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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A few notes . . . (part 4 with minor changes)

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso. Here are the other parts: 
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3

After Beatrice tells Dante in Paradiso 4 that Piccarda and all souls in Paradise "make beautiful the primal circle," that is, they are always with the Empyrean, she continues:
Qui si mostraro, non perché sortita
sia questa spera lor, ma per far segno
de la celestïal c'ha men salita.
They showed themselves here, not because allotted
This sphere has been to them, but to give sign
Of the celestial which is least exalted. (Par. 4. 37-39)
The reason the souls show themselves is to give a sign (far segno) and Beatrice likens this sign making to something Scripture does. It condescends.
Così parlar conviensi al vostro ingegno,
però che solo da sensato apprende
ciò che fa poscia d'intelletto degno.

Per questo la Scrittura condescende
a vostra facultate, e piedi e mano
attribuisce a Dio e altro intende;
To speak thus is fitted to your mind,
Since only through the sense it apprehendeth
What then it worthy makes of intellect. 
On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else;  (Par. 4. 40-46)
She goes on to say that the same holds true of how Scripture depicts the angels. The radical voiding -- not merely of orientation in space, but of space itself -- is linked to the figurative condescension of the language of Revelation, which conviensi al vostro ingegno, i.e., "thus fitted to your mind."

The mind -- that seat of faculties that brought the ancients to the godlike feat of systematically understanding the universe -- the pride of Plato, Aristotle, and all those in Limbo, is here brought down to the level of a severely compromised, blind actor, like Tobit -- noble, trying to do the right thing, but clueless that the guiding helping hand of Raphael is there, unasked for, within reach.
e Santa Chiesa con aspetto umano
Gabrïel e Michel vi rappresenta,
e l'altro che Tobia rifece sano.
And Holy Church under an aspect human
Gabriel and Michael represent to you,
And him who made Tobias whole again. (Par. 4. 46-48)
While a physical universe seems to appear in Paradiso, the actual model, Beatrice says, is that of a text. Space and time do not hold, presence is meaningless, anthropomorphism is a child's tale: Abandon all trope ye who enter here.

Tobias, Tobit and Raphael

Condescending to Marsyas

An attempt to sum up might go something like this: Paradiso is structured the way Scripture makes signs. Unlike similes, metaphors and other cognitive tropes that are rooted in the senses (using aesthetic properties and relations of likeness, difference, part/whole, contiguity, etc.), Scripture uses real things to "mean something else," and this altro may be beyond all imagining.

If Paradiso is structured like a text, what does this mean for us readers? Dante has already warned those seeking to follow in little boats to take care -- his boat will leave no track, though it is all the trace we have.

By the end of canto 4, the confident, scientific clarity of Beatrice's mirror experiment of canto 2 has been upended with the advent of a potentially limitless indeterminacy.

The usual faculties of the human intellect -- the tools and faculties of science -- are placed alongside another mode of signification unlike what we can safely say we know. A mode that gives hands and feet to all that is radically indeterminate and outside of earthbound space and time through a sign-making that, says Beatrice, condescends (condescende). 

Beatrice's empirical experiment might carry little weight as an example of antiquated science, but it has force in putting the claims and ambitions of intellect -- whether applied through experimental inquiry or logic -- into play. These claims are not negated, but reduced, compromised and complicated within a text that attempts to embrace and encompass both hard science and Scriptural revelation. Tensions in this and build, as the stakes mount up.

Flaying of Marsyas, Antonio de Bella

We might now relate this to Dante's choice of Marsyas as the name and figure both for the experience of Paradiso and for the song of that experience. To be drawn from the sheath of one's members is not just to leave behind an earthly husk: it is to have everything one has always used to see, hear, measure and know stripped away. After this, nothing will be what it seems, and when something seems to be what it seems, it's likely to be quite other. We very well might just be out of our senses.

Lewis Carroll had nothing on this.

To be continued . . .

