Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

The Search for Authentic Experience

quest

It’s raining deadlines here in Hartford: grant proposals, course proposals, exhibition labels, article drafts, etc. All of it due this week or next. On top of it all, tomorrow’s the first day of classes. Time to polish up the syllabus, de-lint the sweater, iron the button-downs.

I just submitted a proposal to teach an honors course here (see below). The course grows out of my work in the history of exploration. I would love your feedback about the topic, how you think it coheres (or digresses), readings that you think improve the course, areas unexplored or under-explored in the syllabus.

HONB 110: The Search for Authentic Experience

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

Course Description

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said that all of his writings circled around two questions: “what is real?” and “what is human?” Dick’s questions extend beyond science fiction. Indeed, they traverse the scale of human history. If we traveled back in time to the fifth century BCE and asked Plato what sorts of things were on his mind, I suspect he would tell us much the same thing as Dick. Where does one look for the true reality of the world? And once located, how does one reach it?

These are the questions that structure HONB 110: The Search for Authentic Experience, a course that examines the long quest to discover what’s real and the processes by which people try to attain it. Questions of truth usually reside in the domain of philosophy, and debates about “what is real” could easily fit within an epistemology course from Parmenides to Karl Popper. Yet the point of Authentic Experience is to show how such lofty, stratospheric ideas play out on the muddy terrain of human culture. After all, it is not some esoteric exercise in metaphysics that inspires people to search for what’s real: it’s because people sense, in a deeply personal way, that what they experience is not real enough.

For example, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which students read during the first week of the course, can be viewed as a purely metaphysical parable in which a prisoner comes to realize that his life in the shadows of a cave is a poor imitation of the reality of the world above. Yet Plato’s allegory is not merely a thought experiment. It is also a specific critique of life in Athens, a society that feared the ideas of Socrates enough to make him a prisoner, eventually executing him.

St. Francis of Assisi, Anthony Van Dyck, 1627

St. Francis of Assisi, Anthony Van Dyck, 1627

This dance between philosophical ideas and specific cultural concerns frames the first five weeks of Authentic Experience. In particular, this section of the course examines the issue of worldliness and asceticism across cultures. Material luxuries — silks, spices, opium – have long been seen as enhancements to sense experience. Moreover, they have often served as a measuring stick of refinement and cultural progress. Yet others have seen them in darker terms, as distractions, leading people off the narrow path of enlightenment. Do such luxuries enhance our lives as Democritus and the Epicureans argue? Or are they the subtle gloss that separates us from the vibrancy of raw experience as St Francis of Assisi and Siddhārtha Gautama warn us?

Buddha statue in Borobudur Stupa, Java, Indonesia

Buddha statue in Borobudur Stupa, Java, Indonesia

The second section of the course takes up “the journey” in the pursuit of authentic experience. In his book on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell identifies the quest as a key component in hero stories across cultures, including those of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Osiris, Moses, Budda, and Christ. Campbell noted that heroes prove themselves not simply by achieving their goals at the end of the quest, but by undergoing a transformation during the quest itself. The arduous journey is not merely the literary prop of myths and legends. It is a part of the real world, having been adopted by many cultures as a means of purification and enlightenment. In addition to reading excerpts from Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Bible, students will also read about ritualized journeys such as Christian pilgrimages and the Muslim Hajj.

Scene of icebergs, Frederic Church

Scene of icebergs, Frederic Church

The final section of the course looks at the search for authentic experience in the modern world, starting with 19th century Romantics who sought to move beyond the boundaries of empirical reason to achieve an experience of the sublime. Students will examine the landscapes of Frederic Church and his contemporaries, artists who traveled to the wild places of the world in hopes that it would get under their skin, alter their perceptions, and infuse their works with something unique. Finally, the course will consider twentieth-century quests for the real, such as the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s which sought self-actualization through music and hallucinogenic drugs. It will end by examining the current “Age of Adventurism” in which trekkers, climbers, and jumpers attempt increasingly risky, death-defying feats as the means for escaping the quotidian drudgeries of modern life.

Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary

The course will include two field trips: to the Wadsworth Athenaeum to view the collection of Hudson River School landscapes, and to Mt. Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire for a day-hike to the summit. It will also feature guest lectures by Steph Davis, elite climber and author of High Infatuation: A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity, as well as local scholars Heidi Gehman of the Hartford Seminary and Bill Major of Hillyer College.


