Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Killing of Agamemnon

Here Agamemnon, diminished in stature and dripping wet, is trapped in a net, while Aegisthos stands over him, ready to strike with his sword. Behind Aegisthos, Klytaimnestra carries a double ax to lend a hand. A larger image and other views of the krater can be found at this link.
The other side features the vengeance of Orestes upon Aegisthos. Elektra is there. Klytaimnestra enters with her double ax (the labrys).

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Monday, September 17, 2018

Agamemnon: Some translators

A few basic resources for Agamemnon.

For the text in Greek with two English translations, one by Robert Browning, see the Agamemnon on the Perseus site, where the Greek text is hyperlinked to four dictionaries. The other translation there, by Herbert Weir Smyth, is the one used in the Loeb edition of the play. That dual language Loeb edition can be found online in a pdf format here.

There's also a version of Smyth that was revised by Nagy and others. Key words are often allowed to remain in Greek, which can be helpful. That revision is here.

Clytemnestra killed by Orestes

Below is a comparison of lines 8-20 - these are difficult, highly figurative lines, a challenge for any reader:

Here's Browning's version:

And now on ward I wait the torch's token,
The glow of fire, shall bring from Troia message
And word of capture: so prevails audacious
The man's-way-planning hoping heart of woman.
But when I, driven from night-rest, dew-drenched hold to
This couch of mine -- not looked upon by visions,
Since fear instead of sleep still stands beside me,
So as that fast I fix in sleep no eyelids --
And when to sing or chirp a tune I fancy,
For slumber such song-remedy infusing,
I wail then, for this House's fortune groaning,
Not, as of old, after the best ways governed.
Now, lucky be deliverance from these labours,
At good news -- the appearing dusky fire!

Here's Smyth's prose:

So now I am still watching for the signal-flame, the gleaming fire that is to bring news from Troy and [10] tidings of its capture. For thus commands my queen, woman in passionate heart and man in strength of purpose. And whenever I make here my bed, restless and dank with dew and unvisited by dreams—for instead of sleep fear stands ever by my side, [15] so that I cannot close my eyelids fast in sleep—and whenever I care to sing or hum (and thus apply an antidote of song to ward off drowsiness), then my tears start forth, as I bewail the fortunes of this house of ours, not ordered for the best as in days gone by. [20] But tonight may there come a happy release from my weary task! May the fire with its glad tidings flash through the gloom!

For some basic orientation and sensible reading, perhaps a good place to begin would be H.D.F. Kitto's two books: Greek Tragedy, and Form and Meaning in Drama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of Hamlet.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

With luck from a foreknowledge of fate

As we'll soon be beginning the Oresteia, this post from the splendid Sententiae Antiquae suggests some of the richness of Aeschylus's text:

In a choral ode from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, we find a folk etymology implied for Helen’s name. Where I have translated “killer”, the Greek has versions of the aorist of αἵρεω (εἶλον) which, without its augment looks like the beginning of Helen’s name (ἑλ-).

 Aeschylus, Agamemnon 684-696
“Whoever pronounced a name
So thoroughly true?
Wasn’t it someone we’d not see
Guiding the tongue with luck
From a foreknowledge of fate?
Who named the spear-bride,
Struggled-over woman
For, appropriately,
That ship-killer [hele-nas], man-killer [hel-andros]
City-killer [hele-ptolis], sailed
From her fine-spun, curtains
On the breath of great Zephyr
and many-manned bands
Of shield-bearers followed
The vanished journey struck
By the oars to the banks
Of leafy Simois
For a bloody strife.”
Helen disarms Menelaos

Χο. τίς ποτ’ ὠνόμαξεν ὧδ’
ἐς τὸ πᾶν ἐτητύμως—
μή τις ὅντιν’ οὐχ ὁρῶ-
μεν προνοί-
αισι τοῦ πεπρωμένου
γλῶσσαν ἐν τύχᾳ νέμων; —τὰν
δορίγαμβρον ἀμφινεικῆ
θ’ ῾Ελέναν; ἐπεὶ πρεπόντως
ἑλένας, ἕλανδρος, ἑλέ-
πτολις, ἐκ τῶν ἁβροπήνων
προκαλυμμάτων ἔπλευσε
Ζεφύρου γίγαντος αὔρᾳ,
τε φεράσπιδες κυναγοὶ
κατ’ ἴχνος πλατᾶν ἄφαντον
κελσάντων Σιμόεντος
ἀκτὰς ἐπ’ ἀεξιφύλλους
δι’ ἔριν αἱματόεσσαν.
The blog post goes on to cite other suggested etymologies for "Helen."