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A few notes . . . (part 3)

This is the third in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso. Here are the other parts:
Part 1     Part 2     Part 4

If the faces in the Moon in Paradiso 3 turn out to be "really there," as opposed to being mere images or reflections, that reassuring sense of a determinate position in space gets turned on its head in canto 4, when Beatrice explains how Piccarda and the others whom Dante has just encountered are always actually in the Empyrean:
ma tutti fanno bello il primo giro,
e differentemente han dolce vita
per sentir più e men l'etterno spiro.
But all make beautiful the primal circle,
And have sweet life in different degrees,
By feeling more or less the eternal breath. (Par. 4. 34-36)
The literal ground Dante and the others stand "in" - the moon, falls away. Beatrice's words scramble the concept of presence. Instead of the polarity of presence/absence, we are invited to entertain another medium or mode, which Beatrice will call "condescension."


Before we get to that, I'd like to try, however tentatively, to trace a recurrent gesture in Paradiso:
  • In canto 1, the poet makes sure we understand that the text we are reading (or listening to) is but a shadow of a shadow of an experience, an experience he no longer can recall.
  • Something to cling to arrives in canto 2. Beatrice makes sure Dante understands that moon spots are not simply to be understood as variations in material density. Indeed she offers a replicable, empirical scientific experiment using mirrors to help demonstrate that a simple material principle will not explain the rich diversity of all that is.* Empirical knowledge and logical reasoning here are held up as authoritative ways for human beings to speculate about things they cannot directly experience.
  • That apparent gain in epistemic stability is challenged in canto 3, when Dante, now in the Moon, finds the very notion of "ground" has become problematic. The labile medium of the Moon makes it hard to tell how he, others, and the Moon occupy the same space. The faces that are suddenly before him seem reflections, appearing as if reflected on shallow water, and later disappear into seeming watery depths. The medium has no fondo, no ground -- one moment it seems shallow, the next moment profound. But it is not a reflective surface. Beatrice assures the pilgrim that Piccarda, Costanza and the others are vere sustanze.
  • The assurance of vere sustanze is further complicated when Dante learns in canto 4 that Piccarda and all souls in Paradiso are always actually in the Empyrean. It's not that Piccarda could be speaking to him either from a few feet away or from a point infinitely beyond all distance. Entangled, both are true at once: the vere sustanze are "here" and "there." The structure of Paradiso is really not a structure as we normally think of it, something resting on a foundation that rests on terra firma situated in space. Here, like the earth under Amphiaraus at Thebes, ground falls away. We're shading into the Uncanny, and certain elements in cantos 3 and 4 evoke its frisson.


If one were to attempt to characterize more concisely a pattern in these opening cantos, a figure in the carpet, it is perhaps something like this:
  • Canto 2: A gain in perceptual knowledge (illumination) is posited using negative proofs from the sensory realm.
  • Canto 3: That illuminating gain is then complicated as sense perception is put in question, leaving us lacking in sense certainty, but confident at least of the underlying reality of substance.
  • Canto 4: Substance is complicated, scrambled. It turns out that Paradiso is not a "place" subject to space and time. Rather, signs are being made
The effect is not unlike a recurring, self-effacing oscillation: Each time we think we've got a purchase on Paradise, there's a loss of certitude, a vanishing of grounds for judgement. For the visitor, it's not unlike being out to sea:
metter potete ben per l'alto sale
vostro navigio, servando mio solco
dinanzi a l'acqua che ritorna equale.
Well may you launch upon the deep salt-sea
Your vessel, keeping still my wake before you
Upon the water that grows smooth again. (Par. 2. 13-15)
The opening cantos have put the pilgrim and us on an epistemological roller-coaster, and the ride is not yet over. Like the wake that is the only trace of the poet's vessel, a trace soon erased, so the proper (object) of Paradiso keeps receding.

