by EILEEN JOY
In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know . . . . there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination -- and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality -- but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.
~ from Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
It's that time of year again: new course syllabi! I am teaching a Master's-level seminar this semester on the supernatural, primarily in the Middle Ages, but with forays into: contemporary film and fiction; some classic (older) psychoanalytic, structuralist, and anthropological approaches to the theory of the supernatural and fantastic; and the role of the supernatural/haunting in American history (vis-a-vis Scott Poole's new book, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting). As I began preparing this syllabus, I realized that the supernatural -- as a category related to material/immaterial experience, as literary genre, and as an operative figure/realm/atmosphere within literature [furthermore, as both noun and adjective] -- was an incredibly slippery thing to define and in some ways, I feel it is important to foreground that slipperiness [which is definitively categorical and taxonomic] as a primary area of exploration in the course. The question of monsters and monster literature was raised in my mind as I was trying to choose primary texts for the course, mainly because that is a course I've taught in the past and I didn't want to just repeat that content with different questions, nor did I want this course to slip into yet another course on the post-human, of which I've taught many -- and there's nothing wrong with that, as the supernatural does of course entail, often, the non- and post-human, but following on the heels of a course on mise-en-abyme and nested worlds in literature that I taught last semester, and also because of my interest in speculative realism, I'm becoming increasingly excited about returning to certain structural questions having to do with the "weird" realism and ontology of fictional-possibilistic worlds.
Within the realm of the supernatural there are monsters, of course, but not all monsters are necessarily supernatural and the supernatural is not always "monstrous," per se. Then again, that might depend on your point of view [but whose view, and when, historical context-wise?] -- a novel like Toni Morrison's Beloved seems an apt test case for thinking through such questions: is the supernatural a monstrous or an all-too-human genre, or something in between? You see, thinking about the supernatural is a tricky business. Is it ghost stories? Magic? Angels and demons? Fairy tales? Marvels and wonders? Tales of supra-psychic abilities? Any seemingly material phenomena that cannot be explained with recourse to what is "natural" or "scientific"? Is it a matter of belief, of superstition, of religion, of the paranormal, of dreams, Otherworlds [heaven, hell, faerylands, etc.], other space-time dimensions [wormholes], or something else? How is the supernatural to be distinguished from the fantastic [or, are they same?], and as a genre, from science fiction, from horror, from fantasy, and so on? Clearly, an interest in the supernatural is an enduring fascination over time, from Ovid's Metamorphoses to The Exorcist and television's Lost and Supernatural series and everything in between: we never seem to tire of the very types of stories that our scientific rationality [in the past and the present] tells us is either highly unlikely or could never possibly be true. In this sense, the supernatural turns out to be a felicitously fertile area for investigating questions of the ontological structures of realism and unrealism, in historical thinking as well as in literature.
Whereas in the past, I have thrown a hell of a lot of contemporary secondary scholarship at my M.A. students in addition to the core primary texts [a burden of reading that I think has practically killed them and has even led to a general NON-reading, even on my own part], this semester I am aiming for a slower and less hectic pace -- one in which, from the core readings on the syllabus, they can hopefully feel they have a somewhat firm grasp of how persons in the Middle Ages thought about the supernatural in literary, spiritual, historical, and scientific contexts [our primary guide, in addition to the literary texts, will be Robert Bartlett's beautiful small book of essays The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages] as well as some immersion in some older [but classic] theoretical texts by Freud, Bruno Bettelheim, and Tzvetan Todorov. This is how I describe the course's primary objectives on the syllabus:
In this course, we will explore the realm and representation of the supernatural and fantastic in: (1) the medieval world -- in its imaginative literature, but also in its philosophical, scientific, and religious contexts; (2) some classic theoretical texts (written by Bruno Bettelheim, Freud, Tzvetan Todorov, and Maria Warner); and (3) contemporary cinema. One aim will be to deepen our understanding of the various and complex ways in which medieval persons understood the terms "natural" and "supernatural," and following the lead of historian Robert Bartlett, we will start with the caveat that the belief systems of the Middle Ages were no more coherent than our own, but rather reflect overlapping zones of intellectual debate, difference, and even "discomfort." As this is primarily a literature course, another aim will be to investigate together the aesthetic-fictional structures and properties of supernatural figures, states, and worlds, and how the "natural" and "supernatural" inform each other in literary works. Related to this, the theoretical texts we read together will help us to reflect upon the psychological, philosophical, cultural, social, political and other uses of the supernatural and why and how they have endured over time, and this is why we will also delve into some contemporary works, such as the films The Exorcist, Le Pacte des Loups [Brotherhood of the Wolf], and Pan's Labyrinth, Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere (1996), and portions of historian Scott Poole's new book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting (2011). This course will therefore hopefully serve as both an immersion in medieval literature and intellectual history on the supernatural, as well as a more broad cultural studies primer on the role of the supernatural in the imaginative arts over time that will ideally also help us to approach the question of realism and unrealism in literature from fresh perspectives.You can see the full syllabus HERE. In addition to the core readings on the syllabus, I would also like to build for my students an online bibliography of secondary scholarship on the supernatural both in the Middle Ages and in contemporary cultural studies. So, if you have any suggestions for that bibliography [or even for primary readings for my syllabus: I still haven't decided which saints' lives to use!], please do post those suggestions here: that would really help me.