Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture.
Experiencing the Afterlife studies the ontological status and value of the human body in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy, in formal theology, in high literary culture, and in more popularizing literature. (For a period of default illiteracy, of course, aligning any text with truly popular culture is both relative and risky.) The book opens by examining the gradual shift in the twelfth century from a focus on the Last Judgment and the resurrection to a focus on physical death, individual judgment, and pre-resurrection bliss or pain. Gragnolati's first chapter, "Eschatological Poems and Debates between Body and Soul in Thirteenth-Century Popular Culture," emphasizes how these two foci coexist in certain Italian poems typically unrepresented in intellectual history overall, and understudied even in Italian literary history. These are Uguccione da Lodi's Libro (Book), Istoria (History, or Story), Contrasto (Debate), and Contemplazione della morte (Contemplation of Death); Giacomino da Verona's De Jerusalem celesti (On the Heavenly Jerusalem), De Babilonia civitate (On the City of Babylon), Della caducita della vita umana (On the Fragility of Human Life), and Del giudizio universale (On the Last Judgment); and Bonvesin da la Riva's Libro delle Tre Scritture (Book of the Three Scriptures).
Gragnolati's second chapter, "Embryology and Aerial Bodies in Dante's Comedy," expounds Dante's understanding of the embodiment of soul in relation to the competing doctrines of plurality and unity of forms. Gragnolati shows how Dante, always at work reconciling binary oppositions, draws on dimensions of both positions to posit a soul able to radiate an aerial body. In hell, this aerial body both enables suffering and represents permanent deformations of the human person, that is, unlikeness to God and unfreedom. In purgatory, the aerial body enables the process of suffering and purgation that also affects and reforms the soul. In paradise, the aerial body takes on a state of perfection that eventually shrouds the individual human features in light. Gragnolati beautifully integrates discussion of the shades in all three canticles and conditions, along with expertly integrating criticism on the nature of sin and of soul and body in the human person, in Dante studies and beyond.
Chapter 3, "Productive Pain: The Red Scripture, the Purgatorio, and a New Hypothesis on the 'Birth of Purgatory,'" juxtaposes formal theology with the vernacular poems to illuminate the poems rather than the theology, which is limned in shorthand (that is, referencing mostly secondary at the expense of primary sources). Gragnolati's new hypothesis is that the "birth of Purgatory" (Jacques Le Goff's phrase) is indebted to a new notion that pain is productive. Both Bonvesin's Red Scripture and Dante's Purgatorio stage the "philopassianism" of their time as a path to conquering sin, becoming like Christ and like Mary; in Dante, the embrace of bodily pain is efficacious in purging the human (soul) of sin through the invented mechanism of the aerial body.
The fourth and last chapter, "Now, Then, and Beyond: Air, Flesh, and Fullness in the Comedy," emphasizes the value that Dante placed on the earthly body through the solicitude and yearning for that body represented in both Purgatorio and Paradiso, including the transformation of the pilgrim's body into a resurrected body in Paradiso. Gragnolati concentrates on the persistence of individual identity, and on Dante's emphasis (unusual for the formal theology of his time) on "sociable" love in Heaven, on regaining the individual loves of one's life--affections that must, he says, be expressed through embraces, through the body: "the fleshless shades lack something that is tightly connected to the intimate sphere of one's desires and affections"; Dante "associates the lack of flesh with the difficulty of interacting with one's beloved in an affectionate way" (149). The book's epilogue revisits the Comedy's novel resolution of the tension between the perfection and imperfection of the experience of the separated soul.
This brief overview of the book's contents requires some explicit indications of its merits. Gragnolati writes elegant prose that crackles with energy. He does an enormous service by analyzing and translating long passages of poems read only rarely by non-Italianists. While one can always quibble with translation choices, Gragnolati's discussion offers non-Italian readers unique access to how debates taking place in Latin--in theological and ecclesiastical contexts--play out in a popularizing corpus. He deftly tracks connections between these poems and the Comedy, marshaling a powerful breadth of study and depth of understanding to produce a nuanced, persuasive reading of the poem. His book offers riches, however, not only for Dante scholars, but also for other readers of Church History. Working within the matrix of writing by Jacques Le Goff, Philippe Aries, Caroline Walker Bynum, Teodolinda Barolini, and Esther Cohen, Gragnolati is able to synthesize a mass of erudition-primary, secondary, and theoretical--into usable categories, as the extensive endnotes demonstrate.
That said, however, I was perplexed not to encounter complete bibliographical background for certain debates and doctrines in the official culture he is playing his vernacular writers against (see, for example, 193, n. 31; 196, n. 47). References to secondary literature do not suffice; we need at least schematic or representative documentation of the primary corpus. Sometimes documentation is simply postponed, but this is troublesome for anyone dipping into the book, as scholars often must. Indeed, even in discussing the relatively few writings on Bonvesin, Uguccione, and Giacomino, Gragnolati neglects to document what he describes as consensus views (for example, 186, n. 4; 191, n. 23). While too many authors have written on Dante's understanding of the body to engage with them all, the apparent omission of Guy Raffa, Bruce Holsinger, and Christian Moevs is surprising (however, since the index is both aleatory and spotty, I may have overlooked endnote references to these authors). Finally, the treatment of the Comedy as poetry sometimes seems to take second place to its exploration as vernacular theology, an impression reinforced by Gragnolati's choice to reproduce Singleton's prose translation.
In sum, however, this book makes a valuable contribution to Dante studies, medieval studies, Italian cultural and literary history, and the history of theology. Each new publication in the Devers Series in Dante Studies is a cause for celebration, and Experiencing the Afterlife is a superb addition.
F. Regina Psaki
University of Oregon
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|Author:||Psaki, F. Regina|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2007|
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