“The good life” and “the American Dream “remain powerful animating principles in popular culture, politics, and also our individual psyches. I spoke with Professor Dora Zhang at the University of California at Berkeley who teaches a course on “the good life,” using mostly literary rather than philosophical texts. From Sophokles’s Antigone (441 B.C.) to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2020); from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), and from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) to the idea of “cruel optimism” advanced by literary critic Lauren Berlant, Zhang’s course is not intended to leave students depressed about their prospects but motivated to rethink what they’ve been told to hope for and aspire to. I loved this conversation with a gifted and brilliant teacher, which was also a sort of homecoming for me since I had been a freshman student at the University of California at Berkeley some 30 years ago, where I discovered that my love of literature could become the basis of a career.
Professor Zhang is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on Anglo-American and European modernist fiction, literature and philosophy, novel theory, affect theory, visual culture, aesthetics, and ecocriticism. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and her B.A. in philosophy from the University of Toronto. Her book, Strange Likeness: Description and the Modernist Novel (University of Chicago Press, 2020), shows how description is far more than stage-setting or background in modernist novels. She’s also published on Proust and photography, Woolf and the philosophy of language, the role of atmospheres in everyday life, and Roland Barthes's travels in China.
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