Stan Benfell

title.none: Ginsberg, Dante's Aesthetics of Being (Benfell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0005.012 00.05.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stan Benfell, Brigham Young University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Ginsberg, Warren. Dante's Aesthetics of Being. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Pp. xv, 175. $42.50. ISBN: 0-472-10971-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.05.12

Ginsberg, Warren. Dante's Aesthetics of Being. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Pp. xv, 175. $42.50. ISBN: 0-472-10971-5.

Reviewed by:

Stan Benfell
Brigham Young University

In the preface to Dante's Aesthetics of Being, Warren Ginsberg states his central argument in the following manner: Dante came to think of the aesthetic as the domain in which the love that moved the sun and the other stars expressed itself in human terms. He considered not only matters of form and proportion under its purview but questions of love, perfection of the self, identity of existence. For Dante the aesthetic was a discourse of being. (viii) Ginsberg makes broad claims indeed for the place of the aesthetic in Dante's thought and poetry. His study is in many ways valuable, especially in the series of perceptive and engaging close readings that he provides of the Vita nuova and the Commedia. When he attempts to tie these individual readings back to his central argument, however, he often encounters difficulties, and ultimately I did not find his contention concerning Dante's aesthetics persuasive.

One problem with Ginsberg's argument lies precisely in his use of "aesthetic," which he employs in two different ways. In the citations from the Preface given above, for example, he uses the term to refer to a medieval understanding of the aesthetic that he assumes to have existed, that "the aesthetic" was a "domain" theorized and delimited as such in the later Middle Ages, one that Dante could look to, an "arena" where he considered his most profound questions. In other instances, however, Ginsberg uses the term much more generically to refer to the principles of beauty underlying Dante's poetry, as when he discusses Dante's "aesthetics of hell" in his final chapter. This confusion of definition courts the danger of anachronism, as he sometimes seems to slip from the latter definition to the former; the fact that we can deduce aesthetic principles from Dante's poetry leads to the contention that Dante himself understood the "aesthetic" in a certain way. In addition, Ginsberg never adequately defines the first of his uses of "aesthetic." His introductory chapter, for example, begins with some brief considerations of the history of aesthetic theory, noting in particular that recent attempts to trace that history (by Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton) ignore the history of aesthetic thinking between the Greeks and Kant. I therefore expected this chapter to provide some delineation of aesthetics in the Middle Ages, of what a poet like Dante would understand by the "aesthetic" according to the ideas he would have encountered in the writings of medieval thinkers. This expectation, however, was disappointed. While we do hear (quite briefly) of Suger and Aquinas, we are not given a systematic treatment of these figures' writings on beauty. Instead, Ginsberg seems to equate the use of analogy with the aesthetic: "Each kind of knowledge and mode of expression participates in the higher order by analogy, and analogy itself becomes for Dante the mark of the aesthetic's coordination of the sensible and the metaphysical" (9). In his chapter on the Vita nuova, Ginsberg makes a similar point: "the tension of Dante's vision is the tension of analogy, which is the hallmark of his aesthetic" (43). This last statement reveals the quandary referred to earlier with respect to Ginsberg's use of "aesthetic." Does he imply that the general aesthetic principles that we can adduce from Dante's poetry are governed by analogy, or that Dante, in attempting consciously to construct an aesthetic discourse, looked to analogy as the form in which the aesthetic (again, understood by Dante as "the aesthetic") operated? If the latter, we may ask why Dante should have specifically identified the analogy with the aesthetic. Analogy was foundational to much medieval thinking (as Ralph MacInerny has discussed in many works, most recently in Aquinas and Analogy) and Ginsberg does not provide a firm historical reason for equating the two. Ginsberg gives no more explicit definition of the "aesthetic" than this consideration of analogy. We can, however, piece together what he seems to understand as a medieval theory of aesthetics. Ginsberg, in accordance with several other scholars of medieval thought, accepts Umberto Eco's argument that beauty was considered a "transcendental" in scholastic thought. Transcendentals in late medieval thought are fundamental attributes of being, and thus Ginsberg refers to beauty as a "metaphysical attribute of God" (77). If beauty is one of the properties of being, Dante could look to beauty, that is to the aesthetic, as a domain that directly engages being. Recent scholars (Jan Aersten and Andreas Speer, in particular), however, have challenged the notion convincingly in my view that beauty was ever categorized as a transcendental among late medieval thinkers. Beauty is not listed among the transcendentals by Aquinas or others, and discussions of beauty (in Aquinas for example) are strictly limited and prove contextual; "aesthetics" is never isolated as an autonomous field of philosophical investigation, as in modern theories of aesthetics. Paul Oskar Kristeller's comments in his essay "The Modern System of the Arts" prove relevant here: "if we want to keep speaking of medieval aesthetics, we must admit that its concept and subject matter are, for better or for worse, quite different from the modern philosophical discipline" (178). It is unlikely, in other words, that Dante would have understood the "aesthetic" as a domain in the sense that Ginsberg proposes. But while this central argument is problematic, the individual readings of Dante's poetic works that Ginsberg provides often prove suggestive and persuasive.

