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Joyce, Dante, and the Poetics of Literary Relations: Language and Meaning in Finnegans Wake (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 9, Number 3, September 2002
pp. 528-529 | 10.1353/mod.2002.0057

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Modernism/Modernity 9.3 (2002) 528-529

Book Review

Joyce, Dante, and the Poetics of Literary Relations:
Language and Meaning in

Joyce, Dante, and the Poetics of Literary Relations: Language and Meaning in Finnegans Wake. Lucia Boldrini. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xi + 233. $54.95.

Modernism as a nexus of literary relations was already felt by Joyce, as he shaped a book he tentatively and provocatively titled Work in Progress. That book became Finnegans Wake (1939), the masterpiece on which Lucia Boldrini focuses her own critical approach. However, critical readings in literary relations were well under way as Joyce was still writing his book: the critical essays gathered by Samuel Beckett are an obvious and crucial instance of the study of literary relations at work.

The notion of literary relations addresses at once the plurality of experimental directions pursued by modern artists and the link with the past that supports and confronts the modernist endeavor. In her discussion of these relations, Boldrini warns the reader against the temptation of agon. Referring to Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and especially A Map of Misreading (1975), she very clearly states, at the start of her investigation, her opposition to this method of analysis.

Instead, Boldrini writes her book on the "poetics of literary relations" (14). Specifically, she traces the relationship that Joyce established with Dante. This relationship appears as a critical pattern that is embedded in Joyce's modernist experiment and was at the same time favored by Dante, his chosen precursor of the privileged tradition. Boldrini embraces "the language of intertextuality," a specification that is pivotal to the fine discourse she weaves from Finnegans Wake (11). She follows an established critical stance that employs both stylistic and historicist methods. Her approach takes the shape of "an unprecedented and unequalled complex semiotic, structural and linguistic programme" (6). Metamorphosis, for example, is viewed as a linguistic process, rather than merely the influence of Renaissance philosophers such as Giordano Bruno or the Ovidian strategy also so crucial to some great cantos of the Divine Comedy. Consequently, her program becomes an important test, not only of the efficacy of her own approach to Finnegans Wake, but also of its applicability to other modernist works, especially those founded on encyclopedic ground, such as Ezra Pound's Cantos.

Boldrini works out her intuition through four dense chapters that demonstrate connections "in layers" between Joyce's work and Dante's Convivio, Epistle to Can Grande della Scala, De Vulgari Eloquentia, and the Divine Comedy (26). Moving from Dante's reconsideration of the distinction between poets and theologians and the question of authorship that such a distinction raises, she works through a number of related myths, which she treats as "motives" that punctuate the poetics of the two authors in question. The first of such motives is that of the fall; the second is that of the letter, in which term several meanings coalesce. The very naming of the main characters in Finnegans Wake makes the relevance of such a motif apparent, and it returns several times throughout Boldrini's book.

The next layer of her analysis is the motif of the tower of Babel, which in Joyce is personified in HCE, "a sort of towering giant who recalls Dante's Nimrod" (79). The fall is at once a sin and a felix culpa, which is at the core of the very notion of plurality and, of course, polysemy. Dante often refers to Adam (the first sinner) throughout the third canticle before seeing him in Paradiso XXII. By the same token, to Joyce,

it makes sense to draw part of the allusion from the canto of Paradiso in which Aquinas speaks of the perfect wisdom of Adam, the first man and sinner who was in Eden and then fell down to earth, was buried underground in his "mole's paradise" and rose again after three days, taking Adam with him. [87]

The literary relation established here is a good example of how Boldrini does not simply rely on thematic occurrences, but traces back the reasoning behind citations that, taken literally in relation to their original contexts, risk appearing misleading or partial.

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