Ajax, Hecuba, and Vietnam


The image above is taken from a stage adaptation of the Iliad, now performing at ArtsEmerson. A group of Core students is venturing downtown to see this production, titled An Iliad, putting us in mind here on campus about the enduring relevance of this ancient text. Do our modern times still reflect that old world? Does Homer still speak to us? Has anything really changed since the Trojan War? Let’s turn to another text that, like An Iliad, draws upon that ancient source material: Jonathan Shay‘s Achilles in Vietnam. Here’s a quote from that book, page 29:

After Agamemnon’s betrayal and Potroklos’s death, Achilles kills Hektor before the eyes of his wife and parents and then mutilates and atrociously debases his corpse. Achilles’ character has changed. Before, he was responsive to all themis for the dead, the cultural definition of ‘what’s right’ towards enemy corpses.

Shay examines how war inflicts psychological injuries that have catastrophic effects on the character and sanity of those affected. A concept explored not only in the old texts of CC101 like Ajax and Hecuba but, in modern day as well through the researching of PTSD in veterans and other anxiety/trauma disorders. The relevancy and timelessness of these texts are what make them classics. Maybe times haven’t really changed.

On the Relevance of Ancient Authors

shutterstock_245961754In the first-year humanities, Core students study works primarily written by people who have been dead for two thousand years or more. It is only natural to wonder whether those peoples ideas are still relevant who cares what Thucydides said? Well, we care what Thucydides said, and we think you should too. Nowadays, its hard to miss that everyone is talking about freedom of speech, democracy, free association, political power plays all issues which seem distinctly modern. Except, of course, that they aren’t! Take a look at the following collection of quotes:

We both know that decisions about justice are made in human discussions only when both sides are under equal compulsion; but when one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that. Thuc. Melian Dialogue 89

Neither our principles nor our actions are contrary to what men believe about the gods, or would want for themselves. Nature always compels gods (we believe) and men (we are certain) to rule over anyone they can control. We did not make this law, and we were not the first to follow it; but we will take it as we found it and leave it to posterity forever, because we know that you would do the same if you had our power, and so would anyone else. Ibid 104 / 105

A good citizen should not go about terrifying those who speak against him, but should try to look better in a fair debate. Thuc. Mytilenean Debate 42

It is a hard matter to speak in due measure when there is no firm consensus about the truth. Thuc. Pericles Funeral Oration 35

All things said by one of those old dead guys, but Im sure the relevance isnt lost on any of you. Modern thinkers, too, deal with these issues; I encourage you to take a moment to think about how these quotations from Karl Popper do or dont articulate with the above from Thucydides.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right even to suppress them, for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies 226

All these paradoxes can be easily avoided if we frame our political demands in some such manner as this. We demand a government that rules according to the principles of equalitarianism and protectionism; that tolerates all who are prepared to reciprocate, i.e. who are tolerant ; that is controlled by, and accountable to, the public. Ibid 226

Sheri Berman, meanwhile, wrote about the ways that the work of Tocqueville and the Neo-Tocquevillean Robert Putnam are still relevant today, and the danger in abusing civic associations. Tocqueville wrote about the importance of voluntary civic associations to any healthy democracy, but Putnam and Berman push back on that, stating that civic associations are not always good their potential to do good exists only insofar as they foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity (Putnam Bowling Alone fn 2) and are not organized around vertical bonds of authority and dependency (Berman 1997).

Berman explores the example of Weimar Republic Germany and the voluntary associations they had they always had leadership positions in their civic groups, sure, but for the most part those leadership positions weren’t abused. That is, until the NSDAP (or, the Nazi Party) started to infiltrate those leadership positions, exploit that power, enforce social stratification, and, well, elect the Nazis to power.

While I feel that these quotes and concepts are all interesting to look at together in light of present-day issues, Im not claiming that these are all tightly interrelated. I leave the synthesis of all this stuff to you, dear reader, and ask only that you give it thought along with me.

Meditation on Remediation

An update the front lines of the Core classrooms! This week, students are exploring Hamlet, and discovering what it means to remediate a text.

Hamlet RemediationCore students know better than anyone that some stories strike such a chord with the human experience that they continue to be told throughout history. Storytellers have always taken source material and adapted or re-imagined it for a new medium, bringing it to life in a new way. In modern times, this reimagining can transform a book to film, drama to social media, poem to graphic novel, and more. Scholars call this a remediation, and while remediation is having getting attention across the academic world, it has a special place in the heart of the Core.

