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Summer 2000

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Periclean winners share “flash of living truth”

Inspiring scholars: Howard Kaplan ’00, faculty speaker Lary Optiz, Laura Burnes ’00, Kismet Al-Hussaini ’00, and Kimberly Helms ’00

     The day before Commencement, the College’s Periclean honor society inducted 34 new members from the graduating class and awarded four Periclean Scholar Awards for outstanding senior projects. As always, among the proudest spectators to the event are four faculty advisors, looking on with special delight as their students present their award-winning work.

     This year a philosopher, a literary theorist, an art historian, and a violinist did their teachers proud with particularly inspiring projects. The event’s keynote speaker, Associate Professor of Theater Lary Opitz —a playwright-producer-director-actor who knows a thing or two about inspiration—defined it, in the words of British novelist Arnold Bennett, as “a sudden, transient insight . . . a flash, and where previously the brain held a dead fact, the soul grasps a living truth.”

     Truth was literally the topic for philosophy major Howard Kaplan, who Socratically parsed the key points of his thesis, The Anti-Metaphysician’s New Truth: In Pursuit of Nietzsche’s Conception of Truth Beyond Metaphysics —word by word. “What is ‘new truth’?” the dark-bearded Kaplan asked rhetorically. “And were the ‘old truths’ merely error?” Yes—to the iconoclastic Nietzsche who, Kaplan explained, thought all “old truth” (e.g., Platonism, Judeo-Christianity) really was error, an inadequate human attempt to “fix” the complex flow of reality.

     But “beyond metaphysics”? Nietzsche never got there, Kaplan charged in his 145-page thesis that Associate Professor of Philosophy Francisco Gonzalez declared “the most ambitious in my nine years in the department.” Kaplan, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, with department honors and the Cooper-Barnett Prize in Philosophy, plans to pursue graduate study in philosophy.

     Philosophy also inspired Kimberly Helms, who discussed Gaston Bachelard’s 1964 Poetics of Space, which suggests that houses are mirrors of “the layers of the human imagination.” Helms, a double major in English and theater, applied the concept to houses in English novels from Peter Pan to Howard’s End. Helms, a summa cum laude graduate planning a career in acting or literature, is described by Professor of English Susan Kress as “an ideal student, demonstrably dedicated to love of the work.”

     The Edwardian house, Helms suggests, is a metaphor for mind and body: the attic is the mind, and the cellar the loins—rarely discussed in prim Edwardian society. “By closing its doors on what Freud would label the id-based instincts of the personality, [the Edwardian house] represents a mind that is unbalanced,” said Helms. She memorably described the Darling family dwelling in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as “the ultimate Edwardian house—the kids sleep in the attic while Mrs. Darling tidies up their thoughts.”

     Architecture also intrigued art-history major Laura Burnes. Her project on Tibetan monastic sites “combined field work in Tibet and Tibetan mountain in her junior year, Burnes wondered why its small monastery sat not at the top but on a precipice halfway up the slope. The richly complex answers she found blend geomancy, astrology, Indian mandalas, and Chinese feng shui. When a temple is placed correctly, Buddhist practitioners believe they can “step into the mandala of the landscape,” said Burnes, who shared some good and bad landscape features (“a tree above the structure is bad, for it symbolizes a nail being hammered into your back”) and Tibetan construction tips (“more than one pillar, even for a simple house”).

     Burnes, who graduated summa cum laude with departmental honors and prizes, will be assistant to the director of a Tibetan art museum set to open next year in New York City.

     A violinist since she was three, Filene Scholar Kismet Al-Hussaini provided a rousing finish to the Periclean event by performing Ravel’s 1924 Tsigane (rhapsodie de concert), one of the selections from her senior recital, which her faculty advisor Michael Emery praised as “cohesive yet imaginative, exceeding the scope of most liberal arts music recitals.” Al-Hussaini, who plans a change-of-pace apprenticeship in organic farming this fall in Oregon, performed Ravel’s witty version of a gypsy virtuoso attempting to play serious music. Accompanied by Skidmore pianist Patricia Hadfield, the piece swung from sweet to serious to merry and ended in a storm of applause, a tribute to all the students who had so clearly, as Opitz attested, “experienced that flash of living truth.” —BAM

 


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