Sunday, January 08, 2017

Saturn's crystal: Paradiso 21 and 22

Cantos 21-22 of Dante's Paradiso are in some ways rather forgettable. Not much happens, nor is there any especially heightened poetic imagery or drama -- at least not until the poet, addressing the reader from his new vantage point in the stars, turns and looks back upon his journey through the seven planetary spheres, down to the aiuola -- the threshing floor -- where his readers try to live.

The immediate effect of Saturn is of a cold, stark, almost frozen place -- canto 22 will open with the poet in a kind of shock -- Oppresso di stupore. The highest planetary sphere seems to partake of the realm of ancient gods and eld -- a place nearly forgotten, yet a place of origin, as Saturn is father to all the other Olympian deities.

A few notes on cantos 21 and 22:


The sphere is called cristallo (21:25). We learn in retrospect that silvery Jupiter tempers the heat of Mars, where all had a reddish hue, and the cold of Saturn. I take cristallo here to mean transparent -- i.e., no color. This would be in line with the absence of sensory cues here -- as the sphere lacks sound and music, it also lacks color.

It's probably more accurate to say whatever sounds it may have, the pilgrim cannot hear them. He's too close to the sacred to not need a shield, some sort of protective mediation, which suggests that the minimalist bent of Saturn works to imply, by its very paucity, something too large to take in.

That proximity to what, if apprehended, would shock or destroy the one who apprehends, is made explicit early when Beatrice explains why Dante will not see her smile. It's a motif often seen in Ovid -- think of Actaeon, or Semele:
                           ". . . s'io ridessi,”
 mi cominciò, “tu ti faresti quale
 fu Semelè quando di cener fessi:

ché la bellezza mia, che per le scale
 de l'etterno palazzo più s'accende,
 com' hai veduto, quanto più si sale,

se non si temperasse, tanto splende,
 che 'l tuo mortal podere, al suo fulgore,
 sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende.
                                    "If I were to smile,"
  She unto me began, "thou wouldst become
  Like Semele, when she was turned to ashes.

Because my beauty, that along the stairs
  Of the eternal palace more enkindles,
  As thou hast seen, the farther we ascend,

If it were tempered not, is so resplendent
  That all thy mortal power in its effulgence
  Would seem a leaflet that the thunder crushes. (21:4-12)


Saturn lies at the outermost edge of the planetary spheres -- the highest such sphere from Earth, named for the most ancient God, father of Zeus.

Throughout the cantos of Saturn, the pilgrim is made to intimate a sense that something lies between that which is available to his senses, and that which would destroy him if he were to see or hear it. It's as if there were a membrane, stretched very thin, between the absence of Beatrice's smile, the silence of no music, and something other which would be too much to bear. The austerity of Saturn is a an inverse sign of something intolerably powerful almost within reach. Just up the stairs.


Contemplation - I

The poem seems to verge on some entropic limit. Beatrice instructs Dante to turn the mirrors of his eyes to see the figure - figura - in the crystalline mirror of Saturn. The staircase is the logical image here -- it ascends and descends, but in fact, it's the same at every step -- a mise en abyme.

To contemplate is be always seeing yourself seeing.

With Peter Damian, this is linked to a kind of light that lifts him up out and up:
"On me directed is a light divine,
  Piercing through this in which I am embosomed,

Of which the virtue with my sight conjoined
  Lifts me above myself so far, I see
  The supreme essence from which this is drawn.

Hence comes the joyfulness with which I flame,
  For to my sight, as far as it is clear,
  The clearness of the flame I equal make.
“Luce divina sopra me s'appunta,
 penetrando per questa in ch'io m'inventro,

la cui virtù, col mio veder congiunta,
 mi leva sopra me tanto, ch'i' veggio
 la somma essenza de la quale è munta.

