This Tuesday, April 1, at 8pm, Dr. Egbert Bakker of Yale University will be giving this year’s John Charles Lecture, “Storytelling at the Symposium: The Return of Odysseus.” This annual lecture is made possible by the donations of Bruce Baker, Wabash Class of 1965, who established the event in 2010 to honor his former Classics and history teacher. Baker was inspired, at least in part, by the two-week visit during his time at the College of the prominent British historian Sir Steven Runciman , who gave lectures and mingled with students and faculty during his stay. Similarly, Dr. Bakker will not only present his lecture on Monday, but he will also conduct classes on portions of Homer’s work with Latin and Greek students at the college. In anticipation of Br. Bakker’s lecture, I interviewed him on the phone and asked about his talk and about his view on his coming trip.
Dr. Bakker is not unfamiliar with the Wabash Classics faculty. He knew Professor
Wickkiser briefly during her graduate studies and has met Professor Joe Day at several conferences. However, he has never visited Indiana, and he seems interested to discover what our college and “nice town” have to offer. Dr. Bakker noted that he has never been invited to give a lecture that involved such a structured component for integrating him into the life of a school. He mentioned that he looks forward to this aspect of the program.
After discussing the structure of Dr. Bakker’s visit, I asked him about the “meat” of his visit, in more ways than one. The Classicist’s talk will actually revolved around the act of eating in Homer’s Odyssey. According to Bakker, he will place a special focus on the contrast between the abundance and abuse of food in many of the foreign lands into which Odysseus wanders and the comparative scarcity and appreciation for food in Odysseus’s hometown of Ithaca. Bakker reminded me that, unlike the Iliad, the Odyssey does not deal directly with war; its themes relate more to the everyday life of ancient Greeks. In fact, Bakker mentioned that his talk will discuss the Odyssey in such a way as to remind his audience that they must consider the work from the perspective of Homer’s original intended audience. The poem is attuned to “contemporary cultural sensibilities.” In other words, when a character in Homer squanders food, it may mean little to readers today. However, the original audience of the epic would have easily understood the implications of such an act and would have drawn deeper conclusions about the meaning of such episodes in Homer’s work.
When I asked Dr. Bakker why the Wabash community should come listen to his talk, he made the point that his lecture will discuss Homer and food, two fundamental aspects of the life of a liberally educated person. Certainly, the themes of this year’s Charles Lecture promise to touch on some generally applicable, basic human notions. As Dr. Bakker looks forward to his first encounter with the Wabash culture, I hope the College’s community looks forward to his insights on Homer, food, and basic ideas about life.