Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Two reading lists -- companion animals, and post-collapse


Hi Gang. Do keep reading Jonathan Hsy's great post below on animal language, and also join Jeffrey in this lovely making of memory. As for me, I'm concocting classes, one an undergraduate medieval comparative literature course, and the other as yet unproposed, on what we can call the literature of collapse (typically called postapocalyptic, not quite to my satisfaction). I'd love to hear your suggestions for each.

The first, the comp lit course, will be a version of one I'm sure many of you have taught: focused on Companion Animals and Other Lives. It's happening next semester as a once-a-week 3-hour evening class. As you might guess from the title, I'm going to be de-emphasizing anxiety and paranoia in my approach to the material; I'll be more interested in affect, community (and immunity), mourning and mourning that goes awry. It'll be best to put a few canonical texts on, and best to do everything in translation, with the originals available for those who want them, and for me to demonstrate some close reading. Here's what I'm thinking for our primary texts:

  • Liber monstrorum / Ratramnus of Corbie, "Letter on the Cynocephali"
  • Voyage of Brendan
  • Marie de France/Tyolet/Biclarel/Arthur and Gorlagon (possibly over two weeks)
  • Gerald of Wales History and Topography of Ireland
  • Stephen of Bourbon on Guinefort, and as many versions of the Canis Legend I can find
  • Yvain
  • Beroul, Tristan
  • Song of Roland (?)
  • Patience / Letaldus of Micy on the whale
  • Pearl
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Mandeville

We have space for a few more, or for stretching some things out over several classes. But if there's something obvious I'm missing that you think would teach like a charm to students with little or no knowledge of medieval literature, let me know, particularly if it's available for free on line or in a cheap edition. I'm considering including the Life of Christina the Astonishing as a kind of lark on saintly inhumanity. The Little Flowers of St. Francis might also be something worth swapping in (maybe instead of the "Canis" material). If anyone knows one in translation, I'd also love to have us do one of the wild-man John Chrysostom legends.

The other class, on the Literature of Collapse, is one I'm sure has been taught hundreds of times before. A quick google gets me this for example, and there's a good course on Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Feminist Theory here. No surprise, Hurricane Sandy sent my mind rushing this direction, and while the election, and (for example) Germany's increasing use of solar power have given me some hope, I'm basically expecting collapse in the next few decades. Blame Reagan and MAD, Nuclear War: What's in it for You?Threads, and The Day After. Blame my fundamentalist, Rapture-expecting upbringing, where I often crept to the church library to read our authorized science fiction, viz., Salem Kirban's 666 and Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth. I even owned a copy of Spire Christian Comics's There's a New World Coming (warning, pdf, but well worth it).

Some obvious texts include the medieval Fifteen Signs of the ApocalypseThe Road, Oryx and Crake (and/or Year of the Flood), and Blindness; zombies would have to be represented by Zone One: A Novel. Less obvious material would be inspired by the class's companion volume, Eugene Thacker's superb In the Dust of this Planet, namely, The Purple Cloud (a mind blowing, orientalist early last man novel, with much to say about the frozen north: read it!), short works like Lovecraft's "Nyarlathotep," and also Maureen F. McHugh's After the Apocalypse, which will definitely be on my grad lit theory course next semester as a text for us to practice on. Vin Nardizzi's essay in the forthcoming Prismatic Ecologies focuses on a lawn-collapse novel, Greener than You Think: this too maybe needs a place on my imagined, increasingly gigantic syllabus. Likewise P. K. Dick's "Second Variety" (which you might have met for the first time, as did I, as Screamers). Do not suggest The Dog Stars: I read it during the hurricane, and found it a boys'-own-adventure, macho and military, tangled in daddy issues. Unrecommended.

What else would you want on this?


Levedi_K said...

The Companion Animal list sounds super exciting. All of the texts I know are in Middle English and are probably not popular enough to be in translation, but this website has lots of interesting information including links to free primary materials:

Maybe you or your class can answer a question I have about Gawain and the Green Knight. By the time the poem was written, wild boars were extinct in Britain, so I've been fascinated with the presence of one during the second day of hunting. Why is it there? Is it nostalgia?

TSM said...

Re: the literature of collapse course, I can say from experience that "Second Variety" teaches well, although I usually pair it with _Blade Runner_, which is a different sort of post-apocalyptic work.

I'd say you need at least something from the great flourishing of apocalypses in the 50s and 60s, in my recommendation _The Day of the Triffids_, which is fantastic for talking "Nature" in any way.

