Saturday, May 26, 2012

Humanities 101

We have all had a professor or two that have had an exceptional impact on us. This story is about one of them.
A few years ago, a friend was at her wits end with her son who had no interest in classes that were not about science, where, thankfully, he was doing well.  She thought I might be able to help and asked if I would write a short note to him:
Dear Toni,
Your mother tells me you have been doing some animation. I assume computer animation. If so, I can only love the technology behind it and respect your understanding of it. We used to think only of cartoons and Disney movies in this context but I know animation has moved way beyond that - medical training, abstract modelling, pilot simulation, etc, (not to mention Halo or EA, Grand Theft Auto). 

She asked me to offer you my thoughts regarding the study of the humanities in general, of literature and poetry. I feel I am slightly able to do this as I have in my time read many of the books which appear as "classics" on several scholarly lists, as well as an assortment of cheap novels, pulp fictions, comic books, high adventure stories. I have read my share of abbreviated Cliff's Notes to get the gist of a classic when time to read the whole book before the exam was not available. I have been to many museums, gone to many concerts, some rock and some classical. I have also read a lot of poetry and even tried writing some.
But I have read, seen things, heard music - that turned me sideways, that made me feel haunted and humbled. And, truth be told, the more you know about the thing, the more you will be able to appreciate it.
My first day in my first class in college, in the elective subject of Humanities 101, I walked into the lecture hall of a certain Dr. Pletz, a slim, animated, gentle man who always wore a black suit with a red or black turtleneck sweater, which made his shock of white, unruly hair stand out. The first thing he said was to never say "I know what I like" - rather, to say "I like what I know". Then began the lessons to expand that which we liked and which we knew. He was strict - he called out randomly to the hall and asked you to leave if you were unprepared - because he said the world tossed you out if you were unprepared. But he also became one of the artists he spoke about.
Over the year, the class was a survey of the many disciplines of the humanities: language and linguistics, history and literature, but also the arts: theater, music, dance, painting, architecture. In short, pretty much the gamut of human intellectual endeavor - save the sciences. For his fresh-faced students, Dr. Pletz held open the door and pushed, pulled as we piled through to appreciation and understanding, to a view of the incredible world where artists, including computer animators, interpret the world with original words, clay, music notes, and motion. Where they make inquiries into values, ethics, ideals. Where they define truth and beauty - and their opposites. 

Among some of the classics we read was Aristotle's Poetics concerning the seven parts of a play.  We read John Ciardi's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, as well as his "How Does a Poem Mean?", about how to read and write poetry, where he tells of a poet who says he writes because he "likes to hang around words". The survey covered the masters of renaissance art, French and English painting up to the twentieth century, and finally, the music of some of the great classical and modern composers.

Needless to say, Dr Pletz inspired me. I went on to publish six novels, two plays, and several volumes of poetry. Just kidding. But I did expand what I know and still never say I know what I like. Perhaps I would have an appreciation of the humanities without this particular professor, but it would not have been the same. I think of him whenever I read a poem or see a play. Hopefully, you will meet someone like him.

Probably the best known American poet is Robert Frost. He won the Pulitzer Prize four times. Though some say his poems are very dark, I think they are not too murky and have an easiness about them. He recited at Kennedy's inauguration. "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" are two of his better known poems. You can find these in the American Poems link below. Read them, if you like, and let me know what you think of them. I know your mother likes poetry and she would enjoy your discussing them with her. 
Carl Sandburg is also well known, born near Chicago. Here is an apropos poem of his.

A man saw the whole world as a grinning skull and
cross-bones. The rose flesh of life shriveled from all
faces. Nothing counts. Everything is a fake. Dust to
dust and ashes to ashes and then an old darkness and a
useless silence. So he saw it all. Then he went to a
Mischa Elman concert. Two hours waves of sound beat
on his eardrums. Music washed something or other
inside him. Music broke down and rebuilt something or
other in his head and heart. He joined in five encores
for the young Russian Jew with the fiddle. When he
got outside his heels hit the sidewalk a new way. He
was the same man in the same world as before. Only
there was a singing fire and a climb of roses everlastingly
over the world he looked on. 

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