Sunday, November 20, 2016

BBC on Justinian

The BBC has a story about Justinian (above flanked by military and clergy), whom we encountered in Paradiso 6.  It's worth recalling the enormous work of  the Emperor as we encounter the eagle of Paradiso 18-20. Justice remains a key concern throughout the canticle.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Venomous letters: The end of Paradiso 18

Già si solea con le spade far guerra;
 ma or si fa togliendo or qui or quivi
 lo pan che 'l pïo Padre a nessun serra.

Ma tu che sol per cancellare scrivi,
 pensa che Pietro e Paulo, che moriro
 per la vigna che guasti, ancor son vivi.

Ben puoi tu dire: “I' ho fermo 'l disiro
 sì a colui che volle viver solo
 e che per salti fu tratto al martiro,
ch'io non conosco il pescator né Polo.”
Once 'twas the custom to make war with swords;
  But now 'tis made by taking here and there
  The bread the pitying Father shuts from none.

Yet thou, who writest but to cancel, think
  That Peter and that Paul, who for this vineyard
  Which thou art spoiling died, are still alive
 Well canst thou say: "So steadfast my desire
  Is unto him who willed to live alone,
  And for a dance was led to martyrdom,
That I know not the Fisherman nor Paul (Polo)."  (18:127-136)

Paradiso 18 ends with a sting in its tail. The hesitant poet of the opening of the canto now addresses the reigning Pope, John XXII, and the attack goes deep.

This is the canto in which we along with the poet have witnessed the writing of the godhead, spelled out. Given the direct citation is the book of Wisdom, it might not be amiss to note the astrological sign for Virgo -- the goddess of wisdom, she who visited the source struck by Pegasus's hoofs:

The "emme" the poet encounters appears overdetermined. The emphasis upon writing, upon the letter, comes to be used in the canto's conclusion with force.

Pope John XXII, the vicar of Christ on Earth, takes the pan, the sacramental body of Christ, that the Father "shuts from none," away from those he's shaking down. He does this by means of writing. In his struggle against the FraticelliJohn XXII issued the bull "Gloriosam ecclesiam" in which he excommunicated those followers of Francis who took the vow of Poverty literally.

Papal Bulls had constitutive power - they could create, or erase, the entitlement of orders, the possession and administration of property:
The majority of the "great bulls" now in existence are in the nature of confirmations of property or charters of protection accorded to monasteries and religious institutions. At an epoch when there was much fabrication of such documents, those who procured bulls from Rome wished to secure that the authenticity of their bulls should be above suspicion. A papal confirmation, under certain conditions, could be pleaded as itself constituting sufficient evidence of title in cases where the original deed had been lost or destroyed. (Papal Bull)
In a real sense, the Pope was the most powerful writer on Earth, with authority over earthly and heavenly real estate. Here in Paradiso 18 at the moment of Wisdom writing itself, the poet chooses to focus precisely upon one "who writest but to cancel." 

And Dante goes further. 

Because the Bull was so powerful an instrument, the practice of affixing to it a unique lead seal -- the bulla -- had become standard practice in the 13th century. The seal had the living pope's name on one side, and would be attached to the original document:
The most distinctive characteristic of a bull was the metal seal (bulla), which was usually made of lead, but on very solemn occasions was made of gold (as those on Byzantine imperial instruments often were: see Golden Bull). On the obverse it depicted (originally somewhat crudely) the early fathers of the Church of Rome, the apostles Peter and Paul, identified by the letters Sanctus PAulus and Sanctus PEtrus (thus, SPA •SPE or SPASPE).. . . On the reverse was the name of the issuing pope in the nominative Latin form. This disc was then attached to the document either by cords of hemp (in the case of letters of justice, and executory) or by red and yellow silk (in the case of letters of grace) that was looped through slits in the vellum of the document.
Bulla with heads of Peter and Paul
The seal authenticated the identity of the pope as author - the power of the writing, exercised through his office, was guaranteed by the bulla. For Pope John, whose existence in Avignon required a huge amount of income, the bulla was equivalent to the power to print money. With his pen, he could withhold earthly property or salvation until the desired bundle of extorted coins were delivered.

