BMCR 2001.09.05

Secret of the Muses Retold: Classical Influences on Italian Authors of the Twentieth Century

, Secret of the muses retold : classical influences on Italian authors of the twentieth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. xviii, 167 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226437477.

Attracted by the title, which put me in mind of Theodore Ziolkowski’s Virgil and the Moderns (Princeton 1993), I expected a broadly informative review of the chequered revival of the classics in Italy in the last century. What I found instead perplexed and made me wonder where K. was coming from and what audience he wanted to reach. His introductory “Prelude” implied a broad mission: “I will…suggest that, if the concept of ‘humanities’ or ‘humanistic study’ is to continue to have value for us, as we stand on the threshold of a new millennium, we should take our courage in both hands and look hard at these ancient texts in order to see whether, in fact, they have something worthwhile to tell us about what it means to be human.” However, from “stand on the threshold” with “courage in both hands” and “look hard,” K. went, for example, to “No more will the attempt to demarcate Greek literature neatly from Latin help us keep things tidy here, because there is much cross-pollination artistically between Greece and Rome in this period [sc. the classical]. It is possible, for example, to read Vergil’s Aeneid as a learned meditation on the Iliad and Odyssey, as Georg Knauer has amply demonstrated.” This seemed too specialized for a discourse on “what it means to be human” yet not specialized enough in the discourse of the community of scholars.

My perplexity grew as I parsed the five chapters, where broad titles were variously belied by highly specialized technical arguments and unspecialized, textbook-like digests.

(1) “The Riddle of Fate: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Edipo re“. K. begins with a general survey of the Oedipus myth, citing Lowell Edmunds and others and concluding that “no one can pay any substantial attention to him [sc. Oedipus] without falling under his spell” (p. 2): no trace of the scholarly discourse represented by Peradottean demystification. K. then gives a textbook history of drama and its place in Athens without trace of the scholarly discourse that locates drama in the fabric of initiatory ritual and civic pride. Shifting from the generic to the highly specific, K. goes on to “attempt to piece together what the Russian formalists would have called fabula for the Oedipus legend” (p. 4), drawn from divers sources and comprising 43 moments: “Narratologically, we may say that, in both the Oedipus plays of Sophocles, the sjuiet —to use, once again, the Russian formalist term for the “narrative” that is extrapolated from the fabula —is produced (as a sjuiet always is) by deliberate selection and sequencing on the part of Sophocles” (p. 10).

Having put K.’s book aside for two months and returning to compose this report, I am struck ever more forcefully by the disconnect between such fragments of technical discourse and the broad cultural ambitions of the prelude, to say nothing of the stretches of rudimentary textbook matter, which may be meant to bridge the extremes but for me at least not.

My sense of disconnection grows when K. turns to Pasolini. Instead of so much as describing the Edipo re, which might require introduction even to many specialist readers, K. cites an essay by Pasolini about the semiology of the film, “written in 1967, the year of the publication of Derrida’s De la grammatologie, and thus well before the popularization of the Derridean ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte'” (p. 15). K. goes on to wonder whether “Pasolini is independently arriving at these ideas” or “is indebted for them to [Charles Sanders] Peirce”, and he seeks to vindicate Pasolini as a pioneering and too little credited semiotician. Invoking Freudian and post-Freudian theory, K. argues, too, that “this film represents what might in the jargon of today be called ‘the queering of Oedipus’—not, of course, by rewriting the fabula so as to offer a homoerotic oedipal triangle, but (once again, on the metaphorical level) by using Oedipus as a vehicle for which Pasolini is the tenor” (p. 23).

Only now does K. compare the items he has outlined in the fabula with the scenes of the film. He shows that just where Pasolini claimed fidelity to Sophocles he made a significant departure: “Tutto è chiaro…Voluto, non imposto dal destino” does not appear in Sophocles yet poses “The Riddle of Fate,” (p. 27) which K. compares also to “Paul’s explicit formulation of predestination” ( Romans 9). K. concludes that Pasolini “solves the riddle of fate by placing the bliss of maternal love outside fate itself, as the sublime source of all things.” Mamma mia! So Pasolini was an Italian like the others?

(2)”The World as Text. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose as Semiotic Fiction”: turning to The Name of the Rose, which I myself early mined for semiological import ( MD 13.1984.107-112), K. again assumes that his readers know the story and makes no effort to describe it as a whole from the outset, focusing instead on its success and obvious concern with semiotics. Reverting to his textbook manner, he inserts a capsule history of semiotics (pp. 32-34), in order, he says, to help redeem the work of Peirce from its dense and hermetic style.

