English 170

Literature and the Arts: Moving Through Loss; or, The Space and Stage of Mourning

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Spring 2018 Xin, Wendy Veronica
Note new time: MW 5-6:30 Note new location: 263 Dwinelle

Book List

Bechdel, Alison: Fun Home; Didion, Joan: The Year of Magical Thinking; Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God; Ishiguro, Kazuo: Never Let Me Go; Powell and Pressburger: The Red Shoes; Scarlett, Liam: Frankenstein; Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein; Takahata, Isao: Grave of the Fireflies; Woolf, Virginia: Mrs. Dalloway


“My suffering is inexpressible but all the same utterable, speakable. The very fact that

language affords me the word ‘intolerable’ immediately achieves a certain tolerance.”

—Roland Barthes, The Mourning Diary

Amidst the lost illusions and temps perdu that drive Victorian novels, the horrors of war documented by modernist writers, and the depiction of personal grief in Joan Didion’s late memoirs, the ability to articulate or to otherwise tame experiences of loss has often been said to grant the subject a kind of freedom from traumatic events both personal and collective. Working between literary and cultural studies and the performance arts, we will consider in this seminar how the non-verbal narrative arts (contemporary dance, theatre, and opera) theorize grief and dispossession through motion and gesture rather than (solely) through the "utterable." If loss has become almost synonymous with disarticulation, with an inability to narrate, what is the role of music, movement, and corporeality in the cycle of mourning? How does the relentlessness of absence register itself in the contours of a single performance, performed repeatedly, staged and re-staged? Why does loss compel us to turn to the dramatization of an experience of suffering we would rather not endure again? Students will attend four live performances at Zellerbach Hall over the course of the semester and develop a broad and interdisciplinary artistic literacy.* This course will use as a starting point foundational theories of narrative structure and aesthetic judgment to ground our explorations of the intersection of loss and narrative. We will think about how “getting over” grief might be inscribed into the narratological fracturing of story from discourse; how loss and absence might be embodied by the speechless gestures and dynamics of the human figure; and how the use of the space of the stage might newly inflect our understanding of absence and presence.

While we will spend a good deal of our seminar puzzling over the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the selected performances, we will also read broadly across theories of narrative form, contemporary critical work on melancholy, sorrow, and hope, and more recent investigations into the relationship between performativity, theatricality, dramatic space, and the role of spectatorship. Above all, students will be encouraged to dwell on the formal impasses at the heart of the representational arts in order to think about how aesthetic coherence itself - so obviously at work in the staged, scripted, and rehearsed - exists in complicated relationship to those psychic and affective experiences whose very resistance to articulation renders them (as Barthes puts it) uniquely “intolerable.”

Readings for this seminar will be invigorating but intensive. In addition to primary texts to be selected from the novels, films, and recorded performances listed above, we will work together to puzzle over excerpts from D. W. Winnocott’s “Fear of Breakdown,” Barthes’s The Mourning Diary, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” and “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience, Dominick Lacapra’s Writing History, Writing Trauma, Shoshana Felman’s Witnessing, Marianne Hirsch’s The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, Kent Puckett’s War Pictures, Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, and Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting, among others.

* This course, including student tickets to performances, is made possible by Cal Performances, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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