*NOTE: All readings listed in the course descriptions below are subject to change.
Legacy of the Mediterranean: Modernity
“All that is solid melts into air.” So wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, registering the astonishing pace with which daily life was being transformed around them. For them, and for many of their contemporaries, the central feature of the modern world was its ceaseless change. Under the pressure of political, scientific, and economic revolutions, traditional ways of living and thinking might disappear almost overnight, to be replaced not by a new order but instead with an unending experience of instability and dislocation.
This course reads a set of writers who both respond to and participate in that process of constant transformation – in what we have learned to call modernity. Should culture try to protect timeless values from the shock effects of modernization? Or should it find, in change, an opportunity for new forms of life and new styles of expression? If – as Marx and Engels did – we imagine modernity as a distinctively European event, how might writers outside of Europe make use of and respond to a modernity that excludes them? Is modernity something that happened, and is over – or are we today still swept up in it?
Readings may include: literature from Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Douglass, Woolf, Kincaid; philosophy and criticism from Montaigne, Kant, Marx, Weber, Du Bois, Kracauer, Chakrabarty.
Legacy of the Mediterranean: Rethinking the natural: the human and its others
In this class we will analyze and discuss influential texts of Western literature, notably Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Nella Larsen’s Passing, as well as secondary critical essays on our primary texts. Shorter readings may include writings by Descartes, Wordsworth, Darwin, Freud, Eliot, Orwell, and Butler. Our readings will inform our discussions of our central questions: How have our conceptions of nature and the natural evolved over the past centuries, and how have we understood our relationship to the natural world? How have our ideas about the natural, with its associations of moral good and social order and justice, shaped our ideas of what constitutes humanity? How has the human been distinguished from the nonhuman and inhuman, especially in the context of race, nature, and science? In the second half of the course we will learn how some of the major political and social developments and crises of the last centuries—World War I, colonialism, technological advancement, and urbanization—have contributed to an understanding of the self as fragmentary and conflicted and thus complicated existing notions of the natural and the human. We will consider the repression of difference and the ‘(un)naturalness’ of social identities as we examine how representations of race and gender are constructed and internalized, and representations of gender racialized, in our texts. Throughout the course, which will culminate in a research paper on a topic of their choice, students will work on improving their critical reading and writing skills, engaging effectively with secondary material, and editing their own and their classmates’ writing.
Legacy of the Mediterranean II: Leaving Home
Globally speaking, natural disasters, long-term climate change, war, religious difference, and economic hardship have forced tens of millions of people to leave their homelands in the last two centuries. This class will examine the ways that writers have depicted the refugee and émigré experience as it pertains to settlement in the Mediterranean region during this time period. Course readings will include Voltaire, Mary Shelley, Mehdi Charef and Mohsin Hamid, among others, as well as documents relating to the current migrant crisis in western Europe. Some of the themes that we will discuss using the class readings are cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, multiple identities, and transnationalism.
Legacy of the Mediterranean: The Present Past: Race, Gender and Ethnicity
In this class we will study the relationship between a selection of major texts from the ancient and medieval Mediterranean world and modern texts that reimagine and re-contextualize them. We’ll seek to understand how the modern writers use different historical and geographical contexts to give the language of the ancient and medieval texts alternate meanings, particularly as it pertains to notions of race, gender and ethnicity. The course reading list will include excerpts from Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Sappho’s lyrics, Virgil’s Aeneid and lyric poems from Arab Andalusia, which will inform our analysis of Gwendolyn Brooks The Anniad , Derek Wolcott's Omeros and Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land.
Legacy of the Mediterranean: Border Crossings
When a poet takes his place on the tripod of the Muse, he cannot control his thoughts [and] is obliged to contradict himself... But for the legislator, this is impossible: he must not let his laws say two different things on the same subject. -- Plato, The Laws
For Plato, literature is dangerous because it is ambivalent, or even self-contradictory. Where a virtuous society must set up boundaries – between right and wrong, or between inside and outside – literature tends to blur distinctions and connect ideas that should be kept apart. This writing course tests these ideas through a set of readings in “classical” Western literature. Does literature work as Plato believes it does, to subvert social norms and create ambiguity? Can literature also enforce boundaries and set up barriers?
