Dorothea Heitsch and Jean-François Vallée, eds. Printed Voices: The Renaissance Culture of Dialogue. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. xxiii+291pp. ISBN 0 8020 8706 X.


Robert W. Haynes
Texas A&M International University


Haynes, Robert W. "Review of Dorothea Heitsch and Jean-François Vallée, eds. Printed Voices: The Renaissance Culture of Dialogue." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):14.1-11<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-3/revhayn.htm>.

  1. The difficulty of discoursing intelligently about the literary genre of dialogue lies in part in the breadth of the spectrum of works written in the form of conversations, a spectrum ranging from the most casual pedagogical mnemonics to the most formidably profound exercises in philosophy. In this collection of essays edited by Dorothea Heitsch and Jean-François Vallée, several approaches to the Renaissance dialogue illustrate the challenges faced by scholars of this kind of work. Some of the authors included here reiterate the controversial claim that the dialogue is itself a hybrid genre, though they discuss disparate implications of this Aristotelian claim. The plan of the book, as suggested by the title, seems to exclude dialogues written before the development of printing, but since one of the strongest attractions of the dialogue for Renaissance authors was its classical associations there are clear limits on that limitation. And since it was printing that placed the classical dialogue before the broader audience that found intellectual excitement in the ancient works, the printed voices of the ancient authors are essential to "the renaissance culture of dialogue." If we can believe Diogenes Laertius (III.34), rumours of conflict between dialogists resonate from as far back as the disagreement between Socrates' pupils Plato and Xenophon in the fourth century B.C., and possibly the critic of dialogue should not, consequently, expect a great deal of subsequent harmony about the genre.

  2. The essays collected here vary notably in the extent to which they achieve coherence and plausibility. A good-humored, informative, and unpretentious "Foreword" by Heitsch and Vallée sketches the recent history of dialogue scholarship and introduces the thirteen articles of the anthology, which are themselves organized into six groups. The order of the articles does not appear to be particularly significant, and, since the value of essay collections normally lies in the value of the more successful contributions, this commentary will deal mainly with the essays that impress this reviewer most favorably.

  3. Jean-François Vallée's article "The Fellowship of the Book: Printed Voices and Written Friendships in More's Utopia" is an elegant and playful contribution to a substantial body of criticism on the Catholic saint's elegant and playful Platonic dialogue. Vallée observes that friendship, or the dream of it, shaped Renaissance humanism and that Utopia embodies that dream as well as that of a friendlier or more familiar commonweal. This significant observation suggests one answer to the question of what happened to dialogue in the sixteenth century, at least in England, where More's humanist friends dissociated themselves from him as he grew in the king's disfavor. Vallée does not engage such unpleasantness here, however, and his iteration of the sense of textual community as a form of self-identification for humanists is cogent and is made more memorably pleasant by Vallée's own gracious bafflement, unacknowledged, perhaps, but not an unfamiliar state for veteran readers of More's tantalizing little book. Given Plato's propensity for dialogic aporia, one wonders if Vallée might have paid somewhat more attention to the Platonic end of More's conversation with the ancient world, but then More's Utopia does tend to draw its readers toward endless projects.

  4. Olga Zorzi Pugliese's chapter "The Development of Dialogue in Il libro del cortegiano: From the Manuscript Drafts to the Definitive Version" discusses the composition of Baldassare Castiglione's dialogue. Having newly examined the various manuscripts, Pugliese is able to point out such features of the author's technique as his use of Latin outlines and specific patterns of textual modification that suggest ongoing changes in intention or focus. This essay shows what can still be done in the way of common sense in literary criticism and suggests a pattern of exploratory analysis particularly promising for dialogues for which multiple manuscripts survive. It also provides an analogy for speculation about finished works. At one point, Pugliese concludes that, in general, "authors first conceived the ideas and then assigned them to the interlocutors" (84), which may be somewhat difficult to reconcile with what we know of the composition of, say, More's Utopia. Certain dialogical characters may well be inseparable from the ideas they represent; nonetheless, Pugliese provides a sensible method for initial approaches. It would be interesting to see this procedure applied to such a work as the surviving draft of Thomas Starkey's Dialogue between Pole and Lupset.

  5. Robert Buranello's "Pietro Aretino between the locus mendacii and the locus veritatis" proposes a reading of Aretino's Dialogue of the Courts that plausibly explores the dialogical self-consciousness of an author preoccupied with the deficiencies of the worldly court with which he must cooperate. Buranello contrasts this work with Aretino's earlier Dialogues, which parodized such dialogues as those by Bembo and Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, arguing that in the later dialogue Aretino establishes a "middle ground" between the domain of professional hypocrisy and the unattainable world of the ideal. This claim should strengthen the modern academic's sympathy for Aretino, and Buranello's treatment of this subject helpfully reminds the reader that the form of the dialogue offered many things to many kinds of Renaissance writers and readers.

