Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Fortune's sons: Francis and Caesar in Paradiso 11

We look at Francis's Povertà and see lack, vacancy. As when we try to look at the logic and conclusions of Providence:
La provedenza, che governa il mondo
con quel consiglio nel quale ogne aspetto
creato è vinto pria che vada al fondo,
The Providence, which governeth the world
With counsel, wherein all created vision
Is vanquished ere it reach unto the bottom, (11.28-30)
Every attempt to see the totality of the consiglio of Providence is overcome. Not defeated by logical argument, but vinto, overwhelmed like Ulysses's ship. Every created eye founders before fathoming the counsel employed by the governor of the world.

What makes Francis the solar force he is has to do neither with his teaching, nor with his lovely Canticle of the SunIt lies in his power to move men.

Thomas says of Francis and his lover:
La lor concordia e i lor lieti sembianti,
amore e maraviglia e dolce sguardo
facieno esser cagion di pensier santi;

tanto che 'l venerabile Bernardo
si scalzò prima, e dietro a tanta pace
corse e, correndo, li parve esser tardo.
Their concord and their joyous semblances,
The love, the wonder, and the sweet regard,
They made to be the cause of holy thoughts;

So much so that the venerable Bernard
First bared his feet, and after so great peace
Ran, and, in running, thought himself too slow.
Francis's joy in Emptiness caused people to pursue him. Such was the alacrity of his ardor for Povertà that those overcome by it had to learn to run. He occasioned holy thoughts in them. As Robert Hollander notes, the past tense of si scalzò changes to a narrative present as the dactyls (scalzasi . . . scalzasi) pick up the pace:
Oh ignota ricchezza! oh ben ferace!
Scalzasi Egidio, scalzasi Silvestro
dietro a lo sposo, sì la sposa piace.
O wealth unknown! O veritable good!
Giles bares his feet, and bares his feet Sylvester
Behind the bridegroom, so doth please the bride!
The speed of Francis's motion, and his power to move men, to turn the love of Nothing into the fertile (ferace means "fertile," pace Longfellow) source of holy thoughts is underscored by an astonishing parallel, found in the tale of Amyclas. The curious allusion to Lucan's story tends to be read as a straightforward, simple analogy: Amyclas is like Francis, and his story affirms the freedom of Poverty from fear and the enchantments of power and desire,

But does one really need Amyclas to exemplify a happy freedom from fortune? A closer look at this tale (see here for ease of reference) shows us a simple fisherman, to be sure. But in Lucan's scene, Amyclas is the one with a boat, a home, food and a fire. Caesar comes to unabashedly beg from him.

Caesar, known for his power to move men, and for his astonishing speed, comes alone to the poor fisherman's shack in dire need. Amyclas offers many sound and prudent reasons as to why taking to the stormy seas just then would be very risky. He says:
"The billows tumble. Judged by clouds and sky
'A western tempest: by the murmuring deep
'A wild south-eastern gale shall sweep the sea.
'Nor bark nor man shall reach Hesperia's shore
In this wild rage of waters." (Pharsalia 5)
That's just for starters. Amyclas goes on for quite a while, describing all the potential dangers. It is Caesar who, free from fear, says to the fisherman:
"Scorn the threatening sea,
Spread out thy canvas to the raging wind;
If for thy pilot thou refusest heaven,
Me in its stead receive. Alone in thee
One cause of terror just-thou dost not know
Thy comrade, ne'er deserted by the gods,
Whom fortune blesses e'en without a prayer.
Break through the middle storm and trust in me."
Overriding all the practical fellow's objections, Caesar has Amyclas embark on seas blasted by hurricane winds - to which Lucan's hyperbolic description does full justice. Indeed, so powerful is the storm that Caesar confronts the possibility of his own death:
" . . . if to the deep the glory of my fall
Is due, and not to war, intrepid still
Whatever death they send shall strike me down.
Let fate cut short the deeds that I would do
And hasten on the end: the past is mine."
Who here is less a thrall to Fortuna?* Is it difficult to see some of Lucan's Caesar in the man from Assisi? A little further on in Thomas's story, Francis, embarking on a boat fraught with danger not just to him, but to the political and religious tensions in the world at that time, heads across the sea to convert the Sultan. Nothing could be less like Amyclas.

Francis, like Caesar, is a kind of loose cannon -- neither man shrank in the face of more than human danger -- both were free from terror that would stop most men cold.

This seems relevant to the complex figuration of Francis as Sun. The heat of ardor, divorced from the light of contemplative reason, can pose a threat, even a danger, to established order. Francis's ecstatic love of Povertà threatened to turn the social and economic orders of the 13th century upside down. The man was a political force -- he had people, increasing behind him, who loved him, as the common Romans did Caesar. This might seem a far-fetched parallel, but we might keep it in mind as we consider it in tandem with Paradiso 12, which delicately mirrors and balances this canto.

Dante frames Francis by having Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant rationalist, tell his story. It's as if one invited a thoughtful writer -- Dorothy Kearns Goodwin or Bertrand Russell -- to narrate a "life" of Donald Trump.

To look ahead: The chiastic structures at work in cantos 11 and 12 -- the interplay of Thomas/Francis and Dominic/Bonaventura and many reflecting elements -- serve as one way a poet writing beyond the sun will use a musical architecture to speak about the sun, the earth, and the "Chi," the harmonious and fertile fusion of heat and light that gives life where otherwise nothing would be.

The dissonant twist that exchanges properties of St. Francis and Caesar packs a surprising punch that we have seen before in Paradiso. It breaks all rules, defies all normative expectations. We'll never get used to it, but that's how it should be. We might call it a poetics of surprise.

*(The commentator known as the Anonimo Fiorentino (14th c.) summarizes the story, noting that Caesar offers Amyclas a way out of poverty: Rispuose Cesare: Se tu mi farai questo servigio, io ti provvedrò sì che tu non avrai bisogno d'andare a tale servizio; e trarrotti di questa povertade. Cited in Toynbee.)

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