Studies in 17th Century French Literature: Pascal: before theory, in theory, after theory

FRIT-F630 — Spring 2021

Hall Bjørnstad
Days and Times
T 4:10P - 6:40P
Course Description

Meets with CTIH-T600.

The course will not require any prior knowledge of Pascal or his historical context, and all readings and class discussion will be in English.

What happens when a reader informed by recent theoretical inquiries approaches an early modern text? Will the theory illuminate the text or only colonize it? Is the absence of present-day concerns desirable or even possible while reading texts from the past? Conversely, to what extent can the engagement with earlier texts prove helpful, even essential for our thinking about more contemporary concerns? How does our theoretical understanding of the past as new beginnings, roots, genealogies, prehistories, thresholds, reoccupations or ruptures inform the purpose of the work we do in the humanities and our contribution to the thinking about contemporary problems? This graduate seminar will explore questions like these through an in-depth study of the last 60 years’ critical reception of an especially contested early modern canonical text, namely Blaise Pascal’s Pensées.

Our work with Pascal (1623-1662) and his posthumously published Pensées [Thoughts] (1670) will in fact demonstrate that this is an ideal object of such an interdisciplinary, theoretical inquiry, for at least three distinct reasons: First, through the genuine interdisciplinarity of Pascal’s own inquiry in the Pensées, drawing on Pascal’s own cutting-edge, often foundational, contributions to what today we would call STEM disciplines (geometry, probability theory, decision theory, hydraulics and informatics), together with human psychology and theology. Second, through the malleability and instability of the text itself (what we know as the Pensées is an amorphous mass of fragments found after Pascal’s death and since then classified and reclassified by editors and scholars, leading to vastly different works published under the same title), which makes it an ideal case for theoretical discussions of the very notion of what a text is, and what a work is, engaging with approaches ranging from critical book history to questions of authorship (Foucault, Barthes). Third, and most importantly, because of the central place assigned to Pascal and his historical moment in so many canonical reflections on the predicament of modernity, not only among mid- to late-twentieth century French theorists, including Foucault and Barthes as well as de Certeau and Marin, but also German theorists from Benjamin and Auerbach to Blumenberg. This last perspective will be developed in the last part of the semester, when we will explore the hypothesis according to which Pascal is a threshold figure whose thinking manifests unresolved tensions between tradition and modernity, hierarchy and autonomy, authority and experience, feeling and reason, sacred and profane. We shall thus consider the ways in which this threshold of modernity helps us think about our own (post)modernity and its theories.

Readings will include: (a) texts by Pascal; (b) works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière and others; (c) texts explicitly on Pascal by Walter Benjamin, Erich Auerbach, Paul Valéry, Maurice Blanchot, Lucien Goldmann, Louis Marin, Paul de Man, Pierre Bourdieu among others; (d) recent secondary texts by scholars grappling with the issues important to our class. The final project will either be a traditional research paper or a “book review essay,” where a minimum of two critical texts are assessed in a way that highlights and reflects on the relationship between recent critical inquiries in the humanities and an early modern text (by Pascal or another early modern writer).

Interested in this course?

The full details of this course are available on the Office of the Registrar website.

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