Saturday, October 29, 2016

Diligence, delight, and the slippery slope of mimesis - (Par. 18)

A clear change occurs between the pilgrim's doubts, vulnerabilities, and potentially erroneous seductions at the beginning of Paradiso 18 and the poet who by its end is raining down caustic judgment upon the Pope in Avignon.

Tracing the itinerary that goes from diffidence to righteous anger is not simple, and this can only be a sketch of a complex transformation. What's unquestionable is that the acidic language that concludes the canto pours from a man who is no longer bedeviled by worries about his memory, his speaking (parlar) or his guide.

When Dante, obeying Beatrice's order to look away from her, hears Cacciaguida calling upon warriors, he sees linguistic power. Cacciaguida is calling out names, but the effect is of a commander summoning troops. This is the imperative mode, where one does not seek knowledge, but rather commands action. Cacciaguida speaks and the souls take fire and shoot across the giant cross.

The next moment, Dante experiences the transition to the sixth sphere. It's compared to an ethical experience:
And as, by feeling greater delectation,
  A man in doing good from day to day
  Becomes aware his virtue is increasing, 
E come, per sentir più dilettanza
 bene operando, l'uom di giorno in giorno
 s'accorge che la sua virtute avanza, (18:58-60)
Notice the emphasis upon action -- the man in the simile, is bene operando -- doing good, and from the doing, he feels more delight each day. Feeling "good" is a sign that makes him aware of his advancing virtute. The knowledge of virtue and delight in its exercise comes from the practice of it, rather than the other way around. 

The Latin root of dilettanza is delectare -- to charm, to entice -- while the past participle of diligere -- to esteem, love, choose -- is dilecto.

The difference in meaning between delectare, "to charm as an enticement," and diligo -- "I choose" -- is not small. It's the difference between an unruly world driven by random eros and a world directed by clear, conscious, diligent intent. One needs to spell with care to avoid confusion, and the righteous rulers of Jupiter -- a vast number of souls -- are about to spell this out letter by letter, in the imperative mode:
diligite iustitiam qui iudicatis terram
Love justice, you that are the judges of the earth. 
When the poet tells us his sense of expanding to Jupiter's wider arc is like one who feels an internal sense of delight born of choosing virtue, he's binding together diligence (diligere) and delight (delectio). This yoking of seeming opposites leads to the tempered realm of judicious wisdom, which at least for the Greeks speaks to the root of joviality. 

The canto shifts from its opening anxieties to spectacle. But would we call it jovial? In any event, the canto's tone doesn't remain in that temperate zone. 

The Hebrews -- and the Book of Wisdom, which has traits of both Hebraic and Greek traditions -- put less emphasis on the delectable nature of wisdom. In chapter 14, we are explicitly told to beware the insidious dangers of figuration:
15 For a father being afflicted with bitter grief, made to himself the image (imaginem) of his son who was quickly taken away: and him who then had died as a man, he began now to worship as a god, and appointed him rites and sacrifices among his servants.
16 Then in process of time, wicked custom prevailing, this error was kept as a law, and statues (figmenta) were worshipped by the commandment of tyrants.
17 And those whom men could not honor in presence, because they dwelt far off, they brought their resemblance (figura) from afar, and made an express image of the king whom they had a mind to honour: that by this their diligence, they might honour as present, him that was absent. . . .
18 And to worshiping of these, the singular diligence also of the artificer helped to set forward the ignorant.
19 For he being willing to please him that employed him, laboured (figuraret) with all his art to make the resemblance (similitudinem) in the best manner.
20 And the multitude of men, carried away by the beauty of the work, took him now for a god that a little before was but honored as a man.
21 And this was the occasion of deceiving human life: for men serving either their affection, or their kings, gave the incommunicable (incommunicabile) name to stones and wood.. . .
27 For the worship (cultura) of abominable (infandorum) idols is the cause, and the beginning and end of all evil. Wisdom 14
The story line here from a "father afflicted with bitter grief" to the "beginning and end of all evil" is a perilously slippery slope -- the slope of mimesis. As Auerbach took pains to present in his book of that name, mimetic representation is the strong suit of the Greeks -- not a delight to the Hebrews.

The danger noted earlier that is posed to the poet by his guide, Beatrice, bright mirror of the divine, was precisely that it can end in worshiping her. She is not an end, but a guide. 

