Monday, April 17, 2017

Beast beneath the cover: Dante's Adam


πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει

Many things are singular, none moreso than man

Told that the fourth light that has joined Peter, James and John is Adam, Dante speaks first: 
 E cominciai: “O pomo che maturo
 solo prodotto fosti, o padre antico
 a cui ciascuna sposa è figlia e nuro,

divoto quanto posso a te supplìco
 perché mi parli: tu vedi mia voglia,
 e per udirti tosto non la dico.”

Talvolta un animal coverto broglia,
 sì che l'affetto convien che si paia
 per lo seguir che face a lui la 'nvoglia;

e similmente l'anima primaia
 mi facea trasparer per la coverta
 quant' ella a compiacermi venìa gaia.
And I began: "O apple, that mature
  Alone hast been produced, O ancient father,
  To whom each wife is daughter and daughter-in-law,

Devoutly as I can I supplicate thee
  That thou wouldst speak to me; thou seest my wish;
  And I, to hear thee quickly, speak it not."

Sometimes an animal, when covered, struggles
  So that his impulse needs must be apparent,
  By reason of the wrappage following it; 
And in like manner the primeval soul
  Made clear to me athwart its covering
  How jubilant it was to give me pleasure.  (Par. 26:91-102)
To step back: Dante was blinded when, thanks to a false rumor, he tried to see the earthly body of John, the Bible's final inspired voice, the author of Revelation. When the pilgrim's sight returns, and judgment saves him from a kind of panic attack, the new lume turns out to be the first man -- the original first edition human to whom we owe exile from Eden, labor, suffering, sin and death, the entire aiuolo that Dante, when looking back on it, had to add, "that makes us so fierce."

Finding our general sire here, with the three apostles most loved by Christ, the pilgrim clearly is moved. Likening the first man, the prime template of anthropos, to a struggling covered animal comes out of a strange place. In a sense, to see Adam is to see us all, and more. In the image and likeness, says the Word, of the Creator, are we fashioned.

In fact the simile is complex (there's much more than what this post can address). Nicola Fosca offers a prose paraphrase that seems mostly on target:
Accade talvolta che un animale coperto (coverto) si agita (broglia), in modo che ciò che sente dentro di sé (l'affetto) appare di necessità all'esterno (convien che si paia), perché l'involucro che lo copre (la 'nvoglia) asseconda (per lo seguir che face) i movimenti del suo corpo (a lui); similmente l'anima del primo uomo (primaia), per il tremolio della luce che la copriva (per la coverta), mi faceva trasparire quanto essa fosse lieta (quant'ella... venía gaia) di soddisfare la mia richiesta (a compiacermi). Una similitudine molto strana . . .
This animal is agitated, says Fosca - Longfellow has "struggles." This sense of tumult appears to be a secondary meaning, though. The dictionaries suggest that the first meaning is "intrigue, fraud." The lines certainly convey strained movement, something working under duress, and the hint or coloration of fraud might deepen this first glimpse of Man, a covered creature, one whose dark workings might agitate his cover, but also conceal something we can't quite make out.

Dante uses coverto twice: this is an animal that is covered by something other than its own native coat. The non-naturalness adds to the strangeness.

If ever a son had reason to have mixed feelings for a long lost father, it would be this poet, whose entire life has been a profound study of Adam's threshing floor.

If we consider, for a moment, the parallel here of Adam, the ill-fated trier of fruit, with Ulysses, his infernal counterpart who could talk anybody into anything, including the mad flight to know a mondo sanza gente - well, isn't that the literal "knowledge" that Adam acquired as he stepped out of Paradise into a world without people?

The figure of Ulysses as the Greek striver, actor, liar, hero (recall we how, within his flame in Inferno 26 there's a struggle for language to come forth) is enriched by this parallel. In the garden, Adam had everything except the knowledge that he had everything. That came with the awareness that he was uncovered, before exiting Eden into a world of lack.

John Hollander notes that Ulysses and his small crew "are the first mortals to see the mount of purgatory since Adam and Eve left it." To Ulysses, the empty garden is what the empty world beyond Eden was for Adam and Eve. Almost full circle.

Just prior to Adam's appearance, the pilgrim spoke to John of the leaves - fronde - that in this fallen world he can and does love, to the extent they are good:
"Le fronde onde s'infronda tutto l'orto
de l'ortolano etterno, am' io cotanto
quanto da lui a lor di bene è porto.”
Adam will speak of leaves and language, and men and death. Consider what might well up in a man who has seen the depths of human depravity, as well as the perfection of Eden, were he to confront his father, the prime mover of our fallen threshing floor. With this encounter, the pilgrim's talk of loving the fronde of the fallen world is put to the test.

The "strange simile" -- which some commentators judge harshly, while others approve -- returns us to the same ungrounded suspense that Dante described earlier, in comparing the return of vision to an awakening. Both moments in this canto bring us face to face with something not yet descried. With the covered animal we don't know what to expect -- it could be a monster, a wild beast, a madman. That moment of uncertainty is Dante's apprehension of something about our nature -- a quizzical, unruly, secretive, wild, insistent thing like nothing so much as what we find in Sophocles' ode to man: δεινὰ -- strange and wondrous, extravagant and wily, stubbornly doing things his way -- all suspended in the unknowing vehicle of the simile -- before resolving into Adamic bliss:
How jubilant it was to give me pleasure. 
quant' ella a compiacermi venìa gaia.
The oedipal moment passes, but this poet knows himself and us far too well not to sing, in the interval between tenor and vehicle, likeness and thing, our truth.

With these late cantos it's hard not to write long. The last part of this enigmatic canto seems unlikely to provide smoother sailing.

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