CULTS AND CONSPIRACIES
In 1978 over 900 people willingly drank poisoned Kool-Aid in a remote settlement in Guyana. Roughly twenty years later 37 people committed a similar act hoping to be reunited with an alien race by hitching a ride on the comet Hale-Bopp. What is it that possesses people to turn towards cults and conspiracy theories at times of social and political turmoil? How do cults reflect and distort our contemporary values? What do we make of an organization such as Qanon that turns conspiracy theories into political action?
This course studies how we imagine and build community, but we will move to the fringe and extremes of society to begin our examination. We will explore the sociological experiments of 20th-century and contemporary cults and attempt to make sense of the written and visual material they’ve left behind. Everything from audio recordings made at Jonestown, initiation videos produced by Heaven’s Gate, to the footage of the January 6th Capitol insurrection will guide us in developing our understanding of how cults and conspiracy theories attempt to explain the world. We will read Don DeLillo’s novel, Mao II, about the function of crowds, as well as a more recent book by Emma Cline, The Girls, which novelizes a woman’s involvement in Charles Manson’s cult in the 1960s. These texts will open up deeper questions about the construction of social behaviors at times of revolutionary change and societal collapse. Two films for the class, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Videodrome (1983), reimagine our fascination with cults and conspiracy theories as narrative studies in voyeurism and consumerism. In addition to the primary texts, we will enhance our examination by drawing from a range of journalism and criticism that moves across the fields of gender studies, sociology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and popular culture.
While our investigation begins around the middle of the 20th-century, the class will conclude with a focused study on the formation and popularity of Qanon, the toxic masculinity driving Incel, and the revitalized popularity of astrology and alternative medicine. Assignments for the course will include weekly forum responses, an analytical essay, and a final research project investigating a particular instance of cultish or conspiratorial behavior.
GREAT OR GRIM: Fairytale Adaptations in Contemporary Lit & Culture
Adaptations of fairy tales are everywhere now. From Maleficent, Disney's 2014 high-budget re-rendering of the tale of the sleeping beauty, to the 2011 TV series Grimm, a fantasy detective drama set in a world peopled by characters from Grimms' Fairy Tales, reframing our favorite childhood bedtime stories has become a new fashion. What is this fad over recycling fairy tales about? Sure, fairy tale adaptations have never been unpopular. Throughout the twentieth century, the genre of fairytale adaptations provided a great amount of opportunities for the film industry to showcase the wonders of special effects and new filming techniques. However, one decisive difference lies between the earlier adaptations and the contemporary ones: the latter no longer consider themselves “kids’ stuff”. Directors and screenwriters seem not onlydetermined to revert the classic fairy tales to their original, darker version, but also attempt to shed a new light on them by subverting or rewriting the conventional scripts. Hence we are no longer surprised to see
the little red riding hood revealed to be the real wolf, or Gretel and Hansel working as the witch's apprentices, although we are still fascinated by them.
What does the ambiguous category of "fairy tale for grown-ups" mean? What are the roles of the mythic and the fantastic in our contemporary life? What functions do these revisioned stories serve in our contemporary culture? What do these revisions reveal about our values and concerns at the moment? What makes a good retelling, and what marks a bad one? In this seminar, we will investigate these questions by reading and watching a wide of range of texts. Texts include Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors (1998) and Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (2002), films Ever After (1998), and Hard Candy (2005), as well as episodes from TV series Grimm (2011). This is a writing-intensive course. Assignments will include three 500-word response papers, one 5-page close-reading analysis and one 8-page final research paper. The last three classes of the semester will be writing workshops for the final research paper, where you will have chances to brainstorm your ideas with your peers and receive feedback on drafts.
*This course is NOT a variation of the ENGL287 course “Romantic Fairy Tales: Literary and Folk Fairy Tales from Grimms to Disney."
HUMAN RIGHTS AND LITERATURE
From the Declaration of Independence to the Duke Community Standard, the idea (too often, the ideal) of human rights is deeply ingrained in the politico-ethical culture of liberal democratic states. This course asks us to consider how literature has contributed to and challenged our understanding of human rights, both historically and in our present moment. Course readings will be bookended by two fascinating contemporary novels: Caryl Phillips’s The Nature of Blood and Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. In between, we will read fictional and nonfictional works by writers who helped articulate the idea of human rights at the end of the eighteenth century. These will include short excerpts from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, andWilliam Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. We will also take a brief look through some primary documents in the history of human rights such as the Magna Carta, UN Declaration of Human Rights, and Civil Rights Act. A key question for us will be how literature imagines those traits of human dignity and personhood that human rights are meant to represent.
Class assessment will be based on seminar participation, understood broadly, an analytical essay of 4-5 pp. due mid semester, and a comparative essay of 6-7 pp. due on the last day of class. The second, longer of these essays will be an expansion of the first, asking you to compare material from the second half of the semester with the material on which you wrote in the first half. Ample time will be devoted to drafting and workshopping these essays in class, providing you with an opportunity to receive instructor and peer feedback on your writing in a supportive environment.
MAKING IT NEW
A shiver down the spine, the experience of beauty, a taste of a different culture, a glimpse into another life, something that enriches your own ability to greet the world in a fresh rather than mechanical way: One of the important ideas that guides this course is defamiliarization.
Poems, novels, essays, and films each suggest different ways to nurture the feeling of newness and to create an immersive experience. This class in the art of reading aims to engage your voice, your brain, and your emotions, leading to writing experiences that both enhance critical thinking and creative expression.
The selection of poems will range from small forms like the sonnet to more open forms in both rhymed and free verse: poets such as Donne, Wordsworth, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Plath, (Langston) Hughes, and Dove. For fiction, we will ponder sly takes on genre and, above all, the language that moves novels like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and a more contemporary fiction like Sally Rooney’s Normal People or Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. For essays, we will consider some writing by Woolf once again, as well as differently political essays by writers such as W.G. Sebald and Jesse McCarthy. A film or films will be chosen in a way that suits the class’s interests. In short, this class will centuries and cultures, with examples from both Britain and America.
Assignments pay attention to both critical thinking and stylish writing—skills that will benefit you at Duke and wherever life takes you. They will include creative exercises that tap your interest in writing as thinking and as self-expression as well as fuller essays.
A note on life after Duke: Having hosted leading figures in publishing, journalism, advertising, screenwriting, public relations, marketing, TV, film, fashion, and law as part of the Duke in New York program, I can say that the common traits people want most in new colleagues are human kindness, the ability to articulate ideas, and writing ability. The Art of Reading aims to foster all three.
The Strange, the Weird & the Marvelous
Spirits, monsters, ghosts, angels, and demons; dancing birds and talking trees; cosmic journeys to the reaches of space and to the depths of the ocean, to forgotten lands and through the underworld; magic, dreams, trances, and visions. Staples of the story-telling imagination from preliterate oral traditions to the present, these tales harbor the hopes and fears, the wishes and the wonders of generations. This class will journey into the strange, the weird, and the marvelous across oceans and continents from ancient tales into the contemporary moment in an encounter with the literary imagination. Readings may include such works as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, tales by Edgar Allan Poe, the science fiction of Octavia Butler and others.
