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Dante, Petrarch, Vico, Coetzee

Giuseppe Mazzotta interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Giuseppe Mazzotta jives on the triggers of Italian literature. He thinks Dante’s is an aesthetics of failure that casts reading as an existential quest. He thinks Petrarch’s inner phantoms are important and Vico has tantalising obscurities. He has written many clickin’ books, including Dante, Poet of the Desert: History and Allegory in the Divine Comedy; The World at Play in Boccaccio’s Decameron ; Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge ; The Worlds of Petrarch; The New Map of the World: the Poetic Philosophy of Giambattista Vico; Cosmopoiesis: The Renaissance Experiment . With him, the world is yours. Cool.

3:AM: What made you become a leading authority on Dante, Vico and Renaissance philosophy and literature? Was it a surprise and has it been worth it so far?

GM: I certainly did not start my scholarly life with some grandiose claim or other in my mind. Nor have I ever wondered whether my books have “inaugurated” a literary-philosophical style of critical thinking or even whether they manage to break with the tradition of Italian literary studies. The truth is that I never set out to write my books on Dante or Vico or the Renaissance with the intention of overcoming the achievements of past scholars. I have always learned from them and continue to do so.

Am I surprised by the fresh crop of readers drawn to my books? I don’t think about it. I have had a penchant, ever since I was a young man, for the “problematic” aspects of literary texts, but I never thought of this bent of mine as either a virtue or a vice. It was a mode passed on to me by some of my teachers, some of whom even theorized about the radical quality of poetic and novelistic texts, those texts that take us to the frontiers of thought. I am still trying to make sense of the intellectual predicament those teachers opened up for me or some implications they never bothered to unravel.

I have been trying to develop some of their notions of the sacred (and the politics of the sacred), of boundaries and the unbounded, of margins, of values, of the relationship between esthetics, ethics, theology, and politics, for instance, which happen to be found everywhere in early-modern texts. These problems need to be endlessly re-thought, and I, along with many others, have been doing exactly that. But I take seriously your question about what made me what I am, which is a way of situating my ideas within the context of my life-experiences.

Probably the most important experience of my life, and the one with a lasting influence on my way of seeing the world, was the fact that I left my country—my small town in the South of Italy, Calabria—as a young man. I still recall the emotion I felt a few years later on reading some lines of one of Auden’s poems, something about being lost somewhere “without maps or supplies/ a thousand miles from any decent town/ and the desert glaring in his bloodshot eyes…looking down he saw the shadow of an average man attempting the exceptional and ran.” It’s amazing that I still can recite that poem, which I then thought spoke to me and was meant for me.

At any rate, I was living in Toronto and there I began with great excitement to learn English and Spanish. At the same time, I could not but keep within me my treasured, abstract “idea” of what Italy, its language and its cultural traditions, was. By the time, in the late sixties, when I did my graduate work at Cornell University (in a doctoral program where I was the only student) I began taking my distance from my own intellectual inheritance but not existentially so.

A number of European figures, from different disciplines who at the time worked at or visited Cornell, such as Rene` Girard, Victor Turner, Paul de Man, Eugenio Donato (and his French cohorts, such as Derrida, Foucault, Pucci etc.) were engaged in what we younger people regarded as a fundamental intellectual revision of tradition. I recall being a bit skeptical, somewhat suspicious of the grand theoretical molds within which they would compress the structure of Western thought.

Mercifully, I had a teacher, John Freccero, who was an aficionado of Dante via Augustine’s Confessions and who was less concerned with a philosophical critique of tradition and more with the existential (Sartrean) significance of literature. These figures and their teaching shaped my own work. But I kept my distance from them. Nonetheless, the attempt I have made in my subsequent career to articulate an “encyclopedic” conception of knowledge –one in which esthetic, politics, ethics, science, theology etc. are all self-implicating, all engaged – a conception that would overcome dualities and oppositions (such as the “two cultures” , the cult of fragments etc.) stems from their teaching.


3:AM: In your great first book ‘Dante: Poet of the Desert’ you link Dante with exile. You say this is ‘the very condition of Dante’s text, its most profound metaphor’. And you say this has an impact on how we should read and understand the poet. I think you argue that the topology of Exodus was being used by Dante and so, as in the desert, misreading of signs was a commonplace, so too in his appropriation of this, we should expect the same misreadings and willfulness in the poem itself. So we shouldn’t think that what seems to be there in the poem is straightforwardly to be read off, because the point of Dante’s poem is to recreate the profound difficulties of desert exile. Is that right? Can you say something about this, and why perhaps an experience of lack and of not-knowing is the right response to the poem?

GM: Yes, for Dante the metaphor of exile was neither simply a theoretical construction for the poem nor a narrow theme or even less a narrative technique. It was his vital experience, which allowed him to grasp the sense of his life as the re—enactment of the Biblical Exodus. But there is more to it. For Dante the sense of his exile resides in an uncertain future. To be sure, the poem he writes tells the story of his journey to the beatific vision, which he, as a poet, however, cannot describe or remember. In reality, his poetic telling of it turns into the imaginative, metaphorical extension of his journey, a journey of writing.

It follows that when we read the poem we are at sea, displaced, and we re-enact the pilgrim’s experience of exile: we “find” ourselves in a “place” where signs are confused. In doing this, Dante revives an established Medieval tradition of the art of exegesis , one that casts reading as an existential quest for the Absolute.

Does this project make the Divine Comedy “unreadable”, to use a term dear to Paul De Man’s and Derrida’s concerns over hermeneutics. Shall we conclude that we do not know or ever find our way about? The question to be asked is simple: how are we to read such a metaphorical construction? Like masters of suspicion we are asked to reflect that even what appears to be and seduces as being “undecidable”—the keyword of deconstruction– is in itself a decision, a fate like that of the Ass of Buridan. The alternative to the hermeneutical impasse, to the pathos of neutrality (a hateful posture in Dante’s frame of thought) is clear: We must keep reading till we discover who we existentially are and where we belong. It may take forever, but we cannot elude the challenge.

3:AM: The poet’s exile is away from the city and you say that he wrote from outside the city in order to best understand the problems of the city don’t you? So not only are we to read the Comedia as world history it also is autobiographical, political and theological too. You say he ‘dramatizes a theological interpretation of history’ whilst being in an ‘open polemic’ with Augustine – is this what history looked like back then, a multi-layered thing that included literary texts as well as day to day politics?

GM: There are cantos in the Divine Comedy (I am thinking especially of cantos XV-XII of Paradiso) where Dante hears from his own grandfather the news of his imminent exile from his native city, Florence, and where he dramatizes several traditional representations of political history. The weave of his polemics is extraordinary and subtle. The text encompasses and goes over the epistemic premises of the major contemporary chroniclers of Florence, those who reduce history to a (falsely) self-sufficient perimeter of the medieval city.

It challenges the delusory claims of the utopian perfect republic, such as Plato’s. It moves on to Cicero’s Republic, which his commentator Macrobius had explained in his Commentary on the Dream of Scipio as a trenchant critique of Plato’s abstract city from the standpoint of the historical republic of Rome. It circles back to St. Augustine’s City of God, with its theology of history, history from the standpoint of the two eschatological cities, Jerusalem and Babylon. This standpoint constitutes for Augustine the perspective from which to unveils as deluded the claims of Cicero: the injustices of the Roman civil wars (i.e. the historical account given by Sallust) belie his ideology of Roman justice.

Dramatically, the point of all these textual references is clear: Dante’s exile is cast within and against various fictions of order and it allows him to question and dismiss any pretense of genuine significance in his existential predicament. Faced with the fictions of the various philosophies of history, Dante discovers that his writing of the poem—in a dissonant voice that resembles that of the Biblical prophets- is his way to re-enter the world of history. His poetic voice recalls the contours of the classical tragic texts and it casts history as a dramatic representation.

3:AM: It seems very rich – do you think we’ve lost something in thinking differently now about history – that perhaps the versatility and polemical aspects of historical thinking has cut us off from a source of conversation with the past, and an ability to use historical memory to protest or to link us with a vivid picture?

GM: The greatest illusion of modernity—the narcissism of modernity—consists in the belief that everything begins with us, that we can safely drink from Lethe and forget everything that happened before, say, 1945, and that nothing the past has thought or done can be of real interest to us. What is laughable about this presumption of ours is that, quite transparently, damns us to irrelevance and, worse, reveals that what we do carries no consequence for the future.

3:AM: What is Dante’s place in the medieval love tradition? Was he a radical innovator or someone working from within a settled approach?

