Monday, December 19, 2016

Seizing Rifëo: The defiant poetics of Paradiso 20

"The whole story of Ripheus is nothing less than outrageous," says Robert Hollander, with complete justification. 

With the introduction of this Trojan warrior-turned Christian believer before the Christ event, Dante deliberately strains credulity. Why single out this obscure character from a pagan epic and turn him into a unique example -- one seized with such loathing for paganism that he finds the true savior, apparently, by imagining an alternative to all the gods he knew?

That Ripheus could, through his own unparalleled sense of justice, reach a higher vision is a pattern we have seen elsewhere. It fits with the motif that what is not able to be seen or grasped can offer more significant evidence than that which is visible. That we are unable to see and know everything argues that our roots lie beyond what is available to the senses, as noted in the Eagle's statement in Paradiso 19.

Ripheus is at that breaking point between the inner imaginings of his heart and the complete failure of his pagan world to reflect what he believes is true. But Dante could have singled out other ancients for this role -- why choose obscure Ripheus? A few suggestions are below.

As usual, it's revealing to look at the entire context of Dante's allusion to Ripheus in the Aeneid. He appears only in Book II, and is named three times in the course of Aeneas's tale of the Trojan Horse and the end of Troy. More particularly, Ripheus is part of a band of Trojans who have donned Greek armor and were successfully killing many Greeks, until one of their group, Coroebus, sees Cassandra being dragged from the temple of Minerva. As one who loved her, he cannot stand by, and loses his life in seeking to save her. Ripheus joins in, and dies too, along with several others:
         cadit et Ripheus, iustissimus unus
qui fuit in Teucris et servantissimus aequi
(dis aliter visum);  
then Rhipeus fell;
we deemed him of all Trojans the most just, 
most scrupulously righteous; but the godsgave judgment otherwise.  (Aeneid II: 426-28)
The first mention of Ripheus comes as he is among a group of fellow Trojans whom Aeneas rallies with an argument built upon despair:
My men, hearts vainly valiant, if your desire is fixed to follow me in my final venture, you see what is the fate of our cause. All the gods on whom this empire was stayed have gone forth, leaving shrine and altar; the city you aid is in flames. Let us die, and rush into the midst of arms. One safety the vanquished have, to hope for none!" (Aeneid II: 348-353)
This is the code of the Roman warrior who is confronting the darkest moment of his existence. A moment earlier, Aeneas, had recalled the words of Panthous, a priest of Apollo, telling him that all is lost:
"It is come -- the last day and inevitable hour for Troy. We Trojans are not, Ilium is not, and the great glory of the Teucrians; in wrath Jupiter has taken all away to Argos; the Greeks are lords of the burning city." (Aen. II: 324-327)
“Venit summa dies et ineluctabile tempus
Dardaniae: fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens
gloria Teucrorum; ferus omnia Iuppiter Argos
transtulit; incensa Danai dominantur in urbe."
The belief that Troy has been abandoned by the gods doesn't paralyze Aeneas, but it colors the entire scene with Ripheus and Coroebus that follows. The crisis of faith here is double -- the priest of Apollo can no longer believe in the survival of Troy because, he believes, the gods themselves no longer believe in, or care about, the city that once was the darling of the Olympians.

The crisis leads to Aeneas's rhetoric of despair -- "nothing left to lose" -- and they soldier on.

The salient points of the text where Ripheus appears are thus deeply relevant to the viability of faith and hope in the face of total annihilation. Dante's selection of Ripheus as the pagan baptized by the theological virtues brings this dark moment of Virgil's poem into view precisely as the mention of the three virtues at the right wheel of Beatrice's car reminds us that that is the last moment Virgil appears in the Commedia. The point is well made by Teolinda Baronlini:
Dante picks as his messenger of hope a character who, necessarily, because of his provenance in the Aeneid, brings with him not just hope but complicated feelings of loss and exclusion. Dante manages the story of Ripheus in such a way as to implicate both the author of the Aeneid, Vergil, and the memory of the character, Virgilio, a virtuous but unsaved pagan whom we last saw viewing the very same theological virtues involved in Ripheus's baptism. 
By plucking Ripheus, whose death is not even described in the Aeneid (wearing Greek armor, he loses his life as he tries to help Coroebus rescue Cassandra), from Virgil's poem and raising him to the eyebrow of the Eagle, Dante is doing something extraordinary. It is a plucking, a seizing, of this "iustissimus" character from a pagan poem, elevating him to a very high place. Indeed, it is almost a kind of savaging -- as an eagle might swoop down, grasp, and raise up some prized prey.

This is a kind of intertextuality one doesn't often see. Dante returns to his human poet-guide, but instead of being guided, he rewrites the ethos of soldierly courage and speaks of a soul who, despite all that anyone could dream of, envisioned another kind of courage. Ripheus is taken from Virgil in an act that re-creates our entire sense of him -- one that his own author couldn't have dreamt of. The imaginative leap of Ripheus is not unlike that of a poet, dreaming of something beyond what his experience has given him. (It is not by chance that in the pupil of the Eagle may be found David, the poet/warrior/king.)

All this is done through arbitrary fiat - nothing leads anyone to expect it, including Ripheus himself. It is the unbelievable in its pure state -- the sort of thing that rational people think of as foolery, or folly, much as the first apostles seemed idiots to the philosophically sophisticated gentiles.

One additional point: Perhaps there's another clue besides context to help us understand what the Commedia is doing here. Here's how Ripheus is introduced:
Chi crederebbe giù nel mondo errante
che Rifëo Troiano in questo tondo
fosse la quinta de le luci sante?
Who would believe, down in the errant world,
That e'er the Trojan Ripheus in this round
Could be the fifth one of the holy lights?
If the seizing of Rifëo seems more an act of creation than of derivation or mere allusion, it very much is. It's taking liberty in an almost violent way with a belief system that would find it more credible to think that a fallen city was abandoned by the gods. Rather than concede that only the absence of hope remained and could be a source of strength, Dante re-makes Rifëo into one helped by a kind of capricious grace. To re-make in Italian is rifare, which obviously bears a resemblance to Rifëo. The word appears in the opening lines of the canto:
lo ciel, che sol di lui prima s'accende,
subitamente si rifà parventeper molte luci,
in che una risplende; (Paradiso 20: 4-6)
The sky here, instead of going dark with the sun's setting, brightens with the many lights that reflect the sun's sole light (with a similar wordplay of sol and sol).* This brightening is expressed as "making itself reappear." This reappearance of the sun, not as itself, but in the form of its many star reflectors, remakes the sky. This making is a form of poesis that goes beyond mimesis. Rifëo Troiano is remade as the fifth light in the brow of the Eagle, even as the word for remaking appears in the fifth line of the canto, which is about reappearing lights.

Whatever else this is, it's a mode of intertextuality that plays havoc with normal notions of allusion and reference. To remake Rifëo is to recreate the poetry of Virgil. Ripheus's name echoes the act of making new:

The violence to the corpus of Virgil returns when the Eagle speaks to the quiditate of the exaltation of Ripheus:
Regnum celorum vïolenza pate
da caldo amore e da viva speranza,
che vince la divina volontate:
'Regnum coelorum' suffereth violence
From fervent love, and from that living hope
That overcometh the Divine volition;
For Dante, the act of faith is a creative leap beyond reason, fueled by lively hope. It is acted out here in the mode of poetic arbitrariness. Far from mimicking Virgil's portrait of Rifëo Troiano, Dante catachretically re-creates and sublimates him. As we've seen at other moments, Paradiso defies mimesis, adopting a poetics that violates and transforms nature via the powers known as the three theological virtues.

*Hollander points out that Dante does not name the sun after Paradiso 10, yet here, speaking in periphrasis about the sun -- sol -- he uses the homonym sol, i.e., "only." The wordplay is not unlike that of rifare and Rifëo.

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