Saturday, May 23, 2015

Punishing irony: Virgil's witness in Inferno 4

In Canto 4 of the Inferno, Dante turns to Virgil and asks him a veiled (coperto) question:
“Now tell me, master, tell me this alone,”
I said to him, wishing to be assured
Of that faith by which all doubt is overthrown,
“Have any gone from here and then secured
Salvation, by their own or Another’s fee?”*
Virgil replies:
And he, who understood my covert word,
Said, “This condition was still new to me
When I beheld a Mighty One appear,
Who was crowned with a sign of victory.
He took our first begetter’s shade from here,
With Abel, Noah, and Moses, who did show
The laws to man and how to hold them dear;
King David and Abraham of long ago;
Israel with his father and his seed,
And Rachel, for whose sake he labored so;
And many more, and made them blest indeed.
And I would have you know I can attest
That, before these, no human souls were freed.”*

This exchange is of interest for several reasons. For one, it's the witness of a lost soul to the harrowing of hell and liberation of a select few. Virgil, who had died about 50 years earlier than this event, attests first-hand to the act of a "Mighty One."
ci vidi venire un possente
The event became one of the articles of the Christian creed, but Virgil recounts it  in the words of an honorable Roman. Un possente is a generic term for anyone of power, and, while accurate as far as it goes, it is blank with regard to the unique identity of the Mighty One: the martyred Son of the God of Abraham, fresh from his trial and crucifixion.

Virgil speaks of what he sees. His natural light of human reason can and does report and support the faith Dante and all Christians practice, flowing from Scripture. What Virgil "sees" is veiled to him - the facts are reported, but their full and unique implications are not.

What we as readers find here is something I think Dante the poet does throughout his Comedìa-- a poetic enactment of the profound discontinuity between the light of reason, art and science on one hand, and revelation via the Book, on the other.

In a sense, what the moment does is reproduce Dante's reading of Virgil. In the moment that Virgil voices and demonstrates his authority as teacher, guide, prophet, poet and witness, we find a blindness, a falling short -- the irony of an inescapable ignorance. It is a punishing irony, consigning him to hopeless finality in a half-lit suspense of endless desire, and more ironic because in its helplessness (vis a vis Virgil), it helps Dante overcome doubt.

Dante dramatizes the reality that obtains in a world where human genius, nobility of spirit and incorrigible honor just are not enough. For Virgil and the rest of those in Limbo, what the mind and sense and soul can see, and what the imagination or inspiration can intimate, is merely the outward appearance of a unique event whose full import -- the breaking not of rocks alone, but of the rule of death -- remains "coperto." Another word for that might be "illegible."

We'll want to be on the lookout for further examples of this mode of poetic acting out in the Comedìa. With Revelation comes a shattering literacy.

*From an unpublished translation of the Inferno by Peter D'Epiro.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Invocations Infernal and Purgatorial

Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta of Yale speaks of reading the Comedia "horizontally," that is, with attention to the interaction between similar moments across the three canticles.

If we look for example at the invocations that the poet employs in the three poems, suggestive differences among them can be noted. Each invocation addresses a distinct source of inspiration, from which other potentially significant differences flow in turn. The poem is telling us something about how it is to be read. The invocations of the three canticles can be found here.

The shortest invocation, in the Inferno, addresses the Muses as alto ingenio - this can mean high genius, but ingenium was an ancient Latin term for one's own innate character or nature. From there it extended to the idea of natural capacity, talent, or genius, evolving into a rich and complex sense (see, for example, here and here.)

Dante moves quickly to address mente -- a faculty that scrivesti ciò ch'io vidi -- wrote that which I saw -- hence a form of memory, of notation, faithful to the pilgrim's experience. The poetry of Inferno will be faithful to what the pilgrim saw and heard -- poetry in the mode of representation, mimesis, but thanks to alto ingenio, one that will show its nobilitate.

By contrast, the invocation of Purgatorio invokes the sante Muse, who are asked to let poetry, which is dead, rise again (risurga). This already is more than natural. What's on offer here is not merely recording, but transformative action:

And let here Calliope rise up for a while
and accompany my song with that strain
which smote the ears of the wretched magpies
so that they despaired of pardon.

