Friday, December 08, 2017

Bernard's familiar voice

(An interpolation - I do intend to get back to the question of parabasis in Paradiso 30)

As noted previously, the final cantos of the Paradiso come to life through the voice of Bernard of Clairvaux. I've not read more than a smidgen of Bernard's works, but this was a man who richly lived - a man on fire. Many of his works are readings of sacred texts, including The Song of Songs, which Bernard explored in 86 chapters.

I will just point to two aspects of Bernard's writing: First, it's a strong common style, accessible to anyone; second, when he reads, he quotes -- not just from the text in question, but from the Bible and other texts --  so liberally that one soon believes he must have had photographic memory.

To read the Song of Songs is to move through a wide range of subjects and styles, from great intimacy to worldly grandeur, the entire gamut seemingly in play at the same time. Anyone curious to see how Bernard reads such a poem might choose a chapter of his text at random. I happened upon Chapter 31, "The Various Ways of Seeing God." Reading it in conjunction with Paradiso 30-31 offers a rich set of accords; Bernard is wrestling with the same general problem of how to represent how one of human limitations can see God, and is thinking through some of the same modes of apprehension that Dante pilgrim experiences in the language of Dante poet. Try it out - read Paradiso 30, then Bernard's chap. 31, and see if you're not reminded of Dante's poetics.

Bernard is clearly a thoughtful reader. See what he does with the first lines of the Song, in chapter 1.
Tell us, I beg you, by whom, about whom and to whom it is said: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.'' How shall I explain so abrupt a beginning, this sudden irruption as from a speech in mid-course?  
The interpretive strategy bears upon the understanding of "mouth" and a full meditation on what mouths do - they speak, and in this case, the speaking is not just of words, but of the Word. Bernard is thinking through a complex intercourse of flesh, spirit, and the power of language. He should know, as his mouth launched the Second Crusade, the one that both summoned Cacciaguida and ended his life.

The connection between Dante and Bernard thus is personal, as well as stylistic and interpretive. One can perhaps even see a shadowy preface of Dante's bold treatment of the pontiffs in Bernard's startling familiarity with the living Pope in his De Consideratione:

Bernard is one of those writers whose voice leaps off the page with vivacity, as indeed it will in Paradiso 33. To Dante, this contemplative of the Word was, in life and in writing, a stylist to emulate.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Parabasis in Paradiso 30

Forse semilia miglia di lontano
ci ferve l'ora sesta, e questo mondo
china già l'ombra quasi al letto piano,

Paradiso 30 does not reveal all its audacity at once. Its gentle opening gives no hint of what's to come. Strangely, it puts us squarely back on Earth -- questo mondo -- at dawn. We have been moving at accelerating speeds through the highest realms of stars and the crystalline sphere. Now, curiously, we're back on terra firma, watching the stars "lose their appearing" as the eastern horizon brightens.

The presentation of this dawn is literally down to earth -- we have no warrior gods or mutual titanic destructions of Night and Day, as Sophocles gave us in the gorgeous first ode of Women of Trachis. Indeed the bending, or bowing, of the shadow of night has a plainspoken quality. Today anyone can look into the heavens before sunrise and see the mezzo, the "middle" of the sky, gradually absorb the stars into profound depths, and think that this passage tells it just as it is.

The mode is heightened a bit by the figurative ancella del sol, but a handmaid is hardly cut from the cloth of the high style. The sense of granular gradation as the night's starry points vanish in morning light is meditative, calm, simple.

This is not what we might have expected, at this crucial transition from the maggior corpo of the Primum Mobile to the pura luce of the Empyrean. All sorts of dazzlement might not have seemed out of place here as we accompany the pilgrim on the final stage of his journey. The canto will soon touch themes of triumph and various kinds of overpowerings. In short order the pilgrim will abandon all hope of describing his guide; he'll be emblazoned in a blinding light that empowers him to see anew; he'll stand at the pool of light within the rose, whose layered tiers, soaring to unimaginable heights, mirror each other vertically as well as horizontally, and he'll hear Beatrice's final words as she tracks Pope Clement's damned soul's plummet into questo mondo, where gravity and momentum conspire to plunge the shaky ankles of Boniface VIII deeper into the bowels of hell.

The canto's puzzlingly erratic shifts in tone and styles of speech, and its rich phonetic effects, seem to work more as music than as any linear mode of statement. 

Erich Auerbach often marvels at Dante's command of a robust style that manages to encompass a lively vernacular while drawing upon a sublimity without seeming strained or resorting to empty rhetorical artifice. One might ask what other poet has ever sought to combine all these stylistic levels into a mere 148 lines. Who other than Alighieri would dare modulate from the humble prose of earth to the sublimity of the milizie -- the Courts and armies of the Heavenly rose -- only to leap from such glory into the low comic farce of papal simoniacs reaming new depths under Satan's towering shadow?

This audacity acquires a comic aspect when we consider that the poet also chooses this canto to admit artistic defeat:

Da questo passo vinto mi concedo
più che già mai da punto di suo tema
soprato fosse comico o tragedo:

Vanquished do I confess me by this passage
  More than by problem of his theme was ever
  O'ercome the comic or the tragic poet;

If the stars were overpowered ever so gently by dawn's entrance, the poet here steps out of his usual narrative mode in a kind of parabasis, and speaks openly, nakedly, of being overcome by his theme. Indeed he doesn't stop there - he goes on for 15 lines acknowledging with a craftsman's practicality that the job has now exceeded his tools and wit, before proceeding to tackle the series of astonishing poetic acrobatics I've just described.

That this congeries of disparate levels of materials works is due in part to the fact that we do not see it for what it is. The art hiding art here is in full view, in the form of the artist taking off his mask and telling us he lacks the artistry to keep up with deep change in both his theme and his mediatrix.

For Aristophanes, parabasis was a moment when theatrical illusion was dropped, and the chorus addressed the audience (as George Burns and Bertolt Brecht would do) as if they were sitting at a bar, outside of the mimetic world of the play, talking about things entirely irrelevant to the fiction being enacted. (For the New Testament, parabasis was a kind of error, a violation and break from the moral order.)

Dante comes at his parabasis from two sides: First he breaks the continuity of the forward motion of his journey to speak of his lifelong love for this woman. Then, as poet, he confesses that he's outclassed, and no longer can hope to represent the new state of her beauty.

Dal primo giorno ch'i' vidi il suo viso
 in questa vita, infino a questa vista,
 non m'è il seguire al mio cantar preciso;

ma or convien che mio seguir desista
 più dietro a sua bellezza, poetando,
 come a l'ultimo suo ciascuno artista.

From the first day that I beheld her face
  In this life, to the moment of this look,
  The sequence of my song has ne'er been severed;

But now perforce this sequence must desist
  From following her beauty with my verse,
  As every artist at his uttermost. (28-33)

Vidi . . . viso . . . vita . . . vista . . .the play of abiding and changing consonants mirrors on the level of sound how something so formally similar can become so radically other as to disrupt the ability of art to make anything of it.

He speaks of questa vita, as he spoke of questo mondo, at the very moment he is moving beyond "questo" entirely. He's speaking to us from a place that is neither the location of the pilgrim who is outside space in the mimesis of the poem, nor of the poet making that mimesis. This speaking is placeless and timeless -- a voice that is "in" the text, but breaks with the mimetic illusion to offer a meta-comment about an absence in the text -- to admit that nothing in his powers can represent Beatrice, who was his mediatrix -- his mezzo -- up to this point. For the remainder of Paradiso 30 we hear Beatrice, but don't see her (we'll get another view of her in a later canto), just as we here read the poet's words that spell the end of the mimetic mode we have experienced up to now.

