- The Metaphysics of Dante's "Comedy"
One of the hoariest clichés in the scholarly reviewer's repertoire holds that it is never possible to do justice to the complexity of an author's argument in the restricted compass of a mere review. Seldom can the force of that truism have been felt more fully than by the reviewer of this book. Expanding upon a series of readings in a metaphysical vein (mostly of Paradiso) that he has published over the [End Page 482] last several years, Christian Moevs has written a work of astonishing audacity and depth. His purpose is nothing less than to compel his readers to take Dante's metaphysics seriously, and his underlying claim is that, in order to do so, they must begin by dismantling the familiar structures that have supported readings of the Commedia for many years now, and learn instead to read the poem's unique fusion of poetics and doctrine in the key in which it was written: the key of a genuinely medieval metaphysics, in which a radically contingent world of finite being exists in a nondualistic relationship with the ground of that being, God, thereby enabling human creatures to perceive reality as a projection of conscious being, which can only be known as oneself. And that is just for starters.
The case for engaging with Dante as a thinker in his own right is perhaps one that still needs to be made, at least outside the hortus conclusus of Dante studies (where we are by now accustomed to seeing our man as theologus-poeta, in the terms coined by Giovanni del Virgilio for Dante's epitaph and made canonical in our own day by Robert Hollander). A quick survey of recent general histories of medieval thought, for instance, suggests that his significance for intellectual historians lies entirely in his authorship of the Commedia and his boldly unorthodox tribute therein to Siger of Brabant (Par. 10), not in any substantive contributions of his own to the traditions of philosophy or theology. Dante scholars, however, have long been willing to argue for their author's historical stature as something more than a popularizing versifier of ideas derived from the patristic and scholastic literature, and one of the many outstanding merits of Moevs's work is that it becomes hard to imagine so reductive an estimation of Dante's importance surviving an encounter with it. (Surely, indeed, it is no coincidence that the book appears under the aegis of the American Academy of Religion, in a series devoted to "reflection and theory in the study of religion," rather than under any narrowly literary rubric.) Exploring its successive chapters — "Non-Duality and Self-Knowledge," "The Empyrean," "Matter," "Form," "Creation," "Sunrises and Sunsets," "Is Dante Telling the Truth?," and "No Mind, No Matter" (a fittingly polysemous pun!) — the reader is never left in any doubt that, although Dante's principal claim on our attention obviously remains that of having written poetry, his poetry is informed throughout by an active intelligence that is working hard at "doing" both philosophy and theology, and doing them differently in many ways from how they are done by his contemporaries and predecessors.
More crucial still, Moevs shows us with unfailingly courteous precision that, if we are to understand exactly what it is that this active intelligence of Dante's is up to, we must set aside, or at least be willing to reenvision, many of the preconceptions that we, as twenty-first-century readers, inherit from develop-ments in thought posterior to Dante but anterior to us. Not that we can cease to project a conscious being that is specifically ours and necessarily of our historical moment — there is no hope of catching the ignis fatuus of "reading Dante as his contemporaries did," because we are not and can never be his contemporaries — but we can at least learn both what Dante thought and how he thought it, accurately register the differences...