Sunday, June 21, 2015

Addressing Ulysses: The perfect contrapasso

Virgil in Inferno 26 tells Dante not to speak to Ulysses - he'll speak for him, because, he says, "They were Greeks, perhaps they'd disdain your words."

Words, language, are the substance of rhetoric -- the very sound of words plays a part in whether the one addressed deigns to respond. So too with spelling. Consider how differently you regard a message seeking your input, or your money, when the message itself lacks orthography, syntax, the basics of civilized discourse.

Virgil fears Dante's address would "lack address," in the secondary sense of adroitness of delivery, the manner of coming at someone:
1 dutiful and courteous attention especially in courtship —usually used in plural 
2 a: readiness and capability for dealing (as with a person or problem) skillfully and smoothly : adroitness 
b obsolete: a making ready; also : a state of preparedness

3 a: manner of bearing oneself  
b: manner of speaking or singing: delivery
Turning to the Greeks, the Roman poet employs a full-bore captatio benevolentiae -- working on his audience by alluding to his own alti versi, the lofty lines of his epic (lines that in fact do nothing to enhance Ulysses' reputation):
"If I deserved of you while I lived . . . if I deserved of you much or little when in the world I wrote the lofty lines, do not move on, but let the one of you tell where, being lost, he went to die."
The ploy works; Ulysses begins a speech that manages to contain a full life's quest within a few lines.

I want to look at the first thing he says, simply because in the large commentary devoted to this canto, these lines might receive short shrift. Ulysses begins:
When I parted from Circe, who held me more than a year near Gaeta before Aeneas so named it . . .
The parallel is clear: Ulysses was "held" -- the verb sottrarre can carry the suggestion of something taken fraudulently -- by Circe, the witch who turned his men into animals. Aeneas, coming to the same place, chooses to name it for his beloved wetnurse, and it bears that name today: Gaeta.

The contrast is between the wily Greek who, though escaping bestial enchantment, nonetheless is caught in the charms of Circe for "more than a year," and the Roman leader who, seeking a new land, names a beautiful portion of it for the nurse who nurtured him (and his son, some say), and who died at that point in their journey.

Throughout the Aeneid the Romans show themselves often nobler, more generous, and more rooted in the realm of the heart than the Greeks. In bestowing the humble nurse's name upon the isle of Circe, Aeneas moves toward the obliteration of the memory of Ulysses' experience there. Ulysses is being written out of epic memory on the Roman peninsula.

For Dante and his world, many of the names they use derive from the exploits, stories, the emperors and poets of Rome. The world was a palimpsest; one could dig down and find Greek predecessors, but they have been overwritten -- put into Italic form, or completely replaced by names that bring in indigenous Roman stories and achievements. Romans accepted the fact that they came after the brilliant world of Greece, but they push back, asserting different values and priorities. Allusively the point is made: Ulysses and the Greeks might have mapped out the world, explored it, given us knowledge, but the romance of the Roman people, their quest and glory, has remapped it with its own aura and meanings.

If Ulysses's language is usurped in this way, it points to another, larger eclipse further on in his journey. To know things is to name them, and Ulysses is rather meticulous in giving his auditors the names of places he and his men took in on their last voyage:
fin nel Morrocco, e l'isola de' Sardi . . . 
. . . Sibilla . . .
 . . . Setta.
Passing the pillars of Heracles they sail five months into the blank oceanic void beyond. A mountain appears, and with it the storm that takes them under. Ulysses has no name for the mountain, of course (see previous post). He has no idea what it is, that it's made of earth that fled the body of Satan as he plummeted down and reamed out the core of the planet.* Ulysses lacks all sense of this, and, of course, he had no one to whom to tell his tale. So neither a name, nor a memory of the exploit, lives on -- other than in the Commedia. 

The world's most accomplished traveler, this former hero of the nostos, not only doesn't return, but also leaves no tale of his final destination, no trace. This silence, this aphasia, is the antithesis of kleos for the Greeks. Only a judicial imagination of genius could have produced what happens here: a contrapasso loaded with irony potent enough to punish Ulysses.

For the Greek teller of tales knows that this, his greatest exploit, was swallowed up with his drowning, and this will help us understand why Ulysses is Dante's uncannily nightmarish doppelganger. To have seen what he saw but cannot name or chart, and then to drown, puts his staggering final tale out of reach of knowledge, fame, earshot, of language itself. For this Homeric hero, no greater punishment is conceivable than to have been graced with achieving one incomparable feat, only to lie beneath the sea in eternal silence in the absolute certitude (he will never know otherwise) that no one will ever hear the greatest story he or his odyssey ever could have told. In this certitude, the hero encounters a judge who knew precisely how he deserved to be addressed.

*Lucifer, in falling, excavated the earth that creates the empty cone of hell, carved into the northern hemisphere; the displaced earth fled from Lucifer and then became Mount Purgatory, a cone of earth that rises up in the middle of the southern hemisphere.
Columbia University, Digital Dante.

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