Monday, August 31, 2015

An unnoticeable lightening of being: Purgatorio 10-12

L'arte non riproduce ciò che è visibile, ma rende visibile ciò che non sempre lo è.
- Paul Klee

As John Sinclair points out in his note for Purgatorio 12, Dante reports that he did not know a P had been removed from his forehead until Virgil told him, a fact he confirmed with his own fingertips. Not only is the first and greatest sin effaced, but the rest are "all but effaced."

The canto has much about art, and much art, which is so real that it seems, he says, "visibile parlare." The phrase captures what would be the pinnacle of proud achievement for any mortal artist: the fusion of the most powerful sensory faculty with the intelligence of speech. What if all the invisible powers of language were so wedded to the realm of the eye that one didn't need to hear sentences unfold themselves in time? Their full meaning would strike at the speed of light.

The hallucinatory superreality of the figures of the terrace of pride, so vivid that
                           non pur Policleto,
           ma la natura li avrebbe scorno
                                  not only Polycletus
                  but nature would be put to shame there (10.32-33),

crosses a threshold that Dante the poet, who for all his fiction of how this is not a fiction (poetry as bella menzogna), has the hubris to depict. It's one thing to slyly nod to the reader when speaking of surpassing the Guidos in poetic accomplishment -- this is how Dante confronts head on any reader's thought that he might have some issues with regard to artistic pride. But that is purely a matter of human fame in the eyes of men.

To dare to create in words a work of art that speaks of divine visibile parlare (10.95), and to insert a visual image, in canto 12, through the repeated letters

would seem to venture into dangerous artistic territory. Here Dante is not far from the famous mythological figures whose thefts from the gods got them in serious trouble -- Tantalos, for one, and Prometheus.

According to Robert Hollander, this has not gone unnoticed by certain readers. Here's one (Barolini) he cites:
"The exaltation of divine art at the expense of human art paradoxically leads to the exaltation of that human artist who most closely imitates divine art."
It's fair to say that while canto 10 opens up the topic of Pride, it seems far more engaged with the language of and about art -- an emphasis that will continue in canto 11 with Oderisi's discussion of how Giotto is superceding Cimabue. Perhaps implicit: God's visibile parlare is to human representation as Giotto's is to Cimabue's. There is no question that with Giotto, a whole new dimension of mass and human gravitas enters painting. The analogy fits, and is lovely, but Cimabue and Giotto are brought in to illustrate the passing of style, the endlessly ephemeral quest for the new. Presumably the divine Artificer's work is not equally subject to artsy fashionistas.

Something here is pointing toward a deep link between the hyperbolic sense of self in pride and the potency with which art renders the world to us. Perhaps the proud are artists with bad ideas, like Arachne.

After all the fascination with a fusion of showing and telling, image and thought, the two appear to be distinct near the end of canto 12. Here as the angel's wing removes the first (and most serious) P from Dante, he is unaware of it. He too is a work of divine art, and the visible speech on his forehead, undergoing erasure, has the effect of lightening the pilgrim. This movement towards levity is another dimension of comedy in the poem. Even as Bevilacqua sat heavily beneath his stone, he managed to transform the mood with his few brief barbs. He too will "lighten up" as he ascends.

Virgil understands what's happening here. Just as canvas doesn't feel the brush, or paper the pen, so the soul doesn't feel the erasure of its sins. Instead
"fier li tuoi piè dal buon voler sì vinti,
che non pur non fatica sentiranno,
ma fia diletto loro esser sù pinti.”
Virgil says:
"Thy feet will be so vanquished by good will,
That not alone they shall not feel fatigue,
But urging up will be to them delight." 
"Vanquished by good will" is a remarkable phrase - it's a happy sufferance of conquest, which in fact will be achieved by Dante when he is "crowned and mitered" over himself at the top of the mountain.

What's notable here is that being overcome by good will seems to happen on its own -- one doesn't fashion it, or will it. The soul, working, continually grows lighter. Good will conquers as one is in process of becoming the butterfly. Pride will suffer, crushed beneath heavy stones.

Once in Purgatory, the course is set by the Artist -- to levity:
on v'accorgete voi che noi siam vermi
nati a formar l'angelica farfalla,
che vola a la giustizia sanza schermi?
Do ye not comprehend that we are worms,
Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly
That flieth unto judgment without screen.

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