ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 13 - Purgatory XIX, XXI, XXII
Chapter 1. The Issue of Imagination [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: We talked the last time — I talked a little about this whole issue of the imagination that Dante places, along with a definition of love, and the — and love is the power that governs, that shapes the moral world of Purgatory. Last time we talked about these two fossae of Canto XVII, the two fossae of the center; it really makes the center kind of ellipses, as it were, between imagination and love. Love is attached to the — it’s joined to a theory of free will, because it’s by choice — because of our choices that we can be held accountable for the actions that we engage in: loving wrong objects, loving too much or loving too little.
Some of the problems, I think, stem from a certain misunderstanding about the imagination. That Dante should place the imagination at the center of the poem should really not surprise you. He’s a poet and he thinks that imagination is indeed the path that he has to take in order to come to any form of knowledge. It’s only through the imagination it’s not — that does not exclude rationality, but that’s the discourse of philosophers, the discourse of theologians if you wish, but he places the imagination as his way. And then from that point of view, he can even challenge some ideas of the superiority, let’s say, of rational argument over the imagination. The imagination is the weapon of the poet.
How — with what kind of attributes does he invest the imagination? It’s tied to memory. The Canto XVII begins with an apostrophe to the reader’s memory. It appears as, in the feminine, imaginativa, the — in the — Dante’s silencing the term vis. It has a sort of force, imagination, it’s moved by something else. Dante does not decide whether it’s the heaven or the stars or comes from inside us, but he has a particular power, a strange power. It comes like a thief in the night, it robs us of any degree of consciousness about the world outside of us and, just as memory dislodges — the description of memory at the beginning of Canto XVII, it’s a memory that has an incredible memory as a form of the imagination, as you know.
Memory and the imagination are connected. It’s a form of the imagination, but it’s a memory that has the power to move up and down, the text evokes the Alpine heights and the depth of the mole. It talks about a form of blindness and yet it creates vision. Memory is a figure of time and then the whole passage is described in terms of space, as if imagination had the power to dislocate us from where we think that we are.
This is the point, and it’s not an unusual point for Dante to make, since this is the poetry of exile, the poetry of a man who thinks that he’s a stranger while living on earth. A man, without a sense, a clear sense of where his home may be, he is — this is the poetry rooted in the consciousness of homelessness, so the imagination is an extension, an internalized version of this sense of homelessness. It has a power and that power that doesn’t seem to be able to be — a power that cannot quite be contained or coerced within definite parameters of conduct.
In fact, this insistence on the imagination, I’m really recapitulating the things that maybe I thought I said and probably I didn’t say last time, between, on the one hand, the sin of wrath, which is a form of madness. That is to say, a sin that eclipses the powers of reason, that’s anger, and on the other hand, this discourse on love. This is really what I was saying. Dante understands that there is an imagination which cannot quite be held in check, and yet the whole point of the poem I’m talking — whenever I’m talking about the poem, I point out some seemingly insignificant details like, oh look this is a symmetry here between Canto VI of Inferno, Canto VI of Purgatorio, or whatever, to indicate that it is a poem built with a precise principle of order in mind. Not only it has order in its technical execution, it has order also as a moral problem. It’s all about ordering the appetites, ordering the will. But at the same time along side with it, and this is the complexity and the beauty of Dante’s text, this is another argument that almost questions, makes us — forces us into thinking that there are some elements that seem to be left out of this fabric of order that Dante has woven, or if you like, the metaphor has built — the architecture that he has built.
Let’ see how this argument really continues. That’s not the end of the story. This is just a stage in his movement of self-knowledge and knowledge of the world. In fact, Canto XVIII, we’re now moving into a different moral realm, it’s a moral realm where we actually know we are moving toward a so-called, what Dante and medieval theorists of vices call acedia. Acedia is a Latin term, which in English we can describe — we’ll describe as a sort of despondency, as a sort of indecisiveness, sluggishness, sloth. That’s it, that’s the — if you are interested in knowing more about what the Middle Ages thought about this, this scholar Wenzel wrote a book called, Acedia, exactly about the — both in English medieval literature, Dante and other issues.
