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  • Joyce’s Dante: Exile, Memory, and Community by James Robinson
  • William Franke (bio)
JOYCE’S DANTE: EXILE, MEMORY, AND COMMUNITY, by James Robinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xi + 233 pp. $99.99.

James Robinson’s Joyce’s Dante is a model of a certain kind of scholarship for an elite university press that performs a series of protocols from exhaustively inventorying critical literature to stating explicitly what its original contribution is on every specific question raised. These protocols are necessary to differentiate such scholarship from literary journalism, with which it, in some respects, would otherwise be virtually interchangeable. The effort expended to establish who may have been Joyce’s first and then his second Italian teacher at Belvedere College is a case in point. It risks descending to the level of chitchat, even if it is about a writer as important as Joyce. Everything in any way connected with the hallowed author is treated as having a sacred aura. Yet nothing very significant is at stake in mere questions of fact about an irretrievable past. Such information can stimulate curiosity and is not uninteresting, but it has something of the flavor of gossip.

Admittedly, this level of discourse is not at all incompatible with currently sanctioned academic practices of criticism, especially in such heavily trafficked fields as Joyce studies. One can emerge with very rich information about Joyce—as an excuse for a lack of intense focus on enduringly significant intellectual issues. Happily, there is a good deal more in this book than just these polished manners alone. Despite the urbane art of small talk that seems to belong to the [End Page 361] genre of literary criticism as currently pursued by some of its most celebrated practitioners, there is also quite a different kind of intellectual substance here. Robinson’s painstaking reconstructions of the author’s social and cultural milieu compellingly demonstrate how Joyce’s attraction to Dante Alighieri served to help him to “negotiate a heterodox space within a larger orthodoxy” (33). When linked to such tense and momentous issues, the minute detail of contingent facts takes on a wholly different kind of significance. It becomes a means of working in an intricate filigree on otherwise vacuously great and capacious questions. Over the full expanse of the study, this fine-point work of embroidery serves to bring into sharper focus a much larger tapestry of textual connections.

Especially interesting and useful for building a wider picture and overview is the sometimes contradictory information concerning the vicissitudes of Dante’s reputation in Joyce’s times and in his specific social and educational milieus. Dante was often treated as a heretical and indexed author, the object of concerted hostility particularly from the Jesuits, by whom Joyce was educated (JJII 109, 59). The Jesuits from their foundation in the seventeenth century were redoubtable defenders of the papacy against all attacks, such as those launched trenchantly by Dante. In addition to numerous direct diatribes and frontal attacks, more subtly and most memorably, Inferno XIX.13–31 divulges the third ditch of the eighth circle of Hell, the Malebolge, as populated by a series of popes stacked one on top of the other in a hole in the ground in a parody of the apostolic succession.1 Their feet burn, smeared with unguent in a burlesque upending of the visitation by the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–31).

Such material, however, made it possible to present Dante not only as a religious heretic but also as a secular hero. A certain cult of Dante grew up largely in reaction to the Jesuits’ campaign of defamation of the Italian poet. In an 1818 article in the Edinburgh Review, Ugo Foscolo influentially advocated such a celebratory rehabilitation.2 In the course of the nineteenth century, this countervailing, secular Dante grew into the Risorgimento embrace of him as a figurehead of the national and linguistic unity of Italy.3 The movement culminated in 1870 with the achievement of the political unification of the peninsula. With the end of the temporal political power of the papacy, which converted instead...


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