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Dante as Dramatist: The Myth of the Earthly Paradise and Tragic Vision in the 'Divine Comedy.'

Dante as Dramatist is a product of the fertile field of Dante studies in America, which grows ever more autonomous from the scholarly disputations of centuries of Italian interpretation, and ever more confident of its ability to fathom new depths in so well-explored waters. Thus, Masciandaro makes respectful passing reference to Nardi, Sapegno, and Contini, but he only enters into extended dialogue with his fellow-countrymen, with J. Freccero and R. Hollander, and, in Oedipal conflict, with the godfather of them all, Charles S. Singleton.

He takes off from a veiled polemic against Singletonian, allegorical readings of the Comedy, which only need see Virgil in Inferno I to see Reason-incarnate, before the text has even informed us that this is indeed Virgil. Masciandaro salvages the literal meaning of the poem by reading its progress as a drama, that is as a sequence of scenes, acts, agents, agencies, and purposes (the categories are taken from Kenneth Burke) which create meaning not through intellectual reasoning, or Aristotelian argumentation, but through a 'tragic rhythm', which in a dynamic akin to the dialectic, allows for a transcendence of vision when discourse is seen in relation to action. It is particularly important that the rhythm be not only dramatic or conflictual, but, in a sense derived from critic-philosophers such as Burke and Paul Ricoeur, tragic. Its source is a constant and always implicit disjunction between 'the speculative and the experiential' which produces a caesura (Holderlin) in which cathartic self-revelation and ultimately Revelation can occur.

To structure his work, Masciandaro binds this problem to that of the recurrent prefigurations and the final representation of Earthly Paradise through Inferno and Purgatorio. In effect, the book is made up of six lecturae dantis, analysing in turn Inferno I (Prologue), IV (Limbo), V (Paolo and Francesca) and Purgatorio I (Cato), VI-VIII (Sordello and the negligent princes), and XXVIII-XXX (Earthly Paradise). For each scene, it detects a conflict between a correct vision or experience of Eden, which acknowledges that evil, in the form of the serpent, was already an integral part of Creation before Adam's sin, and another, illusory 'nostalgia' for an earthly paradise artificially and impossibly free from the taint of evil. Thus Francesca's apparently idyllic garden where she reads of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the loci amoeni of Limbo or the garden of the negligent princes, are flawed narcissistic versions of the edenic. Eden is truly regained only by balancing pathos, or the arrogance of self-deluding pity, with ethos, the figure of God's interdiction to Adam, and fear. Furthermore, in Purgatory, this balancing is intimately tied up with the meaning and practice of ritual, and in particular the medieval Ash Wednesday rites of expulsion. The readings of each episode are carried out with some verve, carefully reproducing the drama of discovery and constant unexpected shifts of scene and tone in the text. This is clearly a method with great merits, which demonstrates the remarkable capacity of the Comedy to enrich its meaning organically, in the very process and nature of its genesis. It extends the intuitive appreciation of close-readers, such as Auerbach on Inferno X, who well appreciated the sheer 'drama' of Farinata's interruption of Cavalcante, by making a hermeneutic category of that drama.

Many questions are left unanswered, however. Not least of these is the nature of the relationship between the book's two themes--the drama of sequences and the myth of Earthly Paradise. It is unclear whether the two have a privileged affinity which creates an axis of tragic revelation to subtend the whole journey, or whether the entire Comedy re-enacts the cognitive dissonance through its undeniably astonishing variations in tempo. A corollary to this problem is the absence of even brief consideration of how Paradiso continues and extends the rhythm of revelation, given that, even in Earthly Paradise proper, revelation cannot be complete. Brief discussions of a number of side-issues, such as the question of Virgil's ultimate salvation, the problems of allegory, and of Dante's own views on tragedy and comedy, are enticing but left undeveloped.

However, this is undoubtedly a sophisticated and stimulating study which opens fascinating avenues for further reflection; its author would no doubt be more than content not to have found definitive answers, but to have asked questions which are 'stages in formulating better questions'.

ROBERT S. C. GORDON Pembroke College, Oxford
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Author:Gordon, Robert S.C.
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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