Saturday, May 26, 2018

Earth in view: Ars Amatoria I

Our next few weeks will be devoted to an amor somewhat less all-encompassing than that of Dante's Commedia. We'll be looking at Ovid's Ars Amatoria. As we already have an Ovid blog, posts devoted to that reading will appear there.

So far over there, there's just a note about translations. While the poetic matter might rather quotidian, nothing about Ovid is obvious or dull; he pushes genre rules and stylistic experiments to extremes, and can turn from an excursus upon Roman losers' foot hygiene to a visionary processional of Dionysus on a dime.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Difference in toto: Paradiso 32-33

Top: Birth of Dionysus Below: Triumph of Dionysus

ἢ ὥσπερ Σαπφώ, ὅτι τὸ ἀποθνῄσκειν κακόν·
οἱ θεοὶ γὰρ οὕτω κεκρίκασιν· ἀπέθνησκον γὰρ ἄν.

As Sappho says, death is a great evil
and the gods have judged it so: for they do not die

While reading Paradiso 32 I floated the idea that the two final canti of the Commedia stand in relation to each other, in their poetics as well as in other ways, in much the same manner as the Old Testament to the New:
Canto 32 is unadorned and fails to have an ending because it stands in relation to Paradiso 33 as the Old Covenant to the New. (Wounds of Time)
The thrust of canto 32 is toward the particular and unique. Each unbaptized infant has its own place, and all had been fixed before time began. We are given assorted proper names, individuals, but no clear sense of why these and not others. It displays the seemingly arbitrary predilection that the Old Testament God shows for his chosen people.

As we have seen, Paradiso 33 reaches a crescendo of polymorphic figuration teetering on open-ended linguistic arbitrariness. But there's more.

Canto 33 begins with Bernard's prayer, an act chosen in that moment to pray for Dante's accession to the totality. As when she chose in turn to consent to the wish conveyed by Gabriel, so Mary here chooses to consent to Bernard; Beatrice and all of heaven support the petition.

The freedom of the acts is fundamental: Dante's "wings" carry him upward, his gaze penetrates into the final vision, because they're propelled by the volition of the community of the saved. For one who had lived a life of exile, this vote of communal acceptance brings him into the longed-for fold.

Canto 33 dramatizes inclusion. In contrast, canto 32 has Bernard tracing all the differentiating walls and excluding fissures of divine providence,  the features and fixed destinies of the innocents. It's a discourse chilling enough in its precise fixities to evoke the immobilized denizens beneath the frozen lake of Satan's tears.

The possibility of Canto 33 issues from the Virgin's consent to the divine wish depicted in canto 32. The act of choice links the two canti, and it is choice that enables Dante ultimately to have his desire (il mio disio) moved with the will ('l velle) as the sun and the other stars (Barolini) are moved by l'amor. 

The full assertion of both singularity and totality, I believe, lies behind the charged syntax of the difficult tercet discussed in the previous post about canto 33. The insistence of differentiating oneness is never negated or subsumed -- in fact it betrays a certain trauma, even a frisson of sublime horror, as it beholds the totality:
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava. (112-114)
The vision of a gloria that moves all, yet chooses to allow piu e meno, subtends the Commedia from end to end.


There is no end to what one could say about this poem. I'll append one suggestion that seems relevant. Dante often echoes ancient myths solely in order to differentiate the nature of his world from that of the ancients. 

For example, the figure of wings recurrent in Paradiso both relates to his name -- ali-ghieri -- and to the power of heaven. The classical myth of Ganymede is all about desire and force -- the boy is so beautiful he's rapt by Zeus to serve the table of the gods.

Ganymede's will is negated in his trip to Olympus. He is prey. Dante has wings because we have will.

Yet that will is insufficient to reach the godhead.

When Dante the pilgrim and the alta fantasia of the poet cannot get there, 
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne:
 se non che la mia mente fu percossa
 da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne.
The fulgore comes from the other, yet its power fulfills the voglia of Dante.

Yet another myth brings us to a defining irony of the Commedia: When Zeus promised Semele her heart's wish, it meant the fulgore of her own destruction. From that insemination came the god of Tragedy, the anti-Apollo, the obliterator of difference.

The true story for this poet has it otherwise: Mary asks nothing of God. Courtly Gabriel asks her consent to bear the Son of God, and after a bit of questioning, she chooses to say yes. The absolutism of mythic power is not here.

Obliterating all trace of its origin, the fulgore grants a wish that Dante's wings couldn't actualize under their own steam. With the same respect for the other that was apparent at the Annunciation, the illimitable power leaves room for the comedic persistence of a certain Florentine, b.1265 - d.1321.

Friday, May 11, 2018

"iri da iri": Polysemy in Paradiso 33

Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza 
de l'alto lume parvermi tre giri 
di tre colori e d'una contenenza;  
e l'un da l'altro come iri da iri 
parea reflesso, e 'l terzo parea foco 
che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri.

Within the deep and luminous subsistence
  Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
  Of threefold colour and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
  As Iris is by Iris, and the third
  Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed. (33:115-120)

As we noted when reading Paradiso 33, the figuration used by Dante the poet to describe the final moments of the pilgrim's vision stands open to a nearly inexhaustible range of readings.

Two scholars have set themselves the task of exploring the myriad suggestions that bubble forth from close attention to the text. Their meticulous discussion, complete with manifold variations of geometric forms -- circles, spheroids, spirals, tori, cylinders, ellipsoids and more -- forms a study that succeeds admirably both in clarifying the interpretive variables as far as humanly possible, and in exhausting any merely human reader of their disquisition.

