Abstract Path-breaking work in Dante studies exemplifies some revolutionary methodological approaches to literary criticism that can answer to the crisis of the humanities and the disarray of the university as they are experienced in our present historical predicament. Recuperating a sense of theology as a matter of interpersonal encounter can be applied to the study of literature in such a way as open to an authentic dimension of existence that redeems much of the alienation brought about by inevitable specialization and professionalization. The life-transforming and truth-revealing vocation of the humanities proves to be still vibrantly alive if we can adjust and adopt these perspectives. i. a taboo-breaking approach to reading a classic poem A theological reading of Dante, as announced by the title of Vittorio Montemaggi’s book—Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology1—does not at first sound like a particularly original undertaking. Do not we all know already that Dante is a thoroughly theological author if there ever was one? However, recognising theology as a crucial element in Dante’s writing is not the same thing as reading him theologically—nor even the same as reading his poem as theology.2 Reading the Commedia theologically has been practically forbidden by several centuries of the unofficially secularised academic study of literary texts at the university. Such untheological reading has been required in order to ensure a more scientific, objective attitude on the part of the professional literary critic. The prevailing imperative is: above all, do not mix your own visions and convictions into what you assert about the literary text. Do not make the text say what you want it to say, or use it as a mouthpiece for your own ideas or ‘truths’. Criticism is supposed to aim at what is valid for all readers regardless of their ideological allegiances and confessions of faith. However, these critical canons handed down from the Enlightenment have been eroded and have, to a considerable extent, been evacuated in recent years in the wake of the theory revolution arising as a pervasive groundswell in humanities studies. The supposedly detached, scientific approach to the text has been exposed as itself, in good part, a myth. There is always some, at least implicit, theory already in place and operating, if not explicitly then at least from behind the scenes, in almost any critical undertaking. Inevitably there is some biased agenda in every reading, including supposedly unprejudiced, purely objective, ‘close’ readings of the text. At the very least in the humanities anyway, some kind of personal relation to what is known is constitutive of our knowledge. In light of this insight, or admission (sometimes only reluctantly conceded), it becomes possible once again that we may be authorised to read through our own convictions and even that such personalised reading should be recognised as unavoidable. Even our ‘theologies’ are no less valid as heuristic frameworks for approaching and interacting with literary texts. Theological reading is certainly what Dante himself does throughout his oeuvre, expressing his own vision based on a specific, declared religious faith. This type of reading can be learned from Dante, and it can be applied in turn to reading his own works. But by exactly what rights or authorisation is this the case specifically with respect to theology? Can ‘theology’ be just a personal conviction, and thus hardly different from a personal confession or declaration of belief? How can such a theology have any claim to authority? How can it lay claim to being a divine revelation rather than just an arbitrary, human, and perhaps personal fantasy? There is a real issue here and a genuine conundrum that Montemaggi’s book faces and engages in some particularly audacious and illuminating ways. It entails nothing less than an original understanding of what theology is, an understanding that can be reached perhaps only through the experience of literature. This was evidently the case for Dante himself on a particularly monumental scale. This emerging conception of theology as understood from the workings of literature has been the premise of my own work for at least two and a half decades, and it animates the work of many other critics of Dante, too. But Montemaggi places new emphasis more directly and explicitly on the experience of human encounter as the crucible of theology, the place where divinity is disclosed. This is the crucial move that proves to be so extraordinarily fecund. It has long been clear to many scholars in the humanities that theology has to be understood differently than as a revelation of undialectical truths dictated from above. Such figures of presumed authority surely convey something important about the uniquely challenging and imperious nature of theological knowledge. There may be a claim to authority here that is also worthy of being heeded in some form, honoured as one’s own father and mother are to be honoured. Nevertheless, there is also an overriding need to be able to understand theology literarily and not just literally. What is most immediately and crucially at stake in theological discourse is not necessarily propositions about ‘God’, or about ultimate or ‘last’ things, so much as what human expressions can do in evoking their own ultimate limits vis-à-vis what surpasses them, beginning with the other human being in front of us—the one in relation to whom we stand and speak. Theology, for Montemaggi, is fundamentally a matter of human encounters, and these are by their intrinsic nature open to a certain kind of infinity and imponderability. This dimension of depth does not perhaps require dogmatic discourses about God as the Transcendent and Infinite and therefore as nothing that can be grasped. Nonetheless, exactly that type of enunciation may have a kind of pertinence and necessity, too, especially in the historical unfolding of a discursive tradition and in the evolution of collective experience and its social and institutional formations. It may prove necessary historically to have passed through and to have retained this experience of inexpressibility of the divine in order to see and to fully perceive the encounter with the other human being whom one faces in the dimension of the infinite that opens into what poets like Dante and Blake call the ‘divine vision’. On this basis, it becomes possible to recognise human encounter as the locus of actual theological revelation, as well as of the disclosure of truth in literature and in humanities texts generally. This recognition opens a new vista for scholarly study and for classroom teaching, and even quite generally for the mission of disseminating culture. I understand the opening or disclosing in question as a self-reflective hermeneutic move. It takes the interpreters and their own activity as integral to what is being examined and studied. This move makes the object of study personal and interior to one’s own life and experience. Just such a redefinition of the object and objectives of knowledge underlies Giambattista Vico’s ‘new science’ (scienza nuova) of knowledge in the humanities. It is also the kernel of the hermeneutic revolution effected in modern phenomenological philosophy, especially by Martin Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and by Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. This interpretive revolution was the basis for and the object of detailed study in my own theological approach to the Commedia in Dante’s Interpretive Journey.3 By radically following out certain implications of this sort of hermeneutic revolution, Montemaggi has written a truly path-breaking book, one that is a game-changer rather than only a contribution of a few more erudite details concerning some specific