09.07.01, Holmes, Dante's Two Beloveds

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Kristina Olson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.001


Holmes, Olivia. Dante's Two Beloveds: Ethics and Erotics in the Divine Comedy. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008. Pp. 288. ISBN: 9780300125429.

Reviewed by:
Kristina Olson
George Mason University

In her recent study, Dante's Two Beloveds: Ethics and erotics in theDivine Comedy (Yale UP, 2008), Olivia Holmes intends to provide us with "a new thematic framework for interpreting the Commedia." What Holmes exhorts her reader to consider in this, her second book (her first being Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from Troubadour Song to Italian Poetry Book, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2000), is the way in which the pilgrim's voyage is determined by the choice between two "attractive" women (to quote Holmes)--one a siren/whore and the other a virgin bride, Beatrice. Holmes thus attempts to situate the pilgrim's erotic choice as inextricable from moral choice and the larger (Vergilian and Augustinian) discourse of free will. The author seems to depart from the premise, as indicated by the "two beloveds" of the title, that this erotic choice is a binary one between the woman (such as the Donna Gentile, of the Vita nuova, or the "pargoletta" referred to by Beatrice in Purgatorio 30) who represents the path to be forsaken, and Beatrice, who, in her multivalenced role as Dante's beloved, constitutes a sign that indicates God.

The actual conclusions differ greatly from the title and the premise of the book. Holmes duly demonstrates that any sort of dichotomy (flesh/spirit, reason/desire, etc.) is superseded by the complementary relation of these two female figures. Indeed, the clear message of Dante's Two Beloveds is the polysemous and non-dualistic nature represented for Dante's many beloveds, or the necessity of both material and spiritual worlds in the teleological scope generally read for Dante's oeuvre. That Dante's often non-dualistic view of gender is a neglected phenomenon in his work (i.e., the talkative Beatrice, the historicized Francesca da Rimini, and the revision of male desire in lyric poems such as "Doglia mi reca") is something that has most recently been explored by Teodolinda Barolini in her essay, "Beyond (Courtly) Dualism: Thinking about Gender in Dante's Lyrics" (from Dante for the New Millennium, Fordham University Press, 2003). Regina Psaki's own contributions in bringing a more theoretical interpretation of gender to dantismo, is present in numerous essays she has written, including a chapter in the volume cited above ("Love for Beatrice: Transcending Contradiction in the Paradiso," Dante for the New Millennium), where she explores the language of Dante's "redemptive eroticism" (Psaki 119). Gary Cestaro's exploration of the metaphor of the wetnurse as an allegory for the acquisition of language in Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003) also belongs to those studies that have alerted us to the neglected complexity of Dante's history of the body.

Any discussion of eroticism within Dante necessarily involves an analysis of the economy of gendered discourse that Dante both inherited and then produced. The argument of the book is related to this discourse but is not couched within this theoretical framework. Instead Holmes takes a different approach, preferring to situate her relation of the erotic to the ethical in light of classical, biblical, patristic and Romance narratives. The work she has done in compiling these sources for this book, sources which will be known by specialists but unknown by the general reader, is noteworthy. In Chapter One, "Two Ways and Two Ladies," she delineates these sources to demonstrate the connection between the right way and the wrong way (vis--vis the myth of Hercules at the Crossroads) and the right woman and the wrong woman, providing an extensive catalogue of Beatrice's figural antecedents (e.g., from Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae). She also charts here the appearance of Dante's beloveds--both negative and positive--as catalysts for positive change. Holmes continues to explore the invention of Beatrice in the second chapter ("Wisdom and Folly: Lady Philosophy and the Sirens") in the particular light of the scriptural character of Sapientia from the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom, and her elaborations by the Latin writers of the School of Chartres and Brunetto Latini in his Tesoretto. In her third chapter, "Romance Narratives of Two Women," Holmes traces the appearance of how love is given, rejected, redirected, and then ultimately readdressed to the first beloved within troubadour vidas and razos. She associates this pattern with Dante's description of Matelda in Purgatorio 28 and Beatrice's later rebuke in Purgatorio 30.

The book gains momentum with the fourth and fifth chapters of the book. "Ulysses at the Crossroads," the fourth chapter of the book, turns to Ulysses and Aeneas in the formation of the paradigm of a beloved woman and a temptress, and provides many good insights into this paradigm. The fifth chapter, "Jerusalem and Babylon: Brides, Widows and Whores," reads Beatrice's advent with that of the bride from the descent of the personification of the New Jerusalem in Apocalypse 21, tracing the transformations of the "bride-widow-whore" through the exegetical tradition from Augustine to medieval commentary to Dante's figuration of Florence as a woman in the Commedia. In the sixth and final chapter, "The 'Little While': Departure and Return," the author approaches the Commedia with Beatrice as the centerpiece to the allegory of loss and promised return that can also be found in the story of St. Francis and Lady Poverty and the promised redemption of the Church and the state.

The material of Dante's Two Beloveds and the fundamental topic that it addresses are, as the author herself admits, not new. But it should be added that if the ultimate conclusions of this book in regards to non-dualistic representations of gender are not revolutionary thought for Dante studies (as mentioned above for the work of Barolini, Psaki, Cestaro, and Joan Ferrante even earlier) this is especially the case for medieval historiography. Caroline Walker Bynum (named as being together with "other feminist scholars"), should be presented in terms of her groundbreaking work in medieval complications of gender binaries, i.e., when male religious discuss themselves as women to express sentiment and anxiety (Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, U of California, 1984), or the intricate relationship of the body to the soul in identity formation--something especially important in light of Holmes's insistence on the importance of the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Flesh--as described in Bynum's The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (Columbia UP, 1995). Equally important (and not cited by Holmes) is Joan Cadden's work in the history of sex difference Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicines, Science and Culture (Cambridge UP, 1993), a work that, like Thomas Laquer's Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard UP, 1990) addresses the discontinuity between notions of sexual difference between ancient, medieval and modern times.

Is the gap between the book's premise and its conclusions emblematic of where we stand in Dante studies today? It is easy to recognize in Dante's Two Beloveds something of the struggle and the liberation for scholars entrenched in Vergilian and Augustinian readings of Dante and perhaps even in modern interpretations of courtly love (in the tradition of C.S. Lewis's Allegory of Love) that have remained outside of discussions of gender and sex difference that have already begun to emerge within Dante studies with new theoretical terms. Thus the reception of Dante's Two Beloveds will depend largely upon each reader's premise for gender discourse within Dante: will she or he depart from the assumption of "either/or" or from the assumption of "either/or/and also"? Whether or not we come to Dante viewing him as a dualist thinker or as a writer that recognizes and gathers multiplicity, as in the multitude of spirits in the Eye of the Eagle in Paradiso 19, is a personal matter, and perhaps one that will change over the next century. Maybe our reception of Dante's work should be more sensitive to when the author indicates that third option, what I called here the "and also," but what Dante means when he himself describes a third category of the roads that are "right or wrong to a greater or lesser extent" (Convivio 4.12.18). Though they are presented as last within the sequence of options, these roads are just as valid, present and intended by the author. Assuming both dualism and non- dualism in Dante might allow us to come to his works already liberated from the "either/or," so that we can address even further the more difficult, yet more timely, questions starting to be posed in the heavenly multiplicity and interdisciplinarity of dantismo.

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Kristina Olson

George Mason University