Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Calliope and the magpies: Purgatorio 1

As we've noted, the invocations in Dante's Comedia progress. The invocation of Purgatorio 1 goes into greater detail in addressing the Muse than we saw in the first canto of the Inferno.

Dante's choice of theme -- the rise, or renaissance, or resurrection of poetry -- and specific figural language -- the mythic contest of the Muses with the Pierides -- sets up a complex constellation of relationships involving love, death, rebirth, and the nature and quality of poetic inspiration.

A few notes about the scene in Ovid to which Dante points us are below, and they are far from comprehensive -- there's much more to think about with regard to Ovid's tale, and Calliope's tale within the tale, which makes for a rich poetic relationship between Dante's launch of the Purgatorio and his source. The whole of Metamorphoses 5 is suggestive in this regard.

Ma qui la morta poesì resurga,
o sante Muse, poi che vostro sono;
e qui Calïopè alquanto surga,  
seguitando il mio canto con quel suono
di cui le Piche misere sentiro
lo colpo tal, che disperar perdono.

But let dead Poesy here rise again,
O holy Muses, since that I am yours,
And here Calliope somewhat ascend, 
My song accompanying with that sound,
Of which the miserable magpies felt
The blow so great, that they despaired of pardon.

The setting of the contest is, as always in Ovid, complex. Athena is visiting Helicon; she encounters the Muses and, suddenly, hears magpies. The Muses explain how they were challenged by the daughters of Pierus. Athena asks them to relate the whole story:

The Muse was speaking: wings sounded in the air, and voices in greeting came out of the high branches. The daughter of Jupiter looked up, and questioned where the sound came from, that was so much like mouths speaking, and thought it human, though it was birdsong.

Nine of them, magpies, that imitate everything, had settled in the branches, bemoaning their fate. While she wondered, the other began speaking, goddess to goddess, ‘Defeated in a contest, they have been added only recently to the flocks of birds.

Pierus of Pella, rich in fields, was their father, and Paeonian Euippe was their mother. Nine times, while giving birth, she called, nine times, to powerful Lucina. Swollen with pride in their numbers, this crowd of foolish sisters came here, to us, through the many cities of Achaia and Haemonia, and challenged us to a singing competition, saying “Stop cheating the untutored masses with your empty sweetness. If you have faith in yourselves, contend with us, you goddesses of Thespiae. We cannot be outdone in voice or art, and we are your equals in numbers."
After the daughters of Pierus sing their song, Calliope takes up the challenge, and sings a long tale that is primarily but not entirely about the rape of Proserpina and Ceres' search for her. When she finishes, the nymphs who are judging award the prize to the Muses, who are immediately mocked by Pierus's daughters. The contest ends with the Pierides metamorphosing into magpies:
as they tried to speak, and, attack us with insolent hands, making a great clamour, they saw feathers spring from under their nails, and plumage cover their arms. Each one saw the next one’s mouth harden to a solid beak, and a new bird enter the trees. When they wanted to beat their breasts in sorrow, they hung in the air, lifted by the movement of their arms, magpies now, the slanderers of the woods. Even now, as birds, their former eloquence remains, their raucous garrulity, and their monstrous capacity for chatter.’ 
Well worth pondering why, at the beginning of his second Canticle, Dante invokes this Ovidian context.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Addressing Ulysses: The perfect contrapasso

Virgil in Inferno 26 tells Dante not to speak to Ulysses - he'll speak for him, because, he says, "They were Greeks, perhaps they'd disdain your words."

Words, language, are the substance of rhetoric -- the very sound of words plays a part in whether the one addressed deigns to respond. So too with spelling. Consider how differently you regard a message seeking your input, or your money, when the message itself lacks orthography, syntax, the basics of civilized discourse.

Virgil fears Dante's address would "lack address," in the secondary sense of adroitness of delivery, the manner of coming at someone:
1 dutiful and courteous attention especially in courtship —usually used in plural 
2 a: readiness and capability for dealing (as with a person or problem) skillfully and smoothly : adroitness 
b obsolete: a making ready; also : a state of preparedness

3 a: manner of bearing oneself  
b: manner of speaking or singing: delivery
Turning to the Greeks, the Roman poet employs a full-bore captatio benevolentiae -- working on his audience by alluding to his own alti versi, the lofty lines of his epic (lines that in fact do nothing to enhance Ulysses' reputation):
"If I deserved of you while I lived . . . if I deserved of you much or little when in the world I wrote the lofty lines, do not move on, but let the one of you tell where, being lost, he went to die."
The ploy works; Ulysses begins a speech that manages to contain a full life's quest within a few lines.

I want to look at the first thing he says, simply because in the large commentary devoted to this canto, these lines might receive short shrift. Ulysses begins:
When I parted from Circe, who held me more than a year near Gaeta before Aeneas so named it . . .
The parallel is clear: Ulysses was "held" -- the verb sottrarre can carry the suggestion of something taken fraudulently -- by Circe, the witch who turned his men into animals. Aeneas, coming to the same place, chooses to name it for his beloved wetnurse, and it bears that name today: Gaeta.

The contrast is between the wily Greek who, though escaping bestial enchantment, nonetheless is caught in the charms of Circe for "more than a year," and the Roman leader who, seeking a new land, names a beautiful portion of it for the nurse who nurtured him (and his son, some say), and who died at that point in their journey.

Throughout the Aeneid the Romans show themselves often nobler, more generous, and more rooted in the realm of the heart than the Greeks. In bestowing the humble nurse's name upon the isle of Circe, Aeneas moves toward the obliteration of the memory of Ulysses' experience there. Ulysses is being written out of epic memory on the Roman peninsula.

For Dante and his world, many of the names they use derive from the exploits, stories, the emperors and poets of Rome. The world was a palimpsest; one could dig down and find Greek predecessors, but they have been overwritten -- put into Italic form, or completely replaced by names that bring in indigenous Roman stories and achievements. Romans accepted the fact that they came after the brilliant world of Greece, but they push back, asserting different values and priorities. Allusively the point is made: Ulysses and the Greeks might have mapped out the world, explored it, given us knowledge, but the romance of the Roman people, their quest and glory, has remapped it with its own aura and meanings.

If Ulysses's language is usurped in this way, it points to another, larger eclipse further on in his journey. To know things is to name them, and Ulysses is rather meticulous in giving his auditors the names of places he and his men took in on their last voyage:
                            Spagna,  
fin nel Morrocco, e l'isola de' Sardi . . . 
. . . Sibilla . . .
 . . . Setta.
Passing the pillars of Heracles they sail five months into the blank oceanic void beyond. A mountain appears, and with it the storm that takes them under. Ulysses has no name for the mountain, of course (see previous post). He has no idea what it is, that it's made of earth that fled the body of Satan as he plummeted down and reamed out the core of the planet.* Ulysses lacks all sense of this, and, of course, he had no one to whom to tell his tale. So neither a name, nor a memory of the exploit, lives on -- other than in the Comedia. 

The world's most accomplished traveler, this former hero of the nostos, not only doesn't return, but also leaves no tale of his final destination, no trace. This silence, this aphasia, is the antithesis of kleos for the Greeks. Only a judicial imagination of genius could have produced what happens here: a contrapasso loaded with irony potent enough to punish Ulysses.

For the Greek teller of tales knows that this, his greatest exploit, was swallowed up with his drowning, and this will help us understand why Ulysses is Dante's uncannily nightmarish doppelganger. To have seen what he saw but cannot name or chart, and then to drown, puts his staggering final tale out of reach of knowledge, fame, earshot, of language itself. For this Homeric hero, no greater punishment is conceivable than to have been graced with achieving one incomparable feat, only to lie beneath the sea in eternal silence in the absolute certitude (he will never know otherwise) that no one will ever hear the greatest story he or his odyssey ever could have told. In this certitude, the hero encounters a judge who knew precisely how he deserved to be addressed.

*Lucifer, in falling, excavated the earth that creates the empty cone of hell, carved into the northern hemisphere; the displaced earth fled from Lucifer and then became Mount Purgatory, a cone of earth that rises up in the middle of the southern hemisphere.
Columbia University, Digital Dante.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Experiencing nothing: Ulysses in Inferno 26

[Note: this post has undergone several revisions - I hope it's now "finished."]

Our stimulating discussion of Inferno 26 today made it clearer to me than ever before how rich and enigmatic the canto of Ulysses is. I won't try to summarize the many fine points made by everyone, or the positions regarding whether to find damnable fault, and where, in the career of the Greek hero.

I just want to make a couple of place-holding points while fresh in mind. First, the canto is resonant with images of light, fire, sun, moon, and things large and small. More than just large or small, there is a strange almost quantum effect in which something that was small becomes quite huge, while never ceasing to be small. Scale is liquid, and ingegno, the Muse, must be restrained even as Dante is nearly overwhelmed in the presence of his classical double, the hero of many turns, whose rhetorical art was capable of putting in motion consequences beyond his control.

If nothing else, the presence of Ulysses -- both implicit and via explicit allusion --throughout all three canticles ought to make it clear that Athena's favorite is the predecessor and double of the pilgrim who is following Virgil through hell and purgatory. Take the alto passo where Ulysses meets his end. When we learn from this unique tale that Ulysses drowned within sight of the Mount of Purgatory, we might experience a certain uncanny frisson, remembering the pilgrim lost in the wood who looks back at the passo where he nearly drowned, and looks up at a mountain he cannot climb.

E come quei che con lena affannata,
    uscito fuor del pelago a la riva,
    si volge a l’acqua perigliosa e guata,
così l’animo mio, ch’ancor fuggiva,
    si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
    che non lasciò già mai persona viva.
And just as someone who, with panting chest,
    Has made his way to shore from the deep sea
    Turns back to gaze at the deadly waters crossed,
So too my mind, continuing to flee,
    Turned back to look again upon that trail
    That never yet let living man go free.*

More allusions to Ulysses come later in the poem And the tale he tells, of seeking to experience the unknown, to know it, presents a paradox basic to the quest: what is there to know if there is still the striving for knowledge, but nothing left in the world to know?

Ulysses is in hell, says Virgil, because he used his arte and ingegno to cause certain events to occur. We have seen this illustrated in granular detail in our reading of the Philoctetes, but it's built in to the mythos of the great-grandson of Hermes. Unlike the horses that took Elijah to the highest, Ulysses fashioned a false horse and the lie that got it into Troy.

Ulysses troubled Dante, just as had the noble ancients of Limbo, and Dante gives him a staggering last hurrah. Profound recognition and admiration -- as well as unsettling fascination and longing -- accompany Dante's encounter with this figure. All the terror of canto 1 is there, at the end of canto 26:
Tre volte il fé girar con tutte l’acque;
    a la quarta levar la poppa in suso
    e la prora ire in giù, com’ altrui piacque,
infin che ’l mar fu sovra noi richiuso.

Ulysses might be damned to the eighth bolgia for his false light of counsel, but his grit is all too human. Which raises the question of how to read his ultimate contrapasso. One might be advised to tread carefully when attempting to read divine judgment.

What Virgil does not say is that Ulysses is damned for seeking to know the unknown. One way to see Dante's tale of Ulysses' final voyage is as a parody of grace. No other living mortal -- certainly no pagan -- ever laid eyes on the Mount of Purgatory. If the Deity wished to bar Ulysses from overreaching, a turbo could have sunk his little boat anywhere along its folle volo. "Altrui" didn't prevent it from reaching visual range of Purgatory.

This is a man who lacked knowledge of Revelation,  but almost stole it.

The summit of human striving goes no further -- Ulysses doesn't even make it to the soggy beach at the base of the mount. His double, Dante, will. Ulysses is graced with an extraordinary glimpse before he drowns. The pilgrim goes a different route, one that is in touch not only with classical wisdom but endowed with Revelation, and goes beyond Ulysses by a different way, not under his own steam.

No other human, not even Heracles, came close to what Ulysses experienced. The punishing irony: he has no idea what he experienced. He saw with the naked eye what could not be seen, what could not be part of experience or knowledge in the classical, horizontal sense: the upward spiraling ladder of Revelation may only be gratuitously given, never discovered, uncovered, inferred or deduced by any inquiry, math or logic. To see revealed truth without Revelation is tantamount to seeing nothing at all.


*Translation courtesy of Peter D'Epiro.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Dreams of Ulysses



 By happenstance Jutta heard this piece on the radio while reading up on Inferno 26, the canto of Ulysses. It's a piece for viola by John Woolrich entitled Ulysses Awakes, based upon an aria from Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, performed by Maxim Rysanov.

With our reading and this piece, we have an Homeric figure that has been transformed by Dante, set to music by Monteverdi, and beautifully recomposed by a contemporary British composer. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The motion of love: Francesca II

It's tempting to read the Inferno with a sort of "I told you so" persona. The structure lends itself, since the damned have a finality to their tales that has the imprimatur of divine judgement. And we have a pretty good indication, by virtue of location and contrapasso, what the Deity thought of each category of sin.

Dante the pilgrim is not quite so clear, however. In canto 5, his first encounter with the lost, he weeps, he pities, he faints. He is confused (smarrito). Are we? We readers might not wish to ignore the complications inherent in this canto, given its treatment of reading.

The pilgrim seems very troubled at the vision of the great literary (and one historical) lovers, and even more so after encountering Francesca. It's one thing to feel confusion about love in general, seeing Paris, Helen, and Cleopatra driven down the wind; it's another thing to encounter a woman who quotes your love poetry to you in support of her allegation that Love led to her death and damnation.
"Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,
     prese costui de la bella persona
     che mi fu tolta; e ’l modo ancor m’offende.
Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,
     mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
     che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
     Caina attende chi a vita ci spense."
"Love, which quickly kindles in noble hearts,        100
     Seized him for that fair body which from me
     Was torn—what grief the manner still imparts!
Love, which makes each loved one pay love’s fee,
     So seized me with the beauty of my friend
     That yet it does not leave me, as you see.
Love led us both to one death in the end.
     Caïna waits for him who quenched our lives above.”*
Francesca's address is remarkable not only because it cites the tenets of Courtly Love and echoes the ancient sense of Eros as the god whose power even other gods cannot control. It also echoes Dante's own imagination of Love from Vita Nova, making it personal as well as universal:
Amore e ‘l cor gentil sono una cosa
Love and the gentle heart are one thing
Francesca mostly sounds like the stilnovisti - the poets whose sweet new style garnered fame and literary honors for Guido Guinizelli, whom Dante will meet in Purgatorio 26, and Dante himself, among others. She sounds like them because she's not only nearly quoting them verbatim, she is also pontificating. She sounds like an expert, one who knows what Love is.

Where does that knowledge come from? It would either be from experience, or from books. Francesca, like Mme Bovary, may have read about love; what did she understand?


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Collaborative Commentary: Cyropaideia

This is entirely unrelated to Dante, but quite related to our mode of reading him. The first online collaborative commentary on a classical text is here, and it's quite wonderful.

Here's a link to the Cyropaideia - be sure to explore "Content" and "Comments" - this is a fine effort to read with others - not unlike Classics in Sarasota!"


Monday, June 08, 2015

The motion of love: Francesca I

The first damned soul Dante meets in hell is a woman so alluring that to this day, her love affair and its violent end command a fan base larger than many soap operas.

What does it mean that before we come face to face with souls whose evil cannot be denied, we along with the pilgrim first encounter an attractive woman whose affecting tale of love and death turns upon an act of reading?

What makes Francesca both so memorable and so enchanting?

Before he meets her, the pilgrim is already in some confusion:
Poscia ch'io ebbi il mio dottore udito
     Nomar le donne antiche e' cavalieri,
     Pieta me giunse, and fui quasi smarrito.
No sooner had I heard my teacher name
    the ancient ladies and the knights, than pity
    seized me, and I was like a man astray. 
It should be worth asking why he's "smarrito" - the same word the poet uses in the poem's first tercet:
Che la diritta via era smarrita 
because the direct path was lost.
This is the first of two, or perhaps three, moments of strong confusion the pilgrim experiences in this same canto. Oddly though, the canto's readers never seem confused. Indeed of all the cantos of the Inferno, it's this one that seems to often draw out a certain penchant for scolding. If only those two hadn't been reading per diletto (for pleasure)! They should have chosen a more uplifting book! Et cetera.

Gentle sighs, pallor, all the signs of affection, desire, and love, are evoked in a narrative that leads not simply to death of the body, but far worse, to the "second death" of the soul. The poet Dante had written in Vita Nova,
Amore e ‘l cor gentil sono una cosa
Love and the gentle heart are the same thing.
Dante is moved to pity as he sees vast crowds, the flotsam and jetsam of Love, buffeted up, down, every which way without pause. How could this nourishing delight, this civilizing, gentle Love, bring violence to lovers and conduct them to hell? This puzzling contradiction gives him pause; he is smarrito.

The pilgrim then calls to Francesca and Paolo and asks them ever so politely to speak with him, in the name of the love that leads them. Or rather, that's what Virgil tells him to do. Virgil says,
          e tu allor li priega
per quello amor che i mena . . . 
and then you may appeal to them
by that love which impels them . . .
What the pilgrim actually says is:
                      O animae affanate, 
Venite a noi parlar, s'altri nol niega.
                     “O battered souls,
If One does not forbid it, speak with us.”*

Let's assume the poet is precise here. He doesn't beg them to come by invoking Amor, the Love that Francesca is about to blame for all her woe. He alludes to an unnamed One (altri can also be "other" or "another") who is only conspicuous by not being present: s'altri nol niega means "if another doesn't forbid it." The Love that controls this wind, that moves the Sun and other stars, here allows the lovers to pause and speak, simply by not impeding them from doing so. So we have a difference here that doesn't seem trivial: the difference between a Love that overwhelms with irresistible force, and a Love that, by absenting itself from controlling things, allows the souls the freedom to choose their own course of action.

Paolo and Francesco choose to come to speak with Dante. There's so much to talk about that we'll pass over the simile of the flight of the doves, only pausing to note its beauty, and that their destination is their nido, their nest.

This seems a good place to pause.


*Allen Mandelbaum's translation

Saturday, June 06, 2015

The figure of reading in the Inferno

It would be a sign of something about our attention to close reading if we did not at least acknowledge how the Inferno early on foregrounds the act of reading.

There is, of course, the gate of hell in Canto 3: a gaping mouth whose inscription we meet and read precisely as Dante and Virgil do. The gate states that it is the first text, marking the moment that mutability, temporality and death entered Creation:
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
     Se non etterne, ed io etterna duro.
A further irony (also noted here) is built into this threshold for those condemned to cross it: For them, time and change, development and movement toward salvation, now come to an end -- the damned are fixed, frozen for all time in the contrapassi of their perdition. The gate is a grave marker; for lost souls, it's the terminus ad quem of the temporal order of which it also was the initial instance, thanks to the villainy of the original lost soul.

Reading is also implicit in the structure of the Inferno from the beginning.


Palace of Minos

Here's Minos in book 6 of the Aeneid:

Nor far from these,
The throng of dead by unjust judgment slain.
Not without judge or law these realms abide:
Wise Minos there the urn of justice moves,
And holds assembly of the silent shades,
Hearing the stories of their lives and deeds.
hos iuxta falso damnati crimine mortis. 430
Nec vero hae sine sorte datae, sine iudice, sedes:
quaesitor Minos urnam movet; ille silentum
conciliumque vocat vitasque et crimina discit.


Here's Minos in canto 5 of the Inferno:

There horrid Minos makes a snarling sound,
Examines the offenders that come in,
Then dooms and sends them as his tail is wound.
I mean, the soul of evil origin,
Approaching him, confesses all its past;
And that discerner of the grades of sin
Determines where in Hell it should be classed,
Then wraps his tail around himself to show
How many circles down he wants it cast.


Minos by Dore


When Dante the pilgrim encounters Virgil in canto 1, he meets a classical author whom he has read. That Virgil comes to him at all is an interesting result of Dante's having friends, including Beatrice, in high places. But to make the guide to the Christian afterlife a Roman pagan poet -- one whose text is both a model of classical epic and a work whose many pagan errors undergo heavy editorial correction in the Comedia -- is to construct a narrative that both is about reading Classical works and about critical discernment of their virtues and their errors.

In the Comedia, Virgil is both the literal Roman poet of history and literature, and the figure of Dante's reading of that poet's works. True to the archaic notion of allegory -- alienum eloquium -- the Roman poet is his literal text even as that text undergoes revision by something alien to it: a reading rooted in the authority of the Scriptural Word has caused that text to bear another, allegorical dimension.

Dante exhibits admiration for Virgil even as the Roman poet's text is radically transformed by Dante's own text, as the two Minoses make clear. The commanding power of ancient classical texts -- their auctoritas -- is essential to Christian education for Dante: it is the peak of human attainment sans Revelation. But Virgil and all classical works are also errant texts, which need a third eye, as it were, to gloss their purported truth with the truth revealed in Scripture.

From the beginning, then, Dante's dark wood is even more obscure than it seemed. The selva oscura of canto 1 returns in Canto 4 as the selva . . .di spiriti spessi -- a wood thick with the noble spirits of Limbo, including Virgil. These spirits are wise and useful, yet remain a selva in which one can lose oneself.

Dante makes the act of reading both explicitly and implicitly central to his poem. This is dramatized even more in Canto 5, where reading a romance leads lovers astray. Reading has consequences. We'll look at Francesca's scene in another post.

Reading Biagio's Troy

As we think about Dante as harbinger of a return to or rebirth of Classical education, consider that one hundred years later, painters like the Florentine artist featured here were depicting scenes from the Iliad in ways that reflect certain medieval characteristics.

Writer Anna Judson notes a few wonderful aspects of these works by Biagio d'Antonio (her post is part of a fun series of Museum Favorites). First, they offer contemporaneity - the dress, the style of armor, the architecture, all are 15th century Italy.

Then, Judson notes that far from being realistic representations of Troy, Biago has selected numerous famous buildings and monuments found in several cities in Italy, including the Tower of Pisa, and grouped them to compose "Troy":


The Death of Hektor


Similarly the painter depicts a sequence of events, rather than a single moment. For example, says Judson:

The Wooden Horse panel similarly depicts not just the Trojans bringing in the horse, but also the Greek army’s attack, and the kindling of the fire that will burn the city – but here the events are shown not sequentially but simultaneously, interwoven with each other, so that cause and effect, the Trojans’ celebration and destruction, become inseparable.

While this insouciance with respect to place and time might violate our sense of "realism,"  it should remind us that, as Judson says, these works fall outside the realm of strict visual mimesis. They are meant to be read. Bringing the tale of Troy into the world of his own day, offering a succession of scenes that we need to compose in order to understand the image - these are useful reminders that a depiction of Troy is, first of all, a depiction of a text by Homer, and next, is itself a text requiring us to attend to the painting as a grouping of signs that have permission to diverge substantially from Homer. It's our task to order them that they might yield a richer sense.

We will want to remember this as we look at Dante's classical figures and how he employs the image of reading.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The imagination of lust in Inferno 5

 
Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,
    prese costui de la bella persona
    che mi fu tolta; e ’l modo ancor m’offende.
Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,
    mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
    che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
    Caina attende chi a vita ci spense».
    Queste parole da lor ci fuor porte.
Love, which quickly kindles in noble hearts,        100
    Seized him for that fair body which from me
    Was torn—what grief the manner still imparts!
Love, which makes each loved one pay love’s fee,
    So seized me with the beauty of my friend
    That yet it does not leave me, as you see.
Love led us both to one death in the end.
    Caïna waits for him who quenched our lives above.”
    Thus did these words from them to us descend.*

In Inferno 5, Francesca speaks of Amor as if ironclad rules - like those of courtly love - applied at all times. That is, Amor is not merely a human experience, but it has the force of law, of science, of a system. Her fate is the inevitable result of an inescapable logic before which one -- especially one of the refined sort -- helpless.


The crowds of lovers Dante sees as he enters the circle of Lust are compared to starlings driven by a hurricane:


That hellish tempest roars incessantly;
    It grasps and draws the spirits in its train,
    Spinning and thrashing souls in agony.
As these victims of Love are carried past the ruina - the place where the structure of Limbo was broken by the advent of Christ, they curse:
Each time that they whirl past the ruined terrain,
    Loud shrieks and moans and lamentations spill
    From them—it’s there they curse God’s might in vain.
Quando giungon davanti a la ruina,
    quivi le strida, il compianto, il lamento;
    bestemmian quivi la virtù divina.
Now it's one thing to be "carried away" by an overpowering force; it's another to choose, at a certain moment, to curse divine power. Yes, it's a repetitive process - they utter their imprecations every time they pass the ruina - but to curse requires an act of speech, a decision, a judgment and act of will, quite unlike what it takes for a human body to be propelled by cyclonic winds.

