Carolyne Larrington

title.none: Pike, Passage Through Hell (Larrington)

identifier.other: baj9928.9903.013 99.03.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carolyne Larrington, Oxford University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Pike, David L. Passage Through Hell: Modernist Descents, Medieval Underworlds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. xv, 292. $37.50. ISBN: 0-801-43163-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.03.13

Pike, David L. Passage Through Hell: Modernist Descents, Medieval Underworlds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Pp. xv, 292. $37.50. ISBN: 0-801-43163-8.

Reviewed by:

Carolyne Larrington
Oxford University

Da vid Pike's Passage through Hell is in essence a study of various modernist writers and their relation to Dante as a representative of high literary tradition. The introductory chapter establishes the genealogy of the visit to the underworld, from Homer to Virgil to, and more pertinently for medievalists, Bernardus Sylvestris's commentary on Virgil, to Dante, with some reference to Augustine along the way. Half of chapter 3 deals with two passages in Dante, the first half of chapter 4 with Christine de Pizan; the rest of the book concerns itself with Paul Celine (ch. 2), Peter Weiss (ch. 3.1), Virginia Woolf (ch. 4.2), Walter Benjamin (ch.5); there is a very brief glance at Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott in the final chapter. The introductory chapter sets out some useful points of reference for later discussion, defining allegoria in facto and allegoria in verbis, and rehearsing Bernardus's distinction between integumentum and allegoria, terms which recur in the later chapters in ways which are sometimes unsettling. Pike is learned in the Dante tradition--as, clearly, in many others. His aim in the Dantean sections is to argue that the dichotomies in readings of Dante, between the Dante of the theologians and the Dante of the poets, the tensions between myth and history, pagan and Christian, descent and conversion are antinomies which Dante-the-poet is engaged in exploring, and to some extent, mediating between in the Commedia. Modernism's engagement with Dante has, broadly speaking, been conditioned by one or other of these poles: "If the high modernists [Mann, Proust, Eliot] have been overly successful in framing their reception within aesthetic questions, then the Christian polemicists [Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers et al.] brought questions of of medievalism and religion far too successfully to the fore to be able to command any manner of extended aesthetic consideration." (33) Pike rather wants to approach Dante obliquely, not through the obvious modernist texts, to see whether Dante, and by extension, medieval literature, can be rescued from being understood as fundamentally that against which modernism defines itself.

I shall concentrate mostly on the sections concerned with medieval authors; although Passage through Hell represents a bold attempt to bring together medieval and modern writers in a meaningful way, the medieval content of the book is somewhat limited. Pike is to be commended for eschewing the high modernist (and obvious) descents of Joyce, Eliot, Pound and Thomas Mann for an examination of less familiar authors. For Celine, Weiss and Benjamin, the trope of descent to the underworld figures each author's engagement with twentieth-century history; the first two try to impose a conversionary and salvational experience on the inferno of the Second World War, for Benjamin it is the triumph of nineteenth-century capitalism with its inevitable result, the First World War, for which a place must be found in his theoretical writing. All three writers engage fundamentally with the city. Sewers and the metro trope the infernal; strategies for salvation are desperately, but not necessarily successfully, sought.

Woolf sits oddly in this gallery; for ch. 4, "The Gender of Descent," Pike redefines the descent to include the problematic relation of the female writer to the male descent tradition. He engages primarily with Woolf's ambivalence towards the Dantean tradition, since Woolf seems to have found the way to the underworld barred to her because of her gender. The issue then is whether the descent is available or desirable rather than with any exploration of Woolf's actual use of the topos. The link between Woolf and Christine de Pizan is well made, however; both women question whether descent is possible in the first place and both figure themselves as writers primarily in response to the tradition which Dante personifies. Woolf emerges as a writer who constantly reads and re-reads Dante, while Pike interprets Christine as initially setting off after Dante in her little boat, the "piccioletta barca" of Paradiso 2, after her husband's death, the "conversionary Nullpunkt" as Peter Weiss would put it. Now she must voyage uncertainly over treacherous waters and risk shipwreck as she transforms herself into a figure of authority, as a woman who is nonetheless able to chart a course for herself. Pike traces intelligently the development of the seafaring metaphor from the earliest Ballades through the Chemin de long estude and the Mutacion de Fortune. By the time she comes to write the Cite des Dames Christine has learned how to make use of the theme of "translatio studii," the movement of learning from Athens to Rome to France to authorize her own writing: "[s]he is building her Cite des Dames both physically and literarily, underneath and up through Western cultural tradition...rewriting its history as she recasts its foundations, claiming all the riches and authority of Rome as her own and redefining them in the process." (160) The elision of the "translatio studii" with the descensus ad inferos-topos is not entirely successful in this chapter, even when Sybilline authority is invoked; the descent is employed at a metaphorical level only in the two earlier works and is not the way by which Christine is permitted to go. Although the metaphors of voyaging and of city-founding link Christine with the Dantean tradition, mediating Vergil and Augustine to the early fifteenth-century, Christine's frequent direct allusions to Vergil in the Cite des Dames are not sufficient to convince that the underworld-topos is necessarily strongly present in her writing. Thus, paradoxically, the connection between the two women writers at the centre of the book and the theme of Passage through Hell appears to be chiefly that they do not make much use of the descensus ad inferos-topos.

The detailed reading of Dante in ch. 3 questions the modernist reading of Dante as either "uniquely good and free from medieval superstition" or as "divinely authorised", the either / or options outlined in the introductory chapter. Vergil is invoked as the patron of allegoria in verbis, Paul as the authoriser of allegoria in facto; "what was" is mediated as "what I saw". (113) Paul's refusal to speak of the wonders he saw when caught up (2 Cor. 12: 1-5) is balanced against Vergil's inability, as a pagan, to go beyond the edges of the Purgatorio; Dante dares more than either: "there is also a Dantean text that incorporates the modernist reading while simultaneously revealing its fault lines, staging an autocritique of its methods through the same autobiographical voice that generates its extratextual authority," Pike argues. (132-3) It is difficult to do justice to this complex and persuasive section of the book; Danteans will register it as a valuable contribution to current debate.

Against the detailed historical circumstances described for each of the modern writers, some biographical information given about Christine and the paternity of Dante's Commedia is traced back to, and through, Vergil. Little consideration is given to contemporary thinking about the Other World as reality; a brief reference to Le Goff's Birth of Purgatory and a throwaway line about the prohibitions against writing about Purgatory (108) as stemming from Paul's refusal to speak of heavenly things raise questions about the relative weight accorded to the minutiae of modern history on the one hand, and the sweep of medieval history of ideas on the other. It would be churlish, perhaps, to complain that Passage through Hell does not deliver all that its subtitle promises: the only medieval underworld engaged with is that of the Commedia. The hero of David Lodge's novel Small World ingeniously (and untruthfully) claimed that his thesis was about the influence of T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare, arguing that we can no longer read Shakespeare except through the prism that Eliot provides. Pike wants us to refuse to read Dante in such a way: "What I propose, finally, is a nonmodernist reading of the Middle Ages, a nonmodernist reading of postmodernism, and, perhaps most important, a non-modernist reading of modernism itself." (p. 259) If any book can persuade the modernist to re-read Dante in this way, it is this one; the medievalist may not need to be so persuaded and may not find enough in this book of interest to her/him to persevere with it. The most diehard non-modernist will find that the chapters on the tradition, on Dante and on Christine de Pizan are skilfully argued and give material for thought; much of the rest, however, is tough going.