We will begin our investigation of these questions with a close look at figurative language – one of the primary devices poetry uses to connect ideas – in two archaic Greek poets, Homer and Sappho. We’ll then consider how classical Athenian tragedy represents cultural and gender difference: if theater is at its heart a kind of game with identity, what really happens when we dress up as other people? In our final unit, we’ll examine how two much later writers, Virgil and Dante, both model themselves on their Greek predecessors and fashion new roles for themselves as modern, political poets. Throughout the course, our literary readings will be accompanied by philosophical texts that will help us focus our thinking.
Readings from: Ghosh, In an Antique Land; Homer, Iliad and Odyssey; Sappho, selected poems; Hegel, Aesthetics; Longinus, On the Sublime; Herodotus, Histories; Aeschylus, Agamemnon; Euripides, The Bacchae; Plato, Republic; Zeitlin, Playing the Other; Butler, Gender Trouble; Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy; Virgil, Aeneid; Dante, Inferno.
Legacy of the Mediterranean: Writing as Intervention
If you’ve read or watched (or even heard of) The Twilight Saga, then you already know something of the story of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Why do certain stories and forms live on in our cultural memory? How do they structure our ways of perceiving and knowing? Why are they taken up again and how are they reworked? How can writing move beyond passive replication to active intervention? In our course, we will consider texts that demonstrate what Carolyn Dinshaw calls “the persistence of the past in the present” and we will examine how writers intervene in that past. At the same time, we will be considering our own writing in response to these texts and to other scholars as a practice of intervening. We will begin with different versions from different perspectives of the Persephone/Hades story. We will then consider Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, along with Gwendolyn Brooks’s equally epic (and subversive), “The Anniad,” featuring the “unembroidered brown” Annie Allen. In the second half of the semester, we will turn to The Book of Margery Kempe, the first female autobiography in the English language. We’ll end with Maggie Nelson’s queer memoir, The Argonauts, sometimes called a “critical autobiography” or “autotheory,” which will invite us to explore questions of identity and genre, the relationship between the personal and the political, and the intersection of our academic work and our lives outside of the academy. Scholars who will help inform and guide our thinking may include Roland Barthes, Judith Butler, and Eve Sedgwick.
Legacy of the Mediterranean: The Transcendent Power of Myth
The hero’s journey is, like all of ours, one of trials, longings, revelations and wild transformations. A sequence of actions often takes the hero beyond the normal range of experiences; he leaves one condition to enter into another. In these liminal spaces, the heroine often stumbles upon a new identity. This descent into darkness, or as Adrienne Rich puts it, “Diving Into the Wreck,” is where illumination can be found.
Myths tell us of transcendent mysteries, whether they depict Demeter descending to the mortal realm to be healed in the company of women, or Odysseus, the warrior who is reshaped by a host of goddesses, witches and monsters. In modern telling’s as well, the epic quest contours character: Sethe, of Tony Morrison’s Beloved, achieves a renewed consciousness after wrestling with the sundry ghosts of her past, and in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Esch, our fourteen year old heroine makes her way through the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, winning a new definition of love and what it might mean to be a family.
We will explore how the literary texts we will read both define and seek to reimagine the classic mythic journey. We will interrogate questions of identity, power, gender, loss and recovery, life and death, spiritual meaning, sexuality, race and class. We will investigate these characters’ trials and revelations and dialogue about the new identity and elevated consciousness they each achieve. We will find ourselves in the tales these writers tell.
Readings are subject to change, but literary texts will include Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, The Bacchae, The Odyssey, Tony Morrison’s Beloved and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.