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Good Afternoon. I want to welcome the family and friends of Thomas M. Greene to this service in his memory. Tom died on June 23rd this past summer. He had been a fixture on the Yale scene for half a century. We are gathered here to remember and celebrate a career of astonishing achievement and a life of uncommon generosity and kindness. I am personally grateful to have known Tom as a teacher, colleague, and friend. There are many speakers who will follow me to share their memories of Tom, and I want to keep my own remarks brief.
Tom Greene was the principal founder and shaper of the academic discipline that I profess, the comparative study of the literature of the Renaissance. At Yale he founded the Renaissance Studies Graduate Program while he remained an important and valued colleague in both the Comparative Literature and English departments. He produced more than one generation of doctoral students who now continue his teaching and the study of the Renaissance in universities and colleges across the country. We know one another by our secret handshake. Tom was fiercely loyal to us.
Tom understood the Renaissance to be both the summation of classical and medieval culture as well as to be the mainspring and origin of the modern sensibility, and his reading and criticism spanned the entire history of literature, especially of poetry. It was hard to name a literary work to him that he had not read. In my view, Tom’s analyses of literary style—which he took to be not only a measure of writerly technique but of a whole ethical disposition towards the world—made him the preeminent successor in his generation to the work of Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer: he was a giant standing on the shoulders of giants. In a period, moreover, when a prevailing critical voice at Yale found in the act of writing an inevitable objectification and defacement of the self, Tom stuck to his principles and argued that when literature, especially poetry, found the right words, they opened up the possibilities of self-knowledge and even self-transformation. This was the motive, I think, of his interest in poetry’s roots in magic, for poetry could still work a kind of magic on its reader. Shortly before he died, he had the satisfaction of seeing off to press a book, Poetry, Signs, and Magic, and this marvelous final collection of essays will be a fitting tribute to his career and thought.
Tom felt passionately about poetry and he was, in fact, a man of many passions. He was a passionate, long-suffering fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. He was passionate about politics. Of all my professors in the sixties and seventies, he is the only one I know of who handed in his draft card during a protest against the Vietnam War in Washington: Liliane tells me that the government was not interested in having it back. He was an unabashed liberal, a one-time wardheeler for the Democratic party in New Haven. He hated our present political situation; he had nothing good to say about a particular Yale graduate in the highest office of the land.
And Tom was a passionate teacher, who later confessed to me his own anxieties in the classroom and to the black cloud that could hang over him, home, and family after he taught what he thought was a bad class. A friend who shared his courses with me remembers how those classes evoked an intense feeling of mourning for how much we had lost of the cultural traditions and mental worlds of the past. We felt as if we were being led by a priestly hierophant who was summoning up the past and its great writers to speak to us, to span the abyss of time. Tom was also, however, a consummate performer, who always managed to bring the discussion to what seemed a natural close with exactly fifteen minutes of the class to go, at which point he would masterfully sum up what we had said—and what we should have said—and then challenge us to think and rethink what we had learned. His customary closing refrain, “That’s all for today,” came at the end of the class like a benediction.
I want to close by reading a short poem to which Tom devoted one of his characteristically luminous essays. It is poem number 378 in the Delie, the great sequence of love poems by the sixteenth-century French poet, Maurice Sceve. Sceve was one of Tom’s passions. The poem describes the poet’s waking up in the morning and his returning to consciousness as a rescue from death, a daily miracle that gives way to the much greater miracle of his lady, who is the gift of love and also the gift of poetry itself. I will spare you my badly accented French and read it in the English translation of Richard Sieburth.
In my early days, I lived further outside Tom Greene’s force field than many people in this room. Many of you were his students; I was not his student. Some of you were his fellow students; I was certainly not that. But I have been at this place a pretty long time now, and in my long Yale life there never was a time when Tom Greene was not here dominating the scene. To be more precise, there never was a time when Tom Greene was not here embodying literary study at its most passionate, compelling, and profound—literary study at the limits of its possibility as a form of human understanding.
I have tried to ask myself what made the note of Tom’s presence. Of course it partly had to do with his subject matter. It’s not just that he studied the Renaissance in the broadest sense, which of course included the classics. For any student at Yale these last forty years, Tom embodied the Renaissance: the Renaissance was something one could approach through Tom Greene and could not easily approach by any other route. But more than his field, in my early acquaintance with him, I always had the sense of Tom being characterized by—I’ll risk a word I seldom use—an awesome seriousness about literary study.
I remember having friends who were in his graduate seminar. Some teachers affect the students in their seminars; a few teachers affect people who didn’t even attend the class. Tom’s graduate seminars used to be the stuff of rumors: seismic rumbles would go out from them as students told of that days’s wonders. I remember the evening and could easily name the friend who sat at my dinner table one night recounting a class in which Tom had spoken about marriage—talked about it in a way it appeared my friend would never get over. The sense was clear that for Tom, literature was something in whose proximity one could discuss profound, even sacramental, matters; but it also came across with great force that Tom entertained an ideal of marriage so far beyond what anyone in the room had ever or would ever be likely to attain to that, for all his wonderfulness, he doomed one to the terrible sense that one might be quite a small person, someone doomed to sort of paddle in the baby pool of human experience, compared to a profundity like that.
The other mark of his seriousness I suppose we all know. For Tom, it was the nature of the value lodged in literature that it required a high intelligence to approach it, and for Tom there was a moral meaning in the degree of proximity or distance with which one attained to this intelligence. Having sat at many department meetings with Tom and served with him on many hiring committees, when I close my eyes and think of him, I see a vivid scene. Someone says something; those of us brought up in the post-daycare world would be prepared to respond with something like, “That was brilliant, Robert,” or “That was excellent, Jennifer”; but these are not lines one often heard from Tom. Rather, someone would say something and you’d see something happen to his face—how to describe this? For the millionth time you thought it was going to be a smile, because the mouth muscles had started to be activated, but instead of pulling up at the corners, this mouth would pull out, in a kind of a little grimace. It was as if he should say, “I’m too polite to say anything about what you just said, but I can’t help noticing, by means of involuntary grimace, the distance between what you said and the exact truth of the matter.” Let’s be frank: in early acquaintance, it was appalling to think of Tom as the judge of one’s thoughts. Except that when you knew him, you learned that the only person he subjected to his very highest standards was himself, and that he himself was the person he was hardest on in the struggle to live up to those ideals. David Quint spoke of Tom as a kind of hierophant or high priest of literary knowledge. If so, Tom’s devotion could not have been an easy service.