Calliope, the Muse of Epic, is called upon in particular to rise up alquanto -- perhaps not just for a while, but to an extent, somewhat. Calliope is needed to smite the daughters of Pierus, a "crowd of foolish sisters" who, according to Ovid, were turned to magpies after inanely challenging and losing a competition with the Muses. To accomplish this, it seems, Calliope needs not rise to the highest level of style. That will be sought and needed in Paradiso.

The tale of the battle of songs, taken from Metamorphoses 5, stages the competition, and the contrast between the two performances couldn't be more marked. Calliope, singing of the Rape of Persephone, wins. The judges were the nymphs of Helicon; Athena heard the whole story of how the daughters of Pierus were turned into mimicking magpies.

The invocation of Purgatorio enlists the Muses in a struggle. This is poetry with an active purpose in this world, and it means business. Actually, it means unfinished business, as Purgatorio takes place in time, in the realm of human desire, engagement, choice. Unlike Inferno, things on this mountain are not settled by any means, nor are they fixed in stone. All is in motion. The Purgatorio is quite simply a poem of metamorphosis, like that whose tale of the magpies inspired its invocation.

We'll leave the invocation of the Paradiso for a later moment, for it again calls upon a different source, calling forth yet another mode -- other than pure mimesis or performance - to actualize itself.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Invocations for three canticles

Inferno 2. 7-9

O muse, O alto ingegno, or m'aiutate; 
O mente che scrivesti ciò ch'io vidi, 
qui si parrà la tua nobilitate.

O Muses, O lofty genius, aid me now!
O memory that noted what I saw,
here shall be shown thy worth!

Botticelli: Dante's Inferno

Purgatorio 1. 7-12
Ma qui la morta poesì resurga, 
o sante Muse, poi che vostro sono;
e qui Caliopè alquanto surga, 
seguitando il mio canto con quel suono 
di cui le Piche misere sentiro 
lo colpo tal, che disperar perdono.

But here let poetry rise again from the dead,
O holy Muses, since I am yours;
And let here Calliope rise up for a while
and accompany my song with that strain
which smote the ears of the wretched magpies
so that they despaired of pardon.

Botticelli: Mountain of Purgatory

Paradiso 1. 13-27

O buono Appollo, a l'ultimo lavoro
fammi del tuo valor sì fatto vaso,
come dimandi a dar l'amato alloro.
Infino a qui l'un giogo di Parnaso
assai mi fu; ma or con amendue
m'è uopo intrar ne l'aringo rimaso.
Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue
sì come quando Marsia traesti
de la vagina de le membra sue.
O divina virtù, se mi ti presti
tanto che l'ombra del beato regno
segnata nel mio capo io manifesti,
vedra'mi al piè del tuo diletto legno
venire, e coronarmi de le foglie
che la materia e tu mi farai degno.

O good Apollo, for this final task
Make of me such a vessel of your power
As you require for your beloved laurel.
Up to this point, one summit of Parnassus
Has served me well, but now I need them both,
Entering on the arena that remains.
Come into my breast and, there within me, breathe,
As once, on that occasion when you drew
Marsyas from the scabbard of his limbs.
O power divine, but grant me of yourself
So much that I may figure forth the shadow
Of the blest realm imprinted in my mind,
And you shall see me come to your chosen tree
And crown myself beneath it with those leaves
Of which my theme and you will make me worthy.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Inaugural letters: Inferno 3

Inferno 3 brings us to letters that inscribe the speaking threshold of hell. It foregrounds a curious fact: The first act of those taking up their abode here is the act of reading. What does it mean that the first non-eternal thing built by the Creator was a text?

Per me si va ne la citta` dolente,
   per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
   per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
   fecemi la divina podestate,
   la somma sapienza e 'l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
   se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
   Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

Queste parole di colore oscuro
  vid'io scritte al sommo d'una porta;
  per ch'io: "Maestro, il senso lor m'e` duro."

