Description   |   Syllabus

Laughter and Vision: Explorations in the Novel of Ideas
Bard College
Fall 2018




Laughter and Vision

Explorations in the Novel of Ideas

Literature 261/ Fall 2018 / Fri and Sat 1010 am / Olin 101

Mark Danner

In this seminar we will trod fiction's "path not taken" -- the tradition of the novel of ideas that, with the triumph of Realism in the nineteenth century of Dickens and Balzac, became mainstream fiction's dark shadow. Our exploration will stretch from Rabelais, in the sixteenth century, to Thomas Mann, Walker Percy and Iris Murdoch in the twentieth, with stops in between for Laurence Sterne, Denis Diderot, and Franz Kafka. Throughout we will focus on what this tradition can tell us about what the novel is, what it became -- and what it can be.  


Class Requirements This seminar will be a mixture of lectures and discussion, backed up by a large amount of reading and some writing. The most important requirements are that students

*Attend all class sessions

*Keep up with reading and writing assignments

*Participate in discussions

*Deliver at least one presentation to the class

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion will determine the success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade.

Schedule Note that classes will meet Fridays and Saturdays at 1010 am in Olin 101 on September 14 and 15; October 19 and 20; November 16 and 17; and December 14 and 15.

Reading Our primary reading will draw on a series of novels, classic and contemporary. They are listed below under Required Texts. I strongly urge you to obtain these books in your own copies and in the edition specified, either from the Bard bookstore, local bookstores or from online suppliers, so that we will all be “on the same page” and so that you will be able to highlight and annotate them.

Presentations Each student will make one presentation on the theme of the course, in some way tied to the current reading. Use of multimedia and social media during the presentation is strongly encouraged.

Writing Depending on response to the reading there may be an occasional in-class quiz. It is possible a final paper will be required, again depending on the progress of the course. This will be discussed in class.

    To bolster the clarity and vigor of your English prose, I strongly suggest studying two works: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which can be readily found on the web, and Strunk and White’s little manual, The Elements of Style.

Office Hours I will count on meeting with each of you individually at least once during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at My office is Aspinwall 110. My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,

Grading Students will be graded on their preparedness and their participation in class, the strength of their presentations and the quality of their written work, as follows:

Attendance            25 percent

Participation          25 percent

Presentation          25 percent

Writing                 25 percent

Absences Given the unusual format of the course and its small number of meetings – two a month – students should not miss any sessions, unless in case of emergency.

Required Texts

Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist (Penguin, 1986 [1796])

Franz Kafka, The Castle (Schocken, 1998 [1930])

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Harper, 2009 [1984])    

Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (Harper, 2003)

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice (Norton, 1994 [1912])

Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince (Penguin, 2003 [1973])

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (Farrar Straus 2018 [1962])

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (Norton, 1980 [1767])

Tentative Syllabus

All meetings at 10:10 am in Olin 101.

Friday, September 14 – Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

                                      Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (excerpts)

Saturday, September 15 – Thomas Mann, Death in Venice

Friday, October 19 – Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Saturday, October 20 – Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Friday, November 16 – Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist

Saturday, November 17 –Franz Kafka, The Castle

Friday, December 14 –Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Saturday, December 15 – Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince

Annotated Syllabus

By Class Assistant: Dominique Spencer

All meetings at 10:10 am in Olin 101.

Friday, September 14 – No Class. Class begins the following week.

Saturday, September 15 – No Class. Class begins the following week.

Friday, September 21 – Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

                                   Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (excerpts). The Unbearable Lightness of Being concerned with themes (e.g. love and infidelity), cataloguing, and Menippean Satire. The historical elements underlying the novel, including: Prague Spring (the liberalization of Czechoslovakia during 1968/after WW2) and the election of Alexander Dub?ek. The Unbearable Lightness... not overly concerned with realism/verisimilitude, but more so identifiable with Mennippean Satire.

