What do horror-movie basements, the subconscious mind, windowless office cubicles, the “lost city” of Atlantis, clinical depression, and Hades have in common? Why do we speak of the poor as belonging to an ‘underclass,’ why are criminals part of a shadowy ‘underworld,’ and why are covert political organizations part of an ‘underground’? These are all “underworlds” -- real and metaphoric places that both reflect and determine how we feel about the world we live in, and where we think we’re headed.
Barbara Henry’s new course for the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures draws on her interest in classical depictions of the world beneath our feet to examine how very old ideas about the afterlife and the “other world” continue to reverberate in the present day. The course will look not just at Russian literary underworlds -- Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, traditional fairytales, Yevgeny Zamyatin's dystopian We -- but also how these seemingly very culturally specific ideas draw on and expand a universal human tradition that goes back to our earliest mythology. “Slavic literature will be our point of entry into the subject,” says Henry, “but we’re also going to look at classical, European and American treatments of many different ‘underworlds.’ We’ll be reading a graphic novel version of Dante’s Inferno, watching a terrifying film called The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005), reading a fantastic web comic called ‘Hyperbole and a Half,’ and taking a walking trip around the U District to see how we still think about space as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean.’ We’re also going to be looking at our own family histories, since traditionally, the one who makes the descent comes to speak with his ancestors. But underworlds are also really funny -- as long as they’re someone else’s underworld. So we’re also going to be watching films like Groundhog Day (1993)! We’ll also think about what our own personal descents to the underworld might look like, and sound like. I’m putting together Hell’s Playlist, myself. I’m pretty sure ABBA is on it, and a lot of Christmas songs.”
Unlike a traditional literature class, “Underworlds” will examine not just literary treatments of the “other side,” but how these ideas continue to shape the world around us. What are our contemporary hells? Who are our descent heroes? How does popular culture treat ancient descent themes, and what do these say about how we view the afterlife, the earth, and ourselves? “Literature is not separate from life, it’s a concentrated vision of it, and I want students to see how our culture continues to draw on ideas and images that you find in Vergil, in Dante, in Dostoevsky, and, yes, in Groundhog Day. I’m also really excited for students to bring their own experiences about underworlds into play; if people know about things like Chinese and Vietnamese “ghost money,” or “dark money,” burned for the dead, or the Hindu god of the underworld, Yama, I would love to know more about these. The class will very much be a collaborative effort, and I'm really looking forward to it."