Blue Lobsters

The Blue Lobsters Podcast

Karin Ott – Script Director, Noah Grossman – Sound Editor, and Stefan Kim – Web Producer

April 9th, 2021 – The LitHum 14 Podcast Series


The Core Curriculum has been an essential part of Columbia since its inception. Now, it has been expanded to include subjects such as english, art, music, and science, but its focus has always been on cultivating scholars able to observe, analyze, and discuss difficult questions about the human experience. As an integral part of the Core, Literature Humanities, established in 1937, strongly reflects this purpose. As students of Literature Humanities and members of the Columbia community, we reflect on the profound discussions facilitated by the course, but also suggest changes to expand those discussions both in breadth and depth.

In this episode, we discuss physical and human nature, focusing on inner reflection and transformation among many themes present in the curriculum. To augment the discussion of these themes, we propose the addition of The Life of Milarepa to the curriculum in place of parts of Metamorphoses. While the book’s Buddhist theme contrasts the Western focus of the course, The Life of Milarepa connects fluently in tandem with Augustine’s Confessions, Montaigne’s Essays, and Dante’s Inferno given its discussion of reflection and transformation. We believe this new curriculum better fits the goal of Literature Humanities as seen from its history and course description: approaching literature historically, continually, and personally, as critical readers and discovering how to read, not what to read.


Part 1.1: A discussion of human nature as seen from readings in the Lit Hum syllabus.

Part 1.2: An overview of The Life of Milarepa.

Part 2.1: A discussion of the Lit Hum syllabus and the removal of parts of Metamorphoses.

Part 2.2: An evaluation of the Lit Hum course as a whole.

The Life of Milarepa Summary

The Life of Milarepa by Heruka; summary written by Karin Ott

The Life of Milarepa tells the story of Milarepa, whose family is cheated by his aunt and uncle after his father dies. His mother encourages him to retaliate by learning black magic, and Milarepa does so, sparing his aunt and uncle but killing dozens of their friends to teach them a lesson. However, afterward, he begins to feel that he has done something wrong and begins to be consumed by self-resentment. To ease his guilt and pain, he begins to search for gurus that can teach him the way of the Buddha. First, his motives are selfish; he just wants to redeem himself and ask for forgiveness from his aunt and uncle. However, he meets the mentor he was destined to learn from, Marpa, and begins to develop a genuine drive to better himself by learning the doctrines of Tantric Buddhism, the dharma. Marpa forces Milarepa to undergo horrendous physical punishment to purify his spirit before he can begin to learn, pushing Milarepa to the brink of suicide. But Milarepa emerges from his ordeals, finally purified and ready to learn. Marpa sets him on a path of attaining higher and higher realizations, and Milarepa, armed with all the tools he needs, departs for the mountains. There he leads an extremely ascetic life, meditating day and night for seven years and subsisting off only nettles and water. After overcoming internal blocks and spiritual obstacles, he finally awakens to the true nature of reality and finds an infinite compassion within himself. He cannot undo his past deeds, but he finds his aunt (his uncle had died) and forgives her and teaches her the dharma. He then finds his mother and forgives her as well. He amasses a large following and travels around Tibet, performing compassionate miracles and spreading his wisdom wherever he goes. As he nears the end of his life, he reassures his followers that his death is not the end, that they have all the tools they need to continue to pursue the dharma. His presence is impermanent, and that is the beauty of it. He dies a model of redemption and a representation of the immediacy of enlightenment: he was a sinful commoner with no exposure to the dharma that managed to find the strength within himself to awaken and right his wrongs, all in one lifetime!

Other Recommended Reads

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; summary and analysis written by Noah Grossman

Catch-22 is perhaps one of the most important works of the 20th century.  It centers around Captain John Yossarian, an American bombardier stationed in the Mediterranean during WWII, and his attempts to stay alive (and his ever-more inventive ways of trying to escape having to do those goddamned bombing runs).  It can really be divided into 6 parts.  Part 1 is basically the “main narrative,” taking place in ‘44.  Part 2 is a flashback to the “Great Siege of Bologna,” and Part 3 goes back to the main narrative.  Part 4 revolves around the growth of what is basically a black market, Milo’s syndicate, and Part 5 goes back to the main narrative. Part 6 is probably the darkest of them all, with the true horrors of war being laid bare in front of the reader, with an attack on an undefended village full of innocents commencing the “parade,” with despair, malaise, disappearance or death of close friends in battle, and even rape and murder, with Snowden’s gruesome death being described in gory detail in Chapter 41.  The novel ends on an upbeat note.

