ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 11 - Purgatory V, VI, IX, X
Chapter 1. Tension between the Old and the New: Moral Purification [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Last time, I was arguing with you about some of the novelties that Dante introduces within the poem at the start of Purgatory. One — there’s some formal, what we would call descriptive novelties: light, time, the question of time. There’s a moral innovation, the focus on the connection, the subtle connection between freedom and new beginnings. The idea of freedom as, first of all, a political value, and the meeting with Cato, so that though insisting on these novelties and that the novelty and the new, or the possibility of renewal is exactly what’s at stake in Dante’s new poetics.
I was also trying to emphasize, and I think that that came through, hopefully with clarity, the whole tension between the old and the new, the pull of the past, the sense of nostalgia and whether it’s an existential one or in the biblical Exodus story, the nostalgia for the time of safety, apparent safety in — of the Jews in Egypt, even though within — under the slavery that Egypt stands for. These were some of the issues and then we moved onto Canto II where we specifically, on the encounter of Dante with a musician, by the name of Casella, where Dante dramatizes, as if unaware, as if mindless of what had happened in the previous canto and the experience of the previous canto, he just lapses into exactly the same type of predicament that the previous canto had featured. Namely, here he is indulging in memories of the past, lapsing into a form of idolatrous self-confrontation. He’s listening to the beauty and lure of the canto — of the song that Casella will sing for him and then, finally, the presence of — the eruption of Cato once again who focuses on the ethical demands of the place.
Purgatory is a place of moral purification and so he urges all the souls that had gathered around the song of Casella, to move away, and the language that he uses is that of dispersion: like doves, like pigeons, like doves that go on dispersing throughout the plain. Clearly what — in retrospect, what is apparent, I think, in all of these situations, is Dante’s insistence on the power, on the importance of a communal destiny, a communal fate. Though this communal fate appears as defeated. Let me just explain what I mean and then we move on with today’s readings.
In the case of Cato, Cato has been defeated by the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, to the point that he had to commit suicide. In the case of Casella’s song, that poem had managed to gather around itself, not only Dante, but all the other souls who had become mindless of what they really were supposed to do, continue their climbing up the mountain. And Cato intervenes and he also shatters the — as illusory that form of community. What I think that Dante’s after is the following: there may have been defeat and therefore the value of these experiments in communal existence, that of Cato who commits suicide, and that of the aesthetic gathering around the poetry. They are both partially defeated, and yet they contain seeds that will be necessary for his rethinking about how to renew and reconstruct his idea of the common historical destiny. This is really what — and I hope it’s fairly clear and we shall see this a little bit on today.
Chapter 2. Canto V: Retrospective Knowledge; Buonconte da Montefeltro; Pia de’ Tolomei [00:04:54]
I turn very briefly now to Canto V, for a couple of reasons because it’s — Canto V, if I had to give a general title to the canto, I would say that this deals with Dante’s sense of retrospective knowledge. I have been really focusing on a Dante turned to the future, as you know, a Dante who thinks and reflects on hope, who thinks and reflects about issues such as the future in general, that this is freedom is — and time as the future is the real time. Nothing else really matters because everything else can only be understood as part of the future, even when it’s past, with the logical underlying assumption that that which is past was once the future, the only real — the only reality of time. He understands in Purgatorio how time moves in a uni-direction, which is future oriented, so it’s really a time as future, that it turns out to be also a return to the Garden of Eden, but that is kind of second thought for him.
Here now though, in Canto V, Dante meets souls that the — bring to the fore for him the power of retrospection. These are souls who manage to repent at the last minute. It’s almost as if — again, it’s time, it’s a question of time, but a time that is sort of inexhaustible. It’s always possible to fall back, reflect, and turn one’s life around. One figure that he meets, and this is Canto V around line 90, you shall see in a moment why I select him. He meets a figure who is — he’ll identify himself Buonconte da Montefeltro, who is the son by the way, of a man Guido, whom we met in Canto XXVII of Inferno, and this is why I like to focus on him.
The break between the past and the future, the son being always a sort of statement about a project, about a future — son or the daughter — a statement about the future and the father ends up in Hell. The son ends up in this purgatorial ledge on the way to redemption, so there is no chain of natural necessity and causality between the past and the present and the future. There is a focus on freedom, because once you break that bond of necessity, you are really opening up, inaugurating the idea that we are free, that we are really free to make ourselves regardless of what antecedents we may have behind us.
There is another little detail, which is a formal — it really tells you something about Dante’s art, so here he goes on in line 88 or so: “Then another spoke: ‘Pray so may that desire be satisfied with draws thee to the high mountain… ” What extraordinary language about desire drawing us. We are — this is Dante’s universe of desire. We’re impelled by desire, and desire is really what moves us. It’s love that moves us; it’s desire that impels us to go one way or the other. “… do thou with gracious pity help mine. I was of Montefeltro; I am Buonconte.”
And I hope now that you are sensitive to this temporal, to the tenses, the disjunction in tenses. I already pointed those out for you in the canto of Ugolino and here too, Buonconte is asserting his identity in the mode of the present and detaching himself with the view or the use of the past tense from the family, Montefeltro.
“Neither Giovanna nor any other has care for me, so that I go among these with downcast brow.’ And I said to him, ‘What force or what chance,” or ‘adventure’ more than ‘chance.’ Chance is too heavy a word and I will come to this a little bit later where Dante reflects on the significance, which has “took thee so far from Campaldino, that thy burial place was never known.”
This is an extraordinary scene, an extraordinary encounter for one very autobiographical reason. The reason is this, is that Dante fought at the battle of Campaldino. It was the moment his great maturity, his great entering into the battlefield of life, when he discovers that now, because of the victory that the Florentines had in Campaldino, that he also can have claims about himself, about his own family, and political future. But now he meets a victim. And there have been those who go on claiming with very little evidence, if you are in a battle — I don’t know how many of you know the field of Campaldino; it’s pretty large, about twenty-five miles east of Florence. The idea is that — so those who go on claiming that maybe this is someone that Dante killed at the battle, and now sort of retrieves him, brings him back — there’s no evidence for this — but it is a painful autobiographical moment for him. A moment where he did experience violence and he perpetrated violence.