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Earth in view: Ars Amatoria I

Our next few weeks will be devoted to an amor somewhat less all-encompassing than that of Dante's Commedia. We'll be looking at Ovid's Ars Amatoria. As we already have an Ovid blog, posts devoted to that reading will appear there.

So far over there, there's just a note about translations. While the poetic matter might rather quotidian, nothing about Ovid is obvious or dull; he pushes genre rules and stylistic experiments to extremes, and can turn from an excursus upon Roman losers' foot hygiene to a visionary processional of Dionysus on a dime.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Difference in toto: Paradiso 32-33

Top: Birth of Dionysus Below: Triumph of Dionysus

ἢ ὥσπερ Σαπφώ, ὅτι τὸ ἀποθνῄσκειν κακόν·
οἱ θεοὶ γὰρ οὕτω κεκρίκασιν· ἀπέθνησκον γὰρ ἄν.

As Sappho says, death is a great evil
and the gods have judged it so: for they do not die

While reading Paradiso 32 I floated the idea that the two final canti of the Commedia stand in relation to each other, in their poetics as well as in other ways, in much the same manner as the Old Testament to the New:
Canto 32 is unadorned and fails to have an ending because it stands in relation to Paradiso 33 as the Old Covenant to the New. (Wounds of Time)
The thrust of canto 32 is toward the particular and unique. Each unbaptized infant has its own place, and all had been fixed before time began. We are given assorted proper names, individuals, but no clear sense of why these and not others. It displays the seemingly arbitrary predilection that the Old Testament God shows for his chosen people.

As we have seen, Paradiso 33 reaches a crescendo of polymorphic figuration teetering on open-ended linguistic arbitrariness. But there's more.

Canto 33 begins with Bernard's prayer, an act chosen in that moment to pray for Dante's accession to the totality. As when she chose in turn to consent to the wish conveyed by Gabriel, so Mary here chooses to consent to Bernard; Beatrice and all of heaven support the petition.

The freedom of the acts is fundamental: Dante's "wings" carry him upward, his gaze penetrates into the final vision, because they're propelled by the volition of the community of the saved. For one who had lived a life of exile, this vote of communal acceptance brings him into the longed-for fold.

Canto 33 dramatizes inclusion. In contrast, canto 32 has Bernard tracing all the differentiating walls and excluding fissures of divine providence,  the features and fixed destinies of the innocents. It's a discourse chilling enough in its precise fixities to evoke the immobilized denizens beneath the frozen lake of Satan's tears.

The possibility of Canto 33 issues from the Virgin's consent to the divine wish depicted in canto 32. The act of choice links the two canti, and it is choice that enables Dante ultimately to have his desire (il mio disio) moved with the will ('l velle) as the sun and the other stars (Barolini) are moved by l'amor. 

The full assertion of both singularity and totality, I believe, lies behind the charged syntax of the difficult tercet discussed in the previous post about canto 33. The insistence of differentiating oneness is never negated or subsumed -- in fact it betrays a certain trauma, even a frisson of sublime horror, as it beholds the totality:
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava. (112-114)
The vision of a gloria that moves all, yet chooses to allow piu e meno, subtends the Commedia from end to end.


There is no end to what one could say about this poem. I'll append one suggestion that seems relevant. Dante often echoes ancient myths solely in order to differentiate the nature of his world from that of the ancients. 

For example, the figure of wings recurrent in Paradiso both relates to his name -- ali-ghieri -- and to the power of heaven. The classical myth of Ganymede is all about desire and force -- the boy is so beautiful he's rapt by Zeus to serve the table of the gods.

Ganymede's will is negated in his trip to Olympus. He is prey. Dante has wings because we have will.

Yet that will is insufficient to reach the godhead.

When Dante the pilgrim and the alta fantasia of the poet cannot get there, 
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne:
 se non che la mia mente fu percossa
 da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne.
The fulgore comes from the other, yet its power fulfills the voglia of Dante.

Yet another myth brings us to a defining irony of the Commedia: When Zeus promised Semele her heart's wish, it meant the fulgore of her own destruction. From that insemination came the god of Tragedy, the anti-Apollo, the obliterator of difference.

The true story for this poet has it otherwise: Mary asks nothing of God. Courtly Gabriel asks her consent to bear the Son of God, and after a bit of questioning, she chooses to say yes. The absolutism of mythic power is not here.

