Paper Abstracts

Session 1: Inferno

Akash Kumar, Institutionalizing Difference and Loving It: Narrative and Alterity in the Commedia

This paper will build upon Teodolinda Barolini’s fundamental insight that connects cultural difference and narrative art in the second chapter of the Undivine Comedy. Namely, Dante’s commitment to the poetics of the new and the resulting institutionalizing of difference is also a commitment to complexity, to the blurring of lines that seem fixed and clear. This applies to keeping a reader interested and a critic stymied in their attempts to insist upon dogma. I’ll extend such an understanding of difference from the opening canti of Inferno to my own recent work on decolonizing Dante, itself a form of Barolini’s detheologizing. In this regard, I will consider the contemporary act of a lyric translation of Inferno 1 by Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison as meditating upon this understanding of difference and opening the Commedia out to new global horizons.

Martin Eisner, Making a Miracle: Dante’s Invention of Beatrice

Teodolinda Barolini’s The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante (Princeton, 1992) has been widely admired for its examination of the rhetorical and narrative strategies that Dante deploys to create the convincing world of theDivine Comedy. This talk considers the crucial example of Beatrice from this detheologizing perspective to examine the novel strategies Dante uses to theologize his first love beginning in the Vita nuova. Whereas Auerbach wants to discover Dante’s ‘concept of history’ that shapes Beatrice, which he calls ‘figura’, Barolini proposes an analysis of Dante’s narrative techniques, which, I argue, show how Dante’s representation of Beatrice as a miracle informs the philosophical, theological, and poetic foundations of the Comedy itself.

Kristina Olson, The Textual and Sartorial Protagonists of Pride: Nimrod, Arachne, and Geryon

The Undivine Comedy is often cited for Teodolinda Barolini’s sustained analysis of Ulysses as the fictive protagonist of transgression throughout the Commedia. Often overlooked, however, is Barolini’s indication that Ulysses should be considered part of an “’artistic’ constellation” that includes Nimrod and Phaethon, figures who are remembered in each canticle of the poem (p.115). Equally unexplored is Barolini’s observation that Arachne, a “stand-in for Ulysses,” belongs to a group of transgressive souls that includes Lucifer and the giants (p.296n40). In my talk, I demonstrate the associations of pride, human endeavor and the textile arts that characterize an overlapping group of these constellations: Nimrod, Arachne and Geryon, all figures whose origins locate them along the border of the East and the West.

Session 2: Purgatorio

Grace Delmolino, Ulysses in Purgatory: Contrition and the Stakes of Penitential Law

The Undivine Comedy argues that Dante’s Ulysses is an avatar of presumption, serving as a “lightning rod” placed to “defuse the poet’s consciousness of his presumption in anointing himself scriba Dei” (UDC 130). Contrition is a force oppositional to presumption, yet Dante’s treatment of contrition is itself presumptive. Contrition presented much conceptual difficulty for medieval theorists of penance, who had to acknowledge the absolute essentiality of (internal) contrition without setting aside the requirements of (external) confession and satisfaction mediated by the Church. In the first quaestio of the De penitentia, Gratian asks—yet famously does not answer—whether sin is remitted at the moment of the soul’s true contrition, or at the moment of oral confession. This talk focuses on the high-stakes questions of penitential law in the Purgatorio. Dante’s treatment of contrition, temporality, and penance has ramifications for the entire Divine Comedy, from Guido da Montefeltro to Piccarda.

Lina Bolzoni, Il ‘visibile parlare’ e l’educazione dello sguardo

Inspired by Teodolinda Barolini’s analysis in “The Arachnean Art of the Terrace of Pride,” Dante’s “visibile parlare” will be analyzed in light of the education of the gaze that the poem constructs and of the challenge of making visible that which is not. 

Giuseppe Ledda, Prophetic Models and Structures in an Undivine Comedy

The cantos devoted to the Terrestrial Paradise in Dante’s Comedy (especially Purg. 29, and 32-33), are particularly crucial in the process of self-represetation of the prophetic identity of the poet and of the prophetic structures of the poem. In order to establish such a prophetic authority, the poet explicitly alludes to a number of scriptural prophets, visionaries, apostles, and evangelists, as well as to the prophetic traditions of the pagan world as reported by ancient poets like Ovid. Starting from a reading of Chapter 7 of Barolini’s Book The Undivine ‘Comedy’ (‘Nonfalse Errors and the True Dreams of the Evangelist’), I’d like to reflect about the ways in which such ‘theological’ claims and allusions could be analysed, understood, and interpreted in a ‘detheologised’ and formalistic approach to Dante’s poem.

Session 3: Paradiso

F. Regina Psaki, The One and the Many: The Reader in the Actualization of the Comedy

Dante may never have posited a world where books were cheap, literacy levels high, memories enfeebled, and education open to all and sundry, even women. But he did, I’ll argue, posit a world in which the Comedy was going to be not just read but reread, studied and parsed minutely, if not memorized then at least committed to devoted recollection. With each new reading the poem resounds more vigorously and variously against an acoustic and conceptual copresence of the entire poem in the reader’s memory. I bring Barolini’s analysis to bear on how the historical author can create, locate, and preserve that “more … ‘unified’ textuality” within the very reader whom he addresses so insistently throughout the poem. By steeping us in his poetic creation, he makes of us not an audience, but an instrument; not an ear, but a sounding-box; and not a solitary reader on a single journey, but a communal and virtual incarnation of the poem, enacting its tidal pulls between unity and multiplicity; identity and difference; time and eternity; place and non-spatiality; and permanence and precarity.

Manuele Gragnolati, Textuality, Temporality, and Desire: The Paradoxical Pleasure of Dante’s Paradiso

This paper will discuss how The Undivine Comedy unveils an unexpected appreciation of alterity in Paradiso and shows that the last canticle mobilizes a paradoxical coexistence of unity and difference by combining narrative and lyrical modes and ending with a ‘jumping textuality’ that breaks the linearity of language and conveys the heavenly totum simul. Expanding upon Barolini’s idea that ‘detheologizing Dante’ means understanding not just what is said, but how it is said and to what effect , I will explore what kind of subjectivity the textuality of Paradiso shapes and conveys to readers. Making contact with scholarship in feminist and queer temporality and aesthetics, in particular Julia Kristeva’s idea of ‘revolution of poetic language’ and Leo Bersani’s theory of ‘artistic sublimation’, I will propose the concept of ‘forma del desiderio’ and argue that the textuality of Paradiso’s final cantos replicates the paradoxical pleasure not only of losing but also finding oneself.

Maria Luisa Ardizzone, Lontano, da dove. Constructing an “Undivine Comedy”

My text discusses first the importance of The Undivine Comedy for the American Dantology of the last thirty years. It takes into consideration the theory and method that Teodolinda Barolini employs in the first chapter of her book, comparing these statements with what she writes in the various chapters of the volume. My analysis highlights as especially interesting the relationship between the contemporaneity of the critical debates, to which the author connects her own critical voice, and the non-contemporary roots which her writing seems to connote. “Far from Where”—a well-known title I appropriate—aims to underline the discontinuous-continuity that Barolini creates between the critical debates of her time and a distant space, both geographical and temporal, from which her voice and critical construction appears to come. The second part of my study concentrates on the volume’s eighth chapter. The collision between what is theorized and a practice of writing that goes far beyond the declared methodologies is one of the most fertile aspects of Barolini’s critical intelligence that my reading explores.

Session 4: Overarching Reflections

Roberta Antognini, Translating the Undivine Comedy

My first mindful encounter with Dante took place when I was a PhD student at New York University. Our professor Teo Barolini told us that all discussions would be grounded in the object of our primary focus: a thorough knowledge of the text. For an Italian student in the eighties, who had prepared her exams mostly relying on secondary sources, it was a dream come true. Little did I know that years later, Teo would ask me to translate The Undivine Comedy, my first experience as a translator. Translating a scholarly work entails knowledge of different fields and authors, and demands aesthetic attention. It meant giving the Italian reader Teo’s voice: her authority, passion, and fierceness. In rereading the dense pages of my translation, I use my “student eye”. Starting from Geryon, one of my favorite characters and to whom chapter 3 is dedicated, from his being a “ver ch’ha faccia di menzogna” and his importance in the text, I reflect on the process—always on the verge of being menzognero—which sees the new text sprouting from the original.

H. Wayne Storey, The Intricate Weaving of The Undivine Comedy

Bursting onto the scene in 1992, Teodolinda Barolini’s Undivine Comedy proposed a new paradigm far from the traditional lectura of Dante’s individual canti. In their place Barolini demonstrated the command and sweep of narrative threads woven by Dante’s single voice through canti that linked the three canticles rather than isolating them as narrative units. The fabric of the moral and poetic vision of humanity’s condition reflected in the trope of the afterlife was from that moment in 1992 now spread before us with critical insights into the breadth of Dante’s narrative that defies artificial material boundaries. The Undivine Comedy left us with a new challenge: to read the Comedy whole cloth as the reflection of a single voice on complex cultural weavings that constituted the multiple narratives of Florence’s exul immeritus. My talk analyzes several of these narrative threads and the theoretical origins and practical implications of Barolini’s new critical-historical paradigm toward a de-theologized Dante.

Session 5: Graduate Student Panel

Laura DiNardo, Louis Moffa, and Joseph Romano

Three of Teodolinda Barolini’s current graduate students will discuss the ways in which The Undivine Comedy has influenced their dissertation research. Although they are writing on different aspects of Dante’s work, ranging from astronomy to the will to Dante’s conception of language, each draws upon Barolini’s detheologizing methodology in their research.