Andrew Szegedy-Maszak is the University’s first Distinguished Teaching Fellow, co-author of the 2005 award-winning book “Antiquity and Photography,” Jane A. Seney Professor of Greek, and Professor of Classical Studies at Wesleyan, a post he’s held for over 40 years. The Argus sat down with Szegedy-Maszak to discuss his interests in Greek culture, photographic representation, and historical narrative.
The Argus: What do you read?
Andrew Szegedy-Maszak: I always have a few books going at different times. What I have going now is Salman Rushdie’s book about when he was under the death sentence from the Ayatollah, called “Joseph [Anton: A Memoir].” It’s really quite fascinating because it details what happened to his life when he had to go into hiding: constant, 24-hour protection, the effects on his marriage among other things, on his friendships, and just on his psychological condition. He’s such a brilliant writer. Many, many years ago, I read his first great novel called “Midnight’s Children.” It’s this fantastic panoply of modern India, and I’ve been interested in him ever since. So this [book] came out a couple of years ago, and I finally just got it on my Kindle. I also do a lot of reading in photography because that’s, in addition to Classical Studies, my other area of professional study, I suppose. I just got a new book by a terrific photographer named Todd Hido. I just started it, so I really don’t know yet what it’s totally about. But it is about his understanding of some of the main photographic genres of landscape, portraits, nudes, and still life. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say.
A: Do you do photography yourself?
ASM: I do not. I mean, I do it the way that everybody does it. Occasionally, if I see something that looks kind of cool, I’ll take a picture with my phone, but that’s about all. But I’ve been involved with it as a collector, a curator, and a scholar, for a very long time.
A: You’ve written and co-written some books yourself. Can you tell me more about them?
ASM: Sure. The big one recently is called “Antiquity and Photography.” It’s a few years old now. It was in connection with an exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles when they had recently renovated their old building and turned it into their museum for antiquities. To celebrate the opening, they did a fantastic show of photographs, mainly 19th-century photographs, of classical sites. So, in collaboration with three colleagues, we did this book called “Antiquity and Photography.” I did the introduction and a chapter on this fascinating 19th-century character named William Stillman, who was an American. At various points in his career, [he] was a painter, a journalist, and a spy, although very unsuccessfully. [He was] a really, really interesting character. So the chapter that I contributed to the book, in addition to the introduction, was about Stillman and his pictures about the antiquities of Athens and the Athenian Acropolis. I’ve written texts for a couple books of photographs. One is by the great American Paul Strand, and one is coming out, I’m happy to say, within the next few months by a wonderful photographer, who’s also a very close friend of mine named [Philip] Trager. He’s a Wesleyan alumnus. He did a book of portraits of his wife Ina, and there are two series separated by 25 years. So I did the essay for that book.
A: You also wrote a book called “The Nomoi of Theophrastus”?
ASM: Oh yeah, “The Nomoi of Theophrastus.” That was my heavily revised version of my dissertation. It’s about ancient Greek law. Theophrastus was the student and the successor of Aristotle, and he did a sort of systematic collection of Greek legal codes. I’m amazed it’s still around. I’ve also translated a couple books from French. There’s [one] by a great scholar named Pierre Vidal-Naquet called “The Black Hunter.” It’s funny because the title misled some people because it occasionally shows up in lists of titles about game hunting or sport shooting. In fact, it’s about young Athenian men who were given a special dark cloak and sent out on a ritual hunt. I also translated another little book about the Greek drinking party, the symposium, by a great scholar named François Lissarrague. It’s fun to do that from time to time.
A: Do you plan on writing more books?
ASM: I would like to. I have been thinking about it. To be honest, my time is so fragmented now with various kinds of obligations that I generally write essays and articles. I had been hoping to write a full-scale biography of this man Stillman, but somebody just beat me to it. Oh well, he did a good job.
Now I have a couple of things I’ve been talking about, for example, with my colleague [Assistant Professor of Classical Studies] Eirene Visvardi. She has done a lot of fascinating work on emotions, especially the emotions in Greek tragedy. I got very interested, actually from teaching, in the whole question of hope and how hope functions in Greek thought because it’s a surprisingly double-edged entity. That is it’s both something that provides comfort and can be a sort of relief from sorrow—you know what it’s like if you are hoping for something—but for the Greeks it was also potentially very treacherous because it can lead you to do stuff that you shouldn’t do. It can override common sense or practical wisdom. You probably know the story of Pandora: she’s given this jar of evil, and the last thing in there is hope. There are a lot of weird ambiguities about the story, but one of the ways it’s usually told, at least in kids’ version, is that hope is the one good thing in this jar. But that’s not the way myth works. Myth tends to be progressive.That is, you go: good, better, best, or bad, worse, worst. So, the last thing in this jar of evil would predictably be the worst. So, what is it about hope that makes it so ambiguous? I’ve been just starting to look around. There’s been some really interesting work done in contemporary psychology—there’s a subfield called hope studies—who knew, right? It seems that hope is now being more and more understood as a learned response to difficulties. So, one might almost think of it as an evolutionary or adaptive capacity that we’ve developed over time. I think this is something the Greeks would have completely understood. So that’s a project that I would like to pursue.