I have described a person in many ways formidable, and it would seem wrong not to. But when you found the occasion to know him better, you learned there was awesome seriousness in Tom and much more too—great curiosity, a great freshness of wonder, a great sweetness of nature, and a great generosity.
I will pull two moment from my memory almost at random. When I was first chair of the English department, Tom was the chair of Comp Lit, and he persuaded the two departments to send a letter to the Kenyan writer then living in exile, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, to invite him to come teach at Yale. It seemed a brilliant idea. We got Ngugi’s address through his agent and sent off a letter to deepest Islington. No reply ever came back, however, so that was the end of that. But I remember the day in the middle of a very cold January, it was a Sunday evening, when we got the telephone call that Ngugi had arrived at the New Haven airport to take up his teaching duties, none of us having the vaguest idea that this was going to happen. And this occasion helps me remember with pleasure another look on Tom’s face. It was not the look of “gosh-oh-golly” amazement, but it was Tom’s own version of “Behold a wonder”—mild surprise that such things could happen in a world, accompanied with a sense of marvel and joy.
And then my favorite memory. Whenever I think of Tom, I will always think of a time he was giving a series of lectures at the College de France and I was giving a series of lectures on Moby Dick at the Ecole Normale Superieure. We spent considerable time with the Greenes in Paris that spring, and I look at Liliane knowing she will recall the day the when she and Tom invited my wife Cindy, my ten year old son Daniel, and me to take a walk in Montmartre. It was a delightful afternoon, but when five people walk in a city, there’s always a danger that someone will get lost, especially if one of them is a child. So as we walked, I was nervously counting—one, two, three, four, five; one, two, three, four, five—and Liliane was more or less visibly doing the same, when we suddenly came up one person short. It was not my son who had wandered off: he knew better. It was Tom, and for the next fifteen minutes “we sought him here, we sought him there,” retracing our steps, trying new streets. Finally, after hope was almost gone, who should we run into but Tom Greene—only to learn the amazing truth: he had not noticed we were no longer with him! He was lost to us, but we were not lost to him! To know Tom was to know someone capable of fairly deep internalization. He had been thinking some fabulous thought through to its conclusion, and our presence was not necessary to that process. No wonder he idealized marriage, I thought at this time, since among her many other virtues, Tom had a wife who could transact certain parts of his worldly existence on his behalf.
After this memorable experience, Tom came to my lecture on Moby Dick. I walked into the room, walked to the lectern, turned, and, my God!, there was Tom Greene in the audience! It was the very stuff of graduate school nightmares! I was momentarily appalled, but gave my lecture only to find that no one could have responded with the greater warmth or generosity of appreciation. I then went to Tom’s lecture. (These were the lectures that became Poesie et magie.) I knew from having lunch with him that he was very nervous about it. Nervous because he would have to speak French, which of course he did perfectly; nervous because this was a new kind of work for him; but probably mostly anxious because he was always anxious about whether he could live up to those enormous aspirations. I wasn’t worried, however, nor did I need to be. I entered a room packed with people who, as soon as Tom started talking, sat at the edge of their chairs at high alert, listening as he cast his spell full of learned reference, full of dazzling speculation, and full of that amazing sincerity one had known in Tom from the first.
I said to someone from the College de France at the reception, “I am his colleague,” and the person turned to me and said, “Your colleague is a very great man.” So I believe him to have been. I thank Tom for his friendship, and for the model he presented of the intellectual life.
I will not talk about Tom’s achievement as a scholar, a great scholar, more active than ever during the two years of his final illness. But I do want to talk about his probity. In Tom the words “he has the courage of his convictions” became truth.
Almost to the very end we exchanged e-mails on issues of interpretation, issues that showed him to be, as always, firm, decisive, sometimes even chastising. We shared, as he phrased it, a “healthy creative potential for hermeneutic wonder and even reward,” but sometimes he felt obliged to admonish me: “I’m asking you to resist what you find to be plays on words.” He suspected, moreover, and rightly, that I was less committed in the literary culture wars than he. “You make the most of your Olympian perspective,” he wrote, “but I suppose that ultimately I would like to see [you] reintegrate yourself into the succession of generations.” He never wavered from practicing a morality of style even in this, his casual writing, and it included an intensely self-aware, engaged ethics with literary implications.
Did anyone agonize more about every teaching occasion?
It made him schedule his graduate seminars as late in the week as possible—as if that would help. Gilbert Murray, the Classicist, adjusting the title of Sir Thomas Browne’s famous book, wrote a “Religio Grammatici.” Tom did not have to write such an essay: his responsibility to and faith in the study of literature, in that humanity, shone through everything he did. Yeats’s “There’s a light in Troy,” and the way poetry has passed it on were central to a quest at once scholarly and imaginative.
A special sadness comes when one remembers the close friendship of a colleague known for over fifty years. So many ties of affection quietly established; so much trust, even dependence; also, so many shared texts among all the other experiences. In this uninterrupted friendship I recall differences of opinion but not breaks, not even sporadic quarrels. Tom did challenge me, as he did both friend and stranger: I can see him now, one hand on his lapel, asking whether I had read a slanderous article in the TLS about Comp Lit’s negative tenure decision, many years ago, on a popular young colleague. Had I not been present at that meeting, as he was, should the charge not be rebutted?
A forthright moral fervor characterized him in everything, not just the academic life. He involved himself in ward politics, he protested the Vietnam war, and, his most lasting achievement at the community level—lasting, if you all continue to support it—was the Open End Theater. It put the humanities to work by promoting a love of theater among the kids in the city’s High Schools while giving them the opportunity to act out, in a safe context, difficult life-choices.
