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What can we learn about addiction from its cultural representation (chiefly in novels and memoirs)? Turning the question around, what can we learn about novels and memoirs—about the very idea of fiction—by thinking about the way addiction features in literary texts? In this course we will track the intersecting development of these two phenomena, addiction and the novel, seeking to discover how each might illuminate the other.
Worries about the toxicity of fiction have a long history in European culture. Beginning with Plato, philosophers have warned us to mistrust mimesis (the representation of reality). The exploding popularity of novels in eighteenth-century Britain reawakened the old fear that mimesis is a kind of lie: specifically, the kind of lie one might mistake for the truth. This mistake, in turn, was just one manifestation of a broader anxiety about the rational, self-regulating capacities of the modern individual: do we control what we consume, or does what we consume control us? What does the history of narrative fiction tell us about veracity, deceit, habit, and the will? And why would novelistic character be the form of representation appropriate to the way modern capitalism constructs the individual: as an agent of rational choice but also as a repository of conflicting appetites?
Topically, we will focus our reading on narratives about addicts: characters who engage compulsively in damaging behaviors, although they may not necessarily be substance-abusers in the familiar sense. At the same time, our guiding questions will be about the category of fiction and the idea of fictionality: the idea, that is, that the novel as it developed in eighteenth-century Europe made possible a new kind of mental attitude toward plausible stories about made-up people and events. We will explore these questions not only by reading novels (by authors including Daniel Defoe, Charlotte Lennox, and Maria Edgeworth) but also by exploring the category of nonfiction, with a particular focus on addiction memoirs and journalistic representations of the ongoing opioid crisis. Philosophers, memoirists, and critical theorists who will guide our discussion may include Locke, Johnson, De Quincey, Foucault, Sedgwick, Marlowe, Gallagher, and Clune.