cruxes. The book exemplifies and explores, in a pioneering spirit, a different way of doing literary criticism and of pursuing study in the humanities. The change, nevertheless, for all its momentousness, is effected by only a nuance of difference. Actually, this new approach is easily within the reach of all. It is, I believe, what most all of us in critical humanities studies have been aiming at all along, without fully realising how or why, and without understanding ourselves as fully authorised to do so. We are, at the university, all conditioned by the reigning notions about our activities as ‘teachers’ and ‘researchers’. Institutional structures and cultural myths have imposed themselves in certain ways that militate against our being fully and honestly human in these ‘professional’ pursuits. To consciously reflect on and bring our activities back to the sources of their significance in human interactions is most salutary, and Montemaggi performs an invaluable service by reinstating this focus. Montemaggi’s literary-critical meditation is an ingenious intervention into a specific type of community—the modern university—and its characteristic culture that, disturbingly, has lost its human focus. In so many ways, the institution directs us to strive after recognition for ‘excellence’ as single individuals who are quantitatively assessed and ranked. Despite their obvious, even ostentatious visibility, such recognitions remain abstract and artificial in comparison with what can be concretely accomplished in communities of learning through direct interactions among human beings. The inspired move that Montemaggi makes is to take the sometimes lurid world of scholarly manoeuvring for advancement and advantage or enhanced ‘visibility’, with its infernal miseries, and to totally forgive its low-comedic misdemeanours and all its human folly. He transfigures this tragedy to a touchingly personal and triumphant story led on by faith and hope and love for all that human encounters can and should be. He embraces wholeheartedly the personal side of the profession—in which it is not what you know but who you know that counts—and rather than dwelling on how it compromises scholarly integrity and fairness brings out its vast potential for just the opposite. Not objective standards and detached judgment, which treat each individual as a separate and measurable quantity, are called for to save us from the hell of envy and backbiting. Instead, we need actual encounter with one another as persons, indeed as singular individuals deeply akin and yet radically ‘other’ to one another, irremediably incommensurable. Only taking the devil by the horns and diving straight into the abyss of this inextricably personal dimension can neutralise its untoward and potentially hellish aspects. All that can answer for any of us is being the unique person that each one of us is—and not accumulating more accolades or publishing more articles in higher ranking journals than our neighbour. These are human truths that humanities scholars need to hold fast to so as not to let them be wrested away by the overwhelming pressures for quantifiable achievements along our career paths within educational institutions under the sway of technical-scientific models and driven by control-crazy and accountability-obsessed bureaucracies. A. Ways and Means: A Personal Voice Striking from its first words is the inhabitual voice and tone of address that this book establishes with its reader. From its outset, this book raises and probes the question of the possible and proper place of autobiographical speech in the scholarly study of literature. In significant and expressly self-reflective ways, the whole book is an expansion of the ‘Acknowledgments’ section that is typically relegated by publishers to the ‘front matter’ consisting of preliminary information before the book in earnest begins. In Montemaggi’s own self-understanding, this act of acknowledging his indebtedness to others, including especially those with whom he has studied and taught Dante, is not merely preliminary: it expresses, in fact, the most important outcome and the highest purpose of his activity as a Dantista. Dante’s work and its meaning are disclosed essentially in and through the exchanges with other human beings engaging in the study of Dante. This is Dante’s own lesson, moreover, as Montemaggi understands it: all along the journey staged in the Divine Comedy, Dante’s encounter with God transpires essentially through his encounters with other human souls. In the face of and in response to such an interpersonal orientation of scholarly endeavour, I can perhaps do no better than to offer the witness of my own personal experience. My own immediate reaction to this form of address from the opening of the book was to hear how right it sounded, how necessary and true to our times. There is, at least implicitly, some such personal discourse in most all scholarly writings and activities. At some level, these exchanges revolve around who we are and what we are doing and aiming at in writing and researching. Yet this level remains for the most part submerged and even scrupulously filtered out of what is exposed directly on the page of an academic study. It remains secret, a hidden recess. There is perhaps something scandalous, as this author notes, about so nakedly exposing our personal motives and stake in the journey of writing and in the human encounters entailed in publishing an academic book. Yet this candid openness communicated in frank avowal also brings relief: it has an evident and unmistakable necessity. It is only honest to admit that this personal participation and implication is somehow present in everything that is done in the name of scholarship. Such a move might be suspected of representing a step down the path of decadence and professional self-deconstruction—of the decline of scholarship as a scientifically sound and verifiable enterprise. It violates authoritative canons that have reigned for centuries and dictated the rules of the game. Yet this shift in the positioning of the author within his own work, this unabashed unmasking of the authorial ‘I’ as an interested agent in professional and personal networks engaged in processes of establishing relationships, surprisingly imposed itself on me in this instance as natural and necessary. It felt like breathing a breath of fresh air into the conversation circulating around one of the most densely traversed of scholarly territories and traditions. I was tempted at first, when asked to be a referee for a promotions dossier based on this manuscript, to take a somewhat jaundiced view of ‘yet another’ reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy. And yet, there was something here that really was a palpably different discourse—already from its first paragraphs—simply by virtue of the style and voice that it projected, together with their implications for the method of approach. The book spoke to me with a kind of authority, not because of its being typical of the most esteemed scholarly ‘productions’ of our time, but for the opposite reason—because of its having a distinctive voice of its own that I immediately and intuitively recognised as being sorely needed in the midst of our current crisis of belief in the humanities. It was a naked confession exposing a rather covert and shadowy side of humanities scholarship for what it is. This manuscript stood on nothing but the authority of its own authenticity as personal witness. And, in fact, that alone, to my mind, more than whatever well-recognised means of legitimation by pseudo-scientific methods and supposedly validating scholarly standards, justified its being heeded. The timeliness of Montemaggi’s work consists in its moving apparently within—but in order to turn subtly against—certain trends that are