Thursday, September 03, 2015

A trove at Herculaneum

A tantalizing buried library at Herculaneum could hold some lost works of Sophocles, Aristotle and more. The painstaking methods - old and new - used by archaeologists to bring some of the charred ancient scrolls to a point of legibility are remarkable:
Letters began to jump out of the ancient papyrus. Instead of black ink on black paper, it was now possible to see black lines on a pale grey background. 
Scholars' ability to reassemble the texts improved massively. "Most of our previous readings were wrong," says Obbink. "We could not believe our eyes. We were 'blinded' by the real readings. The text wasn't what we thought it was and now it made sense."

Monday, August 31, 2015

An unnoticeable lightening of being: Purgatorio 10-12

L'arte non riproduce ciò che è visibile, ma rende visibile ciò che non sempre lo è.
- Paul Klee

As John Sinclair points out in his note for Purgatorio 12, Dante reports that he did not know a P had been removed from his forehead until Virgil told him, a fact he confirmed with his own fingertips. Not only is the first and greatest sin effaced, but the rest are "all but effaced."

The canto has much about art, and much art, which is so real that it seems, he says, "visibile parlare." The phrase captures what would be the pinnacle of proud achievement for any mortal artist: the fusion of the most powerful sensory faculty with the intelligence of speech. What if all the invisible powers of language were so wedded to the realm of the eye that one didn't need to hear sentences unfold themselves in time? Their full meaning would strike at the speed of light.

The hallucinatory superreality of the figures of the terrace of pride, so vivid that
                           non pur Policleto,
           ma la natura li avrebbe scorno
                                  not only Polycletus
                  but nature would be put to shame there (10.32-33),

crosses a threshold that Dante the poet, who for all his fiction of how this is not a fiction (poetry as bella menzogna), has the hubris to depict. It's one thing to slyly nod to the reader when speaking of surpassing the Guidos in poetic accomplishment -- this is how Dante confronts head on any reader's thought that he might have some issues with regard to artistic pride. But that is purely a matter of human fame in the eyes of men.

To dare to create in words a work of art that speaks of divine visibile parlare (10.95), and to insert a visual image, in canto 12, through the repeated letters

would seem to venture into dangerous artistic territory. Here Dante is not far from the famous mythological figures whose thefts from the gods got them in serious trouble -- Tantalos, for one, and Prometheus.

According to Robert Hollander, this has not gone unnoticed by certain readers. Here's one (Barolini) he cites:
"The exaltation of divine art at the expense of human art paradoxically leads to the exaltation of that human artist who most closely imitates divine art."
It's fair to say that while canto 10 opens up the topic of Pride, it seems far more engaged with the language of and about art -- an emphasis that will continue in canto 11 with Oderisi's discussion of how Giotto is superceding Cimabue. Perhaps implicit: God's visibile parlare is to human representation as Giotto's is to Cimabue's. There is no question that with Giotto, a whole new dimension of mass and human gravitas enters painting. The analogy fits, and is lovely, but Cimabue and Giotto are brought in to illustrate the passing of style, the endlessly ephemeral quest for the new. Presumably the divine Artificer's work is not equally subject to artsy fashionistas.

Something here is pointing toward a deep link between the hyperbolic sense of self in pride and the potency with which art renders the world to us. Perhaps the proud are artists with bad ideas, like Arachne.

After all the fascination with a fusion of showing and telling, image and thought, the two appear to be distinct near the end of canto 12. Here as the angel's wing removes the first (and most serious) P from Dante, he is unaware of it. He too is a work of divine art, and the visible speech on his forehead, undergoing erasure, has the effect of lightening the pilgrim. This movement towards levity is another dimension of comedy in the poem. Even as Bevilacqua sat heavily beneath his stone, he managed to transform the mood with his few brief barbs. He too will "lighten up" as he ascends.

Virgil understands what's happening here. Just as canvas doesn't feel the brush, or paper the pen, so the soul doesn't feel the erasure of its sins. Instead
"fier li tuoi piè dal buon voler sì vinti,
che non pur non fatica sentiranno,
ma fia diletto loro esser sù pinti.”
Virgil says:
"Thy feet will be so vanquished by good will,
That not alone they shall not feel fatigue,
But urging up will be to them delight." 
"Vanquished by good will" is a remarkable phrase - it's a happy sufferance of conquest, which in fact will be achieved by Dante when he is "crowned and mitered" over himself at the top of the mountain.

What's notable here is that being overcome by good will seems to happen on its own -- one doesn't fashion it, or will it. The soul, working, continually grows lighter. Good will conquers as one is in process of becoming the butterfly. Pride will suffer, crushed beneath heavy stones.

Once in Purgatory, the course is set by the Artist -- to levity:
on v'accorgete voi che noi siam vermi
nati a formar l'angelica farfalla,
che vola a la giustizia sanza schermi?
Do ye not comprehend that we are worms,
Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly
That flieth unto judgment without screen.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reading as Viniculture: Purgatorio 4

Purgatorio 4 begins with an assertion about the nature of the soul based upon esperïenza vera; namely, that the soul is a single entity comprising parts, and when one part is concentrated upon one thing, another part is not free to do another thing independently. The experience in this case came from Dante's being so involved with Manfred that three hours passed without the poet's noting it.

As always, the text puts it to us to ask: What is this doing here? The task of reading stems from grappling with such questions, far more than from annotating references with learned footnotes. Each canto of this poem requires us to ask why certain seemingly disparate passages are juxtaposed. We should ask what these have to do with one another, and see whether we might find unity where before there seemed only a series of unrelated pieces. Unity of soul would seem at least to invite us to inquire into unity of text.

On a smaller scale, we encounter this very phenomenon in the passage that immediately follows the meditation upon the nature of the soul:
Maggiore aperta molte volte impruna
con una forcatella di sue spine
l'uom de la villa quando l'uva imbruna,
che non era la calla onde salìne
lo duca mio, e io appresso, soli,
A greater opening ofttimes hedges up
  With but a little forkful of his thorns
  The villager, what time the grape imbrowns, 
Than was the passage-way through which ascended
  Only my Leader and myself behind him,
Robert Hollander calls this a "pseudo-simile" because it is not formally ordered with words such as "just as" . . . "so." By leaving out the comparative terms, one can argue that the passage puts into greater relief the juxtaposition of the farmer and God. If we then ask whether there is some larger relevance to the juxtaposition of architectural design of this hidden threshold of Purgatorio with the farmer plugging his hedge, it offers at least the prospect of reading the terms:
hedge :: solid rock
hole    :: nearly invisible fissure in rock
farmer :: God
The farmer is keeping out whichever thieves or creatures might steal his uva embrowning on the vine. To complete the comparison: so God has designed Purgatorio to be defended against anyone attempting to enter without divine authorization. The way in is not just hard to see, but very difficult to climb, as the next few lines make clear, as the poet struggles to keep up with Virgil, and asks somewhat pathetically how high the entire mountain is. 

What we've not yet involved in the comparison is the grape. This uom de la villa has a vineyard, where grapes are ripening before they are harvested, and transformed into wine.  
uva :: souls
With this, the rich figure of Purgatory as vineyard comes into view. Just as grapes growing in the wild might not survive predation, and certainly will not of their own doing turn into good wine, so the souls entering Purgatory have not the wherewithal to transform themselves. The work of purgation, as will be seen in the spiraling terraces from Pride to Lust, will be the labor of transformation from grape to wine. 

The fine thing Dante is doing here is inviting us to put this together for ourselves, using simple things we know from nature. As we do so, we participate in producing the poetry of the poem. To read is then to collaborate with the poet, or at least with the poem, to press it to yield its potency. (Reflecting on "wine" in the New Testament of course brings added "aroma.")

So the interrelation of the terms of the implicit comparison brings us a suggestive sense of what Purgatory might be: less charnel house or penitentiary, perhaps, than a protected spot of cultivation -- ripening, maturing, readying -- in preparation for a transformation to come. By interrelating, close reading turns into a sort of viniculture, with heady results. 

And, just as there is no wine without grapes, there can be no intellect without the vegetative and emotive parts of the soul. Seemingly disparate elements are parts of a greater whole. The initial tercets of canto 4 now seem quite relevant to the figure of wine making

The canto of course has further elements, including an overly elaborate dialogue on the track of the sun, and the delightful encounter with Belacqua. To read Dante is to pursue him.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jonas' Reading Dante

Even as we are engaged in a slow reading* of parts of the Purgatorio in preparation for tackling the Paradiso, we can rest assured that what it means to read will forever be an open question.