  6. Another substantial essay in this collection is the final paper, Eva Kushner's "Renaissance Dialogue and Subjectivity," which is a sequence of observations about Renaissance dialogists whose works reflect the immediacy of personal engagement and experience. Kushner accepts the premise (stated in the opening essay by François Rigolot) that subjectivity is a modern phenomenon, and she proceeds to document that premise with evidence from a variety of dialogists. She does incorporate some of Erasmus' non-dialogical works (along with his Colloquies) in her argument, but she mainly relies upon material from Petrarch (Secretum, De remediis utriusque fortunae), Marguerite de Navarre (Dialogue en forme de vision nocturne), Thomas More (A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation), Juan Luis Vives (Dialogues), and Pontus de Tyard (Premier Curieux). The very range of Kushner's selections, however, suggests the tenuous and conjectural nature of her approach, and thus with the conclusion of the volume there hovers also a suggestion that the elusive generic nature of the dialogue has eluded this crew of skillful scholars. Though Kushner's intention in the essay is to deal with Renaissance works, it seems unsatisfactory not to confront the issue of subjectivity and the classical dialogue, if we may assume that part of the genre's attraction for Renaissance authors was its ancient association with a culture familiar with the phrase "Know thyself."

  7. Other essays in this collection seem less finished and more tentative in intention, execution, or direct relevance to the subject of the book. The article by Dorothea Heitsch, for example, resembles a rough draft, and its presence here is puzzling. Several of these other essays show promising insight or suggest new possibilities, but they will probably appeal to a more specialized audience than will the essays already discussed. Here are a few observations on some of these other chapters.

  8. Nicola McLelland's article deals with language-learning dialogues, the recitable sequence of prompt and response familiar to most students of foreign languages, but the exposition is problematic here, since the literary genre of dialogue will not be very significant if it includes all conversations of all kinds. A similar problem arises from such other essays as that by W. Scott Howard, which analyzes Milton's paired poems "L'Allegro" and "Il Pensoroso" as a dialogue. Though there is a calculated responsiveness between the poems, it is imprecise to designate them as a dialogue in a book about the dialogue as genre. While we recognize that certain literary works respond to others (e.g. More's Utopia to Erasmus' Praise of Folly, or Shakespeare's Richard II to Marlowe's Edward II) in ways that resemble dialogue, we do ordinarily not confuse these works with the Platonic genre.

  9. Luc Borot thoughtfully discusses the role of the dialogue in the works of Thomas Hobbes, but, though his discussion is informative about the dialogues' content, Borot seems to end in some perplexity as he faces the question of Hobbes's dialogical purpose. His essay thus seems to embody the latent contradiction between Hobbesian authoritarianism and the genre Plato once found appropriate for presenting the philosophical activity of the Athenian maverick Socrates. In a separate essay, writing about John Foxe's Actes and Monuments, Joseph Puterbaugh runs into a different kind of difficulty as he expands the generic term "dialogue" to include conversation and even reading. If everything is dialogue, nothing is dialogue, and Puterbaugh's otherwise interesting analysis of Foxe brings little to the purpose of this anthology.

  10. Finally, the opening chapter of this book is François Rigolot's effort to refocus the history of the Renaissance dialogue upon what Rigolot, with an elbow to the ribs of the late Walter Ong, calls an "inward turn" (as opposed to Ong's "decay") of dialogue. I note this chapter last because, in a sense, Rigolot's essay suggests both the strengths (erudition, philosophical open-mindedness) and the main weakness (frequent vagueness and irresolution) of the book itself.

  11. To conclude with a critical response to this volume as a whole, one might suggest that the humanist dialogue sought to connect itself to the classical anti-tyranny party whose leaders Plato and Cicero established the voice of reason (dialogue) as an alternative to the hedonistic tyranny prevailing in politics. In a sense, the dialogue, the written dialogue, is generically of limited interest, and it is the specific intellectual quality of specific dialogues which justifies the greatness attributed to the genre. It seems otiose to disregard such qualitative issues, since some surviving Renaissance dialogues merely document the stupidity of their authors, and the serious engagement with life that keeps the classical dialogues alive today was certainly the major force which drew later authors to the genre. Though I have expressed some general and specific objections to their provocative collection, Heitsch and Vallée have assembled a diverse and significant collection of contributions to the discussion of the Renaissance dialogue, and scholars of this subject will find it useful.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).