USEM 1580 – 001
R 5:30-7:20 PM / Cocke Hall 101
You should take this University Seminar if you would like to better understand how the most unspeakable modern assaults against humanity – such as Auschwitz and the Gulag – were possible, and what their survivors discovered about human nature.
Course Description: Extreme experiences of evil and oppression – concentration camps, prisons, mass terror, and other forms of victimization – have often been presented as opportunities for unusual personal growth and spiritual ascent. From archaic initiation rites of diverse cultures through ancient Greek, Roman, and Biblical wisdom, as well as many literary traditions, the point has been stressed repeatedly that being exposed to suffering and oppression not only can make us better, stronger, and more enlightened human beings but, in fact, tends to be a necessary condition of such profound ennoblement.
Is this true? Survivors of extreme experiences of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulag, Communist prisons of Eastern Europe, and Chinese mind-reform camps ask this question while describing their own ordeals. What can we learn from them about humanity, both in general and our own? In this seminar, we will explore and discuss cultural, religious and intellectual roots of the conviction that extreme oppression can ennoble us. We will confront these traditions with survivors' writings about Nazi and Communist oppression. In our explorations, we will ask some profound questions: What motivates human beings under extreme conditions? Are human beings good by nature? How does mass-scale evil originate in history? How do diverse cultural backgrounds affect ways in which people react to these assaults against their humanity?
Our discussions will allow us to explore human experiences not directly accessible for most of us, and confront our own assumptions with discoveries of those who lived through extreme experiences. Readings include short excerpts from the Bible, Plato, Juvenal and some more recent thinkers, as well as prison/camp memoirs by Elie Wiesel, Aleksandr Solzhenistyn, Zhang Xianliang, Eugenia Ginzburg, Varlam Shalamov, Gustaw Herling, Tadeusz Borowski. Films "Korczak" (by Andrzej Wajda), "Life is Beautiful" (by Roberto Benigni), and "Interrogation" (by Ryszard Bugajski) will be viewed outside of class and discussed in class.