What's more, they are cursing the evidence of a power greater than the forces of nature - a power that liberated certain souls from nature and endless desire, in fact from death. These lovers are cursing the traces of a Love strong enough to break the ultimate rule, the final law, a Love that might have saved them had they not bowed to an ideology that defines mortals as the slaves and playthings of inescapable Love.

One can easily multiply examples of this, irony, this comical disjunction. Essentially the ideology of inescapable Love relies on a model of mechanics. All is determined by measurable forces that cause predictable effects. The very first lines of the canto summon a mathematical relation:
From the first circle I thus went below
    Into the second, which girds a smaller round
   And so much greater grief that stings to woe.
This might well be the most uninspired opening of any canto in the poem - so obviously so that it's best to assume it was deliberate. Numbering, inverse proportionality, going from up to down, it's a dull way to introduce the realm of love and lust. It's mechanical, and the mechanicality gets cruder right away as we encounter the judge:
There horrid Minos makes a snarling sound,
    Examines the offenders that come in,
    Then dooms and sends them as his tail is wound.
I mean, the soul of evil origin,
    Approaching him, confesses all its past;
    And that discerner of the grades of sin
Determines where in Hell it should be classed,          10
    Then wraps his tail around himself to show
    How many circles down he wants it cast.
As a parody of confession, the scene is rich enough - instead of leading to absolution, the Confessor listens, gets an interesting sort of erection, which in turn produces a number indicating where the soul is to be thrown.

Dante and Virgil have just left some of the greatest judges and minds of all time - supple intellects who would have listened, judged with nuance, and invoked insightful reason in the service of justice. But no such luck after Limbo: every soul beyond this point - including Francesca - got treated to the same robotic reflex, the same absence of meditation, the same catapult.

Canto 5 is rich in exempla of a sort of Hobbesian world in which desire simply rules. There is no stopping it, as the souls there know - because for them, desire demands instant capitulation. There is no suspension of cause and effect that would allow understanding, will, and resolve to enter in.

The imagination of Lust will be turned on its head on the Mount of Purgatory -- no time to get into that here. But it's worth a quick look. Compare the lovers buffeted by the whirlwind of Inferno 5 with the newborn soul described in Purgatorio 25 -- the Terrace, not by chance, of the Lustful who are regaining their freedom.

We find a circling there, but one not driven by any natural force outside itself. Statius describes for Dante the new soul, which has just been breathed joyously into life:
                      . . . un alma sola,
che vive e sente e se in se rigira.            74-75
                                 . . . a single soul
that lives and feels and itself revolves upon itself.

However one ultimately chooses to see this model of the psyche, it is not going to be found in Hobbes. Comedy in Dante derives in part from the ironies it finds and probes within the fallen world. As the voyage progresses, it springs more from the delights that come with leaving that world behind.

*All tranlations from Inferno are from an unpublished version by Peter D'Epiro. Purgatorio is from John D. Sinclair's prose edition.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Punishing irony: Virgil's witness in Inferno 4

In Canto 4 of the Inferno, Dante turns to Virgil and asks him a veiled (coperto) question:
“Now tell me, master, tell me this alone,”
I said to him, wishing to be assured
Of that faith by which all doubt is overthrown,
“Have any gone from here and then secured
Salvation, by their own or Another’s fee?”*
Virgil replies:
And he, who understood my covert word,
Said, “This condition was still new to me
When I beheld a Mighty One appear,
Who was crowned with a sign of victory.
He took our first begetter’s shade from here,
With Abel, Noah, and Moses, who did show
The laws to man and how to hold them dear;
King David and Abraham of long ago;
Israel with his father and his seed,
And Rachel, for whose sake he labored so;
And many more, and made them blest indeed.
And I would have you know I can attest
That, before these, no human souls were freed.”*

This exchange is of interest for several reasons. For one, it's the witness of a lost soul to the harrowing of hell and liberation of a select few. Virgil, who had died about 50 years earlier than this event, attests first-hand to the act of a "Mighty One."
ci vidi venire un possente
The event became one of the articles of the Christian creed, but Virgil recounts it  in the words of an honorable Roman. Un possente is a generic term for anyone of power, and, while accurate as far as it goes, it is blank with regard to the unique identity of the Mighty One: the martyred Son of the God of Abraham, fresh from his trial and crucifixion.

