Friday, July 24, 2015

Open road: Purgatorio 3 on reading

Corpo, the word for "body," appears four times in Purgatorio 3 -- more than in any other canto of the canticle, commentators note. (The word appears nine times in Paradiso 2.) The first half of this canto, with its play of light and shadow, has to do with sensory intelligence -- what later came to be called aesthetics, often elaborated in relation to our experience and judgment of perceptible form -- e.g., art and beauty.

At sunrise, Dante sees that he doesn't see Virgil's shadow, and leaps from that to the fear that Virgil has left him alone. This produces an ironic effect: Not seeing the figura of Virgil causes Dante to not see that Virgil is in fact right next to him, which Dante easily could have seen had he not been fixated on the level of figura.

On the narrative level, this can be seen as a cautionary tale about the differences between a sign and that which the sign stands for. If we remain just with the sign, as Casella's listeners did --


Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti

                 a le sue note;  
(2.118-19)

we face the possibility of never turning toward that which the sign stands for -- its meaning, or referent.

The introduction of aesthetics brings in its solar train a concern with signs, and thus with language and reading. The Purgatorio is making a "note" that has to do with reading, including the reading of the Purgatorio.

There's a sharp contrast here, in fact, with the mode we found in canto 3 of the Inferno. There we read the identical eternal text that Dante and Virgil encountered. The mouth of hell promised nothing -- to enter is to abandon hope -- it's a gate of no promise, no futurity, no meaning beyond its own self-referencing enunciation.

No such writing stands at the entrance to Purgatory; the only song we hear is soon disrupted. It's worth thinking about the writing that does appear further up the mountain: penitential "P's" are inscribed on Dante's forehead only to be erased, one at a time, as he spirals up the terraces. Here, even writing is not fixed.

Prof. John Freccero, who viewed Dante as profoundly in debt to St. Augustine, long ago noted that within the Augustinian view of reality, there is the human being, who is love; the only question is whether that love is directed toward self, or toward the other, on the way toward the Ultimate Other. If one loves fine dining, for example, this love stops at the meal, which ends up back in the self -- a form of self-idolatry. Love that is not idolatry doesn't fix upon every sign, every desire, every beautiful thing, but moves through all things seeking that in which all live, and move, and have their being. Such love by nature rises to its true home, as Beatrice will explain in the Paradiso.

Here at the base of Purgatorio, in the thick of his own shadow, the pilgrim receives a lesson in signs and reading. And Virgil, after composing himself, speaks in a most Augustinian way:

He's mad who hopes our intellect
can rapidly run that infinite way
kept by one Substance in three Persons.

Matto รจ chi spera che nostra ragione

possa trascorrer la infinita via

che tiene una sustanza in tre persone.  
(3.34-36)

The pathos here, as Virgil reflects upon the disiar . . . sanza frutto -- the "fruitless longing" of the greatest minds of antiquity -- is justly famous. As readers we now might want to ask how this concern with body, with signs, with reading and aesthetics relates to the unexpected appearance of Manfred and the tale he tells.


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