Classes began today. I’m teaching an introductory survey of English literature, which I’m calling “Painting the Inner Life: A Journey into the Physical, Spiritual, and Social Dimensions of Selfhood.” Here is the course description:

“Never judge a book by its cover.” A simple truth, and yet, our culture is driven by its obsession with creating “image.” Magazines and television shows teach us hair, styling, and exercise techniques directed at further shaping this image of ourselves, an image that will presumably reveal the “real you,” but nevertheless a reality that remains on the surface of the body, on the “cover.” Similarly, when we think about identity and the individual, we might create a mental picture based on one’s personal style, professional identity, leisure activities, or, at a more sophisticated level, cultural markers of distinction (race, class, gender, sexuality). But even as we attempt to invoke representations of a deeper nature, our perceptions of the individual remain largely externalized. We rarely invest ourselves in the machinery of the inner life of the individual.

What kind of portrait might we paint that imagines the breathless fears, pulsating desires, and remorseful thoughts that mark the inner spirit of the individual? One of our most coveted desires as human beings is to witness the soul of another human being; one of our greatest fears is that someone other will catch a glimpse of our own. One of the appeals, then, of reading literature is that it provides access to the hidden and complex inner life of the individual. In this survey course, we will examine texts that enjoin the spiritual and mechanical spirit of the age with a dynamic exploration of selfhood. As critics, and as individuals, we will piece together a portrait of the inner lives we witness and also experience.

The reading list includes:

  • Thomas Carlyle. “Signs of the Times” and Sartor Resartus.
  • Mary Shelley. Frankenstein.
  • George Eliot. The Lifted Veil.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
  • Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • Aldous Huxley. Brave New World.
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