Arielle Saiber and Aba Mbirika's "The three giri of Paradiso XXXIII" explores the ambiguous folds of the text with rigor and richness. Indeed, they must have pored over it with the kindling intensity Dante describes as having possessed his own mind at this crucial threshold:
Così la mente mia, tutta sospesa
 mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
 e sempre di mirar faceasi accesa.
My mind in this wise wholly in suspense,
  Steadfast, immovable, attentive gazed,
  And evermore with gazing grew enkindled. (97-99)
Given that the object of his attention had just been described as un volume in which all the dispersed substances and accidents of the universe are bound together in love, it might not be too fanciful to find here, in this paeon to concentration, one of the finest imaginable descriptions of the mind in the act of close reading.

Be that as it may, their scholarly paper is rich, thorough, mathematically informed, and describes many of the ambiguities latent in the text with regard to shape, motion, size, color, and configuration. It rewards the close attention it demands, before confessing, late in the essay, that
When we think of all the possible ways three circles could be linked, as we have done so far in this essay, a kind of vertigo begins to set in.
Indeed, although the essay doesn't address it directly, one can link the experiential delirium brought on by a superabundance of figuration to the preceding passage:
Non perché più ch'un semplice sembiante
fosse nel vivo lume ch'io mirava,
che tal è sempre qual s'era davante;
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava.
Not because more than one unmingled semblance
  Was in the living light on which I looked,
  For it is always what it was before;

But through the sight, that fortified itself
  In me by looking, one appearance only
  To me was ever changing as I changed. (109-114)
As challenging as this is to parse, and certainly to translate, it should be evident that the act of looking deeply -- mirare -- has shifted from the stability of line 98:
 mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
to his deeply looking into the vivo lume, yielding a vista -- the "object" of the gaze, one might say, that is no longer a stable object.

A poor effort at a literal rending might go something like:
but through the vista that was strengthening itself
in me looking, a single appearance,
I transforming, to me intensely was working (si travagliava
The lines fall outside Saiber and Mbirika's focus, but the bursting syntax forces what is seen to be asserted as a unified appearance even as its power seems to destabilize the seeing of it. In being seen, the object -- vivo lume -- subjects the vision of the subject to another power.

With extraordinary verisimilitude, Dante depicts what would happen if light were not the passive illumination we know, but alive. "Vertiginous" scarcely begins to suggest the condition of vision seeing living light. Yet it would be difficult to articulate this disarticulation in a manner more precise, or clear.

In his fine commentary, Nicola Fosca divides these two moments of sameness and transformation rather neatly into (1) the poet who knows in retrospect that the living light remained single, and (2) the pilgrim whose seeing is undergoing the throes of change. He puts it this way:
La luce divina non muta, ma quello che muta è la visione.
Divine light doesn't change, but that which changes is the vision. 
Neat, but perhaps too agile in sidestepping the potent action of an unassimilable other, the living travail of si travagliava.

Theodolinda Barolini is sensitive to this in her comment on the canto:
Dante believes in a transcendent One, but his One is indelibly characterized by the multiplicity, difference, and sheer otherness embodied in the “altre stelle”—an otherness by which he is still unrepentantly captivated in his poem’s last breath.

In all events, Saiber and Mbirika's work is itself first rate, and without it I would not have ventured into the multeity and polysemy herein.

Before leaving this part of the final vision, I would like to suggest one element that I've not seen mentioned in the commentaries. It immediately follows the passage under discussion:
Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza 
de l'alto lume parvermi tre giri 
di tre colori e d'una contenenza; 
e l'un da l'altro come iri da iri 
parea reflesso, e 'l terzo parea foco 
che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri. 
Within the deep and luminous subsistence
  Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
  Of threefold colour and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
  As Iris is by Iris, and the third
  Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed. (115-120)

First, there is the assertion that one of the giri appeared to be a reflection of another come iri da iri. The notion of mirroring true light is unusual here, since all of this light ought to be considered true, unreflected, and living, and therefore no prioritization into primary source and secondary reflection should be appropriate. Of course the text does not impose that prioritization, and in fact it can go both ways, as "one" and "other" are not univocally tethered to any "one" of the circles he is seeing. It is entirely ambiguous whether there is any difference between "one," "two," and "three." Dante is true to the violation of identity and number essential to the vision.

But when the reflection is expressed this way:
come iri da iri 
we are in the position of being uncertain whether the vehicle of the simile concerns a relation of rainbows, as many commentators apparently believe, or whether, in this final realm of the logos, the giri are as like as "iri" da "iri" -- a metalinguistic statement that this "reflection" is in fact repetition -- a purely linguistic iteration rather than an aesthetic phenomenon.

What's more, the reflection is now no longer a matter of light and appearance (Saiber and Mbirika spend some time on the optics of double rainbows), but of sound and grapheme. Whether one says "iri" or writes it, it can only be "iri."

Now this alone is worth pondering, but I would offer one additional twist: If we listen to the phrase come iri da iri, one might hear com' irid a iri, whose living sound yields iride, the Iris that's both the colored circle around the opening of the eye, and the flower long associated with Dante's earthly home, the iride Fiorentina:

Given the explosion of figurative and semantic possibility at this point in the text, is it reasonable to rule out yet one more instance? Might it not fall strangely right to hear in come iri da iri a sonorous tri-unity of eye, rainbow, and Florentine flower, also known as the Giglio celeste,* prefiguring the poet's heavenly home?

*Giglio celeste was also known as Giaggiolo, which happened to be the name of a castle linked to Paolo Malatesta, Francesca's lover.