Realism (Verisimilitude)

Fiction (Menippean Satire)

Authors: Charles Dickens and Honoré De Balzac (e.g. Balzac capturing the details and minuteness of things)

Authors: Lucian of Samosata,  Marcus Terentius Varro,  and Lewis Carroll (e.g. In Alice in Wonderland; Alice’s curiosity as her downfall)

Plot & Situation


Consistency of Tone

High & low tones

Authority, readers trust the author (Jane Austen)


One voice


Consistent characterization


4th wall not broken

Mental pretences

Neutral characters

Stylized characters and Abstract ideas

Incorporating the Platonic Dialogue: from Symposium (conversation with many people) to “dialogues” with the dead (Lucian, satirist); from Diatribes (forceful monologues) to Confessions (Confessions by St. Augustine). Authors who have used the Platonic Dialogue (Robert Burton Melancholy, Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels,  Aldous Huxley Brave New World ). Structure of the Unbearable Lightness of Being: 1. Love 2. Soul and Body 3. Politics (e.g. Franz (leftist) as an embodiment of Western Idealism that is being perceived by a rightist Kundera). Supplemental structure of the Unbearable Lightness of Being (By character and as a rhyme scheme): 1. Tomas, A  2. Tereza, B 3. Sabina (Franz), C 4. Tereza (Tomas), B 5. Tomas, A 6. Sabina (Franz), C 7. Tereza, B. Elements of Kafka’s oneiric narrative in the novel.

*Hw: Find the definition of Menippean Satire; Bring The Art of The Novel in addition to The Unbearable Lightness… and Death in Venice tomorrow

Saturday, September 22 – Thomas Mann, Death in Venice. Mann once a prominent figure in the American canon. Mann using psychology (Freud), Philosophy (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872))  and mythology (Roman and Greek, e.g. Xenophon's Symposium) to build greater structures of being. The relation between traveling South and death/unraveling (e.g. Heart of Darkness). Authenticity in the novel: Tadzio as a 10 or 11 year old boy Mann met with his wife Katia and brother Heinrich in Italy, Aschenbach as the austrian composer Gustav Mahler who died on May 18, 1911 (prior to Mann and his wife’s trip to Italy). Mann integrating unique scenes in the mundane. The conception of the devil in Death in Venice (red hair, pallid, milky skin, and prominent teeth akin to a skull, in transition, lower socioeconomic class) as the old man on the ship, the Gondolier,  and the musician. The Apollonian artist: individualistic to one’s own art form, emulating the classics, disciplined, and ideas of light versus the Dionysian artist: unity/collectivity, collective desires, natural emotion, ideas of fertility and death, chaos. Aschenbach as the Apollonian artist that unravels to become the Dionysian artist. Platonic elements infused in the novel including: beauty as a manifestation of the soul (eternal), e.g. Tadzio. The idea of the fallen modern world incorporated throughout the novel.

*Hw: Read pt.1 of The Art of The Novel (Pt.2 and 4 highly recommended);Sign up for a presentation

*Optional Hw: Look up The Real Tadzio: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and the Boy Who Inspired It; The Birth of Tragedy from The Spirit of Music

Class Recording

Friday, October 19 – Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

                                 Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (Pt. 1). Tristram Shandy a novel of Menippean Satire; review of Menippean Satire (Opposite of Realistic Fiction, e.g. Honoré de Balzac,  Miguel de Cervantes, and François Rabelais): Non-Linear Plot, sometimes addresses and makes the audience an active participant in the novel, and concerned with critiquing ideas. Received critical acclaim by German philosopher of pessimism, Arthur Schopenhauer (influenced Friedrich Nietzsche). Theme of the novel is the idea of writing a novel. Elements of Tristram Shandy include: postmodernism (influenced James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) extreme self-consciousness, focus on novelistic representation, “realism beyond realism” (more realistic than Henry Fielding's novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling), and inspiration from John Locke (empiricism); George Berkeley (immaterialism); and René Descartes (skepticism, “Cogito, ergo sum”). The story  also sheds light on various times: Pendulum time (clock time), Experiential (the feeling of a duration), story time (time within a narrative; it can be flexible).