HOW NOVELS THINK
This course takes a hard look at the familiar proposition that the human being is a thinking being, and examines how that proposition was put on trial during the period from 1719-1958 in such classic novels as Austen’s Emma, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart). We will have to look closely at how their respective social environments teach major characters to think with and within the norms and limits of self-expression appropriate to the positions they occupy within a rapidly changing economy. But we will be still more interested in how the thinking of minor, peripheral, and recalcitrantly anti-social characters stand to gain by thinking outside the box? Under what circumstances does such thinking make them monstrous?
During the last five weeks or so, our focus will pivot onto novels that appeared in print after philosopher of science Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs (1985). In her still timely manifesto, Haraway pretty much declares that the monsters of earlier fiction—humans who think either with their animal instincts or with machinic intelligence—were even then the future normal, and she reads certain works of science fiction as realistic accounts of how characters learn to process, store, access, and respond to social experience as we move into a new age of information technology. The class will try out her hypothesis on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, McCarthy’s Remainder,.
Assigned reading: Please order the following books yourselves, preferably the editions I identify below, all of which are available on Amazon.
Jane Austen, Emma (Penguin)
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Penguin)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness & Selections from the Congo Diary (Modern Library)
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Penguin)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (Vintage)
Tom McCarthy, Remainder (Vintage)
Colson Whitehead, Zone One (Knopf)
I’il share with you relevant secondary materials from time to time, including Donna Harraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs, which I will make available either on Sakai or online. These readings are indicated by on the syllabus.
Course requirements and aims: The ultimate goal of learning how novels think is for you to think in writing. You will learn to do so by first reading and then discussing how it is that the novel asks you, as reader, to think both about its subject matter and your own presumably different situation in the modern world. This skill is one that you can develop only so far in private communication with a work of fiction. It requires discussion where you compare your own thinking on this matter to that of your fellow class members and adjust your reading accordingly. This will require your regular participation in class. In preparation for these discussions, I will ask you to write 5 out of 10 one-page, single-spaced papers in response to prompts that will prepare you for the next discussion. In lieu of a final example, you will produce a longer paper developed from the best 1 or 2 of these shorter papers.
The word, the line, the sentence; the image, the thought, the story – these will be our building blocks as students explore and experiment, write, workshop, revise, and polish substantive work in three
genres: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Along the way, we will analyze published examples of each genre for inspiration and ideas.
This course gives students an opportunity to practice and explore four genres of creative writing--creative nonfiction, fiction, drama, and poetry. Part of the class will be devoted to peer discussion of student work ("workshopping") and part to talking about craft and close reading of published essays, stories, plays, and poems. There will be weekly writing assignments, and students will submit a final portfolio of finished work.
Greed, Vanity, and Laughter: Renaissance Theater and the Urban Vices.
Renaissance London was crowded, expensive, and in the middle of a commercial and social revolution, where gallants, rising merchants, refugees from continental wars, and greedy criminals uneasily shared the same urban landscape. This course uses traditional literary methodologies alongside some computational tools to study how Tudor and Stuart playwrights, such as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Thomas Middleton, used satire, comedy, and even tragedy to criticize city-life.
The computational approach will teach you—from the ground up—how to explore and track how these innovative writers reshaped and redeployed classical rhetorical texts (from Aristotle to Horace to Quintilian) to better understand their times. We will study how elements and characters common to these plays—the perpetual busybody, the “city-vices,” and the focus on the urban landscape itself—were used by different authors to construct moral vocabularies to criticize real-life problems. We will pair this computational approach with interpretive techniques central to literary studies, learning about the history of Tudor and Stuart England, the development of commercial English theaters, and the bewildering, but fascinating landscape of Renaissance London and its literature.
No mathematical prerequisites and no prior familiarity with Renaissance literature necessary.
The grade will come from short assignments (30%), quizzes (30%), class participation (5%), and a term project (35%).
Criticism and the Arts: No End In Sight
In an age where information can be passed in an instant, television shows can be accessed with a click, and technology makes communication lightning fast, the strange phenomenon of the un-ending story retains a surprising stranglehold on our consciousness. In this class, we will consider how and why writers of poetry, prose, comics, and television craft serial narratives that, in many cases, either end with the death of the author or even outlive their creator.
In this course, we will ask: What cultural events inspire comic series that continue generation after generation? What social impulses do long-running shows like The Simpsons respond to? How do poets like Nathaniel Mackey theorize society with the “long song”? Why do contemporary writers produce serial novels that only end when the author dies? And, most importantly, what theory of society emerges from the un- ending narrative and how can critics grapple with it?
In order to answer these questions, we will engage with comics (including Steve Englehart’s Vision and the Scarlet Witch), television shows like The Twilight Zone and The Simpsons, serial poetry (including Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem), and novels like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay and Philip Roth’s The Prague Orgy. These texts will center around theoretical works that help us examine how to deal with un-ending cultural phenomena. Some of the critical works we will read include, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Circles,” essays by Charles Olson and Sylvia Wynter, and selections from Frederic Jameson and Theodor Adorno.
Students will use their own writing as the primary method of inquiry; they will complete short weekly responses, an annotated bibliography (~5 pages), and two literary analyses (5-7 pages). We will also have writing workshops that aid in the entire writing process (from pre-writing to final draft).
Course description forthcoming.
Signs and Symbols
In Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” an elderly couple goes to visit the sanatorium where their son is interned. The son, we learn, suffers from “Referential Mania”: a condition in which “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.” Turned away at the door, the parents return home and receive a series of phone calls. The first two are misdials. As for the third? Nabokov declines to tell us.
Nabokov’s story manages to suggest a larger, more complex world — and to mull deeper truths about our own -- in just under ten pages. In this class, our objective is to figure out how Nabokov pulled it off. With the work of him and others as a lens and guide, we’ll study the building blocks of the craft: character, setting, point of view, and plot. But in so doing, we’ll also circle around the question that beguiles the mother and father of “Signs and Symbols”: how do we make sense of a senseless world? Short stories by Nabokov, Jaquiria Diaz, and others will complement chapters from Janet Burroway’s guide to narrative craft, Writing Fiction. Students who remain in the course will be required to purchase this text. In addition to our weekly meetings, conducted in person (/via zoom when COVID demands it), we’ll maintain a robust online presence on the class’s Sakai site. In addition to regular attendance, students may be asked to: post discussion questions on readings, as well as to in/formally “workshop” classmates’ fiction in class and on the discussion board. In addition to weekly writing exercises, students will submit one fully revised short story at semester’s end, along with a final portfolio “letter” that articulates their revision process.
Writing the Unspeakable
As writers of fiction, we try to go beyond the surface and delve deep into uncomfortable emotions: desire, sexuality, loss, belonging, madness, personal and historical trauma. We start with our own raw experiences, but all too often find them hard to formulate, and end up self-censoring or resorting to clichés and conventional narrative strategies. How then do we create fresh works of insight, clarity and narrative power?
In this class we will learn from contemporary writers who have successfully engaged this difficult terrain. Reading like writers, we will take apart published work to examine craft issues like point-of-view, time management, characterization, and dialogue.
