Fall 2023 - HUM 309 D900

Literatures and the Arts Across Cultures (4)


Class Number: 4599

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Sep 6 – Dec 5, 2023: Fri, 12:30–4:20 p.m.

  • Exam Times + Location:

    Dec 8, 2023
    Fri, 8:30–11:30 a.m.

  • Prerequisites:

    45 units.



An interdisciplinary study of literary texts in translation and/or art forms across cultures and periods. Students may repeat this course for further credit under a different topic. Students with credit for HS 309 or WL 309 under this topic, or HS 303 under the title "Reflection on the Greek Civil War" may not take this course for further credit. Breadth-Humanities.


HUM 309: Literatures and the Arts Across Cultures
Modernism and the 20th Century Avant-Gardes

Course Description
How do literature and art respond to the profound changes that took place in the 20th century? How do they respond to the contradictions of modern life? What do they reveal about the nature of reality and the human condition? Can art mobilize aesthetic and political energies? What is the value of artistic experimentation?

These questions will accompany our discussions of ‘modernism’ and ‘the avant-gardes.’ We will examine works of art, literature, and cinema that operate a cultural and aesthetic break with earlier traditions in response to, and sometimes in anticipation of, the turbulent political events and social ideologies that characterize the 1900s.  Our course will focus on the aesthetic and the political dimensions of some of the protagonists of this time, paying particular attention to works that raise questions about language, subjectivity, politics, and modern life. We will consider in particular: 1) the crisis of language and representation; 2) the crisis of the subject; 3) the relation of modernism to modernity; and 4) the relation of aesthetics to politics in the wake of the crisis of capitalism that led to WWI. Amongst the authors of the works that we will be studying are Virginia Woolf and Proust, Kafka and Hrabal, Cezanne and Picasso, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Chagall and Mayakovsky, but also critical theorists such as Lukacs, Benjamin, and Adorno and film directors from the post-WWII neo-avantgarde age.

Alongside literature and art, we will look at historical documents that articulate the reflections, anxieties, and challenges of intellectuals about these times of radical change—times which comprised two World Wars, the rise of fascism and communism, totalitarian regimes, imperialism and decolonization, technological innovations, social oppression but also social emancipation.

Modernism is perhaps the first truly global intellectual phenomenon. The course material focuses on Europe as a “dialogic space” rather than an identity. It will therefore include connections with American, African-American, Mexican, African, and Indigenous art as significant influences on and exchanges with European groups.

Course Outline
We will begin with a few documents from the 1800s before discussing writings about modern aesthetics and the formulations of the historical avant-gardes. We will continue with the manifestos of different movements, from Futurism and Cubism to Surrealism and Anarchism, and the analysis of the genre of the manifesto. After the examination of the regroupings of the 1930s and the 1940s in the midst of the rise of fascism, we will look at the neo-avantgardes, neorealism and new wave cinema, and indigenous art of the post-WWII period.

Classes will start with the reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.


At the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the historical development of literary and artistic experimentation in the 20th century, the social transformations operated by art and literature, and the connections among different cultural traditions (Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Indigeneity)
  • Develop theoretical and analytical tools pertaining to different literary and artistic forms.
  • Develop their own perspective regarding questions and debates addressed by 20th century intellectuals with regard to the political work of art and literature.
  • Integrate historical, literary, philosophical, aesthetic, and political analysis.
  • Communicate their ideas and the result of their research effectively and engage in class debate.
  • Generate persuasive and well-structured argumentation and support it through analysis of specific evidence.


  • Attendance and participation 10%
  • Short paper on literature (6 pages) 20%
  • Canvas discussions of theory, art, and criticism (3x5%) 15%
  • Short paper on art or cinema (5 pages) 15%
  • Midterm 15%
  • Creative assignment (2 pages) 5%
  • Final Exam 20%


For students enrolled in a Global Humanities major or minor program, this course counts towards a concentration in:



  1. Virginia Woolf, Dalloway [1925]
    Penguin, 2000: ISBN-13: 978-0141182490 (or any unabridged edition)
  2. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way [1913]. Trans. William Carter.
    Yale UP, 2013: ISBN-13: 978-0300185430 (or any unabridged translation)
    (we will read only selections of this novel)
  3. Franz Kafka, The Castle. Trans. Anthea Bell.
    Oxford World’s Classics, 2009: ISBN: 0199238286 (or any unabridged translation)
  4. Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude [1976/1989]. Trans. Michael Henry Heim.
    Mariner Books, 2001: ISBN-13: 978-0156904582 (e-book also available)

We will also read excerpts from a selection of theory and criticism (including Lukacs, Gramsci, Trotsky, Eisenstein, Shklovsky, Walter Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer), art manifestos, and poetry (Baudelaire, Mayakovsky, and Vicente Huidobro), which will be available on Canvas.


  • Josef Kilian (Dir. Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, 1964)
  • Closely Watched Trains (Dir. Jiří Menzel, 1966)
  • Rome 11 o'clock [Roma, ore 11] (dir. Giuseppe De Santis, 1952)


Your personalized Course Material list, including digital and physical textbooks, are available through the SFU Bookstore website by simply entering your Computing ID at: shop.sfu.ca/course-materials/my-personalized-course-materials.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity website http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating. Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the university community. Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the university. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the university. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Students with a faith background who may need accommodations during the semester are encouraged to assess their needs as soon as possible and review the Multifaith religious accommodations website. The page outlines ways they begin working toward an accommodation and ensure solutions can be reached in a timely fashion.