Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Enter Manfred: Purgatorio 3

biondo era e bello e di gentile aspetto ...

Before we look at the role of Manfred in detail in Purgatorio 3, his entrance is worth noting.

Dante and Virgil have just realized that the mountain seems unscalable, when they encounter a slow-moving group of souls:
As sheep come issuing forth from out the fold
By ones and twos and threes, and the others stand
Timidly, holding down their eyes and nostrils, 
And what the foremost does the others do,
Huddling themselves against her, if she stop,
Simple and quiet and the wherefore know not; 
So moving to approach us thereupon
I saw the leader of that fortunate flock,
Modest in face and dignified in gait.  (Longfellow)
Imagine now that one from this tame little flock comes forward, who turns out to be a combination of Mohammed Ali, John Kennedy, and Mick Jagger. That's basically the level of incongruity presented after this unhurried extended simile by the appearance of Manfred, the Ghibelline chieftain who challenged and was excommunicated by three Popes; who commanded Saracens, Greeks, Italians and Germans against the Papal forces, and, wagering all on one great battle at Beneventum, lost all.

So a key element here is humor -- the canto slyly sets up a detailed image of the least contumacious-looking group imaginable, then springs its comedic trap: out walks the love child of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Smiling, Manfred will speak of his body's brutal disfigurement, death and spiteful exhumation on orders of the Pope. He is Dante's counter-image to the figure of Palinurus, Aeneas's unburied helmsman in Aeneid V and VI.

The web of ironies in Manfred's story is rich, and we'll look at the interplay with the figure of Palinurus in another post. This first moment of surprise strikes the comedic note for what follows. It's the shock of the impossible made possible.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Open road: Purgatorio 3 on reading

Corpo, the word for "body," appears four times in Purgatorio 3 -- more than in any other canto of the canticle, commentators note. (The word appears nine times in Paradiso 2.) The first half of this canto, with its play of light and shadow, has to do with sensory intelligence -- what later came to be called aesthetics, often elaborated in relation to our experience and judgment of perceptible form -- e.g., art and beauty.

At sunrise, Dante sees that he doesn't see Virgil's shadow, and leaps from that to the fear that Virgil has left him alone. This produces an ironic effect: Not seeing the figura of Virgil causes Dante to not see that Virgil is in fact right next to him, which Dante easily could have seen had he not been fixated on the level of figura.

On the narrative level, this can be seen as a cautionary tale about the differences between a sign and that which the sign stands for. If we remain just with the sign, as Casella's listeners did --

Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti

                 a le sue note;  

we face the possibility of never turning toward that which the sign stands for -- its meaning, or referent.

The introduction of aesthetics brings in its solar train a concern with signs, and thus with language and reading. The Purgatorio is making a "note" that has to do with reading, including the reading of the Purgatorio.

There's a sharp contrast here, in fact, with the mode we found in canto 3 of the Inferno. There we read the identical eternal text that Dante and Virgil encountered. The mouth of hell promised nothing -- to enter is to abandon hope -- it's a gate of no promise, no futurity, no meaning beyond its own self-referencing enunciation.

No such writing stands at the entrance to Purgatory; the only song we hear is soon disrupted. It's worth thinking about the writing that does appear further up the mountain: penitential "P's" are inscribed on Dante's forehead only to be erased, one at a time, as he spirals up the terraces. Here, even writing is not fixed.

Prof. John Freccero, who viewed Dante as profoundly in debt to St. Augustine, long ago noted that within the Augustinian view of reality, there is the human being, who is love; the only question is whether that love is directed toward self, or toward the other, on the way toward the Ultimate Other. If one loves fine dining, for example, this love stops at the meal, which ends up back in the self -- a form of self-idolatry. Love that is not idolatry doesn't fix upon every sign, every desire, every beautiful thing, but moves through all things seeking that in which all live, and move, and have their being. Such love by nature rises to its true home, as Beatrice will explain in the Paradiso.

