in medias res

Last August the students in my seminar Revolutions of Circularity started with Plato’s Meno. After asking them to read (and read again) only the first assignment and to refrain from proceeding further, on the second day of class I said:

Here we are at the start of the dialogue. It may be difficult to understand, in part because we haven’t reached the end, where we might expect some sort of resolution. But I’d like to point out that our current experience exactly reflects our own lives. Even though we are in medias res, in the middle of things, not knowing how events will turn out, we are still able to reflect on how we got here and where we expect to be going.

Later in the course we discuss the authorial problem of how to begin and how to end, of how to open and close a piece for the reader. In a gallery or museum, when we look at a painting we are not intended to notice the walls, the lighting, the frame. These elements are meant to fade into the background. And yet they serve the essential function of bounding the entire universe from the interior painting. These borders provide context, just as a good preface helps the reader move into a body of writing.

The beginning of the calendar year is less significant as a boundary than the beginning of the academic year. Yes, today is a holiday, an opportunity to take stock and make resolutions. But little new actually begins, in contrast to the start of classes, when students meet each other and their professors for the first time, moving from the outside world to a more reflective place. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day; we are in medias res.

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