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Enriching Impoverishment at the University of Toronto

Matthew Ludwig

This Friday and Saturday (Oct. 21-22) professional scholars, aspiring students, and intrigued hobbyists will gather at the University of Toronto, on both the St. George (UTSG) and Mississauga campuses (UTM), to discuss a complicated set of Latin texts. All the literature on the docket for this conference will unsettle and even upset simplistic assumptions about which aesthetic experiences are most valuable to a Roman author. Rather than emphasizing the beautiful or admirable as we might expect, these texts zoom in on the less glossy features of human experience. Yet, our line-up of presenters will help us see that these ancient works do not just induce states like shock, disgust, or discomfort for their own sake. Rather, they do so to spur their audiences to think outside their usual frames of reference—to confront maligned corners of the kosmos which, precisely because they are so challenging, are particularly worthy of perception (aisthēsis) through art. These Roman authors invite us to feel the fear, anxiety, suffering, hunger, and marginality of their subjects to awaken us to core experiences of life we might otherwise be tempted to submerge beneath dominant, though ultimately unrepresentative, norms of behavior and artistic expression.

In many ways, late October on a southern Ontario university campus is the perfect context for such a conference about so-called ‘impoverished’ aesthetics. As we watch the dying of the plant world in real time, we might also mark how the squirrels forage furiously for enough acorns to last the winter. Meanwhile, the summer songbirds flee from the prospective cold to more tropical climes, where we wish we could join them. Previously Polycleitean beach bodies morph into Hellenistic grotesques and disappear behind baggy UofT sweaters. At the same time, the approach of midterms induces in increasingly tetchy students a state of fear which rivals that produced by the plastic ghouls, grim reapers, and Freddy Kreugers emerging on domestic lawns. All around us are reminders of abjection: decay, unease, depletion, disfigurement. Yet, if we mediate our perceptions as the Roman authors encourage us to—through artistic and philosophical reflection—we can find deep enrichment through our encounters with what might seem, at first blush, to be a season of impoverishment. Luckily, just as the Romans did, we too have an array of different artists and avenues to help us do so right here in the GTA! In the remainder of this blog, therefore, I would like to draw conference attendees’ attention to a range of aesthetic experiences they can engage in while visiting the two UofT campuses, all of which can help bolster our appreciation the artistic challenges on offer in the Latin literature we will be studying together.

Face the Frightening (UTSG)

What better way to prepare yourself for the looming atmosphere of metus in Statius’ Thebaid or the violentia of Seneca’s Agamemnon than to indulge in one of spooky season’s greatest delights: horror cinema. On Friday, Oct. 21st at 7pm, the Cinema Studies Student Union (CINSSU) is hosting a free screening of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) at UTSG’s Innis Town Hall Theatre (Innis College, 2 Sussex Ave.). This reimagining of giallo legend—and fellow Italian—Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same title finds Guadagnino exploring a rather different aesthetic environment than that of 2017’s Best Picture nominated Call Me by Your Name, the film which solidified his status as a critical darling. Here, by extending Argento’s explorations of witchcraft and indulgences in body horror, Guadagnino’s film offers up a suitable supplement for the kinds of frightening figures (not least the Furies) and horrifying corporeal manipulations we find peppered throughout Latin epic and tragedy.

Or, if cinematic flights of furor aren’t your thing, you can vent your phobos in a less grotesque environment by participating in the Fact or Fiction Ghost Tour at 8pm on the same night. The tour departs from the Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queens Park Ave., right across from the UTSG Classics Department) and last for 75 minutes. The tour guides promise to expose you to “terrifying tunnels, restless spirits trapped among the stars, haunting love stories and more.” An evening spent among spectres of past, doomed love affairs sounds like a perfect pairing with Sulpician elegy to me! Also, rumour has it that a gaggle of Classics graduate students will be in attendance as well, so there promises to be comradery amongst the creepiness. Book your ticket here.

Attend to the Anxious (UTM)

Closely related to these horrific spectacles available at UTSG are the anxiety-inducing experiences on offer at (or very near) the UTM campus. If you would like to understand the simultaneous horror and anxiety which attends temporarily feeling your “cognitive capacity dissolve into nothingness”, as Rebecca Moorman will argue happens to Aeneas during the violation of Polydorus’ grave in Aeneid 3.13-68, perhaps the stressors of an escape room can provide a suitable analogue. A short, 6-minute drive from UTM will bring you to Captive Escape Rooms (3412, 5 Wolfedale Rd. #5) where you will find four different immersive scenarios in which you and a group of friends can induce your own state of anxious aporia, of ‘non-knowing’—a key experience on the route to knowledge. More information can be found here. If you’re staying in downtown TO and are already lamenting that you will have to miss your chance to try out Captive, worry not! There is a downtown location as well (which even features an extra room).

