Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Coly" birds in Dante, Ovid, and the 12 Days of Christmas

The appearance of the gaggle of pole -- jackdaws, or grey crows (cornacchie grige) -- in Paradiso 21 is a strangely unsolemn moment in an otherwise almost forbiddingly sober canto. Jackaws are usually not associated with contemplation -- and the variously active groups of birds described in the simile seem busy, but not intent upon higher things:
And as accordant with their natural custom
  The rooks together at the break of day
  Bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold;

Then some of them fly off without return,
  Others come back to where they started from,
  And others, wheeling round, still keep at home; 
Such fashion it appeared to me was there
  Within the sparkling that together came,  (21:34-41)
Robert Hollander notes that these birds have "black wings, silver eyes, and large red beaks encircled by yellow," and adds that according to Benvenuto, they love solitude and choose the desert for their habitation.

Thanks to Dren, we now know our black birds have a holiday tie-in, via Ovid, no less. He shared this piece from the Washington Post that offers a bit of philological archaeology. It turns out that while we all sing "four calling birds," during the "Twelve Days of Christmas," the original line involved "coally birds," an adjective derived from, and sounding like, "coal."

The OED finds the word in Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses - the tale of Coronis and the raven who told Apollo of her infidelity.

As thou thou prating Raven white by nature being bred,
Hadst on thy fethers justly late a coly colour spred.
Indeed, we might have Ovid to thank for Golding's bringing the word into print, and giving it the opportunity to be mistaken for "calling birds," thus helping perpetuate the derangement of language which happens to be a prominent theme in the second book of the Metamorphoses. (See, for example, here.)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Seizing Rifëo: The defiant poetics of Paradiso 20

"The whole story of Ripheus is nothing less than outrageous," says Robert Hollander, with complete justification. 

With the introduction of this Trojan warrior-turned Christian believer before the Christ event, Dante deliberately strains credulity. Why single out this obscure character from a pagan epic and turn him into a unique example -- one seized with such loathing for paganism that he finds the true savior, apparently, by imagining an alternative to all the gods he knew?

That Ripheus could, through his own unparalleled sense of justice, reach a higher vision is a pattern we have seen elsewhere. It fits with the motif that what is not able to be seen or grasped can offer more significant evidence than that which is visible. That we are unable to see and know everything argues that our roots lie beyond what is available to the senses, as noted in the Eagle's statement in Paradiso 19.

Ripheus is at that breaking point between the inner imaginings of his heart and the complete failure of his pagan world to reflect what he believes is true. But Dante could have singled out other ancients for this role -- why choose obscure Ripheus? A few suggestions are below.

As usual, it's revealing to look at the entire context of Dante's allusion to Ripheus in the Aeneid. He appears only in Book II, and is named three times in the course of Aeneas's tale of the Trojan Horse and the end of Troy. More particularly, Ripheus is part of a band of Trojans who have donned Greek armor and were successfully killing many Greeks, until one of their group, Coroebus, sees Cassandra being dragged from the temple of Minerva. As one who loved her, he cannot stand by, and loses his life in seeking to save her. Ripheus joins in, and dies too, along with several others:
         cadit et Ripheus, iustissimus unus
qui fuit in Teucris et servantissimus aequi
(dis aliter visum);  
then Rhipeus fell;
we deemed him of all Trojans the most just, 
most scrupulously righteous; but the godsgave judgment otherwise.  (Aeneid II: 426-28)
The first mention of Ripheus comes as he is among a group of fellow Trojans whom Aeneas rallies with an argument built upon despair:
My men, hearts vainly valiant, if your desire is fixed to follow me in my final venture, you see what is the fate of our cause. All the gods on whom this empire was stayed have gone forth, leaving shrine and altar; the city you aid is in flames. Let us die, and rush into the midst of arms. One safety the vanquished have, to hope for none!" (Aeneid II: 348-353)
This is the code of the Roman warrior who is confronting the darkest moment of his existence. A moment earlier, Aeneas, had recalled the words of Panthous, a priest of Apollo, telling him that all is lost:
"It is come -- the last day and inevitable hour for Troy. We Trojans are not, Ilium is not, and the great glory of the Teucrians; in wrath Jupiter has taken all away to Argos; the Greeks are lords of the burning city." (Aen. II: 324-327)
“Venit summa dies et ineluctabile tempus
Dardaniae: fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens
gloria Teucrorum; ferus omnia Iuppiter Argos
transtulit; incensa Danai dominantur in urbe."
The belief that Troy has been abandoned by the gods doesn't paralyze Aeneas, but it colors the entire scene with Ripheus and Coroebus that follows. The crisis of faith here is double -- the priest of Apollo can no longer believe in the survival of Troy because, he believes, the gods themselves no longer believe in, or care about, the city that once was the darling of the Olympians.