What more precisely — how can we go on understanding this question of acedia? It’s in a sense the parody or the inversion of contemplation. It’s tied to a sense of loss of the outside world. Acedia describes the condition of the mind that has found itself indifferent to the object of desire. It really is a crisis of desire. One finds objects that — the sloth, the sluggishness, the indecisiveness of the mind. It is as if the objects of desire were — had lost their consistency, their attractiveness, their luster. You just don’t care. It’s the problem, the so-called noonday devil, the temptation of the monks, that’s why I call it a parody of contemplation. It’s the temptation that the monks experienced in their cloisters when they sort of find that the whole idea of turning their minds to the divine is no longer, or provisionally perhaps, is not appealing. It’s the loss of appeal of anything outside of oneself and indicates a kind of both intellectual and dreamy sort of condition and that’s really what I want to talk about now.
Canto XVIII is the most intellectual of cantos in Purgatory. Dante faces a theoretical issue. He’s talking to Virgil, and these theoretical issues of Canto XVIII flow out of the problems that we have had in discussing Canto XVII. As you know, we are talking about imagination and love, and there is an imagination that somehow is vagabond. It’s a thief, breaks out of any particular confines; it dislodges us. It takes the ground out of our own certainties about the way we see the world. Remember that the image with which Canto XVII starts, Dante places us in a world which is at the twilight. There’s no real light. It’s all foggy, and then all of a sudden, we do see something, and it’s unclear whether we see something because of the light that comes from within us. Memories, for instance, that’s a light we carry within us, confused, as they may be, or some other kind of conscious intuition.
That’s really the discourse of the imagination and that dislodged some of us here. That made it a little difficult to try to get a hold of — grasp. Dante has the same problem in Canto XVIII. Canto XVIII begins with a question that he asks of Virgil. You are talking about love, you are talking about this inclination, the whole theory of love in Canto XVII. He says, “Master, my sight,” this is Canto XVIII the very beginning, “is so quickened in thy light that I discern clearly all that thy words set forth and explain; and I pray therefore, dear and gentle Father, that thou expound love to me, to which thou reduce every good action and its opposite.”
Whatever you have told me in Canto XVII really is not enough. And Virgil goes on explaining the theory — that it’s a very philosophical theory, that we have perceptions. Your perception takes from outward reality an impression and unfolds it within you, so it makes the mind turn to it. Whatever the will is bound, that’s really what we call pleasure. I’m paraphrasing poorly.
“Thy words and my following…” Excuse me, let me just mention another little passage: “Now may be plain,” line 35, “Now may be plain to thee how hidden is the truth for those who maintain that every love is in itself praiseworthy…” He’s attacking — this is the view of the Epicureans who believe that every pleasure, without any particular judgment attached to the object of pleasure, is praiseworthy. Dante says no, we have to exercise some moral judgment. We have to create distinctions. We have to discriminate between the good and the bad love.
“… perhaps because its matter always seems good, but not every stamp is good, even if it be good wax.” I would even go so far as to say that he’s really thinking now of his friend Cavalcanti — Guido’s Epicurean — you saw him mention in Canto XII by name — Epicurean leanings. The idea — that’s the Epicurean ethics, that if pleasure is really the only object really worthy of any pursuit and that’s really what we are doing. When we are in pursuit of knowledge or real experiences, then they claim that all of pleasure is good. That’s the hedonistic ethics that Dante really renounces or debates.
Then, in fact, Virgil goes on saying: “Thy words and my following wit,” this is Dante talking, “have revealed the nature of love to me, but that has made me more full of perplexity; for if love is offered to us from without and if the soul moves with no other feet, it has no merit when it goes straight to crooked.”
Now you say that everything is love and the love that I have depends on the experience of images, well in what — how am I going to deserve for choosing well or not choosing well, since at the basis of the imagination, we have perceptions. What I perceive may be looking good to me and does not look good to you, so the issue is displaced from the point of the world of imagination to the world of perception. Virgil will go on explaining a scholastic theory to the point that indeed we incline to the good, but then actually we have within us the faculty of choice.
He says, “In order that to this will every other may be conformed there is innate in you the faculty which counsels and which ought to hold the threshold of assent.” He’s talking about, once again, free will and he will add, this is what I — this is on line 60 and following, this is all I can tell you from a philosophical point of view. Other issues about the free will will be explained to you by Beatrice when she first comes to you. And so it would seem to make a distinction between the knowledge of Virgil and the knowledge of Beatrice. He said, “As far as reason sees here I can tell thee, beyond that; wait only for Beatrice, for it is a matter of faith,” and so on.
