Reading · Teaching

Reading Dante in Isolation

I recently moved my teaching online, along with the rest of the world. I was in the middle of Dante’s Inferno.

The course on Epics (this term) wound its way from Greek and Roman treatments of the Trojan War to Dante’s critique of some of those tropes and characters, and we were just about to talk about how low in Hell Ulysses gets placed when we disbanded. We left some things hanging as we moved in to a new, foreign medium.

But the conversation continued. We were fortunate to have built a good base; we were about halfway through our semester, so comfortable with each other and our content. And the content is all connected.

The last day we met in person, we talked about Dante’s treatment of thieves. As we considered why thieves get transformed in to snakes in hell, we teased out all the imagery and traced through-lines. For about four cantos, Dante winds the image of a coiling snake through theft and fraud and lying to achieve personal ends: thieves and liars, snakes and friars. In a  beautiful confluence of word and image, all of Dante’s snake imagery fits those who steal, like the serpent who stole Paradise from Adam and Eve, with his forked, venomous tongue, through Ulysses, who counseled fraud and convinced his men to seek that which was beyond their reach (the mountain of Purgatory). Because we had a firm grasp of the snaky thieves, our first discussion online went almost as smoothly as it would have face to face.

Gustave Dore’s illustration of a thief transforming to a snake

After that, though, two things happened. First we went deeper, and trying to envision the fractious Sowers of Discord and the ultimate traitors in the 9th circle were harder to get our heads around. That Dante places those who create division among humanity—divisions in religious sects, in families, and between people and their lords reminded us of our distance from one another during our quarantine.

We are stronger together in so many ways, but one of them is in education. Dante argues this negatively in Inferno, when he shows how destructive division is to humanity, and he argues it in Paradiso, where he shows that the unity of humanity is godlike. We are most like god when we gather together and support each other as one. That’s why the Sowers of Discord are in deep Hell. That’s why even the introverts are feeling the sting of a quarantine. That’s why we learn better in a classroom than on the internet.  

Lucie reads the Inferno. Her Italian is impeccable.

But sometimes we have to be apart. So I am grateful for all the ways we have found to create community virtually. The next big event was that the midterm took place as scheduled–a dramatic reading of seven cantos of the Inferno. People read from their own homes, some with sound effects (because they’re way cooler than I am), and on their phones or their laptops or with whatever means they had. And we heard Ugolino confess his cannibalism and Nimrod shout his babble and Satan mumble with his mouth full. And we shared in the horror of those scenes and the power of performance to unify actors and audience.

Finally, we discovered my cat and Dante share a birthday, so they decided my cat was Dante reincarnated. Therefore, despite what feels like the theft of our face to face community, I’m confident in our ability to come together in other ways, building unity and shared knowledge, and optimistic about the rest of the term.

Reading · Teaching

The Return of the Verse Novel

People tell me all the time they don’t like poetry.

They don’t get it; they don’t see why it has to be so hard. They think it’s pretentious—you should just say what you mean, already; why torture your words in to form? They think it’s out to trick them and to make them feel inadequate. They’re on guard and defensive.

I think that’s all wrong.

I think poetry is just distilled language, in sharper focus, with the volume turned up–pick a sense. It’s true some of the writers I teach want to challenge their readers, but it’s not the poetry that challenges, generally; it’s the content. Dante is not dense because he writes in terza rima; he’s dense because we don’t know enough of his historical and political context to get all his references, nor enough of his religious context to grasp his spiritual claims in their fullness.

But man, the guy can sing.

So I’m on a perennial quest, every term, to break down walls in people’s minds and help them feel poetry. And lately I’ve discovered a tiny resurgence of a genre I was not expecting: the verse novel.

On our last trip to Solvang, my daughter and I each bought, without consulting the other, a verse novel. I don’t know about you, but I have very little experience with verse novels, and the one that comes first to mind is the quite forbidding. The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning is a 600-page whopper that I bought as an ambitious undergrad and left on my shelf. 21,000 lines of iambic pentameter had intimidated even me, the poetry lover.

But there is new hope. My daughter picked up a book that is sort of a biography in verse of Joan of Arc: Stephanie Hemphill’s The Language of Fire. And I bought a retelling of the Minotaur’s story called Bull: A Novel by David Elliott. Then she read mine and I read hers, both in a sitting.

