The Medieval Review 11.05.17

Tambling, Jeremy. Dante in Purgatory: States of Affect. Disputatio. Turnhout, Belgium: Prepols Publishers NV, 2010. Pp. ix, 292. 60 EUR ISBN 978-2-503-53129-8. .

Reviewed by:

Peter Dent
p.dent@warwick.ac.uk

Dante in Purgatory essentially combines two projects. On the one hand it offers a new reading of Purgatorio, structured almost as a canto-by-canto commentary, although some sections of the cantica are not directly discussed, in particular cantos 3-9. On the other hand, the book attempts to contribute to an argument that emotional states to a certain extent are historically determined. Recognition of this fact is of fundamental importance to our ability to understand Dante's text and, by circular extension, the poem is of fundamental importance in demonstrating this historicity. As the opening paragraph of chapter 1 asks: "Can we understand a text of the past in its historical context? Or know the states of mind that such a text includes?...What relation does the twenty-first century person have to the emotional states recorded, or created, in Dante's work?" (1)

The first three chapters seek to map out a discursive space in which Dante can be brought into dialogue with earlier and later writers during the detailed discussion of Purgatorio. The brief opening chapter, "On Affect," argues that the most appropriate cover term for the states to be discussed in the rest of the book is "affect," having rejected both "emotion," which gives too much agency to the subject, and "passion," which gives too little. Affect is more ambivalent, hovering between the two. This is not primarily an archaeological discussion seeking to unearth an earlier terminology, although it does begin with definitions culled from the OED for each of these terms, focussing in particular on early modern usage. Instead, it is concerned for the most part with modern thinkers and texts drawn above all from the realm of (mainly Freudian) psychoanalysis. The second chapter then leaps back into classical and early Christian thought. Tambling sets out the place occupied by affective states in the thought of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, particularly in relation to such key terms as will, desire, and reason. After discussing how "will" and "emotion" are related to each other in Augustine, he shows how Christianity ordered these states, going under various names, into groups of vices that threaten the soul. This survey demonstrates that the hierarchy, number, and boundaries between such vices were open to almost constant revision. The chapter then concludes by discussing how Christianity developed penitential strategies for countering these destabilizing tendencies, before allowing Aquinas the final word. This all sets the scene for the third chapter in which the same issues, such as the ordering of vice and virtue, the relationship between will and emotion, and the nature of penance, are pursued in general terms in Dante's thought, before an overview is offered of the doctrine of Purgatory and the structure of the purgatorial mountain.

The pace of these opening chapters, particularly the first two, is demanding and the effect at times bewildering, as names are dropped and ideas introduced in rapid succession. This pace is carried over into the rest of the book, although it becomes less punishing once the discussion settles firmly on Dante. This part of the book adopts a very straightforward structure. Seven chapters deal in order with the seven terraces of the mountain and their associated vices: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. These are bracketed by an opening chapter covering the first two cantos of Purgatorio, and a final chapter dealing with various elements of the Earthly Paradise at the mountain's peak. These chapters together function as a commentary on the text, guided by the concerns set out at the beginning of the book. To varying extents they incorporate digressions on the earlier history of particular vices, or draw in the thoughts of later, modern thinkers. Sections of this material have appeared elsewhere, the earliest in 1994, but these seem to have been reworked to fit the present context and the vast majority of Dante in Purgatory is new material.

The book has no concluding chapter and simply leaves off after the analysis of the Earthly Paradise. In a commentary this would seem natural, but the underlying argument about affective states requires something more. The final paragraph of the final chapter stands in for the missing conclusion. Tambling writes: "Throughout this reading of Purgatorio, the possibility of completeness of definition, or assessment of any affective state, has been taken away." (263) He argues that this is a mark of the text's modernity as opposed to the "medieval" structuring of these states into the various terraces of the purgatorial mountain. Having reached this point in the book, I could not have agreed more, although I remain uncertain how far this is a characteristic of the Commedia and how far it was a product of Tambling's approach. Perhaps the decision to end without a structural resolution was a deliberate reflection of the idea that affective states "are in excess of what can be held to account" (263), but I would have liked to see Tambling return to some of the territory canvassed in the first two chapters of the book and to hold himself to some kind of considered account at the end, however inconclusive.

In some respects, the lack of a conclusion felt symptomatic of the difficultly of combining the two goals of offering a new reading of the cantica as well as an interdisciplinary study of the historicity of affective states as embedded in a particular text. The first of these seemed to take priority, making the book much less productive for a reader coming in, so to speak, from the outside. To quote from the mission statement of the series on the back of the volume, "Disputatio publishes interdisciplinary scholarship on the intellectual culture and intellectual history of the European Middle Ages...[and] seeks to promote scholarly dialogue among the various disciplines that study medieval texts and ideas and their diffusion and reception." I approached this book as an art historian with an earlier background in the study of modern history and literature, and one whose recent research has involved some interdisciplinary work on Dante. While I found a great deal of stimulating material here, I came away from the book with the impression that as an interdisciplinary project it was a missed opportunity.

