The Gospel According to John Cleese

A friend of mine once put forward the theory that art and religion developed to pay homage to, or to pray for, good hunting. He’d been talking about the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux—the idea being that hunting was so central to these folks’ survival that they didn’t just choose, but were compelled, to create the art that today evokes in us so deep a sense of wonder. Of course, if this art sprang from such an elemental well, so too would have the engineering of weapons for the hunt: the triangles of pointed rock, the straight charcoal lines of spears arcing toward their prey. Art and design; geometry and engineering. Sounds something like what we do at Cornell.

And then there is John Cleese, Cornell’s longtime professor-at-large. Since 1999, he’s been visiting, lecturing, listening, and making us laugh. He has been our most surprising tutor, our unexpected long-term guest. Yet as well-known as he is, many Cleese fans (and even Cornellians) have no idea what he’s about outside of his day job. Professor at Large, a new collection of Cleese’s public talks at Cornell, presents a portrait of a mind at work. His topics are wide-ranging, from psychology to religion to screenwriting. But over and over, what reappears in different contexts is a fascination with the creative process, and (usefully) his interest in how to get there, as well as pitfalls to avoid, on the path to the “relaxed, attentive, open, and inquiring states of mind,” that allow creativity to flourish.

As it turns out, Professor at Large is, on one hand, a kind of how-to book for students of creativity. One could unearth a decent cache of listicle points from its pages, if need be. (My favorite, which happens to be from the screenwriter William Goldman: “Read it five or six times, each time with a different color pen.”) It’s also an argument shouted against prevailing winds. Cleese pays due respect to “the practical workaday thinking” that “relies on the application of reason and logic to known data.” However, he warns against a common bias toward “fast, purposeful, logical thinking,” not only in how we pursue success in business and academics, but also in our search for personal happiness.

(Listicle point: Get a cat. “The nice thing about cats is when they grow up, they don’t blame you for everything.”)

The quiet, open space, both physical and metaphorical, that Cleese defines as necessary for creative production will be familiar to practitioners of meditation, to solitary wanderers, and to those seeking to understand with humility the sacred writings of their chosen religion. It (surprisingly) comes as no surprise that much of Professor at Large has to do with religion and mysticism. Cleese makes it clear that they are not necessarily synonyms and are frequently at odds. He is against the certitude of doctrine because of what it stifles: the same openness of mind that summons up creative insight. One might call his writing the Gospel According to Brian, which in fact is the subject of an essay that’s both amusing and profound.

My friend told me that the Neanderthals buried their dead with amulets of sharpened stone. The better to hunt in the afterlife, he said. I’m no scholar, and I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes a good story.

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About the author of this blog post: Elizabeth Kim is marketing designer for Cornell University Press, where she continues to look on the bright side of life.

*Original source of featured image: Empire

 

The Gospel According to John Cleese

November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek

Five-term congressman, film director, and bestselling author Robert J. Mrazek will be presenting three book talks this month to discuss his coming-of-age-tale set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, And the Sparrow Fell.  Mrazek, a Cornell alum and Ithaca resident, will discuss his new novel, a vivid and urgent story in which many of the characters and events are informed by his own personal experiences, particularly his time at Cornell University. Ithaca landmarks such as the State Theater, Fall Creek, and the Chapter House are featured throughout the book.

Please take advantage of this unique opportunity to hear Robert Mrazek speak locally in Ithaca. He will be discussing his new book at the following times and locations:

We do hope you can attend one of these events. Continue reading “November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek”

November is “And the Sparrow Fell” Month with Three Book Talks Planned in Ithaca by Author Robert Mrazek

Help Save the Bees

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Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim

There was finally some good news this week about the plight of the honeybees. After more than a decade of alarming declines in bee populations across the United States, a new study released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers new hope for honeybees. While the central culprit behind the mysterious deaths of bees (classified as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD) is yet to be determined, the study found that the number of U.S. honeybees has increased since 2016, and the number of deaths due to CCD decreased by over 25 percent in the same time period.

However, the good news came with some bad. Continue reading “Help Save the Bees”

Help Save the Bees

It’s all about the music: social media in the month of May

Here are some of our most popular social media posts in the month of May. It’s safe to say the Dead ruled Sage House as we celebrated the publication of Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall, with events timed to the 40th anniversary of the Dead’s legendary concert at Cornell.

On Facebook, it was all about the party:

Continue reading “It’s all about the music: social media in the month of May”

It’s all about the music: social media in the month of May

Outbox: The Critical Grateful Dead T-Shirt

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by Michael J. McGandy

The difference a t-shirt makes: That is a lesson about regional publishing that I learned in the course of editing our new book, from Peter Conners, about the Grateful Dead’s 1977 concert at Barton Hall on the Cornell campus. When the authors, artists, editors, and archivists who play key roles in developing a book live in close proximity, chance meetings that can change a book are more likely to occur. And, as I learned last summer, if you are at the right place at the right time, you would do well to be wearing the right item of clothing.

But let me provide some background.

In June 2016 I was consulting with Peter on the book that would be titled Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall. After another round of editing from me and Dean Smith, Director of Cornell University Press (and a Deadhead), Peter was back at the work of revision. In that editorial lull, I was tasked with hunting down visual art. The contract called for twenty or more images, and both Peter and I wanted the book to have lots of photos and ephemera to help readers appreciate the spirit of spring 1977. Unfortunately, photos of the band related to their May 8 show at Cornell proved hard to find. Continue reading “Outbox: The Critical Grateful Dead T-Shirt”

Outbox: The Critical Grateful Dead T-Shirt