Friday, September 30, 2016

Vampiric Mimesis: Farinata and the living blood of history

If Auerbach's Mimesis tells a story, it's not one that is obvious or simply summarized. His close reading of passages from widely disparate times requires some tenacity to weave into a narrative. The reader at times feels he's been left to do the work of making connections among ganglia that hover on all sides.

At moments, though, Auerbach will yoke expanses of history. Time, instead of flowing uniformly, has long inert periods that undergo sudden seizures that leave imprints on all that comes after. It can be like visiting an archaeological dig, and finding, beneath the structure of one age, that of another. Here's James I. Porter connecting two passages from Mimesis:
Christianity could not, however, have succeeded without the lessons it learned from Judaism’s capacity first to conceive and interpret the world historically (based on its notion of universal, “world-historical” events) and then to organize this history into a single coherent transcendental order (Mimesis 17). In doing so, Christianity inherited not merely a religious sensibility, but an ineluctable antagonism: “the antagonism between sensory appearance and meaning, an antagonism which permeates the early, and indeed the whole, Christian view of reality” (Mimesis 49).
Introduction to Time, History, and Literature:  Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach, xxvii. Page references work for the edition of Mimesis we've been using.
Christianity, which Auerbach sees as the primary organizing principle of history even to our day, has a substratum that is unlike it -- an order that is manifest in Judaism. Judaism is profoundly different, radically other than Christianity, yet the latter, learning its "lessons," was shaped fundamentally by this previous order, which it immediately set about re-interpreting. That reinterpretation was so complete as to devalue, even to deface, the legacy that Christians inherited. 

Whatever else is involved in that "antagonism" Auerbach speaks of, it's fairly clear that between Jerusalem and Rome there was never a harmonious synthesis, or syncretism. Auerbach sees rupture:
History for Auerbach is marked by two major ruptures, each constituting moments when vertical, transcendental meaning is shattered in the course of the horizontal, forward propulsion of history, while history is etched in turn with the scars of these traumatic unfoldings, and so acquires a depth of its own. First there is the devaluation (Entwertung) of Judaism through Christianity . . . Porter ibid xxvii.
Nearly at the last page of Dante: Poet of the Secular World, Auerbach will see in Christianity the seeds of its own supercession:
With the discovery of individual destiny, modern mimesis discovered the person. It lifted him out of the two-dimensional irreality of a remoteness that was only constructed or imagined and placed him in the realm of history, which is his true home. . . . The immanent realism and historicism that are found in the eschatology of the Comedy flowed back into actual history and filled it with the lifeblood of authentic truth. . . . Radiating out from here, history as such— the life of the human being as this is given and in its earthly character— underwent a vitalization and acquired a new value. (178)
It is this "lifeblood of authentic truth" that Auerbach sees in Farinata's commanding presence, even in his tomb; in Cavalcante's grieving; in the power of Dante's poetics to move the reader in ways that draw away from, rather than toward, the remote godhead:
Even the Comedy barely manages to subdue the wild spirits of life within the framework of its eschatology, and one senses how quickly and forcefully these spirits will soon prise themselves loose from their constraints.
Somehow it seems that this sanguinaceous theme -- one that runs throughout Auerbach's work -- is always within earshot of Farinata -- as if this wild spirit who rises with the apostrophaic "O Tosco" is always about to break out of the eternal walls of hell itself.

If time permits, I hope to briefly return to Inferno 10 with this in mind.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Another way to be introduced to Dante

We've spent a month with a couple of chapters from Eric Auerbach's Mimesis; let's hope it's been beneficial both as an objective example of close reading, and as a provocative, if complex, examination of significant elements of Dante's poetics. Alas, the last we saw of Auerbach, he was darkly pointing toward the eclipse of God -- an enigmatic pronouncement that we more or less agreed we don't know enough to understand.

For those who might be interested, Auerbach's earlier book, Dante: Poet of the Secular World is readily available and perhaps more accessible as an introduction to the poet. It's a fluent work that holds a larger historical framework in view even as it offers fresh insights in prose that is never dull. While it contains close readings, it also covers large swaths of cultural movement, and offers superb, almost portrait-like impressions of the early medieval allegorists, the courtly love poets of Provence and the Stilnovisti of Italy, among much more.

