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533 BOOK REVIEWS Dante and the Sense of Transgression: “The Trespass of the Sign.” By William Franke. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. ISBN: HB: 978-1-4411-3691-6. PB: 978-14411 -6042-3. Pp. xv + 200. $110.00. In his intriguing work, Dante and the Sense of Transgression: “The Trespass of the Sign,” William Franke argues that French deconstructionism provides contemporary terms to explain Dante’s bold linguistic explorations in Paradiso. Though Dante is often considered a poet of order who condemns those who transgress theological and political authority, Franke argues that Dante is deeply interested in, even obsessed with, the idea of transgression and is poetically transgressive himself, experimenting with style and genre. Dante’s acts of transgression are especially evident in Paradiso, wherein he attempts to transgress language itself. Though Dante constructs an intricate poetic structure in Inferno and Purgatorio, in Paradiso he strives to undo all that he has built in order to describe the indescribable; he transgresses himself. Unlike Ovidian artists like Arachne and Marsyas, both of whom foolishly challenge the gods, Dante is a transgressive artist working for, rather than against, divine authority. While Franke alludes to examples of transgression within the poem, he is primarily interested in how the poem itself is an act of transgression, and his method, as he acknowledges in the preface, is more theoretical than textual. In the introduction, Franke provides a helpful definition of transgression. He explains that in French philosophy, transgression does not imply a simple opposition of those who submit to authority and those who reject it. In fact, there is no opposition, no inside/outside distinction, no exclusion in the postmodern conception. Franke speaks of “an original openness and connectedness of all with all” (15). This definition of transgression is reminiscent of the medieval apophatic tradition that began with Dionysius the Areopagite and which claims that we can only make negative statements about God. By not defining God, apophatic mystics maintain openness to all, rejecting nothing. Franke implies, though he does not explicitly state, that affirmation, not negation, is a kind of exclusion because it places defined limits on God. By bringing into conversation, through Dante’s poetry, medieval apophaticism and French thought, Franke occasions dialogue between two traditions not often connected and discovers some surprising similarities. Franke’s book is divided into three parts and one appendix. Part 1, entitled “Language and Beyond,” addresses “poetic language as an experience of the unsayable” and brings Dante into conversation with Blanchot and Barthes (15). In Paradiso, Dante attempts to express that which is beyond language through language itself. In doing so, he transgresses the use of language as sign and reference. Language,instead,becomesmanifestation.FrankearguesagainstscholarslikeKevin Hart who interpret Dante as creating a fixed and stable linguistic theory grounded in divine authority. Though the Incarnate Word does somehow guarantee language, he does not make its meaning permanently fixed. Franke claims that for Dante all Christianity and Literature 534 finite meaning collapses into the Infinite. To explain Dante’s task, Franke connects Blanchot and Barthes’ conception of the neuter with medieval apophatism. For the French philosophers, the neuter embraces no divisions or binaries; it is, as Barthes argues, like nuance, for nuance suggests the existence of something of which it is a nuance but makes no definite claims or propositions about its existence—it is simply a nuance. Franke argues that the neuter is a useful concept for understanding Dante’s desire for a unity that transcends partisan divisions. Such unity is found in God, who, like the neuter, is beyond all oppositions, all notions, and all definitions, according to the aphophatic tradition. Both God and the neuter are the ground of sense and non-sense, and neither can be described because both transcend all ontological categories. In Paradiso, Dante is trying to describe an indescribable God, to make visible that which is invisible. In doing so, he must break down language itself, for language cannot represent God, but must instead embody an experience of God that has no corresponding linguistic sign. For Franke, Dante’s use of the topos of inexpressibility is not a humble aside but the heart of the poem, for Dante is trying to get beyond...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2056-5666
Print ISSN
0148-3331
Pages
pp. 533-536
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-04
Open Access
No
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