Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Experiencing nothing: Ulysses in Inferno 26

[Note: this post has undergone several revisions - I hope it's now "finished."]

Our stimulating discussion of Inferno 26 today made it clearer to me than ever before how rich and enigmatic the canto of Ulysses is. I won't try to summarize the many fine points made by everyone, or the positions regarding whether to find damnable fault, and where, in the career of the Greek hero.

I just want to make a couple of place-holding points while fresh in mind. First, the canto is resonant with images of light, fire, sun, moon, and things large and small. More than just large or small, there is a strange almost quantum effect in which something that was small becomes quite huge, while never ceasing to be small. Scale is liquid, and ingegno, the Muse, must be restrained even as Dante is nearly overwhelmed in the presence of his classical double, the hero of many turns, whose rhetorical art was capable of putting in motion consequences beyond his control.

If nothing else, the presence of Ulysses -- both implicit and via explicit allusion --throughout all three canticles ought to make it clear that Athena's favorite is the predecessor and double of the pilgrim who is following Virgil through hell and purgatory. Take the alto passo where Ulysses meets his end. When we learn from this unique tale that Ulysses drowned within sight of the Mount of Purgatory, we might experience a certain uncanny frisson, remembering the pilgrim lost in the wood who looks back at the passo where he nearly drowned, and looks up at a mountain he cannot climb.

E come quei che con lena affannata,
    uscito fuor del pelago a la riva,
    si volge a l’acqua perigliosa e guata,
così l’animo mio, ch’ancor fuggiva,
    si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
    che non lasciò già mai persona viva.
And just as someone who, with panting chest,
    Has made his way to shore from the deep sea
    Turns back to gaze at the deadly waters crossed,
So too my mind, continuing to flee,
    Turned back to look again upon that trail
    That never yet let living man go free.*

More allusions to Ulysses come later in the poem And the tale he tells, of seeking to experience the unknown, to know it, presents a paradox basic to the quest: what is there to know if there is still the striving for knowledge, but nothing left in the world to know?

Ulysses is in hell, says Virgil, because he used his arte and ingegno to cause certain events to occur. We have seen this illustrated in granular detail in our reading of the Philoctetes, but it's built in to the mythos of the great-grandson of Hermes. Unlike the horses that took Elijah to the highest, Ulysses fashioned a false horse and the lie that got it into Troy.

Ulysses troubled Dante, just as had the noble ancients of Limbo, and Dante gives him a staggering last hurrah. Profound recognition and admiration -- as well as unsettling fascination and longing -- accompany Dante's encounter with this figure. All the terror of canto 1 is there, at the end of canto 26:
Tre volte il fé girar con tutte l’acque;
    a la quarta levar la poppa in suso
    e la prora ire in giù, com’ altrui piacque,
infin che ’l mar fu sovra noi richiuso.

Ulysses might be damned to the eighth bolgia for his false light of counsel, but his grit is all too human. Which raises the question of how to read his ultimate contrapasso. One might be advised to tread carefully when attempting to read divine judgment.

What Virgil does not say is that Ulysses is damned for seeking to know the unknown. One way to see Dante's tale of Ulysses' final voyage is as a parody of grace. No other living mortal -- certainly no pagan -- ever laid eyes on the Mount of Purgatory. If the Deity wished to bar Ulysses from overreaching, a turbo could have sunk his little boat anywhere along its folle volo. "Altrui" didn't prevent it from reaching visual range of Purgatory.

This is a man who lacked knowledge of Revelation,  but almost stole it.

The summit of human striving goes no further -- Ulysses doesn't even make it to the soggy beach at the base of the mount. His double, Dante, will. Ulysses is graced with an extraordinary glimpse before he drowns. The pilgrim goes a different route, one that is in touch not only with classical wisdom but endowed with Revelation, and goes beyond Ulysses by a different way, not under his own steam.

No other human, not even Heracles, came close to what Ulysses experienced. The punishing irony: he has no idea what he experienced. He saw with the naked eye what could not be seen, what could not be part of experience or knowledge in the classical, horizontal sense: the upward spiraling ladder of Revelation may only be gratuitously given, never discovered, uncovered, inferred or deduced by any inquiry, math or logic. To see revealed truth without Revelation is tantamount to seeing nothing at all.

*Translation courtesy of Peter D'Epiro.

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