Sunday, February 15, 2009

Oxford pt. 4

So, I've begun doing research for my paper for my Shakespeare seminar, and, as I believe I've already mentioned, my focus will be on musicians and such in Shakespeare's plays. An angle I thought might be kind of cool to look at is how Shakespeare's songs have been performed for different productions, especially modern productions. 

Today, I came across a story NPR did about a 2005 production of As You Like It set in the mid 20th century. They producers of the show wanted to hire a popular contemporary band to write music for the many songs and instrumental interludes that appear throughout the play. Director, Antoni Cimolino decided that the Barenaked Ladies were up to the task. Now, I've never been a HUGE fan of this band, but I admit they do have a certain quirky intelligence that could be appealing. 

The Barenaked Ladies' songs are largely word-based, a trait that lends itself well to arranging music for Shakespeare's immaculate lyrics. According to Cimolino, he also chose the band because, "[their] melodic lines are both joyous and profoundly sad." 

After hearing about all this, a quick google search brought up the CD which i promptly downloaded. 

Here is a little taste of what the Barenaked Ladies came up with- the song I'm putting up is actually taken from Twelfth Night and so, to my knowledge, was never performed on stage. The words are taken from the opening lines of the first act- a powerful soliloquy delivered by the Duke Orsino. Orsino is asking for more music because he is frustrated in his courtship of the Countess Olivia. He muses that an excess of music might cure his obsession with love. 

without further ado,

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Oxford pt. 3

I am currently being destroyed by St. Thomas Aquinas' metaphysics. The paper assignment is to uncover the distinction he makes between existence and essence. As far as i can tell....wait a second; I turned to my blog to take my mind off this ridiculous subject for a moment. 

I haven't updated this blog very often, mostly because I have no time. The workload here is extreme, but you probably know that already. I'm not trying to complain or anything, I just am really burnt out, and it's all I can think about. After I finish writing one paper, there is very limited time to let my mind rest before I have to dive headfirst into the next one. It's a stressful way to get an education, but I am trying my best to stay afloat- or at least come up for air every once in a while. 

At our orientation the senior dean told us that to make it through the program without going completely insane, it's important to have a balance of activities, advice similar know, "all work and no play make Jack...something, something." My balancing act, which stabilizes the academic side of things, involves mindlessly surfing the internet, making my way through the complete Monty Pythons Flying Circus, wandering aimlessly through the cold damp Oxford streets, and of course, like any good American college student, drinking alcohol (among other things- there is a cheap classical guitar in the JCR that is worth a strum here and there- Scrubs is on TV more than it is in the states - LOST thursday nights with the other helplessly addicted fans - and a ridiculous british TV-show called Skins that is kind of like the OC with a lot more drug use and full frontal nudity, oh and white-trashy English gangsters, basically everything you could ever ask for). 

I've given myself two full nights a week to let loose and not think about my paper assignments. Wednesday and Friday night have become like oases in some terrible Lawrence-of-Arabia-like march across the desert that is Medieval and Enlightenment philosophy. Lecture, tutorials, and seminars are Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so by Wednesday night a celebration is definitely well deserved. After my last tutorial of the week is over, I feel like I've more than earned the right to some rest and relaxation time. 

Wednesday nights generally involve multiple bottles of wine and a 4 pack of tall-boys (Stella, Fosters, or Boddingtons). Krista, a new friend, also from Elmhurst College, has provided some very pleasant company on these nights, and a random assortment or others have also gotten involved in the fun and games this past week. The Wednesday night activity started when some of us from the CMRS decided to check out an Oxford Secular Society event. A prominent political commentator came to give a chat about secular solutions to the conflict in in Palestine/Israel. It was a very engaging lecture, with some very interesting debate following. The four of us Americans, for the most part, remained silent and somewhat in awe of the oh-so-well educated Brits in attendance. Afterwards, we couldn't resist indulging in our own less informed conversation about the issue. 

