Monday, August 31, 2015

An unnoticeable lightening of being: Purgatorio 10-12

L'arte non riproduce ciò che è visibile, ma rende visibile ciò che non sempre lo è.
- Paul Klee

As John Sinclair points out in his note for Purgatorio 12, Dante reports that he did not know a P had been removed from his forehead until Virgil told him, a fact he confirmed with his own fingertips. Not only is the first and greatest sin effaced, but the rest are "all but effaced."

The canto has much about art, and much art, which is so real that it seems, he says, "visibile parlare." The phrase captures what would be the pinnacle of proud achievement for any mortal artist: the fusion of the most powerful sensory faculty with the intelligence of speech. What if all the invisible powers of language were so wedded to the realm of the eye that one didn't need to hear sentences unfold themselves in time? Their full meaning would strike at the speed of light.

The hallucinatory superreality of the figures of the terrace of pride, so vivid that
                           non pur Policleto,
           ma la natura li avrebbe scorno
                                  not only Polycletus
                  but nature would be put to shame there (10.32-33),

crosses a threshold that Dante the poet, who for all his fiction of how this is not a fiction (poetry as bella menzogna), has the hubris to depict. It's one thing to slyly nod to the reader when speaking of surpassing the Guidos in poetic accomplishment -- this is how Dante confronts head on any reader's thought that he might have some issues with regard to artistic pride. But that is purely a matter of human fame in the eyes of men.

To dare to create in words a work of art that speaks of divine visibile parlare (10.95), and to insert a visual image, in canto 12, through the repeated letters

would seem to venture into dangerous artistic territory. Here Dante is not far from the famous mythological figures whose thefts from the gods got them in serious trouble -- Tantalos, for one, and Prometheus.

According to Robert Hollander, this has not gone unnoticed by certain readers. Here's one (Barolini) he cites:
"The exaltation of divine art at the expense of human art paradoxically leads to the exaltation of that human artist who most closely imitates divine art."
It's fair to say that while canto 10 opens up the topic of Pride, it seems far more engaged with the language of and about art -- an emphasis that will continue in canto 11 with Oderisi's discussion of how Giotto is superceding Cimabue. Perhaps implicit: God's visibile parlare is to human representation as Giotto's is to Cimabue's. There is no question that with Giotto, a whole new dimension of mass and human gravitas enters painting. The analogy fits, and is lovely, but Cimabue and Giotto are brought in to illustrate the passing of style, the endlessly ephemeral quest for the new. Presumably the divine Artificer's work is not equally subject to artsy fashionistas.

Something here is pointing toward a deep link between the hyperbolic sense of self in pride and the potency with which art renders the world to us. Perhaps the proud are artists with bad ideas, like Arachne.

After all the fascination with a fusion of showing and telling, image and thought, the two appear to be distinct near the end of canto 12. Here as the angel's wing removes the first (and most serious) P from Dante, he is unaware of it. He too is a work of divine art, and the visible speech on his forehead, undergoing erasure, has the effect of lightening the pilgrim. This movement towards levity is another dimension of comedy in the poem. Even as Bevilacqua sat heavily beneath his stone, he managed to transform the mood with his few brief barbs. He too will "lighten up" as he ascends.

Virgil understands what's happening here. Just as canvas doesn't feel the brush, or paper the pen, so the soul doesn't feel the erasure of its sins. Instead
"fier li tuoi piè dal buon voler sì vinti,
che non pur non fatica sentiranno,
ma fia diletto loro esser sù pinti.”
Virgil says:
"Thy feet will be so vanquished by good will,
That not alone they shall not feel fatigue,
But urging up will be to them delight." 
"Vanquished by good will" is a remarkable phrase - it's a happy sufferance of conquest, which in fact will be achieved by Dante when he is "crowned and mitered" over himself at the top of the mountain.

What's notable here is that being overcome by good will seems to happen on its own -- one doesn't fashion it, or will it. The soul, working, continually grows lighter. Good will conquers as one is in process of becoming the butterfly. Pride will suffer, crushed beneath heavy stones.