Time in Realism and Menippean Satire


Mennippean Satire

Time: It is a pretense

Time: It is flexible

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Time feeling perpetual)

Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Alice Through The Looking Glass  (The ability to move back in time)

Unique Features of Tristram Shandy:

  1. Begins with his conception (ab ovo--From the egg); opposite of in media res

  2. Many digressions

  3. Stories have very little resonance; yet, in the context of them together, they gain relevance.

Character Overview: Walter Shandy (Father of Tristram Shandy) and his Philosophies/“Hobby-Horses”

  1. How you are conceived matters to how you live physically and mentally.

  2. Names (Christian names) are very importantTristram was supposed to be named Trismegistus “Thrice great”

  3. Deliver children feet first, not by the head

  4. Size of an individual's nose is critical (bigger the better)

Contextualization of Book and Author:

*Published: 1759-1766, Published two volumes at a time (installments)

*Written Later in Laurence Sterne’s life (nine years prior to his death)

*Sterne (1713-1768), Born in Ireland; raised in England & became a clergyman

*Death as a result of Tuberculosis

*Tristram Yorick (also suffered from Tuberculosis) is a lightly drawn portrait of Sterne

*Hw: Consider your final paper and something that has provoked you. Select passages from second half of Tristram Shandy and think about the encyclopedic quality of these passages.  

Class Recording

Saturday, October 20 – Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (Second half of novel)

                                   Discussion on final paper (12 pages; should include supplemental texts). Ideas for essays include: Franz Kafka. Contextualization of Kafka: Employed at insurance agency, libertine, turbulent relationship with father (Letter to His Father)-- “Distant authority (father) where there is no appeal,” other books to use in reference to Kafka-- Metamorphosis and The Judgement. Further review of Menippean satire: No consistent tone (Tristram Shandy makes use of prose, legal documents, typography, etc.) and makes use of quotations and allusions (an approach to literature from the Romantic period; it insisted upon the erudition of writers, e.g. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy). The idea of an upended confirmation bias for Walter Shandy: everything that he believes in is discounted or rejected, as his son is named his most hated name (Tristram), and his son has a tragically smashed nose (terribly tiny noses run in the Shandy family). Walter compensates for his son’s misfortune, by devoting three years to creating an encyclopedia (“Tristra-paedia”) of all the things his son needs to learn; Tristram’s education is neglected all the while his father creates this book. Lack of progress of Tristram’s education parallels the stunted nature of the novel. The novel estranges (estrangement; ‘ostranenieVictor Shklovsky) the reader with its unusual typography, digressions, and missing chapter. Henry James (The Wings of The Dove)  used this method of placing holes in narratives figuratively and coined it “glory in a gap” (‘aporia,’ greek--hole in the text); it enables the audience to create and fill in the holes in the narrative with their own imagination. The bawdy and sexual elements in Shandy (pg. 451, The exercise in Circumlocution of Toby’s groin wound, Tristram’s circumcision, cock and bull ending, etc.) greatly identifies with those in François Rabelais’ own stories. *Shandyism-Revealing the truth of the world, e.g. Widow Wadman wondering if Toby can fulfill his marital obligations of sex, if they were to wed (women care just as much about sex as men).

Major narratives:

  1. Tristram’s conception, birth, and misadventures: Vol. 6 depicts Shandy on his trip to the continent and this sequence reflects on memory and presentness, also satirizes travel writing.

  2. Uncle Toby’s love affairmeets Widow Wadman in the country, where he and Corporeal Trim are reenacting battles. It takes eleven years for Toby to realize Wadman’s love for him, “In vain! for by all the powers which animate the organWidow Wadman's left eye shines this moment as lucid as her rightthere is neither mote, or sand, or dust, or chaff, or speck, or particle of opake matter floating in itThere is nothing, my dear paternal uncle! but one lambent delicious fire, furtively shooting out from every part of it, in all directions, into thine

If thou lookest, uncle Toby, in search of this mote one moment longer,thou art undone.”

    Salient Quotes:

  1. I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day's life—'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back—” (207)

*Tristram implicates the novel as being unable to capture experiential time and the richness of life.

2. “It so fell out, however, to our reproach, that instead of the bend dexter, which since Harry the Eighth’s reign was honestly our duea bend sinister, by some of these fatalities, had been drawn quite across the field of the Shandy arms” (220).

*Tristram speaking on the ineffectual nature of the Shandy family.

3. “Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulkso little to the stock? Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another? Are we for ever  be twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same trackfor ever at the same pace?” (239).

