A Neuroesthetic Approach

During the study trip to D.C. I spent a great deal of time viewing impressionist art in the Phillips Collection. I used one of the pieces I viewed, Seated Woman in Blue, as the artifact for my unit 6 project. During my research I happened across an article focusing on a different series of Cezanne’s work , the Mont Sainte-Victoire series. This article claimed the decreasing detail in the paintings caused increased neural activity in the viewer. Given that in Unit 6 we studied Kandel who connected neuroscience to abstract art, naturally, I read the article. The authors use the Mont Sainte Victoire series to show the evolution of Cezanne because he painted many in the series. Over the course of the Mont Sainte Victoire series Cezanne increasingly abstracted the mountainscape. To study the effect of the abstraction, the authors mapped the “number of fixations, duration of each fixation, and number of saccades”[1] which are defined as rapid movements of the eye from one point to the other. Throughout the series Cezanne’s brush strokes vanished and his colors blurred and even changed forcing the reader to create detail out of the chaos. The article concludes that Cezanne’s abstractions mimicked the way the eye produces images. The parallel process teaches us that angles and lines create our perception of the world not just color and light meaning that the lack of realistic depiction caused our brain to seize on his angular brushstrokes to recreate the scene Cezanne painted. The incomplete nature of the Mont Sainte Victoire series forces neurons in the viewer’s brain to fire filling in the picture without all the information. The way in which the viewer do this shows us how the brain functions. David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel only scientifically showed the effects of lines and angels on perception in 1956 and won a nobel for it in 1981. Cezanne, however, demonstrated this fifty years earlier with a series of painting.  This exemplifies how science is not the only standard of proof.

Courchia, Benjamin, Sarah Guigui, Emmanuel Courchia, Maude Righini, and Jean-Paul Courchia. “Cézanne and the Mont Sainte-Victoire: A Neuroesthetic Approach *.” Functional Neurology, Rehabilitation, and Ergonomics 1, no. 4 (2011): 593-601. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1726332419?accountid=10427


Hello, and welcome to my Humanities Portfolio. I’d like to say thank you to my unit professors: Professor Denham, Professor Ingram, Professor Munger, and Professor Tamura most recently. I would also like to thank Professor Robb for hosting Common Hour brunches and Professor Ewington for introducing me and other Hamsters to St. Petersburg and Moscow. An especially big thanks to the Humes Fellows who helped me navigate the Humes course as well as my introductory experiences at Davidson. The mentioned mentors and my peers have and continue to highlight my freshman year.  In this portfolio, I experiment with new concepts and honed some known skills. The tabs at the top direct to specific parts. I recommend going through the posts in the order of the menu but feel free to view in any fashion you choose. This portfolio parallels my first year in that I tried a lot of new things and some worked out better than others, but that only encourages me to try more. Thank you for visiting my portfolio. I hope you enjoy!

—   Nick Boyd

Research Paper


Humes and Humanities

Our Humes course differs from the traditional Humanities in several ways. Primarily, humes intentionally interacts with non-humanistic ways of knowing. The humanities course involves social sciences like history as well as hard sciences like neuroscience and astronomy into its syllabus. Our Humes course focuses on epistemology which is just one aspect of the Humanities. We tackle epistemology – the questioning how and if we Know – through interdisciplinary means. Rather than reading various philosophers, our course grounds discussions in literal scenarios whether they be about conceptual schemes in astronomy, neuroscience’s intersection with abstract art, or the language of Paul Celan. This enabled me as a newcomer to participate in these dialogue with tangible material. Merriam Webster defines humanities as “the branches of learning (such as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics).” This definition of the Humanities does not fit our course. Merriam Webster impressively creates a qualitative definition of humanities that focuses on why the humanities are humanistic fields of inquiry rather than just which fields are. However, the definition ends by juxtaposing the humanities from other ways of knowing. After Hum 103/104, it is clear to me that there are not two cultures, to use C.P. Snow’s term, on two opposite ends of the spectrum; instead, the boundary is porous and blurred. Our Humes program fleshes out the traditional Humanities by broadening its view with varied viewpoints. Our Humes challenges established concepts in a way the Humanities as a discipline does not.