For what it's worth, I can't think of any better introduction to the voice, the work, and the scope of Dante Alighieri than Auerbach's Dante.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mimesis Chapter 8: The eclipse of God

These are some of the key passages toward the end of Mimesis Chapter 8, Farinata and Cavalcante:
Of the writers we know, he was the first to have direct access to the poet Virgil. Virgil, much more than medieval theory, developed his feeling of style and his conception of the sublime. Through him he learned to break the all too narrow pattern of the Provencal and contemporary Italian "suprema constructio." Yet as he approached the problem of his great work, which was to come into being under the sign of Virgil, it was the other, the more immediately present, the more living traditions which overwhelmed him. His great work proved to be in the mixed style and figural, and indeed in the mixed style as a result of the figural approach. It proved to be a comedy; it proved to be-also in terms of style-Christian. (198)
 Let him say what he will; let it be as vulgar, grotesque, horrible, or sneering as may be: the tone remains that of the elevated style. It is impossible to imagine that the realism of the Comedy could ever sink to the level of farce and serve the purposes of popular entertainment, as the realism of the Christian drama so often does. 
Before Dante, vernacular literature-especially that of Christian inspiration-is on the whole rather naive so far as questions of style are concerned, and that despite the influence of scholastic rhetoric-an influence which of late has been rather heavily emphasized. But Dante, although he takes his material from the most living and sometimes from the humblest vernacular, has lost this naive quality. He subdues every turn of expression to the gravity of his tone, and when he sings of the divine order of things, he solves his problem by using periodic articulations and devices of sentence structure which command gigantic masses of thought and concatenations of events; since Antiquity nothing comparable had existed in literature (one example may stand for many: Inf. II, 13-36).  (199)
[Of Farinata and Cavalcante]: Yet never before has this realism been carried so far; never before-scarcely even in Antiquity-has so much art and so much expressive power been employed to produce an almost painfully immediate impression of the earthly reality of human beings. (199)
In the very heart of the other world, he created a world of earthly beings and passions so powerful that it breaks bounds and proclaims its independence. Figure surpasses fulfillment, or more properly: the fulfillment serves to bring out the figure in still more impressive relief. We cannot but admire Farinata and weep with Cavalcante. What actually moves us is not that God has damned them, but that the one is unbroken and the other mourns so heartrendingly for his son and the sweetness of the light. Their horrible situation, their doom, serves only, as it were, as a means of heightening the effect of these completely earthly emotions. (200)
The essence of the matter, what we have in mind, is not restricted to Hell nor, on the other hand, to Dante's admiration or sympathy. All through the poem there are instances in which the effect of the earthly figure and its earthly destiny surpasses or is subserved by the effect produced by its eternal situation. Certainly, the the damned, Francesca da Rimini, Farinata, Brunetto Latini, or Pier della Vigna, are also good examples in support of my view; but it seems to me that the emphasis is not where it belongs if only such instances are adduced, for a doctrine of salvation in which the eternal destiny depends upon grace and repentance can no more dispense with such figures in Hell than it can with virtuous pagans in Limbo. But as soon as we ask why Dante was the first who so strongly felt the tragic quality in such figures and expressed it with all the overwhelming power of genius, the field of speculation immediately broadens. For all earthly things of which he laid hold, Dante handles with the same power. Cavalcante is not great, and figures like Ciacco the glutton or the insanely irate Filippo Argenti he treats now with sympathetic contempt, now with disgust. Yet that does not prevent the portrayal of earthly passions in these instances from far surpassing, in their wholly individual fulfillment in the beyond, the portrayal of a collective punishment, nor the latter from frequently only heightening the effect of the former. This holds true even of the elect in Purgatory and Paradise. Casella singing one of Dante's canzoni and those who listen to him (Purg. II), Buonconte telling of his death and what became of his body (Purg. V), Statius kneeling before his master Virgil (Purg. XXI), the young King of Hungary, Carlo Martello of Anjou, who so charmingly expresses his friendship for Dante (Par. IX), Dante's ancestor Cacciaguida, proud, old-fashioned, and full of the civic history of Florence (Par. XV-XVII), even the Apostle Peter (Par. XXVII), and how many others, open before us a world of earthly-historical life, of earthly deeds, endeavors, feelings, and passions, the like of which the earthly scene itself can hardly produce in such abundance and power. Certainly they are all set fast in God's order, certainly a great Christian poet has the right to preserve earthly humanity in the beyond, to preserve the figure in its fulfillment and to perfect the one and the other to the best of his capabilities. But Dante's great art carries the matter so far that the effect becomes earthly, and the listener is all too occupied by the figure in the fulfillment. The beyond becomes a stage for human beings and human passions. (200-201)