*Tristram criticizes writers of the romantic period (and writers of his day, in general) for their lack of originality, constructing their own stories with the quotes and allusions of previous works.

*Hw: Reread parts you felt were confusing, prepare for your presentations, consider what you want to write about in your paper,  and sign-up for a time to meet with prof. Danner to discuss your papers and presentations.

Friday, November 16 – Denis Diderot, Jacques The Fatalist & His Master (also, Jacques le fataliste et son maître) Discussion on final paper, “Think about them, [their] provocative themes and do some self-interrogation… what are you interested in?” Diderot and Jacques The Fatalist and His Master contextualization:

  • Voracious of knowledge (science, construction, métier or craftmanship) and very popular

  • Editor of the first modern Encyclopedia (Encyclopédie)

  • Prominent figure of the 18th century Enlightenment

  • Around during the Scientific Revolution and Sir Isaac Newton: Summarized forces of the universe through math formulas, which helped to shake off the apparent darkness of the Renaissance.

  • Established the idea that intellectual precepts should not be received, but we should be critical of all things.

  • Prolific editor of encyclopedia and bifurcated writer of novels, “novels written for the drawer” because many of his works challenge authority figures, so published posthumously as a result.  

  • Member of the new, young  “Philosophe” (philosopher) movement along with Voltaire (Candide: Panglossian mantra that, “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”)

  • Jacques The Fatalist and His Master written around the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799): 1765-1780

  • Jacques The Fatalist and His Master endeavors to “shake off” traditional authority: state and church

  • The Fatalist… challenges traditions of the novel and story-telling, “This is not a story.”

  • The Fatalist… not written until v. 8 of Tristram Shandy and the novel pays homage to Tristram Shandy in the beginning and end of the book

           through its self-questioning, the     challenge to depict a realer-than-real reality (ontology), and its inclusion of intertextuality.

  • Diderot praised Sterne and called him the “English Rabelais 

  • The Fatalist… also borrows from  Don Quixote: master and slave dynamic and th theme of playing with reality, as Don discovers there’s a fake book written about him, by somebody that is not Cervantes.

  1. Beginning of Jacques The Fatalist and His Master:  Narrator addresses the reader (like Tristram Shandy), fatalism idioms, “written up yonder,” cavalier, indifferent morality, themes of Deism: God created everything that happens, and themes of Jansenism: Deterministic, the question of whether one is saved or not is already determined by what is written (not dependent on morality).

  2. Structure of Jacques The Fatalist and His Master: Dialogue rather than text that is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, narrator addresses the audience (also seems to ingrain the lack of free will to audience), and intertextuality.

  3. Themes of Jacques The Fatalist and His Master: Like Shandy love connects to character’s wound, main love story told at the end of the novel, and themes of deception: Jacques’ loves think they took his virginity, as a result of him telling them he’s virgin. And deception and vengeance also in the story of Madame de La Pommeraye, as Mme tries to get her ex to fall for a woman unworthy of him (i.e. a prostitute).  Idealized (novel) love versus caustic love or real love in which a man can fall for a sex worker.

Salient Quotes:

  1. “Truth, you tell me, is often cold, ordinary, and dull. For example, your last description of Jacques’ bandanging is true, but what’s interesting about it? Nothing” (49).

Diderot implies why many novels fail to write a realistic storytruth and facts are not entertaining, but idealism is. The dialogue also imposes another epistemological relationship between truth and its level of entertainment.

     2. “The Knife said to the Sheath: ‘Sheath, my love,  you are a fickle jade, for everyday you accommodate new knives.’

           ‘Sheath that is not what you promised me.’

            ‘Knife, you deceived me first.’

             The man sitting between the Sheath and the Knife spoke up saying:

              ‘You, Sheath, and you, Knife, were both right to change, since change is what suits both of  you. But you were quite wrong to promise that you would not change. Knife, can you not see that God made you to fit more than one sheath? And you, Sheath, to accommodate more than one knife” (114)?

              Diderot speaks on human nature and why people should not change their nature even in light of what is seemingly sacred and righteous.

