Saturday, October 29, 2016

Diligence, delight, and the slippery slope of mimesis - (Par. 18)

A clear change occurs between the pilgrim's doubts, vulnerabilities, and potentially erroneous seductions at the beginning of Paradiso 18 and the poet who by its end is raining down caustic judgment upon the Pope in Avignon.

Tracing the itinerary that goes from diffidence to righteous anger is not simple, and this can only be a sketch of a complex transformation. What's unquestionable is that the acidic language that concludes the canto pours from a man who is no longer bedeviled by worries about his memory, his speaking (parlar) or his guide.

When Dante, obeying Beatrice's order to look away from her, hears Cacciaguida calling upon warriors, he sees linguistic power. Cacciaguida is calling out names, but the effect is of a commander summoning troops. This is the imperative mode, where one does not seek knowledge, but rather commands action. Cacciaguida speaks and the souls take fire and shoot across the giant cross.

The next moment, Dante experiences the transition to the sixth sphere. It's compared to an ethical experience:
And as, by feeling greater delectation,
  A man in doing good from day to day
  Becomes aware his virtue is increasing, 
E come, per sentir piĆ¹ dilettanza
 bene operando, l'uom di giorno in giorno
 s'accorge che la sua virtute avanza, (18:58-60)
Notice the emphasis upon action -- the man in the simile, is bene operando -- doing good, and from the doing, he feels more delight each day. Feeling "good" is a sign that makes him aware of his advancing virtute. The knowledge of virtue and delight in its exercise comes from the practice of it, rather than the other way around. 

The Latin root of dilettanza is delectare -- to charm, to entice -- while the past participle of diligere -- to esteem, love, choose -- is dilecto.

The difference in meaning between delectare, "to charm as an enticement," and diligo -- "I choose" -- is not small. It's the difference between an unruly world driven by random eros and a world directed by clear, conscious, diligent intent. One needs to spell with care to avoid confusion, and the righteous rulers of Jupiter -- a vast number of souls -- are about to spell this out letter by letter, in the imperative mode:
diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram
Love justice, you that are the judges of the earth. 
When the poet tells us his sense of expanding to Jupiter's wider arc is like one who feels an internal sense of delight born of choosing virtue, he's binding together diligence (diligere) and delight (delectio). This yoking of seeming opposites leads to the tempered realm of judicious wisdom, which at least for the Greeks speaks to the root of joviality. 

The canto shifts from its opening anxieties to spectacle. But would we call it jovial? In any event, the canto's tone doesn't remain in that temperate zone. 



The Hebrews -- and the Book of Wisdom, which has traits of both Hebraic and Greek traditions -- put less emphasis on the delectable nature of wisdom. In chapter 14, we are explicitly told to beware the insidious dangers of figuration:
15 For a father being afflicted with bitter grief, made to himself the image (imaginem) of his son who was quickly taken away: and him who then had died as a man, he began now to worship as a god, and appointed him rites and sacrifices among his servants.
16 Then in process of time, wicked custom prevailing, this error was kept as a law, and statues (figmenta) were worshipped by the commandment of tyrants.
17 And those whom men could not honor in presence, because they dwelt far off, they brought their resemblance (figura) from afar, and made an express image of the king whom they had a mind to honour: that by this their diligence, they might honour as present, him that was absent. . . .
18 And to worshiping of these, the singular diligence also of the artificer helped to set forward the ignorant.
19 For he being willing to please him that employed him, laboured (figuraret) with all his art to make the resemblance (similitudinem) in the best manner.
20 And the multitude of men, carried away by the beauty of the work, took him now for a god that a little before was but honored as a man.
21 And this was the occasion of deceiving human life: for men serving either their affection, or their kings, gave the incommunicable (incommunicabile) name to stones and wood.. . .
27 For the worship (cultura) of abominable (infandorum) idols is the cause, and the beginning and end of all evil. Wisdom 14
The story line here from a "father afflicted with bitter grief" to the "beginning and end of all evil" is a perilously slippery slope -- the slope of mimesis. As Auerbach took pains to present in his book of that name, mimetic representation is the strong suit of the Greeks -- not a delight to the Hebrews.

The danger noted earlier that is posed to the poet by his guide, Beatrice, bright mirror of the divine, was precisely that it can end in worshiping her. She is not an end, but a guide. 

The same deviance will curse Pope John xxii. But what transpires to protect the poet? I will offer some suggestions in one (hopefully) last post on Paradiso 18.


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