ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 12 - Purgatory X, XI, XII, XVI, XVII
Chapter 1. Cantos X, XI and XII: Virtues and Vices [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Last time then we talked about the cantos of pride. We introduced the cantos of pride: X, XI, and XII. I was arguing that Dante comes to know and understand the virtues and vices of pride and its opposite, humility, which he sees featured — humility he sees featured in Canto X and pride he’ll see punished in Canto XII. He gets to understand the nature of this virtue and this vice by looking at the work of art. So that in Canto X, we already have a sort of representation of what an aesthetic education can turn out to be. How do we look at art and what are we likely to learn from it? This was the argument.
Dante arrives into Purgatory proper and the first image that uses to give us a sense of the dimensions of this place is the figure of the human measure. He measures the world around him through the dimensions of the human figure. Obliquely, it’s not quite — we are not quite there yet to that point, but he’s warning us that indeed the issue — what is the issue about pride and about humility really is — what is the man’s measure? We are — he says that he’s going to — that the place is measured according to the size of human beings, but then the question is what is the measure of human beings in a moral sense, of course. Since pride, superbia in Italian and in Latin, is a sin of excessive love of one’s own excellence. The sense that one isn’t quite reducible to what perhaps others see about us. The idea that there may be a touch of vanity in the way we judge and view ourselves, the way in which we measure ourselves.
Humility, on the other hand, is the opposite — is the remedy to pride and it is really a virtue in that it really reduces us to — reminds us of the fact that we are earthbound. That’s the meaning of the word, and by the way, that’s exactly how humility and the etymology of human are connected. They’re both derived from a common root, a common matrix in humus which is the Latin word for the earth. We are called humans, homo, because we come out of the earth, because we are made of the clay of the earth, and we return to the earth. That’s the other implication. On the other hand, humility is the virtue that reminds us that we really should not view ourselves as all that elevated. So these are the issues.
Dante then confronts some scenes of humility. He begins with the virtues, and the sins of humility — the virtue of humility are all taken from the three histories that interest him. He’s always placing himself at the confluence of these three strains of history. An image from the Old Testament, David, who dances in front of the ark, therefore he humiliates himself. He tells us that he’s more and less than king. By the way, this phrase “more and less,” this lack of precision is really an expression that pervades Canto X. This “more and less,” the grief is “more” than I can take, etc.; it appears in a variety of forms, at least five times in the context of the canto.
Next to David, and that image of humility from the Old Testament, and above him actually, watching down from the balcony of a high tower in the royal palace, there is his wife Michal, who looks down at David. Not only she looks down at David, she obviously has contempt for him, because in her view he is humiliating, he’s offending, violating the principle of decorum of what a king ought to be. She has a different understanding of what is the measure of a king and the place of a king, because pride is exactly a question of place. What place do I occupy in the world around me? Am I where I think I would like to be or am I where somebody else is placing me through his/her gaze?
The second image is an image of — but they’re all — you’ll notice the little detail, they’re all placed above, they’re sculptures placed above the normal sight, so that there is obvious reversal now in what the value of humility can be. There is the story of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel who descends, literally, and that descent is a story of humiliation of the divine, the divine enters history, and therefore in that sense the divine is truly omnipotent. There is the idea which is really something developed, I mention it here, but I will come back to that, the idea that the divine is detached from the human would make the divine less omniscient. A divine that does not know the human, does not know death, cannot claim to be omniscient. That’s an argument that Dante uses.
So there is the story of the angel Gabriel who comes down and the obedience of Mary, the Virgin Mary, who says, ‘Yes, I am your servant.’ So there’s a story of — and Mary is the one who said to turn the key between the old alliance and the new alliance. She reverses the story of Eve. It is as if her obedience is a response to some kind of violation and the promise of being divine in the eating of the tree.
Chapter 2. Aesthetic Education [00:06:51]
The third example, or story, that the pilgrim sees — looks at — it’s the story of the emperor Trajan, secular history, who stops his — from marching onto his campaign into Dacia, into Romania, in order to give justice to a little widow, the diminutive is Dante’s. A little widow who has been asking for justice before he departs, justice for the death of her son. This is what he — what Dante is confronted with and what he is confronted with is we do know that he’s being asked and directed by Virgil to look at the whole scene, not to stop at one detail, to even move beyond Virgil himself, in what would appear to be a transgression of the reverential bond that ties them. He — Dante is always following as a disciple follows the teacher.
So he just even transgresses his place but that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the aesthetic education of the pilgrim. He’s witnessing what he calls visible speech, synesthesia. That’s why this phrase it says, visibile parlare, in Italian, visible speech. It’s a synesthesia that combines the sight to sensory experiences, the eye and the hearing; so speech because this is God’s art and God’s art has also a precise meaning. A precise meaning that Dante has no difficulty understanding or finding delight in, so this is the argument.
At one point, in the drama of the canto, some figures keep appearing and Virgil directs Dante’s eyes toward the people that are appearing. Dante does not recognize them. He says, I don’t know what they are. My sight is so confused. He doesn’t want to even know who they are or what they are. Virgil will explain to him they are human figures crawling on the huge boulders and almost moving like, on the ground, on the earth like worms on the earth. And Dante is not really capable of deciphering them or having even sympathy with them. At that point, as you recall, because I had the feeling that maybe the explanation is a little bit — was a little bit too wriggly, but Dante’s poem — canto moves in that way with a lot of sinuosities there.
I mentioned to you a particular passage in Chapter II — Book III, Chapter II of the Confessions. It’s an extraordinary passage and I brought it in so that you can — I want to read a little bit from that. It’s a passage — it’s a book where Augustine is living in Carthage, you know. At about now, at this stage he’s about 17, 19 — has been talking about his attraction for shows, his attractions for the Manicheans, the distaste for scripture that he has, and how he is going to be — has been led astray by some of his friends with the stealing of — gratuitous stealing of the pear tree — the pears from the pear tree, which he doesn’t understand why he would ever do that. And now he talks about once again his experience of the theatre. That is to say, he’s discussing his experience of himself as a spectator, which is exactly what Dante was.
Dante — the problem Dante in Canto X of Purgatorio is that he is at first a spectator of works of art, which he seems to have no difficulty understanding. Then he has to be involved — show them at least some compassion, some self-recognition with the souls who are these shades, penitents, who are under these huge weights that they carry, and he cannot do it. He still has to learn what grief is and what is it, and how do you go on connecting to the images that you see.
Let’s see how — what Augustine says, Augustine is — that’s what he says: “Stage plays,” this is really Chapter II of Book III, “stage plays carried me away, full of images of my miseries, and a fuel to my fire. Why is it that man desires to be made sad? Beholding doleful and tragical things which he himself would by no means suffer.”
The real pleasure of his going to the theatre, he claims, we have a great pleasure, is in the images of grief. They don’t really touch us, we are not even expected to jump on the stage to relieve the characters were involved in this sort of situation. He goes on, and then you’ll see what the point is, “which would himself by no means suffer, yet he desires as a spectator to feel sorrow at them, and this very sorrow is his pleasure.” I was just paraphrasing that.
“What is this, but a miserable madness, for a man is the more affected with his actions. The less free he is from such affections, however, when he suffers in his own person, it uses to be styled misery. When he feels compassion for others, then it is mercy. What sort of compassion is this for feigned and scenic passions? For the auditor is not called on to relieve, but only to grieve, and he applauds the actor of these fictions the more he grieves. And if the calamities of those persons were of all times or mere fiction, to be so acted that the spectator is not moved to tears, he goes away disgusted and criticizing, but if he is to be moved to passion, he stays intent and weeps for joy.”
This is an extraordinary passage, I think, in the history of antiquity and the criticism of the theatre, dramatic theatre. The point is, can we ever be disengaged spectators? Yes, we can be disengaged spectators and Augustine is criticizing the disengaged spectator, the belief that we can be in front of the play of the world and that things only touch us, as if in a fiction, and yet we ourselves are not going to be able to acknowledge it. He’s really criticizing the limits of the theatre, the limits of that kind of aesthetic experience. I think that Dante is picking up exactly from this — what Augustine says in this chapter, and he’s showing how unavoidably one has to be involved. There’s — in the measure in which we think that we are not touched by somebody else’s grief, we’re really admitting the overpowering quality of that experience. That’s his argument.
He has learned something then; he has learned that there is no such a thing as a safe perspective. The way — and he has learned what Michal had been doing in — from the high window of her palace, that she was expressing disgust at her husband because that offends her own sense of superiority. Dante says, I may be no different from Michal in my disclaimer that I do not know and I do not see any of these penitents who disfigure the human form. In refusing to acknowledge that they are like me, and refusing to have any self-recognition between me and them. This is really the aesthetic education.
Let’s see now how for Dante it is aesthetic and it’s ethical. He goes on understanding that the stakes are in the idea of perspective, the idea that the world is a projection of my own wishes and that world is really reformulated. If I think that I can take a safe distance, it’s because I do not want to look within myself. Canto XI and Canto XII, I think, will answer that question.
Chapter 3. Canto XI: Reversal of Perspective [00:15:44]
Let me just go on with Canto XII — Canto XI, I’m sorry. First of all — if there are questions you can interrupt me, because I don’t think this is a difficult argument, but if there are questions interrupt me now or keep them for later. Canto XI begins with the penitents, who now change, reverse perspective. They are so close to the ground, but they are looking up, and they have the Lord’s Prayer, in what is Dante’s own recasting of the canonical prayer.
“Our Father, which art in heaven, not circumscribed but by the greater love Thou hast for Thy first works on high.” This is the prayer of the penitents. “Praise be Thy name and power by every creature as it is meet to give thanks for Thy sweet effluence; May Thy peace of Thy kingdom come to us, for we cannot reach it of ourselves, if it come not, with all our striving. As Thine angels make sacrifice to Thee of their will, singing hosannas, so let men make of theirs; Give us this day the daily manna, without which he goes backward through this harsh wilderness who most labors to advance; And as we forgive everyone the wrong we have suffered, do Thou also forgive in loving-kindness and look not on our deserving; Our strengths,” and so on. “Thus beseeching good speed for themselves and for us those shades went beneath their burden,” etc.
