Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The happy man: Charles Martel

A reasonable question to ask of Paradiso 8 is why Charles Martel is the focus of the first encounter after hearing Beatrice's account of the upraising of man through the sacrifice of god + man in Paradiso 7. 

A second related question would be why at its outset, and then later in canto 8, does the poem perform an act of rational correction -- first noting the ancient world's error about the goddess Venus (1-10), later by translating Typhoeus into mere sulfur (70)?

Working through the remarkable web woven in Paradiso 8 calls for more than even a lengthy blog post. I hope to be brief, but not cryptic.

Giovanni Villani
In the Nuova Cronica, Giovanni Villani depicts Martel coming to Florence to meet his father, King Charles II, who was returning from France after a complex diplomatic mission:
Book 8.13: . . . come to meet him was Charles Martel . . . king of Hungary, with his company of 200 knights with golden spurs, French and Provençal and from the Kingdom, all young men, invested by the king with habits of scarlet and dark green, and all with saddles of one device, with their palfreys adorned with silver and gold, with arms quarterly, bearing golden lilies and surrounded by a bordure of red and silver, which are the arms of Hungary. And they appeared the noblest and richest company a young king had ever had with him. And in Florence he abode more than twenty days, awaiting his father, King Charles, and his brothers; and the Florentines did him great honour, and he showed great love to the Florentines, wherefore he was in high favour with them all. (Italian edition)
It is this Martel, now one of the lumi divini -- moving faster than lightning in a dance begun by the alti Serafini -- who welcomes the pilgrim with joyous hospitality, as if he were the grand seigneur of the mansion of Venus.

Martel warmly greets Dante with the first line of the poet's canzone:
Voi che 'ntendendo il terzo ciel movete
Curiously the line concerns the very sphere to which Dante has just arrived. The poet realizes that he has been recognized, but Martel is concealed, nested in the happiness that shines about him. He then discloses his identity, using the rivers that carve out the lands to which his royal bloodlines made him heir.

Interestingly, Martel's name in Italian, Martello, means "hammer," and throughout the canto Charles speaks of moving forces that shape things. As the rivers shape the lands he seemed destined to rule, the streaming intelligences of the spheres shape the human natures that are found in abundance on earth, not grouped by bloodline. Once again, as has been the case consistently in the Paradiso, natural forces -- whether purely natural like rivers, or "super" natural like angelic intelligence, are depicted at work. Nature is a vast system and order, but not always genetic.

This sense of powerful intelligences embodied in vast bodies is manifest when Martel says:
Lo ben che tutto il regno che tu scandi
volge e contenta, fa esser virtute
sua provedenza in questi corpi grandi.
The Good which all the realm thou art ascending
Turns and contents, maketh its providence
To be a power within these bodies vast;
Martel is about to explain how it is that bitter fruit can come from sweet seed. That is, how natural filiation cannot explain large differences in nature between parent and child.

The Good puts its providential power into this giant machine of heavenly forces, but strangely its provision -- literally, fore-seeing --  is not looking at specific individuals, nor is it guided by some preconceived plan.
Revolving Nature, which a signet is
To mortal wax, doth practise well her art,
But not one inn distinguish from another; (8.127-29)
It rays down dispositions, gifts, talents and abilities not according to DNA, nor due to some destiny, but abundantly so that those who are formed with such gifts are left entirely free to make what they will of them.

Yet it's all foreseen:
And not alone the natures are foreseen
Within the mind that in itself is perfect,
But they together with their preservation. 
For whatsoever thing this bow shoots forth
Falls foreordained unto an end foreseen,
Even as a shaft directed to its mark.
What we have here borders on antinomy - a strong description of provedenza aiming at and hitting a foreseen goal, yet coupled with a strong affirmation of free will on the part of the one who is nonetheless shaped by the rays of heavenly gifts. There is high tension between these two realms. The providenza that fore-sees somehow doesn't see the particular beneficiary. (It's as if a gear in the machine had slipped - can Providence be blind?)

Perhaps the key to the puzzle is that these are gifts. If one is "gifted," one is usually happy to use one's gift. They are freely given, and carry no contractual commitment on the part of the recipient to reciprocate with service or work of equal value. The heavens are always sending these gifts with no specific end user, no price tag, no fine print. It is a vision of loving generosity so vast as to make anyone happy.

Charles is certainly happy, as we've noted. Which is why it is singularly crucial to note that this Charles Martel lived but 24 years, and never sat on any throne to which he was legitimately entitled. His very name echoes the "real" Charles Martel, the multi-gifted 8th century ruler and administrator who laid the groundwork of the Carolingian empire, as Dante's infelicitous Charles Martel of Anjou did not.

Charles's claim to the Hungarian throne was rejected by the land's nobles, and he died too soon -- in 1295 from plague -- to come into his own in Naples.  As we learn at the beginning of Paradiso 9, the succession of his own child to the kingdom of Naples, was pushed aside by his brother Robert. In USian parlance, Charles would be termed a "loser."

He was gifted with the best qualities of a ruler, coupled with the legitimate expectation of earthly power, yet his life (vita) on earth was too brief for any of this giant promise -- clearly seen by Dante during Charles' splendid visit to Florence in 1294 -- to be realized. Martel is barely a footnote in the annals of the kings of Hungary, Provence, or Naples, (regardless of what sort of contenda he coulda been).

In essence, Martel replicates in his own life the sharp antinomy he just described: the contradiction between the rational order of providence and the hit-or-miss errancy of Earth. With his hopes dashed and all promise of political creation and royal primogeniture lost, Charles certainly had all reason to stew in his bile beans. Dante no doubt saw an alternate version of his own vita in the young king's fate.

But we find no eulogy, no elegy, no Virgilian threnody. Charles is the happiest man we've met so far, which might come as a shock -- in fact, it should. This is the strange tension of canto 8.

Henry VII of Luxembourg
Martel speaks of the shaping of lands and souls, and incarnates the utter dissolution of human and divine potential. He could be angry at his brother, he could curse God and die, he could "whinge," as our group surely expected him to be doing the other day. We can be fairly sure that Dante, learning of the death of his young friend, and, then in 1313, receiving news that Henry VII -- in whom he'd placed all his hopes for a renewed Empire -- had also perished, was sorely tempted to emit a few expletives.

The spectacle of hopes dashed is powerfully seductive. Who can continue to place faith in Providence when so many good people fall?

