The Past is Future: Modernity and Tradition from the 17th to 20th Centuries
In English 242: Reading Prose Fiction, we will be reading works such as Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus of 1658, Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 Blood Meridian, Virginia Wolff’s 1927 landmark modernist novel, To the Lighthouse and Lawrence Durrell’s 1957 novel Justine. You will note that the above works do not follow the logic of the current convention of “period studies” in which a literary or historical period is defined by very specific beginning and ending dates. Yet each of the works listed above are considered “modern.” Each of these works are modern in the sense that they challenge the accepted status and means of representation, literary or otherwise, along with the received wisdom and commonplaces that had been dominant in literary and historical writings of their given cultural climate. What is generally considered modern is relative to what is considered traditional, ancient, or conventional. The date of publication, or creation, is not what makes a work modern but rather the way in which it distinguishes itself from what came before it. The conceptual, institutional, and cultural implications of this are many and diffuse and this course will only touch on a small portion of them – most notably – how does a work of art pose a question that fundamentally challenges received traditions and practices? If it makes such a challenge isn’t it calling its own purpose or function into question? How does one dissolve a “tradition”? What is it and what does it entail to be “modern,” to be “new”? Is it possible, realistically or conceptually? And finally, have we, as a culture, ever been modern?
Cormac McCarthy - Blood Meridian
Thomas Browne - The Major Works
Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse