After 11 years of a successful run, the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research, founded by Martin Puchner, The Byron and Anita Wien Professor on English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, concluded last Friday, June 18, 2022! However, as Mellon Faculty member Andrew Sofer aptly put it in the last line of his concluding poem, which we all greatly anticipated according to the tradition established within the School, “we say à bientôt rather than adieu!”!
We say “see you soon” because the legacy the Mellon School left is unprecedented and in no way can one "say goodbye." This open forum, full of intellectual fervor, has shaped the thought of many generations of theater scholars and practitioners and created a culture of high standards in this field all over the world, as the last session made it plausible since it was addressed only to all its alumni. This time, due to the COVID pandemic, a hybrid format was invented that worked miracles thanks to the tireless efforts of all organizers, especially Sheryl Chen. The first week was held online and the second week in person at Harvard at the Farkas Hall. There, cross-pollination, experimentation and humanistic inquiry reached its peak while a soul-searching collective effort occurred, spearheaded by Martin, about the current state of the humanities and its future directions. Despite the decline of the humanities as expressed in today’s plummeting enrollment figures, there has still remained a sense of optimism for the field emanating from the participants’ presentations and workshops, especially in light of the recognition of turning an ear and responding to other disciplines and societal needs.
We the Mellon alumni may have already been scattered in all corners of the world after the end of the last Mellon session, but three days later, Martin did gather us again thanks to his thought-provoking talk “Literature for a Changing Planet,” based on his homonymous most recent book for Citizen TALES Commons (citizentales.org) and the conversation did continue after asking these two fundamental questions:
1) How can we read all literature through an environmental lens?
2) What kind of stories should we tell if we care about the environment?
The latter was also one of the fundamental questions he included in his opening remarks at the Mellon School, when he mentioned the three basic approaches that have been undertaken in the life span of the Mellon School:
1) Historical approaches such as the ones revolving around the canon
2) Methodological approaches such as, for example, the relationship of theater to other disciplines
3) Quantitative approaches such as the digital humanities and the combination of theater and practice and the response of theater to newly-emerging fields/movements/crises such as environmental studies, Black Lives Matter and the refugee crisis.
The relationship of the theater and of the humanities in general to the environmental studies field is of particular interest to me. I want to stand a little bit more here, inspired by Puchner’s following bold claim in his Citizen TALES talk:
“All texts and genres can be subject to an environmental reading because of literature’s complicity with the life-style that has led to climate change” (Literature for a Changing Planet 27). Also, to the question “what stories should we tell?” he answered that we should tell stories by tending an ear to the environment. This remark led me by free association to the puzzling poem “Morning Sea” by the well-known modernist Greek poet from Alexandria, Egypt, Constantine P. Cavafy. This poem stands as a puzzle within the Cavafean canon that brims with closed spaces and artifacts, as it is one of the few poems that revolves around nature in his entire poetic universe. The poem reads as follows in its classic translation from the Greek original by Philip Sherrard and Edmund Keeley:
Let me stop here. Let me, too, look at nature awhile.
The brilliant blue of the morning sea, of the cloudless sky,
the yellow shore; all lovely,
all bathed in light.
Let me stand here. And let me pretend I see all this
(I really did see it for a minute when I first stopped)
and not my usual day-dreams here too,
my memories, those images of sensual pleasure.
I wonder, what if we could read this poem literally, dissociating it from its usual reading from the lens of irony and extract some lessons that could guide us in our soul-searching in regards to the field of the humanities in relation to the environment? What if, like the poetic subject here, we humanities scholars admitted that we would benefit from a sincere look at nature and its grandeur — something that is possible only through spontaneity as the use of the parenthesis indicates, a typical literary device of Cavafy’s—?
What if we were capable of sincerely engaging with our environment in a way that would mark an opening towards the outside and a liberation from the esoteric self-absorbing enclosure of the self, fueled by an obsession of daydreams, memories and hedonistic pleasures?
What if this metaphor applied to our field meaning that we as scholars have forgotten to observe nature in all its phases and instead we became too esoteric, indulging ourselves in things far from the real world? I offer this unconventional reading of Cavafy’s poem just to show that it might be time for us humanities scholars and practitioners to now shift narratives in the humanities in general and to tend an ear to our environment. Perhaps, it is time to now shift gears and let ourselves stand here and even when this is not possible to even pretend that we see all the things that our surroundings offer us! The Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research has indeed offered us this self-awareness.
C. P. Cavafy. “Morning Sea.” Reprinted from C.P. CAVAFY: Collected Poems Revised Edition, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis. Translation copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton University Press. For reuse of these translations, please contact Princeton University Press.
C.P. Cavafy.“Here let me stand, that, for a while, I too may gaze on nature.” Handwritten English translation of Cavafy’s poem “Morning Sea”, by John Cavafy, 1919. Cavafy Archive. #poetry #Greece
Martin Puchner. Literature for a Changing Planet. The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities/Princeton University Press Lectures in European Culture, 2022.