive I had just left had never dropped any hints; the headmaster’s ramblings about Herclitus had been admired about as much as his halitosis. Nevertheless, I had somewhere along the line gained the impression that Classics meant Culture. As far as I was concerned, behind these doors lay a world of mysterious, runic knowledge, and I was keen to be let in. I lingered furtively around a noticeboard for a while, trying to compose an eloquent plea for admission. Then, not entirely confident about my material, I knocked on the relevant door, entered, and I found myself face to face with a man I shall call Professor X (to shield him from the Aryan equivalent of a fatwah, as we shall see).

Profesor X had a moustache that positively shouted ancient learning and my nervousness increased. I explained why I had come and braced myself for a close examination of my non-existent classical credentials. I was taken aback when the first words from under that classical moustache were “You want to leave the German department? I don’t blame you.

I can’t remember another word we said to each other, but I am certain that none of Nietzsche’s quibbles came up. Possibly Professor X’s admirable antipathy towards the Germand department extended to Nietszche. Ten minutes after I had knocked at Professor X’s door, I was tripping ecstatically off to the book shop to buy a stack of stylish black-covered Penguins.

My mood of excitement was short-lived, however. I left my very first Classics lecture feelin that the whole thing would have been just as comprehensible in German, or indeed Kurdish. There were slides of fragments of vases and a commentary form a distinguished looking man that I was sure would be enthralling if I had the faintest idea what he was talking about. This was a level of bewilderment I had never reached before, which was saying something, because in those days I was so disorganised that turning up at the right lecture theatre was often more a matter of luck than judgement. I sat and listened with a mounting sense of a panic while all around me people scribbled assioduously with every appearance of understanding the gibberish issuing from behind the projector.

The odd thing is that I never, then or later, contemplated another change of subject. I was quite sure that the fault lay with me, not with Classics (whereas with German, I had been more sinned against than sinning).

The unfortunate man who had most to do with me during my classical career was Dr. Y. Dr. Y made quite an impression on me. Once, under the influence of too long a night in the Ram, I decided that what was missing from his life was a Valentine card signed with a quotation from Phaedra. A cunning touch, I felt; he would never guess it was from me, because I had never given him reason to suppose I’d opened Phaedra. Then again, the card must have arrived two days late, which might have given him a valuable clue.

Dr Y’s tolerance towards my frightening ignorance of his subject was awe-inspiring. The closest he ever came to admonishing me for my erratic attendance and propensity to lose every handout he gave me the moment we parted company was when he described me as sleepwalking around the place. This was said with an expression of mingled patience and amusement. I lived to regret repeating his remark to friends. It was sufficiently apt for them to repeat it rather more often thatn I found funny.

I had a vague idea that Dr. Y might help lift my fog of confusion if I asked him, directly, for help. The trouble was that I just couldn’t bring myself to reveal how dense the fog was. I was rell paid for this vanity the day we sat down to examine the life and times of a mass-murderer and bigamist called Theseus.

“What ist he most obvious question we should ask about Theseus?” said Dr. Y, throwing the debate wide open. The question that popped instantly into my brain was, “Did he really exist?” Naturally, I did not utter it aloud. I knew that would reveal only too clearly my unsuitability to find out about Theseus. I sat in bitter silence, knowing that what he wanted was one of those not remotely obvious questions these classical types kept asking, which where always the cue for comprehensible sotries to mutate suddenly into bizarre metaphors and symbols. Only the previous week a thrilling tale of kdinap starring one Persephone had turned out to be about crop storage.

A student we shall call Hugh, becasuse that was his name, broke the silence.

“Did he really exit?” he suggested lazily.

Exactly“, said Dr Y, with an approving smile.

A thousand curses. Just once, I could hav eearned an approving smile. I was sure my chance would never come again, and I was quite right. Twelve years later, it is still Dr. Y and smug Hugh who spring to mind whenever I teeter on the verge of posing a possibly stupid question.

Dr. Y was wearing his familiar expression of barely suppressed amusement when he told me two years later that I had passed the course. He admitted that given my disasstrous first paper he was rather surprised that I had managed it. I sat opposite im feeling that at long last, I had the advantage of him – I was much more surprised than he was.

There is no getting away from the fact that I did not get from teh Classics department what Dr. Y and his colleagues set out to give me, but that was my fault, not theirs. On the plus side, the farmers of Devon had no reason to fear me and my bedclothes stayed where they were supposed to. Greek and Roman Studies gave me a few things I value even more highly than my fond memories of The Frogs: two of the best friends I ever made at university, for instance, and the unforgettable experience of being lectured to by a person best known simply as Z. It was Z I had in mind when I created Professor Binns, a minor character in the novel I published last year. More than that I am not prepared to say; we all know how underpaid university lecturers are and I have no wish to be sued.

Perhaps, in the deepest and truest sense, I still don’t really know what Greeks and Romans are, but I’ve never entirely given up hope of lifting a little more fog. A shelf next to me as I tap out these words is dotted with books on Greek mythology, all of which were purchased post-Exeter. And I’m confident I know more than Dr. Y would have credited when I left his office for the last time: enough to inform a pair of bemused four year olds with whom I watched Disney’s latest ofering that Heracles definitely didn’t own Pegasus. That was Bellerophon, was any fule kno.

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