03.02.26, Raffa, Divine Dialectic

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V. Stanley Benfell

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.026


Raffa, Guy P.. Divine Dialectic: Dante's Incarnational Poetry. Toronto:University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 254. ISBN: 0-8020-4856-0.

Reviewed by:

V. Stanley Benfell
Brigham Young University

The past several years have witnessed a growth of scholarship questioning traditional "dualistic" approaches to the Middle Ages. Carolyn Walker Bynum, for example, has argued that our traditional divisions between body/spirit, male/female, and so on should not be imposed on the Middle Ages. (She writes in The Resurrection of the Body that "Medieval Christianity is not dualistic in either a Gnostic, a Manichean, or a Cartesian sense.") Dante studies has had, as Guy Raffa points out in his engaging study of Dante's "divine dialectic," its own share of dualisms: poet/theologian, pilgrim/poet, and Benedetto Croce's famous distinction between those sections of the Comedy that he deemed "poesia" and those he termed "non poesia." Raffa joins with a few recent critics -- he mentions Teodolinda Barolini and Giuseppe Mazzotta in particular -- who have begun to question these divisions as insufficient for a poet of such astounding complexity, and he thus replaces "duality" as a critical mode with "dialectic."

Raffa establishes the parameters of his argument in the Introduction, first setting out what he means by dialectic: a radical method of argumentation in which seemingly mutually exclusive alternatives can be fruitfully combined in a paradoxical harmony. This dialectic comes about because of the impossibility of understanding the mysteries of God through "reason and argument," and which consequently "demand a new, alternative way of knowing" (5). "Dante promotes a paradoxical, 'both-and' way of reading his poetry -- a hermeneutics that serves, in turn, as a model for thinking and being in the world" (4). It is no surprise that Raffa locates Dante's model for divine dialectic in the central event of Christian history: the incarnation, which -- as the union of God and man -- is analogous to Dante's attempt to fuse seemingly antithetical ideas into a unified, and divine, whole. The dialectical nature of the incarnation is expounded by Beatrice in Paradiso 7, where she explains that when God was confronted with the necessity of human redemption two choices presented themselves: He could either pardon humans or humans could earn salvation through remedial righteousness. God, however, chose both simultaneously, working out human righteousness himself by becoming incarnate. In Dante's hands, in other words, the Incarnation becomes "a paradoxical union of choices as well as of natures" (14).

The body of the book is divided into three lengthy chapters, which are further subdivided into sections of about 20 pages each. Raffa begins the first chapter, "Divisive Dialectic: Incarnational Failure and Parody," with a brief consideration of the Vita Nuova. While he notes Dante's vigorous attempts to imagine Beatrice within a theological context and to build symmetries with symbolic resonance into his libello, Raffa observes that in virtually every case the execution is incomplete or thwarted. This failure, however, is strategic, and it constitutes what he terms an "incarnational failure." The remainder of the chapter treats a similar failure of dialectic within Dante's "infernal web of pride." While pride is nowhere explicitly punished in the Inferno, it is the basis of all sin (signaled by its location on the first terrace of Purgatory) and so can be seen in virtually every circle. And while Raffa recognizes how Dante portrays even the most attractive of the sinners as damned, he nevertheless appeals to the reader's experience so that a sympathetic sinner such as Farinata "can be redeemed in part even as he is damned" (51-52). Indeed, he sees this way of reading as fully in accord with Dante's own dual nature as a writer who is both poet and theologian.

In chapter two, "Incarnational Dialectic Writ Large," Raffa turns his attention to positive portrayals of incarnational dialectic in Purgatorio and Paradiso. Beatrice's appearance as a figura Christi together with the Christ-like Griffin provide Dante with positive and real, if incomplete, examples of the incarnational dialectic. This dialectic can also be seen in the first three spheres of paradise, which all fall within the earth's shadow, thus marking a space in paradise where earth and heaven are combined. The souls that inhabit these spheres, known as they are by their shortcomings, also vividly illustrate the incarnational dialectic, embodying "a union of both the preservation and the resolution of their earthly struggles" (109). Raffa next turns his attention to the role of optics -- reflection in particular -- in Dante's portrayal of the pilgrim's ascent. Drawing fully on medieval catoptrics, Dante illustrates his ascent through a series of similes that move from reflection in Purgatory and at the beginning of the Paradiso (in the eyes of Beatrice) to the unmediated gaze at God at the poem's end. In the final section of the chapter, "The Poet's Incarnate Word," Raffa finds increased evidence for Dante's use of the incarnational dialectic in the names of many of the blessed of the first three heavens. As part of his exploration of names, he briefly considers Dante's theory of language, which he differentiates from Augustine's thoroughgoing conventionalism. For Raffa, Augustine's view of the "spiritual" meaning of Scripture is one of "metaphoric substitution" rather than the "metonymic continguity" favored by Dante, for whom the "allegorical or spiritual sense is an expansion -- not a replacement -- of the literal meaning" (114). It is also in these first three spheres that Dante outdoes himself in attempting to "reify his verbal medium" and thus make it analogous to the Word made flesh.

