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A Canto-by-Canto Commentary.

Allen Mandelbaum, Anthony Oldcorn, Charles Ross, eds. Inferno. A Canto-by-Canto Commentary.

(Lectura Dantis.) Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1998. 461 pp. ISBN: 0-520-21270-3. n.p.

Marianne Shapiro. Dante and the Knot of Body and Soul.

New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. xiv + 226 pp. $49.95. ISBN: 0-312-21750-1.

Notwithstanding the fact that Inferno. A Canto-by-Canto Commentary was due out twelve years ago, this collection of essays offers an accurate snapshot of current Dante criticism. Scholarship on the poem has changed little from what it was more than a decade ago. This situation calls for some reflection on the state of the field as a whole.

There is no question that a well-conceived guide to the Commedia would furnish a welcome research and pedagogical tool for a wide variety of scholars. This volume, however, does not fill the bill. Problems are evident from the beginning. Rather than providing a general introduction, the editors have reprinted Mandelbaum's "Dante in his Age," an essay currently available in the Bantam paperback edition of his excellent translation of the Inferno. Some commentary on the benefits of a canto-by-canto reading of the poem is surely in order. At the very least an introduction would have clarified the volume's intended audience and offered some commentary on the utility of the approaches embraced by the various contributors. Such information is essential to readers, especially non-specialists, whose interest in the articles would vary. Many of the articles have been published previously in various monographs: four of the lecturae were published in Tibor Wlassics's edition of Dante's Divine Comedy. Introductory Readi ngs. I: Inferno (1990) -- all with only minor changes.

The contributors are well-established American and European Dante scholars, among them Robert Hollander, Maria Picchio Simonelli, Amilcare lannucci, Robert Durling, Giorgio Petrocchi, Dante Della Terza, Susan Noakes, Teodolinda Barolini, Tibor Wlassics, Joan Ferrante, Giuseppe Mazzotta, John Ahern, Lino Pertile, John A. Scott, and Charles T. Davis. As a whole, the collection is dominated by formal readings -- close readings, stylistic and rhetorical analyses, and intertextual studies. There are good examples of all these approaches. The best stylistic analyses, such as the article on Inferno 17, show how Dante's use of rhetorical devices enhances his meaning; weaker ones, such as the lectura on Inferno 12, do little more than note that the canto abounds in "odd" and "harsh" rhymes, an observation that leads to the rather insipid conclusion that Dante's language is "expressive." Simonelli's article on Inferno 6 exemplifies the strength of the better close readings: the essay distills the essence of Dante's an d Ciacco's dialogue on Florentine misgovernment and makes its concerns compelling for contemporary readers. The collection also contains some excellent overviews of earlier critical readings of Inferno 8 and 19. These articles offer lucid accounts of the issues which have most intrigued readers over time and propose well-grounded solutions to problematic points such as Dante's use of the image of the whore in Inferno 19 and Purgatorio 32.

The commitment to formalism also has its shortcomings. Intertextual readings offer the most mixed results. Critics favoring this approach have sought to show how Dante revises Virgil's writings and circumscribes his authority. While some of these readings are suggestive, others are often strained. In one critic's eyes, Dante's prefacing of his observation that Aeneas made a journey to the underworld with the words "tu dici" and later in the same canto as "andata onde li dai tu vanto" makes Virgil a "questionable reporter of the event" (30). So wire-drawn an argument obscures Dante's main point, namely that the pilgrim at this particular juncture requires assurance that his journey, like those of Aeneas and St. Paul before him, is divinely sanctioned. A similar strain is detectable in the reading of Dante's account of the founding of Mantua in Inferno 20, which differs notably from Virgil's treatment of the same subject in the Aeneid: here the critic argues that Dante seeks to "correct" Virgil's "unremittingl y high style" by having him recount the city's founding in a deliberately "unexciting" and "prosaic" manner. Yet the author offers little justification for her conclusion that Dante's "ugly" and "clumsy" writing in this and other sections of the canto is indeed tedious. The principal evidence adduced is the compactness of the tercets describing Manto's wanderings. The essay on Inferno 14 offers a far more judicious account of the way in which Dante fuses biblical elements with classical myth in his presentation of Capaneus and the Old Man of Crete.