It's as if the persona, or mask, of the pilgrim has fallen away, and poetic technique has failed, leaving only this pointing to a thisness spoken by one who can only speak of this life, this world, because he is neither alive nor in this world.

We'll look at a second occurrence of parabasis in Paradiso 30 in the next post.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Uno intendëa, e altro mi rispuose: Bernard in Par. 31

Mankind is engaged in a continual conversation with tradition - Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Part of the work of the Commedia lies in its interaction and conversation with prior texts. These range from Virgil's earliest works to the late Latin poets, through Old and New Testaments to the doctors of the Church, the works of saints like Francis of Assisi and Bernard of Clairvaux.

To encounter a figure in Dante is to encounter the text of that figure, and a reading of that text. Bernard, as he takes up the mediating role of Beatrice, presents a vast spectrum of life and work. Late in Paradise he appears as one more human exemplar -- in this case, a man whose life encompassed action as well as contemplation. In both, his powers of persuasion were consequential. A few links below may be of use.

Saint Bernard and the Duke of Aquitaine, by Marten Pepijn

Bernard of Clairvaux

Monday, October 23, 2017

Beatrice's "awkward" digression - Paradiso 29

To perceive means to immobilize... we seize, in the act of perception, something which outruns perception itself. - H. Bergson

Paradiso 29 covers a lot of ground, and seems designed to perplex. It runs a crooked path through vastly different tonal registers and material. Moving at maximum speed at the edge of created reality, Beatrice's discourse shifts from a placid account of the Creation to a sardonic tirade against bad readers -- Schoolmen and Churchmen whose inventions and misreadings debase the Word -- with a kind of ontological shudder.

The interest here is precisely in this destabilizing turn -- not what we were expecting just now, when some triumphal closure might be what the Commedia ordered. Instead, at this "end of the world" we hear about the Beginning. Then Beatrice turns, with some agitation, to the unfinished business of a flock inflated with hot air purveyed by con artists.

There is some symmetry, however. The twilight of the canto's opening does balance the twilight of Inferno 1. From that moment to this, despite all revelation and grace, humans remain in between darkness and dawn, uncertain, wondering what's coming, like the angels before they resolved their choice.

Within the paradigm of perfect balance with which the canto begins -- an image of the Earth, Sun and Moon poised between day and night, spring and fall -- are two modes of where and when.

The 12-line passage begins with the quando of astronomical time -- the movement of the sun and earth generating days, hours, seconds -- the continuous, ceaseless forward motion of temporality. The moment of perfect "balance" lasts no time at all. Parallel to and reinforcing this missing "when" is the tale of Latona, who has conceived divine offspring, but has no where (ubi) to bring forth her twins.

The passage ends with the second mode: the gaze of Beatrice, contemplating Totality, takes in every ubi and every quando, in a changeless present beyond the Primum Mobile.

As the tipping moment between these two quandos, Paradiso 29 is by turns serene and convulsive. The apparent symmetry of its lovely opening passage is belied in a twist -- its end is not its beginning. The first quando, the Italian vernacular, is of the passing time of Nature; the last quando, its Latin cognate, is of eternity. The latter happens to look just like the Italian vernacular, but it belongs to another linguistic realm. The first quando attempts to seize a moving point before it disappears in the stream of human time; the final quando names the point-lessness of eternal presence (no "when" when all is "now"). The passage moves from one to the other, but does not make a circle or a return. Between quando (it.) and quando (lat.) lies a break rendered invisible (eclipsed) by similarity of form.

The circular, symmetric structure of the passage is broken, and this rupture continues through the canto to its final asymmetry, the shattered mirror. To show this will require a far longer post than was first intended - apologies in advance.

Precisely the same opposition between human and divine modes of time and space can be seen in Beatrice's account of the Angels. They don't need memory, she explains, because they are, as it were, hard-wired to the totality of past, present and future:
però non hanno vedere interciso
da novo obietto, e però non bisogna
rememorar per concetto diviso;
Hence they have not their vision intercepted
  By object new, and hence they do not need
  To recollect, through interrupted thought.  (79-81)
Human perception and understanding, intimately intertwined with the sensory realm of space and time, here have the structure of something coming between (interciso) knower and knowable. Like an eclipse, mediation occludes as it reveals. Angels see Totality pure -- without concepts, language, or representation. Their field of vision will never be eclipsed by anything new (and, unlike us, they'll never feel curiosity, thirst to learn, or the joy of discovery).

When Beatrice turns from angelic intelligence to human fallibility, we see her at her most acerbic. Of interest to us close readers is that her word for reading -- leggere -- appears twice as she pivots from the consistorio of perfect beings to the sons of Adam:
Ma perché 'n terra per le vostre scole
si legge che l'angelica natura
è tal, che 'ntende e si ricorda e vole,
ancor dirò, perché tu veggi pura
la verità che là giù si confonde,
equivocando in sì fatta lettura.
 But since upon the earth, throughout your schools,
  They teach that such is the angelic nature
  That it doth hear, and recollect, and will, 
More will I say, that thou mayst see unmixed
  The truth that is confounded there below,
  Equivocating in such like prelections.
Equivocation destabilizes meaning. Here below, we are either riddled with errant beliefs, or worse, pretend to believe in order to perpetuate utter rubbish ("fake news"):
sì che la giù, non dormendo, si sogna,
credendo e non credendo dicer vero;
ma ne l'uno è più colpa e più vergogna.
 So that below, not sleeping, people dream,
  Believing they speak truth, and not believing;
  And in the last is greater sin and shame.  (82-84)
Some of her strongest condemnatory language is reserved for those who knowingly perpetrate fraud in preaching, or with false indulgences:
per cui tanta stoltezza in terra crebbe, 
che, sanza prova d'alcun testimonio, 
ad ogne promession si correrebbe. 
Di questo ingrassa il porco sant' Antonio, 
e altri assai che sono ancor più porci, 
pagando di moneta sanza conio.
 For which so great on earth has grown the folly,
  That, without proof of any testimony,
  To each indulgence they would flock together. 
By this Saint Anthony his pig doth fatten,
  And many others, who are worse than pigs,
  Paying in money without mark of coinage. (121-126)
Conio is used of whores in Inferno 18.66 (panderers / seducers). The sellers of fake indulgences (compared to slugs, blank coins) will soon be joining the counterfeiters in the tenth bolgia of the eighth circle, last seen in Inferno 29-30, symmetrically enough.

Money without official marking is faceless; it can be anything, or nothing. Its blankness is an equivocation, eclipsing any determination. Beatrice offers us a lesson in reading blankness when she speaks of how commentators have filled volumes debating whether the moon ran backward, or the sun dimmed itself, at the Crucifixion.
Non ha Fiorenza tanti Lapi e Bindi 
quante sì fatte favole per anno 
in pergamo si gridan quinci e quindi:  
sì che le pecorelle, che non sanno, 
tornan del pasco pasciute di vento, 
e non le scusa non veder lo danno.
Florence has not so many Lapi and Bindi
  As fables such as these, that every year
  Are shouted from the pulpit back and forth, 
In such wise that the lambs, who do not know,
  Come back from pasture fed upon the wind,
  And not to see the harm doth not excuse them. (103-108)
Fake food, fake coin, fake salvation: Where the Gospel is mute, jackanapes rush in, filling Florence with words, instead of contemplating even silences within the Word.

The irony here is quite complex. The Gospel is silent about the causes of the eclipse that occurred during the Crucifixion, which itself seemed to be the eclipse of God. One might give one's attention to the fact that at this moment, it got dark* -- that there was, at Christ's death, a terrifying blankness that would have shaken the faith of a Job, a Peter, a James, a John. To speculate on the "science" behind the event would miss precisely everything.

More than that: To infer that God has been defeated, or that Jesus was either an imposter or a madman, would be a peremptory act of interpretive closure -- a misreading of epochal proportions. Unlike Satan, who could not wait for light, the followers of Christ spent 36 hours in shock and incomprehension -- what they had seen with their own eyes defied everything they believed. Only after living the intensest imaginable loss did the apparent closure of Christ's life turn out to be something else. Anyone taking the advice of Job's wife would have missed the navicella.

For Beatrice, this too is reading -- and it is consequential. As Augustine noted, when reading a psalm we are amidst a temporal event whose full meaning, subtending the syllables unfolding in time, will not be revealed until the last syllable is spoken. Understanding -- of our lives, as well of Nature and Scripture -- requires a patience. Closure on Earth is fake, and nothing is more attuned to that insight than Beatrice's peppery vernacular. Here is someone who has no patience with some fulsome and false facade of an ending to her pilgrim's journey. Nothing ends here in this portrait of error, larceny, and fraud -- we are scolded, with caustic love, into becoming better readers.


. . .siam digressi assai, says Beatrice, "we've digressed quite a bit," not unlike all on Earth who do nothing but miss the true path:
Voi non andate giù per un sentiero 
Below you do not journey by one path
  Philosophising;  (85-86)
Those made uncomfortable by Beatrice's sharp words, those who find it aesthetically awkward, might at least consider that she has her reasons -- as did the poet -- for this digression. What matters here is how the final movements of the Commedia are to be read. Beatrice has reminded us in every possible way of our limitations, and of the dangers of premature closure.

What she then shares, with the same serenity she possessed before her digression, is a vision of Questa natura as something without number or determinable limit. Beatrice calls this unbounded field of light-filled beings "nature." In this instant, when Dante is told to see something that is not neither possible nor conceivable in the natural world -- something of infinite extent, and therefore not only unearthly and uncountable, but inherently asymmetric and unending -- it's an extraordinary touch that Beatrice simply says "questa natura."

Only after telling us it has no known number, and that each individual being is unique thanks to its particular mix of conception and affect, does Beatrice invite us to actually look:
"Vedi l'eccelso omai e la larghezza
de l'etterno valor, poscia che tanti
speculi fatti s'ha in che si spezza,
uno manendo in sé come davanti.”
"The height behold now and the amplitude
  Of the eternal power, since it hath made
  Itself so many mirrors, where 'tis broken,
One in itself remaining as before."
A different model is counterpoised to the binary equilibrium of Latona's world. Here a god has not only conceived, but has also created place, time, and free will to an unquantified amplitude. Mirrors, each a being whose life began the moment it said "subsisto," break apart the One whom they reflect. Unlike gods destroyed by the many who wish to devour them, this god/father remains, beyond all mutation, all shattering, One in itself remaining as before.

The shattering (spezza) of the totality into infinite self-subsistent pieces renders impossible any mirroring, any specular symmetry. This is not classical equilibrium, not the closed physics of matter and energy. In fact it's not possible to imagine this open-endedness -- neither the One we do not see nor the broken infinitude that generatively re-in-flects it. Beatrice invites us to look. The science of this vision will be left to others.

*Remarks of Louis Martorella in our Classics group were very helpful with this passage.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Jarring note, asymptote: Par. 29

The last canto before the Empyrian presents artistic as well as interpretive challenges. Paradiso 29 opens in a heightened moment, right before the pilgrim and his guide leave the Created world. And it speaks of some of the highest things, as well as several of the lowest.

If one steps back from the interpretive musings of the commentators, the canto exhibits odd choices on the level of style and narration. It deals with weighty matters, including
  • how, when, and why Creation occurred;
  • the first moment of the angels' existence;
  • the fall of Satan and his followers, and 
  • the relation of grace and merit, intellect and affect, with regard to the angels who didn't fall. 
Each of these moments could have filled its own canto (or more, if you're Milton). Instead, this extraordinary matter is stated in summary form by Beatrice in a calm, authoritative manner. The sublime opening of Genesis is elided, none of the acts of creation, pride and fall are dramatized. Dante chose to move quickly and in summary fashion through this material, instead lavishing poetic exuberance on the image of equilibrium that heads the canto - the myth of Latona and the lights in our sky.

One needs to consider the reasons for such a choice. Recall the rich creation of the beasts in Paradise Lost. Surely Dante entertained such potent options, but in the end seems to have preferred a kind of askesis -- sacrificing poetic sublimity for something else. Why, and what something?

In terms of narrative arc, a problem loomed. If he took the time and space here to dazzle us with the way it all began, there'd be precious little room for the Empyrean. Plus, a heightened account of the Creation could weaken the impact of that final climactic scene. Narrative art necessitated something modest here, though the content involves big things.

There might be another reason as well. Throughout this canto (excluding the opening image), Beatrice is the sole speaker. If one were to graph her tone, a curious change would be noticeable. The descriptions of Creation and the angels' first moments are presented in a serene mode that bears none of the emotional or intellectual excitement of human witness. Beatrice is recounting what she has been given to see in the divine vision for a long, long time. Interestingly, Dante the pilgrim, who often describes his craving for knowledge as physical need - thirst, desire, etc. -- is silent. It's as if he's reaching the capacity to take in - to see -- what Beatrice sees, and to do so calmly, deeply, completely. Speaker and auditor share the wonders of origin in dispassionate, apodictic tranquility.

Suddenly, that spell gives way. Beatrice launches into a far more engaged diatribe against, among other things, poor readers, showy, self-aggrandizing preachers, fanciful and bogus interpretive curlicues performed for the sake of local adulation, and profound acts of fraud perpetrated by porcine churchmen in the act of peddling fake indulgences, which acts exploit and encourage the ignorance of their flocks.

She ticks off vivid examples of presumptuous readers spinning elaborate explanations of events told in the Gospels:
One sayeth that the moon did backward turn,
  In the Passion of Christ, and interpose herself
  So that the sunlight reached not down below; 
And lies;                (29:97-100)
A palpable gasp runs through the commentaries at this take-down of revered teachers: Dionysus, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas. It's suggested that mente in Italian of the day might just have meant "erred." Still, it's a barb, and rather acute.

But this sort of learned misreading bothers Beatrice less than the "fables" (favole) spewed forth from the pulpits, filling the preachers' flocks with wind:
Now men go forth with jests and drolleries
  To preach, and if but well the people laugh,
  The hood puffs out, and nothing more is asked.
But in the cowl there nestles such a bird,
  That, if the common people were to see it,
  They would perceive what pardons they confide in, 
For which so great on earth has grown the folly,
  That, without proof of any testimony,
  To each indulgence they would flock together. 
By this Saint Anthony his pig doth fatten,
  And many others, who are worse than pigs,
  Paying in money without mark of coinage.
Beatrice here is working up a lather -- the endless varieties of deforming the Word, using it to get laughs, or nice meals, or money -- exercise her in a way that seems out of place. Consider the context: We're nearly at the edge of time and space, and instead of looking back with some cumulative, totalizing gaze -- as we saw the pilgrim do twice, in cantos 22 and 27 -- we get a sardonic lambasting of hypocritical scumbags. It feels jarring.

Dante (the poet) never seems anything but sure-handed. One can look at virtually any scene, any tercet in the entire Commedia and find a mature artist who knows exactly what's called for at every metric step. Yet here, as the pilgrim is about to exit the created world, that masterful balance seems to be jolted. We've dashed through some of the biggest questions of existence, then excoriated a bunch of Boccaccian scoundrels at nearly the last instant before the pilgrim is ripped Marsyas-like from the sheath of his muscles, tendons, and skin.

