Saturday, August 20, 2016

New translations of 16 Greek plays

Jutta points us to a WSJ piece about a new translation of 16 Greek plays by James Romm and Mary Lefkowitz. Here's a snippet from the interview:

What Greek play is most relevant to our times? 
JR: Any one of them can seem “most relevant” on any given day, depending on what’s going on in the world. But I’d say “Alcestis” pops up most often for me, in that it deals with very real (and flawed) characters and with psychological complexity. Its central figure, Admetus, is fated to die unless he can find a substitute; he chooses to let his wife die in his place, hardly the act of a larger-than-life hero! 
ML: I’d pick Euripides’s “Bacchae”—A new ecstatic religion has come to town, with weird transgender behavior, the liberation of women, and outlandish music; the old folks think it’s a good idea to go along with it, but the young king tries to stop it, and ends up torn to pieces by his mother and aunts. The story suggests that you can’t object to cultural change, even when it makes you uncomfortable or upsets the status quo. 
Do you have a favorite passage? 
JR: To continue with “Alcestis”—The play has a riveting central scene in which Admetus confronts his father, who had refused to give up his life for his son. Admetus excoriates his dad for selfishness, while the father asserts his right to live out his old age like anyone else. It’s an explosive scene with many great Euripidean themes: Self-interest vs. self-sacrifice, the obligations entailed by familial bonds, the war between the generations. I read the scene with my Greek students every chance I get. 
ML: I’d pick the third long choral song of Sophocles’s “Antigone,” which talks about the human propensity for getting things wrong! Plenty of examples of that every day.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A look at Auerbach's Mimesis in September

Our next meeting will be the first Wednesday in September - the 7th. But as a number of our group will still be away, instead of jumping right back into, or up to, the Paradiso, we'll spend a session with an essay by a major literary scholar, much of whose work is devoted to the reading of Dante.

The essay is "Odysseus's Scar," which is actually chapter 1 of Erich Auerbach's landmark book, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 

From the Amazon blurb:
More than half a century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis remains a masterpiece of literary criticism. A brilliant display of erudition, wit, and wisdom, his exploration of how great European writers from Homer to Virginia Woolf depicted reality has taught generations how to read Western literature.

A German Jew, Auerbach was forced out of his professorship at the University of Marburg in 1935. He left for Turkey, where he taught at the state university in Istanbul. There he wrote Mimesis, publishing it in German after the end of the war. Displaced as he was, Auerbach produced a work of great erudition that contains no footnotes, basing his arguments instead on searching, illuminating readings of key passages from his primary texts. His aim was to show how from antiquity to the twentieth century literature progressed toward ever more naturalistic and democratic forms of representation
The book is readily available in various formats, including the Kindle, but the initial chapter is also available free online here, or as a pdf file for download here. Our interest is twofold: on one hand, Auerbach's argument is that there's a clear and major distinction between the bright world of Homeric art, and the obscure realm characteristic of books of the Old Testament. As we have read works from both traditions, Auerbach's observations are relevant to just about everything we've read at one time or another. 

Here is the basic polarity of the essay:
It would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts. On the one hand, externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and in a definite place, connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground; thoughts and feeling completely expressed; events taking place in leisurely fashion and with very little of suspense. On the other hand, the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and “fraught with background.”
A second reason for a look at Auerbach is that his interest in this problem is in part derived from his work on Dante. Before Mimesis, he had published Dante, Poet of the Secular World, an influential reading of the poet. And he later wrote a long essay entitled "Figura" that attempts to work out how Dante and others read the Old Testament in relation to the new. That essay, about 65 pages in length, can be found here or in a collection of essays by Auerbach entitled Time, History and Literature.

A third reason Auerbach is worth some attention is that he was a very good, close reader -- as those who spend some time with Mimesis will quickly see.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

"Chimes" in Sarasota

Margaret writes to tell us that the new Criterion version of Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles's unique rendering of Falstaff, will soon be available at our libraries:
Five copies of Chimes At Midnight were ordered by the Sarasota Library system on 7-22-16 - one for each branch. I'm #2 on the reserved list. The reviews and cast Are excellent!
I saw the film many years ago - despite the wear of time and tape, it was unforgettable.

