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Situating Beloved Texts: A Trip to Berlin Impacts Search Faculty

Glazed brick decoration on the Ishtar Gate, Babylon

Great ideas are not born in a vacuum; they have contexts and consequences. United in this conviction, 20 faculty members from the Search for Values in Light of Western History and Religion program visited Berlin in May. Our goal was to enhance our teaching of the liberal arts that lie at the heart of a Rhodes education. Founded in 1945 and focused on works from the ancient Near East to the modern West, Search has encouraged generations of students to investigate “questions about the meaning and purpose of life.” Its many thousands of alumni still benefi t from its academically rigorous training. And they cherish the ideas they encountered and the friendships they made in its classrooms.

Search program faculty are volunteers drawn from many departments at the college and bring a wealth of professional expertise to the program. I, for instance, am a classicist, trained in the languages and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. But my colleagues include linguists, medievalists and Shakespeareans, Platonists and Kantians, American historians, experts on the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, political scientists, and historians of art and music—to cite but a few. Each year we gather for two weeks in May for the George Porter Douglass Seminar, which mirrors life in our classrooms. Put differently, we search. We spar intellectually; discuss our pedagogical past, present, and future; and recommit ourselves to the program and its goals.

This year, however, we chose to do something different. We wanted to situate our beloved texts more concretely. So for eight days we visited Berlin, taking in sites and museums, hearing lectures formal and informal, and talking among ourselves about our vocations as teacher-scholars. We returned to Memphis reinvigorated, eager to share our new learning with colleagues and students alike. In what follows, I offer five brief examples of how the Berlin trip will inform our teaching. Similar moments could be adduced almost ad infinitum by any of those present.

Gilgamesh

On our first full day in Germany’s capital, we visited the Pergamon Museum, located on Museum Island in the middle of the River Spree. The building derives its name from the monumental altar and sculptures removed from the precinct of the Temple of Zeus in the ancient city of Pergamon (in modern Turkey). It houses other wonders as well, including the reconstructed Ishtar Gate from Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. What struck me most deeply, however, was the exhibit titled “Uruk: 5000-Year-Old Megacity.” This collection of architectural remnants, sculpture, and small fi nds brought to vivid life the civilizations that gave birth to Gilgamesh, our fi rst text in Humanities 101, the beginning semester of Search. We learned fi rsthand about the canals and water driving the agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent. We grasped how timber, metal, and mud brick enabled Uruk’s famous walls and temples to rise.

Fra Angelico’s The Last Judgement altarpiece

Above all, we saw the centrality of writing, not just for recording agricultural surpluses and listing occupations, but for preserving the legend of the city’s greatest king. Over the years, scholars have used numerous clay tablets (most of them fragmentary, written in diverse cuneiform languages, and sometimes smaller than a deck of playing cards) to reconstruct the many versions of his tale circulating in the ancient Near East. To see before me some of these same tablets, several inscribed over three millennia ago, was to glimpse the only immortality Gilgamesh ever achieved, despite his arduous search.

Illiad

On another day we visited the Antiquities Collection housed in the Altes Museum, a glorious structure designed and built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the 1820s. Among its many holdings is a superb set of Greek vases, including the famous Berlin Foundry kylix (drinking cup) made in the early fi fth century BCE. Its interior shows a scene familiar from Book 18 of the Iliad.

The French Cathedral on the Gendarmenmarkt

The god Hephaestus is presenting a new set of armor for Achilles to his mother, the nymph Thetis. Generations of Searchers have pored over Homer’s description of the famous shield,comparing its depictions of cities at war and at peace.

But the vase in Berlin does something truly extraordinary, for its exterior depicts the everyday goings-on at a real-life bronze foundry in ancient Athens. In gazing at the cup, I imagined the wealthy aristocrats, taught by memorizing Homer, who put it to their lips at the ribald drinking parties (“symposia”) common in the classical city. But even as they did so, these men were simultaneously (and involuntarily) raising their cup to other, less celebrated contemporaries— the poorer craftsmen, often immigrants and sometimes slaves, who made the arms that the wealthier donned.

