Monday, October 19, 2015

The torque of Pride

When Dante crosses the threshold into Purgatory proper and hears the door swing shut, he speaks of the one thing that could never be excused - looking back:
Poi fummo dentro al soglio de la porta
che 'l mal amor de l'anime disusa,
perché fa parer dritta la via torta,

sonando la senti' esser richiusa;
e s'io avesse li occhi vòlti ad essa,
qual fora stata al fallo degna scusa? 
When we had crossed the threshold of the door
Which the perverted love of souls disuses,
Because it makes the crooked way seem straight, 
Re-echoing I heard it closed again;
And if I had turned back mine eyes upon it,
What for my failing had been fit excuse?   (Purg. 10.1-6)
No possible excuse for someone who has been advised not to look back, no matter how strong the temptation. Dante, the new Orpheus, passes the threshold safely and successfully. This is only one of several thresholds, however - instead of assuring the safe return of his Eurydice to mortal life, obeying the order to not look back gives Dante hope of seeing his Beatrice at some future moment, when he is fit to experience her transhumanized form.

One way of understanding a constitutive difference between the canticles, then, could be one's relation to hope:

Inferno:       hope forever lost.
Purgatorio:  hope actively propelling one ahead
Paradiso:     hope substantiated

This small scheme will be subject, of course, to our reading of the Paradiso, which is about to begin. I want to bring up one other thing about the Purgatorio as we get to that new threshold, and it's contained in the snippet quoted above.
che 'l mal amor de l'anime disusa, 
perché fa parer dritta la via torta,
 the threshold (soglia) . . .
that souls' bad love disuses
because it makes the crooked path seem straight.
Entering the terrace of Pride, the poet lays down an apparent law of the human condition: when we desire wrongly, that causes us to see as direct what is in fact crooked, or indirect.

The narrator here posits a turning, or torque, of the soul by which what it sees, and how it sees - cognition - is skewed by what (and how) it wants. Where Plato's soul just needed to be turned around and ascend to see the Good in order to want it, this offers a more Augustinian view. One cannot see straight until one's love (will) has turned toward the Good. The will is what is bound, imprisoned, and the terraces of penitence are about liberating it from its false and deviant loves.

The complex path of discipline, edification, and challenge that the pilgrim goes through before Virgil can "crown and mitre" him as a freely willing self over himself should be kept in view as one enters Paradise.

It's a path with its own complications. I'll just briefly point to one. In the same canto (10) of Purgatorio, before they encounter the Proud souls bearing their pedestals, Dante and Virgil see three narratives depicted on the terrace wall, famously described as visibile parlare: The three tales are the Annunciation, the story of Uzzah and David and Michal, and the tale of Trajan and the widow.

Contemporary commentators including Robert Hollander and Nicola Fosca have noted some complications of the tales -- for example, that the angel's appearing to Mary, which bears the hope of salvation to everyone born after Christ, carries a sense of doom to Virgil, the poet of the 4th Eclogue, whose prophecy of a savior to be born did not save him from Limbo.

Hollander also wonders whether the Proud souls, crushed under the weight of their stones, can even see these storied walls - are the walls inclined so one can see from a very low angle, he and others ask.

Another point that seems relevant is that the first sin, the one upon which all other sins feed, requires those carrying their pedestals to read from their low and oblique angle, over and over again, three tales that, in a very real sense, defy easy understanding. One might quite easily see an image of the Annunciation, but does that mean that one in fact understands it? What would "understanding" mean here?

And if the Annunciation is problematic, the tale of Uzzah poses its own difficulties. Here's a guy leading the oxen that are bearing the Ark of the covenant, and the Ark totters, seeming about to fall. He reaches out his hand - one can easily presume it's an automatic reflex - and is struck dead for presuming to do something he was not tasked to do. Is this readily comprehensible? Or must one go round the mountain several thousand times before it begins to make sense? This is of course about the automatonic nature of our drives, desires, and thoughts - these things we are persuaded we simply control.

The tale of Trajan also runs counter to common sense (as does, of course, the spectacle of David) and all military protocol.

If we gloss over these tales (as I'm doing here), it could be at our peril. If we presume we have read them aright, we might be submitting our qualifications for spending a good amount of time on this very terrace.

Why point this up with emphasis? Let's remember that these works, Dante avers, are produced by an Artist that surpasses Polycletus and Nature itself - making the question of distinguishing real from fake, fact from fiction, a real, not a rhetorical, question. And let's remember that the basic element of Pride is in fact to think something is straight that is not. The torque of Pride and the torque of simplistic reading are not, in this canto, unrelated. In a very real sense, Dante has engaged the full web of rhetoric, the textual deviousness of tropes, mimesis, figuration and narration, in his analysis of Pride. To sin is to be trapped in trope. The presumption of reading -- in the sense of some unmeditated, direct apprehension of a text -- puts one fairly far along the path of error.

One can hope that the challenges of Paradise, however daunting, leave us less prone to tie ourselves in knots.