Thursday, December 01, 2016

Vision's end: Cacciaguida and the Eagle (Par. 15/19)

Much time and space here was given to Paradiso 18 for two reasons - first, it traces a clear change in the poet's power to speak (and speak truth to power); next, it begins the second half of the Paradiso, and one argument I'll be making is that Dante deliberately wishes us to see Paradiso 17 as a center and a threshold between two different aspects of Paradise.

To see what's happening before and after the center more clearly, it's helpful to note that the cantos on either side of 17 balance each other. For example, 15 and 19, 14 and 20, etc. each have parallel elements, creating a kind of nested ring structure around the center. However, Dante's "rings" have torque -- the differences between cantos 15 and 19 (or 14 and 20) are deeply germane to an expansion or transformation occurring through the canticle. An architectonic whose rings turn to something more.

An example or two might help. 

We can see this "symmetry with a difference" in cantos 15 and 19 as an example. Each stands two cantos removed from 17. In 15, Cacciaguida appears before Dante and tells him "I am your root." Between the two is established an organic connection -- the ties of family, of Firenze, of culture and history connect them like root and branch of a single tree. In canto 18, Cacciaguida's closing speech will note that all of Paradise is a series of sills, or thresholds (soglia) of a tree that "lives from the top":
dell'albero che vive della cima
e frutta sempre e mai no perde foglia
 of the tree which lives from the top
and is always in fruit and never sheds its leaves. (18:29-30)
The organic tree of life rooted in earth, time, and history is replaced by this tree, that clearly stands outside of nature. One finds upside down trees, or trees fed from above, in esoteric lore and in the Kabbalah (e.g., the sephirot) and other wisdom traditions.

The encounter with Cacciaguida is rich in warmth, human connection, memory and history, neighborhood gossip and love of city, patria, and God. Canto 15 ends with Cacciaguida detailing the virtues and great citizens of their city:
Saria tenuta allor tal maraviglia
una Cianghella, un Lapo Salterello
qual or saria Cincinnato e Corniglia. 
As great a marvel then would have been held
A Lapo Salterello, a Cianghella,
As Cincinnatus or Cornelia now. (15:127-29)
In Canto 19, Dante is facing a giant composite of just souls who are subsumed within the image of the head and wings of an eagle. The image stuns the poet when it speaks -- indeed, its speech is unlike any ever recorded, because instead of saying "we," all the voices in unison say "I."

This is the eagle that came from the "M" in canto 18 -- an eagle born of letters. The souls that form it are described as conserte, that is, interwoven. The poet introduces that astonishing description of the plural speaking as "I" -- a grammatical violation of number -- with an echo of Paul's echo of Isaiah:
But as it is written:
“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” (1 Cor. 2.9)
Paul, who was also taken up to Paradise, is saying that nothing our senses have ever offered can prepare us for what awaits us. But it's worth noting that Paul is not saying this, he's citing Isaiah 64.4. Dante is introducing this giant segno, this eagle that has nothing to do with natural birds, via a text citing a text citing a text.

The eagle speaks with authority about the limitations of human vision and intellect. The entire canto is steeped in words for seeing, the eye, the ocean floor that the eye cannot penetrate. What the eagle does say is that the limit to our vision is what enables us to discern that its origin is far beyond all that it can see. Thanks to this very limit, or failure, human vision (veduta) "sees" that its origin must derive from something unseen and unseeable.
Dunque vostra veduta, che convene
 essere alcun de' raggi de la mente
 di che tutte le cose son ripiene,
non pò da sua natura esser possente
 tanto, che suo principio non discerna
 molto di là da quel che l'è parvente.


In consequence our vision, which perforce
  Must be some ray of that intelligence
  With which all things whatever are replete, 
Cannot in its own nature be so potent,
  That it shall not its origin discern
  Far beyond that which is apparent to it.  (19:52-57)
The double negative form of the statement suggests that the very thing that the poet and many of his fellow humans view as a frustrating obstacle to our wish to see and know is not so powerful as to blind us to this truth of our origin. If our vision were greater, we might fail to see how far we are from our actual root. The evidence of our senses, in its paucity, proves that we begin beyond the senses. (One hears intimations of immortality here found in other writers -- Descartes and Wordsworth, for example.)

The turning around of the canticle began in Paradiso 17 with the appearance of writing, which is itself re-presenting Scripture. The Eagle is a profoundly rich image that, yes, is linked with the symbol of Rome and empire, but, like Homer's "winged words," it is also the sign of signification itself, rooted precisely not in sensory mimesis.

That the figure of a natural creature known for having the sharpest sight demonstrates the limits of our vision makes for the comic irony here. First we learn that our powers of seeing are limited, and we are shown that this tells us something important about us. The eagle-eyed speaker then goes on, not unlike Cacciaguida did with Florentines, to look at a series of kings.