Obliterating all trace of its origin, the fulgore grants a wish that Dante's wings couldn't actualize under their own steam. With the same respect for the other that was apparent at the Annunciation, the illimitable power leaves room for the comedic persistence of a certain Florentine, b.1265 - d.1321.

Friday, May 11, 2018

"iri da iri": Polysemy in Paradiso 33

Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza 
de l'alto lume parvermi tre giri 
di tre colori e d'una contenenza;  
e l'un da l'altro come iri da iri 
parea reflesso, e 'l terzo parea foco 
che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri.

Within the deep and luminous subsistence
  Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
  Of threefold colour and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
  As Iris is by Iris, and the third
  Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed. (33:115-120)

As we noted when reading Paradiso 33, the figuration used by Dante the poet to describe the final moments of the pilgrim's vision stands open to a nearly inexhaustible range of readings.

Two scholars have set themselves the task of exploring the myriad suggestions that bubble forth from close attention to the text. Their meticulous discussion, complete with manifold variations of geometric forms -- circles, spheroids, spirals, tori, cylinders, ellipsoids and more -- forms a study that succeeds admirably both in clarifying the interpretive variables as far as humanly possible, and in exhausting any merely human reader of their disquisition.

Arielle Saiber and Aba Mbirika's "The three giri of Paradiso XXXIII" explores the ambiguous folds of the text with rigor and richness. Indeed, they must have pored over it with the kindling intensity Dante describes as having possessed his own mind at this crucial threshold:
Così la mente mia, tutta sospesa
 mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
 e sempre di mirar faceasi accesa.
My mind in this wise wholly in suspense,
  Steadfast, immovable, attentive gazed,
  And evermore with gazing grew enkindled. (97-99)
Given that the object of his attention had just been described as un volume in which all the dispersed substances and accidents of the universe are bound together in love, it might not be too fanciful to find here, in this paeon to concentration, one of the finest imaginable descriptions of the mind in the act of close reading.

Be that as it may, their scholarly paper is rich, thorough, mathematically informed, and describes many of the ambiguities latent in the text with regard to shape, motion, size, color, and configuration. It rewards the close attention it demands, before confessing, late in the essay, that
When we think of all the possible ways three circles could be linked, as we have done so far in this essay, a kind of vertigo begins to set in.
Indeed, although the essay doesn't address it directly, one can link the experiential delirium brought on by a superabundance of figuration to the preceding passage:
Non perché più ch'un semplice sembiante
fosse nel vivo lume ch'io mirava,
che tal è sempre qual s'era davante;
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava.
Not because more than one unmingled semblance
  Was in the living light on which I looked,
  For it is always what it was before;

But through the sight, that fortified itself
  In me by looking, one appearance only
  To me was ever changing as I changed. (109-114)
As challenging as this is to parse, and certainly to translate, it should be evident that the act of looking deeply -- mirare -- has shifted from the stability of line 98:
 mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
to his deeply looking into the vivo lume, yielding a vista -- the "object" of the gaze, one might say, that is no longer a stable object.

A poor effort at a literal rending might go something like:
but through the vista that was strengthening itself
in me looking, a single appearance,
I transforming, to me intensely was working (si travagliava
The lines fall outside Saiber and Mbirika's focus, but the bursting syntax forces what is seen to be asserted as a unified appearance even as its power seems to destabilize the seeing of it. In being seen, the object -- vivo lume -- subjects the vision of the subject to another power.

With extraordinary verisimilitude, Dante depicts what would happen if light were not the passive illumination we know, but alive. "Vertiginous" scarcely begins to suggest the condition of vision seeing living light. Yet it would be difficult to articulate this disarticulation in a manner more precise, or clear.

In his fine commentary, Nicola Fosca divides these two moments of sameness and transformation rather neatly into (1) the poet who knows in retrospect that the living light remained single, and (2) the pilgrim whose seeing is undergoing the throes of change. He puts it this way:
La luce divina non muta, ma quello che muta è la visione.
Divine light doesn't change, but that which changes is the vision. 
Neat, but perhaps too agile in sidestepping the potent action of an unassimilable other, the living travail of si travagliava.

Theodolinda Barolini is sensitive to this in her comment on the canto:
Dante believes in a transcendent One, but his One is indelibly characterized by the multiplicity, difference, and sheer otherness embodied in the “altre stelle”—an otherness by which he is still unrepentantly captivated in his poem’s last breath.

In all events, Saiber and Mbirika's work is itself first rate, and without it I would not have ventured into the multeity and polysemy herein.

