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Science and Literature: Pox, Pest, Plague: Disease and Literature

ENGL 075.601

From the Black Death to Ebola to Swine Flu, the threat of the next pandemic seems only to lie dormant, never to disappear. Whether it’s the CDC’s concern about smallpox and bio-terror or Hollywood’s zombie invasion, we remain preoccupied by the possibility of pandemic, and, we might add, for good reason.  In this class, we’ll examine narratives of outbreak, thinking about, among other things, metaphors of infection, survival, and contagion.  Who is healthy? Who is sick? Who will survive? We will begin our reading with Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian war (a description so detailed that scholars millennia later have been able to diagnose the disease that he depicted – and died from) and we will end with Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion and Max Brook’s take on life post the “Zombie War,” World War Z.  As we work through the semester, we will think about what it means to die or survive in the face of plague, and how these questions of what it means to be infected, infectious, or inoculated continue to haunt us, whether it’s in our obsession with the zombie apocalypse or our annual flu shots.
Works may include Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Daniel Defoe’s The Journal of the Plague Year, Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Mask of Red Death,” Albert Camus’ The Plague, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and José Saramago’s Blindness. 

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