Friday, January 29, 2016

The sin of synecdoche

A good deal of the story Beatrice tells in Paradiso 7 plays off of the question of direct versus indirect similarity, or proximity, or causality, of man to God. Before they sinned, Adam and Eve were good copies, or translations of God, she explains:
Goodness Divine, which from itself doth spurn
All envy, burning in itself so sparkles
That the eternal beauties it unfolds. 
Whate'er from this immediately (sanza mezzo) distils
Has afterwards no end, for ne'er removed
Is its impression when it sets its seal.
Whate'er from this immediately (sanza mezzo) rains down
Is wholly free, because it is not subject
Unto the influences of novel things.
The more conformed thereto, the more it pleases;
For the blest ardour that irradiates all things
In that most like itself is most vivacious. 
With all of these things has advantaged been
The human creature; and if one be wanting,
From his nobility he needs must fall.  
'Tis sin alone which doth disfranchise him,
And render him unlike the Good Supreme,
So that he little with its light is blanched,

And to his dignity no more returns,   (Par. 7.64-78)
Twice the passage uses the phrase sanza mezzo, i.e., without mediation, directly. It reappears a third time nearly at the end of Beatrice's speech:
But your own life immediately (sanza mezzo) inspires
Supreme Beneficence, and enamours it
So with herself, it evermore desires her.
The relation of immediacy made Adam and Eve similar to God in that they were free and immortal. But similarities can be deceiving.

God Envy

When the clever men of Greek mythology envied the Gods, they tried to steal their ambrosia, sleep with Hera, or defeat Death. They all ended up with signal eternal punishments in Hades.

With Adam, the fall is instantaneous: the moment the creature envied the Creator, he ceased to resemble that Being who, Beatrice says, doth spurn all envy. Enviously trying to assert his likeness, Adam proved his unlikeness; instead of a judicious translation of God, he produces a botched copy.

The similarity to God, it seems, veiled a vast difference -- a radical otherness. Instead of creating a perfect double of God, man discovers parody, and loses his standing, his dignified place in the universe. He goes into exile, a fallen creature in a fallen world. But unlike Tantalos or Sisyphus, he doesn't have to stay there.

Beatrice now tells of another translation, of divine Word into human flesh. It's not a simple story.

Ficca mo l'occhio, says Beatrice,
Ficca mo l'occhio per entro l'abisso
de l'etterno consiglio, quanto puoi
al mio parlar distrettamente fisso.
Fix now thine eye deep into the abyss
Of the eternal counsel, to my speech
As far as may be fastened steadfastly!
Man in his limitations had not power
To satisfy, not having power to sink
In his humility obeying then,

Far as he disobeying thought to rise;
And for this reason man has been from power
Of satisfying by himself excluded.
We need to be very attentive to Beatrice's words, her parlar, here.

Man's attempt to rise to the level of the Supreme made it quite clear that he had no concept of the Being whom he presumed to equal. The word "power," used three times, balefully intones the absence of any human power. Man doesn't even have the chops to lower himself to anything like the depth that would correspond to the absurd height to which he strove, in his follia, to rise. No amount of mere obedience will ever offset his egregious disobedience.

Yet the mistake the creature made is one we make all the time - the sin of synecdoche. Seeing that part of him was senza mezzo from God, he dreamt he had the power to become the whole - a total error of totalization. Man not only couldn't translate himself into the Divine; by presuming to try, he fell into an abyss deeper than any a human could create.

This abisso, Beatrice seems to say, is now to be found in her speaking. To listen to her is to see into that abyss, which in fact is where we always are.

