In the Giving Vein


by Jean Starobinski, translated by Jane Marie Todd
University of Chicago Press, 211 pp., $29.95 (paper)

The cover of this sumptuous publication is graced with the enlarged reproduction of a ravishing drawing by Correggio, representing the naked Eve holding an apple in her left hand, and apparently looking seductively at the beholder. We are entitled to assume that the image was chosen to illustrate Largesse—the ostensible theme of the volume—a term which signifies generosity and, in a more technical context, the ceremonial scattering of gifts expected from a king or prince on festive occasions. Accordingly, the corres-ponding first illustration of the book carries the caption “Eve Offering the Apple.” But if we refuse to be seduced we cannot help remembering that Eve was not particularly generous in offering the forbidden fruit to Adam, thus making him an accomplice to her crime.

Moreover, it so happens that Correggio did not even intend this figure of Eve to function in this narrative context. As we can read in the commentary to the illustration, the drawing relates to his fresco in the dome of Parma cathedral, which represents the Ascent of the Holy Virgin to Heaven; Eve is included in the welcoming throng, having been redeemed by the Savior. The interpretation also put forward in the commentary—that Eve offers the fruit to the Virgin—is belied by the context, because Correggio depicts Mary soaring heavenward, gazing into the radiance; it would surely be futile for Eve to try to detain her with her gift. The apple, in other words, is purely the emblem of Eve, who may be present because theologians have described Mary as “the second Eve.”

It is unlikely that the learned author can have been unaware of these objections. Instead we may take his interpretation as an example of his skill in deconstruction—quite in tune with a text in a series of which the first volume was inaugurated by Derrida himself. Indeed, the editors assert in the preface that “a reader is never neutral, that is, dead: never impartial…. Every gloss is also a projection.” Whatever we may think of this assertion, it surely does not normally apply to catalogs, which should not give any latitude to the reader or the user. The volume under review originated as the record of an art exhibition in the Musée du Louvre, purporting to illustrate the theme of Giving, in selected prints, drawings, and photographs. Yet the librarian who looks for the slot to which to assign this volume should hesitate before he places it among exhibition catalogs. He will do well to heed the author’s warning that, “in more than one case, drawings will be not the subject of my argument, but an extension of it…. They illuminate the texts I cite; they set thought or reverie back in motion.”

Our librarian may find it far from easy to establish the exact topic of this wide-ranging reverie that takes the giddy reader from Seneca’s Moral Epistles to Marcel Mauss’s famous Essai sur le Don, and from the banquet given for the shipwrecked Ulysses by the hospitable Phaecians to Babette’s…

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