Friday, March 31, 2017

Paradiso 26 and undemonstrative enigmaticity

Our group meets every other week, but our progress in Paradiso has slowed. The cantos of the theological virtues might seem simpler than some of the earlier, more complexly plotted and allusive work we have already encountered, but no. They are devilishly closely written -- the poet has not lost any steam, or poetic "chops."

A poet who can write a tercet like this is clearly all there:
"Le fronde onde s'infronda tutto l'orto
de l'ortolano etterno, am' io cotanto
quanto da lui a lor di bene √® porto.”
Longfellow tries, but is sensible enough to not attempt the intricate echoes:
"The leaves, wherewith embowered is all the garden
Of the Eternal Gardener, do I love
As much as he has granted them of good." (Par. 26:64-66)
It's tempting to see these cantos as somewhat didactic, or pedantically subservient to biblical texts that form the doctrinal elements of the pilgrim's encounters with Peter, James and John. But each canto offers much more than catechetic tedium. The poem, as we've argued here before, never simply states its burden. It acts out its import.

A clear example is how all is going well in Paradiso 25, until St. John appears. There's a haunting, uncanny moment of cessation of all Paradise -- likened to a ship whose oarsmen suspend their work. The pilgrim turns to Beatrice only to see he has been blinded by John's revelatory brighness. The canto ends with the pilrim's disorientation and fear. The mettle of his soul's hope is being tested.

Before looking at a couple of passages from Paradiso 26 in detail, it might help to spend a few words tracing a pattern that recurs when reading certain non-obvious parts of this poem.

It seems to me that much of the Commedia - certainly the Paradiso - is written "slant," as Dickenson might say. Certain cantos conjoin elements that, prima facie, have no business going together.

To get to the "fruit" (or frui) within the somewhat dry integumentum of these passages, it never seems to hurt to ask childish questions. This is not a task that the poem marks by drawing attention to itself. Unlike the famous appelli ai lettori (addresses to the reader) that direct us to read beneath the versi strani (Inf. 9.63), a canto like Paradiso 26 at first might not seem enigmatic. It takes a while just to notice its several parts don't quite hang together in ways that, from reading the poem, we have come to expect.

In 26, for example, how is it that some derivative platitudes about the Good and love are interspersed with extraordinary similes (a couple of which we'll look at below)? Of all people, what is Adam doing here? Why does Dante encounter him precisely here, after the pilgrim has "passed" his oral exams and experiences renewed, stronger sight? For that matter, what's with all the numbers and quantitative language in this canto? What does caritate - the greatest of the virtues - have to do with Adam, the fall, the length of time he spent on earth, his language and reflections on it, and the duration of his innocence before being sent into exile? Why are there echoes of Cacciaguida in Adam's conversation, and why does our general father open with one of the poem's strangest hapaxes -- parhelion (107-108) -- a double singularity if you will?

Dante was surely doing something other than showing off, or spinning wheels, or filling space before the big finale. When we come across a canto that seems to lose its thread, or veers to an unexpected close, or combines thematic materials from disparate and seemingly unrelated topoi, it's a good idea to ask why. As the imagination works on the question of how these seemingly unrelated elements connect, the result can be a sudden falling into place, acceding to a perspective from which all these disparate elements suddenly swim into signifying focus, often with an unexpected comic "pop."

The "empirical" pattern of such a reading might go something like:
  1. naive first reading
  2. childish questions
  3. noting unusual linguistic features
  4. attending to concurrent motifs through the canto
Now if all this is going well, but the text still seems a bit aimless or dispersed, that's pretty much how we felt after spending two entire sessions on 26, without even discussing the last several tercets in any detail. Of course along the way one consults the commentators, who often proffer excellent clarifications and suggestions. But most important is to stick with it:
5. careful re-reading
At some point -- usually thanks to the more unusual (often seemingly gratuitous) passages, images, or motifs -- something we'd not fully taken into account, something not properly weighed, or now seen from a different angle, moves into view. Often it's a connection between a highly leaned theme on one hand, and a very basic human, vernacular reality, common to all. The connection can be epiphanic, uncoiling with the impact of comedic surprise.

To attempt to pin down whether we're dealing with a specific genre, or mode, would take us far afield. Let's give it a simple name for now: Wisdom literature. Writing that draws upon all manner of indirection in order to challenge the reader, to drive us to our own hard-won "eureka moments" would be the sign and pleasure of this mode. It might not sing in epic tones, or seduce with lyric music, but it is always working on something that, when finally reached, yields a potent reward.

We'll look next at some moments in Paradiso 26.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dante's curious canto of hope - Paradiso 25

Paradiso 25 begins se mai . . .  -- if ever . . . - the strange foolishness of the phenomenon is all right there.