Or where we would be, had God not found a way out. Man alone cannot excuse his transgression. God could forgive it - just cut him some slack - but that would not do justice to the dignity of the creature. And what Beatrice and Dante more than anything else are about in this canto is Justice, and God's other "way," mercy.
Therefore it God behoved in his own ways
Man to restore (riparar) unto his perfect (intera) life,
I say in one, or else in both of them. 
But since the action of the doer is
So much more grateful, as it more presents
The goodness of the heart from which it issues, 
Goodness Divine, that doth imprint the world,
Has been contented to proceed by each
And all its ways to lift you up again; 
Nor 'twixt the first day and the final night
Such high and such magnificent proceeding
By one or by the other was or shall be; 
For God more bounteous was himself to give
To make man able to uplift himself,
Than if he only of himself had pardoned;

And all the other modes were insufficient
For justice, were it not the Son of God
Himself had humbled to become incarnate. (Par. 7.103-120)

The doubleness of "such high and such magnificent proceeding" is truly a hall of reflecting mirrors (a mise en abyme, as the French say). 

God's problem is that his creature has to raise himself, even though man is clearly unable to do that without divine help. To merely act as God and grant a pardon would give the creature no part in his own rehabilitation. It would not accord any being worthy of recovery with the dignity of playing some role in that process.

God's solution: humble himself "to become incarnate." Translated into a man, the Verbo di Dio is humbled beyond measure -- even without the power to measure, one can see that this descent of God is at least equal to, and therefore a successful mirroring translation of, Adam's fatuous self-elevation of yore. 

At this point in Beatrice's story, we understand why Justinians's conversion from Monophysitism is deeply relevant, and we are now able to discern the subtle adequation of the balance of Justice. When the Word became flesh, it made Adam's abortive parody into something no longer absurd. Since God here is now double -- both God and a real man who teaches, is punished and killed -- He has, through sacrifice of Self, given the creature both the ownership of undergoing punishment and the dignity of playing a role in his own reparation. God doubles as man in order that man might accede to a dignity he lost when he tried to double as God. 

Are we satified?

Listening to Beatrice's parlar, we hear about the satisfaction of a debt, one that comes by surprise. A debtor satisfies his indebtedness thanks to his creditor's both assuming his debt and undergoing harsh pains to pay it off.  The question is, does this tale of satisfaction satisfy? If yes, then we're no longer in the abisso. 

If no, then why not? Is it that Adam's follia is here matched by the madness of God? The Greeks, who thought they knew gods, would probably think so. What god -- even the unknown one that Paul, on the Areopagus, said they acknowledged at Athens -- would contemplate such a thing? 

Paradiso 6 and 7 present a double account of history and of justice. From the Roman perspective of Justinian we gain insight into the workings of empire and its justification in the divinely orchestrated punishment and redemption of man. Beatrice's beatific vision takes us into the depths of that transaction. Either she persuades us to be satisfied with a surprising accounting -- an intricate juridical, ontological, and literally linguistic exchange that translates humanity into something more than a banished bad joke -- or, if we're not satisfied, leaves us at the brink of an abyss that could be nothing, or the lair of a mad god. We might not want to stare too long.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Doing Justice to the word: Paradiso 6-7

Paradiso 7 might present some interpretive difficulties, but there can be no argument that its opening tercet offers a song, sung by Justinian, that speaks in two tongues:
“Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth,
superillustrans claritate tua
felices ignes horum malacòth!”
Interestingly, it's common among translations of this canto to keep these lines as they appear in the original, rather than translate them. Translations are offered in footnotes - here's Grandgent's version:
"Hail, holy God of hosts, doubly illuminating with thy brightness the happy fires of these kingdoms."
As with many other poetic effects throughout the Commedia, a reader here has to work to bring out the sense, translating from two languages. We will want to ask why, at this point in the poem, Dante chooses to force us to become translators. What is it about translation that makes it relevant here?

Before getting to that, we might note that the first words of Justinian in Paradiso 6 speak of Constantine's transfer of the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople -- a move that in Justinian's view went contro' al corso del ciel -- "against the course of the heavens."

The words speak of two different things: moving backwards, from West to East, reversing a course that tracks the actual sun in the sky as well as going against the the will of Heaven, which was interpreted to endorse a westward path of the Roman people from Troy to Italy.