Within the larger movement of the narrative, something seems off. Where is the reassuring sense of closure, the triumphal achievement, the anticipatory excitement that one might expect here at the asymptotic edge? Has Dante finally missed a beat?

Or, is this disequilibrium, this apparent loss of total control -- both on the part of Dante's serene mediatrix, and of the text itself -- precisely the right thing? Nothing is more obvious in terms of tone and style than that this canto began with the most exquisitely balanced series of binary oppositions -- a polished classical vision of a totally symmetrical system in the moment of ineluctable eclipse. But we're leaving that, and doing so in jangled, heated discord. What if that apparent dislocation of tone and control, from a certain angle, is entirely the point?

One thing seems clear: the magnificent picture of equilibrium that opens this canto is not the model Beatrice follows. She herself calls her tirade a digression, pulls up short, and returns us to a contemplative moment that deserves more attention than it perhaps has received. She turns us from the fat fraudulent friars to consider the relation of "the act of conception" to love and sweetness:
 Onde, però che a l'atto che concepe segue
l'affetto, d'amar la dolcezza 
diversamente in essa ferve e tepe.  
Vedi l'eccelso omai e la larghezza 
de l'etterno valor, poscia che tanti 
speculi fatti s'ha in che si spezza,
uno manendo in sé come davanti.” 
Hence, inasmuch as on the act conceptive
  The affection followeth, of love the sweetness
  Therein diversely fervid is or tepid. 
The height behold now and the amplitude
  Of the eternal power, since it hath made
  Itself so many mirrors, where 'tis broken,
One in itself remaining as before."     (29:139-145)
Another post will consider the resonance of this last image in light of the extraordinary gamut run by this canto, its tranquility and febrile censoriousness, and ponder whether that seeming lapse in decorum and control might serve an unexpected artistic purpose.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Mortal brinksmanship: Niobe, Satan, and artistic hubris

What madnesse is it (quoth she) to prefer the heavenly rout
 Of whome ye doe but heare, to such as daily are in sight? 
Or why should Laton honored be with Altars? Never wight
To my most sacred Majestie did offer incense. Yit
My Father was that Tantalus whome only as most fit
The Gods among them at their boordes admitted for to sit.
A sister of the Pleyades is my mother. Finally 
My Graundsire on the mothers side is that same Atlas hie
That on his shoulders beareth up the heavenly Axeltree.
Againe my other Graundfather is Jove, and (as you see)
He also is my Fathrinlawe, wherein I glorie may.
The Realme of Phrygia here at hand doth unto me obay.
In Cadmus pallace I thereof the Ladie doe remaine
And joyntly with my husbande I as peerlesse Princesse reigne
Both over this same towne whose walles my husbands harpe did frame,
And also over all the folke and people in the same.
 ~ Metamorphoses 6.170-79
The speaker is Niobe, queen of Thebes. The prophetess Manto has been urging the women of her country to worship Latona, and they are obeying. Niobe, angered, says the people should be worshiping her own royal self, and offers many reasons - her beauty; her lineage through Tantalus to Zeus; her husband, Amphion, also descended from Zeus. But most of all, her maternal glory. She has 14 children -- Latona has only two.

Arthur Golding's 1567 translation captures something of the haughty Royal tone. But it's hard to beat Ovidian concision. The passage opens:
quis furor, auditosinquitpraeponere visis caelestes?"
"What madness," she said, "incites you to put hearsay Gods before those you see?"
Niobe is not merely contemptuous of Latona. Even as she brags of her relation to Zeus, she rehashes the cliched materialism of the non-believer. Put your faith in what you know from experience, she says. Size matters. Number matters. Being right here matters. Latona couldn't even book a room for her labor, etc.

A recurring motif of the Metamorphoses is precisely this brinksmanship, this willingness of supremely gifted mortals to contend with the divine. Ovid's immediately preceding story told of Arachne's challenge to Athena, and Thebes was still "howling" (fremit) from that news. Another tale of art and hubris, Marsyas's contest with Apollo, follows. Niobe's metamorphosis of the natural honor of motherhood into hollow, virulent pretension elevates her to an elite class of mortals doomed to suffer forever. It's a small group, but it includes, of course, her father.

The dangerous reach of Dante's art is readable as presumption; Niobe is his Medusa.

Niobe's disdain for the goddess is in play here in the Primum Mobile, precisely the threshold separating what one hears about the divinity from what one may experience for oneself. This is the final juncture toward which the poem, and all of creation, are moving. Dante and Beatrice aim beyond time and space with the escape velocity of Seraphic ardor.

To question that something -- the Empyrean, e.g. -- exists beyond this outermost bound of the Primum Mobile is to challenge what one has heard -- through Scripture, family, revealed truth. If modest Latona parallels the Creator, Niobe poses the classical counterweight to Satan. (For a persuasive reading of Satan's fall from a doctrinal perspective, see Alison Cornish, "Planets and Angels in Paradiso XXIX: The First Moment," discussed briefly here. My point is that Dante's use of ancient myth -- here the tales of Latona and Niobe -- adds substance from rich classical sources of philosophy and poetry.)

Apply Ovid's brief introduction to the tale of Satan, which we just touched upon, and the consistency is clear: To prefer what is seen to what is spoken of is, in the language of this canto (l.28), to seize upon a slice of the spectrum, the realm visible through light, at the expense of the totality (the triforme effetto) -- the invisible, or not-yet-visible, all the effect of its maker (suo sire).

Light of course is essential to our sensory reality, but to equate all of reality with what light enables us to see is to center reality within our sensory selves, and to deny the possibility that something more than is currently accessible is yet to come. Our narrow axis of experience lies in us; all else is old wive's tales.

As a story of materialism vs. something more, the tale of Niobe is about substituting oneself as center in place of an other we've only heard tell of. It's Augustine and Beatrice's basic choice: we are arrows of love -- do we aim for the other, or for ourselves?

The highest created being in the Commedia ends spun from the Empyrean, frozen in his tears, as immobile as Ovid's queen of Thebes:
Childless— she crouched beside her slaughtered sons,
her lifeless daughters, and her husband's corpse.
The breeze not even moved her fallen hair,
a chill of marble spread upon her flesh,
beneath her pale, set brows, her eyes moved not,
her bitter tongue turned stiff in her hard jaws,
her lovely veins congealed, and her stiff neck
and rigid hands could neither bend nor move.
her limbs and body, all were changed to stone.
Yet ever would she weep: and as her tears
were falling she was carried from the place,
enveloped in a strong and stormy whirlwind
far to where, in her native land, fixed upon
a mountaintop, a stone turns liquid --
even now marble drips tears.
~ Metamorphoses 6:300-312 (Brookes More, trans. (the last four lines have been modified by me.)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Twilight intelligence in Par. 29:1-12

(One paragraph was revised on 10.1.17, as noted)
Paradiso 29:1-12
Quando ambedue li figli di Latona,
coperti del Montone e de la Libra,
fanno de l'orizzonte insieme zona,

quant' è dal punto che 'l cenìt inlibra
infin che l'uno e l'altro da quel cinto,
cambiando l'emisperio, si dilibra,

tanto, col volto di riso dipinto,
si tacque Bëatrice, riguardando
fiso nel punto che m'avëa vinto.

Poi cominciò: “Io dico, e non dimando,
quel che tu vuoli udir, perch' io l'ho visto
là 've s'appunta ogne ubi e ogne quando.
                              . . .  
At what time both the children of Latona,
Surmounted by the Ram and by the Scales,
Together make a zone of the horizon,

As long as from the time the zenith holds them
In equipoise, till from that girdle both
Changing their hemisphere disturb the balance, 
So long, her face depicted with a smile,
Did Beatrice keep silence while she gazed
Fixedly at the point which had o'ercome me.