Krista, who has an interest in philosophy, brought up the idea of a symposium. Plato's dialog of the same name had come up in her seminar (I think). Anyway, she explained the symposium, which has its origins in ancient Greece, as a gathering of minds to discuss, debate and engage with issues that were of interest to those present. Wine is an essential ingredient at a symposium, because it opens the flood gates of expression, so to speak, loosening  people up to the point where no one hesitates to openly object, or make a bold statement about their deeply held beliefs. Wine could be deluded with water if the night got out of hand, or if the conversation called for a more focused discussion. Anyway, our own little symposiums have been quite enjoyable and I do hope they continue. 

Friday nights are an altogether different beast. These usually involve dinner, then pre-game drinks, then out to St. Peter's Pub. Irish car bombs have become a favorite for the pre-game, and the Cross Keys is a local favorite at the bar. St. Peter's Pub is attached to St. Peters college (of which CMRS is affiliated), so it's usually filled with students, which is nice. The namesake of the Cross Keys is the gold and silver keys St. Peter is often depicted with. It's two parts vodka, two parts white-rum, two parts goldschlager, and topped off with sprite- tastes like cinnamon. They sneak up on you pretty quick, but, needless to say, we are responsible drinkers. No doubt. No Doubt. Nights usually end with a trip to a chip stand and returning to the commons room to cause a ruckus until we are all to tired to go on. If we're lucky, Andrew will play a song on guitar that everyone knows the words to. Reminds me of home. 

Ok, I've slacked off for long enough. I have a long three days ahead of me. Start writing this essay tonight. Monday- finish Aquinas essay by 7 p.m., finish reading Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, go to lecture on the Reformation. Tuesday- defend my argument on Aquinas, seminar on King Lear, start paper on Hume - finish by 2 P.M Wednesday just in time to defend it with Dr. Crowe. 

It can and must be done. This is week four, which means tutorials are half over! 



Monday, January 19, 2009

Oxford pt. 2

Many people spend their study abroad experiences sightseeing, going to discothèques, sampling regional cuisines, jet setting to Pairs and Prague or otherwise taking an extended vacation from life. My study abroad experience is setting out to be much different from that which I’ve just described.

My program, The Center For Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS), is an intense academic program that gives American students a chance to taste what it’s like to study at Oxford University. Traditionally, students at Oxford sign up to take two tutorials a semester. The way the tutorial system works is students meet one-on-one with a professor (aka a tutor) once a week to discuss an essay they have prepared on a selection of reading. This allows students to pursue topics in their field in an in-depth and independent manner.

Writing these weekly essays is shaping up to be the most time consuming part of my life for the next eight weeks. The intense work load of this program will more than likely prevent me from doing most of the standard study-abroad activities that I listed above; although, I have found the time to sample the fish and chips (though, not without a book close at hand!).

Anyone who knows me will know that I enjoy a good time, but they will also know that my definition of what constitutes a good time is different from the normal ‘animal house’ definition of such. My idea of fun, you see, is enrolling in two philosophy tutorials, one on the Age of Enlightenment (roughly 18th century philosophy) and the other on the philosophy of the Middle Ages (roughly between the 9th and 14th centuries).

I am especially excited to study these two periods because they are in stark contrast to one another. The former is guided by pure reason, and represents the dawning of the modern age and the age of science; the latter is guided, almost exclusively, by the Catholic Church and represents the height of theological authority.

The history of ideas is something that has always interested me. These two periods are so extraordinarily different. The philosophy is very different and the way people lived their lives is, presumably, also very different. I suspect there is a strong relationship between the philosophy of an age and the way in which people live.  In my studies this semester, I hope to find out what exactly that relationship is.

In the introduction to his book History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell writes, “Between theology and Science there is a No Man’s Land,” i.e. Philosophy - that discipline which lacks the all too definite answers of theologians and which asks questions that cannot be found out in a laboratory. “Is man as he seems to the astronomer? A tiny lump of impure carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet?” Russell asks, channeling the archetypal philosopher, “Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Perhaps he is both...” Without philosophy though, he may be nothing at all. This is especially true if you subscribe to that Cartesian motto, “I think, therefore I am” (or for those of you who prefer the Latin: “cogito ergo sum”).