In the latest issue of the Science Fiction Research Association Review (, I actually have a short introductory article on the crossover between mainstream literary and genre-based apocalypses, the bibliography of which you might at least find helpful (although you've hit on the major titles already with Atwood, McCarthy, and Whitehead). I'd also particularly recommend Paul Auster's _In the Country of Last Things_.

Unknown said...

Paul the Deacon's ‘History of the Lombards’ has a number of interesting tales with animals. I'm not sure if any of them will be of any use to you but there is a tale of a temperamental horse who is calmed by a bishop (book 6, chapter 8), there's a very short section on a man that turned into a fly in order spy on the king (Book 6, chapter 6). My personal favourite has a reptile come out of King Gunthram's mouth, eventually leading them to treasure (Book 3, Ch. 31).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Two amazing courses. The seminar is already packed with material -- for example the "Marie de France/Tyolet/Biclarel/Arthur and Gorlagon" cluster could easily extend to three weeks and you would have rich, complicated discussions that linger over those texts (Marie especially is inexhaustible). "Octavian" would be another good, animal-heavy romance to examine (and so many different animals in that one [lion, ape, falcon, horses], some domesticated, some wild, all allies of different sorts).

For literature of collapse, it doesn't get better than A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960). It's saturated in medievalism with its monks and manuscripts, it's post-nuclear, and even has a wandering Jew,

Desdemona said...

There's some good material in the Norse tradition, specifically in Snorri's _Edda_. Loki's relationship with the horse Svathilfari comes immediately to mind. And in hagiography, there's of course St. Cuthbrt, Francis, and thei "holy greyhound" - but accessible, cheap texts for these are not as easy to find.

bwhawk said...

Karl, these courses look excellent. As for Literature of Collapse, your primary texts look particularly good (I especially love the comic of There's a New World Coming).

As an accessible, theoretical text, I would suggest Karen J. Renner, "The Appeal of the Apocalypse," LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 23 (2012), 203-11. It's a great examination of why apocalyptic narratives appeal to us in contemporary pop culture, with wide-ranging examples. The last two volumes of LIT (2012) have both been special issues on "Representations of the Apocalypse in Literature and Film," so you may also find useful materials there (e.g. essays on Oryx & Crake & The Road).

medievalkarl said...

Thank you everyone!

Levedi -- I'm always directing students to that bestairy site. Such a great resource. I've tend not to do much with the bestiaries, myself, since the rapid transformation of nonhumans into symbols in each entry has always been off-putting to me. And plus there's so much high-quality scholarship on Bestiaries already. But I think it's high time that I tried to do something fun with them. In re, your SGGK and boar question -- wow, really? Have you written on this? Looks as though it's time to Interlibrary Loan O’Connor T. and Sykes, N. J., eds, Extinctions and Invasions: A Social History of British Fauna again.

TS Miller -- WOW. Thanks for that link to the pdf. Such great material -- folks, it has a fine introduction to Critical Animal studies, for example. Thanks a million. Over on fb, Vin Nardizzi himself recommends Triffids over Greener. Will read the Auster myself. And from that SFRAR, I'm reminded of all the George Saunders on my shelves (if anyone has a nice link explaining to me why so many people sneer at Saunders, share it): he does collapse lit very, very well.

Jason -- that material sounds FANTASTIC. I've barely ever dipped into Paul the Deacon. I'm now inclinded to do a little unit on medieval historiography and wonder to squeeze in stuff like this (even looking ahead to Wm of Malmesbury, for example).

Jeffrey -- you're right about the 3 weeks. I've never taught what's basically a once-a-week 3 hour class, so it's hard to tell how much reading we can squeeze in. Octavian would be a hoot if it weren't just in (even very easy) Middle English -- although at 1848 lines, it probably wouldn't take me forever to slap together a translation myself. Canticle: read that in 1988 or 89, I think. Would be happy to return to it. I'm also convinced I actually need to include Nuclear War: What's in it for You, if copies can be procured: though I haven't read it since, oh, 1983, it's such a bizarre, necessary relic of the MAD era.

Rachel -- Holy Greyhound's up there, with Guinefort and the Canis legend. Cuthbert, definitely! Yes. Francis, maybe, and I've tended to shy away from the Norse material because I don't read Old Norse. But it's very, very tempting.

