Literature and Humanities

Literature and the arts inspire wonder and offer provocation. In Literature and Humanities, students explore myth-making and storytelling from a variety of traditions to understand how poets, historians, and visual artists represented their own worlds and times. What is distinctive and visionary about these creative achievements, and why have they endured? What is the role in art and literature of universal human emotions such as anger, love, hatred, and the desire for gain or for revenge? How does one analyse and appreciate the art and craft of storytelling? What are its techniques and conventions? How do works of art portray values in dialogue, or even in conflict? Through analysis and discussion, students join a reading community that has explored these works throughout history, from Homer’s archaic Greek listeners to the international audience of the contemporary Ramayana traditions. Students cultivate aesthetic, rhetorical and cultural literacy to become cosmopolitan readers of the human experience.

In Literature and Humanities 1, we engage works from the beginnings of myth-making to the early modern period, in three sets of cognate texts: the epic adventures of Rama and Odysseus in Valmiki’s Ramayana and [Homer’s] Odyssey; the historical writings of Herodotus and Sima Qian; and the complex weaving of contemporary tales in 1001 Nights and Boccaccio’s Decameron. These writings introduced fundamental human questions and devised artistic forms through which those questions could be considered. Encounters with other humans involve emotional complexities and a requirement to address the needs of both the individual and the collective. Encounters with divinities, beasts and monsters provide metaphors to explore the boundaries of the human: what kind of creature are we? How should we understand and engage with ‘the other’? Journeys into the unknown raise uncertainties about home and identity: where do we belong, and can we lose ourselves on our travels? Who (or what) else is out there? Grand historical narratives commemorate but also reveal the fragility and subjectivity of memory. What has been salvaged or forgotten? What is the author’s agenda, and who is the target audience? The multiplicity of forms, from epic and historical narrative to painting and architecture, reveals a wide range of possible expressions. The temporal distance and, cultural and linguistic differences between works prepare students to read closely, think comparatively, and appreciate complexity.

Literature and Humanities 2 traces many of these ideas and concerns forward into our own historical moment. We read creative works – drawn especially from literature and the visual arts – that attempt to represent a modern world that is increasingly difficult to represent because of rapid historical, philosophical, and technological shifts. The works we cover in Literature and Humanities 2 embody cultural responses to a broad variety of transformations: the formation of national identity in developing vernacular literatures and tracing national histories; the challenges of modern urban life; the evolving relationship between the secular and the sacred; the experience of cross-cultural encounter; the creation of new social movements; and the realities and fantasies of colonialism, post-colonialism, and globalisation. As in Literature and Humanities 1, we refine our skills as critical readers and interpreters through seminar discussions, short assignments, and longer analytical essays. These courses develop a heightened appreciation for the potential and limitations of cultural products; a greater sense of literary and visual literacy and a better understanding of interpretive strategies; and an enhanced facility with written and oral discussion.