This transdisciplinary module examines conceptions of the underworld from the classical period to present day, using Dante’s Divine Comedy as a pedagogical guide. The module employs a combination of approaches from cultural criticism, anthropology, intellectual history, literary studies, philosophy, marketing, religious studies, and spatial poetics to explore problems such as how specific constructions of underworlds may critique the social, cultural, religious, and political values of a particular society; how ideas of profane and sacred spaces shape popular perceptions of ethical behaviour; and how imagined geographies of underworlds and hellscapes can shape architecture and urban planning. In other words, this module examines the following broad issue from a variety of complementary perspectives: ‘How do cultural anxieties about the afterlife—embodied in imagined spaces of underworlds—shape moral and intellectual values, social realities, and built environments (and how, in turn, do imagined underworlds serve as a form of cultural critique)’?
We will consider the foundational tropes that underlie and generate such spaces—what Michael Rifaterre terms a ‘hypogram’—from their Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman roots, through medieval, renaissance, Victorian and contemporary reconfigurations. We will also consider how such ideas continue to be articulated today and underlie contemporary approaches to problems such as substance abuse, intersubjectivity, and political discord. Such exploration will allow students to develop and refine their multidisciplinary analytical skills by engaging with complex problems that resist simple solutions.
Principal Learning Outcomes
Upon completion of this module, students will be able to:
- Identify the central narratives of underworld journeys (katabases) in Western culture and their reception from the classical world to present day.
- Critically analyse the dynamic between how such narratives have been inherited, reconfigured, and reshaped according to changing cultural concerns and how they, in turn, influence and often justify such cultural values.
- Discuss key theories of spatial poetics, applying these to underworld geographies.
- Engage in weekly critical reflection on how narratives of underworlds are articulated and marketed today as part of the ‘experience economy’.
- Apply advanced cognitive skills to build transdisciplinary knowledge that fosters transformative dialogue between the humanities, the social sciences, and business studies.
- Implement meta-cognitive skills in approaching complex contemporary problems.
- Collaboratively create their own culturally-conscious versions of contemporary underworlds.
The module’s structure is loosely based on the journey undertaken by Dante in The Divine Comedy. Just as Dante’s pilgrim travels through an otherworldly hellscape in order to explore contemporary social, moral, political, and cultural issues, so too will we move through various underworld journeys exploring concerns similar to Dante’s but adapted to the contemporary world. The module progresses via a problem-based exploration of underworlds and hellscapes from the classical world to present day, along with a brief discussion of purgatorial spaces. The module is split into four problems that may branch into (but by no means limited to) topics in the various sub-headings.
Introduction: Speaking with the Dead
I. From Hades to Hell: Classical and Medieval Underworlds
a. Mapping Roman Underworlds (FILM 1 - Orpheus (1950))
b. Medieval Christian Underworlds
II. Lust and Gluttony: Romance, Addiction, and Substance Abuse
c. Doomed Lovers and the Responsibilities of Art
d. Infernal Substances: Alcohol and Opioid Abuse
III. Hell on Earth: Fraud, Corruption, and Living with Others
e. Fraudulent Counsellors and Fake News
f. Existentialism and Immanent Underworlds
IV. ‘When Hell freezes over’: The Dark Sides of Adventure and Exploration
g. Mutiny Below Zero: Romantic and Victorian Arctic Hellscapes
h. Ambition and its discontents (FILM 2 - The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (2000) or ‘The Fly’ [Breaking Bad])
Illustrative Reading List
Selections from the following primary sources, monographs and edited collections will be assigned:
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space (1958)
Barron, W.R.J. and Glyn Burgess, eds., The Voyage of St. Brendan (2005)
Camus, A. The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
Campbell, J. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)
———, The Hero’s Journey (1987/1990)
Claudian, Rape of Proserpine
Coleridge, S. Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834)
Conan Doyle, A. ‘The Captain of the Pole-Star’ (1883)
Dante, Divine Comedy (Hollander Trans.)
Eliot, T.S. The Wasteland (1922)
Foucault, M. ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’ (1967/1984)
Heaney, S. Station Island (1984)
Homer, The Odyssey
Laing, O. Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink (2013)
Poe, E. A. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)
Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (2015)
Rifaterre, M. Text Production (1979/1983)
Sartre, J.-P. No Exit (1944)
Shelley, M. Frankenstein (1818)
Tasso, T. The Liberation of Jerusalem (1581) (trans. Wickert)
Virgil, Aeneid; Georgics
Films and Television:
Butler, G. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition [Film] (2001)
Cocteau, J. Orpheus [Film] (1950)
Johnson, R., Breaking Bad: ‘The Fly’ [TV Series] (2010)
Additional texts, specific book chapters and articles may be set for additional reading.
3000 word essay (45%)
Reflection Diary (15%)
Creative Group Presentation (15%)
In-Class Test (25%)