We can see the parallels here - the figure Dante is speaking with is reviewing actual personages of history. But the differences are equally telling:
  • Cacciaguida described the modest citizens of Florence past, the virtuous city. The Eagle speaks at a higher level of power, and about larger aggregates of people - it speaks of kings, the heads of nation states.
  • Cacciaguida speaks of fellow citizens - people of his own background, some from his own experience. The Eagle speaks of rulers of far flung nations, which it has the eyes to see, but we do not. In fact, though, the eagle is not seeing them at all. It's reading about them in a volume filled with the infamies of these kings. As commentators note, this is scripture depicted in the Apocalypse (20:12) that records the foul deeds of the damned. Hence the irony - the Eagle is not "seeing" these figures, but reading about them in a book that, though it appears at the end of days, in fact already contains all the deeds and horrors of human history. 
  • Cacciaguida is recounting people of the past; the Eagle is reading of events which had not yet occurred in 1300.
Indeed, two entirely different kinds of seeing and memory are at work here. Cacciaguida speaks from his life, his memories. Though a series of tercets begins with the word for seeing, the Eagle speaks from its reading, and the tercets that list the kings are replete with references to writing:
Che poran dir li Perse a' vostri regi,
 come vedranno quel volume aperto
 nel qual si scrivon 
tutti suoi dispregi? 
Lì si vedrà, tra l'opere d'Alberto,
 quella che tosto moverà la penna, 
What to your kings may not the Persians say,
When they that volume opened shall behold
In which are written down all their dispraises?

There shall be seen, among the deeds of Albert,
That which ere long shall set the pen in motion, (19:112-116)
If Cacciaguida praised and criticized his fellow citizens and then went forth on Crusade to the Holy Land, the Eagle is looking out at a time when the kings of Europe will shame their lands before the non-Christian peoples. The perspective has radically shifted with the substitution of written records for lived experience.

Note the repeated use of segnare:
Vedrassi al Ciotto di Ierusalemme
segnata con un i la sua bontate,
quando 'l contrario segnerà un emme.
Be seen the Cripple of Jerusalem,
  His goodness represented by an I,
  While the reverse an M shall represent; (19:127-129)
Frederick's contribution to the hall of shame qualifies him for lettere mozze -- mutilated letters (134), abbreviations.

Writing of course is a vast abbreviation, based on signs we learn in order to record what is no longer visible or in any other way available to the senses. When the plenitude of the sensory realm is subsumed into a sign, a word or missive that can fly from hither to yon, and speak of what no longer is, or of what is not yet, one is in a different modality from mimesis, from representation.

We can look at more implications of this point in Paradiso where vision and knowledge end, and nations have heads without sense or vision. Whatever else, what comes to the fore must be the irrepressible modalities of faith and hope.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

BBC on Justinian



The BBC has a story about Justinian (above flanked by military and clergy), whom we encountered in Paradiso 6.  It's worth recalling the enormous work of  the Emperor as we encounter the eagle of Paradiso 18-20. Justice remains a key concern throughout the canticle.



Monday, November 14, 2016

Venomous letters: The end of Paradiso 18

Già si solea con le spade far guerra;
 ma or si fa togliendo or qui or quivi
 lo pan che 'l pïo Padre a nessun serra.

Ma tu che sol per cancellare scrivi,
 pensa che Pietro e Paulo, che moriro
 per la vigna che guasti, ancor son vivi.

Ben puoi tu dire: “I' ho fermo 'l disiro
 sì a colui che volle viver solo
 e che per salti fu tratto al martiro,
ch'io non conosco il pescator né Polo.”
Once 'twas the custom to make war with swords;
  But now 'tis made by taking here and there
  The bread the pitying Father shuts from none.

Yet thou, who writest but to cancel, think
  That Peter and that Paul, who for this vineyard
  Which thou art spoiling died, are still alive
 
 Well canst thou say: "So steadfast my desire
  Is unto him who willed to live alone,
  And for a dance was led to martyrdom,
That I know not the Fisherman nor Paul (Polo)."  (18:127-136)

Paradiso 18 ends with a sting in its tail. The hesitant poet of the opening of the canto now addresses the reigning Pope, John XXII, and the attack goes deep.

This is the canto in which we along with the poet have witnessed the writing of the godhead, spelled out. Given the direct citation is the book of Wisdom, it might not be amiss to note the astrological sign for Virgo -- the goddess of wisdom, she who visited the source struck by Pegasus's hoofs:
Virgo

The "emme" the poet encounters appears overdetermined. The emphasis upon writing, upon the letter, comes to be used in the canto's conclusion with force.

Pope John XXII, the vicar of Christ on Earth, takes the pan, the sacramental body of Christ, that the Father "shuts from none," away from those he's shaking down. He does this by means of writing. In his struggle against the FraticelliJohn XXII issued the bull "Gloriosam ecclesiam" in which he excommunicated those followers of Francis who took the vow of Poverty literally.

Papal Bulls had constitutive power - they could create, or erase, the entitlement of orders, the possession and administration of property:
The majority of the "great bulls" now in existence are in the nature of confirmations of property or charters of protection accorded to monasteries and religious institutions. At an epoch when there was much fabrication of such documents, those who procured bulls from Rome wished to secure that the authenticity of their bulls should be above suspicion. A papal confirmation, under certain conditions, could be pleaded as itself constituting sufficient evidence of title in cases where the original deed had been lost or destroyed. (Papal Bull)
In a real sense, the Pope was the most powerful writer on Earth, with authority over earthly and heavenly real estate. Here in Paradiso 18 at the moment of Wisdom writing itself, the poet chooses to focus precisely upon one "who writest but to cancel." 

And Dante goes further. 

