Storytelling and the Human Condition

Storytelling and the Human Condition coverStorytelling and the Human Condition
Alexandra Hudson
Author, Journalist, and Storyteller
watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

This lecture series is supposed to be about how storytelling defines us as human beings but is as much about moral philosophy as it is about storytelling. The lecturer, Alexandra Hudson, discusses political philosopher Hannah Arendt in both the first lecture and the last lecture. Arendt is hugely important in modern political and moral thought, but she is not known for storytelling.

That said, Hudson presents a lot of stories. In a lecture entitled “Origins and Meaning of Life,” she offers both the biblical creation story and the Enuma Elish, the creation story from the Fertile Crescent. In the lecture on suffering she discusses the book of Job in the Bible. In the lecture entitled “Materialism and Earthly Attachments,” she discusses both the classic movie about King Henry II and his family, The Lion in Winter, and the contemporary HBO series Succession. (Ironically, I watched that lecture the same week as the Succession series finale. Hudson recorded these lectures before that final season.) In the same lecture she discusses the life of the Buddha. Though the story of his life is well known, Buddhism is, of course, much more about a way of living than it is about the story.

I didn’t like the fact that Hudson left out many key details in her storytelling. She fails to note that there are two biblical stories of creation. In the first, the newer of the two, humans are created last, and man and woman are created together. In the second, older story, humans are created first, and man is created before woman. When she summarizes the story of Job, Hudson talks about Job’s faithfulness to God, but fails to mention that in the middle chapters, when he is talking to his friends, he is a pretty unhappy guy. Discussing the story of Orestes as retold by Aeschylus, Hudson describes how Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra because she killed her husband, Orestes’s father Agamemnon, and how he was therefore pursued by the furies until exonerated by the gods. She fails to mention that Orestes was, to use a twentieth-century term, in a Catch-22 situation. He was obligated to avenge the death of his father, but he was still guilty of matricide. It took the trial presided over by the goddess Athena to sort things out.

Then there’s her big omission in her discussion of Paradise Lost. Hudson rightly notes that the villain in Paradise Lost was Satan, and not Adam and Eve. What she omits entirely is that from Milton’s perspective, God expels Adam and Eve from Eden, but does so with a sort of blessing:

quoteThe world was all before them, where to choose.
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Hudson seems to have a Christian perspective, but that simply pops up here and there; it is not at all obtrusive. What I really wish is that she had spent more time with stories, as the course title implies, and less dealing with abstract concepts. Watching the twelve lectures with my Wondrium subscription was definitely worth my time. I would not, however, recommend buying the set from the Great Courses, even when the sale price recurs.


post-impressionism coverPost-Impressionism: The Beginnings of Modern Art
Ricky Allman
University of Missouri–Kansas City
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

Art history is not one area with which I have a great deal of familiarity, so I thought it would be a good diversion to watch this lecture series on post-impressionism. I found the course worth my time and I learned some new things.

Instructor Ricky Allman explains that post-impressionists were unhappy with the establishment art scene in Paris and broke out to try new styles and techniques in art. They experimented with different approaches to painting, such as creating an image with dots or using heavy brush strokes. The gallery run by the Paris art establishment was called the Salon, and its curators had very staid, conservative tastes. They were quick to reject the work of the post-impressionists for display at the Salon. Members of the group responded by creating their own shows.

The history of post-impressionism is tied closely to the turbulent history of France in the nineteenth century and to advances in technology. Allman devotes full lectures to these influences: politics and religion, science and industry, and photography. He also discusses how outside influences affected the work of the group, such as Japanese art.

Allman talks about the individual artists in the movement and discusses their personalities. He tells us that Vincent van Gogh was an unpleasant person who didn’t like people and that a lot of people didn’t like him. Tradition has sanitized the story about his sending part of his ear to the love of his life. The recipient was a prostitute at a brothel down the road and the piece of his ear may have been cut off in a tussle with Paul Gauguin, with whom he was rooming at the time. Not exactly the van Gogh of the Don McLean song. (And by the way, he only sold one painting during his lifetime.)