Quinci vien l'allegrezza ond' io fiammeggio;
 per ch'a la vista mia, quant' ella è chiara,
 la chiarità de la fiamma pareggio.  
(Par. 21: 83-90)
Peter Damian falls upward -- luce divina penetrates the light in which he is "enwombed." Unlike Semele, he's not destroyed. Like Dionysus, he's lifted up and out by the power of that light, joined with his seeing, "so that I may see the highest essence from which this light is milked"*

The result is a fusion of his elevated sight and the flame in which he spins -- each is made equal to the other, or, put another way, the flame mirrors the vision that is the mirrored fusion of divine light and human eye.

*"Milked" is apparently the root sense of munta, < mungere. Hollander cites this paraphrase of Paradiso 21: 83-90 from Bosco/Reggio:
“The light of grace descends on me, penetrating the light that wraps me round, in whose womb I am enclosed, and its power, conjoined with my intellect, lifts me so far above myself that I can see the supreme essence, God, from whom this light bursts forth. From this sight comes the joy with which I shine, since the splendor of my flame is as great as the clarity of my vision of God.”


The silence of Saturn comports with the standard idea of contemplation. But then Dante introduces, in describing Peter Damian's cohort, the crows. We've just come from the figure of the Eagle on Jupiter, composed of the Just who sing in multiple voices, but which suddenly speaks in the first-person singular, subsuming all into one large, uncanny speaking entity. Here, instead of some even more solemn or seductive avian image, crows:
And as accordant with their natural custom
  The rooks together at the break of day
  Bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold;
Then some of them fly off without return,
  Others come back to where they started from,
  And others, wheeling round, still keep at home;
Such fashion it appeared to me was there
  Within the sparkling that together came, (21:34-41)
Here the image stresses the gaggle, the individual groups, each doing its own thing. If the eagle is the image of royal power, majesty, and top-down rule, these crows seem fairly common, independent, and unruly -- not unlike the actual creatures. Crows are also raucous, inharmonious, and have long been associated with bad news -- as in Ovid's tale of Apollo and the crow:
According to the mythological narration, Apollo sent a white raven, or crow in some versions to spy on his lover, Coronis. When the raven brought back the news that Coronis has been unfaithful to him, Apollo scorched the raven in his fury, turning the animal's feathers black. That's why all ravens are black today. (WP)
Crows are linked to secrets and baleful signs. They bring intelligence which may disconcert. One encounters them, as in Twa Corbies or Poe's "Raven," with foreboding.



If Saturn offers Dante's portrait of contemplation, rich in somber quiet and sober reflection, why the crows? And why the extraordinary grido - the unintelligible shout from those "crows" surrounding Peter Damian at the very end of Paradiso 21?

If we consider the attributes normally found in discussions of the sublime, this becomes less surprising. Thunder, high craggy mountains like those where Peter Damian went to live in solitude, discordant aesthetic effects all accompany the sublime, whether in Longinus or in Kant's Critique of Judgment. Indeed, the Paradiso might helpfully be informed by a reading that would see it as a movement from delightful forms and harmonies associated with beauty to these austere heights haunted by the unimaginable, terrifying power of sublimity.



What would link contemplation - in Dante's sense - to the sublime? For one thing, when two mirrors face each other, the result is a form of infinity. The sublime erupts when the mind, which is used to the framed world of finite beauties, encounters what exceeds its grasp:
però che sì s'innoltra ne lo abisso
 de l'etterno statuto quel che chiedi,
 che da ogne creata vista è scisso.  
Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
  Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
  From all created sight it is cut off. (21: 94-96)
Rudolf Otto writes about the blank stupor - a kind of paralyzing dread that accompanies apprehension of the other, in connection with Chrysostom's reading of a psalm:
When he gazes down into the immeasurable, yawning Depth of the divine Wisdom, dizziness comes upon him and he recoils in terrified wonder and cries : . . . "Thy knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, above my power (I am too weak for it: LXX)." The dizziness and the unique feeling of the uncanny, which we have called stupor and tremor, are here clearly noted by Chrysostom. (The Idea of the Holy Appendix 1)
"This is the voice not of the Platonist or Neo-Platonist ; it is the voice of antiquity itself," adds Otto.