It's not that with each loss comes some compensatory gain, as if automatically. Rather, it's sink or swim: loss opens the way to the possibility of acceding to another kind of apprehension. It's up to you. As Beatrice says to Dante at one point, watch your step:

“Non ti maravigliar perch' io sorrida,"
mi disse,“appresso il tuo püeril coto,
poi sopra 'l vero ancor lo piè non fida,

ma te rivolve, come suole, a vòto:"
"Marvel thou not," she said to me, "because I smile
at this thy puerile conceit,
Since on the truth it trusts not yet its foot,
But turns thee, as 'tis wont, on emptiness." (Par. 3. 25-28)

If the senses and substance -- the reliable earthly bases of Aristotle's understanding of Nature -- are not sure guides to the mansion of God, what is? The ground is more quicksand than terra firma.

The opening movement of Paradiso conducts us to a carefully orchestrated cognitive crisis. By the time we reach the account of condescending in canto 4, it is an open question whether, like poor Nebuchadnezzar, we can even begin to say what we are experiencing, let alone penetrate to what it means. We might even have a spasm of sympathy for the king's murderous frustration with his "magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers." Lunacy impends.

The stakes for the poet, the poem, and its readers, have never been higher.

*For a parallel contemporary account of popular astronomy, see Ethan Siegal, Beyond the Galaxy. Chapter 1 here is free. 

To be continued . . . 

Friday, November 13, 2015

The career of Italian and Dante's role, in brief (Updated)

[Note: A much better map of Italian dialects has been supplied by our friend Peter D'Epiro (thanks Pete!). A few minor changes to the text as well.]

Back when we were reading Ovid, we looked briefly at the amazing variety of tongues in pre-Roman Italy (6th century BC), and noted that Latin was one of the smallest linguistic regions of the peninsula, as shown in this image:

Pre-Roman languages of Italy

Long after Latin became the dominant tongue, it broke into the Romance Languages, and within Italy into many dialects. The complex and "completely chaotic" story of Italian linguistics is shaped by the political history of Italy as well as by its geography.

Here's a political map before Italy was united:

Pre-Unification Italy

Dan Nosowitz offers an amusing overview of Italian's trajectory in a story from Atlas Obscura:

“One thing that I need to tell you, because this is something that is not clear even for linguists, let alone the layperson—the linguistic situation in Italy is quite complicated,” says Mariapaola D'Imperio, a professor in the linguistics department at Aix-Marseille University who was born in Naples and studied in Ohio before moving to France. The situation is so complicated that the terms used to describe pockets of language are not widely agreed upon; some use “language,” some use “dialect,” some use “accent,” and some use “variation.” Linguists like to argue about the terminology of this kind of thing.

The resulting mescolanza of dialects is shown in this map of dialects, some quite exotic sounding:*

A key role in the fashioning of more or less "Standard" Italian was played by our poet:
During unification, the northern Italian powers decided that having a country that speaks about a dozen different languages would pose a bit of a challenge to their efforts, so they picked one and called it “Standard Italian” and made everyone learn it. The one that they picked was Tuscan, and they probably picked it because it was the language of Dante, the most famous Italian writer. 

How Capicola Became Gabagool 

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A few notes . . . part 2

The somewhat detailed look into Paradiso 2 in the most recent post served to interrupt the effort to trace a pattern begun a few days earlier, but it was quite helpful. How so should become clear if we go slightly ahead.

Let's look again that scene in Paradiso 3 where Dante says he made an error opposite to that of Narcissus, thinking the faces appearing to him in the moon were specchiati sembianti - mirrored semblances. Turning around to see the source of the images, he says, e nulla vidi - and I saw nothing.

