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A seminar includes a morning series of classes or an afternoon series of classes in a given week—with the exception of the Science Institute in Weeks 2 and 3, which meets both in the morning and in the afternoon. If you take any other two seminars, morning and afternoon, you will receive a discount for immersing yourself in an intensive week. Seminars run Monday through Friday. Optional evening events—lectures, panels, socials—will be added throughout the week.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
No other poet can compare with Dickinson in originality of thought and expression, and no other poet has such deep philosophical insight into such a wide range of emotional states. Her greatest poems are terse, densely knotted in thought, explosive. One of her poems begins, “My life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” and, indeed, her poems often feel not like poems at all but like loaded guns, subversive and dangerous, not for children or the squeamish. Dickinson’s themes are the classic ones: love, death, God, and meaning (is there really anything else to write about?). During this week we study three poems per class, taking them slowly and letting them unfold in their astonishing brilliance.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an almost overwhelmingly various text. Among many other themes and problems, it poses questions about the contours of the contiguity between human beings and what is “other” to them—whether it be object, animal, god, or a fellow person. In doing so, it recounts or invents more than 250 myths, each rich in its own poetic resources and each asking its own questions. It also admits many interpretations, providing fertile ground for a nearly endlessly branching conversation; one may not even be able to decide whether the work is predominately tragic or comic, serious or ludic. Perhaps it is this fecundity and flexibility, combined with the power of its poetry, that has made Metamorphoses so foundational to Western literature.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the masterful 19th-century interpreter of American politics, remains a guiding beacon for Americans today. He argues that the remarkable success of American democracy is not owed strictly to the nation’s political institutions but also to its culture and traditions, examples of which include religion and the ubiquity of civil and political association. We explore these themes by undertaking a close reading of selections (about 150 pages) from Tocqueville’s masterwork, Democracy in America. Assessing the health of contemporary American democracy is one concern of the seminar, and to that end we focus both on the keys to American success and on certain pitfalls Tocqueville flags, such as corrosive individualism and the “tyranny of the majority.”
Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel follows its narrator, Marlow, as he travels up the Congo River in search of Mr. Kurtz, an enigmatic ivory trader who has broken off contact with his European colleagues and assumed a god-like role among the Africans. The result is a profound exploration of the psychological and spiritual struggles of the human heart when faced with the temptations of unlimited power, as well as a scathing critique of European imperialism. Eighty years later, Francis Ford Coppola recast Conrad’s novel as a tale of 20th-century war and violence, set in Vietnam. By charting the descent of an American military hero who becomes obsessed with his own “heart of darkness,” Coppola’s film reveals the potential of cinema to build on the vast resources of fiction while returning us to the timeless qualities of Conrad’s prose.
Milkman Dead, so named for his extended years at his mother’s breast and for a mistake on his grandfather’s post-slavery identity papers, is on a quest. When that quest begins, it seems to be a search for treasure, but, as Song of Solomon unfolds, Milkman discovers a family, national, and racial history full of ghosts and blood. He must learn to speak to strange and powerful women, and, ultimately, he encounters his own bare self. Milkman’s inchoate and almost half-hearted mission to find something—a sack of gold—that he believes he is owed becomes an exploration of what it is to be a person in the grips of history and a meditation on the nature and uses of freedom.
I suspect that good readers are even blacker and rarer swans than good writers.
—Borges, This Craft of Verse
Jorge Luis Borges is not only one of the 20th century’s greatest Spanish-language poets but also one of the most important fiction writers of all time. With brilliant storytelling and innovative style that consistently rank him alongside Kafka, Woolf, and Joyce, Borges helped raise Latin American literature to international attention and created a new genre: short prose pieces that defied conventional categorization and revolutionized the possibilities of literary fiction. As we read some of Borges’s most famous “fictions,” we witness a prodigious mind exploring ideas about history, infinity, personal identity, relationship to the divine, and the importance of literature in human life.
One of the most important, surprising, and delightful fields of modern mathematics, topology investigates the properties of geometrical objects that remain unchanged under continuous deformations. We study topology’s beginnings in Euler’s analysis of the problem of the Seven Bridges of Königsberg. We then use the strategic board game Hex to understand the Brouwer fixed-point theorem, a seminal result. We apply this theorem to Nash equilibrium in game theory and economics. Finally, we study how Henri Poincaré used the fixed-point theorem to argue that a given physical state may recur endlessly. Participants should like to play with mathematical concepts and not be afraid of equations.
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