Topic for Spring 2018 – American Parsifal: Why the U.S. Wants to be the World’s “Wise Fool”
The United States has both a great and longstanding intellectual and artistic tradition, and a deep-seated mistrust of and hostility toward artists and intellectuals. We’ll examine this strange dichotomy, one that has been both invigorating and debilitating, crippling even, for our cultural development, and our standing on the world stage, through American music, literature and popular culture. We’ll want to know which aspects of their own culture Americans have invested in, which ones have been successfully exported, and which currently serve as icons of a recognizably American sensibility. Over the course of the semester we’ll encounter a broad range of works by William James, W.E.B. DuBois, Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Louis Menand, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashberry, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Ives, John Cage, Elliott Carter, John Adams, Charles Mingus, Brad Mehldau and Miles Davis, among others. Through it all we’ll consider America’s desire to be a kind of cultural Parsifal, the “wise fool” who rescues the world from impotence and shame, and the implications of that role for us as contemporary citizens.
Department: Music History and Literature