01. Sexuality and Power. TTh 11.35am-12.50pm
We experience our sexualities as deeply intimate things. But, at the same time, sexualities are also social things: they’re part of how other people define us, how they exert power over us, and how we exert power over them. Being a person with a sexuality is the kind of experience that psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called “extimate”: profoundly internal to us and, at the same time, external to us, just out of our control—perhaps in control of us. In this course, our first premise will be that desire is never innocent, that all forms of sexuality are necessarily founded upon complex and interwoven histories of power and violence. Our goal throughout the course will be to understand how each of us is subject to these histories, subtly but fundamentally shaped by and conscripted into them. We will examine the ways that gender-based, queerphobic, race-based, imperial/colonial, and even consensual and fetishistic power dynamics produce violence that may be pleasurable, painful, or both. We will be reading novels, poems, essays, and a play, all of which approach the question: What happens when the person I desire is more or less powerful than I am? In the course of our reading, we will encounter a little dragon boy with an older, motorcycle-riding boyfriend; an affair between a 17th century French queen and her African servant; a teenage girl who commands total sexual power over a middle-aged man; masochists of every kind; and the ravaging effects of HIV/AIDS. As we read, discuss, and write critically about these texts, we will think together about how sexuality is shaped by power and if it can (or even should) one day be free of it.
02. Art of the Short Story. TTH 1.00pm-2.15pm
According to Nadine Gordimer, truth in a short story is experienced as an abrupt contact, what she calls “the sudden flash of a firefly.” Poe, in a similar vein, identified the short story as narrative’s ideal form because it could be grasped in a “single sitting.” Yet despite Poe and Gordimer’s positive valuations of the form, the short story has usually been consigned to the margins of literary history, eclipsed by the larger and more capacious novel. In this course, we will examine masterpieces of short fiction in order to ask several questions: What is it about a story that makes it especially capable of evoking “sudden truth”? How can abbreviation both amplify and impede fiction? Why do short stories traditionally focus on the lives of socially peripheral or “minor” characters? How have traditional story devices, like the twist ending and narrative frame, been reimagined throughout literary history? Assignments will focus on exemplars of the genre across historical and geographical boundaries. The emphasis will be on the modern short story that flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries.
03. Into the #Wild. MW 11.35am-12.50pm
Looking out from the peak of Mount Snowdon one night in 1791, the young hiker William Wordsworth famously saw something “awful and sublime” in the mist-shrouded valleys below. The transcendent power of an authentic encounter with nature—“In that wild place and at the dead of night”—shaped a literary movement and set off a European craze for untamed experience, as nineteenth-century adventurers began flocking to glacial summits en masse. Wilderness was suddenly in vogue. The Romantic elevation of nature played a pivotal role in the great conservation and environmental movements of the twentieth century, but this pursuit of transcendence also had unforeseen consequences. Wordsworth’s bestselling accounts of solitary rambles in the hills near his home helped turn the Lake District into one of the most crowded tourist destinations in England; in the 2019 climbing season alone, eleven people died on Everest as others waited in line to take selfies at the mountain’s summit. This course explores both the strong allure of the wild in the human imagination and the political, ecological, and ethical consequences of this compulsion. What can wilderness literature tell us about the figure of the ‘outdoors type’ or the relationship between environmentalism and adventure culture? What tensions emerge between authentic experience and the careful framing, filtering, and marketing of that authenticity? As the wilderness has receded, finding it has become increasingly urgent. But at what cost?
04. Writing Lives. MW 1.00pm-2.15pm
Biography and memoir set themselves the deceptively simple task of telling the story of a life. But how to accomplish this, given the vast array of pressures and experiences that constitute experience? How do you mark a life’s boundaries, or discern its inner logic? How to navigate the fallibility of memory, the constraints of consciousness–and, in the case of biography, the fundamental opacity of another person? Life writing poses a set of problems that open out onto larger questions: about history and intimacy, the political and the private, and ultimately the capacity for language to traverse different subjectivities. This course will investigate examples of memoir and biography that reveal and in some cases explicitly recognize these tensions: philosophical treatises and slave narratives, militant autobiography and portraits of writers, overtly political memoirs and more inward accounts of a life and self. Readings will range from Rousseau and Frederick Douglass to James Baldwin, George Jackson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Sigrid Nunez, Jacqueline Rose, Margo Jefferson, Vivian Gornick, and Wayne Koestenbaum.