contributor.author: Regina Psaki

title.none: Cestaro, Dante (Regina Psaki)

identifier.other: baj9928.0511.004 05.11.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Regina Psaki, University of Oregon, rpsaki@uoregon.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Cestaro, Gary P. Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body. Series: The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 305. ISBN: $30.00 0-268-02554-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.11.04

Cestaro, Gary P. Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body. Series: The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 305. ISBN: $30.00 0-268-02554-1.

Reviewed by:

Regina Psaki
University of Oregon
rpsaki@uoregon.edu

The principle of selection in the Divine Comedy is that phenomenon by which a trope or episode, when focused on intently, assumes or reveals a truly central importance in the architecture of the poem. The Comedy, which begins with the image of a terrible forest traversed by few and misleading paths, is itself a landscape which inscribes its own paths for the reader to follow. The tracks which the poet has laid down seem infinite. Some are broad and evident, such as the vertical patterning of like-numbered cantos in the three canticles (26 and 27 receive particular attention in the book under review here). Others are more like invisible lines linking occasional points which may not even register as a meaningful pattern, let alone a route, until a new reading illuminates it. Such analyses can become normative, as in the case of Teodolinda Barolinis 1984 study Dante's Poets, which revealed the purpose and artfulness of the pilgrim's encounter with lyric poets in his journey through the afterlife. I suspect that the pattern revealed and elucidated by Gary Cestaro in Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body will be similarly influential. The benefits of the principle of selection were never more evident than in this fifth volume in the William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies, as enlightening in its erudition and interpretative sensitivity as it is delightful in its style.

The tropes and episodes foregrounded in this study involve Dante's use of the wetnurse as a figure for the natural and effortless way children learn the mother tongue, and the figure of Lady Grammar as the counterpoise, the artificial and disciplined means by which they learn the father tongues of grammar and Latin. The first chapter, "Lady Grammar Between Nurturing and Discipline," explores the long history, in the intellectual tradition to which Dante was an active and innovative heir, of the notion of maturation and language acquisition as parallel to the weaning from the maternal (or nurse's) body and passing into the tutelage of grammar and/or Latin. The second chapter, "The Primal Scene of Suckling in De Vulgari Eloquentia," focuses on Dante's appropriation and adaptation of the imagery of language learning in the Latin treatise and in the Convivio. The need to reject the nurse's body in order to assume "rational, linguistic selfhood" was irreconcilable, however, with the need for that body's presence in a Christian model of "human speech and selfhood" (77). Because of that incompatibility, which caused a rift in the authorial voice itself, Cestaro argues, the Latin treatise is incomplete. The book's remaining three chapters are dedicated respectively to revealing the presence and function of the wetnurse figure in the three canticles of the Divine Comedy. They move from a "brief and apparently trivial mention" (6) of the wetnurse in Inferno XXVI to its presence as a ubiquitous and permeating image throughout Paradiso, where it works "as a central--perhaps the central--metaphor of divine knowledge" (77). Cestaro argues that for Dante, the nursing body with its permeable borders offers the best parallel to the boundary-less resurrected body.

Chapter Three, "The Body of Gaeta: Burying and Unburying the Wet Nurse in Inferno," explores Ulysses's allusion to Aeneas's wetnurse in terms of Dante's desire to once again differentiate Ulysses from himself. The allusion at first seems as aleatory as it is fleeting and elliptical: "Quando / mi diparti / da Circe, che sottrasse / Me più di un anno là presso a Gaeta, / Prima che sì Enea la nominasse" (Inferno XXVI.90-93) [When I left Circe, who detained me for more than a year at Ceuta, before Aeneas gave it that name]. To clarify its purpose Cestaro unveils an intricately crafted series of imagistic references to intellectual and ethical maturation throughout the poem, and interweaves the reception of Virgil's poem by such figures as Fulgentius, Bernardus Sylvestris, and John of Salisbury, to reveal a powerful Dantean intervention in the Christian debate on dualism and the body. At the same time, he incorporates the work of Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan on maturation and subjectivity, aligning such issues as maternal desire and the semiotic, paternal law and the symbolic order, with the classical and medieval poets and thinkers who are more visibly Dante's immediate interlocutors. Nothing could be more inspiring than the deftness, care, intelligence, and persuasiveness with which Cestaro achieves a fruitful integration of these various points of reference.