But this picture makes Tom too magisterial, a Roman pater familias. As a family man, he was often genial rather than stern, part of the Q generation—Q for the Quonset huts, those improvised, claustrophobic traps of galvanized steel to which married graduate students were consigned because of the housing shortage after the second world war. It was there I met Tom and Liliane in the early fifties; it was there we planned various discussion groups, coming together to collectively interpret Mallarme or Sceve, Dante or Ronsard or Eliot.
Liliane, I admit, attracted my attention before Tom did. Both of us attended one of Henri Peyre’s seminars. The amazingly fluent patter of that generous teacher, who once declared he had come out of the womb talking, was, in the tense graduate school atmosphere, almost as soothing as her Modigliani looks. No wonder—I later allowed myself to joke—no wonder Tom became interested in poetry as a form of magic: he must have practiced magic long before to win Liliane.
Renee and I shared, with the Greene’s and their young children, visits to Europe; and I want to relate two small adventures from that time, though I cannot aspire to Tom’s humor and skill as a raconteur.
It happened during an excursion to Chalfont St. Giles, where Milton had lived. After visiting Milton’s home, and having an hour to spare before the much anticipated High Tea of sconces with strawberry jam and double cream, we took a walk in the nearby countryside. Liliane, ever the trooper, went along, already big with Francis. As we climbed over a style into one of the fields, a curious cow suddenly appeared, and as it rushed (or so it seemed) toward us, we noticed with alarm that it was a bull, or at least a bullock. Tom immediately placed himself chivalrously in front of Liliane in a posture at once defensive and threatening. Believe it or not, the bull (bullock, cow) responding to such authority, retreated.
The second adventure was potentially more hazardous. I wanted to collect and translate Malraux’s literary essays. Malraux at that time was the Minister of Culture in De Gaulle’s government, and his secretary told me over the phone that Monsieur l’Ecrivain kept himself distinct from Monsieur le Ministre, but that I could write a letter and drop it in the mailbox of his private residence in the Billancourt District. Off the four of us went on a balmy Paris evening. No sooner did we come within some 20 yards of Malraux’s residence when a blinding search light transfixed us, and two tall gendarmes armed with machine guns emerged from the dark. This was during the Algerian troubles and Paris had been plagued by plastique explosions. Just as instinctively as in Chalfont, Tom stood guard over Liliane, and the gendarmes eventually promised to transmit my letter.
In one of our last discussions, about his recently published Smith lectures on the “Hermeneutics of the Promenade,” Tom surprised me by the depth of feeling with which he recited Whitman’s poetry. I would like to end with some verses from “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” perhaps Tom’s favorite Whitman poem as his own life was ebbing. I surmise the following were among the lines that moved him, because under his convictions, firmness, and probity, there was a deep modesty, a contained self-doubt, that also emerges at this point in Whitman:
Fifty-two years of conversation, most of it concerned with the inventiveness of Renaissance literature, defy summary. Tom was the most learned scholar of my generation, deeply grounded in philology. His generosity of spirit was inexhaustible: he shared his insights in every conversation.
A few years ago, I attempted to talk him out of retirement. Tom shook his head and remarked: “Harold, you’ve never understood. Your anxiety is just reaching the right classroom: once you are there, your stress ends. But I put most of my energy into my graduate seminars. Each of them totally uses me up.”
Whenever I observed to Tom that much of what had replaced authentic learning was material for farce, he somberly replied: “No, Harold, it is a cultural tragedy.” I fear that something of great value ended with Tom. He did not rest from mental fight, not because he hoped to build Jerusalem, but because, like Erasmus, he knew that the pathos of Humanism required constant defense.
Distinguished guests, colleagues, friends, Dean Brodhead, President Levin: on behalf of my family, I am honored to welcome all of you here today. I especially want to thank our speakers for making room for this occasion within their very busy schedules, and in some cases for coming from out of town to do so.
Privilege of the eldest son, to share a few modest reflections with you? Regrettably, this honor confers no special wisdom or eloquence, certainly no greater than either of my brothers, Christopher and Francis, might just as easily demonstrate on any given Friday afternoon. Of course, I cannot exactly speak for them, nor for any other members of the family; nor, least of all, for my mother, whose loss is so profound and so profoundly private. Yet perhaps a few of my remarks might echo their own experience of my father, or indeed your own.
It should come as no surprise to most of you, for example, that at home he was an extraordinary teacher. I imagine that what inspired him in countless Yale classrooms derived from exactly the same visibly irresistible siren call of the material which we witnessed in him all the time—the text, the poem, the history, the artist, the cathedral—to which he responded with such keen pleasure and passionate curiosity, and about which he could barely resist the urge to expound, to anyone who would listen. Siren call! but to an Odysseus freed of the mast and without Homeric guile, free to wander into the whole magnificent history of western letters with almost boyish delight, this kid from Haddonfield, New Jersey who found himself at Yale studying with the likes of Rene Wellek and Erich Auerbach and William Wimsatt. That his ever-deepening erudition and considerable intellectual rigor did not prevent my father (most of the time) from patiently understanding the path his students would need to traverse in order to deepen their knowledge, their own freedom, was his additional and natural gift.
(Mr. Wimsatt, by the way, before I’d read anything he’d written, was the man close to 7 feet tall who could barely fit into his Volvo stationwagon when picking us up as one of the carpool parents who drove us to Hopkins.)
Snapshot: my father sitting with my daughter Jennifer on the old blue couch, helping her to read—at, cat, fat, hat—she not knowing her father had been there too. And his brothers, and later their children.
After my father had died, at our little ceremony at the Grove Street cemetery, both Christopher and especially Francis spoke of how deeply he had loved his grandchildren. No account of “Thomas McLernon Greene”—the husband, father, grandfather (the artist, the cathedral.)—would be fully balanced without noting that, with each appearance of Jennifer, Michael, Ben, Abby and Annie, he was, as C. S. Lewis has it, “surprised by joy.”