Because the Bull was so powerful an instrument, the practice of affixing to it a unique lead seal -- the bulla -- had become standard practice in the 13th century. The seal had the living pope's name on one side, and would be attached to the original document:
The most distinctive characteristic of a bull was the metal seal (bulla), which was usually made of lead, but on very solemn occasions was made of gold (as those on Byzantine imperial instruments often were: see Golden Bull). On the obverse it depicted (originally somewhat crudely) the early fathers of the Church of Rome, the apostles Peter and Paul, identified by the letters Sanctus PAulus and Sanctus PEtrus (thus, SPA •SPE or SPASPE).. . . On the reverse was the name of the issuing pope in the nominative Latin form. This disc was then attached to the document either by cords of hemp (in the case of letters of justice, and executory) or by red and yellow silk (in the case of letters of grace) that was looped through slits in the vellum of the document.
Bulla with heads of Peter and Paul
The seal authenticated the identity of the pope as author - the power of the writing, exercised through his office, was guaranteed by the bulla. For Pope John, whose existence in Avignon required a huge amount of income, the bulla was equivalent to the power to print money. With his pen, he could withhold earthly property or salvation until the desired bundle of extorted coins were delivered.

When the pope says that he's so obsessed with John the Baptist -- i.e., the inscribed head of the precursor of Christ on the florin -- that 
io non conosco il pescator né Polo 
I know not the Fisherman nor Polo, 
he meets Wisdom's definition of the fool by adoring the graven image. Boasting of not recognizing the seal of his own authority, he even fails to pronounce "Paolo" properly (flattening the dipthong as Dante may have heard Frenchmen doing). 

John is trapped in the linguistic act of abusing, confounding, and disowning the signs and meanings of his office. He has debased the very thing the poet earlier prayed the Pegasea to scrupulously respect -- the literal reality of language. 

In Avignon, John used his bastard pen to expropriate wealth and power, disowning those who professed to love Lady Poverty. Where Peter had been a fisher of men, Pope John was more a filcher, minting coinage bearing the lily of Florence and his own name on one side, the precursor of Christ on the other. The bowdlerized lily was thenceforth seamlessly linked to this pope's voice crying in the exilic desert of Avignon, prophesying salvation in gold.
Pope John XXII's Florin

Given the canto's profound concern with the duplicity of the word (verbo), it's fitting that the tail of Paradiso 18 with its venomous sting evokes yet one more "emme" with its venomous sting: the astrological symbol of Scorpio:


Scorpio

Friday, November 11, 2016

Candid Raptor: The Poet as Ganymede in Par. 18

To briefly review: Paradiso 18 begins with the poet hesitant, uncertain, seemingly adrift in the echoing world of words and ambivalent symbols that mirror and point, obstruct and paralyze. He needs a guide but a guide as beautiful as Beatrice threatens to content him right where he is.

Beatrice points him away from herself - he sees the fervid face of Cacciaguida and hears a roll call of heroes before being carried upward to Jupiter. As this transition occurs, he finds the eyes of Beatrice again:
e vidi le sue luci tanto mere,
tanto gioconde, che la sua sembianza
vinceva li altri e l'ultimo solere.
 And so translucent I beheld her eyes,
  So full of pleasure, that her countenance
  Surpassed its other and its latest wont.  (18:55-57)
Among other things, this is a subtle reminder that Jupiter is the jovial planet, the temperate silver sphere. We've left the fiery passion of Mars behind, and will encounter the cold meditative realm of Saturn ahead. The expansion experienced in the next tercet's simile is an expansion of mind, heart, and ethical awareness:
E come, per sentir più dilettanza
 bene operando, l'uom di giorno in giorno
 s'accorge che la sua virtute avanza,

sì m'accors' io che 'l mio girare intorno
 col cielo insieme avea cresciuto l'arco,
 veggendo quel miracol più addorno.
 And as, by feeling greater delectation,
  A man in doing good from day to day
  Becomes aware his virtue is increasing,

So I became aware that my gyration
  With heaven together had increased its arc,
  That miracle beholding more adorned.  (18:58-63)
There's a speed, a kind of expanding upward fall, that foreshadows the figure of the eagle and other birds in motion that will resonate in this sphere. But the poet is not flapping arms or imitation wings, like some wannabe Daedalus. This upward gyration (reversal of his ride to lower hell on Geryon) owes itself to another. Something is powering him and Beatrice up and outward -- it is not unreasonable to think here of Ganymede, plucked from Earth by Jove in the form of an eagle, because his beauty seduced the god.

After the poet has construed, or conceived, the letters, words, and figures of M, Lily, and Eagle, he's read the text of Wisdom - an imperative - and it spurs him to a complex apostrophe:
 O dolce stella, quali e quante gemme
 mi dimostraro che nostra giustizia
 effetto sia del ciel che tu ingemme!
O gentle star! what and how many gems
  Did demonstrate to me, that all our justice
  Effect is of that heaven which thou ingemmest! (18:115-117)
The between heaven and our justice on earth is at stake. As the spirits of Jupiter have spelled the words, and as the words are from a mind that has no guide, because it guides all things, so Dante's text, repeating the words spelled out, is speaking not his own mind, nor the spirits' minds, but Mind. (Besides other readers' suggestions such as "monarchia," this "emme" -- the central letter of Dante's alphabet - could also stand for "mente.")