These are novels told in verse, published in 2019 and 2017, respectively, and I thought also of Jane Yolen’s 2018 Finding Baba Yaga, and realized this might be a thing. If it is, let me just shout from the rooftops, Hurrah! Because all three of these are wonderful—lively revisionings of a well-known story spun in readable, small spurts of poems.

The poems are mostly free verse—the kind of poem that makes me wonder why the poet chose to break the lines there… or they would if I weren’t swept up in the narrative. Some of them are visually poetic, and by that I mean the very way the words are presented on the page is beautiful. Some of Yolen’s have very, very short lines—two syllables. Or they build from short to long lines and back. Or they intersperse voices in italics. Elliott’s have pages that get progressively darker as Asterion the Minotaur’s perspective darkens.

This is good stuff, y’all. This is poetry that lets you in. It may be my predilections that lead me toward the myths and fairy tales (Joan’s legendary status notwithstanding), but they seem perfect subjects for this medium. You already know the story, or think you should. (Yolen’s first poem, in fact, is entitled “You think you know this story.”) So the content is not going to be the problem, as in Dante’s case. This time through, you just get to enjoy the show.

But all three of these are marketed for the Young Adult audience, which means that many readers will not know the stories. If this is the first introduction to these stories, that’s good too. They are more expansive than the myths, more personal than a “real” biography, more psychologically vivid than a fairy tale.

But they also get to sing.

And if they’re selling, that means young people are getting exposed to old stories through poetry. It’s brilliant, of course. (It always has been.) The poems are short, moving briskly through the narrative, switching voices, clapping back—even making Hamilton references–and because there are simply fewer words on each page, you get the sense that you’re flying through the tale. And that helps skittish readers feel like they accomplished something, which they absolutely have.

I hope what they’ve done is hopped on the bandwagon to revive a wonderful form. I hope that means more will come to my classes with less fear of poetry and more sense of its potential.

Reading · Teaching

Life, a User’s Manual

A friend asked what he said was a Dante question—what are the seven deadly sins, and was that Kevin Spacey movie right.  I started explaining the difference between the Seven Deadlies and the levels of Dante’s Inferno, and it got me thinking about life, the universe, and everything.

The Seven Deadlies as most modern folk think of them (including the crazy serial killer Kevin Spacey plays in the film Seven) are Pride, Anger, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lust, and that list has been in use for centuries, deriving from medieval patristic sources, the earliest of which was probably Pope Gregory I.
As the Middle Ages wore on, penitential handbooks were produced that offered models of the sins growing out of one another (the “concatenation” of sins). Medieval manuscripts show the sins as the fruits of a tree, the root of which, in the Gregorian tradition, was Pride. From pride all other sins proceeded one from another, like fruit on branches. Later medieval authors would argue greed was the root, as the Feudal System crumbled and the working class argued for wages.
Penitential handbooks were like the rules to get to heaven.They explained what kind of penance was appropriate for particular sins.They outlined the seven deadlies and gave corresponding virtues that one could practice to combat a tendency toward sin.
We have a number of different examples of these handbooks with varying specifics, but the point was that we could fight our sinful nature. Sin may damn us, but virtue might save us. The oldest set of virtues were the four Cardinal Virtues (inherited from the classical tradition) of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice, plus the three Theological (read: Christian) virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.  Penitential handbooks drew out the smaller divisions of these big sins and virtues, and offered solutions almost like a doctor would prescribe a remedy—practice humility if you want to avoid pride, and so forth.
Dante used these sins and virtues to structure his Divine Comedy, but he had more circles to fill and more axes to grind. He made use of those subdivisions in the penitential handbooks (like separating pride in to hypocrisy, fraud, despair, and others), and then he took them even further.
Fraud was the worst for him—a purposeful misuse of our God-given reason. Simple fraud (stealing, seducing, counterfeiting, and others) is punished in the 8th circle, but the 9thcircle, where Satan himself resides, includes treacherous fraud—purposeful, planned deceit of family, of countrymen, of benefactors, of God.  Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise, of course, have corresponding virtues, in probably the most elaborate extension ever of the ideas in those penitential handbooks.
The idea that we can combat the evils of the world and in ourselves remains attractive. And the idea that there are always rules to follow (I think also of Apollo’s Creed, that people should “Know themselves” and have/do “Nothing in excess” as well as the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments–heck, even Little Red Riding Hood’s rules of “Stay on the path,” and “Don’t talk to strangers”) means that we’re pretty consistent about wanting things spelled out for us.
There is comfort in knowing there is a remedy. And there is comfort in knowing that the evils you see have a name. That is old, old power—naming something so you can control it.
As usual, I find we haven’t changed much over the millenia. We still find strength in identifying evil, naming it, and working to undo it. We still work efficiently with rules to follow; it’s just that the rules shift some with new contexts and culture. We still try to improve on certain scales—practice gratitude to be happy (that’s a splinter of humility, by the way); cultivate a practice of generosity by volunteering and donating; practice, defend, and enact justice.
People haven’t changed, really. I find that comforting too.
(I stole the title for this post from Georges Perec’s novel, but I expect it’s been used elsewhere as well; it’s all connected. And the image is a creative project for my Epics class this spring–a pinata depiction of Satan’s head as described by Dante. It was glorious.)
Reading · Teaching

