In 1959, a young student of English at Dickinson College, Jean Louise Stellfox had the privilege of a few to meet a giant of world-literature, Robert Frost. Frost’s visit had such a profound impact in the young student that moved her to pursue a career in teaching literature, which she did for 39 years.
Jean Louise’s life was characterized by depth of thought, a desire to inspire young souls to think beyond the apparent, beyond the obvious, but frugality was also an attribute of her personality; saving every cent possible throughout her life. Without anyone knowing it, her savings of over 1.5 million dollars already had a purpose: they were to be donated to Dickinson College after her death so that other students, as herself in 1959, would have the privilege of being in the presence of literary figures of international caliber. Thanks to Jean Louise Stellfox, Dickinson College today is able to bring these influential literary figures through The Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program Award. The first writer to receive such a prestigious award was Ian McEwan (UK), followed by poet Rita Dove (USA), playwright and director Edward Albee (USA), and most recently novelist, essayist, playwright and journalist, Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru).
During two intense days, Mario Vargas Llosa offered public readings and lectures, met with Dickinson faculty and administrators and, more important and significant, engaged in long conversations with students interested in literature.
Vargas Llosa’s visit made us all face two polar opposites: the comfortable and the uncomfortable; forcing us to look at ourselves, to question our existence, to think about what is important in life, in hopes to awaken in each of us the sense of individual responsibility which, ultimately, should lead to actions that will generate positive social change.
On December 3rd, 2008, Vargas Llosa read passages from his novel entitled Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and shared with the audience some of the experiences that led him to write and rewrite such an important work of literature of the Spanish American world. That night, Vargas Llosa pushed its audience to think about the importance of laughter, the ability to take life with the required maturity of thought that would allow us to laugh at ourselves and, through humor, reflect upon, and move others to reflect upon, the seriousness and depth of being and that of the environment that surrounds us. Nothing, not one apex, is insignificant; absolutely everything has an impact on our lives; the consequences of each instant in each individual’s life vary depending on each person’s maturity and depth of thought. While reading the first chapter of Aunt Julia, Vargas Llosa led the audience to a comfortable state of being, of apparent lightness, of pleasure and joy. This apparent lightness, however, was only apparent, since in it resides the tremendous human condition.
At noon, on the 4th of December 2008, Vargas Llosa took the audience to an apparent zone of discomfort with his lecture entitled “The Civilization of Spectacle,” which analyzes the gradual but steady deterioration of human thought, from the end of World War II and up until our current season, affirming that very few thinkers remain; we live in an epoch where literature, music, film, essay-writing, and media tend to have as a mission that of making the human experience light, entertaining without moving the intellect to contemplate the seriousness of our existence, filling people’s void only with spectacle. This apparent pessimism that permeated through the writer’s words, however, was only apparent, since those who connected the message from his lecture to that of the previous evening were only able to conclude that, in reality, both messages carry an innate optimism, a hope that unavoidably must exist in every serious writer. Otherwise, why write? Even Kafka, with his pessimism and horror leaves us as inheritance the metaphor, by which we are always able to discern the comical within the atrocious and the atrocious within the comical.
Video by Justin Marquis