January 09, 2007

Kristeva on ‘The Renaissance, “so Shapeless and Diverse in Composition” ’


Dante the Exile: From ‘Salty Taste’ to ‘Golden Mirror’

Kristeva begins this section: ‘At the threshold of the modern era there lived an exile, Dante (1265-1321)’ and for the rest of this chapter Dante is held up as an example of the exile during the Renaissance. Kristeva describes how Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in exile from Florence. This occurred because of the Guelph-Ghibelline war, in which the Guelphs were loyal to the Pope and the Ghibelline’s were sceptical about his ‘political primacy’ (105). In Dante’s infancy, the Guelphs prevailed, yet this gave rise to another division between the Whites who were devoted to Florence’s independence and the Blacks who desired to dismantle small Tuscan states. As an adult Dante favoured the Whites and he was able to contribute to political life after enrolling in ‘the professional corporation of arts’ (105). Consequently, Dante commenced on a mission to plead the Whites’ cause to Pope Boniface VIII, but the Blacks seized Florence while he was away and exiled him from the city.

Kristeva now begins to consider the theme exile in The Divine Comedy and she notes the presence of Ulysses in the text, which describes that wanderer as being beyond divine law. Kristeva goes further stating that ‘it is at the heart of Paradise that the exile’s destiny is presented’ and the foreigner’s destiny is to ‘journey toward divine love’ (106). See Canto 17 (line 55 onwards): http://www.italianstudies.org/comedy/Paradiso17.htm In this passage Dante denies ‘anchorage’ and thus enlivens ‘the entire imagination’ and Kristeva comments how ‘owing nothing to any tribe, but supported by a Christian universalism […] he embraces with the fullness of his faith, he fashions in the shape of a poem the most complex universe possible, infinity itself molded [sic] into a world’ (107).

Kristeva explains now that Dante’s prose writings such as On Monarcy (1311) also express this kind of universalism. While admitting that the piece was written with the intention of opposing the Pope and supporting the emperor, Kristeva sees a whole philosophy of universalism being expounded in this treatise. Dante is a monarchist, but he also desires ‘ another universality—a Catholic one’ (108). This is achieved via the monarch who acts as an intermediary between God and the people and in reforming the Church, the monarchy would reform the universe. Kristeva sees Dante as ‘the visionary advocate of small communities harmonized [sic] within a spiritual design’ (108).


The Machiavellian State
The Renaissance state was made up of both universalism and individualism (‘the conquerors of new techniques’) and the ‘Janus headed alchemist of the Renaissance’ was Machiavelli (109). In Discourses on Livy (1513-1520), Machiavelli took his example from the Roman Republic in studying, ‘how the passions of private individuals can be repressed by the laws to which citizens submit’, whilst also using the Roman ethos as a stick with which to beat Italian States (109). What Machiavelli called for might now be called ‘international law’. Kristeva also notes that ‘state control is a Machiavellian idea’ springing from the naturalist metaphors of The Prince (1513) (109). Kristeva does not see such a huge difference between the republican Discourses and The Prince as both want ‘to reinforce the state: republican or princely, it owes it to itself to be organic, in other words strong’ (110). Here are the origins of the ideology of the modern state.

For Kristeva, Machiavellianism is equal to patriotism, since Machiavelli’s efforts were ‘in the name of a finally united and consolidated Italy, shielded from the lords’ intrigues and the barabarians’ [sic] assaults’ (110).

On the restoration of the Medici in 1512 Machiavelli was abruptly dismissed because of his loyalty to the previous regime and his friendship with Piero Soderini, and thereafter he lived in forced retirement on his small estate near San Casciano, south of Florence. It was here that Machiavelli convinced himself that only a prince could now strengthen the nation state and such a nation could only be created in contrast to others: ‘against the mercantile, antidemocratic Venice, against Spain, the spoilsport of Christendom’ (111).

Kristeva pauses for a moment to commend the ‘far more positive and enthusiastic’ humanists of France:
• Guillaume Budé (De l’institution de princes, 1516),
• and Claude de Seyssel (La Grand-Monarchie de France, 1519).
For Kristeva, ‘a blance of Frenchness and cosmopolitanism […] would remain one of the most prestigious traditions of the monarchy’ (111).


From Rabelais the Marvelous to the Marvels of the World by Way of Erasmus
Kristeva now considers François Rabelais (1483?-1553). Although more commonly known as a comic writer and satirist, Rabelais was also a bold humanist and a prudently fierce champion of religious reform in an Erasmian spirit. Kristeva quotes from Rabelais’ book Quatre Livre in which Pantagruel uses the odd phrase: ‘As we raised and emptied our glasses, good weather has been raised likewise’ (111). Kristeva reads this phrase in a number of ways:
• in terms of the writer’s politics: ‘rising above the constraints of history’ (111);
• in terms of the book’s narrative: ‘taking advantage of the clearing weather to speed up the journey’;
• and in terms of the writer’s approach: ‘dreaming, imaging, pushing reality to the point of fantasy’ (112).
The journey of Pantangruel and his companions is also a voyage ‘toward myth. dream, ideal, wealth, and happiness, but passing by, in the same volume the strange world of excess’ (112).