The crisis leads to Aeneas's rhetoric of despair -- "nothing left to lose" -- and they soldier on.

The salient points of the text where Ripheus appears are thus deeply relevant to the viability of faith and hope in the face of total annihilation. Dante's selection of Ripheus as the pagan baptized by the theological virtues brings this dark moment of Virgil's poem into view precisely as the mention of the three virtues at the right wheel of Beatrice's car reminds us that that is the last moment Virgil appears in the Commedia. The point is well made by Teolinda Baronlini:
Dante picks as his messenger of hope a character who, necessarily, because of his provenance in the Aeneid, brings with him not just hope but complicated feelings of loss and exclusion. Dante manages the story of Ripheus in such a way as to implicate both the author of the Aeneid, Vergil, and the memory of the character, Virgilio, a virtuous but unsaved pagan whom we last saw viewing the very same theological virtues involved in Ripheus's baptism. 
By plucking Ripheus, whose death is not even described in the Aeneid (wearing Greek armor, he loses his life as he tries to help Coroebus rescue Cassandra), from Virgil's poem and raising him to the eyebrow of the Eagle, Dante is doing something extraordinary. It is a plucking, a seizing, of this "iustissimus" character from a pagan poem, elevating him to a very high place. Indeed, it is almost a kind of savaging -- as an eagle might swoop down, grasp, and raise up some prized prey.

This is a kind of intertextuality one doesn't often see. Dante returns to his human poet-guide, but instead of being guided, he rewrites the ethos of soldierly courage and speaks of a soul who, despite all that anyone could dream of, envisioned another kind of courage. Ripheus is taken from Virgil in an act that re-creates our entire sense of him -- one that his own author couldn't have dreamt of. The imaginative leap of Ripheus is not unlike that of a poet, dreaming of something beyond what his experience has given him. (It is not by chance that in the pupil of the Eagle may be found David, the poet/warrior/king.)

All this is done through arbitrary fiat - nothing leads anyone to expect it, including Ripheus himself. It is the unbelievable in its pure state -- the sort of thing that rational people think of as foolery, or folly, much as the first apostles seemed idiots to the philosophically sophisticated gentiles.

One additional point: Perhaps there's another clue besides context to help us understand what the Commedia is doing here. Here's how Ripheus is introduced:
Chi crederebbe giù nel mondo errante
che Rifëo Troiano in questo tondo
fosse la quinta de le luci sante?
Who would believe, down in the errant world,
That e'er the Trojan Ripheus in this round
Could be the fifth one of the holy lights?
If the seizing of Rifëo seems more an act of creation than of derivation or mere allusion, it very much is. It's taking liberty in an almost violent way with a belief system that would find it more credible to think that a fallen city was abandoned by the gods. Rather than concede that only the absence of hope remained and could be a source of strength, Dante re-makes Rifëo into one helped by a kind of capricious grace. To re-make in Italian is rifare, which obviously bears a resemblance to Rifëo. The word appears in the opening lines of the canto:
lo ciel, che sol di lui prima s'accende,
subitamente si rifà parventeper molte luci,
in che una risplende; (Paradiso 20: 4-6)
The sky here, instead of going dark with the sun's setting, brightens with the many lights that reflect the sun's sole light (with a similar wordplay of sol and sol).* This brightening is expressed as "making itself reappear." This reappearance of the sun, not as itself, but in the form of its many star reflectors, remakes the sky. This making is a form of poesis that goes beyond mimesis. Rifëo Troiano is remade as the fifth light in the brow of the Eagle, even as the word for remaking appears in the fifth line of the canto, which is about reappearing lights.