 But the fullness of life which Dante incorporates into that interpretation is so rich and so strong that its manifestations force their way into the listener's soul, independently of any interpretation. 
When we hear Cavalcante's outburst: non fiere li occhi suoi il dolce lome? or read the beautiful, gentle, and enchantingly feminine line which Pia de' Tolomei utters before she asks Dante to remember her on earth (e riposato de la lunga via, Purg. V, 131), we experience an emotion which is concerned with human beings and not directly with the divine order in which they have found their fulfillment. (201)
 And by virtue of this immediate and admiring sympathy with man, the principle, rooted in the divine order, of the indestructibility of the whole, historical, and individual against that order; makes it subservient to its own purposes, and obscures it. The image of man eclipses the image of God. Dante’s work made man's Christian-figural being a reality, and destroyed it in the very process of realizing it. (202)
In this fulfillment, the figure becomes independent: even in Hell there are great souls, and certain souls in Purgatory can for a moment forget the path of purification for the sweetness of a poem, the work of human frailty. (202)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Inferno 10

While our plan is to discuss Erich Auerbach's chapter entitled "Farinata and Cavalcante" (Mimesis ch. 8) on Wednesday, we might also look at Inferno 10 itself. The canto seems to hold special resonance for Auerbach, whose discussion, which gets deeply involved in the textual folds of one scene, goes far beyond it, with a surprising twist.

The Dartmouth version of canto 10 is here. It begins:

Ora sen va per un secreto calle,
tra 'l muro de la terra e li martìri,
lo mio maestro, e io dopo le spalle.

“O virtù somma, che per li empi giri
mi volvi,” cominciai, “com' a te piace,
parlami, e sodisfammi a' miei disiri.

La gente che per li sepolcri giace
potrebbesi veder? già son levati
tutt' i coperchi, e nessun guardia face.” 

Now onward goes, along a narrow path
  Between the torments and the city wall,
  My Master, and I follow at his back.

"O power supreme, that through these impious circles
  Turnest me," I began, "as pleases thee,
  Speak to me, and my longings satisfy;

The people who are lying in these tombs,
  Might they be seen? already are uplifted
  The covers all, and no one keepeth guard."

Monday, September 12, 2016

The voyage of Mimesis - some notes

It was our thought last week to stay with Erich Auerbach for one more session. Last time we talked about "Odysseus' Scar," the first chapter of Mimesis. Next time we plan to discuss Chapter 8, "Farinata and Cavalcante."

I intend to put a few notes here this week about Auerbach. He is a ferociously difficult reader to read. He will devote a page to describing the effects produced by a particular word - as he does in Farinata and Cavalcante, for example, with the word "allor," which basically in Italian means "then": 

The second change of scene is managed through the words "Allor surse," in line 52. It seems simpler and less remarkable than the first. What, after all, is more normal than to introduce a sudden new occurrence with the words, "Then it befel . . .? But if we ask ourselves where in pre-Dantean medieval vernacular literature we might find a comparable linguistic maneuver, interrupting the action in course by a dramatically incisive "then," we should, I think, have a long search before us. I for one know of none. Allora at the beginning of a sentence is naturally quite frequent in Italian literature before Dante. It occurs for instance in the stories of the Novellino but with much less force of meaning. Such sharp breaks are in keeping with neither the style nor the time-sense of pre-Dantean narrative, not even with those of the French epics, where ez vos or atant ez vos occurs in a similar though much weaker sense (for example, Roland 413). That even extremely dramatic turnings of the tide of action were handled with stiff circumstantiality may be observed for example in Villehardouin when he relates the intervention of the Doge of Venice at the storming of Constantinople. When his men hesitate to land, the aged and blind Doge orders them upon pain of death to set him ashore first, with the flag of Saint Mark. This the chronicler introduces with the words: or porrez oir estrange proece. Which is just as though Dante, instead of allora, had said, "And then something quite extraordinary happened." The Old French ez vos may serve to point the way as we try to find the correct Latin term for this abruptly intervening "then." For it is not tum or tunc; in many cases it is rather sed or iam. But the real equivalent, which gives the full force, is ecce, or still better et ecce. This is found less frequently in the elevated style than in Plautus, in Cicero's letters, in Apuleius, etc., and especially in the Vulgate. When Abraham takes the knife to sacrifice his son Isaac, we read: et ecce Angelus Domini de caelo clamavit, dicens: Abraham, Abraham. I think this linguistic maneuver, which effects so sharp an interruption, is too harsh to stem from the elevated style of classical Latin; but it corresponds perfectly with the elevated style of the Bible. And furthermore, Dante uses the Biblical et ecce verbatim on another occasion where a state of affairs is interrupted by a sudden, though not quite so dramatic, occurrence (Purg. XXI, 7: ed ecco, si come ne scrive Luca . . . ci apparve . . . after Luke xxiv, I3: et ecce duo ex illis . . .). I am not prepared to state as a certainty that Dante introduced the linguistic maneuver of this abruptly interrupting "then" into the elevated style and that it was a Biblical echo with him. But this much would seem to be certain: at the time Dante wrote, the dramatically arresting "then" was by no means as obvious and generally available as it is today; and he used it more radically than any other medieval writer before him.

