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Course Proposal

pfischer's picture


Thus far, the participants in this class have oriented the different literary axes of Reality Hunger, Fun Home, Field Guide and Deep Ecology around the question of life – what does each work say about what does it mean to be alive? Each author’s production was an artistic rendering of their own life; their words (and in some cases drawings) created a subjective version of themselves in each reader’s mind. The information included in each public self-representation was deliberately chosen as a key component of the author’s imagined self; the minutia of their life was given to us and dually shaped in non-concurrent processes – in the author’s structuring of those details and in our own conscious processing of them. In reading their work, we consume their life.

            We have spent most of our class time discussing consciousness, truth, knowledge, and especially ‘reality,’ and in doing so have distilled what it means to be alive for each author, and ourselves. The exercise in map-making was difficult because it forced us to represent how we have experienced our own lives thus far, and then recognize what our lives have not been: where we have not gone, and possibly never will.

            The rude encroachment of our own mortality has not gone unnoticed in class, but it has not been fully discussed. The issue of the ‘real-ness’ of non-fiction is centered on the author’s attempt to translate their experiences, their being, their ‘real life’ into consumable ideas not constricted by the limitations of the corporeal body. Their work can, but does not always serve as a textual artifact accessible outside the planes of our limited existence.

            Therefore, as questions of life served as the focus of the first half of the semester, death should serve as the focus of the second. I do not believe that would be morbid, but rather it would help us get another angle on the questions of consciousness, reality, and knowledge that seem to trail us through this course. The non-fictional interrogation of death would be comprised of some theory, memoirs dealing with illness/death, and some non-fictional works that approach death in unconventional ways.



Week 1: Death – A Theoretical Framework


Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Scribner Classics, 1997 (excerpt)

Grof, Stanislav, Christina Grof, and Jill Purce. Beyond Death: The Gates of Consciousness. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1980. (excerpt)

Durkheim, Emile. Suicide (excerpt)


The Kubler-Ross is the classic psychological text on death and would provide a helpful analytical framework that I believe this class sometimes lacks. Durkheim’s analysis of suicide would also help with introducing theory and interrogative tools with which we can examine the other readings. Grof’s text examines the idea of the afterlife in different religions, cultures, and times, and would be an interesting extension – the travels of the soul, rather than those of the body or mind.



Weeks 2 and 3: The (Im)mortal Writer

Options: There are several memoirs written by authors that describe their struggle to confront their own mortality because their body has failed them. We can pick as a class which ones to read/suggest others.


Broyard, Anatole. Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death. New York: C. Potter, 1992.

Brodkey, Harold. This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death. New York: H. Holt, 1996.

Pausch, Randy, and Jeffrey Zaslow. The Last Lecture. New York: Hyperion, 2008.

Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of A Face

Engleberg, Miriam. Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person

Jean-Dominique Bauby. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.


Week 4: The Body after Death


Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. London: W.W. Norton, 2004.


This book has been described as a funny and witty way to approach a morbid subject (opening line: "The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back.") Roach details the productive uses of cadavers in many fields, from medicine to transportation safety research.


Week 5: The Commerce of Death


Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Death Revisited. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.


A revised edition of the 1963 funeral home business critique. Discusses on multinational funeral corporations, funeral prepayment, relationships between clergy and undertakers and other controversial aspects of the undertaking business.


Week 6: Death Re-conceptualized


Oliver, A M, and Paul F. Steinberg. The Road to Martyrs' Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.


I think it would be interesting to examine death through the idea of the suicide bomber. The LA Times described it as a ‘strange, seductive hybrid of sociology and memoir’ and examines the Palestinian ‘cult of martyrdom.’ The authors lived with the Palestinians for six years and conducted first hand interviews for their research.





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