ENGL 495: The Literature of Awe (Gideon Burton)In this senior course, we will trace the literary theme of awe across multiple periods and genres of literature. Reverence for something greater than ourselves as well as fear of the unknown and inscrutable are complementary concepts that permeate our entire literary tradition and which pose profound questions regarding the psychology of experience and how time, distance, complexity, and alterity are mediated to us aesthetically. We will study the liminal nature of wonder: poised at the threshold of oceans, or eons, or the puzzling unconscious, there is something compelling and breathtaking about being on the frontier or at the edges of what can be known or expressed. Like Petrarch atop Mount Ventoux, we will scan horizons in order to examine the workings of wonder.
We will study the rhetoric of awe (tropes and conventions that invoke wonder) and the aesthetics of awe (styles and genres sympathetic to this theme). Representative genres include epic, metaphysical, and devotional poetry, utopian literature, travel narratives, occult literature, gothic fiction, science fiction, and the literature of the frontier. We will also touch on cultural practices and media for constructing and experiencing awe: architecture, museums, spectacles, and the rise of film and technological wonders.A Challenge
As with concepts of the sacred, the power of awe may correlate with its subjectivity: one person's source of awe may seem sentimental or even blasphemous to another. Moreover, awe can be counterfeited or cheapened-- even in the very act of describing it or attempting its preservation. As Wordsworth said, "we murder to dissect," meaning that as we turn to analyze, to anatomize something so subjective and evocative, we deflate and deflower. It almost seems that you cannot have and know awe; you can experience it, or you can analyze it, but the one precludes the other.
I challenge my students and readers to push past these dangers and to be open to awe as a transformative and perhaps transcendent mode of experience. I challenge you to withstand the cynicism that is all too possible and to stay open to awe and wonder in a childlike way. I further challenge myself and my readers to be open to the risks required of submitting to the awesome. Since awe can border on the terrors of unknown things, that is asking quite a bit. But I think it will be worth it.
Your Experiences of Awe
What about you? What have been sources of awe and wonder in your life? Can you attribute such experiences to works of art, literature, or media? Have the moments of wonder been inherent in such works, or in the particular way that you experienced them? Is awe a rare experience for you, a familiar place? Can you separate awe from religious experience or from artistic experience? Is modern-day awe so linked to technology, spectacle, and entertainment that you have not had experiences of wonder separate from those influences? What have been moments of awe in your life? Did you record these or return to these in any way? Have you been able to rekindle wonder or cultivate awe? Or are these concepts a part of your life?