ENG347: Eschatological Thrills in American Literature and Film

by Michael Seth Stewart

Schedule is TENTATIVE!


Watch “Twin Peaks,” pilot through episode sixteen, the one where you find out Laura Palmer was killed by her father while he was inhabited by the demon BOB (available on Netflix). Read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” (course packet) before reading the rest of Emerson (course packet). Is Agent Cooper an agent of Christ consciousness? Is Audrey the night sky? Could the “refulgent summer” of Cambridge ever touch Twin Peaks, or is it always autumnal in that town? In-class: trust falls and ropes course, diagnostic essay, background on the transmission of knowledge from prehistoric man to us. Introduction to trance states: hypnosis, meditation, mescaline, in-class sweat lodge.




Dante’s Inferno, translated by Anne Sexton, unwritten, unpublished. You are responsible for providing the text, which must employ rhyme to haunting effect. Watch Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (Hulu). What if anything is the beach monster at the end of the movie? What is it saying about gender? Is there, anymore, anything monstrous? Read Flannery O’Connor, all the short stories (course packet). For class prepare a short film based on the O’Connor story of your choice, crafting a screenplay that is more a metonymy of the story than a strict interpretation (for example: Thomas Edison’s gray short film in which Topsy the elephant is electrocuted could be used to represent the Grandmother’s experience of grace in “Good Country People”). In-class: we will sing Shaker hymns with no accompaniment except for subtle percussion, maybe a rattle-egg, what do you call those? With small precise movements of disquieting choreography, followed by prayer.


This week drink no clear liquids, and eat vegetables only at night. Read The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Stephen Mitchell (course packet) and the verse play “San Francisco’s Burning” by Helen Adam (course packet). Pray to Saint Helen, who joined the Ascended Masters twenty years ago this semester, in the early fall, the best time of year to be dead or alive in the city. Twenty years ago New York was a shithole and everyone was dying, or everything was better then, depending on when you moved here. Read David Wojnarowicz’ complete works (course packet). Read Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black (course packet). Read Reinaldo Arenas’ Final de un cuento (El Fantasma de la glorieta) (course packet). Read Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies (course packet). Build a shrine to the dead, using furniture you cannot live without. Burn the shrine. Bring in your dream journals from the past three weeks with the most personal sequences highlighted; we will swap these around and read them aloud and say they’re anonymous. By this point you should be at the beginning stages of astral projection, or at least at the dissociative phase during hypnagogic half-sleep. If you are unable to project astrally, your class participation grade will be negatively affected.


Read Angela Davis’ Autobiography and Women, Race, and Class (course packet). Read Fritz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks and Vine Deloria’s Red Earth, White Lies (course packet). Watch How Green Was My Valley (Netflix). Isn’t Maureen O’Hara delightful? Can you believe that it won Best Picture over Citizen Kane and Suspicion? Watch Suspicion (Netflix). Shouldn’t it really have been Suspicion? Orson Welles’ Dutch angles wear me out. Suspicion gave us Hitchcock’s iridescent glass of milk, carried steady-handed up the stairs by Cary Grant. Watch Jackie Brown (Netflix). I met Pam Grier once, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood before a screening of Foxy Brown. Compose an ode that captures her beauty, sign my name to it and send it to her care of her management. Write a transcript of the colloquium that Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon, Orson Welles, and Pam Grier would have had after a double-feature of Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown. The volume and variety of cursing in the colloquium will affect your grade. Sleep during the day and work all night for one week, except for our class, so that class is held two-thirds of the way into your REM cycle. You are free to resume your circadian rhythms at the end of term. You will be angry and anxious in class, and your class participation will be affected accordingly.


By this time, most of you will have dropped the class. The rest of you, my über-menchen: you will be expected to save the life of a stranger, after putting him or her into mortal danger — for example, push someone into traffic, but with a firm grasp so that you’re able to pull him or her back in time. Know your own strength! Don’t try to kill/save someone you can’t reliably pull back. Practice on a classmate. Read Freud’s post-World War I writings (paying special attention to his gothic novel Beyond the Pleasure Principle) and prepare a serial poem of at least 15 pages describing the death drive’s itineraries in your own desire and silences. Watch the black and white (no color) “The Andy Griffith Show” episodes and prepare a short monograph exploring the erotics of kinship that keep Mayberry, like Twin Peaks, from collapsing into Mortville from Desperate Living. Watch Desperate Living (iTunes). Quiz.


