In The Hand of Dante BOOK review



Book Reviews
In The Hand of Dante BOOK review
By
Sep 4, 2002, 15:56

IN THE HAND OF DANTE by Nick Tosches; Little, Brown & Co., 2002

First, full disclosure: I ain't heretofore read any of Nick Tosches' books till earlier this year. I simply never developed a passion for his stuff that I had for Bangs and Meltzer's. Then, probably in the midst of a funk over the dearth of puissant, plucky music journalism extant in these latter days of the Kali-yuga, it suddenly did hit home that a survivor from the Golden Age of rockcritters still roved free, just outside the corral of music mags: i.e. NT. I coaxed my youngster to gift me The Nick Tosches Reader last Xmas and so there's the extent of my familiarity with Tosche's canon to date. So, with that said, you are heretofore encouraged to discount any of the below as the gibberings of a non-Toscheviki.

His most recent novel, In The Hand Of Dante, shows Nick Tosches to be technically adept, boasting a vivid imagination and well-informed, conscientious scholarship on the topics of Classical Greek and Renaissance Europe philosophy and history. He's also fiercely opinionated on the ethics of aesthetics and the prerogatives of the individual vs. the society he inhabits. On occasion he seems like a bit of a self-righteous jerk.

There are two narratives spun in tandem throughout, In The Hand Of Dante, with one providing the key motivation for the other's action. In the first, Tosches literally casts himself as the main character. The original draft of Dante's The Divine Comedy is discovered during renovations at the Vatican; as none of Dante's manuscripts were previously known to survive, its potential monetary value is astronomical, virtually incalculable. The text comes into the possession of a powerful criminal cabal who recruit Tosches to authenticate it.

Dante himself is the protagonist of the second story line, depicted as an artistic dilettante and insensitive fool in his personal life. He disdains his wife and children for decades while he publicly pines for the lost love of his youth, proving a source of constant embarrassment and alienating exactly those who love him most deeply. Meanwhile, he willfully hobbles his most powerful philosophical/spiritual intimations as well as aesthetic inspirations, subjecting both to the strictures and artifice of formal poetic orthodoxy in order to accommodate public tastes and curry favor from the literary establishment via displays of mere technical facility. His most famous work, The Divine Comedy suffers just this sort of artistic gelding. Eventually, through studies in the heretical esotericism of the Hebrew Qabalah, Dante frees himself from the constraint of the many institutions he's been so doggedly loyal to throughout his life: religious, artistic, social. But this occurs at the end of his life with no indication given that his liberation will have any practical affect thereafter. The possibility of redressing any of his past errors is simply ignored.

We also first meet Tosches' character late in middle age. His intermittent search for meaning and purpose, specifically the meaning that art might bring to life in general and his in particular, has led him to virulent cynicism and hedonistic abandon, the latter oscillating from nihilistic self-destruction to simple complacency. It's not been an easy or smooth quest as one moment he's drawn to the lofty, heroic ideals embodied by the Gods and Goddesses of ancient Greece as drawn so beautifully in Classical literature. Then the next moment he's attracted just as powerfully by the codes of violent, ultimately senseless, machismo and malevolent power integral that saturated his childhood growing up in the mean streets of urban Jersey west of Manhattan and coming of age in the pre-gentrified boroughs to the east. Meanwhile, he'd spent years speculating and researching the possibility that the published version The Divine Comedy had been derived from a superior, far wilder, more visionary original. Suddenly it's set before him. It's the opportunity of a lifetime: for the hustler in him, this is the score to end all scores – unearned wealth behind his wildest dreams; for the artist, living proof of the awesome power of work surrendered to pure inspiration, totally uncompromised by any other considerations. An opportunity to experience —through another's art, yet still first-hand—a divine immanence; possibly the meaning of existence all seekers search for. Not giving too much away, Tosches' character ends up a wealthy man indeed. In a book like this there's always a danger of confusing creator and creation, though on the evidence of The Nick Tosches Reader it seems that the attitudes have been a consistent presence throughout his career.

In The Hand Of Dante boasts many well–turned, gut-wrenching vignettes of gratuitous violence, depicting absolute cold-bloodedness, greed and monumental selfishness—and the crooks per se are pretty nasty too! Tosches embroiders his story with marvelously voluptuous descriptions of island paradises, fine cuisine in four-star restaurants, and renders similar service to his bringing Dante's world to life. He also takes the opportunity to recapitulate various themes that crop up in past books (again, on going themes based on the evidence of excerpts included in The…Reader): rough and tumble childhood memories; his enduring ambivalence towards just that culture as he matured and began to move outside it—knee-jerk machismo, opportunistic attitudes towards women, et cetera. Sometimes this stuff fits seamlessly into the narrative and sometimes not.

Early on we encounter an angry open letter from Tosches' character to his editor, savagely denouncing the corrupting of book publishing into unmitigated, puerile pandering to consumerism. Tosches portrays himself as being plagued by ill health with a premature death in the not-so-distant future, so there is a sense of him wanting to make a clean breast of things as well have his way once and for all, editors and readers be damned.

By the end of the book, both characters, Tosches and Dante have come to the conclusion that life is most truly lived in and of the moment, totally unfettered by the institutional predispositions and constraints of civil law, established religion, societal mores. Both the pleasant and the painful. For Tosches' character this means denial of all that does not serve his own short-term purpose and whim, and his writing is included. He views it as isolating him from actual experience as he consciously perceives, then analyses, and finally works to manipulate it into artistic expression; so he rejects it. On the other hand, the Dante character finally embraces artistic expression on the condition that it celebrates primal experience as faithfully as possible, and at the expense of formal aesthetic rules if need be. But that's where the latter's story ends and we never see or hear any indication of him ever acting upon it. And that's where Tosches has been a jerk. He's made the case for his own character's retreat into solipsism persuasive, fully resolved and let's us see it in action. Dante represents the opposite viewpoint but his story is left unresolved and thus inconclusive.

To a degree In The Hand Of Dante seems to be a deliberately confounding book, most likely for the reasons we see laid out by the two authors exposed—they are beyond making this a readily consumed, seductive reading experience. They are looking to attain a level of truth and primal reality that perhaps needs to be approached via self-contradiction and a refusal to give definitive answers. All fair enough, I just can't say that that's been fully achieved. Nice ambitious try though!

-Howard W.

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