But we must also consider the meaning and the sound of the word surse, which Dante uses in at least one other passage with telling effect to describe a sudden emergence (Purg. VI, 72-73: e l'ombra tutta in se romita / surse ver lui . . .). The allor surse of line 52, then, has hardly less weight than the words of Farinata which bring in the first interruption; this allor is one of those paratactic forms which establish a dynamic relationship between the members they connect. The conversation with Farinata is interrupted--once he has heard part of it, Cavalcante cannot wait for it to end, he simply loses his self-control. And the part he plays--his peering expression, his whining words, and his precipitate despair when he sinks back-forms a sharp contrast with Farinata's weighty calm when he resumes speaking after the third shift (11. 73 ff.).

Auerbach's ear, moulded by years of listening to the phrasing and rhythms of poets in several languages, is a Stradivarius, and he is its maestro. In Dante's use of what most would take for a simple, everyday word, he detects tonalities that deepen our appreciation of the dramatic power of this scene.

What makes talking about Auerbach difficult -- aside from the fact that few readers today have half a smidgen of his linguistic competence and cultural awareness -- is that these focused specific passages serve as multi-leveled specimens in an ongoing contemplative conversation that Auerbach is having with 2500 years of literary language, conceived, at times, as one giant developing thing. Not only is all of his reading brought to bear upon single passages, but multiple skeins of arguments branch out from them, often emerging as he moves from the particular -- the allor above -- to statements of a far more general nature.

He says this, for example, shortly after the above passage:
. . . if we start from his predecessors, Dante's language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle. There were great poets among them. But, compared with theirs, his style is so immeasurably richer in directness, vigor, and subtlety, he knows and uses such an immeasurably greater stock of forms, he expresses the most varied phenomena and subjects with such immeasurably superior assurance and firmness, that we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew.
This power, assurance and mastery of various forms then becomes a factor in why Dante's poetry can violate the classical canon of the separation of styles -- a feature which caused Goethe to speak of his "repulsive and often disgusting greatness" -- without departing from the gravitas of a unique sublimity. Take a descriptive statement of this kind:
Themes which cannot possibly be considered sublime in the antique sense turn out to be just that by virtue of his way of molding and ordering them.
It moves -- leaps -- to a far more general claim that seems to include aesthetic judgment, critical distinction, and the hyperbolic evocation of a poetic power that knows no bounds, and owes no fealty to any generic rule, ordering principle, or stylistic norm:
For nowhere could one find so clear an instance of the antagonism of the two traditions -- that of antiquity, with the principle of the separation of styles, and that of the Christian era, with its mingling of styles -- as in Dante's powerful temperament, which is conscious of both because its aspiration toward the tradition of antiquity does not imply for it the possibility of abandoning the other; nowhere does mingling of styles come so close to violation of all style.  (Italics mine).
In a very basic sense, Mimesis is a voyage that takes us from the basic syntax and diction of texts to moments that seem to be contemplating not one passage or poem, but a vast recollection of poems. 

With so much arising from particular close readings, it's more than ordinarily challenging to identify the key articulations of an overarching narrative. We certainly need to be asking: What story is Mimesis telling? Before leaping to facile conceptual formulations, though, careful readers might wish to pause and work through the details.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Four pieces on Auerbach

Time, History and Literature gathers a substantial number of previously uncollected essays by the German critical philologist Erich Auerbach. Published by Princeton in 2013, the essays were translated by Jane O. Newman, with an introduction by James I. Porter.

For those interested in becoming better acquainted with Auerbach, below are links to four essays that explore his work. 

