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Dante & the Unorthodox

The Aesthetics of Transgression

Edited by James Miller
Subjects Religion, Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism
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Hardcover : 9780889204577, 576 pages, April 2005


Excerpts from Dante & the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression edited by James Miller

From Introduction: Retheologizing Dante by James Miller


In keeping with the spirit of oltraggio [excess], the project of this volume is to discover just how far Dante was willing to push his faith beyond the doctrinal limits of the Catholic Church, and why his theological impulse to expand his belief is aesthetically important for the Commedia. One of his key words for faith, credenza, is especially pertinent to this project because it implies a restless impulse to judge the social value of beliefs and to test the strength of a culture's confidence in prevailing belief systems by comparison with rejected religions and philosophies. It is the term favoured by St. Peter himself, who uses it in the Heaven of the Fixed Stars during his examination of Dante's faith [a la credenza tua s'offerse: “it was offered to your belief”] (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 [him]self” [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. ”

In modern Italian, as in modern English, “credenza” has come to mean a side table where various foods are placed so that they may be sampled before being served. This is not Dante's meaning, of course, but it suggests an allegorical image for the Commedia by recalling the banqueting table of the Convivio (1. 1. 10-13) where he spread out all his philosophical knowledge for the reader to sample. 6 In the Sacred Poem his beliefs expand beyond the limited classical fare on his earlier philosophical menu. His banquet is now spread out upon “the table of love” [la mensa d'amor] (Purg. 13. 27), a credenza for the sacramental “bread of angels” [pan de li angeli] (Par. 2. 11). The “outraging” pressures of Dante's expansive new faith bear upon all traditional systems of belief, including the Roman Catholicism of his youth and the Roman philosophy of his political heyday and early exile. Sustained by an anagogic fantasy of his own orthodoxy, he is determined to make belief through make-believe. It is a potentially heretical strategy, and his transgressive reliance on the imagination as well as the intellect to far credenza in the reader will become an issue of major concern among the earliest commentators on the poem. Dante studies takes its start, not surprisingly, from a defence of his orthodoxy.

Reflecting on the outrageousness of his mission to recreate his church and his world in the image of his poem, I have labelled each of the six parts of Dante & the Unorthodox with an Italian infinitive drawn from the rich vocabulary of transgression and transcendence in the Commedia. Each infinitive is a compound of the prefix tra- or its variant tras-, from the Latin preposition trans signifying “over” or “across”, plus a root verb denoting a crossover movement or a crucial change of state.

Part 1 (Trapassar) “steps over” the threshold separating the living from the dead by following Dante into the Inferno to reflect on his initial encounters with the Unorthodox. Part 2 (Trasmutar) examines how the Damned “change over” from one shape to another to reveal the moral and psychosexual effects of their unorthodoxy. Part 3 (Trasumanar) follows Dante's struggle “to pass beyond the human” by considering Purgatory and Paradise as controversial zones where the prevailing orthodoxy of the Roman Church is both sustained and challenged by the souls in Gods favour.

Though theological source-studies of trasumanar have been done by Singleton, Freccero, and, most recently, Botterill, 7 the transgressive implications of this most famous of Dante's tra- verbs have yet to be considered. Since the poet audaciously invented trasumanar to express the newness of his own unique experience in entering into all ten spheres of Paradise, it might well mean more than the traditional anagogic gloss suggests (i. e. , “divinization of fallen human nature during beatification”). Why construe it only as a synonym for various Latin theological terms relating to mystical experiences recorded in the Bible? Its significance must exceed the meaning of St. Paul's “being caught up”, for instance, since the Apostle only experienced the mysteries of the third heaven. Reflecting on Dante's Ovidian as well as Bernardian fascination with the visionary presence of “our image” [la nostra effige] (Par. 33. 131) in the second circle of the Trinity, I suggest in part 3 that trasumanar might also mean the “carrying over of the human into the divine”--a distinctively cosmopoetic as well as incarnational transgression of the pagan ontological divide between humanity and divinity.

