William Franke is Professor of Comparative Literature and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University and Professor of Philosophy and Religions at the University of Macao (2013-16). He is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung and has been Fulbright-University of Salzburg Distinguished Chair in Intercultural Theology and Study of Religions.

Brief Academic Biography

William Franke trained in philosophy and theology at Williams College and Oxford University and in comparative literature at UC Berkeley and at Stanford (Ph.D. 1991). He has published philosophical and theological interpretations of epoch-making poets, ancient to modern, including Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Yeats; Leopardi, Manzoni, Montale; Racine, Baudelaire, Jabès; Hölderlin, Rilke, Celan; Dickinson, Eliot, and Stevens. He has also published theoretical essays in hermeneutics and dialectics, treating such subjects as figurative rhetoric, dialectical and deconstructive logic, negative theology, dialogue, and psychoanalysis as a hermeneutics of subjectivity.

His books include, first, Dante’s Interpretive Journey, published in 1996 in the Religion and Postmodernism series of the University of Chicago Press.  It elaborates an existential theory of interpretation that critiques modern hermeneutic theories, particularly those of Heidegger and Gadamer, on the basis of the medieval theological vision of the Divine Comedy.  It is followed-up by Dante and the Sense of Transgression: “The Trespass of the Sign” (Bloomsbury [Continuum], 2013), which considers deconstructive theories of language and literature in relation to the Paradiso and develops a critical negative theology of language and literature.  Two further books extend Franke’s interpretation of poetry as theological revelation in oppositely oriented historical directions:  The Revelation of Imagination: From the Bible and Homer through Virgil and Augustine to Dante (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2015) develops this mode of humanities knowing out of Dante’s own essential source texts in antiquity and the Middle Ages, while Secular Scriptures: Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2016) traces the extension Dante’s theological vision into the modern era of secularized prophetic poetry and poetics

Franke’s two-volume anthology-cum-history-and-theory, On What Cannot Be Said (Notre Dame University Press, 2007), proposes a synoptic view of the Western tradition of apophatic discourse from Plato to postmodernism.  His own apophatic philosophy is developed more directly in A Philosophy of the Unsayable (University of Notre Dame Press, 2014).  Another critical-philosphical monograph, Poetry and Apocalypse (Stanford University Press, 2009), offers a theological reading of poetic language in the Christian epic tradition from the Bible and Dante to James Joyce.  It grounds this critical interpretation philosophically in a negative theology of poetic language.  The openness to apocalypse entailed by this outlook is shown to be key to genuine dialogue between cultures.  Such intercultural dialogue is centrally the concern of the forthcoming monograph Apophatic Paths from Europe to China: Regions Without Borders.

He has been Visiting Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong (Fall 2005) and Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Intercultural Theology and Study of Religions at the University of Salzburg (Spring 2007).  He is a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung (1994-95), a senior fellow of the International Institute for Hermeneutics (IIH), and has received international fellowships also from the Camargo Foundation (Fall 1999), and the Bogliasco Foundation (Spring 2006, Fellow in Philosophy).  He has been Professor of French-in-residence at Vanderbilt-in-France in Aix-en-Provence (2008) and a member of the Dante Society Council by general election of the Dante Society of America.