The New Yorker's Richard Brody offers some remarks that might apply to Verdi and Boito's Falstaff as well:
Falstaff is great—at “nothing,” in Shakespeare’s phrase—but a nothing which, as Falstaff himself knows and says, is “all the world.” He flaunts the open maw of desire, the sumptuous thrill of pleasure. He embodies the brazenly lighthearted and insolent, proud and arrogant hero, the very soul of illicit dreams—the principle of life itself, of a vitality that knows no shadow, that itself casts a dazzling artificial light that overwhelms reason even as it sharpens wit.

 Looking forward to the Criterion edition. Once again the trailer:

Friday, July 29, 2016

A few bits of Shakespeare's Falstaff

As we prepare for Verdi's Falstaff, here are the texts of Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2.

A few selections from the opera and from Shakespeare here.

And three scenes with Roger Allam's incredible Falstaff:

Hen IV. Part 1 Act 1 Sc. 2

Falstaff’s Honor speech Hen. IV. Part 1

A short trailer for one of the greatest films most people have never seen: The confabulation of Falstaff known as Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles:


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A bit of Falstaff

Maestri as Falstaff

Verdi's last opera didn't come easily. With Arrigo Boito, the composer worked on Falstsaff in fits and starts for three years. Verdi turned 80 before it was complete.

At one point in a letter he described the opera as a madman that he had to subdue:
The Big Belly ["pancione" -- the name given to the opera before the composition of Falstaff became public knowledge] is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in a bad humour. At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart; I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this, I will put him in a muzzle and straitjacket.[28]

The first performance, at La Scala, was a hit: 

at the end the applause for Verdi and the cast lasted an hour

A brief snip with Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff at Covent Garden:

Too bad the whole production isn't yet available online. Here's a complete production of Falstaff at La Scala, conducted by Ricardo Muti, again with Maestri.

A few resources:

Verdi directing Falstaff

"I believe it will take years and years before the general public understand this masterpiece, but when they really know it they will run to hear it like they do now for Rigoletto and La traviata." - Arturo Toscanini

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pergamon at the Met

The above is a fragment containing what might be the oldest bits of Homer that we have. The words are from the Odyssey, and was featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Pergamon exhibit. Below is a bust believed to represent Homer.

Click on Herakles for few more images from that exhibit:

Pergamon MET 2016.06

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Summer divagation

Macbeth Royal Opera

Our reading group has hit the pause button on Paradiso for the summer, and John Goodman's lectures on Verdi and Shakespeare offer a superb distraction from the rigors of the Commedia.

John Goodman

The infinite resources of the web here offer a bi-lingual libretto of Othello, the next opera Mr. Goodman will tackle. 
        Here is La Scala's production /Muti, Domingo, Frittoli, Nucci, Ceron: 


Boito and Verdi

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The fall of chivalry: Paradiso 17

This will just be a brief suggestion, rather than a reading. The Paradiso, the city of God, spends more than three cantos at its dead center on the city of man. 

That city is riven by two kinds of love:
Benigna volontade in che si liqua
sempre l'amor che drittamente spira,
come cupidità fa ne la iniqua,

A will benign, in which reveals itself
Ever the love that righteously inspires,
As in the iniquitous, cupidity, (Par.15. 1-3)
The good love does something noble right at the start -- it falls silent:
silenzio puose a quella dolce lira,
The knights and armies moving along the four equal arms of the cross extinguish their songs in order to listen to this one soul who's arrived, a bit dazzled by the vast red sphere, the gleaming galaxy of the huge cross, the power of music he is moved by without understanding. 

This giving of attention is a constitutive chivalric act. It is the turn from the needs of the self (cupidità) to the other. That tens of thousands of knights and soldiers fall silent at once is  a signal gesture of the knight's honor, service, and love to one in need. It puts the entire Cacciaguida section under the sign of knightly courtesy, which carries a rich and highly sophisticated ethical discipline. (For a sampling of the range and depth of the chivalric paideia, see Aldo Scaglione's Knights at Court, especially chapter 2.)

If we read Paradiso 16 in this light, it might provide an incisive moral perspective. For what we see is a city that is divided -- Cacciaguida gives us the simple honest families of a modest town; the town grows, rich families from outside move in, bringing with them their aristocratic presumptions even as other families are developing mediated systems of lending that will bring untold wealth to their children.

It's a city marred by a failure of Church and State to work in harmony -- perhaps that ideal was only reached in the Knight, he who placed his mastery of power and skill into the service of his lord, and of his lord's Lord.

Perhaps this is why, when Dante first speaks to his great-great grandfather, Beatrice's smile brings an allusion to the story of Lancelot. Unlike Francesca, who met a literary knight in a Romance, the poet meets one who, though found only here in his poem, is presented as not a literary figure, but as an actual knight who served his Emperor and his God. 