Part 4 (Traslatar) “translates” Dante both literally and figuratively by considering how the resonance of the Sacred Poem “carries across” the language barrier between Italian and English and across the centuries between the medieval and modern periods. Just as the spirits in the Heavenly Eagle look back to David, “the singer of the Holy Ghost, who bore the ark about from town to town” [il cantor de lo Spirito Santo, / che l'arca traslatò di villa in villa] (Par. 20. 38-9), so the authors in part 4 look back to Ezra Pound, the singer of The Cantos, who bore “Dantescan Light” from town to town in America and Europe during his long unorthodox career. Dante and Pound combine their influences in part 5 (Tralucere), which “projects light across” the chasm between the verbal and visual arts to reveal the impact of the Commedia and The Cantos on filmmaking in the second half of the twentieth century. Implicit in Dante's luminous journey through Paradise is an aesthetic adaptation to the divine delight in spilling over or bursting through all measures of beauty and wisdom. In light of this, part 6 (Trasmodar) “exceeds the limits” of text by passing entirely into the domain of the visual arts to contemplate the Dantean origins of the interarts rivalry in post-medieval aesthetics. . . .


6. Dante's word for “table” in this introductory passage is mensa. Though the food we are to feast upon is philosophical, he describes the table as “blessed” [beata] (Conv. 1. 1. 10) because those who are invited to dine at the banquet are eager to attain the beata vita or “happy life. ”

7. See the gloss on Par. 1. 70 in Singleton (1975), 18; Freccero (1986), 20920; and the extensive discussion of Bernard's comparable term deificari in chapter 6 of Botterill (1994).

From PART I TRAPASSAR Dante's Limbo: At the Margins of Orthodoxy by Amilcare A. Iannucci

Within Dante's Limbo a separate area is reserved for the great-hearted pagans of the past, the magnanimi, who live in a “noble castle” [nobile castello] (Inf. 4. 106) illuminated by a fire which “wins out” against the prevailing darkness of Hell [un foco / ch'emisperio di tenebre vincia] (Inf. 4. 68-9). Surrounding the castle for defence are “lofty walls” and a “fair stream” [alte mura. . . bel fiumicello] (Inf. 4. 107-8). Within, “on a meadow of green flowering plants” [in prato di fresca verdura] (Inf. 4. 111), these same magnanimi, their faces “grave” and their speech “gentle” and infrequent [con occhi tardi e gravi. . . parlavan rado, con voci soavi] (Inf. 4. 112-14), are left free to discuss their affairs and to pursue the intellectual values they espoused while alive.

The above picture of Limbo, although possessed of great poetic beauty and intensity, nevertheless caused from a theological perspective deep shock and embarrassment to Dante's early commentators, as Pietro di Dante, Guido da Pisa, and Boccaccio attest. 2 They realized how utterly unorthodox Dante's Limbo was and tried to defend him by maintaining that he was speaking poetically and not theologically, as Guido da Pisa explicitly states. 3 Moreover, they also tried to distance themselves from Dante's unorthodox portrayal of Limbo by pledging their allegiance to the true Faith. The Church, too, reacted to Dante's dangerous theological readings, 4 and in a far less understanding manner: provincial chapters repeatedly banned Dante's Commedia from their curricula, as the Dominicans did in 1335. 5

Perhaps the most insightful theological condemnation of Dante's theology of Limbo is provided by the fifteenth-century churchman, St. Antoninus. 6 A Dominican scholar of the Pierozzi family of Florence and a distinguished ecclesiastic who rose to the rank of adjutor of the Rota, Antoninus (1389-1459) was named Archbishop of Florence in 1446 by Pope Eugenius IV on the suggestion of Antoninus's former fellow classmate, Fra Angelico. A pastoral bishop of the top sort, Antoninus was also a most prolific writer. Among his many works are handbooks for confessors such as the Confessionale and the Medicine of the Soul; a guide for penitents, the Mirror of Conscience; a short spiritual treatise entitled a Guide to Good Living; and a compendium of moral theology, the Summa theologiae moralis. But the work of most significance for Dante's portrayal of Limbo is the Chronicon. Composed sometime between 1440 and 1459, this immensely popular work--it was reprinted seventeen times between 1484 and 1586--contains a veritable history of the world in which both sin and virtue are key players.

Here Antoninus not only speaks of Dante's political turmoil and the reasons for it, but also takes Dante to task for his theological rendering of Limbo, a rendering which for Antoninus is dangerously unorthodox because it cannot be defended by an appeal to Dante's poetic licence. Since the Commedia was written for and read by the vernacular masses, an audience, therefore, who were theologically unsophisticated (Antoninus uses the uncharitable term idiotis [idiots]), 7 they were likely to be led away from the articles of the true Faith by Dante's version of Limbo. 8

What, then, is the basis of all this theological concern centring on Dante's Limbo, especially that of Antoninus? Before addressing (for the purpose of answering) the theological objections of the goodly Archbishop, it is first of all necessary to review the orthodox picture of Limbo held by theologians of Dante's time and to explore how Dante's depiction of Limbo did or did not conform to it.


