- Dante and the Modern Subject: Overcoming Anger in the Purgatorio
If to read a medieval text means beginning with its alterity, as Jauss and Paul Zumthor urge, 1 alterity is not something determinate, nor single: distinctions in writing medieval texts may suggest not “the question of the alterity of the Middle Ages” but “the alterities within it.” 2 We read as “moderns,” and confirm that modernity by reference to differences in the medieval text, but that depends both on being able to locate what modernity means and then on being able to confirm the medieval character of the text we interpret. Some readings of medieval texts may still disavow the consequences of their own rootedness in modernity, and use the medieval as that which is outside modern questions of the subject produced in the text as nonunitary, decentered in psychoanalytic and gender terms. In Dante criticism especially, it has been easy for a logocentrism to persist so that the text still affirms a movement toward clarification and stability, the privilege of reading thus coming from the argument that the text is not modern. The danger of reading otherwise, as though the text were modern in our terms, is, as Zumthor suggests, to ignore our own historicity as modern, “by giving an achronic shape to the past, [to] hide the specific traits of the present.” 3 Yet to call a text medieval is also to choose to read it in a certain way, to construct it intellectually as such, and what is constructed in one way may in a further moment be taken in another. And while we may mark the difference of the medieval from the early modern or Renaissance, a medieval text cannot simply be medieval, otherwise it could not take part in any historical transition, and the text needs also to be read for those signs of an internal difference which enable translation from medieval to modern.
Thus it is fascinating to find in Dante’s Commedia allusions to the “modern.” While the text is ambiguous about whether it wants to use that term at all, that it is there at least suggests that its own discourse is not single, that it is a text in movement, and it implies also a textual unconscious. This paper concentrates on the first use of the word “moderno,” in Purgatorio, canto 16. 4 The word never appeared in Inferno, perhaps because that text was the prison-house of old sad spirits (“li [End Page 401] antichi spiriti dolenti,” Inferno 1.116), 5 but in Purgatorio it becomes an issue, and surfaces first in the context of cantos devoted to wrath and the purging of anger. The link between modernity and anger in the text becomes a teasing one which I want to pursue: it seems that anger becomes the trope of modernity. Dante tells the wrathful soul Marco Lombardo whom he meets, and who is learning to control his anger in conditions of dense and acrid smoke, that he is privileged to see God’s court “in a manner altogether wholly outside modern use” (“in modo tutto fuor del moderno uso” [Purg. 16.42]).
Dante disavows being modern, as though joining with those who would read the text as if it were medieval. And anger is annotated by Dante commentators from Aristotle or Seneca or Aquinas, which implies a transhistorical understanding of an emotion which could itself be historicized. But commentary need not stop there: Nietzsche, Freud, or Walter Benjamin, all writing in the archive of these others, might be equally relevant for an attempt to think through anger, and there seems no reason not to use them as well. It is not a question of trying to update Dante or of using these figures of modernity to comment on a medieval text: it is more that there is a genealogy of the modern implied through Dante’s use of the term, and reading should be attentive to those discontinuous moments in the text that are the signs of an emerging modernity. The distinctions made between the classical and the medieval and modern avoid spotting such a genealogy. They work as stable representations, but it is a teasing...