And perhaps this is why the central antagonism of Cacciaguida's survey of Florentine development is the suicidal conflict between families of honor and good will on one hand, and on the other, those whose specialization lay in mooching off the church, or, "the insolent breed that plays the dragon behind him that flees and is mild as a lamb to him that shows his teeth," (Par.16.115-117).

At the heart of this civic ruin is the ruined virtue of the heart -- the honorable city of benign will is succumbing to those whose strength lies in clever merchandising and wealth built by greed. 

In this light, the unhorsings of Buondelmonte and of Corso are not two disparate events in a random development. Rather, the ends of these well-heeled deserters of their ladies are two manifestations of the same event: the fall of Florentine cavalleria.

Cacciaguida's portrait of contingent, mortal Florence is both loving and scathing; Dante's "root" speaks openly and clearly of his past and future, and the outcome is literally en-coeuraging -- he steels the poet with what it takes to complete his poem, whatever the risks.
                    . . . all falsehood laid aside,
Make manifest thy vision utterly,
And let them scratch wherever is the itch;

                   . . . rimossa ogne menzogna,
tutta tua visïon fa manifesta;
e lascia pur grattar dov' è la rogna.  (17.127-29)
When we reach this moment near the end of the central canto of the Paradiso, the necessity of this "detour" begins to become clear. The poem could not come to be without this radical injection of boldness and heart. The courage to speak the truth is the only medicine to cure a sick city:
Ché se la voce tua sarà molesta
nel primo gusto, vital nodrimento
lascerà poi, quando sarà digesta.

For if thine utterance shall offensive be
At the first taste, a vital nutriment
'Twill leave thereafter, when it is digested. (17.130-132)
Cacciaguida compared Dante with Hippolytus, who is Ovid's key transitional figure between Pythagoras and Aesculapius. The tale of the journey of the serpent-god from Greece to Rome is the last journey, and the last good story, of the Metamorphoses. It's all told in disguise; Hippolytus himself is disguised, he's now known as "Virbius."

If Ovid wrote of the metamorphosis of Greece into Rome (it might be his central theme), Dante here, inspired by Cacciaguida, dispenses with oracles and the promises of hidden gods. The root is the truth of his life -- to be voiced with chivalric mastery -- openly, freely, boldly,
"Because the spirit of the hearer rests not,

Nor doth confirm its faith by an example
Which has the root of it unknown and hidden
Or other reason that does not appear."
"che l'animo di quel ch'ode, non posa

né ferma fede per essempro ch'aia
la sua radice incognita e ascosa,
né per altro argomento che non paia.”

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Death in Florence - Paradiso 16

The history of Florence before and after Dante is so rich and fraught with conflicts, treacheries and a wide cast of players as to make it hard to keep even the general outlines clear. 

A helpful (and well written) summary can be found in the first chapter of R.W.B. Lewis's Dante: A Lifepublished years ago in the New York Times (the text might be marred by some coding, but it's worth it)

Lewis's chapter is here, and begins with Cacciaguida:
As you walk across the Ponte Vecchio in Florence today, you come upon a plaque bearing a passage from Dante's Divine Comedy. The lines are spoken by Dante's ancestor Cacciaguida, whom the poet encounters in one of the higher spheres of heaven, among the warrior saints. They reflect grimly on an event that took place on that very spot in 1216, almost fifty years before Dante's birth, and plunged the city into decades of turmoil. The event was the murder of Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti . . . more . . ..
We last encountered Buondelmonte lying dead at the feet of "the mutilated stone that guards the bridge" - the ancient statue of Mars. Cacciaguida's depiction of early Florence climaxes in the tale of the failed attempt to unite two feuding families, the Amidei and the Donati, through marriage. An alliance with the daughter of the Amidei would have forged a bond of common interest between them. All Buondelmonte had to do was to accept the daughter and dowry offered. Instead he chose another bride from the wealthier Donati. 

Remembering an earlier time, Cacciaguida spoke of dowries before they had transformed brides into commodities:
Non faceva, nascendo, ancor paura
la figlia al padre, ché 'l tempo e la dote
non fuggien quinci e quindi la misura.

Not yet the daughter at her birth struck fear
Into the father, for the time and dower
Did not o'errun this side or that the measure.
(Par. 15.103-05)
As a direct result of his open betrayal of his troth, Buondelmonte was struck as he came from his wedding. He was knocked from his horse, then stabbed to death in front of his new bride. 