My Intellectual Project

My early and continuing training in philosophy and theology forms the matrix for my work in the criticism and theory of literature.  I concentrate on questions of how to read poetry as a disclosure of truth, a way of relating to the real, and even as “revelation” in a religious sense.  Dante has been a key author for me ever since my doctoral dissertation, the fulcrum for readings of poetry as apocalypse in literature ranging from the Bible and Homer through German Romantics, Emily Dickinson, and French symbolists to James Joyce and contemporary poets like Paul Celan, Edmond Jabès, Samuel Beckett, and Wallace Stevens.  My readings of poets are at the same time attempts to develop philosophical theories of how language performs in the invention of worlds and realities, including other worlds and surrealities.  Language can even go beyond the world, or evoke a dimension that revokes the world altogether, and so become apocalyptic.  I focus on this penchant of poetic language in my monograph, Poetry and Apocalypse: Theological Disclosures of Poetic Language (Stanford University Press, 2009).
My first book, Dante’s Interpretive Journey (University of Chicago Press, 1996) proposes a poetic and theological philosophy of interpretation.  It places the theological hermeneutics of Dante’s poem into dialogue with modern philosophical hermeneutics as developed particularly by Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer.  It is, in fact, “A Hermeneutical Dialogue between the Comedy and Modern Thought”—as declared by the original sub-title, which was lost in the process preceding publication.  It thereby brings to focus the existential and theological structures of interpretation by which our lives in language are constructed in poetic ways that Dante’s Divine Comedy eminently illustrates.  Dante’s poem enacts a comprehensive interpretation of the world as poetically invented within a theological horizon and projected upon the existence of its readers.  Dante’s direct address to his readers summons them to repeat and poetically re-make his experience of conversion in their own acts of interpretation:  the address thereby becomes the locus of an original event of truth and potentially divinity in readers’ lives.  The poem’s enactment through its reader of a disclosure of the world in its final, eschatological meaning effectively critiques modern theories of interpretation in their closure to poetic making as potentially an event of suprahistorical truth.  Such reflection opens original insights into the nature of interpretation, especially  insights regarding its existential grounding in and openness to transcendence of the sort realized in incarnate religious revelation.  In Dante, and through him in every reader or interpreter, the personal, passionate existence of the historical individual becomes intrinsic to theological revelation–to an apocalyptic disclosure of the ultimate significance of human life.

This initial project, through fairly exhaustive exploration of its central concern, led me to the limits of the concept of interpretation.  Consequently, much of my subsequent work has been concerned with the question of what resists all efforts of interpretation and therefore of saying—or, in other words, with the “beyond” of language.  This topic of “ineffability” becomes arguably Dante’s main preoccupation in his final work, the Paradiso, and I realized that to complete my speculative engagement with the Divine Comedy, I required another theoretical paradigm beyond hermeneutics, beyond philosophies of interpretation.  To this end, I undertook to investigate the problem of ineffability in ancient and medieval tradition but also in modern thought and culture generally, since we approach our past always only in and through our present.

On this topic, I composed a two-volume anthology-cum-history-and-theory entitled: On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature and the Arts (vol. 1: Classical Formulations; vol. 2: Modern and Contemporary Transformations).  It was published in 2007 by the University of Notre Dame Press.  The prefaces present a theoretical framework defining apophasis as a genre (Volume 1) and as a mode (Volume 2) of discourse.  The introductions propose a historical outline of apophasis as the pivot for an alternative history of Western thought, the history of what was never written nor explicitly said and yet conditioned and impinged on, from beyond the threshold of language, all discourse and theory in this intellectual tradition.  Twenty-seven principle authors and their seminal texts are introduced in each volume.  The series begins from Plato and the Neoplatonic commentaries on the Parmenidesand moves through medieval and baroque mysticisms, which are compared to Kabbalah and Sufi mysticism, in Volume 1.  Volume 2 treats poets of the unsayable from Hölderlin and Dickinson through Rilke and Celan, along with philosophers of the limits of language, including Wittgenstein, Rosenzweig, Weil, Levinas, Derrida, and Marion.  It also considers theories by Schoenberg, Jankélévitch, Adorno, and Cage of how music verges upon silence, and it sounds negative discourses of architecture and painting as conceived by Malevich, Kandinsky, and van der Rohe, among others.

I pursue the limits of language and interpretation further, marking their tension with the exigencies of poetic disclosure and religious revelation, in my next published monograph.  Poetry and Apocalypse: Theological Disclosures of Poetic Language offers an interdisciplinary synthesis, combining a philosophical theory of dialogue (worked out in dialogue with the theory of Jürgen Habermas); a literary-critical interpretation of poetic language in the apocalyptic tradition; and a negative theology that renews certain fundamental impulses and insights of revealed religion.  It is concerned with finding the premises for dialogue between cultures, especially between religious fundamentalisms, like the Islamic, and modern Western secularism.  The common ground is found precisely in connection with the unsayable, where no party to the discussion can impose its own terms.  The thesis is that dialogue in general, in order to be genuinely open, needs to be able to open up to such a possibility as religious apocalypse in ways that can be understood best through the experience of poetic language.  Poetic language in a tradition traced from the Bible through Dante, Milton, and Blake to Finnegans Wake enacts a breaking down of all humanly manipulated systems of communication in an apocalyptic opening to what is absolute and beyond saying.  The book interprets the Christian epic and prophetic tradition as a secularization of religious revelation that nevertheless preserves an understanding of the essentially apocalyptic character of truth and its disclosure in history.  The usually neglected negative theology that underwrites this apocalyptic tradition provides the key to a radically new and open understanding of apocalypse as inextricably religious and poetic at the same time.