destroying the humanities. It does so not in an ideological way, by means of strident protest, but rather by returning to the forgotten core of humanities learning. Virtually everything in the institution today is motivating faculty to abandon interest in teaching and even commitment to genuine intellectual exchange. All are encouraged instead to concentrate almost exclusively on abstract, artificial accomplishments that can be quantified, assessed, and ranked. There is relentlessly increasing pressure to produce always in visible and accountable terms. Purely technical rather than personal accomplishment becomes all that counts. Montemaggi’s work, in contrast, witnesses convincingly to the foundation of scholarship in real relationships with students and among colleagues. It is this vital, collective endeavour, rather than isolating and desperate competition, that nourishes intellectual and even spiritual life. Our health and survival as scholars and devotees of the humanities depend on our recovering this nurturing ground and fertile soil of our intellectual endeavour: indeed, some such grounding and nourishment in person-to-person transactions is vital to most any type of human undertaking. B. Context: The Professional Predicament Scholarship and culture, in the estimation of many, have been losing their integrity and have been becoming soulless in our age of total technological control over human lives and of the clarion call to digital humanities. A countervailing clarion call of alarm has been sounded often enough.4 But such appeals for a restoration of ‘morality’ in education are almost all in vain. We cannot seriously resist the long-term transformations of society from the ground up: they affect every sphere of our activity and consciousness. At best, we can learn to evolve creatively along with them in such a way that they can be made to be productive rather than stifling. We have limited choices that we can make as to how we situate ourselves with respect to these sea changes. If it is time for the self-deconstruction of scholarship and of humanities studies as they have been known throughout previous ages, then so be it. There may be some way of moving along with even these movements that can take the agony and death pains out of them and transfigure them into a new birth, the birth of a playful babe. How, then, can the death throes of outmoded humanities scholarship be newly animated with dancing and desire for life? I think that Montemaggi’s work answers to this question and achieves something of the nature of such a new birth. His work restores for me (if I, too, may be so bold as to express myself in correspondingly personal terms) the glimmer of hope that liberal arts education at the university can still be life-transforming in the most radical and most ennobling of ways. Without the pretension of possessing a superior morality to be taught to those who stand beneath it and are in need of instruction from their betters, such education furnishes opportunities to form the soul through human encounter. Such encounter is a mutual adventure in which all are turned towards others who transcend them. Something like this is indeed how Dante teaches that we can become divine. Although its actual advent strikes a surprisingly and even startlingly new note of originality, there are, after all, very considerable precedents for this personal turn in critical discourse. In fact, a strong necessity has been causing scholarship to drift in precisely this direction for a long time. Montemaggi’s book raises fully to consciousness a transformation that until now has gone on for the most part subliminally as an invisible change effecting silent transformation. The specialised field of Dante studies in particular offers significant examples of this very widespread ‘personal turn’ throughout humanities disciplines. Heather Webb, whose work is in fact closely intertwined with Montemaggi’s, derives this focus directly from Dante in another profound and original reading of his poem in Dante’s Persons.5 John Took’s Conversations with Kenelm: Essays on the Theology of the Commedia more specifically anticipates Montemaggi’s inclusion of his relationships with other scholars as integral to his reading of the poem.6 Took, too, made personal relationship between a teacher and his student, and among friends and colleagues, into the framework for a scholarly exploration of some of the long-standing controversies and current questions of Dante scholarship. The work did not gain the notice that Montemaggi’s work is bound to achieve thanks to its being published by one of the most prestigious and widely circulating of academic presses. Moreover, Took’s book still endeavours in most ways to remain within the pale of traditional Dante scholarship, even though its own most natural impulses work against the grain of the scholarly convention of disinterested impersonality. Although well aware that something major is at stake in the personalisation of scholarship as a ‘conversation’ with a revered teacher, Took does not, like Montemaggi, programmatically embrace the desire to express the personal as the key to a new methodology in explicit and deliberate rupture with the accepted canons of scholarly publication. We have generally been inclined to feel a little apologetic about resorting to an intensely personal register in scholarly study. Sharing with Took an existential approach to Dante, my own work of twenty years ago (Dante’s Interpretive Journey, 1996) made a personal theological vision integral to a reading of the poem as a whole. Pivoting on ‘Dante’s Address to the Reader’ (Chapter 1), this book was inspired by the same essential insight that is now propounded by Montemaggi, namely, that the event of theological truth is located by Dante in his human interaction with others. In my approach, this event occurs most significantly in relation to the reader. Transposing theology from the realm of dogma to personal existential witness, Dante resituates truth not in an objective system of symbols but in the human act of interpretation—and indeed in interactive human encounter.7 Behind the shift to the first-person form of address, which is now being employed more freely by many scholars, is a shift in the very conception of scholarship. Perhaps the most immediate and fundamental alteration to the rules of the game in Montemaggi’s book is its working to circumvent the competitive structure of scholarly endeavour in the academic institution. Seeking directly and explicitly to share love and friendship through our study of authors like Dante and others of his tradition is an obvious ideal, but one that had seemed to become illusory and almost impossible until Montemaggi's witness reminded us of how necessary it is—and how simple! Describing his rich experience of human encounters enables a new type of value to emerge, something different from the presumable ‘excellence’ that academic praise and prizes are generally supposed to honour and recognize. There is something artificial and finally arbitrary about all such rankings and the judgments on which they are based. Something more humanly real, although also elusive and immeasurable, shines through the description of actual experience in pedagogical settings and in research communities that makes up such an important part of the substance of Montemaggi’s book. His personal experience as a scholar and simply as a reader of Dante—an active one whose reading registers its effects at every level from the academic summit and symposium to the family reunion—becomes a subtle and probing exploration of the primary meaning of the poem even in its revelation of theological truth. Sooner or later, we can hardly avoid butting up against a certain limit of what is possible (at least to receive) in terms of virtuoso readings