When the pope says that he's so obsessed with John the Baptist -- i.e., the inscribed head of the precursor of Christ on the florin -- that 
io non conosco il pescator né Polo 
I know not the Fisherman nor Polo, 
he meets Wisdom's definition of the fool by adoring the graven image. Boasting of not recognizing the seal of his own authority, he even fails to pronounce "Paolo" properly (flattening the dipthong as Dante may have heard Frenchmen doing). 

John is trapped in the linguistic act of abusing, confounding, and disowning the signs and meanings of his office. He has debased the very thing the poet earlier prayed the Pegasea to scrupulously respect -- the literal reality of language. 

In Avignon, John used his bastard pen to expropriate wealth and power, disowning those who professed to love Lady Poverty. Where Peter had been a fisher of men, Pope John was more a filcher, minting coinage bearing the lily of Florence and his own name on one side, the precursor of Christ on the other. The bowdlerized lily was thenceforth seamlessly linked to this pope's voice crying in the exilic desert of Avignon, prophesying salvation in gold.
Pope John XXII's Florin

Given the canto's profound concern with the duplicity of the word (verbo), it's fitting that the tail of Paradiso 18 with its venomous sting evokes yet one more "emme" with its venomous sting: the astrological symbol of Scorpio:


Friday, November 11, 2016

Candid Raptor: The Poet as Ganymede in Par. 18

To briefly review: Paradiso 18 begins with the poet hesitant, uncertain, seemingly adrift in the echoing world of words and ambivalent symbols that mirror and point, obstruct and paralyze. He needs a guide but a guide as beautiful as Beatrice threatens to content him right where he is.

Beatrice points him away from herself - he sees the fervid face of Cacciaguida and hears a roll call of heroes before being carried upward to Jupiter. As this transition occurs, he finds the eyes of Beatrice again:
e vidi le sue luci tanto mere,
tanto gioconde, che la sua sembianza
vinceva li altri e l'ultimo solere.
 And so translucent I beheld her eyes,
  So full of pleasure, that her countenance
  Surpassed its other and its latest wont.  (18:55-57)
Among other things, this is a subtle reminder that Jupiter is the jovial planet, the temperate silver sphere. We've left the fiery passion of Mars behind, and will encounter the cold meditative realm of Saturn ahead. The expansion experienced in the next tercet's simile is an expansion of mind, heart, and ethical awareness:
E come, per sentir più dilettanza
 bene operando, l'uom di giorno in giorno
 s'accorge che la sua virtute avanza,

sì m'accors' io che 'l mio girare intorno
 col cielo insieme avea cresciuto l'arco,
 veggendo quel miracol più addorno.
 And as, by feeling greater delectation,
  A man in doing good from day to day
  Becomes aware his virtue is increasing,

So I became aware that my gyration
  With heaven together had increased its arc,
  That miracle beholding more adorned.  (18:58-63)
There's a speed, a kind of expanding upward fall, that foreshadows the figure of the eagle and other birds in motion that will resonate in this sphere. But the poet is not flapping arms or imitation wings, like some wannabe Daedalus. This upward gyration (reversal of his ride to lower hell on Geryon) owes itself to another. Something is powering him and Beatrice up and outward -- it is not unreasonable to think here of Ganymede, plucked from Earth by Jove in the form of an eagle, because his beauty seduced the god.

