Yale Renaissance scholar takes ancient literary works into the 21st-century
Yale Sterling Professor David Quint is, in his own words, a product of Yale’s Department of Comparative Literature.
Quint, who received his B.A. in English (1971) and his Ph.D. (1976) in Comparative Literature from Yale, is a specialist in the literature of the European Renaissance. He was honored recently with the International Virgil Prize from the National Vergilian Academy in Mantua Italy —an award offered triennially to a distinguished scholar of Virgil — for the professor’s contribution to the study of the ancient Roman poet in two of his books: “Epic and Empire” and “Virgil’s Double Cross: Design and Meaning in the Aeneid.”
How has “The Aeneid” — a 2,000-year-old, 10,000-line, 12-book, epic poem about the displaced survivors of the Trojan War who become the ancestors of Rome — remained so relevant in the 21st century? Because, says Quint, it is at its core a story about life and death political issues and the experience of the refugee. “It’s an ancient poem that dovetails the transformation in ancient Rome of republican institutions in the hands of military warlords and their collapse into civil war, out of which emerged one-man rule,” says Quint. “It is also about the international responsibility of a conqueror to run a great empire.”
For Quint, studying Virgil and his masterwork, “The Aeneid,” remains at the forefront of his scholarship because it is a fundamental text of Western culture and, the Bible apart, the most influential single work of the Western tradition. “Rome was the most lasting political polity of the West, and this was the central poem of that culture,” says Quint.
When it comes to teaching “The Aeneid,” Quint’s aim is for his students to gain an appreciation of the “superb” literature that Virgil created. “I want my students to learn what a really great work of literature does, and the way that this one uses the resources of the past to rethink the present. It makes us understand how our narratives of history are constructed, how they seek to make sense — and use — of historical events.”
“‘The Aeneid’ is compelling, extraordinarily structured, and complicated, and many different types of patterns emerge from it, including ironic patterns of doubling and reversal,” says Quint. “It is a poem of suffering and deep paradoxes, of tragedy and of lessons to be learned — mostly negative lessons,” he adds. “This poem doesn’t have much in the way of happy endings, whatever Roman grandeur it may forecast. I want students to have a sense of the long cultural history and the lasting power of ‘The Aeneid.’”
Of his time at Yale as a student, Quint says that it was an “extraordinary time to be a humanist at Yale.” He recites a litany of great scholars, established or on their way to being established, who were on the Yale scene, adding that he had many great teachers and remarkable fellow students — both as an undergraduate and as a graduate. “In that way I was wonderfully prepared for a future career,” says Quint.
“The other thing which Yale specialized in and of which I like to think I am a continuing product is a tradition of a close reading of literary texts,” says Quint. “We were taught to read and to keep reading a text until you had exhausted as much as you could of what it was doing. That is something that has been very important to me and which I try to communicate to students.”
The best literature, explains Quint, does not provide single answers. It provides answers that are complicated, contingent, and provisional. “That is why the great works of literature last. One of the functions of literature in our cultural system is to represent the things that we often condemn or want to make marginal. By the very act of representing them, it gives them a voice and allows them to contest a dominant ideology. I want students to become aware of the way in which they are shaped by ideology and the way in which they can try to rethink their lives outside of the messages that our culture is constantly providing for us. We can never escape from that but we can be analytic and critical.”
For Quint, there have been many high points during his 27-year career as an educator at Yale. Among them is “when the little light bulb goes off and when you see the student’s face light up.” Also, he says, “when my students get my jokes.”
Foremost, says Quint, is when his students say something striking that has never occurred to him before. “Students will say something that makes me have to shift the way that I’ve been looking at a literary text,” he says. “That happens a great deal — both at a micro level and also at a much larger level.”
Quint’s hope for his students is that they be empowered to have exactly those kinds of experiences in the classroom, and that when they do, they suddenly have their perspective of the world change. “This is what the experience of learning and education is. I’m not so interested in a doctrine or a dogma. What I am interested in is having my students be constantly open and receptive to the possibilities of things that I haven’t previously thought of. In fact, there are many things that I haven’t thought of and it’s fun to start thinking about them with my students,” says Quint.
While studying early works of literature, Quint wants his students “to see that the past has its own terms — that they are not ours — and the future will have their terms — which will not be ours — and that the present is not the measure of everything. That we are going to look quaint and odd rather quickly, and that one must have a sense of history and a sense that things as they are now are not what they were once, for better and for worse, and they are not as they will be in the future, for better and for worse.
“The real hubris,” says Quint, “is thinking you fully know the answers.”