Brainstorm
Services

EDUCATIONAL
MATERIALS


West Chester University

Spring 2006 and Fall 2005

West Chester University

Fall 2004and
Spring 2005

Spring 2003

Fall 2002

Spring 2002

Fall 2001

 

 

 

Home

Contact

Course Syllabi and Announcements
  LIT 165 Syllabus
  LIT 165 Announcements and Assignments
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  WRT 120 Announcements and Assignments

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2008)
  A Reading of THE TEMPEST

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
  Goals of the Course
  Fundamental Questions about Literature
  Valuing Literature
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Literature as ART
  Ambiguity
  Approaching the Art of Fiction
  Defining the Short Story
  Evaluating Short Fiction
  Craft of Fiction: PLOT
  Craft of Fiction: CHARACTER
  Small Group Exercise
  ARABY by James Joyce
  WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? by Joyce Carol Oates
  Our RITES OF PASSAGE Theme
  A note about GIRL
  POE and the art of STORY OF A HOUR
  THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
  YOUNG MAN ON SIXTH AVENUE
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #1
  Fiction and Ambiguity - Your Questions
  Writing Workshop - Short Fiction
  Poetry Journal Project Assignment Sheet
  LITERARY SYNTHESIS PROJECT
  Defining Poetry
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry
  Drama and Tragedy
  Study Questions: DEATH OF A SALESMAN

Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
  Paper #4 Assignment Sheet
  Critical Thinking and Commentary
  Casebook: Evaluating Sources Worksheet
  Selecting Information
  Evaluating Arguments
  CASEBOOK PROJECT Assignment Sheet
  Approaching Persuasive Writing
  Topic Development - Profile Essay
  Generating Ideas for the Profile Essay
  Paper #2 Assignment Sheet
  Profile Exercise
  Analyzing THE FIVE BEDROOM, SIX FIGURE ROOTLESS LIFE
  Objective Writing: Selected Readings
  Writing Workshop: Paper #1
  Expressive Writing in the NYTimes
  Writing Effective Introductions and Conclusions
  Paper #1: IDENTITY
  Expressive Writing
  Open Letter Exercise and Examples
  EMERSON on Individuality vs. Conformity
  Literature related to IDENTITY
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'

Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Writing Assistance on the Web
  Blackboard at WCU
  WCU Homepage
  WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
  One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds
  Franz Kafka's BEFORE THE LAW
  Analyzing WAITING FOR GODOT
  Approaching WAITING FOR GODOT
  Paper #3: Assignment Sheet
  Paper #4: Independent Project
  The Problem of Stability in BRAVE NEW WORLD
  UTOPIA/DYSTOPIA Links
  Analyzing Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
  Defining Utopia
  Embarking on Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
  A Reading of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST
  From today's news (11/3/05)
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #2
  Goodbye to Dante's Imaginary World
  Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 10-34
  Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 1-10
  INFERNO: Questions/Analysis: Cantos 32-34
  INFERNO: Questions/Analysis: Cantos 18-31
  INFERNO: Questions for Analysis: Cantos 12-17
  INFERNO: Structure
  INFERNO: Questions for Analysis: Cantos 1-5
  INFERNO: Analyzing Canto 1
  Relating to Dante's Inferno
  Approaching Dante's DIVINE COMEDY
  A Little Help with Dante's INFERNO
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #1
  Notes on LEAF BY NIGGLE
  Responses to LEAF BY NIGGLE
  ON FAIRY STORIES: An Essay by Tolkien
  Notes on Axolotl
  Reading Ovid's Tales
  From Myth to Literature: Approaching Ovid's Tales
  Notes on THE EYE OF THE GIANT
  Functions of the Genesis Tales
  Analyzing Mythic Tales
  Defining Mythology
  Filtering the Introduction to FANTASTIC WORLDS
  Commentary on LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI by Keats
  Commentary on DARKNESS by Byron
  Handout: Imagination Poems Set
  What is Imagination?
  Our Course Theme: Imaginary Worlds
  LIT 165 Assignments: Fall 2005
  LIT 165 Announcements: Fall 2005
  Imaginary Worlds: Course Syllabus

Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
  Paper #4: Independent Thinking/Reading/Writing
  Casebook Preparation Checklist
  Casebook Assignment Schedule
  Evaluating Sources for the Casebook
  Casebook Project Assignment Sheet
  Notes on Rational Argument
  Argument
  Assignment Sheet: Objective Writing
  Reviewing Elements of the Profile Essay
  Writing the Profile Essay
  Readings: Objective Writing
  Assignment Sheet: Expressive Writing
  Rubric for Evaluation of Writing
  About SKIN DEEP
  Emerson on Individuality vs. Conformity
  Mind-map: Identity
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Assignments Page
  Announcements Page
  WRT 120 Course Syllabus for Fall 2005

ENG Q20: Basic Writing

Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Writing Assistance on the Web
  Blackboard at WCU
  WCU Homepage
  WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library

 

~~ Approaching the Divine Comedy ~~

PRINTER FRIENDLY

The Divine Comedy is an architectural masterpiece-the representative work of the middle ages, the masterpiece of medieval aesthetics, cosmology, politics, theology, psychology, philosophy, and even science, with a little bit of the world's first "science fiction" tossed in (at the end of the Inferno).

