Course: Masterpieces of World Literature
Length: 13 weeks, 5-7 hours/week
Instructors: David Damrosch, Martin Puchner
Quote:This literature course explores how great writers refract their world and how their works are transformed when they intervene in our global cultural landscape today.
No national literature has ever grown up in isolation from the cultures around it; from the earliest periods, great works of literature have probed the tensions, conflicts, and connections among neighboring cultures and often more distant regions as well.
Feels like a really good time to celebrate cross-cultural exchange and the global community, eh?
If you’re interested in studying any of these individual works in detail, this probably isn’t the best place to do it. After all, how can anyone possibly cover a dozen works, some of them pretty massive, in twelve weeks? The course is more of an exploration of the development, purpose, and effect of this thing called “world literature” which is more than just a collection of books written in different countries. It’s a type of literature that relates the writer’s native culture to the world at large and/or examines how that culture is affected by, or affects, the world. Issues of cross-cultural translation, colonialism, cultural imitation, and national literary ethos of various eras and places predominate, as interpreted through various authors’ experiences of living in one, two, or multiple countries.
It’s a much more generalized viewpoint, at least in this mooc version, than most literature courses would be. I was mostly unaware of the existence of “world literature” as an academic discipline; I found it a highly useful introduction to the field.
I chose to take this as a “recreational mooc” and thus didn’t read much beyond a page or two of the works I hadn’t already read. Fortunately, I’d encountered most of them before. I also didn’t participate in the forums, though they were active and well-covered by staff. A multiple-choice information-retrieval style graded quiz finished off each week and constituted the grading for the course. I found the questions were well-selected to emphasize the main points of the interviews and discussions, and beyond covering the works themselves also covered the discovery and translation of older works, to authorial biography with more contemporary authors when those details impacted upon the literary outlook.
Each week involved about an hour of video material, both discussions between the two instructors about a certain time period, author, and work, plus an interview with a specialist in the particular writer – and in one case (Pamuk), an interview with the writer himself. The introductory week on Goethe, who the instructors consider the discoverer, or perhaps midwife would be a better term (in their words, “…we know that the birth of world literature took place in the afternoon of January 31, 1827 at Goethe’s house”) featured a walk-through of the garden house in Weimar where he spent a good part of his writing career, as well as a walk through other areas connected with his work. During the week of The Odyssey, Prof. Puchner generously braved sailing the Aegean Sea 😉 to demonstrate Homer’s settings. Most interesting to me, we saw a lot of Istanbul during the week covering Orhan Pamuk; I’ll say more about this presently.
As is natural, I preferred some weeks to others. Each week offered some new insight, of course, but in general I’d say the material covering works I had less familiarity with were the most interesting to me. I found the Odyssey and Borges material, works I’m quite familiar with, to be the most disappointing, though I did greatly enjoy the comparison of worldviews of The Lusiads to the Odyssey. We looked at several works from east Asia, and I was thrilled to recognize some concepts, a familiarity I would not have experienced just a few short months ago before this year’s China binge: the “testing system” of China, the classical emphasis on “rectifying names”, the interaction of Chinese philosophy and Buddhism.
I greatly enjoyed learning about Wole Soyinka through his Death of a Horseman. Since I’m not only unfamiliar with the work, but also unfamiliar with drama as a genre, and even more unfamiliar with the Nigerian rituals he incorporates into his work alongside British ritual, this was all new discovery. How fitting that during the course, Soyinka, who was once exiled from Nigeria for criticizing the government, who has held professorships at Cornell, Emory, and various other American universities, and has lectured at Harvard, Yale, etc etc., destroyed his green card and vowed never to return after November’s election. The man knows repressive authoritarianism when he sees it.
Another particularly insightful week covered Orhan Pamuk’s works. Again, I plead ignorance (I seem to need to beef up my reading of Nobel Prize winners) coming into the course, but I’m fascinated by the foundations of the two works discussed. In My Name is Red he uses the 16th century Ottoman Empire as a setting for a story about painting, and the transition from Persian miniatures, which use a top-of-the-minaret point of view and idealized style, to Venetian realism as a vehicle for discussing the change in Turkish culture in the 20th century after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. I hadn’t realized the secularization and modernization of the “Young Turks” had included changing the alphabet; that’s quite a lot to deal with. Here in the US we’ve never been able to adjust to the metric system, I can’t imagine if someone tried to change the alphabet on us.
The other Pamuk work discussed, Museum of Innocence, was particularly interesting as it comes complete with an actual museum Pamuk prepared as he wrote the book, filled with 50s and 60s Turkish kitch and everyday doodads just as in the book, where the narrative is a tour of the museum of his beloved. An interview with Pamuk, the only author interview in the course, showed him to have a great sense of humor, and this comes through in his willingness to play with structure. I’m very fond of unusual structures that reinforce the theme of a work (actually, I’m fond of structural play for any reason, but it’s extra special when it’s thematically significant) so I‘m going to have to read these books. They’re the only new-to-me works from the course that I have a real desire to explore further. I’m intimidated, however; I’m not sure I’m up to such masterworks. We’ll see.
And today, as I write this post, I’m hearing the news, sketchy at best, of a bomb exploding outside a stadium in Istanbul. Last week, Istanbul was just the name of a place. Because of this course, it’s now a very real place to me, and I feel for the people there. Maybe that’s the whole point of studying world literature: to make them, us, not just to feel compassion and unity, but to understand, as through Soyinka, that whatever it is, it really could happen here. Not a very popular viewpoint right now, but maybe that’s why it’s important.
Overall it was a successful course, if in an unexpected way. If you’re looking for detailed textual analysis, this probably isn’t the place to get it, but I think it’s valuable for the broader view taken, and as such I’d recommend it highly.