GM: Dante is above all a love poet. He understands, as the mystics do, that the universe is either held together by chains of love or, as Lucretius would, it verges on collapsing into chaos. As a love poet he understands that love is not a metaphysical theory nor is it a Platonic philosophy. He treasures the body of work of the troubadours, but he pushes their insights toward a theological imagination of love. And he discovers that it belongs simultaneously to the concrete, physical and spiritual reality of finite human beings and their hunger for the absolute.

Basically, Dante constantly questions issues such as the nature of love in its relation to language and to the soul, he worries the “phenomenon” of love (“does she love me?” “can I believe her?” “ does anybody love me?” “do I love anybody other than myself?” etc.). By presenting love as an experience that coincides with faith and hope, Dante makes sense of the theological language of belief and hope and casts love as the way to knowledge of self and whatever transcends oneself.

3:AM: Would he have seen himself as a theologian and a poet or was that a distinction that wouldn’t have made sense to him?

GM: Dante saw himself as a poet, a poet in the great tradition that stretches from Homer to Vergil. But poetry—and here is the way Dante differs from modern esthetic ideas that aim at drawing boundaries between, say, esthetic and ethics or economics or politics—encompasses all knowledge, including theology. Poetry, like love, (for any genuine poetry is love poetry) is for him a way of knowing, of knowing oneself, the world around oneself, and the relation between self and God.

I can say this differently by stressing that as a poet, Dante plays many roles: political, artistic, that of a craftsman, courtly, moral, prophetic, mystical, theological etc. He is a theologian who argues with Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and who nonetheless understands theology as a centrally speculative discipline that boldly explores what one could call the frontiers of thought, the precarious, uncertain line where the limit of our being human opens up to the limitlessness of a future trans-human condition.

3:AM: At the end of the Commedia you say Dante admits that he can’t circumscribe what he’s seen at the end when he gets to Heaven. That looks like a poetic defeat but you say that it’s a triumph and also a challenge for us readers don’t you? How come it’s not a failure?

GM: Yes, what I mean to say is that only by his poetic failure—the impossibility of giving a representation of what he has seen, of reducing and reifying what he has seen to an object of the mind —is a sign of his triumph as a Christian, a sort of descent, if you will, into the esthetics of humility.


3:AM: Another great figure you have written about is Petrarch. In your book on Petrarch you say that he should be understood in terms of a simultaneous thought of history, on the one hand, and death on the other. He spent his life in a political/intellectual project to redefine culture and language of his time. But he also took an ironic, negative consciousness of the finiteness of existence – you use the memorable phrase ‘ he lived within the horizon of time’s inexorable devastations.’ He sounds terribly modern. Is he a precursor of modernity?

GM: I am not sure we can all agree about what is meant by “modernity”. He did invent for subsequent ages the role of the “intellectual”, an idea of an empire of culture that, as in the classical Roman period, encompassed ethics, politics, historiography, the role of medicine, poetry. It was a secular conception of poetry and the value of this world, but is also coexisted with a theology of interiority, such as the one he had inherited from St. Ambrose and St. Augustine.

He never thought of himself as absolutely detached from the discourse of his time or the likely organization of society. But this is only the starting point for his further radical questionings. Petrarch thought long and hard about the dilemmas of a fractured subjectivity, the complicated question of the will, the pathos and solitude of his individual self (and the philosophy of solitude in a number of Latin tracts). This means primarily that he thought he could not understand the world or himself in it outside of what things meant to him. It means also that he could not but wonder if his idea of autonomy and freedom necessarily ended up in solipsism, and what kind of politics was going to be possible. Was politics intelligible only in terms of a theory of power?

3:AM: He kind of had the problem of what to do given that Dante had already done it! If you’re wanting to write about the path to wholeness after Dante you have to rethink, a bit like trying to write rock lyrics downstream of Bob Dylan. So he came up with something different – more tortuous and random than Dante perhaps? Can you say how he differs from Dante and opens up a new, personal path?

GM: Petrarch had little or no “anxiety” as Romantic critics characterize the relation between precursor and epigone. To him Dante embodied a distant world-view and Petrarch does not hesitate to recall him as a friend of his own father, in-between, age –wise—his grandfather and his father, which is a way of saying that he moved his sense of history in a different direction. He rejects the notion of a unified world of knowledge, one in which the sciences and the humanities are bound together as in the encyclopedic ordering.

