Thompson Rivers University
Department of English and Modern Languages

ENG 4790–3 The Sublime and Grotesque in Literature

Course: ENGL 4790 Instructor: Dr. Ken Simpson
Semester: Fall 2015 Office: AE 193
Email: Phone: 250-371-5558
Office Hours: Tues., Thurs. 9-9:45, 2:30-3:30 (or by appointment)

Course Description:

This course will focus on moments from early modern, modern, and postmodern literature that attempt to express the inexpressible and raise questions about the limits of representation. As a starting point we’ll assume that the sublime and grotesque are antithetical: the sublime is associated with transcendence, immateriality, vastness and limitlessness, purity, awe and terror, while the grotesque emphasizes immanence, materiality, the deformed body, transgression/monstrosity, revulsion and laughter. We’ll also examine how these two aesthetic categories inform each other, especially in objects of the sublime grotesque (or the “immanent sublime”) in recent literature. Paying attention to cultural context, we’ll explore the changes that occur in the definition of the sublime and grotesque, the selection of sublime and grotesque objects, the emotions inspired by the objects, and how the sublime and grotesque are composed, their patterns of imagery and narrative. Readings will consist of excerpts of works from a variety time periods and national literatures as well as excerpts from theorists such as Longinus, Burke, Bakhtin, and Lyotard. Topics will include representing the holy, the role of blood and gore, ruins and garbage, the technological sublime, trauma and disaster, and ecstacies of various kinds.


As a result of taking the course, students should be able to (1) identify and analyze aspects of the sublime and grotesque in literature, and, to a lesser extent, visual art, including film; (2) develop essay writing, oral presentation, and blogging skills (3) understand the cultural significance of changes in the theory and practice of the sublime and grotesque from the early modern to the postmodern periods.


Lectures and discussions are the prevailing methods, but small group work and student presentations will also be used to develop and extend key concepts and ideas.

Required Texts (Print):

Carson, Anne. Decreation. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2005.

ENGL 4790 Course Pack. Use the following format for Works Cited references: Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch. The Restored Text. Ed. James Grauerholz and Barry Miles. New York: Grove Press, 2001. Rpt. in ENGL 4790: The Sublime and Grotesque in Literature. Comp. K. Simpson. Kamloops, BC: Thompson Rivers University Bookstore, 2015. 148-155. Print.

Required Reading (online or print) Many of these texts are readily available in many print and online editions (in the public domain), as well as from the library and popular anthologies. These are suggestions only.

Anderson, Sherwood. “The Book of Grotesques” and “Hands.” Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life. 1919.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Introduction.” Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomigton: Indiana University Press, 1984. 1-30. Online.

Burke, Edmund. “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful With An Introductory Discourse Concerning Taste, And Several Other Additions.” 1757, 1759. The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Vol. 1. London: John Nimmo, 1887. 67-263. See Part One, Section 6-7, pp. 111-112; Part Two, Section 1-22, pp. 130-165. Online.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. 1790. Trans. with Introduction and Notes by J.H. Bernard (2nd rev. ed.) London: Macmillan, 1914. Online. See pp. 101-139. (Note that p. 101 of the text is p. 149 of the page finder at the top left of the digital text).

Longinus. On the Sublime. Trans. H. L. Havell. London: Macmillan, 1890. Online.

Lovecraft, H. P. “The Call of Cthulhu.” 1928. Online.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Barbara Lewalski. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. Book 3. 344-415, Book 5.153-208, Book 7.131-260. Online.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Masque of the Red Death.” 1842. Online.

Shelley, Percy. “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni.” 1817. The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Vol. 2. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914. Online.

Wordsworth, William. “The Prelude.” 1850.The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Vol. 3. Ed. William Knight. London: Macmillan, 1896. Online. See Book 6.524-641 and Book 14.1-129.


Essay 1 (1,000 words) 25%
Essay 2 (1,500 words) 35%
Blog Assignment 20%
In-class Report 20%

Academic Honesty, including Plagiarism:

See the online calendar for the university’s policy about plagiarism (go to Student Academic Policies, Regulations, and Procedures//Index of Policies, Regulations, and Procedures//Academic Integrity [ED 5-0]). Avoiding plagiarism is each student’s responsibility.


