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    The History of Beauty:
    Literary, Aesthetic and Social Issues

    Expanded Syllabus

    Spring 1996

    Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4


    Week 1: Jan. 9 -- Introductions -- class policy, slide presentation, definitions of beauty, sign-up for oral presentations


    Week 2 -- Jan. 16

    Required Reading:

    Toni Morrison's, The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker's "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" (Reserve/xerox)

    Recommended:

    Sheppard, (pp 1-3), Dickie (Reserve/xerox).

    Related:

    Michelle Wallace, "Modernism, Post-Modernism, and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture" in Hein and Korsmeyer, Aesthetics in a Feminist Perspective pp. 205-217.

    Why Beauty?

    I wanted to focus our first class on contemporary views of beauty in order to suggest its power and relevance. I chose Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker's "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" because they depict the force of beauty from the perspective of those who are not included in its traditional definition. In doing so, these writers demonstrate clearly the negative effects of beauty that is controlled and defined by a single, ruling group in society. Both works suggest alternative concepts of beauty, and consequently undermine conventional, stable notions of universal beauty.


    Week 3 -- Jan. 23

    Required Reading:

    In Hofstadter and Kuhns: Plato, Book X, The Republic, pp. 30-45; The Love of Beauty from the Symposium, pp. 68-77; Plotinus, Ennead I, Sixth Tractate, Beauty, pp 141-150; Augustine, from De Ordine, pp. 173-185. Also read the headnotes to each section.

    Chaucer, in Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath, prologue and tale, pp. 103-135

    Recommended:

    Sheppard, chaps. 2-4

    Related:

    Hilde Hein, "Refining Feminist Theory: Lessons from Aesthetics," in Hein and Korsmeyer pp. 3-18. [While Hein argues that feminist theory can adopt some strategies from the tradition of aesthetic theory, this article offers a number of insights into the problems of classically defined aesthetics, and the way such ideas as the mind/body dualism affects the audience of aesthetics.]

    The Metaphysics of Beauty

    We move from a discussion of contemporary, postmodern views of beauty to the ancient foundations of classical aesthetic theory. In the work of Plato, Plotinus and Augustine we will see the equation of beauty with the good, which is the highest principle of the soul. Plato begins the tradition of Western concepts of beauty, and his ideas are taken up and mystified by Plotinus, whose ideas are taken up and Christianized by Augustine. Finally we will look at the work of the medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, whose tale interacts with a number of neo-platonist ideas, and presents us with a literary example to evaluate.


    Week 4 -- Jan. 30

    Required Reading:

    Selections from John Milton's Paradise Lost: Book IV lines 245-775; Book VIII lines 249-653; Book IX lines 494-1161 (in Custom Xerox book)

    Alexander Pope's, The Rape of the Lock, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley (Dover)

    Recommended:

    Sheppard, chap. 5

    Related:

    Carol H. Cantrell, "Analogy as Destiny: Cartesian Man and the Woman Reader" in Hein/Korsmeyer, pp. 218-228.

    [Essay develops a fairly standard argument on how culture and literature tend to divide knowledge into binaries, which carry hierarchical values. Such binary systems tend to denigrate the female body as rooted in the particular and sensual as opposed to the universal and transcendent. She develops the implications this has for readers of text that purport to explain the human condition. Useful arguments to apply to Paradise Lost and the Rape of the Lock.]

    The Enlightenment: Origination Myths and the Representation of Beauty as Woman

    Our readings for this week focus on two classic representations of beauty. Pope's exquisite mock-epic is extremely influential, but the power of Milton's images probably extends further than any other modern western cultural work. Milton's work stands as the pre-eminent epic in the English language, while Pope's is considered the best mock-epic. Form and content in these works are both concerned with beauty. As we discuss these works, try to keep separate the issues of poetic form and the ideas represented, but aim to find the relationship between the two.


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