What about this prayer? First of all, how is this related to what we are talking about? The first thing is that in the Lord’s Prayer, the change Dante makes is to emphasize that God is not in space, not circumscribed. God is not in space and therefore He is really everywhere, or He is free. That formula he is using, you may want to know, is a traditional one in medieval thinking whereby God is said to be an infinite sphere. This is a formula to define what — the idea of the infinity of God. An infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. God is not in a place; God does not have a perspective. There is — indirectly there is a critique of perspective here, or the inadequacy of a perspective.
God is everywhere, not circumscribed, that’s the first change. The second change that he’s making, this is a neo-Platonic element that he adds on to the Lord’s Prayer, and then the second one is that he literally places, “Give us this day the daily manna, without which he goes backwards,” he literally makes the Lord’s Prayer the prayer of the exiles in the desert. Like the Jews in the wilderness who ask and get their manna, so now this is another element that — another metaphorical element that casts Purgatory as a journey through the desert between the bondage of Egypt and Jerusalem.
The other point is that there is a reversal of perspective somehow, and what kind of a perspective is he gaining now? The perspective, I think, is what I call a Franciscan perspective. Let me just explain first of all, the line, “Praised be Thy name and power by every living creature.”
This is literally an echo of the first poem of the Italian poetic tradition, a poem written by St. Francis, which is known as the Canticle of Creatures, which is really a sequence — a anaphoric sequence of praises. ‘Praised be Thy name, praised be the water, praised’ — and so on. The point of that poem is that it begins with the look of human beings up to the highest and then it ends up with the idea of humility. We are, Francis says, “Not the most important or the center of creation, we are like everything else valuable in creation.” That’s the thrust of the poem, and the only way in which you can really understand the creation is really to look from the bottom up and not from the top down. This is the true, the kind of perspective that he is describing in the poem.
The rest of the canto really is a connection between art and pride, which we are not going to be surprised, since the whole of Canto X was a reflection on the premises of that — of the two metaphors, art and pride. So you have the illuminators and then references on lines 90 to the painters, “O empty glory of human powers, how briefly last the green on its top, unless it’s followed by age of dullness! In painting Cimabue thought to hold the field, and now Giotto has the cry, so that the other’s fame is dim and so…”
And then the poets, Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Guinizelli: “So has the one Guido taken from the other the glory of our tongue, and he, perhaps is born that shall chase the one and the other from the nest,” meaning Dante himself. The idea of fame, which is what the proud souls may be looking for, is here dismissed as having the inconsistency of the wind, just vanishing like the breath, a breath of wind, and so this is the sort of moral understanding of pride and humility.
Chapter 4. Canto XII: Punished Pride [00:21:54]
In Canto XII, I just want to show you and describe the reasons why, and try to explain to you the reasons why Dante deploys a peculiar rhetorical artifice. And I ask you to turn to around lines 25 which is a sequence of new visions Dante has. This time the images are on the ground. So he has to look down; he doesn’t have to look up, and they are images of the proud souls who have been punished and therefore now they appear now on the ground.
The text starts, “I saw him that I was created nobler than any other creature,” now of course you know who he is, “on the one side; I saw Briareus,” one of the giants, “pierced by the heavenly shaft, lying heavy…I saw Thymbraeus, I saw Pallas and… I saw Nimrod… ” All figures you have more or less seen before. “… at the foot of his mighty work, as if bewildered, and he was looking at the peoples in Shinar that shared his pride.” And then four tercets: “O Niobe…”, “O Saul… “, “O mad Arachne… “, “O Rehoboam… ” And then, once again, the four more tercets: “It showed too, that hard pavement, how Alcmaeon… It showed how his sons fell upon Sennacherib… It showed the destruction and the cruel butchery that the Tomyris wrought… . It showed how the Assyrians fled in rout after Holofernes was slain.” And then one final tercet: “I saw Troy in ashes and in heaps; O Ilion, how abased and vile the design show thee that we saw there!”
These are all the figurations of punished pride: pride that has been now literally humiliated. I did have to ask you to look, so that you can understand the artifice. This is what we call a visible speech that Dante himself has been deploying, and to do this I have to ask you to look at the Italian text that begins with the word — every tercet with the letter V, though I’m sure you would like me to read a little bit of the Italian: Vedea colui che… , Vedea Brïareo, the next tercet Vedea Timbreo, next Vedea Nembròt. And then, the four next tercets with the letter O: O Niobè, O Saùl, O folle Aragne, O Roboam. And then the next four tercets with M, Mostrava ancor…, next Mostrava come i figli si gettaro…, Mostrava la ruina… You’ve got to read down, Mostrava come in rotta… and then final tercet from line 61 to 62, Vedea Troia… o Ilion. . mostrava il segno… which sort of recapitulates all of the key elements of this artifice.
We are in the presence of a so-called acrostic that if you read from the top down, it spells the following V-U-M and then recapitulates. This is the V, but in Italian it’s also the U. That is to say, the fall of man. So he’s doing this — he’s using this artifice that you can only understand if you read the text. If you have to hear it, you can’t quite get to it. In other words, he’s doing two things, using God’s own art as a model for himself. This is pride, it would seem to be pride. After all it’s excessive love of one’s excellence, but God did that in Canto X, he’s going to do the same thing now with the text.
