Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mimesis Chapter 8: The eclipse of God

These are some of the key passages toward the end of Mimesis Chapter 8, Farinata and Cavalcante:
Of the writers we know, he was the first to have direct access to the poet Virgil. Virgil, much more than medieval theory, developed his feeling of style and his conception of the sublime. Through him he learned to break the all too narrow pattern of the Provencal and contemporary Italian "suprema constructio." Yet as he approached the problem of his great work, which was to come into being under the sign of Virgil, it was the other, the more immediately present, the more living traditions which overwhelmed him. His great work proved to be in the mixed style and figural, and indeed in the mixed style as a result of the figural approach. It proved to be a comedy; it proved to be-also in terms of style-Christian. (198)
 Let him say what he will; let it be as vulgar, grotesque, horrible, or sneering as may be: the tone remains that of the elevated style. It is impossible to imagine that the realism of the Comedy could ever sink to the level of farce and serve the purposes of popular entertainment, as the realism of the Christian drama so often does. 
Before Dante, vernacular literature-especially that of Christian inspiration-is on the whole rather naive so far as questions of style are concerned, and that despite the influence of scholastic rhetoric-an influence which of late has been rather heavily emphasized. But Dante, although he takes his material from the most living and sometimes from the humblest vernacular, has lost this naive quality. He subdues every turn of expression to the gravity of his tone, and when he sings of the divine order of things, he solves his problem by using periodic articulations and devices of sentence structure which command gigantic masses of thought and concatenations of events; since Antiquity nothing comparable had existed in literature (one example may stand for many: Inf. II, 13-36).  (199)
[Of Farinata and Cavalcante]: Yet never before has this realism been carried so far; never before-scarcely even in Antiquity-has so much art and so much expressive power been employed to produce an almost painfully immediate impression of the earthly reality of human beings. (199)
In the very heart of the other world, he created a world of earthly beings and passions so powerful that it breaks bounds and proclaims its independence. Figure surpasses fulfillment, or more properly: the fulfillment serves to bring out the figure in still more impressive relief. We cannot but admire Farinata and weep with Cavalcante. What actually moves us is not that God has damned them, but that the one is unbroken and the other mourns so heartrendingly for his son and the sweetness of the light. Their horrible situation, their doom, serves only, as it were, as a means of heightening the effect of these completely earthly emotions. (200)
The essence of the matter, what we have in mind, is not restricted to Hell nor, on the other hand, to Dante's admiration or sympathy. All through the poem there are instances in which the effect of the earthly figure and its earthly destiny surpasses or is subserved by the effect produced by its eternal situation. Certainly, the the damned, Francesca da Rimini, Farinata, Brunetto Latini, or Pier della Vigna, are also good examples in support of my view; but it seems to me that the emphasis is not where it belongs if only such instances are adduced, for a doctrine of salvation in which the eternal destiny depends upon grace and repentance can no more dispense with such figures in Hell than it can with virtuous pagans in Limbo. But as soon as we ask why Dante was the first who so strongly felt the tragic quality in such figures and expressed it with all the overwhelming power of genius, the field of speculation immediately broadens. For all earthly things of which he laid hold, Dante handles with the same power. Cavalcante is not great, and figures like Ciacco the glutton or the insanely irate Filippo Argenti he treats now with sympathetic contempt, now with disgust. Yet that does not prevent the portrayal of earthly passions in these instances from far surpassing, in their wholly individual fulfillment in the beyond, the portrayal of a collective punishment, nor the latter from frequently only heightening the effect of the former. This holds true even of the elect in Purgatory and Paradise. Casella singing one of Dante's canzoni and those who listen to him (Purg. II), Buonconte telling of his death and what became of his body (Purg. V), Statius kneeling before his master Virgil (Purg. XXI), the young King of Hungary, Carlo Martello of Anjou, who so charmingly expresses his friendship for Dante (Par. IX), Dante's ancestor Cacciaguida, proud, old-fashioned, and full of the civic history of Florence (Par. XV-XVII), even the Apostle Peter (Par. XXVII), and how many others, open before us a world of earthly-historical life, of earthly deeds, endeavors, feelings, and passions, the like of which the earthly scene itself can hardly produce in such abundance and power. Certainly they are all set fast in God's order, certainly a great Christian poet has the right to preserve earthly humanity in the beyond, to preserve the figure in its fulfillment and to perfect the one and the other to the best of his capabilities. But Dante's great art carries the matter so far that the effect becomes earthly, and the listener is all too occupied by the figure in the fulfillment. The beyond becomes a stage for human beings and human passions. (200-201)

 But the fullness of life which Dante incorporates into that interpretation is so rich and so strong that its manifestations force their way into the listener's soul, independently of any interpretation. 
When we hear Cavalcante's outburst: non fiere li occhi suoi il dolce lome? or read the beautiful, gentle, and enchantingly feminine line which Pia de' Tolomei utters before she asks Dante to remember her on earth (e riposato de la lunga via, Purg. V, 131), we experience an emotion which is concerned with human beings and not directly with the divine order in which they have found their fulfillment. (201)
 And by virtue of this immediate and admiring sympathy with man, the principle, rooted in the divine order, of the indestructibility of the whole, historical, and individual against that order; makes it subservient to its own purposes, and obscures it. The image of man eclipses the image of God. Dante’s work made man's Christian-figural being a reality, and destroyed it in the very process of realizing it. (202)
In this fulfillment, the figure becomes independent: even in Hell there are great souls, and certain souls in Purgatory can for a moment forget the path of purification for the sweetness of a poem, the work of human frailty. (202)

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