Wednesday-July 4th

Buckland: dead panther, anyone?

July fourth is just another day in England.  So we had our class and learned a bit about King Charles I, the Civil War, Puritans and Quakers, what meats one would eat, and Christ Church. William Buckland caught our attention and his goal was to eat every animal on the planet–not all of them but simply to try all of them. The anecdotes in our text were particularly attention getting:  jackals under the table munching on guinea pigs.  We did ponder if we really could draw a line between eating one kind of animal (chickens, say) and others that seem quite upsetting to us (dead panthers.)  Other points of discussion:

  • the fall of the great and mighty (King Charles I and Cardinal Wolsey)
  • the wives of Henry VIII and his error in blaming them for a lack of a son
  • William Penn, the Quakers, and Quaker Oats.  Turns out that Quakers had nothing to do with Quaker Oats…

But perhaps the most riveting activity was we decided to hold our very own All Souls’ entrance exam essay on one word.  Our word was… pots.  This choice was inspiring by an impassioned outcry of injustice and rebellion against the apparent theft of the kitchen pots and utensils, thereby depriving our group from their ability to cook their own dinners. The resulting array of essays were All Souls’ worthy: spanning meditations on Native Americans, poetry rhymed in couplets, one’s family cooking traditions, idea of a pot as the key to civilization, and many more.  We hope to publish the full array in the near future.

Tolkien posterThis afternoon we visited the delightful exhibit at the new Bodleian on J.R.R. Tolkien and his magical kingdom.  What struck me quite powerfully is the geography and the language that he created so meticulously and thoroughly.  The allusions to the Norse myths were
very strong if not seemingly acknowledged by the exhibit itself.

Politics of Secrecy

clinton2I am sure we are all familiar with the current uproar over Hillary Clinton’s health and her reluctance to be forthcoming about her recent bout of pneumonia.  Donald Trump refers to this as yet another example of crooked Hillary” and there is plenty of worrisome head shakes in the media about why she would not admit to being ill.  Trump himself revealed his own health records to… Dr. Oz.  But forgot to really share them with the rest of the nation.  Kind of like his IRS return.  The Washington Post did take him to task.  But now they are out.

But I am taken by the constant criticism of Clinton as secretive while her opponent ‘s choices to procrastinate or not answer questions are simply glossed over. Part of this might be due that Clinton has a long and established record in political positions where she could not be entirely open about what was happening.  Note: Confidentiality is not automatically a sign of nefarious doings.  But since she has tended to focus on issues and not herself, she has nevertheless received criticism from both sides.  Who is the real Hillary, they ask?

But let’s step back and ask if there might not be another problem.  Women have been viewed as secretive for centuries.  “You cannot trust a woman” was a common mantra from biblical times (Eve caused it all) through the middle ages (women living alone were clearly witches) to more recent times (B.B. King.)  witchesflying_lg

How did this deep mistrust of women originate?  Perhaps in prehistoric times men realized that the magical power of women to bring forth children was countered by their own uncertainty as to whether they were the father. Women were at home all day; what did they do?  You could try to control them, lock them up, forbid any access to the world without the man–but one could never be sure. Poetry and music abound in lyrics that bemoan the ways in which men cannot trust women.  From Purcell to country music to rap, women are sneaky, unreliable, and will break your heart.  Of course, to be fair, there are plenty of songs where women view men the same way.  But history has always painted women as particularly distrustful.  A cursory search reveals all sorts of collections of pithy comments by men about women.

clintonBut the problem may be broader than a fanciful historical take such as I offer above. Today we might argue that anyone who tries to keep his or her personal life private runs the risk of being accused of hiding something. Especially in politics.  Women, however, have been schooled not to bring their personal into the workplace. ” Do not mention you have kids or they will see you as less dedicated.” is advice given to many women.  Men never receive this admonishment.  Granted–the health records of candidates for the most taxing and horrible job in the world, President of the United States, may be important to know up front.  But then, why come down so vociferously on Clinton but not so much on Trump?

So we find ourselves with a twofold dilemma.  Do we assume Clinton is hiding truths or lying because we unconsciously assume this is “women’s way?”  And are we going too far in disallowing any public figure a measure of privacy wherein we do not have the right to know?  Should anyone running for office have to reveal every little detail about their personal lives?

Day 2- On Dangerous Beauty

9780199731602We began today with a discussion of Ruby Blondell’ book Helen of Troy: Beauty,Myth, Devastation.  We spent the morning parsing the relationship between women’s beauty, danger, lack of control, erotic desire and power.  Is the model of erotic power coming to an end with the pluralization of genders?- asked our leader, David Konstan.

Topics, again, ranged far and wide, all circling around an amorphous organizing mirage of beauty:
jealousy and the Greeks (not really an emotion of interest for them)
Menander’s comedies and the recognition of children
Aristophanes’ play on women taking over the government
Interesting point in Greco-Roman drama/comedy: if I girl references only a mother, this flags that she is a prostitute since no father or brother is there to “protect” her!
seeing goddesses and women naked and what that means
Beauty and ugliness in dance: Martha Graham rebelling against hegemonic notions of dance beauty
heroines in 19th century opera: free women alswyas end badly
The Femme Fatale–this generated quite a lot of discussion in terms of which movies introduce and define what a femme fatale is. Apparently there is a site to instruct one on becoming a femme fatale.  You judge its accuracy:

So who is the femme fatale?

Everyone agreed that Lamarr counted.  While a case was made for Bergman, I am less certain. And while Monroe is definitely the sex image of the 50s, she was not a femme fatale.

After a morning saturated with attention to women, the afternoon session took us in a slightly different direction.  Themes included:
Veiling and control
nature: European vs. American ideals
Beauty and sublimity
Nature as conquest vs nature as aesthetic object
ruins and the curious reconstruction of older villages to be memories of a bygone era (nostalgia?  Fake or real?)
A brief and regretfully lost thread on the Parthenon, Elgin Marbles, beauty, historicity.



One of our group shared a double-sided page of quotes that he uses in a seminar on taste.  Disembodied quotes never quite work for me unless they are self-contained enough to situate their meaning.  But several of the quotes worked quite well to prompt some reflections:

“If artworks are answers to their own questions, they themselves thereby truly become questions.”

“There is no art that does not contain in itself as an element, negated,of what it repulses.” Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1970)

0622So, I end today’s commentary snapshot with a reference from another participant who I believe put her finger on the quintessential example for the day, Alban Berg’s Lulu.  Lulu represented the fatal attraction of women and the decadent response of unbridled power and violence in men.  This review offers a fascinating analysis of the opera and its time.  lulu