And this is the answer: “Ah, he replied, ‘at the foot of the Casentino.’” Rather than answering the question of the battle, he goes on thinking about his death and recounts his death. This is a poem about births. You remember, I always like to say this about the event of being born, and the portentous quality that being born implies, the kinds of alterations that we all can bring on the world around us by the very fact that we were born. Now he talks about death.
“Ah he replied, ‘at the foot of Casentino a stream crosses called the Archiano, which rises above the Hermitage in the Apennines. To the place where its name is lost I came, wounded in the throat, flying on foot, and bloodying the plain. There I lost sight and speech. I ended on the name of Mary and there fell and only my flesh remained. I will tell the truth and do thou tell it again among the living. God’s angel took me, and he from Hell cried: ‘O thou from Heaven, why dost thou rob me?” And so on.
The reason why I’m really reading this passage, not only to tell you about this notion of the power of time and the power of retrospection, looking back at that final moment in one’s life, it’s the decisive moment that confers, a coherence, and a meaning to one’s life. We were born, and we are born with certain expectations of what we can do, but death becomes the revelatory event.
This is really the point of this passage, but there’s another point. Dante deploys the same rhetorical genre of the debate which he had used in the encounter with Buonconte’s father. So that by the sameness of the rhetorical genre, you are forced to really couple them together, and yet the point is that of the distance between father and son, that of the distance in the temporal disjunctions between the past and the present, and the future.
The canto ends with six lines which are extraordinary lines, where sentimentalists as occasionally I am, we’ll go on even seeing a subtle allusion of Dante to his own wife. It’s an encounter with Pia de’ Tolomei, a woman from Siena, and clearly this little passage is meant to refocus — remind us of Francesca in Canto V of Inferno. It’s the exact symmetrical canto. These are the lines which I will read, I will go on reading also in Italian, you read it in English. Professor Margaret Brooks was asking me to give some evidence of what the Italian language sounds like, and so it’s a moment of nostalgia for you too, I take.
So, “Pray when thou hast returned to the world and art rested from the long way,’ the third spirit followed the second, do thou remember me who am La Pia.” It’s a sort of — an epitaph of La Pia, who was mistreated here by the husband and yet incredibly forgiving and the word ends — and the passage ends with the word gem which in Italian is gemma, Dante’s wife’s name. So one wonders if Pia also doesn’t stand the kind of wishful thinking on the part of Dante that his wife whom he had — because of exile had been forced to leave behind may also forgive.
That’s the point: is Dante introducing this radical category of forgiveness, which is the true scandal? If you want to begin again, then forgiveness is exactly what’s demanded. Let me read the passage in Italian and we move on.
Now we move to — after this highly — I find it a passage of a great pathos — as all of them are — great intimacy, where Dante’s really involved. And just as he’s obliquely involved with Buonconte, they fought in the same battle on opposite sides, and then this encounter with Pia de’ Tolomei.
Chapter 3. Canto VI: The Political Canto [00:15:22]
We turn to a public canto, a political canto. Let me just try to explain a couple of things before we move on to something that I care about here, in terms of the Canto X and XI. That’s how he begins Canto VI, political canto like Canto VI of Inferno, and like Canto VI of Paradise. You know that now, it’s a principle of symmetry at work. This is not — Canto VI of Inferno is about the city of Florence, Canto VI of Purgatorio is about Italy, and the disarray, the chaos, the disunity of the country.
Here he starts, “When the game of hazard breaks up the loser is left disconsolate, going over his throws again, and sadly learns his lesson; with the other all the people go off; one goes in front, one seizes him from behind, another at his side recalls himself to his memory; he does not stop, but listens to this one and that one; each to whom he reaches his hand presses on him no longer and so he saves himself from the throng. Such was I in that dense crowd, turning my face to them this way and that, and by promising I got free from them. There was the Aretine,” and so on.
It’s an extraordinary simile. To explain, that’s the burden of the simile, that all the penitents are so surprised at seeing Dante alive in the beyond, that they all go after him. He is — there’s a throng of people pressing on him, that’s the simile. The simile that he uses is that of the winner in a game of hazard. That is to say, he is the winner. Dante’s the winner and they all go after him, and they all neglect Virgil. Virgil is the loser.
Therefore, the simile introduces a language which is extraordinary. It is as if Dante were speaking of his salvation, of the uniqueness of this journey that he is undertaking, in terms of a game of hazard. We all have been thinking that this is really a providential journey and now he is casting it as if it were just a game of chance. Here is the word chance that he uses: hazard. It’s an interesting metaphor, first of all, from the point of view of the language of play. This is playful. It’s a way of almost of casting one’s salvation as the casting of the dice. It’s a lottery here that someone loses and someone wins, and Dante says, well I was born after the incarnation, so I had the possibility of saving myself and Virgil did not.
It’s also an interesting metaphor because it really introduces the question of play in Dante’s theological perception, and it’s an issue that I will talk about much more extensively when we reach Paradise. But one thing is clear: that Dante understands that the relationship between — and that’s all I’m going to say unless you press me a little later but we’ll talk more about this metaphor — Dante understands that the relationship between the soul and God is a relationship shaped by risk on both sides, and that this idea of risk that would seem to be a blind casting of the dice in effect constitutes the freedom that the human beings can have in the scheme of things. The whole point of salvation is, by using this language of hazard and chance, is rescued, it’s disengaged from my — the idea that God knows it all and we are going to — we are determined in what we are doing.
