Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Ethics of Nature in the Middle Ages: On Boccaccio's Poetaphysics

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Ethics of Nature in the Middle Ages: On Boccaccio's Poetaphysics

Article excerpt

GREGORY B. STONE, The Ethics of Nature in the Middle Ages: On Boccaccio's Poetaphysics. The New Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. 250. ISBN: 0-312-21353-0. $65.

This is a belated review of a book that should be of great interest to all students of medieval literature and culture. Stone mounts an ambitious and important argument about nature, poetry, philosophy, and theology in the Middle Ages. His primary focus is Boccaccio (and especially the Decameron and the Genealogy of the Gentile Gods), but the implications of his argument extend very widely indeed; a reader comes away with new questions to ask of any medieval text.

Stone writes with great learning, great subtlety, and (best of all, for me) great lucidity: at every point he lays out his argument with generous explicitness. The separate chapters (nine of them, plus an introduction and epilogue) focus on different, rather abstract, topics-metaphor, origins, solitude, for example-but there is a clear line of thinking throughout. The overarching claim is that 'nature,' for Boccaccio and (some) other medieval thinkers, is by no means a pre-linguistic essence, as it has come to seem for several centuries now, but is rather a space of variability and possibility, a verbal construct founded on nothingness, a site for an originary act of poetic creation. Stone takes Heidegger's account of'the poet' as a model for his own account of Boccaccio; repeatedly, he argues that Boccaccio anticipates Heidegger's antiessentialist understanding of nature and of poetry. The name 'Heidegger' appears so often that it comes to feel like a refrain, but Stone is steeped in medieval culture, and the wanderings of his separate discussions seem responsive to Boccaccio and his world rather than to any theoretical program. Along the way he offers close textual readings that are always lively and frequently dazzling.

The book's outward shape seems a little odd. The Introduction, which bears the same title as the book, is in fact the longest, densest chapter; we are not so much introduced to the book's questions and claims as plunged into them at the deepest point. The other chapters bear short, resonant, rather cryptic titles: 'The Upspringing of Metaphor,' 'Principles of Roman Archeology,' and so on. Perhaps Stone is enforcing a no-skimming rule: a reader must get to know the book and then construct a new, personal apparatus for it. For example, I know I will be rereading (and recommending) a brilliant interpretation of the Introduction to the Fourth Day of the Decameron, but the chapter titles won't help me find it-it could plausibly go under about half the rubrics here. Fortunately, I can follow the trail of my own marginal stars and exclamation points and locate it in Chapter Two, 'The Nature of Desire.'

There is a more serious problem, I think, that runs through the book's argumentation, what could be called a problem of tone. Stone is at his best when he makes his own most daring claims: he writes with humor, energy, bravura. He takes obvious pleasure in puns and coinages (the neologism in the book's subtitle is not the best example of this); instead of playing down the Heidegger connection with 'as it were' and 'along the lines of,' he seems to revel in the wholesale application of 'Heideggerese' (90); he sets out his readings like a magician setting out the props for an especially impressive trick: 'My task in this chapter, then, is to show that the fable of Filippo Balducci and Boccaccio's defense of his writing mean just precisely the opposite of what everybody says they mean' (63). …

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