NHC Summer Institute in Literary Studies: Toril Moi on Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

We wanted to let you know that Toril Moi (Literature, Duke University) will be leading one of the National Humanities Center’s two 2011 Summer Institutes in Literary Studies. Applications for Prof. Moi’s seminar are now being accepted (postmark deadline: March 11, 2011), and information about how to apply can be found here.

Here is the description of Prof. Moi’s seminar, which is entitled “Reading The Golden Notebook” (full information here):

For a long time The Golden Notebook (1962) was taken to be a feminist tract. Doris Lessing herself objected strongly to this: her aim was to warn us against emphasizing differences, not to reinforce them, she wrote in her 1971 preface. While she is obviously right to insist that her novel cannot be reduced to questions about gender and sexuality, this seminar will take issue with the assumption that a feminist reading is doomed to emphasize gender differences, however irrelevant they may be.

In fact, The Golden Notebook is a hugely ambitious novel that sets out to give the true measure of the political, personal, and historical conflicts and contradictions of the postwar world, as they appeared to a white Rhodesian living in London. In its ambitions to understand its epoch, The Golden Notebook inherits the realist ambitions of George Eliot; in its attempt to capture reality and experience through new forms, it belongs to high modernism; in its ceaseless questioning of the relationship between writing and truth, it anticipates postmodernism. The Golden Notebook‘s analysis of the world of intellectuals and artists in postwar London parallels that of The Mandarins (1954), Simone de Beauvoir’s magisterial investigation of the politics and passions of French intellectuals after World War II.

Intellectually and politically, The Golden Notebookengages with Marxist theory and psychoanalysis, with communism and capitalism, race and racism, and decolonization, yet without abandoning its skepticism towards any theory or politics that pretends to reduce the world to a simple explanation. The novel broke new literary ground in its radical attempt to convey with unparalleled honesty the feel and texture of women’s lives in the era so stylishly represented in the current TV series Mad Men. Finally, The Golden Notebook also lays bare the prejudices of its time: as many critics have pointed out, its representation of homosexuals and homosexuality are deeply problematic to contemporary readers.

The seminar will engage in close reading of The Golden Notebook, both in order to reach deeper levels of appreciation of this remarkable text, and as a way to explore different ways (“approaches”, “methods”) of reading women’s writing today. It will question the idea that there is something specific or characteristic about the ways in which women write. Inquiry will start from the assumption that women do not write in one way, any more than men do. Yet it does not follow that the author’s gender is always irrelevant to literary criticism. So what is a literary critic to do? Is the author dead or alive? The question of the relationship between the author’s person, and the author’s life, and his or her text is not just important to feminism, it remains crucial to critics concerned with race, postcolonialism, sexuality, class, and history.

This seminar will explore different ways of reading a mid-twentieth century European novel. It will engage in at least some of the following kinds of reading: historicizing, political, postcolonial, feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytical, formal, literary historical, and philosophical. By discussing the assumptions underpinning such different inquiries, the seminar will strive to achieve some insights about when (under what circumstances) to take the author’s person, the author’s life, or the author’s gender, into consideration in literary criticism.

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