‘In These Times: The Intricate Riddle of Life’

The first three episodes of the OMNIA podcast’s fourth season discuss the link between making art and making meaning, and how creativity shines a light on the way out of adversity in tough times, past and present.

This season of “In These Times” explores the relationship between art and humanity, how creative communities draw on art for healing and reckoning with mortality and the body. Scholars, musicians, poets, and other creatives offer their insight in these first three episodes of Season 4.

Cartoon of hands open with books and flowers flowing from the palms.
Image: Marina Muun

In Episode 1, “The Art of Healing,” Aaron Levy, a lecturer in English and art history, talks about how the arts and humanities can serve as tools for life, and Lindsay Hoy, a physician at the Perelman School of Medicine, discusses a project that uses art to bring healing to the medical community.

Episode 2, “Joy and Plague,” explores the spread of bubonic plague across northern Africa and Eurasia beginning in 1346. In seven years, the plague killed between 75 and 200 million people. David Wallace, the Judith Rodin Professor of English, describes how artists like Boccaccio and Chaucer reflected the horror and devastation in their work, but also told stories about travel, human vices and virtues, and the role of fortune versus human will. Their work revolutionized writing and language, and testified both to the suffering of the plague, and the joy found in art, nature, and storytelling.

Rebecca Bushnell, emerita Professor of English and noted Shakespeare expert and scholar of early modern literature, discusses nature writing from the past, plus the question of why we garden, and what it means when people talk about nature, in Episode 3, “Tangled Up in Nature.” Bushnell’s recent anthology of early modern nature writing explores the complex and sometimes tangled threads found in writing about nature in various forms.

Episode 1 highlights:

4:53: [Aaron Levy] I see the history of literature in the arts as a history of individuals grappling with uncertainty, with anguish, with hopelessness, and often with pain, and how they navigate those burdens is something that I think can enable us to navigate our own. So I’ve always had a very applied, I suppose I would call it that, like an applied relationship to the arts managers. I want to approach them as tools to help us live, and to help us cope with our own pain and suffering, and the inequities that we all have the capacity to organize around, and seek to mitigate.

23:39: [Lyndsay Hoy] So at a time when literacy was rare, and a resurgence of the bubonic plague was becoming more prevalent, transmuting the stories of the plague saints in this way would’ve resonated strongly with viewers. We wrote this essay in the spring of 2021, as we were transitioning into a new chapter of the pandemic, one less marked by disease and fear. The panel [a 15th century work titled ‘Bishops and Saints’] felt to us like a visualization of how we could move forward, without forgetting the losses of the pandemic, and that an arts viewing experience could be both cathartic and didactic. In this essay, we pose the questions of ‘How can the arts commemorate the extraordinary grief carried by some, and the transformation likely experienced by all of us?’ We also ask ‘How can the arts remain a means to navigate a new normal, and help us collectively reenter society?’ ‘As depicted in this panel, what are some ways that the arts can move us forward in hope, however marked we may be by scars and loss?’ And then finally, ‘How can the arts give representation to otherwise invisible struggles, and in so doing, help us heal?’

Episode 2 highlights:

9:55: [David Wallace] Storytelling obviously is a deep human impulse, isn’t it, and a collective enterprise, I think. Look at the great old Icelandic sagas, for example. I mean, the winter goes on for so long in Iceland. It’s dark for months on end. And they produced these endless sagas about families that people know and locations that people know. And one person reads the manuscript or maybe recites, because I think a lot of it starts with the recitation form before it gets written down, and other people listen. And I think that just simply carries on through the centuries as you carry the body of your culture through oral reperformance. Boccaccia thinks that his writing the Decameron is going to help people, especially women, who have to stay indoors too much. And so this idea that you do amuse yourself by reading indoors, and I’m sure that probably went up, or reading aloud, one should say, because it only takes one person to read the book and other people listen to it.

We don’t know yet what forms of art are going to emerge after this pandemic, but I would imagine it will not be just focusing upon lockdown conditions. I don’t think that’ll happen right away. I mean, who wants to watch a lockdown drama? I don’t think so. I think it’ll be the great outdoors. It’ll be sunshine and positive themes. And I think there’ll be a return to lockdown themes a bit later when we’ve gotten through this, if we ever get it through it, when the pandemic has become endemic or whatever we want to call it.

Episode 3 highlights:

6:19: [Rebecca Bushnell] The book is called ‘The Marvels of the World’ and it was an anthology that actually came out of a desire to counter that prevalent knowledge in the West that a concept of nature really wasn’t invented until modern times or at least not in the way that we would recognize it. Because usually this story of environmentalism begins with this brutal anthropocentrism dominating early Western thinking about nature for centuries. … Also in this project, the other thing I wanted to do was broaden the idea of what constitutes nature writing. So, extending it beyond canonical, philosophical, and literary works to other works. For example, how-to manuals and recipe collections, which offer I think really important insight into how everyday people were involved with the stuff of the natural world.

There’s so much more there than just what we read about in poetry or we read about in Aristotle. So the book covers a wide variety of texts, different ways of thinking about the natural world. It begins with natural philosophy and science, talks about plants and animals, gardening and gardens, weather and climate, different kinds of literary representations of humans inhabiting the natural world, and it ends with encounters with nature outside Europe.

Listen to the podcasts in full at OMNIA.