What Dante’s saying, by focusing on a time bound metaphor, is that we are engaged in a risky relationship and as in our relationship between God and the soul, there is this element of danger. That’s it, that’s the metaphor. To make it more precise so you don’t — you know where I’ll be going in the days ahead, whenever in antiquity, they would discuss — mainly Boethius is the most important author — the relationship between human freedom and God’s foreknowledge, they would always present the case to say that God is outside of time, always says being outside of time. All times converge in God, and so that God sees all things in the present so that should really — God is here, it’s a point of view which is transcendent and therefore synoptic and we are in a diachronic world: past, present and future, but everything is at the same time. We think that we live in a world where we do not know what tomorrow may bring us. Whatever decisions we make now have already been — what kind of consequences, whether they’re unpredictable or they have been determined by things that escape our control, but God knows. And this is the Boethian scheme of harmonizing God’s foreknowledge and human freedom.
It doesn’t take too much to realize that this is really a little bit of a delusion, because either I’m free or am I not free. It may be that God knows it all, but it doesn’t mean that He wills that I do what I do. He knows but He does not will it, and yet, He knows and I’m here and I don’t know, so my own freedom is still a little bit rhetorical.
Dante does it differently: it’s a departure from Boethius. The relationship between God’s foreknowledge and the souls being in time is one that introduces the question of chance and hazard, and that involves both God and the soul. To be very precise, he doesn’t say it here, and that’s why I hesitate to get into that. I would like to work with the text to make this very clear. The issue is that in a love relationship between God and the soul, we are always at risk. If you accept the principle of a love economy, regulating the universe, which Dante does, certainly does, then you understand this notion of hazard in — not as a principle of just chance in the sense of casual blind randomness, but in the sense of this risk — proposition risk element. Then the canto goes on — this particular metaphor goes on with another meeting between two poets. Yes?
Student: What do you mean by love economy?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The economy of love — the question — the clarification is what do I mean by the love economy? Dante’s universe, it’s a universe of love and that’s how creation takes place, the creation of the universe and the creation of human beings. So we are — the involvement that we — every soul has with God is one of love. Just as in the relationship between say, Beatrice and Dante, there is an element of risk in loving. What is that risk in loving? I can think of several. I think we are all grown ups to understand that, one loves and one may not be reciprocated in love. That’s a pretty bad risk. Certainly, it’s a risk of God who creates and may not be loved, which is the story of what disobedience is, and certainly is the existential experience of human beings to be involved with someone. Either we love the wrong person, then we say wisely I was loving the wrong person? I’m being ironic with that idea of wisdom or discovering that indeed in every relationship there is time, feelings change, we have so many ways of thinking about it. There is a — Dante’s response is look, he likes figures — we shall talk about this — like Francis who goes to pray on the cliffs at night because he wants to dramatize the idea that even a prayer puts you at risk of being hurt or not being hurt, of being disappointed, of discovering that the world does not go the way you want it to go, and that which is true in prayer is true in love. That’s all I was saying. I wasn’t saying anything more than that.
In Canto VI also, the political canto, there is an encounter between two poets. One is Virgil with Sordello, who is a Mantuan poet. They all share the same birthplace, Mantua, across the centuries. They meet and the very idea of Mantua, they ask Virgil, Virgil starts saying, “Mantua — ” clearly playing with a famous epitaph, I think, the line interrupts. There it says: “Mantua made me,” the famous epitaph written on — in Naples where Virgil is buried. “Mantua made me and the south, Calabria, took me away. I sang the arms,” the Aeneid, “the herds,” the Georgics, and the story about the Bucolics, “the fields.” It’s just — in two lines the account of his whole life. So he starts saying, “Mantua.”
I think I’m alluding to this birthplace — once again the birth — and Sordello and he embrace. This embrace, this existential encounter, this other little moment which is insubstantial, because they can’t really embrace. They’re spirits, another failure after the one that we saw with Casella in Canto II of Purgatorio. That triggers Dante’s political invective against Italy. It’s the moment of — which I will read very briefly. I mean I will not read the whole thing but it’s an invective — the kind of civic sense of responsibility.
“O Mantuan…” This is line 75 of Canto VI: “And the gentle leader began, ‘Mantua”; and the shade who had been all rapt within himself, sprang toward him from the place where he was, saying: “O Mantuan, I am Sordello of thy city.” He’s a Provençal poet, but he wrote in Provençal and from Mantua. “…the one embraced the other.” Look at this phrase, which is extraordinary because in Italian, now I feel that I can read — thanks to Margaret I can read Italian as freely as I care, e l’un e l’altro abbracciava. I’ll return to this construction in a moment, “the one embraced the other.” It’s a phrase of reciprocity — one embraced the other — the reciprocity of affections across time.
Dante begins his incredible vituperation, his attack against enslaved Italy and look: “Ah, Italy enslaved, hostel of misery,” a number of metaphors, “ship without pilot in great tempest, no princess among the provinces but a brothel! So eager was that noble soul, only for the dear name of his city, to give welcome there to its citizen, and now in thee thy living are never free from war and of those who one wall and mote shut in one gnaws at the other.”
Another line that seems to have a sort of grim version of the reciprocity. Earlier one embraced the other, now one gnaws at the other. If you look at the Italian, it’s really slightly different. The English doesn’t give that — this translation at least. Line 82, in te non stanno sanza guerra li vivi tuoi, e l’un l’altro si rode. One has a reflexive form, the other one does not, and the moment of violence Dante uses the verb “si rode” in the reflexive form in order to imply that the exchange is an exchange that it always turns on oneself. One knows that the other for oneself, therefore it reverses and denies the reciprocity, the action of reciprocity indicated by the previous phrase.
