Robert Harrison to explore “critical frontiers” in Cambridge’s Clark Lectures, May 9-18

Courting adventure and possible disaster

Lecture 1: The Thin Blue Line here.
Lecture 2: Mysteries of the Plainosphere here.
Lecture 3: Tellurian Symbols here.
Lecture 4: On Separation
here .

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison is the Clark Lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, this year – an important honor. In preparation for the lectures (the theme will be “thresholds”), he had a Q&A interview that was published on the Trinity College website. Read the whole thing here; excerpt below. He says: “The more deeply you explore the western canon, the more you realize how liberating and revolutionary it really is.”

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…

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 (University of Chicago Press, 2009), 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.

The Clark Lectures take place in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre. No booking is required. The website here says they’ll be available online. Watch the website space.

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


Comments are closed.