2. Both Pietro (gloss to Inf. 4. 1) and Guido (gloss to Inf. 4. 79) ascribe Dante's novel portrayal of Limbo to poetic licence while Boccaccio (Esposizione allegorica, scs. 16-49), after noting the level of criticism provoked by Limbo's lack of orthodoxy and attempting a weak defence in its support, ends by pledging his allegiance to the truth of the Catholic Faith concerning the doctrine of Limbo.

3. Guido da Pisa, gloss to Inf. 4. 79.

4. Equally suspect in the eyes of the Church were the political views of Dante as expressed in the Monarchia. Cf. Vernani's Tractatus de reprobatione compositae a Dante.

5. See Kaeppeli and Dondaine (1941), 286. Cf. Foster (1977), 65.

6. On Antoninus, see Ricci (1970). The best sources for his life are Walker (1933), Jarrett (1914), and Castiglione (1680).

7. The word idiotae is a technical term to describe the illiterate or illitterati. Cf. Ahern (1997), 217-18.

8. Cf. Chronicon, Part 3, tit. 21, chap. 5, para. 2, c. 306, 2b.

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Dante & the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression, edited by James Miller


Introduction: Retheologizing Dante | James Miller

PART I: Trapassar

Dante’s Limbo: At the Margins of Orthodoxy | Amilcare A. Iannucci

Saving Virgil | Ed King

Sacrificing Virgil | Mira Gerhard

PART II: Trasmutar

Dido Alighieri: Gender Inversion in the Francesca Episode | Carolynn Lund-Mead

Fuming Accidie: The Sin of Dante’s Gurglers | John Thorp

Heresy and Politics in Inferno | Guido Pugliese

Original Skin: Nudity and Obscenity in Dante’s Inferno | Mark Feltham and James Miller

Anti-Dante: Bataille in the Ninth Bolgia | James Miller

Part III: Trasumanar

Rainbow Bodies: The Erotics of Diversity in Dante’s Catholicism | James Miller

Dante/Fante: Embryology in Purgatory and Paradise | Jennifer Fraser

The Cyprian Redeemed: Venereal Influence in Paradiso | Bonnie MacLachlan

PART IV: Traslatar

“Dantescan Light”: Ezra and Eccentric Dante Scholars | Leon Surette

Ezra Pound in the Earthly Paradise | Matthew Reynolds

PART V: Tralucere

Dante and Cinema: Film across a Chasm | Bart Testa

“Moving Visual Thinking”: Dante, Brakhage, and the Works of Energeia | R. Bruce Elder

Driftworks, Pulseworks, Lightworks: The Letter to Dr. Henderson | R. Bruce Elder

PART VI: Trasmodar

Calling Dante: An Exhibition of Sculptures, Drawings, and Installations | Andrew Pawlowski and Zbigniew Pospieszynski

Curatorial Essay: Prophet of the Paragone | James Miller

Calling Dante: Notes on the Artists | James Miller

Calling Dante: A Portfolio of Words and Images | Andrew Pawlowski and Zbigniew Pospieszynski

Calling Dante: From Dante on the Steps of Immortality | Andrew Pawlowski

Notes on Contributors


Notes on Contributors

R. Bruce Elder is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, critic, and professor of film studies in the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto. Retrospectives of his work have been mounted by the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), Cinémathèque Québécoise (Montreal), Senzatitolo (Trento, Italy) and Anthology Film Archives (New York). He is the author of Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (1989), A Body of Vision: The Image of the Body in Recent Film and Poetry (1997), and The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson (1998).

Mark Feltham studied Dante and Bataille with James Miller in 1996–97 and completed his PhD in English at The University of Western Ontario in 2004. He specializes in James Joyce, with particular focus on editorial theory, electronic text theory, and the history of the book. He currently teaches English and writing at Western.

Jennifer Fraser completed her doctoral dissertation on Dante and Joyce at the University of Toronto in 1997. An instructor for the Literary Studies program at the University of Toronto in 2001–02, she has published articles in the James Joyce Quarterly and European Joyce Studies. Her book Rite of Passage in the Narratives of Dante and Joyce was published by the University Press of Florida in 2002.

Mira Gerhard graduated with a BA in classics from Brock University in 1994. She studied Dante’s Commedia with James Miller in 1996–97 at The University of Western Ontario, from which she graduated with an MA in classics in 1998. She continued her studies of Dante, Virgil, and the classical tradition at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto in 1998–99.

