JHI Alumni Spotlight—Chiara Graf

April 1, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

Chiara Graf was a Chancellor Henry N.R. Jackman Graduate Fellow in the Humanities during the 2019-2020 theme year Strange Weather. Her research while at the JHI was titled "Wisdom and Other Feelings: Affect, Knowledge, and the Senecan Subject" - an examination of the relationship of affect and natural science in the works of the Roman philosopher, scientist, and tragedian Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.1 BCE-65 CE). After two years of teaching in the UK, Chiara will begin a new position as Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Maryland. We followed up with her recently to learn about her activities over the last couple of years and about her time at the JHI.

JHI: What have you been doing since your JHI fellowship ended?

CG: Since the end of my JHI fellowship, I have spent most of my time teaching in the UK, first at the University of St Andrews and then at the University of Warwick. It has been a very exciting and challenging two years, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work with some fantastic classicists here. At St Andrews, I had the opportunity to organize a conference called “Affect, Intensity, Antiquity,” which brought together classicists from Europe and North America for a three-day exploration of how affect theory might be brought fruitfully to bear on ancient material. In terms of my own research, I am working on editing my dissertation for publication as a monograph. I also have an article coming out next year in the American Journal of Philology on the role of flattery in the works of Seneca the Younger.

JHI: What prompted you to apply for a JHI fellowship?

CG: I applied for a JHI fellowship for two main reasons. First of all, I was drawn to the theme for 2019-2020: Strange Weather. At the time, I was working on my dissertation, which focused largely on an ancient treatise on meteorology called Natural Questions, by Seneca the Younger. Much of my dissertation dealt with Seneca’s approach to frightening, shocking, or abnormal natural phenomena, such as floods, earthquakes, and comets. I knew that recent developments in the environmental humanities were relevant to my research, but I had never had the opportunity to study these theoretical developments in a formal setting. My JHI fellowship provided me with that opportunity: during the first few months of the year, I and the other fellows read and discussed a variety of foundational works by scholars of the environmental humanities, and even had a visit by the author Amitav Ghosh. These sorts of discussions really allowed me to approach the ancient material I was working with in a new way.

Secondly, I was drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of the fellowship. As much as I love the Classics, I always feel most energized when I am exposed to the work of scholars in other fields. It was such a privilege to be exposed every week to research on topics that were totally new to me, and to hear other scholars’ fresh perspectives on my own work.

JHI: Can you summarize the project you worked on while at the JHI?

CG: I held a doctoral fellowship at the JHI, so my major goal was to finish my dissertation. My dissertation looked at the role of the emotions in a variety of texts by the Roman author Seneca the Younger, who wrote philosophical works, tragedies, and the meteorological treatise mentioned above. Seneca was a Stoic philosopher, and much of his work deals with how to minimize, manage, or overcome the emotions using reason. But my dissertation highlighted some positive functions that the emotions fulfill in Seneca’s work. For instance, I found that in his meteorological treatise Natural Questions, Seneca assigns an important role to stupefaction and anxiety, which allow us to grasp the immensity of the universe and the powerlessness of humans within it. Similarly, in Seneca’s tragedy Trojan Women, grief and hopelessness serve as a paradoxical source of serenity for the protagonist Andromache. Ultimately, as counterintuitive as it may seem, emotions can be a source of solace.

JHI: Why do you think the humanities are important?

CG: I think the humanities are important because they encourage us to reflect upon our values, our experiences, and the world around us. The Classics, like many humanities disciplines, invites us to become intimately acquainted with a culture radically different from our own. This kind of exposure to difference casts our own society in a new light, and shows us that the categories, ideologies, and beliefs that structure our world are not the only ones out there. Once we realise this, we can start to imagine new possibilities. I also think that the humanities can be a source of joy. For my whole adult life, reading and thinking about ancient literature has brought me a lot of happiness. Sharing that excitement with students is, in my opinion, inherently valuable and worthwhile.