Chasing Gods

I came into Chasing Gods expecting it to be similar in style to the only other play I have been to at Davidson, Book Of Will. However, from the moment I stepped into the theatre I realized this experience would be different. Not only because I came way too early and walked in on a final rehearsal but also because the theatre was so different from the Duke Performance Hall. Rather than a raised platform, the stage was the entire room. The audience had chairs arranged in a square, but scenes took place all over the theatre including the balcony above the room. The audience was so incorporated into the stage that it had to turn its head around to see follow the different scenes. It felt as if I was in the middle of these intimate scenes because of my physical location. The use of space in Cunningham Theatre created an attachment to the play that the distant stage of the Duke Performance Hall never could have, even when the play creatively had people walk the aisles of the audience during the set changes of Book of Will. The set design accentuated the use of space by sparingly using set decorations. The scarcity of objects forced the audience to focus on the performances of the actors. This further drew me into the drama because it forced me to develop connections with the characters themselves. The characters had to use their imagination to comb their hair in the mirror, so as an audience member I focused on how they were combing their hair rather than the comb or mirror itself. The sparse use of props also magnifies the significance of each prop used, for example Immanuel’s guitar. Immanuel (fantastically played by Mauricio Lozano) turns to music and his guitar to escape from the pressures of the world. However, in a climax of the play his guitar is shattered forcing him to confront his problems rather than run from them. One of the problems he must confront is family.

Family plays a huge role in Chasing Gods. Immanuel cheated on his first wife with his current wife Deidra; Deidra feels isolated within her family and in the outside world; Olivia, Immanuel’s daughter, dreams of running away from the family to play basketball at Stanford; Elijah’s friend is trapped taking care of her father despite her dreams of change. The family plays a dual role in Paris Crayton III’s play. On one hand, the family causes friction and anger which force people like Elijah and Immanuel to use drugs and alcohol as an escape, while on the other hand the family provides support to each other in the most desperate of times. Olivia’s basketball scholarship shows the full narrative arc of the family. After years of hard work and dedication, Olivia earned a scholarship to play basketball at Stanford. However, Deidra argues with a drunk Immanuel causing her homophobic stances to re-enter the news. Stanford rescinds Olivia’s scholarship to avoid being implicated in the scandal, so through no fault of her own Olivia loses her dream opportunity. Once her family learns of this horrible news, they unite to support Olivia causing a serious dilemma for Olivia. Her family caused her to lose her dream, but how can she turn away from family, especially if family is all she has left? The narrative ends on an optimistic note with Olivia driving off to fight to get her scholarship back. Chasing Gods also comments on family roles and the advantages and drawbacks of the confrontation in the family. One of may favorite characters in the play was Pops.  Pops, Olivia and Elijah’s humorous old grandad who recently lost his wife, is still hip enough to use dating services like Tinder. Always ready with a joke, Pops’ sage advice helps the family members reflect on their situation with empathy for others. Elijah in some ways tries to emulate Pops but his role is slightly different. Rather than providing advice on how to navigate difficult issues, Elijah asks his mother, father and sister to avoid them to prevent fighting. He thinks that not fighting over issues will defuse the tension, but one must wonder if the attempts to suppress the disagreement just widen the divides in the family. Elijah’s actions force the audience to consider whether he helps solve the family issues or exacerbates them by pretending they don’t exist.

The largest family issue is religion. Immanuel was once a pastor, Deidra is a pastor but the children don’t share the same religious tendencies. Elijah’s pretense that he does not remember his favorite bible verse shows this contrast. The significance of religion begins in the title Chasing Gods. Chasing implies an elusory nature of religion as if religion promises a salvation that none can achieve. The pluralization of God also stands out because Christianity is monotheistic. The pluralization creates the possibility that God can be unique to each person and that no one’s God is better than any one else’s. The conflict of the play arises from a sermon Deidra Curtis gave to her congregation following the Pulse Nightclub Shooting. The sermon although never explicitly quoted seems to denounce homosexuality and even insult the victims of the shooting. Deidra refuses to hear criticism of her sermon even from her family and maintains the self-righteous attitude that no one can dissuade her because she enacts God’s will. The shooting deeply affects the Curtis family: Elijah consistently listens to the same voicemail from a friend killed in the shooting and there are suggestions that Olivia herself may be lesbian. This commentary on contemporary religious ostracization of certain groups contrasts the debate between Sacks and Dawkins where Sacks claims that religion’s benevolence comes from its sense of community. Chasing Gods asks us to redefine what community we mean. Religion may help the community but only if you are in that community; if outside it, then that religion may persecute you.

