In Memoriam

[We interrupt this catalogue of ancient recipes to meditate for a moment on the passing of a person who was very important to me, and who, in a way, inspired me to create this blog by drawing me irretrievably into the ancient world. Back to our regularly-scheduled programming next week.]

Pindar’s Olympian Ode 1, translated and read by William Mullen

Bill Mullen, the guy rattling off lines of Pindar in the original Ancient Greek in the above link, was one of my college professors at Bard. But he was much more than that as well.

Bill was hilarious, unpredictable, completely brilliant, and possibly the most well-read person I’ve ever met. Casually and very seriously, he would say things like, “There was a point in my life when I said to myself, Bill, you’ve got to stop picking up new languages and just improve the ones you already know!” His non sequiturs were legendary, and you never knew which direction a conversation with him (or a class taught by him) was going to go. Once I went to meet with him about an event we were planning together and he took up the entire time digressing about the use of “like” as a filler in colloquial speech. He liked to tell the same stories over and over, and I can’t count how many times I heard about his fantasy of the perfect afternoon: climbing the fence of an apple orchard on a warm spring day and lying under a tree to drink German white wine and read Rilke with white petals drifting over him. He had a keen sense of the dramatic, like any good Classicist.

He was my advisor for my college senior project, which was a highly unconventional one for a Classics major. Long story short: despite there being no class or specialist in Mesopotamian literature at my school, I insisted that for my senior thesis I would analyze a Mesopotamian poem, adapt it for the stage and perform it. In drag. Bill was delighted by the concept, and even more delighted when he came to see my play (I remember he laughed particularly hard when, as the goddess Inanna, I snapped at the audience “Aphrodite? Forget about that bitch!”) More recently, he expressed similar excitement over this blog and my classes on ancient food, and even brought me back to Bard to help the Classics Department with a Roman dinner party.

I aspire as an educator to show the level of support and respect to my students that he showed to me. And not just me, of course; he was proud of all his students and always encouraging of our creativity. He engaged with us intellectually and socially as though we were his peers (how many bottles of wine did we go through at Bill’s house?) I don’t think he saw us as being much different from him, because he was a perpetual student too, always learning, always teaching. He taught me to listen to ancient people and follow their wisdom: don’t fear growing older, like Anacreon, but consider each day a new learning opportunity, like Solon. As a young gay man concerned about my future, he taught me that it could be marvelous.

Ancient people wrote about death quite a lot, often with great eloquence and feeling; they saw it more often than most of us do today. So I had trouble choosing the right quote to end with because there are so many great ones. But then I remembered the day in Greek class when Bill had us translate and discuss two lines from Plato’s Apologia. He was a passionate atheist (as he was passionate about everything in his life) but he loved this quote anyway:

“But now the time has come to go away. I go to die, and you to live; but which of us goes to the better lot, is known to none but God.”