The second thing that it shows is that the text is not a text to be just heard, it’s a text to be read. It’s a text to be looked at. It’s what we call visible speech. What is Dante doing in — is he lapsing into a sin of pride? Of course, but what he’s telling us is that pride is not a sin. He is, in a sense, redefining the ethical language of the Middle Ages and the ethical language of his own text. He’s saying that in the measure in which you love what is above you, that is not a sin. The sin — it is a sin, pride, in the measure in which you do have contempt for those that you think are below you.
We have, thanks to the world of art, a re-evaluation of the moral language. That’s the first and most important example of all of this that happens throughout Purgatory in Purgatory itself. Do you see what — is it — do you want me to say this again? Dante, by imitating God’s form of art as he does here, with his own text, he’s drawing attention to this as an artifice available to us thanks to his text and it’s only possible to view it the way he describes it within the text. He’s giving a peculiar status to his own text. This text has also its stages and artifice that we normally — and he has learned from God directly, which means that the sin of Lucifer, even, is not just the sin that he transgresses what’s above him — it’s the sin because he has contempt for what is below him. So the humility and pride really have to go hand in hand and one attenuates and changes the meaning of the other.
This is really something that in many ways a Franciscan canto — you might want to write a paper on that on the song of the so called — the Song of All Creatures by St. Francis and this particular canto. And so you may draw your own conclusions, if you do not agree with what I have said.
Chapter 5. Canto XVI: Marco Lombardo: Political and Legal Arguments [00:28:11]
Let’s move on to the next few cantos. I want to go to, above all, to Canto XVI because here we have — we are approaching now the center of the world of Purgatory. We are in the — we skipped envy altogether and I will get back to that on another occasion in Canto XV, but in XVI and XVII we’ll talk about anger, the sin of anger, the purgation of anger. Here, in XVI, Dante meets a famous magnanimous figure called Marco Lombardo and he has a discussion about human — he has a discussion with him about the so-called — the issue of human degradation, of human degeneracy. The scene takes place in a kind of — the cloud of anger, the biblical cloud of anger, sort of a world deprived of any light, a kind of madness, if you wish, anger understood as that which violates the clarity and light of reason that — as we refer to it.
“Gloom of Hell or night bereft of every planet under a barren sky overcast everywhere with cloud never made a veil to my sight so heavy or of a stuff so harsh to the sense as the smoke…” And then the language: “Just as a blind man goes behind his guide that he may not stray or knock against what might injure or perhaps kill him, so I went through the foul and bitter air listening to my Leader.”
He meets then, within this context, in this background of a cloudiness and near blindness, near invisibility of the world around him. The kind of invisibility that has been carried over from the sin of envy, which as you know, is all about being blind. Then he hears a voice and Dante asks one question. The question is: do we have the “world is…wholly barren of every virtue,” on line 55, “as thou declarest to me, and pregnant and overspread with wickedness, but I beg thee to point out to me the cause that I may see it, and show it to men, for one places it in the heavens and another here below.”
Is there such a thing as free, what we call free will? What is it, what is free will? What is the cause of all our deeds of our doings? Is it — as the astrologers will say, in the planets and therefore a matter of determination by forces that transcend us and which we have no control? A severe limitation of the meaning of choices and the possibilities of choices, and therefore of merits and demerits. If we have no choices, then we can really — we cannot be praised or blamed for what we do, or is it within us, and this is Marco Lombardo. It is a revisit — Dante’s revisiting the whole story of — and debate, an ancient debate about the relationship between free will and God’s foreknowledge if you wish, that Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy, as is well known, had been confronting.
“He first heaved then a deep sigh,” line 63 and following, “which grief forced us to ‘Alas!’, then began: ‘Brother…” I don’t have to point out to you, this is the form of salutation in Purgatorio. You already had “Our Father” in Canto XI, with this idea that there’s a human family, therefore a brother is the appropriate form of interlocution and address among the souls and Dante.
“…the world is blind and indeed thou comest from it. You that are living refer every cause up to the heavens alone, just as if they moved all things with them by necessity. If it were so, free choice would be destroyed.” I think the text is very clear. I would have to tell you that there is a distinction between choice and free will, they are not the same thing: free choice or free will. And this is a very difficult argument because choice implies that we — that it’s an intellectual problem, that we choose thanks to what we know. The will is a difficult argument, because free will implies that the will is never in bondage, and it’s possible to attain the moment where we will freely. In fact, so many theologians go on asking that free will means that the will finally can be moved by an act of choice that it is — it follows on the prior act of knowledge.
Dante uses the two terms: “if it were so free choice would be destroyed in you and there would be no justice and happiness for well doing and misery for evil.” That’s the answer that Marco Lombardo will give. “The heavens initiate your impulses; I do not say all, but, if I did, light is given on good and evil, and free will, and if it bear the strain in the first battlings with the heavens, then, being rightly nurtured it conquers all. To a greater power and to a better nature you, free, are subject.”
Which in Italian it really is, I have to say, more of an oxymoron, line 80: liberi soggiaciete. You are free subjects exactly, you are — and you can — you do sense the — you understand the contradiction in the two terms. That is to say, we are free, but at the same time we are subject. I can only understand it with — in terms of what Dante will say a little bit later when he discusses — he shifts the argument to the law, saying that that’s really the — we are free subjects and the law is exactly the — the metaphor for him that will make us understand what it means to be free and subject at the same time; where limitations are going to be posited and within those limitations we can be free. That’s the argument.
