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Journeys through the maze OBSERVATIONS

For the Skidmore faculty, the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program affords a unique opportunity to interact with an alternative group of students. These grad- uate students are usually adults, who tend to think more profoundly, seeing the world and life through differently informed lenses. Many are returning to college several years after finishing their bachelor’s degrees, and all have been attracted by the distinctly interdis- ciplinary approach of the MALS pro- gram and the flexi-

bility it affords nontraditional students. Their joint introductory seminar, which constitutes their key initial contact with Skidmore, gives these individuals a sense of camaraderie and shared enthusiasm. The academic topics of the seminar vary widely from year to year, and reflect the myriad scholarly concerns of the profes- sors, who deploy for each occasion a spectrum of approaches and interdisci- plinary thematics.

I have taught the MALS seminar sev- eral times, and I always prize the vibrancy and texture of its student-teacher interac- tions. With my scholarly background in French culture and literature including classical, medieval, and Renaissance stud- ies, and my upbringing in North Africa, my presence in the classroom contributes to the diversity of perspectives that is the hallmark of the program. To reach out to the multiple interests of the seminar par- ticipants in an intensive forum that lasts only five days is at once intimidating, challenging, and richly invigorating. Very often, the discussion proceeds as team- work in which every participant’s voice becomes integrated toward the genera- tion of new insights into the material. Such an interactive mode, in many cases, gives the students’ final papers a sense of immediacy and personal involvement that sets the tone for a truly engaged graduate career.



Last January, I taught “Journeys Through the Maze” to a group of 12. Mysteriously, the maze or labyrinth has appealed to humans from the dawn of history to today. In European culture, it is an evocative motif from Archaic Greece to the 21st century. In the famous Mi- noan myth of Bronze Age Crete, each character (Theseus, Ariadne, Daedalus, Icarus, Pasiphae, and her monstrous son the Minotaur) provides metaphor- ical illustrations of psychological, po- litical, and gender

issues. In Minoan culture, the labyrinth functions as the prison of the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, who embodies the original bestiality and lawlessness of our savage ancestors. In the Middle Ages, Theseus, who kills the Minotaur in the Greek myth, resurfaces as Jesus harrowing Hell and its devils. In the 14th century, the maze, as “Labyrinthe d’Amour,” morphs into a cautionary sym- bol against exces- sive lust. In the age of Louis XIV, the garden laby - rinth articulates the ideal space for gallant trysts, and culminates in the

famous maze built by Le Nôtre at Ver- sailles. At the beginning of our own epoch, angst and existentialist alienation are often captured by labyrinthine im- agery—masterfully deployed, for exam- ple, by Franz Kafka in “The Warren.” And in 2010, the revolutionary technologies


that universally embrace—or entrap— the postmodern world find a fitting metaphor in the ambivalent maze. As always in these seminars, I learned a lot from my students, and several of them allowed me to add striking ideas from my own labyrinthine collections of facts and fictions. One student expertly introduced us to the work of the remark- able Czech photographer Joseph Sudek (1876–1996). Sudek composed a quantity of images exposing the apparently insur- mountable disorder of his studio. These striking pictures, in delicate yet powerful sepia tones, depict a contemporary artis- tic mind at work in the perfect order (often a perfect disorder to others) of its own making. Of course, this series of prints is entitled ... “Labyrinth.” According to the creative and fanciful etymological mus- ings of the erudite seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville, “laby rinth” means “labor intus,” or “internal labor.” I find this defini- tion the most ap- propriate of all, since it stresses the self-reflexive work it inspires in many of us. May this in- ternal labor never cease to work for me, and give me many future chances to intro- duce its meander- ing loops to more students as they

embark on the intellectual journey of the MALS program.

Prof. Marc-André Wiesmann specializes in 16th-century French studies and also teaches classics and liberal-studies courses at Skidmore.


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