I want to thank my Thematic Option Honors students for a splendid academic term. As you know, this is my last year at USC. My departure is bittersweet. I’ll miss working with you all. And I’ll also miss working hours on end in the gorgeous environs of the Hoose Philosophy Library. I wanted to leave on a high note and provide you with many opportunities to critically engage great literature and art. I spent two years planning our seminar. I weighed each text selection and assignment carefully. In truth, I’ve spent many years preparing for our class.
In the summer of 1999, I worked the graveyard shift as a night clerk in the Bancroft Hotel located in Berkeley, CA, across from the U.C. Berkeley campus. It was not then a busy time for summer tourism. Before my shift started, I typically bought a hot latte from Cafe Strada next door then manned the hotel desk, waiting for incoming phone calls or room reservations. The hot beverage comforted me, and I passed the time by slowly reading Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique–the Critique of the Power of Judgment–in which he discusses the distinction between ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the sublime.’ While working at the hotel that summer I realized that I wanted to teach a course on beauty, which would include some of my favorite writers and philosophers. Frequently, while at work I paired Kant’s thick arguments on beauty with some of the most sublime music I had ever heard, listening on headphones for countless hours to Beethoven’s string quartets and piano sonatas.
A large lavishly decorated event room was attached to the hotel lobby. Often management booked wedding receptions and events, and held them in that room, which was also equipped with a new stereo sound system. One night I set aside my Kant reading and turned on the classical music radio station. I shall never forget it. To my surprise and good fortune a recording of the opening strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, “The Emperor,” had just started. Vladimir Ashkenazy performed on the piano. The hotel was dark, silent, and empty. I turned up the volume, sprawled on the carpeted floor, stared at the ceiling, and imagined a sky full of glittering torches and shooting stars. The music was genius. Indeed, it was sublime, the very tenor of Kant’s conclusions. I listened intently; the first movement was utter triumph.
I couldn’t recall the melody of the second movement. I anticipated its opening chords. The strings enter softly, muted, and hesitant like a bashful girl entering a ballroom, adorned in evening dress. Or a sea-bird girl standing on Howth Strand suffering the long gaze of Stephen Dedalus. There she stood, with “soft bosom and flowing hair,” her image intermingling with the quiet strains of music, and I heard Joyce’s words echo in the room, swaying gently as seaweed in the foamy whirling tide, flowing with the subtle current, hither and thither. The music was not produced by fingers pressing piano keys but a soft pen inking words of quiet romance–a love tender and true, perhaps unrequited.
The second movement conveys the listener to calm retreats in the Lake District, Tintern Abbey, Dover Beach, or makes one recall Yeats’s famous digression:
Old lecher with a love on every wind,
Bring up out of that deep considering mind
All that you have discovered in the grave,
For it is certain that you have
Reckoned up every unforeknown, unseeing
plunge, lured by a softening eye,
Or by a touch or a sigh,
Into the labyrinth of another’s being;
Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth out of pride,
Cowardice, some silly over-subtle thought
Or anything called conscience once;
And that if memory recur, the sun’s
Under eclipse and the day blotted out.
A lost opportunity. Love on the wind. Sounds of the sublime. Lured by a softening eye. The music conveys us to beauty and our choice is whether we shall attend it. As somber notes resonate with “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness” and “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” we cannot fail to also consider the last lines in John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Indeed, Beethoven would make you a believer.
This term I wanted to share some of my passions with you in contemplation of beauty. We studied Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Sebastian Barry, John Banville, W.B. Yeats, Marcel Proust, Elaine Scarry, Denis Donoghue, and Walter Pater, to name a few. I wanted to provide you with opportunities to explore the language of beauty and stylized perfection. What is beautiful writing? What constitutes eloquence and style? What value shall we hold the claims of “art for art’s sake”? So often we are told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but is that statement really true? If so, then how does beauty transform our lives? How can we pursue or imitate it in our academic efforts?
With these writers we are reminded to seek beauty and understand epiphanic moments as they occur. One of the most important pursuits is the integration of beauty in daily life. It’s even more important not to miss beautiful experiences when they happen. Thus, I wanted our course to be eye opening and sense awakening. As Pater says:
To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions….
As our course comes to a close, and we inevitably part ways, I wish that you shall always “test new opinions and court new impressions.” And perhaps you shall be inspired by the writers we have studied this term, often summoning unto experience moments of divine grace and beauty. Perhaps, too, you shall “forge in the smithy of your soul” a new conscience in touch with the harmonies of the beautiful and the sublime.
In many ways, I wish our course could be extended for at least another term. I have so many things to share with you, if only we had time. I wish we had time to study Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Schiller, and Nietzsche. I wish we had more time to study additional offerings of music, art, and poetry. If this course shall mean anything to you, then I hope it will motivate you to seek beauty in your lives–in the present and in the future–fill it with the ecstasy of radiant poetry! Allow yourself to feel the rhythm and elegance of words, for as Yeats said, “Words alone are certain good.” For I believe with all my heart that human redemption, if there is such a thing available to us, comes from an ascent of love to the transcendent. The ascent begins on the ladder of language.
In the experience of beauty we may feel the import of Yeats’s words:
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest. (“A Dialogue of Self and Soul”)
And we also recall William Wordsworth’s lines:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:–feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:–that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,–
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”)
As Daniel Richter (USC, Classics Dept.) mentioned in his keynote address at the 2012 Thematic Option Honors Conference, and as Pater recommends in the above quote, we would do well to seek out and serve the requirements of expertise. Respect the experts. Study the masters. Understand the requirements of artful craft.
Our class was primarily a writing seminar, not a literature, film, or humanities course. I hope we have learned that writing is an art and it requires years of dedicated effort to become proficient in it. Writing well requires hard labor and much practice. I wish I could tell you that it gets easier. Writing proficiency requires much patience and humility. Thus, as Dr. Richter reminds us, we would do well to learn what it means to be an expert, or a “veteran writer” as Trimble says. Our writerly passion begins with paying attention, close reading, and textual analysis. Scholarly expertise involves mastery of close reading strategies, argumentation and rhetorical skills, not critical theory or pretentious ideologies. Keep it simple: read and write.
I want to congratulate members of our class who participated in the Thematic Option Honors Conference: Mo, Breanna, Ashley, Ian, Max, and Sara. I appreciate your involvement and hard work. I am proud of you. I am also happy with all your efforts this term. Our class proved that the designation “honors student” is well-merited and accurately worthy of you all. Also, I have greatly appreciated your class participation and tutorial attendance. Furthermore, I appreciated your class comments, as well as your comments outside class.
Lastly, I would recommend that we keep in mind lines from W.B. Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”: “We must labor to be beautiful.” Although this is a woman’s statement on the difficult challenges of beauty, perhaps ironically its “terrible beauty,” it pertains to us all: the experience of beauty is not to be taken for granted. It is laborious to discover, appreciate, and understand it–the labor comes with great power and knowledge, often irreconcilable opposites, and I hope this course has inspired in you a desire to dream beauty into existence, perhaps even a “forgotten beauty,” bringing redemption into our troubled world.