Monday, December 12, 2011

Mise-en-Abyme in Boccaccio, Chaucer, Borges, and Auster


As I have mentioned several times in various blog posts in the past, a few years ago my department revised our B.A. in English curriculum, partly to diversify and broaden our "major author" offerings/requirements, and also to turn away from survey and upper-division literature courses structured along perhaps overly-sterile and often unreflected upon periodization lines (in favor of survey and upper-division literature courses that would be structured according to themes, genres, and literary forms: we still offer a 400-level course called "Literary Periods," and instructors can fill that in any way they like). We still have stand-alone "major author" courses such as "Chaucer," "Shakespeare," and "Milton," but we also added one titled "Morrison," and then we invented two new courses, "Major Authors: Shared Traditions" and "Major Authors: Crossing Boundaries." These were particular "babies" of mine and a few other faculty who wanted to allow professors to get more inventive with what constitutes a "major" author (which could then, also, change over time) and to also include more than just one author. "Shared Traditions" stipulates that you teach 2-4 authors who can be seen, from whatever angle, to "share" a "tradition" (defined however the instructor wants to define that: it could be the Caribbean--a place; or Jewishness--an identity; or the long poem--a form; or the English Renaissance--a period; and so on and so forth). "Crossing Boundaries" (my personal favorite, and one I love to teach) stipulates that you teach 2-4 authors whose work would seem, at first glance, to be so distant from each other (in whatever terms: time period, genre, culture, form, etc.) you can't comprehend what they might have in common, but you devise something/anything that would pull them together. I see this as a beautiful opportunity, I might add, to keep medieval literature, especially, "in the mix."

Obviously, when my department was first ruminating these changes to our B.A. in English, the premodernists were justifiably nervous. Would students still take the Chaucer class, if they could take Morrison instead? Would they take Milton if they could take a "Crossing Boundaries" course instead? First, I have never believed that we will save medieval studies by forcing students to take Chaucer [by, for example, making the Chaucer course compulsory, or, as we did in the past, requiring a "major author" class and then only offering Chaucer once a year and Shakespeare each semester so that students will end up in the Chaucer class when they can't get into the Shakespeare class or because it just happens to fit their schedule better, or because: they think they will like Chaucer, anyway, and what other choices are there?!?]. But more importantly, as much as I love to teach our stand-alone Chaucer course [as I am doing this semester], I think it's important to teach medieval and other premodern authors in relation to other authors situated in other periods. For me, everything is always already dialogic and no author is really separated from every other author, cognitively, historically, aesthetically, culturally, however you want to describe the supposed partitions. Of course it's fun sometimes to jump into the deep end of the pool and study one author in depth -- it's an experience, for sure, and often an enlightening one -- but for B.A.-level courses, especially, I think it's vitally important that we demonstrate the ways in which literature serves as an important and valuable field of inter- and intra-temporal thought and play (especially play), and that medieval literature is not really a world apart from contemporary literature, or from anything inbetween, but remains a vital body of work that inheres deep within modern life, culture, and thought, and in often uncanny ways. So, a few semesters ago, I taught a "Crossing Boundaries" course that focused on the concepts of sin and the postlapsarian in Milton's Paradise Lost and Neil Labute's plays [go HERE to see the syllabus for that course]. And this coming spring semester, I'm teaching another section of this course on the narrative form of the mise-en-abyme in the work of Boccaccio, Chaucer, Borges, and Paul Auster, the description for which I'll share with you here:

ENG480 Major Authors: Crossing Boundaries: Mise-en-Abyme in Boccaccio, Chaucer, Borges, Auster

Achilles: That's quite a bit to swallow. I never imagined there could be a world above mine before--and now you're hinting that there could even be one above that. It's like walking up a familiar staircase, and just keep on going further up after you've reached the top--or what you'd always taken to be on the top!

Crab: Or waking up from what you took to be real life, and finding out it too was just a dream. That could happen over and over again, no telling when it would stop.

--from Douglas R. Hoftstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach

In this course, we will explore the literary device of mise-en-abyme, or "a story within a story" (also known as a "nested" and "hypodiegetic" narrative and in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, a story with "forking paths"), in the work of four major authors, two situated in the Italian and English Middle Ages, and two situated in the modern period, in South America and America: Giovanni Boccaccio (selections from the Decameron), Geoffrey Chaucer (Legend of Good Women and selections from Canterbury Tales), Jorge Luis Borges (Labyrinths: Selected Stories), and Paul Auster (New York Trilogy, Oracle Night, and Book of Illusions). In addition, we will examine a small slice of the oeuvre of the writer and filmmaker Charlie Kaufmann that masterfully employs the device of mise-en-abyme: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Synecdoche. In addition to exploring the significance of these artists' work, we will also examine the possible connections to made between them, while also gaining some expertise in narratological theory by scholars such as Thomas Pavel, Brian McHale, Jean Gennette, Paul Ricouer, Wolfgang Iser, Roland Barthes, and Umberto Eco.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be working up the more full syllabus and will also share that with everyone here, and please do send me any suggestions you might have for primary and/or theoretical readings for the syllabus!

And Happy Holidays! [Today being my last teaching day of the term, I'm a bit giddy with happiness.]


Got Medieval said...

One small thing you might not have considered. Someone looking at the transcript of a student in your program now might have less information about what the student studied, particularly if they're allowed to take multiple Major Authors courses.

Maybe your registrar has this already figured out, but if they don't you might want to see if they can work the major author's names into the line item on the transcript for the courses.

i said...

It's missing the classic medieval mise-en-abyme, one that inspired Borges as well: the Arabian nights.

i said...

PS. Arabian nights would also be a nice way to move a little further East, and to show that this form is not just a Euro-American invention....


Eileen Joy said...

Got Medieval: we've actually thought of that and have worked with the Registrar to make sure the students' transcripts reflect actual authors, periods, etc.

Irina: brilliant. I think I'll add a bit of that in as a "prelude."

Got Medieval said...

Excellent. I worry sometimes that our general distaste with our role as credentialers means we don't think of such things, and it's good to hear you all did.

Karl Steel said...

Hey EJ, if you just want to throw some other ideas out to your studies for mise-en-abîme, there's Metamorphoses and Raymon Llull's Book of Beasts. As I'm clearing out old papers, I'm now picturing the enormous first-day handouts I'd get from Ferrante, Hanning, or Bynum of a list of 100 books on the course's topic...

Chris said...

Undergrad me would have been very excited about this course!

I'm thinking up a few other examples of fiction that does this (Quixote, Perec, Roussel), but I'm really curious if there's any nonfiction that does this, and if you could get the students to write papers-within-papers.