Students at the CMRS also take a seminar in an area of special interest (Shakespeare). Seminars meet once a week for a group discussion on some text (ten of Shakespeare's most important tragedies). The other part of the seminar is an in-depth research paper on a particular aspect of the subject matter (depictions of the working-class in Elizabethan Drama; with special attention paid to court jesters, musicians and dramatists). Finally, all students take an integral course that consists of a lecture series devoted to European history from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, which also includes field trips and a colloquium designed for the discussion of key texts.

These are the thoughts and activities that will consume most of my time here. If you find this all incredibly boring and academic, you may not be interested in reading anymore of my blogs. I myself am very excited to be enrolled in this program and will try to learn as much as humanly possible while I am here.

My first task to is to dismantle Descartes' body/mind dualism. The essay is due on wednesday, sooo i should probably get started on that. After receiving this assignment, and as I was leaving my first tutorial meeting, my tutor, Dr. Crowe, mumbled to himself, about the ridiculousness of Descartes Cogito, “He might as well have said, ‘I drink, therefore I am.’”  I rather like that sentiment, and so I will leave you with that. I bid you adieu.



Friday, January 9, 2009

Oxford pt. 1

Sitting in O’Hare about to board an airplane bound for England, I felt a bit like Odysseus standing on the shores of Calypso’s Island. I stood (or rather sat) on the threshold of a great adventure, a journey that would put my intellect to the test, and challenge me in ways I’ve never experienced before. The comparison to Odysseus may seem like an extravagant metaphor for the beginning of a study abroad experience, but as it were, I had just finished reading Homer’s Odyssey, so I ask readers to bear with me (Perhaps you’d be more comfortable with a Luke Skywalker analogy?).

 The so-called "Hero’s Journey" is an ancient story-telling tradition that has been repeated countless times throughout history, from ancient Greek poets to George Lucas and J.K. Rowling and everywhere in between. The Argentinan author Jorge Luis Borges once commented that there has only ever been two stories ever told: the story of a warrior lost at sea, searching for a beloved isle, and the story of a god who crucifies himself on top of a mountain.

Through the years, the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey has been used over and over again. That plot structure is tweaked here and there to be made appropriate for the times, but nonetheless, an easily recognizable pattern is almost always present in any story. There is a beginning, middle and end, either happy or sad, and the hero always struggles towards a goal or against some great evil. Academics like Joseph Campbell have fleshed this theory out in considerably more detail, but I hope I have said enough to make my point.

I believe a similar pattern exists in our lives, as great story telling often reflects and speaks to the experiences we all have and share together. We all have goals, and we all have various obstacles that stand in the way of those goals, obstacles that should and can be overcome. But, we cannot overcome those obstacles without a struggle, and the struggle is usually what gives us the best materials for story telling.

 In the stories I will tell about my experiences here at Oxford, I hope to be able to draw comparisons to the idea of the Hero’s Journey. I will be the hero, not because I am especially heroic, but because it is from my point of view that all will be expressed. I feel, in my own insignificant way, a bit like that cunning warrior Odysseus; I’m out at sea and will eventually end up back at home, but not before I am pushed and pulled and struggle through a demanding trial of events. I will face down many enemies (in the form of 16 essays, at around 2000 words each) and will be supported by friends and family throughout.

I will try my best not to bore you with my philosophical ramblings and pointless analogies. I’ll post pictures and talk about my life more normally once things get fully underway.

I’ve only been gone a few days, and already I miss home, but I also realize that home isn’t a precise physical location. It’s more than that (everything always is for us philosophy majors). Home is where your life has meaning, where you are understood and appreciated, and that can be anywhere. Oxford will hopefully become my new home for the next 14 weeks, but eventually I will return to Chicago-land to the people that I know and love best.