AESTHETICS: The Divine Comedy right up there at the top for its allegorical magnificence; it is meaningful in more than one dimension. Dante explained it in a letter to Can Grande della Scalla: "the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses. The first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. The first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical." In other words, if we can take Dante at his word, the work is rich in its layer upon layer of meaning. There is the literal level-Dante's travels through the difficult, harrowing, graphically concrete landscape of Hell; the allegorical level-the soul's journey to salvation; etc. It's a rich work with layers of meaning.

COSMOLOGY: The Divine Comedy reflects the medieval view of the Ptolemaic universe, a cosmology that originated with Aristotle and was refined by the 2nd century astronomer, Ptolemy. Aquinas added an overlay of Christian theology, and Dante refines it even further. The Ptolemaic universe is a geocentric universe with Earth at the center, surrounded by nine concentric spheres (inverted downwards in the circle layout of the Inferno). In this worldview, the Earth is central and static, while the universe spins all around it. Although it never really worked scientifically, it was extremely compelling philosophically and artistically. It was believed that everything below the moon was corrupted by the fall of man (Genesis) but that the heavens were perfect and unchanging, immutable, incorruptible. That perfection of the heavens was idealized as a kind of music, the "music of the spheres"-the sound of the heavens in motion-the harmony that's the essence of all creation. Unfortunately, we lost our ability to hear this music when we were tossed out of the Garden. Oh, well. We can at least try to imagine it, though.

The Divine Comedy is a full-scale, technicolor production of this only slightly outdated vision of the universe, with its orderly circles reaching not only out into the heavens, but funneling down into the very center of the earth, which is the very bottom of Hell, the point at which Dante gives the world its image of Lucifer halfway submerged in the icy lake beating his big, grotesque wings, causing the frozen wind that seals this last region of Hell in a blanket of ice.

POLITICS: This is perhaps the most striking, and maybe the most confusing thing about The Divine Comedy. The vicious personal attacks. The local names and faces that Dante uses to populate the whole work. He's "keeping it real." We get the low down dirty picture of the all the dirty politics of the day. The power struggles, the egos, the bitter battles. The feuds. The winners and the losers. The corruption. For such a timeless, "eternal" work about the universal journey of the soul from sin to salvation, it's a very specific poem that insists on naming names. It is the thing that sets this work apart in its day, the individuality of its vivid characters. Their so, so vivid human weaknesses.

THEOLOGY: Christian salvation, front and center. Grace, love, sin, punishment. Reward. And most of all, as we'll see, the belief in FREE WILL. But, lo and behold, interestingly enough, there is no God present in the work at all. They are alluded to, of course, but they are never named outright, nor are they active participants in the action. The trinity is present everywhere in the symbolism of the number three, but it is Beatrice who takes action and saves Dante from the dark wood, Beatrice who sends Virgil to persuade Dante to follow. The central characters in the work are Dante, Virgil, Beatrice, and the many sinners and saints. The human actor on the stage is front and center.

PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE, PSYCHOLOGY: But since the first two are so very complicated, let's save them for another time and focus on psychology: specifically, the medieval notions of the self that have emerged from the earlier classical notions of the self. As a kind of herald of the Renaissance to come, with its insistent focus on the individuality of its characters, its very life-sized human hero, The Divine Comedy is a kind of fulcrum in the literary history of the West, in which the medieval is slowly but surely inching its way towards the modern. One of the more modern things about this work is its psychology.

Let's think back to that Ptolemaic model of the universe. Another aspect of that worldview was the idea of the Great Chain of Being, introduced by Aquinas.

 

In this great chain, which extended from stones all the way up to God, humanity finds itself sandwiched between beasts and angels. It was widely believed that we shared characteristics with both, which makes us a kind of mongrel beast-angel. Why exactly this is preferable to Darwin's theory of evolution, I'm not entirely sure, but we'll leave that for now!

Here's humanity: part beast, part angel. How did this affect our notion of the self?

In this worldview, humans find themselves in a constant struggle to overcome the animal part of their nature-it's the animal in us that's responsible for all of our messy, troublesome drives, appetites, emotional extravagances. The angelic side is our intellect, our reason, our rationality, which puts everything in order, assigns everything its proper place. Let's put it this way: in this worldview, it's not our inner animal that's getting to heaven. Only reason gets us there. The Inferno, Virgil tells us in Canto III, is littered with "the wretched souls who have lost the good of the intellect." Those, in other words, who have circumvented, tuned out, or completely corrupted their inner angel, their inner voice of reason.

