Friday, June 12, 2015

The motion of love: Francesca II

It's tempting to read the Inferno with a sort of "I told you so" persona. The structure lends itself, since the damned have a finality to their tales that has the imprimatur of divine judgement. And we have a pretty good indication, by virtue of location and contrapasso, what the Deity thought of each category of sin.

Dante the pilgrim is not quite so clear, however. In canto 5, his first encounter with the lost, he weeps, he pities, he faints. He is confused (smarrito). Are we? We readers might not wish to ignore the complications inherent in this canto, given its treatment of reading.

The pilgrim seems very troubled at the vision of the great literary (and one historical) lovers, and even more so after encountering Francesca. It's one thing to feel confusion about love in general, seeing Paris, Helen, and Cleopatra driven down the wind; it's another thing to encounter a woman who quotes your love poetry to you in support of her allegation that Love led to her death and damnation.
"Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,
     prese costui de la bella persona
     che mi fu tolta; e ’l modo ancor m’offende.
Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,
     mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
     che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
     Caina attende chi a vita ci spense."
"Love, which quickly kindles in noble hearts,        100
     Seized him for that fair body which from me
     Was torn—what grief the manner still imparts!
Love, which makes each loved one pay love’s fee,
     So seized me with the beauty of my friend
     That yet it does not leave me, as you see.
Love led us both to one death in the end.
     Caïna waits for him who quenched our lives above.”*
Francesca's address is remarkable not only because it cites the tenets of Courtly Love and echoes the ancient sense of Eros as the god whose power even other gods cannot control. It also echoes Dante's own imagination of Love from Vita Nova, making it personal as well as universal:
Amore e ‘l cor gentil sono una cosa
Love and the gentle heart are one thing
Francesca mostly sounds like the stilnovisti - the poets whose sweet new style garnered fame and literary honors for Guido Guinizelli, whom Dante will meet in Purgatorio 26, and Dante himself, among others. She sounds like them because she's not only nearly quoting them verbatim, she is also pontificating. She sounds like an expert, one who knows what Love is.

Where does that knowledge come from? It would either be from experience, or from books. Francesca, like Mme Bovary, may have read about love; what did she understand?

One way to get to the root of her acquaintance with love is to ask, which is what the pilgrim does: his question is couched in her terms:
Quand’ io intesi quell’ anime offense,
   china’ il viso, e tanto il tenni basso,
   fin che ’l poeta mi disse: «Che pense?».
Quando rispuosi, cominciai: «Oh lasso,
   quanti dolci pensier, quanto disio
  menò costoro al doloroso passo!».
Poi mi rivolsi a loro e parla’ io,
   e cominciai: «Francesca, i tuoi martìri
   a lagrimar mi fanno tristo e pio.
Ma dimmi: al tempo d’i dolci sospiri,
  a che e come concedette amore
  che conosceste i dubbiosi disiri?».
When I had heard those souls aggrieved by love,
    I bowed my head and made the poet wait
    long, he asked, “What are you thinking of?”
I answered him, albeit somewhat late:
   “Alas, how many tender thoughts, what yearning,
    Have brought these lovers to this woeful state!”
Then once again unto the spirits turning,
    “Francesca,” I began, “your painful plight
    Now makes me weep, with grief and pity burning.
But tell me: when sighs were all your delight,
    Just how and by what means did Love ordain
    That your unknown desires be brought to light?”*
Dante uses menare, a verb that has been used three times in the canto already to describe the force of the wind and of desire, impelling the lovers whirling through the brown air. Here it is sweet thoughts and desire that are the driving forces:
quanti dolci pensier, quanto disio
menò costoro al doloroso passo!».
Menare describes the force that impels the starlings up, down, everywhere. It's the verb Virgil invokes in counseling Dante how to persuade the lovers to speak with him:
tu allor li priega
per quello amor che i mena, ed ei verranno».
And, as was noted previously, it is the verb Dante doesn't use when he addresses the lovers. Instead of invoking their Love, he alludes to One who is not present:
“O battered souls,
If One does not forbid it, speak with us.”*
But now in questioning Francesca, Dante does speak of Love:
    Just how and by what means did Love ordain
    That your unknown desires be brought to light?”*     
                  concedette amore
che conoceste i dubbiosi disire
The question is remarkable and key: Dante is asking Francesca, reader of his earlier work, to tell him when this all-potent Love allowed her to know her hidden desires, because she has told him that Love in fact is the source, the origin, and the force that ineluctably brings people together. Surely one who is expert in Amor ought to have recognized Love when it appeared?        

The root sense of concedere has to do with leaving space, backing off, bending to the will of the other:

This of course is exactly what Francesca's Love cannot do. Imperious, irresistible, taking lovers by storm, the last thing her Amor can do is step back to allow the other to accede to consciousness. The pilgrim's question goes to the heart of the matter, because if Francesca truly did not know what she was doing, if she was reflecting desire from sheer mechanical necessity, then what is she doing in Hell?

Here, I believe, the pilgrim (and the canto) is grappling with something beyond the safely contained question of whether Francesca and Paolo sinned. As readers tempted to assume the moral high ground, we are quick to find the fault and condemn it. But Dante's pensive pause and seemingly heartfelt question throws us back upon our own experience and understanding of Love. For if we agree with Francesca about Love - eros - usurping the self, the will and intellect, then the Primo Amore that built Hell is unjust. The moral structure of the Comedia collapses if Francesca is right about Amor.

She responds with some of the most affecting lines in the whole poem:
Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la miseria;
“There is no greater pain
Than recalling happy times in midst of woe;"*
She then tells her story. They were reading, we read:
Ma s’a conoscer la prima radice
    del nostro amor tu hai cotanto affetto,
    dirò come colui che piange e dice.
Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
    di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
    soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.
Per più fïate li occhi ci sospinse
   quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
    ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.
Quando leggemmo il disïato riso
    esser basciato da cotanto amante,
    questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
    Galeotto fu ’l libro e chi lo scrisse:

quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante».

But if you have such great desire to know
    The root by which our love at first was fed,
    I’ll speak as one who speaks though tears may flow.
One day, to charm the time away, we read
    Of Lancelot, whom love had so constrained;
    We were alone, without suspicious dread.
Though time and time again our reading drained
    Our cheeks of blood and drew our eyes aside,
    Yet at one point alone were we enchained:
When we read how her smile, so long denied,
    A kiss from such a noble lover took,
    This man, who now shall never leave my side,
Then kissed me on the mouth and, kissing, shook.
    A pander was that author, that romance.
    That day we read no farther in that book.”*
The first thing Francesca does is turn Dante's inquiry inside out. He wishes her to say when love allowed her to know she had unrecognized desires.  She says (paraphrasing): "If you have such desire (affetto) to know the first root of our love, I'll tell you." Desiring to know and knowing desire are not symmetrical. One seeks an intelligible answer; the other is a realization of something already experienced: it is knowing (conoscere) more in the way Adam knew Eve.

The pair were reading -- the first root of their love, Francesca says, came from their joint experience of words, of a text, in which a Queen kisses a Knight, both breaking faith with her husband the King. Francesca had said it is impossible not to love one who loves you; now she appears to add that it is impossible not to love one who is sitting next to you when a representation of Love is present. Not only is Love irresistible, but its representation can become a Galeotto, a Pander. The book, it was the book, that sneakily caused the critical distance between Paolo and Francesca and the lovers in the book to collapse and become una cosa.

Francesca's answer reaches a wrenching twist. I was going to say it's almost a non-sequitur, but it really seems entirely so. At the very moment Francesca claims to have been overcome by Love, she accuses the book and its author of being a pander. The single moment in which the pander triumphed was the moment they stopped reading. If there is one thing Love is not and does not need, it's the conscious manipulative intent to control Love.

It's as if to say: "We innocently were overwhelmed by Love because a story we were reading pimped us to ourselves." As many times as one looks at that statement, it manages to defy understanding.

Francesca's tale is her reading of how she came to love her husband's brother through reading and ceasing to read a Romance. Emma Bovary had nothing on her. Does the tale of Guinevere spark the passion of Paolo and Francesca, or do they reflect her passion for Lancelot? Who's Galeotto here?

Dante's first damned souls come before his readers as readers. Their reading involves love, fiction, fraud, betrayal, passion, sin, and blame. They blame the author. Bad authors are blamed by poor readers, as if they have authored our lives and errors. If they have, then who are we?

*From an unpublished translation kindly shared with us by Peter D'Epiro


Phil cubeta said...

What a pleasure to read this. A fine teacher.

Tom Matrullo said...

Hi Phil, would you lived a bit closer - we'd rope you in . . .