Then she began: "I say, and I ask not
What thou dost wish to hear, for I have seen it
Where centres every When and every 'Ubi.'
Alison Cornish does a marvelous job explicating this passage in her article entitled "Planets and Angels in Paradiso XXIX: The First Moment." The elaborate spatial architecture is both an image of balance and a figure of instantaneity -- of the nothing that is the nevernow between one instant and the next.

Cornish sorts out the ambiguities and equivalences arising out of the astronomy, then with great perspicacity relates the passage to what comes after it -- the account of the creation of the angels and their fall. The nature of time as it derives from celestial motion turns out to be integral to a long and significant interpretive tradition of the timing and manner of that fall.

Augustine and Aquinas grappled with the question of the first instant of the angels' existence, and how it came to pass that these first creatures both became self-aware and, seemingly without delay, exercised their will once and for all either to remain faithful to their Creator, or to turn away.

Cornish teases out her reading with formidable learning and delicacy. Without straying from her analysis, she provides insights into Augustine and Aquinas' somewhat abstruse thinking about time and angelic consciousness. Indeed, the question of how long the rebellious angels remained unfallen seems to require Aquinas to distinguish angelic time from celestial time. The essay is a tour de force.

I'll try to add a couple of "grace notes" to Cornish's interpretive work, deriving from two elements built into the passage that were not her focus: the classical resonances of the figure of Latona, and Dante's structuring use of quando, which begins and ends the passage.

The passage paints an image of equilibrium that's a mini-summa of the ancient world. The embattled mother of Apollo and Artemis, the zodiacal references, the symmetrical structure of the equinox, the crepuscular moment between day and night, the thresholds of spring and autumn are all rooted in the world of Aristotle and Virgil, a Cosmos precariously poised between opposing forces that seem equally matched. Libra invokes the balance of Justice and judgment -- think of Zeus holding the scales above the world of men --  as well as the delicacy of Euripides' Sophrosyne, the sound self-control of the well-balanced soul.

Of course the "balance" is eternally elusive. Cornish rightly notes that the "when" of the passage has no duration in time, any more than a point has any extension in space. Dante has painted an elaborate image that extends through time to speak of a quando ("when") that has no measurable time at all.

The classical model is a symmetrical system of binary oppositions whose mirror-like ambiguity is thorough and undecidable. As Cornish, Hollander and others point out, it's impossible to tell which child of Latona is under which sign. If Apollo/Sun is found under Aries (Montone, interestingly, seems to be a wether rather than a ram) Spring is dawning in Rome. At the exact same moment, with the Artemis/moon under Libra, Fall is deepening into dusk in the antipodes. (If the Sun is under Libra, all this is reversed.) Total equilibrium is both a model of specular symmetry, and in this celestial configuration, the precise moment of eclipse.

From Cornish, "Planets and Angels"

Why Latona?

As already noted, the latter part of Cornish's essay addresses the theology of the angels' creation and fall, and it is very rich. But the classical elements of the passage (which, by the way, is not a simile, but a portrait of a celestial position used to elicit the duration of Beatrice's "painted" smile) are not mere window dressing. Why is this story invoked here?

Leto or Latona is the goddess of motherhood, who undergoes extremities of parturitive labor. Jealous Hera decrees that the modest goddess, impregnated by Zeus before Hera became his spouse, will not be allowed to bring forth children on earth or sea. Latona seeks a refuge where she might safely bring her children into the world. The myth spares nothing in detailing her search:
Apollo protects Leto from Tityus
In her wanderings, Leto came to Crete, to Athens, to the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, to Athos in Thrace, to Mount Pelion in Thessaly, to the Aegean island of Samos off the western coast of Asia Minor, to the island of Peparethus north of Euboea, to Mount Ida, to the city of Phocaea in Asia Minor which is between the Elaitic and the Hermaean Gulfs, to the island of Imbros in northern Aegean Sea, to Lemnos, to the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea opposite the coast of Asia Minor, to the island of Chios off the coast of Ionia in Asia Minor, to Mount Mimas opposite Chios, to the rock Corycius on the coast of Asia Minor in Cilicia, to Clarus near Ephesus, to the promontory Mycale in Ionia on the mainland opposite Samos, to Miletus in Caria, to Cos off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, to Cnidos, Naxos, Paros, and many other lands, looking for a place to give birth.
The floating island of Delos, neither earth or sea, eventually becomes the sacred locus, the opening for Latona to give birth to her twins.

It's hardly by chance that this tale of labor, persecution and escape is evoked here, just before an account of serene divine creation that takes "place" outside of time, space, pregnancy, and labor. When contemplated together, the manifold differences between these two accounts are mutually illuminating.

Both treat of divine making, and the "children" in both accounts are immortal. The tale of Latona stresses the delay, the impedance blocking her infants from coming forth at the natural time. According to the logic of the passage, inhibiting the twins' birth would be nothing less than the simultaneous eclipse of both sun and moon!

Beatrice's description of the creation of the Angels couldn't be more different. There is nothing of labor there, nothing of embryonic development and birthing, no mechanism or natural process to account for the act. A"splendor" is put into the world from a place outside of the world -- a speaking, self-aware being:
Non per aver a sé di bene acquisto,
ch'esser non può, ma perché suo splendore
potesse, risplendendo, dir 'Subsisto,'
Not to acquire some good unto himself,
  Which is impossible, but that his splendour
  In its resplendency may say, 'Subsisto,'  (Par. 29:13-15)
The first act of this new, limitless legion of unique beings is an act of intelligence: each enunciates its being. The creature does not say "I am happy," or "I love corned beef," or "I vote for Satan." The first moment is not seeing, or loving, or desiring, or willing. It's the act of saying subsisto.

In Italiansussistere seems to suggest simple being: to exist in oneself. The Latin form, subsistere, tends to a wider range of meanings, including but not limited to: to take a stand, to stay, to subsist, to withstand, to stand firm, to sustain, to halt, to oppose, to exist under some larger entity. The prefix "sub" seems to promote a sense that one's standing, or remaining, is in relation to something else. Not just standing, but withstanding.

The distinctive feature of a reflection is precisely its derivative nature: entirely dependent upon an other, it doesn't speak, let alone demonstrate intelligence of existence. Here, each splendor, complete with vocabulary, grammar, syntax, phonemes and voice, speaks. Saying "I am" presumes articulation. A direct intuition of existence might need nothing -- it can exist in itself (sussitere). But to be able to speak this knowing presumes features of grammar, syntax, phonemes -- a complex, shared set of rules that it uses but does not create. In saying "I am," a knowing being puts itself instantly into the world. But something other than itself is inextricably necessary to that self-positing.  (This paragraph was revised 10.1.17.)

As an aside: The "when" of the angels' choice to stand or fall is understood to be distinct from this moment. Citing Aquinas, Cornish says this distinction might be not temporal, but logical. The point here is simply that Beatrice is quite clear that in this prime moment, a being is articulating its being. This "precedes" (logically or ontologically) all else, including light. As we'll see in a moment, it happens on the cusp, in twilight, the exquisitely poised balance between day and night upon which the Latona passage turns.

Beatrice moves seamlessly from this originary moment to the threefold creation of the world:
così 'l triforme effetto del suo sire
 ne l'esser suo raggiò insieme tutto
 sanza distinzïone in essordire.
So from its Lord did the triform effect
Ray forth into its being all together,
Without discrimination of beginning. (29:28-30)
The highest sustanze, pure act, are put there totum simul with mere matter (pure potentiality) and the world of matter and form (what we see). In that raggiò, the whole scala of creation was given, from formlessness through the physical universe to quadrillions of sustanze saying "subsisto." 

