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.


Pete D'Epiro said...

Any relevance here of the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)? You had mentioned in a previous post that excommunicate Manfred was a very unexpected denizen of Purgatory, and this parable ends with the lesson: "The last will be first, and the first will be last." Here, the farmer patching up the holes to keep people out of his vineyard is showing a "normal" human reflex to exclude outsiders that may be contrasted both with God in accepting Manfred and with the angel warder of Purgatory (Canto 9, 127-129), who explains that St. Peter instructed him "ch'i' erri / anzi ad aprir ch'a tenerla serrata" ("that I err / rather in opening [the gate of Purgatory] than in keeping it locked").

Tom Matrullo said...

Yes, that parable surely relates to this, and seems fully consonant with the idea of the souls who are now at the beginning of a process of transformation that will in large part have them as submitting passively to a larger craft which might be quite frightening, but which they willingly undergo. Somewhat on this, I'm still puzzling over why the Purgatorio's several thresholds are so emphatically guarded, or obscure, or difficult to pass through. Ulysses, the only human to get so close before Dante while alive, never got near the shore, let alone the door. There's a large allotropic motif in the Purg., seen very clearly in Canto 8 with the two angels.

Pete D'Epiro said...

Getting to Heaven has never been a piece of cake. "Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!" (Matthew 7:13-14).