Earthly Happenings - James Ley, Sydney Review

By carefully tracing the meaning of the Latin term figura from its earliest usage, Auerbach demonstrates that initially it signified only a material object, but over time acquired additional abstracted connotations. For Auerbach, the duality of the term — the way it comes to embrace both materiality and abstraction — is related to the conflict he identifies in the Judaeo-Christian tradition between the ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ perspectives. The idea that an event might have a figural as well as a literal meaning allows history to be conceived as something more than a chronicle of happenings. It raises the possibility that history may not be (as Arnold Toynbee is supposed to have quipped) just one damn thing after another, but something with a shape and meaning, something with an underlying coherence and purpose, something that invites comprehension on a large scale. 
The figural interpretation of reality, writes Auerbach,
creates a connection between two events or persons in which one signifies not only itself but also the other — and that one is also encompassed or fulfilled by the other. The two poles of the figure are separate in time, but they both also lie within time as real events or figures. As I have repeatedly emphasised, both figures are part of the ongoing flow of historical life.

Arthur Krystal, "The Book of Books: Erich Auerbach and the Making of Mimesis"
“Mimesis,” too, may have taken its bearings from German cultural politics. The book’s compelling first chapter, “Odysseus’ Scar,” which contrasts Book 19 of the Odyssey with Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, lays out the differences in attitude and articulation between the Homeric epic and Hebrew Scripture. But because the discussion pivots on the binding of Isaac and Abraham’s reflexive anxiety—one of several Biblical scenes forbidden in German schools—the chapter can also be viewed as Auerbach’s nod to Jewish martyrdom. At least one Auerbach scholar wants to take this even further, claiming that Auerbach was “pressing philology in the direction of something utterly unheard: a new resistant, if implicit, Jewish philology.”

Edward Said, Introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Mimesis
Auerbach's choice of Dante to represent the second seminal moment in Western literary history is made to seem breathtakingly appropriate. Read slowly and reflectively, chapter 8 of Mimesis, "Farinata and Cavalcante," is one of the great moments in modern critical literature, a masterly, almost vertiginous embodiment of Auerbach's own ideas about Dante: that the Divine Comedy synthesized the timeless and the historical because of Dante's genius, and that Dante's use of the demotic (or vulgar) Italian language in a sense enabled the creation of what we have come to call literature.
James I. Porter, Introduction to Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach

A superb, in-depth look at Auerbach's far-reaching insights into literary language and its relation to culture, history, and our sense of ourselves.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Some references in Auerbach's chapter 1

Erich Auerbach focuses mainly on two scenes in his discussion of the roots of Western modes of representation -- the scene with Euryklea in Odyssey Book 19, and the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. We might want to think about the paradigmatic elements of these two texts - one a scene of return and recognition, the other a suspenseful tale of command and sacrifice.

But he alludes to several other tales as well. Here are links to some of the texts in Auerbach's chapter, "Odysseus' Scar," from Mimesis.
Odysseus and Euryclea

Abraham and Isaac

Hermes' visit to Calypso

David and Absalom

David and Joab

2 Samuel 18

Patroclus in battle

Jacob and Joseph 

Pliny's Letter to Trajan 

Nagy on Sappho and Homeric song

A key distinction made by Erich Auerbach in "Odysseus' Scar," the first chapter of Mimesis, comes through his differentiation of legend and history:
Now the difference between legend and history is in most cases easily perceived by a reasonably experienced reader.. . . .Their structure is different. Even where the legendary does not immediately betray itself by elements of the miraculous, by the repetition of well-known standard motives, typical patterns and themes, through neglect of clear details of time and place, and the like, it is generally quickly recognizable by its composition. It runs far too smoothly. All cross-currents, all friction, all that is casual, secondary to the main events and themes, everything unresolved, truncated, and uncertain, which confuses the clear progress of the action and the simple orientation of the actors, has disappeared. The historical event which we witness, or learn from the testimony of those who witnessed it, runs much more variously, contradictorily, and confusedly; not until it has produced results in a definite domain are we able, with their help, to classify it to a certain extent; and how often the order to which we think we have attained becomes doubtful again, how often we ask ourselves if the data before us have not led us to a far too simple classification of the original events!
The distinguished Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy describes Homeric remembering as linked to oral song:
The process of remembering in ancient Greek song culture requires a special medium,song. When I say song here, I include poetry, even though the word poetry in modern usage is understood to be different from song. In the ancient Greek song culture, however, both poetry and song are understood to be a medium of singing. And such singing is an oral tradition. The epic poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey derives from such an oral tradition of singing, which is a process of composition-in-performance. That is, composition is an aspect of performance and vice versa. In this kind of oral tradition, there is no script, since the technology of writing is not required for composition-in-performance. In Homeric poetry, the basic medium of remembering is heroic song or kleos
On Tuesday, Sept. 6, Prof. Nagy will offer a talk relating this notion of song to the work of Sappho. The talk will be offered live online here at 11:30 am.