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Plagues, Epidemics, Terror: A Literary History

Semester and Year SP 2018
Course Number IDSEM-UG1954
Section 001
Instructor Simon Fortin
Days TR
Time 4:55 PM - 6:10 PM
Units 4
Level U
Requirement   HUM, EARLY



This course examines artistic, literary and cultural responses to the cataclysmic events of the Great Plague (The Black Death, 1347-48) and its shaping agency upon early modernity and beyond. To better posit the Great Plague (and its recurrences) as an early confrontation with the hazards of globalization, we immerse ourselves in Renaissance texts to explore the tropes of the invisible enemy, the wrath of God, the psyche of hysteria, the fear of the other, of the intruder, of the undesired. The effects of this catastrophe on the social fabric of the communities it touched were not only pervasive but enduring; so were the psychic wounds it inflicted. Faced with such traumas, intellectuals and artists felt compelled to fully measure the effects of the plague, as well as comprehend its deep philosophical and moral consequences. This initial investigation into early modern reactions to epidemics propels us in the second half of the semester into a study of current responses to infectious diseases, mainly through literary representations of current pandemics: AIDS, Sars, Ebola, and Zika; we also look at hypothetical diseases that operate as thought experiments. We will consider a wide set of questions: What kind of art do epidemics provoke into being? How do diseases shape social and state structures? When weighed against individual liberties, what kind of ethical concerns should attend the elaboration of policies such as quarantine, scapegoating, contagion containment? How does disease mediate the relationship between society, the individual, and the family? Why does humor play such a fashioning role in the representation of epidemics?


All Syllabi

Course Type

Interdisciplinary Seminars (IDSEM-UG)