Course Overview

“The story is told (by Kierkegaard) of the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead.” (Barrett)

Welcome to Existential Literature.  Broadly, this course will study the human condition, but more specifically we will study existentialism not as a Philosophy but as a “timeless sensibility” (Kaufmann) preoccupied with questions that arise from the human condition, such as suffering, death, dread, despair, guilt and responsibility.

This existentialist sensibility is present in the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and others, as well as in the fiction of Dostoevsky, Kafka and Camus.  Through an exploration of world literature (complemented by philosophical excerpts, film, and music), we will adopt the struggles of our protagonists as our existential quandary as we search for meaning in literature, in self, and in the world.  On any given day, as we study the human condition, the class will represent that point at which literature, philosophy, and psychology intersect.  The extent to which you become a part of the aforementioned intersect is completely up to you. However, I cannot stress enough that this course is meant to be more than an intellectual experience.

Camus QuoteTo further explain the overarching philosophical principle of this course I turn to Azar Nafisi: “I explained that most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home.  The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted.  It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable.  I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world through different eyes.”  Also, I aim to have you inhale the experience of each novel, poem, film, etc.  I want you to “hold [your] breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny.”  Ultimately, the novels we escape into will lead us finally to question and prod our own realities; about which we, at times, feel so helplessly speechless.

I want you to get much more than a “good grade” this term!  This course presents an opportunity to grow in ways that cannot be quantified via a grade scale.  Yet, this growth is completely up to you and the intellectual, emotional, spiritual disposition with which you approach the material.  Let’s begin with David Foster Wallace’s commencement address!

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