I could also emphasize a couple of details here, where Dante says: “to give welcome there to its citizen, and now in thee thy living are never free from war and of those whom wall and moat shut in.” It’s a very — you do know that the word for community, which we always use, community — it’s a word that etymologically comes from the Latin for wall, moenia. Community meant, and stems from, a concept from the sharing of walls, houses, piling, and built one on top of the other. That’s the idea of a community. The shared walls of the city, which here is now seen as — viewed as separating one from the other. This will continue with the lack of laws and the families, including the Montague’s and Capulets, for you Shakespeare lovers, who are mentioned here, and then Dante ends up with — on line 125 with a returning to Florence and a little — clearly bitter satire.
“My Florence thou mayst well be at ease with this digression,” I’ll come back to this metaphor in a moment, “which does not touch thee thanks to thy people who are so resourceful.” Dante talks about Italy but it turns to Inferno VI with the invocation of Florence. He’s calling this poem, this invective, a digression, which literally means that it does not belong in the poem, that Dante is stepping out of the economy of the poem, and talking in his own voice. It’s a digression. That’s what we call a digression, right? You use a particular language that doesn’t really belong to the general plot and theme, but then the meaning of this digression is made really clear, later, when he says, “which does not touch thee.”
How ironic. Of course he’s saying literally in this digression, you are so much better than all these other towns. That’s the irony: Florence is no better, therefore this digression doesn’t really concern you.
It can also be understood in another way, in another more tragic and more sinister way. This digression does not touch you: my language will not affect you. The whole statement in all its ambiguity becomes one of the reflection on the impotence of the poetic language to affect the historical — the unfolding of history, the ordering of the city. It is as if Dante, were, here, that the relationship between the voice of the poet and the political order is one of inevitable rupture. Dante tries to improve and change, that’s clearly the thrust of the passage, and the thrust of the invective also declares the powerlessness in his doing so.
We are doing very well with time, so I have a chance to read a little scene. Dante moves on talking about the first night of Purgatorio will take place and he takes refuge in the so-called Valley of the Princes, where a new garden, another garden is going to be described, which in many ways fulfills the garden of Limbo in Canto IV of Inferno. Dante has these motifs that keep reappearing and here it’s more than a natural beauty of the place it’s — there are precious stones implying that though Purgatorio is the world of transition for transient souls, there is something abiding about this place.
Then Dante moves on, I want to read a paragraph here with the meeting with the princes. I want to read the first passage which is the — an evening song. Dante’s — Dante the pilgrim now is taken with nostalgia for his hometown. It is the pilgrimage of desire, which is the poem, the poem of desire, desire for God, desire for Beatrice, now turns into the desire for the comfort and the shelter of the home he had lost.
Listen to this passage, it’s written in many ways in — along the lines of Provençal poetry of nostalgia. Listen to the assonances as you — the first six, seven lines of Canto VIII, listen to the assonances the chiastic structures of the sounds of which I’m not going to point out to you, you can do that on your own.
Then here, I’m not going to be able to read it, but to tell you how the poem should be read, then they go and hear a hymn, a medieval hymn, Te lucis ante terminum, which, if we really had the time, I would come to class with the whole Latin hymn because we — Dante gives only the first three words but clearly we are supposed to hear the whole thing about the dangers of the night, the sense that the night is fraught with phantasms and that they will intrude on the powers of judgments of the various souls, Dante’s own included.
Chapter 4. Marking the Rupture in Canto IX [00:35:22]
With Canto IX, Dante moves from — as he does in every Canto IX, marks the rupture from a particular area of the poem to another. Remember Canto IX of Inferno and the encounter with — failed encounter with the Medusa, the passage into the City of Dis. Now with Canto IX, Dante moves into Purgatory proper, and so we’ll go with Canto X, XI, and XII. We’re not going to be able to do all three cantos today, so I will return to some of the things that I will say now about Canto X and XI that I hope to cover.
How is Purgatorio — where is this purification proper going to take place? This is the ordering. Dante will go these so-called seven deadly sins. I don’t know that you know what they are, but the first one we shall see, the first one is — they go from spiritual sins, pride is the root of all sins, to lust at the end. In every representation of this sin, Dante precedes it with a representation of its opposite virtue: so that we have humility in Canto X, and then in Canto XI punished pride. First of all, as if Dante has to learn that which he’s going to witness a little later. In a sense, it’s the absolute reversal of the economy of Inferno in Purgatorio.
You may remember that I said last time that the incredible quality of the structure of the poem is that Dante wants us to see experiences of evil in Inferno first, so that when we get to Purgatorio and Paradise, we really have the chance to appreciate what the good is and appreciate what the absence of the good may be, but evil really generates and engenders. Here now, he changes all of this. In Purgatorio, he starts with the representation of the virtue of humility and then the sin.
The representation of the virtue of humility takes place through the language of art. Dante approaches the cliff and on the sides of the cliff he sees three sculptures embodying examples of humility. The word pride, which in Italian is — we have the English “superb,” in Italian, we call it superbia. To the word “superb,” you add -ia, which is pride. The word humility in Italian is the same thing as umiltà. The word humility means — comes from the ground, the sense of being down, of being — the idea that one is really with — let’s say — the feet on the ground. The very opposite of superbia which implies some kind of immoderate flight away — a sense of the view of the overman, the idea of being a superman. It’s the idea that someone who wants to transcend the limitations of this world and being human.
The word for humility and the word for human have the same etymology, in case you wonder where it comes from. The homo, which means ‘man’ in Latin, comes from homos. We are called man, human beings, because we come from the earth and we are close to the earth, and we return to the earth. We come from the earth and we’re returning to the earth. The idea of humility is the same notion. There is a kind of implicit connection, etymologically, between the two words, the two terms.
One more remark to make, this whole idea of having — a couple of remarks before I go on with the text that will serve you for the rest of Purgatory. The idea of having the virtues and the vices, first one and then the other, seem to cast Purgatorio, but it’s not really that way, as a variant of a medieval poetic form called psychomachia which means “the battle of thoughts.” By the way, this is a Latin poem, one of the early Latin poems by this Latin Spanish poet called Prudentius. It’s a kind of psychomachia, the battle of thoughts, of contradictory thoughts.