We will begin by free-writing. Read V.C. Andrews’ groundbreaking quintet built around Flowers in the Attic (course packet) and watch the classic 1987 film of that novel (Netflix), starring the huskily glamorous Louise Fletcher as Grandmother. Read Barbara Sproul’s Primal Myths (course packet). Be prepared to discuss your seminar paper topic, which you should be well underway in constructing. Make sure your proposal demonstrates exigency. We will contact the dead this week, via Madame Zohra from Sheepshead Bay (her pay will be taken from your activity fees). Be prepared with a list of at least three dead people that you can contact. I know that many of you are young and from nice places and do not know any dead people yet, so leave time in your schedule to ask friends or neighbors for connections to their dead friends or family. The dead tend to be cryptic and fragmentary and so our hope is that by sheer force of numbers we will be able to accumulate enough messages that we can perform an analysis of key themes and prophecies. Bring offerings for the dead, fruit or grains, a cigar you can light and blow in their faces, some rum to pour on the classroom floor.


Read the complete poems of modernist master H.D. (course packet) and the transcripts of the 1971 Manson Family trial (course packet). Read Avital Ronell’s Dictations: On Haunted Writing (course packet). Be prepared to recite in class the trilogy H.D. would have written about the Manson Family, using short lines without regular meter, creating a sense of lyric dread through fragmentation, enjambment, and dark interlocking vowels. Watch Berlin Alexanderplatz (Hulu). Renounce any vows you may have outstanding. You may resume the vows of your choice at the end of term. Read Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (course packet) and learn to love ten things that you hate. Write the poems that H.D. would have written about that. By this point in the class you should be able to leave your body at will, whether sleeping or awake, and move through the ether. This week you should slip into the sleeping bodies of at least five people you envy. Write the five poems H.D. would have written about the five bodies, their skin, the sheets, the taste of the air in their bedrooms, the sounds their appliances make at night.


NO CLASS: THANKSGIVING. Read Heidegger, “What is Called Thinking?” (course packet). Be prepared to discuss the connections between denken and danken.


The Rapture. The Righteous among us have been taken up to their heavenly reward and the rest of us will discuss the collected poems and illustrations of William Blake (course packet, color plates must be printed in color on card-stock matte finish paper). Think about the closing couplet of “Tyger, Tyger” — “what immortal hand or eye / dare frame thy fearful symmetry” — and be prepared to discuss what infernal algebra Blake used to precisely calculate its slant rhyme in order to make your skin feel too tight for your body. Select an aria that best expresses the eschatological pleasure of Blake’s simple-seeming verse, and be prepared to perform that aria for the class (accompaniment will be provided if you bring sheet music). Watch the first several seasons of The Real World, but stop before Las Vegas. I went to church with the first season’s Julie, the naïve Southerner. Pay attention to the scene where they follow her to church and you’ll see our gaunt priest, Martin Bell, who died back before the Rapture. Light a candle and pray to St. Martin. Maybe he can help us. Read St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle (course packet). She is said to have climaxed, sexually, when she prayed. Has this happened to you? If not, do you think maybe that’s why you’re left behind? If you are a smoker, double your use. If you are not a smoker, start. It will calm your nerves and make you sexually attractive in whatever time we have left.


Select a small group of peers with whom you can overtake and occupy a now-abandoned house of worship. Using a horizontal-leaderless consensus-based system, create a new religion that repurposes the design sense and materials of the existing remains, casting them in an entirely new light. Think of the “Project Runway” unconventional materials challenges. In-class: a conclave with representatives of the new religions spiritedly debating which religion is the truest. Be prepared to die for your faith. Be prepared to kill. Be prepared to answer: if your God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then why does evil exist? Why are so many of us dead? So many of our loved ones were Raptured away — why were we left behind? What’s wrong with us? Quiz.