Does one "need" hope? Or is it something one cannot not have? What does hope know? Does it hope for something that it has reason to think will come true, or for precisely that which all rational thought and argument says is not going to happen?

Hope is more irrational even than Faith, which takes as true something that is received as such via language or some sign that points to that which is unverifiable this side of death. Hope, built upon Faith, adds emotive force -- we are moved by hope to expect that which others see no reason to expect. To have no expectation is to experience, as our center of gravity, the absence of motion and expectation. To be hope-less.

The Greeks - or our readings of them - appear to be of two minds about hope. Either it's what we have left after all the ills of Pandora have infested our world, or, it's what we're doomed to be unable to rid ourselves of, despite knowing, beyond all doubt, that it is blind, a useless sign.

At the end of Paradiso 25, the pilgrim in fact is blind.

The realm of the theological virtues is wholly different from what came before - they're not classical, not rational, not a matter of balance and reason and measure and justice.

It's easier to say what they're not than what they are. Unless, as the poet does, we simply repeat the definitions of Faith and Hope that we have from the Epistles and our catechisms.

Paradiso 25 raises more questions than it answers. It does not convey to this reader some buoyant, sanguine confidence that we can be sure of hope. We can be sure of its definition, which Dante the poet says was offered by Dante the pilgrim:
Like a pupil who answers his master, ready and eager in his subject that he may show his parts, "Hope" I said, "is a sure expectation of future glory, and it springs from divine grace and precedent merit." (25:64-69)
A similar scene of a pupil and master was evoked in Paradiso 24, when the pilgrim was asked about Faith.

These "supernatural" virtues are bound up with the event of learning from a teacher, and repeating the lesson learned.

Dante was probed by Peter as to whether he had the real coin of Faith in hand. James asks him from whence Hope came to him, and he points to David. Specifically, to Psalm 9, verse 11:
11 And let them trust in thee who know thy name: for thou hast not forsaken them that seek thee, O Lord. 
11 et sperent in te qui noverunt nomen tuum quoniam non dereliquisti quaerentes te Domine
One thing we can say is that it's usually not possible to know someone's name unless it is told to us. I.e., the appearance of a person, their eye color, hair, or complexion, doesn't scream "Jack," "Susie" or "Bob." To know a name, a few conditions must be met:
  1. The name must be shared with us via writing or speech.
  2. We must be able to tell, when we hear it, that it is a name, rather than a common noun. Usually this requires at least some shared sense of the language in which the name exists.
  3. Once we know the name, we can seek that which it represents - in this case, the Lord.
So at least we can say that acquiring a name is in some sense not unlike acquiring a definition of Faith, or Hope - someone verbally imparts it to us, we repeat it, and it becomes something we "know."

Interesting that the line of David's that Dante found helpful for his own grasp of Hope contains the word, and does so in a wish: "Let them hope" - Douay-Rheims says "trust," but the Vulgate of Dante's bible says sperent. Let them hope in thee who have learned your name. There is teaching, learning, naming, hope. That is, names must be taught because they are signs that are not imitations of things. There is no bond or relation of resemblance. And to acquire a name is to hope for what it is the name of, which suggests that it is not "in" the name. In a sense, when we learn a proper name, at that moment all we have is that -- it yields no knowledge beyond its own verbal form. To learn is to start by knowing only that we do not see what the name means -- we are blind as of yet. We hope our hopes will not be forsaken.

Dante is talking to James, who, he says, passed to him the inspiration of David. Psalm 9 goes on to speak of the weak, of those the Lord does not forget. This is a major theme in James -- the fatuity of the rich.

Psalm 9 is the first of the 150 psalms to have been broken into two parts and counted as 9 and 10 in the Septuagint, whereas it's one work (9) in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars (e.g., Robert Alter) say it shows the remains of an alphabetic scheme in which each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Some translations end Psalm 9 at verse 20, and begin Psalm 10 at verse 21 (see, e.g., this rendering), but Douay-Rheims keeps the psalm intact. 

Now, It is unlikely that one would hear the alphabetic scheme of letters if the song were sung aloud in Hebrew. It's an inscribed pattern -- broken because the text is corrupted, but still an inaudible pattern that comes back at the end. 

And it's the ending where perhaps James and David meet. For there we are told, in 9:38 in Douay-Rheims, that
38 The Lord hath heard the desire of the poor: thy ear hath heard the preparation of their heart. 
38 desiderium pauperum exaudivit Dominus praeparationem cordis eorum audivit auris tua
Because now we are told of a hearing that is well beyond the hearing of a name. It's a hearing of something inaudible - a pattern, an order.The Lord's ear hears desire; it hears the preparation of their (the poor's) heart. We are at a level of hearing well beyond the use of words, of verbal utterances.

