Announcing the twenty-third annual PLS/GP Summer Symposium
June 6-11, 2021
Canons and Crisis: Contestation and Consolation in the Liberal Arts
Once again, the Program of Liberal Studies will offer a week of seminars for alumni/ae of the Program, their relatives and friends, and anyone else eager to read and discuss important texts and ideas as part of a welcoming and lively intellectual community.
This year, our Symposium will be offered entirely online through Zoom. Participants will be able to register for individual courses, not just the entire Symposium, and the cost will be significantly reduced. Although we will miss having everyone here on campus, we are excited to offer the Symposium to many people who ordinarily would not be able to join the conversation. Courses will run in two and three 90 minute blocks from 11 a.m. EDT to 5:30 p.m. EDT (with a 1.5 hr break for lunch), M – F. We will also have a social event for all participants on Sunday, June 6th, that will permit small group discussions, and we will open several virtual meeting rooms during the Symposium where participants can gather informally for conversations.
The sessions will feature a multi-faceted reflection on the ways in which the liberal arts become sites of contestation and sources of consolation in times of historical crisis. The sessions will be taught by current or emeritus/ae faculty of the Program of Liberal Studies. Please consider joining us for what promises to be once again an exhilarating week.
I. Plenary Session
Tom Stapleford, General Reflections and Open Q&A
on the 2020 Opening Charge, “Liberal Education in a Time of Crises”
*A lightly edited version of the 2020 Opening Charge will be made available for alumni to read in late January.
II. A Work From an Era of Crisis: Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain (3 days)
(ISBN 978-0-15-60186, $11.95 Amazon, any edition OK)
Prof. Phillip Sloan (Professor Emeritus)
The phenomenal success of Thomas Merton’s autobiography, published in 1948 by a young Trappist monk of 33 a year before his Ordination, might be unexpected. But this work spoke to a generation that had been through unspeakable horrors and the radical destruction of all value systems by World War II. It was an Augustinian journey of one young man who had not experienced the events of World War II personally, but his work spoke to many who had done so— Catholic, Protestant and non-believer alike. More than a million copies of his autobiography have been sold with translations into twenty languages. It also served as the beginning of a literary output of 49 subsequent books.
In many ways, Merton’s is a story of how the “Canon” can be a response to a crisis. It was Merton’s study of great classics—Dante’s Commedia, Augustine, Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, and William Blake—and his encounter with authors of the “Catholic Renaissance” of the 1920s and 30s—Gilson, Waugh, Joyce, Eliot, Greene—that determined the trajectory of his personal journey. He lived through much of the same period as Dorothy Day and worked in Catholic Action in the Harlem of Ralph Ellison. But his journey was to the austere life of a Trappist monastery and the contemplative rather than active life. His final writings explored interconnections with the spiritual traditions of the East, particularly Buddhism. Any understanding of the intellectual life of the American Catholic Church before Vatican II would need to take account of the enormous influence of Merton. Pope Francis, on his visit to the United States, mentioned him along with Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, and spoke of him as “a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church.”
This three-session discussion will be divided into discussion of the three main sections of Merton’s work. Registrants are urged to read the entire book. The following are the essential sections if this is not possible with particular focus on Parts Two and Three:
Chp, I; Sections i-iii; 13
Chp 3-:Sections iii-viii 49
Chp. 4: Sections i-iv; 34
Chp 1: 66
Part Two: Chps. 2. 33
Part Three: Chps. 1-2- 80
Part Thee: Chps 3-4 and Epilogue 86
III. The Liberal Arts and the Birds of Appetite: J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (2 days)
Jennifer Newsome Martin
J.A. Baker, The Peregrine , NYRB Classics (2004).
A book that filmmaker Werner Herzog describes as having “prose of the caliber that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad,” and Robert Macfarlane says “sticks in the craw” and “rakes the mind,” J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine is a forceful text that is somewhat difficult to characterize. Part nature study, part self-discovery, part prophetic scourge, and wholly a classic of environmental literature, it witnesses to the story of one man’s obsessive fascination with tracking peregrine falcons through a period of several months in the English countryside. The way that Baker uses language is richly descriptive, precise, harrowing, ecstatic, sparse, and profoundly beautiful.
In many ways it is a traumatic book borne out of trauma, including Baker’s own adolescent experience of World War II, including the “Destruction of Peregrine Falcons Order,” according to which these birds were killed to safeguard the carrier pigeons, environmental devastations, pesticides, and the specter of the Cold War and threats of nuclear disaster. The text will serve as the occasion for us together to raise questions of how the human being integrally affects his or her environment, the place of violence and the strange human attraction to and repulsion from it, the function of language and narrativity, the nature of obsession, and so on. We will discuss roughly the first half of the text on the first day and the second half on day two. Try to give yourself time to get into the peculiar rhythms of a book that is in certain respects somewhat repetitive but which is profoundly attentive to even the smallest details of the natural world around us.
IV. Confucius and Socrates
Sources for a Tradition or Distinct Traditions? (2 days)
Prof. Walter Nicgorski (Professor Emeritus)
Through discussion of two primary documents, the similarities and differences of the Confucian and Western Philosophical traditions will be explored. The texts are the Analects of Confucius and the Memorabilia by Xenophon. There will be two seminar sessions, and the expectation is that both texts (each around 150 pages) will have been read before the first session. Xenophon through several of his writings is one major source for our knowledge of Socrates, the other and more familiar to us is Plato, Xenophon’s contemporary. We will be especially interested in the form of each text, the procedure as teacher of the Confucian Master and Socrates, and the content of the teachings. The overall guiding concern reflected in the subtitle above is how common is human experience and human nature in the face of traditions that might seem so distinct and unbridgeable.
Both these texts are available online: the Analects at the sites of the Liberty Fund and The City of 10,000 Buddhas; the Memorabilia at the Questia site. A good book edition of this work of Confucius, among the very many available, is that of Vintage Books with the translation of Arthur Waley; it has been used in the PLS in recent years and also provides some helpful commentary. The Memorabilia (sometimes published under the English title of Recollections of Socrates) is available in paperback from Cornell U. Press, trans. Amy Bonnette. These texts are not to be read in a single or a few sittings; their nature, marked by many vignettes of encounters between teacher and student, calls out for a slower reflective reading, perhaps a few pages at a time but always with your notepad close at hand to record your reflections and questions.
V. The Book of Job (2 days)
The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, trans. Robert Alter (New York: Norton, 2010) ISBN: 0393340538
“Annul the day that I was born and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived.’ That day, let it be darkness. Let God above not seek it out, nor brightness shine upon it,” so Job speaks after his livestock, home, children, and his very body have been destroyed or debilitated by various disasters and diseases. For the reader, it is nearly impossible to bear the anguish of Job’s curse because we are told at the very outset of the book that relates his story that he is “blameless and upright and feared God and shunned evil,” and yet the four reprovers who confront him in his despondency insist that he must be a wicked man because God, in His justice, rewards the good with good and punishes the bad with bad. Job refuses to concede to their judgments, vehemently maintaining his innocence, but throughout his debates with his reprovers, he still cannot make sense of the why of the tragedies he has endured. Then, after the fourth reprover, Elihu, falls silent, the Lord finally answers Job from this whirlwind: “Who is this who darkens counsel in words without knowledge? Gird your loins like a man, that I may ask you, and you can inform Me. Where were you when I founded earth?” And so God relentlessly questions Job, reminding him of the unfathomable wonders of all that He has created, thus refuting any claim that prizes human beings as the pinnacle of creation. In the end, Job submits to God, humbly acknowledging: “I know You can do anything, and no devising is beyond you. ‘Who is this obscuring counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I told but did not understand, wonders beyond me that I did not know.” By acknowledging God’s sovereignty and repenting of the hubris of his self-justifications, Job not only merits his fortunes to be restored, but multiplied. And so the story ends.
