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15.09.08, Kilgour and Lombardi, eds., Dantean Dialogues

15.09.08, Kilgour and Lombardi, eds., Dantean Dialogues

This book is an excellent collection of essays, each one of which is a significant contribution to its field as well as an eloquent tribute to the life and work of the scholar and critic the book has been assembled to celebrate, Amilcare Iannucci.

I first met Amil (I follow the practice of the contributors in so referring to him) in 1982, in Rome; in subsequent years of professional collaboration, I found him to be nothing less than what his colleagues in this volume celebrate him as having been, a generous, considerate, and amazingly energetic scholar and teacher of Italian and Italo-Canadian culture. There was, in my experience of Amil, not a mean bone in his body, which is to say, for any who may have trouble with the colloquialism, that he was an intellectual extraordinary in the range of his interests and his compassion alike. Editors Kilgour and Lombardi have assembled a tribute to this distinguished individual, who left us far too early, which is worthy of his legacy and, equally important, capable of extending his legacy to those who may consult this collection in future.

Reviewing a collection of essays is always difficult because there is never enough space to do justice to every essay, and trying to summarize complex and powerful scholarly arguments in a handful of words is a thankless task, practically bound to leave one author or another disgruntled (or worse). Some reviewers will address this predicament by isolating a few of the essays and discussing them in depth. Some reviewers will do their best, especially if they can plead nicely for extra space, to paraphrase and summarize each essay. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I incline more to the former than to the latter solution. And this is for the simple reason that such reviews have always helped me learn faster and in more depth. But I want to try in this particular case to give some account, however attenuated, of all eight essays in the collection. Regarding a few of them, to which my own work is more closely related, I will, perhaps, have a bit more to say, but I want, for all of them, to record my admiration--clearly they are thoroughly professional achievements.

In the first essay, "'Lascio cotale trattato ad altro chiosatore': Form, Literature, and Exegesis in Dante's Vita Nova," Zygmunt Baranski makes a spirited argument for the close relationship between the Vita Nova (as he spells it in his essay) and Scripture, effectively proposing that we must read this early text of the poet in line with his later work, informed in the same prodigious ways and attuned to the hermeneutics of its culture every bit as much as the Commedia is. In explication and defense of his position, Baranski claims that "before the Vita Nova, sustained self-commentary that expressly made recourse to the forms of scholastic criticism was completely unknown in Western literary culture" (15). It is here that, as a student of the late Judson Boyce Allen, I find myself most intrigued and engaged by Baranski's argument. I agree with him that the Vita Nova is a "hybrid" (24), and I especially recommend his claim that "the most strikingly original feature of the is also the case with the Commedia, is its formal structure and organization and its stylistic register: to put it medievally, its forma tractatus and its forma tractandi" (25; and see Allen's The Ethical Poetic of the Later Middle Ages [U Toronto P, 1982]). From this claim and its supporting evidence, Baranski demonstrates that we can arrive at a new and much strengthened comprehension of the unity of Dante's opera (especially, 26), and it is this particular demonstration in his essay that impresses me the most.

In the second essay, "A Cavalcantian Vita Nuova: Dante's Canzoni La doloroso amor che mi conduce and E' m'incresce di me sì duramente," Teodolinda Barolini continues her ground-breaking work in the early lyrics of Dante and his contemporaries, especially Cavalcanti, and with her usual extraordinary erudition, she demonstrates a very close connection between Dante's two poems in her title and Cavalcanti, arguing in particular that Dante "combines Cavalcanti's lethal love with a new erotic aggression all [his] own and then sets the whole drama in a cosmic and supernatural frame. The result is a fascinating, ideological aporia: a lady who is miraculous but also Cavalcantian" (62).

In third essay, "Dante's Cato Again," Robert Hollander, one of the world's eminent bibliographers of Dante studies and trecento and quattrocento Italian studies, provides an exhaustive overview of the question of Cato and his appearance in Purgatorio. Here, in particular, the reviewer's despair of adequate summary is acute. I will make no attempt to summarize these nearly 60 pages with their 114 endnotes! Rather, I will observe that the prodigious amount of information contained in the essay has helped immensely in my effort to continue my own thinking about the first two canti of Purgatorio, which have been, as it were, on my desk since my career began forty years ago (my first publication in Dante studies concerned Purgatorio, canto 2, the figuralism of the colombi and the theological virtue of hope). I have learned a very great deal in Hollander's pages. I do not agree with all of the conclusions that he reaches, but I cannot disagree with him when, near the end of his essay, he writes that "the martyrological tone with which Dante refers to Cato's suicide calls to mind Christ's victory over death" (93). After reading this massively informed essay, I think all students of Dante must take this particular claim seriously, the more so in that Hollander's very next sentence reads, "the reasons for Dante's risky decision may remain forever obscure" (93)--the essay, in other words, is a monument to the ideal, however it exceeds our grasp, of scholarly inclusiveness and even-handedness.