Before leaving this part of the final vision, I would like to suggest one element that I've not seen mentioned in the commentaries. It immediately follows the passage under discussion:
Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza 
de l'alto lume parvermi tre giri 
di tre colori e d'una contenenza; 
e l'un da l'altro come iri da iri 
parea reflesso, e 'l terzo parea foco 
che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri. 
Within the deep and luminous subsistence
  Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
  Of threefold colour and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
  As Iris is by Iris, and the third
  Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed. (115-120)

First, there is the assertion that one of the giri appeared to be a reflection of another come iri da iri. The notion of mirroring true light is unusual here, since all of this light ought to be considered true, unreflected, and living, and therefore no prioritization into primary source and secondary reflection should be appropriate. Of course the text does not impose that prioritization, and in fact it can go both ways, as "one" and "other" are not univocally tethered to any "one" of the circles he is seeing. It is entirely ambiguous whether there is any difference between "one," "two," and "three." Dante is true to the violation of identity and number essential to the vision.

But when the reflection is expressed this way:
come iri da iri 
we are in the position of being uncertain whether the vehicle of the simile concerns a relation of rainbows, as many commentators apparently believe, or whether, in this final realm of the logos, the giri are as like as "iri" da "iri" -- a metalinguistic statement that this "reflection" is in fact repetition -- a purely linguistic iteration rather than an aesthetic phenomenon.

What's more, the reflection is now no longer a matter of light and appearance (Saiber and Mbirika spend some time on the optics of double rainbows), but of sound and grapheme. Whether one says "iri" or writes it, it can only be "iri."

Now this alone is worth pondering, but I would offer one additional twist: If we listen to the phrase come iri da iri, one might hear com' irid a iri, whose living sound yields iride, the Iris that's both the colored circle around the opening of the eye, and the flower long associated with Dante's earthly home, the iride Fiorentina:

Given the explosion of figurative and semantic possibility at this point in the text, is it reasonable to rule out yet one more instance? Might it not fall strangely right to hear in come iri da iri a sonorous tri-unity of eye, rainbow, and Florentine flower, also known as the Giglio celeste,* prefiguring the poet's heavenly home?

*Giglio celeste was also known as Giaggiolo, which happened to be the name of a castle linked to Paolo Malatesta, Francesca's lover.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Paradiso infinito

A while ago, our group began reading Dante's Paradiso aloud and discussing it -- the first post on this blog, entitled "A few notes on how the Paradiso begins," came on November 1, 2015.

Today, April 11, 2018, we read the final lines of Paradiso 33. As one of our group said, the experience leaves one thinking the thing to do is turn to canto 1, and perhaps read it for the first time.

Our plan isn't to go down to our piccoletta barca and once again pursue Dante's flight. But one thing we've learned is that the poem, rich at the level of the word or line, is also rich if one steps back and looks from a middle distance, and doubtless richer still if one were to attain some Archimedean point from which to see it whole.

Our thought is to have one more session, to look at cantos 32 and 33 as a unit, and I'll suggest we bring in Paradiso 1 as well, as we noticed today how much the last canto is intertwined with the first -- consider simply the relation of the first and last lines of the entire canticle:
La gloria di colui che tutto move (1.1) 
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle. (33.145)
In a sense, the poem is a meditation on motion. On what it can mean -- to move and, or, be moved -- in a universe seemingly bound by eternal laws.

Thoughtful commentaries by Teodolinda Barolini for these three canti are here:

Paradiso 1                  Paradiso 32                   Paradiso 33

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Barolini and Gassman on Paradiso 33

Two quick references to supplement our reading of Paradiso 33:

In "Paradiso 33: Invisible Ink", Teodolinda Barolini brilliantly outlines the architecture of the canto as well as a lively sense of how the final 100 lines present
three circular waves of discourse (like the rippling motion of water in a round vase that is compared to waves of spoken speech at the beginning of Paradiso 14): three circulate melodie, three “jumps” by which the poet zeroes in on his poem’s climax. He approaches and backs off, approaches and backs off again, and finally arrives.
And for the sonority of the language, see Vittorio Gassman's impassioned recitation. He introduces the reading for four minutes, then begins. This link begins with the actual recitation.

The intro and index to Barolini's blog are here, entitled Commento Baroliniano.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Wounds of time: Paradiso 32 -> 33

προαιρεῖσθαί τε δεῖ ἀδύνατα εἰκότα μᾶλλον ἢ δυνατὰ ἀπίθανα
What is convincing though impossible should always be preferred to what is possible and unconvincing. Aristotle, Poetics, 1460a

A final thought -- more like a trial balloon -- on Paradiso 32, in an effort to put this enigmatic canto in some "light" that takes note of its critical place in the Commedia.