Benvenuto da Imola, writing around 1380, offered this:
Justinianus narrat tempus sui imperii, conversionem et opera: et primo vult dicere quod romanum imperium jam steterat in Graecia ducentis annis et plus post translationem factam per Constantinum quando pervenit ad manus suas.
Justinian tells the story of his reign, conversion and deeds: and he first wishes to say that the Roman empire had already been located in Greece for more than 200 years after the transfer (translationem) made by Constantine when the empire came into his hands.

Benvenuto uses the term that was both proper and customary to describe what Constantine did. The noun form, translatio, derives from the verb transfero: "to carry over, carry across." However, it took on a broader meaning, as both the online etymological dictionary and Wiktionary note:

trānslātiō f ‎(genitive trānslātiōnis); third declension Translation, in the broadest sense: the process of transferring or carrying something over from one thing to another; in particular:
  1. Translation of text from one language to another
  1. A transfer from a literal to a figurative meaning; a metaphor (compare the Ancient Greek μεταφορά with the same senses)

The use of "translation" for the relocation of Constantine was common enough that Gibbon and other English writers spoke of "the translation" of Rome. And Justinian is clear from the outset that Constantine's act was a mistranslation -- "Rome" did not easily, or successfully, translate into Constantinople.

We have remarked before upon how the Commedia often does, through its poetics, something analogous to what it is saying, or an acting out of its thematic statement. Here the poem seems to be reinforcing through these cues the suggestion that, at this moment of the Paradiso's development, translation is deeply relevant. What Justinian does in canto 6 is to find the workings of Justice in history. But also in his own life, the decision to give coherence to Roman Law came after he abandoned Monophysitism, the belief that Jesus had a single nature that was either purely divine, or a synthesis of human and divine:
And ere unto the work I was attent,
One nature to exist in Christ, [una natura in Cristo esser] not more,
Believed, and with such faith was I contented.
This thread -- of duality, of two, not one -- marks the figure of Justinian, seen for the last time after his dual-lingual song:
Così, volgendosi a la nota sua,
fu viso a me cantare essa sustanza,
sopra la qual doppio lume s'addua;
In this wise, to his melody returning,
This substance, upon which a double light
Doubles itself, was seen by me to sing. . .   (Par. 7. 4-6)
Justinians's song is double, and sings of double illumination. At the same time, the two languages are musically harmonious, and fit the rhythmic and rhyming scheme of Dante's terza rima. As he said towards the end of his speech in Canto 6:
Diverse voci fanno dolci note;
così diversi scanni in nostra vita
rendon dolce armonia tra queste rote.
Voices diverse make up sweet melodies;
So in this life of ours the seats diverse
Render sweet harmony among these spheres  (Par. 6. 124-26)
Justinian says here that diverse voci (voices, but can also mean words, vows) and scanni (seats, positions, hierarchic statuses in the Empyrean) produce harmony in, of, and by the heavenly spheres (music as formal proportion is a subset of Justice). But to say as much is merely to allege. To clarify that just translation can in fact take place, is another thing. This performance occurs in canto 7 when Justinian incorporates two languages into the structure of a third, Dante's Italian terza rima:
“Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth,  
superillustrans claritate tua  
felices ignes horum malacòth!”
Note that in accomplishing this harmony, Justinians's song preserves the differences between Latin and Hebrew. The poem acts out, formally on the plane of language, what is at stake, theologically and politically, in the speech of Justinian in canto 6:
Theologically: Each tongue retains its integrity, like the two natures of Christ, yet they harmonize into a single intelligible poetic structure. 
Politically: The Hebrew words have to do with order, an order more militant than natural: sabaòth signifies "armies," and malacòth, "kingdoms" -- a vision of different and distinct kingdoms and powers, but under one God. 
Formally: The poetic accomplishment occurs in bringing Latin and Hebrew under the control of Dante's form -- his Italian syntax and the rhythm and rhyming structure of his terza rima. 


We might even suggest a historical analogue, as the Old Testament and Roman tongues are carried over into Italian as the inheritor of the two peoples chosen by God to bring about the central act of redemption.

And it is here that the entire burden of translation is brought to bear. When Justinian and his cohort vanish like velocissime faville, it is left to Beatrice to describe the descent of the Verbo di Dio:
fin ch'al Verbo di Dio discender piacque 
u' la natura, che dal suo fattore
s'era allungata, unì a sé in persona
con l'atto sol del suo etterno amore. 

Till to descend it pleased the Word of God

To where the nature, which from its own Maker
Estranged itself, he joined to him in person
By the sole act of his eternal love.   (Par. 7. 30-33)
The salvific act of history is a translation performed by the Word of God. The Trinity - Verbo/Fattore/Amore - is at work here in this atto, culminating not so accidentally with line 33. The duality of the man-God both is a carrying over of God into man and an opening of a way for man to cross back over to God. But as both Justinian and Beatrice strive to make clear, this elaborate transference not only must be just; it must do justice to be a true translation.

To see that this is the case, it execution must in turn be translated, i.e., read. Dante's doubt has to be dispelled through a clarity that sees how the sacrifice of Jesus was both just and unjust. Those executing him justly in his dual nature in turn had to be punished with the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora of the Jews. The Good News of the crucifixion, harrowing of Hell, and resurrection has a residue, an after-echo, that is bad news for the formerly Chosen People.


To translate is a sacrificial act of liberation. To break old bounds while yet preserving them; a disruption that frees so that something impossible, just now, can be, and can be spoken. The new, as in the New Adam, is the Old Adam carried over. A new tongue.

The sparks and fires of this scene should recall the tongues of flame of Pentecost. Fire descends, contrary to its nature, bringing with it a power of translation in which the Word becomes intelligible to all tongues.

The Commedia approaches this central redemptive act of human and divine history through the double lenses of Justice and Translation, at work in the dual kingdoms of Jerusalem and Rome. It is in the act of interpreting how Justice is rendered that the singular complexity claimed for the Redemption becomes intelligible. But how intelligible is it, as of yet?

Dante, Justinian, and Beatrice might feel that the destruction of Jerusalem, like the fall of Troy, was the necessary co-efficient of just human salvation. If some readers are left with an unsettling sense of something not quite square about this judgement, some frayed or still trembling loose end that occasions reiterated harrowing acts of injustice throughout human history, this would not come as a surprise. Doubt asserts itself. Further work is needed if one is to possibly get it right. To translate well, in the end, is to find le mot juste. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not there yet.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Opening Paradiso 1-6: A working hypothesis

Raffaello Sorbi: Piccarda taken from the convent
Often close reading is a matter of attention to words -- their nuances, quirks of sense, their sound or metrical emphasis, even their literal appearance (their shape in letters and fonts). Sometimes a single word can connote a great deal.

In a recent post about Justinian's retrospective view of Roman glory, for example, we noticed certain features of his speech that didn't seem consonant with a vision of a secular state of mankind in harmony with the providential destiny of Christian souls. His dream of justice might be divine, but the reality of the armies of Rome racing behind the rapacious bird of prey seemed to fall short of that ideal.

Along the way in that speech, Caesar Augustus is called a baiulo, a porter. Whatever Augustus might have thought of that term, it does bump him down a bit. Behind this proletarianization of Rome's great emperor might lie the suggestion that humans taking credit for the existence of Justice in the world -- or historians who credit humans with such single-handed achievements -- risk falling into that irrelevant portion of law that Justinian calls il troppo e'l vano, and which he labored to excise.

A question for any reader is to consider what part of a story she/he might be missing. A good deal of commentary on the Commedia takes the canto as its basic unit. Each canto is read, annotated and commented upon, then one moves on.