Since writing the unspeakable depends on creating innovative forms--and re-inventing existing ones--we will also focus intensively on narrative structure and analyze classic story structures.
Our focus will be on the essay as you explore and experiment with techniques, structures, and themes for describing the places, processes, and things you care about. Over the course of the semester, students will work on creative exercises leading through workshops and revision to the production of three longer essays. Along the way, we will read and discuss selected examples of published creative nonfiction to help us develop techniques for creating our own. No previous creative writing experience is required for this course.
SHAKESPEARE ON LOVE
Shakespeare wrote three plays which featured lovers in their titles: Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and
Cressida, and Anthony of Cleopatra. Other plays, such as Much Ado About Nothing are dominated by the witty, disdainful lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream features a long night of wild partner-swapping before the four lovers sort themselves out in the comic ending—all in time for a nuptial feast. Shakespeare’s work as a whole shows a consistent preoccupation with love (between women and men, men and men, women and women, fathers and children, mothers and sons, clowns and dogs) and with what, after Martha Nussbaum, I call love’s knowledge. Love licenses and motivates his astonishing trouser role heroines (Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalynde in As You Like It) who talk their way to husbands, but the inability to speak love motivates the plot of arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, King Lear, and virtually defines the pre-occupations of the Roman plays with their stifled women and heroic, emotionally constipated warriors. Taking shape as forgiveness, it informs the transformed emotional and verbal landscape of the “late plays.” In other words Shakespeare is deeply interested in the expressive resources of love, how they are stopped up, interrupted, how made available to those who are gripped by love in myriad but highly specific forms. His plays explore the way in which love leads to transformed perceptions of the world and the lover all at once. Love carries an extraordinary philosophical burden in Shakespeare’s plays: the renewal of the world depends on it. We will look at some of the versions of love in his culture, and some of the ways, from Plato to Hegel that love and self-consciousness have been talked about, and we will see how Shakespeare’s plays constitute a sustained dramatic investigation of the nature of love. We will read and think hard about a range of highly experimental plays in the Shakespeare canon and we will ask why this is so.
Victorian literature is both formally experimental and profoundly engaged with the political, social and intellectual changes that made the world in 1901 (the end of Victoria’s reign) so different from the world in 1837 when Victorian came to the throne. We’ll be reading novels, poetry and prose that both changed the things that literature could do, and attempted to imagine and manage a rapidly changing world. We’ll start with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, then move on to Mary Seacole’s Wonderful adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. In between, we’ll read poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, and some of the writers of literary and extra literary prose featured in the Victorian Volume of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Students will be evaluated on the basis of participation in discussion, six short (2p) written assignments, one 7-10 page paper, and a small group project that results in a presentation.
Modern American Drama
While the playwright names—Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Anna Deavere-Smith, Edward Albee— may be familiar, do American theatregoers know how strange these artists’ works can be? Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire follows a delusional heroine haunted by the sounds of Polish folk music and gunshots. O’Neill’s The Hairy Apefeatures one scene in which a primate-inspired antihero encounters a street full of mute mannequins—and it gets weirder from there. The “classic” American theatre is not safe, nor has it ever been.
This survey course tracks some of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries’ most recognizable U.S. dramas, focusing on theatre’s formal features as well as its potential for social commentary. Whetherdramatizing women’s alienation in post-WWII America or the fallout of real-life race riots, the U.S. stage highlights some of our nation’s most visceral self-indictments. Besides Williams’s and O’Neill’s works, plays include Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Anna Deavere-Smith’s Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Annie Baker’s The Flick. Various film adaptations and recorded performances will also be screened.
No prerequisites necessary.
Evaluation consists of a series of response essays, two medium-length essays, an oral presentation, and class participation.
Classics of American Lit, 1820-1860
After a brief look at the Puritan heritage, English 269 will take up major works by major American authors in the generation leading up to the Civil War -- the time of the Transcendentalist movement.
The syllabus will include essays and poems by Emerson; Thoreau's Walden and Civil Disobedience; tales, poems and essays by Poe; tales and a novel (The Blithedale Romance or The Scarlet letter) by Hawthorne; Melville's Moby-Dick and Billy Budd; many poems by Emily Dickinson, and a generous selection of poems by Walt Whitman. Background reading will include a slave narrative by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs and numerous handouts provided by the instructor.
Requirements: Three hour exams (no three-hour final exam). One term paper focusing on one or more of the writers in the course.
America Dreams American Movies
A course in selected American films that create and reflect—both for better and for worse—American identity from the beginnings of Hollywood moviemaking through the rise of Indie spirit. We will view and discuss nine to twelve beloved movies such as The Gold Rush, King Kong, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, Rear Window, Singin’ in the Rain, and Dr. Strangelove, by directors such as Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stanley Kubrick.
The course is alert to American cultural history, to the development of the movie industry, to the evolving idea of the director as artist (auteur) and, above all, to storytelling and narrative form in film and to the fundamentals of film analysis. It aims to enhance your understanding of how movies work for lifelong enjoyment.
For each major genre we address—comedies, musicals, romantic comedies, romantic dramas, westerns, suspense thrillers, and genre mash-ups, we will include a class that telescopes ahead to developments through the 21st century.
Assignments are both written and visual experiments in filmmaking, as suits the interests of the class.
Millions of creative works have been published online, all passionately written by fans who craft their own stories based off of the media they love and enjoy. Of course, retelling and borrowing from stories has always been fundamental to literature: Virgil’s Aeneid picks up a minor character from Homer’s Iliad, and
Dante’s Inferno casts Homer and Virgil themselves as characters. Other novels like Wide Sargasso
Sea imagine backgrounds for characters from works of classic literature. The goal of our course is to fit fanfiction into this broader tradition of authors reimagining their favorite tales. Our reading will include these retellings from history as well as popular translations of fanfiction into mainstream culture, like 50 Shades of Grey. We’ll read from academics writing on popular culture and fan studies, and of course no class on fanfiction would be complete without reading actual fanfiction stories.
As fanfiction has proliferated in online spaces, there is a huge number of stories just waiting to be explored. This class will work towards a final digital project where we will use computational methods to extract data and analyze stories. No coding experience needed! Throughout the semester we will build up our tools, culminating in a final project examining a large collection of fanfiction, looking for things such as character popularity or engagement through comments. No exams will be given, and all levels of familiarity with fanfiction and coding are welcome.
CARIBBEAN LIT AND POP CULTURE: From Walcott to Rihanna
Caribbean and Caribbean-descended entertainers, writers and athletes dominate cultural markets, and have done so since Bob Marley’s global success in the 1960s-70s. Cultural practices such as carnival, dancehall and Vodou have entered common parlance across the world. What is the Caribbean “brand,” and how can we look past the Caribbean as brand to understand the region as a nexus for intercultural exchange whose influence reverberates through the rest of the globe?
To answer these questions, we will read early Caribbean writers like Derek Walcott and Maryse Condé, while also investigating the impact of the Caribbean on writers like Zora Neale Hurston and James Bond author Ian Fleming. Finally, we will tackle Marlon James’ Booker Prize winning The Brief History of Seven Killings, asking ourselves how a complex and niche novel won an extremely prestigious award in a steep international literary market.