The error here is not simply the opposite of that of the boy who fell in love with his own image; it is also the exact reversal of what happens in at sunrise in Purgatorio 2: Dante, expecting to see Virgil's shadow next to his own, and seeing nothing, turns to where Virgil should be, and in fact still is. Virgil reproves him for mistrusting -- he doesn't cast a shadow because he is one. 
Io mi volsi dallato con paura
d'essere abbandonato, quand' io vidi
solo dinanzi a me la terra oscura;
e 'l mio conforto: “Perché pur diffidi?”
a dir mi cominciò tutto rivolto;
“non credi tu me teco e ch'io ti guidi?
Unto one side I turned me, with the fear
Of being left alone, when I beheld
Only in front of me the ground obscured. 
"Why dost thou still mistrust?" my Comforter
Began to say to me turned wholly round;
"Dost thou not think me with thee, and that I guide thee?
These scenes in the third canto of each canticle set up mini-paradigms that resonate with the nature of each world the pilgrim is experiencing. For Dante in Purgatorio, it is a matter of trust -- submitting to an authority that is not immediately visible but which, from past experience, one knows to be reliable. (This is also why the Muses in Purgatorio are led by Calliope -- they are on a mission to rhetorically demolish false guides.)

Here in Paradiso 3, the mode is no longer the shadowy realm of expectation, belief, or trust, but of increasingly brilliant surprise. The seemingly mirrored semblances are not images or shadows, but in fact the very beings they appear to be.* The substance of things hoped for is given before it can be hoped for, and this is "revealed" as becomes clear in the nothingness (nulla) the poet turns to see.

This surprise reversal has the structure of hysteron proteron, as used by the poet in the image of the arrow that strikes the target in canto 2:
e forse in tanto in quanto un quadrel posa
e vola e da la noce si dischiava,

And in such space perchance as strikes a bolt
And flies, and from the notch unlocks itself
This figure that reverses cause and effect, completion and beginning, is the challenging narrative trope of Paradiso -- "challenging" because it violates the sequential order of ordinary quest narrative. It also reverses the prefigurative mode in which the Christian Middle Ages read the Bible. The Old Testament was read, as in the superb title of a book on Milton, as "shadowy types" that prefigured the truth (logos) of the New Testament. Once revealed, the Word obviated quest.

If one looks at the three cantos 3 from the perspective of poetics, we can add to the order of the three canticles we began once before:

Inf: hope forever lost                                    -- the letter: "abandon all hope"
Purg: hope actively propelling one ahead       -- shadowy types: guide to truth
Par.: hope substantiated                                -- truth

One could go on ticking off attributes of each canticle that fall into something of this order, but the last thing I want is to overschematize the Commedia. The poem complicates itself as it goes along, and that's more interesting.

How does canto 2 help with the effort to discern a pattern? Consider what we found: When Dante the pilgrim enters the moon, he bogs down his journey by asking Beatrice about the man in the moon, a fabled figure dreamed of by men who can't see him face to face.

But even as Dante is asking Beatrice about this shadowy type, he is himself a man in the moon incarnate. In Par. 3.43-45, the poet explicitly relates the co-joined human and moon to the Incarnation, which will be self evident when we finally get to see it.
Lì si vedrà ciò che tenem per fede,
non dimostrato, ma fia per sé noto
a guisa del ver primo che l'uom crede.

There will be seen what we receive by faith,
Not demonstrated, but self-evident
In guise of the first truth that man believes.
The "spirit" of this scene, its wit, playfully gives us a lunatical misdirection of a quester who asks about distant spots and signs when he in fact is the very thing (a sort of loony λόγος) about which he is asking. This bewilderment tickles, and Beatrice's smile conveys full awareness of what fools these mortals be. Within this frame, laughter can be relaxed and even medicinal -- to see one's own error, even among the wise, will now and again occasion a cathartic spasm of self-debunking laughter.

While the poem is registering esprit on several comedic levels, it never loses sight of the reader, whom it warned about venturing too far out to sea. Dante's bark (legno) is heading for the deepest waters, and those who fail to see their own folly are most at risk of becoming the drowned man the poet of Inferno 1 nearly was.

*This point will be looked at in more detail when we discuss canto 4 in the continuation.
This is the sec in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso. Here are the other parts: 
Part 1     Part 3     Part 4   

to be continued . . .

