Comparative Literature 190: The Writing of the Self

As citizens of the modern world we tend to regard ourselves as unique and irreplaceable individuals; we conceive our personal identity as something to which we alone have privileged access and about which we are especially entitled to speak. We regard ourselves as singular beings, as capable of self-knowledge, and as able to gauge the difference between the authentic self and its inauthentic masks. What are the origins of these beliefs and how are they shaped in various forms of literature? In this course we will trace different versions of the modern “self” through confessional writing, essays, literary portraiture, short stories, memoirs, philosophical discourse, and poetry. We will ask about the extent to which the self is indeed a modern invention and we will consider the degree to which its very existence depends upon the development of certain modes of writing within the history of modernity. Additionally we will ask about the motives behind the formation of the modern self: What particular forms of individualism mark the modern self as a self-conscious “subject” and what are its implications for the qualities and values we either prize or might wish to revise? What are the sources of our belief in authenticity and what are its limits? How does the contextuality of personal identity in relation to factors such as gender, race, national origin, and class, bear upon the value of its singularity? What might it mean to have an identity that is not recognizable by a culture’s “dominant” discourses? Finally, we will ask whether we have entered an era in which the subject-self has vanished and where the uniqueness of personal identity has been eclipsed. If this is so, then what if anything has replaced it? We will devote equal attention to the role of literature in the formation of the self and to the questions about self-awareness, individuality, and individualism that these matters imply. Readings will be drawn from Shakespeare, Montaigne, Rousseau, Thoreau, Whitman, and Borges, among others. 

Regular attendance, class participation, and completion of readings on time are required of all students. There will be a 2-part mid-term and a final essay (15 pages, due 4 pm 12/15). Students must pass all components of the class in order to pass overall. Final grade represents 1/3 classwork, 1/3 mid-term, and 1/3 final paper. Students are expected to read the original-language versions of all texts within their CL language groups.

There are required texts (listed below) as well as a photocopied reader for the course. An announcement regarding the reader will be made at the first class. Please note that readings have changed; when making your book purchases be sure to follow the list below, and not simply what is on the shelves of the local bookstores.


CL 190: The Writing of the Self


1. Introduction

2. Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

3. Montaigne, Essais (selections); Jean Starobinski, “This Mask Torn Away” from Montaigne in Movement (photocopies)

4. Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations

5. Shakespeare, Sonnets (selections); Joel Fineman, “Introduction” to Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye (photocopies)

6. Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker

7. Stendhal, Memoirs of an Egotist

8. Thoreau, Walden

9. Emerson, “Self-Reliance”; Poe, “The Imp of the Perverse”; Stanley Cavell, “Being Odd, Getting Even” (photocopies)

10. Whitman, “Song of Myself”; Roberto Mangabeira Unger, “Introduction” to Passion, an Essay on Personality (photocopies)

11. Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

12. Borges, Ficciones

13. Virginia Woolf, Orlando; Sally Potter, Orlando (videorecording)

14. Octavio Paz, Labyrinth of Solitude

15. John Ashbery, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (photocopy); Bill Viola, “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like” (videorecording)

Recommended/secondary reading, Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self

CL 190: The Writing of the Self


Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (Sophocles, I). D. David Grene and Richard Lattimore. Univ. Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0 226 37092 1 Paperback

Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations. Trans. John Vetch. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0 87975526 1 Paperback

Rousseau, Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Penguin. ISBN 0 14 044363 0 Paperback

Thoreau, Walden. Penguin. ISBN 0140390448 Paperback

Borges, Ficciones. Grove Press. ISBN 0 394 17244 2 Paperback

Virginia Woolf. Orlando. Harcourt Brace ISBN 0 15 670160 x Paperback

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Vintage/Random House, 1993. ISBN 0-679-73452-X Paperback

Stendhal, Memoirs of an Egotist. Trans. Andrew Brown. Hesperus Press, 2003. ISBN 1-84391-040-3 Paperback


Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. Paperback ISBN 0674824261 Paperback.