Let's remember how we first saw Charles -- he was compared to a spark in a flame, then to a note moving away from and back to a cantus firmus, then to a dancer moving at the speed of light, in a dance begun by the highest beings of creation -- then, when he speaks, he turns into a warm, friendly, luminous human being.

Combine that with the canto's emphasis upon the power of Reason to strip myths that can rule our souls, which otherwise might worship mad eros, or fear angry Typhoeus. Reason opposes the mythic notion that we are driven by irrational powers. For Dante and Martel, Reason is built into the fabric of things, but earthly things are subject to all manner of contingency, freedom, and derangement.

Martel sits -- one could say he is broken -- at the point at which the rational intelligences of the Good that turns and contents all things encounter the random, senseless, fallen sub-lunar world. The creature raised up by the Word of God as described in canto 7 has no easy time of it. Our best efforts often go to naught, despite the generosity and good will of the Good. It's enough to drive a good man to distraction.

Charles Martel - Dore

Many would say Charles Martel never really lived. How is it that he's swathed in happiness like a creature in its own silk?

Charles offers us a clue, when he says (quoted in English above):
La circular natura, ch'è suggello
a la cera mortal, fa ben sua arte,
ma non distingue l'un da l'altro ostello. (8.127-29)
Nature is the seal, we are mortal wax -- cera mortal. At the end, the wax is no longer there -- we are literally sine-cera. To be sincere is to stand free from all mortal traces. The intelligences shaping the world through the gifts of the Good do not distinguish one transient hostel from another (ostello rhymes with martello). Charles is the gracious host wherever he resides.

Martel is at a place where he might regret that his brother Robert isn't right for the role he's playing in Naples. But Charles lives at another ostello, one where nothing of his stunted earthly life can touch the contentment provided by the Good that turns the Kingdom. His words speak of joy; his alacrity, his voice, and his royal friendship embody the intelligent love of the third sphere -- love on a scale that could provide for nations and empires.

Charles not only lived, but lives. That's affirmed by Dante in Paradiso 9, when Charles, as he turns toward the sun, is not ombra (shade), nor lume (light), nor anima (soul), but life -- vita:
E già la vita di quel lume santo
rivolta s'era al Sol che la rïempie,
come quel ben ch'a ogne cosa è tanto. (9.7-9)
And of that holy light the life already
Had to the Sun which fills it turned again,
As to that good which for each thing sufficeth.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

A "whispering" image from Syria

At the Yale University Art Gallery hang wall paintings from one of the world’s oldest churches. Buried by the middle of the third century, this house-church from eastern Syria had images of Jesus, Peter and David. The gallery showcases a well-preserved procession of veiled women that once surrounded its baptistery, a room for Christian initiation.
Given our recent concern with the account of the Incarnation in Paradiso 7, this piece from the New York Times may be of interest. It argues that a painting
owned by Yale could in fact be the oldest depiction of the Virgin Mary:

The church’s painted baptistery remains a unique discovery. Outside of funerary contexts, such as the catacombs in Rome, there are precious few Christian paintings from before Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century. These also offer a glimpse into the beliefs and rituals of Syrian Christians, a community currently in peril.

While the Samaritan Woman at the Well was a respected biblical figure for early Christians, there was actually a more prominent “woman at the well” in Syria: the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation, when an angelic visitor informed her of her miraculous pregnancy.

The remarkable image might be pregnant with an unsuspected surprise:
The woman at Dura-Europos has yet more secrets to reveal. Archival photographs and drawings made by the archaeologists on site show that the supposed absence behind the female figure is not totally silent — it speaks a couple of lines. That is to say, a field sketch of the wall done “to show additional details” depicts two painted lines touching the woman’s back, along with a kind of starburst on the front of her torso, features described as “unexplained” in the archaeological report. But with the new interpretation of the figure, in connection with the Eastern iconography that came later, the lines invite a rather evident meaning. They appear to represent a motion toward the woman’s body and a spark of activity within it, as if something invisible were approaching and entering her — an incarnation.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The sin of synecdoche

A good deal of the story Beatrice tells in Paradiso 7 plays off of the question of direct versus indirect similarity, or proximity, or causality, of man to God. Before they sinned, Adam and Eve were good copies, or translations of God, she explains:
Goodness Divine, which from itself doth spurn
All envy, burning in itself so sparkles
That the eternal beauties it unfolds. 
Whate'er from this immediately (sanza mezzo) distils
Has afterwards no end, for ne'er removed
Is its impression when it sets its seal.
Whate'er from this immediately (sanza mezzo) rains down
Is wholly free, because it is not subject
Unto the influences of novel things.
The more conformed thereto, the more it pleases;
For the blest ardour that irradiates all things
In that most like itself is most vivacious. 
With all of these things has advantaged been
The human creature; and if one be wanting,
From his nobility he needs must fall.  
'Tis sin alone which doth disfranchise him,
And render him unlike the Good Supreme,
So that he little with its light is blanched,

And to his dignity no more returns,   (Par. 7.64-78)
Twice the passage uses the phrase sanza mezzo, i.e., without mediation, directly. It reappears a third time nearly at the end of Beatrice's speech:
But your own life immediately (sanza mezzo) inspires
Supreme Beneficence, and enamours it
So with herself, it evermore desires her.
The relation of immediacy made Adam and Eve similar to God in that they were free and immortal. But similarities can be deceiving.

God Envy

When the clever men of Greek mythology envied the Gods, they tried to steal their ambrosia, sleep with Hera, or defeat Death. They all ended up with signal eternal punishments in Hades.

With Adam, the fall is instantaneous: the moment the creature envied the Creator, he ceased to resemble that Being who, Beatrice says, doth spurn all envy. Enviously trying to assert his likeness, Adam proved his unlikeness; instead of a judicious translation of God, he produces a botched copy.

The similarity to God, it seems, veiled a vast difference -- a radical otherness. Instead of creating a perfect double of God, man discovers parody, and loses his standing, his dignified place in the universe. He goes into exile, a fallen creature in a fallen world. But unlike Tantalos or Sisyphus, he doesn't have to stay there.

Beatrice now tells of another translation, of divine Word into human flesh. It's not a simple story.