I remember my first glimpse of mirroring mirrors -- it was in a barbershop, and when the phenomenon of endless iteration dawned on me, it was disorienting. One feels one could fall in. The golden stairs of Saturn, rising beyond mortal sight, disappoint the expectation of arrival -- instead of getting to a place, they simply repeat, step after step, no end visible.


Contemplation II

The empowered light of Peter Damian would appear to have the power to see far. But right after describing his joy, he unveils its limit, in response to Dante's question about predestination.
Ma quell' alma nel ciel che più si schiara,
quel serafin che 'n Dio più l'occhio ha fisso,
a la dimanda tua non satisfara,

però che sì s'innoltra ne lo abisso
de l'etterno statuto quel che chiedi,
che da ogne creata vista è scisso.
But that soul in the heaven which is most pure,
That seraph which his eye on God most fixes,
Could this demand of thine not satisfy;

Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
From all created sight it is cut off. (21:91-96)
If the binding of luce divina and Peter's own seeing lifted him up, it also enables him to apprehend the deep abyss. Infinite height reflects an abyss without end. That the abyss is a "eternal statute" (etterno statuto) removes it from the realm of nature altogether. The statuto is there because a fiat -- a speech act -- decreed it there.

Human sight is scisso -- cut off -- or cut out -- here. It can apprehend, but not comprehend.

Peter is speaking in answer to Dante's question, "why you?" -- Why is it that Peter Damian greets Dante at this moment of his journey? Of course the question could be turned around; Peter could, with greater justice, reflect it back to Dante:"Why you, Ser Alighieri?" Peter's response -- that not even the highest Seraph knows -- provides the same absence of an answer for both.


Fat prelates

Peter's penetrating eye might not see why he's where he is, or Dante is where he is. But he sees through the opaque massiveness of the modern shepherds (moderni pastori). The layers of flesh and cloth try the patience of one whose life has been devoted to that virtue;
Cuopron d'i manti loro i palafreni,
sì che due bestie van sott' una pelle:
The victims of his caustic vision are mirror images of Peter's fusion of divine light and human eye, which lifts him up out of himself. Here the shepherds and their palfreys merge beneath a giant added "skin."

Suddenly, myriad little flames release a cry to which no earthly sound, even thunder, can be compared:
Dintorno a questa vennero e fermarsi,
 e fero un grido di sì alto suono,
 che non potrebbe qui assomigliarsi;
né io lo 'ntesi, sì mi vinse il tuono.
Round about this one came they and stood still,
  And a cry uttered of so loud a sound,
  It here could find no parallel, nor I
Distinguished it, the thunder so o'ercame me.
If music in the lower spheres interweaves in perfect rhythm with teachers and paragons of justice, this screech brings no beauty, or understanding, or closure. Paradiso 21 ends in a dissonance more disconcerting than the caw of crows.

Kant says the sublime can be painful, because it marks the moment when that which is apprehended exceeds what we may comprehend. He notes that when we find sublimity in the ocean, it's at the moment we are detached from what we know. The eye of the mind goes dark, and the sensory eye sees merely what strikes it:
if it (the ocean) is at rest, as a clear mirror of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything. (Analytic of the Sublime #29.)
The pilgrim experiences the grido as the overwhelming shock of mere sound -- né io lo 'ntesi -- "nor did I understand it."


Stupor II

Suppose one looked at the staircase with the same uncomprehending eye that Kant says sees the sublimity of the ocean. One would simply see a series of gradations extending upwards as far as that eye can see. Nothing beyond it, no destination, just stairs, stairs, stairs.

The staircase has been the structuring core of the Commedia. The entire arc and argument of the poem would have it mean something that we descend to the center of the created world, but then turn and ascend, higher and higher, through Purgatory, through the spheres, through the stars to the final destination, the alpha and omega. To have no beginning or ending, but just stairs -- this is the nightmare of nihilism -- perhaps the single most terrifying image of the poem: Horror vacui.