Speaking of Gauguin, he was a nasty person who had a penchant for teenage girls whom he got pregnant and to whom probably gave syphilis, from which he suffered. His images of Tahiti reflect the Tahiti he expected, not the Tahiti he discovered when he arrived, which had long since been modernized and westernized.

Allman takes the time to discuss lesser-known artists. He devotes a lecture to Suzanne Valadon, who was popular during her lifetime, but who is largely forgotten today except in France. (Just the opposite of van Gogh.) Valadon had a clear-eyed vision and did not romanticize her subjects. In the lecture on philosophy and culture he discusses Evelyn De Morgan, who was English and whose work is entirely female-centric.

While the post-impressionist movement was largely a French phenomenon, Allman discusses artists outside of France who contributed to the movement. In addition to De Morgan he offers three lectures on non-French post-impressionists. He devotes a lecture each to Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt, both of whom also represented the transition from post-impressionism to modern art.

There is a lot of material here, and although Ricky Allman’s delivery can be cloying at times, he is highly knowledgeable and presents a comprehensive survey of the post-impressionist movement.

Banned Books, Burned Books: Forbidden Literary Works

Banned Books coverBanned Books, Burned Books: Forbidden Literary Works
Maureen Corrigan, PhD
Georgetown University
$49.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

On the day before I watched the final lecture in this series an Associated Press article appeared in our local newspaper noting that the American Library Association (ALA) counted more than 1,200 book challenges in 2022, nearly double the 2021 count and “by far the most since the ALA began keeping data twenty years ago.”

This lecture series by Maureen Corrigan, then, is disturbingly relevant. If you listen to National Public Radio you know Corrigan from her book reviews on the program Fresh Air. She is the ideal guide on this journey. In twenty-four lectures she discusses in detail the history of attempts to ban and censor books. While the drive to ban books is very much in the news today, Corrigan makes clear these attempts are far from new. In her first lecture, she discusses attempts to sanitize Shakespeare. One Thomas Bowdler’s name appears on the title page of The Family Shakespeare, published in 1818, although he may not have done most of the work himself. The book removes sexual references and puns, changes plot lines, and removes entire characters. Bowdler has earned his place in literary history with his name becoming both a verb and an adjective (“to bowdlerize a text” and “a bowdlerized text”). As a classics major I am familiar with Edith Hamilton and her famous bowdlerization of Greek myths.

Corrigan discusses the Inquisition, the Puritans, and nineteenth century attempts at censorship, although most of the topics she covers are from the twentieth century and the current century. She describes the debates over Ulysses by James Joyce and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. In the case of Ulysses, the publisher made a point of getting it seized when it came through customs from its European printer, simply to get the inevitable court case out of the way.

Corrigan pays attention in detail to the works one might expect: Huckleberry Finn, A Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. But she also spends a lecture on attempts to bowdlerize or censor fairy tales and another on the controversies created by Young Adult (YA) books with their depictions of sexuality and violence. She points out that the YA genre did not exist until the publication of The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton in 1967.

One lecture focuses on authors being “canceled” on account of their personal actions, having nothing to do with their published works. Corrigan discusses the case of Blake Bailey who wrote a definitive biography of Philip Roth. After publication, accusations of Bailey’s sexual misconduct arose and the publisher withdrew the book from sale. This is a thorny issue without a simple resolution, and I devoted a blog post to this topic, in which I discussed my own dilemma regarding the fantasy novel The Mists of Avalon, whose author, Marion Zimmer Bradley, turns out to have engaged in child abuse.

The Harry Potter series receives a full lecture in which Corrigan describes protests not only on account of the magic and witchcraft, but more recently because of author J. K. Rowling’s expressed views on transgender people. Corrigan also addresses the issue of the graphic novel (which she considers a legitimate and valuable genre) by examining the controversy over the book Fun Home.

