Dante @ ICI Berlin

Metamorphosing Dante


ICI Berlin
Institute for Cultural Inquiry
24-26 September 2009


Concept and Organization:
Manuele Gragnolati, Fabio Camilletti, Fabian Lampart



After almost seven centuries, Dante persists and even seems to haunt the present. Dante has been used, rewritten, and metamorphosed through manifold media and cultural productions; the image itself of Dante has provided many paradigms for being (or performing the role of) a poet, indiscriminately shifting from the civic to the love poet, from the language experimenter to the engaged poet-philosopher, or from the bard of a ‘sublime’ Inferno to that of heavenly rarefaction. This conference will investigate what so many authors, artists and thinkers from such different artistic, political, geographical, and cultural backgrounds have found in Dante in the 20th and 21st centuries. Certainly, Dante’s work can provide multiple linguistic and narrative structures, characters and stories, thereby allowing a wide range of possibilities to be evoked and re-activated. However, after the somewhat a-critical, sometimes Kitsch tribute paid to Dante during the Romantic period – excesses against which the scholarly tradition of Dante studies intentionally constituted itself – Dante’s oeuvre has become a more challenging and interrogative presence. It has become a floating, sometimes subterranean, certainly complex influence, and each re-appropriation also inquires, somehow moving forward with a backwards gaze, into its own Weltanschauung, including such crucial elements as subjectivity, language, politics, desire, and utopia.

The hypothesis that this conference seeks to pursue is that the 20th and 21st centuries have found in Dante a field of tension, in which they can mirror, explore, and question the tensions of their own realities. Situated itself on critical points of tension (sermo humilis/sublimis, lyric/epic, life/afterlife, human/divine, present/future…), Dante’s aspiration towards totality remains a daunting presence in the age of fragmentation. After the ‘death of the Author’, Dante’s work seduces precisely as the site of a powerful production of authorship: in its own critical engagement with biblical and classical works, it gives birth to the author in a modern sense by appropriating their authority and charging it with a strongly subjective dimension imbued with experience, memory, and desire. The conference invites scholars and artists coming from different disciplines and cultures to explore what the 20th and 21st centuries have looked for in Dante’s works, and the ways in which they have engaged with them through rewritings, dialogues, and transposition in order to reflect upon their own tensions.

Metamorphosing Dante is conceived within the frame of the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry’s core project Tension/Spannung, whose aim is to explore the manifold role of tension from a pluridisciplinary approach through the interactions of artists and scholars from different backgrounds. After Dante's Plurilingualism: Authority, Vulgarization, Subjectivity held at the ICI in April 2009 (http://dante.ici-berlin.org), this conference aims to return to Dante’s tensions with the same openness in inquiry, but focusing on the adaptability of such tensions to all possible metamorphoses undergone by Dante in the 20th and 21st centuries. Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • Dante, language, authorship: Dante’s influence and linguistic experimentation; plurilingualism; Dante’s presence in 20th-century avant-gardes and Dante as a paradigm for the concept of avant-gardism itself; authorship and autobiography; authorship and the tyranny of subjectivity; Dante’s relationship to his precursors and the construction of a literary canon.
  • The work of art as a speculum mundi: the Divine Comedy as a “total work of art” and the very possibility itself of such a work in post-modernity (in other words: is such a task possible, or is it conceivable only in the form of the fragment, the project or the pastiche?); the rendering of multiplicity and heterogeneity from the Comedy to 20th-century chaotic enumeration; Dante and multiculturalism (e.g. through the idea of an Islamic influence on the Divine Comedy, or through the use made of Dante by post-colonial authors, such as Derek Walcott and Breyten Breytenbach).
    Trans-lations: Dante’s adaptability to being translated into other languages, media, and codes (from visual arts and music to cinema, from graphic novels and comic books to Japanese manga and anime).
  • Catabasis and eschatology: Dante and the political tensions of the 20th century; political re-elaborations of Dante from different (and even antithetical) points of view (Mandel’štam, Gramsci, Pasolini, Heaney, Pound, Eliade, Grünbein…); Dante and the two World Wars; Dante and exile; the theme of catabasis in contemporary literature, arts and cinema, and the image of Hell as a possibility for thinking Nazism and the Shoah (Celan, Levi, Weiss, Pressburger).
  • Beatrici: Dante and the tradition of Courtly love in the debate on European identity and its self-identification with desire and with a “perennial Romanticism” (Octavio Paz); Courtly love, Stilnovo and psychoanalysis; Freudian readings of Dante, Dantean readings of Freud; 20th century ‘Beatrices’ between presence and absence, between “donna della salute” or “enemy” and between shiftings of gender; queer appropriations of Dante.
  • Dante and contemporary critical theory (Barthes, Sollers, Kristeva, Lacan, Said, Agamben…).