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Thinning air: erudition perdition with reverse reference preference

By Domenico Pacitti

Orfeo in Albione: Tradizione colta e tradizione popolare nella letteratura inglese medievale [Orpheus in Albion: Cultured Tradition and Popular Tradition in Medieval English Literature] by Enrico Giaccherini. Published in 2002 by Edizioni Plus, Pisa, Italy, 184 pages, €9.00, ISBN 88 8492 039 6.

Enrico Giaccherini’s book consists of five essays on medieval English literature, none of which offers anything interesting or original and all of which perish behind a paltry mask of forced, sterile erudition.

The first and longest essay, which lends its title to the book, concerns the narrative poem Sir Orfeo. Here the Greek myth of Orpheus in the underworld is re-interpreted by an anonymous Middle English author in terms of the Celtic folklore of fairies.

Mr Giaccherini’s four remaining essays consider in turn Awyntyrs off Arthure (“Adventures of King Arthur”), Mak, Hermes and the Satyrs, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and pearl mythology.

The book opens promisingly with a Latin quote by Richard de Bury, In libris mortuos quasi vivos invenio (“In books I find the dead as if alive”). But Mr Giaccherini succeeds in accomplishing precisely the opposite, namely in killing characters and literature alike stone dead with arid erudition.

The essential recipe for anyone wishing to emulate the Giaccherini approach to murdering medieval literature, or for that matter any other period of literature, is as follows. Cram as much known information as possible into every sentence; make excessive and confusing use of footnotes; construct grotesque convoluted sentences in abstruse language to the point of illegibility; and pepper your text with references to as many weighty cultural names as possible regardless of whether you have actually read the relevant works or not.

This last component of Mr Giaccherini’s bookmaking technique suggests that he has started out with a prior mental picture of the sort of impressive-sounding names that could help render his work profound and authoritative and simultaneously reflect an ample breadth of vision.

In fact, Mr Giaccherini’s book does not read smoothly nor do references arise naturally and spontaneously. The book appears instead to have been dictated by Mr Giaccherini’s reference preferences. The phenomenon might for future research purposes be tentatively termed “gratuitous allusion syndrome” (GAS). In this sense Mr Giaccherini’s book may be said to have been written back to front.

Perceived in these terms, Mr Giaccherini’s basic problem, or perhaps tragedy, seems to be that he would like to become George Steiner but cannot. In books such as After Babel, Heidegger, Culture and The Death of Tragedy, Professor Steiner combines acute perception with an unusually wide frame of reference which reflects firsthand familiarity with works cited.

Such qualities are crudely and superficially aped by Mr Giaccherini, whose index contains around 800 forced references serving little real purpose. They include, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Hegel, whose works Mr Giaccherini appears never to have read or perhaps even to have cast his eyes upon, this in keeping with the current standard Italian academic practice.

Mr Giaccherini also conforms to traditional Italian academic practice by showing a consistent and apparently instinctive aversion for clear thinking, perhaps out of a sort of fear as to where it might lead. This inevitably results in Mr Giaccherini’s self-concealment within a cloak of obscurity.

On the positive side, Mr Giaccherini shows that he is aware of the multiple authorship issue relating to Awyntyrs off Arthure. Also, his knowledge of ancient Greek turns out to be genuinely relevant in the satyrs essay. In addition, Mr Giaccherini’s comments on select passages, although trite, do seem to be his own.

Again on the positive side, Mr Giaccherini appears to have a technically precise knowledge of English coupled with an ability to speak it with more success than any of the other Italian reviewees featured in the “Failing faculties” section so far, a limited compliment admittedly. But here too, as in his approach to literary criticism, an apparently parrot-like propensity for mimicry might be felt to act as a poor substitute for naturalness.

People who have had the good fortune to meet Mr Giaccherini in person report that in an effort to make his RP English “sweet upon his tongue”, he periodically emits disconcerting nasal blasts, which renders him something of a walking parody of himself. Thus, on hearing Mr Giaccherini emphatically pronounce the word “Chaucer” with exaggerated affricate aspiration and nasality, one might be forgiven for saying “Bless you!”

Enrico Giaccherini holds a senior post in English literature at the University of Pisa's faculty of languages, is currently a pro-rector for international relations and was formerly head of the department of English Studies.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on October 27 2004.