November 29, 1999
Volume 52, No. 13
New comp lit course offers study in Apocalypse 101
Imagine a course where you could earn credit for reading science fiction and watching films like The Terminator and episodes of "The X-Files." Those are just a sample of the surprising elements in the undergraduate comparative literature course "The End of the World."
Graduate student instructor Michèle Biscoe said her objective with the course is to investigate the nature of the individual's encounter with modern threats and realities of death. "The course is organized according to conceptual ways of envisioning the end of the world: theological, biological, technological and ideological," she said. "The more I considered the topic, the more I realized how these distinctions help to differentiate the meaning of the end of the world in the various texts and films while at the same time revealing unexpected similarities among them."
For example, offered Biscoe, Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita is at one level a critique of Stalinist Russia; it addresses an end of the world that is ideological. But the appearance of the devil in Moscow and the intertext of the biblical Pontius Pilate story conflate the ideological with theological themes. The problem presented by the devil's appearance is revisited by the character Sarah Connor when she meets visitors from the future in the Terminator films.
Certain issues addressed in the course relate to Biscoe's dissertation on the contemporary problem of authorship, for which she draws insight from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. In his 1969 lecture "What is an Author?" Foucault predicted that, as society changes, the author will no longer be the final arbiter of the meaning of fictional texts. Foucault does not predict what will take the author's place; rather he urges us to be attentive to societal changes and their impact upon the way meaning is produced.
Biscoe agrees. "I think that, at the end of the 20th century, we are certainly witnessing evidence of changes in the value or meaning we give to authorship," she said. " Consider the Internet. For much of the work I do online, I am more concerned with the reliability of the information source than I am with the identity of the individual author. More prosaically, the Internet is a space where people question, occlude and fabricate identities. The question of authorship is closely bound to the question of identity."
Students in her class will see modern and contemporary examples of this phenomenon. One text that they will explore is Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. Araki, a poet, created quite a stir in journals like Grand Street and Conjunctions until it was discovered that he never existed. Whether he is an actual person or not, the Hiroshima poet presents a literary response to the bomb based on personal experience. For Biscoe, his writing is pivotal.
"I work with important 20th century French and Russian writers and philosophers who respond to catastrophes that have occurred on their soil," Biscoe said. "The end of the world is a richly comparative topic; a lot of directly and indirectly apocalyptic texts, including those central to my work, foreground the problem of authorship."
Through readings, films, discussions and writing, students consider the 20th century gestalt of crisis in events like the Russian revolution, both world wars, the Holocaust, the Nazi occupation of France, Hiroshima and the American civil rights movement. Rather than trying to understand history through literature, they will examine certain recurrent themes and figures in literature and films. The problems of creation, destruction, knowledge, what it means to be alive, and what it means to be human, all play a part.
Biscoe encourages students to seek eschatalogical connections outside of the classroom. "From the ubiquitous Y2K bug, to the rampant Internet apocalypticism, to the more urgent crises in Congo, on the Indian subcontinent and in the former Yugoslavia, we will keep abreast of the contemporary millennial climate using LearnLink and the course web pages," Biscoe said.
Thanks to laser disk technology, students and teacher will be able to work closely with the "text" when discussing films just as they do with books. "I've had some of my best class discussions when I've been able to show a scene in the classroom and discuss it frame by frame, or juxtapose two scenes from different points in the film-or from different films altogether."
"The End of the World" resonates beautifully with other comparative literature classes being taught this fall. "Literature after the Catastrophe," "Love and Violence" and "The Culture of the Body" also address issues of self-expression and identity posed by the advent of a new millennium. Biscoe doesn't anticipate approaching literature in the same way next time: "The topic is especially fun in 1999 but might seem rather anachronistic in the year 2001."