Friday, November 06, 2015

Revising the Man in the Moon: Paradiso 2

Our detailed look at Beatrice's language in Paradiso 2 the other day made clear that Dante wasn't kidding when at the opening of the canto he told folks following his wake in little boats to turn back for fear of getting smarriti. As in Inferno 1.3, smarrito means lost, but here, on the vast sea of being, hopelessly so.

The address to the reader makes reading this canticle, and recursively this canto in particular, a journey fraught with peril. To err here - to miss the tracks that lead the way -- could set one adrift without a guide.

If this caveat lector seems a bit hyperbolic, it's in keeping with a certain aura of irony in Paradiso 2. Barely has the pilgrim reached the moon before he's deep into moon spots, mirrors and, ultimately, a vision of an intelligent universe, all conveyed through the interplay of light, medium, and eye. To anyone expecting solemn anticipations of the Beatific Vision, the oddly mundane "science" of moon spots has to be slightly jarring.

Take that sense of being jarred a bit further. When one is expecting one thing but gets another, that defeat or surprise can occasion consternation. It can also be the source of comedy. Dante is amazed by the violation of earthly physics that allows him to co-occupy the same "place" as the moon. It doesn't seem that the moon penetrates his body, yet somehow his body and the moon's body are conjoined.

He goes on to ask Beatrice about the moon's spots, alluding in passing to the figure of the Man in the Moon, fabled (favoleggiare) in Italy to be Cain carrying a bundle of thorns (the thorns appear in the Commedia's other reference to Cain, in Inf. 20.126ff):

Ma ditemi: che son li segni bui
di questo corpo, che la giuso in terra 
fan di Cain favoleggiare altrui?  
But tell me, what are the dark signs on this body which make men on earth below tell the tale of Cain? (Par.49-51)
The question will provoke Beatrice's quite elaborate thought experiments in which both razor-sharp logic and the appeal to empirical experience are employed to present a very literal argument (about light and mediating substances) leading to what she confidently sees as a demolition of any hypothesis that "sees" variations in the heavens as rooted in mere degrees of material density.

But is there not also some playfulness here? First, the pilgrim asks not about spots, but about segni - signs - and says such signs make people tell fables of Cain. I.e., these fabulists are misreading signs and coming up with wild notions in which the second human born to Eve (in some traditions, Cain was not the son of Adam, but of Satan) forever carries a bundle of thorns, on the moon alone, unable ever to return to the community of men.

For men on earth, Cain is "the man in the moon," and this is a wildly inaccurate idea of the actual moon that springs from seeing signs (spots) and inventing a story that holds the place of a hypothesis -- it purports, however playfully, to explain what the signs mean. It is a humorous errant reading of these signs, possible in part due to the great distance between human eyes and the moon's spots.

The joke gets better: Dante has just told us that at this very moment, he was literally "in" the moon -- we have an actual (if literary) man in the moon alluding to the fabulous fictional man in the moon, and he's basically saying, "since we're here, can you help me see what these signs really are?"

We then get the tortuous proof of what they are not -- the display of logical reasoning is difficult, dense, and borders on a parody of scientific reasoning -- but the negative power of the insight leads to a change of mind which Beatrice (smiling throughout) foretells via this marvelous simile:

"Or come ai colpi delli caldi rai
della neve riman nudo il suggetto
e dal colore e dal freddo primai

cosi remiso te nell'intelletto
voglio informar di luce si vivace
che ti tremolera nel suo aspetto."
"Now, as smitten by the warm rays, the substance of the snow is left bare both of its former color and its cold, so I want to inform you, left thus bare in your mind, with a light so alive that you'll scintillate in its view." (Par. 2. 106-111)*
Beatrice gives us the metamorphosis of phase change as metanoia. The limpid waters of the mind will then be in- or re-formed by living light enabling a vision of the universe as divine intelligence self-explicating by gradations:
così l'intelligenza sua bontate
multiplicata per le stelle spiega,
girando sé sovra sua unitate.

