Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον ὃϲ μάλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη…
These immortal words mark the beginning of Homer’s epic Odyssey. This work is many things: cornerstone of western literature; repository and echo of a once rich oral tradition; institutional memory of a war lingering in the mists of time. But for me, these words mark the beginning of something far more important. They are prelude to a friendship. I begin to sing:
Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον, ὃϲ μἀλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη…
“I’m sorry, Dave. But I have to stop you there.” Uh-oh. Had I already made a mistake? I thought I was nailing it. I looked at him, awaiting his critique. “Why don’t you take your hat off?” Right. The Old Man with old-fashioned sensibilities didn’t like it when I wore my hat indoors. We’d been down this road before. This time, however, I’d come prepared.
“But,” I said proudly, backed by Olympian precedent and divine authority, “Hermes wore a hat.” He looked at me, possibly surprised at my challenge.
“Yes,” he said slowly, in his regal, stentorian voice. “But.” Pregnant pause for dramatic effect. “Hermes was a rascal!” I had to laugh. First of all, who uses the word ‘rascal’ anymore? But more than that, did I really I think I was going to slip one past the Old Man?
With a reluctant sigh, I removed my flat-cap and placed it on a small table beside my θρόνοϲ. I begin again. This time, I make it through the first ten lines of the poem, all from memory and without interruption. This is how we began each session of the Homeric Reading Group.
The Old Man would refer to this as a warm up. It was a way to get into the spirit of things, as well as a way to shake off a week’s worth of rust. But it was more than that also. It was, as it has ever been and as it remains, an invocation to the Muses. Andra moi ennepe, mousa, polytropon. ‘Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many ways…’
Look, let’s be honest. You can sit down and read Greek and not give a toss for the old gods. But you don’t read Homer the way you read Thucydides. Or, for that matter, Dostoyevsky or Dickens or Fitzgerald. If you do, you’re missing the point. It’s like reading Shakespeare in an armchair. Sure, it’s great. But you’ve got to hear it. You’ve got to feel it. So yeah, when you call upon the Muse, it’s not a mere formality. You are, in a very real way, asking for her help. And if she smiles upon you, if she inspires you, you might just bring this 2500+ year old text back to life.
“Dave, you wanna get brunch on Saturday?”
“Can’t. Got my Reading Group.”
“What reading group?”
“Oh. I read Greek with a couple of old guys on Saturday mornings.”
You see, I rarely had to explain myself. Generally, nobody was interested. And it was an easy thing to chalk up to ‘Dave is into his Greek shit.’ But for five years, September to May, that is how I spent my Saturday mornings. Which is not say that I never showed up hung-over. It’s not to say that I never went there on two hours sleep and possibly still half drunk. And yeah, more than once, I left a very pretty, very naked girl asleep in my bed to go read Greek with a couple of old-timers.
It was a treasure. And I knew it was a treasure at the time. Where else in the world, I reasoned, did this exist? Where else did the godsdamned master of all things Homer himself welcome you into his living room and delight in teaching you everything he knew? He was eighty-something when I met him, and I knew then that this thing had an expiration date. So you make the sacrifices and you say thank you for the opportunity.
Now he’s gone. Now I sleep as late as I damn well please on Saturdays. And I’m poorer for it. The funny thing is, he wasn’t an easy guy to get close to. Even at the end, you never forgot that he was the professor and you were the student. Which isn’t to say he didn’t let me in. He did, but in his own way. We didn’t have the sort of relationship where we might go and get a drink now and again.
It was a treasure. And I knew it was a treasure at the time. During the first couple of years, I knew, actuarially, that time was going to run out on our little reading group. Of course I would have missed it. I would have missed the intellectual exchange. I would have missed learning at the foot of a master. But in those early days, it was all so academic. And yet, somewhere along the line, he became my friend.