For several years, the American artist Joan Jonas, whose work is part of the U.S. exhibit at this year's Biennale in Venice, has been working on a series of performative pieces entitled Reading Dante.

In an interview with Art Forum, she drew a parallel between Dante and Aby Warburg:
In my mind, Dante connects to Aby Warburg, who was central to my last large-scale work of this kind, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. Both had an overarching worldview. Dante thought epically during a moment—the medieval era—when people were very isolated, and Warburg attempted to synthesize widely disparate cultures through the lens of art history. For me, they both represent characters that are on a journey through life that involves thinking about the world as a whole, not just what’s immediately around them.
Jonas, Reading Dante

According to a gallery where the work was performed, Jonas is continually revising:
Reading Dante IV draws inspiration from Dante's fourteenth-century Divine Comedy, a reoccurring topos of Jonas's work since 2007. Each performance and installation becomes increasingly layered as the work transforms and develops.
Reading Dante becomes an act of translation:
Jonas translates the medieval allegory, borrowing small fragments of the text and greatly reinterpreting the story through performance, sound, drawings, video and installation. The artist dynamically visualizes the journey of the characters, merging their experience with her own through footage of travels and performance. Galleria Raffaella Cortese.
In another interview (in frieze), Jonas says:
Dante separated heaven, purgatory and hell but I don’t believe in such a separation. One aspect, though, that interested me is the fact that Dante was the first writer to write using vernacular Italian so I want to record lots of different people reading Dante.
With a work so rich as Dante's, the acts of translation are unending, as are the many varieties and forms its reading can assume.

Jonas, Reading Dante

video clip

Diverse images, Jonas Galleria Raffaella Cortese

*slow reading

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two kinds of infinity in Purgatorio 3

Reading Purgatorio 3, we found the canto brought into an interesting relation two radically distinct modes: the theoretical realm of intellect -- the solar sphere of signs and reading, associated by Virgil with Aristotle and the other noble Greeks and Romans in Limbo -- and the active realm of Manfred, where one blinding moment achieves something marvelous.

Is there some way to calibrate the relationship of these two distinct elements of the canto? It might help to see that while they can be said to be radically other, they do share one term.

Here is Virgil, on the madness of Reason that tries to bridge "the infinite way" of the ultimate mystery:
Matto è chi spera che nostra ragione
  possa trascorrer la infinita via
  che tiene una sustanza in tre persone.
Insane is he who hopeth that our reason
  Can traverse the illimitable way,
  Which the one Substance in three Persons follows!
And here is Manfred:
Orribil furon li peccati miei;
ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.
Horrible my iniquities had been;
But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms,
That it receives whatever turns to it.
Both speak of an infinite, but each seems to draw different inferences from his understanding of it. For Virgil, infinity is boundless, a spatial limitlessness that exceeds all powers of reason and its formal languages (such as mathematics) to subdue and make sense of. It dwarfs human aspiration, and all effort of the mind, however Faustian.

The infinity of Manfred's bontà is not a reference to size, or mathematical dimension. It is power, the power of the Good, figured in the Herculean image of "such ample arms" which can transcend any abyss, any moral distance between the corrupted soul and eternal bliss. Here infinity is precisely that which
possa trascorrer la infinita via . . . 
negating all privilege of meaning for the word "impossible."

The two parts of the canto, then, "meet" in the conceptual and dynamic space of infinite. Is this a meet or a miss? If Virgil, confronting the Mystery of the Trinity, feels the hopelessness of all who remain sospesi in Limbo sanze speme, Manfred would seem to answer him.

The juxtaposition of an Intellect that can conceive a limitless potential it can never grasp, on the one hand, with, on the other, Illimitable Goodness coupled with Infinite Power, would then seem equally to offer grounds for hope or despair. Manfred could prove the successful Palinurus who makes all the rest -- from the "real" Palinurus to Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and all the other Palinuri of pre-Christian epoch -- either types of incomprehensible loss, or candidates for incalculable gain.

The honesty of the Purgatorio lies in our being unable to decide the matter. The two parts of the canto lie tantalizingly near, yet remain in fact at an infinite distance. It is only through attempting to read their relation that we find it unresolved. This is remarkable in a poem in which all things appear to have been masterfully decided by an infinite creator. As such, it makes things more interesting for its readers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bronzes all too human

This exhibition of Greek bronzes, currently in Los Angeles, will come to Washington DC later this year - and from what one can see, it is not to be missed.

In the NYRB, Ingrid D. Rowland sees a development beyond the 5th century classical Greek reserve in a work like the boxer:
      An Olympic champion in the classical period would never have chosen to show himself in such graphic, painful mortality, but by the time of Mys of Taras, a contemporary of Aristotle (twenty years older than Mys) and Alexander the Great (twenty years younger), signs of vulnerable humanity, like the heroic ruler’s furrowed brow and the boxer’s wounds, had entered the repertory of Greek sculpture.

 She continues:

We may be meant to read this ravaged face in a Sophoclean key, like Herakles in the tragedy Philoktetes:

And first I will tell you of my misfortunes,
Of all that I suffered—and by going through those sufferings
I obtained deathless virtue, as you can see.
And you, know it well, must endure all this,
To create a glorious life from your pain.

Few bronzes have survived from the time, making these all the more precious. These amazing figures suggest the development of a humbler, more generous view of what it means to be human, which the Romans would explore in art, poetry, and drama.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Comic Relief: Palinurus renewed

(Written with time in short supply - a future post might be warranted.)
Before a favoring wind
the fleet sped on. The line in close array
was led by Palinurus, in whose course
all ships were bid to follow.
ferunt sua flamina classem.
Princeps ante omnes densum Palinurus agebat agmen;
ad hunc alii cursum contendere iussi. Aeneid V.832-34

When Dante fails to see Virgil's shadow in Purgatorio 3, he leaps to the conclusion that Virgil is not there. Why does he do this? Because he assumes, or believes, that the same rules apply to Virgil that apply to him. He doesn't entertain the idea that certain rules are unique to him alone here with all these souls.

In his final moments, Manfred could similarly have assumed he was a dead man -- the second death of hell -- and not have asked for forgiveness because he was too outrageously bad. But instead, in tears, he begs. And enters the ship of the angel.

Nothing prepares us for Manfred. If Dante is the unexpectedly live soul among the dead, Manfred is the soul saved despite all the theocratic power of the popes, the unburial and scattering of his remains along the Verde river. Both play against the figure of Palinurus, Aeneas's helmsman whose death, as Jupiter decrees, enabled the Trojan leader's ship to reach the promised land.
One only sinks beneath th' engulfing seas, —
one life in lieu of many. Aen. 5.
Without burial Palinurus's spirit cannot cross the Cocytus to rest. His failure to arrive (he is suspended -- sospesi -- as Virgil says of all the ancients including himself, who are in Limbo), and this failure is bound up with Aeneas's successful arrival to Cumae with the remnant of Troy.

For a pilgrim such as Dante, arriving on the shore of Purgatory is the equivalent of Aeneas's arrival to Latium. Only here Dante arrives early, and cannot stay. But he finds Manfred, who according to all official accounts ought to be an outcast soul like Palinurus, yet instead not only is assured eternal life, but seizes this opportunity to speed up his way to it.

Throughout the Commedia, the irreducible incalculability of Revelation (the Christian dispensation) is juxtaposed again and again with the ancient Greek and Roman sense of Nature, man, and the divine. As it is here.

Capo Palinuro

On one hand, there are the baleful words of the Sybil, who consoles Palinurus with the notion that his name will be remembered, as it is even today, in the name Capo Palinuro, but who speaks of a threshold that bars his spirit from rest:
desine fata deum flecti sperare precando 
Cease to dream that heaven's decrees may be turned aside by prayer.
                                                        Aen. VI.376
On the other hand, compare the words of Manfred:
Orribil furon li peccati miei;
   ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
   che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.
Horrible my iniquities had been;
   But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms,
   That it receives whatever turns to it.  (Purg. 3. 121-23)
Canto 3 moves from the cognitive difficulties that arrive with the dawn -- the errors of shadow and light -- to a singular act of salvation, which comes when si rivolge - one turns oneself.

Of course, this turning is both an act and a mode of directionality -- the performance of a navigator who finds his way not via the angle of sun or star, but spontaneously, profoundly, an instant before annihilation.

It is precisely "wrong-way Manfred" who divines the way, metamorphosed into a saved Palinurus. The latitude of the gran braccia brings what can only be termed "comic relief," so long as we take that term of art with a new literalness.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Enter Manfred: Purgatorio 3

biondo era e bello e di gentile aspetto ...

Before we look at the role of Manfred in detail in Purgatorio 3, his entrance is worth noting.

Dante and Virgil have just realized that the mountain seems unscalable, when they encounter a slow-moving group of souls:
As sheep come issuing forth from out the fold
By ones and twos and threes, and the others stand
Timidly, holding down their eyes and nostrils, 
And what the foremost does the others do,
Huddling themselves against her, if she stop,
Simple and quiet and the wherefore know not; 
So moving to approach us thereupon
I saw the leader of that fortunate flock,
Modest in face and dignified in gait.  (Longfellow)
Imagine now that one from this tame little flock comes forward, who turns out to be a combination of Mohammed Ali, John Kennedy, and Mick Jagger. That's basically the level of incongruity presented after this unhurried extended simile by the appearance of Manfred, the Ghibelline chieftain who challenged and was excommunicated by three Popes; who commanded Saracens, Greeks, Italians and Germans against the Papal forces, and, wagering all on one great battle at Beneventum, lost all.

So a key element here is humor -- the canto slyly sets up a detailed image of the least contumacious-looking group imaginable, then springs its comedic trap: out walks the love child of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Smiling, Manfred will speak of his body's brutal disfigurement, death and spiteful exhumation on orders of the Pope. He is Dante's counter-image to the figure of Palinurus, Aeneas's unburied helmsman in Aeneid V and VI.

The web of ironies in Manfred's story is rich, and we'll look at the interplay with the figure of Palinurus in another post. This first moment of surprise strikes the comedic note for what follows. It's the shock of the impossible made possible.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Open road: Purgatorio 3 on reading

Corpo, the word for "body," appears four times in Purgatorio 3 -- more than in any other canto of the Commedia, commentators note. The first half of this canto, with its play of light and shadow, has to do with sensory intelligence -- what later came to be called aesthetics, often elaborated in relation to our experience and judgment of perceptible form -- e.g., art and beauty.

At sunrise, Dante sees that he doesn't see Virgil's shadow, and leaps from that to the fear that Virgil has left him alone. This produces an ironic effect: Not seeing the figura of Virgil causes Dante to not see that Virgil is in fact right next to him, which Dante easily could have seen had he not been fixated on the level of figura.

On the narrative level, this can be seen as a cautionary tale about the differences between a sign and that which the sign stands for. If we remain just with the sign, as Casella's listeners did --

Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti

                 a le sue note;  

we face the possibility of never turning toward that which the sign stands for -- its meaning, or referent.

The introduction of aesthetics brings in its solar train a concern with signs, and thus with language and reading. The Purgatorio is making a "note" that has to do with reading, including the reading of the Purgatorio.

There's a sharp contrast here, in fact, with the mode we found in canto 3 of the Inferno. There we read the identical eternal text that Dante and Virgil encountered. The mouth of hell promised nothing -- to enter is to abandon hope -- it's a gate of no promise, no futurity, no meaning beyond its own self-referencing enunciation.

No such writing stands at the entrance to Purgatory; the only song we hear is soon disrupted. It's worth thinking about the writing that does appear further up the mountain: penitential "P's" are inscribed on Dante's forehead only to be erased, one at a time, as he spirals up the terraces. Here, even writing is not fixed.

Prof. John Freccero, who viewed Dante as profoundly in debt to St. Augustine, long ago noted that within the Augustinian view of reality, there is the human being, who is love; the only question is whether that love is directed toward self, or toward the other, on the way toward the Ultimate Other. If one loves fine dining, for example, this love stops at the meal, which ends up back in the self -- a form of self-idolatry. Love that is not idolatry doesn't fix upon every sign, every desire, every beautiful thing, but moves through all things seeking that in which all live, and move, and have their being. Such love by nature rises to its true home, as Beatrice will explain in the Paradiso.

