Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The grammar of Wisdom: Writing in Paradiso 18

We have looked at the self-doubting opening of Paradiso 18 where the pilgrim, having learned his poetic destiny from Cacciaguida, questions his relation to power over language, his ability to return memory to presence, and even the potential for his precious guide to "free" him even from the desire for the God she mirrors.

By the end of the same canto, a very different voice has taken the place of this hesitancy, and the tone has heightened to two apostrophes: 
O milizia del ciel cu' io contemplo, 
adora per color che sono in terra
tutti svïati dietro al malo essemplo! 
Già si solea con le spade far guerra;
ma or si fa togliendo or qui or quivi
lo pan che 'l pïo Padre a nessun serra. 
Ma tu che sol per cancellare scrivi,
pensa che Pietro e Paulo, che moriro
per la vigna che guasti, ancor son vivi. 
Ben puoi tu dire: “I' ho fermo 'l disiro
sì a colui che volle viver solo
e che per salti fu tratto al martiro,
ch'io non conosco il pescator né Polo.”
O soldiery of heaven, whom I contemplate,
Implore for those who are upon the earth
All gone astray after the bad example! 
Once 'twas the custom to make war with swords;
But now 'tis made by taking here and there
The bread the pitying Father shuts from none.
Yet thou, who writest but to cancel, think
That Peter and that Paul, who for this vineyard
Which thou art spoiling died, are still alive!
Well canst thou say: "So steadfast my desire
Is unto him who willed to live alone,
And for a dance was led to martyrdom,
That I know not the Fisherman nor Paul."  (18: 124-136)
The assurance in this ironic condemnation of the Pope vividly contrasts with the poet's earlier tone of uncertainty. Something has happened to the poet in this canto -- but what? 

The more closely one looks at the particulars, the more acidic this address to Pope John XXII becomes. If the pope, who continued to live long after Dante was gone, ever read these lines, he might have come away worse off than the poet who, at the beginning of the canto, ruminated the bitter (acerbo) in his ancestor's words (verbo). No sweet is here inmixed.

The commentators are voluble in their enthusiasm at the tone here. Many use the term beffardo,"mocking." "Acre ironia" (bitter irony) says Scartazzini. “Tremendo sarcasmo," say Bosco/Reggio, adding:
Al papa corrotto e venale, Dante pone in bocca parole di sguaiato cinismo
(Dante puts in the mouth of the corrupt and venal Pope words of coarse cynicism) 
Not only does the Pope speak with a cynicism we will come back to. He writes. This is a pope who, instead of leading a milizia into battle for his faith, writes to cancel:
tu che sol per cancellare scrivi
A brief detour is necessary here, which will eventually, I hope, make sense.

Pope John XXII was in a significant struggle with the Franciscan order, a branch of whom, known as the Fraticelli, felt that the vow of Francis's Lady Poverty carried the authority of the Gospel itself, and that it had been betrayed by greed at the highest levels of the Church. The order was accumulating wealth and possessions; some of its leaders, including William of Ockham, spoke out against the Church's relaxed interpretation of the vow.

In 1318, John issued a Papal Bull - Gloriosam Ecclesiam - excommunicating the Fraticelli. He wrote other Bulls that withheld the Eucharist (pan) from secular leaders, including Can Grande, as a method of pressuring them to bow to his will.

The perversity of the Vicar of Christ writing to cancellare - erase - the body of Christ from faithful Christians is juxtaposed with the sante creature of Jupiter, who have just taken the form of letters spelling out the opening of the Book of Wisdom.

In fact, this act of writing is a key event of canto 18 -- whatever else this does here, it has something to do with the transformation we've seen in the poet's voice. But what?

For one thing, the words inscribed by the fiery beings come from a text that very much abhors idols and idol worship - (the sin of mimesis, as we have noted). In the midst of the scene of writing, the poet pauses for an invocation -- only the second in this canticle -- to the Pegasea:
O diva Pegasëa che li 'ngegni
 fai glorïosi e rendili longevi,
 ed essi teco le cittadi e ' regni,

illustrami di te, sì ch'io rilevi
 le lor figure com' io l'ho concette:
 paia tua possa in questi versi brevi!
O divine Pegasea, thou who genius
  Dost glorious make, and render it long-lived,
  And this through thee the cities and the kingdoms,

Illume me with thyself, that I may bring
  Their figures out as I have them conceived!
  Apparent be thy power in these brief verses!
While some commentators worry about who is meant by Pegasea, examining the action might yield some insight. What does the poet ask for? What does he do? He asks "Pegasea" for illumination to rilevi -- bring out, or set in relief -- the figures being formed, as he has conceived them (concette). This last term is enigmatic, as these figures are, one would think, precisely not of his "conception" -- they come down from an Other.

What the poet in fact does is pay scrupulous attention to what he has witnessed. He counts the number of letters; combines them into words; the words are not his own, but a citation from Wisdom; he even notes the parts of speech -- noun, verb.
Mostrarsi dunque in cinque volte sette
vocali e consonanti; e io notai
le parti sì, come mi parver dette.
fur verbo e nome di tutto 'l dipinto;
“QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM,” fur sezzai.  (18:88-93)
The poet here is attending carefully to grammar, and to the gramma. Here he's not using memory to attempt to re-present the world -- he's using meta-language to analyze language, which is different epistemological terrain. We might quarrel over what justice is, for example, but not over whether "iustitiam" has nine letters, or whether or not it's a noun. This might seem trivial, but without this sort of linguistic certitude, neither syntax or semantics would exist.

When language parses grammar, counts letters, or quotes from a book, none of the issues involving the memory that seeks to recapture experience -- issues that plagued the poet earlier in the canto -- obtain. We are outside the frame of mimesis. The poet can speak of wisdom with total confidence, because he is quoting words from "Wisdom," produced by a mind that needs no guide.
Quei che dipinge lì, non ha chi 'l guidi;
ma esso guida, e da lui si rammenta
quella virtù ch'è forma per li nidi.
He who there paints has none to be his guide; But Himself guides; and is from Him remembered That virtue which is form unto the nest. (18:109-111)
This is a highly compact, difficult tercet, but Scartazzini gets to the key point:
. . . ​l'aquila nel pianeta di Giove è una figura dipinta da Dio, il quale nel figurare non imita la natura, come han bisogno di fare gli umani dipintori, perchè anzi la natura imita lui, riconoscendo da lui quella informativa virtù, mediante la quale essa modella ogni cosa quaggiù.
. . . the eagle in the planet of Jupiter is a figure painted by God, whose figuration does not imitate Nature, as human painters must do, because Nature rather imitates Him, recognizing from Him that formative power (virtù) by which she models everything here below.
Now if we keep in mind how the eagle's head came about -- the sante creature linger in the form of an M, and others come down from above, touch the letter 'M,' then rise:
And other lights I saw descend where was
The summit of the M, and pause there singing
The good, I think, that draws them to itself.

Then, as in striking upon burning logs
Upward there fly innumerable sparks,
Whence fools are wont to look for auguries,

More than a thousand lights seemed thence to rise, (18:88-93)
In rising, they form the head of the eagle and the lily, then the full form of the eagle fills out.

Scartazzini is surely correct to find here no natural eagle - this bird comes from a letter, an M, which is compared to a burning log. Striking a log will produce random sparks that "fools" will search for messages. But here, the striking from above (percuotere) might remind us of Pegasus striking Mt. Helicon, from which issued the new source, the spring of the Muses. 

Pegasus, of course, came forth from the decapitation of Medusa, masterminded by Athena. Athena, born of the head of Zeus, visited the spring to see this new wonder, and ended up judging a contest between the Muses and the foolish Pierides.

This discussion has gone far too long. In a final post I'll try to tie the event of writing and origination of this mid-section of the canto to the powerful, scathing apostrophe to Pope John XXII of Avignon.

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