In addition to reading literature, we will immerse ourselves in Caribbean culture, through films such as The Harder They Come, and musicians like Rihanna and Vybz Kartel.
Writing assignments will include: 5 blog posts throughout the semester; a critical essay of 4-5 pages; and either an 8–10-page research essay on a Caribbean writer/musician of students’ choosing, or a creative project: short story, poetry collection, short film, or movement piece, accompanied by a critical introduction.
PLAYS THAT CHANGE THE WORLD
The goal of this creative writing course is for aspiring playwrights to think deeply about what—exactly— they are trying to do, and avoid, in their writing. What causes a play to be heavy-handed and propagandistic, as opposed to impassioned? How can students who believe deeply in a particular issue write artful drama about that issue? In what ways is theater similar—and dissimilar—to social protest in the streets? Students will be encouraged to experiment, question, and revise, at every turn.
This course will closely examine a diversity of plays that have had a marked impact on their cultures—an impact beyond an excellent and meaningful theater-going experience. Over the course of the semester, students will read—and watch—excellent political plays as well as write their own. They will write and develop their own full-length script, in addition to doing weekly creative responses to produced plays. Class discussion will be divided between focus on student work-in-progress, produced plays, and playwriting craft. Students will also work in small groups, meet with alumni readers, consultants at the Writing Studio, and individually with me.
AUTOFICTION & FIRST-PERSON
"All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.” - Federico Fellini.
This course is your chance to dig deeply into the craft of the first-person narrative through the lens of “autofiction.” We will hone our voice-driven fiction skills while asking questions such as, ‘What is autofiction?’ Does it, as Serge Doubrovsky claimed in 1977, require absolute fealty to the “truth”? What is “truth”? How can we trust memory? What is the difference between autofiction and the personal essay? We will read a wide range of books that fall loosely under the term ‘autofiction’ (Marguerite Duras, Tao Lin, Julian Herbert, Scott McClanahan, W.G. Sebald, etc.) and attempt our own narratives, aiming for what cartoonist David Sipress calls “direct spontaneous activity of the brain reflected in the art.”
Narrative & Moral Crisis
Satisfies course codes EI, ALP, CZ and fulfills the CTM requirement for English majors
Who we are has always been closely entwined with the stories we tell and in which we see ourselves implicated, either as a protagonist (e.g., autobiography, adventure stories) or because we grasp a given story as a parable that sheds light on our very existence. At the same time, some type of conflict, or moral dilemma, forms the backbone of most, if not all narrative. Lastly, the very fact that we habitually tell stories suggests that what we mean by “moral crisis” is an integral feature of our existence rather than an occasional “state of exception.” Through narrative, then, we come to understand that the moral dimension of our lives is both elusive and inescapable. Throughout the semester, we will focus on four concepts that are typically in play wherever a moral crisis is explored in narrative form: 1) Justice; 2) Suffering; 3) Sin; and 4) Self-Recognition (coupled with Forgiveness).
During the first half of the term, we will explore four texts that stage these moral concepts in particularly vivid ways: first, there is Sophocles’ Antigone, which confronts us with a tragic conflict between two competing notions of justice. Next comes The Book of Job with its puzzling juxtaposition between extreme and (seemingly) gratuitous suffering and the monotheist idea of divine benevolence and a well-ordered cosmos, so central to Old Testament narrative. We then move on to some shorter selections from Augustine’s Confessions, which take up the enigma of human sinfulness (and the enigma of free will presupposed by it). The last of our short readings will be a few cantos from Dante’s Purgatorio (the second Canticle of his Divine Comedy), where the focus is on self-recognition and forgiveness. – The second half of the term will be dedicated to an in-depth exploration of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), a book in which all four concepts are continually in play and are explored with extraordinary psychological insight.
Requirements: 3 medium-length papers (approx. 2,500 words each) – Active in-class participation – Consistent attendance and preparedness throughout the term.
The goal of the course is to deepen students’ engagement with the history and practice of poetic art in the twentieth and twenty first century. Reading assignments will be drawn from the canon of post WWII avant-guarde poetry and literary art. Lectures will provide an historical and cultural context for the works we are reading, and about the controversies and challenges that inform the poetics of the late nineteen forties to the present. The course proceeds from the premise that a deeply internalized command of literary history is critical to the development of any serious writer. Students will be expected to read closely, to acquire an overall grasp of modernism and its development into what is now called the postmodern, and above all to participate in discussions. Further, students will be expected to investigate on their own initiative the texts towards which their own writing leads them. In class and out of class we will explore the possibilities for contemporary poetic practice suggested by earlier works. We will look at a wide range of poems with attention to both how they are made and to the personal urgency that makes the poem more than an exercise, that creates surprise or sorrow or exhilaration in the reader. Our main focus will be on writing poems, or creating letter-based artworks, and on developing both a critical and a generous approach to each other’s work.
WRITING THE BODY
Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” opens as might the establishing shot of a film: the reader learns of the long, white hills of a Spanish valley before the narration “zooms in” on a train station, then a café, then the table where two Americans are sitting. That the medium of film has impacted the way writers like Hemingway write is obvious — what is less obvious is what we lose when we write like “a camera with its shutter open.” This course invites students of the craft of fiction writing to consider this question: what if our attention was not just on how a scene looked, but how it tasted, sounded, smelled, and felt? In other words, how do you write the body?
This course will build on the concepts outlined in “ENGL 221S – Introduction to the Writing of Fiction.” Students will work to apply the concepts outlined in craft essays by Kate Bernheimer, Pete Turchi, and others to their own fiction through weekly writing exercises on setting, point of view, characterization, and voice. This exploration of elements of the craft will be complimented and informed by a parallel study into how masters of the form write the body. From Jamel Brinkley’s capoeira-infused “Everything the Mouth Eats” to memoirist David Mura’s Where the Body Meets Memory to Alice McDermott’s story of love and illness “Post,” we’ll explore how a careful attention to sensory detail can enrich our fiction.
A student’s success in this class is based on four elements, each of which amounts to roughly a quarter of their grade: 1) attendance and participation in class discussions; 2) keeping a journal in which a series of in- class writing activities will be held; 3) the submission of a short story, and a revision/expansion; 4) workshop (reading, marking up/editing peer submissions, the composition of workshop letters, and contributing to discussion on workshop day).
In this course we will build on the concepts outlined in “ENGL 221S – Introduction to the Writing of Fiction.” Now that you are familiar with the basic skills of fiction writing it is time to refine those techniques and dig more deeply into your own sources of inspiration. What are the abiding images that come up in your work over and over again? What craft techniques do you feel most strongly about? Where are your weaknesses? This is a generative course. We will draft lots of material and workshop, redraft and redefine the pieces you feel most passionate about. We will read both craft essays and literary examples each week as well as reading the work we create in class. Students will have the opportunity to workshop two full length pieces as well as many shorter weekly free writes.
