Lecture Notes for Week OneHow Ancient Stories Bind and Define Usby John Freed“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species homo sapiens--second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leadsquickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.” Reynolds Price “The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or [Spirits], calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations and whatever their enlarge and numerous senses could perceive.And particularly they studied the [Spirit] of each city and country placing it under a Mental Deity until a System was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or [detach] the Mental Deities from their objects. Thus began Priesthood; and at length they pronounced that theGods had ordered such things.Thus men forgot that All Deities originally resided in the [Poet’s] Human breast.”William Blake (1790)from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell“There is no story that is not true.” Chinua Achebe from Things Fall Apart"We tell stories and listen to them because we live stories and live in them. Narrative equals language equals life: To cease to narrate is to die." John Barth, novelist and Johns Hopkins University emeritus professor
One of Michelangelo’s “Captives” (c. 1520)And an illustration for Simone Weil’s essay on Homer (see below)There were animals that we now call human beings (homo sapiens) about 100,000 years ago, long before there was anything we now classify as human cultureTo qualify as a part of human culturerequires more than the DNA connection to our common mitochondrial mother. It requires recognition of our common, human expressions. To sound rather biblical, “Through their images and words shall ye know them.”.
Just as our DNA determines much of what we are, and can be, our culturally shared stories and symbols contain transformative power both for us as individuals and for our constantly evolving societies.My approach in this course is to introduce students to some of the “high points” of Western artistic activity to demonstrate our evolution as a human culture. This “culture and media studies” methodology is expressed well in the catalog description:The goal of this course is to explore the particular ways that art transforms culture. Technologies, from ancient oral narratives through medieval cathedrals, geographical explorations, public theatres and the printing press to the nearly ubiquitous open access of current electronic media, will be studied as essential to both the creation of the works themselves as well as to their transmittal over space, time and peoples. The course historically contextualizes a number of critically important artistic units of cultural information [epiphanies or memes] in order to demonstrate the process of cultural evolution. The course also highlights