Announcing the 24th Annual PLS/GP Summer Symposium
June 5-10, 2022
"Love Is As Strong As Death": On Human Desire and Commitment
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.
We are also pleased to announce that we will be once again holding our symposium in person, and we are excited to invite the PLS/GP community back to campus and to host everyone in our new departmental space. More details on the schedule of sessions and other social events as well as registration information will be posted soon.
The sessions will feature a multi-faceted reflection on love as an expression of human desire and a source of theological, philosophical, aesthetic, and interpersonal commitment. The sessions will be taught by current faculty of the Program of Liberal Studies. Please consider joining us for what promises to be once again an exhilarating week.
I. Plenary Session
Jennifer Newsome Martin
General Reflections and Open Q&A on the 2021 Opening Charge, "The Liberal Arts and the Birds of Appetite"
II. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro [3 days]
Required viewing: https://www.opusarte.com/details/OA0990D
In this three-day course, we will explore Mozart and Da Ponte’s operatic classic, Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), with a particular focus on issues of love, sex, and gender. As we examine Mozart’s perspective on the symposium's central themes, we will gain broader insight into eighteenth-century operatic conventions and how to interpret Mozart’s music against this backdrop. We will also compare different productions of the work for insights into how modern directors and audiences respond to Mozart’s representation of love and power.
III. “As Strong As Death”: Love in the Song of Songs and Teresa of Ávila’s Meditations [2 days]
2. Teresa of Ávila. Meditations on the Song of Songs, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila. Vol. 2. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1980. ISBN 978-0-960087-66-2. (For those who prefer not to buy this book, you can download the PDFs: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapters 3-5, Chapters 6-7.)
The Song of Songs was included in both the Jewish and Christian scriptural canons. In the former, it appears in the five megillot (or scrolls), together with Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther, in the third and final part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) called the Ketuvim (“writings”), and in the latter, it is grouped with the Poetical and Wisdom books. The Song is the only love poem in the Bible (both Jewish and Christian). It is a lyric poem that mainly features the speeches of an unnamed woman and man, but occasionally interjects the replies of a group of women called “the daughters of Jerusalem,” who function as a kind of chorus. The Song does not unfold according to a linear plot; instead, it spirals, eschewing a clear beginning and ending and often repeating phrases, lines, images, and themes.
The Song itself provides no clues about its composition—its authorship or when, where, and under what circumstances it was written. Traditionally, the text has been associated with King Solomon because of the references to him in Chapters 3 and 8 and his reputation as a composer of songs (see 1 Kgs 4:32), but he was almost certainly not the author of the text, nor is he the primary male speaker in it. The Song probably was composed sometime between the time of Solomon (10th c. B.C.E.) and the Hellenistic period (4th–2nd c. B.C.E.), but scholarly positions have differed widely over the issue of more precise dating.
Scholarly consensus has also been divided over the question of the number of authors behind the Song’s composition. Some have interpreted it as the unified work of a single poet; others have detected multiple textual layers composed by different poets at different times and, thus, read the Song as an anthology of poems. Regardless of which position you take on this question, know that the internal divisions of the Song are contested, too. The chapter and verse divisions found in Robert Alter’s translation of the Song (the translation used in this seminar), though fairly standard among contemporary editions and translations of the Christian Bible, are, in many respects, arbitrary and best ignored when studying the text, because these divisions sometimes create artificial breaks in the lines of a speaker.
By interpreting the Song, the participants of this seminar join a venerable tradition of biblical exegetes, writers, musical composers, visual artists, and filmmakers who have grappled with the text’s meaning from at least the late first century C.E. up to the present. Among Jewish and Christian mystics, no book has been quoted and imitated with greater frequency, including the Psalms. Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph (d. 135 C.E.), one of the earliest recorded Jewish commentators on the Song, is remembered to have said: “The whole world is not worthy of the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all of Scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” Origen of Alexandria (d. 253 C.E.), one of the earliest known Christian commentators on the Song, wrote: “Rightly then, is this Song to be preferred to all songs.” And Teresa of Ávila (d. 1582 C.E.), the first known woman commentator on the Song and the exegete who will enrich this seminar’s exploration of the text, began her Meditations on the Song of Songs by marveling: “One word will contain within itself a thousand mysteries.”