Why would anyone want to spend a whole semester studying John Milton’s writings and their seventeenth- century contexts? The answer is the extraordinary scope and utterly brilliant quality of the writing in often very demanding but exquisite poetry as well as in passionate prose. This scope includes explorations in ethics, politics and theology on topics that should still be of central concern to us.
John Milton left Cambridge as an orthodox member of the Church of England. He died (in 1674) as one who had rejected this church, defended the execution of its governor (Charles I) and generated a theological system which included a dense cluster of positions which where startlingly “heretical” in terms not only of the magisterial Reformation but also of Catholic traditions. His unfinished treatise on Christian Doctrine begins with a statement which sets up the inquiry pursued in this seminar: “If I were to say that I had focused my studies principally upon Christian doctrine because nothing else can so effectually wipe away those two repulsive afflictions, tyranny and superstition, from human life and the human mind, I should show that I had been concerned not for religion but for life’s well being.” As both this statement and the title of this class suggest, poetry, politics and theology are inextricably bound together in Milton’s work. We aim to read much of the poetry and areas of the prose that will provide a rich sense of his theological and political reflections and enable us to have well-informed discussions about the complex relations between the great poems and his evolving theology. For Milton’s approaches to theology, ecclesiology and politics belong to a revolutionary moment in which unprecedented thoughts and practices emerged in the domains of religion and politics, domains inextricably bound together in the seventeenth century. The revolutionary regime Milton had served from 1649 disintegrated and the revolution to which he had been committed was defeated with the restoration of monarchy and state church in 1660. How did Milton and his writing respond to the defeat of the revolution and the restoration of Crown, Church of England, episcopacy and the attempt to suppress nonconforming groups? There has been a strong tendency in recent Milton scholarship to revise the Whig version of Milton into one that fits the narratives of secular postmodernity and some people taking this class may find it offers opportunities to interrogate some of these grand stories.
It will be helpful to read before the class begins the biography of Milton by Gordon Campbell and Thomas Corns, John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought. Anybody reading Milton’s work would also benefit from some knowledge of the seventeenth century revolution in which Milton became immersed, and for this the best resource is a book by Austin Woolrych, Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660 (2002), especially parts 3 through 6. Extremely helpful and relevant to some of the issues we will address is Ann Hughes, Gender and the English Revolution(2012). Because we will be reading substantial, complex works, the more Milton you read before class the better. The set text (required) is The Complete Prose and Essential Poetry of John Milton edited by John Kerrigan and others (Random House). Before the first class, make sure that you have AT LEAST read (1) On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity; (2) A Masque presented at Ludlow, also known as, Comus.
Note on grades, class format, and expectations
This is a seminar and attendance/participation is mandatory. Unwarranted absences will result in failing the course.
The grade comes from two essays (8-10 pages), which must be submitted by the given deadline to count. There will be no exams.
Please also note well: laptops and other electronic devices are not to be used in class. A seminar is a dialogic form of learning, very different to a lecture class. In my experience, laptops act as an impediment to the kinds of attention and communication I consider essential to a flourishing seminar. Also, since we will have more than enough to chew on already, please refrain from eating during class.
American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon--and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact.
Leslie Fiedler (Missoula, October 13, 1959)
This course is focused on a simple recognition of revisionary force: not only are many of the most prominent instances of the American mainline novel focused around individual protagonists (“Romantic” in the technical historical sense of the genre of the “Romance,” with a capital R), but most of these chief protagonists are either obsessed with or are themselves personae of singular radiance, human figures of such sex and grace and power they cause no end of trouble for everyone in sight, including (of course!) themselves. At the least America’s radiant personae foment forbidden love, as glorious as its transgressive, wreaking collateral havoc and engendering deadly sacrifice.
Consider: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Chopin’s The Awakening, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Despite their apparent accessibility and once ubiquitous presence, high-school favorites such as these are surprisingly troublesome to interpret, especially for readers who don’t or won’t recognize how they themselves are implicated in the staged entanglements of love-and-death. And by readers I mean even our smartest scholar-critics. The fact is that, under the theoretical mandate of suspicion (dating, really, to Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, de Beauvoir, and Fanon, though that’s a history for another day), we in the U.S. university-system have become quite adept at interrogating gender, race, and class—recently designated “intersectionality”—only to miss a critical factor in our combustible caste mixes. And we often do so even when its difference is staring us in the face, theelephant in the room. What factor, pray tell? What is this open secret and why is it so “dangerous and disturbing” to American self-knowing and compulsive social practices, and how might our favorite books— indeed, our most consecrated books, then and now—help?
Well, no spoilers! But if I am right that the big critical guns have had trouble with our canon, so might you, at least at first. How could it be otherwise?
So here’s the plan: In this seminar, we will work through our initial confusions and assumptions (beyond them, but also by-means-of-them) regarding several major texts and toward fresh interpretations. Pre- emptive habit will yield, I hope, to incisive explorations and, often enough, a special kind of revelation, surprising yet commonsensical: “OMG!” combined with “DUH!” Therein comes intellectual pleasure, collective wisdom, and individual dissent.
As for exemplars of America’s radiant personae, I obviously have Hester Prynne, Jay Gatsby, and Tea Cake (or is it Janie?) in mind, with others to be selected (Tom Outland and Lady Brett Ashley perhaps, or the Caribbean Sailor-man nicknamed “Banjo”) in due order. We will also draw, directly or indirectly, upon a small host of mythopoetic critics—Emerson, Olson, Paglia, Morrison, Rodriguez—whose revisionist potential has never quite registered, as per Leslie Fiedler’s Love & Death in the American Novel. And we may well encounter a few works of fiction (forgotten stories by Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Larsen, neglected novels by Frederic, Cather, and Ron Hansen) tactically chosen to out the “dangerous and disturbing” workings of the canon writ large.
It’s no coincidence that the psychopathic drug dealer at the heart of Breaking Bad, Walter White, shares initials with the great poet of unrealized possibilities, or that his sublime hymn to cosmic order, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” gets recited by a chemist in a state of the art underground meth lab. America still doesn’t know what to do with Walt Whitman. Our national bard was, and is, an enigma. He has been seen, variously, as a prophet, a hustler, a madman, a health nut, a spirit guide, a sex therapist, a grief counselor, the flowering of a new kind of human, and the end of civilization as we know it. He is also the best friend you’ll ever have, and he’ll tell you why. This course will pursue the manifold mysteries at the heart of Whitman’s extraordinary poetry. We will read carefully through his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, its rich array of praise songs, love poems, elegies, satires, its psychic landscapes, its explorations of despair, desire, and tough-minded hope. We will look for him in his time, the America of Transcendentalism and the Civil War, and in the poetry he drew upon, the Bible, the Vedic Hymns, Homer, and in the poetry that draws upon his work, Hart Crane, Ginsberg, and others.
This course explores the rich interplay between sound and literature in African-American letters. Historically denied the right to literacy and education, African-Americans utilized sound, primarily music and orature, asa mode of protest and an expression of freedom, subjectivity, and citizenship. We will examine how African-American writers have drawn on this rich musical tradition to make political claims about race, gender, class, region, nation, and cultural identity. Alongside musical genres such as blues, jazz, gospel, rock n' roll, and hip hop, we will examine non-musical modes of sonic expression—e.g., laughter, oratory, performance poetry, screams, yells, grunts, and noise.
