Andrea Gadberry & Jocelyn Saidenberg
“The way down to hell is easy…” – Virgil, Aeneid 6.126
“Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?” – William Blake, The Book of Thel
This semester we will plunge into the abyss, taking our cue from many distinguished literary trailblazers as we study critical reading and composition. Since antiquity, epic heroes have gone to hell (or Hades) and back: Odysseus goes to the underworld, Aeneas follows his example, and Dante heads to hell, and, more recently, Alice Notley’s Alette descends into subterranean New York, to name just a few examples. This course takes katabasis, or the descent to the underworld, as its point of departure for its study of descents into depths literal and figurative. In poems, novels, plays, and works of art, we will study the spelunkings of heroes epic and otherwise into abysses below and within. We will explore the encounter between life and death that katabasis dramatizes, and we will ask what sort of knowledge an abyss might offer – or what kind of “gazing” an abyss might be able to do. What is the relationship between the underworld and the world above, and how does the experience of descent shape the return (for those who do return)? What are the qualities of the protagonists who plumb these depths? How might a literary investigation of the deepest fathoms help us understand the forms of the unfathomable?
We will also apply the attentive gaze we cast into the abyss to the art of writing. Over a series of short essays and slightly longer papers, students will practice expository writing and close reading, studying the craft of producing argumentative essays sustained by careful readings. In addition to these written assignments, students should expect to participate actively in class discussions and make an oral presentation.
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
Homer, Odyssey, Book 11
Carl Jung, “Picasso” (1932)
Alice Notley, The Descent of Alette
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 10
Pablo Picasso, Paintings (Blue Period)
Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell
Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit
Virgil, Aeneid, Book 6
William Blake, The Book of Thel
A course reader will include some of the texts above as well as works by Mikhail Bakhtin, Sigmund Freud, and Jalal Toufic.
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