Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Words from Charles Van Doren

The name Charles Van Doren will bring to mind the quiz show Twenty-One and scandal. But here's another way in which Charles Van Doren might be remembered -- as a deeply thoughtful student of the sorrows and possibilities of human life.

In 1999, Van Doren was invited to address a reunion of Columbia College's class of 1959. Like these alums, he started at Columbia in 1955 (as an assistant professor); he resigned in 1959. In the course of some remarks on how to live late in one's life, he mentions Aeneas' journey to the world of the dead, which begins at Lake Avernus in Italy, and quotes the Sibyl's words to Aeneas:

"The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis's door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil."

(Virgil, Aeneid 6, translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
Van Doren notes (in his own translation) the advice that the shade of Phlegyas gives Aeneas: "Study justice, and do not scorn the gods!" (Phlegyas, enraged after Apollo seduced his daughter, set fire to the god's temple at Delphi.) Van Doren goes on to say that
None of us can take Aeneas's journey, nor, in fact, did he. The story of his descent into the Underworld and his return to the brightness of the sun is a myth, and myths are stories that are so true they can never happen. Something like his journey may happen to anyone. The human name for it may be despair.

Despair -- the Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard called it. As we enter this last part of our time we mustn't forget that bad things can happen. The failure of hopes, the death of friends, the venality of politicians, the manifest cruelty that stalks the world -- these may tempt us to descend from Avernus into that dark place where safety seems to lie. But then we scorn the gods. This great line is from Paul Valéry's "Le cimitière marin":

      Le vent se lève; il faut tenter de vivre!

      The wind's rising; we have to try to live!
You can read a transcript of Van Doren's remarks to the class of 1959 via the link.

       » Charles Van Doren revisits Morningside Heights
      from Columbia College, Columbia University

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