Friend. We throw the word around quite casually. We have friends on the Facebook. We have friends at work. We have all manner of “friends.” We have old friends and new friends. We have dear friends and casual friends. We have friends we drink with and work with, just as we have – if we are lucky – friends we may bare our souls to, friends who bear us up through the hard times and with whom we celebrate the good. The Old Man was, I think, none of these things. His friendship was, and remains, different, unique. And I fucking miss him. Gods, I fucking miss him.
Stephen G. Daitz. That was his name. It does him a disservice to refer to him as The Old Man. He had a name and he worked damned hard to have it mean something. Among students and fans he was known simply as ‘Daitz.’ Colleagues, friends closer than I, and family, called him Stephen. But to me, he was simply Daitz.
But I never called him “Daitz,” not to his face. He worked damned hard to have his name mean something. He was the master. And so I always ever addressed him as ‘Professor Daitz.’ I think this speaks for itself, but I want to provide an analogy, which, if it means nothing to others, means something to me. Derek Jeter was a superstar in baseball and a prince of the City. But to this day, he only ever addresses his first manager, Joe Torre, as “Mr T.” It’s like that.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Sometimes Daitz straight-up annoyed the shit out of me. I’d be reading a passage, and in my mind, I’m killing it. I’ve got my haughty Agamemnon voice on, I’m waving my imperious left hand. I’m fucking Olivier over here, in ancient Greek. And he’d cut me off, mid line. Why? I didn’t quite nail the vowel quantity on some-or-other omicron.
C’mon, man! I’d scream in my head. I’m killing this! Tell me about the omicron when I’m done! I’d clench my teeth and take a deep breath. And then I’d cool down. He’s not wrong, I’d say to myself. How about you just get it fucking right? You’re giving him reasons to stop you. Get it fucking right. He demanded perfection. And the better you got, the more he wanted. Well, why shouldn’t he?
On some level, he was preparing you to go out into the world as a master of the craft. He knew – or, at least, he certainly hoped – that one day you’d take what he had taught you and that you would teach it to the next generation in turn. And if the day ever came when you’d say to some future student, “I learned from Stephen G. Fucking Daitz,” that student had better not hear an ill-formed omicron.
The funny thing is, the man had the patience of a saint. If he cut me off to correct a mistake that I never should have made in the first place, I was the one who was annoyed. He never was. That was the beauty of the man. His only concern was, ‘Do you love Homer?’ If the answer was yes, then nothing else mattered. You made a mistake? Fine, we’ll fix it. I’m just glad you’re here. That said, fix it.
Regrettably, I learned more about Homer from him than I did about patience. When I showed up in the waning winter of 2009, I knew nothing about how to read Homer aloud. Pitch accents, liaison, corrpetion – it was all just academic. But he sat with me, and taught me, and suffered through my period of ignorance. At some point, I mastered these things, and others besides. At some point, we could sit and read Homer together, veteran scholars.
But every now and again, a new student would show up. And I would be annoyed. Great, this rookie – who, let’s be honest, probably isn’t going stick around for more than a month anyway – is going to slow us down, I’d think selfishly. But Daitz wasn’t bothered. He was thrilled, in fact. And I had to sit there, in irritated silence, as he extended every bit of patience to the new kid as he extended to me, years ago.
He loved having new students. He loved teaching. But there were days when it was just the two of us. And at the end of those sessions, he would say something about how nice it was to just sit and be able to read Homer. Implied, but unsaid, was the idea that I’d come far enough. It wasn’t a classroom anymore. It was just two people who knew their shit and were rocking it.
One of things I liked most about these one-on-ones is that I got to hear Daitz read. He almost never read in bigger groups. That was part of his persona as “The Professor.” It was also a demonstration of his humility and his patience. He knew that for every line he might read, that was one less line for the aspiring student. But when it was just the two of us, we would trade off parts. And when it was his turn, I would just close my eyes and listen.