Here at the base of Purgatorio, in the thick of his own shadow, the pilgrim receives a lesson in signs and reading. And Virgil, after composing himself, speaks in a most Augustinian way:

He's mad who hopes our intellect
can rapidly run that infinite way
kept by one Substance in three Persons.

Matto è chi spera che nostra ragione

possa trascorrer la infinita via

che tiene una sustanza in tre persone.  

The pathos here, as Virgil reflects upon the disiar . . . sanza frutto -- the "fruitless longing" of the greatest minds of antiquity -- is justly famous. As readers we now might want to ask how this concern with body, with signs, with reading and aesthetics relates to the unexpected appearance of Manfred and the tale he tells.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dawn of error: Seeing and disbelieving in Purgatorio 3

The beauty briefly experienced in Purgatorio 2 is intimately interwoven with this canticle's concern with the Aesthetic. We saw how the power of Casella's song captured the attention of the listeners. That motif continues in cantos 3 and 4, and it's worth considering why this concern with attention to sensory appearance -- with its aesthetic and epistemological implications -- surfaces here, and how it is played off against other elements in the text.

Whatever else attention to attention yields, it offers a self-reflexive mode of heightened clarity -- almost transparency. Attention in these cantos is represented as something that can be fixed upon some particular thing, then loosed; it can focus exclusively on one object, as when Dante looks intently at the boat propelled from far to near by the Angel, or when the newly arrived souls focus on Dante's breathing because it signals that, unlike them, he is a living body.

In canto 3, Dante and Virgil, scolded by Cato, have been running like frightened doves after having stood motionless, fixated upon Casella's song. As Dante ceases running, his mind's gaze begins to expand:
la mente mia, che prima era ristretta,
    lo 'ntento rallargò, sì come vaga,
e diedi 'l viso mio incontr' al poggio
che 'nverso 'l ciel più alto si dislaga.
my mind, which was -- before -- too focused, grew 
more curious and widened its attention;
I set my vision toward the slope that rises
most steeply, up to heaven from the sea.*
Note that in Dante's terms, the mind has gone from ristretta to vaga -- from a limited, specific focus to a more open, fluid, indeterminate state. (Vaga in this passage rhymes with dislaga -- almost certainly a word created by Dante: the mountain "dis-lakes" itself from the sea, much as the pilgrim in Inferno 1 barely escaped from the lago del cor.)

Vaga is rooted in the verb vagare, wandering, vague, even "going around without knowing where or why":

What happens next keeps us attuned to the motif of attention. It all turns on the sun's rising from the sea behind the poets. This is the first natural light in the Commedia. As the red flame appears over the horizon, Dante's body casts a shadow; Virgil's does not, and this precipitates a crisis:
Lo sol, che dietro fiammeggiava roggio,
rotto m'era dinanzi a la figura,
ch'avëa in me de' suoi raggi l'appoggio.
Behind my back the sun was flaming red;
but there, ahead of me, its light was shattered
because its rays were resting on my body.*
As C.H. Grandgent points out, the Italian is convoluted. Literally, it's: "The sun . . . was broken before me in that shape which the stoppage (or leaning) of its rays had in me."

The oddness underscores the specular relationship between Dante's body and the figure (figura) it produces (sort of like Lacan's mirror stage). An image of his body unexpectedly appears before him -- it is seen at this point because the sun is just now introducing the mode of visibility. We might want to ask why the first thing the sun reveals to the pilgrim is a mediated image from which he can infer that he himself is in the way -- an obstacle to pure transparency.

The shadow of Dante's body next to the suddenly realized absence of any shadow of Virgil leads to the fear that Virgil has abandoned him. But here, the appearance of Virgil's disappearance is, in fact, mere appearance.

We think of the aesthetic as that which is simply apparent via the senses. Here with the sun's rise, there is light, and with light the eye begins to function. But the functioning is closer to that of the prisoners in Plato's cave than to simple sensory perception.

