Note: 21 April 2011
I began this FAQ page two years ago when I was looking for a job specifically in classics. I shall be bringing it more into line with my present circumstances and goals as modifications suggest themselves. I have been teaching English literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, these past two years, specializing in Renaissance and Augustan literature while otherwise doing the range of basic courses (composition, and more composition).
Why did you chose
ancient Greek music as a research topic?
Besides liking music and Greek, two prinicipal reasons. I
was anxious to write a dissertation on a subject which would yield
useful facts about antiquity. Back in 1985, Greek music had just
begun to be taken seriously. (Of course, Martin West knocked the whole
thing into a cocked hat in his 1992 Ancient
.) Then, I am a musician, and I know my music
theory. Not many classical scholars have this knowledge, and I
thought if I married the two disciplines of music and Greek, that was
my best shot at contributing something of value.
But isn't ancient
Greek music kind of limited?
How could anyone with a feel for Greek say that! We all know that
Greek poetry was sung, and we know how much the Greeks treasured music
as one of the good things of life. If we could find out what
ancient Greek song sounded like, we'd know a lot better how it
felt. Besides, in researching ancient Greek music I had to
Greek---including all the fragments---from Homer up into the 4th
century, and a whole lot of very diverse authors in the canon after
Who are your
favorite Greek authors?
Probably it would be better to ask, What are my favorite genres and
ages. Anything at all in the Great Age of Greece thrills me,
poetry and prose. They're all great and I could tell you why
forever. After I get past the end of the 5th century I become
more picky. Hellenistic poetry has never grabbed me, except for the
epigram, which I adore from its beginnings until the time the classical
spirit winks out. Plutarch invented a lot of wonderful new
things, including the short story. Athenaeus can be a hoot.
Have you got any
problems with some authors?
Plato wrote the most beautiful prose ever (though if I knew Chinese I
could certainly find his equal), yet Plato too often plain disgusts and
horrifies me. I can get no better a fix on his actual politics
than the next reader, though I'm fairly certain Plato was not a liberal
(however you want to define liberal). Plato's stances make sense
to me as a position one could with reason take in 5th.-4th. c.
Athens. Sure Plato rattles me, that's his job, but I suspect not
in the way Socrates disturbed people. My tastes have never run to
politics. I have always felt that one should know enough about
politics in order to keep out of danger, but politics do not attract
What about history?
Thucydides is for me the greatest of historians, precisely because he
is at once so scientific and so tragic. Herodotus, of
course. And let's get the Romans in here, too. The Romans
excelled at history, because history was all about
stuff that happens, important
stuff, and their historians could tell a story. Gibbon took them
all, from Sallust to Iordanes and beyond, and crafted his Decline and Fall.
philosophy of teaching?
First of all, I teach because I love it, and I'm good at it. I
boast that I can teach any reasonably attentive person the basics of
Latin, and soundly, in three months. It
took plenty of experience to get me to that point.
I began learning Latin when I was 13, and Greek two years later.
My first teachers stuck soundly to basics. But it was the early
70s, and even then, even in high school, people felt an itch to wring
odd interpretations out of the classics. I had one Latin teacher
who was a nut on Vergil and the Golden Section. Using the
classics as a armature on which to erect a complex private symbology is nothing
new. Jonathan Swift complains about it.
The rise and decline of
post-modernism spanned my entire career as scholar and teacher.
As I watched this, I became convinced that the
proper duty of a classical scholar in this era is to maintain and
transmit a well-founded and accurate knowledge of Latin and
Greek language, and of the ancient world. In working with
students from non-western cultures I came
to hold that if a teacher can guide a student to a correct and
unanxious understanding of a language, and provide a commentary that
lights up the text's dark places—where a student often is at a loss for
what question to ask—a student can go on confidently to read,
interpret, and explore literature. There are plenty of questions
on which controversy is lawful, and no idea, no matter how wild, should
simply be smothered; it should be examined in light of the facts, and
the facts are the language.
How did you, a classical scholar, wind up in Borneo?
I have enjoyed reading ethnographies my whole life. In 1983, as I was about to embark on my dissertation, I borrowed a beautiful book of photographs of Sarawak done in the 50s by Hedda Morrison. They smote me, and I pursued Sarawak with enthusiasm. I vowed that the first thing I'd do after completing my degree was take a trip to Borneo. So I did, in 1986, and the real thing delighted me even more.
The sober plan I conceived was to find a berth in the US, and visit Sarawak from time to time. That plan evaporated when the University of Malaya offered me a job on, so to speak, a silver platter (they were eager to snag a classicist), and at the very same time I met my wife-to-be, Nusi Baki. I taught in the English Literature department, the only such department in the country. It was an exciting era. My colleagues were all sharp, learned, accomplished, and great friends. The kids were bright, motivated, and both respectful and fun. My friend Chee Thuan Chye was literary editor of the New Straits Times,
he got many of us to write for his pages.
In 1996 things changed. I ran out of my time in university housing, and I couldn't afford to work at UM any more. Nusi and I with our son Sam moved back to Stunggang, her kampong
(village) in Lundu, Sarawak. I had saved enough money to supplement my patrimony. We built a house and lived there while Sam grew up and went to school.
Actually, I'm only the fourth person with ancient Greek to have lived in Lundu. The first two Anglican priests at Christ Church (founded 1855) knew Greek, and so did another who served there in the 1950s. I knew him. He had an LSJ on his shelves.
So much up to today, 21 March 2009,
dies natalis Ioh. Sebastian Bach, amatissimi Musis.
How did you come to study classics?
From a very young age I was fascinated with old things, among them my grandmother Abbie's 19th c. schoolbooks. I thought her Latin primer was way cool, and conceived the idea that the study of Latin was real education. Perhaps I was a bit of an eight-year-old snob in this, and it was a strange notion for a little boy to hold in the early 60s, since there wasn't a trace of Latin in anything around me except "Adeste fideles." At thirteen I switched from public to boarding school, Indian Mountain School. I began to learn Latin, and I was good at it. When I moved up to Hotchkiss two years later I began Greek, and I was good at that, too.
It's interesting how a mind develops. Science had also attracted me in childhood and for a while it was unclear whether I was going to make that my specialty. Then when I took chemistry I found that I wasn't good at it. As for math, I worked and got good grades, but I never "got" it. So I stuck with classics from then on. I didn't even do well in modern languages. Then after I entered graduate school at age 25 and came face to face with real study again, math, science, and host of other subjects all suddenly made sense. My mind had had little exercise in them, and no formal exercise, for many years, and now it had reached understanding of them all on its own without effort. But in my teens I that resource I didn't have.
Thus, in college I continued on with classics, because I was good at it. I thought that teaching in a college (preferably someplace near woods) would be the best way I could make a living. I'd be doing what I was good at and enjoyed, and I'd have plenty of time to do other things I liked. A big part of that was, and still is, satisfying my curiousity on any subject that grabs my interest.
I wish that I could have read Latin and Greek well by the time I was twenty.
23 May 2011
What is your attitude to research and publication?