so the Intelligence unfolds its bounty, multiplied through the stars, itself wheeling on its own unity.
An intelligence like a scintilla of joy in the pupil of an eye:

Per la natura lieta onde deriva,
la virtù mista per lo corpo luce
come letizia per pupilla viva.
By the joyous nature from which it springs, the mingled virtue shines through the body as joy through the living pupil. (Par. 2. 142-44)
Beatrice has erased Dante's misreading of the signs on the moon, which turns out to have been quite as aberrant as the fables of the people about Cain. She's replaced that materialist fable with a new vision that revises both what one can see, and how one sees.

Note that she does not use the word "angel" at any point. The word only appears in the phrase "pan delli angeli" in line 11. To "informar" our unfrozen minds, she employs words that speak of power (virtu) and joy, eyes and light -- simple human words. The argument is crucial to the project of the Paradiso. For what replaces the lunatic screed of Cain and dense and rare is the image and seal -- l'image e . . . suggello -- of the mente profonde. (131-32).

Instead of marks, spots, Cain, or signs that indicate material density, the heavens regard us with mind, peace, joy. There is a gleam in the pupil which, recursively, shines in Beatrice's eye, reflected in Dante's eye. 

Paradiso as poetic enterprise stands or falls depending upon whether we in our little boats come to experience this happy peace, this regard. Our reading, our standing, our falling. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Dante's birth musically marked in Philadelphia

The 750th anniversary of Dante's birth in 1265 will be celebrated by the Center for Italian Studies and the Department of Music at the University of Pennsylvania with an international conference on "Dante and Music" to be held in Philadelphia November 5-6, 2015

According to Dante music expresses the divine order of the «Cosmos». «L’armonia che temperi e discerni» (Paradiso, I, 78) is the divine tuning of life whose multiple bodies are harmonized like notes. Conversely, disharmony evokes the absence of the divine.  In poetry, music is able to produce different meanings and visions of the world from the «dolce» sound of «stilnovo» to the «aspre e chiocce» effects of the «rime petrose».

The fascinating theme of music in Dante engages also the theme of music after Dante. How did Dante inspire musicians and how were his works put to or translated into notes? Furthermore, since Dante’s own music is made of words, what kind of verbal styles in the poetic tradition from the Middle Ages to the present refer or contest Dante’s choices?

Program here. Links to more conference info on the site

Sunday, November 01, 2015

A few notes on how the Paradiso begins

The first tercet of the Paradiso puts into play three ways that la gloria manifests:

La gloria di colui che tutto move
per l'universo penetra, e risplende
in una parte più e meno altrove. 

These modes are in tension. One might think of gloria as light, but it is also power. It has three attributes: it moves all, it penetrates all that exists, and it shines back in some parts more, less in others.

It will take Dante the rest of the canticle to fully work out the implications of this tercet. A few notes:

As all authors must, Dante has to establish early on the sources of his authority and set out the scope of his argument. Paradiso offers the eyes and voice of Beatrice, and the inspiration of "Apollo." Canto 1 makes clear that the poet's experience is compromised severely: he can't actually remember more than a shadow of this voyage. Unlike the old Ulysses, not only will this new seafarer among the stars not have a simple tale to relate; he also can't be sure to what extent what he does relate represents what he experienced.

In Canto 2, Beatrice offers an experiment** to help Dante see that the variations in the visible universe cannot be explained by a simple materialist model with one differentiating principle, i.e., density.

The use of a replicable experiment along with the logic of her argument seems to provide some grounds for hope that mankind may possess some reliable knowledge of the heavens.

But this apparent clarity will be challenged in the first circle. In Canto 2.37-39, he finds himself in the moon -- somehow his body (corpo) and the Moon occupy the same point in space:

S'io era corpo, e qui non si concepe
com' una dimensione altra patio,
ch'esser convien se corpo in corpo repe,

If I was body, (and we here conceive not
How one dimension tolerates another,
Which needs must be if body enter body,)

And, if he can't quite understand his body's relationship to the moon, it gets more complicated.

