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Dante & the Unorthodox

Interview with James Miller

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Who are “the Unorthodox” to whom Dante is linked in this volume?

Since “orthodoxy” literally means “belief” (doxa) that is “right” or “straight” (orthos), anyone who strays from the Straight and Narrow into the maze of wrong beliefs and crooked ways of life may be considered “unorthodox” from Dante’s radically fideistic viewpoint. Ironically, under this etymological definition, Dante himself — as the wayfaring narrator of the Commedia — qualifies as a member of the Unorthodox. His first action in the poem is to abandon the Way of Truth for the winding ways of the Dark Wood, which lead him deep into the labyrinth of the Inferno.

Insofar as all the Damned have lost “the good of the intellect,” they, too, are unorthodox in a general sense. Every imaginable kind of wrong belief is perversely entertained down below. Among the infernal population Dante discerns various classes of souls who are unorthodox in a specifically doctrinal sense as defined by the medieval Catholic church: for instance, the Epicurean heretics who deny the immortality of the soul (Inferno 10); the Sodomitical lay-teachers who regard Nature rather than God as the source of rational order (Inferno 15); and the Muslim Schismatics who rend the mystical body of Christ by pitting believers against infidels (Inferno 28). By representing such folk as damned, Dante-poet is also asserting his own perverse claim to orthodoxy — a problematic claim, to say the least, because it is based not on the traditional authoritative judgment of the Church but on the self-authorizing testimony of the Sacred Poem.

As a result, Dante’s orthodoxy is paradoxically “personal,” and his intense interest in the Heretics, the Sodomites, and the Schismatic far exceeds the medieval Church’s official reasons for condemning their belief systems. In some of them — Farinata, Brunetto, Mohammed — he clearly saw a transgressive mirror image of himself. His psychological and political fascination with the Unorthodox is carried with him into Purgatory and Paradise. The souls who enjoy God’s favour are not only intellectually concerned with the historical power struggles along the faith frontiers on earth, they are also actively engaged in them. Some of Dante’s saints — most notably, Beatrice — have no canonical status in the eyes of the medieval (or modern) Church. Predictably, objections to the poet’s self-proclaimed orthodoxy were raised by the Church’s official Inquisitorial “watchdogs”, the Dominicans, within a few years of his death in 1321.

One of Dante’s key words for faith, “credenza,” implies a restless impulse to judge the social value of beliefs and to test the strength of a cultures confidence in prevailing belief systems by comparison with rejected religions and philosophies. It is the term favoured by St. Peter himself, who uses it during his examination of Dante’s faith in the Heaven of the Fixed Stars (“a la credenza tua sofferse”: Par. 24.123). Even Virgil, despite his lack of “the true faith” (“la vera credenza”: Purg. 22.77), uses the word at a crucial testing moment. Noticing Dante’s reluctance to believe that the flames of Mount Purgatory will do him no harm, the Roman poet suggests that the pilgrim hold the hem of his garment in the fire and find out for himself (“fatti far credenza”: Purg. 27.29-30). In Dante’s universe you don’t simply have faith. You make it. All the motions in the universe impel you to test it out creatively and to create it in the testing — “far credenza” — which in turn validates your testimony of its universality, its true “catholicism.”

Though subsequent efforts to condemn Dante as a heretic by “exposing” him as an Averroist or a Gnostic or a neo-Pagan have largely failed to dispel belief in the poet’s allegiance to core doctrines of the Catholic faith, contemporary readings of the Commedia have increasingly strengthened critical interest in the idiosyncratic character of Dantean Catholicism and its aesthetic consequences for his political project to reform the relations between church and state. The Unorthodox with whom the poet is now linked must also include the pioneers of modernism such as Ezra Pound and the “eccentric” Dante scholars who influenced him. Dante’s prophetic empathy with doctrinal outcasts and rebels has also attracted the interest of counter-discursive critics of reactionary post-Vatican II Catholicism, in particular, and of contemporary Late Capitalist culture, in general. From the perspective of the modern Vatican, advocates for various kinds of liberation theology — queer, feminist, deconstructionist — belong on the unorthodox side of the faith frontier, and their radical resistance to the doctrinal status quo also resonates with the revolutionary activism proclaimed in Dante’s aesthetic revision of the Credo.

Does this volume settle the question of Dante’s orthodoxy?

No — for the simple reason that the contributors to the volume do not presume to sit in judgment over the Poet’s faith as a self-appointed group of inquisitors. Our collective goal is rather to unsettle the question by demonstrating that the Poet’s audacious departures from established doctrine and idiosyncratic resolutions to doctrinal debates should not be dismissed as the effects of “poetic fantasy” but rather valued as controversial stimuli for theological resistance to orthodox authoritarianism.