Why is reason so important? In the Inferno (and in Purgatorio) reason is everything.

Reason is at the heart of our ability to be independent moral agents, capable of making choices, acting on our own free will. In Dante's world, and maybe ours too, it is the power we have to save ourselves from ourselves.

Dr. Gary Gutchess explains it so well in his online essay, "Dante and the Medieval Invention of the Self." The classical notion of the self (it's not even a word in the classical era, but we'll use it anyway) is passive. In important divine matters, the self is acted upon, not an agent of action. "The lightning bolt hit me, and I was possessed." Think of those colorful stories in Ovid that we read. "I was changed into a deer!" "I was changed into a bird!" "I was changed into a flower!" The self is an object acted upon, a vessel to be possessed, a puppet (in some cases) of the Divine Will. This is Oedipus, who suffers his fate because it is his fate, and he cannot change it. (Though Sophocles is such a great artist that and such a keen observer of human nature that he can problematize this view without seeming heretical.) The Renaissance, or modern view is that the self is active, a subject rather than an object. The Gods are removed, far away in the farthest heavenly sphere; people are front and center on the stage, taking action. They are agents of their own Free Will. "I see the light!" "I'm going towards the light!" (Or, Descartes, "I think therefore I am!") If the self is an actor on the stage and not just an object to be acted upon, then that implies the need for notions of "responsibility"—you make good choices or live with the consequences—"morality"—you have to recognize the difference between right and wrong choices—and "individuality"—your choices reveal your particular individual character. You have a unique personality that's all yours based on your own choices. And this is the aspect that Dante most insists on throughout the Inferno. You have free will, you have choices, you are an independent moral agent. You can neglect your responsibilities to yourself, to society, but you do it at a great risk of suffering the punishment for doing so.

So although The Divine Comedy is visionary, a long strange trip in the burgeoning tradition of religious mysticism that was characteristic of the late medieval period, it's also paradoxically, ultimately, a very down-to-earth human work. Most people who read it remember it vividly for the human portraits it presents more so than its theology. The humanity overwhelms the theology. Not God, but Dante the individual is the real focus of the work; no poem better illustrates the "self-centeredness" of this amazing period.

Dante begins: “Midway through our life's journey / I found myself in a dark wood/ for the straight way was lost…” 

What is the dark wood?  Why is he there? Are you supposed to know? Why or why not?

  • Dante invents his “dark wood” but it does have some literary precedent; it may be meant to conjure up images of Platonic primordial chaotic matter, unformed and unnamed—vague but really savage—a primordial “jungle” (a “heart of darkness”).  It suggests something very opposite of the primordial “Garden”—it’s not paradise, but our own world, the earthly condition.
  • In Virgil’s Aeneid, there’s a forest before the entrance to the underworld; Dante’s wild woods seem to allude to that place.
  • St. Augustine (another of Dante’s big influences) associates spiritual error (sin) with a “region of unlikeness” where people who make bad choices and act irresponsibly wander unconsciously and get lost.
  • The woods also evoke the kinds of woods where traveling knights lose their way in many a  medieval romance.  The Redcross Knight gets lost in such woods in The Faery Queene.
  • Trying to “find” one’s identity can feel like wandering lost in a pathless wood, whether it’s in adolescence or midlife.  Maybe the woods are Dante’s identity crisis, or midlife crisis.
  • Maybe the woods are the confusion of the exile, wandering pathless and homeless through a world that doesn’t belong to him and to which he no longer belongs.
  • Maybe the savage woods are the internal bitterness of the political loser who’s left with the sense that he’s a “THEM” in an “US and THEM” world.
  • Maybe the tangled woods are the impassable woods of intellectual error, where the power of reason fails somehow.  Philosophy only leads Dante astray because it can’t, in the end, account for the problem of evil, the existence of pure evil in the world.  Philosophy is rational and civilized while evil is irrational and savage.  Can philosophy save us from the problem of evil in the world and in ourselves?

The powerful thing about this image of the dark wood is that it is all of these things at once.  It’s an ambiguous literary image that works on many levels for many different kinds of readers.  This is true of the Inferno as a whole.  For some readers it’s an exciting adventure tale into the pit of hell, for others it’s a spiritual book, and for others it’s an amazing aesthetic experience embodying the aesthetics, the mythology, the philosophy and the literary history of an entire age, a tour de force of poetic expression.  Dante himself doesn’t know what these woods are—he has to learn, and we learn along with him.


 

 

 

 

     

 


Questions? Contact me.

All materials unless otherwise indicated are copyright © 2001-2008 by Stacy Tartar Esch.

The original contents of this site may not be reproduced, republished, reused, or retransmitted
without the express written consent of Stacy Tartar Esch.
These contents are for educational purposes only.