Ath Chronicles Revived: Professor John Farrell on Literature and Utopia

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After sprinting through pouring rain, I arrived drenched, but nevertheless ready for my first Athenaeum lunch of the semester: the celebration of Professor John Farrell’s installation as the Waldo W. Neikirk Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College. 

Eager to learn more about “Literature and Utopia,” as his talk was titled, I sat at a table surrounded by Professor Farrell’s gushing past-students. Over salmon and salad, we talked books, classes, and expectations for the talk. Many recalled his engaging lecture style, thought-provoking questions and probing subject matter.

After Dean Uvin introduced and congratulated Professor Farrell, the talk commenced. To my surprise, “Literature and Utopia” actually prompted more questions about dystopia and disorder. What does it tell us, Professor Farrell asked, that we are often drawn to and intrigued by chaos in literature? Using examples from novels like Brave New World and philosophical references to Plato, Professor Farrell made an argument for the nuanced dystopia. 

But what I found most compelling about Professor Farrell’s talk was the last reference he made to Montesquieu. “If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy,” he said. “But we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” On that resounding note, Professor Farrell concluded his talk. 

Overall, in touching on questions of individual happiness and utopian ideals, Professor Farrell found a way to seamlessly thread together personal narrative and literary commentary. His talk reminded me that, ultimately, a big part of college is figuring out what fulfills us and contributes to our livelihoods as individuals. It is often easy – particularly here at CMC – to forget about the bigger picture concerning self-care and mental health. We must work to remind ourselves that there is more to life than summer internships, academic assignments, and extracurricular deadlines. The bigger picture is out there, we just need to find it.  

Tune in next week for another edition of the Ath Chronicles – get ready for a fun semester!