Like the pure eyes of Beatrice, the text speaking is not merely Dante's text, but the pure instance of Wisdom :
26 For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God's majesty, and the image of his goodness.

26 candor est enim lucis aeternae et speculum sine macula Dei maiestatis et imago bonitatis illius. (7:26)
The candor of Jupiter is the lucidity of a figure and text that doesn't hide, or mislead, or turn and try to pass itself as a god - for that is folly:
15 For they have esteemed all the idols of the heathens for gods, which neither have the use of eyes to see, nor noses to draw breath, nor ears to hear, nor fingers of hands to handle, and as for their feet, they are slow to walk. 
16 For man made them: and he that borroweth his own breath, fashioned them. For no man can make a god like to himself.
 15 quoniam omnia idola nationum aestimaverunt deos quibus neque oculorum visus est ad videndum neque nares ad percipiendum spiritum neque aures ad audiendum nec digiti manuum ad tractandum sed et pedes eorum pigri ad ambulandum 
16 homo enim fecit illos et qui spiritum mutuatus est is finxit illos nemo enim sibi similem homo poterit deum fingere
Wisdom, among other things, knows the difference between what is truly divine, and what is man-made imitation. Only fools worship idols sans eyes, ears, nose, fingers, or breath. In the joviality of clay feet "slow to walk" is laughter that springs up, uncontrived, when confronted with mortals' folly.

The poet thus has had an encounter with something that is not figural, not mimetic, not idolatrous, but the literal candor of the word. This motion from letters into words that form the parts of speech that form the sentence that speaks Mind is an act of clear reading. Dante's text scrupulously repeats, combines and makes intelligible what was there, which now transforms into the raptor of Jove.

If we try now to "see" what's happened to the poet in this canto, he too has metamorphosed. Like the virtuous man who suddenly feels the dilettanza of his good works, his ambit grows as he reaches a tempered vision of the mind of god. And not just vision, because to see "what God means" is to be summoned in a way that one cannot refuse, a summons which is more like being caught up, rapt from one's own thoughts, one's own life, to act. Like Ezekiel who ate the scrolls, or Jonah, or Isaiah.

The underlying thesis here -- a submerged thread of this series of readings of the Commedia for some time -- is that Dante's poem does more than speak. It acts. The poet here reads what is inscribed against the whiteness of Jupiter and turns to address the source of that inscription:
Wherefore I pray the Mind, in which begin
  Thy motion and thy virtue, to regard
  Whence comes the smoke that vitiates thy rays;

So that a second time it now be wroth
  With buying and with selling in the temple
  Whose walls were built with signs and martyrdoms!

O soldiery of heaven, whom I contemplate,
  Implore for those who are upon the earth
  All gone astray after the bad example!
The poet first addresses Mind, then the milizia del ciel - the power of heaven which he is contemplating as he speaks. Poet and pilgrim - he who saw the soldiery then, and who contemplates it now, are contemporaneous in contemplating Wisdom. In calling upon those he addresses, Dante is reiterating Cacciaguida's roll call on Mars, when to name the heroes of Christendom was to move them to action.

Then the poet turns to the Pope. I'll address that third apostrophe in one last post.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The grammar of Wisdom: Writing in Paradiso 18

We have looked at the self-doubting opening of Paradiso 18 where the pilgrim, having learned his poetic destiny from Cacciaguida, questions his relation to power over language, his ability to return memory to presence, and even the potential for his precious guide to "free" him even from the desire for the God she mirrors.

By the end of the same canto, a very different voice has taken the place of this hesitancy, and the tone has heightened to two apostrophes: 
O milizia del ciel cu' io contemplo, 
adora per color che sono in terra
tutti svïati dietro al malo essemplo! 
Già si solea con le spade far guerra;
ma or si fa togliendo or qui or quivi
lo pan che 'l pïo Padre a nessun serra. 
Ma tu che sol per cancellare scrivi,
pensa che Pietro e Paulo, che moriro
per la vigna che guasti, ancor son vivi. 
Ben puoi tu dire: “I' ho fermo 'l disiro
sì a colui che volle viver solo
e che per salti fu tratto al martiro,
ch'io non conosco il pescator né Polo.”
O soldiery of heaven, whom I contemplate,
Implore for those who are upon the earth
All gone astray after the bad example! 
Once 'twas the custom to make war with swords;
But now 'tis made by taking here and there
The bread the pitying Father shuts from none.
Yet thou, who writest but to cancel, think
That Peter and that Paul, who for this vineyard
Which thou art spoiling died, are still alive!
Well canst thou say: "So steadfast my desire
Is unto him who willed to live alone,
And for a dance was led to martyrdom,
That I know not the Fisherman nor Paul."  (18: 124-136)
The assurance in this ironic condemnation of the Pope vividly contrasts with the poet's earlier tone of uncertainty. Something has happened to the poet in this canto -- but what? 

The more closely one looks at the particulars, the more acidic this address to Pope John XXII becomes. If the pope, who continued to live long after Dante was gone, ever read these lines, he might have come away worse off than the poet who, at the beginning of the canto, ruminated the bitter (acerbo) in his ancestor's words (verbo). No sweet is here inmixed.