Course description forthcoming.
ENVIRONMENT IN LIT, LAW & SCIENCE
Climate change, resource exhaustion, an increase in natural disasters, from tornados, hurricanes, floods to droughts, heat domes, earthquakes, and, of course, pandemics: these, we are told, are problems with “the environment.” We are living, it seems, in the Age of the Anthropocene, when humanity has become a geological force.
Racism, unprecedented poverty, inadequate health care, and urban blight in the midst of rising affluence:these,too,areproblemswith“theenvironment.” Theworldpopulationhasexceededsevenbillion;weare putting increasing pressure on the planet, with dangerous consequences, as the pandemic we are currently living through has made so starkly clear. Social hierarchies and inequities, as we have seen over time, take their toll on every aspect of the planet; the natural and social worlds are fully integrated entities.
So, what is this “environment,” and why does this question matter, now more than ever? How might a better understanding of the way that term is circulating and being used help us move beyond our impasses and think more productively about how to live more justly, compassionately, and responsibly in our world?
This class will address these questions by considering the global and the local, with special attention to the very ground on which Duke is standing: the Southern Piedmont, the city of Durham, the Duke campus, and the Duke Campus Farm. Beginning with early human settlement, when the Earth began to get a human- natural history of its own, we will consider three historical moments — settlement; plantation culture and enslavement; and the ongoing struggles for Civil Rights from the late 1960s into the environmental justice, environmental health, and Black Lives Matter movements in the present—to show how science, law, and cultural forms (literary and scientific works, legal cases, news media) contribute to the changing idea of “the environment.”
The class will include visits to the Duke Campus Farm, several outdoor practicums on campus, and a walking tour of Durham. We will trace the idea of the environment not only across time, but also across geographical space, as we consider how ideas take root locally, and also circulate through social, cultural, economic, agricultural, academic, and other networks, reshaping the ever-changing relationship between the local and the global.
WITTGENSTEIN AND LITERATURE THEORY
Monday 12:00 – 2:30pm
The course offers an introduction to Wittgenstein's late philosophy, and asks what its relevance for literary studies might be. We will focus on a detailed reading of important sections of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. We will try to understand Wittgenstein’s vision of language, of philosophy and philosophical inquiry; the relationship between the inner and the outer (for example, the soul and the body; our pain and its expressions), and aspect-seeing (“seeing as”). To deepen our understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and what we can do with it, we will also read relevant texts by J. L. Austin, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, Jan Zwicky, and Thomas Kuhan, as well as Toril Moi's Revolution of the Ordinary. We will also examine some major text in literary theory (by writers such as Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, Fish, de Man, Felski, etc.). We’ll also discuss one movie (Blade Runner, Director’s Cut), and one literary text (TBA) to see how Wittgenstein’s philosophy enables us to respond to them. The course aims to give students interested in philosophy and literature, and in literary theory a solid foundation for further work in these fields.
T. MORRISON & F. O’CONNOR
Tuesday 5:15 – 7:45pm
This course offers an opportunity to read deeply into the works of two major American writers, Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor. In both fiction and non-fiction, Morrison and O’Connor re-present the United States in the twentieth century as a nation living under a shadow of a curse brought about by its invention and reliance upon violent and dehumanizing codes of racial categorization. Far from the exceptionalist tone one is used to seeing in historical accounts of 20th Century America, Morrison and O’Connor depict a nation still haunted by what William Faulkner once termed those “garrulous outraged baffled ghosts” that stalk through the shadows of the South, a region that has been “dead since 1865.”(Absalom, Absalom!).
In our work this semester, we will lurk in the shadows of what Morrison describes, in her seminal work of literary criticism entitled Playing in the Dark--as “the white literary imagination,” seeking out evidence of the insane and grotesque formulations of blackness that are conjured up consciously and unconsciously in our national literature. As a literary theorist, Morrison is especially attuned to the ways in which a white sense of self depends and even feeds off of its own created notion of blackness, which is always meant to serve and service whiteness’ need to make itself innocuous and innocent. In her critical work, Morrison returns again and again to O’Connor’s fiction finding what she describes as an unusual “honesty and profound perception her understanding of the stranger, the outcast, the Other.”
We will look for constructions of this “other” (and of the many proceeses by which an other is constructed and projected out) in both Morrison and O’Connor’s fiction. We will read literary critical works by O’Connor that promote a theory of the grotesque in American literature that we will use in our considerations of Morrison’s fiction and non-fiction prose. The other that O’Connor writes of in this context is often given to readers in extreme and sometimes shockingly “not images of the man in the street...[but] images of the man forced out to meet the extremes of his own nature...the result of what our social history has bequeathed to us, and what our literary history forces our writers to attempt.”
THE AMERICAN NOVEL
Tuesday/Thursday 10:15 – 11:30am
(A Seminar in Mythopoetic Fiction and Theory)
Literary studies is currently facing a legitimation crisis, thanks to a sadly depleted language of value that leaves us struggling to find reasons why students should care about Beowulf or Baudelaire. Why is literature worth bothering with?
—Rita Felski, 2014
Though not always consciously, I have been searching for strategies to oppose that [criticism] which assumes that the work of art is essentially a social function or a function of language, amenable to analysis in terms of the currently honorific vocabularies of various sciences.... I propose a mode of criticism more congruous with the sort of literature we admire, a criticism as wary of bureaucratization, as respectful to the mythic and mysterious, as dedicated to a language at once idiosyncratic and humane as, say, Moby Dick or the novels of Kafka.
—Leslie Fiedler, 1950
Moses comes down from Sinai and tells the children of Israel: “Children, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I bargained him down to 10. The bad news is that adultery is still in.”
I invite you to a seminar in exposure, if not immersion and participation. The exposure is to an audacious updating (feminist and queer, Morrisonian and Jamesonian, pan-sensorial and sacramentally alert) of the greatest account ever given of U.S. storytelling, Leslie Fiedler’s Love & Death in the American Novel. For it was Fiedler who first taught us that American narrative is a compulsive restaging (Protestantly energized, Protestantly recaptured) of the interplay among sex, violence, and sanctity, and it is one of the unrecognized
achievements of nearly a half-century of canonical revision--under the signs of gender, race, and class--that it re-animates and re-inflects but by no means defangs or escapes Fiedler’s mythography.
By immersion I mean the inhabitation (“slow reading,” if you will) of our neo-canon--in which the reader cultivates her own capture by the text’s knowing, to the point where she is enabled to talk back to the text in its own idiom. I am especially interested in a surprising (shocking, even, given the still-secular avowals of MLA and ASA critique) trajectory of the modern American novel, what we have no choice but to all its temptation to Marian Catholicism, a “dancing in the dark with the Papists” that is nearly ubiquitous yet has remained in the closet of critical disdain and self-denial. After all, what Fiedler observed almost 60+ years ago, that “American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon--and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact,” is ever more true today. It thus warrants, indeed mandates your help.