Ficca mo l'occhio, says Beatrice,
Ficca mo l'occhio per entro l'abisso
de l'etterno consiglio, quanto puoi
al mio parlar distrettamente fisso.
Fix now thine eye deep into the abyss
Of the eternal counsel, to my speech
As far as may be fastened steadfastly!
Man in his limitations had not power
To satisfy, not having power to sink
In his humility obeying then,

Far as he disobeying thought to rise;
And for this reason man has been from power
Of satisfying by himself excluded.
We need to be very attentive to Beatrice's words, her parlar, here.

Man's attempt to rise to the level of the Supreme made it quite clear that he had no concept of the Being whom he presumed to equal. The word "power," used three times, balefully intones the absence of any human power. Man doesn't even have the chops to lower himself to anything like the depth that would correspond to the absurd height to which he strove, in his follia, to rise. No amount of mere obedience will ever offset his egregious disobedience.

Yet the mistake the creature made is one we make all the time - the sin of synecdoche. Seeing that part of him was senza mezzo from God, he dreamt he had the power to become the whole - a total error of totalization. Man not only couldn't translate himself into the Divine; by presuming to try, he fell into an abyss deeper than any a human could create.

This abisso, Beatrice seems to say, is now to be found in her speaking. To listen to her is to see into that abyss, which in fact is where we always are.

Or where we would be, had God not found a way out. Man alone cannot excuse his transgression. God could forgive it - just cut him some slack - but that would not do justice to the dignity of the creature. And what Beatrice and Dante more than anything else are about in this canto is Justice, and God's other "way," mercy.
Therefore it God behoved in his own ways
Man to restore (riparar) unto his perfect (intera) life,
I say in one, or else in both of them. 
But since the action of the doer is
So much more grateful, as it more presents
The goodness of the heart from which it issues, 
Goodness Divine, that doth imprint the world,
Has been contented to proceed by each
And all its ways to lift you up again; 
Nor 'twixt the first day and the final night
Such high and such magnificent proceeding
By one or by the other was or shall be; 
For God more bounteous was himself to give
To make man able to uplift himself,
Than if he only of himself had pardoned;

And all the other modes were insufficient
For justice, were it not the Son of God
Himself had humbled to become incarnate. (Par. 7.103-120)

The doubleness of "such high and such magnificent proceeding" is truly a hall of reflecting mirrors (a mise en abyme, as the French say). 

God's problem is that his creature has to raise himself, even though man is clearly unable to do that without divine help. To merely act as God and grant a pardon would give the creature no part in his own rehabilitation. It would not accord any being worthy of recovery with the dignity of playing some role in that process.

God's solution: humble himself "to become incarnate." Translated into a man, the Verbo di Dio is humbled beyond measure -- even without the power to measure, one can see that this descent of God is at least equal to, and therefore a successful mirroring translation of, Adam's fatuous self-elevation of yore. 

At this point in Beatrice's story, we understand why Justinians's conversion from Monophysitism is deeply relevant, and we are now able to discern the subtle adequation of the balance of Justice. When the Word became flesh, it made Adam's abortive parody into something no longer absurd. Since God here is now double -- both God and a real man who teaches, is punished and killed -- He has, through sacrifice of Self, given the creature both the ownership of undergoing punishment and the dignity of playing a role in his own reparation. God doubles as man in order that man might accede to a dignity he lost when he tried to double as God. 

Are we satified?

Listening to Beatrice's parlar, we hear about the satisfaction of a debt, one that comes by surprise. A debtor satisfies his indebtedness thanks to his creditor's both assuming his debt and undergoing harsh pains to pay it off.  The question is, does this tale of satisfaction satisfy? If yes, then we're no longer in the abisso. 

If no, then why not? Is it that Adam's follia is here matched by the madness of God? The Greeks, who thought they knew gods, would probably think so. What god -- even the unknown one that Paul, on the Areopagus, said they acknowledged at Athens -- would contemplate such a thing? 

Paradiso 6 and 7 present a double account of history and of justice. From the Roman perspective of Justinian we gain insight into the workings of empire and its justification in the divinely orchestrated punishment and redemption of man. Beatrice's beatific vision takes us into the depths of that transaction. Either she persuades us to be satisfied with a surprising accounting -- an intricate juridical, ontological, and literally linguistic exchange that translates humanity into something more than a banished bad joke -- or, if we're not satisfied, leaves us at the brink of an abyss that could be nothing, or the lair of a mad god. We might not want to stare too long.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Doing Justice to the word: Paradiso 6-7

Paradiso 7 might present some interpretive difficulties, but there can be no argument that its opening tercet offers a song, sung by Justinian, that speaks in two tongues:
“Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth,
superillustrans claritate tua
felices ignes horum malacòth!”
Interestingly, it's common among translations of this canto to keep these lines as they appear in the original, rather than translate them. Translations are offered in footnotes - here's Grandgent's version:
"Hail, holy God of hosts, doubly illuminating with thy brightness the happy fires of these kingdoms."
As with many other poetic effects throughout the Commedia, a reader here has to work to bring out the sense, translating from two languages. We will want to ask why, at this point in the poem, Dante chooses to force us to become translators. What is it about translation that makes it relevant here?

Before getting to that, we might note that the first words of Justinian in Paradiso 6 speak of Constantine's transfer of the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople -- a move that in Justinian's view went contro' al corso del ciel -- "against the course of the heavens."

The words speak of two different things: moving backwards, from West to East, reversing a course that tracks the actual sun in the sky as well as going against the the will of Heaven, which was interpreted to endorse a westward path of the Roman people from Troy to Italy.

Benvenuto da Imola, writing around 1380, offered this:
Justinianus narrat tempus sui imperii, conversionem et opera: et primo vult dicere quod romanum imperium jam steterat in Graecia ducentis annis et plus post translationem factam per Constantinum quando pervenit ad manus suas.
Justinian tells the story of his reign, conversion and deeds: and he first wishes to say that the Roman empire had already been located in Greece for more than 200 years after the transfer (translationem) made by Constantine when the empire came into his hands.

Benvenuto uses the term that was both proper and customary to describe what Constantine did. The noun form, translatio, derives from the verb transfero: "to carry over, carry across." However, it took on a broader meaning, as both the online etymological dictionary and Wiktionary note:

trānslātiō f ‎(genitive trānslātiōnis); third declension Translation, in the broadest sense: the process of transferring or carrying something over from one thing to another; in particular:
  1. Translation of text from one language to another
  1. A transfer from a literal to a figurative meaning; a metaphor (compare the Ancient Greek μεταφορά with the same senses)

The use of "translation" for the relocation of Constantine was common enough that Gibbon and other English writers spoke of "the translation" of Rome. And Justinian is clear from the outset that Constantine's act was a mistranslation -- "Rome" did not easily, or successfully, translate into Constantinople.

