Why Dante=s Commedia? Apparently, Dante hoped that his poem would continue to speak to future ages: his pilgrim-narrator tells his great-great-grandfather, as he nears the end of his journey in the Paradiso, Aif I am a timid friend to the truth, I fear to lose life among those who shall call this time ancient.@ Yet even at his prophetic best Dante might be surprised at the degree to which his poem does still live among us who consider his time ancient. And the nature of that life suggests why the Commedia is a text of particular value for the Summer Seminars for School Teachers Program, both because of what it demands and because of what it offers: it demands for its full appreciation a hard look at the past as past, and yet it simultaneously offers the opportunity for direct and personal engagement with the values it embodies. It speaks both to our desire to see the past in itself, and to see the past as it connects with the present. Dante is a poet who is unmatched in his ability to mine the resources of his own past--the traditions of which he felt himself a part. He drew freely and energetically from the Biblical and classical traditions, not because he was an encyclopedist or an antiquarian, but because he believed the concerns of writers from these traditions to be present to his own needs. He drew from these traditions not because he automatically accepted what they have to say, but in order to enter into conversation with those who had probed problems which remained central to his own time and concerns.
In bringing the energies of the past into the present, Dante himself provides a model for modern readers of his poem and provides the link between seeing the past as past and the past as present. To understand the Commedia we need to understand, not just the texts and events Dante refers to as past, but also something of the political, intellectual, and artistic currents in his own time. Just as Dante engaged in conversation with the Bible, with Virgil, with St. Augustine, and with a host of other writers, we can turn to the Commedia to engage in a conversation with Dante on issues of concern to him that remain vital to us. The goal of this seminar is to read and discuss the poem as carefully and completely as possible, attempting to do justice to its complexity, depth, and artistic coherence. In so doing, we will try to get inside the Middle Ages, to see it, insofar as this is possible, as it saw itself. At the same time, we want to explore Dante's answers to questions that are perennial human concerns: questions about the potential in humans for good and evil, about the possibilities for spiritual transformation, about the nature and purpose of our political institutions, about reasons for reading and writing.
The Commedia is, of course, a learned poem, as its tradition of commentary, unmatched except for Scripture, testifies. It puts a heavy demand on the reader to the extent that it assumes detailed familiarity with such a wide range of learning: the world of local Italian politics and the sometimes equally unfamiliar world of medieval thought; major texts of classical antiquity and otherwise little-known figures of the thirteenth century; central concepts of Western philosophy and theology, and details from Dante=s personal life. In Francis Fergusson=s phrase, the Commedia is Athe epic of the discovery of Europe=s traditional culture,@ and the text serves simultaneously as the best total immersion in this culture and the best access to this culture that we know of. Moreover, the Commedia is an exciting poem to read closely because accepting its intellectual demands allows one to move more and more deeply into the poem, but this reality has tended to obscure an equally important one: the Commedia is in many ways an easy poem to approach for the first time. Dante is a superb storyteller who makes the general contours of his story immediately accessible and who provides the excitement and adventure necessary to sustain the reader through a hundred cantos: the journey of the pilgrim from ignorance to knowledge provides a frame (and a model) through which to encounter the poem at whatever level the reader is ready for.
Two pedagogical implications follow from this combination of difficulty and accessibility. First, the seminar needs to focus on the political, theological, artistic, and philosophic concerns which help open up the poem. Second and equally important, this information need not be presented frantically or obsessively, as though it all has to be doled out before the poem can be approached in a meaningful way. Rather, it can emerge naturally in the seminar, through discussion, assigned reports, and other readings. We will refer to other primary sources--selections from earlier works by Dante, from the Aeneid, the Bible, and Augustine's Confessions, and from the many other Christian, classical, and contemporary sources that inform the Commedia. We will alert participants to relevant secondary sources, including classic studies by Auerbach and Singleton and more recent studies such as those of Barolini, Hollander, Freccero, Mazzotta, and others. The point to be stressed is that as long as these readings emerge naturally from discussion they will lead into the Commedia rather than distract from it and they will not be intimidating, as though they were somehow a body of information that has to be mastered before one is certified to read Dante.
Because the poem repays whatever knowledge one brings to it, it can galvanize the interest of participants and directors with widely different experiences of the Commedia. We have taught the poem to students at Attica Correctional Facility who had never so much as heard the name Dante before, and we have taught it to college and university professors who have published scholarly articles on it. It is the sort of poem where both kinds of students could be in the same class and both would learn from each other. Interested applicants, therefore, should not be deterred by previous knowledge or lack of knowledge of the poem. On the contrary, the kind of diversity of experience and interest that is inevitable in NEH Seminars is a particular advantage in dealing with this text. Toward the end of the Paradiso, Dante the pilgrim explains how the experience of God continues to be dynamic rather than static: even though God himself is changeless, the pilgrim feels his own ability to comprehend grow as his vision increases. Something like that describes the experience of most Dante readers we know: the poem may stay the same, but our ability to appreciate it continues to grow. Teaching the poem never loses its excitement, and it will be easy for the seminar participants to see that we are eager to gain from the combination of a new audience with new perceptions in a new encounter with the poem.