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13 Comments»

  John Barell wrote @

Michael,

Congratulations on such a splendid course proposal. I do hope your students have an opportunity to engage with you in explorations of the human spirit, to discover its underlying and universal yearning for exploration and discoveries not only of wild and remote terrains, but more importantly about themselves and all of human kind.
Life begins, prevails and ends with curiosity, exploration and discovery

Best wishes,

John Barell

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the kind words John!

  Jessica wrote @

What an awesome course!

Have you considered using something like Walden, or Into the Wild? While neither were mind blowing quests, I think both of those (and there are many others) bring out the fact that leaving society in itself has become an adventure, and we are returning to where we have come from.

Both characters — Thoreau and “Alex,” the main character of Krakauer’s Into the Wild, were searching for authentic experience by leaving society. Whether either of them succeeded is a matter of opinion…but these are good examples (and short ones, at that) of life becoming so crowded that the only “authenticity” some people want is to get away from others.

  Jason Anthony wrote @

Michael:

Sounds like an excellent course. Makes me wish I was back on campus… Because I’m currently teaching it here at an alternative high school in Maine, and because it offers a radical critique of both how to live and what it means to be human, I’ll recommend Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The question of “authentic experience” takes on a different cast under its anthropological critique. We muddle through experience – whether exploring or domestic – because we long ago (~10,000 years ago during the agricultural revolution) lost the knowledge of how to live on Earth. Despite all this, it’s easy to read and pragmatic.

There’s more to say about it, but you probably know it. I’d also recommend Robert Scott and Edward Wilson, the unabashedly Romantic pair of Antarctic explorers. For the hallucinogenic side, the writings of Henri Michaux are beautiful but difficult.

Oh, and since I spent part of today watching 5 students sitting together while all simultaneously surfing via their laptops, texting on their phones, and watching TV, I wonder if you want to delve into the conquest of the virtual experience over the real?

Cheers,
Jason Anthony

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Jason, I will go hunting for Ishmael and Michaux. Your suggestion about the multi-tasking, cybernetic world of today is excellent. The more I think about this, the more I think you are right, I need to include it. It would also make the perfect foil for reading Into the Wild, which is such an “off the grid” read that would highlight how unbelievably plugged in we’ve all become.

  ArchAsa wrote @

Sounds like a great course and very relevant for our times. In this post-post-modern globalized world with many certainties shattered and rising scepticism about science and ideological values, I think the question about what is “real”, permanent and “true” is very much on people’s minds. Who and what do we believe in, what CAN we believe in? Taking time to understand how these issues have been discussed in different times by different people should be very important.

I can envision quite heated debates among the students about the difference between those who seek out extreme experiences of the natural world today, and those who seek the shared engrossing experience through internet, such as WoW etc. Is it the same or is it opposites?

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Asa, after reading your remarks as well as Jason’s, you’ve convinced me: there’s got to be a section near then end of the course on the hyper-networked generation. It would seem that this experience would be the opposite of the “going it alone” climber, diver, explorer – but perhaps there’s similarities behind the difference. I don’t even know where to begin looking for literature on this subject (except perhaps the science fiction novels of William Gibson such as Neuromancer). Let me know if you have any suggestions.

  Jason Anthony wrote @

Michael: No doubt there’s literature (maybe articles rather than books) on the hypernetworked life, but I wonder if literature is where you want to look? Perhaps go directly into the blogosphere, or onto Facebook, etc, to take what they’ve learned from the previous readings (Plato to Krakauer) and then critique the search for truth/authenticity in the online world. Thus more of a writing project then a reading per se. Some interesting questions come out of this for me, as in: Would Thoreau or Chris McCandless, both serious scribblers, have blogged from their hideaways? How much of today’s teenage identity persists after the electricity fails? Etc.

Hope this helps.

Jason

  Erika wrote @

Michael,
This course is awesome! I love the way you develop the intimate details of the changing relationship between intellectual pursuit and real-life experience. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for both you and your students.

Erika

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks Erika. Good to hear from you. How’s life in Maryland?

  Caspar Henderson wrote @

Coming to your site for the first time (and enjoying it a lot), I wonder if your course should include something/more on the search for authenticity in the political sphere — from, e.g., brotherhood of man sentiments of the French revolution to contemporary affairs. I realize, though, there’s only so much one can include in a course

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Caspar – it’s a good idea – though as you state, it’s hard to make room for everything in a 15 week course. Still, maybe I could get some mileage out of Jean Jacques Rousseau since he speaks about the artifice of human civilization but also about how such artifice corrupts the political system.

  Caspar Henderson wrote @

Well, good luck! Rousseau was, of course, a formative influence both for the idea of authenticity and for important strands in politics ever since.


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