Friday, May 16, 2008

Academy: To the Barricades

One of the things I'm expecting, and occasionally experiencing, in my academic endeavours is a steady, unreflective progressive liberalism. I try to think of it as a challenge to sharpen my thinking and communication skills. Now I'm wondering to what extent the grey-hairs of the sixties are experiencing angst over a new generations indifference to their creed.

A recent art history course included a lecture on Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa, a classic of baroque sculpture. The professor compared the saint and the angel over her to carnal lovers, sated by orgasmic sex. Apparently, this is a standard modern interpretation of Bernini, as ridiculous as that is. That a religious man portraying a mystic's experience of the divine would intend the viewer to equate that with sexual gratification is nonsense walking on stilts. As the Wikipedia article says:

It is arguable that in the seventeenth century, it was possible to draw distinctions between religious and erotic experience that are more difficult to make today.
More's the pity for us, I say.

The lack of empathy from the students was palpable. The speaker then invited the young women in the audience to publicly confirm that a snippet of Saint Teresa's written description of the mystic experience sounded exactly like a woman's experience of coitus, which was embarrassing to me, at least. The professor responded to the continuing silence by pointing out that these kinds of graphical analyses would be presented to us repeatedly in future courses, so we had better be prepared.

To what extent was the silence of the audience just a natural modesty, to be overcome by repeated assaults of this sort? The professors reaction might suggest that something else was happening, a rejection of the idea that ecstasy must, at root, be carnal and sexual, period. Or, perhaps, that modesty is a value they cling to in spite of the invitation to abandon it. At this point it's still my impression that the students were more career-oriented and more modest than the professor was entirely comfortable with.

Is this experience just part of academic liberal boot-camp? Will these students be coarsened by repeated experiences of this sort? I don't know. Check with me again in a few years, God willing. In the meantime, here is a conversation about entrenched academic liberalism at a more elevated level:

Academic Point Counterpoint: "This week was the annual meeting of the editorial council of First Things. In addition to taking care of the business that magazines have to attend to, the custom at these meetings is to take up a major subject or two. This year, Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga led the discussion [...]"

(Via FIRST THINGS: On the Square.)

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