Virgil speaks of what he sees. His natural light of human reason can and does report and support the faith Dante and all Christians practice, flowing from Scripture. What Virgil "sees" is veiled to him - the facts are reported, but their full and unique implications are not.

What we as readers find here is something I think Dante the poet does throughout his Comedìa-- a poetic enactment of the profound discontinuity between the light of reason, art and science on one hand, and revelation via the Book, on the other.

In a sense, what the moment does is reproduce Dante's reading of Virgil. In the moment that Virgil voices and demonstrates his authority as teacher, guide, prophet, poet and witness, we find a blindness, a falling short -- the irony of an inescapable ignorance. It is a punishing irony, consigning him to hopeless finality in a half-lit suspense of endless desire, and more ironic because in its helplessness (vis a vis Virgil), it helps Dante overcome doubt.

Dante dramatizes the reality that obtains in a world where human genius, nobility of spirit and incorrigible honor just are not enough. For Virgil and the rest of those in Limbo, what the mind and sense and soul can see, and what the imagination or inspiration can intimate, is merely the outward appearance of a unique event whose full import -- the breaking not of rocks alone, but of the rule of death -- remains "coperto." Another word for that might be "illegible."

We'll want to be on the lookout for further examples of this mode of poetic acting out in the Comedìa. With Revelation comes a shattering literacy.


*From an unpublished translation of the Inferno by Peter D'Epiro.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Invocations Infernal and Purgatorial

Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta of Yale speaks of reading the Comedia "horizontally," that is, with attention to the interaction between similar moments across the three canticles.

If we look for example at the invocations that the poet employs in the three poems, suggestive differences among them can be noted. Each invocation addresses a distinct source of inspiration, from which other potentially significant differences flow in turn. The poem is telling us something about how it is to be read. The invocations of the three canticles can be found here.

The shortest invocation, in the Inferno, addresses the Muses as alto ingenio - this can mean high genius, but ingenium was an ancient Latin term for one's own innate character or nature. From there it extended to the idea of natural capacity, talent, or genius, evolving into a rich and complex sense (see, for example, here and here.)

Dante moves quickly to address mente -- a faculty that scrivesti ciò ch'io vidi -- wrote that which I saw -- hence a form of memory, of notation, faithful to the pilgrim's experience. The poetry of Inferno will be faithful to what the pilgrim saw and heard -- poetry in the mode of representation, mimesis, but thanks to alto ingenio, one that will show its nobilitate.

By contrast, the invocation of Purgatorio invokes the sante Muse, who are asked to let poetry, which is dead, rise again (risurga). This already is more than natural. What's on offer here is not merely recording, but transformative action:

And let here Calliope rise up for a while
and accompany my song with that strain
which smote the ears of the wretched magpies
so that they despaired of pardon.

Calliope, the Muse of Epic, is called upon in particular to rise up alquanto -- perhaps not just for a while, but to an extent, somewhat. Calliope is needed to smite the daughters of Pierus, a "crowd of foolish sisters" who, according to Ovid, were turned to magpies after inanely challenging and losing a competition with the Muses. To accomplish this, it seems, Calliope needs not rise to the highest level of style. That will be sought and needed in Paradiso.

The tale of the battle of songs, taken from Metamorphoses 5, stages the competition, and the contrast between the two performances couldn't be more marked. Calliope, singing of the Rape of Persephone, wins. The judges were the nymphs of Helicon; Athena heard the whole story of how the daughters of Pierus were turned into mimicking magpies.

The invocation of Purgatorio enlists the Muses in a struggle. This is poetry with an active purpose in this world, and it means business. Actually, it means unfinished business, as Purgatorio takes place in time, in the realm of human desire, engagement, choice. Unlike Inferno, things on this mountain are not settled by any means, nor are they fixed in stone. All is in motion. The Purgatorio is quite simply a poem of metamorphosis, like that whose tale of the magpies inspired its invocation.

We'll leave the invocation of the Paradiso for a later moment, for it again calls upon a different source, calling forth yet another mode -- other than pure mimesis or performance - to actualize itself.