To hear "the preparation of the heart" is an extraordinary thing to say. What might be such preparation? Could it be the very thing Dante and James are talking about? Hope might be blind, but apparently it's not mute to the Lord's ear. If it is heard, says David, the poor are not forgotten.

Unlike the Gentiles:
32 For he hath said in his heart: God hath forgotten, he hath turned away his face not to see to the end.
32 dixit enim in corde suo oblitus est Deus avertit faciem suam ne videat in finem
One can assume God forgets. Or not. From David to James, Dante hears something bearing on hope. In Italian, "I hope" is spero. In this canto, Dante hears a lot of breathing -- in Italian, spiro. David breathes, James breaths, Dante breathes. Inspiration. In the most basic sense, if we're breathing, we're hoping.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Augustine on figure

Right at the beginning of On The Trinity Augustine sets forth a theory of the mode of the Bible. It is made for little people, even children. It has not avoided words from any class or level of speech or style; it runs the gamut from humble materiality to transcendent divinity, and it speaks of both corporeality and spirituality. 

Augustine is essentially describing the Biblical mode of speaking as unlimited in range, capable of speaking of anything -- much as Erich Auerbach has noted, particularly in the first chapter of Mimesis. Th Bible's books, unlike the stately aristocratic artifice of Homer, Pindar, or the Greek tragedians, does not impose any linguistic policing upon style or content. It depicts God, man, creation and history without suppression or privilege.
In order, therefore, that the human mind might be purged from falsities of this kind, Holy Scripture, which suits itself to babes has not avoided words drawn from any class of things really existing, through which, as by nourishment, our understanding might rise gradually to things divine and transcendent. For, in speaking of God, it has both used words taken from things corporeal, as when it says, "Hide me under the shadow of Your wings;" and it has borrowed many things from the spiritual creature, whereby to signify that which indeed is not so, but must needs so be said: as, for instance, "I the Lord your God am a jealous God;" and, "It repents me that I have made man."
Vt ergo ab huiusmodi falsitatibus humanus animus purgaretur, sancta scriptura paruulis congruens nullius generis rerum uerba uitauit ex quibus quasi gradatim ad diuina atque sublimia noster intellectus uelut nutritus assurgeret. Nam et uerbis ex rebus corporalibus sumptis usa est cum de deo loqueretur, uelut cum ait: Sub umbraculo alarum tuarum protege me. Et de spiritali creatura multa transtulit quibus significaret illud quod ita non esset sed ita dici opus esset, sicuti est: Ego sum deus zelans, et: Poenitet me hominem fecisse. (De Trinitate 1.2)
There is, however, one thing -- or order of things -- that's off limits:
But it has drawn no words whatever, whereby to frame either figures of speech or enigmatic sayings, from things which do not exist at all.   
De rebus autem quae omnino non sunt non traxit aliqua uocabula quibus uel figuraret locutiones uel sirparet aenigmata. 
Note that what is translated as "frame" is the verb figurare -- to form, fashion, shape -- which happens to be cognate with the Italian verb figurar that Dante uses in speaking of his own modes of representation. Upon reaching the stars, having made a leap beyond the spatio-temporal bounds of realism, naturalism, historical mimesis, the poem states that it now cannot speak except in figure -- there is no possibility of literal, or proper, representation, except in the sole instance of this precise metapoetic, or metalinguistic statement. To say "all is figure" is a proper, literal description of the condition and predicament of being unable to speak properly or literally.

One philological sidenote: Augustine says that the Bible uses no words, whether as locutions or enigmas, drawn from things that have no reality whatsoever. There is no Chimera, for example. Curiously, the manuscript uses a word that has puzzled commentators: sirparet (or scirparet) is not, as far as anyone seems to find, an actual Latin word. One suggestion that has been accepted by some is that the text is corrupt, and that Augustine meant to write spissaret -- literally, to thicken or condense, which could here be used figuratively to describe the semantic opacity of enigmatic expressions.

The Bible, says Augustine, would not use enigma where the actual sense or referent of the enigma does not in fact exist. This would appear not to rule out enigmas concerning things that do exist. Of course, given that either way it's enigma, the difficulty of ascertaining whether the ontological status of the mystery hidden beneath a given enigmatic speech can properly be decided might at times be problematic.

To be sure, the author of a 15-book treatise on the Trinity -- surely one of the greatest enigmas of the Judeo-Christian tradition -- would understand the importance of being able to tell the difference between a real enigma and a Chimera. The status of his own text in fact requires him to be rigorously clear about it. The point of this brief post is not to unravel that complexity in Augustine, but rather to suggest that Augustine's precept about the representational, figural, and allegorical range of Biblical language does appear a worthy description of the robust vernacular Dante chose as the vehicle for his own journey. As we proceed from the stars to realms even further from Nature, we should be prepared for locutions, figures and perhaps enigmas that go beyond what the Commedia has hitherto employed.