In Canto 3 he meets Piccarda, one of several faces that appear in the moon's pearly . . . one can't quite say surface, since he and they are less "on" the moon than in it. The faces at first seem a kind of mirror image of Beatrice's mirror experiment from Canto 2. They seem reflections (3.10-15):
Quali per vetri trasparenti e tersi,
o ver per acque nitide e tranquille,
non sì profonde che i fondi sien persi,
tornan d'i nostri visi le postille
debili sì, che perla in bianca fronte
non vien men forte a le nostre pupille;
Such as through polished and transparent glass,
Or waters crystalline and undisturbed,
But not so deep as that their bed be lost,

Come back again the outlines of our faces
So feeble, that a pearl on forehead white
Comes not less speedily unto our eyes;
But the faces turn out to be not reflections (risplende) but rather, like Dante, somehow have penetrated (penetra) the moon (3.16-24): 
tali vid' io più facce a parlar pronte;
per ch'io dentro a l'error contrario corsi
a quel ch'accese amor tra l'omo e 'l fonte.
Sùbito sì com' io di lor m'accorsi,
quelle stimando specchiati sembianti,
per veder di cui fosser, li occhi torsi;

e nulla vidi, e ritorsili avanti
dritti nel lume de la dolce guida,
che, sorridendo, ardea ne li occhi santi.

Such saw I many faces ready to speak,
So that I ran in error opposite
To that which kindled love 'twixt man and fountain.
As soon as I became aware of them,
Esteeming them as mirrored semblances,
To see of whom they were, mine eyes I turned, 
And nothing saw, and once more turned them forward
Direct into the light of my sweet guide,
Who, smiling, glowed in her holy eyes.
In a marvelous, delicate allusion (3.16-18), the poet tells us that his dis-covering that the images are not images - turning around to see the source of the reflections, he sees nothing (nulla)* - was an error the precise opposite of that which ignited Narcissus's love.

Can we see a pattern developing here? What do the scientific rigor of Beatrice's mirror experiment and the entire question of the man in the moon have to do with the pilgrim's profound corporeal and spatial disorientation in Canto 3, and with perhaps more fundamental indeterminacies opened up in Canto 4?

to be continued . . .

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso. Here are the other parts: 
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4

*Note that the pilgrim's mistake in Paradiso 3 can productively be read in relation to a different mistake made by him in Purgatorio 3, which we examined in some detail here and here -- the moment when he doesn't see Virgil's shadow, and infers (falsely) that his guide has abandoned him.

**Thanks to Paul Johnston for sharing this representation of Beatrice's thought-experiment from Mark Musa's Paradise: Commentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004. p. 23.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The torque of Pride

When Dante crosses the threshold into Purgatory proper and hears the door swing shut, he speaks of the one thing that could never be excused - looking back:
Poi fummo dentro al soglio de la porta
che 'l mal amor de l'anime disusa,
perché fa parer dritta la via torta,

sonando la senti' esser richiusa;
e s'io avesse li occhi vòlti ad essa,
qual fora stata al fallo degna scusa? 
When we had crossed the threshold of the door
Which the perverted love of souls disuses,
Because it makes the crooked way seem straight, 
Re-echoing I heard it closed again;
And if I had turned back mine eyes upon it,
What for my failing had been fit excuse?   (Purg. 10.1-6)
No possible excuse for someone who has been advised not to look back, no matter how strong the temptation. Dante, the new Orpheus, passes the threshold safely and successfully. This is only one of several thresholds, however - instead of assuring the safe return of his Eurydice to mortal life, obeying the order to not look back gives Dante hope of seeing his Beatrice at some future moment, when he is fit to experience her transhumanized form.

