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Author Topic: RIP Bernard Knox, classicist, DWEM  (Read 2551 times)
Darkhawk
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« Topic Start: September 13, 2010, 11:31:52 am »

I sort of wanted to share this somewhere where people might appreciate it, so I'm bugging you Greeks with a personal note about a scholar.  This is reposted with minor edits from my livejournal.

*

The other day I was working on sorting and packing books, and I found a slender and elderly blue volume with the binding starting to fray, just a little, into threads. Hecuba, it said, and when I opened to the leaf, it had inscribed on one corner "Bernard Knox". Flipping through the pages, they were full of neat annotations in Greek written in the margins.

I commented that I wondered if he was still alive, and my visiting ex did a Google and found an obituary in the Post from about a month ago. Bernard Knox, veteran, classicist, went West - heart quite weary, it would seem - on 22 July.

(A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of every good thing! May he ascend!)


The year: 1989, in the depths of winter. I am in sixth grade and waiting for the school bus to go to the junior high school, because the school system has finally admitted that I needed more advanced math. It is dark, still, and chilly, and I am full of awkwardness and not entirely happy to be awake.

There is an old man walking his dogs. He has one of those pleasantly British faces, round just about everywhere a face can be round, a little jowly, with one of those flat greyish-brownish round caps that I want to associate with Yorkshiremen for some reason (and now I look at Wikipedia, and he was from West Yorkshire). We exchange pleasantries, he continues on, and eventually the bus comes. This scene is repeated through the growing light; I eventually figure out which house is his, one between mine and the bus stop.

The next year I am waiting for the high school bus, far further away, and our acquaintance somewhat lapses. We exchange pleasantries, again, when I see him out walking the dogs.

Let a little time pass, bring us up to what must have been 1992 from the dates in Wikipedia. My father mentions in passing that the nice British gentleman who walks his dogs has offered him a pair of tickets to a speech he's going to give, and would I like to go? (Somewhere along here, presumably, they have had enough of an encounter that my father's interest in ancient history has come up, I don't know that part of the story.) Sure! I say, not actually knowing what it was all about.

"It's at the Smithsonian."

So I scrape together some of my best awkward fourteen-year-old formal finery and we go down to the Smithsonian one evening. (I remember walking across the Mall in the evening, looking at my shoes, feeling awkward.)

We settled into the audience and someone started to introduce Mr. Knox.

He started with the Spanish Civil War, of which that nice gentleman was a veteran. Of a role as liason with the French Resistance. Of being in Italy, and carefully setting up patrol timetables in coordination with the German troops on the other mountain so they patrolled the valley on altering nights and thus never having to actually shoot at each other, a relationship that progressed to leaving cigarettes in exchange for brandy at the midpoint (as my father recalls, I didn't remember the specifics). Or being surprised by a German tank column while out with a band of partisans and managing to convince them that the war was over, Germany had surrendered, and they were here to accept the surrender and escort them to their new location while the details were sorted out. And how he was pinned down in a monastery filled with books at one point, and swore to himself that he would return to a pleasant academic life if he got out of this one....

My eyes got quite wide by the end of the introduction, to say the least. Things I had no idea! I thought he was just, you know, a nice man who walked his dogs and was willing to speak to awkward eleven-year-olds!

Then Mr. Knox got up to speak, and his first line was something like, "I am here to speak to you about the DWEM phenomenon."

Pause, for that awkward space in which we could not figure out if it was a joke or terminology that we should have known about ....

DWEM, he went on to explain, were Dead White European Males. By which, in this case, he meant the ancient Greeks - who were "quite certainly" dead, generally considered white at least in terms of their critical status in the development of the culture of the West, had "invented the concept of Europe", and were, well, sufficiently frightfully sexist that mostly we just hear about the men anyway.

The joke broke the tension in the audience, and we laughed.

A version of the speech is printed in The Oldest Dead White European Males. It was his acceptance speech for the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the highest honor the United States recognises in the humanities.


Right around there I went to CTY to take classical Greek - a six-week intensive class. I'm told that Mr. Knox somewhat scoffed at the notion that anyone could learn a significant amount of the language in that amount of time.

A bit after I got back, he invited me (with my mother) over for tea. I think he wanted to see what I thought of his field, and test out a little if I'd learned anything. He, his wife, and my mother got to discussing adult subjects of some sort, and I, bored and a little intimidated, picked up a book off the table next to me and started - painstakingly - to read it.

I don't remember what it was. I just remember "pulai Troiam" - "the double gates of Troy". I was pleased by reading "pulai" - it was the last noun we had learned.

Mr. Knox saw me reading, and was impressed that I could.


I have a few of his books, with the Norton Book of Classical Literature inscribed to me, a message from a now-dead white European male, a great man, who walked his dogs in the depths of a Maryland winter and exchanged pleasantries with a shy and awkward little girl.


Dad sent me these links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Knox
http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/scw/knox.htm ("Premature Anti-Fascist" by Bernard Knox)
http://www.tnr.com/sites/default/files/BMW%20Knox-%20JedburgTeamGilesReport.pdf
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« Reply #1: September 13, 2010, 04:03:15 pm »


Thank you for sharing this post here.
It is a beautiful story and it touched me. Smiley
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« Reply #2: September 13, 2010, 05:34:42 pm »

I sort of wanted to share this somewhere where people might appreciate it, so I'm bugging you Greeks with a personal note about a scholar.  This is reposted with minor edits from my livejournal.

That's a wonderful story, Darkhawk. I did a report of one of Knox's books (The heroic temper: studies in Sophoclean tragedy) when I was in high school.
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« Reply #3: September 13, 2010, 05:45:27 pm »

That's a wonderful story, Darkhawk. I did a report of one of Knox's books (The heroic temper: studies in Sophoclean tragedy) when I was in high school.

He was quite a fellow.

My father sent me the New York Review of Books obit that mentioned how losing his best friend in the Spanish Civil War (in which he also almost died) must have influenced his work, made working with the Greeks so personal and relevant for him.... Losing his Patroclus.
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« Reply #4: September 14, 2010, 07:12:48 pm »

I sort of wanted to share this somewhere where people might appreciate it, so I'm bugging you Greeks with a personal note about a scholar. 

That's a beautiful and beautifully written story.  Thanks for sharing it.

I didn't realize you grew up in Maryland, too!  Cheesy
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« Reply #5: September 14, 2010, 07:20:56 pm »

I didn't realize you grew up in Maryland, too!  Cheesy

My parents moved to Hyattsville when I was about six months old.  Then when I was ten, a quarter-turn around the Beltway.
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« Reply #6: September 14, 2010, 07:25:58 pm »

My parents moved to Hyattsville when I was about six months old.  Then when I was ten, a quarter-turn around the Beltway.

We were practically neighbors!
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