Horizontal view across all three canticles

Some readers have begun to read the poem in a more dynamic mode. Hollander, for example, notes that the theme of Justice appears across all three canticles, precisely in canto 6 of each. Calling this a "horizontal" reading, he and others have illuminated how, as we progress from Ciacco to Sordello to Justinian, there's a recurrent concern with Justice, played out at different scales:
Inferno 6:  Ciacco -- city -- Florence
Purgatorio 6: Sordello -- nation -- Italy
Paradiso 6: Justinian -- empire -- Troy-Rome-Holy Roman Empire
The differences between Francesca, La Pia, and Piccarda in their respective cantos are similarly meaningful. Each canticle benefits from comparison with the others, and the sense of an exponential scaling up, from intimate local concerns (Ciacco's entire life revolves around his stomach) to a perspective that looks across all known time and space, contributes to the sweep of the Commedia as a whole.

So the reader will listen, compare, contemplate the echoes and differences across the canticles and find plenty to think about.

Dynamic development within groups of cantos

There's yet another way of approaching the poem to consider, one that breaks the cantos' frames to explore the movement between them in search of the structuring logic of larger "plot" components. As argued in several earlier posts here, the initial movement of the poem explores matters of knowing, illusion, and natural grounds for belief. it then moves to the nature of the will, which leads to an inquiry into the nature of vows.

Standing back to look at this development on a more macro level, we can describe a movement from interiority -- the self grappling with questions of what it can know and will -- to volitional acts -- nuns' vows as an example of all vows, intentions, promises -- which leads to a concern with external action, rule, judgment, and the deployment of power over the peoples of the world.

Formally the poem goes from early dialogue between Dante and Beatrice to the more drama-like encounter with Piccarda and Costanza, and Beatrice's clarification of doubts arising from their words. Then, passing from the fickle moon to self-concealing Mercury, we find no dialogue, but a compressed vision of history spoken by one speaker.

This development takes the form of the extraordinary leap from the cloistered consciousness of the nuns to the emperor who imposed reason upon the imperial code of laws. Dante has given us two extremes -- between them is the space given to human intellect and will to think, decide, and act.

So at least for now, given our reading of Paradiso 1-6, I offer a tentative working hypothesis that Dante opens the third canticle with a procession of themes that move from epistemology to praxis, contemplation to action, interior reflection to the imposition of rule -- and the rule of rules -- upon the world. The logic of the development is quite clear; I'd argue that it flows with an internal necessity. In a later post, I'll try to talk about why this is the case.

As this opening movement has unfolded we have seen the will as fire, the intellect as wild beast (fera in lustra). Although we are in Paradiso, beyond the earthly limits of time and space, what is under examination is the same human nature we find right here, right now, every breathing moment.

Nothing as of yet in the opening development of this canticle depends upon Revelation, divine grace, or power from a source beyond the human. Beatrice might find her truth in the Deity, but what she has taught us so far helps us understand ourselves, and see the lengthening shadow of mankind moving through time, on Earth.

Justinian: Mosaic at Ravenna

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Rape: The predatory eagle of history

When one wants to indicate that something is right, fair, or fitting in modern Italian, one often uses the word giusto. If someone says something that is in accord with one's own views, you might say it with the same intonation as we would say "right" -- giusto!

Paradiso 6 is entirely the speech of Justinian,
Cesare fui e son Iustinïano
and, while it might not seem so at first glance, it is entirely concerned with the nature of justice.

It might not seem so because in some ways, it is a very one-sided canto. Justinian does all the talking, He compresses the history of Rome from the time of the Trojan War to the reign of Charlemagne into 62 lines, describing a zig-zag course of violence, rape and conquest that hardly intimates the presence or evolution of justice -- human or divine.