We have remarked before upon how the Commedia often does, through its poetics, something analogous to what it is saying, or an acting out of its thematic statement. Here the poem seems to be reinforcing through these cues the suggestion that, at this moment of the Paradiso's development, translation is deeply relevant. What Justinian does in canto 6 is to find the workings of Justice in history. But also in his own life, the decision to give coherence to Roman Law came after he abandoned Monophysitism, the belief that Jesus had a single nature that was either purely divine, or a synthesis of human and divine:
And ere unto the work I was attent,
One nature to exist in Christ, [una natura in Cristo esser] not more,
Believed, and with such faith was I contented.
This thread -- of duality, of two, not one -- marks the figure of Justinian, seen for the last time after his dual-lingual song:
Così, volgendosi a la nota sua,
fu viso a me cantare essa sustanza,
sopra la qual doppio lume s'addua;
In this wise, to his melody returning,
This substance, upon which a double light
Doubles itself, was seen by me to sing. . .   (Par. 7. 4-6)
Justinians's song is double, and sings of double illumination. At the same time, the two languages are musically harmonious, and fit the rhythmic and rhyming scheme of Dante's terza rima. As he said towards the end of his speech in Canto 6:
Diverse voci fanno dolci note;
così diversi scanni in nostra vita
rendon dolce armonia tra queste rote.
Voices diverse make up sweet melodies;
So in this life of ours the seats diverse
Render sweet harmony among these spheres  (Par. 6. 124-26)
Justinian says here that diverse voci (voices, but can also mean words, vows) and scanni (seats, positions, hierarchic statuses in the Empyrean) produce harmony in, of, and by the heavenly spheres (music as formal proportion is a subset of Justice). But to say as much is merely to allege. To clarify that just translation can in fact take place, is another thing. This performance occurs in canto 7 when Justinian incorporates two languages into the structure of a third, Dante's Italian terza rima:
“Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth,  
superillustrans claritate tua  
felices ignes horum malacòth!”
Note that in accomplishing this harmony, Justinians's song preserves the differences between Latin and Hebrew. The poem acts out, formally on the plane of language, what is at stake, theologically and politically, in the speech of Justinian in canto 6:
Theologically: Each tongue retains its integrity, like the two natures of Christ, yet they harmonize into a single intelligible poetic structure. 
Politically: The Hebrew words have to do with order, an order more militant than natural: sabaòth signifies "armies," and malacòth, "kingdoms" -- a vision of different and distinct kingdoms and powers, but under one God. 
Formally: The poetic accomplishment occurs in bringing Latin and Hebrew under the control of Dante's form -- his Italian syntax and the rhythm and rhyming structure of his terza rima. 


We might even suggest a historical analogue, as the Old Testament and Roman tongues are carried over into Italian as the inheritor of the two peoples chosen by God to bring about the central act of redemption.

And it is here that the entire burden of translation is brought to bear. When Justinian and his cohort vanish like velocissime faville, it is left to Beatrice to describe the descent of the Verbo di Dio:
fin ch'al Verbo di Dio discender piacque 
u' la natura, che dal suo fattore
s'era allungata, unì a sé in persona
con l'atto sol del suo etterno amore. 

Till to descend it pleased the Word of God

To where the nature, which from its own Maker
Estranged itself, he joined to him in person
By the sole act of his eternal love.   (Par. 7. 30-33)
The salvific act of history is a translation performed by the Word of God. The Trinity - Verbo/Fattore/Amore - is at work here in this atto, culminating not so accidentally with line 33. The duality of the man-God both is a carrying over of God into man and an opening of a way for man to cross back over to God. But as both Justinian and Beatrice strive to make clear, this elaborate transference not only must be just; it must do justice to be a true translation.

To see that this is the case, it execution must in turn be translated, i.e., read. Dante's doubt has to be dispelled through a clarity that sees how the sacrifice of Jesus was both just and unjust. Those executing him justly in his dual nature in turn had to be punished with the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora of the Jews. The Good News of the crucifixion, harrowing of Hell, and resurrection has a residue, an after-echo, that is bad news for the formerly Chosen People.


To translate is a sacrificial act of liberation. To break old bounds while yet preserving them; a disruption that frees so that something impossible, just now, can be, and can be spoken. The new, as in the New Adam, is the Old Adam carried over. A new tongue.

The sparks and fires of this scene should recall the tongues of flame of Pentecost. Fire descends, contrary to its nature, bringing with it a power of translation in which the Word becomes intelligible to all tongues.

The Commedia approaches this central redemptive act of human and divine history through the double lenses of Justice and Translation, at work in the dual kingdoms of Jerusalem and Rome. It is in the act of interpreting how Justice is rendered that the singular complexity claimed for the Redemption becomes intelligible. But how intelligible is it, as of yet?

Dante, Justinian, and Beatrice might feel that the destruction of Jerusalem, like the fall of Troy, was the necessary co-efficient of just human salvation. If some readers are left with an unsettling sense of something not quite square about this judgement, some frayed or still trembling loose end that occasions reiterated harrowing acts of injustice throughout human history, this would not come as a surprise. Doubt asserts itself. Further work is needed if one is to possibly get it right. To translate well, in the end, is to find le mot juste. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not there yet.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Opening Paradiso 1-6: A working hypothesis

Raffaello Sorbi: Piccarda taken from the convent
Often close reading is a matter of attention to words -- their nuances, quirks of sense, their sound or metrical emphasis, even their literal appearance (their shape in letters and fonts). Sometimes a single word can connote a great deal.

In a recent post about Justinian's retrospective view of Roman glory, for example, we noticed certain features of his speech that didn't seem consonant with a vision of a secular state of mankind in harmony with the providential destiny of Christian souls. His dream of justice might be divine, but the reality of the armies of Rome racing behind the rapacious bird of prey seemed to fall short of that ideal.

Along the way in that speech, Caesar Augustus is called a baiulo, a porter. Whatever Augustus might have thought of that term, it does bump him down a bit. Behind this proletarianization of Rome's great emperor might lie the suggestion that humans taking credit for the existence of Justice in the world -- or historians who credit humans with such single-handed achievements -- risk falling into that irrelevant portion of law that Justinian calls il troppo e'l vano, and which he labored to excise.

