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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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The Darkest Novel

May 6, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I recently attended Great Books Chicago 2016 to discuss utopias and dystopias. One of our readings for this event was George Orwell's 1984. At the end of the session, someone asked me whether I believed 1984 to be the darkest novel I have ever read. My immediate response was no, but I have been thinking about this question ever since. I typically enjoy 'dark' literature, and so I have read a number of different novels that would fall into this category. After thinking over the question some more, I am going to stick with my previous answer for a few reasons. While 1984 is certainly not shining a ray of sunshine on me, I do not think it is the darkest novel I have ever read. Here are some reasons for my decision. I welcome other ideas and comments on my reasoning or on the novels themselves.

First, Big Brother allows the proles to exist in a semi-catatonic, but also, semi-autonomous state. Since there are so many proles, I have hope that a future resistance is not impossible.

Second, Winston's journal exists only because there was a shred of doubt (hope?) in Winston himself. He mentions that he writes the journal for O'Brien, in fact to O'Brien. Of course, this is before he understands who O'Brien truly is. The gesture can also be interpreted in the sense that at some point Winston may influence O'Brien. If minds can change, I saw no evidence to tell me that O'Brien's mind is not also susceptible to that struggle.

Third, the clearing where Julia and Winston first meet gives me hope. If this green, pristine and edenic spot physically exists, then a chance for someone else to desire Eden also exists. As long as an Eden exists in this world, then the idea of redemption exists.

In my mind, a novel like William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is much darker. The shame, degredation and deprivation of this world is unavoidable. As the Bundren family travels it literally carries death to all the neighbors and towns, even the reader. Not only do they influence minds and opinions, they introduce futility into each characters' life. For example, the shop-keeper clearly does not want to sell cement to Darl as a cheap form of cast for his brother's shattered leg. However, the shop-keeper gives in and from this experience learns of regret, of disgust and helplessness in the face of an uncontrollable force. The family persists in the utterly ridiculous, dark narrative of finding a burial spot for Addie Bundren. Therefore, I would list a novel by William Faulkner or perhaps Cormac McCarthy as the darkest I have read. I am sure, however, that there are many opinions that would disagree with mine and I appreciate any thoughts on the novels listed in today's blog.

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Experience and the Individual

July 31, 2015

A few weeks ago, we posted a blog about the idea of experience as it relates to ego and sport. To further that idea, today we hope to investigate experience from a different perspective. Namely, how can one gain meaningful experience? In order to investigate this question, we have focused on a few recent experiments that offer a nice bridge between theory and reality. As we wander the globe, feel free to play Led Zeppelin's “California” as background music.

“No one knows America like Daniel Seddiqui”, or so says his website: livingthemap.com . After graduating college, Daniel Seddiqui had trouble finding a decent paying job. And so, after struggling through a few hourly jobs, he decided to travel from state to state, trying out different jobs. From this endeavor, he did not immediately gain money, but instead, he gained something far greater: experience and connection. We often think that life's path is somewhat prescribed for us: school, job, family, etc. But the experiment offered by 'living the map' proves that all prescriptions are a human construct. Seddiqui decided to create a narrative that better suited him. In other words, invention and creation are vital aspects of the human mind, and therefore, of human experience and progress.

Seddiqui's travel is similar to Elizabeth Gilbert's journey in Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert, on a whim that stemmed from necessity, also jumped into a year long travel trip. Much like Seddiqui, Gilbert did not know what she was going to find, or even what she sought. However, after many miles, lots of good food, some blunders and colorful interactions with lovely locals, she discovered herself. She found a center. The travel sustained her intellectually, spiritually and, ultimately, monetarily. The lessons learned on this journey would have been unattainable if she had not removed herself from her previous situation. She needed actual, physical, spacial separation in order to understand the painful experiences and relationships in her life. This space created room for self-awareness. Many people claim that running from a problem is a bad idea. However, in Gilbert's case, she could not find herself amongst the complexity of the problems themselves. She was not running, but seeking. Hence, travel for her was a necessary experience. She writes of heartache, “This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.” It is an important point to realize that self-understanding also leads to empathy. Therefore, her experience offered a wholesome focus on self and, therefore, greater understanding in general.

The iconic novel of experience is, of course, On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It is a novel of listlessness, of travel, of curiosity, drugs, love and error. The book reveals the path of friends as they travel in hopeful pursuit of something greater than themselves, but available only through themselves. Kerouac writes, “As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, 'Pass here and go on, you're on the road to heaven.'” Perhaps, then, experience offers a path to heaven.

Obviously, these experiments exemplify the era in which they were created. However, they do more than merely define and discuss a single generation. Instead, they use the individual self as a focal point from which to study and understand the world. They selflessly illustrate their own struggles in a way that offers insight, empathy and connection. They teach of experience through a specific lens. Readers are more than viewers; they become community and participants, for there would be no journey without community.

Experience can be temporal, mystical, out-of-body or solitary. Mortimer Adler writes, “Without experience the mind would remain empty, but experience itself does not fill the intellect with ideas.” The question is, then, from where do we gain valuable experience? It is possible that the value of each experience depends entirely upon the person involved. Experience may be something different to each person, and rightly so. The amount of intricacy involved in making something worthwhile depends solely upon an individual's receptive capability. In other words, at any one time, an individual (and by extension, an individual's experience) is affected by mood, memory, emotion, nature, ego, responsibility, education, etc. For this reason, it is easy to understand why a single experience might become vitally important to some and not others.

In the Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon notes the lack of experience involved in education. He writes: “[A]mongst so many great foundations of colleges in Europe, I find strange that they are all dedicated to professions, and that none are left free to arts and sciences at large. For if men judge that learning should be referred to action, they judge well: but in this they fall into the error described in the ancient fable, in which the other parts of the body did suppose the stomach had been idle, because it neither performed the office of motion, as the limbs do, nor of sense, as the head doth: but yet notwithstanding it is the stomach that digesteth and distributeth to all the rest. So if any man think philosophy and universality to be idle studies, he doth not consider that all professions are from thence served and supplied. And this I take to be a great cause that hath hindered the progression of learning, because these fundamental knowledges have been studied but in passage. For if you will have a tree bear more fruit than it hath used to do, it is not anything you can do to the boughs, but it is the stirring of the earth and putting new mould about the roots that must work it.” Experience is vital to human existence, education, connection, development and growth. It is personal, yet also universal. It can be both painful and elevating. Experience involves perception, thought, memory and fact. It is, above all, developed by a curious intellect. The path of experience is a mystery to be solved by each individual as they gain experience. It seems, therefore, that we will always wonder at what is next, just as the Led Zeppelin song “California” states: “I wonder how tomorrow could ever follow today?”

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