of Dante’s poem, each new one needing to prove itself to be more accurate or excellent than all of its precursors, at least on some specific point. The game of one-upmanship plays itself out eventually—and it has been going on for a long time in relation to The Divine Comedy, this most classic of all modern-language classics. Some new turn was necessary if Dante studies were going to continue to flourish, and I think Montemaggi has hit upon a direction that inevitably had to be taken. The drive to constantly outreach or outshine one’s peers is bound to turn bitter and desperate through rivalries that are fated to reproduce scenarios all too analogous to certain excruciating scenes of Dante’s Inferno. Montemaggi’s shift to another register and pragmatic level of approach was necessary if the vitality of the discipline was to be renewed rather than be left to languish in the throes of competitive imperatives to compare with, and inevitably to eclipse or exclude, one’s fellows. C. Classroom Teaching This transformation of relationships put into effect by Montemaggi’s book is not only about scholarship. One area that Montemaggi throws into a particularly bright new light is classroom teaching. The book describes astonishingly simple but appropriate gestures of doing what the concrete situation urgently demands—however much it may be discouraged or even demeaned by the usual academic protocols. Vittorio describes instructing students to interact with one another in questioning cognizance of what each particular person’s life might consist in and come from—whence it might be given. This is not a matter of information, nor even of however intricate analysis, so much as simply of attention to the particularity of the other person. By turning our attention in this direction, we enter into a new dimension of interaction that completely changes the dynamics of classroom experience and of the discussion it fosters of classics such as the Divine Comedy. The poem is not primarily an object to be mastered by detailed information and analysis. Instead, it is about us. And in order to understand it, we have to actually experience discovering ourselves through discovering others. The best and most fulfilling experiences that I, too, have had in the classroom have been owing to just the kind of interactional dynamics that this book so convincingly depicts. This entails the letting down of guarded egos, and it issues in shared exploration and discovery of oneself in relation to and along with others. Montemaggi’s putting his finger on the keys to these magical moments of collective breakthrough clarifies and fixes for me the ideal of what teaching in our liberal arts colleges can and should aim to attain. That is why this discussion will remain a guide and reference to me for years to come. It proposes not just a new idea or perspective but an actual practice that can be implemented and should be applied in our own teaching activity. By virtue of this experiential appropriation and incorporation, such a practice has much more potential staying power than any mere idea, without concrete application, could possibly command. Most importantly, then, this book is life-changing. Momentous as it sounds, this turns out to be surprisingly simple in its premises. It is a matter, most simply, of connecting with Dante’s work as one of the great guides to life-changing spiritual journeying featured in world literature and trusting it to guide and challenge us in our human encounters even in professional contexts. Curiously, Montemaggi’s book comes at the crest and on the cusp of a new wave of books, a spate of publications sometimes of a less scholarly and more directly self-help character, which celebrate the reading of Dante as integral to journeys of self-discovery leading to spiritual awakening.8 The book is a timely reminder—at almost any time, but especially at this moment of particularly low morale in humanities studies at the university—of the untold riches of our human encounters and relationships. These invaluable life experiences are all too easily forgotten in the fray of jockeying for position and prestige and aiming for advancement in careers and highly trumped up, if not completely arbitrary, rankings. This overweening care for career disseminates the poison that kills what has attracted us to studies in the humanities in the first place, namely, the discovery, through sharing with one another, of the invaluable riches of being human. Embroiled in the exactions of our ‘profession’, we had almost forgotten about that! ii. reading dante as a way of life: or how to do things with theology The book, accordingly, is most innovative in its construction of an authorial persona, personal voice, and extra-professional ethos. It projects a new (however canonical) figure of the humanities scholar as primarily a person devoted to love and to seeking the truth through encountering other humans. I suspected that the actual analysis of the poem (reached in earnest only later in the third and final chapter of the book) would probably be somewhat thin and limited in its range and penetration. There was such expansiveness and detailed development concerning the methodological innovativeness of its approach that I did not expect the work to offer any other major contribution. It seemed that new interpretations of the specifics of the poem were not its point or purpose. But, in the end, this suspicion proved to be erroneous. The simplicity of reducing the poem’s representations to their unfathomable theological truth experienced in human encounter also lays bare underlying aspects and overarching structures of Dante’s poetic masterpiece as a work of theological revelation. The new approach to scholarship and teaching presented as a methodological breakthrough turned out, as the book progressed, to grow organically out of reading the specific contents of Dante’s poem in all their startling and intellectually groundbreaking originality. Very suggestive insights into Dante’s poem, and into its purport as a whole, arise, for instance examining the structural correspondences between the Earthly Paradise (Purgatorio 27–30) and the Heaven of the Fixed Stars (Paradiso 22–27). Montemaggi insists repeatedly on these culminating passages as depicting places where Dante’s integrity is restored at different levels of relationship. The respective summits of the terrestrial and the celestial universes are each junctures of completed self-reflection where Dante names himself for the only time in the text (Purgatorio 30.55) and designates himself as ‘poeta’ (Paradiso 25.9). There is much at stake in this self-reflexive naming and designating of his personal and poetic identity. And, of course, it all has to be understood theologically. Only the perfect mirroring of all things in God enables human self-reflection to complete itself—by an act of grace—in Dante’s view. An implied metaphysics of God being more intimate to us than our own self-reflective identities is a fundamental part of what a theology of human encounter reveals. The book proffers many completely new observations of minute details that all of a sudden become macroscopically revealing. Coherent with the methodological emphasis on the personal and confessional, this happens particularly through attention to the significance of first-person discourse. Attention is drawn to the grammar of the singular and the plural first-person used sometimes illogically in order to raise us to a trans-categorical consciousness of unity. Perhaps most obviously and strikingly, the singular figure of the eagle in Paradiso 19 speaks as ‘we’, while the community of the divine Trinity speaks as ‘I’. The former is but one figure and yet is composed of a multiplicity of souls constellating the Heaven of Jupiter. The latter is a multiplicity of persons