Right now it feels like I’m in a waiting room at some doctors office, but I can’t say what ails me or what kind of doctor will see me. Maybe St. Thomas Aquinas has the cure I need, or maybe David Hume, Immanuel Kant, or Shakespeare? Who knows? Seminars and tutorials start next week, so I’ll write more later, time permitting.  



Saturday, September 13, 2008

W. or when I learned to stop laughing and hate American politics

Oliver Stone is completely insane. On October 17, the controversial director’s latest movie will open in theaters. Entitled simply, W., the movie is another Hollywood dramatization of actual events, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Stone’s 1991 conspiracy theory thrill ride, JFK. The film's title, “W.” is in reference to Walker, as in George Walker Bush. The film is about our yee-hawing cowboy president and his family’s dynasty, which stretches across nearly three decades of American politics.

When I first saw the trailer, my sense of patriotism was sort of confused. As the trailer begins, George Thorogood’s song “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” starts to play, and a younger, sexier, Hollywood version of our president is depicted gambling, taking beer bongs, and driving under the influence. He is yelled at by his father for his shenanigans. The elder Bush says to his son, “Who do you think you are? A Kennedy? You are a Bush! Act like one!” Watch the trailer on YouTube; you’ll see what I mean. Ridiculous! This movie will come out while Bush is still in office. It boggles my mind. It seems like “politician” and “celebrity” are becoming synonymous.

In the race to become the next president, both Republicans and Democrats have celebrity candidates who are more desperate for attention than a knocked up Miley Cyrus. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has often been compared to John F. Kennedy, the sacrificed king of celebrity politicians, and recently, The Los Angles Times ran an editorial comparing Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin to Princess Diana, another political celebrity.

Oliver Stone’s movie will only give added weight to a candidate’s celebrity status. The fact that this movie was made exposes the pettiness of national politics and the ways in which real issues are kept hidden behind a facade of personality cults. Be honest, you have always wanted to have a drink and shoot pool with George W. Bush. It’s impossible to resist his mischievous grin and unpretentious Texas accent. I just hope that is not why you voted for him, if in fact you did.

Bush may not be a great leader, but he is a great politician, because he can get votes. He is likable and appears to be a genuine good hearted American. He is the friendly face that Dick Cheney, who is often compared to Darth Vader, and the Bush family’s other allies can hide behind. Take political mastermind Karl Rove, for instance. He is no less diabolical than a used car salesmen. Rove has sold the American people a lemon that has caused the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians and American soldiers.

I have to agree with author Douglas Adams who once wrote, “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” Politics is a dirty, dirty game, and there may not be any room at the top for an honest candidate while there are so many good looking puppets around.

Let’s not let American politics become like countless grade school student council elections. An election is not a popularity contest, nor is it a beauty pageant. Don’t let the glare shining off of Sarah Palin’s designer eye glasses blind you to the fact that she is in bed with big oil (literally, her husband has worked for BP in Alaska and now operates oil field production there). Palin is also a dangerous Fundamentalist Christian who would have us all learning creationism in public schools, fearing the rapture, and condemning condoms as an instrument of Satan.

If you vote in November, make an informed decision. Sarah Palin is a smooth talking hockey mom, and Barack Obama could talk circles around the Dos Equis mascot “The Most Interesting Man in the World”, but these factors alone should not earn them your vote. Entertainment Weekly is no place for politics. So, stay thirsty my friends. Stay thirsty for the real issues.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Levon Helms For a New Generation

This video is awesome. Levon Helms is the former drummer of The Band. His voice is an icon of American music. When he sings, I am reminded of the American Heartland. This short film features songs from Helms' 2007 comeback album, Dirt Farmer. Helms battled and beat throat cancer in the 90's. His vocal chords were severely damaged during that time, and his once chilling voice was replaced by a quiet rasp. Helms began singing again in 2004 at "The Midnight Ramble Sessions," concerts featuring a variety of guest musicians held regularly at Helms' home and studio in Woodstock, New York. In February 2008, Dirt Farmer won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album, showing that nothing short of death will keep Helms from singing and playing the drums, and thank god. May he continue to get the respect he deserves.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Beijing Olympics and American Aesthetics.

