restricted access Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression (review)
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Reviewed by
James Miller, editor. Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression Wilfrid Laurier University Press. x, 566. $85.00

This book, a collection of eighteen essays by a number of different authors, is held together by one thematic concern: the transgressive power of Dante's poetry and vision. The editor, who himself seems to want to transgress the norms of editorial restraint and chooses to contribute rather combative pieces in every rubric of the volume, insists on Dante's will to power as he takes 'audacious steps' in his pursuit of the sacred. Accordingly, the volume is organized as a series of chapters that gloss Dante's 'oltraggio' – his poetics of excess, of stepping over, passing beyond, and, above all, transgressing gender divides. The central point is that Dante [End Page 379] transgresses the official authority of the Church and opens up for debate the Church's doctrines. Such a claim depends on one legitimate premise: the poetic imagination creates history and values. It follows, to say it in the language of Nietzsche, that there is nothing stable or sacrosanct in history and everything is up for grabs.

Such a view can be brought back to a common English Romantic vision (Blake and Shelley), but there is nothing transgressive, to be sure, about the idea that the Florentine poet breaks open, questions, and radically redefines the language and moral norms of his time. For years some scholars have debated the ways in which the aesthetic, visionary perspective afforded by the Divine Comedy changes our understanding of ethics (for instance the sins of pride and heresy), or the way the reader is meant to grasp the tragic workings of divine justice itself, or even how it alters and broadens the limitations of Pauline vision. The sequence of paradoxes scanning the last prayer to the Virgin (Paradiso 33) exemplifies Dante's and St Bernard's sense of the inadequacy of all linguistic conventions. Indeed, the representation of Ulysses, the Greek hero who for Dante does not remain in Ithaca after returning from Troy but sets sail past the Pillars of Hercules towards the unknown, has been viewed as the very figure of Dante himself. Like Ulysses' adventure, his imagination shatters the commonplace boundaries of knowledge. One can even say that in Dante's universe of love, to say it in the language of St Augustine (not to mention Benedict xvi's recent first encyclical letter), the foundation of the world lies in love and freedom. Love refuses commandments and is at one with freedom. Appropriately, Dante's Paradiso contains no ethics, in the conviction that ethics would be incongruous in the divine economy.

But it does not follow that the reader ought to identify the representations of Hell with Dante's whole vision. There is an ethics in the human world (Inferno and Purgatorio) , where the poet's focus falls on suffering, on the tragic links between suffering and knowledge, on the ways of healing the wounded soul, and in acting out the difficult exercise of the virtues. The remark amounts to saying that the relation between theology (or politics or ethics) and aesthetics is more problematical than is generally believed. What needs to be explored, in effect, is the liminal nature of Dante's poetry; a poetry which, in its constitute ambiguity, forever escapes univocal determinations and counters all literalizations. Understandably, over roughly the last forty years, the hermeneutical challenges for Dante scholars have consisted in answering two key problems: establishing how Dante's fiction of order adapts the forms of transgression, and understanding the farthest-reaching implications of his aesthetic theology.

Whether or not these critical positions have been staked before or what is Dante's sense of order is in many ways beside the point. At any rate, it does not matter to the intents of this volume. What matters is not really [End Page 380] scholarship. In truth, however, its editor does articulate his polemical (and correct) views against those scholars (such as Teodolinda Barolini) who 'detheologize' Dante as well as those (such as Charles Singleton) who chain Dante's poem within the strait-jacket of fossilized theories of normative theology (Thomism). One...