I loved Chasing Gods from start to finish. The intimate staging of the play combined with the fantastic performances by my peers made the drama a pleasure to watch.

An Elemental Force

The ocean represents revolution to me. The ocean constantly struggles against the shore trying to encroach on society on the other side. However, it can only rise up and overcome the shore during tsunamis and hurricanes. At this moment the ocean revolts and lays waste to society on the other side yet it is only temporary; ,eventually the ocean recedes leaving humans to make sense of what remains. Revolution does the same. It tears up the foundations of society and leaves the survivors to make sense of destruction. It is intermittent yet forever. The ocean is a tireless force while Revolution is an inexhaustible hope.

Boyd, Nick. South Carolinian Ocean. March 4th 2019.

A Pool Side Story

A West (Pool) Side Story

I work in Recreational Aquatics Supervision. I have a daily routine to prepare for the afternoon shift at the local pool. It’s got a deep end, and plenty of no diving signs for people to ignore. I prefer the less busy shift in the morning but for today I work from 3-8. I usually arrive a little early, sign in to my shift, and then arrange the umbrellas properly before settling into a chair and admitting to myself that I’m wasting my summer by lifeguarding adults swimming laps. I skim my eyes over the lawn chairs angled for maximum sunlight, the shaded tables covered in juice boxes and the kids splashing each other in the shallow end. Who knows what the day holds? I do. Everyday kids play, parents swim laps in the deep end where their kids can’t go quite yet so that the grandparents have to take them for a couple of minutes and 13yr olds push each other into the pool. I used to feel awe that one pool could hold such joy for so many different groups of people. Young, old, male, female, everyone likes the pool. I wondered at how beautiful it is that we all share a love of water and the freedom a pool brings. But by my third summer as a lifeguard, this novel feeling of social solidarity had dissipated into boredom that I, keeping sweat from my eyes, had to watch it all again while they got to splash cool water on each other.

So, something that challenges this social solidarity is a big moment for me. With a Gatorade water bottle, some goldfish and my Baywatch style shades – I’m convinced I look awesome in them I say high to the morning guard. Today that happens to be my boss, so it’s a good thing I came early. A fellow lifeguard’s mom – never one to miss an opportunity – sidles up to my newly relieved boss to talk about the wonderful things her daughter does for the AB high school swim team. Unfortunately, talking to the boss wasn’t all she has in mind, she wants to learn about me too. As a junior in high school, making small talk with my friend’s mom is exactly where I want to be on a midsummer afternoon, but more importantly I must decide which aspect of my job to focus on. Do I show my customer service skills to my boss and have a nice conversation with a pool customer, or do I show how seriously I take my job and excuse myself from conversation to entirely devote myself to watching the 80 year old doing water aerobics? Naturally, I choose both and share my excitements for the coming school year while flicking my gaze back and forth between her and the swimmer. The mom switches the topic to lifeguarding by asking my boss, now suitably impressed by my ability to do it all, why he lifeguarded the pool himself today rather than having someone like me cover the morning shift.

Nothing fascinates me more than the mysteries of scheduling, so I start listening more attentively. The mom tells my boss how her child always prefers the morning shift because of the cooler temperature and the fewer customers. Then, she speaks with a giggle, “and if you are in the afternoon shift your stuck with the United Nations hour.” At first, I’m totally confused, what the hell is that, but my boss is standing there and I want to seem like I know what I am doing, so I slip my bay watch shades over my expression and nod. But to clarify, she adds, “the hour when the demographic of the pool changes.”


