So what to make of the fact that on Saturday morning 100 people braved the first snows of winter to attend a lecture by a white-haired professor on Ancient Egyptian Erotic Poetry?
The people in the lecture room weren't weirdosor Egyptology nuts. They were bankers, lawyers, doctors, housewives, adolescents on an outing with mom and dad, participants in what - on superficial inspection - might be considered an oxymoron, the sixth annual Chicago Humanities Festival, on the theme of "Love and Marriage".
Among the 45 subjects discussed at nine august Chicago venues were "Continuity in Inuit Culture through love and children"; "Love and Death in Italian Opera"; "Lesbians at home"; "Plato's Symposium"; and "Love and Marriage in Pharaonic Egypt".
Erotic poetry in the age of Nefertiti and Rameses II proved to be some notches down from Ovid, not to say Hustler magazine, on the prurience scale. Professor Lanny David Bell of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute did his best to inject some fire into the line "I'll lie on my bed perfectly still feigning terminal illness", but only evoked something resembling a sexual frisson from his audience at the mention of the word (imaginatively translated from the hieroglyphics) "nippleberries".
The question remained, however, what were were a hundred Chicago hog- butchers doing spending their morning listening to this stuff when they could have been sitting at home watching the College Football on TV? I spoke to some of them. "Self-enrichment", they said; or "I'm curious to learn about the Old World"; or "I want to expose myself to the possibility of new interests".
You'd have to be a cynic not to be impressed. My experience had taught me to see America as a giant market place inhabited by people driven, to the exclusion of almost all else, by the imperative to make money and generally get ahead. Here were ordinary Americans absorbing culture for culture's sake, without any hope of material gain.
At the Simpson Theatre on Saturday night, 1,000 people paid $200 a head to watch a dramatisation of the divorce trial of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Seeking to make historical amends, a real life Illinois Supreme Court judge and two sets of professional lawyers provided the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella with a chance to have her case for preserving the marriage heard. Henry and Catherine, played by actors in Tudor robes, took turns to state their arguments and submit themselves to cross-examination.
"The current law of Illinois will be applicable in this trial," the judge said. "King Henry VIII has the burden of proving irreconcilable differences have caused the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage." The two actors ad-libbed the answers to the lawyers' questions, displaying a depth of English historical knowledge all the more surprising because of the supposition - entirely correct judging from the amused responses - that the audience also knew about the Battle of Bosworth and all that.
A jury of 12 Chicago worthies struck a blow for love, if not for marriage, when they delivered a verdict that showed they had been persuaded by the argument that if Henry did not remarry and sire a male heir "England will regress to the darkness of wannabes like Richard III". Besides, the couple had been living "in separate castles" for two years and, according to Illinois law, that was reason enough for marital dissolution.
The bad news for Henry was that he would have to pay up in alimony a large chunk of a royal fortune reckoned by the financiers of the Chicago Pasts markets to have stood at precisely $1.6bn.
John CarlinReuse content