English 165

Special Topics: The Materialist Epic

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
7 Spring 2019 Goldsmith, Steven
TTh 12:30-2 61 Evans

Book List

Homer: The Iliad (Fagles trans.); Knausgaard, Karl Ove: My Struggle: Book 1; Lucretius: The Nature of Things (Stallings trans.); Melville, Herman: Moby-Dick, or The Whale; Weil, Simone: The Iliad or the Poem of Force


“We live our everyday lives surrounded by, immersed in, matter . . . Our existence depends from one moment to the next . . . on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday life.  In light of this massive materiality, how could we be anything other than materialist?”  (New Materialisms, 2010).  The aim of this seminar is to consider how four epics, ancient and modern, reckon with “this massive materiality.”  For our purpose, “ancient” means Homer (The Iliad) and Lucretius (The Nature of Things), and “modern” means Melville (Moby-Dick) and Knausgaard (My Struggle).  Concentrating on these four texts will allow us to examine the possibility of an epic materialism, one that—in the absence of spiritual, divine, or metaphysical principles—minimizes human mastery and instead strives to convey a comprehensive range of worldly forces: physical, environmental, technical, economic, and political.  Some through-lines in our seminar will be: violence (and especially war) as an all-encompassing material condition; the role of empirical observation and description in rendering the material world; the materiality of the literary object itself.  As time permits, we will also turn to the “new materialisms” in criticism and philosophy to ask why materialism has recently become so appealing to so many thinkers.

In addition to informal assignments, students will write two essays and a final exam.

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