           “To be perfectly frank, Reader, I’d say that of the two of us the more unkind is not me. I’d be only too happy if it were as easy to defend myself against your aspersions as it is for you to defend yourself against being bored or imperilled by my book. Just leave me alone, you miserable hypocrites. Carry on fucking like rabbits, but you’ve got to let me say fuck. I grant you the action and you let me have the word. Words like ‘kill’ and ‘rob’ and’ betra’  come boldly to your lips, but you don’t dare speak that word out loud, you just say it under your breath. Could it be that the fewer so-called obscenities you come out with, the more numerous they remain in your thoughts? What harm were you ever done by something as natural, necessary, and right as genial activity, that you should wish to exclude all mention of it from your conversation…” (200).

         Diderot alleges that people of his time are hypocrites, as they have sex, but remain reticent of publishing “obscenity” in literature. And other expletives naturally come to their minds during conversation, but they withhold from speaking them aloud. They, instead, try to rid what is seemingly wrong from their nature.

Snippet of Noah’s Presentation on Kafka’s Letters &1:50:00: What is Kafkaesque: Hedonist repulsed by his own skinny body, as he perceives it to never meet the appearance of his lovers; the aesthetic artist who sees writing as the nourishment of his life, “Each of us has his own way of emerging from the underworld, mine is by writing. That's why the only way I can keep going, if at all, is by writing, not through rest and sleep. I am far more likely to achieve peace of mind through writing than the capacity to write through peace” (Letters to Felice).

*Hw: Finish The Castle

Optional: Read The Judgement (especially if you are writing on Kafka for your essays)

Class Recording

Saturday, November 17 – Franz Kafka, The Castle (also, Das Schloss). Varying analysis of Kafka: Freudian, Marxist, etc. so do not look at the novel as an enigma needing answers, but just read it for what it is; Schopenhauer’s idea of skepticism, “No matter how assiduous our researches may be, we can never reach anything beyond images and names.” The Castle a novel on skepticism. The history of The Castle,Kafka paradoxically (kafkaesque) tells his friend and editor, Max Brod, to burn and destroy all his unfinished works upon his death, knowing that Brod would never be able to do it. Instead, Brod devotes his efforts to piecing together and finishing his friend’s remaining, unfinished works. Written in the early 1920s and published 1926. One of Kafka’s more humanistic novelslove affair, fleshed out characters, ridden with numerous details. Reception and interpretations of The Castle: Eric Heller, dennisons of the novel, unlike gods, are promiscuous and cruel, gnostic demons. Others see the novel as depicting salvation) Searching for spiritual meaning in post-spiritual, secular world, Nietzsche “God is dead” (remarking on how the Enlightenment had killed people’s belief in God.). The Castle and its relation to The Enlightenment and knowledge, K. is a land surveyor (scientific), and he reveals the strange, benightedness of characters through their relation to the castle. The Castle and its Eastern versus Western themes: East, Kundera believed Kafka was a prophet of the totalitarian state, which is irrational and cannot be engaged with, while the West poses as the existential man (nihilism), e.g. Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. Elements of anachronism in the novel including light bulbs and phones, during a time of an authoritarian state. Historical contextualization: 1921, Post WW1, People formerly believed that it would be a quick, easy engagement, but 20 million people killed; Ottoman, German, and Russian empire destroyed. End of one system and beginning of another. Novels of the time portraying the ruin of war: The Wastelandlack of fertility; The Sun also Risesimpotence and desecration.

Themes of The Castle: Bureaucracy, Castle seems to control the inhabitants of the village and the “knights” of the castle are more like bureaucrats; the surreality of the novel, the question of what is realKlamm means “illusion” and “delusion” in Czech.

Structure of The Castle: Free-indirect discourse alongside third person point of view and narration under some unknown stress.

Salient Quotes:

  1. “The church tower, tapering decisively, without hesitation, straight ward toward the top, capped by a wide roof with red tiles, was an earthly building--what else can we build?-- but with a higher goal than the low jumble of houses and with a clearer expression than that of the dull workday. The tower up here-- it was the only one in sight-- the tower of a residence, as now became evident, possibly of the main castle, was a monotonous round building, in part mercifully hidden by ivy, with little windows that glinted in the sun-- there was something crazy about this-- and ending in a kind of terrace, whose battlements, uncertain, irregular, brittle as if drawn by the anxious or careless hand of a child zigzagged into the blue sky. It was as if some melancholy resident, who by rights ought to have kept  himself locked up in the most out-of-the-way room in the house, had broken through the roof and stood up in order to show himself to the world” (8).

