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Montemaggi, Vittorio and Matthew Treherne, ed.: Dante's Commedia: Theology as Poetry.

MONTEMAGGI, Vittorio and Matthew Treherne, ed. Dante's Commedia: Theology as Poetry. William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies, vol. 11. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. xii + 388 pp. Paper, $40.00--A collection of essays by theologians and Dantists from both sides of the Atlantic, this volume is the well-polished proceedings of a 2003 conference of the same title held at Robinson College, Cambridge, a conference examining the relationship between poetry and theology in Dante's masterpiece, Commedia. The essays cover a broad array of topics, ranging from the theological significance of smiles (Peter S. Hawkins, "All Smiles: Poetry and Theology in Dante's Commedia") to the "sacramental" character of Dante's poetic project (Denys Turner, "How to Do Things with Words: Poetry as Sacrament in Dante's Commedia"). The volume consists of an introductory essay by Montemaggi and Treherne, eleven essays exploring various facets of the relationship between theology and poetry in the Commedia and beyond, and two afterwords aiming at a synoptic view of the conference and its potential significance. Recurring themes include Dante's insight into the nature and limits of theological language, the theological value of the Commedia's narrative and poetic forms, its relation to the received theological tradition, and the metaphysical aspects and implications of Dante's poetic vision. According to the editors, the essays taken together illustrate that the Commedia "is firmly rooted in the medieval tradition of reflection on the nature of theological language, and at the same time presents us with an unprecedented piece of sustained poetic experimentation, which appears to attempt to move beyond traditional theological assessments of the status and value of poetry." In various ways, the essays labor to support a basic thesis articulated in the introduction: "Dante's theology is not what underlies his narrative poem, nor what is contained within it: it is instead fully integrated with its poetic and narrative structure."

Rather than rehearse the theses of all the essays, many of which contain valuable insights into specific images, themes or passages of the Commedia and Dante's larger theologico-poetic project, I will focus on those essays which, in my view, are of greatest philosophical interest. Vittorio Montemaggi's essay, "In Unknowability as Love: The Theology of Dante's Commedia," makes two crucial claims: "Dante insists that God is beyond the constrictions and power of human reason and language; and, equally, that God is the love which sets the universe in motion and sustains it in its being." For him, these "cataphatic and apophatic [impulses] intersect in the text's particular poetic and narrative form," leading Montemaggi to conclude the priority of will to intellect and of love to knowledge in man's approach to God: "God necessarily lies beyond the full grasp of created intellects; but intellectual beings can fully come to partake in the very essence of that same love" through a union of will. A second essay, Douglas Hedley's "Neoplatonic Metaphysics and Imagination in Dante's Commedia," aims to "highlight the Neoplatonic aspect of Dante's aesthetics" by linking said aesthetics with the Neoplatonic notion of the "indwelling divine spirit." The essay culminates with an account of Dante's "Platonic theological aesthetic" and an appeal to read Dante on the basis of a "Christianized Neoplatonic metaphysics," one that sees "an ontological bond between the 'images' of the mind's imagination and 'Being' in the most exalted sense of that word," thereby making Dante's poetry a potential "vehicle of truth." In Christian Moevs's essay, "'Il punto che mi vinse': Incarnation, Revelation, and Self-Knowledge in Dante's Commedia," Moevs draws together the various references and allusions throughout the Commedia to the punto, or point, and speaks to the literary, philosophical and, theological significance of the notion to Dante's project. "The punto can ... be seen as the nexus between the world and the ground of its being, between the multiplicity of the created world and the unity in which all things ultimately consist." For Moevs, "Dante captures this nexus, or nonduality, between the world of ephemeral multiplicity and the self-subsistent, unitary ground of its being in the image of the punto." Dante furthermore connects the punto with the Incarnation of Christ, the "nexus" between Creator and creation.

Other philosophical moments of insight punctuate the remainder of the essays. As a whole, this is a fine collection that brings to light much of philosophical interest in the interplay between theology and poetry in Dante's Commedia and other works. In general, the essays are at their best when examining the Neoplatonic tradition and its influence on Dante's thought and writings. One weakness is a recurring tendency to downplay or to mischaracterize the connection between Dante and authors such as Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, at times resulting from inadequate readings of the latter two. Even so, there is much to be gleaned from these essays, and the volume is certainly a welcome addition to Dante studies.--Jeffrey S. Lehman, Thomas Aquinas College.
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Author:Lehman, Jeffrey S.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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