Monday, June 08, 2015

The motion of love: Francesca I

The first damned soul Dante meets in hell is a woman so alluring that to this day, her love affair and its violent end command a fan base larger than many soap operas.

What does it mean that before we come face to face with souls whose evil cannot be denied, we along with the pilgrim first encounter an attractive woman whose affecting tale of love and death turns upon an act of reading?

What makes Francesca both so memorable and so enchanting?

Before he meets her, the pilgrim is already in some confusion:
Poscia ch'io ebbi il mio dottore udito
     Nomar le donne antiche e' cavalieri,
     Pieta me giunse, and fui quasi smarrito.
No sooner had I heard my teacher name
    the ancient ladies and the knights, than pity
    seized me, and I was like a man astray. 
It should be worth asking why he's "smarrito" - the same word the poet uses in the poem's first tercet:
Che la diritta via era smarrita 
because the direct path was lost.
This is the first of two, or perhaps three, moments of strong confusion the pilgrim experiences in this same canto. Oddly though, the canto's readers never seem confused. Indeed of all the cantos of the Inferno, it's this one that seems to often draw out a certain penchant for scolding. If only those two hadn't been reading per diletto (for pleasure)! They should have chosen a more uplifting book! Et cetera.

Gentle sighs, pallor, all the signs of affection, desire, and love, are evoked in a narrative that leads not simply to death of the body, but far worse, to the "second death" of the soul. The poet Dante had written in Vita Nova,
Amore e ‘l cor gentil sono una cosa
Love and the gentle heart are the same thing.
Dante is moved to pity as he sees vast crowds, the flotsam and jetsam of Love, buffeted up, down, every which way without pause. How could this nourishing delight, this civilizing, gentle Love, bring violence to lovers and conduct them to hell? This puzzling contradiction gives him pause; he is smarrito.

The pilgrim then calls to Francesca and Paolo and asks them ever so politely to speak with him, in the name of the love that leads them. Or rather, that's what Virgil tells him to do. Virgil says,
          e tu allor li priega
per quello amor che i mena . . . 
and then you may appeal to them
by that love which impels them . . .
What the pilgrim actually says is:
                      O animae affanate, 
Venite a noi parlar, s'altri nol niega.
                     “O battered souls,
If One does not forbid it, speak with us.”*

Let's assume the poet is precise here. He doesn't beg them to come by invoking Amor, the Love that Francesca is about to blame for all her woe. He alludes to an unnamed One (altri can also be "other" or "another") who is only conspicuous by not being present: s'altri nol niega means "if another doesn't forbid it." The Love that controls this wind, that moves the Sun and other stars, here allows the lovers to pause and speak, simply by not impeding them from doing so. So we have a difference here that doesn't seem trivial: the difference between a Love that overwhelms with irresistible force, and a Love that, by absenting itself from controlling things, allows the souls the freedom to choose their own course of action.

Paolo and Francesco choose to come to speak with Dante. There's so much to talk about that we'll pass over the simile of the flight of the doves, only pausing to note its beauty, and that their destination is their nido, their nest.

This seems a good place to pause.

*Allen Mandelbaum's translation

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