Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The fall of chivalry: Paradiso 17

This will just be a brief suggestion, rather than a reading. The Paradiso, the city of God, spends more than three cantos at its dead center on the city of man. 

That city is riven by two kinds of love:
Benigna volontade in che si liqua
sempre l'amor che drittamente spira,
come cupidità fa ne la iniqua,

A will benign, in which reveals itself
Ever the love that righteously inspires,
As in the iniquitous, cupidity, (Par.15. 1-3)
The good love does something noble right at the start -- it falls silent:
silenzio puose a quella dolce lira,
The knights and armies moving along the four equal arms of the cross extinguish their songs in order to listen to this one soul who's arrived, a bit dazzled by the vast red sphere, the gleaming galaxy of the huge cross, the power of music he is moved by without understanding. 

This giving of attention is a constitutive chivalric act. It is the turn from the needs of the self (cupidità) to the other. That tens of thousands of knights and soldiers fall silent at once is  a signal gesture of the knight's honor, service, and love to one in need. It puts the entire Cacciaguida section under the sign of knightly courtesy, which carries a rich and highly sophisticated ethical discipline. (For a sampling of the range and depth of the chivalric paideia, see Aldo Scaglione's Knights at Court, especially chapter 2.)

If we read Paradiso 16 in this light, it might provide an incisive moral perspective. For what we see is a city that is divided -- Cacciaguida gives us the simple honest families of a modest town; the town grows, rich families from outside move in, bringing with them their aristocratic presumptions even as other families are developing mediated systems of lending that will bring untold wealth to their children.

It's a city marred by a failure of Church and State to work in harmony -- perhaps that ideal was only reached in the Knight, he who placed his mastery of power and skill into the service of his lord, and of his lord's Lord.

Perhaps this is why, when Dante first speaks to his great-great grandfather, Beatrice's smile brings an allusion to the story of Lancelot. Unlike Francesca, who met a literary knight in a Romance, the poet meets one who, though found only here in his poem, is presented as not a literary figure, but as an actual knight who served his Emperor and his God. 

And perhaps this is why the central antagonism of Cacciaguida's survey of Florentine development is the suicidal conflict between families of honor and good will on one hand, and on the other, those whose specialization lay in mooching off the church, or, "the insolent breed that plays the dragon behind him that flees and is mild as a lamb to him that shows his teeth," (Par.16.115-117).

At the heart of this civic ruin is the ruined virtue of the heart -- the honorable city of benign will is succumbing to those whose strength lies in clever merchandising and wealth built by greed. 

In this light, the unhorsings of Buondelmonte and of Corso are not two disparate events in a random development. Rather, the ends of these well-heeled deserters of their ladies are two manifestations of the same event: the fall of Florentine cavalleria.

Cacciaguida's portrait of contingent, mortal Florence is both loving and scathing; Dante's "root" speaks openly and clearly of his past and future, and the outcome is literally en-coeuraging -- he steels the poet with what it takes to complete his poem, whatever the risks.
                    . . . all falsehood laid aside,
Make manifest thy vision utterly,
And let them scratch wherever is the itch;

                   . . . rimossa ogne menzogna,
tutta tua visïon fa manifesta;
e lascia pur grattar dov' è la rogna.  (17.127-29)
When we reach this moment near the end of the central canto of the Paradiso, the necessity of this "detour" begins to become clear. The poem could not come to be without this radical injection of boldness and heart. The courage to speak the truth is the only medicine to cure a sick city:
Ché se la voce tua sarà molesta
nel primo gusto, vital nodrimento
lascerà poi, quando sarà digesta.

For if thine utterance shall offensive be
At the first taste, a vital nutriment
'Twill leave thereafter, when it is digested. (17.130-132)
Cacciaguida compared Dante with Hippolytus, who is Ovid's key transitional figure between Pythagoras and Aesculapius. The tale of the journey of the serpent-god from Greece to Rome is the last journey, and the last good story, of the Metamorphoses. It's all told in disguise; Hippolytus himself is disguised, he's now known as "Virbius."

If Ovid wrote of the metamorphosis of Greece into Rome (it might be his central theme), Dante here, inspired by Cacciaguida, dispenses with oracles and the promises of hidden gods. The root is the truth of his life -- to be voiced with chivalric mastery -- openly, freely, boldly,
"Because the spirit of the hearer rests not,

Nor doth confirm its faith by an example
Which has the root of it unknown and hidden
Or other reason that does not appear."
"che l'animo di quel ch'ode, non posa

né ferma fede per essempro ch'aia
la sua radice incognita e ascosa,
né per altro argomento che non paia.”

1 comment:

Alarik W. Skarstrom said...

I find this very moving.