Assignment 2

This assignment is another 3-4 page paper (1000-1250 words), this time on Dante’s Inferno and a topic of your choosing. It is due this Sunday, Nov. 10th, at midnight.

You might want to consider an episode that we didn’t have much time to cover (The Old Man of Crete for example, or the blasphemers) in light of some of the issues we’ve discussed in class. Or you might want to delve deeper into an episode we discussed in class. In any case, begin by choosing a topic and going over the text again to find which passages you’d like to talk about. Whatever your argument, remember that the main goal of these papers is for you to get a handle on the fundamentals of academic writing at the undergraduate level.

In that light, remember that although a thesis in some sense “drives a paper” (at least from the perspective of the reader, who is best orientated by an explicit statement of the argument up front), a thesis should not be the first thing you write. Typically a thesis develops over the course of writing. After introducing your topic, go right into close readings of the text. For this assignment, then, I’m asking you to think more deeply about the structure and moves of the paragraph in academic writing. This begins, as always, with effective use of quotations: integrating them into your sentences, giving them enough context so the reader can make sense of their literal meaning, and then offering your own interpretation (close reading) based on thinking through the quotations word choices, grammatical structure, imagery, and so forth.

Consider, for example, this quotation from Joseph Pequigney’s excellent article, “Sodomy in Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio”, Representations 36 (1991): 22-42, which argues that Dante’s views on homosexual relations “evolved” from his early writing of the Inferno to the later Purgatory, where many “sodomites” are included among the saved. As I explained in class my view is otherwise, but nevertheless this article is a very thoughtful take on a difficult subject:

Precisely how in Dante’s view does sodomy show contempt for nature? The answer is surely the teleological one of the theologians-that reproduction must be the final cause of volitional sexual acts. This idea, however, is not directly stated but is intimated in the details used to describe the landscape. The sodomites are required to keep moving continuously in separate groups under falling fire, which recalls that which fell on Sodom and Gomorrah, evokes the scriptural rep- resentation of divine vengeance, and connotes burning passion as well. They tread on sand that is arid and dense, hot from-being kindled by the flares, and like the Libyan desert once pressed by Cato’s feet. This, to underscore the image of barrenness, is “a plain that rejects every plant from its bed” (14.8-15, 28-39). Just as the river of hot blood is symbolic of the hot-blooded violators of others, and the wood of suicides symbolic of those who violated themselves by repudiating their human being, so this plain symbolizes the exclusion of sexual fertility by the sodomites. The verb rejects (rimove) signifies an action the sandy ground performs, one of self-sterilization, and carries the implication that the sodomites would have deliberately chosen to forgo the fructifying purpose of the sexuality conformable to nature. Furthermore, when we are told that “over the sand . . .huge flakes of fire were raining … with a slow falling … as of snow on windless mountains” (14.28-30), we must envision a rain not of water but of fire, and fire, which normally rises, here falls, as snowy flakes abnormal to both touch and sight in being hot and yellow-phenomena presented as eerily unnatural to image unnatural conduct.

 

Notice how this sentence announces a topic: Dante views sodomy as unnatural because it violates the “purpose” of sex–reproduction. But then it immediately qualifies this topic in a way that leads us right to the text: Dante does not directly state this “theory” of sodomy but makes it resonate in Hell’s landscape. He then turns to a general example (the fire and the need to move) before quoting the text directly to make specific points about the languages Dante’s uses–points that could not be made from merely paraphrasing or recapitulating plot.

Happy writing!

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