Death Drives: Literature, Art, Desire, and the Encounter with Death

ENGLISH 490-7.01

Just over a century ago, Sigmund Freud wrote an essay called “Thoughts for the Time on War and Death” (1915).  A few months into World War I, he analyzed the disappointment of war, and also the manner in which such massive destruction wrought by new technologies destroyed not only political ideals but also the understanding of death, and indeed of the value of a life, at every scale.  The course dwells on the understanding of death in the 20th and 21st centuries as seen in literature, art, and in critical and theoretical writing. These texts often refer to earlier images and writing, but interpret them through the lens of modern war, slaughter, holocaust, genocide, mass death, and individual bereavement.  We will assess the manner in which different scales of death from the 20thC on has shaped modern forms of mourning, melancholia, trauma, desire, and joy in the face of the intolerable.  Texts address questions of natural and unnatural death, and indeed the difficulty of making those distinctions when considering war, pollution, collateral, murder, suicide, and illness. Texts will include james Joyce, The Dead, Albert Camus, The Stranger, Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, Maurice Blanchot, “The Instant of my Deatth,” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue labat, M.F. Husain, “The Death of Gandhi,” and short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto and Mahasweta Devi.