Maureen Corrigan offers a nuanced and balanced reflection on the topic of book banning and censorship and is careful to point out that such calls can come from the left as well as the right. If this topic is important to you Banned Books, Burned Books: Forbidden Literary Works is well worth your time and money.

Experiencing Shakespeare

Experiencing Shakespeare coverExperiencing Shakespeare: From Page to Stage
Alissa Branch, MA
University of Oklahoma
$24.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The premise of this course is that Shakespeare is meant to be heard and seen on the stage and not read in a book. That would appear to be obvious, but too often his work gets read rather than seen performed.

Alissa Branch is an experienced actor and director who knows Shakespeare well. With the help of two young actors she explains how we can best experience the great playwright. She begins the course by talking about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age. Branch tells us that the theater was probably the only place where people of all social classes came together. She says that the theaters were crowded, with some attendees right next to the stage. Branch explains they were a rowdy bunch, often interjecting comments as the players performed. She describes how theaters had no roof, just an overhang above the stage, and plays were performed in the daytime, not at night. Women were not allowed on the stage, so women’s parts were performed by boys whose voices had not yet changed.

Branch explains what most of us probably learned when we studied Shakespeare in school: he wrote most of the dialogue in iambic pentameter, blank verse. Each line consists of ten beats positioned in an unstressed-stressed pattern. However, in a later lecture she describes how Shakespeare wrote some of his dialogue in prose, which the playwright uses to indicate a change in mood or tone.

When I took my Shakespeare class in high school the paperback versions we read had stage directions, but those came from later editions. As Mr. Hill, our teacher, constantly pointed out, the original manuscripts had no stage directions. Branch spends some time explaining how the actors had to discern entrances and exits as well as the blocking by extracting hints from a careful reading of the dialogue. In fact, actors in the Elizabethan age did not even have full scripts. The printing press at the time was just beginning to come into its own, so actors worked from a long parchment “role” with only their lines, plus, perhaps a few notes providing cues. Modern actors, obviously, receive complete scripts, and when performing Shakespeare often mark their iambic pentameter dialogue with the stressed and unstressed syllables.

While many Great Courses series consist of only a single professor providing the lectures, Branch had the assistance of two professional actors, a woman named Brooke and a man named Kam. Brooke and Kam performed scenes from various plays, helping to demonstrate the point Branch making. The three of them also demonstrated what the environment might be like in the rehearsal room. Branch took on the role of director while Brook and Kam discussed how they might deliver their lines and block out their stage movements, making notes in their scripts as they worked. While it’s easy to take a performance on the stage or on the television screen for granted, Brooke and Kam showed how much preparation is necessary to achieve the end result.

Most Great Courses lecture series are twenty-four or thirty-six lessons, but Experiencing Shakespeare is only twelve. That’s about six hours of material, and it is six hours well spent.

The Real Ancient Egypt

The Real Ancient Egypt cover imageThe Real Ancient Egypt
multiple professors
various institutions
available for streaming with a Wondrium subscription

This series is different from the standard Great Courses lecture sets. It features four professors in a sort of round robin discussion on each of the nine topics in the course. The presenters are Melinda Hartwig of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Betsy M. Bryan of Johns Hopkins University, Kate Liszka of California State University, San Bernardino, and Kasia Szpakowska formerly of Swansea University.

The four Egyptologists offer insights into ancient Egyptian culture and work to clear up misconceptions on the subject. They point out, for example, that ancient Egyptian culture lasted for three thousand years and that it was not monolithic. There were, they tell us, many changes in the culture during that time, including, for example, burial practices. Professor Bryan makes the point that curses to protect a tomb disappeared after the Old Kingdom.

The first episode discusses King Tutankhamun. They tell us he was not a major king, it’s simply that his tomb was discovered intact and not plundered, a very rare thing. Tut, in fact, became king very young and did not reign for very long. Recent genetic testing, they say, shows us that Tutankhamun’s father was Akhenaten, known for initiating the Amarna Revolution in which he moved Egypt’s capital to the city by that name which he built from the ground up. He threw aside all the other gods in favor of the worship of the disk of the sun. That did not last and his son initiated the return to the worship of the traditional gods. (They point out, by the way, that Akhenaten isolated Egypt politically and did not participate in the international community of the Near East, something that was disruptive to the region.)

