English 190

Research Seminar: The Literature of Immortality


Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
11 Spring 2017 Jones, Donna V.
TTh 12:30-2 C57 Hearst Field Annex

Book List

Gilgamesh; Borges, J. L.: The Immortal; Capek, K.: The Markropulos Case; Gray, John: The Immortalization Commission; Lucretius: On the Nature of Things; Shelley, Mary: The Mortal Immortal; Theroux, Marcel: Strange Bodies

Other Readings and Media

There is an amusing and successful internet meme in circulation somewhat apropos to the contemporary debate around the question of immortality: The meme comically declares "Science can tell you how to clone a dinosaur. The humanities can tell you why that isn't such a good idea." Of course, when offered the prospect of a radically extended lifespan in place of dinosaur clones running amok, one might assume the humanities would gather to the side of science: no to dinosaurs; yes to immortality! Who would not want more life, a longer life, a life that is not marked by the slow, yet inevitable effects of senescence and degeneration? The assumption that immortality would be not only universally desired, but a universal good, undergirds much of the popular, futurist writing. In February 2011 the cover of Time Magazine announced that the year 2045 would mark a time when humanity would achieve virtual immortality; again in 2013 Time presented the tech giant Google's exploration into anti-aging therapies, declaring the venture "Google vs. Death." In sharp contrast, however, if we were to tally the literary and cinematic depictions of immortality—from Gilgamesh to Zardoz—and include even philosophical responses to the possibility of a radically extended life, it appears humanists are as averse to eternal life as they are to dinosaurs in our midst. Why the discrepancy? Is life worth living without the knowledge of our own finitude?

In this seminar we will explore the literary depictions of life without death. We will begin with Greeks (Lucretius and Plato), and Gilgamesh, move through several works of speculative fiction, and conclude with theoretical works on life, death, and biopolitics.

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