and yet also a unity or communion of one indivisible being. These are grammatical hints of a certain transcendence of the I–we dichotomy. Subjectivity, the ‘I’, is thus more fundamentally understood as relational and as consisting primarily in community, the ‘we’. The first-person pronoun ‘I’, moreover, is the name of God spoken by Adam in the Garden of Eden (as we know from Paradiso 26.134), whereas after the Fall God was called by the third-person pronoun ‘El’. Montemaggi points out provocatively that the one time that Christ’s own vernacular language, Aramaic, is cited (in Purgatorio 23.74), the name of God, Eli, consists in these two words, El and I, together and in reverse order. He discerns, then, a subtle but precise suggestion in this grammatological figure. Christ’s final cry from the cross at the accomplishment of his redemptive act (Eli, eli lama sabachthani, Matthew 27:46), marks the transition back from the third- to the first-personal naming of God. This is essentially the return that is achieved finally also by Dante himself in Paradise. In other words, Dante knows God by actually himself becoming divine in his own first-personal experience as subject. In fact, this is arguably the only way of knowing the divine that is possible for us. As theologians from Meister Eckhart to Nicholas Cusanus affirm, we cannot have knowledge of God as an object separate from us. As in this instance, theological doctrine is often given incomparably precise expression by poetry. In another motif given relief by Montemaggi’s reading, certain degrees of humility can be conveyed not by explicit self-critique or recantation but only indirectly, by the self-ironising smiling of Paradise. Hence Gregory the Great’s amusement at his error concerning the angelic hierarchy. This otherworldly smiling at the revelation of one’s own earthly failings is illuminated by similar moments featuring Statius and Virgil. In all these cases, direct personal encounters with others serve to correct characters’ theoretical convictions and to reveal the truth. The poem is read very selectively, but with considerable penetration. Theology realised in personal encounter emerges as a way of relating to others in infinite openness to truthfulness and love and without any fixed, determinate doctrinal content. This is achieved primarily not through elaborate exegesis but through intensive statement of gratitude to others in recognition of their goodness as a theologically serious and significant act of opening oneself in acknowledgment to the other and relinquishing the quest to be one’s own ground. Such personal statement can be a puissant way of becoming a signifier of the divine. A. A Personal Parenthesis Before dealing with more specifics of Montemaggi’s reading of the poem, I beg indulgence for a personal reflection. It is at least in keeping with the genre! My first book on Dante (Dante’s Interpretive Journey) combined a theory of interpretation with a reading of the poem. The two worked in a symbiosis similar to the methodologically-laden readings offered by Montemaggi. The things that Montemaggi writes at the end of his book, finally, about the journey—which is more a journey of the poet than of the pilgrim Dante, indeed a journey in self-interpretation—are basically the theses that I was advocating almost twenty years ago in Dante’s Interpretive Journey, albeit in a more philosophical register. This speculative perspective made these points more difficult, and perhaps less appealing, for most literary readers. The message did not find the same ready access and resonance for the broad range of Dante scholars that Montemaggi’s book is perfectly poised to achieve. Theory is more difficult to get across on its own than is story. This is the advantage of the anecdotal narrative style employed by Montemaggi. I aimed instead to offer a theory that was valid on its own terms as a philosophical vision that happened to be powerfully illustrated by Dante’s poem. I therefore see Montemaggi’s contribution as necessary to carry out the interpretive revolution that Dante’s Interpretive Journey, in its own way, was attempting to effect by translating a certain lived experience of theological revelation from Dante’s medieval poem into our contemporary context and into the language of hermeneutic philosophy and critical theory. The theoretical revelation becomes fully perceptible only through narrativisation of the way we actually go about working with and appropriating the text of the Divine Comedy, with its inexhaustible reservoir of humanity. Montemaggi shows how this is done through human, including scholarly, encounters. What is most remarkable about Montemaggi’s discourse is that it always adheres to the pulse of its own encounter with and discovery of the text. It reads in filigree and follows the logic of its own commitments. It does not get caught up in scholastic exercises of proving grand schemes and ignoring recalcitrant particulars in order to maintain consistency. There is no stubborn adherence to working out all the implications or corollaries of a thesis for the sake of completeness where they have no intrinsic interest of their own. Montemaggi’s interpretations arise wholly from surprising encounters with the nuances of the text. Scarcely anything seems to be only pro forma. When Montemaggi pursues an interpretation that seems prima facie implausible but proves necessary to bear witness to his encounter with Dante’s words, he always evinces a genuine throbbing desire to see things in the paradoxical way suggested simply because that way of seeing is understood to be a revelation of love. Just as for Augustine, the improbable becomes irresistible if it is motivated by love. The interpretations are always motivated also by a genuine sense of surprise and discovery—with perhaps the inevitable exception of a few perfunctory genuflections to the reigning powers of the Dante profession. B. Some Specifics for Reading the Poem I wish now to add some further notes on the interpretation of specific points in the poem that expand its general interpretation of the paramount importance of personal encounter to any generally credible form of theological revelation. In particular, the questions of prayer and penance, and of pride and salvation, receive searching reflection thanks to their treatment as expressed by literary forms with potential for representing human encounters. Where dogmatic theological discursive formulations inevitably bring on contradictions, in actual encounter and in poetic narrative these differences can be mediated. What is contradictory in abstract verbal formulations can be lived in all its contrary tendencies with rich intensity, revealing previously unsuspected possibilities for human experience. Theology in Montemaggi’s understanding of it is not abstract reasoning about supposedly metaphysical beings. Instead, human interactions are concretely observed as revealing divine possibilities. This type of observation opens a field for genuine debate, where criticisable and improvable judgment, picking up on hints to be perceived in the text and in human life as it informs our perceptions, can be taken into account. One of the scandals with which Dante’s poem certainly has to deal is his pride and presumption in apparently delivering divine judgments on real as well as fictional characters, contemporaries as well as historical figures. In doing so, Dante seems to be playing at being God, a blasphemous undertaking. The answer to this problem offered by Montemaggi is basically to make all of Dante’s representations achieve their validity not as straightforward pronouncements but only relative to the other human beings through whom Dante encounters God, ones whose different points of view can also change or reverse the sense of all his—and our—own judgments. On