The same deviance will curse Pope John xxii. But what transpires to protect the poet? I will offer some suggestions in one (hopefully) last post on Paradiso 18.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Non pur ne'miei occhi": A poet's doubt (Par. 18)

At the very moment in Paradiso 17 that the poet has finished listening to Cacciaguida's foretelling of his future, and immediately preceding the advice the old man will give him about the poem he'll go on to write, we have the image of weaving:
Poi che, tacendo, si mostrò spedita
l'anima santa di metter la trama
in quella tela ch'io le porsi ordita,
When by its silence showed that sainted soul
That it had finished putting in the woof
Into that web which I had given it warped, (17.100-102)
The image is of a tela - a web, or textile, which serves as the metaphor for the text they both are weaving. The poet puts down the warp (ordita), the old man provides the woof, or weft (trama). 
 Paradiso 17 ends with Cacciaguida's heartfelt encouragement to 
Make manifest thy vision utterly,
  And let them scratch wherever is the itch.
At this key moment of the canticle, we might assume that with these marching orders, the poet needed no further resolve to complete the poem, the very reason he was shown, in fact,
                                within these wheels,
Upon the mount and in the dolorous valley,
Only the souls that unto fame are known.
So it's all the more surprising when, at the opening of the next canto (18) we hear the poet, still on Mars, still tasting his great great grandfather's bittersweet word (verbo), now speak openly of abandoning his task:
Not only that my language I distrust,
  But that my mind cannot return so far
  Above itself, unless another guide it.
non perch' io pur del mio parlar diffidi,
ma per la mente che non può redire
sovra sé tanto, s'altri non la guidi.  (18.10-12)
Not only is Dante, like Theseus, helpless here to find his way back to memory without an Ariadne, he's also diffident about his parlar - his speaking. For one whose mission is to bring back his journey, a guide is on hand -- but for a poet to lack trust in his own speaking, this sounds like a crisis of faith.

To further complicate things, the guide whom he turns to -- "the Lady who to God was leading me" -- mirrors such love and beauty that he is entranced to the point of seduction:
her again beholding, my affection
  From every other longing was released.

While the eternal pleasure, which direct
  Rayed upon Beatrice, from her fair face
  Contented me with its reflected (secondo) aspect,
rimirando lei, lo mio affetto
libero fu da ogne altro disire,

fin che 'l piacere etterno, che diretto
raggiava in Bëatrice, dal bel viso
mi contentava col secondo aspetto.
Beatrice, the guide and symbol whose precise mission is to lead the pilgrim beyond himself, comes perilously close here to turning into the obstacle -- a Siren, Calypso, or Ariadne -- who threatens to waylay the hero, freeing him from desire to go beyond her.

Quite a predicament: a poet whose mastery of his own speech is uncertain; who, even if he felt secure, would yet be unable to remember what to say unless he has a guide; a guide who in this case happens to be so inherently beautiful as almost to blot out anything beyond her luminous self. Indeed, Beatrice verges on the opposite of a translucent symbol, teetering on becoming an end in herself, a Medusa before whom the poet would seize up, speechless, and end his odyssey right here.

This is not at all what canto 17 set us up for. At the same time, despite the clear details that would render some poets entirely aphasic -- the segmented self lacking confidence in his ability to be at one with speech and memory, entranced by a secondo who's so perfect her smile could persuade us she's the primo -- the text does not exhibit anything like the shattering doubt and anxiety found in Inferno 9, when the Furies called on Medusa to end the poet's progress then and there, once and for all.

All the threats a poet might fear are in play here, but Beatrice is no Siren. Instead of holding him captive, she directs Dante to look away from the very thing he just said he could not do without -- herself:
Conquering me with the radiance of a smile,
  She said to me, "Turn thee about and listen;
  Not in mine eyes alone is Paradise." 
Vincendo me col lume d'un sorriso,
ella mi disse: “Volgiti e ascolta;
ché non pur ne' miei occhi è paradiso.”
Non pur ne'miei occhi, says Beatrice. "Not in my eyes alone." If the poet were not who he is, we might hear him say, "Not a problem - you're paradisal enough for me."