The absence of voice, song, and light (luce appears not at all, and lume appears once in the canto - each word appears five times in canto 33) sets it apart from what we've been used to in the canticle.

Bernard carefully delineates the divisions that run like cicatrices through the Rose, but no systematic explanation for this order rather than any other is revealed. Historical facts are presented, but not illuminated by reason (logos). Also, the finite detail of these 18 beings stands in stark contrast to many precedent scenes of illimitable constellations of angels and souls.

Women from Eve down through the Old Testament form the wall, bracketed by Mary, linked through the piaga, the opening wound marking the genesis and inscription of human history upon flesh. The stories from the Old Testament involve love, wiles, violence, seduction, willingness to take heroic risks, and merciful, healing care.

Grandgent and others have noted that the "seating" in the Rose has no apparent order. Mary is clearly the solar pinnacle of the Rose; next comes Eve; the series continues, but disobeys categories such as historical or ethnic order. One can say that the persons in this wall (except Mary) are women whose names are found in the Old Testament.

Readers seeking rational closure will pull out their hair asking "why these people and not these people?" Bernard is a subtle and sophisticated interpreter of the Song of Songs and other Old Testament texts. But, when he says . . .
Ne l'ordine che fanno i terzi sedi,
siede Rachel di sotto da costei
con Bëatrice, sì come tu vedi.
Within that order which the third seats make
  Is seated Rachel, lower than the other,
  With Beatrice, in manner as thou seest. (32: 7-9)
. . . perhaps we've not learned to take him literally enough. If i terzi sedi make the order, then the third seats are the third seats because they are the third seats. There is no cryptic mystery here, no arcane interpretive decoding. Rather, the order is sì come tu vedi - such as you see. No point in asking why Ruth or Judith are listed. They are what you see because they're what you see.

The series of Old Testament figures stubbornly defeats neat ordering schemes, just as the history of the stiff-necked Jews is a broken tale, rich in promise, failure, disaster, and unforeseeable rescues. We are left with an incomplete, seemingly arbitrary, unspeaking, dimly lit congeries of names and events, which we call the word of God.
τούς τε λόγους μὴσυνίστασθαι ἐκ μερῶν ἀλόγωνἀλλὰ μάλιστα μὲν μηδὲν ἔχειν ἄλογονεἰ δὲ μήἔξωτοῦ μυθεύματος, 
so far as possible there should be nothing inexplicable, or, if there is, it should lie outside the story. Poetics 1460a.
The first and culminating figure in the wall, Mary, enjoys a pivotal place in the scheme of things. She is described -- not with mimetic sensory depiction, but with elation that suspends gravity:
Io vidi sopra lei tanta allegrezza
 piover, portata ne le menti sante
 create a trasvolar per quella altezza,

che quantunque io avea visto davante,
 di tanta ammirazion non mi sospese,
 né mi mostrò di Dio tanto sembiante;
On her did I behold so great a gladness
  Rain down, borne onward in the holy minds
  Created through that altitude to fly, 
That whatsoever I had seen before
  Did not suspend me in such admiration,
  Nor show me such similitude of God.   (32: 88-93)
With the affetto of this allegrezza, the silence of the canto turns to music. Courtly Gabriel gracefully enacts the anomalous grace of the Annunciation, bringing an unthinkable choice to receive the divine seed, logos spermatikos.

Zeus is not bearing off a bull-beguiled Europa; Apollo is not frustrated by unwilling Daphne; Hades is not dragging the virgin Persephone into the Underworld. The pivotal moment of human history hangs in this suspension, waiting upon the free consent of a young girl.
Nel ventre tuo si raccese l'amore,
 per lo cui caldo ne l'etterna pace
 così è germinato questo fiore.  (Par. 33:7-9)
When in the final canto Bernard echoes Gabriel's greeting, he puts into narrative form the betrothed virgin's's unforced assent to plant that seed in her ventre, grounding the fiore of immortal life in history.

What divine power would allow the fall, the damnation and so much suffering to flow from one couple's decision in a garden, then provide his beloved own son as sacrifice so that the species of those who killed him could accede to the possibility of a seat in heaven? You couldn't make this up --- it lies "outside the story."

As we stand with the pilgrim in the Rose, the realization of this order is self-evident, because we know what imposed that meaningful order from without -- ἔξωτοῦ μυθεύματος.

