Enchanting Modernity: Storytelling and Mysticism
If the modern world is characterized by its “disenchantment,” why does modern storytelling contain a surprisingly large “mystical” footprint? In particular, from the wondrous Hassidic tales of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov to the satirical and biting films of the Coen Brothers, concepts from Jewish mysticism and the broader Judaic canon are noticeably prevalent in modernism. Narratives of exile and redemption, histories of persecution and oppression, nationalist understandings of war and settlement, and more have all been cast in terms of central motifs from Jewish folklore and Kabbalah. Indeed, such themes are found not only among Jewish writers and artists at the very cutting edge of literary modernity, as with Franz Kafka, but also in contemporary secular works like the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges or the science fiction of Ted Chiang. How can we understand this imprint on such a range of works? And why do these themes remain so relevant in modern cultural imaginaries—both Jewish and beyond?
In this course, we will explore the intersection of mysticism and literature through a reading of not only the literary works themselves, but also their source materials and vital transposition and popularization by 20th-century intellectuals like Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and Walter Benjamin. Students will review three central narratives of exile, redemption, and “the Golem” (or artificial life), as developed in both Jewish folklore and modern letters. We will survey how storytellers have engaged and deployed these narratives in their work in the context of shifting religious, material, and political conditions and the effects this engagement produces. Literary selections will include works by Kafka, Chiang, Borges, Nachman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Leib Peretz, and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. We will situate these literary selections alongside theoretical reflections on storytelling, memory, redemption, and time by Scholem, Buber, and Benjamin, among others, trying to understand why these seemingly particular and often marginal concepts are so central to modern storytelling and life.
Course ScheduleThursday, 7:00-10:00pm ET
November 17 — December 15, 2022
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Thursday, November 24th.