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Literary Representations of Nature and Society

ENGL 475.960
instructor(s):
TR 5:30-8:10
fulfills requirements:
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major

In order to construct successful environmental policies, understanding our cultures' attitudes about the natural world is as important as mastering basic science. In fact, it is fair to say that environmental policy is formed at the intersection of culture and science. This course will use literary works as windows into the way western culture has viewed nature and its relation to society. We will analyze a wide variety of texts, from ancients to modern, and although we will follow a kind of chronological order, we will not be tracing a cultural evolution in understanding the environment. Instead we will uncover ideas about the natural world that are at once diverse, contradictory, and persistent. Throughout the western tradition while some works make claims for mankind's mastery of nature, for rights of dominion and rational control, others paint a far less sanguine picture. Euripides Bacchae, for example, is a cautionary tale that teaches humility as it terrifies; it is as hard on our dreams of reason as the bleak science fiction of Philip K. Dick. Naturally, central to our study will be stories of creation and paradise, ideal visions of nature viewed from the perspective of loss. However, not every author sees this loss in the same light. For Hawthorne's Puritans, fallen nature is actively demonic whereas for a wrier like Francis Bacon it is simply in need of a little repair. And for William Wordsworth nature is in itself powerfully salvational. Finally, we will conduct the course by briefly examining two non-western texts, Native American and ancient Chinese, to provide additional perspective on our own cultural assumptions.