The Department of Comparative Literature mourns the passing of our esteemed colleague John Chioles, who died on February 13, 2018 and taught in the department from 1981 to 2011. Our colleague Hala Halim, who knew him well, has written this tribute to his memory, noting his myriad contributions to the life of the department.
Raphael, a few verses they ask of you, an
epitaph for the poet Ammones; do compose them:
something of refined taste and polish. You can
do it, you are the most suited to write what’s just
for the poet Ammones, one of our own.
C. P. Cavafy, “For Ammones, Who Died at 29, in A.D. 610”
John’s Cavafy. The Egyptian-Greek poet C. P. Cavafy as translated by John Chioles, one of our own, whom we lost on February 13. The elegant culmination of many years of reading and writing about, and then painstakingly rendering the poet into English, John’s C. P. Cavafy: Poems. The Canon was published, in a bilingual edition, in the Harvard Early Modern and Modern Greek Library in 2011. That year, too, John became Professor Emeritus, after teaching in the Department of Comparative Literature at New York University for thirty years, bringing to the department his specializations in drama/theatre, theory, Greek literature, and philosophy.
One of those rare scholars able to cover Greek literature from ancient to modern, in his case with a philosophical training coupled with the practitioner’s insight of a creative writer and theatre director, John was born in in Arcadia, Greece, in 1938. Growing up in the dire conditions of Greece during and after World War II, John cherished the mountainous landscape--“one of the greatest places on earth,” he recently described it--and kept fond memories of planting basil as a child. At age 14, he moved to the US with Sophia, one of his two sisters, both younger, to stay with an uncle in Illinois. He must have had a clear sense of his scholarly interests early on, as he obtained his BA in philosophy and creative writing from Hunter College, City University of New York in 1962. Only two years later, while teaching English and American literature at the British Institute on Crete, he obtained his MA in philosophy from CUNY.
Then came John’s long, formative California years. “It was Travis Bogard and his description of a scholar/director doctorate in 1964” at the University of California, Berkeley “that yanked me out of an already graduate degree in philosophy and several years of conservatory theatre training in New York. The Berkeley training was tough, the competition keen, the politics incisive and instructive beyond our wildest imaginations then. And one of its emphases (lucky for me) was the origins: Greek tragedy. The teachers were superb and altogether unique,” John was to record in the preface to one of his books. At Berkeley, he obtained his interdisciplinary PhD in dramatic art, involving literature, criticism and directing for the stage, under the supervision of Professors Paul Feyerabend in philosophy, Travis Bogard in English and dramatic art, and Dunbar Ogden in dramatic art in 1973. A teaching assistant to Bograd at the Berkeley Program in Classical Drama at Delphi in 1966 (later canceled “for unacceptable political conditions of the military dictatorship in Greece”), John was also a member of the original team of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He relished the radical environment of 1960s Berkeley; the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 brought back a rush of images from those “most glorious years,” as he put it. Starting 1969 and until 1980, John was on the professoriate faculty of Stanford University, his years there dovetailing with the beginnings of his involvement in the University of Athens from 1976 onwards. It was in Athens, at an international conference in which he participated, that John met the scholar of Surrealism Anna Balakian, then Chair of Comparative Literature at NYU, who offered him the position of Visiting Associate Professor at the university, starting 1981. Thus began the longest professional association in John’s career, together with a pattern of dividing his time between his two countries, the fall semester of each year spent at NYU--where he was appointed tenured Associate Professor in 1985, to be promoted to full Professor in 1997--and the spring one at the University of Athens.
John’s early years at the university overlapped with the long stretch when Comparative Literature at NYU was being established; and he was central to that process. Since the heyday of the inception of NYU Comparative Literature, it has grown into a diverse faculty of members and affiliates, aware of its roots, with successful graduate students and a robust commitment to the humanities. But at the time, the faculty was small: our emeritus colleague Tim Reiss, who was to serve as Chair of the department starting 1987, remembers “the old days, when John, Daniel Javitch and I were the whole of Comp. Lit. for a while, until we slowly built it up to be almost ten times larger--exciting days, those were. John was a lovely man and great company back then.” John, Tim and Daniel laid down the groundwork for a flourishing and forward-looking discipline. Given John’s transatlantic peripatetic life, it is impressive how much yeoman work he did for the department and NYU. At various stages, he served as Director of Graduate Studies and of Undergraduate Studies, regularly taught large, demanding lecture courses in the College Core Curriculum, was Acting Chair of the department in 1990, and served on the search committee for the Onassis Center’s position in Modern Greek Literature, in addition to supervising dissertations all while producing a regular stream of tenure letters that established many a career. In his own department, he offered much moral support and guidance to younger colleagues on the tenure track, as Hala Halim, who enjoyed long conversations with John about his Cavafy, recalls.
