Announcements of a 12-week course on Dante’s Divine Comedy and a six-week course on Heaney’s translation of Beowulf can be found on the “Courses & Seminars” link.
The Book of Books Begins This Week
Our wide-ranging survey of the Bible and its influence on (mostly) English literature begins this week. It’s filling up, but there are still places available. Feel free to attend the first session without obligation if you’d like to test the waters first.
Have a Say!
I’d love to hear comments, both from students and from visitors to this website. My internet wizard Mike Cutter has just unlocked the comment box at the bottom of this page, which now allows you to comment without your needing any WordPress login. All you have to do is scroll down a bit and write in the window.
A First Look Back and a Quick Look Ahead
Hard to believe we’ve got through three whole courses already! The response has exceeded all my expectations on just about every front you could name. My warmest thanks to all who have taken part. The Canterbury Tales, The Inklings and What Is Poetry? were among the most enjoyable courses I have ever taught, thanks to your enthusiastic participation. With two courses setting off in the next two weeks (see below), and The Divine Comedy slated to begin in January, the new year beckons. Nothing definitely planned yet, but expect courses on Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats and the modern short story. I’d still like to run my previously proposed courses on Moby Dick and short horror fiction, so I’ll be canvassing interest. Beyond all that, the world’s our oyster: Homer? Virgil? We’re going to have to do some Shakespeare eventually. Use the comment function that my clever web-designer has provided us with to post suggestions. I’d love to hear them. Sorry–you’ll have to scroll all the way down this page to the comment box, but it’s there and looking very lonely and neglected. Go ahead, make its day.
Seamus Heaney short course and Book of Books still have places
They’re both starting soon and filling up, but ample spaces remain on both courses. Check out the details on the Courses & Seminars link.
The Book of Books: Game On!
It’s official: the new twelve-week course on the Bible in English literature has been booked in to run in Ross House on Flinders Lane on Thursdays from 31 October. Full details can be found on the Courses & Seminars link.
Special Thanks to McIver’s!
McIver’s, the specialist coffee and tea merchants in Vic Market, have been special friends to The Melbourne Literature Seminars. See the “News and Articles” link for an appreciation. Do yourself a favor and pay them a visit which you won’t regret. The finest beans and leaves in town.
Or you can visit them online at http://www.teaandcoffee.com.au/
You’ve probably heard about the passing of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel-Prize laureate and one of the finest poets in English of the twentieth century. He will be sorely missed by many, and I’d like to celebrate his achievement with a six-week course on his poetry. If you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll know what an extraordinary punch it packs. If not, prepare to be astounded and delighted and equal measure. Details to follow.
Anyone interested in checking out The Melbourne Literature Seminars is welcome to attend any single session without charge or other obligation. You can see dates, times and venues for what’s currently running in the posts on the Courses & Seminars link.
What Is Poetry? Begins
Then next course in The Melbourne Literature Seminars sets off on a six-week cruise from the Middle Ages to, well, not quite today, but well into the twentieth century. Along the way we’ll be focusing on the poetry as poetry: how it works and to what ends. I’ll be doing my best to show how the pleasure and the power of any effective poem can serve as both oxygen-bottle and fairy-dust in an age where leaden prose governs so much public discourse. Need I say “the recent elections”? Details can be found on the courses link.
The Inklings begins as Australia votes!
Whatever you think of the Federal election, there’s always good books to keep us warm. On Saturday, 7 September, the first session of a six-week course on the writings of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien will run from 1pm to 3pm in the Large Meeting Room of Fitzroy Library. All welcome, whether or not you’ve expressed an interest. There are plenty of places available, and I’d be happy for people to attend the first session, without charge or obligation, to see what we’re about.
More New Courses on the Way!
Our first two short courses, The Inklings and What Is Poetry? are now booked to run at the Fitzroy Library in late September and October. Check the notices on “Courses & Seminars”.
Further on Down the Road
Here are some brief notices of courses I hope to offer beginning from late October/early November of this year and into 2014. If any appeal to you, let me know via “Contact Us”. If you have any scheduling preferences, let me know as well, and I’ll try to accommodate them as best I can.
Nasty, Brutal and Short: The Modern Horror Short Story
Why do we love to terrify ourselves? What things terrify us, and how do those things change over time? Even more mysteriously, why do some of the best writers in the language make beautiful and challenging verbal art out of a bewildering assortment of creepy-crawlies, rational impossibilities and thing generally going bump in the night? Never mind Monsters, Inc.—come see where the real monsters be, in short stories by (among others) Nathaniel Hawthorn, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur Machen, and Stephen King.
The Book of Books: The Bible in English Literature
The influence of the Bible on western culture and literature is simply beyond calculating. But we won’t let that stop us! In this unit we will survey some of the major themes, images and literary genres of the Bible and trace their impact on the literary imagination of English-language authors from medieval to modern.
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Another enormously influential work of the Western canon, Dante’s Divine Comedy has been shaping our notions of heaven and hell for seven centuries. Dante’s uncanny literary vision of life, the universe, and everything beyond delights, astounds, horrifies and inspires by turns, in some of the most sumptuous poetry ever committed to paper. In a good English translation, it still packs a considerable wallop. In this course we will read and discuss all three sections of the Comedy—the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso.