“And that creates the mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge. Therefore…” etc. Then here the first thing that Dante does is give a sense of creation. He posits human freedom in the act of creation of the soul. This is, “from his hand,” lines 85, “from His hand, who regards it fondly, before it is, comes forth, like a child that sports, tearful and smiling, the little simple soul that knows nothing.” This is the famous poem, for those of you who remember a little bit of Latin, Hadrian — of the emperor Hadrian about the little simple soul that goes wandering around and Dante’s reinterpreting it as not the soul that is lost in the world, but a soul that is playing.
The creation is a playful act. The soul is a like “a child that sports tearful and smiling, the little simple soul that knows nothing, but, moved by a joyful Maker turns eagerly to what delights it.” We have the idea of creation as a free and playful act. Play in the sense of the innocence of the experience and play in the sense of being free. Now when one is at play one has all the attributes of spontaneity and freedom that go with it. It is the basis of what I call the playful theology of Dante.
God creates the world in an act — in a moment of freedom and that freedom becomes the foundation for positing our own human freedom. It’s because we were born free that therefore we can go on believing and — that there is such a freedom for us. That it was not an act of necessity — that would be the opposite in the moment of creation and the experience of creation — but it’s spontaneous and playful.
Then the canto goes on with these extraordinary political arguments, political and legal arguments. So we talk about human freedom and Dante moves to political freedom and look at what he says: “Rome, which made the world good, used to have two suns,” which is a kind of Baroque image and I’ll explain that too, in a moment, why he uses this image, “which made plain the one way and the other, that of the world and that of God. The one has quenched the other and the sword is joined to the crook, and the one together with the other must perforce go ill, since, joined, the one does not fear the other. If thou dost not believe me consider the ear of corn,” etc.
What is he talking about? God has — Rome had two suns? The phrase translates — the line mistranslates — deliberately mistranslates, a line in Genesis where it is said that God gave mankind two luminaries, the sun and the moon, but whereby we could really see both in the day and at night. This little image from Genesis was used by the so-called hierocrats, the Canon lawyers of the middle ages, to explain it as the emblem for the Empire and the Church. That the Empire — the sun having the larger light the hierocrats would claim, was the light of the Church, and the moon having a reflected light was the light of the Empire. It was an argument, they would use this gloss as a way of explaining the superiority of — the Empire over — the superiority of the Church over the Empire. The Empire had to take its light and its direction from the Church.
Dante is deliberately violating that idea of the sun and the moon, equating them by saying “the two suns,” in order to convey his conviction, the conviction that the two institutions God provides for the guidance of human beings, the Church and the Empire, are equal. He’s conferring on them an equality rather than a hierarchical ordering of the two luminaries, the sun and the moon. It’s an argument that really is addressed against the lawyers at the University of Bologna where they are — they were working for the pope, explaining the sense of the superiority, the superior status of one above the other.
With this whole argument here, now the — which is about a kind of legality or the questions of history’s boundaries, that’s what I understand by legalities, you have retrospectively also some light shown on this claim of being free subjects in Canto XVI.
Chapter 6. Canto XVII: Visions of Anger; Approaching the Center [00:40:09]
We turn now to the very center of the Divine Comedy. The center of the Divine Comedy, which is, clearly, numerically the center, Canto XVII, and we’ll see how — what is it that Dante discusses here in Canto XVII. The canto — its visions of anger of the — the canto begins with an apostrophe to the reader’s memory: “Recall reader, if ever in the mountains mist caught thee for which thou couldst not see except as moles do through the skin,” the difficulty of sight, the difficulty of seeing is highlighted again, “how, when the moist, dense vapors begin to disperse, the sun’s disk passes feebly through them; and thy imagination will quickly come to see how, at first, I saw the sun again, now near its setting. So measuring mine with the faithful steps of my master, I came forth from such a fog to the beams which were already dead on the shores below.”
It’s a twilight landscape; you have a number of reversals and contrast — antithesis actually the mole — blind mole, that burrows underneath the earth and then alpine scenery which makes vision also impossible. Dante’s evoking the heights and the lowest possible point of sight with the mole. The sun is setting and the night is approaching. It is as if the whole — so the solidity of the world around him is vanishing — is disappearing.
What’s the experience? At this very moment, he’s appealing to the memory of the reader and the imagination of the reader. It is as if that when the world outside seems to be failing us, we have this — part of this inner light, this inner possibility of recollection of the world or imagining the world. He’s specifying what some of the claims about the inner lights that he says we have within us could be. He had just said that.
Also he’s preparing this extraordinary second apostrophe to the imagination. Dante is — we are approaching the center of the universe, this poetic universe, and Dante reminds us that this is a work of the imagination. Why does he do this? What is this — what does he say about the imagination? The first thing that he says about the imagination: “O imagination, which so steals us at times from outward things that we pay no heed though a thousand trumpets sound about us, who moves thee if the senses offer thee nothing?”