One of the most interesting episodes was the discussion of the women rulers of Egypt. There weren’t many, but there were some. A few ruled in their own right, others seem to have acted as regent, as Nefertiti appears to have done with Tutankhamun when he was young. Evidence shows us that these women were smart and capable.

Not being a standard Great Courses lecture series, there is no course guidebook for The Real Ancient Egypt. That’s unfortunate because it would be nice to have such a thing for reference. For example, they several times displayed a graphic timeline showing the various phases of ancient Egyptian history: The Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, interspersed by three Intermediate Periods. It would be nice to have that available to review.

I have long had some familiarity with ancient Egypt, but this series had information with which I was not familiar. I certainly felt it well worth my time.

Great Piano Works Explained

Great Piano Works Explained coverGreat Piano Works Explained
Catherine Kautsky, DMA
Lawrence University
$49.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

This course covers the entire history of the piano. It begins with Bach and ends with twenty-first century music. Instructor Catherine Kautsky is an accomplished pianist, so she not only provides the history but also samples of the music. She obviously loves what she does and has a warm smile. In fact, I’ve never seen a Great Courses instructor smile so much.

Kautsky begins with Bach, explaining that Bach wrote before the time of the modern piano, so his music, written for instruments like the harpsichord, would have sounded rather different in his time. She goes on to Hayden and Mozart, and then to Beethoven, whose instrument was much closer to the modern piano. From there she treats the romantics, including the likes of Schubert and Schumann. She discusses (and plays) Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt, and then proceeds to the Russian pianists. Reaching the twentieth century, she explains Schoenberg, Berg, and Debussy, then Ives, Prokofiev, and Bartok. She concludes with lectures on marginalized composers and composers writing in the current century.

Our instructor not only talks about the good qualities of classical music, but its shortcomings. She devotes a lecture to the plight of woman composers, the only lecture in which I did not see her smile. She discusses Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife) and explains that while she was permitted to perform (and she had quite the career as a performer) she was given short shrift as a composer, even though she was very capable, and her husband admired her work. Kautsky also discusses Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix Mendelssohn, another woman who did not get the credit she deserved.

In her lecture on marginalized composers she discusses Ruth Crawford Seeger, married to Pete Seeger’s father. Seeger wanted to compose but gave it up to raise her children. By the time her children were grown and she was ready to go back to composing she had cancer and died before she could produce anything. Florence Price, on the other hand, was an African American woman who met with some success.

I enjoyed most of the lectures and the music, though I could have done without her complete rendition of Francis Poulenc’s retelling of the Babar the Elephant story, something she admits can easily be seen as a colonialist parable. I could, however, have benefited from an introduction to the technical side of music. Kautsky talks a lot about notes, chords, and scales, assuming knowledge that I don’t have.

That said, Great Piano Works Explained is both entertaining and informative.

Creativity and Your Brain

Creativity and Your Brain coverCreativity and Your Brain
Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
$49.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

I’m always interested in the subject of creativity, so when I saw this course publicized I had to take advantage of my Wondrium subscription to watch it.

The course covers a lot of material in its twenty-four lectures. There is a lot of material about brain research and what part of the brain handles what functions, complete with graphics that show where in the brain a particular activity is handled. Professor Viskontas early on dispels the myth that the left brain is strictly analytical while the right brain is strictly creative. But in later lectures she makes clear that the right brain does play a role in creative thinking and the left in analytical thinking; It’s just not as clear-cut as popular culture would have us believe.