The text's description of a total, instantaneous act gains power from contrast with the nearly unending labors of Latona, whose difficulties don't cease even after she's given birth.

The angels' choice to stand or fall is given a thorough going-over by Cornish. I will just note an interesting intratextual gloss that comes earlier in the canticle, as it relates suggestively to the "when" of the Latona passage: In Paradiso 19, the Eagle is expatiating on the theme that no degree of perspicacity will enable creatures to see all, and says:
E ciò fa certo che 'l primo superbo,
che fu la somma d'ogne creatura,
per non aspettar lume, cadde acerbo;
And this makes certain that the first proud being,
Who was the paragon of every creature,
By not awaiting light fell immature. (Par. 19:46-48)
This can only be the moment that Beatrice has been speaking of, here played out with the figure of Satan, who -- in the precarious twilight before he could know whether what was coming was the darkness or the light -- didn't wait to see, and so fell into eclipse without end. It's also the moment in which Paradiso 30 begins.

The figure of Niobe, disdainer of Latona, is treated in the following post.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Excerpt from Delancey Place

Today's encore selection -- from The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. In 1861, when the Italian peninsula was finally united into a single political entity, only 2.5 percent of "Italians" spoke the Italian language. In fact, the citizens of every major Italian city -- Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan and others -- each spoke a different language. The situation was similar in the other countries of Europe:
"The posthumous role of Dante Alighieri in the development of Italian has long been treated with reverence and solemnity. The great Florentine poet was, according to one scholar, not only 'the father of the Italian language' but also 'the father of the nation and the symbol of national greatness through the centuries'. It is doubtful that Dante would have thought the second part of the description applicable to him, especially as he believed Italy should be part of the Holy Roman Empire and not a nation by itself. Yet he did write The Divine Comedy (or, as he himself called it, simply La Commedia) in Italian and extolled the virtues of the vernacular, the 'new sun' that would put Latin in the shade, in De vulgari eloquentia, a book he wrote in Latin. More . . . 

Saturday, September 02, 2017

"Authentic heir to what is noblest in ancient Greece"

In 1929, one of the great readers of the 20th century offered this astonishing claim:
. . . although Dante did not know Greek, though he had only the vaguest notion of Homer and none at all of the tragic poets . . . nonetheless he is the authentic heir to what is noblest in ancient Greece, of the "language that created men and de"; his sentences are the first since antiquity which contain a world and are simple as the lines of a primer, which express deep feeling with the clarity of thought, which pierce the heart with their quiet even measure; above all they are the first in which rhetoric does not suppress reality but forms it and holds it fast.
Erich Auerbach: Dante, Poet of the Secular World, pp. 48-49. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

A nearly impossible model of civic judgment

From BBC:

The Athenian experiment is notable not merely for the talents it produced: three of the greatest tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides – and one of the finest comedians, Aristophanes. Its achievement lies in the social imagination of the city itself, which empowered individuals to be both critical and creative. Everyday citizens became discerning judges, whose deliberations and verdicts challenge our preconceptions about popular culture.

Performances took place during a five-day religious festival called the Dionysia, named after the god of wine, associated with the loosening of tongues. Poorer citizens received a public subsidy to attend, and productions were funded by a super-tax on wealthy patrons. Ten citizen judges were selected randomly by lot, from a committee drawn from every corner of the city. Of their ten votes, five were chosen at random, and tallied accordingly. Yet the judges were careful to consider the opinions of the thousands of citizens in attendance – not least because judges could be impeached the following day.

By the standards of modern consumer democracy, we might expect the plays to be crudely populist appeals to the lowest common denominator – simplistic, chauvinistic and jingoistic. But the citizens consistently rewarded productions that challenged them ideologically and excelled artistically. Prize-winning plays articulated the pleas of the un-represented – women, exiles, foreigners – and provided a rare space for the expression of unfiltered emotion. More . . .

Monday, July 10, 2017

Truthseekers and an accomplished liar

While we are on break for the summer, I've enjoyed a couple of Dante-related resources which might be of interest.

While Dante had no access to most of Greek Philosophy, he clearly had some sense of Aristotle. I happened upon a set of lectures on Greek philosophy that are unusually fine. Professor David Roochnik of Boston University does more than survey some 400 years of Greek thought -- he interrogates it, and tracks how successive thinkers revise, refine, and recast the work of their predecessors. Murky guys like Parmenides, whose poetic works are in ruin, emerge with a clarity that seems true to the complexity and context of their approaches.

The course, Introduction to Greek Philosophy, is available from The Teaching Company. Roochnik is superb on Aristotle, and readers of Dante will benefit from his reading. But each of his predecessors from Thales to Plato receives the same high level of attention.


Sententiae Antiquae has long been a favorite classics blog. Given that Ulysses remains a most compelling, enigmatic predecessor to the the poet of the Commedia even to the highest reaches of Paradiso, today's post about the Greek hero's contrived tales is both instructive and a pure joy. As a reminder of Homer's brilliance in portraying the multi-layered lies his hero tells -- through an analysis of his calculated fictions found in the Scholia -- it gives us one more example of the degree of human genius against which Dante chose to measure his poem, and his wholly other vision of heroic challenge and triumph.


Sunday, June 04, 2017

The trajectory of furtive eros: Paradiso 27

Aside from an external preoccupation that's consumed a lot of my time recently, internal properties of the text have slowed our ascent to the higher reaches of Paradise. In the past six weeks, we've managed to eke through Paradiso 27 and have made it less than halfway through 28. It's the poet's fault.

The poem unfolds a series of thresholds bringing together so many textual skeins -- so many echoes, motifs, layers, metamorphoses and transitions -- that reading becomes excavation. Two weeks ago we read the opening of canto 28 -- the simile of the mirror and the doppiero. The other day we reread it, and found it new -- more richly complex than it had first seemed.

The notion of coming to the "end" of the Commedia is but a prospect, a hypothetical limit to which any reading is asymptotic. In a sense, the reading is the hunt, the caccia, for an elusive prey that was there before any reading came to be, and will always yield more than any single interpretation, however masterly and comprehensive. The totality of the text in relation to our reading might be proportioned as the originary luce e amore is to the pursuing creation striving to accede to it.

The notion of the hunt, the quest, with the desire to capture and possess the object of pursuit, runs throughout the text. In cantos 28 and 29 it will reach extraordinary scale. I want to note a few ways in which it's present in Paradiso 27.

This canto has to be one of the more astonishing ones simply in terms of sheer range of matter. Beginning with Dante facing the same four figures -- Peter, James, John and Adam -- we watch Peter grow red with anger at the degradation of his earthly succession. The entirety of heaven, which had seemed a moment before to smile, takes on the bloody hue. Beatrice's coloration clearly evokes Ovid's tale of naked Diana, surprised while bathing on Mt. Cithaeron, turning scarlet before the startled gaze of Actaeon (Metamorphoses 3). The goddess and Dante's guide turn . . .

the same colour which, through sun adverse,
  Painteth the clouds at evening or at morn,

Di quel color che per lo sole avverso
 nube dipigne da sera e da mane, (Par. 27: 28-29)

Peter continues fulminating that his keys and his own self have been degraded to mere figures on escutcheons and seals used by Boniface and others to wage war on the flock, or, as lies to be sold. That he who served as the very basis of the Church on Earth emits such blunt, unfettered rage and human frustration is itself striking, but Peter goes on, echoing Cacciaguida, to make sure the poet has his marching orders:

                                  "open thy mouth;
 What I conceal not, do not thou conceal."