Chapter 5. Canto X: The World of Art; The Idea of Measurement [00:40:08]
The second thing that I have to say, is more important for the poetics of Dante. Keep in mind that the whole poetic mode of Purgatorio, unlike the poetic mode of Inferno, is played out in Purgatorio through the imagination, art images, memories, phantasms. In other words, we are really in a world which is in between that of bodies and souls, the world of the middle ground of the imagination, and now we have the world of art. A world of art, that Dante says, and I read from Canto X, at the very beginning. I just want to give you this as — it’s an extraordinary — I don’t want to go into excessive detail, but I have to do it this time.
“When we were within the threshold,” Canto X, the very beginning, “of the gate which the soul’s perverse love disuses.” Purgatory is all a sequence of variations on love. That’s the moral law of Purgatory. All sins in Purgatory are sins — either we use the — we give love to the wrong object, or we love too much in terms of what — how we are being loved back or we love too little. These are the three general subdivisions of Purgatory. That’s “perverse love disuses, making the crooked way seem straight, by the resounding I heard it closed again; and if I had turned my eyes to it what excuse would have served the fault?”
The reflection of what happened before: “We were climbing through a cleft in the rock which kept bending one way and the other, it goes around the mountain,” that’s really what the language is, “like a wave that comes and goes, when my Leader began: ‘Here there is need to use some skill in keeping close to this side or that where it turns away.” The cliff is — there’s an abyss underneath it, so it’s an invitation to prudence along the way. “…and this made our steps so scant that the waning moon had regained its bed to sink to rest before we were forth from that needle’s eye. But when we were free and out in the open above, where the mountain draws back, I weary and both uncertain of our way,” we know now this has become a sort of formulaic expression of the uncertainties of this exile as he moves up the mountain, “we stopped on a level place more solitary than a desert track. From its edge bordering on the void to the foot of the lofty bank which rises sheer would measure three times a man’s body, and as far as my eye could make its flight, now on the left hand, now on the right, the terrace there seemed to me the same.”
What is all this about? What I want to point out is that Dante is measuring the whole landscape in terms of the measure of a human being. He’s using the human beings — a human being as the measure. Is man the measure? You have heard that expression, right? Are we the measure? Are we the measure of what, creation? Are we the measure of what we should do?
This is exactly the point of the canto because pride means an inordinate love and belief in our own excellence. Pride means that we do not think that we are — we can be measured by others, that we want to become the measure for others, or that we really do not belong where others may think we belong. That’s what pride is. It’s a sin, very common. Who do you think you are? Who do — don’t you know who I am? This is the language we use and it’s pride — I always like to say that we are never really proud when we are dealing with our janitor. They are not proud; we’ve become so human, so good. We are always proud with those who endanger our sense of our own measure, who seem to take their own measure of us. Dante is starting with the idea of measurement and I’ll come back — this is the crucial metaphor and I’ll come to that.
How do we measure what is human and that is not human? One thing is clear: that pride, superbia, means an inordinate love of one’s own excellence. We are really far superior, we think, than anybody else would have thought us. Then he goes on looking at images made on the white marble, “such that not only Polycletus but nature would be put to shame there.” Extraordinary metaphor already talking about measure and about order, these are works of art produced by the hand of God directly.
God is an artist and God has made these images, but it’s such that nature, which as you know, is the daughter of God and the mother of the arts, and also an artist, the famous Polycletus, a Greek scholar, a Greek scholar Polycletus, would be put to shame. Already there is this sense of rivalry within the pattern of generation of arts. That’s the first thing, and then the first image that we see, is the image of the angel Gabriel, the messenger who came to earth, that’s humility. He came to earth, the descent of the high becoming low, while the human beings who are low want to think of themselves as very high.
“The angel who came to earth with a decree of the many-years-wept-for peace that opened heaven from its long interdict appeared before us so truly graven there in a gracious attitude that it did not seem a silent image.” That’s God’s art, but very clear, there’s no difficulty in understanding this art. “One would have sworn, he said: ‘Ave,’ the first words of the angel Gabriel doing the Annunciation. The Annunciation is the story of the humility, whereby obliquely, God becomes man. So that’s the descent, another form of, not only the humility of Mary in accepting the mandate, but also the idea of the descent.
By the way, let me just point out that this ‘Ave’ is what we call a boustrophedon — I have spelled the word out for you — for ‘Eva.’ It’s very conventional in medieval literature: the idea that Mary becomes the one who reverses the role of Eve. With Eve there is the loss of the Garden and the Fall, with Ave there is now the turning of the key, as it were, and the Redemption.
“For she was imaged there who turned the key to open the supreme love, and in her bearing she had this word imprinted — this word imprinted: ‘Ecce ancilla Dei.’” She acknowledges her — Mary acknowledges her ancillary role. She is a servant and she acknowledges herself as a servant. Now, along side with this, what we could call an ethical education, Dante has to learn what humility is. There is an ethical education, learn about what this humility is about. There is also an aesthetic education going on, simultaneously. After all, Dante’s really looking at art.
The question is what is the relationship between the virtue and art? How can the two be together? To give you an idea of how complicated the problem is, in the next canto Dante goes on meeting all the painters. You read Canto XI, Giotto and Cimabue, who are emblems of people who invest their productions with an inordinate sense of its value. Then Dante puts himself — puts his friends Guido Cavalcanti — you remember the two — Guido’s, Guido Guinizelli, one Guido removed the other Guido from its nest, and now the third person has come, meaning himself who probably will rout both of them. What a proud statement. It is as if the artist is always prone to this sort of inordinate idea of who they are and what their value may be.