What Dante sees -- thanks to the big Eye coming up behind him -- is his shadow, the image or representation of a presence. In the same moment, he realizes he does not see Virgil's figura (i.e., he "sees" the absence of any representation of Virgil's presence) and in a panic, he leaps to a false conclusion. Optics, which we thought was our reliable guide to the world, has opened a minefield of representation (a theatre), and proves to mislead the very first chance it gets.

Before the sun rose, Dante had no possible way of making this error: the question of whether Virgil was by his side (or "there for him") never came up. At the very first opportunity, the aesthetic modality of the visible enables Dante to err in believing that Virgil is no longer there.

In a coherent and nuanced way, the handling of seeing and believing here goes considerably beyond popular USian nostrums such as, "what you see is what you get," or the Missourian "seeing is believing." The light of dawn is the moment that the poem complicates the relation of perception and apperception -- what one believes one knows and what one sees, presence and representation, image and substance.

The apparition of the visible (i.e., of apparition) so arrests Dante the pilgrim's attention that he is misled into confusing appearance with knowledge grounded in something beyond appearance. In doing so, he fails to "see the bigger picture." Whatever else is going on here, this canto is thinking through some of the complications of visible appearance, basic to the category of the aesthetic, with critical rigor.

We'll see where this leads in the second half of Purgatorio 3, with the appearance of Manfred.

*Translation by Allen Mandelbaum

Friday, July 17, 2015

Purgatorio 2: No time for Orpheus

There is so much going on in each canto of the Commedia as to confound exposition. The Purgatorio can seem more straightforward. It's certainly less spectacular than either the Inferno or the Paradiso (at least until its climax), but the apparent simplicity is belied by the care with which Dante interweaves thematic motifs and suggestive allusions into the bare bones narrative.

Purgatorio 2 for example offers a simple "plot":  The new souls, fresh from the Angel-driven boat, ask Dante and Virgil which way to go. Virgil frankly tells them that he and his companion are just as new -- the band of newcomers then notices Dante's breathing, and stares hard at his face (viso)
as if forgetting to go and make themselves beautiful.
quasi obliando d'ire a farsi belle.
At this moment a shade breaks from the crowd seeking to embrace Dante, who tries to reciprocate, but Casella is a shade. When he speaks, Dante knows him, and a moment later Casella is singing a song he once composed with Dante's words. At this point Cato shouts at them,
Che e cio, spiriti lenti? 
What is this laggard spirits?
At which the souls including Dante and Virgil scatter like a flock of frightened doves.

One motif that clearly comes into play is that of deviant attention. The souls become fixated upon Dante's breathing - his presence as a living man arrests them. A moment later, they are all equally fixed upon Casella's song:
Lo mio maestro e io e quella gente  
ch'eran con lui parevan sì contenti,  
come a nessun toccasse altro la mente.
My master and I and those people
that were with Casella appeared so satisfied
as if no other thing touched our minds. 
In the most casual way, Dante introduces the motif of the enchantments of art -- of music and poetry, and continues the motif of surprise. The delight in the note of the song, and in Casella's voice, captures the attention of all who hear it, not unlike the creatures and even the trees that used to crowd around Orpheus.
Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti 
a le sue note
       We were all motionless and fixed upon
       his notes

Notice the wit of this poetic "performance": Casella recognizes his old friend, who is in fact, improbably, here in the afterlife in the flesh. It's the dream of Orpheus, except in reverse -- here it's the singer whose body eludes the vainly seeking arms. The song now is not an enchanting device to recall Eurydice from the dead, but the celebration of reunion with a loved one who is unexpectedly alive.

But such motionless attention to earthly things, no matter how beautiful, is out of place here. As Casella sings, he is performing an Orphic act -- recalling the plenitude of living fullness from the past. But here at ground zero of Purgatory, neither a return to some past good nor the stasis of mere aesthetic pleasure is what's called for. The song does not enchant Cato. By the time they reach the garden atop Purgatory, these souls will understand why the old man prods them into running.