I like working collaboratively with people; the Getty book was like that. One of the odd things is that, [while] most scientific research is conducted collaboratively, humanity scholarship is for the most part individual, and it really doesn’t have to be. There’s something really energizing about working on a project with somebody else. Long ago, I co-wrote an article with my thesis advisor on another piece of political theory by Theophrastus. I was a very young academic at the time, and working with John Keaney, my advisor, was wonderful. You know, this is way before the Internet, email, things like that. To exchange drafts, you’d have to type them up on a typewriter, send them off, and then scribble all over them, write them up again, then send them [off]. I mean it sounds so odd, I’m sure, to somebody your age; this is almost like monks sitting at high desks with quill pens and parchments. It was very much like that, but it was so engaging to be working on this with him. We brought different strengths, I suppose, to this little project, and the article is still around, so that’s good.
A: How do you combine your interests in photography and Greek culture, and why?
ASM: It’s a lovely question. They began really quite separately. I was traditionally trained in graduate school in a very, by now I suppose, old-fashioned Greek history, but I had been interested in photography for a long time. At that time I actually did it, developing film and making my own prints, but I determined that there were a lot of people who were a lot better at it than I was. So I had the pleasure of collecting and thinking about it. What’s interesting to me at an intellectual level is the way that photography and history share certain traits. Both of them are records. They are documents. They at least seem to profess a kind of objectivity that what you are seeing is actually out there or what’s being described actually happened. But it’s become so clear to the philosophical work of people here at Wesleyan: the former professor of philosophy Louis Mink, whom I knew when I first came here, journals like our own History and Theory, and Hayden White, who was here for many years as the head of the Center for [the] Humanities and wrote a brilliant book about the rhetorical conventions that govern historical writing. So now we’ve become completely aware that historical writings and photographs are shaped by ideology, convention, shifts in popular preference, and changes in technology, certainly for photography with digital image-making. It’s also different in history, you know, with the fact that I can look at an archive in Rome of images that have been digitized. This is still relatively new, and it’s quite astonishing.
So, in the mid-1980s, I was invited to be the first guest scholar in photographs when the Getty Museum acquired its great collection. The project that I proposed was how 19th-century photographers depicted classical sites. This got me into thinking about not just the photographers but also their audience, which was primarily a burgeoning group of middle-class travelers, and how they wanted to see the ancient site. I can give you a very simple example: The Parthenon in Athens is almost always photographed from the best-preserved end, which was actually the back of the temple, the west side, whereas the Colosseum is almost always photographed from the most ruined site. There’s nothing in the monuments or in their locations that would make these views necessary. It’s how people wanted to see them. Among the [photographs] I’m interested in are the ones that were being produced by the commercial studios, who after all depended their livelihood on producing stuff that their customers wanted. There’s another factor as well, which was that a lot of studios conducted business by mail. So they would publish a catalog. If you, in Middletown, Conn., ordered [a photograph] of the Parthenon, you didn’t want somebody taking creative liberties with it. You wanted something that you could predict.
The other thing that I got more and more interested in was that the 19th century, in addition to seeing the birth of photography, was a time of fantastic production of travel writing. It seems like everybody who went to Europe managed to get a book contract. What I found was that there was a real symmetry between the images that were being produced and the way people were writing about what they were seeing. This is photography and a kind of journal writing, and looking at some of the concerns that govern the way these materials were presented is what got really interesting for me.
A: Do you trust historical photographs?
ASM: Oh, hell no. Of course, you can use them as evidence. You can look at a series of photographs of the Acropolis or the Roman Forum and see how the site has changed over time. But you always have to be aware that way before Photoshop, these images could be manipulated.
A: So what brought you to Wesleyan?
ASM: I was just fresh out of graduate school, and this was my first job; I just finished my 40th year here last year. I was 24 when I started teaching Greek history and Greek language here. It was also being at Wesleyan, knowing people like Louis Mink, that got me very interested in the theoretical questions around historical narrative and about how histories are told.
A: And what is your take on historical narrative?
ASM: I’m going to resort to a quotation from a wonderful writer who was here for many years, and that’s Annie Dillard. She’s written any number of books and is truly brilliant. In a talk she once gave, she said, “There is no true version, but there are truer versions.” That seems to me to be, at a very practical level, a useful and correct way to think about historical narrative. It’s the receding horizon, you know; you never reach it, but you can get closer.
A: And by what standard do you judge some versions as truer than others?
ASM: I think then you have to resort to some of the older-fashioned criteria: how carefully a historian uses the evidence that’s available, how consistent their interpretation is with the evidence, and how it either connects or diverges from prior versions. The fascinating thing about history is that it keeps renewing itself. At least the ancient Greek history that we are doing now is based pretty much on the same set of documents and monuments that existed four decades ago. But new interpretive models have come in that focus our attention or allow us to think in ways that we hadn’t been able to think before about everything from ancient economy, to cultural practices, to marginalized groups like women and slaves and foreigners, who made up, of course, well over half the population but had been certainly downplayed in earlier history.
A: Do you think the renewal of history is bringing us closer to the truer version of history instead of diverging from it?
ASM: That’s a great question. I would like to think so. I would like to think that it makes it more three-dimensional. By adding nuance, there are more ways of thinking about this material that’s been around for so long. The fact is that one of the things that I’m so grateful to Wesleyan for is that I get to do this kind of work. I think that we are very lucky at Wesleyan to have such a remarkably active faculty, you know. People are thinking about things.
A: Do you think that this activism is translated to students?
ASM: I would hope so, because one of our responsibilities as faculty is to model for you all what it’s like to do this kind of work and how to think about it. It’s not because you’re going to become academics. There’s something else happening about how you can think about any number of issues in creative ways, bringing new sets of metaphors. As you move back and forth between [different disciplines], you are actually importing ways of thinking back and forth. That’s what gives it its value, I think.