Sunday, June 05, 2016

Auerbach on Dante as poet of the secular world

. . . every aspect of earthly life is here, if only in the concentrated power of the poet’s similitudes: “croaking frogs in the evening, a lizard darting across the path, sheep crowding out of their enclosure, a wasp withdrawing its sting, a dog scratching; fishes, falcons, doves, storks; a cyclone snapping off trees at the trunk; a morning countryside in spring, covered with hoarfrost; night falling on the first day of an ocean voyage; a monk receiving the confession of a murderer; a mother saving a child from fire; a lone knight galloping forth; a bewildered peasant in Rome,” and on . . .

This passage is from Erich Auerbach's Dante: Poet of the Secular World, quoted by Michael Dirda in a fine brief overview of that book. Auerbach was one of the great readers of the 20th century. Dirda's whole piece can be found here, and is worth reading in full. For more on Auerbach's reading of Dante, see Edward Said's intro to a reissued edition of Mimesis.)

Auerbach found Dante's art distinctive for the vivid mimesis of everyday life, as well as for the distinctive characters of individual men and women captured by the poet, even as the arc of his poem aimed beyond all individual material bounds.

As we progress through Paradise, the focus changes from specific human beings to more complex structures, Dirda notes. Instead of single lives, we encounter groups that form constellations with their own internal complexities -- as with the learned authors in the Sun. Individuals become parts of larger wholes which tend to deal with, for example, Justice, Knowledge, and History writ large. 

Perhaps in part to counterbalance that universalizing tendency, Dante has Cacciaguida bring us down from the heavens to the l'ovil di San Giovanni, the sheepfold of his native city. There, instead of encountering one human being, we get an elaborate tale of Florence seen through time. Instead of specific persons, we mostly encounter families, some identified solely through their heraldic imagery. But what story do we get?

Dante is certainly taking stock of the city of his birth, which happened to be the scene of dislocations -- economic, political, and artistic -- that reverberated throughout Europe. 

But the story of Florence offers no easy moral, no simple insight or nostrums that would resolve the incessant conflicts, the welter of competing classes and interests, ethical allegiances both sacred and secular that shook and divided Florence again and again. 

As Mario asked, why does this granular image of Florence appear here, now? It seems perfectly true to the Commedia for Dante to grapple with his own particular earthly seed-plot at the moment he's approaching the upper reaches of the heavens. But what does that story yield? A few thoughts in hopes of making a bit more headway in the next post. 

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