This seminar will spend one day discussing the Song of Songs itself and the second day discussing Teresa of Ávila’s Meditations in the hopes of discovering whether the love that the Song exalts is indeed “as strong as death.”
IV. “Tell me the truth about love”: Poetry of Human Love and Divine Love [2 days]
Chief among the perennial themes of poetry are love, time, and poetry itself. Shakespeare combines the three themes in his sonnet sequence. In Sonnet 116 his speaker famously asserts that “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,” and that “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come,” only to end with the grammatically slippery couplet, “If this be error, and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” More recently, W. H. Auden addressed a longish lyric to the puzzle of love, ending, “Will it come like a change in the weather? / Will its greeting be courteous or rough? / Will it alter my life altogether? / O tell me the truth about love.” Poets have written to woo, to immortalize, to praise (or castigate) their beloveds, to mourn the beloved dead, to testify to their love of God and to God’s love for us. We will spend two sessions sampling pre-circulated poems, approaching human and divine love from various angles. We will read poems by, among others, Shakespeare, Mary Sidney, John Donne, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Anne Bradstreet, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, Robert Hayden, Audre Lorde, and Mark Jarman. Electronic copies of the poems will be made available prior to the start of the symposium.
V. "...no work can be pleasing unless it is a work of love...": Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love [4 days]
In his famous "Rebellion" in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (1880), the skeptical middle brother Ivan says to his pious younger brother Alyosha, "I could never understand how one can love one's neighbors. It's just one's neighbors, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love those at a distance." Depending on how good our proverbial fences are, we might be inclined to share Ivan's confusion over this central commandment of Christianity. As Dostoevsky maintains throughout his most celebrated novel, it is much easier to love in the abstract than it is to love in action, which is so often, as Alyosha's beloved elder, Father Zosima, instructs, "a harsh and dreadful thing." Often we may dream of doing good works, of encircling humanity in a magnanimous embrace (provided, of course, that the conditions are just right), but how many of us relish the opportunity to offer our cloak and our tunic to the neighbor at our door, let alone to the stranger in the street? In Works of Love, perhaps the most important of the many books that he wrote in his short life, Dostoevsky's slightly older contemporary, the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) claims that the love of one's neighbor is a distinctive invention of Christianity and is, indeed, the the basis of all other loves, though it is no less "harsh and dreadful" for that fact. For this reason, Kierkegaard insists that the "God of love" must be remembered in every human work that aspires to love, for the timber of humanity is too crooked to meet the demands of love on its own. Over four sessions, we will consider with Kierkegaard the Christian command to do what is both necessary and impossible -- the work of love. The schedule of readings will be as follows:
Day 1: "First Series," Preface - Part II
Day 2: "First Series," Parts III-V
Day 3: "Second Series," Preface - Part V
Day 4: "Second Series," Part VI - Conclusion
VI. George Eliot, Middlemarch [4 days]
Widely regarded as one of the greatest English novels, George Eliot's Middlemarch has been praised for its masterful insights into the frailties and depths of human relationships. Over four sessions, we'll explore what Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) has to say about love, desire, and our (mis)perceptions of one another. Although any edition is fine, our standard will be the Harper Perennial edition listed above. The schedule of readings will be as follows:
Day 1: Books I & II
Day 2: Books III & IV
Day 3: Books V & VI
Day 4: Books VII & VIII, plus the "Finale"
VII. “Birth in Beauty”: Love and Erotic Desire in Plato’s Symposium [1 day]
Jennifer Newsome Martin
Plato’s Symposium is not only a classic text in its own right and context, but also has been deeply formative for subsequent theologies of love, desire, beauty, and aesthetic and mystical experiences, especially in figures in the Catholic intellectual tradition like Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Bonaventure, and Dante. For example, in his Life of St. Francis, Bonaventure borrows liberally from Platonic images from the Symposium to make a Christian and Christological point about the saint: “In beautiful things/He saw Beauty itself/and through his vestiges imprinted on creation/he followed his Beloved everywhere, /making from all things a ladder/by which he could climb up/and embrace him who is utterly desirable” (263). This one-day course will re-introduce students to Plato’s foundational collection of speeches in praise of Love/Eros from Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, the mysterious Diotima and the hapless Alcibiades, as we reflect together with Socrates upon the phenomenon of love and the ultimately human desire for transcendence.