Memories of Classics 101: Tragedy

Does anyone recall Max Young? Used to teach Classics at Trent in the early 90’s? Mad as a hatter, his tutorials on Greek tragedy were less informative than entertaining. Comic, though in a nervous titter kind of way.

You never knew what Max was going to say in class, but it was often bizarre, occasionally outrageous. You got the feeling that he never knew what he was going to say either. His behaviour was the fodder for after class laughter over beer. Max was, at the time, in a word, “classic.”

I had him in first year of university, when I was a bit too young to realize that his days of teaching were probably close to over. But, then, you can hide a lot under the academic guise of a grey bushy beard and hair. With that kind of look, madness can sometimes pass as eccentricity.

At least on a university campus.

And, deep down inside, I could see the brilliance. It showed up in occasional turns of speech, in occasional flashes of logistical leap that could only have come from a truly creative mind. It caused me to make sure I was up on my readings. I wanted to be able to follow his careening trains of thought.

I don’t think I’m overly bold in saying that I was the only one in class that understood even parts of what he was trying to say about tragedy. And I was only successful about thirty percent of the time. At best. At least I could sometimes follow his academic flow. The other parts? The lapses into anarchic anecdote? I don’t think anyone was capable of following him there.

Here’s the rub, though. While I sometimes laughed, I also sometimes romanticized.

I saw him as the absent minded, somewhat addled but brilliant professor that you sometimes come across in literature. I worked him into a couple of my own works of fiction. I breathed life into his stock-character behaviour and gave him a family, a history. Max became a vehicle for my emotional growth. Both as a writer and a human being.

Then, when the course ended, I forgot all about max young. That’s what you do when you are young. Or at least what I did. I lived and breathed and sucked the nutrients from my situation. And then I moved on. I absorbed the pith and left the pit.

I declared my major as English Literature. Phased out the classics. Went on with my studies, my life.

And the years passed.

I graduated. I got a job. I got married. I stopped chewing through life at the same rate. Oddly, despite this, I managed to get quite a bit thicker in the waist.

And I didn’t give a thought towards tragedy.

Recently, though, Max has re-entered my life. Even if i haven’t re-entered his. He’s brought his lessons of tragedy with him.

Three times, now, I’ve seen him in the parking lot of malls, eating what I can only assume to be cold food out of instant microwave meal packages. He eats while standing outside of his car. Hunched towards a wall, furtive. He looks, well, sad.

I’ve seen him at Lansdowne Place. I’ve seen him at Portage Place. And I’ve seen him at Peterborough Square. Max doesn’t seem particular about his choice of mall parking lots.

I’ve thought about approaching him. Seeing how he is. Telling him I remember. But what do you say to an elderly man eating cold Michelina’s in the snow?

His tutorials don’t seem so funny anymore. I guess deep down, they never did. But I can tell you this: in the end, he did succeed in teaching me about one thing. He taught me about tragedy. Both on the written page and in life.

Thinking about it now, I guess he still does. Teach me, that is. About tragedy. About life. This piece of writing is proof enough of that.

This time, though, it is not in the classroom.

It’s in the snowy car-parks of Peterborough.

It’s in the way I feel about human frailty. In the way I can no longer romanticize madness. It’s in the way that I am made to feel towards an old man who is really, really down on his luck.

I hope life isn’t treating you too poorly, Max. I mean, I hope that it doesn’t seem as tragic to you.

I always thought you were a good egg. Even if somewhat cracked.

Keep warm, old man.

Bon appetit.