There seems to be two ways of understanding this issue. The fact is that Beatrice will never discuss this problem, but in a sense, Beatrice represents the explanation that Dante is looking for, because Beatrice is a kind of love, for Dante, that stands for a visionary form of love, and not just a love that can be reduced to a question of mechanics of physics of perception. That’s really what Canto XVIII seems to be doing then. It responds, enlarges, and at the same time brings us back into the very predicament that Canto XVII had posed for us. It seems that Dante is moving, and at the same time, an impasse — another impasse has been reached.
Now, with this in mind, we turn to what he unavoidably has to do, try to translate all of these issues of love, imagination, choice, and from the theoretical into the autobiographical or existential dimension. This is done in the dream, an erotic dream that Dante relates at the beginning of Canto XIX. Before I turn to that canto, I just want to tell you about how Dante understand this. He has one line at the very end of Canto XVIII that I would — the last line of Canto XVIII — that I really want to underline for you, the whole paragraph reads: “Then when the shades were so far parted from us that they could no longer be seen, a new thought arose within me, from which others many and diverse were born; and I rambled so from one to the other, that in my wandering my eyes closed and I changed my musing into dream.”
Chapter 2. The Dream of Canto XIX; The Two Women [00:16:23]
That introduces the dream of Canto XIX, but the line in Italian is really very interesting because it presents the connection between thinking and dreaming. He says, in fact the translation: “My musing,” it’s correct but it’s really — I would have said to make it very clear, my thought. Dante says on line 145, che li occhi per vaghezza ricopersi, e ‘l pensamento in sogno trasmutai. There’s a kind of link, a sort of sense of the connection between thinking and dreaming that Dante favors dreaming at this point over thinking.
You shouldn’t be surprised that Dante’s doing this. The Romance of the Rose, a grand medieval epic, is a dream, and tells the story of a dream. The Book of the Duchess — Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, is the story of a dream. The Vita nuova is full of dreams. Even for those of you who are interested in contemporary literature, fairly contemporary, I’m thinking of Keats’ great poem, “Sleep and Poetry.” I don’t know how many of you have had a chance to read that. Poets love sleeping because sleep introduces the idea of the dream and the possibility of a dream, the possibility of a knowledge which is not willed. I finally have some revelations within me which is not what I would normally have if I were awake, so this is the great privilege that they give to dreams.
Are the Middle Ages really conscious of this dimension? Yes, there is a text by an author called Macrobius, and if you want to know more really, which Macrobius, who writes on The Dream of Scipio, Cicero’s figure in the Republic, it’s all about — it’s an encyclopedia of dreams and based on Artemidorus, but it’s distinctions between oracles, fantasies, insomniac, deliriums, dreams and so on. They are very conscious of the sort of power and revelations that can come through dreams.
What is this dream about? It’s now definitely in the world of acedia. It’s a dream — let me just read this initial — the beginning of Canto XIX. I emphasize that this is now an autobiographical — the highlighting of the autobiographical dimension of all the problems we have been discussing from XVII, above all XVI, XVII, and XVIII. Dante has to translate the theories into a personal — giving them a personal shape and that to investigate the kind of importance that they may have for him.
It starts then with, “In the hour when the day’s heat, overcome by the earth and sometimes by Saturn, can no longer temper the cold of the moon, when the geomancers see their Fortuna Major rise in the east before dawn by a path which does not long stay dark for it, there came to me in dream a woman stammering, cross-eyed and crooked on her feet with maimed hands and of sallow hue. I gazed at her, and as the sun revives cold limbs benumbed by the night, so my look gave her a ready tongue, and then in a little time made her quite erect and colored her wan features as love desires. When she had her speech thus set free she began to sing so that it would have been hard for me to turn my mind from her. ‘I am,’ she sang, ‘I am the sweet siren who beguile the sailors in mid-sea, so great delight it is to hear me. I turned Ulysses, eager on his way, to my song and he who dwells with me rarely departs, so wholly I content him.’
Her lips were not yet closed again when a lady, holy and alert, appeared beside me to put her to confusion. ‘Oh Virgil, Virgil, who is this?’ she said with anger. And he came with his eyes fixed on the honorable one; he seized the other and laid her bare in front, tearing her clothes, and showed me her belly. That awoke me with the stench that came from her. I turned my eyes to the good Master. ‘Three times at least I have called thee,’ he said, ‘rise and come, let us find the opening by which thou enterest.”