[Another snapshot, early 70s: a spontaneously invented game, at a dinner party, my father and Adam Parry, one of his closest friends, swapping lines from Shakespeare: one reciting a passage, the other naming the play, act, and scene, then following with a fresh recitation—lightening fast. Not uncompetitive, but playful, homo ludus, delighting in the common source.]
One morning, toward the very end, I praised my dad for not having used his erudition as a weapon, to put people down. He replied, “What’s the point?” [If in his final year or so, he seemed to really need people to listen, to play attentive audience to his vocative case, this was more pathos than hubris; a subtle sign, I thought, of his faculties starting to flounder. Certainly it was heartbreaking to watch this gifted, poetic scholar, man of letters, humanist, gradually lose his nouns, show evidence of the synapses no longer firing. “I’m feeling a little confused today,” he would say].
But then there was that afternoon, even later, when my mom and I pushed him in his wheelchair into the family room at Hospice. (Some of you have heard this story.) He wasn’t in great shape that day. I started to play the wretched piano that was there—various classical pieces, old friends that he used to play forty years ago. I moved into some jazz, then started in on a funny old jug band song I used to play as a kid on guitar, “The Eggplant that Ate Chicago,” belting out the words to thumping ragtime. I looked over at him slumped in his wheelchair: he had a beautiful childlike smile on his face. It was a moment of grace, testament to the power of music. Were my father’s last reflections on poetry, in Calling from Diffusion and especially Poesie et magie, concentrated riffs on Pater’s famous statement that all art aspires to the condition of music?
My dad loved music. He often spoke of the music classes he had taken as a Yale undergraduate, and he understood with some sophistication the basic tenets of mainstream classical harmony and form. It was not Renaissance music, however, which spoke most deeply to him, but Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach (which is why I put them on the program). The Magic Flute was his favorite opera; he thought Bergman’s film of it was charming. Bach he knew to be a genius, and, when I was young, he would play through a handful of preludes from the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier.
I think that his very favorite piece of music, however, was the slow movement to Beethoven Op. 132 (the conclusion to which our quartet will be performing later). You will remember that this is Beethoven’s hymn of thanksgiving after having recovered from a long illness. It culminates in an extraordinary climax of spiritual exultation, which you will hear. My dad and I talked about this passage on many occasions.
This is, of course, an impossible assignment. To speak the full measure of a man, let alone one’s father, is not unlike trying to reach toward understanding an ancient text. Both resist our interpretive appropriations of them by their own most powerful and idiosyncratic qualities, but, even so, one senses that no complete recuperation is ever possible. And certainly not through any science of Enlightenment rationalism, though being pushed in the direction of mythopoeic extravagance has its own crazy pitfalls. Sylla and Carybdis, he used to say, when we discussed these matters.
It’s funny, I can almost sense my father’s presence here. On the one hand, with all those decades of pedagogical experience under his belt, he is gently, patiently listening to my inchoate formulations. And on the other hand he can barely contain his eagerness to amplify what I’m saying, to jump in, take the hermeneutic ball and run with it. Although he can no longer speak to us in person, the dialogue could always resume at any moment by way of that collection of beautifully wrought texts he has left as potent legacy.
Yet somehow, in the face of the tremendous loss of his actual presence, reciting the intricacies of literary theory seems almost in bad taste, whatever his life’s work. And our family, after all, is scarcely alone in facing the loss of a person one has deeply loved. Our own experience mirrors that of everyone else in this room who has ever lived through the kind of aching grief that makes all quotidian things pallid and misshapen and remote, like being in the grip of a terrible depression. How to resume, with full creative energies fueling the ongoing adventure, becomes, then, the very real and sometimes daily question. I gently offer these thoughts in particular to my mother.
In my case, however, for what it’s worth, the summer forced me to adopt a dramatically unusual perspective on this loss. For, as some of you know, the aching rupture of my dad’s dying dropped into my life at a time of powerful reconsolidation and joy, and barely a month later Sheila Gillooly and I were married. It has been a tremendous effort to synthesize these two great life events, and the process is far from over. Yet it has occurred to me that I might find a clue or an imperfect analogy in my dad’s lifelong struggle to understand the Renaissance. Among other things, The Light in Troy is an extended and detailed analysis of the ways in which the Renaissance, by defining a rupture with the Dark Ages, could release its own magnificent creative energies. So, then, might I too find no contradiction between the summer’s rupture and its celebration; especially if, perhaps unlike the Renaissance polemic, the power of my dad’s legacy is not to be easily extinguished but will persist throughout the rest of my life as in the lives of all those who were touched by his example. The alchemical synthesis of these forces found expression in the piece of music you are about to hear, and which appropriately was first performed at our wedding. I named it Elegy and Celebration. The celebration is for Sheila, and for my father, and for all of us who continue.
Friends, Friends of Tom, Friends of Thomas M. Greene, I come to praise Tom Greene, not to bury him. We are here so his memory may live, to inter all weakness and make sure the good will live after him. We are here to speak of what we know, to speak to those who loved him.
He was my friend. I was not his colleague, nor his student, except in the sense in which we are all students of one another and he had the generosity to be colleague to many beyond the bounds of the institution where he taught. Our ties go back to the days when we were students, and I would like to spend a few minutes with some snapshots of those remote times when we were young, and struggling, and the future lay hidden.
I would like to recall first the graduate department of Comparative Literature of that time, under the mild stewardship of Rene Wellek. The first snapshot is of a carrel at Sterling Library. Those wonderful carrels in the stacks of the library! We happened to have neighboring carrels: I was studying for my orals, he was working on his dissertation on epithalamia, a mysterious new word for me. I cannot guarantee that Tom was as happy there as I was—he already had a family, after all, a wife and a son—but I can testify that that is where he spent most of his time.
Let the second snapshot be of a visit to the young family. A wide area of where the Biology buildings are now was covered in the fifties with quonset huts, those post-war inventions to house the returning GIs with young families. They were semi-circles of corrugated iron under whose arches the bare necessities of life had been cleverly squeezed in, kitchen, bathroom, living space. It was hardly ideal for studying, but was wonderfully teeming with life.
