Dante and Universality in Literature
Dante and Universality in Literature
  • angjin Park
  • 승인 2013.09.04 15:40
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It was a unique experience for me to have given a lecture opin World Literature to POSTECH students in the Interuniversity Summer School last July. They were not really men of letters but showed literary curiosity and sensibility through which they in fact absorbed many and diverse literary writers’ imaginations and inspirations. I was happy with them, particularly because I was able to get insightful ideas from the conversation with them; that is, my way of answering their questions led me to rethink many problems I have hither to maintained in my mind. The universality of a literary text is one of them, and now I would like to link it to my experience as a Dante Scholar.
While I was completing my translation of the Divine Comedy, I read T.S. Eliot’s Dante (1921). For the whole time that I dedicated myself to the work, I ensconced myself in Dante’s Mare Magnum; I loaded my spirit with it, submitting to its touch and silently rocking on the deeper waves beneath the surface of the words’ sea, instead of simply the diverse bits of knowledge glittering in the sunlight. Indeed I navigated the sea of Dante by virtue of feeling rather than knowing.
I felt curious when I found that Eliot’s comments mirrored my own experience of The Comedy. Our familiarity as companions who occupied the common experiences of reading Dante came to my mind first, but apprehension soon followed as to whether I would be able to truly share his experiences
For Eliot, Dante’s greatness as a writer (rather than as a poet) could be signified by his original development of the philosophical and literary traditions inherited from classical antiquity and thus transformed in universal value so as to become our knowledge; indeed Dante’s literature was none other than an intellectual discipline aiming to establish human knowledge, which was precisely the duty of a literary man. Here I would like to note that the categories of ‘our’ and ‘human’ did not go beyond the European community, even as late as Eliot’s writing.
The readers of The Comedy became much more diverse in contemporary society, where in the European community could realize its own raison d’etre of ‘community’ only through active engagement in a larger global community. In this global society, the experiences of reading The Comedy are very likely to be diversified?if globalization works in a positive fashion. While translating The Comedy, I noted Dante’s ability to weave his readers’ diverse circumstances in and out of his text, making them and me bear the saltiness of the sea of The Comedy.
Dante’s original universality is not confined to the European community because, straight forwardly, as a Korean reading Dante, I had the same experience as Eliot. (I read Dante before reading Eliot’s comments). The sea of Dante rushed over my sensibilities like a tidal wave beyond Eliot. I would not deny that the universality of his language derived from readability and allegory sustains Dante’s literature, but I would add that his universality is able to endure and encompass my heterogeneity, an East Asian; and if I am allowed to participate in the literary process Dante prepared, it will help to create and validate the truth of his universality.
What matters here is that I can apprehend Dante’s writings in this manner only if I am not homogenized with the West. In so far as I am homogenized with the West, my critique cannot go beyond the West, and thus I am ultimately unable to re-think Dante’s universality. The question of homogenization is never to be neglected in the work of re-constructing his universality.
I remember when I proposed the issue of universality in literature to POSTECH students. Their reactions were so serious; perhaps we were already standing on the common platform from which one can start to discuss the problem of what literature is and what roles it can play. If the problem of how one is able to answer the issue of universality itself is now getting more crucial and indispensable in our globalized life, it should signal that one needs to pay more attention to literature than ever. Literature is itself disquieting. It can maintain its value only in so far as it resists itself so as to help us maintain our life more morally and democratically. This idea seems to be what my students and I as the literary men shared with each other last summer.