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

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.

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.