To participate, then, is to summon the implications of such immersion and act on the consequent vision of re- emergence. Ideally, it is to contribute to professional praxis at its real cutting edges, beyond the Puritan pedagogy of U.S. Critical Theory, where the impact of visual, sound, and media studies is now being felt in literary studies proper, and where American mythopoetics—its appetite for radiant beauty, its insinuation of fierce wisdom, and its demand for disciplinary-suspicious courage—take command once again.
Our primary reading is to be chosen from:
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, with “The Minister’s Black Veil”
Herman Melville, Billy Budd, with Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy
Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware
Kate Chopin, The Awakening, with “At Chênière Caminada”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, with “Absolution”
Willa Cather, The Professor’s House, with “Coming, Aphrodite!”
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, with “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, with Claude McKay, “Jelly Roll”
Complementary readings in theory and criticism, from Fiedler of course, but also from Emerson, Lawrence, Williams, Baym, Berger, Mulvey, Sedgwick, Paglia, Rodriguez, Morrison, Benn Michaels, Butler, Orsi, Fessenden, Simpson, and (should we read The Professor’s House) a small host of Duke affiliates. Also—as Huck, too, could not avoid—yours truly.
LITERATURE AND PHILOSOPHY
Toril Moi, Sarah Beckwith
Wednesday 12:00 – 2:30pm
Traditionally, literary scholars apply philosophy to literature; philosophers mine literature for examples illustrating already existing philosophies. This course aims to find ways for philosophy and literature to shed light on each other. Can literature do philosophical work? How can philosophy be read? We will first study classical encounters between philosophy and literature in Plato, Aristotle, Hegel and Kant. Philosophers might include Sartre, Beauvoir, Fanon, Murdoch, Nussbaum, Derrida, Diamond, and Cavell. Theater and film: Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hollywood movies. Novels by Coetzee, Sebald, and recent autofiction. A major focus of the class will be ethics.
Thursday 3:30 – 6:00pm
This course examines cartographies of black transnational and diasporic mobility within African Diaspora literary and cultural studies. Loosely organized around five overlapping cartographies—the Black Atlantic, the Great Migration, Circum-Caribbean & Hemispheric Migrations, European Sojourns, and African “Returns”—this course explores literature, criticism, and theories of black people on the move, from the coercive and fugitive movements of slavery, colonialism, and their afterlives to labor migration and practices of black cosmopolitanism. We will trace these routes of black mobility across a range of literary genres, including slave narratives, fiction, travel writing, and memoir, and alongside theories of diaspora, transnationalism, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism. Readings may include works by Martin Delany, Zora Neale Hurston, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, Maryse Condé, Erna Brodber, Saidiya Hartman, and Chimamanda Adichie. We may also engage with theoretical and critical work by Paul Gilroy, Brent Edwards, Michelle Ann Stephens, Tsitsi Jaji, Ifeoma Nwankwo, Edouard Glissant, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Joseph Roach, Robin D. G. Kelley, among others. Students may conduct archival research in the Marcus Garvey papers in the Rubenstein Library and attend the “Black Atlantic” performance series hosted by Duke Performances in March 2018.
JOB MARKET WORKSHOP
Thursday 10:15am – 12:45pm
POETRY AND THEOLOGY: PART I – G.M. HOPKINS, PAUL CLAUDEL, R.M. RILKE
Monday 5:15 – 7:45pm
Part II will be held Spring 2023
This two-semester sequence explores the relationship between poetry and theology from about 1850 to 2000. Readings will explore works of lyric poetry (by G. M. Hopkins, Paul Claudel, R. M. Rilke, T. S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz, and Geoffrey Hill) in relation to issues in theological aesthetics, philosophical theology, and philosophy either contemporary to the authors or as part of their intellectual and spiritual inheritance and formation. – PART I explores the poetry of Hopkins, Claudel and Rilke against their respective theological and intellectual background.
PART I (Fall 2022) – The premise of this two-semester sequence is that, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, theology no longer constituted an effective counterweight to a world defined and disfigured by massive industrialization and to the immanent explanatory frames of naturalism, materialism, and nihilism that had attained predominance in the West. Overall, theology appeared either to have accepted and now sought an amicable truth with this state of affairs, or it had simply been marginalized by the self-regarding axioms and aspirations of Europe’s liberal-secular-bourgeois order: unfettered production and consumption, imperial expansion, and political and cultural hegemony. To the extent that it had embraced historicism, Protestant theology in particular was effectively trying to conform Christianity to the ambient world, a development that Karl Barth’s unsparing critique of nineteenth- century theology was to throw into sharp relief. In some cases, sociological methods such as we find in the successive accounts of Comte, Renan, Durkheim, Weber appear to have supplanted theological inquiry while retaining some of its dominant tropes. Conversely, on the Catholic side, theological writing and argument after the Restauration shows marked signs of evolving into an increasingly specialized, inward-looking discourse that, under the pontificates of Leo XIII and Pius X, was to culminates in a defiant anti-modernism and neo-Thomist orthodoxy.
Yet even as (with some notable exceptions such as J. H. Newman) theological writing after 1850 no longer has the same hold on the popular imagination that it had enjoyed even a generation earlier during the heyday of Romanticism, a small handful of theologically literate creative writers engage in the work of theological reflection, often transforming and deepening its scope and insights in unexpected ways. As they navigate between the Scylla of self-secularization and the Charybdis of doctrinal calcification, literature, – and lyric writing in particular, after 1850, and yet again after the cataclysm of World War I, ends up reframing existential and normative questions in far more imaginative and palpably urgent ways than discursive prose is able to do.
In the course of two semesters, we will explore in some depth six poets – G. M. Hopkins, Paul Claudel, R. M. Rilke (Part I), T. S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz, and Geoffrey Hill (Part II). In unique and often stunningly creative ways, they all reengage with theological questions and spiritual states – ranging from doubt and despair to prayer and praise – often eclipsed by a saeculum that is “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil / And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell.” Wary of the languages of disenchantment and the world’s unrelenting decreation, Hopkins and Claudel, in particular, develop a new, expansive poetics of beauty as the fulcrum of praise and conversion. Rather than being superimposed on the world of sensory experience, theological insight here arises from minute observation and articulation of how that world is experienced: as in “skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow,” “glassy peartree leaves and blooms” and “Thrush’s eggs [that] look little low heavens.” Just as for Hopkins “Nature is never spent” and “Christ plays in ten-thousand places,” Hopkins writes, so for Paul Claudel, too, a key motive of poetry is a theology of praise: “Praise is the greatest mover of poetry, ... the creative theme par excellence. Nobody sings alone.”