We read this as meaning that, neither Protestant nor Catholic, but surely an evangelist like Erasmus, Rabelais was seeking another way. And if his conclusion leads to an Epicureanism that is both Christian and Erasmian, which the themes of eating, drinking and elevation-delight in time proceed to unfold, this land of plenty was reached by going through a strangeness that was indeed made up of marvels, but above all woven with excessiveness and obscurantism. (112)

Kristeva now mentions settings such as:
• Sneak’s Island ruled by King Lent ‘ a stupid and sterile monster’ representing bigotry (112);
• The Protestant features of the Chitterlings on Savage Island;
• the Papimaniacs and Popefigs;
• the scholars of Trebizond representing occult sects;
• Ennasin Island’s alliance of affectation and snobbery;
• Clerkship’s laws and corruption;
• the spouting whale that represents prejudice;
• the Island of Ruach’s conceited dreamers;
• Medamothy a “Nowhere Land” brimming with wealth;
• the Island of Cheli’s bountiful victuals;
• and the island of the Gastrolators and Messer Gaster who love eating.
There are also the strange settings such as:
• the Isles of Vacuum and Void;
• the Storm;
• the Isles of Macreons illuminated by signs of foreboding such as comets and meteorites;
• and finally Quatre Livre is a journey without end.

Kristeva recognises Rabelais’ technique of inserting human strangeness into a physical landscape and Kristeva believes that Freud’s uncanny may have some bearing on a reading of Rabelais. The book is also written in a new genre of travel writing that was popular during the 13th to 16th century created by explorers such as Marco Polo and Jourdan Cathala de Severac. Kristeva notes that such explorers read the places and peoples discovered in fantastical ways: ‘To the actual discoveries they had made, these explorers would add Western or Islamic legends, even seeing the inhabitants of new lands as fabulous birds’ (114). Rabelais’ wisdom was clear in his consciousness that ‘those mirabilia had their source in our own world, in our dreams and political conflicts’ (114). However, the ethnographic discourse swung from one extreme to another and if it could not make fantastical creatures of its subjects, it would simply reduce them to Western logic. In ethnographic discourse, it eventually became clear that ‘other people do not correspond to our intimate strangenesses, but that the other is simply… other’ (114).

From writers like Rabelais though, there emerged a genre in which by taking a journey, one discovers the flaws in one’s own country. Kristeva now mentions Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and Gulliver’s Travels. Other proponents might also be Edgar Allen Poe (18909-1849) or Henry James (1843-1916). and James Joyce (1882 – 1941). But to return to Rabelais, Kristeva sees him as ‘an inner cosmopolitan’ who ‘heralded Montaigne’ (115).

Kristeva sees in Rabelais, ‘the placid, somewhat despondent lucidity of Erasmus’ (115). Desiderius Erasmus was a humanist, reformer, moralist, and satirist. His most important controversial works centered on the debate with Luther, which Erasmus inaugurated with a tract on the freedom of the human will. He was influenced by Netherlandish piety and also the revival of classical learning initiated in quattrocento Italy. Erasmus’ didactic and satirical works urged the need for Catholic reform but opposed separation. Kristeva mentions his desire ‘for just wars[…] to unify Europe and the Christian Church’ (115). She also notes how he writes on diverse subjects (‘prostitutes, beggars, an ignorant priest and an intellectual woman’) and in different genres. Kristeva recognises that Erasmus’ universalism is based ‘upon an amused recognition of the human comedy’ just as Rabelais’ is (115).

Thomas More by Hans Holbein from 1527

Thomas More: A Strange Utopia
Kristeva now turns to Thomas More’s Utopia (1515). More was friendly with Erasmus, and he became a patron and critic of art as well as serving Henry VIII as Lord Chancellor. The Oxford Companion to English describes the manner of More’s death:

Although willing to swear fidelity to the new Act of Succession, More refused to take any oath that should impugn the pope’s authority, or assume the justice of the king’s divorce from Queen Catherine, 1534; he was therefore committed to the Tower of London with John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, who had assumed a like attitude. During the first days of his imprisonment he prepared a Dialoge of Comfort against Tribulacion and treatises on Christ’s passion. He was indicted of high treason, found guilty, and beheaded in 1535. His body was buried in St Peter’s in the Tower and, according to Thomas Stapleton, his head exhibited on London Bridge. The head was later buried in the Roper vault in St Dunstan’s, Canterbury.

Kristeva describes Utopia as a manifesto of Christian humanism set ‘against a backdrop of sea journeys, geographic discoveries and “good savages” ’(116). It is an ‘essay-romance’ that takes its cue from Amerigo Vespucci. The protagonist, Raphael, offers his observations and meanwhile philosophises about the utopian state.

On the island of Utopia, the inhabitants:
• abhor tyranny;
• share all wealth;
• abolish private property;
• work only 6 hours per day;
• offer social assistance and leisure;
• and respect culture and religion.

Yet Kristeva also detects the possibility of:
• use of colonialism and imperialism to solve problems of overpopulation;
• the precedence of collective want rather than individual desire;
• brutality of war;
• moralism and ‘abusive planification’ reminiscent of Orwell (116).

Kristeva notes a number of negative words or figures in the text such as:
• the Achoriens who lack a territory;
• the mirage city of Amauratum;
• Adamus, the prince who lacks any subjects;
• and the description of Raphael himself as letting ‘inventions shine’.

Kristeva wonders to what extent the utopis is simply a dream that oscillates between, ‘national imperatives and universalist fantasies’ (117).

[I]f all utopias seem attainable today, if modern life is about to achieve them, perhaps we should try to avoid them in order to recover a non-utopic society, less perfect and more free… But how can one be free without some sort of strangeness? Let us be of nowhere, but without forgetting that we are somewhere… (117)

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