Because of his skepticism about the foundation of political authority and its claims of sacredness, he invented a modern theory of culture. Politics and culture come to exist in a bond of complicity and mutual suspicion. Petrarch understood that the vision of the one unified empire Dante had put forth was a throwback to an earlier culture, and along with this myth he rejected the notion of a trans-national political sovereignty. From this standpoint Petrarch aligns himself with St. Augustine’s theological condemnation of empires. On the other hand, his conception of “culture” –the practice of establishing values—comes to resemble that of a potentate.

3:AM: He’s known as the discoverer of the centrality of the individual. Was he the guy who first took us into the innermost landscape of the mind? Was this partly to do with the breakdown of traditional structures and the awareness of other cultures such as we barbarians from the north?

GM: Petrarch is aware that the sciences (above all medicine) and the rational theology of the Scholastics or neo-Aristotelians (above all Averroes), both in origin Arabic or Moslem branches of modern cultural practices, threaten to annihilate his idea of the unique individual Petrarch upheld. He opposes remorselessly the hierarchical view of the sciences of nature as sovereign. Their cultivation, which was popular in Padua and Paris, threatens to link irreparably theology to the sciences of nature, and this linkage to Petrarch was equivalent to casting medicine as the discipline to which theology is accountable.

3:AM: His stuff is fragmentary isn’t it? Why’s that – is it deliberate, part of what his poetic project is, or were there other reasons? And how do these fragments and disparate worlds get unified – or do they remain in pieces? You have a striking line – [in Petrarch] ‘ one can glimpse the faces of the Renaissance and the torn fabric of modernity and modernity’s self-inscription within a cult of power.’ So is he a poet signaling the breakup of unified culture in the works of Valla and Machiavelli and Galileo, or is he a poet seeking the counterforce of unification in visionaries and poets – perhaps the parade case of this being Vico?


GM: The answer is unequivocal. Petrarch made himself-his mind, his desires, his passions, his internalized sense of time etc.—the steady object of his thought. In this conception the subject is made of parts, which is a way of saying that the whole is made of parts and fragments. It’s amazing how this word, “part” – in its political, existential, spatial etc. senses – fascinated both Dante and Petrarch and how differently they understood it.

Petrarch’s sense of unity is complicated by the consciousness of the ruins of history and time. But there is another side to him: his inner phantasms do not preclude him from turning to the objective world of history, which he wanted to shape according to his idea of what is worth knowing and valuable in the community of human beings (the model of which was republican Rome). The cornerstone of Petrarch’s intellectual venture was the self, which for all its uniqueness carried in it a residue of universality. In this sense he anticipates the most momentous chapters of Renaissance thought: yes, there is something of Petrarch in Valla, Machiavelli, Galilleo and in Vico. All of them are the censors of a new culture.

3:AM: Vico is perhaps best known to non-specialists as someone modern writers revere – Manzoni, Foscolo, Hamann, Herder, Goethe, Marx, Michelet, Joyce, Beckett, Ungaretti, Pavese, Carpentier have all been ‘drawn by the enigmatic quality and the tantalizing obscurities of Vico’s imagination’ as you put it. This visionary quality, and the wild imagination, has been somewhat neglected by modern historians and thinkers who have thought him significant – people like Cassirer and Apel and Berlin. They don’t want the oracular Vico do they? Is this to miss Vico’s intellectual project which was in a way to pull together the fragments of Pertrach so we could again have a unified poetics which combined the subjective, the theological, the political and so forth? In a sense, do we violate his work by focusing too narrowly on Vico as a philosopher?

GM: I find it amazing that Vico’s work continues to be read without any care for the passionate, poetic depths of his thought. The weave of literature and philosophy, of what you refer as the oracular or visionary and the rational clarity of the thinker, I guess, is too messy, too dark or daemonic for contemporary historians/antiquarians, for post-Hegelian historians of philosophy, for sociologists of literature (who like to think in terms of percentages, demographics and what not). They like to think of culture as a question of rational strategies, institutional power, deadly erudition or antiquarianism etc.

This visionary aspect—identifiable with Homer, Dante, Petrarch, the tragic theater, Shakespeare, Tasso, Cervantes, Calderon, Bacon, Racine, the Biblical prophets etc—threatens the scholars’ sense of neatness and Cartesian clarte` . Yet, this “strangeness”, this sense of the traveler, say Ulysses, who arrives unexpectedly to the shore of Nausicaa, is the best part of Vico’s thinking. I think he would have loved Emerson and Whitman, and he would have been amused (I don’t know if this is the right word) by Nietzsche’s fantasies about the Hellenic world.