Beatrice's direction is the opposite of what Virgil instructed him to do before Dis:
"Turn thyself round [i.e., away from Medusa], and keep thine eyes close shut," 
“Volgiti 'n dietro e tien lo viso chiuso;"
Here in Paradise, as Beatrice directed, he turns away from her, and sees Cacciaguida do something unprecedented in the poem: The old man speaks a name, and the hero so named shoots across the radius of the giant cross on the red planet. Words assume power, speech and act are one. 
né mi fu noto il dir prima che 'l fatto.

nor noted I the word before the deed.
For a poet struggling with his own power over his art, this would be a powerful thing to witness. The poet's last word about Cacciaguida -- who is singing, his face lit up with his soul's fervor -- is "artista."

The poet is openly coming to grips with the challenges to his power over his medium. Now that he's been given the warp and weft of his place in history, his future, and his mission as artist, it's as if he needs more than ever to make sure that he, as poet, can finish the job. He needs confidence, guidance, faith, and courage. In another post we'll see how the rest of canto 18 speaks to these literally literary matters.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Triangulating pilgrim and poet: Cacciaguida's manifesto

Paradiso 17 has a centrality that makes itself apparent on several registers. It's the literal center of the canticle, and it's also a moment when, through dialog with Cacciaguida, the poet recapitulates the journey he has taken, and confronts his "root." That radice turns out to be the source of the pilgrim's historical existence as well as the figure that articulates the poem's rhetorical mode. 

The journey of the pilgrim is recapped at least three times in the canto. The first is here:
mentre ch'io era a Virgilio congiunto
 su per lo monte che l'anime cura
 e discendendo nel mondo defunto,
dette mi fuor di mia vita futura
 parole gravi,         (17:19-23)
While I was with Virgilius conjoined
Upon the mountain that the souls doth heal,
And when descending into the dead world,
Were spoken to me of my future life
Some grievous words; 

This reconnoitering -- a looking back to the selva oscura and Cacciaguida's looking back to his life in Florence -- brings the pilgrim and the poet into a kind of convergence. It might not be "random" that Dante's first words to his ancestor in this canto had to do with how triangles cannot have two obtuse angles (17:15), for here Poet and Pilgrim, in conversation with Cacciaguida, undergo a kind of triangulated turn as Cacciaguida explains why this pilgrim's story has to be told through the faces, voices, and fates of people known to fame:
Then [he] made reply: "A conscience overcast 
Or with its own or with another's shame, 
Will taste forsooth the tartness of thy word; 
But ne'ertheless, all falsehood [menzogna] laid aside, 
Make manifest thy vision utterly, 
And let them scratch wherever is the itch; 
For if thine utterance shall offensive be 
At the first taste, a vital nutriment 
'Twill leave thereafter, when it is digested. 
This cry of thine shall do as doth the wind, 
Which smiteth most the most exalted summits, 
And that is no slight argument of honour. 
Therefore are shown to thee within these wheels, 
Upon the mount and in the dolorous valley, 
Only the souls that unto fame are known; 
Because the spirit of the hearer rests not, 
Nor doth confirm its faith by an example 
Which has the root of it unknown and hidden,
Or other reason that is not apparent." 17:124-142
To "make manifest" is to display by action the nature of a thing. To speak of his experience in a way that can be understood by those who hear his poem, the poet must offer the sort of example whose root (radice) is not hidden. This is spoken by the figure who calls himself "your root." Cacciaguida is at the base of a family tree that, planted in Florence, grew through time until it put forth a fronda -- a leaf or branch -- named "Dante." 

The appearance of the root of Dante puts Dante in his place, as a specific human in historical time. It comes shortly before Dante will be displaced, exiled from his city -- a foreknowledge that the pilgrim also gains from this encounter.

For the poem to be read and understood, says Cacciaguida, it must speak of public figures, some of whom were still alive, or recently deceased (like Pope Boniface) even as it was composed. Although the poet is concerned that writing about certain people could have real consequences -- as some of these folks had power to make him unwelcome throughout Italy -- Dante understands that his poem will fail unless his readers see and hear these historical characters.

In other words, the poet has to speak of figures like Francesca, Farinata, Cavalcante, Ugolino, Manfred, La Pia, Charles Martel, and so many others as if they were not poetic figures, which in fact is exactly what they are. 

We might look at it this way: if I tell you that you can believe something I tell you because so-and-so told it to me, and you know him, you might well be persuaded. But now, suppose you learn that I made up the tale of meeting so and so, and his telling me such and such, because that was the only way I could get you to believe me? 