The final chapter, "Dante's Incarnational Dialectic of Martyrdom and Mission," concerns the "solar and martian cantos," and is divided into four sections. In the first, "Lifting the Hermeneutic Veil: Circling the Cross in the Sun and Mars," Raffa examines the images of both crosses and circles in the fourth and fifth spheres of paradise. He attaches great importance to the fact that in Dante's universe, the heaven of the Sun represents the first heaven not "veiled" by the earth's shadow. This movement out of the earth's influence is mirrored by a shift in mimetic strategy: "The poet's representational turn from telling to showing as he lifts the 'veil' of the earth's shadow both performs and challenges the predominant figuration of Christian hermeneutics in the medieval imagination" (127). Rather than relying on what Raffa takes to be the Pauline and Augustinian separation of letter and spirit (and corresponding disregarding of the letter), Dante removes this "hermeneutic veil" to join letter and spirit together in a seamless union. In the following section, "The Bitter-Sweet Lessons of Cacciaguida and Scipio," Raffa turns more specifically to the episode with Cacciaguida, where he concentrates on the ties between this episode and Cicero's Somnium Scipionis. While Scipio the younger awaits a future of military triumph combined with an untimely death brought about by family betrayal and treachery, Dante similarly is to expect treachery leading to exile but also to the completion of his divinely commissioned poem.

The third section, "Dante's Divine Tetragon," concentrates on Paradiso 17.24, when the pilgrim states that he will be ben tetragono ai colpi di ventura. To the traditional commentary on the verse, which has tended to cite Aquinas' interpretation of the tetragonus as a cube, Raffa opposes the Platonic view of Thierry of Chartres, who saw in the quadratus an image of Christ: "the 'equality of unity' -- or the primus tetragonus" (173). In the chapter's final section, "Intellectual Action and Dialectical Hermeneutics," Raffa shows Dante undermining another traditional medieval dichotomy: that between the active and contemplative life. Dante joins these seemingly antithetical alternatives in a dialectic of action and contemplation by closely pairing Boethius, one of the blessed contemplatives introduced to the pilgrim in the heaven of the sun, and Cacciaguida, a crusader who appears to Dante in the heaven of Mars. The chapter concludes with an attempt to undermine another common dichotomy: that between characters found in hell and in purgatory or paradise, or between in bono and in malo readings, reexamining the frequently perceived dichotomy between the two paternal figures in the poem: Cacciaguida and Brunetto Latini. Latini, therefore, like Farinata before him, emerges as a man who is "redeemed in part even as he is damned."

Overall, Raffa writes lucidly, and he has -- on the whole -- done his work on Dante's theological background very carefully. He is a meticulously close reader, and while he makes many digressions in order to provide a suitable context for Dante1s poetry, his analysis ultimately stays very close to the text. His discussion of the first three heavens of the Paradiso are particularly insightful. The result is that he effectively causes us to reconsider many of the standard dualisms of Dante criticism. There are, however, in my view two weaknesses to his presentation, though not to his central argument. First, at times Raffa's desire to see everything in the Comedy through the lens of dialectic leads to some unconvincing readings: his treatment of the sympathetic damned of the Inferno (and Brunetto Latini in particular) provides a case in point.

Raffa rejects the frequent "metaphorical" readings of Brunetto's sodomy, and instead suggests that we must take Dante at his word and assume that Brunetto's sin is, simply, sodomy. Given, though, the prevalence of sodomy in Dante's day, he suggests that the pilgrim "is surprised to find his old teacher among the sodomites not for what Brunetto 'did' but for what he failed to do: repent" (191), which seems to me a distinction without a difference. It is certainly true that for Dante sodomy is a sin that is (pace R. W. B. Lewis in his recent Penguin life of Dante) redeemable; one need only think of Purgatorio's seventh terrace with penitent souls guilty of both heterosexual and homosexual lust purging their sin in the fire. But this fact does not lessen Dante's estimation of the gravity of the sin or his insistence on Brunetto's responsibility for his unrepentant choices. Raffa goes on to imagine that our final view of Brunetto -- running off like the winner in Verona's palio -- suggests his "running until he met up with Cacciaguida in the central episode of the Paradiso." Saint Paul, indeed, compared the journey of life toward salvation as a race, in which we should "run to obtain the prize." Brunetto, however, is simply running the wrong race at the end of Inferno 15 -- toward literary immortality (which he seeks in the pages of his own Tresor, nel qual io vivo ancora) rather than toward paradise, Cacciaguida, and the eternal life promised by Christ to the repentant faithful. Finally, one cannot help wondering if Raffa's implicit suggestion that the sympathetic portrayal of certain sinners is due to the "poetic" side of Dante's authorial identity, while the fact of their damnation is due to his "theological" side (see, e.g., page 66) does not partake of the very dualism Raffa seeks to avoid.

Second, in his descriptions of Dante's dialectical philosophy Raffa tends to overemphasize Dante's uniqueness in the realm of thought, thus oversimplifying the views of some who came before him. I very much agree, for example, with the view that Dante rejects a hard and fast dichotomy between literal and spiritual readings of scripture and other texts; but I also see a similar refusal of what could be termed a hermeneutic dualism in Saint Augustine's theory and exegesis, whom Raffa takes as a foil for Dante.

All quibbles aside, however, Raffa's book represents an important trend away from dualism in medieval studies and Dante criticism. His achievement (and it is not an inconsiderable one) is to aid us in seeing both that Dante's views of important theological ideas are better understood as dialectical rather than dualistic and also that our own critical categories often prove dualistic in ways that Dante would reject. Raffa together with many of the scholars he cites begin to show us the way toward a better understanding of this remarkable pre-Cartesian poet.

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V. Stanley Benfell

Brigham Young University