Contemplation III

Benedict muses in Paradiso 22 upon what looks all too much like fate:
The flesh of mortals is so very soft,
  That good beginnings down below suffice not
  From springing of the oak to bearing acorns.
Peter began with neither gold nor silver,
  And I with orison and abstinence,
  And Francis with humility his convent.
And if thou lookest at each one's beginning,
  And then regardest whither he has run,
  Thou shalt behold the white changed into brown. (22:85-93)
Longfellow translates tracorso as "run" - Sinclair offers "strayed," which seems a better fit -- wherever one looks, promising starts don't last, even when initiated by the likes of Saints Peter, Benedict, and Francis. The lapse Adam begat seems the one ineluctable pattern this contemplative can discern.



Benedict's vision of human life, at this crystal threshold before the poet is whisked high to the stars, earns every ounce of the term "saturnine." This ancient crack in God's once perfect world -- we heard about the old man of Crete in Inferno 14, himself cracked and weeping -- appears irremediable. The contemplative sees more clearly; there's much he can do to nurture i fiori e ' frutti santi. But true contemplation is contemplation of truth; this baleful, bottomless, abyssal errance of human intent seems inevitable, as well as impossible to un-see.

Beatrice is about to whisk him up beyond all the planets. He looks back. Down through the multiple layers of ancient gods and planets and powers in all their variety. One thing at its heart.

The poet calls it as he sees it:
L'aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci,

The little threshing-floor that makes us so fierce (Sinclair trans.)


Taking it in

The necessity of this terror, this congealed sense of everything coming to the same failed end, could account for Saturn's melancholia. Nothing mirrored in Saturn's crystal is quite what one hopes to see. Dante can sense the love Benedict and Peter bear him, but not why, nor why they in particular are there. Seeing even their faces is deferred -- yet to come, like the destination promised by all that he's experienced. Saturn feels incomplete because it is, especially if nothing lay beyond the stairs. This discordant ancient sadness and lack of closure is also of the sublime.

But Dante is already beyond the stairs when he looks back upon his odyssey to this point from the stars of Gemini. He's able to see the aiuolo with clearer vision than he's ever had. Paradiso 22 ends not with apprehension, but comprehension, as the poet takes in the scalar multiplicity of the planets -- take them in, as a whole, with crow-like wanderings.
And all the seven made manifest to me
How great they are, and eke how swift they are,
And how they are in distant habitations.
e tutti e sette mi si dimostraro
quanto son grandi e quanto son veloci
e come sono in distante riparo.

Monday, January 02, 2017

About crows

Apropos of the crows (pole) that appear in Saturn, Paradiso. 21: 34-39:

In Ancient Greece and Rome, several myths about crows and jackdaws included:

  • An ancient Greek and Roman adage, told by Erasmus runs, "The swans will sing when the jackdaws are silent," meaning that educated or wise people will speak after the foolish become quiet.
  • The Roman poet Ovid saw the crow as a harbinger of rain (Amores 2,6, 34).
  • Pliny noted how the Thessalians, Illyrians, and Lemnians cherished jackdaws for destroying grasshoppers' eggs. The Veneti are fabled to have bribed the jackdaws to spare their crops.
  • Ancient Greek authors tell how a jackdaw, being a social creature, may be caught with a dish of oil into which it falls while looking at its own reflection.
  • In Greek legend, princess Arne was bribed with gold by King Minos of Crete and was punished for her avarice by being transformed into an equally avaricious jackdaw, which still seeks shiny things. (Wikipedia)

Crows have been congregating in large roosts in the fall and winter for as long as there have been crows. Crow roosts can range from small scattered roosts of under one hundred individuals to the spectacularly large roosts of hundreds of thousands, or even more than a million crows! A roost in Fort Cobb, Oklahoma was estimated to hold over two million crows. (source)

Peace and harmony aren't major crow traits. Crows may fight other crows to defend territory or some other resource, or they may be protecting a mate. Family conflicts are typically short-lived and limited to a few pecks. Fights between different families can be long and potentially lethal. (source)

The intelligence of the corvid family—a group of birds that includes crows, ravens, magpies, rooks and jackdaws—rivals that of apes and dolphins. Recent studies are revealing impressive details about crows' social reasoning, offering hints about how our own interpersonal intelligence may have evolved. (SA)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Coly" birds in Dante, Ovid, and the 12 Days of Christmas

