The Cabala of Pegasus.
Trans. Sidney Sondergard and Madison U. Sowell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. xlix + 203 pp. index. append. bibl. $40. ISBN: 0-300-09217-2.
In the introductory sonnet to his only play, Candelaio, Giordano Bruno invited those poets who were more favored than himself by the powerful muses of his time (read, the princes and prelates) to write a dedicatory poem to his text which would solicit the smiles of "fathers and mothers." Bruno knew just how provocative and dangerous his works would be considered; for they proposed a radical naturalism which (as he rightly predicted) proved to be anathema to the orthodox Aristotelian-Christian culture of the day. Even now, quite such a bold and uncompromising stand against the Christian churches of both the Catholic and Protestant persuasions may cause unease, in spite of the emergence in the western world of a secular, libertarian tradition of which Bruno is considered by many both a precursor and a martyr.
The fifth of the six Italian philosophical dialogues written and published by Bruno in London between 1583 and 1585, Il cabala del cavallo Pegaseo, is commonly considered one of his most brilliantly unorthodox and daring texts. It was considered so by Bruno himself, who later on repudiated it not because he had changed his opinions but because he recognized that the book had "displeased the common reader without being approved of by the wise." Not surprisingly, this is one of Bruno's rarest texts, of which only eleven known copies have survived in the first edition. Also not surprisingly, only this dialogue of the six Italian works of Bruno's English years had remained untranslated into English in its entirety, except possibly by John Toland in the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, all that remains of Toland's effort are brilliant translations of the two sonnets In Praise of Asinity. In recent years, large parts of this short but extremely complex dialogue were translated and included by Karen De Leon Jones in her Giordano Bruno and the Kabbalah published by the Yale University Press in 1997.
Now it is Yale again which publishes this first full English translation of Bruno's Cabala, and the event is an important one to which the book does justice. In the first place, the translation by Sondergard and Sowell is very good, with only a few serious mistakes, and extremely readable into the bargain. The Italian version is included after the translation, which makes for smooth reading of the English text, although rendering confrontation a clumsy business for the specialist. The approach is literary rather than philosophical, but offers abundant material within its own chosen range. An introduction on "Bruno's Design for the Cabala" has some good things to say on Bruno's "menacing pedant" icon and the melange of role models and literary strategies which Bruno plays with in his text. His juxtaposition of various traditions of the dialogue form is interestingly glossed in a coda to the introduction. The abundant footnotes to the translation have the merit of not simply following those of others, and at times suggest new links with the Italian literary tradition. Two appendices at the end of the volume make some interesting comments on "The semiotics of Bruno's Italian" and on "The Drama of Dialectic" in Bruno's dialogues: both subjects which are at the center of the Bruno discussion today. The bibliography gives an adequate overview of recent work on Bruno.
It is nevertheless fair to ask what the beginning student of Bruno would understand of his philosophy from this volume. Perhaps not a great deal. There is some dressing up of the text for "fathers and mothers," starting from the change of the title to the The Cabala of Pegasus, a much more respectable subject than Bruno's ass. Sometimes the comment seems more dependent on Frances Yates (the hermetic tradition) and Harold Bloom (the Kabbalah as a literary paradigm) than on Bruno himself. The familiar Yatesian adjectives abound: "enigmatic," "arcane," "wry," "extravagant," "idiosyncratic," "bombastic," "eccentric," etc. They could only have been ironed out by a more rigorous analysis of the conceptual content of this dialogue in relation to Bruno's philosophical project as a whole.
In spite of these limits, however, the translators and editors of this volume are to be congratulated for having carried out a serious and well researched study of one of the most difficult and "scandalous" texts of the Italian Renaissance. This translation was long overdue, and it is much to their credit that they have done it, and done it so well.
Universita di Roma, "La Sapienza"