One way of understanding a constitutive difference between the canticles, then, could be one's relation to hope:

Inferno:       hope forever lost.
Purgatorio:  hope actively propelling one ahead
Paradiso:     hope substantiated

This small scheme will be subject, of course, to our reading of the Paradiso, which is about to begin. I want to bring up one other thing about the Purgatorio as we get to that new threshold, and it's contained in the snippet quoted above.
che 'l mal amor de l'anime disusa, 
perché fa parer dritta la via torta,
 the threshold (soglia) . . .
that souls' bad love disuses
because it makes the crooked path seem straight.
Entering the terrace of Pride, the poet lays down an apparent law of the human condition: when we desire wrongly, that causes us to see as direct what is in fact crooked, or indirect.

The narrator here posits a turning, or torque, of the soul by which what it sees, and how it sees - cognition - is skewed by what (and how) it wants. Where Plato's soul just needed to be turned around and ascend to see the Good in order to want it, this offers a more Augustinian view. One cannot see straight until one's love (will) has turned toward the Good. The will is what is bound, imprisoned, and the terraces of penitence are about liberating it from its false and deviant loves.

The complex path of discipline, edification, and challenge that the pilgrim goes through before Virgil can "crown and mitre" him as a freely willing self over himself should be kept in view as one enters Paradise.

It's a path with its own complications. I'll just briefly point to one. In the same canto (10) of Purgatorio, before they encounter the Proud souls bearing their pedestals, Dante and Virgil see three narratives depicted on the terrace wall, famously described as visibile parlare: The three tales are the Annunciation, the story of Uzzah and David and Michal, and the tale of Trajan and the widow.

Contemporary commentators including Robert Hollander and Nicola Fosca have noted some complications of the tales -- for example, that the angel's appearing to Mary, which bears the hope of salvation to everyone born after Christ, carries a sense of doom to Virgil, the poet of the 4th Eclogue, whose prophecy of a savior to be born did not save him from Limbo.

Hollander also wonders whether the Proud souls, crushed under the weight of their stones, can even see these storied walls - are the walls inclined so one can see from a very low angle, he and others ask.

Another point that seems relevant is that the first sin, the one upon which all other sins feed, requires those carrying their pedestals to read from their low and oblique angle, over and over again, three tales that, in a very real sense, defy easy understanding. One might quite easily see an image of the Annunciation, but does that mean that one in fact understands it? What would "understanding" mean here?

And if the Annunciation is problematic, the tale of Uzzah poses its own difficulties. Here's a guy leading the oxen that are bearing the Ark of the covenant, and the Ark totters, seeming about to fall. He reaches out his hand - one can easily presume it's an automatic reflex - and is struck dead for presuming to do something he was not tasked to do. Is this readily comprehensible? Or must one go round the mountain several thousand times before it begins to make sense? This is of course about the automatonic nature of our drives, desires, and thoughts - these things we are persuaded we simply control.

The tale of Trajan also runs counter to common sense (as does, of course, the spectacle of David) and all military protocol.

If we gloss over these tales (as I'm doing here), it could be at our peril. If we presume we have read them aright, we might be submitting our qualifications for spending a good amount of time on this very terrace.

Why point this up with emphasis? Let's remember that these works, Dante avers, are produced by an Artist that surpasses Polycletus and Nature itself - making the question of distinguishing real from fake, fact from fiction, a real, not a rhetorical, question. And let's remember that the basic element of Pride is in fact to think something is straight that is not. The torque of Pride and the torque of simplistic reading are not, in this canto, unrelated. In a very real sense, Dante has engaged the full web of rhetoric, the textual deviousness of tropes, mimesis, figuration and narration, in his analysis of Pride. To sin is to be trapped in trope. The presumption of reading -- in the sense of some unmeditated, direct apprehension of a text -- puts one fairly far along the path of error.

One can hope that the challenges of Paradise, however daunting, leave us less prone to tie ourselves in knots.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

A trove at Herculaneum

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