Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Love: the Syllabus (Part 2)

I've been thinking a bit more about my senior seminar on "The Nature and Culture of Love," ENG 390, and particularly about how it might compare to that capacious course at Brown.

My impulse seems to be to start with a unit that asks why and how and for whom love might be thought of as a "problem."  (Which is to say, I suppose, to "problematize" love, although that sounds dreadful.)  I'm thinking here of classic feminist challenges to the ideal of romantic love, like those by Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone and Adrienne Rich (the poem "Translations"), and also of more recent readings like Chuck Kloesterman's "This is Emo" (from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs), which is about the dangers posed to the essayist and his various love interests by their investment in what he calls "fake love":  the kind purveyed by romantic films and novels.  

From there we could move into some works of nonfiction.  My impulse here is currently to avoid the natural sciences, since I don't feel confident that I can really choose good work on the neurobiology, say, of love, and I don't want to lead students astray with things that are reductive or unreliable.  (An alternative might be to "teach the conflicts," as they say, with some excerpts from a variety of sources.)  One source that's been recommended to me several times, however, is A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, which was written for the general public and seems pretty engaging.  If any of you have other suggestions, I'd be glad to hear them.

The other non-fiction books I'm considering are David Shumway's Modern Love:  Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis and Eva Illouz's Consuming the Romantic Utopia, perhaps with a chapter or two from Why Love Hurts on the side.  Illouz is a sociologist, while Shumway does cultural studies with an emphasis, in that book, on film, fiction, and advice columns.  I'm up in the air about Simon May's Love: a History, which is philosophical and touches on theology, for reasons I'll get to in a minute.

Now, alongside those non-fiction texts I'm trying to think of the right set of romance novels.  Crusie's Bet Me has the science in it, and fairy tales, and pop culture, and any number of other discourses--but it's also a book that I've taught many times before.  My impulse right now is, if I teach a Crusie novel, to teach Fast Women instead.  It's written in homage to two novels by Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, it has some interesting poetry in it, and it's a very serious book, I think, about marriage and divorce, all of which seem to recommend it to senior English majors.  Some of my students might have taken the DePaul course on film noir and hardboiled fiction, so they'd have a natural point of entry even if they're not romance readers, and of course we could look at the films of those two Hammett novels as points of comparison also.

Two other novels I'm considering are Natural Born Charmer (which pairs very well with the Illouz and with the discourse-analysis approach in the Shumway) and Victoria Dahl's Real Men Will, which taught nicely last winter and includes some advice columns and didactic passages that make it an interesting fit with the Shumway as well.  

There's a part of me that wants to teach Redeeming Love in this class, because it's such an interesting book to look at closely and intertextually, and English majors should be good at that.  On the other hand, if I do teach Redeeming Love, I have to include either the Simon May book or some equivalent--something to give students tools for discussing love theologically, and also (Christian) theology of love.  

That's all good stuff...but it fills up the class, so that there's less time for each reading and topic.  Not sure if the trade-off is worth it.  

Finally, there are some other novels that have been suggested to me:  Ann Herendeen's Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander (which teaches well to English majors, and is all about different sorts of love and love-culture), Cecelia Grant's A Lady Awakened, Radclyffe's Fated Love, and more.  

So many novels, so little class time! 


Laura Vivanco said...

I'm thinking here of classic feminist challenges to the ideal of romantic love, like those by Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone and Adrienne Rich

What about Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch? It includes a critique of romance novels as well as of romantic love.

E. M. Selinger said...

Yes, that's a very good idea, Laura! I've taught the chapter specifically on romance novels in the past, but it's part of a broader critique of romantic love, so perhaps for this class I'd add another chapter or two.

E. M. Selinger said...

And, come to think of it, I should probably take a look at Laura Kipnis's "Against Love," for a more recent critique.

KateM said...

Hi Eric,
It all sounds intriguing. I have read Lewis et al and heard Lewis speak on love. What about Stephanie Coontz or portions of her work? In her marriage history there are interesting chapters on what is happening to marriage just as popular romance is becoming big. Kate

E. M. Selinger said...

I think you were the one who originally suggested Lewis et al to me, KateM! I've passed the suggestion along to students, but never tried to assign the whole book; it looks like it could be useful, though, especially if I supplement it with some selections from "Sex at Dawn."

Coontz, too, I've suggested to students, but never assigned. I took a look at it yesterday, and had some second thoughts about doing the whole book, just because it's so long and comprehensive, but certainly sections of it would be relevant. I'll have to see how many, though, and which, depending on what books I end up assigning.

(The May still tugs at my sleeve, but it's in a matched set, in my mind, with Rivers.)