Together with “The World, the Text, and the Critic II” this course helps students to acquire a basic map of the history of texts from the beginnings of writing up to our own time. This course covers the first half, until the beginning of the 18th century. Through guided reading you will acquire essential facts about writers, works and periods that will help you place your individual readings into a wider context and to find your way through the rich and diverse material you will encounter when studying literature.

Parallel to this systematic instruction, each of the three professors who teach this course will present to you an historical moment which has witnessed either the birth or a significant transformation of a literary genre. This will show you how we approach our material as students of texts, and will help you gain a deeper sense of how writing changes in time and is engaged urgently in relations with readers and with the world in which it emerges.

ANTIQUITY: THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF LATIN LOVE ELEGY

A gaze and Amor’s foot on the neck of a young poet mark the beginning of Latin love elegy, one of the two original contributions that the Romans made to the collection of genres in world literature. We will explore how what seems to be so new and revolutionary is both rooted in centuries of Greek literary tradition and part of a Roman strategy to affirm aristocratic values by demonstratively turning one’s back and embracing distinctly un-Roman Hellenistic aesthetics with the concomitant lifestyle. Seemingly personal expressions of teenage love will be unmasked as part of political propaganda, and we will see how the one poet who expressly tried to turn erotic poetry into a political program for Rome not only got himself exiled but also killed off the genre in which his poetic talent had grown. It will become evident that the world of Latin love elegy died, just as the Latin language itself had died, only to persist as a canonical form that would shape the life and writings of future generations.

THE MIDDLE AGES: THE MEDIEVAL RIDDLE

By the ninth century in Europe, our modern vernacular languages were replacing Latin as the dominant spoken and increasingly written tongues of Europe. Like the first texts composed in or translated into them, the preliminary stages of these languages are transitional: ill-defined, rough-edged, ambiguous. The early medieval riddle as a genre reflects well its own uncertain referentiality: almost always anonymous, usually untitled, sometimes insoluble, yet often taught in schools as pedagogical exercises. Whether in Anglo-Saxon or Old Italian or Carolingian Latin, whether teasing conceptual puzzles or provocative double entendres, whether theological or sexual or both, medieval textual riddles will serve us as a springboard to the discussion of some of the larger intellectual riddles of the Middle Ages: how to capture contradictions in a single text, how to reconcile love and honor, how to confront war and love, how to accommodate faith and reason, how to transform belief into action?

EARLY MODERN UP TO 1700: RENAISSANCE & BAROQUE : LIFE IS A DREAM: HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED TO LOVE REALITY TV

Everyone dreams the thing he is, though no one can understand it.  I dream I am here, chained in these fetters.  Yet I dreamed just now I was in a more flattering, lofty station.  What is this life?  A frenzy, an illusion, a shadow, a delirium, a fiction.  — Calderón de la Barca

Literature, Theatre, Painting…all human arts of the Renaissance/Baroque period marveled at the mere fact of human existence and our self-consciousness. In this section of the course, we’ll look at the play-within-the-play and its fascination with life as a dream, with the world as a stage and the self-conscious individual born out of the lyric voice of earlier poetry in the period. In this Renaissance period, as in today’s reality-TV crazed world, we find a genre which exquisitely captures the narcissistic tendencies of human existence!