A third snapshot is of a few years later, when we would walk over to the tennis courts of East Rock Park. Tom was one of the few players I knew who did not insist on keeping score. So we could both enjoy perfecting our strokes without ever getting competitive.or proficient at serving. I gather, however, that when he played squash with colleagues on the Yale courts the competition was fierce.
Tom completed his dissertation, and was invited to teach at Yale. Many hard years lay ahead, but we thought the direction was clear. The world seemed to be stabilizing after the Second World War which had marked so many of us, students and teachers. New perspectives had come with teachers from abroad, mainly in the literature departments, Rene Wellek, Henri Peyre, Erich Auerbach to name only the most prominent who have since left us. But then came the Vietnam War, and the turmoil it brought. The seemingly stable society changed; new demands were made on the teaching institutions. Tom was active in Yale’s efforts to modernize itself. In the fifties, he was Director of Undergraduate Studies for several years. Later he was to chair the Committee on the Status of Professional Women, which formulated a major and widely quoted report to President Brewster in 1971. Finally, more personally, he had to learn and adapt to new forms of criticism which developed several years after our formative training was completed.
The colleagues, students, and former students who are here today know of how Tom’s criticism evolved. So let me just deal anecdotally with another one of the turning points I just mentioned. In the fifties, when Tom and I started our graduate studies—oh yes, it was 50 years ago!—there were no women students at Yale College, and even in the Graduate School only a very few went beyond the M.A. Although I was awarded a fellowship, I was not given a teaching assistantship, because no women were allowed to teach the all men classes in the College. This, I am sure, seems antediluvian to many of you. You may not immediately understand either why I was so pleased and surprised even ten or twelve years later, when I was asked by the Yale graduate students in Comparative Literature to come and speak on Racine’s “Phedre” at one of their meetings. The invitation was at Tom’s suggestion: the “Phedre” chapter on which he knew I was working was to be included in my second book and Tom wanted, he told me, to show the graduate students that a woman could be a member of the profession, do research and have it published.
Tom read and discussed what I wrote on Verlaine, Racine, Proust, Baudelaire, far as it may have been from his primary field. His knowledge of French literature and his French, as you know, were excellent. He worked on perfecting several other languages, notably his Greek, and read widely, especially the writings of his friends. He read all the novels translated from the Norwegian by my husband, Sverre Lyngstad. So let me add one final snapshot. At a celebration of Sverre’s birthday, only a little more than a year ago, Tom proposed a toast. It was built around an almost convincing set of imaginary Norwegian proverbs, created with Tom’s gift, which he often used for his children and his grandchildren, to invent tales, and it was marked by the wonderful humor all his friends loved in him, the hallmark of conversations in his family. One of those invented proverbs was “Odin watches over those who cross a stream” which he presented with the following comments in lieu of a learned exegesis: “Here I was thinking of Sverre as one who crosses not only a stream but an ocean and continues to cross it, not only in geographical terms but also in literary terms, bringing two countries into closer contact in such a way that every new book is a fresh crossing.”
No one did more crossings than Tom, finding ever new rivers in new territories, perhaps most intriguingly in Calling from Diffusion, his last book.
But he may be primarily remembered for his work on poetry and the Renaissance. In one of the last e-mails I received, on May 3rd, he wrote about meeting with a group of graduate students to discuss “Satire III” by Donne, a discussion of 90 minutes which they hoped could be repeated. This he really looked forward to.
He and I had so many conversations about Ronsard, magic and labyrinths, that I want to close these reminiscences by reading one of his favorite poems. He wrote about it in an article entitled “Labyrinth Dances in the French and English Renaissance” (published in the Renaissance Quarterly in 2001) which displays his critical acumen, his knowledge of several literatures, of mythology, of art, philosophy, religion, of history and social history. It received the prize for the best article in Renaissance studies.
First, here is the translation:
“Ronsard matches the dancers’ elegant, shifting evolutions with the corresponding insinuation of a linguistic ballet … In this interwoven texture of sound, the interweaving of bodily movement finds its proper analogue” (p. 1428) is one of the many insightful and creatively phrased comments Tom makes about these lines.
It is the mark of great scholars that their work demonstrates a personal signature, a griffe, that weaves its way through a great diversity of subjects and concerns. It is the mark of a very great scholar that this set of ongoing individual markers is also the bearer of moral, ethical, spiritual conviction, quite apart from, but woven together with, the matters of learning, of history, of critique, of interpretation.
Everyone in this room, as well as many many others in the world, knows that Tom Greene was this kind of rare and glorious individual, a scholar of breadth, of unmistakable singularity, and of fervent conviction. It was he, more than anyone else, who took the great European inheritance of polymathic Kulturwissenschaft, the tradition of individuals like Curtius, Spitzer, and Wellek, and displayed it, turning its many facets around in the brutal, thrilling, and complex light of the later twentieth century, which was so persuasively skeptical about any clarities or continuities in history and language.
And so that signature was formed, precisely, out of this encounter between philology and fragmentation. Which takes us to what is, I suppose, the simplest version of this recurring preoccupation in Tom’s work, the slogan version (and there is nothing wrong in a great product having a great slogan). Namely, that the past, especially the early modern past, was a site of loss, drift, rupture, solitude. And that the great productions of European Renaissance culture during that time are not perfect impenetrable masterpieces that abide our question. Rather, they are the dynamic, polysemous, open-ended result of all this uncertainty.
I called this the simplest version because it treats Tom’s work as though it were a kind of servant discourse to all the nineteenth- and twentieth-century voices of denial, the Mephistophelean Geist der stets verneint. The truth is that Tom wasn’t merely applying these ideas to early modern culture. He was demonstrating that linguistic acts, poetic utterances, literary traditions were responses—effective responses—to loss and solitude.
Tom devoted his brilliant intellectual career, in other words, to meticulous and sensitive analyses that denied the deniers. Which is why magic became such an important medium for his intellectual meditations in recent years.
What was visible on the horizon in the Descent from Heaven and what became the extraordinary agon in The Light in Troy—that is, the question of whether, and how, the solitudes of language and history might be peopled—turns into breathtaking clarity in the lectures he delivered at Smith and published last year under the title Calling from Diffusion. This is a text everyone—certainly every literary professional—should read, and it is all too tempting to read it here.
