Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for the first time is a confounding and exhilarating experience for anyone. Confounding because there’s just so much stuff that you need to know to understand the poem; exhilarating because Dante presents to you the sublime and terrifying grandeur of his cosmic vision. The only prerequisite for reading is an experience of the human condition. So anyone can pick up the poem and get something out of it.
I taught the Commedia in the fall semester of 2015 at Yale-NUS, a joint creation between the National University of Singapore and Yale University. We seek to reimagine liberal arts education in Asia for a global world. The cornerstone is our Common Curriculum. In the first year, it encompasses two semester sequences in Literature and Humanities, Philosophical and Political Thought, Foundations of Science, and Comparative Social Institutions. Inspired by the Great Books model found at the University of Chicago, Yale, Columbia, and St. John’s College, our program believes that the best way to liberal education in the humanities is an engagement with the most thought-provoking and influential books of the past. Yet mindful of our location and our world-historical time, we move beyond the canonical Euro-centric model. Thus in our Literature and Humanities course, we read the Sanskrit epic Ramayana alongside that of the Odyssey, we consider the allegories of the spiritual self in Augustine’s Confessions with the fifteenth-century Persian romance Yusuf and Zulaika by Jami, the rise of the vernacular novel with Don Quijote and the sixteenth-century Chinese Journey to the West.
In this pedagogical context, the question becomes how I, as a scholar trained in the European classical tradition, can incorporate Dante and the epic tradition in our upper-level literature curriculum. The challenge is in what ways I can teach about the fundamentals of Roman culture, Christianity, and the Middle Ages to students who have little familiarities to these traditions and no knowledge of Italian? What comparative possibilities might there be in cross-cultural visions of the afterlife? How does our view of allegory change when seen not from the lens of medieval theology but world literature?
I was, as it were, the Virgil to a group of ten Dantes. For three months, for three hours a week, we read, carefully and intensely and philologically, every single word of the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. We paid special attention to the historical, intellectual and social world of the European Middle Ages and the fraught legacy of the classical tradition (we also read the entirety of Virgil’s Aeneid, chunks of Ovid and the Bible along the way). We discussed theology and revelation, the state of souls in the afterlife, the primacy of poetry as an intellectual and spiritual activity, the nature of art and beauty, the relationship between pagan myths and Christian mysteries, and the medieval encyclopaedia of classical learning and medieval religious doctrine.
The six essays collected in the UDJS represent the students’ travelogue, by now a two-year journey. Whereas most final papers in class are quickly written and then summarily hidden away and forgotten we worked on them, refined them, and made them exponentially better than any end-of-term paper. The goal of this publication is to build an “authentic learning experience” (in the current buzzwords of pedagogy) and take the next step by making students revise and then showcase to the public their hard work. The contributors learn the process of journal submission, revision, responses to the editor and peer review; the student editors learn the process of running a journal. These are essential skills not only for the students who wish to go on to graduate school, but also for any professional field involving writing.
Now, thanks to a grant from Yale-NUS’s Teaching and Learning Centre, we are able to make this into an online and print journal. Thus I am honored and delighted to present to the reader six essays of the highest caliber. These are all pieces of undergraduate research that make a real contribution to the 700-year old tradition of Dante scholarship. As the student editors—Carmen Denia and Thu Troung—note, “The experience was deeply transformative. As contributors, we learned to situate ourselves in a lineage of thoughts—thoughts of those who have come before us, in the secondary literature, and of those who did this with us: our professor and peers. To do independent research amidst all those voices is to balance what we learned from others with what we have learned by ourselves.”
The first three essays form a cluster that explores the nature of artistic representation and its relationship to divine truth. Christopher Tee’s “Dante’s Addresses to the Reader: A New Way of Seeing and Reading,” probes the poet’s invocation to the reader as a way for him to think about the veracity and truth claims of his text. Ritika Biswas in “How To Become A Scribe: Art And Humility In The Divine Comedy” does a vertical reading of Cantos 10 across the three canticles and see them as Dante’s “meditation on the ineffable relation between the art and humility of a poet and scribe.” Thu Truong’s “LA DIVINA MIMESIS: Art in the Terrace of Pride in Divina Commedia” is likewise interested in the nature of artistic representations in Canto 10 of Purgatorio, and argues that unlike another artist, Arachne, “Dante’s art aspires to be not fraud, but guidance; not trickery, but truth.”
Carmen Denia’s “Divine Hunger in Dante’s Purgatorio” is perhaps the most theologically attuned of the essays, and proposes the gryphon in Canto 31 to “represent the Eucharistic Christ, the highest object of divine hunger.” “The Middle of the Journey: Dante’s Reversal of Phaethon and Lucifer in Canto 17 in The Divine Comedy” by Rebecka Lindeberg harnesses the tools of reception studies to argue that the pilgrim seeks to transcend the tragic falls of the mythological son of Apollo and the biblical fallen archangel. The last essay is on the afterlife of the poem. In “Every Tongue Would Surely Fail— The Visual and the Verbal in Illustrations of the Inferno,” Benson Pang traces the responses of three artists—Botticelli, Gustav Doré, and Rico Lebrun—to think about the perennial agon between the poetic and pictorial arts.
Let me end by the words of the student editors themselves: “Like the terza rima, which looks to the past and anticipates the future, while converging in the present, this journal also wishes to connect past scholarship with future audience, starting with the readers who are currently holding it in their hands. . . . If from within the Commedia shines forth a light—and there is indeed such a light—then each Dantean work is a stained-glass window that lets the light pass through changed. We hope you would find the essays here just as colorful and luminous.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Please click on the following link to visit the website of the Dante Journal of Singapore from which the inaugural issue may be freely downloaded: