“Does apocalypse need to consist of being the end of the world, or could it be the end of a world, or a viewpoint?”

In one Macalester classroom, students are discussing the end of the world and enjoying it. It’s just a normal day in Professor Daylanne English’s class Ecstasy and Apocalypse: Literature of the Extreme.

“Does apocalypse need to consist of being the end of the world or could it be the end of a world or a viewpoint?” asks Alana Horton ’14 (Northampton, Mass.). That’s what students are learning: The end is sometimes the beginning and sometimes part of the journey to ecstasy.

English says she sets the syllabus but students set the agenda. Together they’ve learned that ecstasy and apocalypse go hand in hand.

“I had a sneaking suspicion all along that one cannot separate the two–that the context for one produces the other,” English says. “That’s one of the realizations that we came to collectively as a class.”

But what makes people interested in reading apocalyptic scenarios?  Within the last decade, says English people have been thinking more about what Earth would look like without humans. From cheesy sci-fi movies to more serious Discovery Channel shows, people have been speculating.

“Students have been so engaged and so interested in talking about these issues,” says English. “They have brought their own concerns and passions and intellectual questions to the class.”

For Kalie Caetano ’13 (Apple Valley, Minn.), the class showed how an author can use form and function together. The class read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the post-apocalyptic tale of a father-son journey. “We see these shards and fragments of what’s left of this world and the entire narrative is told in these disjointed junks and paragraphs that are usually no more than two paragraphs,” Caetano says. “It all comes together in a nice synergistic way.”

For Horton, the class has prompted her to ask big questions about why people want to consider their own demise. “I’ve come to appreciate the apocalypse, which is really strange for me,” she says. “Coming to grips with my own fears about the end of world has been almost liberating.”

Reading material for Ecstasy and Apocalypse includes Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The class also looks at apocalyptic narrative in films such as Blade Runner and Soylent Green, as well as in poetry and music.

“The best feeling you get out of class is knowing that you learned something that you could have never thought of on your own,” Horton says. “It’s definitely ecstatic.”

March 5 2012

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