A question for any reader is to consider what part of a story she/he might be missing. A good deal of commentary on the Commedia takes the canto as its basic unit. Each canto is read, annotated and commented upon, then one moves on.

Horizontal view across all three canticles

Some readers have begun to read the poem in a more dynamic mode. Hollander, for example, notes that the theme of Justice appears across all three canticles, precisely in canto 6 of each. Calling this a "horizontal" reading, he and others have illuminated how, as we progress from Ciacco to Sordello to Justinian, there's a recurrent concern with Justice, played out at different scales:
Inferno 6:  Ciacco -- city -- Florence
Purgatorio 6: Sordello -- nation -- Italy
Paradiso 6: Justinian -- empire -- Troy-Rome-Holy Roman Empire
The differences between Francesca, La Pia, and Piccarda in their respective cantos are similarly meaningful. Each canticle benefits from comparison with the others, and the sense of an exponential scaling up, from intimate local concerns (Ciacco's entire life revolves around his stomach) to a perspective that looks across all known time and space, contributes to the sweep of the Commedia as a whole.

So the reader will listen, compare, contemplate the echoes and differences across the canticles and find plenty to think about.

Dynamic development within groups of cantos

There's yet another way of approaching the poem to consider, one that breaks the cantos' frames to explore the movement between them in search of the structuring logic of larger "plot" components. As argued in several earlier posts here, the initial movement of the poem explores matters of knowing, illusion, and natural grounds for belief. it then moves to the nature of the will, which leads to an inquiry into the nature of vows.

Standing back to look at this development on a more macro level, we can describe a movement from interiority -- the self grappling with questions of what it can know and will -- to volitional acts -- nuns' vows as an example of all vows, intentions, promises -- which leads to a concern with external action, rule, judgment, and the deployment of power over the peoples of the world.

Formally the poem goes from early dialogue between Dante and Beatrice to the more drama-like encounter with Piccarda and Costanza, and Beatrice's clarification of doubts arising from their words. Then, passing from the fickle moon to self-concealing Mercury, we find no dialogue, but a compressed vision of history spoken by one speaker.

This development takes the form of the extraordinary leap from the cloistered consciousness of the nuns to the emperor who imposed reason upon the imperial code of laws. Dante has given us two extremes -- between them is the space given to human intellect and will to think, decide, and act.

So at least for now, given our reading of Paradiso 1-6, I offer a tentative working hypothesis that Dante opens the third canticle with a procession of themes that move from epistemology to praxis, contemplation to action, interior reflection to the imposition of rule -- and the rule of rules -- upon the world. The logic of the development is quite clear; I'd argue that it flows with an internal necessity. In a later post, I'll try to talk about why this is the case.

As this opening movement has unfolded we have seen the will as fire, the intellect as wild beast (fera in lustra). Although we are in Paradiso, beyond the earthly limits of time and space, what is under examination is the same human nature we find right here, right now, every breathing moment.

Nothing as of yet in the opening development of this canticle depends upon Revelation, divine grace, or power from a source beyond the human. Beatrice might find her truth in the Deity, but what she has taught us so far helps us understand ourselves, and see the lengthening shadow of mankind moving through time, on Earth.

Justinian: Mosaic at Ravenna

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Rape: The predatory eagle of history

When one wants to indicate that something is right, fair, or fitting in modern Italian, one often uses the word giusto. If someone says something that is in accord with one's own views, you might say it with the same intonation as we would say "right" -- giusto!

Paradiso 6 is entirely the speech of Justinian,
Cesare fui e son Iustinïano
and, while it might not seem so at first glance, it is entirely concerned with the nature of justice.

It might not seem so because in some ways, it is a very one-sided canto. Justinian does all the talking, He compresses the history of Rome from the time of the Trojan War to the reign of Charlemagne into 62 lines, describing a zig-zag course of violence, rape and conquest that hardly intimates the presence or evolution of justice -- human or divine.

And he describes that history not as a chronicle of larger than life human actors whose intentions and actions dictate the course of events, but rather from the perspective of the Roman segno, the eagle that was the insignia of the legions of Rome. Segno of course can mean battle standard, but its root sense is "sign." From Justinian's perch on Mercury, viewing the eagle's course 745 years after his own death, what stands out from Roman world dominion is an alignment by virtue of which all the wars, conquests, rapes and subjugation enacted under the that sign made possible the justified, violent death of Jesus and the justified, violent destruction of the capital of Scripture.

Try telling this story to a disinterested bystander and see if she or he says "giusto!".  Nothing about this odd and seemingly squint-eyed view of the historic record seems just. If we don't find this asymmetry puzzling, we might be missing the neck-snapping vision of Justice at work here.

As Justinian tells his tale, beginning with the death of Pallas and marking key moments by citing predatory rapes (the Sabine women, Lucretia), the eagle emerges as the emblematic figure that winds through 1600 years of Roman power. Justinian calls it the uccel di Dio, the bird of God. If we regard its sordid history, the god in question seems more like Zeus, who carried off Ganymede --

- or the eagle said to be crafted by Hephaistos, at the bidding of his father, to devour Prometheus's liver:

When Julius Caesar is seen briefly in Inferno 4, he is described as having occhi grifagni -- a raptor's eyes. The eagle that subjugated the known world to the Imperium Romanum seems closer in spirit to Caesar than to the Holy Spirit.

The more we look at the astonishing abbreviation of Roman history in canto 6, the harder it is to justify any more beneficent view of the eagle or its accomplishments. Yet the one telling the tale is the emperor who devoted his reign to removing the troppo e'l vano from the body of Roman law, a vast undertaking that imposed order upon that corpus that became the template for human justice after the fall of Rome. If anyone understood something about justice, it's Justinian. It just doesn't fit.

If we wrestle with this a bit, there is one thing we can say about Justinian: he does justice to the complexity of justice in human history. Nothing is minimized or glossed over. If he'd given us a tale of noble rulers who never told a lie, whose greatness is a monument to themselves, in whose giant shadows we stand, or roost, like tourists, or pigeons, we'd sense the lie and likely turn away. Even Augustus, credited by all historians with achieving the Pax Romana, is not named -- he's simply the baiulo -- a porter bearing the segno.*

Dante's Justinian puts no lipstick on the pig; his history is a tale of sound and fury, error and compulsion, violence, vendetta and vengeance, following blindly in the wake of the eagle. It is the sign that moves history along -- those who follow it have no idea of the purpose, the sacred murder, toward which it moves.