Beginning Dante, or Reading our Way to Paradise

I’m teaching Dante again.

I teach the Infernoin my Epics class, after we have read Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. It works beautifully, since we first encounter the Greek version of the aftermath of the Trojan War, then the Trojan/Roman; then we get to Dante, and he puts lots of those characters in his afterlife. Odysseus goes to Hades. So does Aeneas. It’s kind of a thing.
But nothing prepares them, really, for Dante.
The Type Scene of the Underworld Journey (Greek katabasis) is present in most epics, really.  The hero crosses over—literally dies—and brings back otherworldly knowledge to help his people. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Odin, Vainamoinen, Gandalf—so many heroes go and come back, and it’s a dramatic event in their storied lives.
But for Dante it’s the whole work.
For one canto at the beginning, poor Dante is lost, halfway through his life, wandering and trying to get somewhere, but he can’t do it alone. We can all relate to this. And it’s how he hooks us. Then his favorite poet appears, a literary and spiritual guide—Virgil, the Roman author of The Aeneid—and he offers to lead Dante along his edifying journey for as long as he can.
Dante the poet has a poet laureate lead him. Who would be our guide, we wonder? Someone whom we revere; someone who led us by example before they passed on. But before we can get too bogged down in thought, the journey begins.
Dante journeys to Limbo where he sees the spirits of Homer and other classical authors. This is where Virgil has been called from and where he will return when Dante’s tour is over. And we are introduced to Dante’s method and his mania at one stroke. He can put anyone who ever lived—real or literary—in the place he sees fit. It is a hugely ambitious task and a minor miracle that he completed it. So I guess it wasn’t mania—just drive.
The first sinners Dante encounters are the Lustful, and it’s one of my favorite passages in the whole Commedia. I spend a good deal of time on Canto V of the Inferno, unpacking it and reading it carefully with my students. One of Dante’s techniques is to have a soul tell her story (in this case, Francesca da Rimini, who had an affair with her brother-in-law), so he can understand the sin or virtue through a firsthand witness.
Francesca tells of how ill she was treated—trapped in a loveless marriage, she found what she thought was love just a little left of legal. And she first committed adultery at the instigation of a book. She calls the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere a “Galeotto” or go-between. It is after they read together the salacious details of the royal affair that brings down Camelot that Paolo first kisses Francesca.
Dante faints at this moment, and some read it as guilt. He, too, has loved where he should not have.
But I think it’s something else entirely. In an age where books are copied by hand, they can get miscopied very easily.  And in the case of Francesca and Paolo, they didn’t read thoroughly—they stopped before the lovers’ consequences were realized, so were tempted in to the same sin.
As Dante begins to tell of countless sinners and sins, he feels the weight of his responsibility and collapses under it. What if his text inadvertently–through sloppy copying or sloppy reading–leads others to Hell?
And so my students and I start another ambitious task—that of reading judiciously—with the hopes of making it to Paradise.

