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Paul Lee, Backyard Talk, 2022

Susanne organized my library, which has been disorganized for 10 years. First my granddaughter and her boyfriend, then my granddaughter and her boyfriend, my daughter and her boyfriend, and it became you know other friends…..


You brought my life into order after i thought it was all over.


*Jessica - and i just want to add that every once in a while my father manifests the people who will be the most influential and helpful in his life and you were manifested by him [Laughter]** But you know it was just something that had to be done you know so on on that score too i'd like to welcome back Garrett Stephens yesterday and uh we're so happy to have you back and he will help you as well as with the library stuff. Okay now what? Eight o'clock I go to bed partly because I have cancer and I get so fatigued and so I wake up at eight in the morning and so on. So anyhow when I did have trouble going to sleep I would give myself a lecture and they were in a can, I just had to be like - okay let's do that one… and it wouldn't take very long but within 15 minutes i'd be asleep listening to myself and I enjoyed it; I mean I enjoy it all. Okay so I'm going to give you a brief resume of one of those nighttime lectures that took me back to the beginning of when I started teaching I was a student at St Olaf college where I studied philosophy and I had the good luck of having a philosophy professor who was the world's leading expert on Kierkegaard and I was a norwegian lutheran so nothing could have been better than that. And he was this absolutely wonderful man and he and his wife together translated all of Kierkegaard and won the Nobel, I mean the National Book Award for doing so. So from St Olaf I got I certainly have flirted with the ministry; Don't ask me why… *crowd: why? Why? Why? …


But the reason why I was looking for the call was because it meant you get a deferment from going to Korea so half the males of my class went on to the seminary it was called Luther Theological Seminary. I renamed it pseudo loser theological cemetery and because the president of the seminary was named Samuel T Gullickson and he looked just like a bad actor out of a Bergman movie… wow okay so I only lasted there for a year, and in the meantime I decided I was going to go to Harvard. Paul Tillich had come to Saint Olaf when I was a senior there and he gave three lectures on existentialism, no word of which I understood except ‘and’ and ‘the’ and I got those and so in the meantime Tillich could move to Harvard but in the meantime I got to go to Union Seminary for a summer session and Tillich gave three lectures at Columbia that changed my life.


I was looking for somebody like Tillich, I knew I found him when I heard him… who could put the whole thing together for me. I didn't have to worry about it anymore, sit down, blah blah blah come on I just want to tell me how it should be stated! Tillich was a brilliant formulator and he gave three lectures at Columbia called “Biblical Religion and the Search For Ultimate Reality”... are you kidding me? Three, four hundred people, there was a big big audience and I remember the back of the hair on my head stood up. The french call it ‘Frisson’, I had a frisson down to my toes and he didn't he didn't disappoint me. I mean he actually did just a little bitty book now it's in print but he did the whole thing for me, I never got over it. So then I applied to Harvard Divinity School for my third divinity year and I got in. And Tillich was there as a University Professor which is the highest distinction in the country so one thing led to another and I finally got married at that time. I told him like “I'm gonna go home and get married now” and he said “okay i'll be really happy to meet your wife”... yeah i'll bet you, guy… yeah because he was a real womanizer and Charlene was really something else. So I came back with Charlene and I said “well Tillich, this is my wife Charlene” and Charlene looked at Tillich and said, “I'm an atheist!” That was funny… [Laughter] That was the dumbest goddamn thing my wife could have said, instead of hello! And anyway Tilich said, “Oh wonderful, it means you're still searching!” And of course she collapses to his arm which is exactly what he wanted, so that was a good moment at Harvard. They had a wonderful humanities program which they had just revised and there was a lead course of study called “Humanities II - The Epic and the Novel”, and it was kind of “open deal”, you could say “okay can I get a job teaching in that chair?” They just needed students graduate students who would be a TA for the course, so I started teaching and I couldn't looking back on it, I could not believe my fortune for starting my teaching career with Homer and we started with the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the reason why it was so important at harvard was because it was the center for oral cultures. A harvard classics professor named Millman Parry, p-a-r-r-y, about 1920 decided to go to Yugoslavia and Serbia where he had reason to believe he could find minstrels who would sing the song of the heroes of the culture in a tradition that was intact without any problem from homeric time. It was a homeric oral tradition that Parry discovered now that was a really difficult thing to teach because all the Harvard boys thought that there was a book. The Iliad, the Odyssey, it says homer here it's a book. They had a hard time working themselves back to near infancy. You have to think about where did you learn how to read… when you were two or three? Huh? When? *Crowd - “five”, “four” “four”, “six”, “four to six”....