Whatever else this is, it's a mode of intertextuality that plays havoc with normal notions of allusion and reference. To remake Rifëo is to recreate the poetry of Virgil. Ripheus's name echoes the act of making new:

The violence to the corpus of Virgil returns when the Eagle speaks to the quiditate of the exaltation of Ripheus:
Regnum celorum vïolenza pate
da caldo amore e da viva speranza,
che vince la divina volontate:
'Regnum coelorum' suffereth violence
From fervent love, and from that living hope
That overcometh the Divine volition;
For Dante, the act of faith is a creative leap beyond reason, fueled by lively hope. It is acted out here in the mode of poetic arbitrariness. Far from mimicking Virgil's portrait of Rifëo Troiano, Dante catachretically re-creates and sublimates him. As we've seen at other moments, Paradiso defies mimesis, adopting a poetics that violates and transforms nature via the powers known as the three theological virtues.

*Hollander points out that Dante does not name the sun after Paradiso 10, yet here, speaking in periphrasis about the sun -- sol -- he uses the homonym sol, i.e., "only." The wordplay is not unlike that of rifare and Rifëo.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Lark ascending: Paradiso 20

The simile of the lark that comes in the middle of Paradiso 21 reminded me of a lovely piece by Bernard de Ventadorn:


When I see the lark beat his wings
for joy against the sun’s ray,
until he forgets to fly and plummets down,
for the sheer delight which goes to his heart,
alas, great envy comes to me
of those whom I see filled with happiness,
and I marvel that my heart
does not instantly melt from desire.

Alas, I thought I knew so much about love,
and really I know so little,
for I cannot keep myself from loving her
from whom I shall have no favor.
She has stolen from me my heart, myself,
herself, and all the world.
When she took herself from me, she left me nothing
but desire and a longing heart.

Never have I been in control of myself
or even belonged to myself from the hour
that she let me gaze into her eyes-
that mirror that pleases me so greatly.
Mirror, since I saw myself reflected in you,
deep sighs have been killing me.
I have lost myself, just as
handsome Narcissus lost himself in the fountain.

I despair of women,
no more will I trust them,
and just as I used to defend them,
now I shall denounce them.
Since I see that none aids me
against her who destroys and confounds me,
I fear and distrust them all
for I know well they are all alike.

In this my lady certainly shows herself
to be a woman, and for it I reproach her,
for she wants not that which one ought to want,
and what is forbidden, she does.
I have fallen out of favor
and have behaved like the fool on the bridge;
and I don’t know why it happened
except because I tried to climb too high.

Mercy is lost, in truth,
though I never received it,
for she who should possess it most
has none, so where shall I seek it?
Ah, one who sees her would scarcely guess
that she just leaves this passionate wretch
(who will have no good without her)
to die, and gives no aid.

Since with my lady neither prayers nor mercy
nor my rights avail me,
and since she is not pleased
that I love her, I will never speak of it to her again.
Thus I part from her, and leave;
she has killed me, and by death I respond,
since she does not retain me, I depart,
wretched, into exile, I don’t know where.

Tristan, you will have nothing from me,
for I depart, wretched, I don’t know where.
I quit and leave off singing
and withdraw from joy and love.