3:AM: You relate this issue of Vico to contemporary misunderstandings about the role of the humanities and techno-scientific culture don’t you? But you say it is historical ignorance that has allowed the fatal break between the humanities and science. You write; ‘ It is increasingly clear that Vico’s apparent artificial system, in fact, proposes a universal scientia scientiarum, a comprehensive project that weaves together into unified totality disparate questions of literature, rhetoric, history, religion, language, myth, philosophy, politics, law, and so forth.’ So is Vico proposing a way of breaking down the so-called two cultures mentality?


GM: Yes, one would have to read a text such as On the Study Methods of Our Times, which he wrote early on in his career as part of his educational project and re-thinking of the role of the universities in the modern age to grasp how deeply Vico thinks of the necessary encounter between the imagination of the past and the scientific discoveries of the modern age, between the mysteriousness of Socrates and Columbus, the boundaries of laws and the unboundedness of scientific curiosity. It’s a theory of a piece with the New Science.

3:AM: This all inks with your theme in ‘The Renaissance Experiment’ where you argue that we’re making a tragic error in reading the renaissance through the lens of Cartesian or Hegelian eyes. Rather, you say those thinkers invented worlds through utopias, magic, science, art and theatre, literature, philosophy and history. So can you say more about this ‘Renaissance Experiment’, as you call it, and say whether you think it is an experiment that we need to return to urgently?

GM: In a real sense Descartes, Hegel, and even Kant’s transcendental philosophy come out of the Renaissance’s discovery of perspective (for instance, Alberti’s On Painting). Space is a representation, experience is always phenomenal, and essences are at one with appearances. It is what Petrarch knew when he plotted a work centered on the self, on the idea that truth can only be defined as what is true for oneself.

Yet Petrarch, Alberti, Valla, Politian (to say nothing of Ariosto and Tasso) also understood that the world of pure perspective or the closed system of representation did not leave room for freedom and human creativity. And they refused to give up the idea of the self as free. It became their strongest passion and, in the epic poets of the Renaissance, their most sustained concern. To carry out their quest, they, and Vico in their wake, probed the “occult” pre-history of our being in the world, the invisible and yet real universe of the passions and phantasmagorias, of utopias and dystopias that manifested themselves through works of art, music, painting, theater, poetry, magic, science, imaginative journeys etc.

Their works are experiments exactly because their project is to re-discover the foundations of our world, to gauge the known through the unknown or just to encounter the unknown and strange, which is usually already in us. The reduction of experience to the givens of immanence strikes me as a horrible act of violence, the curtailing of what is vital in us, an act that must be resisted.

3:AM: It would seem that the greats of high modernity – Eliot, MacDiarmid, Joyce, Beckett – were remembering Vico’s world and there are signs that perhaps we are beginning to reject the rejection of this modernity. Writers like Foster Wallace and Coetzee seem to return us to this perspective. Are you optimistic about this?

GM: I am glad you mention a writer dear to my mind, Coetzee, who more than anybody else in the last twenty-odd years understands the violence I am trying to speak about. Whenever I think of Disgrace, a world of enemies, a political space with its codes of human rights, questions of identity, and laws human beings give to themselves, I am amazed by Coetzee‘s ability to show that what seems life or love turn into death and horror. More than that, I find his apparent asides, say, the biography of Byron to be set to music, the oblique recalls of Leopardi’s poetry in his Italian mistress’s language, truly outstanding.

Coetzee allows us to glimpse into the two different voices of European Romanticism, and, appearances to the contrary, they are not all that different from each other. He also actually asks and makes us realize the genuine point of his novel, which is the counterpoint to the story of the violence in which the characters are all imprisoned: is freedom, even the freedom Byron and Leopardi create for themselves through their art, an illusion. And the deeper, even tragic point we are left to puzzle about is that the imagination of freedom, which defines our being human, may ironically be the matrix of the arbitrariness of the way we at times conduct ourselves.

3:AM: Finally, are there five books (other than your own which we’ll all be dashing away to read after this) that you might recommend for readers wanting to know more about your world?

GM: Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols; Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon; Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Esthetics; Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form; Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 12th, 2012.