Engaging the Pre-Modern Canon: Literacy and Adventure
Quite habitually, we think of modern democratic governments and social institutions as founded upon ideas and forms of government attributed to ancient Greek and Roman models. The same could be said of our literary and artistic sensibilities: our feeling for the completeness, beauty and dignity of the human figure might be seen as deriving from classical antecedents. However, beyond the basic outer forms of antique civilization, is it possible that our present-day culture and sense of nationalism is deeply indebted to a motivating inner spirit associated with the Middle Ages? And if this is so for us Moderns, do the outer and the inner necessarily form an adequate fit? To what extent are we nationalists of today afflicted with a very precise symptom, that of possessing an excess of spirit which has actually outgrown its body? Or, is it rather that our culture today finds itself afflicted with an excessive body which dwarfs its spirit?
Our modern social institutions (including state universities and national museums) first emerged in the Romantic era (1800-1830), a period in which Europe looked back to the unified culture and ideal of the communal social forms of the Middle Ages as an alternative to the excessive individualism and materialism of the Enlightenment. In the art and ideals of the Middle Ages, Romantic thinkers and writers sought a source of inspiration, one which would organize, elevate and direct what they saw as a fragmented and decadent contemporary culture. Central to this Romantic interpretation of the Middle Ages are the concepts of Discovery and Vision, notions associated with the human faculty of Imagination. In this worldview is the idea that the human creature is an exile in a fallen world, and must travel, both physically and spiritually in search of either his beloved or God. Medieval art and literature are replete with images and expressions of exile, the wandering, pilgrimage and reunion, themes central to Romanticism.
This semester we will attempt to disentangle ourselves from many of the inherited ideas and images which prevent us from getting a clearer understanding of the Middle Ages, or another other alien culture for that matter. In keeping with the term “alien”, I am proposing that we understand the Middle Ages and Renaissance as radically foreign cultures which we will understand in a quasi-ethnographic and anthropological manner – not because we are hope to identify human constants but rather because we hope to see how very different other cultures can be from us while still functioning in ways that make sense and work. Only after we begin to perceive the worlds of the Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas and Chaucer in all their strangeness, as if we were reading not historical texts but rather science fiction, will we be in a position to perceive the specific stakes involved in the later invention of the modern individual and systematic science. Whereas the Middle Ages stressed otherworldliness, mystery and the sinner’s vagrant status in the world, the Renaissance will begin to see the world in Humanistic terms in which the individual feels at home in the world and in command of his own well being, personal destiny, spirituality.
Time permitting, our course will end with readings from Shakespeare and Descartes, the respective inaugurators of these related notions. The general theme of the course, modernity and affect, will attempt to address the transformative experience of being possessed by an idea that exceeds us, summons us to expand our mental and bodily boundaries. We will investigate the sense of elation and motivation which subsumes the individual who recognizes himself in an external symbol, an experience so crucial to the development of modern consciousness. Which is really just another way of saying we will attempt to learn what it means to read.
Irrespective of how certain students or other instructors may view the Intellectual Traditions courses, I do not view them as constituting a Great Books series. I have little or no interest in teaching you either moral truths or objective facts. Nor do I intend to indoctrinate you in all that is great and noble from our cultural heritage. The purpose of this Honors class is to break down your prejudices, open your mind and imagination, make you simultaneously a more critical and a more sensitive reader – not only because it will help you in the future but more importantly because it is worth doing now, and simply for its own sake. Stubborn resistance to these goals will affect your grade adversely. If you have no interest in literature and the cultivation of the imagination, if all that matters to you in school is science and math and the way we now use them, if you consider this class a mere obstacle between you and graduation and a job; I suggest you drop this class now, because staying in it will only make your life agony. I also suggest you pause to reflect on the purpose of an Honors College and whether you really belong in one. To graduate without special honors does not necessarily entail graduating in disgrace, and I don’t believe it should be treated as such. Together we will examine a variety of texts whose relevance will not always be immediately apparent to you. Confusion is a normal and healthy response to what is new; intolerance, disdain and bigotry are not. These latter attitudes will damage you intellectually, emotionally and socially both in this class and in the real world – though quite honestly I don’t distinguish between the two. This course should NOT be considered preparation for real life; it is real life, and so your failure to treat it as such will have real consequences.
University courses demand that both teachers and students share the responsibility of working together toward insight and understanding. This course will be no exception. I will explain key texts as clearly as possible. In turn, you must complete the readings, so that my explanations can find a ground in actual writings, as well your thoughtful comments and questions. Readings and lectures will form a context, or apparatus, you will employ while reading. I do not intend to teach you the intrinsic meaning of anything we read. Instead, I believe striking meanings will arise in our midst as we activate these texts through our own staged acts of reception. And I hope that you will remember these texts and meanings, not because they are universally authoritative, but rather because you have participated in their creation and resuscitation.
With this in mind, I have set up an on-line community journal for our class. Each of you will be required to post there one post per week referring to our course readings as well as two comments on the responses of other students. Quality posts will tend to select a key passage from an assigned reading and examine it so as to open it for further discussion. Refrain from automatically finding fault with the assigned reading or using it simply as an occasion to repeat ideas you received from institutions other than the university. Our journal will also be a place you can post art objects you wish to discuss. Over the weeks together, we will produce our own semi-public collection, as well as an accompanying body of critical commentary which, in miniature form, will replicate the entire complex of technologies, texts and bodies necessary for art to exist.
25% Participation – speaking in class is not optional but mandatory. 25% Journal – on the course website, one entry and two comments per week. 25% Final paper – a ten-page. 25% Reviews – one for each of the three mandatory group lectures.
Monday, Feb 1, John Magee (University of Toronto), Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy Friday, Feb 26, Mamiko Suzuki (U of U), Sei Shonagon's Pillow BookFriday, April 9, Barry Weller (U of U), Thomas More's Utopia
All talks will be at 12-1 in the UMFA auditorium.
A Outstanding achievement. Student performance demonstrates full command of the course materials and evinces a high level of originality and/or creativity that far surpasses course expectations. A- Excellent achievement. Student performance demonstrates thorough knowledge of the course materials and exceeds course expectations by completing all requirements in a superior manner. B+ Very good work. Student performance demonstrates above-average comprehension of the course materials and exceeds course expectations on all tasks as defined in the course syllabus. B Good work. Student performance meets designated course expectations and demonstrates understanding of the course materials at an acceptable level. B- Marginal work. Student performance demonstrates incomplete understanding of course materials. C Unsatisfactory work. Student performance demonstrates incomplete and inadequate understanding of course materials. D Unacceptable work. E Failing.