Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Daydream Syllabus #3: Literature of Sickness

Virginia Woolf once complained that sickness ought to be one of literature’s great themes and yet wasn’t. This seminar will aim to contest that assertion, taking sickness of many kinds—literal, metaphorical, mental, contagious—as a great literary theme. Why do we keep resorting to “illness as metaphor”—and what, if anything, can we learn about illness and society’s handling of illness from art about sickness? 

Week 1: Moral Contagion
Tony Kushner: Angels in America (1993)
Susan Sontag: AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989)

Weeks 2 and 3: Mental Illness
Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963)
Philip Roth: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
Lionel Trilling: Sincerity and Authenticity, ch. 6

Week 4: How Are You Feeling?
Albert Camus: La peste (1947)

Weeks 5 and 6: Convalescent Culture
Thomas Mann: Der Zauberberg (1924)
Friedrich Nietzsche: “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1874)

Weeks 7 and 8: Medicine and Quackery, Style and Hack-ery
Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857)
Michel Foucault: Naissance de la clinique (1963)

Week 9: The Culture of Consumption
John Keats: “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819); letter to J.H. Reynolds, 17 March 1817; “When I have fears”
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata (1853)
Susan Sontag: Illness As Metaphor (1978)

Week 10: Plague, Truth, and Fiction
Samuel Pepys: from the Diary (1665)
Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Week 11: Plague, Myth, and History
Homer: Iliad 1.1-405
Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War, book 2
Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannos
Lucretius: De Rerum Natura 6.1090-1286


  1. Can I ask about how you chose to order the weeks? I'm intrigued by the non-chronological approach.

    1. They're in (roughly) reverse-chronological order, the notion being that it's like excavating attitudes that we still see layer by layer, back to, well, the Greeks. I wish I knew interesting medieval and Renaissance literature to include, but unfortunately, I'm at a loss. (Most of the classes I took in college taught from past to present, but there are a few—like the class I took on the idea of progress—that I wish had been organized from most to least recent, so that we'd have taken a familiar idea and traced it backward from what we know.)