Chapter 6. Learning How to Look; More on Measurement [00:48:57]
So art and humility and pride, this is the issue. The ethical education and the aesthetic education. What is the aesthetic education? Virgil is telling Dante how to look, that’s really the most complicated thing. For those of you who are doing art history, that’s really what it’s about. How do we look? What do the eyes really reveal to us? “Do not keep thy mind only on one part.” That’s the looking — the belief that we — or the temptation to lose sight of the totality of things and not — and just taking one part for the whole.
“Do not keep thy mind only on one part,’ said the kind master who had me on that side of him where the heart lies,” on the left, “so that I turned my face and saw beyond Mary on the same side as he that prompted me, another story set on the rock.”
Dante has to learn how to look and what he’s looking at are stories. Story, the word is Greek, for those of you who know some Greek. It comes from ‘I saw and I narrate,’ and it’s the same etymology for story and history. This is a little bit of allegory of history, we are saying. As if Dante’s really telling — begins with the New Testament, the story of Mary, now we’re going to see a picture from the Old Testament, David dancing in front of the ark and then an episode of Trajan, the emperor who is an example of humility. You shall see him in a moment.
The point is that the whole of history is an allegory of humility and that’s God’s art. That’s what Dante has God represent for us. “… Mary…” etc. “…There, carved in the same marble were the cart and oxen drawing the sacred ark on account of which men fear an office not committed to them. In front people appeared and the whole company, divided into seven choirs, made two of my senses say, the one: ‘No,’ the other: ‘Yes, they sing’; in the same way at the smoke of the incense that was imaged there, eyes and nose were in contradiction with yes and no. There the humble psalmist,” David, “went before the blessed vessel girt up and dancing, and that time he was both more and less than king; opposite, figured at the window of a great palace, Michal looked on, like a woman vexed and scornful.”
This is really the story that is told in Samuel, in the Bible, and Dante’s really reinterpreting it for us. So I beg you to really pay a little attention to some of these episodes. First of all, David is humbling himself. He’s dancing. He lifts up his ephod, his dress, and starts dancing out of joy. It’s an episode that is used as one of the many cases of so-called ludic theology, playful theology. Its intrusion is that — in the plan of salvation there is always the presence of this comedy, this comic idea and David embodies that.
Then there’s this little phrase which we — you must have noticed that appears so often in this canto. More often in this canto than ever before in the whole poem, “more and less.” It is as if it’s impossible to use or find in a canto where measure is the issue, the position about where we are, who we are, and what we are doing. One thing is clear; that opposite to David, there is his wife, Michal, sitting at the window, a different perspective. What she sees, this is art, this is a question of perspective what she sees. She is so angry at David because he, by his action of dancing in front of the ark, is humiliating himself. He’s losing his state as king. He’s losing his stature as king.
The fact is that for Dante, Michal is completely missing the point. It is a stance of someone who thinks that she’s superior, a stance of someone who’s sitting at the great — at the window of her great palace, who will not have anything to do with what’s below her. We are entering the world of the — the domain of what pride may be, what’s wrong with pride, and why pride may really be a sin. Pride may not be a sin because we want to reach higher than we are. That’s probably okay. What makes pride a sin is that we tend to have contempt for what we think is below us. That’s really the displacement; it blinds us. So — I’m introducing here, since this is a world of art, the notion of a perspective. We’ve been talking about perspective. Pride is tied to perspective, because it sets — by being proud I think that I have, within myself, I certainly have a view of myself that may be at odds with the reality of me. Certainly, this is the case of, not David, but it’s the case of Michal, his wife.
The third episode is, I think even more interesting, and then we’ll see what’s going to happen. “I moved my feet from where I was to examine close at hand another part of this,” how do you examine? What is an aesthetic education? How do you look at the images at hand? “another story which I saw gleaming white beyond Michal. Depicted there,” now the third episode is from secular history, Roman history.
So you have the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Roman secular history, “there was the glorious deed of the Roman Prince whose worth moved Gregory to his great victory — I mean the emperor Trajan; and a poor widow was at his bridle in a posture of grief and in tears. The place about him seemed trampled and thronged with knights and the eagles on the gold above them moved visibly in the wind. The poor woman among all these seemed to say: ‘Lord avenge me for my son that is dead, for whom I am stricken’; and he to answer her: ‘Wait now till I return,” he’s going to Romania, Dacia. If you see the column of Trajan in Rome, it’s still the monument — document of that expedition.
“…wait now till I return’; and she: ‘My Lord,’ like one whose grief is urgent, ‘if thou return not?’; and he: ‘He that is in my place will do it for thee’; and she: ‘What shall another’s goodness avail thee if thou art forgetful of thine own?’ … ‘Now take comfort for I must fulfill my duty before I go; justice requires it and compassion bids me stay.”
It’s the story of Trajan who gets off his high horse, levels with the little widow. The diminutives are Dante. The language is of humility, the little widow, and administers and gives her justice, because for Dante, the perfect emperor in Trajan certainly is the perfect emperor must be — must have the attributes of mercy and justice and he gives evidence of that: “if for whose sight,” etc. Now that’s the drama that now develops. Dante’s seen all this, he has understood these images and the meaning of these images and — I’m just going to tell you about this little drama and we stop here.
“While I was taking delight,” no problem in taking delight. After all, this is God’s art, so having delight in itself is part of the appreciation of this art — “…the images of so great humilities,” I think that the oxymoron is deliberate, “so great humilities, dear to sight, too, for their Craftsman’s sake,” I love them because they were made by God. Virgil prompts him, “See on this side many people, the poet murmured, ‘but coming with slow steps; they will direct us to the other stairs.”
Now here is Dante’s drama: “my eyes, which were looking intently, were not slow in turning to him being eager for new sights.” He yields to the temptations of the eye. Have you ever heard about the three temptations? The pride of life, the pride of the eyes and the curiosity and the pride of the heart, but I would — and the three temptations are present here.