                                      "apri la bocca,
 e non asconder quel ch'io non ascondo.” (65-66)

At this point, the entire host of heaven falls upward like snow in warp drive, and Beatrice directs Dante to take another look at Earth. The last time he'd done this, he had just arrived to the stars from Saturn (22: 133-154).

This new sight shows him the same threshing floor, aiuola, but from a different angle:

Since the first time that I had downward looked,
  I saw that I had moved through the whole arc
  Which the first climate makes from midst to end;

So that I saw the mad track of Ulysses
  Past Gades, and this side, well nigh the shore
  Whereon became Europa a sweet burden.

And of this threshing-floor the site to me
  Were more unveiled, but the sun was proceeding
  Under my feet, a sign and more removed.

Da l'ora ch'ïo avea guardato prima
 i' vidi mosso me per tutto l'arco
 che fa dal mezzo al fine il primo clima;

sì ch'io vedea di là da Gade il varco
 folle d'Ulisse, e di qua presso il lito
 nel qual si fece Europa dolce carco.

E più mi fora discoverto il sito
 di questa aiuola; ma 'l sol procedea
 sotto i mie' piedi un segno e più partito. (27:79-87)

The passage cries out to be compared with the earlier backward look, which took place right after he arrived in the stars. The planets with their pagan gods are gone. Now Dante sees two things: one is the eastern beginning and western edge of the European quest, from the moment of Europa's seduction to the mad pursuit of Ulysses. The other is his realization that the sun has traveled one quarter of its trip around the Earth since last he looked.

The bracketing of Dante's visit to the starry sphere by these two backward looks is pointed and calls for comment. The aiuola seemed closer in the first look, which retraced Dante's own voyage through the spheres of Paradise. The second spans the bounds of recorded history of the West, ending on a mad ship moving into the open sea, seeking it knows not what.

Why mark the origin of this wayward career with Europa? Of course she names the continent that is Dante's frame of reference. But perhaps there's a suggestive clue in Ovid's tale -- there usually is. The seduction of Agenor's daughter, the sister of Cadmus, begins like this:
Iamque deus posita fallacis imagine tauri
se confessus erat Dictaeaque rura tenebat,
cum pater ignarus Cadmo perquirere raptam
imperat et poenam, si non invenerit, addit   5
exilium, facto pius et sceleratus eodem.
Orbe pererrato (quis enim deprendere possit
furta Iovis?) profugus patriamque iramque parentis
vitat Agenorides Phoebique oracula supplex
consulit et, quae sit tellus habitanda, requirit.
(Meta. 3.19)
Now Jupiter had not revealed himself,
nor laid aside the semblance of a bull,
until they stood upon the plains of Crete.
But not aware of this, her father bade
her brother Cadmus search through all the world,
until he found his sister, and proclaimed
him doomed to exile if he found her not;—
thus was he good and wicked in one deed.
When he had vainly wandered over the earth
(for who can fathom the deceits of Jove?)
Cadmus, the son of King Agenor, shunned
his country and his father's mighty wrath.
The career of the West begins with furta, theft performed by the Lord of gods and men. Given the degree of calculated deception that went into the theft, translator Tony Klein's "deceits" is entirely justified. That humans cannot "fathom" the tricks of gods is a theme recurs throughout the Metamorphoses. The theft of Europa opens the story of the Minoan world of Crete and, through Agenor's order to his son, the world of Greece through the wanderings of Cadmus and founding of Thebes. The West was able track itself back to Phoenicia because writing, they say, was brought to Greece by Cadmus, who never did find his sister.

Cadmus, Harmonia and the Ismenian Dragon

Canto 27 interweaves motifs questing and hunting throughout, as well as the seductive snares of the gods. In addition to Europa carried off by Zeus and hunted by Cadmus, there is the horrific reversal that follows Diana's reddening -- Actaeon the hunter becomes the conscious prey his dogs tear apart.

In a moment, after the pilgrim turns back from regarding nearly the whole of Europe, the pilgrim will rise to the Primum Mobile. The sun has shifted one quadrant, or six hours, from his last look, so Dante's time in Gemini matches Adam's entire unfallen life in the garden. Adam lost Paradise shortly after noon, which happens to be the same time of day that Actaeon stopped his hunt, walked into the wood, and angered a naked divinity at a spring. It would not have been lost on Dante that Actaeon's tale repeats that of his ancestor, Cadmus, who, searching for Europa on the same Mt. Cithaeron, followed the heifer that led him to the spring where his men were attacked by the Ismenian dragon.

The enchanted world of the Metamorphoses where unassuming mortals are lured, seduced, transformed and destroyed by encounters with devious sacred beings stands behind Dante's text in meaningful juxtaposition. Dante has just finished speaking to Adam, who is fully conscious that his act of eating of the tree was a conscious choice:

Or, figliuol mio, non il gustar del legno
 fu per sé la cagion di tanto essilio,
 ma solamente il trapassar del segno. 

Now, son of mine, the tasting of the tree
  Not in itself was cause of so great exile,
  But solely the o'erstepping of the bounds. (Par. 26. 115-117)

When the pilgrim turns back from the aiuola to Beatrice, he is captured in a way Europa would have perfectly understood:
And if or Art or Nature has made bait
To catch the eyes and so possess the mind,
In human flesh or in its portraiture,

All joined together would appear as nought
To the divine delight which shone upon me
When to her smiling face I turned me round.
e se natura o arte fé pasture
da pigliare occhi, per aver la mente,
in carne umana o ne le sue pitture,

tutte adunate, parrebber nïente
ver' lo piacer divin che mi refulse,
quando mi volsi al suo viso ridente.  (27: 91-96)
All the beauty of all the lures the world holds are nothing to these eyes, this smile that charmed him so long before, and set him aflame.

The poet's own experience of Eros in the world is one way he knows that the ancients and their poets were on to something important. More important is that he show how different the result of the hook (amo) of Amor can be. It might be a power, a trap, but it isn't necessarily a doom.

The virtue that her look endowed me with
From the fair nest of Leda tore me forth,
And up into the swiftest heaven impelled me.

E la virtù che lo sguardo m'indulse,
del bel nido di Leda mi divelse
e nel ciel velocissimo m'impulse. (97-99)

The entire physical universe, which he is about to leave behind, is here summed as the bel nido di Leda. He is literally torn from it by the virtù gazing at him. The ancients knew that nest as the cradle of noble, beautiful, tragic demi-gods and mortals. On the same night Leda slept with her husband King Tyndareus, she was fertilized by a divine dissimulator. 

Some say Zeus impersonated a swan and took Leda; others say Venus pretended to be an Eagle pursuing Zeus in his fake swan persona; some say he pretended to fall into the lap of Leda (others say Nemesis) and swooned there in her protection until she fell asleep -- myths speak of divine beings, but have the waywardness of mortals. 

If canto 27 is haunted by tales of divine abductions and elaborate ruses and rapes, there is reason. The potent charms of Beatrice don't simply engage his devotion -- they uproot him from the beautiful nest because his actual origin is elsewhere. The verb describing this rooting, divellere, is quite strong -- it suggests a total tearing up, wounding, forcible dismemberment:

The word could describe what happened to Actaeon, or to Marsyas, or to Pentheus, another scion of Cadmus who at the end of Metamorphoses 3 is shredded by Bacchantes let by his mother. All these divine acts of destruction in Ovid occur within the nest of Leda. But the uprooting that happens to Dante here tears him out of that nest, beyond Gemini, beyond all location. As the new Actaeon, the new Ulysses, the new Icarus, the new Orpheus, the new Europa, the poet makes sure we know how much those tales of Eros meant to him, and to us.