It’s the same question he had been asking earlier: where do our choices come from? Why do we what we do? Is it because a power from the outside moves us, or is there something that is within us? Now this question is asked in slightly different terms, in terms of the imagination. The imagination is a power, that’s what he — the way he describes it — that removes us from the outside world. There’s such a power — in other words, it’s not just the imagination that translates sensory experiences into images for the benefit of rational judgment: this is the triadic Aristotelian order; the imagination has the middle ground between the senses, the work of the perception and the work of reason. This is a triadic pattern that Dante could have found in Aquinas; we, in turn, found it certainly in Aristotle, that’s the way it precedes.
He has another imagination that he’s talking about now, an imagination that removes us from the outside world. It frees us — it needs nothing of the world of perception. It is a power that, in many ways, steals us from it, it’s a power that — how does he describe it? It comes “from the outward things that we pay no heed though a thousand trumpets sound about us.” It’s a faculty that is completely free from the outside world, a power that we have within us to imagine worlds that don’t even exist. To imagine things that without the solicitations of what lies outside us and continues: “a light moves thee which takes form in the heavens, either of itself or by a will that directs it downwards. Of her impious deed…” and then he goes on describing three images of anger.
At the point in which Dante is approaching the center of the — his world where this — where we are witnessing, we are shown the power of the imagination as a visionary faculty. As a faculty that is not a transcription of the real world, and one wonders why he has to make this kind of claim. It encompasses the real world and yet is something that almost prophetic, something that does not come from the contacts with the world. I’ll come back to this in a moment, I hope.
He has three images, then three — that come down to him gratuitously. They seem to have been descending into his mind without anything that — around him and then Dante goes on here describing the law of Purgatory. What is the world of Purgatory? How is it constructed? What’s the architecture of this world? Unsurprisingly, this is a fabric of love, an architecture of love, and it’s at the very center, lines 91, 92, and 93 — that this is the actual numerically even, in the center the poem — not surprising, that’s what Dante says, “Neither Creator nor creature, my son, was ever without love, either natural or of the mind.”
That’s the center. What does he mean natural or of the mind? He’s distinguishing here between the two types of love and in fact he will clarify: “…and this thou knowest; the natural is always without error,” whatever impulse we may have,” that’s the impulse of love, that is never prone to sinfulness. It’s a natural impulse, a natural desire, that which is instead sinful is the one where choice is involved. “The natural is always without error, but the other may err through a wrong object or through excess or defect of vigor.”
Whenever we make a choice we may either not love the right object or we may love it too much, or we may love it too little, and so this is the topography of Purgatory. This triadic division in terms of love. Everything is a problem of love but then there are varieties that organize its subdivisions.
“While it is directed on the primal good and on the secondary keeps right measure, it cannot be the cause of sinful pleasure; but when it is warped to evil, or with more or with less concern than is due pursues its good against the Creator works his creature. From this thou canst understand that love must be the seed in you of every virtue and of every action deserving punishment. Now since love can never turn its face from the welfare of its subject all things are secure from self hatred… ” and so on.
And Dante now responds: “Now I would have thee give thought to the other, which pursues its good in faulty measure. Everyone confusedly apprehends the good at which the mind may be at rest and desires it, so that each strives to reach it, and if the love is sluggish that draws you to see or gain it, this terrace, after due repentance, torments you for that. Other good there is…”
The question then will become — and I did not ask you to read this canto, but I can give you a sort of brief preview of it — Dante has to ask if — what is this love of choice? Does it depend — since I may have a particular perception of the world that makes me see whatever I encounter as beautiful and desirable, where is my fault? He repeats the same problems that he’s been raising in Canto XV. Dante will try to explain it in terms of love, and yet, we are going to be brought back to the world of how do we perceive what it is that we love.
The perception of what we love becomes crucial to our very responsibilities for it. So this is — at the center of the poem then Dante seems to be suspended between two ideas. On the one hand, the notion that there is a real world where you have responsibilities for everything that we do and on the other hand, a world where there’s an imagination which is completely disengaged from the world of reality, and cannot quite be constrained or held in. So how are you going to — suspended between these two possibilities — how is Dante going to bring them together? You see what the issue is? How do you — if the world of the imagination is free and disengaged from reality then how am — I’m going to, on the other hand, going to be held accountable for what I do over the world, and with the world around me, and with my own deeds.
At the center of the poem Dante’s raising this contradiction that’s not — imagination is made to be the way to knowledge. I can only know through the imagination. The imagination of — that depends on my perception of the world or an imagination which frees me completely from the world, and then these two ideas of the imagination are really in contradiction one with the other. So where is the human responsibility? The poem gets nourished by this duality of the imagination. The poem moves back and forth between one and the other.
Chapter 7. Question and Answer [00:51:25]
And let me just stop here because I think I may have said a little bit too much about these issues and I could respond to your questions, I hope, if there are some. Please.
Student: So just as sins of the Inferno were more products of the will, the sins in Purgatory are more products of love and he’s not told where will may or may not have been factored into it, and because Purgatory is the place that’s in between, is it also the place of that uncertainty between will and love?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Well I don’t know about that. The question is really a perplexity about what I have been saying. In Inferno, will is crucial and you are absolutely right. There cannot be a sin unless there is a will involved. In Purgatorio, the argument here seems to be — the way I have been following it from Cantos XV, XVI, XVII and the way it’s going to be developed in XVIII and actually frankly XIX, where Dante goes on telling a dream — Dante makes the word of love the crucial act of our being in the word, relating us to God, we are related to God, really born through the way of love, therefore, the way of the heart and not unnecessarily through some abstract metaphysical issues.
