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.