By contrast, the theological dimension of Rilke’s poetry proves more elusive and, paradoxically, emerges most clearly in his later work, in particular the Duino Elegies (1912-1922) written at a time when he has rejected the sentimentalizing Catholicism of his upbringing. It is then that he probes and, ever so cautiously, transcends the hopelessness and incoherence of a purely immanent, naturalistic account of human existence. In Rilke’s minimal theology, what dominates is neither Hopkins’s spiritual discipline nor Claudel’s expansive and deeply anchored faith, nor indeed a language of praise. Instead, it is a flicker of eschatological hope that underwrites the form and oblique narrative progression of Rilke’s elegies as they probe how “this life, suspended over the abyss, ... becomes once more possible, indeed, receives an ultimate affirmation [Bejahung],” To forge a passage between the self’s abject and dissociated existential condition (strongly reminiscent of Pascal) and what Rilke calls “superabundant being” (überzähliges Dasein) amounts to an undeniably theological project, though carried out in a language seemingly shorn of all transcendent presuppositions and spiritual certitudes. Less in spite than because of its theological reticence, Rilke seems to insist, poetry is uniquely capable of “assimilating this provisional and precarious earth so profoundly ... that its essence will ‘be resurrected invisibly within us’.” Inadvertently echoing the long genealogy of Christian Platonism, Rilke thus considers “this intimate and constant transformation [Umwandlung] of the visible into the invisible” to be the essential aim of poetry.
Provisional Reading List:
Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips (Oxford Classics)
Paul Claudel, Five Great Odes, trans. and ed. Jonathan Geltner (Angelico Press)
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Stephen Mitchell (Vintage) and selected letters Selections from philosophers, mystics, and theologians specifically referenced as influences or indirectly engaged in the essayistic work and poetry of Hopkins, Claudel, and Rilke: these include Duns Scotus, Ignatius of Loyola, and J. H. Newman (for Hopkins); Aquinas and Maritain (for Claudel); Pascal, Nietzsche (for Rilke)
Anne M. Carpenter, Theo-Poetics (Notre Dame UP)
Aidan Nichols, O.P. Paul Claudel: the Poet as Believer (London: Ashgate, 2011)
Romano Guardini, Rilke’s Duino Elegies: an Interpretation (Cluny Media, 2019)
Hans Urs von Balthasar, selected essays and chapters on Hopkins and Claudel
Dominique Millet-Gérard, Le Verbe et la Voix: Vingt-cinq études en homage à Paul Claudel (2018)
REDEEMING LOVE: FOUR MEDIEVAL TEXTS
Thursday 3:30 – 6:00pm
Redeeming Love in Four Late Medieval English Contemplatives: Julian of Norwich, Nicholas Love, Margery Kempe, The Cloud of Unknowing (Anonymous Author)
And from the time it was revealed, I desired to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, thus: What, would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who shows it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why does he shew it to you? For love. Keep in this and you will know more of the same. But you shall never know different in this, without end.
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (begun on 13 May 1373)
This beautiful quotation (modernized here) from the final chapter of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations is an appropriate introduction to this course. It is important to note how Julian’s extraordinary visions of Christ and her dialogues with Christ also elicit a search for understanding, for knowledge, inextricably bound up with love. This observation may indicate why I eschew the terms “mystic” and “mysticism.” The problem is not that they are distinctly anachronistic but that they bring an alien set of assumptions to Julian’s writing and to late medieval spiritual life. Whereas “contemplative,” “contemplation,” and the “contemplative life” are medieval terms (having both English and Latin forms) and do not bring misleading assumptions which become an impediment to our reading. A good guide to the issues here is St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). He associates contemplation with the knowledge of truth (“cognitio veritatis”). Contemplative life pertains to the intellect pursuing the knowledge of truth and involving the will which moves all the power of the soul. So the contemplative life consists of the love of God (“in caritate Dei”) inasmuch as through the love of God a person burns to gaze on divine beauty. Since everyone desires to obtain what she loves, the contemplative life is completed in delight which is in the affective power (“in affectu”), out of which love becomes intensified. For St. Thomas contemplation is the end, the goal of human life, a view with which Julian would concur (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II.179-180).
Nevertheless, despite such concurrence, this is a course in vernacular writing. Were it on those writing in Latin during the later Middle Ages, it would not include two women writers. Although the seminar involves the study of many central topics in Christian teaching, it is text centered. We will aim to develop forms of reading which engage with the specificities of the four writers we are studying. The texts are complex in very different ways, offering us an astonishingly rich embodiment of a wide range of late medieval contemplation. In their different ways they also make profound contributions to Christian theology: this is especially true of Julian of Norwich.
We will begin with a text you should read before the first class, bringing a copy of the text to the first meeting. I stress this because the text is Nicholas Love’s early fifteenth-century translation and adaptation of an immensely popular and formative Franciscan work, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Christ (paperback, Exeter UP and Liverpool UP, 2004). This work itself became a late medieval best-seller. I begin the class with this Carthusian translation because it displays in great detail late medieval traditions of affective devotion and their approach to redemption in Jesus Christ. For those who assume versions of Christianity made out of the Reformation this work offers an illuminating re-education. Alongside it I suggest reading the medieval parts of two outstanding works: John Bossy, Christianity in the West: 1400-1700 (Oxford UP, 1985), and Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (2nd ed., Yale, 2005). The form of contemplation, the versions of holy family and Christ in The Mirror, were central to Margery Kempe whom we study later in the course. Julian and the Cloud-author were equally familiar with this tradition.
After studying Nicholas Love we will turn to the extraordinary, profound work of Julian of Norwich: visions, meditations, theological explorations into the Trinity. The most accessible affordable text and the one I recommend is The Showings of Julian of Norwich edited by Denise Baker (Norton, 2004). If you want to read this with a good modern translation of the Long Text (her second and full version), I suggest the version by Barry Windeatt (Oxford World Classics, paperback). If you want a densely annotated scholarly edition, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins, The Writings of Julian of Norwich (Pennsylvania State UP, 2005); or the more recent one, re-medievalizing Julian into East Anglian English (cc 1400) by Barry Windeatt, Revelations of Divine Love (Oxford UP, 2016).
From Julian of Norwich to another East Anglian woman who actually visited Julian for spiritual counsel: Margery Kempe. An astonishing lay woman, Margery Kempe had fourteen children, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to many other shrines while becoming an intimate contemplative and spouse of Christ. Her work should be read for this course in either the fine modern translation by Lynn Staley, The Book of Margery Kempe (Norton, paperback) or her Middle English edition (TEAMS, Western Michigan UP, paperback). We will conclude the course with an extremely demanding and often dazzling work on contemplation by an anonymous author immersed in the traditions of pseudo-Dionysius: The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by Patrick Gallacher (TEAMS, Western Michigan UP, paperback).
The primary task of anyone enrolling in this class is to read the set texts slowly and meditatively. I will suggest relevant scholarly work during the class but please prioritize the books by John Bossy and Eamon Duffy cited in the description above. On Julian of Norwich I recommend two works, one by Denise Baker, Julian of Norwich’s Showings (Princeton, 1994), and Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich: Theologian (Yale, 2011). For a fine introduction to contemplative writing in the late Middle Ages: Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism: 1350-1550 (Herder, 2012, paperback).
A note on class format, expectations, and grading: This class is a seminar, so attendance and participation are mandatory. Laptops (and other electronic devices) are not to be used in class. A seminar is a dialogic form of learning, very different to a lecture class. In my experience, laptops act as an impediment to the kinds of attention and communication I consider essential to a flourishing seminar. Also, since we will have more than enough to chew on already, please refrain from eating during class.
The grade will come from one essay of not more than 25 pages to be handed in during or before the final class.