Some nine decades later, the city is ruled and roiled by the irrepressible Corso Donati, fomenting faction at every turn.

In Paradiso 17, Dante will learn of his own exile, of "how hard is the way going down and up another man's stairs." The key figure behind his exile and expropriation was Corso, a relation through Dante's marriage to Gemma Donati, and the swashbuckling head of the black Guelfs, who opposed the Whites, headed by the Cerchi.

Corso married the daughter of a wealthy Ghibelline, which enraged many who had supported him. Eventually the citizens forced Corso to flee the city; he was soon captured nearby. While being led back to Florence, Corso fell or threw himself from his horse, whereupon a captor lanced him to death.

Death of Corso Donati
Dante must have pondered the striking resemblances between the fates of these two men. Both Buondelmonte and Corso chose wealthy brides, not modest maids. Their choices unhorsed them. In Cacciaguida's story, Florence itself had once been a modest maid, but now is festooned with jewelry, make-up, and dress. And the old man compares Dante to Hippolytus, exiled from his native city by a lie, dragged to his death by frightened horses.  (Dante turns out to be less Euripides' tragic Hippolytus than Ovid's, who returns from Hades to live a new life in Italy.)

Buondelmonte's death at the bridge divided the city into the factions which then first were called Guelfs and Ghibellines. Corso's death ended the contention between the city's Whites and Blacks. In both cases, Florentine blood was spilled by Florentines. 

The fates of these two men, almost a century apart, are uncannily alike -- almost as if one fate. They are root and branch of the same "seed plot." It's like an opera or Greek myth, not devised by literary artifice, but given by the history of Florence. From the same plot, but a different seed, Dante will be cut off from his city, but not from his "root." He'll complete his solar journey thanks to the clear oracles of Cacciaguida. 

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Auerbach on Dante as poet of the secular world

. . . every aspect of earthly life is here, if only in the concentrated power of the poet’s similitudes: “croaking frogs in the evening, a lizard darting across the path, sheep crowding out of their enclosure, a wasp withdrawing its sting, a dog scratching; fishes, falcons, doves, storks; a cyclone snapping off trees at the trunk; a morning countryside in spring, covered with hoarfrost; night falling on the first day of an ocean voyage; a monk receiving the confession of a murderer; a mother saving a child from fire; a lone knight galloping forth; a bewildered peasant in Rome,” and on . . .

This passage is from Erich Auerbach's Dante: Poet of the Secular World, quoted by Michael Dirda in a fine brief overview of that book. Auerbach was one of the great readers of the 20th century. Dirda's whole piece can be found here, and is worth reading in full. For more on Auerbach's reading of Dante, see Edward Said's intro to a reissued edition of Mimesis.)

Auerbach found Dante's art distinctive for the vivid mimesis of everyday life, as well as for the distinctive characters of individual men and women captured by the poet, even as the arc of his poem aimed beyond all individual material bounds.

As we progress through Paradise, the focus changes from specific human beings to more complex structures, Dirda notes. Instead of single lives, we encounter groups that form constellations with their own internal complexities -- as with the learned authors in the Sun. Individuals become parts of larger wholes which tend to deal with, for example, Justice, Knowledge, and History writ large. 

Perhaps in part to counterbalance that universalizing tendency, Dante has Cacciaguida bring us down from the heavens to the l'ovil di San Giovanni, the sheepfold of his native city. There, instead of encountering one human being, we get an elaborate tale of Florence seen through time. Instead of specific persons, we mostly encounter families, some identified solely through their heraldic imagery. But what story do we get?

Dante is certainly taking stock of the city of his birth, which happened to be the scene of dislocations -- economic, political, and artistic -- that reverberated throughout Europe. 

But the story of Florence offers no easy moral, no simple insight or nostrums that would resolve the incessant conflicts, the welter of competing classes and interests, ethical allegiances both sacred and secular that shook and divided Florence again and again. 

As Mario asked, why does this granular image of Florence appear here, now? It seems perfectly true to the Commedia for Dante to grapple with his own particular earthly seed-plot at the moment he's approaching the upper reaches of the heavens. But what does that story yield? A few thoughts in hopes of making a bit more headway in the next post. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Murder in Florence - Paradiso 16

I've been wrestling with Mario's question of two weeks ago: Why, he asked, does Dante put this long, historically detailed image of Florence at the center of the Paradiso?

