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A Comment on Lawrence Nannery’s Presentation

Larry Nannery’s critique of modern music seems to lead to a very interesting premise about modernity, namely that within an historical-hermeneutic approach not everything that arrives at the end of an era or a process is necessarily the best; that is to say, progress is not inevitable, deterministic, and unstoppable. After all, modern music, and some would also add modern art in general and the sad demise of the humanities in our schools and academies, may well reflect the Hegelian spirit of the times we live in and have our being, times wherein the decline and extinction of civilization and even that of humankind as a species, may be an ongoing process as we speak. Are we dealing with a Hegel turned up-side-down? With a negative kind of unstoppable regress parading as progress? Was Kierkegaard right in pointing out the Achilles’ heel in the dialectical theory of Hegel, its determinism? One wonders.

I was particularly struck by this statement in your essay, Larry: “But, in my opinion, the people were right and the academics were wrong. The academics were refuted by the public, and they have never gathered dominant support in the concert halls. One must conclude that the academicians forfeited the social nature of art, and that in itself was enough of a refutation.” I concur here too but then I can well imagine one or two elitist supercilious academics, those who go around parading their love of truth at the expense of even friendship and civilized behavior, coming back with a rebuttal such as this: since when have the ignorant “oi polloi” been the arbiter of what is artistic and of cultural value and what is only artifice and craft? Here the reflections on aesthetics of a Vico or a Kant or a Croce or a Paolozzi could prove most valuable.

Allow me to illustrate the above comments with a recent pertinent event. A book has recently been published in Italy in the form of an essay by a professor of Latin and Italian Literature (Prof. Amato Maria Bernabei) titled “O Dante o Benigni.” [Either Dante or Benigni]. I have not read the book yet but I have viewed an interview he gave to a journalist on the essay in question and available to all on u-tube. The interview is conducted in front of the Coliseum and one notices precious few people in the background. Contrast that scene, if you will, with that of Benigni reciting the Divine Comedy in front of Santa Croce in Florence with the square full of thousand upon thousands of people listening attentively.

Basically the professor alleges that Benigni who recites Dante in the agora so to speak, is an impostor and a betrayer of Dante. Now, I tend to go along with his critique as far as the exegesis and the hermeneutics of the text is concerned, but I am less sure about the aspects of popularization and recitation of the Divine Comedy as carried on by the same Benigni, dubbed a Florentine clown by Prof. Bernabei.

After all, Dante as a humanist could have written the Commedia in Latin with the educated people attending universities as the target audience. He decided to write it in the “volgare illustre,” a dialectical corruption of Latin, the language of the people of Tuscany, in effect giving a literature to such language and permitting thereby the forging of a cultural identity. In some way the same was preannounced by St. Francis of Assisi when he wrote the first Italian poem (the Canticle of Creatures) in Italian a hundred years before Dante. What seems to have happened subsequently is that the academicians took possession of Dante’s great masterpiece and reduced it to something precious to be read and commented by precious few in academia. That is to say, Dante was hijacked by the academics. Then in the same academia, beginning with the 19th century one begins to hear arguments by the logical positivists for disposing of Dante and indeed the whole field of the humanities altogether in order to give due privilege and priority to the sciences

So we end up with the spectacle of endowed chairs of Dante studies at Harvard and Yale where Dantists of all persuasions pompously instruct a handful of graduate students aspiring to the same chair. Vico called such spectacle “la boria dei dotti” or the arrogance of the learned. When one attends one of those classes (as I have indeed) one may learn much from those luminaries but at the same time one may be confronted by another sad spectacle, that of the professor who will spend three or four two hour classes on the exegesis and interpretation of one single verse of Dante’s opus, never occurring to him to take the trouble to simply read aloud a whole canto in order to give students a taste for the sheer beauty of the poem. Meanwhile the people have been starving for Dante as revealed by the fact that whole public squares will fill up whenever Benigni recites Dante. So here too, as mentioned by Nannery the academics have been refuted by the people.

It is at that point that one begins to suspect that professional pique and resentment may be behind the lofty essay of the above mentioned professor. How dare a clown from Florence usurp his domain? One asks: could this be what’s at work behind Bernabei’s essay? I am not sure, but perhaps you Ernesto, who is closer geographically to this event may be in a position to supply some answers here. One intriguing phenomenon of the u-tube video worth mentioning here is this: while Benigni’s recitations as also presented on u-tube are attended by hundreds of thousands of people listening attentively to Benigni’s recitation, in the professor’s u-tube video one notices no people listening, the professor is talking to the camera or to a virtual audience perhaps, he is not connecting to anybody and in fact seems to have difficulty even in maintaining eye contact with the interviewing journalist. He seems eager to return to the august halls of academia to dispense his precious pearls of wisdom to precious few selected students. I think that such a scene speaks for itself and needs no comments.

Emanuel L. Paparella. “A Comment on Lawrence Nannery's Presentation.” 07/04/2013. <>.

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