The Music of a Language

I have the excellent good fortune to teach English in a department of English and Modern Languages.  This means the hall where we live is filled with people who are bilingual and multilingual. It means we have majors in Spanish as well as English, and minors, certificates, and courses in several other languages. It means I hear different languages daily, some of which I can pick out words and follow conversations, and some of which I know next to nothing and can only hear the music. This post is about why that is valuable.
Recently I had a discussion about the sounds of different languages.  You know the stereotypes—Romance languages sound lovely, but Germanic sound harsh, like you’re being yelled at. In fact, it was sparked by this meme:
In some ways that’s not wrong—languages that have a preponderance of words that end in vowels, like Italian or Spanish, sound like the words run together more fluidly, since the vowel of the last word joins to the consonant in the next word just like the syllables do in a single word. This makes the words flow together in a way that the consonant-heavy Germanic languages can’t achieve. In German or English, words more often end in consonants, which means you have to stop the flow of air more often. It sounds like you pause on purpose after each word so you can pronounce them all, and also to differentiate between words. It means you get more of a staccato, shotgun sound as you utter the sentence.
Compare, for instance, part of a line from Dante’s Purgatorio : “Lo sommo er’ alto che vincea la vista…” (Purg. 4.40)–where every word ends in a vowel except the one that’s been abbreviated for the sole purpose of keeping the musical vowel-consonant alteration–with a line from Rilke’s “Evening”: Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewӓnder,” where the only word that doesn’t end with consonants is an article (‘the’).  Americans tend to view the Italian as more musical and the German as more aggressive, just on the basis of whether there are more vowels or consonants.
Imagine our dismay, then, when we think about English—that glorious bastard tongue of “German spoken with a French accent,” as one of my French professors used to say.  Is it German?  Is it Romance? (English has a whole lot of Latin borrowing as well, and American English is busy borrowing from Spanish as we speak.) So which is it? Both?
The difference for me is not that one is more beautiful than another. (I have heard people be very seductive and debonair in German.) It’s more that they are both musical until we know what they say.  When we have no clue, we can focus on the sound—the lilt of Romance or the rhythm of Germanic. As Jorge Luis Borges says in his gorgeous essay on his blindness, when you don’t know a language, “each word [is] a kind of talisman that [you] unearth.” Each word rings with strangeness and music, and comes out more a chant than a sentence.
This is a reason to study another language. In addition to making you more cosmopolitan, introducing you to other cultures and gaining a better understanding of your own language’s grammar, you get to experience that music. You get to enjoy the process of turning that music in to meaning. Because that’s the problem with listening to a language you already know, particularly natively:  you are so busy making it mean something, you forget to listen to how beautifully it sings.

Didascalicons, or What to Read and How to Read It

I have always been interested in education, and when I chose to study medieval Europe, it was a natural draw for me to see how they studied and what they valued in terms of learning. When relatively few people were literate, and most of those had strong ties to the church, reading was viewed quite differently from today. Texts were produced laboriously, often by many different artisans, even before one considered the text’s author. Reading was serious work—serious enough that people worried about doing it wrong—with bad intentions or just badly (reading that is superficial or frivolous, not reflective and enlightening). Thus there was a need for a Didascalicon.
Hugh of St. Victor wrote the Didascalicon as instructions toward productive study and correct reading. He includes directions on what texts to read, what areas to study, and what order of subjects leads to fullest understanding. We might presume that the idea of reading rightly may have had more clout when there were fewer readers and fewer texts, and most of them were associated with the church. One should read with the elevation of one’s soul in mind, of course. But I think we still fret about this.
There’s a shift, to be sure.  Dante writes in his Inferno (Canto 5) about a couple who fall in to the sin of lust while reading the tale of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair. He worries (not unreasonably) that his own books might lead people to sin if they were read badly—quickly, shallowly, or misdirectedly—if they were misinterpreted. The idea that his current book, which he intends to lead readers to salvation, might also lead some to Hell, hits him like a ton of bricks.
But Dante was writing in the Catholic Middle Ages. So was Hugh, a century before him. We live in the 21st century. Surely we don’t need people telling us how to read or what to read.
Or do we? The advantage that medieval readers had over us is the same thing I listed as a deficit above.There were far fewer texts, and the cost of producing a text meant someone had to really want to produce and disseminate that text. That means, if not quality control, at least quantity control was built right in to the system.
Hugh is worried about us reading so that we get maximum gain from what we read, but he’s not worried about our reading texts that are deliberately misleading. No “Alternative Facts” or propaganda in a medieval romance. No Buzz Feed lists and no satire sites that are so carefully crafted that readers have to check their sources to make sure they’re satire.
Face it. We still need help reading. Now we need help knowing what to read, what not to read, and what not to believe, if we do get sucked down a rabbit hole.  We worry about images we can’t “unsee” and spending too much time reading things that really upset us.  The context is different (I think the number of people afraid of being damned for reading something is down, at least per capita), but the result is the same—people worry about wasting time, being misled, and even being psychologically affected  by what they read.
What do we do to combat the overwhelming amount of text and image that we encounter on a daily basis?  We read lists that other people have compiled. Blogs are full of reading recommendations, as is Pinterest. We publish lists of bestsellers, and we award prizes for excellence. Some of us check the list of challenged and banned books for suggestions. We teach classes on how to tell reliable sources from biased or commercial ones, and our librarians teach us to use the CRAAP test to ferret out questionable sources. And I’m afraid we get pretty cynical and set our default on “mistrust” rather than believing what we read right away.