After the poet has construed, or conceived, the letters, words, and figures of M, Lily, and Eagle, he's read the text of Wisdom - an imperative - and it spurs him to a complex apostrophe:
 O dolce stella, quali e quante gemme
 mi dimostraro che nostra giustizia
 effetto sia del ciel che tu ingemme!
O gentle star! what and how many gems
  Did demonstrate to me, that all our justice
  Effect is of that heaven which thou ingemmest! (18:115-117)
The between heaven and our justice on earth is at stake. As the spirits of Jupiter have spelled the words, and as the words are from a mind that has no guide, because it guides all things, so Dante's text, repeating the words spelled out, is speaking not his own mind, nor the spirits' minds, but Mind. (Besides other readers' suggestions such as "monarchia," this "emme" -- the central letter of Dante's alphabet - could also stand for "mente.")

Like the pure eyes of Beatrice, the text speaking is not merely Dante's text, but the pure instance of Wisdom :
26 For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God's majesty, and the image of his goodness.

26 candor est enim lucis aeternae et speculum sine macula Dei maiestatis et imago bonitatis illius. (7:26)
The candor of Jupiter is the lucidity of a figure and text that doesn't hide, or mislead, or turn and try to pass itself as a god - for that is folly:
15 For they have esteemed all the idols of the heathens for gods, which neither have the use of eyes to see, nor noses to draw breath, nor ears to hear, nor fingers of hands to handle, and as for their feet, they are slow to walk. 
16 For man made them: and he that borroweth his own breath, fashioned them. For no man can make a god like to himself.
 15 quoniam omnia idola nationum aestimaverunt deos quibus neque oculorum visus est ad videndum neque nares ad percipiendum spiritum neque aures ad audiendum nec digiti manuum ad tractandum sed et pedes eorum pigri ad ambulandum 
16 homo enim fecit illos et qui spiritum mutuatus est is finxit illos nemo enim sibi similem homo poterit deum fingere
Wisdom, among other things, knows the difference between what is truly divine, and what is man-made imitation. Only fools worship idols sans eyes, ears, nose, fingers, or breath. In the joviality of clay feet "slow to walk" is laughter that springs up, uncontrived, when confronted with mortals' folly.

The poet thus has had an encounter with something that is not figural, not mimetic, not idolatrous, but the literal candor of the word. This motion from letters into words that form the parts of speech that form the sentence that speaks Mind is an act of clear reading. Dante's text scrupulously repeats, combines and makes intelligible what was there, which now transforms into the raptor of Jove.

If we try now to "see" what's happened to the poet in this canto, he too has metamorphosed. Like the virtuous man who suddenly feels the dilettanza of his good works, his ambit grows as he reaches a tempered vision of the mind of god. And not just vision, because to see "what God means" is to be summoned in a way that one cannot refuse, a summons which is more like being caught up, rapt from one's own thoughts, one's own life, to act. Like Ezekiel who ate the scrolls, or Jonah, or Isaiah.

The underlying thesis here -- a submerged thread of this series of readings of the Commedia for some time -- is that Dante's poem does more than speak. It acts. The poet here reads what is inscribed against the whiteness of Jupiter and turns to address the source of that inscription:
Wherefore I pray the Mind, in which begin
  Thy motion and thy virtue, to regard
  Whence comes the smoke that vitiates thy rays;

So that a second time it now be wroth
  With buying and with selling in the temple
  Whose walls were built with signs and martyrdoms!

O soldiery of heaven, whom I contemplate,
  Implore for those who are upon the earth
  All gone astray after the bad example!
The poet first addresses Mind, then the milizia del ciel - the power of heaven which he is contemplating as he speaks. Poet and pilgrim - he who saw the soldiery then, and who contemplates it now, are contemporaneous in contemplating Wisdom. In calling upon those he addresses, Dante is reiterating Cacciaguida's roll call on Mars, when to name the heroes of Christendom was to move them to action.

Then the poet turns to the Pope. I'll address that third apostrophe in one last post.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The grammar of Wisdom: Writing in Paradiso 18

We have looked at the self-doubting opening of Paradiso 18 where the pilgrim, having learned his poetic destiny from Cacciaguida, questions his relation to power over language, his ability to return memory to presence, and even the potential for his precious guide to "free" him even from the desire for the God she mirrors.

