L142 Intro to Writing and the Study of Literature

TOPIC: Writing Disaster




How do creative artists deal with personal and national catastrophes? Entitled "Writing Disaster," this course will concentrate on a cluster of questions about representation and suffering. In what ways does the expression of imaginative vision help people survive in times of private and public pain? What roles can the arts play to help us confront, comprehend, and survive inexplicable calamity? Do novelists and film-makers, cartoonists and photographers, poets and journalists approach this problem differently? We will start with the biblical Book of Job as a paradigm that sets up the problem of representing calamity. Then we will focus most of our attention on contemporary literature composed in the English language. Poems, films, essays, and photographs will be chosen to supplement the major fictional narratives that illuminate three crucial cataclysms in Western culture: African-American slavery (Toni Morrison's Beloved), the Holocaust (Art Spiegelman's Maus), and the Viet Nam war (Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried). We will therefore be dealing with diverse forms of violence associated with the Othering of various groups of human beings, be they African Americans, Jews, or Asians. Given the pain addressed in the texts with which we will deal, participants need to be forewarned that the material of trauma can itself traumatize, that our common discussions may disrupt and disturb us as much as they record the disruptions and disturbances that have resonated throughout history. In the last two weeks of the semester, we will study a recently published text about personal injury and its effects on civilians and soldiers involved in the Iraq war.

The course, which meets twice a week in large lecture and twice a week in smaller discussion sections, requires students to do their reading before they attend class. It is crucial that you bring the appropriate text (read and annotated) to the lecture hall. In the composition component of the course, we will struggle to avoid writing disasters more pedestrian than those we encounter in the literature but nevertheless disabling. Students will be asked to complete four differently structured writing assignments and to take two exams, one at midterm and one at the end of the semester.