Saturday, January 09, 2016

Rape: The predatory eagle of history

When one wants to indicate that something is right, fair, or fitting in modern Italian, one often uses the word giusto. If someone says something that is in accord with one's own views, you might say it with the same intonation as we would say "right" -- giusto!

Paradiso 6 is entirely the speech of Justinian,
Cesare fui e son Iustinïano
and, while it might not seem so at first glance, it is entirely concerned with the nature of justice.

It might not seem so because in some ways, it is a very one-sided canto. Justinian does all the talking, He compresses the history of Rome from the time of the Trojan War to the reign of Charlemagne into 62 lines, describing a zig-zag course of violence, rape and conquest that hardly intimates the presence or evolution of justice -- human or divine.

And he describes that history not as a chronicle of larger than life human actors whose intentions and actions dictate the course of events, but rather from the perspective of the Roman segno, the eagle that was the insignia of the legions of Rome. Segno of course can mean battle standard, but its root sense is "sign." From Justinian's perch on Mercury, viewing the eagle's course 745 years after his own death, what stands out from Roman world dominion is an alignment by virtue of which all the wars, conquests, rapes and subjugation enacted under the that sign made possible the justified, violent death of Jesus and the justified, violent destruction of the capital of Scripture.

Try telling this story to a disinterested bystander and see if she or he says "giusto!".  Nothing about this odd and seemingly squint-eyed view of the historic record seems just. If we don't find this asymmetry puzzling, we might be missing the neck-snapping vision of Justice at work here.

As Justinian tells his tale, beginning with the death of Pallas and marking key moments by citing predatory rapes (the Sabine women, Lucretia), the eagle emerges as the emblematic figure that winds through 1600 years of Roman power. Justinian calls it the uccel di Dio, the bird of God. If we regard its sordid history, the god in question seems more like Zeus, who carried off Ganymede --

- or the eagle said to be crafted by Hephaistos, at the bidding of his father, to devour Prometheus's liver:

When Julius Caesar is seen briefly in Inferno 4, he is described as having occhi grifagni -- a raptor's eyes. The eagle that subjugated the known world to the Imperium Romanum seems closer in spirit to Caesar than to the Holy Spirit.

The more we look at the astonishing abbreviation of Roman history in canto 6, the harder it is to justify any more beneficent view of the eagle or its accomplishments. Yet the one telling the tale is the emperor who devoted his reign to removing the troppo e'l vano from the body of Roman law, a vast undertaking that imposed order upon that corpus that became the template for human justice after the fall of Rome. If anyone understood something about justice, it's Justinian. It just doesn't fit.

If we wrestle with this a bit, there is one thing we can say about Justinian: he does justice to the complexity of justice in human history. Nothing is minimized or glossed over. If he'd given us a tale of noble rulers who never told a lie, whose greatness is a monument to themselves, in whose giant shadows we stand, or roost, like tourists, or pigeons, we'd sense the lie and likely turn away. Even Augustus, credited by all historians with achieving the Pax Romana, is not named -- he's simply the baiulo -- a porter bearing the segno.*

Dante's Justinian puts no lipstick on the pig; his history is a tale of sound and fury, error and compulsion, violence, vendetta and vengeance, following blindly in the wake of the eagle. It is the sign that moves history along -- those who follow it have no idea of the purpose, the sacred murder, toward which it moves.

Paradiso 7 will return to this enigma -- because Dante, like us, has doubt. The tale of Roman history provokes doubt just as did Beatrice's tale of the vows of Piccarda and Costanza in canto 5. As the pilgrim noted there, doubt, uncertainty, and the perception of things that do not fit spur the intellect to further understanding.

Paradiso 6 doesn't rest here - it tells the tale of Romeo, a figure that clearly has allegorical dimensions, pointing, at least, to the historical reality of Dante Alighieri. In this tale of a good and just man who is treated as if he were the opposite, a man who served his master well only to be rewarded with exile and penury, we may sense the heartbreak of the poet. Perhaps we should sense as well the heartbreak of another. One who made a very fine creature, called it Adam, to whom he gave all his creation. And watched as Adam fell into the insane turbulence of human history.
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm. 
       -- Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, IX.

*The root, bājŭlusdoes not convey dignity, and extends to mean "day laborer." Also, interestingly:

A. A bearer at a funeralAmm. 14, 7, 17Sid. Ep. 3, 12Aug. Ep. 19 ad Hier. 2; cf.: “vespillones dicti sunt bajuli,” Fulg. Expos. Serm. p. 558. —
B. A letter-carrierHier. Ep. 6 ad Julian. 1; Cod. Th. 2, 27, 1, § 2; cf.: “boni nuntii,” Vulg. 2 Reg. 18, 22.

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