Feed on

The Experience

We begin our descent.

In this section of the course, we will look at four different images of Hell:  War, Genocide, and two versions of Existential Angst (in a world without God versus a world with God).

Banksy’s helicopter

My goal is two fold:  I want to acquaint you with some compelling experiences that we associate with Hell.  Because this is a social science seminar, I also want to think about a complex term which, at first glance doesn’t seem like it should be complex at all: description. What do we mean when we describe something?  Why do people disagree over an exercise that seems so simple?

From this point onward, I want you to devour all of the readings on this syllabus.  In addition to the required books, please remember to bring copies of each of the assigned readings marked “Print” as well as hand-outs to class.  You need to have the required readings in hand so we can have a robust discussion.

1. Tuesday, January 15

Discussion Topic:  Why is the idea of Hell a significant part of our daily lives?  Why do we use the term so frequently?

Today, I will outline my goals and the structure of this course.  I will also conduct a class survey.

Assignment for Thursday.  Think about the following theme.  According to Scranton, “war is hell because . . .”  Then,  write one brilliantly introductory sentence which deals with this theme.

After reading the chapters, you should spend at least 20 minutes choosing the best sentence. Imagine that it is the introduction to a paragraph. Your sentence should be typed and double spaced.  All of your assignments in this seminar should adhere to these rules.



THE WAR IN IRAQ  I:  “War is hell . . .”

2.  Thursday, January 17

Discussion Topic:  What is Hell?  It depends on whom you ask.  If we put the Catholic Church and Roy Scranton in the same room, will they get along?

  • “Hell” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: PRINT AND READ
  • Roy Scranton, War Porn   Read at least the first half of the book (but not the conclusion).

Today’s goal is to start familiarizing ourselves with the terrain of Hell.  Everything we do from now on will relate to later parts of the course.  Imagine yourself as a collector, picking up different visions of Hell and trying to discern what they are about.  Scranton presents us with an image.  So does the Catholic Church

Hell in the Middle East:  Can we escape it simply by withdrawing troops?

Here are two sharply contrasting views on the wisdom of President Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.  Read each of these articles and ask yourself: 1) How does each make author make his case; and 2)  Which do you find the most convincing, and why?

  • Keith Kellogg, “President Trump Led us to Success in Syria: Now it’s time to leave” PRINT AND READ
  • Janine di Giovanni, “Trump’s Syria withdrawal has handed a huge gift to Islamic State

Assignment for Tuesday: Take the sentence you have generated for today’s class and use  a carefully modified version of it  as the introduction to a brilliant (and complete) four sentence paragraph.  Please spend lots of time making this paragraph the best one you can imagine writing (though not perfect).  Also, think hard about what a great introductory paragraph should do.  Note: Anyone can write a paragraph, but it is a big challenge to write a great one.   I challenge you.

3.Tuesday, January 22

Discussion Topic:

  • Finish reading Roy Scranton’s War Porn

Among other things, be prepared to discuss the themes in paragraph you have written for today, and then turn it in to me.  I am particularly interested in two issues: 1) what is war like in all of its manifestations? 2) if someone writes about war, how can he or she choose words to capture it in its fullness (remember the challenge of “describing a hand” in all respects).

Also don’t forget to write a pointed question for Roy Scranton at the bottom of your page.


4. Thursday, January 24

Class visit by Roy Scranton, Notre Dame professor of English, and author of War Porn.  For more information about Roy Scranton’s work, see HERE


5. Tuesday, January 29

An Excursus into the past.  From the Twentieth Century to the Fourteenth Century and back.  Our goal in today’s meeting is to understand how different depictions of Hell reflect the circumstances in which they are created.

We will meet in the Special Collections Room of Hesburgh Library.  Notre Dame is a powerhouse in Italian studies and has one of the finest collections of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Tracy Bergstrom, the library’s expert on this collection, will introduce us to visual depictions of Dante’s Inferno.  Learning is as much about looking as about reading and listening.

