"The Enlightenment and Its Discontents" with Prof. Dr. Simon Edwards

Course description:

From the late 17c the development and application of scientific knowledge throughout Europe, seemed to offer the possibility of continuous improvement in the human condition, the steady advance of civilization and a radical challenge to the power of organised religion. These putatively enlightened principles and values came to dominate our political culture and many of our ordinary expectations of individual and social life. 

Even at their peak in the 18c they did not of course go unchallenged particularly in the literary imagination. Nor did the material evidence of human and improvement progress stack up in the following years, not least against the persistent presence of violence, slavery, superstition, and exploitation. As the great German critic Walter Benjamin noted in 1940: There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism . 

Unsurprisingly 20/21c literature and popular culture are both rich in dystopian visions of the abundant wealth and comfort that appear to characterise the so-called advanced economies. This short course, however, is intended to explore the abiding interest and power of some of the earliest dystopian texts in the British literary tradition which still inform and indeed haunt our contemporary perspectives. 

We start with Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), which remains the best known and most widely read text of the English 18c. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1819) survives in countless adaptations in film and popular myth but always rewards by examining its original form. Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) has proved the source of possibly more film, TV, theatrical, cartoon adaptations and versions than any other work of prose fiction. Finally, H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895 ) announces the formal emergence of a new literary genre, science fiction, which will proliferate in the following centuries.  

NB. Students intending to buy a copy of Gulliver's Travels should make sure they have an edition of the complete original text. Later editions, a measure of the work's popularity, very often only include the first two sections, and are often highly bowdlerised . 

Depending on numbers, students will be expected to make short presentations on each of the texts, either individually or as part of a group. Please organise this in the weeks prior to the seminar, to ensure that all texts are covered on the three days of the course.  

Students are expected to read Jonathan Swift's  A Modest Proposal as well as Gulliver's Travels.