“But I would not have thee, reader,” Dante’s turning to us in an apostrophe, as he has done before, “fall away from good resolve for hearing how God wills that the debt be paid; do not dwell on the form.” He’s telling us not to care about the images as such “of the torment, think of what follows, think that at worst it cannot go beyond the great Judgement.” He sort of is making a preemptive strike. Don’t worry about the peculiar form of the art, look at the meaning of the art — and he can’t — but that’s what he wants us to do.
He says — look at what he says to Virgil: “Master,’ I began, ‘that which I see coming to us does not seem to me persons and I know not what they are, so confused is my sight.” What an incredible contrast between what Dante had seen with God’s images, all clear to him, but now that he’s seeing some human beings who are doubled under massive boulders — because that’s the punishment inflicted on the proud, to put them and press them against the earth — he does not recognize them. It is as if his aesthetic education has been for nothing. It is as if ethical education has been for nothing. He had no difficulty in deciphering God’s art, which is so clear and luminous, but now he does not want to identify with what he sees. He resembles Michal, who from high up, does not want to have anything to do with David. This is the — exactly the same problem that Dante is facing. He has — he had no problem with Gabriel, the descent of Gabriel, he had no problem with Trajan, but he himself is unwilling to identify with those that he believes are beneath him.
Then he goes on. Virgil explains, “The grievous nature of their torment doubles them to the ground, so that my eyes at first were in debate about them, but,” he says, they are really human beings like you. Dante goes into a further apostrophe to all Christians calling himself superbi, in Italian, cristiani.
The Italian line is actually very interesting for a reason that I’ll tell you in a moment. Look at line 121, O superbi cristiani, miseri lassi. . . There is an incredible contrast between the word superbi, meaning superior, right, a claim of superiority and the word lassi which means lapsed, having fallen. So within the same line you capture the two — this dynamic of how we want to be up and how we’re going to — the more — the higher up we want to go the quicker we seem to be falling. “Weary wretches,” mistranslation, “who are sick in the mind’s vision and put your trust in backward steps, do you not perceive that we are worms born to form the angelic butterfly.”
I want to stress this shift in pronouns, ‘do you not perceive,’ Dante is literally taking the higher ground. We do not know, he knows, right? Do you — he’s preaching to us, ”do you not perceive?’ But then he — with a subsequent pronoun that we are worms, he literally erases the distance between himself and the readers, between himself and the other Christians. He places himself on the same ground where we are. That’s the quality of the double voice of Dante, systematically punctuating this text, as claim of a transcendent superior perspective, because after all, he really has seen the whole — the unfolding of God’s cosmos. He really has witnessed it, but at the same time, he descends and is part of a common plight.
That’s really what the line is, “Do you not perceive that we are worms born to form the angelic butterfly?” It’s an allusion that the word for butterfly, not in Italian, but in the Roman sarcophagi, in antiquity, whether they are in Aix-en-Provence, if you happen to go there, or you go to Fiesole, where there was a Roman cemetery, you would always see a butterfly imprinted on the sarcophagus because the Greek word for butterfly is psyche. It’s the same word for the soul and the butterfly, and by putting the emblem of the butterfly that indicated at death the soul finally would be capable of flying off toward the light and toward the creator. So Dante’s clearly using and remembering this kind of motif that he has seen.
“That soars to judgement without defense? Why does your mind float so high, since you are …imperfect insects, like the worm that is undeveloped.” The language of a metamorphosis. We are in the process of making ourselves both alive and in the penitential world of Purgatory.
And then how he ends with a kind of iconographic motif that recapitulates the whole iconographic element that make up the poem, Canto X, “As, for corbel to support ceiling or roof, a figure is sometimes seen joining the knees to the breast, which begets from its unreality real distress in him that sees it, in such a posture I saw these when I looked carefully. They were indeed bent down more and less as they had more and less on their back, and he that had most patience in looks seemed, by his weeping, to say: ‘I can no more.”
What is this about? What is this story about? Well, the story is first of all about this passage. It’s about the fact that Dante has just warned us not to pay attention to the form and to look at the meaning of the particular message. Now he returns to us and focuses on the form. What he’s describing are the so-called Caryatides, human forms, that if you go — maybe in New York you may see them, but certainly in European cities these human forms seem to be buttressing edifices and buildings and they are decorative, but Dante is saying, the form matters. We cannot really go to the ultimate meaning by bypassing the form. He’s literally, by picking up the sculptural motif of the canto, returning to this idea.
We shall see as I have to leave you hanging on this problem of perspective. Next time, we’ll read XI and XII and continue, and therefore the meaning of art, how art can change a moral perception of the world. That’s the idea in which you are all wondering — have been wondering with your questions. What is Dante’s understanding of art? It’s so dangerous and it can be, of course, but there is a role that art can play in altering our perception, our moral perception, in an effect form becomes a way to go to understand the moral world and the moral terms in which you are. We shall see this next time.
Let’s see if there are questions now? The real — I think we are approaching the heart of the matter in Purgatory. The relationship between ethics and aesthetics and what I really pointed out so far, then is this idea that Dante is trying to find out what is the measure for human beings, because you cannot say well, it’s pride. What criteria? If I want to reach for what is so far away from me, why should that be viewed as a sin of pride? What are the criteria? What is the context in which we can really talk of pride and why is humility any better? We haven’t touched any of this yet. One thing that is clear is that Dante is, for now, on the one hand, giving examples of art and humility, making mistakes, the confusion of his perception. He says that he cannot quite figure out what are these shapes that he sees. There’s something disfigured. He cannot quite identify with, he cannot recognize them and then claims that we really should be looking at the meaning, at the ultimate meaning of things, but then he returns and valorizes the idea of form. We cannot bypass form in art or in experience. We cannot skip the idea of time, that’s really what existentially it amounts to. That’s all I really have said.