K. shifts abruptly to a rather generic account of Aristotle’s Poetics, its contents and its fortunes, before explaining that an imagined unique exemplar of its putative second book, justifying laughter, provides the novel’s entire plot its fulcrum. Turning to the semiotic significance of the names of characters, K. remarks not only the obvious (at least to this aficionado of Sherlock Holmes) William of Baskerville and his sidekick, Adso, but also the blind librarian Jorge of Burgos, a figure associated by K. with a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel,” in which K. convincingly discerns “one of the seeds” for Eco’s novel. K. also shows how the motif of the labyrinth is central both to Eco and Borges, representing “in its various forms the varieties of human cognition” (p. 49). K. also finds echoes of another story by Borges, “Averroës’ Search,” in which the philosopher puzzles over the meaning of two words in his text of the Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy and comedy. The latter observations illuminate, but the process lurches between the abstruse and the banal. K. lacks the discipline to articulate broad values and relate them to technical discourse, let alone redeem Peirce.

(3) “Fresh Air from Helicon: The Neo-Latin Verse of Joseph Tusiani”. At the “midpoint of the book” K. places the neo-Latin poetry of Joseph Tusiani, referring to the “long tradition of neo-Latin poetry…Petrarca, Ariosto, and Milton” and stating that “Tusiani stands in that proud lineage, and like these postclassical poets has woven both the classical tradition and his personal Christian devotion into the fabric of his poetry.” In discussion K. again mingles the textbookish and the technical, e.g., on the deadness of Latin or on Latin metrics. I confess that I come to the pious Tusiani from the neo-Latin paganism of a wicked and witty priest, Monsignor della Casa, whose Horatian similes explode with paradox and soar [].

(4) “Rhetorical Values Ancient and Modern: Hermogenes’ On Types of Style and Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium“. “Every great culture makes its mark on human history in some peculiar way, and ancient Greece was certainly no exception in this regard…democracy and rhetoric…Corax and his pupil Tisias were the first to write handbooks ( tekhnai) of rhetoric…sadly in our day modified more often than not by the adjective ’empty'” (p. 83). I quote briefly to suggest again how K. mixes sweeping generalities with technical details and textbook digests which draw from sources such as Kennedy and Cole. From general discussion of rhetoric and its meanings, K. turns to close analysis of the Peri ideon by Hermogenes of Tarsus, which he styles “Seven Memos for the Postclassical Orator” and compares with Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Where Hermogenes writes of the virtues of Clarity, Grandeur, Beauty, Rapidity, Ethos, Sincerity, and Force, Calvino treats of Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. His memo on Consistency was preempted by his death.

Setting out to compare the two sets of memos, K. remarks that their differences “demonstrate inevitably that Calvino, like Hermogenes—like all of us—is a child of his age.” In the end, giving up hope of consistent rhetorical strategy or systematic discussion, I find myself entertained by the eclectic wealth of examples K. brings to each theme, engaged, too, and stimulated to further reading by the bits cited from Calvino himself, e.g., “I think that this bond between the formal choices of literary composition and the need for a cosmological model (or else for a general mythological framework) is present even in those authors who do not explicitly declare it” (p. 100).

(5) “The Revestiture of Myth: Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony“. Unlike Il nome della rosa, which I couldn’t put down, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony still sits on my shelf, deferred by the ideal of reading in the original tongue. Thus like many readers I need the initial presentation of the whole that by now I know K. will not give: “I hope that in the course of my analysis, some impression of the book’s overall contours will emerge” (p. 105). In fact he launches into a definition of the work’s genre, which he defines as not so much metafiction but “critical fiction” because of the prominence assigned to philosophical speculation through critical asides, for which he cites Milan Kundera (pp. 106-07); but I think, too, of Nabakov’s lepidopterous Ada.

K. then tells us that MCH“is by no means a conventional work of classical scholarship,” that its author is a publisher not a scholar, and that “it is the rare professional scholar who, at the end of the twentieth century, can traverse well-trodden literary ground and still find original, interesting, and important things to say—and to say them in a fashion that might fairly be described as provocative or even gripping.” By that standard, who among us will merit praise, who cast the first stone?

As with all but one of K.’s chosen writers, the few examples he quotes instill desire to read more. I like particularly Calasso on the origins of myth: “to invite the gods to one’s house became the most dangerous things one could do…to invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It would be quieter but there wouldn’t be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories” (p 116). This reminds me of Virgil’s sixth eclogue and the gods’ pleasure at Apollo’s meditation mediated through the laurels, the inebriated Silenus, and the metapoetic Tityrus.

Absent a master narrative or disciplined rhetorical strategy, K. finally brings to mind, I don’t know, Aulus Gellius, Burton? Certainly not the bold taxonomies of Frye. Not a work to read through again, but perhaps to nibble in margin to other reflections on semiotics or myth.