13 May 2008

Intertextual intermarriage

Eric Griffiths' "Dante, Primo Levi and the intertextualists" is a wonderful essay that explores the erstwhile uses, true definitions, and revelatory functions of intertextuality. Perhaps I'm quoting too liberally here, but I suppose it's more for myself than anyone else. This is the sort of writing I never tire of rereading:
At one point during Dante’s impersonation of Arnaut Daniel, in Purgatorio 26, there occurs a word, “escalina”, which, Prue Shaw points out, “exists neither in Provençal nor Italian”. Amid the gloss of the mosaic, her knowledgeable eye singles out, as it were, one square of matted chewing gum. Maybe the agent Dante mistakenly believed there was such a word; maybe he thought it ought to exist and made it up (neologism is a permanent possibility in any language, reluctantly though langue admits this); maybe a corrupt scribe had a hand in the text, and Arnaut was not describing Dante as “al som de l’escalina” – “on the highest pavement of the stair”, as T. S. Eliot, whom the phrase haunted, once translated it – but as “ses dol e ses calina” (“without pain and without heat”). No system can spare us these “maybe”s. You may call this “literary word” an “intersection of textual surfaces”, but that will not help you cope with the fact that what we come across at this intersection is a crux.
Milton’s great poem is not, as Bakhtin was inclined to label all epics, “monological” but in dialogue over time with himself, both intersubjective and intra-subjective. This is why it often sounds like a play by Shakespeare. Sometimes the resemblances are probably happenstances. When, at the outset, he promises his readers “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”, we had better not hear “unattempted yet” as an echo of the same words from King John, Act Two, scene one (line 601), where the Bastard torrentially reflects that the only reason he is railing against bribery is that nobody has so far troubled to try greasing his palm. We discount this as “static”, interference from a shared, but insignificantly shared, atmosphere, unless we impute to Milton a desire to hint with inordinate faintness that we should think of him as a bastard, too. But when Satan leads Eve to the forbidden tree, and she explains that it is off-limits to her, “To whom the tempter guilefully replied. / Indeed?”, a family resemblance between two tempters may strike us. We can hear here an echo of that “Indeed?” with which in Act Three, Scene Three, Iago initiates Othello’s downfall. Textually, and a fortiori intertextually, there is more in common between Milton and the Bastard than between Satan and Iago – two words rather than one – but if we personify “Indeed?”, embody it with camp surprise and mock solicitude, with the paraded reasonableness that comes pat to both these insinuators, we find they are a match for each other.
An unargued preference for “more general discursive structure” over attention to a “particular intertextual source” or two has the further drawback that it conduces to fetishism of the categories brought to bear on utterances. “Structure”, “system”, “genre” and “discursive formation” remain drastically under-described pseudo-entities; like nation states, their existence and frontiers acquire a bogus solidity. As in nationalist historiography, sham demarcations are established; a weird protectionism envelops the resultant intellectual domains, so that when a writer like Primo Levi alludes in one of his poems to the “Shema Yisrael” this is called “appropriation” (who was expropriated by it ?). Contributors to the Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi think it odd that Levi, a “secular humanist”, according to them, “nonetheless uses the language of the Hebrew Bible in his poetry”. Yet Levi “uses” terms, cadences and their implied commitments from Diodati’s 1603 Italian version of the Scriptures (he does not quote Hebrew) throughout his prose as well as his poetry. When he speaks of the “shame which il giusto experiences facing a crime committed by someone else”, the Italian word is the equivalent of the King James’s “the righteous”. When he is drawn, as he so often is, to people who are “mite”, like his best friend, Alberto, “la rara figura dell’uomo forte e mite, contro cui si spuntano le armi della notte” (“the rare example of a man at once strong and meek, against whom the weapons of the night fall away blunted”), the magnificence of his phrase stems from Wisdom 2:19 and Matthew 21:5 and the many other places where that notable intersection, Judaeo-Christianity, transvalued meekness. You don’t learn about these detailed realities of Levi’s writing from the Cambridge Companion; the contributors’ attachment to their own labels is such that they even describe “compassion and forgiveness” as “Christian virtues”, a slur on the Hebrew Bible if ever I heard one. For them, an iron curtain has fallen between the “cultural” and the “religious”, so they imagine Levi must be a double agent, engaged in “ironic rewriting of divine utterances in secular terms” (they do not mention what the point of his irony is), whereas, in fact, the Scriptures are already written in “secular terms”, there being no other terms available even to God, supposing he wishes to speak with his creatures. The Word itself, as Bakhtin said, has to be “embodied”, “enter another sphere of existence” and “become discourse”.
To hear why Levi in the camp heard Ulysses’s injunction “Considerate la vostra semenza” (“ask yourselves what seed you spring from”) as “come uno squillo di tromba, come la voce di Dio” (“like the sound of the trumpet, like the voice of God”: Deuteronomy 4:33, Jeremiah 4:19), you need to bear in ear the continuity of promise carried through the word “seed” from Genesis to the offertory of the Roman Catholic Requiem where it begs God to be freed from death “which of old you promised to Abraham and his seed”. You need to recognize this “seed” as enshrining a concept of human solidarity across times and frontiers, a concept at the heart of Levi’s resistance to the violence unleashed upon the “human” by pseudoscientific expertise about “race”, for example, by Mussolini’s hireling academics who in 1938 issued a manifesto proclaiming that “we must regard as dangerous theories which . . . include Semitic groupings within the scope of a common Mediterranean race . . . . The Jews do not belong to the Italian race”. When Levi describes in the words of Diodati’s version of Scripture his response to Dante, an unbelieving Jewish Piedmontese writer (exiled in Poland), nourished on the words of a bible translation made by a devout Tuscan Protestant (exiled in Switzerland), comes to life at the sound from his own mouth of the account given by a Florentine Catholic poet (exiled somewhere in what was not yet known as “Italy”) of the response given to a Roman pagan by a Greek pagan (self-exiled till drowned in the antipodes). I don’t think “intersection” is a good enough word for what happens here; “intermarriage” would be better.
(via Light Reading)

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