Paradiso 7 will return to this enigma -- because Dante, like us, has doubt. The tale of Roman history provokes doubt just as did Beatrice's tale of the vows of Piccarda and Costanza in canto 5. As the pilgrim noted there, doubt, uncertainty, and the perception of things that do not fit spur the intellect to further understanding.

Paradiso 6 doesn't rest here - it tells the tale of Romeo, a figure that clearly has allegorical dimensions, pointing, at least, to the historical reality of Dante Alighieri. In this tale of a good and just man who is treated as if he were the opposite, a man who served his master well only to be rewarded with exile and penury, we may sense the heartbreak of the poet. Perhaps we should sense as well the heartbreak of another. One who made a very fine creature, called it Adam, to whom he gave all his creation. And watched as Adam fell into the insane turbulence of human history.
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm. 
       -- Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, IX.

*The root, bājŭlusdoes not convey dignity, and extends to mean "day laborer." Also, interestingly:

A. A bearer at a funeralAmm. 14, 7, 17Sid. Ep. 3, 12Aug. Ep. 19 ad Hier. 2; cf.: “vespillones dicti sunt bajuli,” Fulg. Expos. Serm. p. 558. —
B. A letter-carrierHier. Ep. 6 ad Julian. 1; Cod. Th. 2, 27, 1, § 2; cf.: “boni nuntii,” Vulg. 2 Reg. 18, 22.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Truth, desire and doubt in Par. 4

In Paradiso 4, Beatrice has just completed a subtle explication of will -- its elemental power, its potential to collude with violence. She clarifies how one who submits to coercion is nonetheless culpable by choosing not to escape from submission should the opportunity offer.

Dante is grateful, and, taking in her explanation, he finds another dubbio, a doubt that leads to another question.

He introduces it this way:
Io veggio ben che già mai non si sazia
nostro intelletto, se 'l ver non lo illustra
di fuor dal qual nessun vero si spazia.

Posasi in esso, come fera in lustra,
tosto che giunto l'ha; e giugner puollo:
se non, ciascun disio sarebbe frustra.

Nasce per quello, a guisa di rampollo,
a piè del vero il dubbio; ed è natura
ch'al sommo pinge noi di collo in collo.   

I see well that our intellect is never satisfied unless the truth enlighten it beyond which no truth can range.

In that it rests as soon as it gains it, like a beast in its lair; and it can gain it, else every desire were vain.

Doubt, therefore, like a shoot, springs from the root of the truth, and it is nature that urges us to the summit from height to height. (Sinclair trans. Par. 124-132)

Here the intellect reflects upon its own activity. The fact that intellect non si sazia - never satisfies itself -- assimilates the mind's effort to know the truth to desire, appetite, to a restless urge. The only thing that will bring the mind to rest is if it is illuminated by a truth outside of which no truth can range (si spazia).

The mind and truth here are in erotic tension -- the only thing that can satisfy the craving of the mind is a truth beyond which no truth can be found. Spaziarsi connotes wandering, playfully enlarging one's walk, one's passegiare, because it's enjoyable (see spassare).

Like sparziarsi, "di fuor dal qual" offers a spatial figure: outside of which no truth can range suggests there is a limit, although what is intended has no limit. Finite space is invoked to annihilate finite truth.

The blandness of the spatial figure is curious. To render a notion of the ultimate truth, the poet could have offered a riot of images relating to sublime totality, to the godhead, to the absolute in its infinite grandeur. Instead, we get a kind of limiting illumination, setting a border beyond which, simply, no truth can play. In the context of erotic play of mind and truth, to suggest that truth is that which limits the play of truth has two possibilities: either truth is so satisfying that it is like the ultimate beloved whose presence obliterates all others, or truth kills the play of difference, otherness, in its sober, self-contained precision.

The passage speaks of the truth about truth, but offers us a teasing ambiguity about its nature - is it sublimely beyond all bound (then how can it be distinguished from falsity?), or is its exacting correctness so binding as to end all speech? The first opens the door to the plenitude of the infinite; the second shuts it within cold tautology that brooks no argument -- the only thing one can say about the ultimate truth is that it is the ultimate truth: A = A.

A fine line: Is truth unending erotic bliss, or is it the All as baleful punctum?

Such balanced equivalence, or ambivalence, does not seem typical of this work. This is a poet who is never willing to leave something undecided -- especially something as urgent as the nature of ultimate truth. Of course it's the character Dante, not the author, who makes this articulation.

But this is the canto that began with a hungry man facing an undecidable choice between two perfectly equivalent objects of desire. There it was a simile employing a series of hypotheses; here, though, the pilgrim is describing to Beatrice, the source of truth, the plight of the intellect in the act of pursuing truth. What if truth is both infinite plenitude and aloof inarguability?

At this critical moment, on this blade's edge, the passage turns from the nature of truth to finding nature in our pursuit of it. One astute commentator is struck by the metaphors drawn from nature that now appear. Benvenuto da Imola, whose fine commentary was composed around 1375-80, thinks the figure of the intellect which can repose in the truth "like a beast in its lair" is especially fine:
come fera in lustra; et est optima metaphora: sicut enim fera diu vagatur et venatur per sylvam, et post omnes labores requiescit in antro; ita intellectus in mundo diu speculatur et contemplatur, et numquam quiescit nisi in ipso fine suo;
In this bold metaphor something that strikes a chord for Benvenuto that resonates back to the very start of the Commedia -- a beast wandering, hunting in a forest (sylvam) -- both the pilgrim and what he encountered in Inferno 1, louring images of his own intellect, lost, hungry, frustrated in the selva oscura. (Also resonating: Apollo, muse of the Paradiso, racing through the forest in hot pursuit of Daphne.)

The suggestion of savagery -- the beast can rest in its lair now because it's dined well upon the truth, or raped it -- hangs over this passage, which, unlike the beast, does not come to rest. Rather the pilgrim Dante asserts two things:
1. Intellect can join with the truth (giunto from giungere: "unite, couple with," noting that if it could not so conjoin, desire itself would be in vain), and,
2. At the moment the mind and truth join, new doubt springs up at its foot like a rampollo (seed, offshoot, or a natural spring of water).
The passage eludes being transfixed by the undecidable nature of truth by finding the truth of nature:
                                       . . . è natura
ch'al sommo pinge noi di collo in collo.   
As Benvenuto says, whatever else Nature is or does, it impels us (ad summam veritatem et felicitatem impellit nos). Our nature is to desire, desire spawns a quest until it kills what it desires; from that death spring new quests. We leap from peak to higher peak. This is the motion of a vibrant, active entity, a mind that is not spoon-fed, but freely hunts; a mind that's not reduced to abashed silence by knowledge, but is ever seeking. Doubt spurs us to conquer doubt.

