On Oct. 5, Viking Theater held a guest lecture jointly sponsored by the departments of classics, philosophy and religion. Maria Pontoppidan, a Danish philosopher from the University of Copenhagen, gave a talk she titled Plotinus, Kurtz and the Horror: Reflections on an Ethical Ideal.
Before her lecture, Pontoppidan joined the weekly Classics table for their regular dinner and discussion. Afterwards, students filled Viking Theater’s seating capacity, and then some. Some sat on the floor, while others took a seat on the side of the stage.
Pontoppidan was welcomed to the stage by a choir made up of the front two rows of the audience. This makeshift choir belted a Greek translation of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” aptly retitled “O Come, All Ye Frightening.” Professor of Classics Anne Groton organized the choir and provided singers with a handout of the song’s lyrics.
After the song was over, Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro formally introduced Pontoppidan.
“I consider her possibly the closest living person to Galadriel. She is truly a Lady of the Light,” Taliaferro said.
Then Pontoppidan took to the podium.
“I thank Charles for his kind words, but I disagree with his assessment of my as a Lady of Light. I think it is quite the opposite; I consider myself more a Lady of the Dark,” Pontoppidan said.
In her lecture, Pontoppidan used the term “horror” not in the standard sense of spookiness and erieness, but rather in reference to the darker side of humanity’s actions. ISIS and the events of the Vietnam War were cited as examples of this kind of “horror.”
Pontoppidan talked extensively about the ancient philosopher Plotinus, who advocated a casual detachment from the world as way of coping with its horrors.
She also said she admired Friedrich Nietzsche’s endeavors to confront horror head on, though she warned that such attempts may come at the cost of one’s sanity.
Pontoppidan often used the story of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novells, Heart of Darkness and its 1979 film adaptation, Apocalypse Now as a metaphor for an obsessive search that ultimately leads to places irrevocablly dark and horrific.
“It was very intense,” audience member Herman Hannon ’18 said, “Afterward, I had to go find a corner and just think about it for an hour or so.”
Pontoppidan’s speaking style is unorthodox to say the least. Aside from completely prohibiting recording of any kind during her talk, she also has a version of the lecture where she cuts and slices a large slab of meat as she speaks. However, after consulting with Taliaferro, she decided to leave the butcher knives at home.