Amilcare A. Iannucci was director of the Canadian Academic Centre in Italy from 1981 to 1983 and chair of the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Toronto from 1984 to 1988. He is currently director of the University of Toronto Humanities Centre in University College. He is the author of Forma ed evento nella ‘Divina Commedia’ (1984) and of numerous articles on subjects ranging from Petrarch to Marshall McLuhan. Cofounder of the journal Quaderni d’italianistica, he is also the editor of Dante e la ‘bella scola’ della poesia: autorità e sfida poetica (1993), Dante: Contemporary Perspectives (1997), and Dante, Cinema, and Television (2004). An associate editor of The Dante Encyclopedia (2000), he has also produced an educational video series on The Divine Comedy.

Ed King earned his honorary TS (a transgressive T-Shirt bearing the glowering face of the Poet) after completing all three courses in James Miller’s 1995–96 Dante cycle. He went on to graduate from The University of Western Ontario with a BA in political science and comparative literature in 1998 and an MA in political science in 1999. His Master’s thesis was on economic rhetoric in Machiavelli’s The Prince. In 2004 he graduated with a PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley and joined the faculty in the Department of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal. His main research interests include economic rhetoric and the effect of the imagination on political choices.

Carolynn Lund-Mead is a Toronto-based independent scholar whose publications include “Notes on Androgyny and the Commedia” in Lectura Dantis (1992) and “Dante and Androgyny” in Dante: Contemporary Perspectives (1997). Her doctoral dissertation on the relationship of fathers and sons in Virgil, Dante, and Milton reflects her strong interest in intertexuality, as does her present research for a project on Dante’s biblical allusions in collaboration with Amilcare A. Iannucci.

Bonnie MacLachlan is an associate professor in the Department of Classical Studies at The University of Western Ontario. She is co-editor of Harmonia Mundi: Music and Philosophy in Ancient Greece (1991) and author of The Age of Grace: Charis in Early Greek Poetry (1993). Her articles include “Sacred Prostitution and Aphrodite” (1992), “Personal Poetry” (1997), “The Ungendering of Aphrodite” (2002), and “The Mindful Muse” (2002). Her main research interests include ancient Greek and Roman religion, women in antiquity, ancient music, and the lyric poets Alcaeus, Sappho, Ibycus, Anacreon, and Corinna.

James Miller is Faculty of Arts Professor at the University of Western Ontario and founding director of the Pride Library (www. uwo. ca/pridelib). He is the author of Measures of Wisdom: The Cosmic Dance in Classical and Christian Antiquity (1986) and the editor of Fluid Exchanges: Artists and Critics in the AIDS Crisis (1992). His cycle of Dante courses for the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures provides undergraduates with the rare opportunity to study the entire Dantean corpus over a period of two years. His next project is a study of gay readings/readers of the Commedia from Oscar Wilde to Derek Jarman.

Andrew Pawlowski (MD 1963; MD 1979) established himself in private practice as a dermatologist in Toronto and joined the University of Toronto Medical Faculty in 1983. After teaching himself how to sculpt, he served as the president of the Sculptors Society of Canada from 1992 to 1994. Besides numerous articles in medical journals, his publications include studies of the Polish-Canadian art scene and a cultural history of the Polish community in Toronto, The Saga of Roncesvalles (1993). Since his retirement from medical practice, he has written two novels set in the Middle Ages: Pochylony nad Łokietkiem (“Leaning over Lokietek,” published in 2004) concerning a Polish king in Dante’s time; and Zatrzymac cien Boga (“To Stop the Shadow of God,” forthcoming) on St. Bernard’s role in the Second Crusade. Photographs of his sculptures serve as illustrations for his books.

Zbigniew Pospieszynski studied painting and printmaking at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art, graduating with an MA in 1978. After immigrating to Canada in 1987, he has been active both as an artist and as a curator in the Toronto area. In April of 2004, he mounted a successful exhibition of his work under the auspices of the Roam Contemporary Gallery in New York City. He is currently director of the Peak Gallery in Toronto.

Guido Pugliese (PhD, 1974) teaches Italian literature and language at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. He has lectured on Dante, Boccaccio, Goldoni, Conti, Leopardi, Manzoni, and Verga, and has published articles on most of these authors. His scholarly interests extend to Italian theatre and questions of pedagogy. He has edited the previously unpublished correspondence of Pietro Ercole Gherardi to Muratori (1982) and a collection of papers entitled Perspectives on the Nineteenth Century Italian Novel (1989).

