Saturday, May 23, 2015

Punishing irony: Virgil's witness in Inferno 4

In Canto 4 of the Inferno, Dante turns to Virgil and asks him a veiled (coperto) question:
“Now tell me, master, tell me this alone,”
I said to him, wishing to be assured
Of that faith by which all doubt is overthrown,
“Have any gone from here and then secured
Salvation, by their own or Another’s fee?”*
Virgil replies:
And he, who understood my covert word,
Said, “This condition was still new to me
When I beheld a Mighty One appear,
Who was crowned with a sign of victory.
He took our first begetter’s shade from here,
With Abel, Noah, and Moses, who did show
The laws to man and how to hold them dear;
King David and Abraham of long ago;
Israel with his father and his seed,
And Rachel, for whose sake he labored so;
And many more, and made them blest indeed.
And I would have you know I can attest
That, before these, no human souls were freed.”*

This exchange is of interest for several reasons. For one, it's the witness of a lost soul to the harrowing of hell and liberation of a select few. Virgil, who had died about 50 years earlier than this event, attests first-hand to the act of a "Mighty One."
ci vidi venire un possente
The event became one of the articles of the Christian creed, but Virgil recounts it  in the words of an honorable Roman. Un possente is a generic term for anyone of power, and, while accurate as far as it goes, it is blank with regard to the unique identity of the Mighty One: the martyred Son of the God of Abraham, fresh from his trial and crucifixion.

Virgil speaks of what he sees. His natural light of human reason can and does report and support the faith Dante and all Christians practice, flowing from Scripture. What Virgil "sees" is veiled to him - the facts are reported, but their full and unique implications are not.

What we as readers find here is something I think Dante the poet does throughout his Comedìa-- a poetic enactment of the profound discontinuity between the light of reason, art and science on one hand, and revelation via the Book, on the other.

In a sense, what the moment does is reproduce Dante's reading of Virgil. In the moment that Virgil voices and demonstrates his authority as teacher, guide, prophet, poet and witness, we find a blindness, a falling short -- the irony of an inescapable ignorance. It is a punishing irony, consigning him to hopeless finality in a half-lit suspense of endless desire, and more ironic because in its helplessness (vis a vis Virgil), it helps Dante overcome doubt.

Dante dramatizes the reality that obtains in a world where human genius, nobility of spirit and incorrigible honor just are not enough. For Virgil and the rest of those in Limbo, what the mind and sense and soul can see, and what the imagination or inspiration can intimate, is merely the outward appearance of a unique event whose full import -- the breaking not of rocks alone, but of the rule of death -- remains "coperto." Another word for that might be "illegible."

We'll want to be on the lookout for further examples of this mode of poetic acting out in the Comedìa. With Revelation comes a shattering literacy.

*From an unpublished translation of the Inferno by Peter D'Epiro.

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