In this two-session discussion, we will wrestle with the enduring questions of the why of suffering and the how of existence through the exquisite, arguably matchless, poetry of the Book of Job, a text that many scholars have rightly claimed to be “the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible.” Nearly all of the questions surrounding its authorship—who, where, when, and why—remain unanswerable; however, its place within the canon of sacred scriptures in both the Jewish and Christian traditions was never questioned, despite—or perhaps because of—its enigmatic origins and the direct challenges it poses to conceptions of God’s justice and human beings’ place in creation found elsewhere in the scriptures. The Book of Job is forty-two chapters long, but the division of the text over the two-session discussion will not be equal. On the first day, we will cover chapters one to thirty-seven, which consist of the opening to the frame story (God’s wager with the adversary) and Job’s debates with the four reprovers. On the second day, we will be swept up in the whirlwind of God’s answer to Job, recounted in chapters thirty-eight to forty-one, and close with the ending to the frame story in chapter forty-two. We will use Robert Alter’s translation of the book because it hews closest to the original Hebrew and poetic form of the text.
VI. The Long Loneliness and the Short Twentieth Century (2 days)
Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: HaperOne, 2009)
ISBN: 0060617519; any edition will be fine.
When Dorothy Day published her spiritual memoir, The Long Loneliness, in 1952 at the age of 55, it is safe to assume that she probably thought that the most significant events of what British historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the short twentieth century” were behind her. She had vivid memories of feeling the earth rumble and yawn under her feet during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the great fellowship that this disaster inspired across the city. She had logged arrests in Washington, D.C., protesting for women’s suffrage and in Chicago for crashing with I.W.W. labor organizers, who were disreputable in some quarters. She picketed for peace during two world wars that claimed an inestimable number of lives, inaugurated a new kind of industrialized destruction that made no distinction between civilians and combatants, and birthed upon the earth a weapon seemingly conceived for no other reason than to make it uninhabitable. Between the wars, she drank with the Lost Generation in Greenwich Village, toasted the Russian Revolution at a rally in Madison Square Garden, nursed those stricken during the 1918–20 flu epidemic, travelled to Europe and across Mexico, had a child by a common law husband, converted to Catholicism, and started a newspaper and house of hospitality for those left unemployed and destitute by the Great Depression. It is these last two things — her conversion to Catholicism and founding of the Catholic Worker Movement — for which Day is remembered by American Catholics and for which she will likely be canonized by the Church, having been named a Servant of God by Pope John Paul II in 2000.
In the early 1950s, though, Day had reason to feel lonely. Her great teacher and co-founder of the Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin, had died in 1949, leaving her alone to preach against militarism and consumerism to a nation puffed up with post-war pride and enough money, in some cases, to buy the good life to which they felt their victory had made them entitled. For many, of course, this American Dream was only that, a fleeting reverie, and Day would soon find herself, an old-guard veteran of one set of struggles, suddenly called into the vanguard of several new struggles — for civil rights, for workers’ rights, for the rights of immigrants, for prisoners, for lay participation in the Church, and for peace, always for peace. But in 1952, all of that was still to come, and Day was a middle-aged woman looking back on a life of crisis and contestation trying to remember the moments of consolation in which, like that other great spiritual memoirist, St. Augustine, God felt closer to her than she was to herself.
In these two sessions on Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, we will consider the sources of spiritual consolation in times of historical crisis that Day was able to find not only in the Church, but also in great literature both before and after her conversion, and how these sources fortified her for the struggles to come. And, of course, we will consider the sources of consolation to be found in and for our own troubled times, sources that may include Day herself. We will divide our discussion of The Long Loneliness as follows: Day 1, Parts One and Two; Day 2, Part Three.
VII. Plague, Love, and Stories: Boccaccio’s Decameron (2 days)
Boccaccio, Decameron (Penguin), tr. G. H. McWilliam
During the plague epidemic of 1348, seven young women and three young men meet in Santa Maria Novella in Florence and decide to move to the countryside in order to avoid the suffering and the moral dissolution reigning in the city. They will spend their time together walking, relaxing, and telling each other stories, on a theme chosen, each day, by the queen or king of the day. We will meet Ser Ciappelletto, Tancredi, Isabella, Calandrino, Sofronia, and other real or fake priests, nuns, angels, kings, merchants, married or unmarried men and women who survive the vicissitudes of their lives with bon mots, tricks, and vendettas, and explore how the narrators and listeners, in this meta-literary work, respond to the stories.