Here at the base of Purgatorio, in the thick of his own shadow, the pilgrim receives a lesson in signs and reading. And Virgil, after composing himself, speaks in a most Augustinian way:

He's mad who hopes our intellect
can rapidly run that infinite way
kept by one Substance in three Persons.

Matto è chi spera che nostra ragione

possa trascorrer la infinita via

che tiene una sustanza in tre persone.  

The pathos here, as Virgil reflects upon the disiar . . . sanza frutto -- the "fruitless longing" of the greatest minds of antiquity -- is justly famous. As readers we now might want to ask how this concern with body, with signs, with reading and aesthetics relates to the unexpected appearance of Manfred and the tale he tells.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dawn of error: Seeing and disbelieving in Purgatorio 3

The beauty briefly experienced in Purgatorio 2 is intimately interwoven with this canticle's concern with the Aesthetic. We saw how the power of Casella's song captured the attention of the listeners. That motif continues in cantos 3 and 4, and it's worth considering why this concern with attention to sensory appearance -- with its aesthetic and epistemological implications -- surfaces here, and how it is played off against other elements in the text.

Whatever else attention to attention yields, it offers a self-reflexive mode of heightened clarity -- almost transparency. Attention in these cantos is represented as something that can be fixed upon some particular thing, then loosed; it can focus exclusively on one object, as when Dante looks intently at the boat propelled from far to near by the Angel, or when the newly arrived souls focus on Dante's breathing because it signals that, unlike them, he is a living body.

In canto 3, Dante and Virgil, scolded by Cato, have been running like frightened doves after having stood motionless, fixated upon Casella's song. As Dante ceases running, his mind's gaze begins to expand:
la mente mia, che prima era ristretta,
    lo 'ntento rallargò, sì come vaga,
e diedi 'l viso mio incontr' al poggio
che 'nverso 'l ciel più alto si dislaga.
my mind, which was -- before -- too focused, grew 
more curious and widened its attention;
I set my vision toward the slope that rises
most steeply, up to heaven from the sea.*
Note that in Dante's terms, the mind has gone from ristretta to vaga -- from a limited, specific focus to a more open, fluid, indeterminate state. (Vaga in this passage rhymes with dislaga -- almost certainly a word created by Dante: the mountain "dis-lakes" itself from the sea, much as the pilgrim in Inferno 1 barely escaped from the lago del cor.)

Vaga is rooted in the verb vagare, wandering, vague, even "going around without knowing where or why":

What happens next keeps us attuned to the motif of attention. It all turns on the sun's rising from the sea behind the poets. This is the first natural light in the Commedia. As the red flame appears over the horizon, Dante's body casts a shadow; Virgil's does not, and this precipitates a crisis:
Lo sol, che dietro fiammeggiava roggio,
rotto m'era dinanzi a la figura,
ch'avëa in me de' suoi raggi l'appoggio.
Behind my back the sun was flaming red;
but there, ahead of me, its light was shattered
because its rays were resting on my body.*
As C.H. Grandgent points out, the Italian is convoluted. Literally, it's: "The sun . . . was broken before me in that shape which the stoppage (or leaning) of its rays had in me."

The oddness underscores the specular relationship between Dante's body and the figure (figura) it produces (sort of like Lacan's mirror stage). An image of his body unexpectedly appears before him -- it is seen at this point because the sun is just now introducing the mode of visibility. We might want to ask why the first thing the sun reveals to the pilgrim is a mediated image from which he can infer that he himself is in the way -- an obstacle to pure transparency.

The shadow of Dante's body next to the suddenly realized absence of any shadow of Virgil leads to the fear that Virgil has abandoned him. But here, the appearance of Virgil's disappearance is, in fact, mere appearance.

We think of the aesthetic as that which is simply apparent via the senses. Here with the sun's rise, there is light, and with light the eye begins to function. But the functioning is closer to that of the prisoners in Plato's cave than to simple sensory perception.

What Dante sees -- thanks to the big Eye coming up behind him -- is his shadow, the image or representation of a presence. In the same moment, he realizes he does not see Virgil's figura (i.e., he "sees" the absence of any representation of Virgil's presence) and in a panic, he leaps to a false conclusion. Optics, which we thought was our reliable guide to the world, has opened a minefield of representation (a theatre), and proves to mislead the very first chance it gets.