The funny thing is, I didn’t always agree with his interpretations. He read Hera, for instance, as a nattering, cuckold of a wife who didn’t so much argue with Zeus, her brother/husband, as cluck at him. To me that seemed dated. I preferred to read Hera as a headstrong and independent woman, straining against Zeus’ paternalism and chaffing at the ultimate futility of facing off against the king of the gods.
And get this: He loved it. After we’d both read a bit of Hera, he’d lay his book down in his lap and smile. “Well, Dave,” came the patrician basso, “You see now the beauty of Homer and the freedom that comes with being able to read Him properly. You and I have very different interpretations of what Hera is like.” (And I’m paraphrasing here). “No two people will read Him the same way. When Horowitz plays Beethoven, he doesn’t sound like Rubenstein. But it is always Beethoven underneath. And so it is with Homer.” When you could take the text and make it your own, that’s when he was most proud of you.
But if he gave you wide latitude in interpreting the, shall we say, ‘personality’ of the text, he was much more rigid in his grammatical analyses. And if I should disagree with his reading, like as not, I’d simply keep my mouth shut. Usually it wasn’t worth the argument. At least from my point of view.
Although, as I got more comfortable, I would sometimes offer up my alternate textual analysis, just to have it on record, as it were. But very rarely would I argue over it. You’d have better luck moving mighty Ajax off the stern of a Danaan warship than you’d have moving the Old Man off his analysis.
Not everybody felt this way, however. Certainly not Nat. Now, this piece is about Daitz, my relationship with him and what he meant to me. I’m not sure it’s my place to be mentioning others by name. But I read with Daitz every Saturday, September to May, for five years. And in all that time, Nat was the other constant. We were the core of the group, at least in my time there. There were others, but invariably they lost interest, or moved away, or had other commitments.
Nat is an expert teacher of Latin and Greek and a bit of a renaissance man. But he knows his Greek, no two ways about it. And he had no problem going back and forth with the Old Man. For me, it got old fast, since neither of them would give any ground. But like the old Achaian warrior facing off against a Trojan of equal stature on the plains of Skamander, they seemed to delight in the contest. You could learn a lot listening to the two of them go at it. You could also, if you were a bit hungover, doze off in mild aggravation.
But as I said, every now and then, I would offer up my own reading of the text. For the first few years, I could tell he didn’t take my analyses particularly seriously. But towards the end, he would at least entertain my ideas. I’d like to think it was because I simply got better at Greek. But maybe it was a respect thing. I honestly don’t know.
In any case, I felt a sense of great achievement when, one day, I put forth a grammatical interpretation which was at variance with his own and he responded by saying, “Well, Dave, that’s very interesting.” Then he paused and rolled it around in his head a bit more. “Still, I think the accepted reading is as I have just said.” I don’t think I ever once changed his mind. But I’d got him to take me seriously. I had arrived.
When you meet somebody and he is already an old man, it is difficult to imagine him as anything else. But I remember two things, which called to mind an image of the younger man.
Once, after our session, I was talking politics with his wife. I don’t know what the age gap was between the two, but it was not insignificant. In any case, as we chatted, Daitz stood off to the side, leaning with his hands behind his back against a counter. I’m going to struggle to capture this here. But I could see them when they were younger. I could see his wife in heated political discourse, holding a salon with her contemporaries while the older professor sat by in regal silence, confident in his years and his intellect. He had no need to justify himself, no need to say something clever to show how smart he was. That was for younger folk. His eyes were closed, but there was pride on his face, pride that this brilliant woman was his wife. And all I could think was, “damn, they must have been a sight to see, back in the day.”
I said there were two things. The other was sex. His old age and his patrician bearing could easily mislead you into thinking that he was some kind of prude. He most certainly was not. Homer touches every aspect of life, and he’s not shy about sex. Well, neither was the Old Man. If Homer was talking about sex, then so were we. Sometimes it was just funny. But when Daitz spoke about sex, he was letting you know that he wasn’t always an old-timer.
