Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Joseph and Aseneth

Nothing particular to do with Dante, but given our readings in Genesis and the classics, I couldn't resist noting this summary with some passages from the story of Joseph on this lovely blog. The entire story is online, an elaborate soap-ish version of the love between Joseph and Aseneth, a daughter of Pharaoh who is mentioned in Genesis as having become his wife. (Of course we knew already that Thomas Mann was not by any means the first to build intricate narratives out of scant clues in Genesis' scant, but ever-suggestive, details.)

Of special interest, given a certain fascination of your blogger with bee images, was this passage:

13. And bees came up from the cells of the comb, and they were white as snow, and their wings were irridescent -- purple and blue and gold; [11] and they had golden diadems on their heads and sharp-pointed strings. 14. And all the bees flew in circles round Aseneth, from her feet right up to her head; and yet more bees, [12] as big as queens, settled on Aseneth's lips. 15. And the man said to the bees, "Go, please, to your places." 16. And they all left Aseneth and fell to the ground, every one of them, [13] and died. 17. And the man said, "Get up now, and go to your place;" and they got up [14] and went, every one of them, to the court round Aseneth's tower.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dantean Architecture in the Netherlands

Inside the building that tranquillity gives way to a comic-book version of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” with strict divisions between various worlds. Visitors enter via an internal bridge that crosses over an underground atrium. From here, a vast hall conceived on the scale of a piazza leads to a cafeteria overlooking the calm surface of a reflecting pool. On one side of the hall looms the ziggurat form of the museum; on the other, a wall of glass-enclosed offices. Here the spectral glow of the interior of the cast-glass skin evokes the stained-glass windows of a medieval cathedral.

It’s a stunning space whose power lies in the contrast between the various architectural experiences within. Clad in cold gray slate, for instance, the underground atrium is a striking counterpoint to the heavenly glass walls above. Mr. Neutelings and Mr. Riedijk call the atrium their “inferno.” It also evokes a tomb: big, square openings are cut through the atrium’s walls, revealing a series of corridors painted a hellish red. The archives are tucked behind these corridors, where researchers and scholars, you suppose, toil away with the concentration of monks.

Neither fiery nor blissful, the offices are something closer to purgatory. Arranged in neat little rows, they open onto long, narrow corridors that overlook the bustling main hall. The office interiors are more contemplative, the colored cast-glass panels alternating with more conventional strip windows. The colored glass emits a soft glow that is strangely soothing. via the New York Times.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dante vs. Forese: The Tenzone

Jutta has found the complete tenzone of Dante and Forese Donati - a poetic sparring in which each poet uses poetry to take a bite out of the other (see the etymology of sarcasm):

First exchange: Who heard her cough—that poor, ill-fated wife...

Second exchange: Partridges’ breasts and Solomon himself...

Third exchange: O Bicci junior, son of no one knows...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Purgatorio 23: The voice of Forese

I'm unable to find a text of Dante's tenzone with Forese Donati online. Forese, in Canto 23, is made unrecognizeable by famine until he speaks:

Mai non l'avrei riconosciuto al viso;
ma ne la voce sua mi fu palese
cio che l'aspetto in se avea conquiso.

Questa favilla tutta mi raccese
mia conoscenza a la cangiata labbia,
e ravvisai la faccia di Forese.

I never would have recognized him by
his face; and yet his voice made plain to me
what his appearance had obliterated.

This spark rekindled in me everything
I knew about those altered features; thus,
I realized it was Forese's face.

Hearing something in a voice that causes interest or recognition to occur is a recurring motif in the poem -- the voice, of all elements of identity, remains intact for Dante beyond death.

Their tenzone was a sort of poetic duel of wits and insults. Here are a few "lowlights," as the Princeton Dante has it:

Dante's Tenzone with Forese. Canto 23.115-17

Dante tells Forese Donati that recalling their past life together would weigh heavily on them (23.115-17) because he no doubt regrets the sort of crude, bawdy humor they each expressed so well in a youthful exchange of poems. The tenzone, a literary "dispute" in which the two writers show off by alternately insulting one another, was a popular medieval genre, an early precursor of the verbal dueling heard today in "rap dissing." The combatants usually take a word or an image from the previous poem and use it as a hook upon which to hang a new theme and continue the assault. Thus we find in the six sonnets exchanged between Dante and Forese (3 poems each) the following lowlights:

1a. Dante feels sorry for Forese's coughing wife (perpetually cold in bed): "Her cough, her cold, and all her other fears / are not because she is advanced in years / but only for some lack inside her nest."

1b. The morning after a coughing fit, Forese expects to find pearls and gold coins in a graveyard but instead comes upon an Alighieri--Dante's father?--tied in knots in a graveyard.

2a. Dante picks up on the knot motif to underscore Forese's dissolute ways and subsequent debt: "And mind you, even if you stopped your gluttony / it's now too late to pay back what you owe."

2b. Forese tosses back the poverty theme, countering that "if we're such beggars as you say, / why do you come back right here to beg?"

3a. To which Dante replies by linking Forese's gluttony with criminal behavior: "into your throat so much you have gulped down / you are now forced to steal what is not yours."

3b. Forese finally exploits the fact that Dante's father had financial problems of his own and may have been involved in some shady dealings. He knows Dante is Alighieri's son by the revenge Dante took "against the man who changed his money just the other night."