For a more contemporary meditation on anxiety, check out the joint Sheridan-UTM drama student production of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves (2016) on stage at Erindale Studio Theatre, right on the Mississauga campus itself (3359 Mississauga Road). The play invites us into no less tense and uncomfortable a world than that of a high school girls soccer team. While the characters in the The Wolves have to band together to navigate a variety of teenage challenges before they can emerge as a united front, chief among these is the call to collectively empathize with the crippling anxiety of a teammate. Given the recent surge in anxiety disorder diagnoses, particularly among teens and young adults in the wake of the pandemic, the play promises to be a sobering reflection on an issue of immediate significance, one through which we can all learn something from our artists about how to attend more fully to the increasingly anxious experiences of our peers. There will be performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night this week, all at 7:30PM. Navigate here for more details.

Sit with the Suffering (UTM/UTSG)

Speaking of how the pandemic has shaped our current need to more fully understand through art the difficult, underrepresented, experience of terminal illness, be sure to look around the UTM campus for lightboxes (and for the billboard on the corner of Eglinton Ave. West and Mavis Road) which showcase the first movement in a year-long artistic exhibition entitled This Unfathomable Weight (Sept. 2022-Aug. 2023). The five images in this movement, named Interior, were captured by Jessica Thalmann and curated by Farah Yusuf. As Yusuf explains on the gallery website, Thalmann’s images aim to “reckon with a more acute awareness of the fragility of the human body and its vulnerability to unseen and impersonal forces” which has come to the forefront of all our minds by way of the pandemic. As such, the exhibition “grapples publicly with how we make sense of living through the massive crises of recent years. Through an understanding of trauma as a psychic rupture, where meaning-making has been suspended, deferred, or displaced, the project carves out space for reparative gestures across personal, societal, and spiritual registers.” Thalmann takes a personal approach to these global problems by showcasing images of her own mother’s experience battling the symptoms of a brain aneurysm while in ICU. It will be interesting, I think, to stack Thalmann’s and Yusuf’s argument for the reparative power of aesthetic encounters with the sick against the late 1st c. AD disdain of Martial’s Epigrams for how elites exploit the same evocative power of illness to their own social and monetary benefit (as will be outlined for us in a paper by Kata Stevens). Where Thalmann and Yusuf exhibit images of illness to foster collective healing, Martial’s objects of scorn disingenuously coopt the same strategy for nefarious personal ends which sully society. It is compelling to think about how increased attention to the very same impoverished aesthetic can generate such wildly contrasting results in an audience.

If you can’t make it to Erindale or UTM, but are still craving a stage play, UTSG’s on-campus Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) can also offer you the paradoxical riches of a confrontation with the impoverished through its production (joint with The Howland Company) of Paulo Santalucia’s adaptation of Chekov’s classic The Three Sisters (1900). Chekov’s tragedy centres around the messy uncertainties of life, wrestling with those immortal question of why suffering exists, why we spend so much of our lives in anguish—weakened, exhausted. As James Uden will note in his paper on Latin epic, it is in such a state of diminished energy and painful uncertainty where we find Aeneas and his band of Trojan refugees at the outset of the Aeneid. They too, like the Prozorov siblings of Chekov’s play, have been displaced from their home and tragically lost family members. They too wonder aloud what sense they could possibly make out of their suffering. They too imagine that a higher pleasure might be accessed by undergoing such pain, that the value of their experiences will one day be clarified. As these expatriate Trojans beach on Libya for a temporary respite before the Italian stage of their journey, Aeneas, that progenitor of the future Romans of Augustus’ golden Age who will eventually hear his story in Vergil’s verse, famously puts on a brave face and suggests to his friends that “perhaps even these experiences will one day bring pleasure in remembrance” (forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, Aen.1.203). In an echo of this sentiment Olga Prozorova, the eldest of Chekov’s titular characters, embraces her sisters at the close of their story and muses (trans. Marina Brodskaya, 2010):

“The music is so cheerful, lively, and I feel like living! Oh, my God! Time will pass and we’ll be gone forever, we’ll be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, and how many of us there were, but our suffering will turn to joy for those who’ll live after us; peace and happiness will come to earth, and they’ll remember kindly and bless those who live now. Oh, my dear sisters, our life isn’t over yet. We will live! The music is so cheerful, so joyous, and it seems just a little bit longer and we’ll know why we live, why we suffer . . . If only we could know! If only we could know!”