My boss smirks whether from suppressed laughter or agitation I can’t tell. My jaw on the other hand goes slack and my eyes widen. I grew up in this neighborhood thinking of it as a safe and accepting space but this comment shatters my little fantasy. My neighborhood has a plurality of white people, immigrants like my mom and born citizens like my dad, but a large minority of Indian and Chinese immigrants raise their American children here as well. Between coming home from work and having dinner, many Chinese parents teach their kids to swim. So that a mother, who I grew up viewing as a figure of authority, responsibility and respectability demeans these kids, and makes her very own neighbors into an “other” shocks me. Calling cute kids practicing Chicken-Airplane-Soldier, the “United Nations” just because they don’t share the same skin color hurts. I don’t know what to say, maybe say that they are US citizens not the United Nations, maybe that being stuck with the United Nations is awesome because it’s part of why we haven’t had World War 3, or maybe retort back, “at least you’re not stuck with the casual racism of the morning shift.” Having mentally vented, I thought about what I might realistically do. What can I, a teenage lifeguard, do at this moment? Do I say anything at all because what effect would my words have on her? Having talked myself out of any moral responsibility, I turn my attention back to the pool in shocked silence.

My boss makes his way off and the mom returns to her daughter. Still, I sit in silence as the night approaches considering what happened. Thinking what it means to me, to my community, thinking what I could have done, should have done or said or attempted. I decide to be more conscientious about race in my neighborhood. I begin noticing how only a few Indian families are invited to white family’s parties. I notice how my white friends have barbeques at a communal grill while my Chinese friends don’t even know it is there. I think about my own role as a recreational aquatics supervisor and how I often greet white parents by their names but Chinese parents with a smile and wave. Not because I don’t want to use their names but because I don’t know them. I hadn’t met them at the neighborhood Christmas cookie swap, I hadn’t seen them at the annual Summer Starter party at the Weaver’s house. I hadn’t met them because they weren’t there. I hadn’t seen them because they weren’t there. So, I sit at the pool. I supervise. But instead of growing bored with the social solidarity I once perceived, I think about how I perpetuate its absence.

And boy is it depressing.

Head lifeguard Joshua Avery Scott keeps a watchful eye on swimmers at the Camp Vincent pool on Thursday, July 30, 2015. DON ROBINET/POSTMEDIA NETWORK file photo https://lfpress.com/2016/06/09/lifeguards-hired-for-all-city-pools/wcm/8ea6cb9a-40fc-c30a-ce11-956a83986ccd

A Blessed Revision

Understanding and Applying Leonard Olschner to Celan’s “Benedicta”

Celan imbues his poetry with depth and diversity. Using a singular lens to analyze Celan’s poetry provides a starting point to delve into Celan’s style of murky meanings. Olschner elects a historicist lens – a lens that places Celan’s works in a broader context – as well as the author’s intentions to interpret Celan’s poetry.

Olschner analyzes the titles “Todesfuge” and “Engfuhrung” to see their relations to the poem. Olschner investigates fugues’ musical implications to see their application to a literary source where the word “fugue” does not appear. Additionally, Olschner integrates exile into “Todesfugue” by analyzing fugues’ etymological root “fuga” meaning flight. Olschner also uses metathesis — the rotation of sounds and letters — to imbue juxtaposed meanings into Celan’s work . When Olschner encounters the word “Gras,”[1] “grass” in English, he initially recognizes connotations of life and growth, but he then reverses the word “Gras” into “Sarg” which means death. For Olschner, these opposing meanings combine to depict a more nuanced understanding of the antagonism between life and death – a message made available by deconstructing individual words. Olschner further contextualizes Celan’s poetry in the greater European literary scene to connect “Todesfuge” to larger societal trends. Olschner suggests the revival of rigidly formatted arts – like sonnets and fugues – intend to counterbalance the upheaval in modern life. This upheaval includes the Holocaust which provokes the question of human’s fundamental evil, and the post-Holocaust reconstruction of Europe. Olschner again contextualizes Celan’s poetry in the Holocaust to understand the blank space preceding the text of “Ehnfuhrung,” by breaking traditional format Celan suggests the pervasiveness of the pain. Olschner argues the blank space indicates a missing story about the Holocaust and the use of atomic weapons. Turning an empty page into an open canvas bursting with significance exemplifies Olschner’s historicist lens.