One of the great challenges of scholarship for me is to intervene in a diversity of fields.  My goal has been to become conversant with the specific terms of different areas of study—different periods and literatures, languages and disciplines—and then to make connections between them on the basis of the concerns they share in common as reflected upon philosophically in my own terms.  Thanks to this method, the mosaic of my scholarly writings presents a wide range of materials framed by a general philosophy of the humanities.  This philosophical reflection on literature and the humanities is what my directly theoretical writings aim to develop more explicitly.  I sketch an epistemology of knowledge in the humanities in “The Humanities as Involved Knowing”—the Introduction to my book manuscript, The Revelation of Imagination: From the Bible and Homer through Virgil and Augustine to Dante. The five ensuing chapters then elucidate the special nature of this type of knowledge as personal, relational, contextual, and temporal-historical in a sequence of readings of founding texts of Western civilization.  I examine exactly how each of these humanities texs opens upon a religious dimension of transcendence.  The underlying concern, as in of all of my writings in one way or another, is to demonstrate the determining role of poetic creation in religious revelation.  I aim thereby to render intelligible the authenticity of such revelation.

 

Further Perspectives on my Work and its Future

In developing and advocating my theory of poetic literature as religious revelation, I have pursued especially the challenge of extending my scholarship into further fields and disciplines.  This mobility reflects the ethos of comparative literature as a discipline and also corresponds to my personal intellectual temperament.  Once a discourse becomes “established” within the boundaries of a certain field of specialization, it begins to die:  its authoritative status, as proved by the consensus of the “experts,” becomes an impediment to untrammeled creative thinking.  I felt compelled rather to attempt to traverse fields and cross boundaries by becoming conversant with the vocabularies of multiple disciplines.  This is how I have sought proof of the relevance of my contribution not to specialized scholarship so much as to the perennial Odyssean adventure of the intellect.  Humanities knowledge is essentially in movement and in transition.  Rather than devoting myself to defending the hermeneutic paradigm and its application to the Divine Comedy that I laid out in my first book, I chose to take my essential insights in directions surpassing the limits of this framework.  I began to explore the variety of ways in which poetry aspires to become prophecy–to perform some type of philosophical and ultimately religious revelation.  So interpreted, poetry re-enacts the Promethean attempt to adapt divine fire to human uses.  This idea of poetry as theological revelation has guided my work on Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, French Renaissance and German Baroque literature, as well as English and Italian Romanticism, Modernism, and contemporary movements in poetry.

I have been interested in the connections between humanities disciplines over the whole arc of development of Western culture, as well as in comparative perspectives with non-Western cultures (for instance, in my essay on Mahatma Gandhi ‘s ethics and the postcolonial discourse of Edward Said and in my course at the University of Salzburg on Apophaticism East and West, dealing with oriental expressions such as Advaita Vedanta, Nargajuna’s Buddhism, and the Tao).  The point of my scholarship has not been to establish definitive details so much as to grasp the epochal movement of humanities knowledge across different disciplines down through the ages.

This scope has been made possible partlcularly by my teaching roles in humanities and comparative literature.  At Vanderbilt in comparative literature for the first fifteen years of my teaching carrer, as well as in a number of teaching appointments abroad, I have been responsible not for some specialized field like medieval Italian literature.  This would have been the case for me in a national literature department at most major universities, but my appointment from the outset was rather to a comparative literature program at a moderate-sized research university.  My training in Italian and especially in Dante placed me in the center of Western humanities tradition, yet I was more often called upon to speak to the interests of students in modern literature and theory.  A great part of my publications are in fact on modern poetry and thought.  However, my most concentrated knoweldge is in ancient and medieval culture, and these backgrounds have likewise proved continuously fruitful.  My training in philosophical theology, moreover, has helped me to elaborate a comprehensive view of literature as disclosure of truth modeled on prophetic revelation from its inception in both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultural matrices.  Viewed together, the various components of my work propose in embryo a religious philosophy of the humanities.