And then there was the advice. He only ever gave me one piece of advice in this department, but he gave it freely and more than once. Surprisingly, perhaps, it had nothing to do with Homer. It issued instead from one of his other passions: French. One day, when I’d got there early and we were waiting for the others to show up, I casually remarked that I had lately embarked upon learning the Gallic tongue. He was, of course, delighted.
“Well, Dave,” he began. “Perhaps you can find a nice French girl to assist you in your studies. And I’ll give you a bit of advice, which was given to me when I was studying in Paris. Couchez avec ton dictionnaire. It means, go to bed with your dictionary. Since that day, I have dutifully endeavored to follow this advice. I will not have it said about me that I fail to take my studies seriously.
It was a strange thing to see Daitz out in the wild. He always seemed a bit bewildered when he’d show up for an academic conference, as he very often did. I’d learn after he died that he was suffering from dementia. Yet you’d never know it sitting with him in his living room, reading Greek. With the blind bard leading the way, and with the Muse bearing him up from behind, he was in full control.
It hit me hard when, on the way out the door one day towards the end, his wife pulled us (Nat and me) aside. She had tears in her eyes. She was thanking us for what we had given him. She told us that the way he was with us, he wasn’t normally like that anymore. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp it. She was saying that listening to him read with us, he sounded like he did twenty years ago.
She was thanking us. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. You’re thanking us? I wanted to say. We should be thanking him! For all he’s given us, we should be thanking him. I don’t remember what I actually said, but I’m sure it failed the moment.
Failing the moment. That’s what I did. And when I had second chance, I did it again.
It was only this year that he started to slow down. It was February, or March maybe, when he began to make the sort of mistakes that he never used to make. It was hard to watch. Then one day, he excused himself from walking us to the door. He always walked us to the door. He was old-fashioned like that. But one day, he just couldn’t get out of the chair anymore. He was the old king, too tired to move off his throne. It was old Nestor on his θρόνοϲ at sandy Pylos. The shadows were lengthening, as Nat so eloquently put it at the memorial service.
And in the midst of this, I left. I didn’t leave out of fear or shame or sorrow. I left to do something of which I knew he would approve. I left to study French. The opportunity arose whereby I could volunteer at the office of a French school, and in exchange, I would get to take an 11 week course for free. The catch was, the only time I could volunteer was on Saturday mornings, in direct conflict with the Homeric Reading Group.
I put it to him that I was going on a sort of sabbatical. “But hey, you love French,” I said. “And when I get back, maybe we can speak some French together. That’s not so bad, eh?” In my heart, I knew we would never get to speak French together. But I had convinced myself otherwise.
The Old Man knew better. “Well, Dave,” he said proudly. “I’m sorry to see you go. You were a pillar of the group.” Past tense. He knew I wasn’t coming back. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, he knew he wouldn’t be there for me to come back to. My own response was weak.
“Aww, hey. It’s only eleven weeks. I’ll be back in the Fall. And then we can speak French together!” I don’t remember his response now, but he probably just nodded. Even at that stage of things, he was above this kind of bullshit. I didn’t feel good when I left that day, I can tell you that.
There was going to be a surprise birthday party. Eighty-eight; not a bad run by any stretch. But the game was called on account of rain. He just wasn’t up to it. And this is where I fucked up, the first time. Nat, I’m told, managed to get up there one last time. Nat managed to visit him at bedside and read one last bit of Homer with the Master. Nat, presumably, got to say goodbye.
I put it off. I tried calling a couple of times, to see if I could come up. But I got the voicemail, and I didn’t leave a message. “I’ll call back tomorrow,” I told myself. The thing about tomorrow, it never comes. And so, one day your friend asks you if you want to grab a drink after work. Sure, why not. Another day, you’re just tired and you want to go home. The next day you have French class. And on it goes.
Now, I’ll be honest. I didn’t know just how bad it was. You always think there’ll be time. And then one day you get the call. When I saw the name in my phone, I knew instantly. My heart sank like a rock. Mimi, his wife, was pretty composed. It was a Saturday. He’d checked out on Thursday. So a few days had passed. She said she’d been trying to get ahold me. I’d received no emails. It was a helluva time for miscommunication.