The commentators are voluble in their enthusiasm at the tone here. Many use the term beffardo,"mocking." "Acre ironia" (bitter irony) says Scartazzini. “Tremendo sarcasmo," say Bosco/Reggio, adding:
Al papa corrotto e venale, Dante pone in bocca parole di sguaiato cinismo
(Dante puts in the mouth of the corrupt and venal Pope words of coarse cynicism) 
Not only does the Pope speak with a cynicism we will come back to. He writes. This is a pope who, instead of leading a milizia into battle for his faith, writes to cancel:
tu che sol per cancellare scrivi
A brief detour is necessary here, which will eventually, I hope, make sense.

Pope John XXII was in a significant struggle with the Franciscan order, a branch of whom, known as the Fraticelli, felt that the vow of Francis's Lady Poverty carried the authority of the Gospel itself, and that it had been betrayed by greed at the highest levels of the Church. The order was accumulating wealth and possessions; some of its leaders, including William of Ockham, spoke out against the Church's relaxed interpretation of the vow.

In 1318, John issued a Papal Bull - Gloriosam Ecclesiam - excommunicating the Fraticelli. He wrote other Bulls that withheld the Eucharist (pan) from secular leaders, including Can Grande, as a method of pressuring them to bow to his will.

The perversity of the Vicar of Christ writing to cancellare - erase - the body of Christ from faithful Christians is juxtaposed with the sante creature of Jupiter, who have just taken the form of letters spelling out the opening of the Book of Wisdom.

In fact, this act of writing is a key event of canto 18 -- whatever else this does here, it has something to do with the transformation we've seen in the poet's voice. But what?

For one thing, the words inscribed by the fiery beings come from a text that very much abhors idols and idol worship - (the sin of mimesis, as we have noted). In the midst of the scene of writing, the poet pauses for an invocation -- only the second in this canticle -- to the Pegasea:
O diva Pegasëa che li 'ngegni
 fai glorïosi e rendili longevi,
 ed essi teco le cittadi e ' regni,

illustrami di te, sì ch'io rilevi
 le lor figure com' io l'ho concette:
 paia tua possa in questi versi brevi!
O divine Pegasea, thou who genius
  Dost glorious make, and render it long-lived,
  And this through thee the cities and the kingdoms,

Illume me with thyself, that I may bring
  Their figures out as I have them conceived!
  Apparent be thy power in these brief verses!
While some commentators worry about who is meant by Pegasea, examining the action might yield some insight. What does the poet ask for? What does he do? He asks "Pegasea" for illumination to rilevi -- bring out, or set in relief -- the figures being formed, as he has conceived them (concette). This last term is enigmatic, as these figures are, one would think, precisely not of his "conception" -- they come down from an Other.



What the poet in fact does is pay scrupulous attention to what he has witnessed. He counts the number of letters; combines them into words; the words are not his own, but a citation from Wisdom; he even notes the parts of speech -- noun, verb.
Mostrarsi dunque in cinque volte sette
vocali e consonanti; e io notai
le parti sì, come mi parver dette.
 
“DILIGITE IUSTITIAM,” primai
fur verbo e nome di tutto 'l dipinto;
“QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM,” fur sezzai.  (18:88-93)
The poet here is attending carefully to grammar, and to the gramma. Here he's not using memory to attempt to re-present the world -- he's using meta-language to analyze language, which is different epistemological terrain. We might quarrel over what justice is, for example, but not over whether "iustitiam" has nine letters, or whether or not it's a noun. This might seem trivial, but without this sort of linguistic certitude, neither syntax or semantics would exist.

When language parses grammar, counts letters, or quotes from a book, none of the issues involving the memory that seeks to recapture experience -- issues that plagued the poet earlier in the canto -- obtain. We are outside the frame of mimesis. The poet can speak of wisdom with total confidence, because he is quoting words from "Wisdom," produced by a mind that needs no guide.
Quei che dipinge lì, non ha chi 'l guidi;
ma esso guida, e da lui si rammenta
quella virtù ch'è forma per li nidi.
He who there paints has none to be his guide; But Himself guides; and is from Him remembered That virtue which is form unto the nest. (18:109-111)
This is a highly compact, difficult tercet, but Scartazzini gets to the key point:
. . . ​l'aquila nel pianeta di Giove è una figura dipinta da Dio, il quale nel figurare non imita la natura, come han bisogno di fare gli umani dipintori, perchè anzi la natura imita lui, riconoscendo da lui quella informativa virtù, mediante la quale essa modella ogni cosa quaggiù.
. . . the eagle in the planet of Jupiter is a figure painted by God, whose figuration does not imitate Nature, as human painters must do, because Nature rather imitates Him, recognizing from Him that formative power (virtù) by which she models everything here below.
Now if we keep in mind how the eagle's head came about -- the sante creature linger in the form of an M, and others come down from above, touch the letter 'M,' then rise:
And other lights I saw descend where was
The summit of the M, and pause there singing
The good, I think, that draws them to itself.

Then, as in striking upon burning logs
Upward there fly innumerable sparks,
Whence fools are wont to look for auguries,

More than a thousand lights seemed thence to rise, (18:88-93)
In rising, they form the head of the eagle and the lily, then the full form of the eagle fills out.