What’s so special about remediation in Core? Well, as we work with the foundational texts for human thought, we’re not the first ones to try and think about them in new ways. Even the authors we read are building upon other texts and older authors, trying to experiment with new media. Students in CC201 are learning this now through Hamlet, as Professor Brian Walsh argued in his lecture this semester:

Shakespeare himself, as well as his characters, are often explicitly engaged in these dialogues with other authors. And while Don Quixote is a contemporary work for him, more often he and his characters are considering their relationship to tradition, to past authors. In many scholarly conceptions of the Renaissance, this idea of how do we relate to tradition is the central or defining challenge for the period’s artists and intellectuals… So that turns us to the question, how does Hamlet, both the play and the character, respond to tradition?

[You can watch this lecture on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2]

Authors have always had to contest with tradition and the thinkers who came before them. There is plenty of evidence of this in Core– Dante provides a great example, as he incorporates and builds upon characters and historical figures who came before him in the Divine Comedy. Just as Core authors thought of new ways to conceptualize those who came before them, remediation offers modern readers a new way to conceptualize the texts themselves.

Returning to Hamlet specifically, Professor Walsh offers further examples of remediation of the play itself. A 2014 Bollywood adaptation of Hamlet called Haider gained attention for its depiction of the insurgency in the Kashmir of the 1990s. This remediated backdrop allowed the director, Vishal Bhardwaj, to make a statement on the human rights abuses of the armed conflict and start a conversation about the controversial topic. Not only has the play become a movie, but the play has taken on new importance related to its new, remediated themes.

Changing the media allows the source material to take on new meaning, as it does in the project Hamlet: A Digital Remediation. This version takes place entirely through Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, acting out Hamlet as if the characters were modern-day people communicating on social media. While this provides an experiment and commentary on social media, the authors of this remediation also offer how adapting foundational texts is a valuable act:

Fanfiction and other forms of remix culture can be valuable tools for reclaiming narratives in which minority voices are downplayed or nonexistent. The original Hamlet, although not written exclusively for upper-class audiences, does contain primarily white and straight characters and takes place in a privileged, upper-class world. Retelling the story in a new form is an opportunity to add more diverse voices to a narrative that is deeply embedded in Western culture.

Remediation allows the same important stories to be told, but for a new generation and new mode of thought. As a program that works almost entirely with texts from a different age, remediation offers the Core Curriculum a special opportunity to get our fingers in the clay of these texts.

0Thanks to the initiative of Professor Jason Prentice, the Digital & Multimedia Coordinator for Core, Core students now have the opportunity to try their hands at remediation. Last Spring marked the inaugural semester of our “Digital Core” classes, where students can expand upon their knowledge of a Core text by studying how the text has been recreated throughout history, and even create their own versions themselves, from Genesis to Plato to Hamlet.

In this semester’s Digital Core class, Professor Sassan Tabatabai is leading his students on journey to recreate The Conference of the Birds in an online multimedia graphic novel form. With remediations, the possibilities are endless.Catching him in the hall, we asked Prof. Tabatabai why he thinks this act of remediation in general, and his new CC320 class in particular, are important. He replied:

The Conference of the Birds has always had an afterlife in art, in music, in dance– a digital remediation would just be the logical progression to that.

Remediation is something people have been doing throughout history, but with the onset of digital methods and media, we have greatly expanded the possibilities for rethinking foundational texts. While this provides opportunities for expanding the diversity and reach of texts, it also invites more problems, like appropriation, cultural disruption and dissipation. Overall, this is just an evolution of the way we think about the writings that came before us, and a chance to show them in a new light.

Some Spooky Music for Your Spooky Enjoyment

Earlier this week, Core alumna Cat Dossett shared with us some vintage Halloween tunes.

Check them out here!

Whether it is for your Halloween themed gatherings or just for your own enjoyment, this tunes will help you get into the Halloween spirit.

Thank you for sharing, Cat.

Ho! A Postcard!

We have received our first postcard of the semester from our good friend Priest. He writes us from California:

“To those who have profoundly influenced me:
Tis Autumn, yet California refuses to relinquish its summer-a high of 33 degrees celsius this week; woe to the republic. Elsewise, the season had me in many a mood, one of which is the mood of sending postcards, a means of sending love and thought. I hope everyone is well.

Core post-Nelson must be a strong domain. Postcards are an exercise in succinctness-I’m sure Hemingway would have approve.

Hope you are all well.”