Can vei la lauzeta mover

de joi sas alas contra.l rai,
que s’oblid’ e.s laissa chazer
per la doussor c’al cor li vai,
ai! tan grans enveya m’en ve
de cui qu’eu veya jauzion,
meravilhas ai, car desse
lo cor de desirer no.m fon.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Classics Schedule for 2017







MAY 3RD, 17TH, 31ST








Vision's end: Cacciaguida and the Eagle (Par. 15/19)

Much time and space here was given to Paradiso 18 for two reasons - first, it traces a clear change in the poet's power to speak (and speak truth to power); next, it begins the second half of the Paradiso, and one argument I'll be making is that Dante deliberately wishes us to see Paradiso 17 as a center and a threshold between two different aspects of Paradise.

To see what's happening before and after the center more clearly, it's helpful to note that the cantos on either side of 17 balance each other. For example, 15 and 19, 14 and 20, etc. each have parallel elements, creating a kind of nested ring structure around the center. However, Dante's "rings" have torque -- the differences between cantos 15 and 19 (or 14 and 20) are deeply germane to an expansion or transformation occurring through the canticle. An architectonic whose rings turn to something more.

An example or two might help. 

We can see this "symmetry with a difference" in cantos 15 and 19 as an example. Each stands two cantos removed from 17. In 15, Cacciaguida appears before Dante and tells him "I am your root." Between the two is established an organic connection -- the ties of family, of Firenze, of culture and history connect them like root and branch of a single tree. In canto 18, Cacciaguida's closing speech will note that all of Paradise is a series of sills, or thresholds (soglia) of a tree that "lives from the top":
dell'albero che vive della cima
e frutta sempre e mai no perde foglia
 of the tree which lives from the top
and is always in fruit and never sheds its leaves. (18:29-30)
The organic tree of life rooted in earth, time, and history is replaced by this tree, that clearly stands outside of nature. One finds upside down trees, or trees fed from above, in esoteric lore and in the Kabbalah (e.g., the sephirot) and other wisdom traditions.

The encounter with Cacciaguida is rich in warmth, human connection, memory and history, neighborhood gossip and love of city, patria, and God. Canto 15 ends with Cacciaguida detailing the virtues and great citizens of their city:
Saria tenuta allor tal maraviglia
una Cianghella, un Lapo Salterello
qual or saria Cincinnato e Corniglia. 
As great a marvel then would have been held
A Lapo Salterello, a Cianghella,
As Cincinnatus or Cornelia now. (15:127-29)
In Canto 19, Dante is facing a giant composite of just souls who are subsumed within the image of the head and wings of an eagle. The image stuns the poet when it speaks -- indeed, its speech is unlike any ever recorded, because instead of saying "we," all the voices in unison say "I."

This is the eagle that came from the "M" in canto 18 -- an eagle born of letters. The souls that form it are described as conserte, that is, interwoven. The poet introduces that astonishing description of the plural speaking as "I" -- a grammatical violation of number -- with an echo of Paul's echo of Isaiah:
But as it is written:
“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” (1 Cor. 2.9)
Paul, who was also taken up to Paradise, is saying that nothing our senses have ever offered can prepare us for what awaits us. But it's worth noting that Paul is not saying this, he's citing Isaiah 64.4. Dante is introducing this giant segno, this eagle that has nothing to do with natural birds, via a text citing a text citing a text.

The eagle speaks with authority about the limitations of human vision and intellect. The entire canto is steeped in words for seeing, the eye, the ocean floor that the eye cannot penetrate. What the eagle does say is that the limit to our vision is what enables us to discern that its origin is far beyond all that it can see. Thanks to this very limit, or failure, human vision (veduta) "sees" that its origin must derive from something unseen and unseeable.
Dunque vostra veduta, che convene
 essere alcun de' raggi de la mente
 di che tutte le cose son ripiene,
non pò da sua natura esser possente
 tanto, che suo principio non discerna
 molto di là da quel che l'è parvente.

