Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 25.

John T. Kirby, Secret of the Muses Retold: Classical Influences on Italian Authors of the Twentieth Century. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. xviii, 167. ISBN 0-226-43747-7. US$44.00, UK£28.00.

James P. Holoka
Foreign Language Department, Eastern Michigan University

John Kirby sets himself ambitious goals in the 'Prelude' (pp. xi-xviii) to this volume. Beyond the explication of influences announced in the book's subtitle -- a laudable and challenging purpose by itself, he aims to affirm and demonstrate the continued significance of the humanities by 'look[ing] hard at . . . ancient texts in order to see whether, in fact, they have something worthwhile to tell us about what it means to be human' (p. xvii). Kirby proposes to accomplish this in five essays devoted each to an author working within a discrete genre or 'textuality': Pier Paolo Pasolini (screenplay), Umberto Eco (novel), Joseph Tusiani (lyric poetry), Italo Calvino (essay), Roberto Calasso ('critical fiction'). He promises to employ both traditional philology and recent interpretive techniques, especially semiotic and psychoanalytic, to disclose meanings in both ancient and modern texts as well as the interrelations among them.

In Chapter 1, 'The Riddle of Fate: Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Edipo Re' (pp. 1-29), Kirby presumes a reader having no familiarity with Sophocles' play and intimate familiarity with Pasolini's film. Nearly half of the chapter reviews the Oedipus myth and includes a detailed, forty-three-item schematic of the ancient (in Russian formalist phraseology) fabula, drawing not only on the constituents of the Sophoclean version. Kirby deploys semiotic theory, particularly in its Peircean manifestation, to prove that 'Oedipus the King is itself a study in semiotics,' in which 'the audience is repeatedly, indeed constantly, redirected to the recognition of Oedipus as semiotician . . . . It is because of his tenacious pursuit of the sign, and his determination for interpreting it, that he brings tragedy down on his own head' (pp. 11, 13f.). Those conversant with semiotic literary criticism will not be surprised to find that everything in the play -- the crossroads, the plague, the Sphinx, messenger speeches, Jocasta's story of Laius's death, oracular responses -- all are signs, and the play in which they appear is about their interpretation.

Kirby's treatment of Pasolini's film is much less thorough. The reader who has not seen Edipo Re or read the screenplay will not be much helped by the scenarium-table plotting the film's forty-eight scenes against thirty-three of the fabula-items listed earlier. Only a few of those scenes are outlined for the reader. Kirby's interpretation of the film is not especially informed by modern theoretical concepts. Yes, we learn that the Italian screenwriter's speculations[[1]] about the nature of cinema ('semiologically an audio-visual technique') evince an awareness that 'the entire universe is a nexus of signs' and that these place him among 'the founding fathers of modern semiotic studies' (pp. 14f.). But, when -- only in the last five or six pages of the chapter -- Kirby analyzes Edipo Re, we find the most conventional sort of autobiographical interpretation.[[2]] The problems of fate and free will as well as the psycho-dynamics of the unhappy Oedipal family unit as presented in Edipo Re are resolved as Pasolini 'returns to the idyll of his early childhood bliss with [his mother] Susanna . . ., and solves the riddle of fate by placing the bliss of maternal love outside fate itself . . .' (p. 29). I don't say this is uninteresting or invalid, only unexpected given what has preceded.

Chapter 2, 'The World as Text: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose as Semiotic Fiction' (pp. 30- 53), makes a strong case for semiotics as a pervasive aspect of Eco's novel. Not surprising, since Eco is a himself professional semiotician and a leading exponent of the seminal theories of Charles Sanders Peirce.

The plot of The Name of the Rose revolves around a manuscript of the lost second book of Aristotle's Poetics, on the nature of comedy. Kirby shows the continuities between Aristotle's conception of mimesis and modern semiotic notions of the sign. The novel's detective-hero, William of Baskerville, espouses a method of investigation based on a perception and interpretation of signs highly evocative of Peircean theory. Moreover, the central locus of the novel -- the labyrinthine library in the monastery -- is itself an archetype of semiotic doctrine vis-à-vis the thought process called abduction: 'The metaphor of library-as-world, library-as-labyrinth, and library-as- mystery, like Peirce's unlimited semiosis, rebound indefinitely through the novel' (p. 46). Also convincingly revealed are the influences of stories in Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths anthology,[[3]] especially 'The Library of Babel' and 'The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths.'

Kirby's discussion of Eco's novel uncovers intertextual links to Aristotle and Borges and convincingly demonstrates the prominence of semiotic theory in the novel's plot, characters, and mise-en-scène. In this sense, the essay is more successful and well-integrated than the handling of Pasolini in the first chapter.

Chapter 3, 'Fresh Air from Helicon: The Neo-Latin Verse of Joseph Tusiani' (pp. 54-81), is devoted to a third Italian author, but one writing in Latin. Joseph Tusiani has produced no less than six volumes of Latin verse, composed in the style and meter of Horace and Catullus among others.

Kirby begins by informing the reader of the complexities of meter and syntax involved in the composition of Latin lyric poetry, taking special care to discriminate the quantitative meter that Tusiani adopts from his Roman models from the accentual rhythms of modern versification. He identifies the meter of each of the nine poems discussed.