As I understood his question, the strangeness is not the inclusion of this material, but rather its placement. Why at this moment in the journey, when one would think that mind, heart and soul would be reaching a point of ardor, turning to a sublime apprehension that will eclipse the Earth, let alone one city?

Florence is Dante's patria -- the body politic, the seed plot of the poet's broken earthly life. For some reason, he now has to turn and look close up at it with Cacciaguida, the radice, root of his life. Why?

It's a rich portrait, with much to ponder. Dante tells a story that has remarkable elements. Florence begins imagined as a modest young woman, and after the catalog of famous families, the tale culminates in the tale of the betrayal of a modest young woman. 

Why does Dante make the murder of Buondelmonti the climactic moment of his narrative? Here's the tale as told in a chronicle attributed appropriately enough to a "pseudo Brunetto Latini":
In the year 1216, when Messer Currado Orlandi was podestà, Messer Mazzingo Tegrimi of the family Mazzinghi had himself knighted at a place called Campi, some six miles from Florence, and invited there all the best people [tutta la buona gente] of the town. 
When all the knights had sat down to meat, a buffoon snatched away the full plate set before Messer Uberto dell’Infangati, who was paired at table with Messer Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti. This angered Messer Uberto greatly, and Messer Oddo Arrighi de’ Fifanti, a man of valor, roughly reproved him on this account. In reply Messer Uberto told him he lied in his throat, at which Messer Arrighi tossed a full plate in his face. The whole assembly was in an uproar. When the tables had been removed, Messer Buondelmonte struck Messer Oddo Arrighi with a knife and wounded him severely.

As soon as all the company had returned to their homes, Messer Oddo Arrighi took counsel with his friends and relatives, among whom were the counts of Gangalandi, the Uberti, the Lamberti and the Amidei. Their advice was that peace should be concluded over the matter, as a sign of which Messer Buondelmonte should take for wife the daughter of Messer Lambertuccio de’ Amidei, who lived at the head of the bridge. The bride-to-be was the niece of Messer Oddo Arrighi. Accordingly the marriage contract was drawn up and the peace arranged; on the following day the wedding was to be celebrated.

Then Madonna Gualdrada, wife of Messer Forese Donati, sent secretly for Messer Buondelmonte and when he came spoke to him as follows: “Knight, you are forever disgraced by taking a wife out of fear of the Uberti and the Fifanti; leave her you have taken and take this other [i.e. her own daughter] and your honor as knight will be restored.” 
As soon as he had heard, he resolved to do as he was told without taking counsel with any of his kin. And when on the following day, the morning of Thursday February 11, the guests of both parties had assembled, Messer Buondelmonte passed through the gate of Santa Maria and went to pledge his troth with the girl of the Donati family, and left the Amidei girl waiting at the church door.

This insult enraged Messer Oddo Arrighi greatly and he held a meeting with all his friends and relatives in the church of Santa Maria sopra Porta. When all were assembled he complained in strong terms of the disgrace put upon him by Messer Buondelmonte. Some counseled that Buondelmonte be given a beating, others that he be wounded in the face. At this spoke up Messer Mosca de’ Lamberti: “Whoever beats or wounds him, let him first see that his own grave has been dug; a thing done has its own head [cosa fatta capo ha].” They then decided that the vendetta was to be carried out at the very place where the injury had been done, when the parties had gathered for the exchange of the marriage vows.

Murder of Buondelmonte
 And so it came about that on Easter morning, with his bride at his side, Messer Buondelmonte came riding over the bridge in a doublet of silk and mantle, with a wreath around his brow. No sooner had he arrived at the statue of Mars [at Ponte Vecchio], than Messer Schiatta degli Uberti rushed upon him and, striking him on the crown with his mace, brought him to earth. At once Messer Oddo Arrighi was on top of him and opened his veins with a knife. And having killed him, they fled. 
The ambush had occurred at the houses of Amidei, who lived at the head of the bridge. Immediately there was a tremendous tumult. The body of the murdered man was placed on a bier, and the bride took her seat next to him, holding his head in her lap and weeping aloud. In this manner the procession moved through all Florence. And on this day, for the first time, new names were heard, those of the Guelf party and the Ghibelline party.

From a Cronaca attributed to a "pseudo Brunetto Latini": Ferdinand Schevill, Medieval and Renaissance Florence (1961), pp. 106-107 
 Mosca and Dante exchange words in Inferno 28. 
See also this this account and here's another telling, by Thomas Adolphus Trollope.