In consequence our vision, which perforce
  Must be some ray of that intelligence
  With which all things whatever are replete, 
Cannot in its own nature be so potent,
  That it shall not its origin discern
  Far beyond that which is apparent to it.  (19:52-57)
The double negative form of the statement suggests that the very thing that the poet and many of his fellow humans view as a frustrating obstacle to our wish to see and know is not so powerful as to blind us to this truth of our origin. If our vision were greater, we might fail to see how far we are from our actual root. The evidence of our senses, in its paucity, proves that we begin beyond the senses. (One hears intimations of immortality here found in other writers -- Descartes and Wordsworth, for example.)

The turning around of the canticle began in Paradiso 17 with the appearance of writing, which is itself re-presenting Scripture. The Eagle is a profoundly rich image that, yes, is linked with the symbol of Rome and empire, but, like Homer's "winged words," it is also the sign of signification itself, rooted precisely not in sensory mimesis.

That the figure of a natural creature known for having the sharpest sight demonstrates the limits of our vision makes for the comic irony here. First we learn that our powers of seeing are limited, and we are shown that this tells us something important about us. The eagle-eyed speaker then goes on, not unlike Cacciaguida did with Florentines, to look at a series of kings.

We can see the parallels here - the figure Dante is speaking with is reviewing actual personages of history. But the differences are equally telling:
  • Cacciaguida described the modest citizens of Florence past, the virtuous city. The Eagle speaks at a higher level of power, and about larger aggregates of people - it speaks of kings, the heads of nation states.
  • Cacciaguida speaks of fellow citizens - people of his own background, some from his own experience. The Eagle speaks of rulers of far flung nations, which it has the eyes to see, but we do not. In fact, though, the eagle is not seeing them at all. It's reading about them in a volume filled with the infamies of these kings. As commentators note, this is scripture depicted in the Apocalypse (20:12) that records the foul deeds of the damned. Hence the irony - the Eagle is not "seeing" these figures, but reading about them in a book that, though it appears at the end of days, in fact already contains all the deeds and horrors of human history. 
  • Cacciaguida is recounting people of the past; the Eagle is reading of events which had not yet occurred in 1300.
Indeed, two entirely different kinds of seeing and memory are at work here. Cacciaguida speaks from his life, his memories. Though a series of tercets begins with the word for seeing, the Eagle speaks from its reading, and the tercets that list the kings are replete with references to writing:
Che poran dir li Perse a' vostri regi,
 come vedranno quel volume aperto
 nel qual si scrivon 
tutti suoi dispregi? 
Lì si vedrà, tra l'opere d'Alberto,
 quella che tosto moverà la penna, 
What to your kings may not the Persians say,
When they that volume opened shall behold
In which are written down all their dispraises?

There shall be seen, among the deeds of Albert,
That which ere long shall set the pen in motion, (19:112-116)
If Cacciaguida praised and criticized his fellow citizens and then went forth on Crusade to the Holy Land, the Eagle is looking out at a time when the kings of Europe will shame their lands before the non-Christian peoples. The perspective has radically shifted with the substitution of written records for lived experience.

Note the repeated use of segnare:
Vedrassi al Ciotto di Ierusalemme
segnata con un i la sua bontate,
quando 'l contrario segnerà un emme.
Be seen the Cripple of Jerusalem,
  His goodness represented by an I,
  While the reverse an M shall represent; (19:127-129)
Frederick's contribution to the hall of shame qualifies him for lettere mozze -- mutilated letters (134), abbreviations.

Writing of course is a vast abbreviation, based on signs we learn in order to record what is no longer visible or in any other way available to the senses. When the plenitude of the sensory realm is subsumed into a sign; when a word or missive can fly from hither to yon, and speak of what no longer is, or of what is not yet, one is in a different modality from mimesis, from representation.

We can look at more implications of this point in Paradiso where vision and knowledge end, and nations have heads without sense or vision. Whatever else, what comes to the fore must be the irrepressible modalities of faith and hope.