I will content myself with two brief quotations:
And, of course, it is perfectly in keeping with Tom’s manner of work that these pronouncements do not float free; they are not proposed as mottos or mantras or ’isms. They flow as the natural result from luminous close readings of poetry. In that sense, of course, Tom is enacting what he is arguing for: bringing truth from language, rescuing us from cultural solitude.
But I want to celebrate some quite different ways in which Tom’s life managed to repair solitude.
When I wandered into Tom’s office in Trumbull College, circa 1967, to ask if he would be willing to serve as my dissertation director, I believe I had never laid eyes on him before; certainly I had never studied with him. I was there because of a resounding recommendation from my other greatest mentor of all time, another life to be mourned and celebrated, Rosalie Colie.
What I want to say is that Tom rescued us from solitude because he was a great teacher, the teacher that all the rest of us dream of becoming. And the delicious paradox of this truth—for me, at least—was that I have never seen him in the classroom. When you think about teaching, you think about the classroom, about lesson plans and repartee and debate and pulling rabbits out of hats.
Now, I am sure he was a great teacher in the classroom (many have testified to that). But I know him as a great teacher in another kind of way. Certainly there was the incredibly supportive relation of mentoring, of helping us to found careers and then participating in those careers. Yet there is something more essential about his character at stake here, something I sure would like to have some of.
The phrase that comes to mind is, setting an example. I have tried to figure out what lies behind that banal expression in this case. Of course, there are his own excellences as a scholar, plus care and honesty and warmth and responsiveness. But above all—and this is the best I can do—it was an intellectual humaneness and civility that was seamlessly woven through his life and work.
Some cases in point. Whenever my thesis sections showed their unreadiness by the making of vast and unsupported claims, sophomoric and undernourished. His response in the margin was: “I disagree.” I disagree: no imposition of grand authority, no crushing this miserable little bug, just an invitation to further dialogue.
When I handed in a an absurdly ambitious effort—I think I was trying to demonstrate the mastery of all political theory from Plato to the Renaissance, to suggest I knew everything when, in fact, I only knew exactly those few disconnected pieces I had written down. His response: “Leonard, this is all a bit.synchronic.” Of course, I didn’t know what “synchronic” meant.
First, I learned what it meant. Then, I spent several months learning enough history to become a little more diachronic. And in this draft—just to cover my.behind—I inserted some elaborate sentences about the limits of my own knowledge, “Of course, this is a vast subject, of which we can only say a small amount at this time, blah, blah, blah…” His response: “Leonard, I think you can now leave out the modesty formula.”
The teacher’s greatest civility, his creation of a sense that I was part of an intellectual community that I had the privilege to share with him, was just this sort of humane moderation.
Finally, there is one quite different way in which Tom’s life and career were a cure for solitude
And it’s something whose uniqueness you have to be my age or older, I think, to appreciate. Tom’s cure for solitude was Liliane. Now, I am not speaking here in the personal sense. What I mean is that for us, for his students, and in a time when the world was in the grip of a much more conventional set of roles for husbands and wives, it was knowing Liliane, and knowing them together, that promised a wholly other kind of community for the humanist.
And knowing them together often meant knowing them quite individually and differently.
Two stories, and then I’m done.
It’s no secret—indeed, I am so wicked as to have said these things when introducing Tom—that he did not always, let’s say, gush, even when he liked the work you had handed in. “You can leave out the modesty formula” was, after all, the height of praise.
So, shift the scene to the card catalogue of Sterling Library, the year is probably 1969, and I run into Liliane. It surprises me at first that she even knows who I am. She greets me. Then—at least as I remember it—she looks furtively in both directions, and whispers, “You know, Tom thinks your thesis is awfully good.” I nearly passed out.
Turn the clock about fourteen years, and Tom has invited me to give a talk to the Renaissance Studies program. I give a slightly bumpy version of what will become the first chapter of The Gods Made Flesh, full of high-sounding claims about Europa and das ewig Weibliche. Tom is very happy with the talk, proud, I hope, of his student.
Liliane, in the audience, is a pistol, demanding, questioning, doubting, challenging (Thank God for her interventions, by the way). Knowing that the two of them existed, separately and together; feeling that their collaboration was both personal and intellectual: that has been the greatest example to cure the loneliness of the scholar’s life.
I wish I did not have to do what I am supposed to do here, and rather sit on the long couch in the hospitable Greene home on Livingston Street as usual, talk with Liliane and Tom (as I did only a few months ago) about our recent travels, new movies we had seen, books we were reading. I always cast a quick, and perhaps envious, glance at the side table on which the recent publications of our famous colleagues were stacked who never forgot to dedicate an inscribed copy to Tom whose critical views they all cherished. A few days ago, my younger daughter Bettina visited us but her recollections differed from mine; instead of books she remembered a big black old cat and Charlie Brown comics which belonged to her playmate Francis, Tom’s and Liliane’s youngest son—so much for perspectivism. Yes, times were different; some Yale graduate students still lived in Quonset huts, a special detail of the US Air Force daily marched at 8:00 a.m., in full uniform, past George and Harry’s (now Naples Pizza) to attend a special Chinese language course. A few advanced students and younger faculty regularly met somewhere to discuss important books, as if we did not have enough reading assignments anyway, and Tom, the future Renaissance scholar, talked about Franz Kafka’s Trial, and amply succeeded to destroy my precious ideas, just imported from Europe, in twenty minutes or less. I confess that I particularly admired Tom, (feeling like Nabokov’s Timofey Pnin) because I had seen in his room a portrait of his grandfather, an officer in the Civil War, uniform, sash, sabre, and all, and I felt the aura of the American—or I would say, an American with a historical past who, after a tour of duty in the Korean War himself, never disengaged himself from the political conflicts of his own day and particular place. As a recent immigrant, or rather picaresque survivor, I felt prompted to admire a young American scholar who had moved on the theater of history, and not only in the class room.