Viskontas discusses issues such as dyslexia (apparently Beethoven was dyslexic), brain damage, and conditions such as autism. She is sensitive about placing labels on people with non-normative brain functions and explains why it is often better to talk about “a person with autism,” rather than “an autistic.” At the same time, she acknowledges that sometimes a person with autism is comfortable with the adjective “autistic” because it accurately denotes how their brain functions.

The lecture on drug use and creativity was interesting because of its balance. While Viskontas admits that sometimes drugs (including caffeine) used in a certain way can enhance creativity, on balance chemical stimulants rarely do a lot for creativity.

The most interesting part of this series is the professor herself, Indre Viskontas. She has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles and is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, where she runs the Creative Brain Lab. But she is also an accomplished professional musician. She has played starring roles in professional opera productions, has directed opera, and has coached vocalists. I can’t imagine a more accomplished person to present this course.

Great Board Games of the Ancient World

Board Games of the Ancient World cover Great Board Games of the Ancient World
Tristan Donovan
Journalist and Nonfiction Writer
$24.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

This series was different from my usual video course selections in that it was not an academic subject and that the instructor was not a college professor. It was interesting nonetheless.

Tristan Donavan, the presenter, is a journalist and gaming enthusiast. He has a fascination with games of all kinds and is knowledgeable about the rules and the evolution of board games throughout human history. The course title is misleading in that Donovan does not limit himself to ancient games; he gives plenty of attention to the modern incarnations of those games as well.

A few themes run through the various games Donovan discusses. One is that there are games of chance and there are games of strategy. There are also games that combine the two. The other is that the rules of games can be quite complex. We learn that there are families of games: games that have similar premises and rules, but which vary considerably across geography or time.

There is plenty of history in this course to provide context for the origins of the various games. For example, Donovan describes how the kings of England and France, overwintering with their troops on their way to one of the crusades, became distressed by the high stakes gambling in which their troops were engaging while playing an early form of backgammon. He explains how a precursor to chess arose in the Gupta dynasty on the Indian subcontinent, which lasted from fourth century CE to the near the end of the sixth century. He outlines how we lost details of an Aztec game called Patolli because the Catholic Spanish conquerors thought it to be sinful.

It is interesting that some games survived while others did not. The ancient Egyptians had a game called Senet that did not survive. The same was true for the Royal Game of Ur, played in ancient Mesopotamia. Yet chess, having evolved from its earliest form in perhaps the sixth century, is still highly popular today. (The game has been in the news of late on account of an apparent cheater among the ranks of the professionals.) A game played in India called Pachisi, which goes back many centuries, sees its modern-day form in the commercial board game Parcheesi. The British adopted (and adapted) the ancient Jain or Hindu game of Snakes and Ladders, Christianizing it in the process. In the United States Milton Bradley got rid of the snakes and created the commercial success they marketed as Chutes and Ladders.

Donovan is neither charismatic nor dynamic in his presentation. He also sports a Don Johnson Miami Vice-style day’s growth of beard, which I found distracting. But he is knowledgeable and the material he presents is entertaining. There was certainly a lot of information about board games of which I knew nothing. I haven’t played board games since I was a youngster, but I enjoyed this course.

Understanding the Periodic Table

Understanding the Periodic Table cover Understanding the Periodic Table
Ron B. Davis Jr., PhD
Georgetown University
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

Chemistry was not my favorite subject in high school; I was much more focused on English and social studies. I didn’t like science subjects all that much. Then there was the fact that my chemsitry teacher was late in his career and seemed to be dealing with a case of burnout. I think he took his full complement of sick days, so we often had a substitute. He was also in charge of A/V at the school, which he seemed to be more enthusiastic about than teaching chemistry. That meant that when he was out we often watched films (of the old 16 mm type), whether or not they were related to chemistry, or even to science.

I managed to complete four years at Pitzer College without taking a single science course. (This was back in the olden days when Pitzer did not have any general education requirements.) Still, as an adult I was interested in science topics, and certainly watched plenty of science programs on the local PBS station wherever I lived. Similarly, I have watched or listened to plenty of science courses from The Great Courses. After finishing twenty-four lectures on Norse Mythology I was looking for something completely different (right Monty Python?) so I selected Understanding the Periodic Table, which The Great Courses and Wondrium were touting as one of their new releases.