Kafka implicates a dispute with the saintly. The righteous church tower remains superior, but the building is still of the earth. The author also connects the building to insanity and terror with its erroneous architecture and the image of the windows’ which are reminiscent of tiny eyes looking out.

  1. “At a desk in the center on a comfortable armchair sat Mr. Klamm, harshly illuminated by a lightbulb hanging in front of him. A medium-sized, fat, ponderous gentleman.  His face was still smooth, but his cheeks had begun to sag a little under the weight of the years. His black mustache stuck out on the sides. A precariously balanced pince-nez, which reflected the light, concealed his eyes (36).

            K.’s first indirect encounter with Klamm. Klamm is described as a portly man with concealed eyes, which may imply lack of expression or lack of emotion.

  1. “There was cause for laughter, you asked whether I know Klamm, actually I’m” -- at this point she involuntarily straightened up a little and her victorious gaze, which had absolutely nothing to do with the conversation, passed over K. again-- “actually I’m his mistress” (37).

  Frieda shows how the woman of the village acquire and bolster their positions in the village, when they sleep with the “knights” or officials  of the castle.

  1. “Hours passed there, hours breathing together with a single heartbeat, hours in which K. constantly felt he was lost or had wandered farther into foreign lands than any human being before him, so foreign that even the air hadn’t a single component of the air in his homeland and where one would inevitably suffocate from the foreignness but where the  meaningless enticements were such that one had no alternative but to go on and get even more lost” (41).

                     The beginning of the love conceit between Frieda and K. The scene portrays K.’s unease with this engagement through the language of foreignness. He does not know the dynamics or norms of the village, so he is wary of having sex with Klamm’s mistress.

Dominique’s Presentation: The mystery of Klamm: The etymology of the name (German) meaning lock implying that Klamm is a lock obstructing K. from entering the castle; Klamm (Czech) meaning delusion and deceit, this individual is hiding something or he is not as he appears-- appearance versus reality. The conclusion that Klamm is delusion concotted by K. and he is K. in this sense.

Daniel’s Presentation: Kafka’s relation to heimlich (familiar, homely) and unheimlich (foreign, uncanny) using Freud interpretation of these words. The incongruity of the Kafka’s father and himself: Father, strong and authoritarian; Kafka weak and fearful of his father.   

Hw: The Black Prince replaced with Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Class Recording

Friday, December 14 – Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961). Reception of the novel: Well received by audiences and won National Book Award (1962). Themes of The Moviegoer and comparison to previous books read: The Moviegoer’s  search—vertical and horizontal—and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas’ own search to understand people, by sleeping with them; Death in Venice, Aschenbach’s own search for new creativity (Apollonian to Dionysian,) and his discovery of a “creative nirvana” or a higher level of creativity. Both Binx’s and Aschenbach’s endeavor to escape the mundanity of life—Binx through the weekend, movies, and women; Aschenbach through his observations of Tadzio. Compare and contrast The Castle and The Moviegoer: Both K. and Binx are bogged by the mundane, K. by his assistants and Binx by a shallow family that endeavors to fashion an identity to remain recognized. But K. tries to attain status, while Binx eschews himself from all status, seeing that it is banal and insincere. Contextualization of the novel (1961): Coming out of WW1 (1914-1918), a  modernity fraught with technological developments and ends with millions killed in war by various machines; Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and Cold War (1947-1991), 60,000 weapons and world about to blow itself up. Also, existential despair when all efforts are put into building deadly weapons.


  1. Everydayness—The absurd repetition of the mundane.

  2. Malaise—All the despair that a person has repressed comes out. The underlying despair presents itself as a queasy, sickly feeling.

  3. Weekend—Release from mundane life. Supposedly gives meaning to life and allows for escape from the everyday. Conceptualized as living an authentic existence that a person cannot enjoy during the week.

  4. Sunday—A person’s reacquaintance with the everyday and their  return to despair, when a person leaves the promise of the weekend.  

