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[Liberal Education] Thomas Rendall: classics and interpretation

DEC . 29 2015
Peking University, Dec 22, 2015: The ninth “Liberal Education Saloon” was held on Dec. 11, 2015. Prof. Thomas Rendall from English Department had a discussion with students on classics reading, especially the two required texts in his European Literature course—Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Students asked several questions with regard to these two classical works. The first question dealt with Dante’s complicated attitude toward pagans in the Divine Comedy. One student asked if there was inconsistency when Ripheus, a Trojan, was situated in Christian heaven, whereas Virgil was put in limbo in hell. Prof. Rendall pointed out Dante the pilgrim in the Divine Comedy was surprised by meeting Ripheus in heaven, who was regarded as the most virtuous man and to whose death Virgil expressed very strong pity and sorrow in Book II of the Aeneid. One possible interpretation, Rendall said, is that by putting Ripheus in heaven, Dante wanted to give tribute to this righteous Trojan man as a compensation for his death. Dante’s admiration for classical tradition and his skepticism toward a pagan culturewere mingled together, reflected as a paradoxical, ambivalent attitude toward pagans such as Ripheus.

Prof. Rendall with students

The second question is about why Virgil wanted his manuscripts to be burnt after his death. Prof. Rendall said, first, this anecdote might not be historically true, and second, if it was true, then it was possible that Virgil wasunsatisfiedwith his work in terms of its meter and consistency, or he had certain political consideration since some depiction of Aeneas, who was considered as a representation of Augustus, was somewhat negative in the Aeneid.
The third question is about the misinterpretation of literature. One student mentioned the love story told by Francesca in the Divine Comedy, which may mislead readers to have compassion for this character in hell. Prof. Rendall said the possible misleading effect of literature could be traced back to Plato, who suggested there should be no place for poetry in his ideal Republic. In the case of the Divine Comedy, Prof. Rendall said the poet often intentionally misled readers and made them accomplices with the guilty in his work.
With regard to classics reading, Prof. Rendall said the significance of classical works lay in their concerns with the basic questions of humanity and society. Literary works bring readers an opportunity to reconsider these questions in a more comprehensive way. He said, for example, while readers could get special knowledge and insight from a book of war, they could identify with the characters in the Aeneid and thus have a better understanding of war and peace.
Finally, a student asked about the approach of literary criticism—should we interpret a text according to its specific historic context and get closer to the real intention of a writer, or should we interpret text for its own sake? Prof. Rendall said, first of all, we needed to approach the meaning of the text in its context, and then we could further consider its significance to the contemporary world. He said, all classical works were based on its own time, yet at the same time it could address to issues in our time, which was the reason why these works could be considered as classics.
Written by: Fu Guirong, Wang Zehua
Edited by: Wu Zhangxinan
Source: Office of Educational Administration