And he describes that history not as a chronicle of larger than life human actors whose intentions and actions dictate the course of events, but rather from the perspective of the Roman segno, the eagle that was the insignia of the legions of Rome. Segno of course can mean battle standard, but its root sense is "sign." From Justinian's perch on Mercury, viewing the eagle's course 745 years after his own death, what stands out from Roman world dominion is an alignment by virtue of which all the wars, conquests, rapes and subjugation enacted under the that sign made possible the justified, violent death of Jesus and the justified, violent destruction of the capital of Scripture.

Try telling this story to a disinterested bystander and see if she or he says "giusto!".  Nothing about this odd and seemingly squint-eyed view of the historic record seems just. If we don't find this asymmetry puzzling, we might be missing the neck-snapping vision of Justice at work here.

As Justinian tells his tale, beginning with the death of Pallas and marking key moments by citing predatory rapes (the Sabine women, Lucretia), the eagle emerges as the emblematic figure that winds through 1600 years of Roman power. Justinian calls it the uccel di Dio, the bird of God. If we regard its sordid history, the god in question seems more like Zeus, who carried off Ganymede --

- or the eagle said to be crafted by Hephaistos, at the bidding of his father, to devour Prometheus's liver:

When Julius Caesar is seen briefly in Inferno 4, he is described as having occhi grifagni -- a raptor's eyes. The eagle that subjugated the known world to the Imperium Romanum seems closer in spirit to Caesar than to the Holy Spirit.

The more we look at the astonishing abbreviation of Roman history in canto 6, the harder it is to justify any more beneficent view of the eagle or its accomplishments. Yet the one telling the tale is the emperor who devoted his reign to removing the troppo e'l vano from the body of Roman law, a vast undertaking that imposed order upon that corpus that became the template for human justice after the fall of Rome. If anyone understood something about justice, it's Justinian. It just doesn't fit.

If we wrestle with this a bit, there is one thing we can say about Justinian: he does justice to the complexity of justice in human history. Nothing is minimized or glossed over. If he'd given us a tale of noble rulers who never told a lie, whose greatness is a monument to themselves, in whose giant shadows we stand, or roost, like tourists, or pigeons, we'd sense the lie and likely turn away. Even Augustus, credited by all historians with achieving the Pax Romana, is not named -- he's simply the baiulo -- a porter bearing the segno.*

Dante's Justinian puts no lipstick on the pig; his history is a tale of sound and fury, error and compulsion, violence, vendetta and vengeance, following blindly in the wake of the eagle. It is the sign that moves history along -- those who follow it have no idea of the purpose, the sacred murder, toward which it moves.

Paradiso 7 will return to this enigma -- because Dante, like us, has doubt. The tale of Roman history provokes doubt just as did Beatrice's tale of the vows of Piccarda and Costanza in canto 5. As the pilgrim noted there, doubt, uncertainty, and the perception of things that do not fit spur the intellect to further understanding.

Paradiso 6 doesn't rest here - it tells the tale of Romeo, a figure that clearly has allegorical dimensions, pointing, at least, to the historical reality of Dante Alighieri. In this tale of a good and just man who is treated as if he were the opposite, a man who served his master well only to be rewarded with exile and penury, we may sense the heartbreak of the poet. Perhaps we should sense as well the heartbreak of another. One who made a very fine creature, called it Adam, to whom he gave all his creation. And watched as Adam fell into the insane turbulence of human history.
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm. 
       -- Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, IX.

*The root, bājŭlusdoes not convey dignity, and extends to mean "day laborer." Also, interestingly:

A. A bearer at a funeralAmm. 14, 7, 17Sid. Ep. 3, 12Aug. Ep. 19 ad Hier. 2; cf.: “vespillones dicti sunt bajuli,” Fulg. Expos. Serm. p. 558. —
B. A letter-carrierHier. Ep. 6 ad Julian. 1; Cod. Th. 2, 27, 1, § 2; cf.: “boni nuntii,” Vulg. 2 Reg. 18, 22.