17.02.02, Webb, Dante's Persons

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Warren Ginsburg

The Medieval Review 17.02.02

Webb, Heather. Dante's Persons: An Ethics of the Transhuman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. xiii, 22. ISBN: 978-0-19-873348-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Warren Ginsburg
University of Oregon
warren@uoregon.edu

Some sixty years ago, Francis Fergusson called his study of the Purgatorio Dante's Drama of the Mind. He argued that the pilgrim's four-day climb from Antepurgatory to Eden is, among other things, a journey toward selfhood. As Dante vicariously participates in the penitential cleansing that leaves his intellect and will libero, dritto e sano, the distance between author and character closes until he becomes the person God made in his image, the Dante Beatrice names in the earthly paradise.

Fergusson subtitled his book "A Modern Reading", and his decision to treat the Purgatorio as an organic whole certainly did break from contemporary critical practice. Heather Webb also devotes the bulk of Dante's Persons to a comprehensive reading of the Comedy's second cantica. Webb's subtitle, however, An Ethics of the Transhuman, immediately signals that Dante's mind no longer is the stage on which the drama of selfhood unfolds. Rather than an individuating combination of corporeal features and in-dwelling inclinations, personhood in the Comedy, Webb proposes, is a mode of being humans realize through their relations with one another. Who and what we are isn't something we each possess; it's something we perform by coming to know our face in the face of our neighbor. If Eliot, Auerbach, and Singleton stand behind Fergusson's Dante, Webb's is a forerunner of Levinas. Even though she does not directly engage Fergusson, her work offers an insightful counterbalance to his more exegetical, new-critical picture of personhood in the Comedy.

Webb begins by compiling the various meanings of persona in the poem and explicating the kind of conduct Dante thought most fully realizes them. When Francesca refers to her bella persona, she means her living body, the physical features that set her apart from other ladies. Like the other damned, she believes her individuality is self-contained and determined by her corporality. The fact that she lacks flesh and bone ironically undercuts the very suppositions she relies on to distinguish herself. For Dante, however, the souls' incorporeality has the opposite effect; their lack of differentiating matter renders him unable to identify a shade on his own. In fact, until they speak, the pilgrim never recognizes the figures he meets. This is a point Webb insists on; it grounds her premise that personhood inheres less in us than in the language that mediates our interactions with other people. It underwrites as well her view of how Dante achieves his own personhood, and it informs her explanation of how he involves readers in the regeneration of dead persons.

To sustain this argument, however, Webb needs to do more to finesse the one instance that seems to dispute it: Dante's recognition of a few "neutrals" and his emphatic identification (vidi e conobbi) of "the one who, through cowardice, made the great refusal" (Inferno 3.58-60). She does mention the troop Dante encounters immediately after he passes the gates of Hell but, surprisingly, makes nothing of Vergil's lumping them together into an unindividuated mass that he scornfully dismisses as not worth talking about. More importantly, though, Webb doesn't counter the clear implication that these shades typify the others; for all their want of muscle and sinew, they are sensible enough for Dante to single them out as persons, per se una, according to the scholastic epistemologies he accepted.

To a Christian, of course, the fountainhead from which all concepts of personhood derive is the Trinity. Crucially for Webb, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit do not name their substances but the relations between them: "the Father," Augustine says, "is so called only because he has a Son" (8). Within these relations, persona also referred to Christ's dual nature. These interconnections, Webb explains, underwrite the most telling way Dante differentiates the damned and the saved before they recover their bodies at the end of days. Because God breathed life into Adam, because the Word became flesh to redeem mankind's sins, personhood is inalienable; it cannot be taken away. But it can be renounced. In Hell, the renunciation of it paradoxically gives the damned the particularity they have; we see them as they see themselves, each in his or her own way reduced to the body they think they irrevocably lost at death. In Purgatory, on the contrary, we see souls strive to realize their full potential as relationally constituted persone in anticipation of the resurrection of the body. In Paradise, the blessed already celebrate the plenitude of their personhood in Christ.

Webb ends her introductory chapter with a discussion of Statius's lecture on the generation of aerial bodies for separated souls. Just as biological individuality is transmuted into personal presence when the rational spirit God infuses in the embryo makes one soul by combining the already created sensitive and vegetative powers, so aerial bodies allow the penitents to develop and the beatified to exult in their selfhood by loving their neighbors as themselves through loving God. Aerial bodies individuate infernal souls antithetically, by permitting them to suffer the retribution that exposes how each enclosed himself in his solipsism.

Webb devotes her next three chapters to the Purgatorio. In the first she discusses the souls in Ante-Purgatory who, she argues, are marked by their use of gestures that open "dialogic relations between individuals" (34). Manfred names himself only after he smiles and points to his wounds. Belacqua's posture, his arms about his knees, his face drawn down between them, is almost a personification of negligence; he becomes recognizable only after he lifts up his cheek, slowly, along his thigh and responds to Dante's dry remarks about him. Buonconte enrolls his name among the saved because he dies with the Virgin Mary on his lips and his arms folded in the form of a cross. A single soul in the Valley of the Princes raises his hand, then joins and lifts his palms before he sings the Te lucis ante. All these gestures Webb treats as performative signs; the exchanges they initiate, turn-taking and conversation, are vehicles through which the shades emerge as unique figures. Each of her readings is fine-grained and persuasive.