As far as the Vatican is concerned, the question of Dante’s orthodoxy was officially “settled” in the early sixteenth century when Raphael — following the instructions of his patron, Pope Julius II — included the Poet among the great Catholic intellectuals in the holy conclave gathered to discuss the theological significance of the Mass in the Disputa. This iconic representation of his intellectual authority ironically glosses over the extraordinary liberties he took with Catholic doctrine in his excoriating critiques of hierarchical power relations.

For instance, following the authoritative teachings of Peter Damian, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Church routinely condemned sodomites as violators of both natural law and religious taboo. Like heretics, they were hunted down by inquisitors and threatened with death at the stake. Though Dante encounters sodomites among the Damned, he shows them extraordinary respect and even confesses that he would have thrown himself down among them. Fear of the fire was all that restrained his desire to embrace their charred bodies. Later, on the seventh terrace of Purgatory, he dares to envision the salvation of sodomites who repent their excessive lust but not their attraction to lovers of their own sex. Dante’s repentant sodomites cannot function in the traditional way as antitypes of the Christian saints. Their hierarchical subordination to the Saved is radically overturned. They are literally represented on the same level as opposite-sex lovers, who embrace them as they race in opposite directions towards salvation from the flames. Dante’s vision of concordant relations across the theologically policed divides of gender and sexuality runs directly counter to the modern Vatican’s doctrinally hardened aversion to same-sex lovers.

The question of Dante’s strategically unsettling orthodoxy has recently been dismissed as a non-question by proponents of a “detheologizing” reading of the Commedia, a critical approach that focuses on the rhetorical artfulness of the text rather than on the Poet’s intellectual engagement in the Wars of Truth. Rooted in Benedetto Croce’s and T.S. Eliot’s modernist insistence on judging the Sacred Poem primarily on poetical grounds, this postmodern way of settling the question of Dante’s orthodoxy results in an intertextual withdrawal of the poet and his work from the “outside world” of clashing doctrines and rival political agendas. While the contributors to this volume appreciate the importance of intertextual readings of the poem in the clarification of Dante’s poetic project of world-reform, we resist the postmodern temptation to disengage from the doctrinal struggle at the core of the Sacred Poem. Our readings “retheologize” the Commedia by suggesting that Dante’s resistance to hierarchically imposed orthodoxy is intensely relevant to contemporary struggles to undermine hierarchical conceptualizations of the relation between men and women, gays and straights, saints and sinners, priests and lay persons, churches and states.

What is meant by the provocative subtitle The Aesthetics of Transgression?

The collocation of “transgression” with “aesthetics” is bound to seem odd from a traditional Catholic viewpoint. In the discourse of moral theology, transgression generally refers to any sin of defiant disobedience — the original instance of which was the eating of the apple in Eden. By defying God’s prohibition, Adam and Eve spiritually “went beyond the mark” or “crossed over the line” (trapassar del segno, as Dante puts it in Par. 26.117) and their fatal mistake was re-enacted at a literal level when they were forced to cross over the boundary separating the earthly paradise from the wasteland of the Fallen World. How could such an act, which had such ugly consequences for humanity, have an aesthetic dimension or provoke meditations on beauty?

As soon as Dante crosses over the line separating the Living from Dead, he “transgresses” in a literal sense: his allegorical journey is a series of initiatory movements over secret thresholds that he, as a mortal, should not be crossing. The souls he encounters along the way are as amazed as he is by his extraordinary trajectory through the hidden realms of the afterlife. His physical defiance of divinely imposed boundaries is matched by the intellectual liberty he takes in pushing the envelope of orthodox doctrine.

The aesthetic implications of his divinely sanctioned trapassar are clearly articulated in the Heaven of the Sun when he audaciously revises the Nicene Creed to suit the world-reforming project of the Sacred Poem. The final tercet of his idiosyncratic credo announces the history-defying function of his creativity to convert the ugly violence of the City of Man into the serene beauty of the Rose. His creative energy becomes inseparable from the limitless “formative virtue” of the Creator himself, a power so great that it cannot be contained within the textual bounds of the Sacred Poem. It must spill out into the souls of all the Poet’s readers, whose combined creativity is marshalled to offset the ugliness of the Inferno with the oracular vision of the excessive “bellezza” of the Empyrean.

In modern thought, the notion of an “aesthetics of transgression” emerges in the writings of the French social philosopher Georges Bataille whose meditations on the cultural consequences of taboo led him to privilege excess as an aesthetic value in the domain of ritual. Taking a cue from Bataille, several contributors to the volume consider Dante’s notion of oltraggio (“outrageous” excess) as a formative principle in the design of the Sacred Poem. Religious rituals such as the blood sacrifice and later the Mass were designed to provide their observers with a potent sense of participating in the limitless creative power of the Sacred. When Religion ceased to perform this function effectively, surrogate transgressions were imaginatively provided by the Arts in order to sustain the vision of the Sacred within the increasingly secularized culture of the West. From Dante’s perspective, the corrupt Church had abandoned the Sacred altogether in its mad quest for earthly wealth and power. The challenge fell to him — as “high priest” in the new (and unorthodox) cult of Beatrice — to restore the Sacred through the aesthetic excesses of the Commedia.