Brandon -- VERY useful. So great. I'll read all that stuff.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: these 2 courses are AMAZING; I've taught on post-apocalyptic *contemporary* lit/films and I'm directing a thesis in such now as well, so very steeped in this right now. There are of course WAY TOO MANY good texts/films to choose from, but let me just recommend what I feel are perhaps 2 of the best ever in the genre:


Book: FISKADORO, by Denis Johnson [author of Jesus's Son and other amazing books]

Think also, in medieval lit, about the mode of the elegy.

medievalkarl said...

Eileen -- like a zombie, I need to slowly pick your brain on this if this class ever comes about (I'm thinking Fall 2013). Thanks for the Denis Johnson rec. I've never read him, but of course I know the Jesus's Son film, and his reputation. Will read this and love it, I know.

Children of Men -- mixed feelings, you know. Reproductive futurity, haha! Maybe. If I'm including a film, inclined to show La Jetée (in large part because it's short, so it wouldn't take much class time).

Elegy for the Companion Animals: oh hell yes! The Wanderer? There's various animal elegy poems, some satiric, some not (Lament of the Roast Swan, Culex, Pitulus, and a set of what Liza Strakhov called "mangled sheep poems," here: William W. Kibler and James I. Wimsatt, “The Development of the Pastourelle in the Fourteenth Century: An Edition of Fifteen Poems with an Analysis,” Medieval Studies 45 (1983): 22-78.

Plus there's a very, very sad dead dog story here, page 29 and 31 for translation, from the Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes (hat tip to the deep knowledge of Charlie Wright at UIUC for this reference).

bwhawk said...

I think Eileen's right on, especially about Children of Men and medieval elegies (haven't seen the other). As I read her comment, it hit me that the OE Ruin would go so well with Collapse; and then I was reminded of the haunting video for that poem here--haunting in its reenactment of the OE as well as the modern post-industrial ruins that it uses as the landscape.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: first, don't take the reproductive futurity of the FILM [as opposed to the book, where it is definitely questionable/even offensive + "straight"] as meaning "straight/heterosexual" natality; I wrote this back in 2007, following Zizek's commentary on the DVD version of the film:

"Of course, the most famous recent example of a movie obsessed with the question of hetero-reproductivity has to be Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, which I must point out is radically different than the novel by P.D. James on which the movie is based. With the elimination and revision of certain details in the film version of this parable of the future that is really our present, the Christianizing tones of the novel in which a certain moral and social decadence leads to worldwide sterility, war, and catastrophe—a catastrophe, moreover, that can only be solved in the form of a miracle birth—in the movie adaptation, are lessened. What starts as a Christian parable becomes, instead, a political, but more importantly, a historical lesson. As Slavoj Zizek, who actually makes an appearance on the “extras” feature of the DVD version of Children of Men, puts it,

it is problematic to focus on infertility [in the film] and then say “oh, but you know this biological infertility is really a metaphor for spiritual infertility” or whatever. I think that we should avoid this cheap direct spiritualist reading of the film. . . . the true infertility is the very lack of meaningful historical experience. It’s a society of pure meaningless historical experience. . . . [and] this film gives the best diagnosis of ideological despair of late capitalism. Of a society without history, or to use another term, biopolitics. The basic problem in this society as depicted in the film is literally biopolitics: how to generate, regulate life. But . . . the crucial point is that this obvious fact shouldn’t deceive us. The true despair is precisely that, all historical acts disappear.

Shannon said...

Bede's Life of Cuthbert has some great companion animal moments.

Anonymous said...

Hi Karl:
If you are looking for something medieval-flavored for your post-apocalyptic class, I would suggest Walter Miller's much celebrated sf novel _The Canticle of Leibowitz_ which depicts a post-nuclear holocaust world that has essentially reverted to the Middle Ages, replete with Catholic monasteries that are (again) preserving the scraps of knowledge from antiquity (in this case, knowledge from pre-nuclear war America). And also J.G. Ballard has some interesting post-apocalyptic novels from the 1960s that are highly relevant to today's problems of climate change and record drought: _The Drowned World_ depicts a post-global warming flooded London, and _The Drought_ is, as the name tells us, about a devastating drought that has overtaken the world.


Tobias said...


You ideas for a course on “collapse” have inspired me to think about proposing such a course myself.

