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CLS 211 — Modernity and Its Discontents: European Thought and Culture from Fin de Siècle to World War II (An MLA-Style Course)

Quarter: Spring
Day(s): Thursdays
Course Format: Live Online (About Formats)
Duration: 9 weeks
Date(s): Apr 6—Jun 1
Time: 7:00—9:05 pm (PT)
Refund Deadline: Apr 8
Units: 2
Grade Restriction: Credit only; no NGR/letter grade
Tuition: $570
Instructor(s): Peter Mann
Limit: 18
Class Recording Available: Yes
Status: Open
DOWNLOAD THE SYLLABUS » (subject to change)
Live Online(About Formats)
7:00—9:05 pm (PT)
Apr 6—Jun 1
9 weeks
Refund Date
Apr 8
2 Units
Grade Restriction
Credit only; no NGR/letter grade
Peter Mann
DOWNLOAD THE SYLLABUS » (subject to change)

Please note: This course is open to students who have not previously enrolled in an MLA-style course through Stanford Continuing Studies.

This course aims to introduce those interested in pursuing a degree in the Stanford Master of Liberal Arts program to the kind of seminar they would likely encounter in the program. Students will face the same kind of intellectual challenges, the same kind of opportunities to engage in weekly discussion, and the same kind of stimulus to write persuasive research essays. Students are required to take this course for credit, submit written work, and contribute to class discussions, as happens in all MLA seminars. However, this course may not be taken for a letter grade, though students’ written work will receive extensive feedback from the instructor. For more information on the MLA Program, visit


How do we come to grips with ourselves in a world where the pace of change erodes the ground beneath our feet, where value systems corrode, and, as Karl Marx observed, “All that is solid melts into air”? This course explores how modernity has been a source of both dread and inspiration for European artists and intellectuals in the last two centuries. We will investigate how they confronted a secular world defined by capitalism, mass politics, and a sense of looming catastrophe—and in doing so, managed to create brilliant and enduring works of philosophy, literature, and art. We will begin with Marx’s diagnosis of alienation under capitalism and its echoes in Oscar Wilde. Next, we will explore Nietzsche’s re-evaluation of values, which inspired 20th-century cries for the overcoming of decadence and the creation of a “new man” as seen in André Gide’s novel The Immoralist and in movements like futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism. Having crossed the trenches of World War I, we will confront grim diagnoses in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Finally, we will explore three interwar novels: Virginia Woolf’s breathtaking attempt to capture the truth of subjective experience in Mrs. Dalloway, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's elegy to the Old World aristocracy in The Leopard, and Arthur Koestler’s unflinching portrayal of the modern totalitarian state in Darkness at Noon.

Lecturer, Master of Liberal Arts Program, Stanford; Lecturer, University of San Francisco

Peter Mann is a writer, cartoonist, and historian of modern Europe. He received a PhD in history from Stanford, where he has taught in a variety of humanities programs. He has written on German and Spanish history, and his debut novel is The Torqued Man. He also publishes an online comic called The Quixote Syndrome.

Textbooks for this course:

(Required) Friedrich Nietzsche, Michael Tanner (ed.), Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ (ISBN 978-0140445145)
(Required) Andre Gide, The Immoralist (ISBN 978-0679741916)
(Required) Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (ISBN 978-0140447637)
(Required) Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (ISBN 978-0393304510)
(Required) Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (ISBN 979-8430346102 )
(Required) José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (ISBN 978-0393310955)
(Required) Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (ISBN 978-0375714795)
(Required) Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (ISBN 978-1501161315)