Then the issue becomes how is this love related to the will? Is Dante being uncertain between the two? What is the moral — Dante begins in Canto XV talking about moral responsibilities, this kind of free subjection that we have, and an inner light that is available to us. Then he — Canto XVI we’ll also talk about the — in Canto XVI he talks about creation, the creation of the soul, the freedom with which God creates and that freedom authorizes us. It becomes a sort of ground for the human freedom. Then in XVII, first of all, he talks about an imagination which is completely free of any contact with the world and then talks about this theory of love, that rational love that organizes, the love of knowledge that organizes everything.
I could just have stopped there and shown you, this is really what the text says, and maybe ask you to connect imagination and love that I read at the two sides of Canto XVII, at the very center of the poem, almost to imply that we can love only and so far as — and we can love as well as our imagination takes us to loving. That’s clearly one of the images.
But clearly there is more in that debate. The debate is that if I love according well, or not enough, or too much, that has to do with the way I perceive the world. Why does he have to talk about an imagination which is so unbounded that it needs nothing of reality? I mean to say this that in the subject and I call it — I say well this is a visionary aspect of the imagination. It’s a poet who thinks of himself as being the visionary poet.
You have an idea of Romantic poets, for instance, English Romantic poets who distinguish between fantasy and the imagination, though Dante does it in terms of this imaginative power that removes me from the world of reality. It takes me away and opens up new spaces and the mind in itself. I ask this question though from another point of view, which I think is connected to what we have been saying here.
Can Dante ever write this kind of poem by being bound to the world of reality and to the way in which the real world is known? Clearly the answer is no. The only way that Dante can come to God and the vision of God is by agreeing with this idea, yielding, surrendering to the power of the imagination that will take him out of the real world. You cannot really write a poem like the Divine Comedy by following rules and laws, whether they are rhetorical, or whether they are just pure ideas of style. You try to — you have to go on imagining things that don’t really — are available to our perceptions. That, to me, is the issue, that’s how I have been moving this issue.
I think that the poem, that Dante’s voice is suspended between these two possibilities of the imagination. An imagination that has to accept the world of reality, an ordinary imagination, and yet there is also another idea of the imagination, which is so much more powerful. But, if we accept this as being true for the poem, it follows we have to ask the question of, what about the moral life? Is the moral life then one that where Dante’s saying, that in effect, all the language of blame and praise, which depends on accepting limits and free subjection to rules, is that — is he saying that that is also — maybe it’s arbitrary? That there may be some other law that he has to discover? I don’t think that there is yet an answer here, but that’s the problem that I was trying to convey. Does that answer your — provisionally — your perplexities, okay. Yes.
Student: Regarding Canto XVI with the vision of anger served — the beginning of anger that served as a polar opposite condition to love, why does he think anger?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is does the sin of anger in Canto XVI, is that a kind of polar opposite to love?
Student: And why does he begin with it?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Why does it begin with that? Well I think that anger — I would define it as a form of madness to begin with. It’s a kind of eclipse of all rationality and so it explains why Dante will have to go on retrieving the laws of reason, the laws of rationality to be opposed to the kind of — to that — the experience of madness in Canto XVI. We go into Canto XVII and he’s talking about a sort of love which is very rational, but then he is undoing it with something that stands between madness and love, and that’s the imagination. See the connection? Okay.
Student: I’m a little confused about what you just said about how the moral life might present a power to the imagination — I just think if — what if an understanding from what you’ve been saying about why you use the imagination is because you’re approaching mystery so it’s hard to use the real world to approach this. So it seems like — and so you need the imagination and I guess if Dante is going to God, so if he’s approaching mysteries, so it’s hard for him to talk about this in a rational language. But isn’t that more of like an acknowledgement of his limitations than a transgression, so doesn’t it still fit with humility and fit with the moral life?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: That’s an excellent point. You not only asked the question I think that you are clarifying some of the problems. The question is still about the whole issue of the imagination that on the one hand the imagination seems to be the way to so large and so — such a force that will take Dante, I’m paraphrasing your point, take Dante all the way to see God. I seem to be saying that that is a kind of transgression, but you emphasize that that can be an acknowledgement of human limitations.
I call it — maybe that’s true, that’s really what it is. It’s — I call that a visionary power within him. It may be coming to him from the outside. He asks that question, does this visionary power come to me from the outside, or is it something that is within human beings? That’s the question. He doesn’t answer that question at that point. What he does say is, well this is the image that came to me, the image of a martyr who committed suicide, and he goes on with his three images. He doesn’t answer that directly and I think that he wants to keep you guessing if this is a human transgression or an acknowledgement of human limits.
He — I don’t think that he knows yet, at this point, what the unfolding of that dilemma will be. He wants us to think in terms of that dilemma and that dilemma is at the heart of Purgatory.
The dilemma between what is this power? I have a power within me that — without which I can never really go to God, and is this in any way a transgression? Do I need a transgression in order to come to God? Ulysses thought that there would be no knowledge without transgression. Maybe Adam in the Garden also thought that there would be no knowledge without transgression — that the real knowledge is to transgress. Is Dante thinking that way? Or maybe he’s thinking that there is no transgression without, at the same time, a sense of the limitations. That indeed, that the idea of transgression depends on some sense of limitations. Do you see what I’m saying?