It seems to me that the second-generation Romantics inaugurate a post-eschatological (secular?) literature of collapse. You have poems of civilizational collapse, like Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” and PB Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” In _Frankenstein_, Victor justifies destroying the mate he’s created for the creature when he conjectures “that future ages might curse me as their pest,--whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race,” which must be the first time that the end of humankind, but not worldly nature, becomes a significant plot point (and it anticipates a question in the literature of collapse: who inhabits these human-less future ages and so may curse Victor?). M Shelley took up this thought experiment, of the extinction of the species, in _The Last Man_. And then there is Byron’s sublime (and short) poem “Darkness,” which envisages the extinction of life and light (and, amazingly, ends with a _personified_ darkness). I’d recommend “Darkness.” Why the second generation Romantics should so persistently take up what I understand to be a fairly unprecedented secular understanding of collapse (which extends beyond “decline and fall” of civilizations to include human extinction and the end of nature) is worth considering. There’s an excellent recent _Romantic Circles_ collection on “Disaster,” which raises some of these issues:

Kermode’s _The Sense of An Ending_ might by useful as a critical text, alongside _In the Dust of This Planet_ (which looks awesome); Kermode offers students a lot of good tools for thinking about the temporal and narrative issues of apocalypse and crisis.

You say you expect collapse in two or three decades. I do as well. But I think in a course like this it’s important not only to resist the sense that “apocalypse” or “collapse” are simply narratological or rhetorical categories, as opposed to meaningful historical categories, but also the sense that it is always still-to-come (and soon!). It seems important to think about apocalypse and collapse as having happened (leaving us in the place of the Agambenian witness, traumatically unable to represent the event) and/or as ongoing. I taught Jared Diamond’s book _Collapse_ in a course on climate change, and I like the way it reminds us that civilizational collapse is very much a part of human history, although it didn’t work very well in the classroom. Another thing would be to discuss the duration of collapse, to think about endings not as single kairotic moments (the before and after so crucial to novels of apocalypse) but as transpiring over/in time; Rob Nixon’s _Slow Violence_ is relevant here. Chakrabarty begins his excellent essay in _CI_ on “The Climate of History” by invoking _The World Without Us_, a wonderfully measured nonfiction account of a truly post-human world. From my perspective, the most difficult and useful task of a class such as this would be to think about apocalypse without _unveiling_, to think about collapse as involving the very modes of recognition and representation that would make radical change or extinction available to consciousness. Juliana Spahr’s poem “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” is more of an elegy (an elegy of blocked mourning) than an apocalypse narrative, but, like “Darkness,” it raises great questions about the unavailability of loss.

I agree about _The Dog Stars_, although I did admire its representation of nature after the collapse, of living in a much reduced world where some species still flourish. I’ve ordered _The Purple Cloud_ (did you notice Penguin is putting out an edition?) and _After the Apocalypse_ (which looks great). Why teach the Summa Theologica but not Revelations itself?

Anyway, thanks for the inspiration and good luck with the course!


Elizabeth said...

Hi Karl, these sound like terrific courses I'd like to take myself! You may already know the companion animal in Bishop Hugh of Lincoln's biography--it's in Magna Vita (translated facing page edn by Decima Douie) and may be in Gerald of Wales too--a swan that mourns Hugh's departures from the diocese and anticipates his final illness and death, hissing when anyone else comes near. Medieval collapse in the Perceval waste land too.

Levedi_K said...

Thanks, Karl, for the book suggestion. I haven't written about boars and SGGK. I'm currently reading for PhD exams, so I'm having trouble finding (making?) time to have fun with other scholarly pursuits. I'm super interested in animals in literature, but I'm pretty behind when it comes to critical animal studies. Also, about the bestiaries, I know the symbolism can be off-putting, but the site has been working on providing links to primary texts that aren't necessarily bestiaries. The barnacle goose entry, for example, provides a link to a translation of Mandeville's Travels. The site still might not be what you're looking for, but I think it's becoming progressively more useful.

AshtheViking said...

Sounds like two fantastic courses. For the one on collapse I would recommend Dies the Fire by S.M. Sterling. I actually read it for a Medieval Studies class on the early Middle Ages.

Alison said...

And the new A.S. Byatt version plays around with analogizing it to a WWII English childhood.

Anne said...

This just to say: when can I register?

Anonymous said...

Hi Karl:
I was wondering if at some point in the future you could share with us some useful secondary sources you've found and that you might draw upon for your Apocalypse class. I for one would like to know more about any excellent monographs or articles out there on some of the texts you plan on using or that others have recommended to you.