The personal website of a retired classics professor
September 30, 2011 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Humanities and the Liberal Arts is the personal website of former Middlebury classics professor William Harris who passed away in 2009. In his retirement he crafted a wonderful site full of essays, music, sculpture, poetry and his thoughts on anything from education to technology. But the heart of the website for me is, unsurprisingly, his essays on ancient Latin and Greek literature some of whom are book-length works. Here are a few examples: Purple color in Homer, complete fragments of Heraclitus, how to read Homer and Vergil, a discussion of a recently unearthed poem by Sappho, Plato and mathematics, Propertius' war poems, and finally, especially close to my heart, his commentaries on the poetry of Catullus, for example on Ipsithilla, Odi et amo, Attis poem as dramatic dance performance and a couple of very dirty poems (even by Catullus' standard). That's just a taste of the riches found on Harris' site, which has been around nearly as long as the world wide web has existed.
posted by Kattullus (18 comments total) 101 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Thank you very much, Kattullus.
posted by Iridic at 3:25 PM on September 30, 2011

A rich trove to explore here - thanks very much for posting.
posted by Urban Hermit at 3:29 PM on September 30, 2011

I'm glad his site survives beyond his passing, and that Middlebury College is keeping it up as part of their digital archives (as mentioned on the first page, along with nice comments about Mr. Harris). Thanks for this.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:00 PM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I spent around 20 years formally studying music and this personal essay on Schoenberg is one of the best essays I've ever read. Take this passage "Someone said recently that even now if you want to clear a concert hall, announce the performance of some Schoenberg, Teachers and students may stay but the listening public by and large will be out the door. But when I finish tuning my piano tomorrow morning and sit down before the black and white keyboard, I will be in debt to Schoenberg for a range of usable sounds which were not available before his time." What gets me is that this is not how someone trained in music would think about Schoenberg (at least I wouldn't) nor would I expect someone without formal training to think about him like this, so Mr. Harris managed to find a beauty in Schoenberg that should have been obvious but that most of us wouldn't have been able to see (liking or disliking Schoenberg still feels extremely political).

Reading a few other essays I'm struck by the idea that this is the exact kind of person you'd want to spend hours in conversation with over a great many subjects with just enough alcohol to loosen the tongue but not so much to muddle the mind.
posted by bfootdav at 5:38 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Part of the pleasure of the site comes from how well its design is married to its content. The man's clarity of thought and intention are perfectly reflected in the language, ideas, and layout of the site. Hitting just one of those benchmarks would be cause for praise, much less all three.
posted by jsturgill at 6:01 PM on September 30, 2011

I doubt if anyone currently under 65 types their leading 1s as lowercase Ls, as in "l962," the way that I notice Harris sometimes did (e.g. here, the piece that convinced me that he wasn't just a crank or curmudgeon about contemporary culture as this unfortunate piece would've suggested). It's one of the best unconscious markers of age that I know. I believe this was taught as a typist's trick for speed in the '50s and '60s (?), but I still see it reasonably frequently in electronic form — would've been a smart thing for word processors' default autocorrection dictionaries to include.
posted by RogerB at 6:53 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was just noticing that myself, RogerB. Here he uses a lowercase L and a 1 in the same sentence: "At the same time, few would know that Leonardo was a mathematician of the l3th century, that he produced a series of mathematical treatises which were published (in manuscript copies of course in that period) in the years right after 1202."
posted by clorox at 6:59 PM on September 30, 2011

Thanks you for bringing this to our attention. I've got several weekends of reading ahead of me. Reminds me of Dr. Heisler, my high school latin/greek professor.
posted by Freen at 9:30 PM on September 30, 2011

A nice little first-person history of the web, too (via the third link above - In his retirement).
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 10:43 PM on September 30, 2011

Damn. I knew about this site, but didn't know he's dead.
posted by Jahaza at 10:43 PM on September 30, 2011

This is incredibly good. Thank you.
posted by Wemmick at 1:04 AM on October 1, 2011

Wonderful. Perfect timing. (I've just begun working my way through Learning Greek with Plato by Beetham.) The Heraclitus alone would've made my day.
posted by benjonson at 9:01 AM on October 1, 2011

I believe this was taught as a typist's trick for speed in the '50s and '60s

It wasn't just a trick. Some typewriters lacked a number 1 key altogether for economy's sake. See this AskMe.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 9:22 AM on October 1, 2011

I majored in Classics, Greek, and Latin. His piece on Tyrian Purple was like an Amelie moment with bright glowing light (all the more appropriate given the explanation), as it helps explain a minor mystery that has been floating in the back of my brain for half my life.
But back in Greece, I remembered Homer's striking figure of the "purple sea" (porphurea thalassa), which had always puzzled me as a student. And equally odd was his "purple blood" gushing forth, and even a "purple rainbow" mentioned once in the Iliad. Our sense of the color "purple" does not fit these uses, it was clear to me even then that something was wrong with our color-sense, or that colors can shift as part of the process of social evolution. Yet all these three uses are by the same author and the identical time-frame, so I left Greece that summer puzzled and intrigued.
The standard explanation was that the ancients blurred the lines between red and purple (sometimes saying purple when they really meant our color red) but that always seemed lacking somehow.
Before leaving Greece I held up my micro-sample one day at eye level and sighted beyond it to that wonderful Mediterranean sea. I saw right off that both the flake and the sea were iridescent, it was that quality of inner shinning-ness which has made the Mediterranean waters so famous to century after century. And the Murex had somehow chanced upon the same iridescence, so it was the relative scale of iridescence which was behind these word-usages.
Just awesome.
posted by Davenhill at 9:48 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some background on Prof Joshua Whitmough, whom he cites with affection
posted by IndigoJones at 11:39 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some typewriters lacked a number 1 key altogether for economy's sake.

The opening sentence of Chapter 2 (the first substantial chapter) of Knuth's The TeXbook also bears the stigmata of that age:
When you first started using a computer terminal, you probably had to adjust to the difference between the digit '1' and the lowercase letter 'l'.
posted by stebulus at 3:25 PM on October 1, 2011

Thanks, IndigoJones, for pointing me towards this essay of Harris', which I hadn't read. This passage struck me especially. I may need to print it out and stick on my wall:
We have learned to skim-read the vast and exponentially expanding written materials which our society has collected, especially now in the days of the Internet. We are expert at getting the ideas out of written texts while we discard the actual words, their forms, sounds and arrangements as the disposable chaff. But it is in this chaff that the art and artistry of the writing lies, that is the matrix for support of the meaning, and meaning is not complete or significant without the matrix.
posted by Kattullus at 7:30 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is good, isn't it? Similarly his point on how ancients read aloud, forcing them to a slower reading speed and closer appreciation of the text.

(BTW, this is what the fellow looked like. Clearly went native, and good on him for it.)
posted by IndigoJones at 8:15 AM on October 2, 2011

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