Strain of a different sort is evident in other essays. Here the problem is less the plausibility of the reading than the manner of argumentation. The articles on Inferno 5, 10, 18, 23, and 30 abound in lengthy parenthetical asides, poorly explained textual juxtapositions, incomplete arguments, and pedantic jokes. One is hard-pressed to discern the audience of these essays. As a pedagogical tool they fall short -- students would have considerable difficulty navigating their way through the meandering digressions. As a research tool they are also disappointing as these essays tend to rehearse well-trodden critical territory such as the object of Guido Cavalcanti's "disdain" (Inferno 10.63).

There is a sense of constriction to this collection. Admittedly, it is not easy to come up with new readings of a poem for which a massive bibliography exists. The insularity of the field accounts, at least in part, for the narrowness of many of the readings. But Dante studies could follow the lead of other fields which have been enriched by attention to methods employed in other disciplines. Only a handful of contributors incorporate work done in other disciplines. They include the articles by Susan Noakes, Charles Davis, and John Ahern, all of whom make excellent use of more historically oriented studies. Ahern's article incorporates work by historians such as Gene Brucker, Charles T. Davis, David Herlihy, and Lauro Martines on family solidarity and political violence in thirteenth-century Italy as well as ideas gleaned from mare theoretical writings on the role of speech, and more particularly its disintegration, in a social order. Reading this article, one obtains a different purchase on the poem. The la rger vision of Dante's culture that informs this article is missing from the majority of the essays in this collection. This richly textured essay could easily serve as a model for more far-reaching future analyses.

Given that Dante studies is not a field given to much critical reflexivity, study of the poem would also benefit from a greater degree of self-awareness. While there is no shortage of investigations into Dante's classical borrowings little attention has been paid to the viability of this essentially Bloomian model of reading. Attention to the work done in other fields of medieval studies and incorporation of work done in other disciplines could well occasion the kind of correction that benefits every field periodically.

Marianne Shapiro's Dante and the Knot of Body and Soul offers a significant contrast to the Lectura Dantis volume. Her focus is the ontological status of the bodies of the souls who populate the afterlife. The souls in Paradise exemplify the paradox or the "knot" to which her title alludes: although they are far removed from their bodies, these beings are nevertheless embodied when Dante the pilgrim encounters them, hence they are "unstable." Similarly, when making claims for the superiority of the spirit to body, Dante tends to do so with narratives that invoke bodily and sensory associations. Shapiro pursues this deconstructive program throughout her analysis.

The chapters (1-3, 7) that pursue this subject are uneven -- at times confusing or meandering. Numerous subtitles within a chapter give the impression that one is reading a series of meditations, some of which veer from her main points. Lengthy discussions of specific passages in works by Virgil and Ovid tend to obscure the relation of the chapters to the central thesis. At times one has the impression that Shapiro constructs her arguments largely with a concordance as she strains to find similarities in Dante's usage of the same word in passages whose contexts differ significantly. The book also contains an unusually high number of typographic and punctuation slips as well as a few glaring errors (Virgil's Fourth Georgic rather than Fourth Eclogue is cited as the text that shows the Roman poet's anticipation of Christianity; elsewhere she misidentifies the narrator generally known as Ciampolo as Rubicante, one of the devils).

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 take issue with recent readings of the poem. More specifically, Shapiro questions the tendency of Robert Hollander and Teodolinda Barolini to "scapegoat" the figure of Virgil, and she addresses the larger issue of the influence of pagan culture on the writing of the Commedia. She also objects strenuously to what she considers a rather facile treatment of Dante's poetic language by Hollander and Anthony Cassell. These chapters, which focus successively on Dante's presentation of Virgil, Beatrice, and the speeches of Inferno, make for compelling reading. While the discussions of the representation of the soul are most likely to interest Dante scholars, Shapiro's discussion of the dialectic between Dante's poem and works by Virgil, Lucan, and Ovid offer a penetrating treatment of the subject which many readers would find highly engaging.

While uneven, this book offers some glimpse of what can be done when one looks to the critical work of other fields. It displays the kind of critical self-consciousness often missing from Dante criticism. Shapiro explicitly notes the limits of source study, challenges the view of the Commedia as "a book about books," and tries to steer clear of current critical authorities. Alternately forceful and diffuse, Dante and the Knot of Body and Soul offers many suggestive readings of Dante's works and their dynamic relation to classical culture.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:PARKER, DEBORAH
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:1615
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