Some years ago, I was asked to give a lecture to students enrolled in a small university’s humanities program describing the personal epiphany I experienced which led to my passion for the humanities. Try as I might, I could not think of an isolated, single experience but rather a series of moments that stretch back to my childhood and have “stuck to my ribs” over a lifetime.

A very early memory: perhaps at the age of six or seven, I became mesmerized by Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” and repeatedly played it on the phonograph (several 78 discs), deeply affected by the contrast between the brooding, dark and the happier, lighter themes.

Quite obviously, I was drawn to classical music. Some five or six years later, I had my heart set to hear Rudolph Serkin perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. An ear infection, quite painful, almost prevented the experience. Against doctor’s orders, my aunt took me. I clearly recall how thrilled I was by the crescendo-decrescendo passage in the last movement—leaving the concert hall pain-free with the infection gone!

During these early years, I was somewhat of a bookworm, transported to different times and places by books which provided delight, wonderment and a number of deeply poignant moments. Initially, adventure stories such as James Fennimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island were my fare, followed by Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and Willa Cather’s evocative novels My Antonia and O Pioneers!

I also had the good fortune of being taken to theater in my pre-adolescent years, thrilling to the performances of Ethel Barrymore in How Green Was My Valley, Walter Hampton in The Patriots and a bit later, José Ferrer in Edmond Rostand’s romantic masterpiece, Cyrano de Bergerac. In my later adolescence, I experienced unforgettable performances of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in back-to-back performances of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. I was bowled over by Vivien Leigh playing Cleopatra as the young, adoring female in awe of Julius Caesar in the Shaw play and her brilliantly played, contrasting characterization as a mature and majestic woman facing her demise in Shakespeare.

A life of theater-going has followed. Naturally, the works of the Bard—Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello and King Lear—have been at the core. Perhaps one of my most memorable nights of theater-going was a performance by the great husband-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit—a dramatization of greed, revenge and the power of money among people of rectitude.

The visual arts, particularly painting, was an important part of my childhood, which continues to be nurtured by museum-going in my own city and around the world. Collecting has also been a joyous endeavor, centered on prints with a focus on Ukiyo-e. Two most memorable moments were encountering Goya’s paintings and prints in the Prado Museum in Madrid. These works riveted me, and I spent a whole day with them alone. Some years apart on a visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I found myself in a small gallery, just five paintings by Rembrandt—four self-portraits and one of his mother. I was overcome and could not contain tears—they spoke so deeply of the human condition.

Coming back to adolescent years and literature, Dickens, Thackeray, Melville, O’Henry, Herman Hesse, again Twain, were sources of adventure and insights to the human condition and heart. College years introduced me to Homer, the Greek playwrights, and the Roman poets, particularly Virgil, Horace and Catullus. A lifetime of reading followed—English and American novelists and essayists, German, Italian, French, Japanese and Russian authors, particularly Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Pages and pages of humanities moments!!

Who can forget Hector’s farewell to his infant son in the Iliad?
Or be struck by George Elliott observing in Middlemarch, “No age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new.” Or, “There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our mortality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.”
Who can forget Huck Finn introducing himself on the opening page of the eponymous novel and then later wrestling with his conscience and eschatology whether to report Jim as a runaway slave?
Of a different nature but just as memorable are the exquisite and subtle emotions experienced and described by Virginia Wolff in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
And, most recently for me, the moment in Proust’s last volume, Le Temps Retrouvé of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu where he describes his epiphany that enables him to be a writer and thus realize his literary ambitions.
Finally, mention must be made of poignant moments so touching to me in Japanese literary gems. To read Shikibu Murasaki’s masterpiece Genji Monogatari is to be transported to another time (11th century), another world (medieval Japan) and sensibilities to be treasured. Love poems two centuries earlier capture the mood and the feeling. Consider these two gems by Ono no Komachi:
Did he appear
because I fell asleep
thinking of him?
If only I’d known I was dreaming,
I’d never have wakened. I thought to pick
the flower of forgetting
for myself,
but I found it
already growing in his heart.
Philosophy I came to in college through the suggestion of my father. What better introduction than Plato’s Apology and Phaedo? Socrates’ acceptance of the Athenian Assembly’s death sentence and later his refusal to delay drinking the hemlock spoke to me of transcendent self-possession and wisdom.

These stoic strains were fully developed over the ensuing five hundred years and come full-blown with the appearance of the stoic philosophers—Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. How can one forget the admonishment in the Enchiridion of Epictetus to behave in private as one would want to be seen in public, and later the Roman Emperor Aurelius in his Meditations advising, “No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” These words speak deeply to such as myself who has been so greatly privileged. I went on to major in philosophy and have continued my interest over a lifetime, initially with special focus on Spinoza and Schopenhauer, and in later life centered on political and moral questions.

As can be surmised, music—orchestral, chamber, vocal and opera—has been my greatest passion. As I entered my adolescent years, my musical horizons were expanding, particularly with my introduction to Baroque music—J.S. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli and Telemann. Handel’s Messiah was an early favorite, and the joy I felt on hearing the aria and chorus “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” is indescribable. This lead to Bach cantatas, his Passions, the Mass in B minor and the Christmas Oratorio with its joyful and triumphant opening chorus. No Christmas is complete without that ringing in my ears, and who cannot be moved by the opening aria, “Ich habe Genug” from the Cantata of the same name.

Then came opera, with a proliferation of humanities moments:

Cherobino’s incomparable profession of adolescent love “Non so pia cosa son” and the Contessa’s “Dove sono I bei momenti” lamenting her lost love—both from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
Wotan’s “Farewell” bringing to a close Die Valkyrie, the second opera of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen
Hans Sachs “Wahn, wahn” monologue from this same composer’s Die Meistersinger
Iago’s great aria “Credo in un Dio crudel” from the second act of Verdi’s Otello
Schaunard, the philosopher, bidding farewell to his cloak in order to purchase medicines for the dying Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème
The transcendent trio sung by the Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie in the last act of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.
Finally, in my more adult years, I am blessed to hear and play (violin) chamber music—string quartets, piano trios, various combinations of strings, winds and keyboard. The list of profound and touching moments is endless. I have only to mention Mozart’s Viola Quintets K.415 & 416, Beethoven’s late string quartets Op. 127-135; and Schubert’s quintessential Cello Quintet in C major as examples.

How fortunate am I to have lived, from earliest memory to present old age, a life filled with such a richness of Humanities Moments!

– Peter A. Benoliel (Chairman Emeritus, Quaker Chemical Corporation)