I’m Nobody—Who Are You? - The Incomparable Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson remains one of America’s best-loved poets. And for good reason. Her deceptively simple and accessible poems reveal a mind of extraordinary acuity, and a wit biting and playful by turns. In one sharply focused lyric after another, she explores a panoramic expanse of human experience, its joys and terrors, its follies and exaltations. In this course we will read and discuss a representative sampling of her poems.
Hast seen the white whale? You will in this course, in which we will read and discuss the whole of Herman Melville’s whaling epic. In its ample embrace it combines oceanography, cetology (whale-science), history, cosmology, metaphysics, uproarious comedy, blasphemous biblical parody and reverent biblical echo. And if all that weren’t enough, it’s a cracking good adventure story to boot. A zest for adventure of every kind (and a spare set of dry clothes) heartily recommended. You won’t be disappointed.
How and Why I Teach Literature
Across the three decades I have taught at various universities,
I’ve been moved and sustained by a small number of considerations, most of which
no longer carry much weight (if they ever did) in those institutional settings.
Human beings have been doing unusual things with the same words they use for everyday communication for as long as they’ve been aware of this thing we call “language.” Maybe longer. We can only guess at what motivated the earliest users of literary language: the makers of myth and communicators of ancient story and legend. The building up of cultures and religions and big meanings out of those sorts of narratives had to have been a serious business in some ways, but pleasure could never have been far from the top of the list, either. Just look at the book of Jonah, whose serious message is carried by a comic gem of story, which beautifully caricatures the sober prophetic careers of an Elijah or an Isaiah.
The very serious authorities responsible for including Jonah in the canon of Jewish and Christian scriptures can never have really got the joke.
I would suggest, tentatively (and with an awareness of many honorable exceptions), that those who take up the professional study and analysis of what we now call “literature,” commonly in the institutional setting of the modern university, often stand in a comparable plight, for far different reasons. Chronically difficult issues of funding and administration have led those who manage university policy to emphasise research that attracts funding (no surprise here) as just about the only measure of academic success and preferment.
A piece of collateral damage in all of this has been the radical devaluation of teaching on the agendas of deans and department heads at universities around the world. They will all insist otherwise (particularly in their publicity), but it just isn’t so. A hiring committee, faced with making a choice between a inspired and inspiring teacher with an indifferent research record and a researcher with a strong track-record of landing research grants will choose the latter every time, with little serious regard for any evidence of his or her teaching abilities. They have scarcely any choice, given the material considerations they must address.
On top of these institutional issues, the last fifty or sixty years of literary scholarship in Europe and America and elsewhere have seen a succession of revolutions in what is now called “critical theory.” Each of these revolutions has made some sort of valuable contribution to our understanding of literary texts and how they work, but as a whole their various proponents have tended to emphasize a bewildering variety of abstractions and quasi-scientific theorizings that have called the whole traditional notion of “literature” into question. They have their reasons, but I have my own for resisting the urge to stand back and analyze literature as though it were pinned down on the anatomist’s dissection tray.
Across my own career as a literary scholar, I have found that discussing literature with students has been the best “research” I know or need to know. All of my most satisfying insights into those texts that matter most to me have taken shape in how I’ve learned to understand and communicate their workings to less experienced readers. The intense pleasure I take in such texts is my only reason for taking them up in the first place, and communicating that pleasure to others, as clearly and thoughtfully and engagingly as I can, the only sane and worthwhile thing I can see to do with them.
In institutional settings, the notion that literature constitutes a “subject” or a “syllabus” in which hopeful and anxious degree candidates must be assessed and sorted into statistically distributed categories of formal achievement is a very recent historical aberration. It is a necessary evil, since those institutions must somehow demonstrate that they are making making good and proper use of the funds they are allocated by public and private bodies and offer some valid measure of student progress. But necessary evils don’t become goods by being necessary, alas.
It is my almost constant experience—in the teaching of literature, at least—that the pressures and anxieties attendant on the most benign assessment scheme imaginable tend to narrow and choke off real, lasting learning. The deepest engagements with any literary text arise from an expansive, relaxed and disinterested delight in the dance of sound, word and meaning they embody. That delight, and communicating it to my students, has been my primary concern in all my dealings with those literatures, ancient to modern, I have worked with and taught. But the current temper of university administration has made it increasingly difficult—indeed, almost impossible during the last few years—for me to find any kind of university position where I can teach what I love in the way I most love to teach it.
It is for all of these reasons—and at the urging of many of my present and former students, to whom I owe an immense debt of gratitude for their continued enthusiasm and encouragement—that I have begun offering courses to the public under the banner of The Melbourne Literature Seminars. In a relaxed, non-institutional setting, I hope we can all share the delight, the wonder, and the sheer unadulterated fun of getting ourselves acquainted with some of the most beautiful, profound and entertaining productions of human verbal invention I have had the privilege to work (and play!) with.
That’ll do for a mission statement. Let these our revels now begin…