By the end of the same canto, a very different voice has taken the place of this hesitancy, and the tone has heightened to two apostrophes: 
O milizia del ciel cu' io contemplo, 
adora per color che sono in terra
tutti svïati dietro al malo essemplo! 
Già si solea con le spade far guerra;
ma or si fa togliendo or qui or quivi
lo pan che 'l pïo Padre a nessun serra. 
Ma tu che sol per cancellare scrivi,
pensa che Pietro e Paulo, che moriro
per la vigna che guasti, ancor son vivi. 
Ben puoi tu dire: “I' ho fermo 'l disiro
sì a colui che volle viver solo
e che per salti fu tratto al martiro,
ch'io non conosco il pescator né Polo.”
O soldiery of heaven, whom I contemplate,
Implore for those who are upon the earth
All gone astray after the bad example! 
Once 'twas the custom to make war with swords;
But now 'tis made by taking here and there
The bread the pitying Father shuts from none.
Yet thou, who writest but to cancel, think
That Peter and that Paul, who for this vineyard
Which thou art spoiling died, are still alive!
Well canst thou say: "So steadfast my desire
Is unto him who willed to live alone,
And for a dance was led to martyrdom,
That I know not the Fisherman nor Paul."  (18: 124-136)
The assurance in this ironic condemnation of the Pope vividly contrasts with the poet's earlier tone of uncertainty. Something has happened to the poet in this canto -- but what? 

The more closely one looks at the particulars, the more acidic this address to Pope John XXII becomes. If the pope, who continued to live long after Dante was gone, ever read these lines, he might have come away worse off than the poet who, at the beginning of the canto, ruminated the bitter (acerbo) in his ancestor's words (verbo). No sweet is here inmixed.

The commentators are voluble in their enthusiasm at the tone here. Many use the term beffardo,"mocking." "Acre ironia" (bitter irony) says Scartazzini. “Tremendo sarcasmo," say Bosco/Reggio, adding:
Al papa corrotto e venale, Dante pone in bocca parole di sguaiato cinismo
(Dante puts in the mouth of the corrupt and venal Pope words of coarse cynicism) 
Not only does the Pope speak with a cynicism we will come back to. He writes. This is a pope who, instead of leading a milizia into battle for his faith, writes to cancel:
tu che sol per cancellare scrivi
A brief detour is necessary here, which will eventually, I hope, make sense.

Pope John XXII was in a significant struggle with the Franciscan order, a branch of whom, known as the Fraticelli, felt that the vow of Francis's Lady Poverty carried the authority of the Gospel itself, and that it had been betrayed by greed at the highest levels of the Church. The order was accumulating wealth and possessions; some of its leaders, including William of Ockham, spoke out against the Church's relaxed interpretation of the vow.

In 1318, John issued a Papal Bull - Gloriosam Ecclesiam - excommunicating the Fraticelli. He wrote other Bulls that withheld the Eucharist (pan) from secular leaders, including Can Grande, as a method of pressuring them to bow to his will.

The perversity of the Vicar of Christ writing to cancellare - erase - the body of Christ from faithful Christians is juxtaposed with the sante creature of Jupiter, who have just taken the form of letters spelling out the opening of the Book of Wisdom.

In fact, this act of writing is a key event of canto 18 -- whatever else this does here, it has something to do with the transformation we've seen in the poet's voice. But what?