Beatrice had said it is natural to rise and that we are part of nature. There is nothing especially noble about the quest for truth -- every flower turns toward the sun. Here Paradiso asserts its relevance and place in the quest of every human being, not just those gifted with divine revelation. We'll see this canticle proceed by leaps and bounds.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Labyrinth as trap or choice

A thoughtful post on classical and medieval uses of the labyrinth:
 Daedalus’ construction of a labyrinth is referred to by Virgil as an ‘inextricabilis error’ (Aen. 6.27) in the epic tale of the Aeneid. The poet recounts that the inventor fled Crete and went to Cumae, where he chiseled a drawing of his labyrinth on the temple doors that opened onto the passage into the underworld. Not long thereafter, Aeneas is warned that while it is easy to enter the underworld, it is much harder to find your way out. Daedalus’ creation of the Labyrinth was not without its problems. In his Metamorphoses (8.167-8), Ovid reminds us that the builder almost got lost in his own creation: “He, himself, was scarcely able to return to the threshold” (vixque ipse reverti ad limen potuit). Even the creator was not omniscient.

Sarah E. Bond's post ends with a provocative question about the difference between unicursal and multicursal labyrinths:

Tellingly, the multicursal labyrinths hinge on the choices of the individual, whereas the unicursal labyrinth hinges on the choices of the creator. It was not until the Renaissance of the 15th century that humanists began to depict non-symmetrical, chaotic, and more confused labyrinths. This was perhaps a direct reflection of new way of thinking about human agency and the divine.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tolstoy said it well

In reading Dante, one ought to know one is grappling with this:

"For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite"

Friday, December 04, 2015

A few notes . . . concluded (more or less)

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso.
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3    Part 4     Part 5

Paradiso 4 begins with three hypothetical exempla -- a man, a lamb, and a dog, each confronted with a need to choose one of two options. The needs are rooted in instincts -- hunger, self-protection, hunting -- but since the options offer no clue as to which is to be preferred, the ending in each case is death.

Why does Dante place this depiction of impasse, or undecidability, here? I can think of two reasons (both equally good, of course):

1. In cantos 1 to 3, Paradiso has followed a program that "ungrounds" the usual supports of intellect (as derived from the Greeks and scholastics). Perception, substance, and the modalities of space and time are not destroyed, but confidence in their use and verity is suspended. The pilgrim repeatedly has difficulty deciding whether what he is dealing with is here or there, or not here at all, or both here and there. Canto 4 will complicate that still further.

2. Taking a broader view, it can be seen that the pilgrim has developed from the soul lost in the selva oscura of Inferno 1 to the man who has been guided through Hell and Purgatory by one of the most learned classical minds, who releases him from his tutelage in Purgatorio 27 thus:
"Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:
per ch'io te sovra te corono e mitrio.”

"Expect no more or word or sign from me;
Free and upright and sound is thy free-will,
And error were it not to do its bidding;
Thee o'er thyself I therefore crown and mitre!"
Dante's schooling is not complete, but he has followed Virgil as far as one can via nature alone; his will is perfected. Having entered Purgatory as one who, Virgil tells Cato, liberta va cercando - "goes in search of liberty," Dante is now free to govern himself. 

It's this freedom that is found at an impasse at the opening of Paradiso 4:
Intra due cibi, distanti e moventi
d'un modo, prima si morria di fame,
che liber' omo l'un recasse ai denti;

Between two viands, equally removed
And tempting, a free man would die of hunger
Ere either he could bring unto his teeth.
The hungry man, poised exquisitely between equal feasts, cannot choose because he cannot tell which to prefer. His power to choose, though free, lacks traction -- dare we say because any methodologies of discernment have been subtracted from it.

Along with the loosening of the underprops of knowledge, there has been a concurrent concern in Paradiso 3 with will, illustrated in the stories of Piccarda and Costanza. What constitutes a vow, when is it effective, and what happens when one's intention to maintain a vow confronts a force that compels the one who wills to do other than she wills? The stories of the nuns, told in canto 3, are discussed and illuminated by Beatrice in canto 4.

St. Lawrence

Of course the predicament as described that the free man (and lamb and dog) is found in is not literally the case, but rather an analogy of the situation that Dante is actually confronting: two doubts assail him at once, making it impossible for him to speak, to ask Beatrice about one or the other:
da li miei dubbi d'un modo sospinto,
he is immobilized.

Both doubts involve reading. One has to do with whether the experience he's just had with souls in the Moon can be understood to support a literal reading of Plato's Timaeus. The other has to do with how to read the tales of those souls, Piccarda and Costanza -- to understand what they are saying about vows kept and broken. 

Beatrice's response to Dante says that to take the Timaeus literally, with its cyclical vision of souls determined by their planetary point of origin and return, would be a grave error -- indeed, it's the error that led to pagan polytheism, she avers. 

She contrasts such a literal reading of Plato with the statement that what Dante just experienced in canto 3 is a kind of sign. The souls appear and converse, but this is how Paradiso and Scripture fa segno -- make signs, which accommodate themselves to our limited faculties that depend upon the senses to arrive at knowledge.

So instead of being literal, the experience of the pilgrim is figural. Beatrice is unequivocal in setting up such a relation:

Souls in Paradiso : Pilgrim ::  Scripture : Human Reader*

Here the poem is making a meta-statement about its own reading.

This mode of "condescension" -- which, for example, attributes hands and feet to God and angels -- revises what the pilgrim has experienced -- both in canto 3 and throughout his voyage. Those angels he saw in Inferno 9 and throughout Purgatorio? We and the pilgrim "saw" them with human attributes, but now we learn that they were signs, i.e., figural accommodations to our limitations. We and the pilgrim have been experiencing allegory without being aware of it. 

If we thought we were on thin ice before, we are now in vertiginous territory. Looking back, we can no longer "see" those angels the same -- looking ahead, we are armed with the insight that all that we will experience will be other than what it truly is. If we were not told this, could we ever have discovered it for ourselves? Let's hold that question for now. The task of reading proceeds in this new "light."

