“This is something that one cannot speak about. And Dante is going to speak about it.”
“All the people who end up loving The Paradiso understand the great daring poetic achievement of the poem,” says Dante scholar Rachel Jacoff of Wellesley. Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison, a Dante scholar himself, joins his colleague and former mentor for a final discussion of The Divine Comedy — more specifically, of The Purgatorio and The Paradiso.
Harrison notes that “Dante’s Paradiso is the last full-bodied vision of paradise in Western literature. It’s all been Hell or Paradise Lost since then.” They explore the role of the Roman poet Statius in Purgatory, the disappearance of Virgil, the “tough love” of Beatrice, the nature of time in heaven, and Dante’s elusive attempt to express the inexpressible.
Jacoff compared Dante’s dilemma to Fra Angelica’s painting of “The Blessed Entering Paradise.” The souls dancing in a circle seem to represent paradise, but at the upper left is a white gate with light shining through it. “That’s the real thing out there, and he can’t paint it.”
When Harrison asked the Jewish Dante scholar whether the Christian theology of Dante’s masterwork created a barrier for her love of the poem, Jacoff replied:
Many great readers of Dante are not Christians. I think everyone has to answer this question for himself or herself. I find that it is one of the great works of art that I return to and it’s helped me understand all kinds of things. Clearly, much in it is alien to me, and always will be — but no more than Handel’s “Messiah” or Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” These are foundational in my aesthetic experience — and it can’t only be just aesthetic. There has to be some way the spirituality of these works can be available to anyone.
“Virgil is the tragedy within the comedy. Virgil’s fate is the thing that haunts the comedy.”
“All the people who end up loving The Paradiso understand the great daring poetic achievement of the poem… it’s the greatest challenge that the poet takes on.”
Rachel Jacoff’s major research interest is Dante’s Divine Comedy. She has written many articles on Dante and co-authored a monograph on “Inferno II” (University of Pennsylvania Press) for the Lectura Dantis Americana series sponsored by the Dante Society of America. She edited a collection of essays by John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (1986), which received Honorable Mention for the Marraro Prize from the Modern Language Association. She co-edited and contributed two essays to The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante (1990). She also edited The Cambridge Companion to Dante (1993, 2007). She also co-edited The Poet’s Dante, a collection of essays by 20th-century poets.
She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1981-1982, 1991-1992), the Guggenheim Foundation (1993) and has been a fellow of the Bunting Institute, the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti), the Stanford Humanities Center, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Villa Serbelloni, and the Bogliasco Foundation’s Liguria Study Center. She was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar in 1996-1997. She served as an assistant editor of Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy, and on the Advisory Board of the Stanford Humanities Center, the MLA Committee for the Teaching of Foreign Languages and Literature, and the Friends of the Harvard College Libraries. Her current research concerns Dante’s role in contemporary poetry, Dante and the visual arts, and the representation of the body in the Divine Comedy.
She is Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T. Carlson Professor Emerita in Comparative Literature and Professor of Italian at Wellesley College where she has been a member the faculty since 1978. She has also taught at the University of Virginia, Cornell, and Stanford. She received her B.A. with High Honors and Distinction in 1959 from Cornell University, an M.A. in English from Harvard in 1960 and the Ph.D. degree in Italian from Yale in 1977.