The appearance of the gaggle of pole -- jackdaws, or grey crows (cornacchie grige) -- in Paradiso 21 is a strangely unsolemn moment in an otherwise almost forbiddingly sober canto. Jackaws are usually not associated with contemplation -- and the variously active groups of birds described in the simile seem busy, but not intent upon higher things:
And as accordant with their natural custom
  The rooks together at the break of day
  Bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold;

Then some of them fly off without return,
  Others come back to where they started from,
  And others, wheeling round, still keep at home; 
Such fashion it appeared to me was there
  Within the sparkling that together came,  (21:34-41)
Robert Hollander notes that these birds have "black wings, silver eyes, and large red beaks encircled by yellow," and adds that according to Benvenuto, they love solitude and choose the desert for their habitation.

Thanks to Dren, we now know our black birds have a holiday tie-in, via Ovid, no less. He shared this piece from the Washington Post that offers a bit of philological archaeology. It turns out that while we all sing "four calling birds," during the "Twelve Days of Christmas," the original line involved "coally birds," an adjective derived from, and sounding like, "coal."

The OED finds the word in Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses - the tale of Coronis and the raven who told Apollo of her infidelity.

As thou thou prating Raven white by nature being bred,
Hadst on thy fethers justly late a coly colour spred.
Indeed, we might have Ovid to thank for Golding's bringing the word into print, and giving it the opportunity to be mistaken for "calling birds," thus helping perpetuate the derangement of language which happens to be a prominent theme in the second book of the Metamorphoses. (See, for example, here.)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Seizing Rifëo: The defiant poetics of Paradiso 20

"The whole story of Ripheus is nothing less than outrageous," says Robert Hollander, with complete justification. 

With the introduction of this Trojan warrior-turned Christian believer before the Christ event, Dante deliberately strains credulity. Why single out this obscure character from a pagan epic and turn him into a unique example -- one seized with such loathing for paganism that he finds the true savior, apparently, by imagining an alternative to all the gods he knew?

That Ripheus could, through his own unparalleled sense of justice, reach a higher vision is a pattern we have seen elsewhere. It fits with the motif that what is not able to be seen or grasped can offer more significant evidence than that which is visible. That we are unable to see and know everything argues that our roots lie beyond what is available to the senses, as noted in the Eagle's statement in Paradiso 19.

Ripheus is at that breaking point between the inner imaginings of his heart and the complete failure of his pagan world to reflect what he believes is true. But Dante could have singled out other ancients for this role -- why choose obscure Ripheus? A few suggestions are below.

As usual, it's revealing to look at the entire context of Dante's allusion to Ripheus in the Aeneid. He appears only in Book II, and is named three times in the course of Aeneas's tale of the Trojan Horse and the end of Troy. More particularly, Ripheus is part of a band of Trojans who have donned Greek armor and were successfully killing many Greeks, until one of their group, Coroebus, sees Cassandra being dragged from the temple of Minerva. As one who loved her, he cannot stand by, and loses his life in seeking to save her. Ripheus joins in, and dies too, along with several others:
         cadit et Ripheus, iustissimus unus
qui fuit in Teucris et servantissimus aequi
(dis aliter visum);  
then Rhipeus fell;
we deemed him of all Trojans the most just, 
most scrupulously righteous; but the godsgave judgment otherwise.  (Aeneid II: 426-28)
The first mention of Ripheus comes as he is among a group of fellow Trojans whom Aeneas rallies with an argument built upon despair:
My men, hearts vainly valiant, if your desire is fixed to follow me in my final venture, you see what is the fate of our cause. All the gods on whom this empire was stayed have gone forth, leaving shrine and altar; the city you aid is in flames. Let us die, and rush into the midst of arms. One safety the vanquished have, to hope for none!" (Aeneid II: 348-353)
This is the code of the Roman warrior who is confronting the darkest moment of his existence. A moment earlier, Aeneas, had recalled the words of Panthous, a priest of Apollo, telling him that all is lost:
"It is come -- the last day and inevitable hour for Troy. We Trojans are not, Ilium is not, and the great glory of the Teucrians; in wrath Jupiter has taken all away to Argos; the Greeks are lords of the burning city." (Aen. II: 324-327)
“Venit summa dies et ineluctabile tempus
Dardaniae: fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens
gloria Teucrorum; ferus omnia Iuppiter Argos
transtulit; incensa Danai dominantur in urbe."
The belief that Troy has been abandoned by the gods doesn't paralyze Aeneas, but it colors the entire scene with Ripheus and Coroebus that follows. The crisis of faith here is double -- the priest of Apollo can no longer believe in the survival of Troy because, he believes, the gods themselves no longer believe in, or care about, the city that once was the darling of the Olympians.