How does the structure of the volume reflect the theme of transgression?

The introduction to the volume, strategically entitled “Retheologizing Dante”, signals a critical break from the modernist insistence on the “suspension of belief” as the proper approach to the Poet’s theology. Thanks to the lingering formalist influence of Croce by way of T.S. Eliot, the unorthodox character of the Commedia as a theological project has largely been dismissed as irrelevant to its “purely” poetic qualities. Underlying the collective argument of the volume is the critically transgressive assumption that the theological idiosyncrasies of the Sacred Poem are deeply related to the aesthetic “outrageousness” of its sui generis form.

Dante’s poetic vocabulary of transgression is extensive. Among the many verbs he uses to suggest the crossing of traditional lines, the defiance of taboo-imposed borders, six have been chosen by the editor to serve as thematic titles for the chronologically ordered parts of the anthology. In Part 1 (Trapassar) three essays on Limbo and its most important inhabitant, Virgil, follow Dante-pilgrim as he “passes over” the threshold into hell and “steps across” the line between the Living and the Dead. In Part 2 (Trasmutar) five essays consider how the Damned mark their defiance of the Divine Will by suffering various kinds of metamorphoses, and why they “change over” from their original human form to the humiliating shape of birds, frogs, serpents, charred corpses, mutilated shades. In Part 3 (Trasumanar) three essays chart Dante’s passage across the ontological divide between the human and the divine. Although ascendant transgression typically induced the anger of the gods in classical literature, it leads the Christian pilgrim towards his momentous reunion with Beatrice in Purgatorio and his victorious rebirth as the Poet of the Universe in Paradiso.

In Part 4 (Traslatar) the influence of the Commedia is literally “translated” or “carried over” into modern literature, specifically through the eccentric readings of Dante passed on from the nineteenth century by the most unorthodox of modern poets, Ezra Pound. The two essays in this section focus on the intertextual links between Dante scholarship and the composition of new poetry under Dantean influence. In Part 5 (Tralucere) Dante’s aesthetic vision of a totalizing work of art “casts light across” the centuries onto Pound’s project in the Cantos, which in turn illuminates the development of twentieth-century film from two complementary viewpoints: the detached analytical perspective of a film critic; and the intensely personal and philosophically synthetic perspective of a filmmaker. Finally, in Part 6 (Trasmodar), the verbal confines of poetry are “exceeded” by an examination of Dante’s influence on the work of two contemporary Canadian visual artists who draw inspiration from the Poet’s theological meditations on how the divine art of the Creator miraculously collapses the perceptual and aesthetic divide between Word and Image.

Why does the volume conclude with a discussion of the Paragone?

The dialectical structure of the volume implicitly maps the contested border between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy onto the cultural fracture between the verbal and visual arts known in Italian aesthetics as the Paragone (“Comparison”). Though Leonardo da Vinci first articulated the Paragone in philosophical terms — concluding, not surprisingly, that painting was superior to sculpture and poetry — Dante allegorically prophesied the interarts rivalry of the Renaissance in his “discovery” on the first cornice of Mount Purgatory that all human arts are inferior to the supreme artistry of the Creator. The vainglorious rivalry between artists and poets, from his perspective, must give way to concordant participation in “divine art” if postlapsarian culture is to approach the aesthetic perfection of the Empyrean.

In a portfolio of twelve images included at the end of the volume, two Polish-Canadian artists, Andrew Pawlowski and Zbigniew Pospieszynski, express their skeptical reactions to Dante’s allegory of aesthetic redemption and political reform. The images are drawn from their 1995 exhibition Calling Dante, which included sculptures, bookworks, drawings, and mixed media installations. The curatorial essay written for the exhibition serves as an introduction to both the play and the artworks by placing the two artists within the vortex of aesthetic debates and creative controversies stirred up since the mid-fourteenth century when the poet’s first illuminators set out to render and rival his visions pictorially.

Following the portfolio are three excerpts from an allegorical drama written by Pawlowski as a literary accompaniment for their visual fantasia on Dantean themes. In this hallucinatory text, the shade of Dante is mysteriously conjured up in the Umbrian town of Gubbio and brought to trial for his sexual and political transgressions. Speaking in his own defence, the poet introduces architecture into the Paragone by proudly tracing his unorthodox influence along the line of eccentric Dante scholars to the infamous “Danteum”, a modernist building planned (but never constructed) as the centre of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.