Then, maybe, I explained to you a few etymological connections: humility and the human, the meaning of history, and introduce this principle of perspective that I have been talking about before. This is really connected with the representation of art. Perspective, what is the — what kind of perspective does art then give us? We all know that in art, we use perspective, especially the modern language of art, the modern language of painting, ever since the fifteenth century explicitly discusses the question of perspective. I see the world according to the position that I occupy in it, and the position that occupy in it reveals things to me which are unique and irreducible.
At the same time it implies — it also implies — but this is not the case, the possibility of manipulating space. The fifteenth-century Renaissance discovers that space is not unalterable and fixed, but it can be manipulated. We’re dealing with — up to that point, maybe we’re dealing with time and the manipulation of time. You don’t have to watch a football game to know what I mean about the manipulation of time, but then there is such a thing as manipulation of space. I can create the space. I can make of a small space something appear large. Space is not a fixed entity. That’s what perspective comes to mean in the fifteenth century.
For Dante, perspective is connected to an inner world. What is my perspective of myself? What is my sense of the measure of things? How do I view the world? Michal gives one answer, and she can be angry about what David does, misunderstanding the whole point of David. What does she misunderstand about David? That in humiliating himself, he had really found himself higher by the idea of humiliation of self, which is exactly that of Mary, and which is exactly that of the story of Trajan. How do you — Michal does not understand the reversibility of positions. That’s really the argument, so far and I think that Dante is making a big deal with pride because pride is seen as the root, the spiritual root, of all evils.
Chapter 7. Question and Answer [01:10:04]
Let me see if there are some questions that I can — we have a few minutes — please.
Student: Why does Dante have trouble sympathizing with the sinners in Purgatory, or other people when he doesn’t have trouble doing the same in Inferno?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: In Inferno, why does Dante’s trouble sympathizing with the sinners in Purgatory? Especially here, because in Inferno, he even kicks some of the heads. You can’t — I mean he has sympathy, but when it’s necessary he just — he has had it. And in Canto XXXII, the guy was frozen and stuck in ice, it wasn’t pretty.
But here it’s true, especially now he has — he declares this — his confusion. It may be because I couldn’t — I did not know what these forms are. I think they have to do with the whole question of what did he learn, first of all, from the images that he saw because you know Virgil had just taught him how to look. Look here; you move around; don’t stay in one place; you can look underneath, so that’s one problem. What is a moral and an aesthetic education?
Then he’s just also, I think, indicating the whole idea what — is it ever possible to look at the world? More of this next time, as disengaged spectators. Think of ourselves in the theatre, which is an image that I probably will bring in and discuss. You go to the theatre and you really — sometimes we all feel that we should jump on the stage and rescue the damsel in distress or whatever, and yet, you may see someone who can do that, but many of us won’t. We want to be unaffected by it, that’s what Dante’s doing. He would like to be — to feel that he is no longer like any of these sinners. That’s the mistake he’s making.
It’s really that he’s — it’s an indifference coming to him from something akin, though not exactly, to Michal’s sure sense of herself. I have nothing to do with the mob here. What is this? This is the king? I don’t want to even be his wife. That’s what Dante’s doing in that scene. I do not want to be with this kind of disfigured lowly forms of life. I am better, I have seen God’s art, and I have learned about God’s art. Do you see the moral and spiritual confusion that this kind of drama is going to generate in him? That’s the answer.
The one who reflects beautifully on this, I will bring the passage in, but I would like you to read it if you can. Book II of the Confessions of St. Augustine, because St. Augustine loves to go every — he doesn’t like to go to the spectacles at the Colosseum because they are so vulgar and beneath him, but he loves to go to the theatre and he has an extraordinary reflection. What does it mean to be unaffected in the theatre? How do I have to understand my discomfort at the theatre?
It’s the very image Dante uses at the end of Canto X. You remember when he says that we see Caryatides, which we know are phony, and yet they can inspire some kind of distress. I’m paraphrasing very poorly the last paragraph, the last lines of Purgatorio X, “Is it possible to ever be indifferent spectators of the turmoil around us?” What’s at stake when I say, well these things don’t touch me, have nothing to do with me, and Dante’s saying, they always touch us. It takes time for him to understand it and I think that he is unveiling that. He’s showing it to us in Canto X. Please.
Student: You seem to draw a connection between form and time sometimes —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: I think that we can draw a connection between form and time, and continue, you want to make a reflection on that?
Student: Then also if there is some way to draw in the notion of futurity as time at —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The notion of?
Student: Futurity or — as time necessary at the beginning.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes.
Student: I’m kind of struggling with the idea of an art form which is sort of like a fixed immutable thing and I have no idea —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is since — I think that was implied, if I didn’t say it in what I was saying, that there is a connection between form and time. The struggle — the question then becomes we are usually — think of form as something which is fixed, how can that be part of the world of time? Well, in a number of ways, I would say. That the form — Dante is saying first of all, witnessing or watching history, therefore it has a kind of unfolding and he discusses art in terms of a metamorphosis, an ongoing process of change that includes the idea of time.
One way in which Giotto really differs from shades from what we’re going to see next canto — it’s not an arbitrary relation here that I’m making — distinguishes himself from Byzantine mosaics is that he introduces a history. Painting is a series of elements and you got to keep looking at all of them. So it’s a form for all — it’s unalterable quality the form indicates; forms change, there’s a history of forms to begin with. I could become generalized in my answer — Dante understands it in a way as a metamorphic sequence. From that point of view form sense of all time, in fact, Dante says whenever you see a particular scene, avoid what you are seeing and see that what it means, now that is the occlusion of time. That is an eclipsing of time.
Let me just go to the ideal lesson, the ideal poem, it’s like when you are reading a poem. You’re reading a poem, of course the form is unchanging, but unless you know the beginning, and you start from the beginning and you read through, i.e., time, you, come to the end; you miss the point about the poem, right? I mean I do. You got to read — you got to be in time and the novel, you got to read Proust, forget it. Pulci, which I’m reading now, that takes forever. So thank you; we’ll see you next time.
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