For our colleague Richard Sieburth, “in the context of the Comp. Lit., John was THE person who anchored the teaching of the grand theatre tradition, giving courses on Tragedy throughout the ages and on Comedy. He brought to his courses a concrete experience of directing stage productions both in Greece and in the U.S., plus an unmatched philological expertise in ancient Greek.” John’s courses left a long-lasting impression on his students, reminisces Kate Medina, who obtained her MA in Comparative Literature at NYU in 1992, and is currently Associate Publisher at Random House:
John was such a wonderful teacher, whose wisdom about people and literature was an inspiration to me and to so many of us. His knowledge of, and his discernment about, both classical literature and contemporary literary narrative were remarkable. In his seminar on Tragedy, we learned to read great works of philosophy, side by side with great works of the theatre, as he led us to see what really mattered in those important texts. His insights have informed my work and thinking to this day. John’s sensitivity to others, his humor and gentle kindness and mature perspective on life had a way of enabling us to grow, and to think for ourselves. For me he will always be there as a great friend of literature, and as an enduring friend of mine in my heart.
It was “For my teachers and my students in their turn” that John dedicated his 554-page Aeschylus: Mythic Theatre, Political Voice, published by the University of Athens in 1995. John’s summary of this book in the Preface bespeaks his interdisciplinarity and the ambition of seamlessness underlying his theoretical-translational-directorial-creative writing practice:
In writing this book I had three principal aims. One, to render with as little translationese as possible a theatre script of Aeschylus’ trilogy. Two, to put on paper a special hermeneutic, what a scholar/director does in preparing to stage a monumental work such as The Oresteia. Three, to situate the work in its time and in ours and examine theories of the theatrical art set to receive it anew. Finally, it is enough of a colossal hubris to presume to write on the work of Aeschylus at all, where the finest minds of the last two centuries have tread; as a point of humility therefore I do not classify the closing of this book a principal aim: to write a script based on the trilogy for a postmodern, avant-garde theatre. This last step, though it may be foolhardy, is simply a writer’s expression of what he has learned from such a vast undertaking.
John not only produced script-translations of several Ancient Greek plays, but was involved in directing both classical and modern theatre in the US and Greece, among other: Euripides’ Electra--the first Greek tragedy he directed and scripted in its entirety--and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, both for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre; The Oresteia (in his translation) for the Stanford Repertory Theatre; Antigone (in his version based on Sophocles) for the Public Theatre in New York; Euripides’ The Bacchae, in Kalymnos; and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Pam Gem’s Piaf in Athens.
At Athens University, John was no less involved in institution building, in what he once described as “a contribution to my birthplace.” At first visiting that university to teach in the School of Philosophy and then to help organize the Department of English Studies, he was elected to a Chair in the Philosophy of Culture in 1984. In this latter capacity, he carved out a curriculum, recruited faculty from new PhDs, and instated, starting 1990, a three-year major. One would assume that John’s public profile, not only as a scholar and director, but also as someone who published in a variety of Greek cultural forums, ranging from journals to little magazines and newspapers, reinforced his presence on the Athens University campus. He published both scholarship--Sophocles: A Double Vision of the Law--and literature--Romeo the Pot-head and Juliet the Snitch--in Athens. Academic books to which he had contributed in the US--such as Ritual, Power, and the Body--were translated into Greek and published in Athens.
In the meantime, in the US, John contributed to the institutional formation of Modern Greek Studies. He translated modern Greek literature, such as Costas Taktis’ novel The Third Wedding Wreath (Hermes, 1985), and was appointed co-editor, with Edmund Keeley, of the Greek issue of The Journal of Literary Translation, published by Columbia University Press (1984). After serving as executive board member for some years he became the President of the Modern Greek Studies Association (MGSA) in the US from 1995 to 1997. Mary Layoun, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, reflects that
John was an early and continued inspiration as a comparatist who worked in modern Greek. I first met him when I was a graduate student in Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley (his alma mater as well). John would visit the Bay Area to meet with those whom I knew then as the supportive “elders” of Modern Greek Studies–Nanos Valaoritis, Thanasis Maskaleris, and John himself–and with the rest of us, the “younger” generations of students, poets, writers, academics. Whenever our paths crossed subsequently--at an MGSA or MLA meeting, at a café, on some shared professional assignment, in New York, in Athens--John was an energetic, intellectually engaged, and good humored interlocutor. I will miss our conversations about theatre, philosophy, poetry, and history--and his smile. I will miss him.