In the fourth essay, "'Che libito fe' licito in sua legge': Lust and Law, Reason and Passion in Dante," editor Elena Lombardi follows Amil's lead in his important essay, "Forbidden Love: Metaphor and History (Inferno V)" (in Dante: Contemporary Perspectives [U Toronto Press, 1997], 94-112) to show that "the exploration of the legal dimension of lust in canto 5 brings to the fore a complex discourse in which lust/love/passion is linked to political instability and is matched by reason, in turns linked to justice, law, the figure of the emperor, and eventually that of the pope" (144); she concludes this exploration inspired by Amil also in accord with him by acknowledging in Dante's poem "the tight grip, and the tragic effect, of lust on both the individual/lyrical self and the member of the political community" (145).

In the fifth essay, "The Vulgata in the Commedia: Self-Interpreting Texts," Carolynn Lund-Mead also follows Amil in his exciting explorations of autoesegesi in Dante's works ("Autoesegesi dantesca: la tecnica dell' 'episodio parallelo' [Inferno XV--Purgatorio XI]," in Forma ed evento nella "Divina Commedia" [Roma: Bulzoni, 1984], 83-114) to argue that "in his revision of the Lord's Prayer on the terrace of pride, Dante puts into practice his new understanding of his role as a writer of shared renown and his responsibility as inheritor of scriptural legacy by merging his voice with that of God. This paraphrase stands as a reminder of the distance that Dante has travelled and of the weakness of which he must always be mindful" (170).

In the sixth essay, "Dante's Ovidian Doubling," editor Maggie Kilgour provides a richly informed (107 endnotes!) and persuasive argument for the relevance of Ovid to Dante's writing. In this essay she is doing for Dante's writing what I have observed Shakespeare scholars in the past two decades doing for his plays and poetry with remarkable results--demonstrating the inextricable weave (see Metamorphoses 6.574-80) of Ovid's extraordinary poetry in the texture of his writing. In the process of her work, she isolates and focuses on tropes of doubling and episodes in which repetition is not merely a device nor even importantly thematized but actually constituent of the poet's vision and of the Christian poetics that sustains it. Most especially, in this regard, she follows the wordplay between Ovidio and invidia to its many consequences, the most important of which, for me at least, is her proposal that Ovid "himself praises other poets and claims to be free from invidia... The writing self is always made up of others' voices" (188)--this last sentence, I must pause to say, is, in my opinion, an exquisite expression of a fine insight. From this proposal, she goes on to develop several close readings of important moments in both Inferno and Purgatorio, and these readings, in turn, lead her to robust and inspiring conclusions about Dante's relationship to Ovid (especially, 199-200).

In the seventh essay, "Esoteric Interpretations of the Divine Comedy," Massimo Ciavolella offers readers a fascinating education in less well-known but nonetheless significant dimensions of the reception of the Commedia, principally nineteenth- and early to late-mid-twentieth-century critics, scholars, and antiquarians for whom the poem is almost a hieroglyph. The writers he studies construe the poem as if it were an enormous secret code, mysterious and laden with uninterpreted (if not uninterpretable) figures of which ordinary, uninitiated readers of the Commedia are not even remotely aware. This essay touches on the larger question of philology and nationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that has concerned scholarship in recent decades (see, e.g., Maurice Olender, The Languages of Paradise [1994; trans. Harvard UP, 2009]), as we struggle with the insidious hijacking of scholarship and learning by ideologies interested not in truth or history but only in aggrandizing their own popula-rity. In accounting for the numerous authors who approach the Commedia as some kind of hieroglyph, Ciavolella remains admirably nonjudgmental and carefully reportorial. He chooses to conclude his survey of these many weird (my judgment) but prolific and (and often overly) earnest responses to the power of the poem by quoting a long passage from Amil himself, which concludes, "suffice it to say that the vastness of the terrain in Dante's case makes 'aberrant readings' difficult but not impossible..." (228). Thus, in an obvious and admirable way, Ciavolella reminds us of one of Amil's major contributions to Dante studies: his tireless demonstrations of the inexhaustible, continuing cultural power of the Commedia.

In the final essay, "Ersed Irredent: The Irish Dante," Piero Boitani, continuing his career-long commitment to honoring the European literary tradition across many of Europe's languages, surveys the contribution of Dante's works to the great Irish writers Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and Heaney, concluding that "to attend to Dante's presence in the works of these Irish writers not only allows us to appreciate their words in a new light, but also provides a way of reading an 'Irish' Dante" (260).

As I read editor Kilgour's contribution, with its discussion of Ovid and envy, I recalled the moment in As You Like It when Jacques, listing the types of melancholy, includes "the scholar's melancholy, which is emulation" (4.1.10-11). Kilgour discusses envy and emulation and the difference between them very informatively, but I am most in mind of that characteristic of scholars that seems also to have caught Shakespeare's attention, or a competitiveness that frequently degenerates into backbiting, character assassination, and unalleviated meanness. It gives me great satisfaction, a rare depth of pleasure, to record in this review that Amilcare Iannucci was a man in my experience untouched by, indeed in all my dealings with him, above, such behavior. And reading the tributes of his colleagues is a happy confirmation of my own personal, individual experience of Amil, who was ever kind and always inspiring.