This post is already longer than intended. A couple of quick observations relating this complex web of themes to certain poetic effects.

1. Intellect and Condescension. Condescension invites us to consider a mode of signification that is not rooted in nature. That is to say, when the power of the Lord is compared with mighty thunder, we are well within the tropes of the sensory, cognitive mirroring of the natural world. But when the Lord is given feet to walk in the Garden of Eden, or a mouth to speak with, there is no necessary natural link between the signifier (foot, mouth) and signified (Lord). From our perspective, as Beatrice says, such images are necessary to help our limited powers of apprehension; but from the perspective of what they "represent," they may be entirely arbitrary. We are faced with signs that neither depend on the senses nor can yield knowledge of what they signify by way of scientific experiment, logic, or any other mode of attention to their appearance. We are beyond mimesis leading to the question of how, given our limited intellects, such signs are to be read.

2. Will and Choice. In Canto 5, Beatrice will call the will's liberty the greatest gift (lo maggior don) that God made in creation. One can easily take the opening of canto 4 as an expression of crisis -- the will is paralyzed, the intellect is of no use, the hungry man dies. Following as it does from shocks to our abilities to be certain of what we know, it seems to put in question the very point of free will. For if it is impossible to decide what's better than what, our freedom comes to resemble that of the couch potato who has 500 channels, none of which offers discernible value -- meaningful difference -- over the others.

At root here is the nexus of knowledge and power, intellect and will. To have one without the other is to have nothing. One needs both power and a sense that can penetrate discerningly the intricacies of Nature, a mind that can accede to whatever lies beyond. 

Beatrice makes this all or nothingness clear with a play on words: 
li nostri voti, e vòti in alcun canto. (Purg. 3.67)
A vow (voto), if broken, is void (vòto). Humans act when performing promises, vows, which only exist so long as the will that made them is intact. We are in the realm that can perhaps benefit from an understanding of performative speech acts, in which meaning, being, and action may coincide.

If action without the guidance of intellect is chaos, and intellect itself is compromised by limits to our senses and understanding, and if signs no longer can be reliably interpreted to mean what they appear to be, the resulting paralysis might well lead to terminal frustration. As an aside, this can be linked with modern crises of faith, and post-modern gestures of futility. As we saw with Belacqua in Purgatorio 4 and now again with the "free man" who dies of hunger in Paradiso 4, Samuel Beckett's ghost is likely hiding under a nearby rock.

But in fact Paradiso 4 isn't riled by the sturm und drang issuing from these affronts to will and intellect. The pilgrim, so tied in knots by his dubbi as to be unable to speak, is resolved and restored to an energetic plenitude through the ministrations of Beatrice.


This is not to say the tragic dimensions of this crisis of knowledge and will are absent -- they are there, embedded for example in the allusions to Nebuchadnezzar and Alcmaeon -- powerful kings, trapped by signs.

The tales of foretold events relate to the asymmetry of intellect and will. Nebuchadnezzar wishes to know what his portentous dream means, and puts his interpreters to the test. Amphiaraus wishes to control events in light of a future event -- his own death, and imposes his will upon his son:

  • Nebuchadnezzar cannot understand his dream, but knows it portends something big about his future. In his frustration at being unable to decipher it, he demands that his soothsayers not merely interpret his dream, but first tell him what he dreamed, under pain of death if they fail -- an interpreter's nightmare if ever there was one.
  • Alcmaeon's father, Amphiaraus, foresaw his own death at Thebes, and imposed his will upon his son Alcmaeon: the impious killing of Alcmaeon's mother, Eriphyle, as soon as Amphiaraus's foreseen end took place. 

These nightmares of  violent madness and vengeful matricide trace the tragic potential of the "free man's" predicament in Paradiso 4. Such extremes are certainly implicit, but in the manner of distant tales, or islands seen safely from a seaworthy ship. The poet of the Paradiso wants his readers to be mindful of the darker implications of the crisis of intellect and will, but those resonances do not dictate the tonality of the song. The semantic and tonal complexity at work here might be compared to the burgeoning polyphony of the 14th century.

Near the end of canto 4, the pilgrim is inebriated with the light of Beatrice's teaching.
"O amanza del primo amante, o diva,”
diss' io appresso, “il cui parlar m'inonda
e scalda sì, che più e più m'avviva,

"O love of the first lover, O divine,"
Said I forthwith, "whose speech inundates me
And warms me so, it more and more revives me,
The "free man" of the start (aka Buridan's ass) is now seen more as a cartoon than as a doomed, tragic king. We might not yet know why we are firmly in the comic mode, but, in this reviving warmth, we know we are.

*John Freccero formulated it this way in a lecture many years ago.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A translator's thoughts on making a new Iliad

Arline shared this interview with Caroline Alexander, whose new translation of the Iliad recently was released to high expectations, including her own:
“I know this sounds arrogant,” Ms. Alexander said, but she couldn’t imagine taking on the project “unless you believed you could do a better job.” She spent five years on her translation. Her goal is for her version to become the “translation of record.”
Alexander's discussion of her decisions in this translation are worth reading. Some have to do with diction (lexis):
I worked hard for restraint, and my mantra was “trust Homer, trust Homer.” I knew that if I could find the simple English word for his simple Greek, work for cadence—spoken cadence, not the cadence of “high” poetry—it would work.
Asked about a recent Hollywood treatment featuring Brad Pitt, she moves to another level of the work of the translator -- this not so much on the lexical level as on the level of thought (logos):
I didn’t watch the whole film. But I did see his first big kill in the opening 10 minutes. A stunning bit of stunt-work, very athletic and adroit, and totally un-Achillean. It implied that Achilles’ greatness as a warrior lay in his skill. Having just finished working on a documentary about tigers, I would venture that confronting Achilles would be more like coming face-to-face with a tiger than with a tricky swordsman.
This too is reading -- translating lived experience and that of the poem into a new vernacular of living images.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A sad note

We note with regret the passing of Cindy Bennett, whose good humor and ardent questions through many of our group's readings will be missed, even as we are grateful for the years we shared in her spirited presence. Her loss makes us mindful of others who brought so much to our sessions. We remember with admiration and regret Sue Sparagana, Jeannine Michael, and Cynthia Young, relentlessly questioning readers, all.