Monday, August 03, 2015

Comic Relief: Palinurus renewed

(Written with time in short supply - a future post might be warranted.)
Before a favoring wind
the fleet sped on. The line in close array
was led by Palinurus, in whose course
all ships were bid to follow.
ferunt sua flamina classem.
Princeps ante omnes densum Palinurus agebat agmen;
ad hunc alii cursum contendere iussi. Aeneid V.832-34

When Dante fails to see Virgil's shadow in Purgatorio 3, he leaps to the conclusion that Virgil is not there. Why does he do this? Because he assumes, or believes, that the same rules apply to Virgil that apply to him. He doesn't entertain the idea that certain rules are unique to him alone here with all these souls.

In his final moments, Manfred could similarly have assumed he was a dead man -- the second death of hell -- and not have asked for forgiveness because he was too outrageously bad. But instead, in tears, he begs. And enters the ship of the angel.

Nothing prepares us for Manfred. If Dante is the unexpectedly live soul among the dead, Manfred is the soul saved despite all the theocratic power of the popes, the unburial and scattering of his remains along the Verde river. Both play against the figure of Palinurus, Aeneas's helmsman whose death, as Jupiter decrees, enabled the Trojan leader's ship to reach the promised land.
One only sinks beneath th' engulfing seas, —
one life in lieu of many. Aen. 5.
Without burial Palinurus's spirit cannot cross the Cocytus to rest. His failure to arrive (he is suspended -- sospesi -- as Virgil says of all the ancients including himself, who are in Limbo), and this failure is bound up with Aeneas's successful arrival to Cumae with the remnant of Troy.

For a pilgrim such as Dante, arriving on the shore of Purgatory is the equivalent of Aeneas's arrival to Latium. Only here Dante arrives early, and cannot stay. But he finds Manfred, who according to all official accounts ought to be an outcast soul like Palinurus, yet instead not only is assured eternal life, but seizes this opportunity to speed up his way to it.

Throughout the Commedia, the irreducible incalculability of Revelation (the Christian dispensation) is juxtaposed again and again with the ancient Greek and Roman sense of Nature, man, and the divine. As it is here.

Capo Palinuro

On one hand, there are the baleful words of the Sybil, who consoles Palinurus with the notion that his name will be remembered, as it is even today, in the name Capo Palinuro, but who speaks of a threshold that bars his spirit from rest:
desine fata deum flecti sperare precando 
Cease to dream that heaven's decrees may be turned aside by prayer.
                                                        Aen. VI.376
On the other hand, compare the words of Manfred:
Orribil furon li peccati miei;
   ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
   che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.
Horrible my iniquities had been;
   But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms,
   That it receives whatever turns to it.  (Purg. 3. 121-23)
Canto 3 moves from the cognitive difficulties that arrive with the dawn -- the errors of shadow and light -- to a singular act of salvation, which comes when si rivolge - one turns oneself.

Of course, this turning is both an act and a mode of directionality -- the performance of a navigator who finds his way not via the angle of sun or star, but spontaneously, profoundly, an instant before annihilation.

It is precisely "wrong-way Manfred" who divines the way, metamorphosed into a saved Palinurus. The latitude of the gran braccia brings what can only be termed "comic relief," so long as we take that term of art with a new literalness.

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