One of the main courses that gets assigned to TAs in my department is called “Good and Evil, East and West” (I’m not going to get into what a weirdly problematic title that could be construed to be). Usually graduate students are assigned to teach it as one of the first two stand-alone courses they get, which usually happens in their second year. I had an unusual teaching situation—I taught in the Italian department for two years while a graduate student in Comp Lit, so I started teaching in Comp Lit “late,” but with a bunch of teaching experience already, and then got assigned an odd assortment of classes—so this is my first time teaching “Good and Evil.”
I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve actually been planning syllabi, or at least preliminary reading lists, for it for years, since I kept expecting that I’d be teaching it soon. I think I only got it this coming semester because I pointed out to the people responsible for teaching assignments that I hadn’t taught it yet, and said that I’d really like to.
I’m so excited that I’m going to tell you all about it.
Last year (or the year before?) when the movie Drive came out, I went to see it, partly because I like action movies and partly because my housemate at the time really liked Ryan Gosling, who was starring. As far as action movies go, it was weird. I’ve seen a lot of them, including a lot of really terrible movies that are good action movies, and a lot that are even terrible action movies. (I’m making a distinction between the quality of the film and the movie’s ability to function as mindless genre entertainment.) As a film, it seemed like someone had perhaps put more artistic thought into Drive than goes into many action movies, although many people I know saw this as merely pretentious. I won’t argue that point too strenuously. As an action movie, though, it had all of the right elements, but somehow they all came out wrong.
That fascinated me. These are pretty simple elements. Violence. Sex. That loner attitude that marks the hero-cowboy. Why were they not working “properly” in this movie?
I realized that actually, Drive is the same movie as The Transporter (starring Jason Statham). And then I figured it all out.
Here’s a brief outline of the plot(s). Our hero is someone who works with criminals as a wheel-man, but does not associate with the criminals otherwise, because he is morally and intellectually superior. He positions himself as doing a very simple job—driving—without being part of the other criminal aspects of the people he drives for by adhering to a relatively small set of fixed rules. In short, he does exactly what he says he will do, for exactly the money he says he will take, doesn’t ask questions, and doesn’t get involved. The idea is that this protects him, as well as making him more “professional.” Near the beginning of the movie, he takes a job. During the course of the job, something happens that requires him to make a decision about breaking his rules in order to fulfill a higher moral objective that he perceives. Of course, breaking this rule means that he eventually has to break all of his rules, chaos ensues, things blow up, people get injured, and at the end, … well, I won’t spoil them. There’s sex, too. They’re action movies, after all.
In my reading, though, what’s different about Drive is how these materials are treated. If you’re a narratologist, we could say that it’s the “story” rather than the “fabula” that changes. (See Mieke Bal’s Narratology.)
A quick example: In many action movies, the hero is able to move from kissing the love interest to beating up a bad guy and back to kissing with hardly a pause. In Drive, the hero is kissing the love interest in an elevator when he realizes that the other man in the elevator has been sent to kill him. He pushes the woman behind him and proceeds to (literally) stomp the man’s face in. While he’s doing this, the elevator arrives at the floor and the door opens. In many action movies, if not most, he would step out, shielding the woman’s eyes, perhaps, and guide her towards their next adventure. In Drive, when he looks up, she’s about 10 feet away already, outside the elevator, backing away slowly with a look of horror on her face, because, after all, he’s just stomped a man’s face in. This is not a normal man, and she knows it.
In fact, he’s something of a sociopath. Actually, when we get right down to it, most action heroes are. We just ignore that part of them. They live alone (often), lie frequently, ignore the social and moral consequences of their actions (which are of course subordinate to their own vigilante morality), the list goes on.
But this isn’t just particular to contemporary cinematic pop culture.
In medieval and ancient heroic cycles, some of the main story types are the birth of the hero, the deeds of the hero, and the death of the hero. We need that death, and the closure of the heroic age itself, because heroes are fundamentally unstable, sociopathic beings whose presence in society is a threat to stability. Once they have achieved their goal (establishing their king in power, destroying an enemy), there is no space for them. And even while they’re doing their deeds, we have to keep a lookout to make sure that they don’t accidentally exceed their usefulness and do harm to society.
Another quick example: in the Old Irish Ulster Cycle, the hero Cú Chulainn as a 7-year old proves himself to be a hero by tricking the king into arming him and letting him ride in a chariot (with the king’s own arms, chariot, and charioteer, no less). Cú Chulainn then goes out and defeats some enemies. I’ll skip that bit. When he comes back, though, he’s still in his battle-rage (what Thomas Kinsella translates as “warp-spasm”—his hair stands on end, one eye sinks into his head and the other pops out, you get the picture). The king and queen see him coming in the chariot across the plain, and they know this means trouble, because he won’t be able to recognize that he shouldn’t destroy the town. The queen gathers up the women of the town and they all go out to meet him on the plain. They show him their breasts, and when he drops his weapons and covers his eyes (because mammary glands and war are incompatible), they grab him and dunk him in a series of vats of water. The first he causes to boil, the second simmers gently, and the third gets to the temperature of warm bathwater. Then they know it’s safe, and they pluck him out, towel him off, and get on with life. Except that in their midst, they have this 7-year-old kid who might one day accidentally destroy the town if there aren’t enough half-naked women to stop him. [This tale is in Cross and Slover’s Ancient Irish Tales, but I’m not overfond of that translation. If you want more information, email me.]
So this is the idea I’ve built this course around. Not, I think, particularly novel (a lot of this comes from existing knowledge about heroes and heroic and epic cycles), but fun. We’ll spend the first half of the class (before Spring Break) looking at ancient and medieval literature, with a little Renaissance and folk literature sprinkled in. After Spring Break, we’re going to take the skills in close reading and textual analysis and apply them to more modern texts: Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ Watchmen, Drive and The Transporter, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Ken Liu’s The Man Who Ended History. We’ll get to talk about themes of war, sacrifice, religion, loyalty, gender… and whatever else my students or I find most interesting and productive.
The goal, as with most of these gen ed classes, is to teach students skills that they can use to analyze all kinds of texts that they encounter (most of my students are not literature students). Critical reading, analysis, argumentation, writing skills. Also thrown in is the idea of introducing them to some new texts, both Western (some Greek and Latin epic literature in this case, for example), and non-Western* (the Bhagavad-Gita). My decision to include some less literary genres in the second half is aimed at convincing them that not only do the issues we talk about in class appear, frequently, in contemporary culture, but that the skills that they’ve learned can be applied to these works as well as to, say, Boccaccio’s Decameron (ca. 1348), which, to be honest, I don’t expect most of them to read any more of than I assign in class. [DecameronWeb is a great resource, but I don’t like their translation either. I recommend G.H. McWilliam’s version, but as far as I know, it’s not available for free anywhere.]
My class, as it stands now, is more than half seniors, and out of 30, I have one single English major. The rest are a mix of mostly science, social science, and business. The biggest challenge will come, I think, if the senior-heaviness means that half of the class is just there as a last-gasp distribution-requirement-filling obligation, chosen because we don’t meet on Fridays and the schedule works out. It’s much easier to connect to students who at least chose the course because it looked interesting (and fulfilled requirements), and who don’t believe that I owe them a good grade just because they made it to their final semester. Wide variety of interests and majors? Great. Students from every academic year? Sure. The challenge of getting students to read who don’t read much? Definitely. The frustration of students who don’t see the need to come to class and then insist that they need to pass so they can graduate? Let’s see if we can avoid that.
* I use “non-Western” advisedly; it’s not my favorite term, but as a shorthand, especially given the title of the course, …