We've not yet even mentioned the latter portion of canto 27. Its ambit is wide.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Plutarch on citizens of the universe

As Dante/pilgrim approaches the Primum Mobile, the ninth sphere of Paradise, he is verging on a place beyond particulars, beyond the individualities of place and time. 

I happened upon a passage from Plutarch's De exilio that presents an ancient Greek view of man on earth, and of the human being in relation to things beyond the local: the higher order of universals, gods, totality.

Comparing the latter half of Paradiso 27 with Plutarch's passage might provide some insights into the relation of the Christian poet's vision to the worldview of a classical antecedent.


Wherefore, if we fall into any real evil or calamity, we must bring in what is pleasant and delightful of the remaining good things in our possession, and thus, by what we enjoy at home, mitigate the sense of those evils that befall us from abroad. But where there is no evil in the nature of the things, but the whole of that which afflicts us is framed by imagination and false opinion, in this case we must do just as we deal with children that are apt to be frighted with false faces and vizards; by bringing them nearer, and making them handle and turn then on every side, they are brought at last to despise them; so we, by a nearer touching and fixing our consideration upon our feigned evils, may be able to detect and discover the weakness and vanity of what we fear and so tragically deplore.

Such is your present condition of being banished out of that which you account your country; for nature has given us no country, as it has given us no house or field, no smith's or apothecary's shop, as Ariston said; but every one of them is always made or rather called such a man's by his dwelling in it or making use of it. For man (as Plato says) is not an earthly and unmovable, but a heavenly plant, the head raising the body erect as from a root, and directed upwards toward heaven.1 Hence is that saying of Hercules:

Am I of Thebes or Argos? Whether 
You please, for I'm content with either; 
But to determine one, 'tis pity, 
In Greece my country's every city.

But Socrates expressed it better, when he said, he was not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world (just as a man calls himself a citizen of Rhodes or Corinth), because he did not enclose himself within the limits of Sunium, Taenarum, or the Ceraunian mountains.

Behold how yonder azure sky, 
Extending vastly wide and high 
To infinitely distant spaces, 
In her soft arms our earth embraces.

These are the boundaries of our country, and no man is an exile or a stranger or foreigner in these, where there is the same fire, water, air, the same rulers, administrators, and presidents, the same sun, moon, and daystar; where there are the same laws to all, and where, under one orderly disposition and government, are the summer and winter solstices, the equinoxes, Pleiades, Arcturus, times of sowing and planting; where there is one king and supreme ruler, which is God, who comprehends the beginning, the middle, and end of the universe; who passes through all things in a straight course, compassing all things according to nature: justice follows him to take vengeance on those that transgress the divine law, which justice we naturally all make use of towards all men, as being citizens of the same community.

1 Plato, Timaeus

2 Euripides, Frag. 935.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Sun dogs? Adam's reticence in Paradiso 26

. . . out of Norse mythology and archaic names (Danish: solhunde (sun dog), Norwegian: solhund (sun dog), Swedish: solvarg (sun wolf)), . . . constellations of two wolves hunting the Sun and the Moon, one after and one before, may be a possible origin for the term. Sun Dog

As soon as Adam begins to speak in Paradiso 26, he wields a very fancy, learned Greek term, twice: parhelion -- image, copy, equal -- of the sun:
Indi spirò: Sanz' essermi proferta da te,
la voglia tua discerno meglio
che tu qualunque cosa t'è più certa;
perch' io la veggio nel verace speglio
che fa di sé pareglio a l'altre cose,
e nulla face lui di sé pareglio."
Then breathed: "Without thy uttering it to me,
Thine inclination better I discern
Than thou whatever thing is surest to thee; 
For I behold it in the truthful mirror,
That of Himself all things parhelion makes,
And none makes Him parhelion of itself.  (Par. 26: 103-108)
His claim to knowledge is exactly like that of Cacciaguida, Beatrice and others in Paradise - "I know your thoughts better than you do," because the interlocutor is looking directly into the mind of God - the mirror that cannot be mirrored.

Photo of an actual parhelion - or "sundog"

The use of parhelion -- such a showy word -- is arresting. First, it's Greek, and might remind us that Adam's doppelganger, Ulysses, would not even respond to someone who spoke to him in a tongue other than his own. The question of language is already in play before Adam addresses it in his answers to Dante's four questions.

There is nothing hackneyed in Dante's presentation of the first Man. No one else would have approached Adam in this way. First, the insistent recurrence of "firstness" - primaia - marks this passage as concerned with the question of what it means to be "number one" - how to us humans, it is simply unacceptable to be number two. At the root of Adams trapassar, there is this moment of negation - YOU are not number one, I AM. Milton runs endless variants upon Satan's negation, and Adam's.

Dante quietly raises the issue within an allusive passage that begins with the sun and parahelions. Whatever else one might make of this word here, two things are true - this is a hapax legomenon, except it isn't, because the rare word is used twice in two lines. Its eye-catching uniqueness is immediately undercut by the duplicity of its doubling repetition.

Dante is mimicking the sad lack of language -- the power of ontological origination does not lie within it or us. In the text of medieval astrology, the parhelion was equated with mock suns, also known as sun dogs. These mirrors of the sun were bright, but nothing in comparison with the real deal. We and our words are paltry doppelgangers, mockeries of a Maker whose variety infinitely exceeds our imagination.

If one asks where this deflation of duality occurs in Paradiso 26, the best reply might be, "once Adam opens his mouth -- everywhere." He's a dud. Far from the rhetorical power of Ulysses of Inferno 26, who with a very brief speech ignited an exhausted team to the ends of the Earth (devil take the hindmost), Adam sorts out the difference between gustar del legno and trapassar del segno, echoing his Greek descendant's decision to go beyond the segno of Hercules.

To trapassar il segno is to enter a world of conventional, un-Adamic language:
ché l'uso d'i mortali è come fronda
 in ramo, che sen va e altra vene.
Echoing our ineluctable mortality from the greatest poets -- Homer, Virgil, Horace -- links language not to Prometheus's stolen fire, but to the negation of it. To be human is not to be like Adam's words -- but to be true children of an ephemerality indistinguishable from them.

The shortcoming of the father of our species is as clear, and as powerful, as the structural ironies visited upon Francesca, Ugolino and other denizens of hell. Adam's transgression brought him the gift of counting. The proportions of Edenic bliss to earthly existence to time in Limbo are not only curiously precise, but tacitly comical. Mosquitoes live longer than Adam in Paradise. "Congratulations on toting that up -- you traded immortality for that?" Something of this grimaces over the scene.

In view of this, the reader needs ask: where is the recuperation of Adam? Where is the theology of the fortunate fall?

Here's one suggestion. With the number play in this canto, Adam is always clear about his, and language's, non-primacy. He might be an animal coverto, but he's hiding nothing.
"Nel monte che si leva più da l'onda,
 fu'io, con vita pura e disonesta,
 da la prim' ora a quella che seconda,
come 'l sol muta quadra, l'ora sesta.”

"Upon the mount that highest o'er the wave
  Rises was I, in life or pure or sinful,
  From the first hour to that which is the second,
As the sun changes quadrant, to the sixth."
Adam's loss of immortal bliss occurred shortly after the sixth hour of his Day 1, at the moment the second quadrant of the sun's journey begins. His exile occurs at the first hour of the second quadrant -- the one that followed  -- "seconda" -- the prim'ora of his bright nativity.

That this echoes the hour of the sun's journey in which the crucial Good Friday act of his (and Dante's) redemption began remains unspoken. Adam omits the inexplicable act of caritas that took him and us beyond the segno of mortality. The father of language has no words for that. One can charitably ask whether any Ulyssean encomium could more adequately convey the primal power of the Word than Adam's reticence.