English R1B

Reading and Composition: Dreaming on Paper: Exceptional Mental States and the Written Word

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
5 Spring 2022 Furcall, Dylan
MWF 11-12 210 Dwinelle

Book List

The Book of Margery Kempe; Carrington, Leonora : The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington; Chaucer, Geoffrey: The House of Fame; De Quincey, Thomas: Confessions of an English Opium Eater; Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man; Freud , Sigmund: The Interpretation of Dreams; Kurosawa, Akira: Dreams; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Reveries of the Solitary Walker


What do we mean when we say that a text is “dreamlike?” We often appeal to this description when the text with which we are engaging is strange, experimental, or transgresses normative expectations. And yet to compare a novel, a film, or a painting to a dream tends to raise more questions than it answers. What is the relationship between our dreams and the waking experiences from which dreams are thought to gather their content? What rules or patterns do dreams follow, and to what extent can these formal tendencies be imitated or evoked in writing?  In this course, we will consider what the American psychologist and philosopher William James broadly termed “exceptional mental states,” a category comprising not only dreams but such  out-of-the-ordinary experiences as religious exultation, hallucination, trance, and meditation. Our interest is not so much to determine what these states of experiential exception fundamentally are from a scientific standpoint, but to explore how and to what ends (whether political, psychological, or aesthetic) writers and artists have sought to emulate and even produce them.

We will survey a broad range of texts (predominantly Western) that participate in this discourse and will consider their formal, generic, and historical specificities: from medieval dream visions (Geoffrey Chaucer’s “House of Fame”) and autobiographies (The Book of Margery Kempe) to clinical and theoretical writings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and William James’ “Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide”), philosophical meditations of the enlightenment (Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker) to surrealist fiction (Leonora Carrington’s stories), episodic films (Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams and Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room) to dream journals (such as Franz Kafka’s). Other objects of study will include passages from Plato’s Republic, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, and poems by John Ashbery and Bernadette Mayer.

Over the course of the semester students will draft and revise a research paper pursuing a subset of the class’s materials and questions. Indeed, our goal will not be to master these materials (heterogenous and difficult as they are) but rather to develop and sustain lines of critical inquiry. We will cultivate our skills of textual and cultural analysis, composition, argumentation, research, and source evaluation. Some attention will be devoted to the application of these skills beyond the domain of literary interpretation. We will also compose dream journals.

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