Ed elli a me, come persona accorta:
  "Qui si convien lasciare ogne sospetto;
  ogne vilta` convien che qui sia morta." 
                                             Inferno 3: 1-15

Gustave Dore

Among other resonances, the reading evokes, via its poetics as well as its dense, enigmatic statement, a moment in 2 Corinthians:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 
Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! 
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull,for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Tuscan doesn't measure up: Dante on his native dialect in the De Vulgari

Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia is his treatise composed in Latin that defended the use of Italian in poetry and prose. In that time, writing for posterity in the spoken tongue of the living was not a self-evident thing to do, especially as regards works of literary aspiration.

The treatise was never completed - he originally envisioned four books, with the last to treat of comedy. We don't know why he dropped the project, but his sole mention of the comic comes in Book II.4, in contrast with the tragic mode:

By 'tragic' I mean the higher style, by 'comic' the lower, and by 'elegiac' that of the unhappy. If it seems appropriate to use the tragic style, then the illustrious vernacular must be employed, and so you will need to bind together a canzone. If, on the other hand, the comic style is called for, then sometimes the middle level of the vernacular can be used, and sometimes the lowly; and I shall explain the distinction in Book Four.
In an earlier section (Book I.13) we get a bit of the sardonic sensibility of the poet, writing about his own Tuscan dialect in the mouths of his fellow men:

After this, we come to the Tuscans, who, rendered senseless by some aberration of their own, seem to lay claim to the honour of possessing the illustrious vernacular. And it is not only the common people who lose their heads in this fashion, for we find that a number of famous men have believed as much: like Guittone d'Arezzo, who never even aimed at a vernacular worthy of the court, or Bonagiunta da Lucca, or Gallo of Pisa, or Mino Mocato of Siena, or Brunetto the Florentine, all of whose poetry, if there were space to study it closely here, we would find to be fitted not for a court but at best for a city council. Now, since the Tuscans are the most notorious victims of this mental intoxication, it seems both appropriate and useful to examine the vernaculars of the cities of Tuscany one by one, and thus to burst the bubble of their pride. When the Florentines speak, they say things like: 'Manichiamo, introcque che noi non facciamo altro' [Let's eat, since there's nothing else to do]. The Pisans: 'Bene andonno li fatti de Fiorensa per Pisa' [The business at Florence went well for Pisa]. The people of Lucca: 'Fo voto a Dio ke ingrassarra eie lo comuno de Lucca' [I swear to God, the city of Lucca is really in the pink]. The Sienese: 'Onche renegata avess'io Siena. Chée chesto?' [If only I'd left Siena for good! What's up now?]. The people of Arezzo: 'Vuo' tu venire ovelle?' [Do you want to go somewhere?]. I have no intention of dealing with Perugia, Orvieto, Viterbo, or Città di Castello, because of their inhabitants' affinity with the Romans and the people of Spoleto. However, though almost all Tuscans are steeped in their own foul jargon, there are a few, I feel, who have understood the excellence of the vernacular: these include Guido, Lapo, and one other, all from Florence, and Cino, from Pistoia, whom I place unworthily here at the end, moved by a consideration that is far from unworthy. Therefore, if we study the languages spoken in Tuscany, and if we think what kind of distinguished individuals have avoided the use of their own, there can be no doubt that the vernacular we seek is something other than that which the people of Tuscany can attain. If there is anyone who thinks that what I have just said about the Tuscans could not be applied to the Genoese, let him consider only that if, through forgetfulness, the people of Genoa lost the use of the letter z, they would either have to fall silent for ever or invent a new language for themselves. For z forms the greater part of their vernacular, and it is, of course, a letter that cannot be pronounced without considerable harshness.

Ultimately, Dante pointed to a form of Italian found in no specific city or province, but rather cultivated by the best authors in their poetry and prose:
This is the language used by the illustrious authors who have written vernacular poetry in Italy, whether they came from Sicily, Apulia, Tuscany Romagna, Lombardy, or either of the Marches. And since my intention, as I promised at the beginning of this work, is to teach a theory of the effective use of the vernacular, I have begun with this form of it, as being the most excellent;