I think the themes expressed in the book can easily be put into conversation with those in other works we’ve read.  For example, Catch-22 describes Yossarian’s viewpoint that God is, if not evil, incompetent (for no truly benevolent God would have allowed such horrors as phlegm or cavities to develop, let alone war and suffering of all kinds).  This is in stark contrast to the views expressed in the Confessions, in which Augustine goes out of his way to describe how God and His love were what dragged him out of the depths of his depravity and sin during his youth, but it is comparable to how the gods behaved in the Iliad and the Odyssey, with the gods using mortals as pawns on a chessboard to act out their divine squabbles in the mortal world or just as entertainment (look at how Aphrodite basically sparked the Trojan War single-handedly).  The beauty and power of prose is evident in not only the classics we’ve read but also such eloquently written books like Montaigne’s essays and the Divina Comedia, and yet here we see Yossarian randomly deleting passages from his letters, and he is unable to provide words of comfort to Snowden during his final moments, underscoring the impotence of language and its inability to describe the horrors of war, among other things.  However, we can also see how it can be used as a tool of an oppressive bureaucracy to trap Yossarian’s squadron in an almost infinite series of horrors without hope of escape save through permanent maiming or death.  Also, we see characters talking about the inevitability of death, which is in contrast to the goal of classical heroes to be immortal through their martial prowess or to that of sculptors and writers to gain immortality through the beauty of their works (look at Ovid, for example).

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; summary and analysis written by Stefan Kim

A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel centered around Alex, a delinquent teenager in a futuristic, crime-ridden society. In many ways, the novel resembles Crime and Punishment; both Alex and Raskolnikov are young men living in poor conditions and motivated by their own radical ideas, leading them to commit crimes. A Clockwork Orange discusses the endless vice of humankind, beginning with the cold-blooded and cynical crimes Alex and his gang commit. These range from drugs and theft to robbery, rape, and murder. People are tempted to commit acts of violence for a variety of reasons; Plato and Ovid discuss how love can motivate men to kill, both in war and murder, while Cervantes illustrates the irresistible allure of many worldly desires. However, like Alypius in Augustine’s Confessions, Alex indulges in violence simply for enjoyment. Arguably, this is the lowest point to which a human can fall in terms of sin. 

Yet as the novel progresses, Alex undergoes a significant change in his character. While he is locked away in prison, he is chosen to participate in a trial for the “Ludovico Technique,” which basically brainwashes him so that he is unable to even think of acts of violence without immense physical pain. Having been treated with this technique, he is released into society as a form of social experiment. However, through a series of events including some encounters with victims of his previous crimes, Alex attempts suicide, forcing the state to retract his brainwashing to save face. Now free of both mental and physical constraints, Alex is able to return to his previous life of crime. Surprisingly, however, after meeting one of his previous gang members now living as an upstanding citizen, Alex has a change of heart and decides to leave behind crime. This “inner transformation” reflects many works we’ve read so far, such as that of Augustine and Raskolnikov. 

It is significant that Alex has undergone such a transformation by his own accord, especially after he was freed from a forced transformation, but it is interesting to question whether that transformation truly came on his own. For instance, would he have still undergone such transformation had he never been sent away to prison and been put through the forced transformation? Looking at Augustine and Raskolnikov, it is clear that both also had external stimuli, both being guided by another being. Then how much agency do people really have over their own thoughts and beliefs? Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am.” But if such thoughts are so heavily influenced by external stimuli, what can we truly claim as “our own”? We may not be as capable of independent thought and critical reasoning as we think.


Books and LitHum Info

Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Bantam.

Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Sarah Ruden, Modern Library, 2018.

Heruka. The Life of Milarepa. Translated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa, Penguin Books, 1992.

History of the Core. Columbia Univeristy, Accessed 6 April 2021.

Insistent Change: Columbia’s Core Curriculum at 100. Columbia University Libraries, Accessed 8 April 2021.

Literature Humanities. Columbia University, Accessed 6 April 2021.

Literature Humanities. Columbia College, Accessed 8 April 2021.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn, Penguin Classics, 2004.

The Columbia College Core Curriculum. Columbia College, Accessed 9 April 2021.

Tantric Buddhism Resources

Powers, J. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Revised Ed., Snow Lion.

Shantideva. A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. LTWA.

Thurman, R. Essential Tibetan Buddhism. Harper San Francisco.

Thurman, R. Inner Revolution. Riverhead.

Thurman, R. (tr.). The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti. Penn State.

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