Lost Classics: An Address Delivered in 2009 to Graduates in Classics at UC Berkeley
Thirty years ago, on a warm day in the middle of May of 1979, at the end of my freshman year at college, I picked up the telephone in my apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia, and called my grandfather in Miami Beach, Florida, to announce that I’d decided to major in classics.
The news did not go over well.
“Classics what?” said my bemused grandfather, a man whose formal education had ended in 1914, when Austria-Hungary entered World War I; a man who, by the time he was 19, as I was on that May day, had lived through a world war, lost a father, crossed an ocean, exchanged Europe for America, one civilization for another; had, from nothing, made a life. “It’s books? Music? Classical what?” he repeated.
“No, grandpa,” I said, clearing my throat, my fingers, gripping the plastic receiver, starting to sweat. “Classical literature. “The Classics … You know, like Greek and Latin.” There was only a confused silence on the other end, and so I blurted, rather helplessly, “Plato!”
There was a fumbling noise on the other end of the line, and when the conversation resumed, it was not my grandfather but his wife who spoke—a lady who had been born and raised as what we Jews call a Litvak, a word whose nuances, savoring richly of a world as lost, in its way, as that of Sappho and Sophocles, are inadequately conveyed by the neutral adjective “Lithuanian”; it was, now, my grandfather’s wife who spoke vigorously, incredulously, into the phone on hearing that I was going to be majoring in Latin and Greek.