The Trinity College Clark Lectures this year will be delivered by Robert Pogue Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University.
In this Q&A Professor Harrison discusses his lecture theme, books for those new to his work, and his role in a ‘cerebral rock band.’
Tell us a bit more about the theme of your lectures: why ‘thresholds’?
Thresholds both separate and relate what they come between. In my Clark Lectures I will examine a variety of thresholds: between the finite and the infinite, the terrestrial and extraterrestrial, the living and the dead, the apparent and the nonapparent. In an essay called “The Psychology of Places” (1910), the British writer and outdoorsman Algernon Blackwood wrote that “the threshold is ever the critical frontier that invites adventure and therefore possible disaster. The psychical aspect of a threshold is essentially thrilling.” He advises campers never to pitch camp on the edge of anything: “put your tent in the wood or out of it but never on the borderland between the two, since that is not a place of rest but of activity.” I choose not to follow his advice in my lectures but to court adventure and possible disaster by seeking out different types of edges where things get critical as well as thrilling.
Which of your books would you advise someone new to your work to read first, and why?
It depends on who the person is. If it’s a non-academic lay person, I would recommend my book Gardens: An Essay of the Human Condition, which tells the story of literal as well as figurative gardens, both of which involve cultivation and the commitment of care. Along with Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, it is my best-selling book. For the more philosophically oriented reader, I would recommend The Dominion of the Dead, a more dense theoretical investigation of the relations the living maintain with the dead in a variety of secular, religious, and institutional domains. For those interested in a broad-ranging philosophy of history, I would recommend Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age.
You wrote Forests: The Shadow of Civilization over 30 years ago now and it has only grown in relevance. How differently would you write it now, if at all?
It’s quite amazing for me to remember how, when I was writing Forests, most of my friends and colleagues thought I was crazy to pursue such a project and endanger my academic career by defying academic genres and specialization. I was young enough at the time to take that risk, yet even more than that, Forests was a book that wanted to be written. Some books write themselves almost independently of their authors. At least that is the experience I had during the years in which I labored over this selective history of forests in the western imagination. I’m sure there are any number of ways Forests could be profitably revised, supplemented, or reconfigured, yet I would not know how to change a word of it, given that I do not really consider myself its author, if by authorship we mean ownership of a book’s contents and manner of expression.
Your work covers what was once called, without challenge or embarrassment, the whole canon of Western literature. Is the idea of such a canon still defensible?
According to the idea of translatio imperii, western civilization has been on a westward course for quite some time. I live at the western edge of the western world, in a place called California. From this edge, it seems to me that the western canon is poised for “a new birth of freedom,” to quote Abraham Lincoln. It’s not a question of “defending” it so much as rediscovering its astonishing richness and subversive radicality. The more deeply you explore the western canon, the more you realize how liberating and revolutionary it really is.
Your Stanford website describes you as lead guitarist of a ‘cerebral rock band’. What other kinds of rock band do you admire, if any?
The cerebral rock band in question is called Glass Wave, which gets its name from a verse in Ezra Pound’s Cantos (“glass wave over Tyro”). All of the songs on our first and only album recast stories in the archives of literature and myth, from Ovid to Nabokov. Some of the rock bands I most admire are well known: Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, King Crimson. Others include less well known British progressive rock bands like Gentle Giant, Soft Machine, Cressida, Nucleus, Spooky Tooth, Taste, Skin Alley, Love Sculpture, the early Supertramp. The early 70s was an incredibly rich moment in British musical history. My brother and I were nourished on it in high school.
The Clark Lectures take place in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre. No booking is required.
Tuesday 9 May at 5pm: The Thin Blue Line
Thursday 11 May at 5pm: Mysteries of the Phainosphere
Tuesday 16 May at 6pm: Tellurian Symbols
Thursday 18 May at 5pm: On Separation