This is not what sensible people like Aristotle would describe as probable (mimetic) behavior. The twists and turns of the Jewish people, the story of the Virgin and her son and the entire history of Creation achieve intelligibility only if we accept an ebullient suspension, a wounding rift in the logic and conventions of history. It breaks into two covenants, one before, one after, Mary's assent.

So here's my trial balloon: Canto 32 is unadorned and fails to have an ending because it stands in relation to Paradiso 33 as the Old Covenant to the New. The literal features of canto 32 -- the obvious lack of poetry -- stripped of imaginative fire, of light, of sonority -- lend a forbidding aspect to this bewildering tale that arrives at no conclusion.

What other poet would do what Dante does here? At the portal to the godhead, Canto 32 remembers the human experience of being in the dark. When, like Ugolino, we are imprisoned, groping in darkness, discovering to our horror that we are stumbling on the bodies of our children whose death is our paternal legacy, the canto leaves one thing left to do: To act, to pray with all one's affetto.
E cominciò questa santa orazione:
Canto 32 is to Paradiso 33 as the Old Testament is to the New, or as the dim human realm is to exorbitant splendor and sweetness of the Rose. One turns, as the Creator did, to the Virgin and asks for help.

Note there are no male heroes named in 32. No Joseph, no Abraham. Moses and David get a sideways glance. The wings of this poet are powered by the oriafiamme. Cherchez la femme.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Binding incisions: Paradiso 32 (Part III)

The arc of the Paradiso has been a movement from the particular to the universal, moving towards the primo amore -- the source of all Being. We are brought up short in Paradiso 32 as we encounter, rather than a higher level of synthesis, a highly limited directory to 18 specific figures in the lineage from Adam through Christ to the present.

After establishing this curiously partial portrait of the Rose, the canto turns to the providential disposition of the innocent. Teodolinda Barolini has an insightful blog post about Bernard's disquisition on more and less excellent innocents, and why and how their places in Paradise, or Limbo, were determined by "the king" of this realm:
I find it extremely impressive that Dante manages to have a dubbio, that he can still be dubitando, even this high up in paradise, at the very threshold of the beatific vision.. . . His concern in Paradiso 32 relates to the justice inherent in diversity of grace, with respect to placing the infants in a hierarchy: how can it be just to order them hierarchically, when they did not live long enough to have any merit? 
The final dubbio of the Paradiso is essentially its first, and exhibits the same preoccupation with unequally proportioned grace that has troubled the pilgrim throughout his ascent. But the issue has never been more starkly raised than here, because never before has individual merit been totally excluded from the equation . . .
Two points here. First, we have noted the curious erasure of individual traits occurring in this canto as the 18 figures are named. Now we have this crucially difficult question: how can eternal damnation or its opposite can be justified without the innocent soul having any part in it?

Bernard is about to address this. But just now, as the pilgrim and the reader are suspended in doubt, we consider the innocent sons of Ugolino, locked in the tower, offering their bodies to stave off their Father's starvation. The horrific deaths of those innocents -- echoing Christ's words in their care for the father whose deeds consumed their lives and perhaps their bodies -- can only be reconciled with a sense of divine justice if in fact, while Ugolino gnaws the nape of Archbishop Ruggieri, his children sit among the glorified.

Bernard says:
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume,
locati son per gradi differenti,
sol differendo nel primiero acume.
Bastavasi ne’ secoli recenti
con l’innocenza, per aver salute,
solamente la fede d’i parenti;
poi che le prime etadi fuor compiute,
convenne ai maschi a l’innocenti penne
per circuncidere acquistar virtute;
ma poi che ’l tempo de la grazia venne,
sanza battesmo perfetto di Cristo
tale innocenza là giù si ritenne. 
Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness. 
'Tis true that in the early centuries,
  With innocence, to work out their salvation
  Sufficient was the faith of parents only. 
After the earlier ages were completed,
  Behoved it that the males by circumcision
  Unto their innocent wings should virtue add; 
But after that the time of grace had come
  Without the baptism absolute of Christ,
  Such innocence below there was retained. (Par. 32.73-84)
There are two different stories apparently being told here. One traces human history and finds it articulated in three segments. At first any child whose life was cut short could enter Paradise if his parents believed in the true God. With the Covenant with Abraham, a new contract superseded that arrangement: a literal wound -- the cutting of the penis -- opens the way to heaven. (Whether one goes with Mandelbaum* and others who believe line 80 should read pene, (penis), not penne (wings) doesn't change that literal circumcision is in question.) Then, with the arrival of the "time of grace," innocents who died without the baptism of Christ are no longer eligible for eternal salvation.

