The Humanities and Me:
Susan O' Keeffe

The greatest challenge in life is not living it but understanding it. Each whisper or phrase, each aria or verse, each stroke or step is man’s effort to seize and shape some understanding of the seconds of life as it ticks between the extremes of our fragility and our resilience.

In The Lake Isle of Innisfree, WB Yeats grasped that challenge when he spoke of being able to hear the lake water lapping “in the deep heart’s core”, that place where we try to assemble that understanding of our lives and from where we communicate all our efforts at that understanding. In that one single line, the Nobel-winning poet signalled his life’s work; his ambition to try to interpret our mortality and his desire to share that understanding with others. The metaphor of beautiful place to signify that inner space, inspired by his beloved Sligo, was no accident; he understood how precious it is.

That poem connected with people because we all constantly seek reassurance, some fresh interpretation in the battle to understand our lives. We shop and talk and drink coffee. We work, we clean, we sleep. But, it is through the notes, the words, the steps, the thoughts, the strokes – the wanton rush of our humanity – on canvas, on piano, on stage, page, screen,  – that bit by tiny bit, we reach for a better understanding of our purpose.

But those who take time out to enhance the myriad of tiny pieces that emerge from the collective core, do so through academic study, through thought, interpretation and  analysis. They are the custodians and curators of our individual efforts; they are the people we trust to enhance the torment and torrent of our inner space and to ensure they endure.   We call that study ‘the humanities’, a word that somewhat belies its pivotal position in threading and tying together the gorgeous eccentricity of individual endeavour that is our response to the human condition.

Encouraging and supporting the human effort to understand ourselves and to share that understanding with others is as essential as water is to the survival of the body. How could we be and continue to be without it? No amount of space exploration or unravelling of the human genome, no great spire in the sky or tunnel under the ocean can tell us why we are; they tell only who we are. 

So we must value that exploration and that effort, but we should celebrate it too, because each fragment of paint, verse, chord, book, song, etching, is a reflection or an exploration of our yearning to understand ourselves.  Humanities should be celebrated from the rooftops and the mountaintops. To renounce these is to close down our inner core and abandon it. To renounce these is to pretend we have conquered our fragility with our resilience. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is in the Yeatsian dark cloths of night and light and the half-light – the complex space between the two - that we must continue to grasp and to understand; to do anything else would be the death of humanity itself. 


Published: 12 May 2015

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Susan O' Keeffe is a Senator and Chair of Yeats 2015. Yeats 2015 will celebrate and commemorate the life, work, influence and achievements of W.B. Yeats. Through an engaging, celebratory and cultural programme, it will showcase Ireland as a dynamic, inspiring and creative place throughout 2015.