Once in Purgatory, the course is set by the Artist -- to levity:
on v'accorgete voi che noi siam vermi
nati a formar l'angelica farfalla,
che vola a la giustizia sanza schermi?
Do ye not comprehend that we are worms,
Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly
That flieth unto judgment without screen.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reading as Viniculture: Purgatorio 4

Purgatorio 4 begins with an assertion about the nature of the soul based upon esperïenza vera; namely, that the soul is a single entity comprising parts, and when one part is concentrated upon one thing, another part is not free to do another thing independently. The experience in this case came from Dante's being so involved with Manfred that three hours passed without the poet's noting it.

As always, the text puts it to us to ask: What is this doing here? The task of reading stems from grappling with such questions, far more than from annotating references with learned footnotes. Each canto of this poem requires us to ask why certain seemingly disparate passages are juxtaposed. We should ask what these have to do with one another, and see whether we might find unity where before there seemed only a series of unrelated pieces. Unity of soul would seem at least to invite us to inquire into unity of text.

On a smaller scale, we encounter this very phenomenon in the passage that immediately follows the meditation upon the nature of the soul:
Maggiore aperta molte volte impruna
con una forcatella di sue spine
l'uom de la villa quando l'uva imbruna,
che non era la calla onde salìne
lo duca mio, e io appresso, soli,
A greater opening ofttimes hedges up
  With but a little forkful of his thorns
  The villager, what time the grape imbrowns, 
Than was the passage-way through which ascended
  Only my Leader and myself behind him,
Robert Hollander calls this a "pseudo-simile" because it is not formally ordered with words such as "just as" . . . "so." By leaving out the comparative terms, one can argue that the passage puts into greater relief the juxtaposition of the farmer and God. If we then ask whether there is some larger relevance to the juxtaposition of architectural design of this hidden threshold of Purgatorio with the farmer plugging his hedge, it offers at least the prospect of reading the terms:
hedge :: solid rock
hole    :: nearly invisible fissure in rock
farmer :: God
The farmer is keeping out whichever thieves or creatures might steal his uva embrowning on the vine. To complete the comparison: so God has designed Purgatorio to be defended against anyone attempting to enter without divine authorization. The way in is not just hard to see, but very difficult to climb, as the next few lines make clear, as the poet struggles to keep up with Virgil, and asks somewhat pathetically how high the entire mountain is. 

What we've not yet involved in the comparison is the grape. This uom de la villa has a vineyard, where grapes are ripening before they are harvested, and transformed into wine.  
uva :: souls
With this, the rich figure of Purgatory as vineyard comes into view. Just as grapes growing in the wild might not survive predation, and certainly will not of their own doing turn into good wine, so the souls entering Purgatory have not the wherewithal to transform themselves. The work of purgation, as will be seen in the spiraling terraces from Pride to Lust, will be the labor of transformation from grape to wine. 

The fine thing Dante is doing here is inviting us to put this together for ourselves, using simple things we know from nature. As we do so, we participate in producing the poetry of the poem. To read is then to collaborate with the poet, or at least with the poem, to press it to yield its potency. (Reflecting on "wine" in the New Testament of course brings added "aroma.")

So the interrelation of the terms of the implicit comparison brings us a suggestive sense of what Purgatory might be: less charnel house or penitentiary, perhaps, than a protected spot of cultivation -- ripening, maturing, readying -- in preparation for a transformation to come. By interrelating, close reading turns into a sort of viniculture, with heady results. 

And, just as there is no wine without grapes, there can be no intellect without the vegetative and emotive parts of the soul. Seemingly disparate elements are parts of a greater whole. The initial tercets of canto 4 now seem quite relevant to the figure of wine making

The canto of course has further elements, including an overly elaborate dialogue on the track of the sun, and the delightful encounter with Belacqua. To read Dante is to pursue him.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jonas' Reading Dante

Even as we are engaged in a slow reading* of parts of the Purgatorio in preparation for tackling the Paradiso, we can rest assured that what it means to read will forever be an open question.

For several years, the American artist Joan Jonas, whose work is part of the U.S. exhibit at this year's Biennale in Venice, has been working on a series of performative pieces entitled Reading Dante.