If these intersections between Chekov and Vergil are enough to intrigue you, purchase tickets to The Three Sisters at the Hart House website. As with The Wolves, performances are occurring on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night beginning at 7:30pm.

Revel in the Ravenous (UTM/UTSG)

Given that conference contributor Mariapia Pietropaolo will be guiding us through Ovid’s ‘Poetics of Hunger’, it only makes sense to try and sharpen our own awareness of this particular experience of lack which, although ubiquitous, deserves some closer attention for what it can reveal to us beyond the practical necessity of food for survival. If you are among those fortunate enough to attend the conference dinners, you will presumably be too well fed and watered while in town to experience fames as Erisychthon does in Metamorphosis Book 8. One way, then, in which you might reflect more deeply on how the extremities of hunger change your perceptions of the world around you is to put yourself in the shoes of early 19th century settlers to Canada by visiting several heritage sites dating back to the 1820s at Mississauga’s Bradley Museum (1620 Orr Road), only a 15-minute drive from UTM.

Or, if you are looking for a place to eat while in downtown Toronto and, with Ovid’s Erisychthon in mind, would like to reflect on your embodied relationship to food more self-consciously than usual, why not try the highly unusual dining experience provided by O’Noir restaurant (620 Church Street), a 15-minute walk from the Classics department at UTSG. Forced to dine in complete darkness while served by a waitstaff entirely comprising legally blind persons, all other distractions will fade away so your sense of subjugation to the dictates of your own stomach can become more heightened than ever.

Meet with the Marginalized (UTSG)

Our conference organizers have chosen their specialized literary topic to, in their words, provide “insight into subaltern identities of class, race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. in Roman culture”. To meet this end, they have carefully curated papers which they believe will pave the way for “new approaches to marginality in Latin Literature.” Shifting our scholarly focus from the dominant ideologies and aesthetic traditions typically associated with the Classical world over to those which are underrepresented is one way of helping restore a voice to the voiceless of ancient Rome. This shift in emphasis should also make us increasingly aware, moreover, of how contemporary artists and thinkers are attempting to do the very same with the voiceless and side-lined in Canada. I would be remiss, therefore, if I concluded this tour of the complementary projects in impoverished aesthetics taking place in Toronto and Mississauga without mentioning two incredible museum exhibitions for this coming weekend, both right nearby the UTSG Classics Department. Both have aims and interests highly compatible with those of our conference organizers. In the first place, Classics’ next-door neighbour, the Gardiner Museum (111 Queens Park) in their Crafting Narrative exhibit is, until Oct. 30th, showcasing ceramics made exclusively by “women and gender diverse people who have experienced marginalization”. The works on display are exclusively crafted by amateurs who participated in a series of workshops led by local sculptors. More details about the exhibit and the initiatives behind it can be found here.

And finally, our very own Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queens Park) for over five months (October 9, 2022-March 19, 2023) will be spotlighting the highly original (and refreshingly irreverent) work of Kent Monkman in an exhibit entitled Being Legendary. Monkman’s work is meant to recenter the experiences and cultural forms of expression of Indigenous Canadians which were suppressed in the ravages of European colonialism. I suspect the following colourful precis from the ROM website will capture your interest better than I ever could: “Curated by Cree artist Kent Monkman, Being Legendary presents an installation of new original paintings by the artist alongside cultural belongings from collections at ROM. Interpreted by Monkman’s shape-shifting, time-travelling, gender-fluid alter ego, the legendary being Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, the exhibition depicts how deeply Indigenous knowledge is embedded in the lands of Turtle Island. Cree and other Indigenous peoples have carried this knowledge in stories, songs, and artworks since time immemorial. Through the power of storytelling, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle reframes the forced interruptions of the colonial project on Turtle Island and honours leaders in the community who shine a light forward for future generations.”

So, there you have it! If you find you have some extra time between conference sessions or are looking for an activity or two to fill your evenings, don’t hesitate to look beyond your OCTs and explore the gamut of impoverished aesthetics available right here at UTSG and UTM. Perhaps, by rounding out your reading of these ancient texts by immersing yourself in modern expressions of the same core, yet profoundly unsavoury, human experiences which artists across the centuries have forced us to confront, you will find the insights of Vergil and Chekov, Statius and Guadagnino, Martial and Thalmann, remarkably aligned.

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