“A scholar no matter what he thinks…”

Both seminars were on hold today, so our day began—appropriately enough—with a little armchair philosophy by the fireplace as the rain came down outside. The idyllic scene, with philosopher Dieter Thomä taking the central armchair and our own Martin Puchner in the armchair just to the left (with Freddie Rokem at the far left), is pictured below:An Idyllic Scene

It was an interesting cast of characters who joined us for (or rather, in) the conversation: lions in the wood, ghosts in the basement, Brad Pitt, Kafka, Heidegger, Hegel, Freud, Arendt, and, of course, Diderot. (Rameau’s Nephew was our background reading for the discussion, though Paradoxe sur le comédien also played a role.) We began with the question of the uncanny, a useful measure for taking stock of philosophical approaches—Diderot, Heidegger, and Freud would all have us react differently to the ghost haunting our basement. Where to place theatre in this thought experiment? As yet a fourth approach to dealing with the unknown and the troubling? As a manifestation of our third way (change yourself, change the rules—aligned ultimately with Freud and the philosophers of the self)? As a proxy or double for the ghost itself that so troubles these philosophers (most especially Heidegger and his interest in authenticity)? (Marvin Carlson himself is now perhaps a ghost in the discussion…) And what of the actor herself within the theatre? (Enter Diderot and Rameau’s Nephew.) Is the actor a model for us all in her constant changing between roles? Or is the entering/exiting of roles a significant philosophical problem? And what to make of this entering/exiting in film, where the actor’s performance is fixed on celluloid (or perhaps in digital pixels today)? Is this the genesis of cinema’s culture of stardom? (Or, to phrase it another way: are we ever not watching Brad Pitt?) And what about approaches to the craft of acting, what philosophical insight might they provide? (Enter Paradoxe, with Joseph Roach as another ghost in the room…) And what about the agency of the spectator? Here, Arendt enters the discussion, though she would ultimately jettison passion (shades of Roach again) from her accounting of the forms of human agency.

Conversations continued well past the formal end of the discussion, spilling over into all parts of the day. Below, a photograph from sunny yesterday of Freddie Rokem (center) in conversation with several Mellon Schoolers outside of the Barker Center:

Continuing the conversation

In a literalization of perhaps our entire Mellon School experience, our day began in the philosopher’s salon and ended in the theatre. The journey across intellectual spaces also took us across physical spaces, in a short trek through the rain photographed below (snapped by your faithful blogger on her phone). I call it theatre-philosophers with umbrellas:


In the Loeb Experimental Theatre at the other side of Harvard Square, David Herskovits and David Greenspan joined us for a discussion and presentation of Target Margin Theatre’s double-bill production of The Dinner Party (recounted in words and MP3 files by David H.) and The Argument (presented live to us by David G.). After an appropriately tongue-in-cheek announcement by Martin Puchner to silence our cell phones and discard of all hard candies, David Herskovitz walked us through Target Margin’s process of adapting Plato’s Symposium into the modern-day Dinner Party. Inspired by the theatricality of Plato’s text, Herskovitz and company embarked on the project of putting it before an audience, with a few key adjustments: genders would be mixed (as would sexualities), the text would be closely structured but not scripted, and the language and cultural reference points would be updated to a contemporary vernacular—e.g., Agathon has just won an Obie. (Herskovitz, who reads ancient Greek, attested that what seem like some of the most, shall we say, colorful parts of the script are among the most felicitous to Plato’s text.) The end product was not a kitchen-sink staging of a dinner party but an enacted memory of one, a staged recollection of a celebrated event that directly engages with the enigmatic second-hand (even third-hand) quality of Plato’s text—embodied even in a giant painting of a scene from the play that hangs at the back of the stage as part of the set. The production engages with “shifting modes of embodying and remembering” in Herskovitz’s words, actively trying to create a “history that is available to all of us.”

Following a short intermission, David Greenspan performed for us The Argument—a one-man recitation of (nearly) the entirety of Aristotle’s Poetics. Words fall short of any attempt to relay the virtuosity of Greenspan’s performance, though suffice it to say that Aristotle himself would probably be proud of the pathos and humor—even the peripety, recognition, and, dare we say, catharsis—that Greenspan unearths within the text. And what better audience for such a performance? Greenspan seemed to take special relish in a few lines for our benefit, motioning to the audience in a reference to “we philosophers” and playfully reminding us that “a scholar no matter what he thinks (or thinks of himself) is not a poet.” Alas.

For more on The Dinner Party and The Argument, you can visit Target Margin’s website, with photographs of both productions and links to some appropriately glowing reviews:


See also: Donna Kornhaber