Soul Power

The city's future is in the hooves of a winged horse--and in the New Age musings of the Dallas Institute of Humanities.

A group of 35 people, mostly well-dressed women with folding stools clutched in one hand, wait outside the special exhibit galleries of the Dallas Museum of Art where the current exhibition is Pandora's Box, the Women of Ancient Greece. The attraction today is not just the collection of kraters and amphorae and reliefs on display, but Gail Thomas, who arrives slightly late but unruffled. "These are my most wonderful friends," she says with a wide smile, introducing the silhouetted figures on the ancient Greek vases to the group who has added this lecture to an agenda of lunch and shopping. Her understated skirt and elegant black jacket peg her as one of them, and she is--a Highland Park housewife for 15 years, a one-time Junior Leaguer, mother of three, and former cheerleader. A perfect hostess, Thomas knows how to make her guests feel right at home by talking about what they already know.

She doesn't use notes; she has obviously said all this many times before. Starting with Pandora, the subject of her dissertation, she stresses that the Olympians of ancient Greece are still relevant, that Athena, the goddess of the city, is present in all women: "It's your 'Athena,' you see, that is a member of the PTA and the Woman's Club," she tells the group. "We are all many myths. I was one myth when I was fussing at my husband this morning and I'm another now with you." She perfectly connects the myths to the lives of the members of her audience. Myth is something that never actually happened but is always happening, she tells them. Myths are more true than actual events because they're universal. After a discussion of the Greek city-center, or omphalos, and the myth of Athena, who wears the face of the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa on her breastplate, Thomas launches into her favorite story, the myth of Pegasus, the winged horse that was born from the Gorgon's blood.

According to Thomas, Pegasus, not J.R. Ewing, should be the patron god of Dallas, Texas, U.S.A.

Gail Thomas is a co-founder and the future director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, one of the city's oddest institutions, but one with far-reaching power. The Institute has drawn eminent guests from all over the world to speak at its conferences, but most Dallasites have never heard of it and chances are good they wouldn't understand it if they did. Its wide-ranging definition of humanities includes economics and urban planning, yet it offers programs on arcane subjects like geomancy and sacred order. To the bemusement of architects and city bureaucrats, the Institute addresses practical city problems via literature and New Age-flavored seminars with titles like "Sacred Order in Design" and "Beauty in Business: Build It Beautiful and They Will Come." Founded by a couple of Jungian psychologists, a physicist, and some literature professors, it started as a kind of elevated academic book club, but it's having more and more impact on the future of Dallas.

In a city with a center gone to rot, the Institute's definition of itself as a "center of creative thought dedicated to the awakening of a sense of the sacred in the world" can bring out the cynic in the most wide-eyed activist. The Institute works through "courses and conversation" to "strengthen the capacities of soul to create the institutions of a new culture." If that still sounds a little vague, don't worry, as architect and longtime Institute Fellow Frank Ryburn explains, "It's supposed to be like that. It's a slippery organization, and it's hard to get your arms around it. That's always been one of the criticisms of the Institute. It poses an open-ended question, and that makes people very uncomfortable." You might say the Institute, too, is many myths.

The Dallas Institute was formed in 1980 after a faculty shake-up at the University of Dallas. The six founding fellows of the Institute, all formerly tenured faculty members at UD hired by college president Donald Cowan, met to read papers to each other in one of Deep Ellum developer John Tatum's warehouses. At that time, they weren't looking for much of an audience beyond each other. But 15 years later, the annual budget of the Institute, the architect of a $3 million downtown park, has jumped from $60,000 to $600,000, supporting a dozen full- and part-time staff members. The Institute is also planning a renovation and expansion of the gray Prairie-style house on Routh Street that has been its permanent home since 1981.

Adding to its mystery, no one's quite sure exactly what the Institute is. Is it a think tank? A consulting group? A university? Founding Fellows Gail Thomas, Donald and Louise Cowan, Robert Sardello, Joanne Stroud, and James Hillman were the original group of University of Dallas professors whose first mission was to "transform" education through their combined disciplines of physics, education, literature, and primarily, because of Hillman, psychology. Hillman, the eminent psychologist who had come to Dallas from the Jung Institute in Zurich, influenced the philosophy and language of the Institute and assured its early reputation.

Poet Robert Trammel, an Institute fellow, says, "Hillman was really the only 'giant' that's been on staff at the Institute. He attracted people from all over the world." However, the list of fellows, which the institute points to with pride, includes a number of "giants": Mortimer Adler, Jacques Barzun, cultural critic Ivan Ilich, pop psychologist Thomas Moore, poet Wendell Berry. This leads to another Institute mystery: Most of the local fellows can't describe exactly what their function is. Trammel admits a fellow is an ill-defined thing and adds, "I think I'm unique in my activity as a fellow."

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