Matthew Reynolds is The Times Lecturer in English at Oxford University and a Fellow of St. Anne’s College. His book on Victorian poetry, The Realms of Verse, was published by Oxford University Press in 2001. He is co-editor, with David Forgacs, of Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (Dent, 1997) and, with Eric Griffiths, of the anthology Dante in English (Penguin, 2005). His next book will be A Rhetoric of Translation.

Leon Surette (PhD, Toronto) is a professor emeritus in the Department of English at the University of Western Ontario where he has taught courses in modern British literature, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, William Golding, literature and philosophy, and literary theory. He is the author of A Light from Eleusis: A Study of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1979), The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats and the Occult (1993), and Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism (1999). He is co-editor of Literary Modernism and the Occult Tradition (1996) and I Cease Not to Yowl: Ezra Pound’s Letters to Olivia Agresti (1998).

Bart Testa teaches film studies and semiotics as senior lecturer in the Cinema Studies Program at Innis College, University of Toronto. He is the author of Spirit in the Landscape (1989), Richard Kerr: Overlapping Entries (1994), and Back and Forth: Early Cinema and the Avant-Garde (1992). His numerous articles on cinema include “An Axiomatic Cinema: The Films of Michael Snow” (1995), “The Double-Twist Allegory: Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal” (1995), and “Seeing with Experimental Eyes: Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes” (1999). He has served as books editor of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies and has long been a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail.

John Thorp THORP studied philosophy at Trent University in Canada and at Magdalen College, Oxford. He taught for the first half of his career at the University of Ottawa, and now teaches at The University of Western Ontario in London. He is the author of Free Will: A Defence against Neurophysiological Determinism (1980) and of numerous articles, including “Aristotle on Probabilistic Reasoning” (1994), “Aristotle’s Rehabilitation of Rhetoric” (1993), and “Aristotle’s Horror Vacui“(1990). His particular field of research is ancient thought, especially the thought of Aristotle. He is past president of the Canadian Philosophical Association.


During his lifetime, Dante was condemned as corrupt and banned from Florence on pain of death. But in 1329, eight years after his death, he was again viciously condemned—this time as a heretic and false prophet—by Friar Guido Vernani. From Vernani’s inquisitorial viewpoint, the author of the Commedia “seduced” his readers by offering them “a vessel of demonic poison” mixed with poetic fantasies designed to destroy the “healthful truth” of Catholicism. Thanks to such pious vituperations, a sulphurous fume of unorthodoxy has persistently clung to the mantle of Dante’s poetic fame.

The primary critical purpose of Dante & the Unorthodox is to examine the aesthetic impulses behind the theological and political reasons for Dante’s allegory of mid-life divergence from the papally prescribed “way of salvation. ” Marking the septicentennial of his exile, the book’s eighteen critical essays, three excerpts from an allegorical drama, and a portfolio of fourteen contemporary artworks address the issue of the poet’s conflicted relation to orthodoxy.

By bringing the unorthodox out of the realm of “secret things,” by uncensoring them at every turn, Dante dared to oppose the censorious regime of Latin Christianity with a transgressive zeal more threatening to papal authority than the demonic hostility feared by Friar Vernani.


``Paired essays offer opposing views on contentious issues in Dante studies. They include two great counterpoint arguments debating Virgil's fate and explore homoerotic imagery, Dante in art and cinema, and Ezra Pound's relationship to Dante. ...The wonderful piece by Carolynn Lund-Mead about women in Dante is a standout. ...Highly recommended. Upper division undergraduates through faculty. ''

- Choice, December 2005

``The essays collected by James Miller in Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression are intent on taking a walk on the wild side--off the `straight ways' of traditional Dante studies and toward quite another notion of the poet as outrageous and transgressive, freewheeling and revolutionary. ... Miller . .. has not only written the lengthy introduction but also three additional essays. All of them are marked by freshness and exuberance. ... He is never less than provocative and engaging. This or that of his observations may be `pushing it,' at least in the lights of the Dante guild, but so what? The man is (to use his word for the Creator) `ablaze'; he also never writes a dull sentence. ... That an entire book full of essays . .. should determine not to succumb to old formulations or received wisdom--should refuse to allow their poet to be tamed--is all to the good. ''

- Peter Hawkins, Christianity and Literature, Volume 56, number 3, Spring 2007

``Always original, often exciting, and sometimes genuinely outrageous, this smart and substantial collection of essays flamboyantly slaps the received wisdom of Dante studies in the face. Better yet, it shows a great medieval poet still speaking clearly and sharply to anyone in the twenty-first century with ears to listen.''

- Steven Botterill, University of California, Berkeley