See the online calendar for the university’s policy about attendance (go to Student Academic Policies, Regulations, and Procedures//Index of Policies, Regulations, and Procedures//Student Attendance [ED 3-1]). Students are expected to be on time, to be prepared, and to attend regularly. Failure to do so affects not only the student’s ability to learn, but also the class as a whole.


Assignments should be handed in at the beginning of the class designated as the due date, unless an extension has been approved in advance; otherwise, it is late. Extensions are almost certain when a reasonable request is made before the due date. Requests for extensions on or after the due date will be declined. Please note that a “computer crash” or a “printer malfunction” are not reasonable requests; writers should always back up their work as they go. When an advance extension cannot be obtained, as in the case of sudden and serious illness or injury, a note might be required, but when it is appropriate, please keep me informed as soon as possible. A late assignment will be penalized 5% each business day it is late.

Tentative Outline and Readings

Sept. 10           Introduction: Literature and the Limits of Representation

Sept. 15           Longinus, On the Sublime

17                    Dante, The Divine Comedy, “Paradiso,” Canto XXVIII-XXXIII

22                    Milton, Paradise Lost 3.344-415, 5.153-208, 7.131-260.

27                    Burke, “Of the Sublime and Beautiful,” Part One, Section 6-7, pp. 111-112; Part Two, Section 1-22, pp. 130-165.

29                   Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 6.524-641, 14.1-129.

October 1      Kant, Critique of Judgement, Book 2, Part 23-29, pp. 101-150

6                     Shelley, “Mont Blanc”

8, 13              Technological Sublime: Clarke/Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey

15                  The Sublime and the Avant-Garde: Lyotard, “Presenting the Unpresentable”

20, 22            Carson, Decreation

27, 29            Grotesque Theory, Dante: The Divine Comedy, “Inferno,” Canto XXV, XXIX-XXXIV

November 3, 5 The Comic Grotesque, Carnival, and the Grotesque Body: Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Introduction), and Rabelais                        The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel

10, 12           Grotesque Horror and Abjection: Kristeva, “Approaching Abjection”: Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”; Lovecraft, “The

Call of Cthulhu”

17, 19          Grotesque Modernism: Anderson, “The Book of Grotesques,” “Hands”; Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

24                Late Modernist Religious Grotesque: Ginsberg, “Sunflower Sutra,” “In back of the Real”

26                The Grotesque Body: Burroughs, Naked Lunch

1,3              Postmodern Grotesque, the Immanent Sublime, and the Resistance to Representation: Camp, Kitsch, Garbage, Techno-
grotesque/sublime, Assemblage, Bricolage, Collage, Decreation Revisited

Blog Assignment: ENGL 4790

Marks: 20

Length: (1) at least one blog of 300 words that embeds hyperlinks and other media including photos, video, and/or music); and (2) several comments on the posts of others

Please Note: this entry of mine is NOT meant to be a model to be followed. I am focusing on information only. Your approach will pay much more attention to the visual resources of the Web in the composition of the blog.

Purpose: to give students the opportunity to (a) respond to literature in forms other than the essay (b) develop writing/blogging skills (a hybrid of visual and verbal expression) (c) develop thinking skills (d) enrich the conversation both inside and outside the classroom


The blog is an online conversation among students that provides more detail and depth about issues connected to the course than is possible in the classroom. Blog posts can also be brought back into the conversation in the classroom. The most effective use of the blog occurs when posts are interconnected and part of an unfolding thread of dialogue, both in terms of a substantial post (300 words and embedded media) and comments that respond to other posts. Thus, each student is expected to contribute at least one substantial post and several comments that are constructive in responding to others. While a blog connected to others is preferred, stand-alone contributions are welcome as well.
Since the focus is on the blog as a site of exploration and conversation, I will not be assigning marks based on accuracy (except in a limited way as I note clarity of expression) but on your constructive use of the medium (where “constructive” means responding with genuine intellectual curiosity in your substantial post and with sensitivity to others in your comments).

Please note that copyright issues regarding material that you might want to embed in a post and the basic skills of authoring, embedding, creating links, etc. will be addressed in class. Issues of confidentiality/privacy will be addressed by (1) informing students of the issues (2) using pseudonyms if requested (only Brian Lamb, the blog administrator, and I will know your identity) (3) avoiding the disclosure of personal information. I will monitor the blog only to ensure that the exchange of ideas is respectful and to evaluate performance at the end of the course.

Participating in the class means that you agree not to share the blog password with anyone.

For a mark of 17-20
•Minimum of 3 blog posts (300 word minimum each)
• Each post is exploratory in thought and form (includes photos, video, links to other ideas, attention to visual impression of the posts, etc.)
• Excellent writing, on topic; demonstrates intellectual energy in making links with other images and ideas
• At least 5 constructive comments on others

For a mark of 14-16
• 2 posts (300 word minimum each)
• Some exploration in thought and form
• Well written, on topic
• 3 constructive comments on others

For a mark of 10-13
• 1 blog post (300 words)
• Little exploration in thought or form
• Satisfactory writing, often on topic
• 2 constructive comments on others

For a mark of 0–9
• One short blog (less than 100-200 words); Text only; Unsatisfactory writing, off topic; Possibly disrespectful of others; No comments on others

ENGL 4790: In-class Report

Marks: 20

Length:10 minutes

Format: informal, spoken report to the class about an assigned reading, but the more creative and engaging the report is (speaking in front of the class, using the board, overhead, visual images from the Web, etc.) in conveying your ideas, the better.


Becoming familiar with the scholarly and critical tradition of discourse and theory about the sublime and grotesque is an important part of learning how these concepts are used and how their practice changes. To develop this familiarity and to develop presentation skills, each student will be assigned a 10-minute report during the term based on short assigned readings. There will usually be 3-4 reports on the same text in the class set aside for the discussion, but each report will focus on a different section or issue of the same text (For example, for the class set aside to discuss Longinus’s On the Sublime, Student A might be assigned pages 1-10, and Student B might be assigned pages 11-20, or Student A might be assigned a topic, such as “Longinus’s definition of the sublime” and Student B might be assigned another topic, such as “how the sublime is created, according to Longinus,” etc.).


17-20 marks
-the report is accurate and concise but detailed enough to cover the topic
-an attempt is made to not just summarize the information but also to analyze it or extend it by making connections between the text and (a) other views of the sublime/grotesque and/or (b) images/texts that illustrate the ideas being presented in the text.
-the speaker speaks to the class clearly, coherently, and directly from the front of the class and uses other methods to illustrate ideas, such as the class blog, the Web, slides, etc.

14-16 marks
-the report is accurate and concise, but detailed enough to cover the topic
-an attempt is made to not just summarize the information but also to analyze it or extend it by making connections between the text and (a) other views of the sublime/grotesque and/or (b) images/texts that illustrate the ideas being presented in the text.
-the speaker speaks to the class clearly, coherently and directly from the front of the class

10-13 marks
-the report is accurate and concise generally, but there might be some overemphasis on minor points, inaccuracy or lack of detail in the report
-the speaker addresses the class clearly and coherently from his/her seat but avoids reading from a prepared text

0-9 marks
-the report might be somewhat incoherent and/or unclear and possibly incomplete or inaccurate
-the speaker speaks to the class from his/her seat from a prepared text
-parts of the report might not be clearly heard or inappropriate language might be chosen

Questions/Guidelines for Reports

(1) What objects are sublime/grotesque? What is the purpose of the sublime/grotesque object? How is the sublime/grotesque defined?

(2) What are the characteristics of the sublime/grotesque?

(3) What emotions are associated with the sublime/grotesque? Is the emphasis placed on the object itself or the emotions the object inspires?

(4) How is the sublime object created, according to the writer? What techniques of language, imagery, rhythm, etc. are used?

(5) What similarities and/or differences do you notice between the theory you’re reporting on and other theories that we’ve looked at? What is the significance of those similarities and/or differences?

(6) What ideas about race, class, gender, or philosophy/religion are implied in the writer’s theory of the sublime/grotesque? In what ways are the writer’s psychological, political, or aesthetic biases or assumptions revealed in the text?

Not all questions will apply to every text equally. Your interests or the text itself might lead you to focus on one question only. Or you might be interested in a specific issue that the questions don’t address. I encourage you to think laterally, making connections and associations and developing webs of understanding and reference, but also make sure that the report presents an accurate account of what the theorist is saying in the part of the text assigned to you.