The disorientation of the soul at the base of Purgatorio makes it possible for the sinners to err and to be corrected, not damned. The beauty they will make themselves (farsi belle) is not the narcissistic bellezza of artistic form -- as least as far as Cato is concerned. Broken from the poise of perfect aesthetic balance, they scatter like birds -- in contrast to the Angel who powered the boat that brought them there, and who wastes no time:
ed el sen gi, come venne, veloce.
and he took off as he had come - swiftly. 
This scattering dissonance will eventually chase these doves to a new kind of beauty.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Disorienting dawn: Early surprise in the Purgatorio

When Dante and Virgil return to the "chiaro mondo" from hell, they are on the shore of Purgatorio where Dante looks out at the waters where Ulysses drowned. The pilgrim had met the hero a short time before, and now has to ponder how he, a Florentine of no particular epic abilities, has managed to arrive where Ulysses, despite Herculean efforts, did not.

The poets have just climbed down the hairy trunk of Satan, turned at the vermo reo's pelvis, and climbed back to the surface of Earth. Not exactly the heroic setting for a poem of Homeric glory.

From the start, Purgatorio presents things that seem slightly "off." Instead of a triumphal arch, a handshake and a happy meal, there's a beach by trembling waters, simple rushes grow near the shore. An old man with fierce eyes looks back at you from beyond his own suicide.

Professor Mazzotta of Yale makes many fine points in his first lecture on Purgatorio, including the observation that normally in poems of renewal or rebirth, one meets a young person -- their youth betokens their role as emblems of new life. Dante gives us old man Cato -- who less fit to signal the beginning of new, burgeoning, hopeful life than one who ended his existence by force of will?

We soon meet Casella, who is still sufficiently in love with his songs to sing beautifully until Cato scolds him and his auditors into making better use of time. Here, unlike in Inferno and Paradiso, time is of the fabric of the place, and with time, change. But can newly saved souls, who have been ferried across the world by an angel, be so blasé? And if Casella is blasé, what of Belacqua in Purgatorio 4, who sits toadlike under a rock and mocks the efforts of Virgil and Dante to understand the science of what they are seeing?

The first thing to notice is how unexpected everything is. Where we thought we'd regained our bearings, we are thrown. Where's the glory of eternal life and the torments of penitence? Where are the solemn nuns, the flagellant monks, the incense-toting priests and breast-beating penitents that one would expect in a story about Purgatory? Cato? Casella? Manfred? Belacqua? What are these curmudgeons, aesthetes, rock star warriors and slackers doing here? Did we miss our exit?

It takes supreme confidence to do what Dante is doing here.

In the vestibule of Eternal Salvation, we are meeting oddly regular people, the sort we've all known. None of them have anything on Plato, Odysseus, Julius Caesar, or Virgil, all of whom are damned, while the likes of Belacqua and Casella are saved. Before we think we've got a handle on all this, the poet wants us to stew for a while. The poem is disorienting us -- it would be a disservice to rest assured that we know the way.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Outsized gestures: Aeschylus in Syracuse

Given our recent preoccupation with Greek plays, and given the recent turns of fortune for Greece and those fleeing from even more dire conditions, this account of Aeschylus' The Suppliants performed in an ancient amphitheater in Sicily speaks to the incomparable relevance of the classical form.
Greek drama, with its open-air setting, calls for loud voices and outsized gestures; poetry transforms the shouting into oratory and dance lends the gestures a stylized grace. Syracuse is a magical place to do this. The theater rises next to a quarry with a curving cave that Caravaggio, who visited in 1608, compared to an ear because of its uncanny reverberation.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

A fine resource for readers of Dante

My friend Peter D'Epiro (whose translations we have often made use of here) has reminded me of an online source I'd forgotten about: The Dartmouth Dante. Check the link to see it -- it's a project developed by Robert Hollander, whose commentaries on the Commedia are the most thorough and learned we have in English.

Not only is all of Hollander's commentary available, but so are dozens of others, going back to the earliest commentaries by at least one of Dante's sons and Boccaccio.

The basic search page for the site is here. It's a remarkable contribution to all who now need not travel to a major university library or rare books collection to explore 800 years of readings of Dante's poem.