For one thing, the words inscribed by the fiery beings come from a text that very much abhors idols and idol worship - (the sin of mimesis, as we have noted). In the midst of the scene of writing, the poet pauses for an invocation -- only the second in this canticle -- to the Pegasea:
O diva Pegasëa che li 'ngegni
 fai glorïosi e rendili longevi,
 ed essi teco le cittadi e ' regni,

illustrami di te, sì ch'io rilevi
 le lor figure com' io l'ho concette:
 paia tua possa in questi versi brevi!
O divine Pegasea, thou who genius
  Dost glorious make, and render it long-lived,
  And this through thee the cities and the kingdoms,

Illume me with thyself, that I may bring
  Their figures out as I have them conceived!
  Apparent be thy power in these brief verses!
While some commentators worry about who is meant by Pegasea, examining the action might yield some insight. What does the poet ask for? What does he do? He asks "Pegasea" for illumination to rilevi -- bring out, or set in relief -- the figures being formed, as he has conceived them (concette). This last term is enigmatic, as these figures are, one would think, precisely not of his "conception" -- they come down from an Other.

What the poet in fact does is pay scrupulous attention to what he has witnessed. He counts the number of letters; combines them into words; the words are not his own, but a citation from Wisdom; he even notes the parts of speech -- noun, verb.
Mostrarsi dunque in cinque volte sette
vocali e consonanti; e io notai
le parti sì, come mi parver dette.
fur verbo e nome di tutto 'l dipinto;
“QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM,” fur sezzai.  (18:88-93)
The poet here is attending carefully to grammar, and to the gramma. Here he's not using memory to attempt to re-present the world -- he's using meta-language to analyze language, which is different epistemological terrain. We might quarrel over what justice is, for example, but not over whether "iustitiam" has nine letters, or whether or not it's a noun. This might seem trivial, but without this sort of linguistic certitude, neither syntax or semantics would exist.

When language parses grammar, counts letters, or quotes from a book, none of the issues involving the memory that seeks to recapture experience -- issues that plagued the poet earlier in the canto -- obtain. We are outside the frame of mimesis. The poet can speak of wisdom with total confidence, because he is quoting words from "Wisdom," produced by a mind that needs no guide.
Quei che dipinge lì, non ha chi 'l guidi;
ma esso guida, e da lui si rammenta
quella virtù ch'è forma per li nidi.
He who there paints has none to be his guide; But Himself guides; and is from Him remembered That virtue which is form unto the nest. (18:109-111)
This is a highly compact, difficult tercet, but Scartazzini gets to the key point:
. . . ​l'aquila nel pianeta di Giove è una figura dipinta da Dio, il quale nel figurare non imita la natura, come han bisogno di fare gli umani dipintori, perchè anzi la natura imita lui, riconoscendo da lui quella informativa virtù, mediante la quale essa modella ogni cosa quaggiù.
. . . the eagle in the planet of Jupiter is a figure painted by God, whose figuration does not imitate Nature, as human painters must do, because Nature rather imitates Him, recognizing from Him that formative power (virtù) by which she models everything here below.
Now if we keep in mind how the eagle's head came about -- the sante creature linger in the form of an M, and others come down from above, touch the letter 'M,' then rise:
And other lights I saw descend where was
The summit of the M, and pause there singing
The good, I think, that draws them to itself.

Then, as in striking upon burning logs
Upward there fly innumerable sparks,
Whence fools are wont to look for auguries,

More than a thousand lights seemed thence to rise, (18:88-93)
In rising, they form the head of the eagle and the lily, then the full form of the eagle fills out.

Scartazzini is surely correct to find here no natural eagle - this bird comes from a letter, an M, which is compared to a burning log. Striking a log will produce random sparks that "fools" will search for messages. But here, the striking from above (percuotere) might remind us of Pegasus striking Mt. Helicon, from which issued the new source, the spring of the Muses. 

Pegasus, of course, came forth from the decapitation of Medusa, masterminded by Athena. Athena, born of the head of Zeus, visited the spring to see this new wonder, and ended up judging a contest between the Muses and the foolish Pierides.

This discussion has gone far too long. In a final post I'll try to tie the event of writing and origination of this mid-section of the canto to the powerful, scathing apostrophe to Pope John XXII of Avignon.