Damien Hirst, Incomplete Truth

Reading Walden in the Anthropocene: Literature, Ecology, and Crisis

Instructor: Megan Berkobien
Bethlehem Building
1450 McKinstry Street
Detroit, MI 48209

Henry David Thoreau settled at Walden Pond in order to be alone with nature–to experience it purely. And yet, as Thoreau knew, the nature in which he immersed himself was a zone of global economic activity: every winter the New England ice was cut up and exported to far-reaching places, including Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. As Thoreau wrote, his imagination stirred by the Bhagavad Gita, “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” What does it mean to call a site of nature, however pristine, “pure”? In what ways has literature served to help us conceptualize and interrogate nature and human ecology, as well as register anxieties about human manipulation and degradation of the so-called natural world?

This course is an informal introduction to ecocriticism–the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment. Using Thoreau’s Walden as our anchor text, we’ll focus particularly on the ways water has been used in literature to represent, contextualize, and make us feel our ecological interdependence. We’ll consider Romantic tropes of “purity,” and contrast individualistic works like Walden with speculative texts that explore water contamination as a collective struggle–poems sounding out a polluted California stream (Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water); a woman in limbo discussing her impending death by pesticides (Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream); and two lovers connected by a parasite traveling upstream (Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color). Placing these works in conversation with theoretical readings on affect’s particular place in ecocriticism, we will ask: What narrative strategies allow us to shift our relationship to the environment? And ultimately, how do works of fiction broaden the horizon of collective action in times of ecological crisis?

Course Schedule

Sunday, 2-5pm
May 19 — June 09, 2019
4 weeks


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