Before we meet, read the following three Cantos closely.  The better you understand these Cantos, the easier it will be for you to interpret the artistic depictions we see.  For background, read through the short section from Turner’s History of Hell and browse the Dante site.  For our purposes, I need not be a purest.  Feel free look for summaries of the three Cantos on any site.

  • Cantos 1, 10, and 28  PRINT AND READ
  • Background Reading: Alice Turner, The History of Hell:  READ
  • One of  many illuminating Dante sites:  BROWSE

READ: Is Hell Real? If it’s not, why would a smart guy like Dante say it is?

6. Thursday, January 31 

Polar Vortex Day:  We lost an entire class.


7. Tuesday, February 5

Discussion:  Great Writing, Persuasive Criticism

George Orwell was one of the finest stylists in the English language.  His works are deceptively easy to read.  Most people cannot write like this.  I want you to try.

Assignment: Please write a list of the three most important features of a great introductory paragraph.  They must be the three most important.

For the first half of this section, I want you to talk about what it means to write the introductory paragraph to a paper.  What should it look like?  What must it do?

Readings from George Orwell

  • “Why I write”  PRINT AND READ
  • Famous facsimile (handout)
  • Mystery Facsimile (handout)
  • “Politics and the English Language” PRINT AND READ
  • “Orwell gets an Apology”  READ
  • Bob Fischer and Nathan Nobis, “Why Writing Better will make you a Better Person”: PRINT AND READ


GENOCIDE:  “Driven into Hell”

8. Thursday, February 7

Discussion Topic:

Francis Wade, Myanmar’s Enemy Within:  Buddhist Violence and the Making of the Muslim Other. Unfortunately, this book is currently only available on Kindle.  You can purchase the book HERE. Amazon has a free app to download the Kindle reader.

Unless there is a way to print this title, I may have to make a rare exception and ask you to bring your Kindles to class.  Very regrettable.

Read at least the first half of the book.

We will watch this video:  “The Hidden Genocide: Al Jazeera investigates”  HERE


9. Tuesday, February 12

Discussion Topic:

Francis Wade, Myanmar’s Enemy Within:  Buddhist Violence and the Making of the Muslim Other

Finish the book.


10. Thursday. February 14

First Great Debate:

TOPIC:  “We can always choose to avoid evil actions.  It’s just ridiculous to think that any circumstances would deprive us of this choice.”

Debate structure: TBA


Note:  This is a debate!  Not a tea party.  Here is an example of how to structure a debate:  Should NFL Prospects be required to play in college bowl games? READ PRO and CON Again, this is just an example.  The debate is about choice and evil behavior.

Be prepared to fight and win, but please leave your weapons at the door.


Your first essay assignment is HERE




11. Tuesday, February 19:

Existentialism, Version I: “A World Without God

I am cheating a bit with this class and the following image of Hell.  Both of the writings are from the twentieth century.  But they serve my purpose well enough to make my transgression worthwhile.  Mea culpa.  Although “existentialist” thinking is not in vogue at the moment, there are enough issues in the air (e.g. global climate change; the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; the possibility of a renewed mandatory military draft) to make me think this idea will be back.  For background purposes, you can find a very reader-friendly outline of “existentialism” HERE

Discussion Topic:

Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Wall” PRINT AND READ


11. Thursday, February 21:

Existentialism, Version II:  “A World With God”

  • Flannery O’Connor, “The Lame Shall Enter First” PRINT AND READ
    NOTE: I am only asking you to read this single short story.  If you have problems printing the right pages from the long PDF file, you should easily be able to find collections of O’Connor’s short stories in the library.



OMG:  Please leave your technology at home.  This includes electronic devices of any kind, such as laptops, i-Pads, i-Pads2, I-Phones 12, FBI trap-and-trace tools, Kindles, video cameras, or other personal digital devices.

This class is a no-tweet zone!

Comments are closed.