On Tuesday, April 4th Paul Freedman (Politics), Lou Bloomfield (Physics), Stephen Cushman (English), and Martien Halvorson-Taylor (Religious Studies) each spoke about themselves for fifteen minutes. In most situations this might sound unduly self-centered, but it was actually the topic of I Contain Multitudes: A Quartet of Favorite UVA Professors Converses about "The Self", the brainchild of Creative Writing's Lisa Russ Spaar. While it sounds like a program of professors letting it all hang out, they were restrained about themselves and each focused on the topic as it related to their field.
In her introduction Dr. Russ Spaar naturally referred to Whitman, Dickerson, and Emerson, but also spoke about how Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and SnapChat have all gone extinct before we learned to use them, how the Word of the Year is not a word (a pictograph, the emoji), and how, in poetry we don't solve for x. She set history and context as a launching place for her four friends.
First, Dr. Bloomfield lamented how most scientists have turned into businessmen – managers, who scrabble to make their labs and discoveries profitable. He pointed out how we let integrity take care of itself...and it never does. And that the biggest display of self on Grounds is when a building is named after you. But not all his observations about the self were tilted downward, he still finds joy in generosity and play, the things that drew him to science in the first place. He notes, in case we forgot, that the world is not a zero-sum game and that he entered science "to do something really useful, to make the world a better place."
Dr. Cushman focused sharply on The Self; the word and concept of ego came into English in 1789 in the light of Romanticism and continued onward into the shadow of Freud—"the I at the Center of the Universe." Cushman's also noted the difficulty and necessity of getting his Cushman-self out of the transaction between the students and the works they are reading, and yet being there too. "How does this work?" he was not the only speaker to find paradox in the observation of self.
The Department of Politics' Dr. Paul Freedman admits to Googling "I contain multitudes." He was happily surprised by results referencing the microbiome, surely the best example of multitudes. He suggests that we invite the trillions of others into the conversation, that they will have something to say about The Self, perhaps as something concealed, as something yet to be revealed, and then as something uncovered and exposed. He mentions his students efforts to suss out the political stance of each professor in the department, which way do you lean, hidden in every question? As if Google was not available to them-selves as well.
Finally Dr. Halvorson-Taylor spoke on the Bible, a book which clearly contains multitudes. She addressed humankind as male, female, and then self as a undifferentiated mass, not as individuals at all. Each self has directionality in time—aharit, that which lies ahead, and ki-aharit, that which lies behind. This self imagines that it "lives into the future," – the self is prepositionally challenged, a person in a rowboat, their back to the future and their front to the past.
The audience was given a chance to show themselves as well, addressing critical thinking, surveys, and smart phones: "What do we know of ourselves?" "We are conscious of our ignorance." "We think we know ourselves. And sometimes we are wrong."
I Contain Multitudes was held at the Fralin Museum of Art in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the College of Arts and Sciences.