CLASS READER (required)
Available at a local copyshop, t.b.a.
CL 190: The Writing of the Self


Aug. 31, General Introduction

Sept. 2, Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Acts 1-2

Sept. 7, Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Act 3

Sept. 9, Montaigne, “Essays” (selections from books I and II); Starobinski essay (1)

Sept. 14, Montaigne, “Essays” (selections from book III); Starobinski essay (2)

Sept. 16, Shakespeare, Sonnets (selections t.b.a.); Fineman essay (1)

Sept. 21, Shakespeare, Sonnets (selections t.b.a.); Fineman essay (2)

Sept. 23, Descartes, Meditations

Sept. 28, Descartes, Discourse on Method

Sept. 30, Rousseau, Reveries, Walks 1-4

Oct. 5, Rousseau, Reveries, Walks 5-9

Oct. 7, Thoreau, Walden (through “The Bean Field”)

Oct. 12, Thoreau, Walden (to the end)

Oct. 14, Mid-term, part 1

Oct. 19, Mid-term, part 2

Oct. 21, Emerson, “Self-Reliance”; Cavell “Being Odd, Getting Even” (1)

Oct. 26, Poe, “Imp of the Perverse”; Cavell, “Being Odd, Getting Even” (2)

Oct. 28, Whitman, “Song of Myself”; Unger (1)

Nov. 2, Whitman, “Song of Myself”; Unger (2)

Nov. 4, Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground: “Underground”

Nov. 9, Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground: “A Propos of the Wet Snow”

Nov. 11, Borges, Ficciones

Nov. 16, Woolf, Orlando, ch. 1-3; Potter

Nov. 18, Woolf, Orlando, ch. 4-6; Potter

Nov. 23, Paz, Labyrinth of Solitude, pp. 9-116

Nov. 25, Thanksgiving (no class)

Nov. 30, Paz, Labyrinth of Solitude, pp. 117-212

Dec. 2, Ashbery, “Self-Portrait”; Viola, “I do Not Know What It Is I Am Like” (1)

Dec. 7, Ashbery, “Self-Portrait”; Viola, “I do Not Know What It Is I Am Like” (2)

Dec. 9, Conclusion and summary

Dec. 15. Final Papers Due (4 pm)


Comp Lit 190

Revised Syllabus

10/19 Mid-Term
10/21 Mid-Term

10/26 Emerson/Cavell
10/28 Poe/Cavell

11/2 Whitman
11/4 Whitman/Dostoevsky

11/9 Dostoevsky
11/11 Veteran’s Day

11/16 Woolf
11/18 Woolf

11/23 Borges
11/25 Thanksgiving

11/30 Paz
12/2 Paz

12/7 Ashbery/Viola
12/9 Ashbery/Viola Comp Lit 190 Mid-Term, I

Answer one of these two questions.

1. Over the course of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the protagonist comes to recognize that he is himself the (tragic) answer to the riddle he is searching to solve, “who is the cause of the plague on Thebes”? Choose at least one other author from those we have read thus far and discuss the ways in which the understanding of the self presented there coincides with or opposes what we see in Oedipus Rex. In responding, feel free to address the complexities that Oedious Rex itself introduces into this issue.

2. Descartes can be understood as tacitly “answering” Montaigne, i.e., as implicitly characterizing Montaigne’s version of the self as problematic and as writing the Discourse and the Meditations in order to solve some of those alleged “problems.” What is the basis of Cartesian subjectivity, and in what way does it stand in contrast with Montaigne’s version of the self? In answering this question, feel free to speak about the differences in ways that Montaigne and Descartes write.


Comp Lit 190 Mid-Term, II

Answer one of these two questions.

1. In the Reveries and in Walden both Rousseau and Thoreau leave society in order to find themselves in nature. But their writings also provide reason to question whether the self can ever be fully extricated from society. Take the example of either of these writers, or of both of them together, to discuss this issue.

2. Among the values most closely associated with the modern self, those of sincerity and authenticity have often been identified as central. And yet many of the writers we have considered thus far seem to speak in voices that are other than, or not entirely, their “own.” Choose any two of the authors we have read thus far to discuss the issue of the “authentic” and “inauthentic” voice. How can the “authentic” voice of a modern self be constructed when it finds itself burdened by pre-existing ways of speaking (and of writing)?