What the argument seems to me could very well be, that in effect pride and humility are really more connected than what we like to think. We are always proud and Dante would say, it’s good. To me that’s what Canto X, XI, and XII were saying. You may not agree with that reading, that pride is good in the measure in which I can reach out for something really higher. That’s not bad. What is bad is that that blinds me to something else.
I take that to be Franciscan thinking. He is invoking the humblest voice of the whole literary tradition up to this time, the Canticle of all Creatures. I’m glad that you are giving me the opportunity to refocus on the fact that that dilemma between pride and humility reappears as a question of limits and transgressions with the imagination and knowledge and with love.
Of course, Dante would say that there is such a thing of love within — with laws and yet love is one of those experiences where we usually don’t like to believe that there are limits, right? You don’t want anybody to come — I hope — to come to your door and say, I love you in a very reasonable way and with a lot of limitations. I’m sure you’ll give — kick him out. Love is one of those experiences exactly like the imagination, that the powers of which seem always to be transgressing whatever limitations we want to — we wanted to transgress the limitations, rationally, reasonably we want to impose on it.
This is the question that Dante is raising. You cannot have, I think that you are — you are onto the right track with your — in your paraphrasing the whole — in your asking the question that maybe transgression and limitations really have to be seen together. Pride and humility will have to be seen together; subjection and freedom will have to be seen together. They are not terms which are so far apart from each other. Each involves the other, that’s why I call it a paradox, the knot that joins these things together, is exactly that. Is this — am I — did I confuse all of you today here? Oh my, then I will confuse you next time. Other questions that we have? Yes.
Student: Can you talk about the section in Canto XV where he’s talking about how true love and the love of God is like a mirror? It’s around line 70 —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Canto XV.
Student: Line 75 —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes.
Student: How love of God is like his mirror that — the more people that love God, the more love he gives back and it’s like a mirror that keeps reflecting and amplifying love. And I was wondering — I was intrigued by the image of the mirror, so I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about how the image of the mirrors and the idea of mirrors maybe are part of Dante’s way of thinking.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The — this is around line 75, right? Let me just read this whole paragraph. Dante is in the — describing the virtue that is opposed to envy, mercy, the idea of — the notion of mercy and because — I read from 65 on:
“Because thou still settest thy mind on earthly things, thou gatherest darkness from the very light.” That’s part of — sort of reversals that we — how light induces and generates darkness; it’s a certain kind of light. We seem to believe or to think in terms of the light that is available to us, but that does not necessarily produce more light, but can dim our understanding about the way things really are.
“That infinite and unspeakable good which is there above speeds to love as a sunbeam comes to a bright body; so much it gives of itself as it finds ardor, so the more charity extends the more does the eternal goodness increase upon it, and the more souls that are enamored there above the more there are to be rightly loved and the more love there is and like a mirror the one returns it to the other. And if my speech do not relieve thy hunger thou shalt see Beatrice and she will deliver thee wholly from this and every other craving. Strive only that soon may be erased, as the other two are already, the five wounds which are healed by being painful.”
The question is, you want me to say something about the mirror, the image of the mirror that is being used here. I think that this is a Platonic image of the notion that all of creation — this is The Celestial Hierarchy of the Pseudo-Dionysius. I don’t know that I have ever spoken of him, I will because Dante mentions him in Paradise, but in The Celestial Hierarchy, Dante — the Pseudo-Dionysius — thinks of all creation being a kind of occasion — being a kind of hall of mirrors where everything is reflected onto the other, a number of reflections that all give different light — in different ways the light of God, this is so — that’s where the problem of mercy places us, so this idea of charity.
Dante is interested in two things, one the generative idea of charity. Charity produces more charity. It has a kind of power to generate itself and multiply itself, and the way he compares this is — he compares it to what I call — what he calls here, obliquely, the hall of mirrors. Let me just say something else about Pseudo-Dionysius, when Pseudo-Dionysius wants to — mystical theology — he wants to talk about the divine, he will think about the divine in terms of light, as you know. Light that is refracted and reflected throughout the orders and ranks of creation. The highest image of this light of the divine is the sun. The sun that is generous, in the sense, as I mean generous in a very peculiar sense, in the sense that it gives itself to all, without any distinction and it depends on us, whether we are going to be able to appreciate that light or not, but the sun is giving itself freely to all.
This is the principle of mercy for Dante. Mirrors are reproducing that light endlessly; the whole of creation is sending back this kind of light, without any loss in itself of the original light. This is the metaphor and the metaphysics of mirror in Dante. The world is therefore, from the point of view of mercy, and not from the point of view of envy, where we do not even see the light. Envy means that we have no knowledge of anything that comes from the outside, but in the world of mercy we have an — we understand this generous giving of the light which comes from God and the heat that goes with it. That’s it, so it’s a virtue that completely offsets the notion of envy, the idea of God who creates without envy, that’s another way of thinking about the generosity of God. That is connected to the light and to the multiplications of the light from mirrors.
Actually this is an image that really reappears in Paradise and we’ll come back to this canto, the whole of Paradise organized through this hall, these infinite reflections of God’s light.
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