In Chapter 2, "Medieval Aesthetics: The Analogies of the Vita nuova," Ginsberg observes that Dante continuously works in the libello through analogy in order to understand and communicate the reality of Beatrice. Ginsberg's description of medieval psychology proves valuable, particularly his delineation of medieval notions of internal spirits "the agency through which the material touched the spiritual" (34) that Dante employs in order to elucidate his own inner workings. And his argument that "Dante's love is intellectual and sensible at once" is helpful in avoiding the dualism that too often characterizes critical discussions of Dante's theory of love. In his third chapter, "From the Vita nuova to the Comedy," Ginsberg concentrates on the encounter between Dante the pilgrim and Bonagiunta concerning the "dolce stil novo" in Purgatorio 24 as a way of providing a transition between his discussion of the Vita nuova and his analysis of the Commedia. He devotes considerable attention to the famous tercet in which Dante describes his method of writing (in lines 52-54), and suggests that Dante's "response is less a declaration about literary stylistics than an aesthetic theory in which existence itself is configured as an analogy of being" (81). Dante's manner of living, in other words, becomes aesthetic, and Dante's existence ultimately is indistinguishable from his text: when Love breathes, he takes note and goes signifying.... Knowing and being have become reflexes of Love; they are constituted and structured by it, joined as one through it, as body is to soul, in a way that only a theologized poetry can represent.(89) In the following chapter, "The Aesthetics of Eternity: Forese, Cacciaguida, and the Style of Fatherhood," Ginsberg turns his attention to the Paradiso. While the souls in Hell have been reduced through their rejection of the good of the intellect to matter without animating form, souls in Paradise are, according to Ginsberg, pure form, waiting to be rejoined with the matter of their resurrected bodies. In order to account for these profound differences, Dante "fashions an aesthetics for each region of the afterlife according to the nature of the souls in it" (96). Before turning to the Paradiso itself, however, Ginsberg returns to Purgatorio 24 and the following cantos in order to consider how Dante's encounter there with Forese Donati significantly revisits the tenzone of the 1290s that the two poets exchanged. He sees in the discussions of poetry with Bonagiunta, Forese, and Arnault Daniel a reconsideration of Dante's own vernacular. He argues that the "father language" of Latin, represented by Virgil, is placed in a dialectical relationship to the mother tongue of the vernacular. Dante, however, employs this dialectic ultimately in order to fuse the two languages and to create a "new language of love." Ginsberg then turns to the encounter with Cacciaguida at the center of the Paradiso, finding convincing evidence that Dante echoes the tenzone with Forese there as well as in the Purgatorio. As Cacciaguida discloses Dante's identity in terms of both his family history and his destiny, his use of both Latin and the vernacular once again joins the paternal and maternal tongues. Dante's roles as pilgrim and as poet thus become explicitly linked, and Cacciaguida is able to disclose to him his origins in terms of both his personal and poetic identities. In the final chapter, "Ovid, the Transformation of Metamorphosis, and the Aesthetics of Hell," Ginsberg returns to the Inferno, a procedure that he admits may puzzle some readers, but he accounts for the turn back to the first canticle in his preface: "In paradise Dante ascends to the cause and origin of his aesthetics; by ascending with him first, we can better grasp the principle that guided Dante when he constructed the aesthetics of damnation out of the dead matter that endures in the depths of the inferno" (ix). Central to Ginsberg's understanding of Dante's "aesthetics of hell" is the concept of metamorphosis, and he thus concentrates his attention on the bolgia of the thieves in cantos 24 and 25, where Dante claims to surpass Ovid himself in his account of transformation. The continual changing of the thieves into serpents and back again is emblematic of a metamorphosis that afflicts the souls of all the damned, which Ginsberg calls "a metamorphosis of unbecoming." Drawing on Statius' account of the generation of human souls in Purgatorio 25, he argues that by choosing evil, which is, by the accounts of both Augustine and Aquinas, not an existent, the damned move toward nonbeing, having lost the good of the intellect, the form-giving virtue that makes the soul similar to its creator. The unity of soul that Statius describes is vividly destroyed in the metamorphosis of the thieves, who literally enact the dissolution of the intellectual soul into bestial matter. Ginsberg then relates these cantos to the corresponding ones in paradise, where Dante's examinations on faith, hope, and charity place emphasis on the resurrection, which will allow for the perfection of those three theological virtues. The tie between Statius' account of the soul in Purgatorio 25 and to the thieves in Inferno 25 shows that Dante's account of metamorphosis ultimately differs profoundly from that of Ovid, since Ovid's transformations occur only on the surface, while Dante's involve a fundamental ontological change, either in turning toward God in conversion, or away from him in sin and toward nonbeing. Indeed, the thieves actually parodically invert the conversion of the apostle Paul. Metamorphosis thus occupies a central place in Dante's aesthetics even in the Inferno. Ginsberg ends this chapter by making the case for Dante's revisiting in the cantos of the thieves what was most likely his final canzone, "Amor da che convien." He finds precise echoes of the lyric in the discourse of Vanni Fucci and thus suggests that the self-absorption of the stil-novistic lover in that canzone is ultimately "indistinguishable of the decision of the damned to put themselves before God" (157). In Inferno 24 and 25, in other words, Ginsberg finds yet another instance of Dantean palinode. This final chapter seems to me the most compelling of the book; Ginsberg's account of how Dante himself "transforms" Ovidian metamorphosis is insightful and persuasive, providing evidence that metamorphosis, usually a concept reserved for the final two canticles, has direct relevance to the Inferno.

This book, then, has much to recommend it in its individual readings, and particularly in the final chapter. Ginsberg's contention, however, that for "Dante, the aesthetic was a discourse of being" (viii) proves less valuable. "The aesthetics of being" sounds more characteristic of the later Heidegger and his neo-romantic exaltation of authentic poets with direct access to Being than it does Dante. Indeed, when I first read Ginsberg's preface, I anticipated that his analysis would become neo-Crocean and thus privilege certain parts of the poem over others, as Benedetto Croce distinguished between passages that were "poesia," that is, suitably aesthetic in Croce's terms, and "non poesia," which he found overly philosophical. Ginsberg's readings generally avoid this kind of dichotomy, however, and demonstrate how Dante repeatedly joined what for modern readers are distinct realms of thought (ethics, aesthetics, theology, and so on) into a unified poetic achievement.