(Dante's Lyric Poems, trans. Joseph Tusiani [Brooklyn: LEGAS, 1992], 109-15)

Friday, May 18, 2007


Not surprisingly, the story of Erysichthon which Dante mentions in Canto 23.25 involves a tree. The story of Erysichthon's destruction of an oak sacred to Ceres sets up his own destruction by Famine:

...the wretched man snatched the axe from one of them, saying: “Though this be, itself, the goddess, not just what the goddess loves, now its leafy crown will meet the earth.” As he spoke, while he balanced the blade, for the slanting stroke, Ceres’s oak-tree trembled all over and gave a sigh, and at the same time its acorns and its leaves began to whiten, and its long branches grew pale. And, when his impious hand made a gash in the trunk, blood poured out of its damaged bark, like the crimson tide from its severed neck, when the mighty bull falls, in sacrifice, before the altar.

All stood astonished, and one of them tried bravely to prevent the evil, and hinder the barbarous double-edged weapon. But the Thessalian glared at him, saying: “Here’s the prize for your pious thought!” and swinging his blade at the man not the tree, struck his head from his trunk. He was hewing at the oak-tree repeatedly, when the sound of a voice came from inside the oak, chanting these words:

“I am a nymph, most dear to Ceres,
under the surface of this wood,

who prophesy to you, as I die,

that punishment will follow blood:

out of my ruin, the only good.”

But he pursued his course of evil, and at last, weakened by innumerable blows, and dragged down by ropes, the tree fell, its weight cutting a swathe through the wood.’

Ovid describes the hunger of Erysichthon:

The more he puts away inside, the greater his desire. As the ocean receives the rivers of all the earth, and unfilled by the waters, swallows every wandering stream: as the devouring flames never refuse more fuel, burn endless timber, and look for more, the greater the piles they are given, more voracious themselves by being fed, so Erysichthon’s profane lips accept and demand all foods, in the same breath. All nourishment in him is a reason for nourishment, and always by eating he creates an empty void.

Erysichthon's daughter, Mestra, was given the gift of metamorphosis, which enabled her father to sell her over and over. She'd just change shape and return to him. In the end, Erysichthon consumed himself, and Mestra married Autolycus, the grandfather of Odysseus.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Purgatorio 21, 61-66

De la mondizia sol voler fa prova,
che, tutto libero a mutar convento,
l'alma sorprende, e di voler le giova.

Prima vuol ben, ma non lascia il talento
che divina giustizia, contra voglia,
come fu al peccar, pone al tormento.

(substituting a much improved translation by friend and Dantist Peter D'Epiro:)

The will alone is judge of purity,
And, free to change its dwelling when it pleases,
Surprises the soul, encouraging it to will.

Indeed, the will is willing before, but stopped
By the longing that God’s Justice, against the will,
Inclines to torment as much as once to sin.

The English partly mimics the syntax, bursting with paradox, of the original.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Thebaid

It's not easy to find even a synopsis of Statius' Thebaid. The epic, in 12 books (same as the Aeneid), tells the story of the Seven Against Thebes (link will bring up something of a summary). The story has its roots in Aeschylus and Sophocles, but is filled to overflowing with Statius' baroque Latin style.

The main plot of the Thebaid derives from Oedipus' curse on his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who, after he blinded himself, pushed him aside in order to pursue their own ambitions. The sons initially agreed to share the rule of Thebes by alternating one-year reigns. But Eteocles, the younger, soon broke faith.

Polynices went to Argos to ask help from its kings, Adrastus I and Amphiaraus. The latter had the celebrated and unusual dual gifts of prophecy and kingliness. On his way back from Argos, Polynices encountered his frail father on the road. The son sought his father's blessing, but received his curse:
This curse I leave you as my last bequest: Never to win by arms your native land, nor return to Argos, but by a kinman's hand to die and slay.
A minor aside: In this scene (from Oedipus at Colonus) with Polynices, Oedipus resembles the way the seer Teiresias had seemed to the pre-blind Oedipus. In Oedipus the King, there is much made of the difference between the kind of prophetic instinct, if that is the word, of the blind Teiresias and the rationative intelligence of Oedipus:
"Come, tell me, where have you proved yourself a seer? Why, when the Sphinx was here, did you say nothing to free the people? Yet the riddle, at least, was not for the first comer to read: there was need of a seer's help, and you were discovered not to have this art, either from birds, or known from some god. But rather I, Oedipus the ignorant, stopped her, having attained the answer through my wit alone, untaught by birds." (Oedipus the King.)

"How terrible it is to have wisdom when it does not benefit those who have it" - Teiresias. (Oedipus the King)
The story of the Seven against Thebes is the endgame of the duel of knowledge and power, fate and freedom, begun with the prophecy given to Laius and Jocasta, the parents of Oedipus. There is no exit, no glimmer of a way out.

Eteocles and Polynices slay one another at Thebes

Of all the poets who could have been cast in the role of "resurrected Christian convert," no one would seem a less promising candidate than Statius. It is a measure of the assurance of Dante as the poet of the era of promise beyond the classical world that he springs (literally) this surprise on Dante the Pilgrim, on Virgil, and on us in Canto 21.