The crisis leads to Aeneas's rhetoric of despair -- "nothing left to lose" -- and they soldier on.

The salient points of the text where Ripheus appears are thus deeply relevant to the viability of faith and hope in the face of total annihilation. Dante's selection of Ripheus as the pagan baptized by the theological virtues brings this dark moment of Virgil's poem into view precisely as the mention of the three virtues at the right wheel of Beatrice's car reminds us that that is the last moment Virgil appears in the Commedia. The point is well made by Teolinda Baronlini:
Dante picks as his messenger of hope a character who, necessarily, because of his provenance in the Aeneid, brings with him not just hope but complicated feelings of loss and exclusion. Dante manages the story of Ripheus in such a way as to implicate both the author of the Aeneid, Vergil, and the memory of the character, Virgilio, a virtuous but unsaved pagan whom we last saw viewing the very same theological virtues involved in Ripheus's baptism. 
By plucking Ripheus, whose death is not even described in the Aeneid (wearing Greek armor, he loses his life as he tries to help Coroebus rescue Cassandra), from Virgil's poem and raising him to the eyebrow of the Eagle, Dante is doing something extraordinary. It is a plucking, a seizing, of this "iustissimus" character from a pagan poem, elevating him to a very high place. Indeed, it is almost a kind of savaging -- as an eagle might swoop down, grasp, and raise up some prized prey.

This is a kind of intertextuality one doesn't often see. Dante returns to his human poet-guide, but instead of being guided, he rewrites the ethos of soldierly courage and speaks of a soul who, despite all that anyone could dream of, envisioned another kind of courage. Ripheus is taken from Virgil in an act that re-creates our entire sense of him -- one that his own author couldn't have dreamt of. The imaginative leap of Ripheus is not unlike that of a poet, dreaming of something beyond what his experience has given him. (It is not by chance that in the pupil of the Eagle may be found David, the poet/warrior/king.)

All this is done through arbitrary fiat - nothing leads anyone to expect it, including Ripheus himself. It is the unbelievable in its pure state -- the sort of thing that rational people think of as foolery, or folly, much as the first apostles seemed idiots to the philosophically sophisticated gentiles.

One additional point: Perhaps there's another clue besides context to help us understand what the Commedia is doing here. Here's how Ripheus is introduced:
Chi crederebbe giù nel mondo errante
che Rifëo Troiano in questo tondo
fosse la quinta de le luci sante?
Who would believe, down in the errant world,
That e'er the Trojan Ripheus in this round
Could be the fifth one of the holy lights?
If the seizing of Rifëo seems more an act of creation than of derivation or mere allusion, it very much is. It's taking liberty in an almost violent way with a belief system that would find it more credible to think that a fallen city was abandoned by the gods. Rather than concede that only the absence of hope remained and could be a source of strength, Dante re-makes Rifëo into one helped by a kind of capricious grace. To re-make in Italian is rifare, which obviously bears a resemblance to Rifëo. The word appears in the opening lines of the canto:
lo ciel, che sol di lui prima s'accende,
subitamente si rifà parventeper molte luci,
in che una risplende; (Paradiso 20: 4-6)
The sky here, instead of going dark with the sun's setting, brightens with the many lights that reflect the sun's sole light (with a similar wordplay of sol and sol).* This brightening is expressed as "making itself reappear." This reappearance of the sun, not as itself, but in the form of its many star reflectors, remakes the sky. This making is a form of poesis that goes beyond mimesis. Rifëo Troiano is remade as the fifth light in the brow of the Eagle, even as the word for remaking appears in the fifth line of the canto, which is about reappearing lights.