It is troubling to this reader to learn that the coming of the man/god whose sacrifice opened Paradise also rewrote the contract to eliminate innocents who died without his Baptism, but there it is. The fact, the effetto, faces every reader as it faced the poet. One might infer that Dante himself somehow came to terms. How?

Here's one thought: the effect of this state of affairs is to make the possibility of eternal life for our children dependent upon others, especially parents. This would make the bonds of love and family a constituent element of the binding (Lat. religare) that Augustine among others saw as the etymological root of the word "religion."

Such an interpretation works quite well with the evidence before our eyes. Religious duty is a means of forming a community, not of making it into the Hall of Fame. The binding that falls on the parent makes it possible to say that if Ugolino did fulfill his duty, he made possible his sons' salvation.

As noted earlier, Bernard tells not one, but two stories by way of helping Dante understand the fate of innocents. The other begins earlier:
e però questa festinata gente a vera vita non è sine causa intra sé qui più e meno eccellente.  
Lo rege per cui questo regno pausa 
in tanto amore e in tanto diletto, 
che nulla volontà è di più ausa 
le menti tutte nel suo lieto aspetto creando, a suo piacer di grazia dota 
diversamente; e qui basti l'effetto.  
E ciò espresso e chiaro vi si nota ne la Scrittura santa in quei gemelli che ne la madre ebber l'ira commota.   
Però, secondo il color d'i capelli, di cotal grazia l'altissimo lume degnamente convien che s'incappelli.  
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume, locati son per gradi differenti, sol differendo nel primiero acume. 
And therefore are these people, festinate
  Unto true life, not 'sine causa' here
  More and less excellent among themselves. 
The King, by means of whom this realm reposes
  In so great love and in so great delight
  That no will ventureth to ask for more,

In his own joyous aspect every mind
  Creating, at his pleasure dowers with grace
  Diversely; and let here the effect suffice.

And this is clearly and expressly noted
  For you in Holy Scripture, in those twins
  Who in their mother had their anger roused.

According to the colour of the hair,
  Therefore, with such a grace the light supreme
  Consenteth that they worthily be crowned.

Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness. (32: 58-75)
There's a lot here, more than there's room to address. Barolini notes the principle of differentiation, of più e meno (more and less) harks back to the first tercet of Paradiso 1:
La gloria di colui che tutto move 
per l'universo penetra, e risplende 
in una parte più e meno altrove. 
We are about to enter that glory, but first we must learn that even the saved innocents are graded in an order of excellence, according to the "color" of their grace. Dante's daring conflation of hair color with divine favor points up the unavoidable fact that such differentiating of more and less even among embryos seems to us to be purely arbitrary.

Without going into all the curious turns in the tale of Esau and Jacob, note that the referenced story offers at least three relevant details: the color of the hair, present before birth, becomes a figure for the predetermined bestowal of grace; that Jacob is second in birth order, but supplants his brother's right of firstborn, fits the Scriptural pattern of last becoming first - temporal order is not the only order. And that Jacob surpasses Esau through his and his mother's wits underscores the final word of the entire passage:
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume, 
locati son per gradi differenti, 
sol differendo nel primiero acume. 
Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness.
Acume - the power to penetrate to the heart of things - turns out to be a clue to the differentiation with regard to grace. Rather than simply being as arbitrary as hair color, what is arbitrary is that some humans are sharper than others. The acuteness that cuts through appearances -- more than just intellect, heart as well is involved -- enables one such as Jacob to surpass another, who would seem to have advantages of precedence, wealth, class, etc.

Sharpness creates another form of separation -- leading me to restore the very individuality I earlier said was erased in the seemingly arbitrary differentiation of innocents. For Dante, the acumen to know one's right hand from one's left; to see through the glitter of princes and popes -- this is a grace that cannot be taught. Many of the learned do not have it; many a peasant has it in spades. This grazia, whether or not its owner has opportunity to exercise it in her or his life, results in the gradations of the innocenti.

We should note that acume appears as the last word of line 75, placing it at the very center of Paradiso 32.

This suggests a brief afterthought: For Dante, the journey to the beatific vision began in the moment he first saw Beatrice. He of course had no idea what it was about her that seized his heart and mind. Over the course of his journey, he discerns more and more about Beatrice, sees more of her beauty, and more of the reality to which she points. Beatrice is both mediatrix and sign of something more than herself. Dante's Commedia is the elaboration of a reading that began with a chance encounter with a sign, and ends in a realm where there is no possibility of chance. In Dante's lexicon another word for the tenacious rigor of such a reading might well be acume.