She asked me if I’d been away, been in France or something. It was inexplicable to her – to both of them, I have to assume – that I could have been in town and yet not present. I felt like such an asshole. It’s a vulgar way to put it. But I felt pretty damned vulgar. I still do.
Anyway, she invited me to come up to the apartment and pick through his books. He had made it very clear that he wanted me and Nat (and one other regular) to have a chance to claim what we wanted before the rest of the lot was donated to the CUNY Classics Department. I felt a rush of pride, which was almost instantly drowned under a wave of shame.
Filed under ‘M’ for ‘macabre,’ I’d imagined this day long ago. I’ve said how from the beginning I knew that this thing had an expiration date. And when years before I’d laid eyes upon his ancient and well-worn Autenrieth – his Homeric dictionary of choice – I’d dared to think that it would be pretty cool if, one day, it should somehow fall to me. Well, that day had arrived, and I felt sick for having ever conceived of it.
But there I was, in his living room, staring at his empty chair. It didn’t seem real. Surely he’d come shuffling into the room any minute now, just as he’d always done. Mais hélas! Not this time. Instead, I was led into his study cum library. I’d never been in there before. His desk was just as he’d left it. And there on his desk, exactly where it ought to be, was the Autenrieth. I opened it. On the inside cover were scrawled the words “ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων [from the library of] Stephen G. Daitz, 1/24/48.” I asked if I could have it. “Take whatever you want, Dave,” was the answer.
It was the most precious of the lot. I snagged some other volumes, which were important to me insofar as they pertain to my own areas of interest and study. A two volume commentary on Herodotos; a complete Sophokles, three volumes, French edition; a gorgeous little tome dating to 1716, the poems of Anacreon and Sappho, also a French edition; a copy of Euripides’ Helen, margins filled with his own notes; and of course, a copy of his own edition of a Euripides palimpsest, which has its own wonderful story behind it. But the Autenrieth, that was a treasure. The master’s very own dictionary.
That was in June. In September, a memorial service was held. There would be speeches by Mimi and other family members, as well as by Nat and a few colleagues. They were all wonderful.
Mimi held it together pretty well. The only time she got choked up is when she mentioned Nat and me by name. She said we’d given him “a reason to live” in the last years. It was a beautiful thing to say. But all I could feel was guilt. Maybe I had given him a reason to live, in some small way. But when the end came, I wasn’t there. I took and took and took from him. And yeah, he gave with both hands. But when he couldn’t give anymore, I wasn’t there. Epic fucking fail.
Nat, in his speech, also mentioned me by name. “I could see the shadows lengthening,” he said, “when he gave Dave Starr and I a piece of pentelic marble from the Athenian quarry.” Even now, that piece of marble rests upon my bookshelf, at the end of a long line of Greek texts.
In any case, if you’re counting, that’s two name checks; one from his wife and one from his longest tenured student. That’s all you need to know about the difference between how others saw me and how I saw myself. And all I can say for that is, I was pretty fucking happy that only a handful of people in that crowded room actually knew who Dave Starr was.
At the end, Mimi announced that if anybody wanted to come up and say a few words, they were free to do so. A few did. I was not among them. For one, I didn’t know what I would have said. For another, I’m a shy, awkward sonofabitch. I looked left and I looked right. To get up there, I’d have had to climb over several people. I looked around the room. These people, many of them advanced in age, had been sitting for quite a while now. Did they really want to hear one more student say what had already been said, and likely better said? I stayed in my seat.
Afterwards, I found Mimi. A hug and a kiss on the cheek. “It was a beautiful service,” I said. “I thought you were going to say something,” she said. And there it was. I fucked up again. I’d been given a second chance to say goodbye. I’d been given a second chance to be there at the end. This time, I was there and I still managed to not show up.