Martin Luther

We also visited a different sort of arms depot, the ornate Zeughaus, now housing the German Historical Museum. Its numerous exhibits document the astonishing highs and ghastly lows of the country’s history. My favorite was the presentation of Martin Luther in his milieu. I fi rst focused on a copy of his famous, unsmiling portrait made by Cranach the Elder. But my understanding of the man soon deepened and changed. For one thing, hanging right beside him was an equally large portrait of his unsmiling wife, Katharina. Together the two paintings were a forceful reminder of Luther’s break with the medieval practice of clerical celibacy and of the increased space afforded women and family life.

Moreover, I learned that Luther did not nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517. The myth likely arose during the subsequent conflict between the church’s defenders and its would-be reformers. The new movement was fueled by politics as much as religion. As the fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire increased, monarchs and electors strove with one another for power. The Thirty Years War that devastated central Europe in the early 17th century was one of the chief results. Throughout all the strife, common people played an increasingly important role.

Luther was, of course, not the fi rst to criticize the Roman Catholic church, nor to violate its ban on translating scripture from Latin into the vernacular. But Gutenberg’s printing press and his invention of movable type made possible the widespread distribution of Luther’s works and increased the ferocity of the ensuing propaganda war. The exhibit also did full justice to the anti-Semitic strain that emerged in Luther’s later writings.

Haunted History and Modern Totalitarianism

Search faculty members discuss how the Berlin humanities seminar will impact their teaching.

No visitor to Berlin can escape the city’s somber past. Reminders of it are everywhere. On one afternoon we went to the Topography of Terror, an extensive indoor/ outdoor museum erected on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters on Prince Albert Street. The photographs and documents there trace in moving detail the rise of the Nazis and their persecution of Jews, homosexuals, communists, Poles, Russians, Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the handicapped, among others. Particularly chilling was the copy of the sole surviving agenda from the Wannsee Conference, where military offi cers and Reich bureaucrats plotted the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” over lunch.

On another day, we toured the haunting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Its 2,711 stone monoliths, blank and evenly spaced in rows of varying height, were commissioned and paid for by the German government. They provide an eloquent, silent commentary on the nearby Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. And on almost every city block, visitors trip over the “Stolpersteine,” small metal plaques set into the pavement to record the acts of inhumanity that transpired on those particular spots.

My colleagues and I came away stunned by Germany’s darkest hours. But we were also inspired by the earnestness of its attempts to come to terms with the past (“Vergangenheitsbewältigung”). We talked about how far American society still has to go in acknowledging our country’s own historical misdeeds. And we refl ected that the Search program itself was born as a response to the horrors of World War II. Critical engagement with crucial Western texts remains one of the most important means of preserving our humanity.

The Reichstag, meeting place of the German parliament, the modern Bundestag

Finally, a visit to the Hohenschönhausen Memorial brought home for us the horrors of modern totalitarianism. Until 1989, the East German Stasi (Ministry for State Security) used the site to confi ne and interrogate political prisoners. Abandoned amid the chaos of reunifi cation, the buildings were eventually acquired by a group of former inmates, many of whom now conduct tours there. While physical torture was not unknown, most of them remember far more vividly the intentional psychological duress that was a distillation of much of everyday life behind the Berlin Wall. In touring the grounds, we saw how versions (some would say perversions) of Marxist thought joined with Prussian effi ciency to create an environment inimical to democratic individualism.

So what is the ultimate payoff to Search and to Rhodes of our expedition? First, the trip to Berlin reminds us, crucially and concretely, of the interconnectedness of the humanities and of the artifi cial nature of the boundaries we impose between historical eras, academic disciplines, and individual works. Second, it speaks to the importance of place. The texts we study arose, are perpetuated, and must be interpreted in diverse material contexts. Finally, it testifi es to a truth that all humanities students know: the search for values is ongoing and lasts a lifetime.