Nearly one thousand years ago, the Chinese invented fireworks. Fireworks have since become a symbol of celebration and new beginnings the world over. The ancient Chinese people who invented them used the blasting pyrotechnics to ward off evil spirits and illuminate the darkness of night. They prayed to the light they created for happiness and prosperity. The light of the Chinese people’s creativity and technical skill shines as bright as ever today. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics was a massive demonstration of Chinese cultural achievement, and Americans should be taking notes.

Famed Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who brought us movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, designed and created a performance that is an unmatched display of human creativity. The artistic force of the opening ceremonies was in excellent contrast to the obvious physical aspect of the games. The theme of contrast was used throughout the performance. Parallel themes like the one and the many, light and darkness, quiet and loud permeated the different movements of the show.

At 8:00 p.m. on August 8, 2008, an estimated 4 billion worldwide viewers tuned in, as 15,000 performers took to the stage inside the beautifully crafted Beijing National Stadium. Impressive chorography and massive displays of ancient arts like Tai chi-chuan and calligraphy added to the splendor of the event. The human element was contrasted by an enormous scroll, which lay on the floor between and beneath performers on the field. A technological marvel, the scroll unfolded into a 15,000 square foot L.E.D. screen. The screen projected scenes from Chinese antiquity which framed the movements of the performers. The stadium and the people inside of it stand framed in their place amidst the impressive Olympic village, in the booming city of Beijing, a shining tribute to Chinese Culture.

The Beijing National Stadium was designed by the Swiss based architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, in collaboration with ArupSport and China Architecture Design & Research Group. The group, working with director Zhang Yimou’s production team, designed a building that would participate fully in the opening and closing ceremonies held within the soon-to-be-built structure. A built in fireworks show, beyond impressive lighting, and massive jumbo screens are a few of the features integrated into the stadium specifically for the show. The stadium, sometimes referred to as “The Bird’s Nest” easily sold out its 91,000 seats for its debut at the opening ceremonies. An impressive number of Heads of State showed up for the event, among them: the entire Bush family, Henry Kissinger, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. With the largest television audience to date, and a rumored $150,000,00 U.S.D spent, the show could hardly have been anything but astounding.

Astounding is but one word to describe the opening ceremonies in Beijing this summer. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago was also in attendance. His city is the American finalist in the bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The mayor has a lot to live up to if his city wins. Daley went to Beijing looking too see what it takes to host the Olympic Games. What he found, and what we all simultaneously found out, is that it takes more than just great athletes to make the Olympics the major historical event that it can and should be. It takes a great city in a great country, capable of producing the world’s foremost arts and entertainment experience. This is what China has done. The question is: Can America keep up the pace?

Even given the full financial support of one of the largest and richest governments in the world, it is doubtful that American directors like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron or Mel Gibson could ever come up with and pull off something as beautiful and poetic as 2,000 Tai-Chi masters performing the ancient martial art in perfect unison live in front of billions. Chinese culture is rooted in an ancient tradition of artistic excellence and disciplined mental activity. American arts and entertainment have suffered from a lack of such a tradition.

The Beijing Olympics have asserted the Chinese culture as a leading force in art, entertainment, technology, and engineering, which can hardly be dreamed of in the United States. Artists, directors, writers and performers alike should look at the world for their inspiration. The world is without a doubt a global community and we should all act accordingly. America’s cultural isolation has led popular culture into the dumpster. The Chinese architecture and performance art at the Beijing Olympics may be seen as strongly nationalistic with a heavy military theme, but nonetheless it was a warm expression extended to the world’s greatest athletes by China’s greatest artists, which at this moment may too be the world’s best.