And so I’ve written this. It’s the best I can do to say goodbye. And it’s not enough. I watched two fat fastballs go by, and now I’m down two strikes. Well, I’m not going down with the bat on my shoulder. I’ve got to say something, Professor Daitz, even if you’ll never hear it.
Stephen Daitz has given me a gift. It is a gift that I will carry with me until the end of my days, and one which, if I am lucky, I will be able to give in my own turn. For a long time, I thought that the gift was academic. He taught me how to read Homer, and I’ll be reading Homer till the day I die. But that was not the gift. Homer was just the vehicle.
The real gift was Hope. Hope that the song never stops. Hope that even in the Twilight Years, when the body fails and the mind decays, there is still love. Hope that even when you fuck up, the good outweighs the bad. Only you can abandon Hope. Hope never abandons you. That is what I learned from Stephen Daitz.
I’ll never truly know what the Old Man thought of me. But he left a clue. Of all his books, there was one in particular that he demanded I receive. Even in my absence, he did not lose faith in me. Dave must have this book, he decreed. And so I have it.
It is his own working text of the Odyssey, books I-VI. The printed text is a solid column of hexameters, running down the center of the page. But on either side, he had diligently scrawled in pencil his own notes, his own thoughts. He had carefully marked every single verb, noting the tense. He had made notes on the vocabulary. He’d made more scholarly notes, connecting one bit of text to another. His notes begin with the very first line of the Odyssey:
Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον, ὃϲ μάλα πολλὰ
And they continue down every page, all the way ‘til the last. But they stop at the top of the last page. He never finished. It was, in all probability, the very last thing he ever labored upon. And he wanted me to have it.
I had failed him in the end, and he looked straight past it. He saw only the bearded kid, full of bad puns and with a taste for French, who showed up every Saturday, September to May, for five years. Whenever I wonder what I meant to him, and I often do, the answer is there in those pages.
The Old Man left his mark on me in another, more quotidian, way. I don’t fancy myself a writer. To do so, without a paycheck, is both obnoxious and pretentious. Nevertheless, I do write. Sometimes, I think, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane. All the same, I’m not much of a writer. How can you be, when you read hardly any English?
But still I write. ‘What I have in my heart must out,’ Beethoven once wrote. And so it is with me, albeit on a plane far below those old masters. Beethoven, after all, wrote 16 string quartets, nevermind breaking the mold on the symphony. Nevermind perfecting the piano sonata to the point where you have to wonder – or at least I wonder – why anyone who came after him even bothered to try.
But I digress. What I mean to say is, simply, that I write. And when I do, Daitz is always looking over my shoulder. I pay especial care now to the tense of each and every verb. Simple past. Imperfect. Pluperfect. I didn’t used to care. But I do now. He showed me just how much can be conveyed by the mere tense of a verb.
And so, say what you will about my writing. But in every sentence there is a verb. And each one has a thought behind it. Maybe I think Homer fudged on his verbs here and there. But Daitz didn’t think so. What he really meant was, you don’t ever have to put down anything you don’t mean. There’s always a way to say exactly what you want. You just have to find it.
And so at last I come to the end. I come to say goodbye. It is a late goodbye and it is, I’m afraid, all too hollow. But then, I was never any good at goodbyes. I have a hard time letting go. And yet, in a way, it’s not goodbye. He’s still with me. He’s with me when I write. And he’ll be with me the next time I try to speak – haltingly, flirtatiously – with the next French girl. And he’ll be with me each and every time I open up a page of Homer and begin to read.
I like to think now that Daitz has gone to the Elysian Fields, the land of heroes, where there is no death, only immortality. Akhilleus died, as we all must. But his deeds live on in song. Without the song, there is no hero. The song lives through me now, and my voice was given to me by Stephen G. Daitz. To the extent that the fallen heroes still walk among us, so does he.
I have not read any Homer since he died. I could not. But it is time now. It is time to start the song again. Goodbye, my friend. Thank you and goodbye. The song goes on…