Before the sun rose, Dante had no possible way of making this error: the question of whether Virgil was by his side (or "there for him") never came up. At the very first opportunity, the aesthetic modality of the visible enables Dante to err in believing that Virgil is no longer there.

In a coherent and nuanced way, the handling of seeing and believing here goes considerably beyond popular USian nostrums such as, "what you see is what you get," or the Missourian "seeing is believing." The light of dawn is the moment that the poem complicates the relation of perception and apperception -- what one believes one knows and what one sees, presence and representation, image and substance.

The apparition of the visible (i.e., of apparition) so arrests Dante the pilgrim's attention that he is misled into confusing appearance with knowledge grounded in something beyond appearance. In doing so, he fails to "see the bigger picture." Whatever else is going on here, this canto is thinking through some of the complications of visible appearance, basic to the category of the aesthetic, with critical rigor.

We'll see where this leads in the second half of Purgatorio 3, with the appearance of Manfred.

*Translation by Allen Mandelbaum

Friday, July 17, 2015

Purgatorio 2: No time for Orpheus

There is so much going on in each canto of the Commedia as to confound exposition. The Purgatorio can seem more straightforward. It's certainly less spectacular than either the Inferno or the Paradiso (at least until its climax), but the apparent simplicity is belied by the care with which Dante interweaves thematic motifs and suggestive allusions into the bare bones narrative.

Purgatorio 2 for example offers a simple "plot":  The new souls, fresh from the Angel-driven boat, ask Dante and Virgil which way to go. Virgil frankly tells them that he and his companion are just as new -- the band of newcomers then notices Dante's breathing, and stares hard at his face (viso)
as if forgetting to go and make themselves beautiful.
quasi obliando d'ire a farsi belle.
At this moment a shade breaks from the crowd seeking to embrace Dante, who tries to reciprocate, but Casella is a shade. When he speaks, Dante knows him, and a moment later Casella is singing a song he once composed with Dante's words. At this point Cato shouts at them,
Che e cio, spiriti lenti? 
What is this laggard spirits?
At which the souls including Dante and Virgil scatter like a flock of frightened doves.

One motif that clearly comes into play is that of deviant attention. The souls become fixated upon Dante's breathing - his presence as a living man arrests them. A moment later, they are all equally fixed upon Casella's song:
Lo mio maestro e io e quella gente  
ch'eran con lui parevan sì contenti,  
come a nessun toccasse altro la mente.
My master and I and those people
that were with Casella appeared so satisfied
as if no other thing touched our minds. 
In the most casual way, Dante introduces the motif of the enchantments of art -- of music and poetry, and continues the motif of surprise. The delight in the note of the song, and in Casella's voice, captures the attention of all who hear it, not unlike the creatures and even the trees that used to crowd around Orpheus.
Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti 
a le sue note
       We were all motionless and fixed upon
       his notes

Notice the wit of this poetic "performance": Casella recognizes his old friend, who is in fact, improbably, here in the afterlife in the flesh. It's the dream of Orpheus, except in reverse -- here it's the singer whose body eludes the vainly seeking arms. The song now is not an enchanting device to recall Eurydice from the dead, but the celebration of reunion with a loved one who is unexpectedly alive.

But such motionless attention to earthly things, no matter how beautiful, is out of place here. As Casella sings, he is performing an Orphic act -- recalling the plenitude of living fullness from the past. But here at ground zero of Purgatory, neither a return to some past good nor the stasis of mere aesthetic pleasure is what's called for. The song does not enchant Cato. By the time they reach the garden atop Purgatory, these souls will understand why the old man prods them into running.

The disorientation of the soul at the base of Purgatorio makes it possible for the sinners to err and to be corrected, not damned. The beauty they will make themselves (farsi belle) is not the narcissistic bellezza of artistic form -- as least as far as Cato is concerned. Broken from the poise of perfect aesthetic balance, they scatter like birds -- in contrast to the Angel who powered the boat that brought them there, and who wastes no time:
ed el sen gi, come venne, veloce.
and he took off as he had come - swiftly. 
This scattering dissonance will eventually chase these doves to a new kind of beauty.