I can’t say that this was the most captivating course I have watched, but I did learn a few things. I finally got it down that an isotope is an atom with a different number of neutrons than the most common form, and an ion is an atom with a different number of electrons than the most common form. I learned that there are many elements that don’t exist in their pure state but have to be extracted from the compounds in which they exist by using heat or a chemical means. I learned that allotropes are different configurations of the same element. For example, there are different allotropes of tin, some of which are stable and others of which disintegrate quickly. Graphite (pencil lead) and diamonds are different allotropes of carbon. And I came across elements I hadn’t heard of before, for example hafnium and osmium.

Professor Davis has a tendency to anthropomorphize the elements. He says that hydrogen wants to bond with other elements. Or that elements want to form octets, that is a molecule with eight electrons in the outer shell. It’s an interesting perspective.

The periodic table is larger today than it was during my junior year of high school. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) finalized today’s table in 2016, taking us up to element 118, oganesson. The PDF version of the course guidebook sacrifices a lecture-by-lecture outline of the course, as is found in most Great Courses lecture series, but instead provides us with an interactive periodic table. When you click on an element the guidebook takes you to a description of that element. Pretty cool.

If such things interest you, this is a course well worth watching.

Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology coverNorse Mythology
Jackson Crawford, PhD
University of Colorado, Boulder
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

Jackson Crawford offers an interesting and in-depth discussion of Norse mythology in this twenty-four lecture course. He discusses the sources we have and explains how, although they were written down after Scandinavia became Christian, the stories are pagan in their origin. He primarily draws from two sources: the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. Both were originally written in the 1200s.

Crawford discusses the two main families of gods, which he refers to as the gods and the anti-gods. The latter group is often translated as giants, but Crawford states that is somewhat misleading as they were for the most part equal, it simply being that one group was “good” and another “bad.” Even that is not clear cut, as amongst the gods many of them had one parent who was an anti-god.

He discusses Odin vs. Thor and explains that even though Odin was the head of the gods, Thor was by far more popular. This is because Thor was representative of the common person while Odin represented the aristocracy. Crawford is careful to point out how popular culture has embellished and altered the original myths. For example, sources such as the Marvel Universe have shaped Loki into a devious trickster. While Loki did in fact cause a good deal of chaos and disruption, he wasn’t especially devious. It was just that in the “dream logic” of myth, as Crawford calls it, people just go off and do things without thinking them through.

In addition to discussing the gods, Crawford spends a lot of time describing the legends of human heroes, some of which were very detailed and complicated, with lots of murder and betrayal. Of course, the gods involve themselves with the humans. Odin was said to have given up one eye in order to obtain wisdom, so when an old man with one eye shows up in a story we know who that is.

Crawford clarifies just who the Valkyries were, Richard Wagner having greatly distorted the original story. They were human women who were given supernatural powers, including the ability to fly. Their sole role was to carry fallen warriors to Valhalla for Odin. If one got married or otherwise gave up her role, she lost her powers. Though the Valkyries were human, their leader was the goddess Freyja. Crawford notes women played a much more active role in Norse mythology than they did in other medieval literature, such as the Arthurian cycle. There are even legends of shieldmaidens, human women who became warriors. We have no evidence for such women in Viking history, but they show up in legend.

There is a strong sense in Norse mythology that both gods and humans are subject to fate. Early in the cycle a seer tells Odin how the world will end, in a battle called Ragnarok, essentially meaning “the fates of the gods.” In fact, Valhalla was not some glorious paradise, but where fallen warriors prepared for that last, hopeless, preordained battle. This is why characters in these stories routinely walked into futile situations. They knew it was fate and they had no ability to avoid it.

As grim as much of it is, there is some fascinating stuff here and Jackson Crawford maintains a high standard of scholarship in presenting this material.