Monday, May 18, 2015

Invocations Infernal and Purgatorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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