Course Syllabus

English 540B /Fashioning the Absent Self: German Jewish Autobiography.

Richard Block

Denny 345


Either everything is autobiography or nothing is, so Paul de Man reminds us. As readers, we insinuate ourselves into every text; what we understand about a text often tells us more about our own interpretive experiences than what is actually written on the page. And those texts that mean to narrate something other than the author’s life also serve as neat allegories for the author’s experiences. What further renders the genre questionable is the necessary death of the author, or so Maurice Blanchot warns. That is, the subject of autobiography must be arrested in time in order to be narrated or, similarly, the author must step outside of their life to speak of it.


In the first part of this course we will attend to the nagging theoretical questions that plague autobiography and memoirs of any kind: who is writing whom and who is reading whom. To that end, we will read essays by Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. We will also read Blanchot’s short text, “The Instant of My Death.


For most of the course, we will consider how primarily German Jews, lacking any self or identity in a hostile, nascent nation state fashion an autobiographical subject? What does it mean to write a memoir when traditional markers of that subject’s existence are lacking or questionable? And what about Jewish women who are prisoners of two traditions, a German and a Jewish one?


To enlarge our perspective, we will conclude with _Tha Autobiography of Malcolm X…”


Requirements: All students: Each week you should prepare a short passage for discussion. Choose 8-14 lines that strike you as particularly noteworthy. Find the key terms in the passage, explain their significance, and make some gesture toward linking that passage to the entire text.


Graduate Students: a 10-12 page paper, topic to be approved by the instructor.


Undergraduate Students: Two five-minute presentations; each is a biographical sketch that will serve as a reference in our discussion of that author’s autobiography. A final paper, topic to be approved by the instructor, of 5-7 pages.


Week 1: Introduction. What is autobiography? Metafiction? Fake autobiography. Excerpt from Dichtung und Wahrheit.


Week 2; DeMan: “Autobiography as Defacement.” Blanchot: “The Instant of My Death” Derrida: “Demeure.”


Week 3: Finish Derrida/ Various excerpts from German Jews regarding their status in German society from 1800 forward.


Week 4: Franz Kafka: “Ein Brief an den Vater” (Letter to the father).


Week 5: Jakob Wassermann: Mein Leben als Deutscher und Jude (My Life as a German and a Jew).


Week 6: Walter Benjamin: Ein Berliner Kindheit. A Berlin Childhood.


Week 7: Fanny Lewald: Erinnerungen aus dem Jahre 1848.


Week 8: Hannah Arend; Rahel Varnhagen: “Lebensgeschichte einer deutschen Jüdin aus der Romantik (Life Story of a Jewess of Romanticism)


Week 9: The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley


Week 10: Art Spiegelmann, Maus 1 and 2

Course Summary:

Date Details Due