It's Back and Better Than Ever

June 3, 2016

Thanks to Sue Durkin, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The Great Books Chicago weekend, advertised as “a weekend of conversations and culture,” is back and its return was glorious. I was fortunate enough to be one of the seventy participants spanning from California to Toronto who converged in the Windy City to discuss the benefits and detriments of living in utopian societies. The texts used to prompt the discussions were the quintessential dystopian novel, Orwell’s 1984, and the Great Books anthology, Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions.

The weekend started with a Thursday evening flight from my warm-weather home of Arizona to beautiful, chilly Chicago. At the Phoenix airport I dutifully waited my turn to present my documents and submit to x-rays of my belongings and my sock-shod body. Cameras and security personnel watched and followed as I moved along. I understand and accept that each of my encounters and interactions in the airport was for my own good and for the safety of all. But my utopian-soaked mind couldn’t help but think, “What are we willing to give up personally for the benefit/betterment of society? Do all of these measures make a better, happier society?”

Upon arrival at the downtown Chicago hotel, I was immediately struck by the similarities between the look of the hotel and the images described in the utopian writings I came to Chicago specifically to discuss. Looking up at the building’s interior, I was struck by the uniformity; each floor and each room seemed the same. Each room had a perfect view of other doors on all other floors; perfect for knowing when your neighboring occupants were coming and going. The impression was beautiful, yet industrial, with a dash of familiarity. People were enjoying adult beverages in an area on the main level, the same area where my fellow participants and I had our communal breakfasts each morning. Again, through the filter of 1984 and the other readings, I pondered, “Does sameness increase satisfaction? Why do we feel more at ease when we can keep an eye on everyone else?” Indeed, the simple, routine flight and lovely, comfortable hotel provided a perfect prime for the conversation pump.

As advertised, this weekend was equally about culture. Participants were treated to a sampling of the culture that is interwoven throughout Chicago. On Friday, the clouds lifted and we took a river cruise to observe and appreciate Chicago’s amazing architecture. An evening at the Pinstripes restaurant followed, where engaging conversations and delicious food were enjoyed by all. On Saturday, participants were offered a glimpse into the Gilded Age (a utopian age for some) with a tour of the Dreihaus Museum. This grand former residence brought our imaginations back to the turn of the century, especially with its current exhibit featuring the costumes of Downton Abbey. These costumes served to transport us to the early 1900s in a way that was truly unique. But wait, there’s more! Saturday was capped off by an evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert of works by Mozart and Strauss. Beautiful music delivered in an equally beautiful turn of the century building. It was truly an ideal evening.

Throughout the weekend, the discussion participants met in the historical building on Wacker Drive that is home to the Great Books Foundation. After registering and receiving our assigned groups for the weekend, we gathered for an introduction and outline of what participants should expect for the weekend from Joe Coulson, President of the Great Books Foundation, and a memorable rendition of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” by the incomparable Gary Schoepfel. These gatherings, sans the dulcet tones of maestro Gary, were repeated prior to each session and served to focus our attention on the upcoming discussion. The ability to conduct our discussions in the Wacker building provided a perfect, nay ideal, setting. Unlike previous years, discussion groups were comprised of the same participants and leaders for every discussion. This change enabled participants to get to know each other better, make better cross-discussion connections, and to dig a little deeper with each other as the weekend progressed.

As with all Great Books Council discussion weekends, the stories take center stage and this weekend was no exception. We gathered two times to discuss six selections taken from the anthology, Imperfect Ideal: Utopian and Dystopian Visions and one time to discuss Orwell’s 1984. The pieces from the anthology ranged from Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” to “Utopia” by Wislawa Szymborska. The authors challenged our ideas regarding what we consider perfection to be… Is it more appealing to live an unknown, unsure, but free life? Or is the safe, known, secure, but costly life a better option? What are you willing to sacrifice for your happiness? Is the happiness of the whole worth the misery of the one? Can a utopian society tolerate individual thought and expression? As we walked through these selections, and one path led to another path, the three days of discussions prompted more questions. Good literature coupled with good discussions can be life altering. At the end of the weekend, I was left with some questions that will inform and shape future decisions... Are we resigned to giving away our power and as a result losing touch with our potential to be truly happy? What am I willing to give away of myself, my freedom, my potential, my talent, and my curiosity for what someone calls the greater good? Hmmm...

Yes, Great Books Chicago is back. Suffice it to say, the impact that the readings, discussions, culture, art, and comradery that makes up the sum total of Great Books Chicago, left this participant richer for having attended. No, TSA did not wave me through the line with a wink and a nod as I returned home to Phoenix, but I came away from the weekend appreciating the entire experience and looking forward to what next year will bring.

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