This should have been a perfect moment for such a publication. Over the last five years or so, large-scale research projects looking at the history of emotions have been established, for example, in the UK, Germany, Sweden, Australia and through the on-line platform EMMA.[1] There is even one at Tambling's own university, Manchester, albeit situated within social science and not primarily concerned with the historical dimension of emotional states. Tambling has engaged with some of this new wave of research but in a haphazard fashion and, given that he elsewhere seems entirely at home with a wide range of theoretical positions, he seems relatively uninterested in the methodological issues that such study raises. Barbara Rosenwein's book, Anger's Past: The Social Uses of An Emotion in the Middle Ages, for example, appears in the bibliography and is cited once in chapter 7 "Overcoming Anger".[2] However, her important essay of 2002 on the state of research in this field, "Worrying about Emotions in History," goes without mention.[3] Instead, Tambling largely sidesteps the methodological issues raised by historians working on emotions in favour of pursuing an interpretation informed extensively by psychoanalysis. This in itself would not have been a problem if less weight had been placed on the historical dimension of the argument and the book had been presented more as an act of interpretation. But difficulties do arise in the analysis of individual cantos. Too often, for example, modern writers and theorists are brought in simply to clarify or motivate a certain reading of Dante's text without bringing Dante into genuine dialogue with them as a voice from a different part of the same tradition. Only on rare occasions is Dante seen to modify or to offer alternatives to these ideas, such as when Tambling notes in chapter 11 that "Heidegger seems to involve less surrender of the self in erotic relationship than in Dante" (225).

Another, more general, issue lies with the relative lack of synchronic analysis of affective states. Tambling is impressively comfortable moving through the full chronological range of western intellectual history, but shows much less interest in lateral movement around Dante's texts. Discussion of late medieval material is for the most part confined to individuals and ideas introduced explicitly by Dante himself. Even the relatively substantial digression on the cycle of Virtues and Vices painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel that opens chapter 5, "The Art of Pride," is a very familiar move in discussions of this terrace. As an art historian, I was looking forward to this section, having seen Tambling make some fascinating comments about late medieval images in his earlier book on Dante.[4] However, the analysis, which is broadly descriptive, adds nothing particularly new to what has already been said and is introduced as a way of throwing into relief what Tambling wants to assert about Dante: "Giotto's Virtues and Vices contrast with each other, but in Dante, all states seem inherently double..." (86). From an interdisciplinary point of view, I would have liked him to engage much more deeply with Giotto. He gives considerable space for example to the classical sources of Dante's treatment of affective states. As is well known, Giotto also borrows heavily from classical visual culture. His representation of Inconstancy is almost certainly based on a relief showing the murder of Tarpeia from a frieze on the Basilica Aemilia in the Roman forum. Does this classical source tell us anything about the articulation of affective states in visual terms that is similar or different to how Dante proceeds? For that matter, there is a wealth of material from this period, including visual art, sermons, devotional literature and so on, that could have been brought to bear on Dante's handling of affect, material that might give us a better idea of far his text is embedded in its particular historical moment and how far it transcends it. Instead, the historicity of the text emerges in a rather conventional way, with Dante positioned at some liminal point, as the first of the moderns and the last of the ancients.

This is not to say that there is nothing here for a reader interested in the historical study of emotions from an interdisciplinary direction. One of the problems facing anyone approaching the Commedia from another discipline is the extraordinary complexity of the poem. Without a thorough knowledge of the text, it is difficult to appreciate the depth of Dante's thought about any particular topic. The issues that he raises are rarely confined to one episode or encounter. In this respect, Tambling's commentary and outline of Dante's thought about affective states offer an invaluable guide to the uninitiated. As a map of where such material might be found and how it is developed and sustained across the entire Commedia, it succeeds as a point of departure for the fresh wave of interdisciplinary research on emotion now being conducted elsewhere. Nevertheless, Dante in Purgatory will perhaps work best if approached simply as a new, stimulating, and occasionally provocative, interpretation of Purgatorio.

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Notes:

1. The Centre for the History of Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London; ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, The University of Western Australia (newly announced); Languages of Emotion, Freie Universität, Berlin; Research Center "History of Emotions," Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin; International Network for the Cultural History of Emotions in Premodernity, Umeå University, Sweden; and EMMA, A Research Program on Emotions in the Middle Ages at http://emma.hypotheses.org/ .

2. Rosenwein, Barbara H., ed., Anger's Past: The Social Uses of An Emotion in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

3. Rosenwein, Barbara H., "Worrying about Emotions in History," The American Historical Review, 107 (2002): 821-45.

4. Tambling, Jeremy, Dante and Difference: Writing in the Commedia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.