*some edits were made for clarity due to sentences cut off by postage

And So It Begins…


At the start of every new year in the Core Curriculum, we like to begin at the very beginning, with the Epic of Gilgamesh. And while it technically remains the same story from year to year, we’re always delighted to watch how different students and professors bring their own views and interpretations to the text. This year, the students in the first CC101 lecture wasted no time shooting up their hands to ask questions at the end of the lecture, giving a resounding end to what may have been the first class of college for many of them. We’ve transcribed some of these landmark questions along with Professor Jorgensen’s answers below– you may remember asking similar ones in your first Core lecture, or perhaps this new crop of young minds has something new to offer:

Q: Do you think Gilgamesh is an example of the monomyth?
A: Yes! Of course, probably the oldest one – but different from the others in that the hero fails, rather than succeeds.

Q: What do you mean by how the walls seem to rise out of the landscape like consciousness out of unconsciousness?
A: The walls help humans define themselves, reflect them back on themselves, and make possible thinking and business and reading and writing and so on, just as consciousness does.

Q: You mention that Gilgamesh’s second journey is a journey inward as well as outward… what do you think that is?
A: First read it and discuss it in your sections, and then email me and we’ll talk more about it!

Q: In what tone does Gilgamesh says those final words about the city?
A: First read it and discuss it in your sections, and then email me and we’ll talk more about it!

Q: Why do you think they treat the flood as such a negative thing? Why couldn’t it be purification and starting over again?
A: Well it IS negative — it nearly wiped out the gods themselves! — and B) they feel that life is a very uncertain thing, and unexpected events can happen that cancel everything; the flood is their way of dealing with that.

Q: Why was Humbaba without his seven auras? And what are they?
A: First read it and discuss it in your sections, and then email me and we’ll talk more about it!

As wonderful as it is to see students so engaged with a subject, this lecture was so packed with knowledge that the excited students did not have time to listen to a reading of Gilgamesh in its original language. So as a special epilogue to our first class of the semester, you can listen tothe recording right here, and keep the enlightenment flowing!

Congratulations to the 2019 Polytropos award winners!

A big round of applause to our seniors for their dedication to the Core Community. The award is given both in recognition of what a student has accomplished and in expectation of what he or she will accomplish, and in gratitude for ongoing mindfulness of the Core Curriculum. The word polytropos, is the first adjective applied by Homer to the hero of his Odyssey. The declaration of the award reads as follows:

In both recognition and expectation the faculty of the Core Curriculum honors the Odyssean virtues of this their graduating student. Recognizing that, throughout the junior and senior years at Boston University, it has been his or hers mindfully and resourcefully to venture, to see, to answer, and, with all these, courageously to remember and return; expecting in future years the continuation of these actions; expecting that, whether cyclopes dwell faroff or in many offices, whether Poseidon be calmed or much reamplified, yet the gray-eyed one will not long be absent from her or him; recognizing and expecting these things, the faculty hereby bestows the high honorific cognomen of Polytropos.

Congratulations to our 2019 winners: Lee-Or Bentovim, Caroline Louise Brantley, Madison Maeli Crosby, Francis J. DiMento III, Jonathan Yifeng Han, Reed Charles Kimzey, Matthew Lewis Moon, Mara Antonieta Rondn Anzola, Kassandra Jean Round, Ata Sunucu, and Kaci Xiaodian Kealohamakamae Tavares.


To read more go to:http://www.bu.edu/core/academics/awards-and-leadership/polytropos-award/

“College Confusion” with Seth Godin

the hidden curriculum

From Seth Godin in his though-provoking blog, asking how we define the value of education. His thoughts below, and more here:

While a high-status college admission confers a measure of status, it doesnt automatically grant a great education.

Sometimes, a student gets both, but not always. Because learning is taken as much as given.

Along the way, many of us have conflated the status with the learning.

Were also confused about the correlation between big college sports and the expected outputs of a university.

One symptom: We often say good college when we mean famous college.

And so, the college one goes to doesnt tell us very much at all about what someone learned, or even about who they are. It merely demonstrates that when they were 18 years old, a combination of luck and signaling led to them being chosen (or not).

Its not personal. And its not predictive. Unless we allow it to be.

BU Astronomers Stare into Darkness

black hole

Last week, a team of astronomers announced that they had captured the first-ever image of a black hole in space. While this discovery is amazing for a myriad of reasons, we can personally take pride in knowing that some Core DNA went into this amazing discovery. As Core alum Peter La Fountain pointed out, Core Curriculum professor and BU Astronomer Alan Marscher was one of the 200 scientists on the black hole team. La Fountain continued to say that “Research doesn’t come out of a… black hole… it comes from prioritizing resources to advance public knowledge.” We couldn’t agree more!

While we’re on the topic of black holes, please enjoy some Jukebox the Ghost!

Core’s Very Own on CNN

Caroline Brantley, Core alumna ’18 and CAS ’19, appeared on CNN last week talking about the 2020 election. The clip can be viewed below: