Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dante discussed in NYRB

Shaw emailed to point out an essay in the Jan. 11, 2007 New York Review of Books by Michael Dirda about Dante and Erich Auerbach's study of him entitled Dante: Poet of the Secular World.

According to Dirda,
Auerbach makes the seemingly paradoxical claim that it is in the poetry of Dante, supreme among religious poets, that the secular world of the modern novel first took imaginative form. An inspiring introduction to one of world’s greatest poets and a brilliantly argued essay in the history of ideas.
The full essay is available online for a fee, but Shaw has kindly offered to save the print version. A bit more about the book:

Dante: Poet of the Secular World
By Erich Auerbach
Introduction by Michael Dirda
Auerbach's study of Dante, a precursor and necessary complement to Mimesis, his magisterial overview of realism in Western literature, illuminates both the overall structure and the individual detail of Dante's work, showing it to be an extraordinary synthesis of the sensuous and the conceptual, the particular and the universal, that redefined notions of human character and fate and opened the way into modernity.
This is a book with all the freshness and excitement of new discovery. The excitement remains through all these years since it's writing. This account of Dante's poetry, from the moving springs of its style and the human presentness of its drama to the cosmic vision which produces and validates them both, an account based on history but shaped by a special sense of the issues, possesses a validity which no other book, past or present, can diminish.
— Theodore Silverstein, The University of Chicago

Auerbach offers the thought that for all its investment in the eternal and immutable, the Divine Comedy is even more successful in representing reality as basically human...The refinement of Auerbach's own writing about Dante is truly exhilarating to read, not just because of his complex, paradox-filled insights, but because of their Nietzschean audacity.

— Edward Said

Sunday, December 17, 2006

More on Virgil's Vision of Rome

A review of the Fagles translation of the Aeneid by Brad Leithouser which appeared in the Times - thanks Mussy!

Wars and a Man

There’s a moment in Virgil’s “Aeneid” when the Trojan forces are massed like “a cloudburst wiping out the sun, sweeping over the seas toward land.” It’s an image that evokes another army, likewise intimidating, although this one’s composed chiefly of sedentary men, white-haired and bespectacled. Their numbers, too, are unreckonable — those squadrons of scholars who have, over the centuries, translated the “Aeneid.”

Has any book been recast into English more times than this tale of Aeneas’ wanderings and the eventual establishment of the Roman Empire? Probably not, given both the poem’s venerability and the relative accessibility of Latin. When you further consider all the partial or complete versions in private manuscript — often the work of old classics teachers, shared with their students — we indeed confront something that looms over us like a cloudburst.

Robert Fagles, the poem’s newest translator, comes to the fray well armed. An emeritus professor of comparative literature at Princeton, he has already translated, with great success, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” And his publisher for the “Aeneid,” Viking, has accoutered him handsomely, with a clear map, a useful pronunciation glossary, and a harmonious blend of layout and type font and binding.

For all its translations, the “Aeneid” erects sizable obstacles for anybody hoping to render it into satisfying English. Perhaps the most formidable of these is the tale’s diminishing narrative drive. Most of what lingers in the reader’s memory — the fall of Troy, Dido’s passion and ultimate suicide, Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld — unfolds in the first six of the poem’s 12 books; the epic’s second half largely documents a successful military campaign against the Rutulians in Italy.

I’ve conducted a little poll over the years, asking various fellow English professors to name Aeneas’ chief adversary — the warrior Turnus, leader of the Rutulians, who stands in relation to Aeneas as Hector does to Achilles. They frequently can’t, which I find reassuring. For who can fault them, given that Turnus is, as epic antagonists go, so blandly magnificent? (Or is it magnificently bland?) He’s stalwart, handsome and, when left to his own devices, peaceable. If he’s occasionally possessed by blood-lust, this is mostly the gods’ doing. When we initially meet him, he’s sleeping heavily — until awakened by a messenger of revengeful Juno, who goads him into rage and carnage.

The “Aeneid” is suffused with a fascinating, upending sense that most of what goes gravely wrong on earth isn’t imputable to human agency. There’s something comforting to Virgil’s conception of humanity, in which relatively little malice and unreasonableness and rapacity seem innate to our kind. And there’s something unsettling as well — a vision of a world that would be safer and more secure if only the heavens were emptied. (It’s a vision perhaps familiar to those of us who sometimes feel we’d be better off if our own gods, whose Mount Olympus is Capitol Hill, would all go away.)

Fagles converts Virgil’s hexameters into variable lines, long and flexible. The result is free verse, with the ghost of a hexameter serving as loose armature:

Wars and a man I sing — an exile driven on
by Fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinian shores and
Italian soil,
yet many blows he took on land and sea
from the gods above. ...

The issue of line length poses a fundamental and perhaps an irresolvable dilemma. Between the Latin hexameter and the standard English line for long narrative poems — iambic pentameter — lies an unbridgeable chasm. The Latin line simply contains more information than can reliably be packed into its English counterpart. The translator must then make a choice. Does he go with a long-line approximation of the Latin (at the risk of producing an ungainly English unit that tends to sag in the middle)? Or will he, in allegiance to English poetic traditions, adopt something shorter (at the risk of losing the feel of the expansive original)? It’s a question that every major translator of the “Aeneid” — a list that includes John Dryden, C. Day Lewis, Rolfe Humphries and Robert Fitzgerald — has confronted.

Fitzgerald’s translation, which appeared in 1983, has long served as my own standard edition, and to read him side by side with Fagles is fascinating. Fitzgerald employs a taut shorter line (iambic pentameter, with many truncations — a meter he subtly loosens and tightens as he goes along), and in moments of great lyrical intensity his version regularly seems tenser, richer. Here is the Trojan horse being hauled into the city:

. . . Everyone
Pitched in to get the figure underpinned
With rollers, hempen lines around the neck.
Deadly, pregnant with enemies, the horse
Crawled upward to the breach.


We breach our own ramparts, fling our
defenses open,
all pitch into the work. Smooth running
we wheel beneath its hoofs, and heavy
hempen ropes
we bind around its neck, and teeming with
the huge deadly engine climbs our city
walls ...


Here is Dido, at wit’s end, portrayed just before her suicide:

She prayed then to whatever power may
In comprehending justice for the grief
Of lovers bound unequally by love.


And then to any Power above, mindful,
who watches over lovers bound by unequal
Dido says her prayers.


And here — my favorite passage in the poem — is the moment when ever dutiful Aeneas, with his exhausted, despairing father at his side, balances the awesome burdens of past and future:

So I resigned myself, picked up my father,
And turned my face toward the mountain


So I gave way at last and
lifting my father, headed toward the


Yet if the blazing moments belong to Fitzgerald, there’s a capaciousness to Fagles’s line well suited to this vast story’s ebb and flow. Aeneas is a storm-tossed man — the epic opens with shipwreck on the coast of Africa — and Fagles renders the pilgrimage in cadences that are encompassing without feeling cluttered. As Fitzgerald surely would have agreed, the sea has many voices, and this is one of them.

You might say it’s Aeneas’ peculiar storybook fate to wander the seas for years, in “Odyssey” fashion, only to find landfall on the shores of the “Iliad.” In Book 7, when the extended campaign against the Rutulians begins, Aeneas’ private self basically drops away, as it must, for his military responsibilities as commander in chief eclipse all else. Inner voices are another casualty of the din of war.

As a literary creation, Aeneas is marvelous for the way this most powerful and influential of warriors seems the least free of men. He is laying the cornerstones for an empire without precedent, which will (a complement to the biblical fiat lux) impose a fiat lex across the earth: Roman notions of law and order will eventually prevail from the Irish Sea to the Caspian, from Russia to Morocco. Yet Aeneas himself evidently has little say in the matter. If left to his own devices, he would contentedly remain with Dido in Africa, where life is sheltered and the pleasures of the flesh are dizzyingly sweet. But his country calls him — which is to say, the gods have other plans.

Virgil openly pays tribute to Homer, in both imagery and incident. (It seems there is nothing, not even the will of the gods, so inescapable as literary convention.) If the “Aeneid” can hardly match the “Iliad” as a portrait of war, in some regards the successor excels the model. The “Aeneid” hauntingly captures the psyche of a weathered soldier who has had enough — but who cannot declare he’s had enough until a lasting peace is secured. By the time battered Aeneas reaches the shores of Italy, he’s the least bloodthirsty of men, praying his people can cohabit tranquilly with the Rutulians. Down the centuries, the “Aeneid” has doubtless spoken with special poignancy to veteran commanders all over the world, who can read their own lives in an ancient poem composed when bows and arrows were the cutting edge in aerial warfare.

The “Aeneid” contains two significant passages of prophetic outreach, when the present vanishes away and neighboring centuries reveal themselves like sunlit valleys in a clearing fog. The first arises when Ae neas, visiting his father in the Underworld, beholds the ramifying glories of Rome’s coming empire. The second occurs when Vulcan forges him a shield on which centuries of triumph are chronicled:

He knows nothing of these events but takes
in their likeness, lifting onto his shoulders
the fame and fates of all his children’s

Virgil also looks backward, reminding us how the Trojans and their city, gleaming on the dawn-struck outskirts of Asia, eventually came to dust. And how even the victorious Greeks came to dust. But Rome — he assures his readers — will never fade.

Virgil was wrong, and it’s one of the most gorgeous ironies of the “Aeneid” that while it celebrates the political — the founding of an empire, by the young and potent and brave — as the summit of human achievement, its greater and more durable feat lies elsewhere. The triumph is ultimately literary, of course, and also collective — since it belongs in part to those white-haired translators who have brought such well-seasoned judgments to a timeless tale. Theirs is the prevailing army, among whose ranks Robert Fagles emerges as a new and noble standard-bearer.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A footnote to our discussion of cantos 10 & 11

The evening of our discussion of cantos 10-11, I happened to watch Francesco, giullare di Dio, the 1950 film directed by Roberto Rossellini and written by him and Federico Fellini. The English title is known either as Francis, God's Jester, or The Flowers of St. Francis, and the DVD was released last year by the Criterion Collection.

Rossellini is an acquired taste for many. This film, which is a series of vignettes that explore aspects of medieval notions of simplicity, folly (the "sacred fool") and humility, was shot with actual Italian monks playing Francis of Assisi and his band of followers, shows the influence of Fellini's imagination. (It is available for rental at Video Renaissance, 2243 Bee Ridge Rd.)

The reason for the mention: If you do happen to get hold of the DVD, don't miss the English Prologue that is part of the extras on the disk. It was apparently created to introduce the world of Francis through art of his time, and was later removed. It contains stills and details from the works of Cimabue, Giotto and Orcagna -- including several images of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso which are clearly indebted to Dante's visibile parlare.
Triumph of Death in the Pit of Hell, Orcagna, 1348

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Stamp of Rome

At Mussy's suggestion, here's a piece on the Aeneid from the NY Times' Connections - posted in full because the Times tends to limit access after a few days:

Out of Epic Wars, Another Epic Is Born, the One Called Civilization


Aeneas, as far as we can see, is spared the trauma of a hero’s death, the kind of prophesied calamity that brought Achilles down at the height of his powers. Instead, Aeneas is last seen, at the close of Virgil’s Aeneid, triumphantly planting his iron sword “hilt-deep in his enemy’s heart.” But has there been a time in recent memory when Aeneas’s literary corpse has not been wrestled over, when this Trojan warrior, brought to such vivid life by Virgil, has really been able to rest in peace?

Read now Robert Fagles’s new pulsing, lyrical translation of the Aeneid (Viking), with its eloquent mixture of high rhetoric and conversational ease, and see too if — as arguments rage over war and peace, civilization and barbarism — Aeneas stands a chance.

He suffers the fate of having an unsettled place in the pantheon of heroes because Virgil gives him a far grander role to play than Homer’s supra-human figures had in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Aeneas is not just a godlike tempestuous warrior like Achilles, who is gradually inducted into human culture with all its constraints and demands. He is not just a brilliant schemer like Odysseus, who simply wishes to return home after years of war and is buffeted by the tricks of gods and Fates and men.

Aeneas, the Trojan hero who carries his aged father on his shoulders out of his burning city, has a mission that reaches across history and stretches centuries into the future, a task that the gods remind him may not be avoided or shirked and that Virgil, writing in the third decade B.C., was beginning to see come to fruition. Aeneas’s task was to lead his fellow survivors of the great Trojan War onto the shores of Italy, where — after terrible battles — his descendants would eventually found Rome itself.

Aeneas was brought to epic life by Virgil at a time when a century of Roman civil war had come to an end, when Augustus’s leadership promised the establishment of the Roman Empire. And Aeneas is imagined creating a nation that, as Jove suggests, would “bring the entire world beneath the rule of law.”

That is what is at stake in the Aeneid. The individual hero must fulfill an imperial destiny. The goddess Juno, nursing an ancient grudge, strives to keep Aeneas from landing in Italy, then tries to keep him from surviving there, but his destiny is greater than any god’s mischief. It also forces Aeneas to jettison the love of Dido and lead the Trojans into yet another horrific war. This is a founding myth, resembling those of other ancient lands: there is a chosen people who must endure hardships and defeats for the promise of future glory. The trials test their leader, who himself will never see the new world established, though he makes it all possible.

But this is more than a national epic. It is not just about the founding of a country or the establishment of a people out of a ruinous past. Rome, the Aeneid implies (and we can imagine Virgil nodding to his patrons), will be more than a light unto the nations; it will establish a new form of governance. Aeneas is the founder of something we now call civilization.

That, though, is where his posthumous trouble begins. Perhaps the Romans saw in Virgil’s meticulously described battles forerunners of Julius Caesar’s victories. (Caesar imagined, after all, that he was a descendant of Aeneas.) Perhaps in later eras Christianity could see hints of its own vision latent in the Aeneid. (Aeneas’s journey to the realm of the dead, after all, inspired Dante to make Virgil the experienced guide in his “Divine Comedy.”)

But in recent decades, when even the notion of civilization has come under challenge for its claims of ethical and social superiority, Aeneas has sometimes been portrayed as a kind of patsy for imperialism, mouthing higher goals while succumbing to reckless fury as he spills the bowels of his enemies on the earth. The argument has been made that Virgil’s project was actually ironic, anti-Augustan: he showed how civilization itself is drenched in blood, with self-celebratory history being written by the victors.

While Aeneas is supposedly held up as an embodiment of familial piety, he is so vulnerable to fury that he loses sight of things. As Troy burns, he glimpses the beauteous Helen, the root cause of the city’s destruction; “what joy, to glut my heart with the fires of vengeance,” he thinks, and he is about to take revenge on her when his mother, the goddess Venus, must remind him that his own family needs rescue.

Then, as he carries his father to safety, he forgets to look back and care for his wife, who is slaughtered. And at the very close of the epic he rejects a civilized appeal for restraint by his enemy Turnus and gives way to “savage grief” and “rage,” sending Turnus “down to the shades below.”

Glutting one’s heart with savage fires is not precisely something we imagine as a sign of civilization. And these battles for the future unfold with almost pornographic horror. Even Aeneas’s men, in the midst of recreational games, can whine for prizes, their vanity and passions stronger than any visions of communal good.

And yet, on his courageous descent into the Underworld, Aeneas is shown the unfolding of history, past and present. The shade of his revered father, Anchises, speaks of the future, specifying precisely what Rome’s achievement will be. Other civilizations he says, will “draw from the block of marble features quick with life” or “chart with their rods the stars that climb the sky.”

Others, that is, will be masters of the arts and sciences. Anchises says:

But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power
the peoples of the earth — these will be your arts:
to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,
to spare the defeated, break the proud in war.

The arts of rule: that is where Virgil himself says the triumph will be; the “rule of law” is how Jove puts it. As Virgil shows again and again, that rule is no small matter. It may be won by the sword; Aeneas, though, shows how much more is required. He displays compassion, delicacy, courage, insight into the vanquished, desire for an “eternal pact of peace.” These are all elements of civilization.

But can the sword ever be put aside, even with civilization’s triumph? Aeneas’s own frailties suggest that it cannot: he can “break the proud” but not always “spare the defeated.” The “works and ways of peace” are always vulnerable.

Jove himself, envisioning a Rome in which the Gates of War are welded shut, portrays the “frenzy of civil strife” as a live being, shackled, “monstrously roaring out from his bloody jaws.” Even when all intentions are good, there will be that persistent roar: misunderstandings, flaws, eruptions of desire, assertions of power — the mischief of the gods and the treachery of the heart.

This vision makes the Aeneid strong and somber and prescient, which is how Mr. Fagles’s English renders it. The Aeneid, he has suggested (thinking, he had said, of contemporary events), exhorts empires to behave. But it does not dismiss the ideal of civilization or the labors demanded or the persistent dangers faced; it offers a realist prophecy of war and peace, heralding civilization along with its discontents.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bibliophilic and gryphonic

A book-loving friend sends a link to LibraryThing, a site for books and those who care about them. People enter titles of books they own, like, or hate, and can then find others who share the interest. Just tabbing across the top of the home page brings forums for discussion, a "zeitgeist" of users' current choices, favorite authors, etc., a blog and much else. (Perhaps too much else -- one can get lost in there for extended periods of time!)

LIbraryThing is the creation of a fellow named Tim Spalding, a webmaster who has another site rich in literary lore, Isidore of Seville, named after the famed medieval collector of knowledge and author (c.560-636 AD) of the Etymologies. There's much there about oracles, Cleopatra, Herodotus, Noah's Ark, and Griffins, among other things. More about Isidore here.

As we'll be encountering a griffin, or gryphon, at the top of the mountain, I'll put a few links here: Griffins in art -- a literary history of griffins -- and a description of the fabled lion/birds, from which the above illustration comes.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Notes on Purgatorio 12

Canto 12 completes the tripartite structure begun in Canto 10 which will be the pattern for each of the seven terraces of the deadly sins:
  1. Entering each Terrace, the pilgrim sees the “goad” – the depiction of the countervailing virtue that is the cure for the vice being purged.
  2. He meets the souls being purged.
  3. Leaving, he encounters the “check” – a representation of the vice that was just being addressed.
Here as he leaves off discussing human artistry he encounters 12 panels involving stories of pride, six from the Hebraic Old Testament tradition and six from the Greco Roman myths.

"Pride of place" goes to Satan. There was a lively discussion in the middle ages about how long it took Satan to fall once he was created. Any wagers on Dante's view?

Briareus, we remember from Hesiod's Theogony, was one of the hundred-handed (Hecatonchires) late offspring of Ouranos and Gaia:
Soon after they were born, their father, Uranus, threw them into the depths of Tartarus because he saw them as hideous monsters. In some versions of this myth, Uranus saw how ugly the Hecatonchires were at their birth and pushed them back into Gaia's womb, upsetting Gaia greatly, causing her great pain, and setting into motion the overthrow of Uranus by Cronus. In this version of the myth, they were only later imprisoned in Tartarus by Cronus.

The Hecatonchires remained there, guarded by the dragon Campe, until Zeus rescued them, hoping they would serve as good allies against Cronus. During the War of the Titans, the Hecatonchires threw rocks as big as mountains, one hundred at a time, at the Titans.
The emphasis upon the mimetic power of the images is evident from the anaphoric repetition of Vedea...Vedea...Vedea etc. What emerges from the 13-tercet description of the panels is on the one hand a balanced structure of vivid images of destruction and decapitation, and on the other an acrostic that spells the name of humanity - UOM - which apparently hid unnoticed by commentators until 1898.

The final panel is a vision of the abasement of Troy:

Vedeva Troia in cenere e in caverne;
o Ilïón, come te basso e vile
mostrava il segno che lì si discerne!

Any thoughts on this combination of mimesis (the images on the panels) with the emergence of this other kind of sign?

The canto ends with an angel coming to meet the pilgrim, the lifting of the first "P," and an unusual glimpse of Virgil smiling.

What do the various elements of the canto - the elaborate artifice, the actions of the characters - have to do with the nature of pride? If moral education is going on here, how is it occuring?