Archaeology of the imagination

- September 29, 2010

Stanford University professor Robert Pogue Harrison.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary contains the following entry on “age (noun)”: “The time of life at which some particular qualification, power, or capacity arises or rests… a period of time dominated by a central figure or prominent feature… a period in history or human progress.”

It goes on (dictionaries do) but that summation indicates that Robert Pogue Harrison has a lot of ground to cover in his talk on “The Phenomenon of Age.” Surely he can’t intend to deal with teenagers, midlife crises and the Jurassic Era all at once? The English department’s website is cryptic on the matter – “Professor Harrison's talk will deal with "age" in several senses of the term - geological, biological, historical and personal.” And Dr. Harrison’s background doesn’t give anything away – though he’s being hosted by the English department, he’s originally a scholar of Italian, initially inspired by Dante (his first book was called The Body of Beatrice) before branching out.

Interrogating professors didn’t provide any clues about The Phenomenon of Age. “I have no idea what it’s about,” says Professor Alice Brittan, who along with Christina Luckyj invited Dr. Harrison to speak on Thursday – it will be his first visit, not only to Dalhousie, but to Nova Scotia. Dr. Brittan, an English professor, is a long-time fan of Dr. Harrison and praises him effusively. “I’ve read most of his work and I really love his work.” Her interest is partly professional. “It is an academic interest, although his work is not necessarily applicable to mine… I talk about Harrison’s work often when I’m teaching.” But Dr. Brittan is also a personal fan, raving about Harrison’s radio show (“Entitled Opinions”, which airs Tuesdays on Stanford University’s KZSU 90.1 station.) “There’s a show on Jimi Hendrix alongside shows on Karl Marx… I’ve listened to five or six shows now and this is an amazing radio show.”

If you go

Dr. Robert Pogue Harrison will speak on the Phenomenon of Age on Thursday, September 30, 7 p.m., in the McCain building’s Scotiabank Auditorium.

To Dr. Brittan, one of Dr. Harrison’s most fascinating attributes is that Hendrix/Marx type unclassifiability. “The Body of Beatrice comes directly out of his work on Dante. After that… he starts to write books that are really not categorizable in any field at all.” Harrison has supported points with reference to classical literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorpheses – but proved himself equally comfortable taking on modern intellectual antiheroes like Heidigger (a splendidly incomprehensible 20th century German philosopher whose work gave me nightmares while undergoing FYP.) Dr. Harrison’s scholarship represents a kaleidoscopic mesh of Classics, Italian, French, Contemporary Studies, Philosophy – Harrison, says Professor Brittan, is an “imaginative archaeologist.”

Which is a great job description, but I still had no idea what this “Phenomenon of Age” was.  Deciding to go right to the source, I emailed Robert Pogue Harrison himself, demanding he reveal his secrets. Though perhaps not sufficiently frightened of earning the ire of a student reporter, Dr. Harrison was congenially forthcoming about The Phenomenon of Age: “My talk is related to my general concern about an increasingly alarming loss of cultural, political, and moral maturity in western societies… The subject is related both to my work as an Italianist as well as to the new book I am working on, which deals with the topic of age from the perspective of cultural history.”

He does add a disclaimer: “People who are interested in advice on how to age well, or what they should do to keep themselves psychologically and physically young, will not get much to take home with them from my talk.” But if Dr. Brittan’s rave reviews are any indication, people with more esoteric leanings – philosophy to classics, Ovid to Heidigger – may glean a few nuggets of wisdom.

Dr. Robert Pogue Harrison will speak on the Phenomenon of Age on Thursday, September 30, 7 p.m., in the McCain building’s Scotiabank Auditorium.

LINK: Department of English


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