All my work in a sense has revolved around Dante’s Divine Comedy taken heuristically as the most complete instance of literary creation and poetic revelation at the center of Western tradition.  I view the Comedia as revealing in its plenitude the educative purpose and mission of literature in the world that is still our own.  My readings of literary works as disparate as contemporary lyric poetry, classical epic, and Renaissance drama are not all separate undertakings.  All are extensions of an interpretation of literature that is founded on the realization of poetic potential in its fullness in Dante’s magnum opus.  Each reading reflects on and illuminates the others.  The theoretical concepts I employ vary, but they together make up a coherent approach to knowledge in the humanities.  The unity of my work is defined not by its content in historical or geographic or generic terms.  It is not delimited by being confined to a specific field of specialization or by parameters of time or space, but by its making a new conceptual whole out of the variety of texts and periods, cultures and languages that it engages and interprets.  This is not a preexisting unity but one forged by the work itself.  Such is the synthetic function of thought in general, and it is embodied with peculiar intensity in my critical and theoretical writing.  This writing forms a corpus that makes a distinctive statement about what the capabilities and responsibilities of literary thinking in our time truly are.  It proposes a philosophy of dialogue between radically incommensurable persons, mind-sets, and cultures and elaborates a poetics of revelation reaching into the religious sphere of the wholly other and ineffable.

My backgrounds in philosophy and theology, acquired early on in my career, have enabled me to undertake such a project.  Having earned a BA in philosophy from Williams College, I pursued studies to the master’s level at Oxford University.  I have continued theological study, oftentimes in the context of sojourns in various religious communities, including monastic orders and evangelical seminars.  I have also participated in philosophy colloquia and summer sessions, for instance, repeatedly at the Istituto italiano per gli studi filosofici in Naples and the Collegium Phenomenologicum in Perugia, Italy, as well as in France at Cerisy (Centre Culturel International) and Evian (International Philosophy Colloquium).  I have been helped to envisage contemporary issues in theory and culture concretely in a global perspective thanks especially to long-term residential fellowships in Potsdam (Germany), Cassis (France), and Bogliasco (Italy), as well as to semester-long appointments as Visiting Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong and as Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Intercultural Theology and Study of Religion at the University of Salzburg.

The Hong Kong appointment permitted me, furthermore, to participate in international conferences well beyond Europe and North America in Kuala Lampur, Malasia, in Canberra, Australia, and in Udaipur, India, and in each case I contributed to resulting publications with reflections touching on international aspects of literary study and theory.  At the University of Salzburg, I lectured on Intercultural Theology and taught seminars in German, and I am invited for the future to teach in German on modern atavisms of ancient myths in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Tübingen.  I have also taught French literature and Existentialism as Professor of French-in-residence at Vanderbilt-in-France in Aix-en-Provence (2008).

Cultivation of languages is an aspect of intellectual life that is paramount for me.  With the exception of the writing on the Old Testament, my scholarly work is all done in the original languages.  This includes ancient Greek and Latin, as well as medieval languages such as langue d’oc and Middle High German.  In the case of the modern languages, particularly English, Italian, French, German, and Spanish, this competence includes regular experience in speaking, beyond use of the languages for research.  I have taught literature, theology, and philosophy in German, French, and Italian, as well as in English.  The joy of studying literature for me is inseparable from immersion in the spoken vernaculars and from a continuing practice of living in the unique worlds opened up through each particular language.  A direct poetic experience of the languages as spoken in everyday conversation has motivated me to want to participate deeply with various peoples in their reflection upon their life and history in and through literature.  Study turns to love in this living communication and assimilation of the idiomatic character and specific beauty of peoples expressing themselves in their own native tongues.
The ultimate destination of this vision of poetic language as theological revelation is likely to be found in creative work beyond the critical and analytical reflection of my essays.  This project for a new epic poetry, built on and extending my lyric vein, has for years been a constant aspiration and endeavor.  In the future, I intend to make it more manifest in my published work.

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