The Endurance of Questions
John Visvader, faculty member in philosophy

Ever since childhood I’ve felt that there was a certain freedom in knowing things. Being alive was like being in a strange city without knowing your way around. Everything seemed amazing and mysterious at the same time. Having a map gave one the freedom to find one’s way about, to make the place your own, to know where it was worth going and how to get there. I spent a lot of time finding out how radios, clocks, and automobiles worked by taking them apart and putting them back together. There seemed no end to the whys and hows of things. But finding a familiarity with practical things still left unanswered the great orienting questions of childhood: Who am I? What am I? What is this place I’m in? 

As I got older these kinds of questions became more specific but their answers remained elusive: What is the basis of human nature? How does consciousness fit into a material world? What is the nature and origin of the universe?

The questions, put in this form, could be pursued academically, and so my schooling was split between psychology on the one hand and physics and cosmology on the other. The pursuit of these questions by means of these disciplines seemed to approach the answers only asymptotically—approaching closer and closer but never quite making contact. It seemed that the kind of explanation that worked for clocks didn’t do much for the bigger questions.

Midway through college, I discovered that both religion and philosophy were comfortable with unanswerable questions, though religion concentrated on finding ultimate answers while philosophy thought the questions were more important. Some philosophers felt that each generation, as a condition of their humanity, had to deal with the same or similar questions but work out answers appropriate to their time and circumstances. There were enduring questions but not enduring answers. In terms of the original analogy of the city, there were good and bad maps of each city but no master map that would get you where you needed to go wherever you happened to be. Nonetheless, map-making remains a necessary and noble pursuit. This view does not imply a radical relativism but rather expresses a deep pluralistic contextualism. I’ve found this approach to these kinds of questions both humbling and in an important sense—freeing.

Question Queen
Karen Waldron, faculty member in literature and theory

Several years ago, a student called me the Question Queen. I realized that most of what I do in class is pose questions: questions of my own, questions in response to student questions, questions in response to student comments, questions in response to my own comments. With words or without. Questions are the life force. We all have different questions and much of my work involves helping students find their questions, often hidden within, because that’s how I learned.

I’m sure I was one of those children who constantly asked Why? My questions were cosmic, not practical, though I was always outside, learning the shapes of trees, the feel of dirt, the patterns of bird song. When I had my first flat tire my dad had to teach me to question the earthly realm, not just abide there. In school during the sixties, I had come to focus on the nature of the universe, existence, faith, pain, and suffering. My Why is the sky blue? questions had rapidly developed into ones about racism, pollution, and war. In college I discovered the root of these in questions about time and consciousness. How should I abide, embodied, in a broken world? Was there any earthly place for healing? My culminating project at Hampshire College was all about the tension between poetry and philosophy in T.S. Eliot’s work. I read it all, but especially Four Quartets.

From Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

From Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

From The Dry Salvages:
But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and self lessness and self-surrender.

Time. Place. Consciousness. Embodiment. The Four Quartets are each named for places. Maybe that is how we abide. Places shape and teach us their own particulars while time and consciousness are vehicles of our questions. The poem expresses the place; the place inspires the poem. The wells of wisdom in each seem infinite. Where and how do we apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time? I read Jung; I read theology; I read philosophy. I went to graduate school not only to read more novels and poetry and theory, but also to keep asking questions of them. Literature manifests a consciousness of truth in time that probes the deepest levels of the mind and questions what it means to be alive—embodied in a particular  place, at a particular time. Discovering the mind of the novel and then rereading that novel at different times and in different places becomes as rich an experience as knowing a person: endlessly fascinating, both finite and infinite. As Jorge Luis Borges was so apt at narrating, the human consciousness can imagine infinity, can feel infinite, but we live and die in time. Every one of our students is a human consciousness living in a finite body. Consciousness, like the universe, is endless. My questions help me to live there while my body sends down roots to place and acknowledges time.

What Are the Stories We Tell Ourselves?
John Anderson, faculty member in ecology and natural history

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I remember one of my earliest COA advisees saying that the thing she liked best about her second four years at COA was “watching John learn how to teach.” I am not very good at it, but I am still trying.