The subsequent examination of Tusiani's lyrics (quoted in their entirety in an appendix, pp. 137-42) is based on quite straightforward explication de texte, in the manner of Steele Commager's The Odes of Horace.[[4]] Imagery (light vs. darkness), topoi (music, including celestial harmony), subject matter (beauties of nature), rhetorical and stylistic tactics (e.g., use of the vocative), and themes (the powers of life and of death, devotion to God) are adroitly isolated and expounded. Ancient prototypes, in particular the spring odes of Horace and one of Catullus's sparrow poems, are quoted in toto in both Latin and English and commented on, sometimes more fully than Tusiani's poems. The result is a valuable exercise in traditional criticism.

In the first half of Chapter 4, 'Rhetorical Values Ancient and Modern: Hermogenes' On Types of Style and Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium' (pp. 82-103), Kirby sketches the history of the theory and practice of rhetoric in the ancient world (Aristotle, Cicero, Demetrius, Quintilian, et al.), emphasizing the theories of Hermogenes, a leading figure of the Second Sophistic and author of a rhetorical handbook entitled Peri ideôn ('On Ideas'). The seven 'ideas' -- clarity, grandeur, beauty, rapidity, ethos, sincerity, and force -- are defined and the qualities, devices, and figures pertinent to each documented.

In the second half of the chapter, Kirby outlines in a similar fashion the five literary 'values' that were the subject of Calvino's lectures in his uncompleted Six Memos -- lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity; he also speculates about the subject of the sixth memo, unwritten when Calvino died, on consistency. He concludes that 'Calvino's work has a close kinship with that of Hermogenes: they are both rhetorical treatises enumerating and elaborating various aspects of style in formal language' (p. 99). But there are telling distinctions between the two systems as well. Calvino defined postmodernism as 'the tendency to make ironic use of the stock images of the mass media, or to inject the taste for the marvelous inherited from literary tradition into narrative mechanisms that accentuate its alienation.' The ubiquity of such irony in our day means that 'we find ourselves ineluctably haunted by the discrepancy between seeming and being' (pp. 101f.). This incongruity is highlighted in Kirby's comparison of Hermogenes and Calvino.

Kirby opens Chapter 5, 'The Revestiture of Myth: Robert Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony' (pp. 104-25), with a discussion of the problem of generic classification, desginating Calasso's publication 'critical fiction.' By this he means 'a more purely self- reflexive and self-conscious kind of fiction . . . in which the time- honored rules of fiction seem not to operate' (p. 106). Specifically, Calasso engages in 'critical asides,' various observations and quasi- philosophical speculations, to such an extent as to overshadow the retelling of classical myths that constitutes the ostensible purpose of the work.

Kirby discerns three principal subjects in Calasso's critical asides: the meaning of the classical, the nature of myth, and the semiotics of myth. In each case, he (consciously?) illustrates the technique of the critical aside by expatiating on his own theories about Calasso's central topics. Much in these ruminations is shrewd and insightful, but they do not provide a precise sense of the subject of Calasso's work.

In the 'Coda' (pp. 127-36), Kirby closes his volume first with short summaries of the distinct uses to which his five subjects have put elements of the classical tradition: 'The Name of the Rose is a bibliophilic fantasy in which the reader may imagine a return, via medieval Europe, to the works of ancient Greece and Rome,' (p. 130). He then offers his own threefold answer to the question 'what is a classic?' -- 'A classic is the best of its kind'; 'A classic has withstood the test of time'; 'A classic taps into the mythic values of its culture.' He concludes with an invitation 'to think expansively and to imagine what a more inclusive canon might be like' (p. 136).

Kirby's book is a mélange in several ways. Many of its individual critiques are astute and original. And, too, it offers remarkably helpful and perspicuous explanations of semiotic matters: for example, the discrimination of semiosis from semiotics, and the differentiation of major concepts in the writing of Saussure and Peirce. But the five essays do not finally cohere in a unified whole: disparities in critical tactics, theoretical premises, and degree of specificity make the book read like a collection of discrete papers previously published elsewhere (they were not). The scale of information fluctuates oddly: there are extensive reviews of material probably familiar to an interested reader (the Oedipus story, the rudiments of classical rhetoric, perhaps too the specifics of classical Latin versification) but not of the actual content of the modern works under discussion. Highly technical expositions of semiotic theory coexist with old-fashioned new-critical and even autobiographical modes of analysis. All in all, then, an uneven performance that approaches the goals announced at the outset only sporadically and inconsistently.


[[1]] In his 'Why That of Oedipus is a Story' [Italian orig. 1967] in id., Oedipus Rex (Milan 1971) 5-13.

[[2]] With the clause, 'Be all that as it may . . .,' Kirby throws modern theoretical caution about authorial intention to the winds and proceeds on the authority of Pasolini's avowal that his film is 'a kind of completely metaphoric -- and therefore mythicized -- autobiography' (p. 20).

[[3]] New York 1964 (Spanish orig. 1962).

[[4]] New Haven 1962.