But by the time you're five?


*Crowd - “five”, “five to six”

So then that's the end of your pre-literate period when it's coincidental with what the culture went through before it learned how to read and nobody in Homer's time knew how to read or write. It was pre-literate. It's called the “archaic tradition” and I love it because of the archaic smile, which characterizes the greek sculpting of the homeric period. What are they smiling about? I've thought about that for a long time. It's a kind of dreaming innocence before they enter into the whole rise of rational self-consciousness which is what the greeks gave us from Socrates on… What are they smiling about? Well they're prior to the subject-object split. It’s a smile and they don't really realize what it is to differentiate between me and you. It's all in a kind of oral malaise. It's an oral culture. Anyhow, the archaic smile is a wonderful emblem of that dreaming innocence culture before the rise of rationality and illiteracy. So because we had Millman Parry as a figure at Harvard who discovered it, he went to Serbia and Yugoslavia and got all kinds of recordings, I think hundreds and hundreds of recordings and and all of a sudden everybody had to kind of reverse gears and realize that there's no books. You can't talk about a Homer as an author. You can't say anything about what Homer had written. It's all transmitted by word of mouth thanks to the minstrel. So that was a big breakthrough. That had happened at Harvard and it transformed classic studies practically worldwide, but certainly in this country. So I kept going. We had great teachers at Harvard and then Eric Havelock came from from Canada. We had this fabulous interdisciplinary group and at the University of Toronto with Ted Carpenter, my dear friend and Eric Havelock, and Marshall McLuhan… He was the kind of inspirational leader of that whole group, I don't know those rare moments in academia where they all contributed to one anothers’ work and then Havelock came to Harvard. Now Havelock kind of really knew how to bring all of Millman Parry's work on oral culture to bend on the rise of rational self consciousness. And the division between subject and object, I think a critical example of how the mind developed is that you could, you know in a way, back yourself up and ask questions about it and whatnot and Havelock wrote a book when he was at Harvard called Preface to Plato which specifies how Plato saw the transformation of culture forever after in the rise of rational literacy and things would never be the same. And that, it's a wonderful book explicating that theme. And then so this got distorted into the old argument: the conflict between philosophy and poetry - there's no conflict, it's all the conflict of one culture that is transmitted by word of mouth without books or rationality, to a new culture. It all takes place. And so people misunderstand the Republic when they talk about “we're not going to let the Homer into the Republic”, that's because they didn't want to let that former style of consciousness: pre-literate pre-rational, into the new Republic. “You've got to come up to speed!” Homeric culture is denounced as a world of trance state, when the Homeric poems are said, I mean they're so caught up in the imagery and the rhythm and the similes and the beauty of the fortune that they pass into a trance state, and the parable of the Cave and the Republic is - pretty much Plato is saying “you gotta come up out of the cave, you got to wake up, you got to be able to learn how to think”. “Because that's the game from now on. Now and the dividing line is pretty much Plato’s Republic… I was stunned when I was Huey P. Newton's faculty advisor at UCSC when he came back to school for a degree and he told he learned how to read because he was illiterate, in jail, by reading Plato's Republic. And the transition passed through. That was something. So the end of the Republic is one of my favorite texts and I recommend it to you, it's called the “Myth of Er” who is a pan-filian which is the pun on Plato's part means - every man. And it's about the transmigration of souls. This is called victim psychosis. And it's all about, I mean, Socrates just picks it up. It's really a beautiful moment in the dialogue. It's the end of the dialogue, so he says, “I'm going to tell you the Myth of Er”. Er is the pan-filian, “every man”, pan-filian, and he was left for dead on the battlefield and he was able to journey to the afterlife to see what happens to people when they die. And so he's actually taken to the center of the Universe …. Camera cuts out here.


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¶ 1  PROOF that inadequate, even childish measures may serve to rescue one from peril:To protect himself from the Sirens Ulysses stopped his ears with wax and had himself bound to the mast of his ship