That’s the end of the dream, the account of the dream, and this is also — the journey will continue that seemed to have come to a halt here at night. As you recall, just to give you a sense of Dante’s ordered poetic mind, this is the second of three dreams. We didn’t really read the first one about — in Canto IX, was the dream of Ganymede. Dante’s moving from the anti-Purgatory to Purgatory proper and then it’s the — the third one will appear in Canto XXVII, so that really Dante is scanning these three dreams with also a sense of numerical — symbolic numerical precision IX, XVIII, retold in XIX, but takes place during the night and then XXVII. This is the — it’s a dream, it’s a dream that happens at dawn, just some details, and a dream at dawn has always the value they believed of it being a kind of prophetic dream. It’s a dream that really has a sort of a hue, a color of the truth.
It says something about — so if you understand the dream as an allegory say, because it’s about a veil. It’s about tearing clothes. There is something hidden underneath it all, then it may be this allegory has a truth value. It’s not some kind of mere fable or other. Dante starts evoking the planet Saturn which is — we shall see that in — you know that Dante mentions planets and joins them to the various liberal arts. I probably have mentioned this before. So when we will be talking about the moon, Dante is going to discuss grammar. He’ll talk about Mars, the planet of war, and there he’ll talk about music. Jupiter and justice, Saturn is astronomy, also the planet of contemplation. In this sense, I think that he’s hinting that sloth is the obverse side, the parody of contemplation, a different type of self-absorption nonetheless. Not a way of breaking out, the contemplation means breaking out of one’s self and reach some kind of — the gates outside of time. Here it’s a dream that seems to be — a movement, an inward movement, so it’s Saturn.
Then he continues with this language of astronomy and divination who “no longer temper the cold of the moon when the geomancers see the Fortuna Major.” This is a process of knowledge, as divination. That’s a different type of rational knowledge, divining signs. This is the context in which the dream is set: “rise in the east before dawn by a path which does not long stay dark for it, there came to me in a dream.” Now the dream starts.
The first thing that I have to point out to you is that in this — in the dream, the dreamer is an object. The dream comes to him. Clearly, it is not willed, it’s not something that he decides or he wants. One is the object of some dreams or apparitions, or signs, images that descend into one’s self without one’s own self control or dominion over there. Dante seems to place himself in a condition of passivity which is the passivity of sloth. The idea that I am awake and therefore vigilant, and therefore capable of making judgments about what’s happening to me, is here, now, for the time being, bracketed.
What is this dream about though? Well it’s a dream of a woman, and the Italian text plays — since this is a dream about two women, two modes of being, two choices. It’s almost as if he were — he isn’t, but you know this is the mythography of Hercules, as they call him, at the crossing road. He had to choose between vice and virtue, but Hercules has an easy time because he’s always going to be right: in thinking mythography, if you go to the right then you really have — by going toward virtue, left and right, being dexterous rather than sinister, the idea of the left being bad.
Here we don’t have that, here’s two women, but the language of the poem distinguishes very carefully between them. One is a femmina, there is materiality and even a kind of animal sense of the word, and when the other woman appears, she’s called a donna; donna is the Italian word from domina, the lady is called a holy lady, I guess, “lady holy and alert,” etc. She is — this woman, she crystallizes what we would call the aesthetics of the ugly. We’re always talking about the beauty and the idea that beauty brings about a kind of revelation of love and the pleasure that goes with beauty. In fact, one can say that love — no? — this is a Platonic way of understanding love has always a hunger for beauty. The conventional way of thinking about aesthetics is to imagine beautiful proportionate forms.
Here, Dante is giving exactly the opposite, an aesthetic of the ugly. But an ugly which is not static and somehow is — experiences metamorphosis. In fact, look what happens, she is “stammering, cross-eyed, and crooked on her feet,” she is the anti-Beatrice by — obviously, “with maimed hands and sallow hue.”
Now he changes: from the dreamer as an object, the dreamer becomes a subject, “I.” You see that, from “…came to me…” and then, “I gazed at her, and as the soul revives cold limbs benumbed by the night, so my look…” His desires transform this image, and from the ugly image that it was, it becomes now instead invested with attributes of attractiveness and “colored her wan features as love desires,” as love prompts.
Then this is what — we still don’t understand who she is. “When she had her speech thus set free, she began to sing so that it would have been hard for me to turn my mind from her.” The first temptation that we know that — the vehicle of the temptation — is the song. This is also, and primarily, a poetic temptation. A certain way of understanding poetry, a kind of even meretricious form of poetry.