Scartazzini is surely correct to find here no natural eagle - this bird comes from a letter, an M, which is compared to a burning log. Striking a log will produce random sparks that "fools" will search for messages. But here, the striking from above (percuotere) might remind us of Pegasus striking Mt. Helicon, from which issued the new source, the spring of the Muses. 

Pegasus, of course, came forth from the decapitation of Medusa, masterminded by Athena. Athena, born of the head of Zeus, visited the spring to see this new wonder, and ended up judging a contest between the Muses and the foolish Pierides.

This discussion has gone far too long. In a final post I'll try to tie the event of writing and origination of this mid-section of the canto to the powerful, scathing apostrophe to Pope John XXII of Avignon.
 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Diligence, delight, and the slippery slope of mimesis - (Par. 18)

A clear change occurs between the pilgrim's doubts, vulnerabilities, and potentially erroneous seductions at the beginning of Paradiso 18 and the poet who by its end is raining down caustic judgment upon the Pope in Avignon.

Tracing the itinerary that goes from diffidence to righteous anger is not simple, and this can only be a sketch of a complex transformation. What's unquestionable is that the acidic language that concludes the canto pours from a man who is no longer bedeviled by worries about his memory, his speaking (parlar) or his guide.

When Dante, obeying Beatrice's order to look away from her, hears Cacciaguida calling upon warriors, he sees linguistic power. Cacciaguida is calling out names, but the effect is of a commander summoning troops. This is the imperative mode, where one does not seek knowledge, but rather commands action. Cacciaguida speaks and the souls take fire and shoot across the giant cross.

The next moment, Dante experiences the transition to the sixth sphere. It's compared to an ethical experience:
And as, by feeling greater delectation,
  A man in doing good from day to day
  Becomes aware his virtue is increasing, 
E come, per sentir più dilettanza
 bene operando, l'uom di giorno in giorno
 s'accorge che la sua virtute avanza, (18:58-60)
Notice the emphasis upon action -- the man in the simile, is bene operando -- doing good, and from the doing, he feels more delight each day. Feeling "good" is a sign that makes him aware of his advancing virtute. The knowledge of virtue and delight in its exercise comes from the practice of it, rather than the other way around. 

The Latin root of dilettanza is delectare -- to charm, to entice -- while the past participle of diligere -- to esteem, love, choose -- is dilecto.

The difference in meaning between delectare, "to charm as an enticement," and diligo -- "I choose" -- is not small. It's the difference between an unruly world driven by random eros and a world directed by clear, conscious, diligent intent. One needs to spell with care to avoid confusion, and the righteous rulers of Jupiter -- a vast number of souls -- are about to spell this out letter by letter, in the imperative mode:
diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram
Love justice, you that are the judges of the earth. 
When the poet tells us his sense of expanding to Jupiter's wider arc is like one who feels an internal sense of delight born of choosing virtue, he's binding together diligence (diligere) and delight (delectio). This yoking of seeming opposites leads to the tempered realm of judicious wisdom, which at least for the Greeks speaks to the root of joviality. 

The canto shifts from its opening anxieties to spectacle. But would we call it jovial? In any event, the canto's tone doesn't remain in that temperate zone. 



The Hebrews -- and the Book of Wisdom, which has traits of both Hebraic and Greek traditions -- put less emphasis on the delectable nature of wisdom. In chapter 14, we are explicitly told to beware the insidious dangers of figuration:
15 For a father being afflicted with bitter grief, made to himself the image (imaginem) of his son who was quickly taken away: and him who then had died as a man, he began now to worship as a god, and appointed him rites and sacrifices among his servants.
16 Then in process of time, wicked custom prevailing, this error was kept as a law, and statues (figmenta) were worshipped by the commandment of tyrants.
17 And those whom men could not honor in presence, because they dwelt far off, they brought their resemblance (figura) from afar, and made an express image of the king whom they had a mind to honour: that by this their diligence, they might honour as present, him that was absent. . . .
18 And to worshiping of these, the singular diligence also of the artificer helped to set forward the ignorant.
19 For he being willing to please him that employed him, laboured (figuraret) with all his art to make the resemblance (similitudinem) in the best manner.
20 And the multitude of men, carried away by the beauty of the work, took him now for a god that a little before was but honored as a man.
21 And this was the occasion of deceiving human life: for men serving either their affection, or their kings, gave the incommunicable (incommunicabile) name to stones and wood.. . .
27 For the worship (cultura) of abominable (infandorum) idols is the cause, and the beginning and end of all evil. Wisdom 14
The story line here from a "father afflicted with bitter grief" to the "beginning and end of all evil" is a perilously slippery slope -- the slope of mimesis. As Auerbach took pains to present in his book of that name, mimetic representation is the strong suit of the Greeks -- not a delight to the Hebrews.

The danger noted earlier that is posed to the poet by his guide, Beatrice, bright mirror of the divine, was precisely that it can end in worshiping her. She is not an end, but a guide. 