If so, then the canto's promise hinges on the capability of its own reading. Beginning in the most off-putting way, Bernard ignores the "big picture" to pick at nits. Yet each nit is from Scripture or the Church, and the lines of separation that he descries should give one pause. Why after all of human time are we still bothering with the slightest discretionary differences between one embryo and another? It's not a question to address here except by means of a question: without the differences that make each human being inescapably, knowably, unique, is community, communion, possible? If not, then are the scars on the face of heaven binding its fragments in glory?

*Mandelbaum's rendering of the passage:
In early centuries, their parents’ faith
alone, and their own innocence, sufficed
for the salvation of the children; when
those early times had reached completion, then
each male child had to find, through circumcision,
the power needed by his innocent
member; but then the age of grace arrived,
and without perfect baptism in Christ,
such innocence was kept below, in Limbo. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Fractured Rose: Paradiso 32 (Part II)

Paradiso 32 comes across as dry and devoid of embellishment when compared with the cantos immediately preceding and the stunning final canto 33.

Numerous critics have noted its "wooden," coldly depersonalized affect. "It is a plan which must seem to us pedantic and unimaginative and out of keeping with the visionary rapture of this part of Dante's pilgrimage," notes John D. Sinclair. And G.L. Bickersteth describes the focus on the construction of the edifice of the Rose as "an intellectual process resulting in a static formal image, mercilessly formal in its absolute symmetry, a mere geometrical design, lifeless . . .."

We might ask ourselves why, at this penultimate moment when all is tending upward toward the light, toward love and synthesis of the Alpha and Omega, we are treated to a set of names, familiar figures from the Testaments and from Church history, but here like icons in niches, more inert than the figures on along the paths of Purgatorio which the poet beautifully calls visibile parlare.

None who are named speaks, none is described, or has anything of the vivid individuality and animation of souls met throughout this journey. Something besides their historical personhood is of concern here. When Benedict promised Dante that he would see the blessed con imagine scoverta, little did we think this unveiling would drain their presence to a set of letters spelling their names.

The effect is skeletal, as if we are experiencing not the plenitude of the Rose, but rather the barest bones of Scripture inscribed in the Rose. The names have a somber, distanced air -- as if chiseled on a gravestone.

The Rose, all ebullience in the previous cantos, is now dissected by Bernard. The order he limns marks the breaking points of the strange interface between terrestrial man and his Creator: Those Before and After Christ; the matrilineal line, or wall, from Eve to Christ -- itself a jagged line that crosses boundaries of ethnicity and nationhood, and women without children, and women who killed kings. Then, three classes of innocents.

The one person from the Old Testament whose words - "miserere me" - we hear quoted by Bernard is David, the king who took another man's wife, and arranged that man's death. David not only committed a grave sin, for which he sang many a penitential psalm. With Bathsheba he fathered Solomon.

We're moving toward the close of the Commedia. That the final canto is coming is certain. Before we arrive, one last walk through a valley of wounds, balm, and the deepest doubt. What a remarkable artistic calculation: the poet has us with him, no one is going to stop reading his poem now. We've experienced some of the lowest and highest characters, tales and perils a reader could wish for. But Paradise is not only about God's sacred totality. It is also about the wounds, sins, and sorry history of the creature whose eternal life was purchased at horrific cost.

The face of heaven is broken, not unlike the broken god that provided human access there. The geometry of the Rose is disfigured by these markings of difference, this wall of nurturing, devious mothers, one assassin, and the horrors of sin issuing from the original piaga opened by Eve.

Piaga - "wound" - is given high prominence by Bernard - so high it is striking:
La piaga che Maria richiuse e unse,
quella ch'è tanto bella da' suoi piedi
è colei che l'aperse e che la punse.
Preceding even the name of Maria, la piaga opened by Eve, closed by Mary, stains the canto. The geometry of the Rose is crossed by lines of human error that disfigure it. The face of Heaven bears the sutures of a care incomprehensibly extended in the wake the nightmarish incisions of human history. To approach heaven without having contemplated this agony, this unaccountable rescue; without having confronted still more troubling doubts is not to approach this poet's sacral place at all.

The canto next turns to a last, deepest doubt: what of the children who died before their choices had authority to decide their fates? Doubts accompanying the pilgrim since he was lost in the wood.

This will be next.