MOUNT BERRY, Ga. — What makes a life good? How can one pursue a good life? What obligations might we have to future generations? What is love? What is evil?
These are a few of the questions a group of honors students at Berry explored this past semester as part of a Perennial Questions course, questions considered in and through the theatrical lives of the vivid characters of William Shakespeare.
What is the meaning of life? Hamlet famously ponders this question, concluding that death might be a consummation devoutly to be wished. What is evil? Iago presents a chilling version of it as he manipulates every other character in Othello to their deaths. What is love? Romeo and Juliet tragically believed themselves to be truly, madly, deeply in love. What is the nature and value of education? Rosalind in As You Like It animates her answers in her own pursuit of love, but as a boy in the forest. And what might it mean to think about legacy? Prospero gives us what might be Shakespeare’s own answer, and in the last full play the Bard wrote, The Tempest.
Students explored these questions and many others while at the same time working on substantial works of art through which to communicate some of their answers. Seeking the conditions for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow,” or those activities and pursuits in which we lose all distinction between thought and action, self and environment, work and play, students “lost” themselves in their art in order to discover or recover some essential aspect of themselves. These conditions often include solitude, or the deliberate state of complete aloneness.
“No small part of the course sought to divorce us from our phones, devices, amusements, and distractions,” said Brian Carroll, the course’s instructor. “The most fulfilling single assignment, if you want to call it that, demanded that students spend three hours in complete, off-the-grid, unconnected solitude, knowing that it takes us at least an hour even to be prepared to receive solitude’s benefits.”
The theater of the mind
Another organizing concept for the course is the idea of “the theater of the mind,” an imaginary in which we can visualize and enact decisions, choices, and commitments. It is in this imaginary that we can experiment with, among other things, our roles and personas and the consequences of what we think we believe (and don’t believe). With this snow globe of a theater elaborately constructed, we can begin to connect our commitments and convictions to the world “out there,” which is to say to action and doing. Student presentations of their created artifacts and artistic works provided the first steps toward this action, to “doing” the good life.
“Creating a ‘theater of the mind’ in which one can build and reflect upon oneself is the first step in actively seeking a good life,” said Sterling Triplett, a first-year animal science major. “From one of our readings, ‘Living Backwards,’ often we visualize who we are becoming and where we are going before then pursuing these life goals. We depend so much on our imaginations.”
Triplett’s final project created an elaborate jigsaw puzzle from a piece of original digital art to depict her own theater of the mind. As such, Triplett’s art pays tribute to the Shakespearean notion from As You Like It that, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”
Fountain of artistic expression
The course-long projects of flow produced ceramic sculpture, two paintings, a children’s book, poetry, a composition for violin, a composition for cello, embroidery, gemstone jewelry, dance choreography, audio playlists and podcast series, and Triplett’s jigsaw puzzle. One student wrote a letter to herself as if it were from the 60-year-old version of herself. Another produced a photo scrapbook with sections for the future to someday be included.
Riley Larkworthy created a two-feet-tall surrealist ceramics piece depicting a personified deer offering his or her own human heart.
“Ceramics taught me to let go of and even destroy things that I create,” said Larkworthy, a junior psychology major. “Sometimes I’ll have a piece that can’t be saved or corrected, so I’ll have to crush it with my hands and recycle that clay. Sometimes it can be really difficult to to destroy my work and start fresh. Ceramics has taught me to let go of things I no longer need.”
Aristotle began the course experience by furnishing students with the notion that happiness is something good people do rather than something they merely feel. Happiness as a goal, then, is perhaps misguided, particularly as an affective emotion that, as emotion, could never be more than contingent and fleeting. What we can pursue and mindfully create are the circumstances in which one can flourish.
First-year biology student Morgan Davis said her favorite moment came as a result of hours spent in solitude lost in her work, which, after a few stops and starts, became the self-portrait she had intended.
“I found that flow isn’t something you can desperately try to achieve,” said Davis, a Rome native. “It comes naturally, in the right environment, as a result of losing all sense of time in the enjoyment of the work.”
For her part, pre-med junior Mackenzie Sullivan, said that during the semester, as part of her engagement with the course’s questions, she “picked up new hobbies, intensified my passions, and increased my solitude for internal reflection in an attempt to view time as a beautiful force of nature rather than a scornful whip.”
For her culminating project, Sullivan wrote an epic poem, “The Golden Time Turner.”
The course experience ended with another of Aristotle’s contributions, which is the idea that good people live good lives only in community. Students gathered the last day of classes in the sunshine, to support each other in their presentations and to break bread sharing a meal.
“The students’ courage is what I will remember most about our shared journey,” Carroll said. “They took on big questions, difficult readings, hauntings and heartbreaks from the past, and they attacked their ignorance. I can’t think of a higher compliment.”