The same deviance will curse Pope John xxii. But what transpires to protect the poet? I will offer some suggestions in one (hopefully) last post on Paradiso 18.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Non pur ne'miei occhi": A poet's doubt (Par. 18)



At the very moment in Paradiso 17 that the poet has finished listening to Cacciaguida's foretelling of his future, and immediately preceding the advice the old man will give him about the poem he'll go on to write, we have the image of weaving:
Poi che, tacendo, si mostrò spedita
l'anima santa di metter la trama
in quella tela ch'io le porsi ordita,
When by its silence showed that sainted soul
That it had finished putting in the woof
Into that web which I had given it warped, (17.100-102)
The image is of a tela - a web, or textile, which serves as the metaphor for the text they both are weaving. The poet puts down the warp (ordita), the old man provides the woof, or weft (trama). 
Warp_and_weft.jpg
 Paradiso 17 ends with Cacciaguida's heartfelt encouragement to 
Make manifest thy vision utterly,
  And let them scratch wherever is the itch.
At this key moment of the canticle, we might assume that with these marching orders, the poet needed no further resolve to complete the poem, the very reason he was shown, in fact,
                                within these wheels,
Upon the mount and in the dolorous valley,
Only the souls that unto fame are known.
So it's all the more surprising when, at the opening of the next canto (18) we hear the poet, still on Mars, still tasting his great great grandfather's bittersweet word (verbo), now speak openly of abandoning his task:
Not only that my language I distrust,
  But that my mind cannot return so far
  Above itself, unless another guide it.
non perch' io pur del mio parlar diffidi,
ma per la mente che non può redire
sovra sé tanto, s'altri non la guidi.  (18.10-12)
Not only is Dante, like Theseus, helpless here to find his way back to memory without an Ariadne, he's also diffident about his parlar - his speaking. For one whose mission is to bring back his journey, a guide is on hand -- but for a poet to lack trust in his own speaking, this sounds like a crisis of faith.

To further complicate things, the guide whom he turns to -- "the Lady who to God was leading me" -- mirrors such love and beauty that he is entranced to the point of seduction:
her again beholding, my affection
  From every other longing was released.

While the eternal pleasure, which direct
  Rayed upon Beatrice, from her fair face
  Contented me with its reflected (secondo) aspect,
rimirando lei, lo mio affetto
libero fu da ogne altro disire,

fin che 'l piacere etterno, che diretto
raggiava in Bëatrice, dal bel viso
mi contentava col secondo aspetto.
Beatrice, the guide and symbol whose precise mission is to lead the pilgrim beyond himself, comes perilously close here to turning into the obstacle -- a Siren, Calypso, or Ariadne -- who threatens to waylay the hero, freeing him from desire to go beyond her.

Quite a predicament: a poet whose mastery of his own speech is uncertain; who, even if he felt secure, would yet be unable to remember what to say unless he has a guide; a guide who in this case happens to be so inherently beautiful as almost to blot out anything beyond her luminous self. Indeed, Beatrice verges on the opposite of a translucent symbol, teetering on becoming an end in herself, a Medusa before whom the poet would seize up, speechless, and end his odyssey right here.


This is not at all what canto 17 set us up for. At the same time, despite the clear details that would render some poets entirely aphasic -- the segmented self lacking confidence in his ability to be at one with speech and memory, entranced by a secondo who's so perfect her smile could persuade us she's the primo -- the text does not exhibit anything like the shattering doubt and anxiety found in Inferno 9, when the Furies called on Medusa to end the poet's progress then and there, once and for all.

All the threats a poet might fear are in play here, but Beatrice is no Siren. Instead of holding him captive, she directs Dante to look away from the very thing he just said he could not do without -- herself:
Conquering me with the radiance of a smile,
  She said to me, "Turn thee about and listen;
  Not in mine eyes alone is Paradise." 
Vincendo me col lume d'un sorriso,
ella mi disse: “Volgiti e ascolta;
ché non pur ne' miei occhi è paradiso.”
Non pur ne'miei occhi, says Beatrice. "Not in my eyes alone." If the poet were not who he is, we might hear him say, "Not a problem - you're paradisal enough for me."

Beatrice's direction is the opposite of what Virgil instructed him to do before Dis:
"Turn thyself round [i.e., away from Medusa], and keep thine eyes close shut," 
“Volgiti 'n dietro e tien lo viso chiuso;"
Here in Paradise, as Beatrice directed, he turns away from her, and sees Cacciaguida do something unprecedented in the poem: The old man speaks a name, and the hero so named shoots across the radius of the giant cross on the red planet. Words assume power, speech and act are one. 
né mi fu noto il dir prima che 'l fatto.

nor noted I the word before the deed.
For a poet struggling with his own power over his art, this would be a powerful thing to witness. The poet's last word about Cacciaguida -- who is singing, his face lit up with his soul's fervor -- is "artista."

The poet is openly coming to grips with the challenges to his power over his medium. Now that he's been given the warp and weft of his place in history, his future, and his mission as artist, it's as if he needs more than ever to make sure that he, as poet, can finish the job. He needs confidence, guidance, faith, and courage. In another post we'll see how the rest of canto 18 speaks to these literally literary matters.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Triangulating pilgrim and poet: Cacciaguida's manifesto

Paradiso 17 has a centrality that makes itself apparent on several registers. It's the literal center of the canticle, and it's also a moment when, through dialog with Cacciaguida, the poet recapitulates the journey he has taken, and confronts his "root." That radice turns out to be the source of the pilgrim's historical existence as well as the figure that articulates the poem's rhetorical mode. 

