Our course takes up its task of developing critical reading and writing skills through an exploration of literature in terms of two interrelated categories: the actual and the possible. That means we will investigate what set of facts is available and operative in the world of a story or a work of literature—e.g., who the characters are, what happens, where, when, and why things take place—and thus ask how it is we come to know (or think we know) these things through language. At the same time, we will attempt to account for our experience in terms of what linguistic, narrative, and/or rhetorical strategies get used by literature to instill a sense of what is possible in a particular work—e.g., what the rules of its world are, what narratological and thematic possibilities are activated, operative, and unique to it—and how that sense of possibility shapes our experience of the work as whole. Structuring our thinking about literature in terms of its exercises of the actual and the possible is a means of getting into view how different literary works engender expectations in readers, what role expectations play in our experience of literature, and, finally, what claims a work of literature may be making about the roles of reason and the imagination in literary expression.
In our course, we will frame our conversation about the actual and the possible largely around the topic of literature’s creation and manipulation of expectations. These could be expectations with regards to plot, character, event, world-picture, physical laws, or any other arena where expectations are at play in literature. A central goal of our investigations will be to test the categories of the actual and the possible as the two major dimensions whose interaction engenders expectations in readers. Possible questions or topics for discussion may include how our sense of ‘what is’ acts as a limiting force on our sense of ‘what is possible’ for a work of literature or, conversely, how our sense of what could be regulates our view of what is. Careful attention will be paid to tracking moments when reader’s expectations are broken, subverted, or defied (which sometimes turns out to be the moment we realize we had expectations in the first place!).
Furthermore, we will endeavor to characterize moments when a literary work breaks from our expectations in terms of the disjuncture between what is and what is possible: when a work of literature subverts expectations, we are reminded of the non-identity between the actual and the possible. In literature, sometimes what is possible operates independently from what is, and sometimes what turns out to be the case in a literary work defies all expectations of what could possibly be.
As an R&C course, sustained critical engagement with the process of writing will guide our intellectual exploration of the actual and the possible in literature. As a class, we will work together to form an understanding of the partnership between careful reading and analytical writing as well as the relationship of re-writing to writing. With these goals in mind, the first several weeks of class will be dedicated to an intensive introduction to the practice of close reading and arguments structured around close reading before an in-depth analysis of the literary works on the syllabus is pursued.
Throughout the semester members of our course will illustrate the development of their thinking on course topics through regular expository writing assignments, re-writes, free-writing exercises, online blog discussion posts, creative in-class exercises, and consistent in-class participation. Working closely with Rosenwasser’s Writing Analytically, students will participate in weekly writing workshops, in which skill sets related to the practice of analytical reading and writing will be detailed and developed. Attention will also be paid to differences in critical approaches to works of literature from different genres.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Required film screening: Pennies from Heaven)
Additional required readings will be available in a course reader and include short fiction by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, and Eudora Welty, excerpts from Robert Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities, excerpts from Miguel Cervantes’s work Don Quixote, and a selection of sermons by Meister Eckhart (i.e., Eckhart von Hochheim).
Chapters and excerpts from David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen’s Writing Analytically will also be provided.