That was possibly the reason why I believed that Tom’s occasional reticence and visible self-discipline were the true marks of the exemplary American; had he played poker, he would have held his cards close to his shirt. He smiled often and readily but, it seemed to me, laughed rarely, and I held his seriousness of purpose in high esteem. He was fortunate; travelling each summer or so to France and Italy together with his fellow-scholar Liliane, he was rapidly widening his range of interests, and while I returned from each return to Central Europe with new misgivings about my scholarly place, he explored the famous poets of the French and Italian Renaissance and the heritage of Greece and Rome, and when I one day tried to explain to my students the difference between the ancient epic and the new novel, I was glad to keep closer to Tom’s Light of Troy rather than to Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel. Tom was a deeply religious man in search of his religion, and when he considered the qualities of a text, he was not satisfied, as were many of the older New Critics, with analyzing the aesthetic elements but looked for the more important ethical and transcendent constituents and their relevance to us, in our particular historical situation. I am trying to remember—yet I am aware that “memory”, as Tom wrote in an essay of 1999, is a “tattered, deceiving, manipulative faculty” but “for all its cheats and partialities” (the essay continues) “can provide us with a patchwork narrative.” I hope that our collective memory, at least, will not fail to yield something to hold on, a firm trace of his achievements and his life that we shall not forget.
When I sat down to think about what I might want to say at this service I realised that what I most wanted to do was to give some sense of the complexity of the person that I knew first as a distant, rather awe-inspiring teacher, then as a mentor, and finally as a friend. For although I knew Tom primarily as an extraordinary scholar, I also knew him as someone obsessed with baseball, devoted to his grandchildren, and full of surprising bits of knowledge about the blues, or romanesque architecture, or Japanese calligraphy.
I have a file with Tom’s name on it filled with things that he sent me over the course of our friendship—this file captures in some small degree the richness of Tom’s interests and accordingly of the conversation that we sustained over the fourteen years that I knew him. Firstly of course there are the essays on magic, on the flexibility of the early modern self, on Coleridge, on Marvell, on Shakespeare, on the power of naming, on labyrinths, on what he called “the hermeneutics of the promenade,” and more broadly on the discipline of comparative literature itself. Like his books, Tom’s essays are remarkable not only for their astonishing range and depth of knowledge and reading, but also for the consistent elegance and even beauty of his writing. I think this was what I first noticed about Tom as a teacher as well as a writer—this unflagging, magisterial eloquence. I think it must be very unusual to claim for a scholarly writer the kind of stylistic distinctiveness that one might claim for a novelist—I would recognize an Iris Murdoch paragraph anywhere, but I think I would also recognize a Tom Greene paragraph anywhere. I attribute Tom’s eloquence to his genuinely tender attachment to the poetry he wrote about—when he read aloud in class, his tone and expression would change, and sometimes his hand would go up in kind of half-greeting—as though he were really drawing the poem into the room. Writing for example about the end of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, Tom says, “it is true that a residual pathos undeniably remains. But the poem has acted out with exemplary force the precarious performance required of us to exist and to grow with sanity in a scattered world.” Not only does this illustrate Tom’s eloquent control of his critical writing, it provides a glimpse into one of the largest organizing themes of his work—the effort involved in making and sustaining meaning in what he calls here a “scattered world.” All of Tom’s writing surely makes a stunning contribution to that effort.
Mixed in with these essays in my file is a sheaf of letters, written largely from France and Princeton, where Tom spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Studies while I was still at Yale. These letters give a more personal account than the essays of what went into Tom’s thinking on the subjects that consumed him at different times; he talks about what led to the interest in magic, in naming, or in the gradual breakdown of ritual. But they also contain lively responses to my comments about what I happened to be reading. So when he heard that I was reading Dante, I got a wonderful paragraph: “The poetry of the Inferno is like nothing else I know in Italian poetry: concrete, coarse-grained, direct, muscular, sometimes harsh, sometimes taciturn, always refusing the mellifluous.” That was quite something to be going on with for a Dante novice. These letters stop in 1999, when e-mail took over, but this ongoing conversation about books and baseball and eventually Vermont, where I now live, and my son Theo, who was born last year, continued until about two weeks before Tom died. Even when he couldn’t speak, or walk downstairs, he sent me perfectly composed letters by e-mail. I miss them.
Finally, there is in the same file the story he wrote for his children, up-dated for his grandchildren, and then sent to me when I was feeling down about I can’t even remember what—this story is called “Mr Possum’s Chumley and the Snoozytime Bear.” It’s a story about Mr Portly Possum, world-class maker of a mysterious substance called chumley, and featuring a refrain that begins “chumley, chumley, purple and red; Give me some chumley to eat with my bread.” When I first read this story I read it with an eye to making some allegorical interpretation—Tom couldn’t just have written a children’s story. So I asked him—what’s chumley? Oh I don’t really know, he said. I was incredulous. But doesn’t it represent something in the story? Not really, he said. It’s just something. Needless to say, this story did succeed in cheering me up. And I remember many other occasions on which he managed to say—sometimes with a little prompting from me—just the right thing to make me feel less certain that I would fail my orals dismally, or never ever get a job, or whatever the doom of the moment happened to be.
Tom was an extraordinary scholar, and mentor and friend, and he will be greatly missed.
Most of us knew Tom as a colleague and a friend, admired much for the grace of his Renaissance scholarship and his wisdom in teaching, both inside and outside the classroom. We valued him deeply for the warmth and strength of his understanding. Less well known, though, but just as fully expressive of the man, is the way these qualities came together in his work after leaving University duties. I am thinking especially of what had been evoked earlier in tributes here this afternoon, his urge to reach out across boundaries and invite a calling from both sides, the hospitality of mind which sustains the public life of poetry, magic, and signs.
