Undergraduate Course: Crazy Talk: Memoirs of Madness

Unknown illustrator and Rodolfo Fucile

Instructor: Aranye Fradenburg

Course: ENGL 197

Time: Spring 2016, 9:30-10:45, MF

This class focuses on the experience of madness (schizophrenia, depression, bipolar illness, and borderline personality disorder); its expression in the form of the memoir; and the role of autobiographical discourse in changing minds.  Trauma Warning:  the material in these course texts and topics of class discussion could be traumatizing.  Do not take this class if you have concerns about your ability to tolerate unhappy and sometimes outrageous subjects.

This small seminar requires regular class participation, one seminar presentation one 2-3 page paper, and one 7-10 page paper.  The course will cover memoirs and fictionalized memoirs, including the following texts:

D. P. Schreiber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.  Daniel Paul Schreber was the son of a famous pediatrician and later became a prominent attorney and judge in 19th-century Germany.  The Memoirs of his mental illness became the topic of an important case study by Sigmund Freud.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.  Sylvia Plath is one of the USA’s best 20th-century poets; Ariel is perhaps her best-known book of poems.  The Bell Jar  is a somewhat fictionalized memoir that tells the story of Esther Greenwood’s first episode of major depressive disorder.

Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted.  Susanna Kaysen was the daughter of one of John F. Kennedy’s economic advisors and is now a novelist.  Her memoir of her institutionalization for borderline personality disorder became the film Girl, Interrupted, starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.

Kay Jamison, An Unquiet Mind.  Kay Jamison is a clinical psychologist, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, and Honorary Professor of English at St. Andrews University.  Her book An Unquiet Mind explores the experience of bipolar illness.

Elyn Saks, The Center Cannot Hold.  Elyn Saks is Associate Dean and Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.  She is also a MacArthur Fellow.  The Center Cannot Hold tells the story of the onset of her schizophrenia.

Image credit: unknown illustrator, “The Bell Jar;” Rodolfo Fucile, “El Caso Schreber”

 

 

Undergraduate Course: Memory: A Bridge Between Neuroscience and the Humanities

Salvador Dali, "The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory," detail

Instructors: Dominique Julien (French and Comparative Literature) and Kenneth S. Kosik (Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology)

Course: Comp Lit 27, Winter 2015

Few things are more important than memory in shaping and defining human personality. Memory is what makes us humans. Memory and personality are inseparable (conversely, loss of memory, in cases like Alzheimer’s disease, destroys the patient’s personality). In recent decades, memory has emerged as one specific area of investigation common to neuroscience and the humanities where these two radically different methods of understanding reality occasionally converge. We propose to explore some of the key issues raised by memory processes as cases where the gap between the humanities and
neuroscience can be bridged.

Since Antiquity, memory has been a subject of interest to writers and philosophers. In recent years, neuroscientific progress has appeared to lend anatomical and clinical support to the literary descriptions left by Plato or Proust: what science is discovering or verifying today often seems to have been intuited and described in literary form in the past. One example would be the ancient memory techniques based on loci (literally places in the mind; this elaborate memory training system is known to us through rhetorical treatises from Antiquity to the Renaissance), whose patterns appear to converge with recent neuroscientific studies of memorization processes known as localization of function. Another example would be the correlation between memory and the senses, made famous by Proust’s philosophical novel Remembrance of Things Past, which has also developed into a key area of neuroscientific investigation.

Image: Salvador Dali, “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” (detail)

Article: ” ‘We Sweat, Crave, and Itch All Day’: Why Writing About Bodies Is Vital”

image by Doug McLean

In The Atlantic, essayist Leslie Jamison reflects on the words of Virginia Woolf that shaped her view of bodies in literature.  Jamison recalls struggling to represent the physical aftermath of surgery, fearing that “writing about bodily experience [is] somehow… the ultimate solipsism,” and ultimately finding solace in Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill.”  Jamison connects Woolf’s essay, Elaine Scarry’s theory on pain and speech, and the works of Whitman and Faulkner to memories of her own discomfort in waiting rooms and creative writing classes.  Ultimately, she concludes that “the surface of the body isn’t poverty; it isn’t lack,” and moreover, it can be a site of deep connection between authors and readers.

Read Jamison’s piece in full here.

Learn more about Jamison’s volume of nonfiction essays on bodies and others, The Empathy Exams, here.

Image by Doug McLean for The Atlantic.