this basis, every minute nuance of Dante’s representations in the poem takes on far-reaching significance in Montemaggi’s reading. This is the case, for example, of the word ‘martiro’ (martyrdom, torment). It proves capable of making what seem prima facie to be contradictory connections. It is used in conjunction with the severed head of Bertram de Born in Inferno 28.54 and also with the beheading of Holofernes by Judith in Purgatorio 12.60. That ‘martiro’ occurs again in the description of the beheading of John the Baptist in Paradiso 18.133–35 turns out to be a significant suggestion of continuity between severed heads as a punishment and as a mark of holiness. Montemaggi discerns in the background, standing behind this archetype, the legend of Saint Minias, patron saint of Saint Miniato al Monte. Having gathered up his severed head from the place of his execution near the Piazza della Signoria, he then walked back to his hermitage at the site of the church San Miniato al Monte, which still stands today above Florence. The violent ambiguity of this image can be deciphered and sorted out only in terms of specific human encounters. The violence involved in Dante’s interpretive game itself is not divorced from divine justice: Dante contemplates this dense knot (nodo) that cannot be easily loosed by human reasoning. Justice and love cannot be understood apart from each other, and the violence natural to life cannot be excluded from the mystery. There are theological problems here that require not so much a rational resolution as concrete human encounter in order for insight into and acceptance of truth to open up from within our separate and egotistical and prideful selves faced with the—to us—often unacceptable givens of experience. The book abounds in disarmingly simple statements that in their specific situational contexts break forth as undeniable truths, ones so obvious that they generally elude us. For example: ‘The only truth, ultimately, is that of love, and the purpose of Dante’s text is that of awaking love in us’ (202). We all know this, or should know it. It is perhaps even a banality. But reading the text in such a way as to make it lead up convincingly to this conclusion is rather exceptional. Such a reading breaks on the mind and spirit with the force of a prophetic revelation. This is also how Dante’s love for Virgil becomes an imposing human reality. It seems to be very literary when in Inferno 1.83–84 Dante first mentions his great love for Virgil’s ‘volume’. But by comparing it with the other uses of ‘love’ in the poem, this love becomes identified with the driving force that subtends the poem and even human life as a whole. Among the simple yet jolting truths to which this reading leads is: ‘Dante’s encounter with Virgil is already encounter with the divine’ (p. 208). Montemaggi contends that the question of salvation and particularly of Virgil’s (possibility of) salvation is central to the Commedia as a whole. But plausible as this is, it is not so much an assertion about the poem and what it says as about what we make of it. The main contention here is that Virgil’s salvation is neither affirmed nor denied by the poem as such, but that each reader needs to be engaged with the question and that the answer can come only from this engagement. The subjective element and first-person perspective, then, are quite inescapable and even become ultimate. Our salvation, like our damnation, is not a judgment handed down either by God or by anyone else. Salvation is much more a matter of being able to open up to others so that one can be saved from oneself, saved from being a mere mortal ego despairing over its own inevitable demise. This is a salvation that can be enacted directly in reading and interpreting. A statement such as: ‘Before the mystery of salvation, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction collapses’ (p. 202) emerges as much more than just a platitudinous generality when it is made real and is encountered in the reader’s own experience. In crucial ways the poem’s central problem is the question of salvation. It is played out with respect to Virgil’s salvation, and it becomes the question of our own salvation. How open can we be to human encounter, and thereby to encounter with God? This is a question raised for Montemaggi especially by his reading of Primo Levi. Montemaggi repeatedly references a future second book that he is composing on this topic. The general significance of Primo Levi seems to lie in his demonstrating that the most dire extremes of human experience do not exclude but can even call forth the possibility of human and (therewith) even of divine openness. And therein lies salvation. There are many precious details that one wants to hang on to as keys to interpretations of very unexpected sorts. It is ceaselessly surprising how every inflection of Dante’s poem suggests more meaning than could ever have been anticipated, and Montemaggi’s reading brings many such surprises out into the open. It has the advantage of being an open reading without fixed convictions as to the meaning of its contents. The contents of this reading are infinitely open to being examined in light of the qualities of the encounters that they engender. Within these parameters, Montemaggi seems predisposed to read for ambiguities. Almost any line seems ready to yield, upon examination, to meaning something other than—and perhaps even opposite to—what it ostensibly states. This could seem a perverse way of reading, but actually any other pretension to fixing of the sense of the letter of the text runs grave risks of its own. A particularly significant example can be found in one of the most widely known and cited, and apparently unequivocal, lines of the Commedia: ‘Lasciate ogni speranza voi che ’ntrate’ (‘Leave all hope behind you who enter’). The imperious tone itself seems impossible not to hear as an imposing imperative. And yet what would be the sense of such a command? Those condemned to hell no longer have any choice. Accordingly, Montemaggi finds here a statement of fact, since the grammar is the same whether the mood is indicative or imperative. Read in this way, the sentence is meant as an observation of tragic fact rather than as a divine decree beyond repeal. There would be no point in commanding the souls to give up hope, since they are already being punished by precisely this predicament of despair, and eternally. So Montemaggi suggests instead that the line could be heard as saying simply that those who enter hell leave hope behind them. He even suggests that perhaps their leaving hope behind is precisely what makes them enter hell. In other words: ‘You who have abandoned hope have entered hell.’ That is a powerful alternative interpretation and a condensed statement encapsulating something of a comprehensive theology of hope. Such an interpretation reflects the type of insight that has been elaborated by modern theologians of hope in the wake especially of Jürgen Moltmann.9 Another line that Montemaggi turns around teasingly in the opposite direction in order to reopen the question of hope for the damned is Beatrice’s saying to Virgil in Inferno 2.71 that she comes from the place where she desires to return, namely, heaven or more exactly the Empyrean. The Italian ‘vegno del loco ove tornar desio’ can also be construed as saying: ‘I come from the place where desire returns.’ This is less natural in its context (since in Italian it presupposes elision of an auxiliary verb working with the infinitive ‘tornar’), but it, too, is a possible grammatical construal of the phrase—taking desio as substantive noun rather than as first person present indicative verb. Virgil uses a form of the same word in this way as a noun in Inferno 4.42 in his definition of the state of Limbo: ‘sanza speme vivemo in disio’ (‘without hope we live in desire’). The suggestion emerges once again that being without hope is itself hell—as even Virgil himself understands it—but that beyond this rational sense there is an evergreen possibility of hope that he is overlooking. Desire, by its nature, according to this innovative construal of Virgil’s as well as of Beatrice’s utterance, returns to heaven. And, thus, living in desire entails still an orientation to the Empyrean and implies a hope—or even a mode—of salvation and return to heaven: if Virgil himself were only aware of it! C. Personal Truth Montemaggi’s suggestions make me look at quite a significant number of passages like those alluded to above somewhat differently. Every word of such texts is sifted for many as yet unexplored possibilities of meaning. A sense of the presence of Dante himself creating his own coherent expression guides these readings. The poem is read as first-person theological expression and witness and, as such, is also about ultimate and indefinable values. Not merely correct interpretation but, finally, unfathomable human encounter, as undergirding and underwriting the invitation and challenge of the poem, is the bottom line determining its sense. Montemaggi reads with an encyclopedic grasp of all the occurrences of every word or image in Dante’s enormous poem. The nautical descent of Geryon in Inferno 17 evokes comparison to the underwater plunge as associated with divine unfathomability, as also in a tercet from Paradiso 19.61–63 referencing the sea’s depth that conceals its bottom (‘cela lui l’esser profondo’). The truth value of fiction which appears to be a lie in this episode is mentioned again later in Purgatorio 15.117, with Dante’s reference to his ‘non-false errors’ (‘i miei non falsi errori’). This link brings to light more of the internal connecting tissue of concepts in the poem. Montemaggi emphasises the circular reasoning in Dante’s efforts to authenticate his poem by having it assert its own authority. In the Geryon passage, Dante swears on the authority of his own ‘commedía’ that he actually saw exactly what his poem reports. And, again, in the heaven of the fixed stars with reference to the Christian faith, the miraculous spread of Christianity is taken for incontrovertible evidence of its truth in an obvious begging of the question (petitio principii). The point in both cases is exposure of the nature of truthfulness as not external to poetic discourse and its makings but rather as discoverable only in and through oneself and one’s own commitment to truthfulness. Swearing to truthfulness by no other authority than one’s own is an honest admission of having no other authority whatever. It is simply an exposure of oneself—which is the very nature of honesty and truthfulness—or ‘justice’, as this study redefines it. The constant reference to colleagues and scholars and to all that they have contributed to his work similarly is a naked exposure of the nature of making a career in scholarship today as a matter, first and foremost, of ingratiating oneself with one’s peers and of allying oneself with the recognised authorities in a field. This is the obverse side of the reality of human and professional encounters, one that is being strategically ignored in Montemaggi’s panegyric to scholarly collaboration. Yet this more dubious side is so obviously displayed that like Poe’s purloined letter it becomes practically invisible. Montemaggi’s move is a brilliant reversal of the competitive cast of scholarship governed by the anxieties of influence and comparison that so generally hold sway in academic ambiences. Of course, the reversal is not quite completely free of the dynamics it reverses, although it certainly succeeds in showing another face of scholarly ambition and endeavour. What remains is the interconnectedness of both tendencies. Both sides, the competitive and the collaborative, need to operate as not entirely exclusive of each other. In the end, I believe, together with Montemaggi and Dante himself, that only a divine perspective can help us rise above the inevitable tragedy of human rivalries—especially as René Girard lucidly discloses them, exemplarily in La violence et le sacré (1972). On the basis of this optics, then, we can consider also the pain as well as the joy involved in our being human and engaging in scholarly exchange and professional activity. Dante did not filter this tragic human reality out of his vision. On the contrary, he probed it as deeply as possible in and through infernal imagining. It seems a requirement of divine justice that this agonistic reality be acknowledged as well. Montemaggi’s book makes reading Dante seem, in a sense, easy: at least, there is no great risk of being contradicted in what one personally experiences and expresses. Each person is entitled to their own subjective experience. This may even make the job of the critic too easy. Yet the real challenge remains intact and every bit as demanding: it is to communicate, through one’s own experience, something that is genuinely meaningful and potentially life transforming for others. And this is a momentous challenge indeed. Nevertheless, I think that in one respect Montemaggi may make theology a little too easy by saying that the poem is about the actualisation in human encounter of our ‘inherent divinity’ (p. 209). This has not always been so easy for theology in the Christian tradition to affirm. It harbours the risk of turning Christian belief into a Gnostic doctrine that compromises God’s unique transcendence with some form of pantheism. It leans towards misrecognising God’s free gift of himself to us through his creation—to us who have nothing at all as inherently our own. Such affirmations have been a subject of controversy and have led to condemnations of many well-meaning theological thinkers as heretics over the last two millennia. Of course, Montemaggi’s personal approach to theology through acknowledgment of gifts is the antidote to and the antithesis of all this. But Montemaggi, in any case, does not enter into divisive doctrinal definitions, and at the level of open human encounter, everything imaginable has some type of pertinence to truth. Moreover, Dante himself, at least at some stage, was one of those heretical humanist philosophers who considered the human intellect to be that ‘most precious part of the soul which is divinity’ (‘preziosissima parte de l’anima che è deitade’, Convivio III.ii.19)! Still, we have to remember that theology is not only what we want to make of it. On the contrary, most distinctive about theological discourse is its remembering and heeding a higher authority than our own, one to whom we remain beholden. Of course, our recognition of such authority always entails specific ways and means, and for these the responsibility can only be our own. Negotiating the interface between the absolute and the relative remains infinitely problematic under any circumstances, and only the more so when we refuse to abstract from human encounters. The latter are infinitely complex in their own way, yet they also enable us to cut through to what is essential here and now—and so to discern the truth that counts for us in our own present human situation. D. On Balance In a balanced evaluation, one is obliged to consider the weaknesses or at least limitations of the approach taken, as well as its strengths. There is certainly a limit in stressing always only goodness and harmony and discounting the daunting challenges that almost any human encounter also faces. These limits, however, are not simply ignored by this book. They are anticipated and evaluated by the author in explaining his options and decisions. He is probably right that we are more reluctant today in the academy to embrace spiritual truth—and to act in the confidence that is a sine quo