What is the Passion that Fuels the Ivory Tower Boiler Room? Enter Plato!
By Andrew Rimby
“I propose that each of us should make the finest speech he can in praise of Love, and then pass the topic on to the one on his right.” from Plato’s Symposium (translated by Christopher Gill)
“I propose that each of us should make the finest speech they can in praise of Passion.” (edits made by Andrew Rimby)
As I’m writing this (on Sunday, August 29th… yes I procrastinate), I have just finished my first week back, teaching at Stony Brook University. While you’re reading this, I’m probably in the glamorous Student Union building teaching my Queer Poetry course (oh, and glamorous is not an overstatement… I mean who wouldn’t want to teach in a classroom with an automatic screen that lowers down and dims the lights… I feel like I’m in a cinema). This week, my students are being introduced to Plato’s Symposium and questioning why these ancient Greek philosophers are gathered together to debate the power of Love (or Eros, the Greek term). I’ve taught this text before, in a World Literature course, but this is the first time I’m teaching it expressly from the homoerotic angle (and are there homoerotic moments in this text or what?). This focus on why Love (we’ll keep it personified for now) is such a powerful force reminds me of the Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and the Broadway showtune “Falling In Love With Love” (written by Rodgers and Hart for The Boys from Syracuse). Both pieces speak to why Plato’s text still casts a spell over the reader who encounters it. I notice that any philosophical text, but especially ancient Greek philosophy, can seem like a daunting close reading exercise for my students. But, I’m determined to help them through The Symposium by bringing more of a Public Humanities approach… let me explain.
Because of my obsession with the podcast universe (I do oversee The Ivory Tower Boiler Room’s podcast for a reason), I of course looked up Plato’s Symposium to see if any intriguing discussions exist. Well, I was in luck because the BBC Radio had a panel of classicists (those who study all things ancient literature, but most definitely Greek literature) gathered together to explain the theory behind Plato’s Symposium. Not only is the discussion accessible for undergraduate students, but each scholar nicely breaks down why Eros’ power is such a central concern to each man. The assembled scholars come to a consensus that each man (I know…I know…the patriarchy of it all!) is desperate to find the origin of Love so they can…once and for all…be in the company of other philosophers who desire to grow intellectually with one another (yup, you guessed it…Platonic Love). Well, that got me thinking about the reason why I started The Ivory Tower Boiler Room with Adam, about a year ago. Why don’t I practice the creative discussion exercise that I have my students engage in? What if I tried to closely read the Passion at the root of my creative vision for The Ivory Tower Boiler Room (yes I’m personifying it because of the agency it holds in my life)? Okay, here it goes.
When the creative team (me, Adam, Erika, and Mary) were coming up with our new tagline, I was insistent that we are a “liberal arts collective.” But, how glad I am that the team convinced me that I was stuck in an academic frame of mind so our tagline became “A Literary and Artistic Community.” If you look hard enough at this tagline, in between “Literary” and “Artistic,” you will find my Passion in all its personified beauty. You don’t see it, okay I’ll give you a hint… a two word phrase… Public Humanities. I had just finished my work as a Public Humanities Fellow with Humanities NY, where I collaborated with the Walt Whitman Birthplace on curriculum for high school students. I had a lot of help from the English Education faculty at Stony Brook, and while doing this, I came to the realization that I loved doing Whitman walking tours throughout Long Island. I am currently up to three walking tours that are up on YouTube for all to see (links below, and you better believe I’ll be using them in my “Whitman’s Multitudes” undergraduate course… the one in Roslyn includes a lot of queer poetic discussion). My time spent as a Public Humanities fellow really showed me what happens when an academic specialist, in my case a 19th-century American and British Lit. scholar, engages with the public.
What I love about the walking tours is how excited they make me! I always get asked questions that help me better articulate, in my teaching and writing, why it’s so important to learn about the centrality of place in an author’s writing process. For example, I’m currently staring at a Virginia Woolf candle (gifted by my friend from undergrad), a copy of Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, and probably my favorite desk adornments… three paper dolls, one of Walt Whitman, one of Oscar Wilde, and one of Edith Wharton (I call them the wild Ws). Does it help when you know that I can see a cloud behind a bountiful tree on the edge of my balcony? It might explain the rabbit holes I’m going down, or maybe a better metaphor is the tree limbs I’m climbing across? But, if you know me, you know I mix a lot of metaphors or make up ones that just seem enticing to me. I’m going to climb from that tree on the edge of my balcony to one that is hovering outside my office window (quite a jump, but I can make it).
I went to the Berkshires two weeks ago, and it was just the creative rejuvenation I needed for my teaching, writing, researching, and podcasting. When I got to stand in front of Edith Wharton’s bed (at the luxurious and majestic Mount), it was so intriguing to learn that she only wrote by hand, in her bed (oh and only in the early morning). Yes, this is where she wrote her first hit (and my favorite of hers), The House of Mirth. Or, when I stood at the reproduction of Herman Melville’s desk (at his Arrowhead home), and looked out at the window, directly above his desk, and saw the outline of Mount Greylock. And what did it look like, you may be thinking? Well, a whale’s hump… this is where he thought up the narrative of Moby-Dick. It’s moments like these, when being led by amazing docents, that I realize that I’m returning to my Passion. It’s in these spaces where I can articulate what keeps me returning again and again to the classroom. This is the best way I can explain this Passion: A community of creative artists who come together to explain why they need art to sustain them. Yes, I think that’s the commonality that we all share in these literary spaces, from the Mount, to Arrowhead, to the classroom, to that Zoom writing group space, to (of course) The Ivory Tower Boiler Room. Perhaps, recognizing this will lead to a more humanistic approach to engaging in literature. And what if The Ivory Tower Boiler Room serves as a space where “humanistic” can reverberate with its etymological power? Yes, I do believe that we are a literary collective where each creative person is recognized for their individuality, and isn’t that what the Humanities are all about? But, it’s more than just individuality, it’s a recognition of how a community of artists that care about one another will be a community that grows and evolves together. Happy 1st birthday Ivory Tower Boiler Room and here’s to so many more birthdays where we will continue to return to our own version of Plato’s Symposium.
- Andrew’s favorite version of “Falling In Love With Love” (The Supremes… and they have so many songs with the word “Love” in the title):
Plato’s Symposium Podcast Resources:
- Plato’s Symposium (BBC Radio)
- Ancient Greece Declassified
Andrew’s Whitman Walking Tours:
- Jayne’s Hill Tour (Whitman in West Hills): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdn7g_NjetI&t=2419s
- Huntington Village Tour (Whitman in Huntington):
- Roslyn Village Tour (Whitman and William Cullen Bryant in Roslyn):