In this course we will explore the profound connections between literature, science, and what it means to be human. We will carry out such exploration by reading together the work of Jewish Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi, doing so in the light of one of the central ethical principles governing Levi's work: friendship. Jewish Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi is considered one of the most important authors of the 20th Century. Levi's The Periodic Table (1975) has been referred to as "the best science book ever", and his If This Is A Man (1947/1958) is widely regarded as one of the most thought-provoking accounts of humanity ever to have been written. We will read both of these, together with a number of other works by Levi, including poems, essays, short stories, and a novel. By doing so we will give ourselves the opportunity of diving deeply and fruitfully into reflection on some vital questions: what is a human being? what is the relationship between friendship and truth? what is the relationship between suffering and knowledge? how are the humanities and the sciences connected to each other?
Taught in Italian, this course offers the opportunity for an in-depth study of Italian life, history, art, and religion, through detailed study of one of Italy's best known and most loved cities: Siena. One of Italy's great medieval cities, Siena stands to this day as one of the most interesting, intriguing and fascinating examples of defining dynamics of Italian culture: the inspiring relationship between art and public life; the nourishing importance of food and wine; the fruitful tension between tradition and innovation; the constructive encounter of sacred and secular. Siena is home to some of Italy's most wondrous art (Duccio, Martini, Lorenzetti, Beccafumi) and some of its most breathtaking architecture (its Duomo, its Palazzo pubblico). It also produces some of Italy's most distinctive food and wine products (carne chianinia e di cinta senese, panforte, Chianti). In the late Middle Ages it was the home of Saint Catherine and Saint Bernardino, as well as one of the most powerful political and economic centres in the Italian peninsula. It is home still today to one of Italy's most lively, intense, dynamic, and controversial traditions: the Palio. All of this life, culture, and devotion is brought together in Siena in and through the contrade, a form of communal living originating in the Middle Ages and evolving ever since. It is also all brought together in and through a particularly profound devotion to Mary, to whom the city has been dedicated since 1260. In all of these respects - and more - to study Siena is to give yourself the opportunity of enriching in uniquely profound ways your understanding of Italy. Through its research component, the course will allow you to do so by developing in academically rigorous ways your own specific and particular interest in Italian life and culture.
This course will focus on the last 120 years in literary history, zeroing in on one particular problem - the writing of religious poetry - in order to probe the philosophical collisions that resulted in what we now call our "post-secular" era of thought. Beginning with Gerard Manley Hopkins at the end of the nineteenth-century and major modernists who continued to write powerfully after WWII - T.S. Eliot, David Jones, W. H. Auden - the syllabus will chart a course through the rapidly changing poetic forms of two further generations of poets working devotedly, if differently, out of various religious systems of belief. The many dilemmas of postmodernity include redefining the very notion of "belief" itself after the secular revelations of science and modernity; we will explore the theoretical issues involved in order to better understand what's at stake for each writer we encounter, among them Brian Coffey, Wendy Mulford, Fanny Howe and Hank Lazer. We will ask, among other things, why ancient mystical frameworks seemed newly hospitable, for some, in the face of postmodern suspicions about language and institutions, while for others embracing the sciences renewed faith; we will consider the crucial input of Judaism in Christianity's rethinkings of language and religious experience as well as consider how issues of race and gender inflect changing relationships between poetry and religion. Students will emerge conversant with major debates in contemporary literary theory as well as with developments in poetry since Hopkins; perhaps even more importantly, they will each have had the chance to research some particular aspect of our subject(s) that arouses passionate interest and results in an article-length term paper developed slowly over the course of the semester. In other words, this course offers students the exciting (and measured, not frantic) experience of writing toward publication, just as their professors do. In addition to the term-paper, seminar-level participation is expected, as well as two days of leading class discussion (partnered by a classmate or two). No prior expertise in reading poetry is necessary for this course. (Note: if you have taken my University Seminar, The Death and Return of God in Radical Poetry, you may not take this course; it shares too many of the same materials.)