I sometimes think that there can be no higher high than when a class really zings, when you realize that you have gone ten minutes over and nobody seems to want to leave. Of course, there is also the lowest of lows—classes that crash and burn and send me away cursing myself and obsessing over lost opportunities and my complete inability to make a point or keep to a thread of argument. I suspect that the one can’t help but having the other, and if I ever feel that I have really “learned how to teach” it is time to quit.

I love research and cannot imagine not doing it, but research alone isn’t enough. Part of that is that I lack discipline. If I am honest, I agree with John Steinbeck and his best friend, the ecologist Ed Ricketts: I go because I am curious, and my curiosity is perhaps overly wide for modern science. I am just as interested in why there was once a Bay of Gulls on maps of Mount Desert Island as I am in the feeding range of the herring gull, but I also want to know why the United States went into Vietnam, when the first humans reached Australia, and what Alexander the Great thought of the Romans.

This sort of variance suggests the mind of a dilettante, a charge that I should perhaps plead guilty to, but I justify it with my obsession with stories. I think it no accident that one of the earliest things we say to each other is Tell me a story. Stories are us, we are made of them, and as they change so do we. Here is a story of what drives me:

In the days when color television was very new, and we had only one friend who had a color TV, Sir Kenneth Clark hosted a wonderful series on Western civilization. Every Thursday we went along to the Manns to watch Sir Kenneth walk us through the glories of three thousand years of art and architecture. At the very end of the series he looked straight into the camera and read Yeats’ great prophetic poem, The Second Coming. Then he told us what he himself believed—a lovely short speech that began, “I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.” Then he turned and walked away, and the camera backed off and backed off, and I saw that he was walking through a great library and was going to put the book back on its shelf. I realized then (I was probably only eight at the time) that what I wanted to do was to read every book in that library. I want it still.

The Space Between
Nancy Andrews, faculty member in performance art and video production

One thing that drives me as an artist is a need to make things: films, drawings, objects, assemblages, music, animation—forms vary—as a practice to keep me grounded in my realm of sanity. The process and engagement with making delivers me into what Mircea Eliade calls ritual time—a time that releases me from the world of the everyday into the world of mystery and transformation. Often my work with images, ideas, and materials is more intuitive and instinctual than intellectual or purposeful. Once the work has developed, I can make more sense of what it means.

It is like dreaming—I create dreams while asleep and then examine them and gain understanding while awake. I am not saying that I go into some sort of trance in the woods. I research, read, learn, investigate, collaborate, and all of that is fodder in the process of making art.

The questions that engage me center around the grey areas between binaries, like death and life; human animals and nonhuman animals; artificial and real. I am fascinated by the nature of reality and perception. I gravitate to big questions: What’s it all about? and What does it mean to be a human animal? and What gives my life meaning?

The Forgotten. The Ignored.
Dru Colbert, faculty member in arts and design

What does not get looked at or acknowledged?
What is willfully ignored?
How does the disregarded align with notions of the aesthetic?

A great deal of the world is overlooked, most of the time, in varying degrees. If not, it would be difficult to concentrate on anything amidst enormous sensory distraction. But what is chosen as something to ignore?

Stories speak of the nature of humans. What stories have not been collected? What stories are not being told? What is ignored in individual lives, in psyches, in cultures?

I deal with these questions in my work as an educator, in work I do with cultural institutions such as museums, and in the idiosyncratic work that I make as an artist. I have sought to bring forth stories of people and events that were previously hidden or submerged, whether they are part of our national story or tiny events that have unfolded in micro-environments such as under bluestem prairie grass, or in the town of Otter Creek, Maine.

In my current artistic practice, I have been collecting evidence of humans in the form of discarded or lost things, while also documenting plant life along the dead-end road where I live. These gatherings range from flattened beer cans and cigarette butts to botanical specimens and collected sounds. Each object becomes a touchstone of the very particular story that brought it there.

The discards of humans are as much a part of the ecological makeup of a place as plants, animals, and geological material, telling tales of often overlooked lives and stories.

Why Go On?
Colin Capers ’95, MPhil ’09, lecturer in writing, literature, and film

Why go on? I know to some this sounds like a desperate question, at best a cynical and at worst a despairing query to resort to. But it’s a fundamental question—fundamental for contemporary Western thought but more than that, primal, rooted in the preverbal. It is Hamlet’s question, more concisely stated and without the simplistic duality.

The question need not be a dark one; fear of death and taboos against the embrace of one’s own mortality need not taint our perspective. I see cinema and literature as realms in which we may collectively investigate other ways of framing human thought and experience—on this and all questions that intrigue us.

The foundational inquiry of all disciplines can be read as variations on why go on and its attendant questions: How go on? Why begin? How begin? Why end? How end? These questions inform any creative act (and I, for one, would hope for a world in which all acts are creative). Of course there are those, from Primo Levi to Kurt Vonnegut, who offer compelling evidence across the spectrum of despair to optimism that there is no why at all, or at least no use in asking it—not to mention the Buddhists who would also question the spectrum I just invoked. I tend to be wary of the questions’ implications of meaningfulness, but as long as we are wary we may proceed.

These questions inevitably lead me to Samuel Beckett, whose characters, from Murphy who “would never lose sight of the fact that he was a creature without initiative” to the unnamed voice of Fizzles 4 who “gave up before birth.” They are also at the heart of my interest in his work. His radical, ongoing reduction is what first spurred me to become suspicious of narrative. Stories can become traps when we fail to recognize that they are contrivances, procrustean beds to which we subject all that lies beyond our ability (or desire) to comprehend.

Jonathan Heron and Nicholas Johnson, in a Journal of Beckett Studies discussion of genetic literary criticism (which reviews the history and variants of a given text, attempting to reconstruct the author’s process), ask “How does an actor hope to produce a fulfilled performance without full consciousness of an accurate source text?”

I think this is the dilemma which faces the human ecologist: in a world with so many variables, how do we choose a course of action? But the belief that we have an “accurate source text”—a clear, true, unchanging map for how to proceed—blinds us to the pesky, unsightly, human bits that may make
that text “inaccurate.” And if we are uncertain as to how, the question why naturally follows.

Ultimately, questions of going on fascinate me for two reasons. Firstly, everyone has a different answer, and in encouraging individual discovery of and engagement with these answers, we encourage a richer range of human knowledge and experience. And secondly, the asking—why go on—every day in itself affirms the possibility of an answer.

Do I have a quest? Yeah: Does it sound good?
John Cooper, faculty member in music

I sit at the piano, my baby grand, downstairs. All my great ideas come from sitting at the piano. I find a melody, a motif, a chord. Some musical subject emerges. Mostly it’s just emotion—I’ll play a melody and it’ll bring a smile, a memory, sometimes a tear. It could also be a rhythm. Being a jazzer, I think of rhythm as a melody without the notes, rhythm adds gait, pattern, pause. I’m not trying to tell a literal story, it takes a life of its own.

The hardest thing is not coming up with too many ideas.

When I get that basic idea, I try to remain true to it. I go upstairs where I have a keyboard and computer. Everything builds. I can’t take the jazz out of my compositions because I’ve listened to, analyzed, and played it all my life—or the Beatles, or the Beach Boys, or Steely Dan, or Coltrane, or Shostakovich, or Prokofiev, or Sibelius.

In composition, there are vertical and horizontal aspects. Once I have an A theme, a B or C theme comes in as a contrast. Legato to staccato, major to minor, smooth to angular. That’s the horizontal. I draw in the listener. There’s the melody—it’s in the flute now. Vertical is the chord, the harmony, the minor and major sounds.

What I have now is the melody and bass line, and enough harmony to determine what the composition is going to be. That takes about a week. And with that there’s the flexibility to go anywhere. With a large work it takes another month to bring it to fruition. If you want to move forward, you’ve got to try new things.

Working on the synthesizer, and the many sounds it delivers, gives the timbre but not the balance. On a computer, the flute can be as loud as a trumpet. So up to the day of that first rehearsal, there’s that anxiety, wondering whether my clarinets were going to cut through, and so on. Or maybe I’m struggling with a transition. And you have to know when to stop. I can sit at the computer and add counter lines, harmonics. At some point I’m just doing it for effect. You can get so hung up with creating music that is so harmonically rich—all those instruments to write for—that the melody gets lost. You’ve got to be careful that what you add doesn’t take away from the piece. Sometimes you have to say, Enough.

Every time is a little different, that’s what’s fun, exhilarating—and scary. You’re opening yourself up: Is that what this person is really about?