I admit, sometimes it would be easier to just take some well-meaning person’s word for what we should read and what we should get out of it. But we don’t do that anymore. We can’t afford to. Maybe it’s better. We all have to come up with our own Didascalicon.


In Praise of Pulp

As someone who gets paid to read (and teach) Chaucer and Dante and others whom people view as “classics,” I still spend a lot of time reading genre fiction.
I don’t even have excuses, not real ones, anyway. I could tell you I cut my reading teeth on my mom’s romances (I did—at 14 I devoured much of the Danielle Steele oeuvre in a summer). If I were to go there, I’d also praise RL Stine for keeping my boyo in books through much of 3rd and 4th grade, by the end of which he was an avowed reader, one interested even in writing his own books.
So we could say so-called “pulp” novels and series are good gateways to other books. We could say they train one how to read fiction, and therefore, literature.  They introduce us to plot and character, and each genre has its own conventions in terms of stock characters and structure. Enough trips through a fictional world, or a science-fictional world, or a murder mystery milieu, and you know what to expect, whom you’ll meet, and roughly the order of things as they proceed. The spunky heroine will win over the rugged, taciturn maverick; the butler will be discovered; the signature RL Stine twist will appear and satisfy.
They’re no Dante, but… they’re not supposed to be.
I’ve read hundreds of mysteries now (I switched gears from romance to mystery sometime in my 20s and never looked back), in addition to my Dante and Chaucer, and I can say a few things.  First, there is something very satisfying about the speed of reading a popular novel.  You can really get swept away, engrossed, lose track of time, and come out disoriented because you are fully steeped in the world you’ve just given yourself to. You flip pages like a demon, trying to get deeper immersed, trying to chase the characters, unfurl the mystery, get to the end.  That speed, that rush, that voluntary oblivion, you don’t get in Dante.  And it’s cool.  It’s a fine reason to read.
You can also get to know characters very well if they have several books to develop.  In that way, reading a series is akin to watching a television series—lots of time to see the characters in action and lots of different circumstances, developing different aspects of their personality. But in a book, you do considerable work to construct the characters. You imagine their physical appearance, and you have more freedom in seeing them act. Television actors are intermediaries, offering you their reading of a character. When you’re reading, it’s all you, and there’s something magic in that.
Finally, one thing Agatha Christie has on Dante is volume.  Dante is awesome—one of my favorites—but I mostly read and reread the Divine Comedy. Agatha Christie wrote eighty novels. One of my modern—living (gasp!)–mystery writers has written well over 200 and is not dead yet. That means, despite the conventions of my chosen genre, (and remembering there are conventions in all texts, even “high literature”), I have a nearly inexhaustible supply of new stories. That’s worth a lot.
So popular fiction has the rush, the characters-cum-friends, and the novelty cards.  Not a bad hand.  I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I’m also not going to put my book down long enough to respond when someone asserts that I’m reading pulp.