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.

Living

The Quarantine/Mom Blog

The Quarantine/Mom Blog

I have not blogged for a while. It’s the biggest lapse since I started blogging, actually. Things have been… you know how things have been. I’ve been torn between trying to stay positive and feeling anxious and being grateful that my parents don’t have to deal with a quarantine.

Which leads me to the mom blog.

Mom was a little girl in World War II. She had very few memories, really. Dad was older; he was old enough to remember, but not old enough to understand. He had stories about collecting fighter plane cards and feeling lucky that Grandpa scored a giant barrel of eggs preserved in water glass. His memories felt sheltered to me—innocent.

Mom, who didn’t remember the war, but remembered growing up poor after it, was undeniably shaped by it. She was frugal—clipped her coupons, made her own clothes, and crocheted toys for us. She lived as if she didn’t have much, even when she was comfortably middle class. Some of that rubbed off on me.

But along with being cautious with her funds, she also appreciated what she did have, perhaps because she remembered very clearly not having much at all. No store-bought toys. One chicken for nine people. The stories she told involved people, not things.

So when I think of her living through a quarantine in a pandemic, and I try to imagine what she would have done, I don’t have to look too far. As I walk the dogs around our neighborhood and chat with neighbors, I am following my genetic directive. When I text and zoom and email friends to stay in touch, I’m reminded of how Dad set up a special chair for her to talk on the phone. I send out greeting cards to friends in far-flung places, and I remember the drawer she had full of cards for all occasions and the long list of holiday card recipients.

And I think despite having more in common with my dad, mom left her mark on me in many ways. She would have hunkered down during a quarantine and done whatever it took to keep her family safe. She would have kept people distracted with stories and games. She would have been delighted but flummoxed by video chat. And there’s no way in hell she’d have run out of toilet paper.

Stay safe out there, my friends.