The fourth chapter, "Deconstructing Subjectivity in Antepurgatory," mines Purgatory V, one of the antepurgatorial cantos in which souls torn from their bodies by violence look back at that loss in confusion and regret. To present how Dante understands the error of these souls--who, though they are right to yearn for their bodies, have not understood in what way they are to reunite with them--Cestaro invokes the silva of Chalcidius and Bernardus Sylvestris to gloss the dissolution of those murdered bodies into the lakes, rivers, and swamps of Purgatory V. The subjectivity "deconstructed" in Antepurgatory, referred to in the chapter's title, is "the notion of individual historical identity, one with the body and the subject pronoun" (120); it will be "reconstructed," recuperated in another form, in Chapter Five: "Reconstructing Subjectivity in Purgatorio and Paradiso." This last chapter focuses on the "nurse-poets" of Purgatorio, the pilgrim's role as infant and child, and what Cestaro calls "the triumph of the resurrected breast" (154).

Chapters Four and Five in particular work in tandem to expose a discarded image of the individual subject, and indeed of the historical body, and to propose a new understanding of Dantean subjectivity. In part because Cestaro's language is precise, and in part because it is beautiful, I will quote rather than summarize him on Dante's model of paradisal subjectivity: "the poetics of Purgatorio and Paradiso will reaffirm the body--not as a static, cleanly bound unit, but as site of joyous process" (136). Dante wishes to "emphasize not individual corporeal integrity but rather the dynamism and openness of the single body to the greater reality of divine love" (112). In Dante's Paradise, "the function of the glorified body will be nutritive: continual nourishing interaction with other bodies which compromises corporeal borders without threatening individual survival" (112). "Paradiso will represent the paradoxical promise of Christian salvation: individual corporeal selfhood and mystical dissolution in divine unity through eternity" (112). The reader will be able to discern that Cestaro's writing is rich and eloquent, appealing and precise. It is the purpose of this review to emphasize as well that the book is exceptionally coherent in its argument and persuasive in its conclusions--even when the reader may not agree with one dimension or another of the global interpretation.

The accomplishment of the book dwarfs the inconsistencies or oversights that are inevitable in any sustained work of criticism. As Dante was an integrative poet, Cestaro is an integrative critic, and in his analysis he reenacts how Dante integrates the worlds of vernacular and Latin learning and poetry. The frames of reference for the book integrate the historical, the formalist, and the theoretical, with apparent effortlessness and with equal allowance for the claims of each. The registers of the book integrate the colloquial and the academic, paralleling the mother and father tongues of its focus; even the book's dedication, "or Ma and Pa," playfully echoes Dante's reference to infant words for father and mother (Inferno XXXII.9). Cestaro is an astute "translator" of concepts across centuries, making it clear, absolutely without anachronism, that the matters under discussion in classical and medieval authors are what we would call "language acquisition" and, mutatis mutandis, "primal scene."

With one exception--possibly two--the book's faults are few and inconsequential. There are very few typographical errors (e.g., "scene" for "seen" on p. 65); the notes and the bibliography are gratifyingly and helpfully extensive; the argument is located in the matrix of the critical conversation on Dante now in progress. My sole reservation is that Cestaro opts to punt on the question, surely critical, of the extent to which Dante intended some of the claims his "metaphorical logic" (61) generates: "Thus on a profound level, the text of the De vulgari assimilates the experience of grammatica (regulated language), political and universal exile, to the loss of the nursing breast. To be sure, Dante never says this explicitly, and I presume to make no definite claims for conscious authorial intent" (61). "Conscious authorial intent" is like the party-crasher who refuses to leave, though earnestly exhorted to go. In this case in particular, a critic who invites Kristeva and Lacan to the same party as Dante, Quintilian, Martianus Capella, and historicist Dante critics, will have to either explain the intruder away or invite him in; ignoring him not only doesn't ease the atmosphere, it actually makes it worse. The finessing of this and similar points is connected to my only other reservation about this fine book: its lack of a concluding chapter or epilogue. The absence of a conclusion is not a cosmetic flaw, in my opinion. A conclusion requires, and allows, the author to pan back, recapitulate, consider broader implications (such as "conscious authorial intent") and other options, and sketch the road ahead. In this case, at the end of Chapter Five I sincerely regretted being unable to turn to Cestaro's considered remarks on what he sees as the gains of this book, and what he sees coming next. In one obvious sense this is a good sign, and I will conclude by emphasizing that this is an expositor of Dante I am eager to read more of. If the figure of the wetnurse--"a brief and apparently trivial mention"(6)--caused Cestaro to discern and delineate this whole imposing design, I am anxious to see what unique picture of the Comedy will emerge from the next detail he will focus on.