Humanities Day

“Who is Faust?” asked University of Chicago Germanic Studies professor David Wellbery, giving the keynote address for the University’s annual Humanities Day last Saturday, October 24. In an intermittently stirring but consistently gripping lecture, Wellberry explored the influence on contemporary thought of Goethe’s famous adaptation of the German legend, while also exploring prominent themes within the play itself. Complete with lines delivered in the finest guttural German, the speech was a powerful tribute to the purpose of Humanities Day and set a high bar for the rest of the festivities.

Events for the festival, now in its 31st year, were held from 9:30am till 4:30pm and included lectures on topics as varied as 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints, the Stoic path to happiness, and art proposals for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Linguistics professor Salikoko Mufwene’s presentation on “Colonization and the Expansion of European Languages: Winners and Losers,” delivered to a tired audience of older Hyde Park residents during the festival’s earliest timeslot, was hampered somewhat by the professor’s thick accent and early lack of a microphone, but nonetheless provided a revealing analysis of the global triumph of some Indo-European languages (e.g. English) over others (Dutch).

During the last session of the day, Robert Bird, the head of the University’s Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, spoke to an overflowing and rapt audience about his travels in Russia during the fall of Communism in 1989. Backed by a slideshow of pictures he’d taken all over Eastern Europe, Bird discussed the intense, intimate home lives of Russians under the Soviet regime, the official state newspaper’s obvious confusion about how to report the transitions taking place across the Warsaw Pact countries, and the more recent phenomenon of Ostalgie–nostalgia for the Communist past, or for an idealized version of it. Some members of the audience, many of whom had grown up under Communism, shared their experiences and memories of life before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like Bird, some of them were lucky enough to have been present when history happened. Twenty years later, we’re all still witnessing the fallout.