Monday, September 03, 2007 • 12:47 PM Comments ()

Humanities and the Pleasure Principle

posted by Jack Cheng

Sometimes I feel like a hedonist.

No doubt my wife -- cosigner of our mortgage, mother to my two young children, and the woman who gave me my most prized possession (a push mower) -- is curious to know when these times are.

Well, they happen when talking about the Humanities.

For a number of years I have been working in the Clemente Course, a program to bring a free college level humanities course to an underprivileged neighborhood in Boston, and every year each of the five teachers gives a spiel about their part of the class and how important the humanities are to each student's development. Writing develops your thinking and helps get your point across, American history makes you a better citizen, literature develops the tools necessary to decipher the barrage of media we face each day and philosophy gives a context in which to reflect on the moral issues of the moment.

I teach art history.

And I always point out that we look at art because it's enjoyable.

There, I said it.

Hedonist.

Yes, I agree with my colleagues heartily. And I think art history also builds communication skills, engages the world and allows for reflection. But boy, have people made beautiful things to look at over the years. And I happen to like looking at them, too.

Hagia Sofia exterior My point usually comes across most strongly, I've found out, in the fourth or fifth week when I try to describe walking into Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, once the greatest church in the world and which was later converted into a mosque and is now a museum. The profile of the building is gorgeous, a perfect lump of voluptuous domes that is large but still invitingly human scaled. And the cool dark space inside is larger than expected, soaring up to the central dome which is ringed with windows. On a bright day the light streams through the windows, obscuring the pillars between them, and gives the impression of the dome floating on a halo of photons.Hagia Sofia interior

After I attempt to describe the experience of Sophia, the students will tell me: "You've been there." They don't ask me and they don't even put a hint of a questioning inflection on the statement. They just tell me. I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect that that is the moment at which students begin looking around their environment or in museums for a similar experience.

I guess it's like that woman in the diner in When Harry Met Sally who says, "I'll have what she's having."

We go back to the Humanities because they make us feel good. And why not? Aeschylus and Shakespeare wrote their plays to please audiences. Cezanne and Raphael wanted to sell their paintings and gain new commissions. And I get the feeling that Socrates was having more than a little fun in his dialogues with his admirers. Part of the joy we feel from these "great works" comes, I think, from reminding ourselves of the joy involved in the creation of them, and the joy of discovering them, or uncovering new sides to them we hadn't considered before.

Unfortunately we live in an age where economics are required justify the time and money spent on projects while subjective pleasure plays no part in the formula. Each year, the Clemente Course has a crisis of funding and there have been long term evaluations put into place to try to show hard data about the benefits the course provides to the community (not just to our students, but to their spouses, neighbors, siblings, and children). I understand that it's easier for a program to get funded if a grant officer sees an average gain in salary or improvement in children's grades than just hearing the story of a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts or the lively conversations about Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Sure, that's the way our world is constructed these days. (It hasn't gotten better since Robert Kennedy pointed out that the Gross National Product "measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.") But what are we making money for?

In the beginning it's for security: knowing there's food in the fridge, the rent gets paid and maybe even planning for a comfortable retirement.

But when those needs are met, we still want more money. Why? For more spending money. For more vacation time. For a chance to reach the nirvana known (in the words of one of the Commonwealth's great wordsmiths) as "Permanent Vacation."

What would you do if you had enough money to go on a permanent vacation? Go to the Santa Fe Opera or Bonnaroo? Read the latest Ian Rankin novel or reread Dickens? Actually walk the whole Freedom Trail and stop at Paul Revere's house? Just sit on a beach and reflect on your life? Maybe write a poem or a letter to a friend about your thoughts?

Or maybe you'd want to go to Istanbul and visit Hagia Sophia?

Isn't that why we're working so hard -- to have time to enjoy the Humanities?

Is it cheating to take an hour or day out of our week and go straight to the goal line?

Is that a definition of hedonism?

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