Cacciaguida's manifesto marks the pilgrim's encounters with actual famed personages as the lie necessary to the poem's rhetorical power -- a power which depends upon a reciprocally empowering relation of pilgrim and poet that is also also mutually exclusive. 

Poet and Pilgrim are inextricably bound together - neither can exist without the other, yet each exists only by means of a sacrificial obliteration of the other. This impossible double figure, this mutually annihilating "author," turns out to be the necessary lie fecund enough, as root, to produce this poem. Looked at another way, the poem is rooted in an illogical act of courage that puts forth something that ought by all "knowledge" never to have been possible.

The path of the journey, in this light, must be reconnoitered, and so must be the mode of its speaking. No longer is the story of meeting x, then, y, simply reflected or re-presented by the poem. Rather the truth intent of the poem requires that the poet create and use these figures as if he had extracted them as examples (per essempro*) from his experiences. 

Representation here is usurped by another poetic order: 
"Because the spirit of the hearer rests not,
Nor doth confirm its faith by an example
Which has the root of it unknown and hidden,
Or other reason that is not apparent."
"che l'animo di quel ch'ode, non posa
né ferma fede per essempro ch'aia
la sua radice incognita e ascosa,
né per altro argomento che non paia.”
Instead of the poem being read as the realistic reflection of the pilgrim's experience, that "experience" is revealed as device -- the poet's rhetorical tool necessitated by, and geared to, the mode of the Commedia, which can be called allegory.

The pilgrim and the poet, no longer separable, converge in Cacciaguida's manifesto. Only, we have to be quite clear: Like Cacciaguida's smile, the poem's persuasive power as representation requires it to conceal its poetic strategy. To persuade, it must seem to represent the pilgrim's encounters with famed historical figures as historical narrative, and to conceal the menzogna that it is not poetic artifice, which at every moment it most certainly is. 

Pilgrim and poet fuse here, but they do so precisely as does a triangle with two obtuse angles. The fusion occurs at a point outside the system of the text -- the system which it alone brought into being. The "point" is made in Cacciaguida's dark, luminous manifesto of the rhetorical model -- the courageous speech act -- of the Commedia itself. 

*The root sense of essempro is traced to an act of drawing something forth - i.e., we "make an example" because an example is not just a passive reflection, but an act of rhetorical persuasion.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

This old man and "la gente folle"

We've been asking for a while why it is that at the midpoint of the Paradiso, when we ought to be ascending to the Empyrean, Dante brings us down to earth to listen to an old man who spends three cantos evoking the good (and not so good) old days. 

Of course, it's not any old man.

Paradiso 17 is both the center of the highest canticle and the climax of the pilgrim's encounter with Cacciaguida. Whatever else we might say interpretively, it's clear than Dante has presented us with a vivid, lively character, a fully rendered human being. He is, of course, a man of many parts -- polutropos, as Homer might have said.

Cacciaguida beams with love and joy at meeting his great-great grandson. He has the suppleness of many languages at his disposal, retains a strong memory of his life in Florence, and expresses his love for that earlier moment in its history. He possesses providential vision (as do all whose gaze reaches the cospetto eterno), and, with chivalric precision, seizes the culminating moment of their encounter to en-coeur-age his "leaf." 

The text in which Cacciaguida appears does more than offer a memorable human portrait. Canto 17 opens with the scene of Phaeton seeking to know his old man. One can be told the Sun is one's father, but one wants proof. Seeking to control the horses of the Sun, however, proves to be an apocalyptically bad idea. To the ancient world, nothing was more difficult to know in clear, uncertain terms than one's origin. 

Similarly the tale of Hippolytus and Theseus brings to the fore how difficult it is for a father to know his horseman son* -- even a father who could thread the Minoan labyrinth. Genetic relations are dangerous, treacherous, and difficult to read. Visit the Sun, you're still in the dark -- the ways of the world are ambiguous, indirect -- ambage, as the poet will say.** Natura oscura.