First draft of seminar paper due; peer review session. Read The Chronicles of Narnia (course packet). For those of you who read it as children, how do you feel re-reading it as a young adult, understanding its stridently Christian, often xenophobic allegories? Do you feel betrayed? Is that why you were left behind? Did you not read it as a child? Is that why? Hide your apartment from marauding hordes by procuring a wardrobe or large cabinet from an abandoned house (you may need to go into the suburbs) and using it to block your door. Fill the wardrobe with coats and old shoes and remove its backing so you can push aside the coats and crawl through to access the locked door of your apartment. Is Narnia real? Watch the first five seasons of “The Cosby Show” (Netflix). Are the Huxtables real? Is belief in the Huxtables a hindrance to accepting our real families? Is the worship of Aslan a distraction from God, who is not actually a lion but a wrathful god who Raptured our friends and neighbors? Which Huxtables do you think would have been Raptured, and which ones would have been left behind? What about Denise and the students at Hillman? What about us? Quiz.


Read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (course packet). Do you get him? I don’t. Read Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe novels (course packet) and watch Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (Netflix). Aren’t you glad you’re a smoker, especially now that it doesn’t matter, because nothing matters because everything’s over? That’s how Elliott Gould’s Marlowe reads in the cinematic The Long Goodbye, sexily striking his match on a counter or a shoe-heel, always smoking, flirting with the topless models doing yoga next door. Read Joan Didion’s The White Album (course packet). Listen only to music from 1972 and drink sloe gin fizzes in real glasses so that you can hear the ice-cubes clink. Be prepared to discuss whether, as Joan Didion said before she was Raptured, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” or whether it’s vice-versa, we live only so we can tell more stories and hear more stories. Of the survivors of the internecine religious wars, which ones had the flashiest origin myths? Which were polytheistic? Which were based in purification cultures? What is the role of the feminine in your religion? Read The Mists of Avalon. Wouldn’t that book be better with about 40% less Guinevere? Marion Zimmer Bradley calls her Gwenhwyfar but, I mean, really. Not being Welsh, we’ll use the standard spelling. To what degree does your new religion echo the teachings of Avalon, per Marion Zimmer Bradley? Your answer will affect your grade.


Final exam review. Read Mary Butts’ The Crystal Cabinet: My Childhood at Salterns (course packet) and be prepared to discuss those objects from your childhood that created or held magic or opened portals to the other side. Create a martyrology of the people who have died since the Rapture, due to environmental cataclysm, armed conflicts, and blood-sacrifices. Assemble a cast and crew to perform the martyrology, wearing Noh face-paint. Please note that non-Noh is not OK. TAs will be stationed throughout the classroom to note your classmates’ reactions to your martyrologies, and the group that makes the most people cry will receive an A. Any laughs will negatively affect your grade. Now that the nuclear reactors have ruptured around the world and all of us are dying from radiation poisoning, how have your priorities shifted vis-à-vis gluten and corn syrup? Watch all three seasons of HBO’s “Deadwood” and be prepared to discuss its reenactment of the American Capitalist origin story. Beware, my friends, my beloveds, beware the wrath of God and bands of marauders.


FINAL PAPER DUE. Watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Netflix). It gets a lot of shit but that movie’s amazing. It only seems like a prequel; really it’s answering many questions while filling out the story of Laura Palmer and the mythology of the Black Lodge. Be prepared to discuss the almost-disqualifying casting choice of Moira Kelly as Donna Hayward. Though Donna does get the best line in the movie, at the Palmer house looking at Mrs. Palmer’s overflowing ashtray: “If I had a nickel for every cigarette your mom smoked, I’d be dead.” Before she was Raptured I met Grace Zabriskie, who played Mrs. Palmer, at the Bowery Poetry Club where she read her disquieting poems, and I lit her cigarette for her afterward and quoted that line. I don’t know why, she wasn’t even in that scene! Mortifying. She said “That sounds familiar,” then fell into a smoky reverie. Read Keats’ letters (course packet). Are you able to stand in calm amidst uncertainty? Your facility with negative capability will affect your class participation grade. Watch the first three seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” then skip to the musical in season six. No reason; you deserve to unwind.


FINAL EXAM. Using all the skills and knowledge we’ve accrued this semester, compose one line of poetry that will change God’s mind about us. Feature the following vowel sounds: blouse, brioche, boom, bomb. Revise thoughtfully for both sound and sense. Watch the sky at night all night and count the falling stars and satellites. Record the numbers and write down your hallucinations and bury the notebook in your backyard. Hoard all your matches and books and drinking water, and use masking tape to make Xs on your window-panes. In about a week you’ll be able to access your grades through the department website. All grades are final.

Michael Seth Stewart is a doctoral student and English teacher originally from the deep South, currently editing the Selected Letters and Journals of American poet John Wieners. He remains ready for the end of times.