Professor Damian Stocking has officiated three weddings for couples who have met and connected during his class “Love’s Song: A Poetic-Philosophic History.” Stocking and Sydney Mitsunaga-Whitten ‘11 co-teach the class in the Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture (CSLC) department. According to the course description, the class examines the concept of love from ancient Greece to modern times, using the literature and frameworks of philosophers, writers and artists.
Mitsunaga-Whitten said she initially took the class from Stocking as a sophomore, eventually returning to co-teach the class with Stocking. She said that the class inspires passion.
“[Love is] a kind of unusual thing to study in school,” Mitsunaga-Whitten said. “I think we spend a lot of time in school doing problem sets and learning how to perform data analysis or think about this or that theory, but this is something that is a really live question and concern for everybody all the time. And to have a space to think about that in a deep way. I think it is hopefully nice for people — it’s been nice for me.”
Though love is personal, of course, this class explores how it is also an intersection with the time and place where it occurs, how it is as dynamic and disparate as it is constant and universal.
“It’s a very insightful class and people think about the meaning of love, but then actually get an opportunity to learn about the history of it and where it derives from, and its deeper meaning and experience in other people throughout history,” Ezra Polesky (junior) said. “This class offers an opportunity to really delve into that and think about the deeper meaning of it beyond just the base everyday level.”
Stocking said he began teaching the class over two decades ago. When he was first interviewed for a faculty position at Occidental, he pitched the course after developing the idea throughout graduate school. According to Stocking, the teaching experience is different every year.
“I get nervous every time I begin the class again because I never know where it will go this time,” Stocking said. “Sometimes the Plato will be the most important part. I was really interested [that] this time, the stuff about Augustine, a Christian thinker, really hit so hard with the students. It was quite interesting to watch.”
Polesky originally signed up for the class to diversify his schedule. He said that he had not taken many classes outside of his economics major.
“I wanted to take a class that was completely off the beaten track and work in a different part of my brain,” Polesky said.
Stocking said the class uses popular culture, like songs by Roberta Flack or the Magnetic Fields, to engage with and examine love. Stocking said he developed the course in response to French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion’s ideas on love.
“[Marion] says that we’ve lost the capacity to think and discuss love — given our place in philosophic history,” Stocking said. “Well, we want to say, but love songs haven’t lost the ability to let us think deeply about and discuss love.”
Though the ability to discuss love may have disappeared from philosophy, Mitsunaga-Whitten believes that songs can act as a historical marker for how humans express love.
“We can use song as a kind of philosophical history,” Mitsunaga-Whitten said. “Instead of reading philosophies of love, we listen to songs from the very beginning of singing in the west all the way until now.”
Both professors said they hope to uncover a kernel of good within love, despite the cynicism of today’s times. According to Stocking, the class hopes to explore the many layers of love and its myriad of feelings. Stocking said both music and love have a fundamental frequency, but get their character from the overtones.
“So we think love is the same way, but actually it gets its richness from the entire history of what anybody’s ever seen or felt about desire, or loyalty or friendship — all of those things build into love,” Stocking said.