Course: The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom, Part 1
School: Georgetown University via edX (free)
Instructor: Frank Ambrosio
Quote:1. Students will become familiar with the theory and practice of “Contemplative Reading” that constitutes one of the principal structural dynamics of Liberal Arts education.2. Students will be able to apply the general practice of “Contemplative Reading” to Dante’s Divine Comedy.3. Students will demonstrate in-depth and relatively advanced familiarity with and knowledge of an epic poem of the highest cultural significance; in specific, Dante’s Divine Comedy.4. Students will begin to articulate for themselves their own personal convictions in response to reflection questions about human dignity, freedom and responsibility with which the Divine Comedy inevitably confronts its readers.5. Students will engage with the most fundamental goal of Liberal education, promoting the universal dignity of personhood.6. Students will become acquainted with the specific contributions the Christian, Catholic and Jesuit tradition of Georgetown University bring to the promotion of human dignity.
I really just wanted to study the poem.
Make no mistake, this is a religion course, not a literature course. Yes, I was fully aware going in that Georgetown is a Jesuit Catholic university, and that the Commedia is, after all, a religious poem and steeped in allegory. I happen to enjoy studying religions, the way I enjoy studying television commercials – they tell us a lot about who we are – and I have a bookshelf full of books on a variety of religions and am just finishing up a Kierkegaard mooc I enjoyed quite a bit – but this wasn’t a religious studies course, it was a six-week come-to-Jesus sermon with pronouncements like, “Human existence is a gift from God. And the destiny of human existence is either to accept that gift or to refuse it.”
Boy, did I enroll in the wrong class.
However, I grew up amidst Pentecostals, and, once you take away the Inquisition, Catholics are amateurs compared to them. So I kept going. It was a long six weeks. Still, many students were highly enthusiastic about the course. And, of course, everything, even a tour of hell with an earnest Jesuit, has its good points.
The course took place partly on the edX site, and partly on Georgetown’s MyDante site featuring the Hollander translation of the poem, an annotation feature, and a journal for tracking our spiritual journey. Some students had trouble handling both sites initially, but this sorted itself out eventually (though I just found out there’s a “final step” of entering six codes to move participation scores from MyDante to edX, they must be entered correctly, they must be entered in order, and they cannot be corrected if entered wrong… sheesh). Things were pretty confused in general the first weeks in particular, with numerous sermonish lectures and Madonna and Andy Garcia reading Neruda poetry, for reasons I still don’t quite understand – something to do with La Vita Nuova (a great inclusion, by the way, since, though very different in tone and structure, it’s intrinsically related to the Commedia) as covered in the second week. Inferno’s cantos were covered in weeks three through six, and the course pattern eventually became more predictable.
Week Three featured the highly acclaimed Joshua Oppenheimer documentary film “The Act of Killing,” a devastating account of Indonesia’s 1960’s massacre of labor party supporters through re-enactments staged by one of the murderers. Wondering what this has to do with Dante? Apparently the objective was to give us first-hand experience at touring hell and hearing the stories of sinners, paralleling Dante’s pilgrimage. It was was an amazing movie, and extremely thought-provoking. The opening scene features dancers coming out of a huge fish, which still has me baffled, but not as much as watching people who seem to have forgotten the slaughter participating in the re-enactments. Then again, I’ve never understood why so many Americans take part in Civil War and Revolutionary War re-enactments. Not enough violence on tv, I guess. I’m still not sure the movie belonged in this course, but I’m glad I got to see it.
A great deal was made of the process of “contemplative reading.” Silly me, I thought that meant reading something, and thinking about it. When I blog stories or poetry, I tend to go off on a personal track, relating the text to something in my life or in society. I thought that’s what they had in mind. Turns out, it was more about contemplating my sins. Hey, I had a semi-psychotic stepmother whose idea of fun was to hide in a closet until I was running around in a panic, at which point she’d pop out and scream, “Did you think the Rapture came and you were left behind?” It would’ve been funny if that hadn’t been exactly what I was thinking (I was a very strange 11-year-old, which may have something to do with my being a very strange 60-year-old). I’ve contemplated my sins plenty. Amateurs, I tell you.
Once it became evident that this wasn’t the course I was hoping for, I found, via the comments of another student, a series of videos featuring Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta on Youtube; they’re part of the Yale Open Courses. These were terrific. The interactive component of a mooc was missing, of course, but I better understood the structure and allegory of the poem, which was my objective.
I also requested a copy of the recent Hollander translation, used in the Georgetown course, from my local library; it wasn’t available until the last week of class, so I’m working on it, belatedly, now; it contains the verse-by-verse commentary I was hoping for. And of course there are other sites, like UTA’s Danteworlds and Paris Review‘s “Recapping Dante” from a year ago.
My opinion: The edX course is outstanding, if you’re interested in using the text to examine your soul by the light of Catholic theology; if you want to study the poem, there are better materials.
On the bright side, Georgetown’s MyDante features the original poem in Italian (at least, as original as possible for a work hand-written in the 14th century) along with audio recordings of each canto in Italian. I don’t read, speak, or understand Italian beyond a few operas and art songs, but I still appreciate having these elements in one handy dandy site. The Hollander translation to English, with a self-annotation feature (how long our notations will remain available to us is unclear) was set up in private and “social” formats (the better to see the annotations left by classmates).
Best of all was an extensive assortment of terrific art embedded next to the text, images that changed as the page was scrolled – I was pretty enthralled with that, seeing a blurry image gradually clear, or a figure pop out in three-dimensional movement. Props to whomever did that art. It’s the only reason I’ll sign up for the Purgatory and Paradise segments next year, if I decide to sign up – I won’t bother with the coursework at all.
I’ll probably just read the poem and watch the Yale tapes, though. I’m a big fan of personal convictions and human dignity, but I can handle my own introspection and reflection. And even amateurs can leave marks.
Addendum: I did enroll in the Purgatorio and Paradiso sections, but while I listened to the lectures to get a sense of the theological perspective (and again enjoyed the art that accompanied the Hollander translation), I didn’t complete any of the work. However, I used both the Hollander commentary, and the Yale tapes, as well as a variety of other sources, to do a fairly complete study of the entire poem. It was was a wonderful experience. My post on that process can be found here.