non of love—than to sharpen our critical and combative faculties for eristics. So there is something bold and refreshing in this quite generally eulogistic—rather than sharply critical—approach to the work of others. However, a more serious limit of this kind of criticism is that through its accent on picking out what is positive and to be praised, the argument can become less detailed and differentiated in its contents. Emotional warmth radiates and is essential to meaning, yet the articulation of the subject matter itself sometimes becomes merely summary. Even the most detailed engagements with specific ideas of other critics of Dante, notably Christian Moevs, consist essentially in a summary of his views put forward in the form of quotation and paraphrase. Dante could be savage even with those he loved, and this turned out to be no small factor in his ‘greatness’. At all events, it seems certainly to have contributed to his acclaim. Montemaggi’s theological approach is by its nature holistic and unconditional in its receptivity to others. Consequently, the dialectic of conflicting interpretations tends to be blended out of the picture. There can, of course, be a kind of wholeness that includes the differences in perspective as well. Reflecting this divergence and dialectic is a difficult challenge. This issue is one that the author is aware of and one to which he speaks. Instead of developing tension with his interlocutors or companions in journeying along the trajectory laid out by the Divine Comedy, Montemaggi defends a theory of truth, or more exactly of truthfulness, for which academic dispute is largely irrelevant. At least conflicts and divergences of view are of only secondary importance in comparison with the moment of open receptiveness to others that is the catalyst to disclosure in human encounter. There is another limit that results from interlarding the exposition of the poem so heavily with anecdotal accounts of the author’s family and friendships and professional encounters. The book persuasively argues for the relevance of all this personal material to the experiential dimension of any deep understanding of theological doctrine. The alternation between exegesis and confession, or the recounting of significant encounters, moreover, relieves, in an agreeable and relaxing manner, the rigours demanded by reading the more exacting scholarly expositions. However, for those outside the field, this material is bound to be less intriguing and significant. The itinerary through a wide swathe of the Dante studies scene and its academic circuits over the past several years can be very interesting to professionals in this field, since they will generally have some knowledge of at least some of the individuals mentioned, but it is certainly less so to those outside the guild and unfamiliar with its participants. Nonetheless, the chronicle of a profession and its protagonists and other players is not more burdensome than the usual apparatus of erudite notes in scholarly monographs. The book’s ongoing narrative of its author’s life and development as a scholar through his relationships with others has value in itself as a human-interest story. It is thoroughly integrated, moreover, with reflection on the ideas of love and truth in theology that the book advocates. Each aspect—autobiography and personal theology—validates the other. Neither could possibly stand on its own as a valid piece of scholarship, but taken together and in relation with one another, they make up an original and seductive literary creation. In its own peculiar literary-critical genre, Montemaggi’s work mirrors Dante’s own theological autobiography. It repeats Dante’s revolutionary gesture of rethinking theology along the lines of his personal experience composed essentially of human encounters in an autobiographical narrative. The crucial theme of particularity—this book, at this time, by this author, especially given his involvement in Dante studies across several countries and continents—makes profound sense of the personal referencing of his encounters and relationships. It would not be desirable and would become quickly boring to have such a style be adopted and imitated generally on a large scale. What in one original instance is a breakthrough for scholarship would rapidly become a decadent abandon of scholarly standards and purpose were it to be too widely practiced via the mechanical application of a borrowed model and method. There are some sorts of things that can be treated in this frankly, explicitly personal vein—but certainly not all matters to which scholarship and even Dante scholarship is and should be devoted. For all its unrepentantly personal style, the book embraces a penitent attitude towards its own failings and its author’s sins. This, too, is cast in Dante’s own image and induces us to learn about Dante by actually following him and experiencing his human experience in our own lives. This approach succeeds not so much by objective investigation, with ever more detailed and demanding references to his context and to the whole of culture, in which one has to outdo other scholars as competitors. It succeeds, rather, by actually embodying Dante’s own approach to theological truth through human encounters—and, by this means, participating in the poem of the journey of our life (‘’l cammin di nostra vita’). References 1 Vittorio Montemaggi, Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology: Divinity Realized in Human Encounter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). 2 ‘Reading theologically’ is, to my mind, the most direct and transparent description of what is at stake in the book’s own title: ‘Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology’, since the reading itself, and not only what is read, becomes a kind of theological performance. In the manuscript version that occasioned the writing of this article, the subtitle was the main title—Divinity Realized in Human Encounter: Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology (2015). I find that this version of the title works wonders to help throw the book’s originality into relief. 3 William Franke, Dante’s Interpretive Journey (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 4 One high-profile instance by a former dean of Harvard College is Harry R. Lewis’s Excellence Without A Soul: How A Great University Forgot Education (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2006). 5 Heather Webb, Dante’s Persons: An Ethics of the Transhuman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). 6 John Took, Conversations with Kenelm: Essays on the Theology of the Commedia (London: Ubiquity Press (London: University College London Arts and Humanities Publications, 2013). 7 I have followed up Dante’s Interpretive Journey by a number of other works, most programmatically by The Revelation of Imagination: From the Bible and Homer through Virgil and Augustine to Dante (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015), highlighting the dynamic role of interpretation and imagination in poetically ‘making’ the text and its ‘truth’. 8 Among works appearing just this year, for example, are Joseph Luzzi, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love (London: HarperCollins, 2015) and Rod Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem (New York: Regan Arts, 2015). 9 Jürgen Moltmann: Theologie der Hoffnung. Untersuchungen zur Begründung und zu den Konsequenzen einer christlichen Eschatologie (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2005 ), trans. James W. Leitch as Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1967). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Literature and Theology – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 26, 2017
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