In an interview with Art Forum, she drew a parallel between Dante and Aby Warburg:
In my mind, Dante connects to Aby Warburg, who was central to my last large-scale work of this kind, The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things. Both had an overarching worldview. Dante thought epically during a moment—the medieval era—when people were very isolated, and Warburg attempted to synthesize widely disparate cultures through the lens of art history. For me, they both represent characters that are on a journey through life that involves thinking about the world as a whole, not just what’s immediately around them.
Jonas, Reading Dante

According to a gallery where the work was performed, Jonas is continually revising:
Reading Dante IV draws inspiration from Dante's fourteenth-century Divine Comedy, a reoccurring topos of Jonas's work since 2007. Each performance and installation becomes increasingly layered as the work transforms and develops.
Reading Dante becomes an act of translation:
Jonas translates the medieval allegory, borrowing small fragments of the text and greatly reinterpreting the story through performance, sound, drawings, video and installation. The artist dynamically visualizes the journey of the characters, merging their experience with her own through footage of travels and performance. Galleria Raffaella Cortese.
In another interview (in frieze), Jonas says:
Dante separated heaven, purgatory and hell but I don’t believe in such a separation. One aspect, though, that interested me is the fact that Dante was the first writer to write using vernacular Italian so I want to record lots of different people reading Dante.
With a work so rich as Dante's, the acts of translation are unending, as are the many varieties and forms its reading can assume.

Jonas, Reading Dante

video clip

Diverse images, Jonas Galleria Raffaella Cortese

*slow reading

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two kinds of infinity in Purgatorio 3

Reading Purgatorio 3, we found the canto brought into an interesting relation two radically distinct modes: the theoretical realm of intellect -- the solar sphere of signs and reading, associated by Virgil with Aristotle and the other noble Greeks and Romans in Limbo -- and the active realm of Manfred, where one blinding moment achieves something marvelous.

Is there some way to calibrate the relationship of these two distinct elements of the canto? It might help to see that while they can be said to be radically other, they do share one term.

Here is Virgil, on the madness of Reason that tries to bridge "the infinite way" of the ultimate mystery:
Matto è chi spera che nostra ragione
  possa trascorrer la infinita via
  che tiene una sustanza in tre persone.
Insane is he who hopeth that our reason
  Can traverse the illimitable way,
  Which the one Substance in three Persons follows!
And here is Manfred:
Orribil furon li peccati miei;
ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.
Horrible my iniquities had been;
But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms,
That it receives whatever turns to it.
Both speak of an infinite, but each seems to draw different inferences from his understanding of it. For Virgil, infinity is boundless, a spatial limitlessness that exceeds all powers of reason and its formal languages (such as mathematics) to subdue and make sense of. It dwarfs human aspiration, and all effort of the mind, however Faustian.

The infinity of Manfred's bontà is not a reference to size, or mathematical dimension. It is power, the power of the Good, figured in the Herculean image of "such ample arms" which can transcend any abyss, any moral distance between the corrupted soul and eternal bliss. Here infinity is precisely that which
possa trascorrer la infinita via . . . 
negating all privilege of meaning for the word "impossible."

The two parts of the canto, then, "meet" in the conceptual and dynamic space of infinite. Is this a meet or a miss? If Virgil, confronting the Mystery of the Trinity, feels the hopelessness of all who remain sospesi in Limbo sanze speme, Manfred would seem to answer him.

The juxtaposition of an Intellect that can conceive a limitless potential it can never grasp, on the one hand, with, on the other, Illimitable Goodness coupled with Infinite Power, would then seem equally to offer grounds for hope or despair. Manfred could prove the successful Palinurus who makes all the rest -- from the "real" Palinurus to Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and all the other Palinuri of pre-Christian epoch -- either types of incomprehensible loss, or candidates for incalculable gain.

The honesty of the Purgatorio lies in our being unable to decide the matter. The two parts of the canto lie tantalizingly near, yet remain in fact at an infinite distance. It is only through attempting to read their relation that we find it unresolved. This is remarkable in a poem in which all things appear to have been masterfully decided by an infinite creator. As such, it makes things more interesting for its readers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bronzes all too human

This exhibition of Greek bronzes, currently in Los Angeles, will come to Washington DC later this year - and from what one can see, it is not to be missed.