The encounter with Cacciaguida, though, marks a rupture that seems to lead out of this predicament. The full impact of this meeting's place in the heavens becomes clear when we gather that here, on Mars, among the warriors, Dante as pilgrim and poet is reoriented to a point outside the natural order:

                                     il punto  
a cui tutti li tempi son presenti; (17:17-18)

This point, beyond the natural world, sees all contingency before it can occur, and is in fact a reliable source of intelligence about all origination. In learning of his family, his home, and his life through the triangulated gaze of Cacciaguida, Dante is acceding to a source beyond the Sun.
Né per ambage, in che la gente folle
già s'inviscava pria che fosse anciso
l'Agnel di Dio che le peccata tolle,

ma per chiare parole e con preciso
latin rispuose quello amor paterno,
chiuso e parvente del suo proprio riso:
Not in vague phrase, in which the foolish folk 
Ensnared themselves of old, ere yet was slain 
The Lamb of God who taketh sins away, 
But with clear words and unambiguous 
Language responded that paternal love, 
Hid and revealed by its own proper smile: (17:31-36)

La gente folle -- that is, all who lived before the slaughter of the Agnel -- is a potent critique of the world of Virgil and David, Plato and Moses. And it's spoken here not by Cacciaguida or Beatrice, but by Dante. The pathos of the ancients in the first circle of hell, living eternally in desire without hope, is recalibrated here in this new light. The poem is moving yet again into a new phase.

In the next post, we'll see a little of what that new phase entails. One thing is for sure: Dante, as a poet whose poem does what it says, will not leave Cacciaguida until he comes to grips with himself as pilgrim and his mission as poet. The union - or fusion - of pilgrim and poet can be realized, but only in mutual sacrifice. 

What is remarkable here is how Dante grounds even this moment of moving beyond Nature firmly in the world of men. Cacciaguida is no demi-god. No supernatural figures or forces are acting here. There is the word of a sacrificial lamb that broke the ancient model of the gente folle, and a plain-talking old man who guides Dante on his hunt.

*Hippolytus and Phaeton can be seen as classical prefigurations, or analogues, of Corso and Buondelmonte.

**The word ambage appears only here in the Commedia. Hollander's note on the word (l. 31) is helpful - this is the first half of it.
The word ambage has an interesting history. Dante probably found its most troubling presence in Aeneid VI.99, where ambages was used to typify the animal-like sounds of the cave-dwelling Sibyl's prognostications. On the other hand, and as Pio Rajna (“Arturi regis ambages pulcerrimae,” Studi Danteschi 1 [1902]: 91-99) has pointed out, in Virgil, Ovid, and Statius it is also used to describe the twisting path found in the Cretan labyrinth; it also in Virgil indicates an enigmatic way of speaking. 
The etymology reflects this:

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Involvement and Exclusion, Italian Style

Is there a continuity of behavior between the stories we tell and the way we live? 
So begins an interesting piece by Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books about dialects, factionalism, communal life, and exile throughout Italy's history, and the relation of these to literary language in Italy.
It’s generally agreed that one of the most distinctive features of Italian public life is factionalism, in all its various manifestations: regionalism, familism, corporativism, campanilism, or simply groups of friends who remain in close contact from infancy through to old age, often marrying, separating and remarrying among each other. Essentially, we could say that for many Italians the most important personal value is belonging, being a respected member of a group they themselves respect; just that, unfortunately, this group rarely corresponds to the overall community and is often in fierce conflict with it, or with other similar groups. So allegiance to a city, or a trade union, or to a political party, or a faction within the party, trumps solidarity with the nation, often underwriting dubious moral behavior and patently self-defeating policies. Only when fifteenth-century Florence had a powerful external enemy, Machiavelli tells us in his Florentine Histories, did its people unite, and as soon as the enemy was beaten they divided again; then any issue that arose, however marginal, would feed the violent battle between the dominant factions. This would not be an unfair description of Italian society today.
A bit further on Parks notes,
One reason why so many Italian writers experienced exile, and still experience exclusion of milder kinds (one thinks of the Nobel winner Dario Fo’s frequent lament that he has been excluded from Italian public television), is because they were and are themselves intensely involved in public affairs.

A bit further on he adds:
Dante insisted on writing The Divine Comedy in vernacular Tuscan, thus taking primacy away from the narrow circle of those who read and wrote in Latin, a privileged elite he was not himself born into, and always worried about being excluded from. Later, in exile, he would be astonished to discover the range of different and mutually incomprehensible dialects that existed in Italy. The vernacular was not the unifying factor he had imagined.
Dante plays a significant, if not paradigmatic, role in the piece, which is titled "Writing to Belong.