Course Description

450.621 - The Self in Question: Readings in Lit & Psychol

What is a "self" and what is its nature? Is the self discovered or invented? Is it synonymous with character, with personality, with soul? Or is the self primarily a storyline? Thinkers throughout the ages have probed the riddle of our human identity and come to distinctly differing conclusions. Buddha considered the self an illusion, while for Plato, the self is a slumbering sage. For Freud, it is an instinctual hunger; for Sartre, a useless passion; for B.F. Skinner, a machine; for Buckminster Fuller, a verb. Modern literature and psychology have further complicated our conceptions of selfhood, challenging traditional notions of the stable ego and expanding our understanding of personal identity to include race, class, gender, and culture. From 'selves in the making' to 'selves under siege,' from the lonely, existential self to the transpersonal, communal self, in this class we explore questions of selfhood from the perspectives of literature and psychology –two key disciplines devoted to understanding the perplexities of human nature. We consider the approaches of Freudian, Jungian, feminist, Buddhist, Marxist, and existential psychologists, and we read literary selections by Kafka, Thomas Mann, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, and Z.Z. Packer. Our interdisciplinary focus will enable us to see the ways in which psychology and literature illuminate and enrich each other-and also where they are in conflict, both in their methodologies and in their basic assumptions about the "knowability" of human nature and behavior.