In the NYRB, Ingrid D. Rowland sees a development beyond the 5th century classical Greek reserve in a work like the boxer:
      An Olympic champion in the classical period would never have chosen to show himself in such graphic, painful mortality, but by the time of Mys of Taras, a contemporary of Aristotle (twenty years older than Mys) and Alexander the Great (twenty years younger), signs of vulnerable humanity, like the heroic ruler’s furrowed brow and the boxer’s wounds, had entered the repertory of Greek sculpture.

 She continues:

We may be meant to read this ravaged face in a Sophoclean key, like Herakles in the tragedy Philoktetes:

And first I will tell you of my misfortunes,
Of all that I suffered—and by going through those sufferings
I obtained deathless virtue, as you can see.
And you, know it well, must endure all this,
To create a glorious life from your pain.

Few bronzes have survived from the time, making these all the more precious. These amazing figures suggest the development of a humbler, more generous view of what it means to be human, which the Romans would explore in art, poetry, and drama.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Comic Relief: Palinurus renewed

(Written with time in short supply - a future post might be warranted.)
Before a favoring wind
the fleet sped on. The line in close array
was led by Palinurus, in whose course
all ships were bid to follow.
ferunt sua flamina classem.
Princeps ante omnes densum Palinurus agebat agmen;
ad hunc alii cursum contendere iussi. Aeneid V.832-34

When Dante fails to see Virgil's shadow in Purgatorio 3, he leaps to the conclusion that Virgil is not there. Why does he do this? Because he assumes, or believes, that the same rules apply to Virgil that apply to him. He doesn't entertain the idea that certain rules are unique to him alone here with all these souls.

In his final moments, Manfred could similarly have assumed he was a dead man -- the second death of hell -- and not have asked for forgiveness because he was too outrageously bad. But instead, in tears, he begs. And enters the ship of the angel.

Nothing prepares us for Manfred. If Dante is the unexpectedly live soul among the dead, Manfred is the soul saved despite all the theocratic power of the popes, the unburial and scattering of his remains along the Verde river. Both play against the figure of Palinurus, Aeneas's helmsman whose death, as Jupiter decrees, enabled the Trojan leader's ship to reach the promised land.
One only sinks beneath th' engulfing seas, —
one life in lieu of many. Aen. 5.
Without burial Palinurus's spirit cannot cross the Cocytus to rest. His failure to arrive (he is suspended -- sospesi -- as Virgil says of all the ancients including himself, who are in Limbo), and this failure is bound up with Aeneas's successful arrival to Cumae with the remnant of Troy.

For a pilgrim such as Dante, arriving on the shore of Purgatory is the equivalent of Aeneas's arrival to Latium. Only here Dante arrives early, and cannot stay. But he finds Manfred, who according to all official accounts ought to be an outcast soul like Palinurus, yet instead not only is assured eternal life, but seizes this opportunity to speed up his way to it.

Throughout the Commedia, the irreducible incalculability of Revelation (the Christian dispensation) is juxtaposed again and again with the ancient Greek and Roman sense of Nature, man, and the divine. As it is here.

Capo Palinuro

On one hand, there are the baleful words of the Sybil, who consoles Palinurus with the notion that his name will be remembered, as it is even today, in the name Capo Palinuro, but who speaks of a threshold that bars his spirit from rest:
desine fata deum flecti sperare precando 
Cease to dream that heaven's decrees may be turned aside by prayer.
                                                        Aen. VI.376
On the other hand, compare the words of Manfred:
Orribil furon li peccati miei;
   ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
   che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.
Horrible my iniquities had been;
   But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms,
   That it receives whatever turns to it.  (Purg. 3. 121-23)
Canto 3 moves from the cognitive difficulties that arrive with the dawn -- the errors of shadow and light -- to a singular act of salvation, which comes when si rivolge - one turns oneself.

Of course, this turning is both an act and a mode of directionality -- the performance of a navigator who finds his way not via the angle of sun or star, but spontaneously, profoundly, an instant before annihilation.

It is precisely "wrong-way Manfred" who divines the way, metamorphosed into a saved Palinurus. The latitude of the gran braccia brings what can only be termed "comic relief," so long as we take that term of art with a new literalness.