Instructor: Charles Logan
Class Description: To paraphrase the American poet Walt Whitman, each of us contains multitudes. The stories we tell help us arrange these multitudes into a single, cohesive identity. In their memoirs, Malala Yousafzai, Dave Eggers, Bich Minh Nguyen, and others give voice to their stories, and in doing so they bring order and understanding to their upended worlds.
Of course societies also contain multitudes. Whitman chronicled mid-19th century American multitudes in his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Near the end of his poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s speaker proclaims, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” The barbaric yawp reveals all that is untamed swarming beneath civilized exteriors. In The Ballad of Black Tom, Tommy Tester confronts the wild – both of this world and another – as he hustles on the streets of New York City.
That yawp and its insistence upon an independent, dignified self can be heard in the protest music of artists such as Billie Holiday, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Arcade Fire. And that yawp, with its tones of otherness and transgression, can drive people and cultures to create monsters. Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Kelly Link explore these monsters in their short stories, and so do films like Bride of Frankenstein and Attack of the 5-Foot Woman.
That yawp. It contains frustration and pain and the desire to escape what feels like the inescapable. In Project X, Edwin and Flake cannot see their way beyond barbarism. In When the Emperor Was Divine, the unnamed family insists on their humanity. And then there’s Iago in Othello. Is he a monster? Or all too human?
That yawp: it is a complex sound reverberating in a complex world, a world containing multitudes, sorrows and joys, rejections and redemptions. That yawp: the noise and its echoes are what we’re listening to and exploring this school year.