The journey of the pilgrim is recapped at least three times in the canto. The first is here:
mentre ch'io era a Virgilio congiunto
 su per lo monte che l'anime cura
 e discendendo nel mondo defunto,
 
dette mi fuor di mia vita futura
 parole gravi,         (17:19-23)
While I was with Virgilius conjoined
Upon the mountain that the souls doth heal,
And when descending into the dead world,
 
Were spoken to me of my future life
Some grievous words; 
 

This reconnoitering -- a looking back to the selva oscura and Cacciaguida's looking back to his life in Florence -- brings the pilgrim and the poet into a kind of convergence. It might not be "random" that Dante's first words to his ancestor in this canto had to do with how triangles cannot have two obtuse angles (17:15), for here Poet and Pilgrim, in conversation with Cacciaguida, undergo a kind of triangulated turn as Cacciaguida explains why this pilgrim's story has to be told through the faces, voices, and fates of people known to fame:
Then [he] made reply: "A conscience overcast 
Or with its own or with another's shame, 
Will taste forsooth the tartness of thy word; 
But ne'ertheless, all falsehood [menzogna] laid aside, 
Make manifest thy vision utterly, 
And let them scratch wherever is the itch; 
For if thine utterance shall offensive be 
At the first taste, a vital nutriment 
'Twill leave thereafter, when it is digested. 
This cry of thine shall do as doth the wind, 
Which smiteth most the most exalted summits, 
And that is no slight argument of honour. 
Therefore are shown to thee within these wheels, 
Upon the mount and in the dolorous valley, 
Only the souls that unto fame are known; 
Because the spirit of the hearer rests not, 
Nor doth confirm its faith by an example 
Which has the root of it unknown and hidden,
Or other reason that is not apparent." 17:124-142
To "make manifest" is to display by action the nature of a thing. To speak of his experience in a way that can be understood by those who hear his poem, the poet must offer the sort of example whose root (radice) is not hidden. This is spoken by the figure who calls himself "your root." Cacciaguida is at the base of a family tree that, planted in Florence, grew through time until it put forth a fronda -- a leaf or branch -- named "Dante." 

The appearance of the root of Dante puts Dante in his place, as a specific human in historical time. It comes shortly before Dante will be displaced, exiled from his city -- a foreknowledge that the pilgrim also gains from this encounter.

For the poem to be read and understood, says Cacciaguida, it must speak of public figures, some of whom were still alive, or recently deceased (like Pope Boniface) even as it was composed. Although the poet is concerned that writing about certain people could have real consequences -- as some of these folks had power to make him unwelcome throughout Italy -- Dante understands that his poem will fail unless his readers see and hear these historical characters.

In other words, the poet has to speak of figures like Francesca, Farinata, Cavalcante, Ugolino, Manfred, La Pia, Charles Martel, and so many others as if they were not poetic figures, which in fact is exactly what they are. 

We might look at it this way: if I tell you that you can believe something I tell you because so-and-so told it to me, and you know him, you might well be persuaded. But now, suppose you learn that I made up the tale of meeting so and so, and his telling me such and such, because that was the only way I could get you to believe me? 

Cacciaguida's manifesto marks the pilgrim's encounters with actual famed personages as the lie necessary to the poem's rhetorical power -- a power which depends upon a reciprocally empowering relation of pilgrim and poet that is also also mutually exclusive. 

Poet and Pilgrim are inextricably bound together - neither can exist without the other, yet each exists only by means of a sacrificial obliteration of the other. This impossible double figure, this mutually annihilating "author," turns out to be the necessary lie fecund enough, as root, to produce this poem. Looked at another way, the poem is rooted in an illogical act of courage that puts forth something that ought by all "knowledge" never to have been possible.

The path of the journey, in this light, must be reconnoitered, and so must be the mode of its speaking. No longer is the story of meeting x, then, y, simply reflected or re-presented by the poem. Rather the truth intent of the poem requires that the poet create and use these figures as if he had extracted them as examples (per essempro*) from his experiences. 

Representation here is usurped by another poetic order: 
"Because the spirit of the hearer rests not,
Nor doth confirm its faith by an example
Which has the root of it unknown and hidden,
Or other reason that is not apparent."
"che l'animo di quel ch'ode, non posa
né ferma fede per essempro ch'aia
la sua radice incognita e ascosa,
né per altro argomento che non paia.”
Instead of the poem being read as the realistic reflection of the pilgrim's experience, that "experience" is revealed as device -- the poet's rhetorical tool necessitated by, and geared to, the mode of the Commedia, which can be called allegory.

The pilgrim and the poet, no longer separable, converge in Cacciaguida's manifesto. Only, we have to be quite clear: Like Cacciaguida's smile, the poem's persuasive power as representation requires it to conceal its poetic strategy. To persuade, it must seem to represent the pilgrim's encounters with famed historical figures as historical narrative, and to conceal the menzogna that it is not poetic artifice, which at every moment it most certainly is. 

Pilgrim and poet fuse here, but they do so precisely as does a triangle with two obtuse angles. The fusion occurs at a point outside the system of the text -- the system which it alone brought into being. The "point" is made in Cacciaguida's dark, luminous manifesto of the rhetorical model -- the courageous speech act -- of the Commedia itself. 



*The root sense of essempro is traced to an act of drawing something forth - i.e., we "make an example" because an example is not just a passive reflection, but an act of rhetorical persuasion.