I’m really worried about reading Dante’s Purgatorio with my college sophomores in Seminar. Worried, because I cannot be held responsible for what I do to people who hate Dante to my face. I might cry. Cry and lock them in a burning building.
Or send them on a scavenger hunt into the woods where they find themselves in a building that I set on fire.
Or strap them to a rocket that I launch into another rocket, and then the explosion would set a building on fire.
I am not permitted to speak in Seminar, save to facilitate conversation. There is to be no context, no prelude. The task for students is to read and discuss with one another on their own. This has me on tenterhooks. Already, there has been grousing. And I have behaved. Mostly. As Augustine and Hildegard von Bingen and Boetheius fall before my sophomores, unheard.
Sill, I cannot imagine what I will do if they hate this, really hate it, this wonderful work, which will reach us at the darkening edge of the long semester.
The Divine Comedy is an exquisite poem. A fierce drama. A fiction and a truth. It is a breathtaking meditation on suffering and mercy. It is a heartbreaking love story that closes having left behind its lovers. It is a journey between a student and his master, and both make way for someone else by the end. It is pagan and it is Christian; philosophy and theology; medieval and modern. There is something in Dante’s Commedia for everyone. And if my sophomores can’t find that something…
I will send them on a ship that will sail across the sea into a harbor, and in that harbor will be a foreign guide, and the guide will lead them into a building that I set on fire.
I love Dante’s poetry. I taught myself freaking Medieval Florentine just so I could hear the music of the words better. I’ve translated entire sections of the Commedia just to try. I wrote an entire damn book in which I deliberately wore the mask of Dante. In case it isn’t obvious, I’ll repeat that I really, really love Dante’s poetry. From the inside out, from the obscure works to the famous Divine Comedy.
If I knew the Bible half as well as I knew Dante, I’d be a real Christian.
So what will I do if my sophomores sneer at Dante?
I will give them a cute puppy who will lead them down a path into a field, toward a building with other puppies in it, and they will go inside looking for more puppies, but really it will be a recording, and me and the puppy will set the building on fire.
That’ll show them.
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