First-Person Participation in Dante's 'Commedia'

Powlesland, Katherine Lucy 

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This thesis sets out a case for a mode of reading I term first-person participation in relation to Dante’s 'Commedia', a narrative poem I propose to function as an exceptionally participatory text. That Dante’s poem invites active engagement on the part of its readers is widely accepted in scholarship. My objective is to extend this debate by identifying certain of Dante’s innovations in relation to the mechanisms of narrative transmission through which such active engagement is invited. In so doing, I seek to establish that these mechanisms together constitute a narratological strategy of invitations to the reader to engage with the poem, intermittently and electively, in a mode of first-person participation, mentally simulating on her own account the journey to the desire for the divine.

My research transfers and adapts for textual literary theory new notions of embodied simulation from cognitive neuroscience and emerging ideas in videogame critical theory relating to the mechanics of player presence and the function of the avatar, suggesting and evidencing parallels with the deeply personal and embodied modes of interaction with devotional texts associated with medieval practices of affective piety.

I identify in the 'Commedia' a comprehensive and systematic programme of invitations to participate facilitating three types of presence in the responsive reader, and underpinning the invitation to first-person participation. Spatial presence (the perceptual illusion of ‘being there’) is invited through a multi-layered strategy I describe as narration through situated body states. Social presence (the illusion of being physically in relation with others) is invited by narration through kinaesthetic empathy. Self-presence (the experience that ‘something is happening to me’) is constituted, I suggest, through a combination of five mechanisms: a model of narrating instances that identifies the existence of four “faces” of the Dantean ‘io’; a strategy I borrow from film theory of narration through mobile camera view; a new reading of the functioning of the direct addresses to the reader; a strategy of narrative training; and a comprehensive strategy of narration through the manifold gaps in the text.

Webb, Heather
Dante, Commedia, narrative theory, presence, videogame criticism
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Keith Sykes Studentship in Medieval Italian Literature