Whatever else this is, it's a mode of intertextuality that plays havoc with normal notions of allusion and reference. To remake Rifëo is to recreate the poetry of Virgil. Ripheus's name echoes the act of making new:

The violence to the corpus of Virgil returns when the Eagle speaks to the quiditate of the exaltation of Ripheus:
Regnum celorum vïolenza pate
da caldo amore e da viva speranza,
che vince la divina volontate:
'Regnum coelorum' suffereth violence
From fervent love, and from that living hope
That overcometh the Divine volition;
For Dante, the act of faith is a creative leap beyond reason, fueled by lively hope. It is acted out here in the mode of poetic arbitrariness. Far from mimicking Virgil's portrait of Rifëo Troiano, Dante catachretically re-creates and sublimates him. As we've seen at other moments, Paradiso defies mimesis, adopting a poetics that violates and transforms nature via the powers known as the three theological virtues.

*Hollander points out that Dante does not name the sun after Paradiso 10, yet here, speaking in periphrasis about the sun -- sol -- he uses the homonym sol, i.e., "only." The wordplay is not unlike that of rifare and Rifëo.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Lark ascending: Paradiso 20

The simile of the lark that comes in the middle of Paradiso 21 reminded me of a lovely piece by Bernard de Ventadorn:


When I see the lark beat his wings
for joy against the sun’s ray,
until he forgets to fly and plummets down,
for the sheer delight which goes to his heart,
alas, great envy comes to me
of those whom I see filled with happiness,
and I marvel that my heart
does not instantly melt from desire.

Alas, I thought I knew so much about love,
and really I know so little,
for I cannot keep myself from loving her
from whom I shall have no favor.
She has stolen from me my heart, myself,
herself, and all the world.
When she took herself from me, she left me nothing
but desire and a longing heart.

Never have I been in control of myself
or even belonged to myself from the hour
that she let me gaze into her eyes-
that mirror that pleases me so greatly.
Mirror, since I saw myself reflected in you,
deep sighs have been killing me.
I have lost myself, just as
handsome Narcissus lost himself in the fountain.

I despair of women,
no more will I trust them,
and just as I used to defend them,
now I shall denounce them.
Since I see that none aids me
against her who destroys and confounds me,
I fear and distrust them all
for I know well they are all alike.

In this my lady certainly shows herself
to be a woman, and for it I reproach her,
for she wants not that which one ought to want,
and what is forbidden, she does.
I have fallen out of favor
and have behaved like the fool on the bridge;
and I don’t know why it happened
except because I tried to climb too high.

Mercy is lost, in truth,
though I never received it,
for she who should possess it most
has none, so where shall I seek it?
Ah, one who sees her would scarcely guess
that she just leaves this passionate wretch
(who will have no good without her)
to die, and gives no aid.

Since with my lady neither prayers nor mercy
nor my rights avail me,
and since she is not pleased
that I love her, I will never speak of it to her again.
Thus I part from her, and leave;
she has killed me, and by death I respond,
since she does not retain me, I depart,
wretched, into exile, I don’t know where.

Tristan, you will have nothing from me,
for I depart, wretched, I don’t know where.
I quit and leave off singing
and withdraw from joy and love.


Can vei la lauzeta mover

de joi sas alas contra.l rai,
que s’oblid’ e.s laissa chazer
per la doussor c’al cor li vai,
ai! tan grans enveya m’en ve
de cui qu’eu veya jauzion,
meravilhas ai, car desse
lo cor de desirer no.m fon.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Classics Schedule for 2017







MAY 3RD, 17TH, 31ST








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; when a word or missive 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:

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:


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.