Last October, the Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC) had the honor of inviting lauded journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker, Sebastian Junger, to speak at the Veterans’ Voices Award Ceremony. Prior to the ceremony, Junger joined the 2018 awardees for a luncheon at the MHC Event Center where he spoke about the importance of the humanities and the Veteran experience and took questions from the audience.
As we gear up for another Veterans’ Voices Award Ceremony and seek submissions for Veterans to share their stories with us, we look back to this conversation with Sebastian about why it makes so much sense, and is important, for the Humanities Center to be doing this work.
Audio and transcript below. Enjoy.
Sebastian Junger: Thank you. It’s a real honor to be here. To find out more about this incredible institution, this incredible organization, the good works that they do. I was immediately struck by the Gargoyles. I don’t know if you’ve noticed them but they’re pretty remarkable, all throughout the building. I guess from 1925. They’re worth looking at on the way out in the hallway. They depict clearly as a native versus European intruder, arms struggle. Just as a sort of reminder of what are some ways the human condition isn’t always peaceful. But the trick is, how do we come out of those dark moments more enlightened and more compassionate? If we can keep doing that, we can keep getting through the bad parts.
I’m gonna mention, I’m gonna talk about my parents a little bit. My mother and father were very, very different. My father was a physicist. He grew up in Europe, came over here during World War II. Very, very brilliant man who had almost no understanding of how human beings worked. I mean, to the point where I have a younger sister, two years younger and when we were teenagers, something would happen at the dinner table and [she would] storm off and slam the door to stomp up the stairs and you’d hear the door slam and the dust. Her bedroom was right above the dining room table. The dust would drift down from the chandelier like snow onto the meal and my father would look at my mother so puzzled and say, “Is she upset?” Then there was my mother who was an artist, a painter. Is, she’s still with us. My father made sense of the world through numbers. My mother made a different sense of the world, one that actually was more accessible to a child and probably more accessible to most people. We need both kinds of thinking. My father’s brain, it’s from brains like that that we got computers and GPS and advances in medicine and what have you. That kind of brain has made our lives much, much easier.
The kind of mind that my mother has, I would argue has made our lives more meaningful. Has helped us understand our lives. So she worked in a studio. This was my first exposure to the art what I would later understand is called the arts and the humanities. She had a studio and I would go in there and this sort of magic thing would happen where she would take oils or pastels or watercolor and she would render the world in these colors on canvas and I remember as a little kid that she’d drawn a painting, she’d made a painting of a tree. I was staring at it and I realized I was trying to figure out what art was. Finally occurred to me, art is when the thing that’s represented is less interesting than the representation when you want it, look longer at the painting than at the tree itself. I really stood there looking at my mother’s painting, thinking, why is it that the painting arguably, a perfect rendition of the real thing, why is it that the painting is more fascinating to me than the tree that she painted? I started to understand, that’s what art is. That’s what people like my mother like many people in this room try to do with life, is illuminated in a way where you are actually more engaged with its translation than you might be with the thing itself. That’s where we understand ourselves. That’s where we understand life, understand existence, understand the universe in a completely different way than my father could.
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