Saturday, October 08, 2016

This old man and "la gente folle"

We've been asking for a while why it is that at the midpoint of the Paradiso, when we ought to be ascending to the Empyrean, Dante brings us down to earth to listen to an old man who spends three cantos evoking the good (and not so good) old days. 

Of course, it's not any old man.

Paradiso 17 is both the center of the highest canticle and the climax of the pilgrim's encounter with Cacciaguida. Whatever else we might say interpretively, it's clear than Dante has presented us with a vivid, lively character, a fully rendered human being. He is, of course, a man of many parts -- polutropos, as Homer might have said.

Cacciaguida beams with love and joy at meeting his great-great grandson. He has the suppleness of many languages at his disposal, retains a strong memory of his life in Florence, and expresses his love for that earlier moment in its history. He possesses providential vision (as do all whose gaze reaches the cospetto eterno), and, with chivalric precision, seizes the culminating moment of their encounter to en-coeur-age his "leaf." 

The text in which Cacciaguida appears does more than offer a memorable human portrait. Canto 17 opens with the scene of Phaeton seeking to know his old man. One can be told the Sun is one's father, but one wants proof. Seeking to control the horses of the Sun, however, proves to be an apocalyptically bad idea. To the ancient world, nothing was more difficult to know in clear, uncertain terms than one's origin. 

Similarly the tale of Hippolytus and Theseus brings to the fore how difficult it is for a father to know his horseman son* -- even a father who could thread the Minoan labyrinth. Genetic relations are dangerous, treacherous, and difficult to read. Visit the Sun, you're still in the dark -- the ways of the world are ambiguous, indirect -- ambage, as the poet will say.** Natura oscura.

The encounter with Cacciaguida, though, marks a rupture that seems to lead out of this predicament. The full impact of this meeting's place in the heavens becomes clear when we gather that here, on Mars, among the warriors, Dante as pilgrim and poet is reoriented to a point outside the natural order:

                                     il punto  
a cui tutti li tempi son presenti; (17:17-18)

This point, beyond the natural world, sees all contingency before it can occur, and is in fact a reliable source of intelligence about all origination. In learning of his family, his home, and his life through the triangulated gaze of Cacciaguida, Dante is acceding to a source beyond the Sun.
Né per ambage, in che la gente folle
già s'inviscava pria che fosse anciso
l'Agnel di Dio che le peccata tolle,

ma per chiare parole e con preciso
latin rispuose quello amor paterno,
chiuso e parvente del suo proprio riso:
Not in vague phrase, in which the foolish folk 
Ensnared themselves of old, ere yet was slain 
The Lamb of God who taketh sins away, 
But with clear words and unambiguous 
Language responded that paternal love, 
Hid and revealed by its own proper smile: (17:31-36)

La gente folle -- that is, all who lived before the slaughter of the Agnel -- is a potent critique of the world of Virgil and David, Plato and Moses. And it's spoken here not by Cacciaguida or Beatrice, but by Dante. The pathos of the ancients in the first circle of hell, living eternally in desire without hope, is recalibrated here in this new light. The poem is moving yet again into a new phase.

In the next post, we'll see a little of what that new phase entails. One thing is for sure: Dante, as a poet whose poem does what it says, will not leave Cacciaguida until he comes to grips with himself as pilgrim and his mission as poet. The union - or fusion - of pilgrim and poet can be realized, but only in mutual sacrifice. 

What is remarkable here is how Dante grounds even this moment of moving beyond Nature firmly in the world of men. Cacciaguida is no demi-god. No supernatural figures or forces are acting here. There is the word of a sacrificial lamb that broke the ancient model of the gente folle, and a plain-talking old man who guides Dante on his hunt.

*Hippolytus and Phaeton can be seen as classical prefigurations, or analogues, of Corso and Buondelmonte.

**The word ambage appears only here in the Commedia. Hollander's note on the word (l. 31) is helpful - this is the first half of it.
The word ambage has an interesting history. Dante probably found its most troubling presence in Aeneid VI.99, where ambages was used to typify the animal-like sounds of the cave-dwelling Sibyl's prognostications. On the other hand, and as Pio Rajna (“Arturi regis ambages pulcerrimae,” Studi Danteschi 1 [1902]: 91-99) has pointed out, in Virgil, Ovid, and Statius it is also used to describe the twisting path found in the Cretan labyrinth; it also in Virgil indicates an enigmatic way of speaking. 
The etymology reflects this:

No comments: