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Thoughts from the First Day of Toronto Pursuits 2014

July 15, 2014 in Art, Canada Travel, Classical Pursuits, Famous Artists, Famous Museums, Great Artists, Special Events, Summer Fun, Toronto Pursuits

Susan Lahey signs up for Twitter Just before giving her talk on Chinese Decorative Arts.

Guest Post by Ann Kirkland of Classical Pursuits

The first full day of Toronto Pursuits was a great success. It was great to see and meet some of the new people and find out about how they discovered Toronto Pursuits. Some people said they were here for their love of discussions and great ideas. Others were from Toronto and lived here their entire lives but never knew about it. Many were repeat attendees who keep coming back to Toronto to join us and partake in sessions and discussions.

“The Forbidden City” Exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

On Monday, we started the day with sessions and then after lunch had a great talk from Susan Lahey and learned more about an insider’s view of Chinese Decorative Art. We took a trip with her to the Royal Ontario Museum to see an exhibition on “The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors.” Ian Scott shared his wealth of knowledge of Eastern and Western opera.

To finish off a rewarding day, we had an intimate reception at the Park Hyatt in Toronto. The week is just getting started and there is much more to come. Stay tuned!

Read more about Classical Pursuits and the Toronto Pursuits program.

Halloween Reflections

October 30, 2012 in Classic Literature, Classic Writers, Historical Texts

Halloween’s literature illustrates the tradition’s evolution through a convergence of cultures. The festival dates back to an ancient Celtic tradition celebrated on October 31. The Celts celebrated a festival called Samhain to mark the end of the final harvest. Food was in surplus as death lingered in the chilly fall air. These contrasting circumstances may be understood as the reason the Celts believed Samhain was the time when the veil between the dead and the living was at its thinnest.

Celtic and Christian cultures merged as Germanics began to populate Ireland and the British Isles. Christians celebrated Hallowmas, old English for All Saints Day, on November 1. All Saints Day was a time to remember the dead through prayer. Influenced by the Celtic idea of otherworldly contact, Christians felt that their prayers for the dead would be most effective if sent on the day when the spiritual world could be breached.

The tradition that took place on the Eve of All Hallow’s Day became known as All Hallows Eve. Merging two cultural perspectives on the same day, All Hallows Eve used the idea of the “otherworld’s” proximity and reverence for the dead to create the foundations for a festival we call Halloween.

Centuries of cultural confluence created the modern Halloween of costumes, jack-o’-lanterns, and candy. Ideas about religion, culture, and modernity have all influenced the tradition, but one theme has remained through it all. Halloween is the day the portal that separates the living from the dead is peeled open and the two worlds are believed to interact.

Mirrors are not often associated with Halloween, but, in literature, the two are thematically connected. In literature, mirrors are used to represent portals to other worlds. Mirrors are central in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Brothers Grimm’s Snow White, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Though mirrors are rarely used in direct reference to Halloween, they have been used in literature to provide a physical divide between the living and spiritual worlds.

Halloween is the day when that divide is believed to be as thin as the pane of glass used to represent it. This Halloween, most mirrors will be used for admiring our creepy, bizarre, and often revealing costumes, but beware the few that may become the doorways for the encroaching unknown.


Culture Shock: places are strange when you're a stranger

July 26, 2010 in Uncategorized

I went to a college that I often compared to a boarding school, but boarding school graduates compared it to summer camp.  We were coddled, gently incubated to adulthood in a single-path Ohio village.  Our dining hall had a “continuous feed” policy.  Our health center offered support groups for socially isolated students.  Our professors regularly granted extensions for existential crises.  It was a place apart, with the remote location, Gothic architecture, and demographically limited population you’d expect in a period piece, a horror movie, or a combination of the two.

Given that my college experience combined the odd and the infantilizing so frequently, when my study-abroad materials raised the possibility of “culture shock,” I considered it an overstated concern and a welcome diversion.  Junior year was the perfect time to go abroad – I had just begun to internalize the limitations of my campus, to reduce my worldview to a population excessively concerned with the social capital of obscure indie rock bands, or their ability to express the inherent inadequacy of language in a fourteen-line poem.

To prepare myself intellectually for my abroad experience, I took a course on 18th century travel narratives.  We covered the requisite Boswell, Johnson, and Smollet, but also the landscape-mirroring-emotion letters of Mary Wollstonecraft.  In retrospect, I wish I’d devoted more attention to descriptions of more dramatic culture clashes – Passage to India, Wide Sargasso Sea—or the science-fiction narratives on my brother’s bookshelf.