Olschner writes, “[Celan] designed ‘Ehnfuhrung’ so it could not be appropriated and abused as, in his opinion, ‘Todesfuge’ had been.”[2] This quotation situates “Ehnfuhrung” among a larger body of works by referencing its contrapuntal purpose as well as showing Olschner’s attention to the author’s intended meaning. Olschner once again incorporates Celan’s intent to discuss the “aestheticization of the Holocaust.”[3] In “Todesfuge,” Celan does not depict graphic murder but instead removes mentions of Sulamith, a Jewish woman in the poem, from the penultimate stanza to symbolize her death. Rather than aestheticize the Holocaust, Olschner concludes that Celan does not detail suffering in his poetry because language cannot represent the violence experienced – especially not the German language which was complicit in the Shoah. This approach considers Celan’s personal suffering from his mother’s murder. The discussion of language’s impotency illustrates Olschner’s style of connecting small details to broader themes whether it be in comparison to Celan’s other poems, the arts or society at large.

Olschner’s historicist lens applies equally well to Celan’s poem “Benedicta.” The word “benedicta” translates from Latin to blessed or, if translated as a substantive, blessed thing. Although the word Benedicta does not appear in the poem, its German equivalent “Gesegnet”[4] does. One must question Celan’s choice of a Latin title rather than a German or a Yiddish title – the two other languages that appear in the poem. One interpretation connects to another Latin word in the poem, “Tenebrae.”[5] Tenebrae, a Christian holy period, connotes resurrection and renewal because it takes place in the week leading into Easter. A benediction – the English version of benedicta – is a farewell blessing and shares the connotation of ending and purification with Tenebrae. These words of cleansing contrast the treatment of Yiddish in the poem. The poem isolates the Yiddish language in a song in the top right corner of the page, and thereby differentiates it from the German text on the left side of the page. Celan again others Yiddish by putting Yiddish words in italics. In addition to commenting on Latin and Yiddish, Celan indicates a fracturing of the German language beginning with the first German word of the poem “Ge-/trunken.”[6] Celan breaks the word into two pieces and separates it across two lines to show the depth of destruction the German  language has suffered. Using an injured language shows Celan’s refusal to abandon the German language. Furthermore, the use of multiple languages could represent an attempt to heal the German language and its people by fusing it with other languages.

Benedictions are prayers at the end of a service that bless and preserve the congregants. Psalm 121:7 “The lord shall preserve thee from all evil he shall preserve thy soul,” like many other benedictions, reaffirms the power of God to prevent catastrophe and ensure justice. “Benedicta” parallels a real Christian benediction. The first stanza follows the structure of a Christian service with the words “thou hast drunken”[7]. Drinking invokes the practice of communion where Christians drink wine which they believe to be the blood of Christ. However, it also contains connotations of excessive alcohol consumption through the word “drunken,” so it contrasts the purity of religious rituals with the ugly nature of excess and alcohol. Olschner’s attention to the multiplicity of meanings suggests that these are not opposing ideas but rather two comingled strands of the same truth. The truth that people take religion, just like substances, to excess and this excess damages everyone. The poem also evokes benedictions by mentioning blessings and alluding to God as the shepherd of mankind with a reference to “pastures,”[8] yet “Benedicta” contrasts these traditional themes as well. One stanza in particular juxtaposes benedictions and suffering: “be thou blessed, from afar, from / beyond my / guttering fingers.”[9] One, generally expects a blessing to be positive but the inclusion of “from afar” creates an ambivalence to the blessing. Does love drive the blessing or is the blessing the last hope of a powerless being? “Beyond” implies an aura of unattainability while the word “erloschenen,” translated by Felstiner as guttering, also translates as extinct and dead which further reinforces the sense of futility in the blessing. The concept of extinction continues with the theme of benedictions as an act of closing which contradicts the preservative powers of God that other benedictions continuously extol. Celan subverts the traditional empowering meaning of benedictions to show the failure of religious morals in the post-Holocaust world.