As a comparatist who works on the Classics, John made several interventions on the nexus of Hellenic Studies and Comparative Literature in the 1990s: he gave several presentations, at Keeley’s invitation, at the Center for Hellenic Studies, Princeton University, including a seminar on “Comparative Literature and Hellenic Studies” and a public lecture on “Ancient Historiography and Fiction” as part of a week-long Visiting Scholar appointment at that institution in 1991; this was to be followed by other talks on the same campus in 1994. In Keeley’s estimation,
John Chioles loved things Greek and kept in touch with his home country by scholarship and travel regularly throughout his mature years. He was also an abiding friend: always ready with help and affection, always governed by a large sense of humor. Those of us who knew him well, and those who worked with him to serve Greek letters and literary enterprise more generally, will feel much diminished by his passing.
John was to address the same disciplinary nexus in a pressentation at Ohio State University, at the invitation of Gregory Jusdanis, now Humanities Distinguished Professor in the Department of Classics, and Director of Modern Greek Studies on that campus. This was to be followed in 2011 by his Thomas E. Leontis and Anna P. Leontis Memorial Lecture in Modern Greek Studies, entitled "The Storytelling Daughters of Danaos: A Look at Recent Writing by Greek Women," at the same university.
Jusdanis remembers first meeting John “in 1987, when I was attending an MLA convention in New York. He was known as an important figure in the promotion of Modern Greek Studies, and since I had only recently arrived in the United States, I was pleased to be invited to a party at his apartment. As he welcomed me, I was warmed by his smile, and, in conversation, struck by his intense interest in people. He was also exceedingly funny.” The following year, while they were teaching at a summer program in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in Greece, Jusdanis and his wife were to draw closer to him: “John was without doubt the highlight of our stay.... He brought a dramatic intensity to every observation, creating a magic around himself and his listeners that straddled the line between reality and imagination.” Jusdanis adds, “he was also a mentor to me and to many other young scholars, imparting to us his experience of American academia.” The relationship grew beyond academia: “He came three times to Columbus, twice to lecture and once to serve as godfather to our younger son, Alexander. Not sure about this new role, he arrived nevertheless with the necessary letter from his village priest, attesting to his good moral standing.” And, “though he had no children himself, he was a natural with his warmth and patience and love of play.” When father and son were in Athens years later, they arranged to meet with John for lunch: “The city was suffering from a dangerous heatwave. Though Alexander and I stopped frequently for a cold drink as we struggled toward the restaurant, we were close to heat stroke when we finally arrived.” They found John “sipping a glass of lemonade... He had bought for Alexander a reproduction of an old map of the newly independent Greece. It still hangs in Alexander’s room.”
Honors and awards for John’s contributions to so many fields were not lacking, though they perhaps fell short of what he deserved. In 1983, he was the recipient of a PEN/National Endowment for the Arts Syndicated Fiction Project prize for short fiction, for his short story “Before the Firing Squad.” Drawing on his childhood memories of the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II, the story has been repeatedly anthologized and taught in the US. And in 1995 he received a National Endowment for the Arts grant as writer-translator for a collection of short stories. He was to revisit Princeton University in 1999 where he was honored as past President of the MGSA. After retiring, John decided to continue living in NYU Faculty Housing, so attached was he to his quartier, the Village, with its landmark theatres and cafés that he knew so intimately. John’s Cavafy again, “In the Same Place”:
Home surroundings, familiar centers, neighborhood places,
those I gaze at and walk through; years and years now.
I have created you amid joys, amid sorrows:
out of so many occurrences, so many odd things.
Place, fraught with feeling, the whole of you, just for me.
There were sorrows in the later years, most of all losing his beloved niece, Eleni Zosi, an archaeologist at the National Museum in Athens, in 2016. He continued to write--a novel, as yet unpublished, perhaps unfinished. Towards the end, he yearned for his birthplace; surveying his trajectory and career as his health was declining in October 2017, he confided to Hala, “and always through the years Greece beckoning to me, just beckoning, you understand?”
John will be interred in Arcadia, beside his revered mother. He is survived by his sister Sophia Hayeck, who looked after him with great dedication and love in the final months at her home in Boston, her husband, Ernest Hayeck, his sister who lives in Athens Vasiliki Chioles and her husband Anthony Zosi, and their son Vasili Zosi.