Psychologists, literary scholars, and international studies counselors throw around the terms “defamiliarisation,” intercultural awareness,” and “negotiation phase,” but they are all talking about the newcomer’s confrontation with a novel environment.  The first shock of a “foreign” sensory experience – the dense scent of Bombay’s airport, the preemptory “sorry” in a crowded Dublin street, the first mouthful of French headcheese – has the makings of a vivid, and entirely individualized, description.  The writer’s vocabulary is drawn from the language and experience of the host culture.  Here’s an illustrative passage from Fred D’Aguiar’s “A Son in Shadow,” where a Guyanan bride encounters English weather:

The first morning I opened the door that autumn and shouted “Fire!” when I saw all the smoke, thinking the whole street was on fire, all the streets, London burning, and slammed the door and ran into his arms and his laughter, and he took me out into it in my nightdress, he in his pajamas, and all the time I followed him, not ashamed to be seen outside in my thin, flimsy nylon (if anyone could see through that blanket) because he was in his pajamas, the blue, striped ones, and his voice, his sweet drone, told me it was fine, this smoke without fire was fine, “This is fog.”

Travel literature produces these salient encounters – Sloane Crosley’s description of an encounter with Portuguese circus clowns in her latest essay collection is the first that comes to mind.  Specificity is not a handicap, either — Bill Bryson has made a career of highlighting the finer points of contrast between England and the United States.  Still, given the globalization of culture, the increased accessibility of international travel, and the propensity of memoirists to dash abroad, I am concerned that, just as expatriate communities live in their native tongue, just as the Grand Tour followed an itinerary, so today’s traveler/readers are losing their ability to cast off established frames of reference.  In other words, I fear that the contemporary writer has been limited to seeking food in Italy, prayer in India, and love in Indonesia.

If our planet has become overly familiar, then science fiction is an ideal platform, a means of approaching our world as alien.  The man-from-Mars trope is classic, but the graphic novel Black Hole, and, sigh, yes, even the Twilight series, lends a sparkle of originality to the well-worn terrain of lust in the American Northwest.

Of course, I may be underestimating today’s authors, just as I underestimated the unmooring I felt during my second month in Ireland.  Plenty of writers – Tolstoy foremost among them – have made the familiar strange without resorting to science fiction, surrealism, or writer-seeks-self narratives.  If you’re interested in estrangement of familiar, I recommend Cortazar’s Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, or a viewing of PBS’s “Culture Shock” segment on Huckleberry Finn.

Do you enjoy reading descriptions of culture shock?  Do you think that a glut of travel narratives compromises a writer’s ability to be original?  What was your most shocking moment abroad?  I’ll be writing more on this next week, so let me know.

Mad Men: Advertising, New York City, And The American Dream

March 21, 2010 in Uncategorized

Photo by Rainbow Media, AMC TV

We recently covered one aspect of 1960s society with our article on counter-culture and the influence of writer and merry prankster Ken Kesey.  This week we turn to AMC’s hit television show Mad Men to help illustrate another, more mainstream, side of the American coin.

A friend of mine once described  Mad Men as being about “nothing more than a bunch of white men drinking, smoking, and sleeping around.”  While this may appear true to a casual viewer – and certainly, much has been made of these less savory aspects of the series – Mad Men is about so much more than the characters’ vices.  It is at once an exploration of our culture of consumerism, a study of the lives of several representative characters, and a portrait of the rapid changes that shook America throughout the 1960s.

In our newest feature article, Paul Millward takes a look at advertising culture and the significance of the American dream, a phrase that has become so common that it has almost lost all meaning.  But with a little help from Mad Men and Millward, it becomes possible to see how advertising appeals to the same portion of the human psyche that is willing to invest in something like the American dream.  Consumer culture is only one type of wish fulfillment, yet it represents our near constant need to always seek out something more, something greater, something forever beyond our grasp.

If you’re anything like me, there is no such thing as too much Mad Men.  However, even a veteran watcher like myself can appreciate a new, fresh take on the much-discussed show, which is why I suggest you take a moment this week and read Millward’s ode to Don Draper, New York, and the dream merchants of the 1960s with his piece Mad Men: Creating a Perfect World on the Avenue of Dreams.

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