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February 11, 2002

Zhang begins her 'Critique of Love' in spring seminar

By Beverly Clark & Michael Terrazas


What is love? A group of freshman will attempt this spring to answer that eternal question by taking an analytical look at the heady emotion in the introductory literary studies course “Critique of Love.”

Students will work to discern the meaning of love through a critical analysis of select literary works from antiquity to the modern period, ranging from the spiritual Hindu text The Bhagavad-Gita to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Kierkigaard’s The Fear and Trembling, among other selections.

The class is taught by Lili Zhang, an Emory doctoral student in comparative literature and a native of China. Zhang said the idea for the course evolved out of her first impressions of America and the culture’s liberal use of the word ‘love.’

“When I came here five or six years ago, I noticed people used the word ‘love’ widely, not specifically for ‘loving’ in a romantic sense,” Zhang said. “Americans use it more often and more casually than in China. What does love mean when it is used superficially and so often?

“I watched a—how do you call it? A ‘soap opera,’” Zhang continued in her heavily accented English. “Everybody was saying ‘I love this,’ ‘I love that,’ ‘I love you.’ I felt a little uncomfortable, like [the word] is a little bit abused.”

Zhang has begun the class with two of the pillars of the Western literary canon: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and the Bible. In the latter, she said she is using the story of the Garden of Eden to illustrate that, in Judeo-Christian mythology, love and knowledge originally stood in opposition to each other: Adam and Eve partook of the Tree of Knowledge, then were expelled from the garden and had to compensate for paradise by using love for each other and for God.

“In the modern world,” Zhang said, “love becomes knowledge—instead of action.”

Zhang said many of her 13 students chose the class because they thought it was a critique on the concept of ‘love,’ rather than the word itself.

“When students are reading the works, I want them to think analytically and critically about love instead of aesthetically,” Zhang said. “I want to give them some distance from the word and escape the inherent meaning they each have for it. I want them to understand how ‘love,’ as a social construct, defines the individual feeling of love.”

While students will specifically analyze the topic of love, the course provides an introduction to literary studies combined with an intensive writing approach. Completion of the course with a passing grade fulfills Emory’s freshman writing requirement.

Other required reading includes Shakespeare’s Othello, The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and Civilization and Its Discontent by Sigmund Freud. Required course work includes one presentation, five short papers and a final paper.