The Open End Theater began with the glimmerings of an idea in the fall of 1995, as Tom was driving home with Liliane from a Trumbull College Fellows meeting, where they had been much moved by a talk from Linda Lorimer, the University Secretary, about possible projects for Yale faculty and staff in the New Haven community. Already Tom had been thinking, on the eve of retirement, about some way to reinvent himself, to find something new and fresh: he had always entertained a fantasy of “what if?” What if a group of actors were to enter a class, begin the action of a play, but then stop at a perplexing climactic moment, and let the student audience decide what would happen next? And he decided next to try and realize this idea within the New Haven schools.
Two years later, during which time he said he discovered the meaning of “networking,” after countless phone calls, street corner conversations, false leads, dead ends, and much good help, by the spring of 1997 the Open End Theater had completed its first full year-with eight performances. Last season, it had nearly a score of performances in more than a dozen schools, reaching a total audience of well over 3000—with a repertoire of plays focusing on issues and moral decisions which are faced daily by students in the New Haven Middle and High schools: sexuality, HIV and AIDS, drug abuse, weapons, and violence.
Two of the early scripts center on teen-age pregnancy. In each, the action stops with the main character caught in a dilemma. In “Devonya’s Decision,” it is a young woman, a high school freshman: will it be abortion, adoption, single motherhood, or a lifetime of parenting with a classmate? In “Tony’s Turn,” it is a young man caught between a basketball scholarship at a prestigious college or the sudden responsibilities of fatherhood, just when his own father has returned after a lifelong absence, after having himself abandoned Tony as a baby. At this moment the moderator emerges and invites the audience to respond—but with a difference.
“What was crucial,” as Tom once explained, “what was at the heart of our theater—and would make the students remember us and talk together after we were gone—was our refusal at this moment to guide the audience or give them the right answer—or any answer at all. These are kids who have heard nothing but directions, reprimands, orders, advice from adults all their lives. What we wanted to be unique was the condition that they would have to search their own minds and souls to see what they really thought… For them we wanted it to be a searching experience.”
And a searching experience it is, each time at each performance. Finally, after discussion—awkward at first and halting—but soon forceful with all the raucousness of raw reasoning (no teachers present)—after a vote is taken, the actors return to perform the choice of the audience and, if asked, the alternative choices. Always, though, it is with the growing recognition among these young people that there would be no happy endings, no easy solutions, that confronting consequences will be painful, and nothing without cost.
What the Open End Theater gives its student audiences, in effect, is a chance—still free of any responsibility themselves—to enter a future moment, to look back after it has taken shape but before it has happened, and then to reflect on a present they still have the power to control. Such moments of reflection are, with others, at the heart of the theater and indeed of the workings of the mind, but few among these students will have experienced this kind of critical, imaginative challenge. What they take away with them and remember we can hear in their comments afterwards: “This wasn’t a play. It was true”; “All of us got to give our opinions and speak our feelings”; “It can be easier to learn something if you talk about it.… A good decision can change your life.”
The effect here goes beyond the audience to the actors. The performing troupe consists typically of both New Haven Middle and High School students (who gain in self confidence and self esteem by learning to be public persons) and Yale undergraduates (who often participate through a Theater Studies seminar on “Drama in Education and Community Service”)—so that the Open End Theater provides yet another place where Yale and New Haven can join together in a common cause on common ground.
Throughout the years of the Theater’s development, Tom was a constant day-to-day presence. At rehearsals he talked to the young actors, encouraging them individually, sometimes driving them to and from school. He conferred with scriptwriters, the moderator, and director. He called up school principals to talk his way into gyms and auditoriums and help organize schedules. He drafted grant proposals and deciphered budget categories to get support from corporations and foundations. Ultimately, it was his hope that there could be an Open End Theater in other cities, perhaps even in every major city, a network across the country. I am pleased to report that efforts are well underway to establish soon a performance troupe in the San Francisco area.
Back in the beginning, early on in those first months, Tom was very much aware of leaving behind the relatively solitary life of the scholar and going out into a world not more real, but with a different immediacy, different in its intensity, that might offer him the reinventing that he sought. This we know he found in the Open End Theater; but I believe as well that Tom must have known himself how much he brought with him of what he thought he left behind—of the critical imagination, as it brings the everyday of life and acts to realize in our common lives a further, fuller promise.
The Open End Theater, as Tom’s other last work, can take its place among his very best. Beyond all works, though, we will recall with joy the company of this wise, gentle man.
I come in at the tail end of a cortege, a long cortege of distinguished mourners and eulogists who knew Tom Greene long and who knew him well. My only claim to be here is that I came in at the tail end of his life and spent many remarkable afternoons with him after the cancer struck. But tail end is entirely wrong as a description of the last two years of Tom’s life. For I was privileged to witness a wonder, a case of resurrection in this life, a resurrection of both the body and the spirit.
Many great qualities Tom Greene displayed have been mentioned this afternoon: his deep learning, his deeper understanding, his modesty, his self doubt, his generosity, his passionate political commitment. But nobody has mentioned his courage. The word “indomitable” seems best to fit the Tom Greene I finally got to meet. He fought his way through the miasma induced by the drugs. He was determined to think again. When his mind cleared somewhat he began to negotiate with a modest press the publication of a volume of his uncollected essays. Pragmatically, he said to me, “Annabel, I’m not proud. What press do you think would take them?” Believe it or not, he began a completely new writing project, which I won’t pause to describe.
When he got his physical strength back, and that took work too, the resurrection of the body, he did not go around like Lazarus, or at least like T.S. Eliot’s Lazarus, saying, “I have come back to tell you all.” He went around taking people out to lunch. And he always had dessert. He was a sweet man with a very sweet tooth.
Tom could not have achieved this resurrection entirely by himself, he could not have done it without the courage of Liliane. But he did it mainly by himself, by sheer force of will and indomitable courage. When the cancer eventually came back, he knew it was curtains. One afternoon he said to me, “Annabel, I don’t mind dying, but don’t let Liliane know.”
Now, because of that remark, I have two things I want to read to you. One is the first two stanzas of a poem by Langston Hughes whose title is “As Befits A Man.”
I think we have given Tom the academic equivalent of that, this afternoon. And so where I want to end with is, for this scrupulously non-religious man, a prose poem about resurrection, of which I think he would have approved. This is from Thoreau’s Walden.
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