  5. Moviegoing: To alienate yourself from the world, by immersing yourself in the darkness of the theater. But also a means to connect with people who share Binx’s perception of a life that is full of despair.

  6. The search: Vertical and horizontal. Binx’s journey to find meaning in existence.

Themes: Recognition and Authenticity

  1. Everyone is alone in life, because no one, not even a person’s family, truly knows or understands them.

*Binx’s family often projects their own, erroneous thoughts about him onto him, when they say he is genius or that he should be a doctor or a researcher.

                       *Binx’s brutal honesty deflating the ideas that they put on him and also portraying          how authentic he is, unlike his disingenuous family.

Salient Quotes:

  1. “To become aware of the possibility of  the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair” (13).

*Binx insists that to be aware of the search is to begin to overcome the despair of life. While to be unaware of the search is to be a part of  everyday despair.

  1. “The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place—but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead” (13).

*Binx recognizes that, though, movies are a valuable means to observe the search outside of yourself, they, themselves, fall victim to the despair of life with their depiction of mundanity, e.g.  when a foreigner “takes up with a local librarian” and settles down.

  1. “Whenever I approach a Jew, the Geiger counter in my head starts rattling away like a machine gun; and as I go past with the utmost circumspection and with every sense alert—the Geiger counter subsides” (N/a).

Binx uses the geiger countera tool usually used to measure ionizing radiation-- to measure despair. What is curious is that it goes off when Binx approaches a jewish person, thus suggesting that these people are full of despair.

    4. “When a man is in despair and does not in his heart of hearts allow that a search is possible and when such a man passes a Jew in the street, he notices nothing”

    5. “But when a man awakes to the possibility of a search and when such a man passes a Jew in the street for the first time, he is like Robinson Crusoe seeing the footprint on the beach” (N/a).*Binx incorporates an iconic moment in filma stranded man, Crusoe, on a beach who comes to discover he is not alone—to articulate the way in which recognizing the search awakens man to the idea that he is not alone in his despair.

    6. “In the course of an afternoon, the yellow sunlight moved across old group pictures of the biology faculty. I became bewitched by the presence of the building; for minutes at a stretch I sat on the floor and watched the motes rise and fall in the sunlight. I called Harry’s attention to the presence but he shrugged and went on with his work. He was absolutely unaffected by the singularities of time and place. His abode was anywhere. It was all the same to him whether he catheterized a pig at four o'clock in the afternoon in New Orleans or at midnight in Transylvania. He was actually like one of those scientists in the movies who don’t care about anything but the problem in their heads—now here is a fellow who does have a “flair for research” and will be heard from. Yet I do not envy him. I would not change places with him if he discovered the cause and cure of cancer. For he is no more aware of the mystery that surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in. He could do research for a thousand years and never have an inkling of it” (51).

*The first sequence in which Binx recognizes despair and becomes trapped by it. Also, a portrayal of the irony in the novel. Binx does not consider himself to be the researcher his family insists he is, but he is a researcher of his own volition, as he observes the mystery that “surrounds him.”

      7. Kate—“While I am on the streetcar, are you going to be thinking about me?”


          Kate—“What if I don’t make it?”

          Binx—“Get off and walk home.”

          Kate—“I’ve got to be sure about one thing.”

          Binx— “What?”

          Kate— “I’m going to sit next to the window on the Lake side and put the cape jasmine in     my lap?”

          Binx—“That’s right.”

          Kate— “Good by.”

          Binx— “Good by” (241).

*The end of the novel and a depiction of how Binx becomes Kate’s reality and directs her out of her despair.

Ivan’s Presentation: Søren Kierkegaard’s Existential Theology Found in The Moviegoer

  1. “One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint” (Repetition)?

  2. “If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began” (Writing Sampler).

  3. “The most common form of despair is not being who you are” (Either/or).  

  4. “Someone in despair despairs over something. So, for a moment, it seems, but only for a moment. That same instant the true despair shows itself, or despair in its true guise. In despairing over something he was really despairing over himself, and he wants now to be rid of himself” (Either/or).

Hw: Revise and edit essays

      Bring Nightwood tomorrow

Class Recording

© 2021 Mark Danner