Webb then turns to the souls who are actively undergoing penance. Her attention again is fixed on the reparation of relations damaged by the vices. Pride thus appears not as a willful arrogance of mind that replays the sin of desiring to be like God, knowing good and evil, but as a misrecognition that arises from seeing of one's neighbor as greater or lesser than oneself. This is why the slabs of stone that bend the proud make them unidentifiable. Indeed, throughout his ascent, Dante is stymied when he tries to recall the identity of souls he in knew in life. He comes to learn that instead of seeking mastery over others by naming them, which is how recognition operates in Hell, to know these shades he must actively attend to their requests to be known, a process that eventually blossoms into mutual recognition based not simply on reciprocity but on gratitude. In Webb's analysis, the rein (fren) of purgation is therefore much less an inner check on a distorted disposition than a bridling of behavior that exceeds or falls short of what we owe our neighbors, and the whip (ferza) is a spur to virtuous sociability much more than it is a stimulus for forming a habit of mind. That the envious lean on one another for support encompasses and overshadows the fact that Sapia's eyes are sewn shut.

Indeed, Dante's goal in the Purgatorio is to capture the moment of change in the penitent when the ardor of her attention to her neighbor brings about a shift from self-concern to mutual receptivity. Ardor in fact is Dante's trope of choice for expressing the sustained responsiveness to others that guarantees the duration of ethical relations between them. Webb therefore surveys the meanings of ardore in the Comedy, which range from eros to caritas, from acquisitive desire to love of God. In the Purgatorio, she shows it is the outward emanation of a welcoming regard that focuses increasingly on "the personal or the particular and knowledge and understanding at the same time and as the same thing" (128; italics in original) To support this key contention, Webb contrasts Brunetto Latini's burning acknowledgement of others, whom he sees as competitors, with the ardent attentiveness of Guido Guinizzelli, who along with Dante generates a new lineage for themselves as poets of love in the refining flames of the seventh terrace that burns away all that is aggressive in their desire.

The subject of Webb's final chapter is paradise, where Paul says he saw things not as we do on earth, through a glass, darkly, but facie ad faciem. In Webb's reading, Paul's vision did not prompt Dante to ponder the mysteries of unmediated intellection and the problems of representing it. It prompted him in effect to translate "face to face" into "face with and within face" seeing. The face is the site where sight becomes "transhuman," where, as in the Transfiguration, by "beholding the glory of the Lord with open face" (2 Cor. 3:18), we come to behold as we are beheld. In the Paradiso, faces truly are Levinasian because the individuality they disclose is "consortial," without any form of earthly self-aggrandizement. The singularity and the plentitude of personhood lie in the responsiveness that unites the blessed in their adoration of the face of God in the persons of the Trinity.

Webb elaborates this argument first by returning to Dante facing Beatrice in Eden, then by examining his elevation through the heavens by means of her smiles, the light in her eyes, the glow she radiates. These moments, Webb suggests, are not principally meant to allow Dante to chart the progressive heightening of his capacity to take in what he experiences; each instance in fact has equal weight, because every glimpse of "Beatrice's smile is already the smile of the all-knowing God" (177). The perspective from which Webb looks is clearly the vista of eternity. Although she develops her idea by discussing Dante's reference to la veronica nostra, the copy of Christ's face that lets readers see what Beatrice sees, the problem readers may have with the view she offers is that it sidelines the humanness of the pilgrim and the poet. As long as Dante narrates, he remains in time, even when he says he was transported to states out of it. When, for example, he tells us Piccarda's face was as difficult to make out as a pearl on a white forehead, what he says he saw is different intensities of whiteness. He does not see as he is beheld. And on her side, but differently, Piccarda, like all the blessed who behold him, also see with varied intensities. Though each sees God by seeing Him together with everyone in heaven, blessedness has its degrees. As Beatrice says, beatitude "depends upon the act of vision, not upon the act of love--which is a consequence; the measure of their vision lies in merit, produced by grace and then by will to goodness: and this is the progression, step by step" (Paradiso 28.109-114). Even if these are distinctions human notions of difference can't comprehend, Dante seems intent on recording the gradations that individuate perception in the Empyrean.

Nevertheless, Webb is right, I think, to contend that Dante also presents what he might have called the anagogic vision of blessedness and that he anchors that vision in the face that knows itself in the love of God that it sees and shares with others. In eternity, after all, there is no consequence, only simultaneity. In the end, Webb's claim that the substance of personhood is ethical seems to me a canny way to recast the function of the intellect, which is the faculty that oversees one's relation to oneself, and the will, which is the faculty that oversees one's relations with others. Ultimately, as she says, they are one, joined by an act that corresponds to the ardent regarding that joins the blessed in heaven, itself a reflection of the Holy Spirit, which, breathing love between them, joins the Father and the Son. For this, as for many other reasons, Dante's Persons is a valuable, mind-expanding contribution to our understanding of human and divine relations in the Comedy.

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