The emptiness of Christian ritual appears strongly in the final stanza. Celan writes, “Ge-/ trunken./ Ge-/ segnet./ Ge-/ bentscht.”[10] Felstiner translates the first two German words as drunken and blessed while he leaves Yiddish word meaning bitten untranslated. The repeated separation of “Ge” – a sound all three words begin with – from the rest of the word shows how each word starts the same but ends differently. The German words finish as they began while the Yiddish word becomes italicized. Additionally, the German means blessed, and the Yiddish means bitten indicating that one person’s safety can come at another’s expense. If one cannot read Yiddish, the last word they understand is blessed which makes “Benedicta” seem more traditional. However, if one can speak Yiddish, they will understand the dark implications of the final stanza. Thus, one’s cultural identity dictates one’s interpretation of the poem’s ending. Furthermore, “Benedicta” does not end Die Niemandsrose as one might expect a benediction to do. In fact, it comes in the middle of the book of poetry suggesting that words cannot provide closure over a horror like the Holocaust. The effects of the Holocaust endure even though the event itself has ended. Celan ironically alludes to the purification of a benediction to suggest that humans can no longer lay claim to purity.


Felstiner, John. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan Translated by John Felstiner. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Olschner, Leonard. Fugal Provocation in Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ and ‘Engfuhrung’. German Life and Letters, October 1989.

[1] Leonard Olschner, Fugal Provocation in Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ and ‘Engfuhrung’, German Life and Letters October 1989, 87.

[2] Olschner, 84.

[3] Olschner, 83.

[4] John Felstiner, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan Translated by John Felstiner (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 175.

[5] Felstiner, 175.

[6] Felstiner, 175.

[7] Felstiner, 175.

[8] Felstiner, 175.

[9] Felstiner, 175.

[10] Felstiner, 175.


An all encapsulating definition of revolution maybe be an impossibility. Describing the what and how of a revolution will inevitably fail to include important aspects of many revolutions. A “why” definition — explaining why a revolution happens — and then proceeding from there presents itself as a solution to this dilemma. Revolutions begin because a way of life has broken irreparably. A system can break down for many reasons but the underlying similarity of revolution is that the old way cannot offer enough to society anymore. Lapham quotes Simone Weil as saying “[o]ne magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings … that word is revolution.”[1] Weil suggests revolution promises a change away from failing system but not necessarily to a better one. People do not believe in ideology of the revolution, but they believe in the act itself. If the old system cannot be repaired by a change of leadership, law, or patience, then the people — whether they be artists, bakers, farmers or bankers — revolt. Lewis Lapham, in his article “Crowd Control,” quotes Jefferson as saying “[t]he tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”[2] I, however, do not find revolution to be necessarily violent as shown by another of Lapham’s examples, Vaclav Havel. Havel wrote about the citizens’ revolutionary power of refusing to interact with a communist state in “Power of the Powerless.” Havel then carried out his bloodless revolution in Czechoslovakia by replacing the government and transforming Czechoslovakia into a capitalist society. Here, Havel accomplished a feat as revolutionary as the French Revolution but with far less destruction. Revolutions in the arts and sciences too show how revolutions can be bloodless. The first step of revolution is not the end. One must be careful not to impose a sense of historical determinacy on the past and instead realize that some potential revolutions do not manifest while other revolutions unintentionally derive from reform. Thus, even with the qualitative definition there is still a possibility that the initial revolution fails which brings me to a second point. I discuss how a revolution begins, but how does it end, can it end, or must it be continuous? In my definition, a revolution can end once a paradigm shift has occurred. Whatever philosophy grounded the previous mode of life, must be dissolved and replaced with a new one. Something that seemed a revolution can later collapse leading to a reversion to the old system causing it to be a failed revolution. Ultimately, a revolution comes from the failure of an old system to provide for society and ends with the implementation of a radically new paradigm guiding society.

[1] Lapham, Lewis. “Crowd Control.” Lapham’s Quarterly. 18.

[2] Lapham, Lewis. “Crowd Control.” Lapham’s Quarterly. 21.

Kotek, Lubomir. Havel in Prague 1989. Photo
Boyd, Nick. Red Notebook. May, 9, 2018. Photo