*NOTE: All readings listed in the course descriptions below are subject to change.
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.