What does she say? She brings to center stage the myth of Ulysses, which is by now as you know, is the steady temptation for Dante. It’s the point of reference: to what extent is my own journey that I believe is taking place under the aegis of divine providence, to what extent is it a form of transgression? A way of going beyond boundaries, of breaking down all limits, because after all that’s what Ulysses did in Canto XXVI. And Dante knows where he has placed him, but he cannot get him out of his mind because Ulysses stands for something powerful. What he stands for is the idea that there is no knowledge worth having which is not connected with transgressions, which is not connected with breaking down all barriers and limitations.
In a way, because Dante doesn’t do these things accidentally, when he comes to Canto XXVI of Paradise, he will see Adam, and there is another who is for him, without a doubt, a poet, because he’s the name giver. He is the name giver of the world. He is the one who brings the world into being through language. And when Dante meets Adam, there will be some interesting details that we can talk about there, but I can anticipate this for you: Adam is the one who had understood transgression and that transgression though, for Adam, appears as a sort of growth. It’s not a fall, for Dante, it’s a growth. It’s a growth and understanding other types of limitations because we cannot just say that we tear down all limits; we tear down some limits in our experience.
Adam tears down and eats of the fruit of the tree that had been forbidden for him, like a good son. The Father says, don’t eat it and he goes and eats it, and thence he eats it, he grows into a human being. He discovers that the world is not for him to be as a child, that he has to have other experiences of death, of maturity, of work, etc. There are ways in which we have to understand this idea of breaking limits in a different way from maybe the way I may have conveyed it to you. In other words, Dante, here, is thinking of Ulysses and anticipates the story of Adam.
The great temptation for Dante is to believe that he too — his journey is a journey that reenacts Ulysses’ journey. The siren — that’s what she’s telling him — what she’s telling him is, ‘I made Ulysses happy.’ It’s a lie, because we do know that Ulysses never really stopped off the island of Capri in whose Grotto where the siren, is mythologically said to reside. We do know that he did listen to the song of the siren; he made sure that his companions would not, and he had himself bound. Here it is again, bound to the mast of the ship. There is a transgression and a binding going on at the same time.
As I said — at any rate, she lies about, “I turned Ulysses, eager on his way to my song, and he who dwells with me,” so the first — the other lie or the extension of the lie is that the siren is making false promises of happiness to the dreamer. What she’s saying is, you stay here with me and I am the end of all that you desire. I am going to give you all the pleasures that you want, and therefore, your journey may very well be over. If you are weary of the road, this is the place where you should stop.
We have another figure that emerges. Clearly, the antagonist of the siren, we don’t know who she is, we’ll find out very quickly in Canto XXX and XXXI, because the same scene will be re-enacted with the arrival of Beatrice. We imagine that here too, we have force to imagine, that here too she is Beatrice. “Her lips were not yet closed again when a lady holy and alert,” a woman in the sense of not femmina, “appeared beside me to put her to confusion. ‘O Virgil, Virgil, who is this?’ she said with anger” and he came with her.
What is the difference between them, between these two women? They are two different forms of poetry. Now we understand why Dante had to be talking about the imagination all along, because this is really what will introduce him to the stakes in claiming to be a poet. This is what he’s been talking about — the actual faculty of himself as a poet, and the cantos that will come, XXI, XXII to XXVI and XXVII constitute the most important segment about ways of understanding literary history, literary tradition, or the place of originality within that particular history and so on. We are going to enter the world of poetry more directly.
So they are two different women; they speak two different voices. One sweet, meretricious and false, but a sweet song; the other one very harsh, who says the journey is not over. One forecloses the journey of — and the quest of Dante. Be like Ulysses, I know that you want to be like Ulysses, you can stay here with me, and I am the end of all your journeys and your quests. The other one is claiming exactly the opposite. The journey has to continue. These two types of songs, the song of the siren is sweet, which has also the stench of death attached to it. The stench of the decomposition of her body, and on the other hand, a journey by this austere voice, the voice of — maybe the voice of love, the voice of harshness, just the language of sweetness is that of love as an ongoing quest. That’s what she’s saying. Two forms of love, two forms of poetry, two types of women.
The scene, in case you are interested in this — as many of you I’m sure have thought about it — literally are stages. The scene at the beginning of The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, which in turn is thinking about the Book X of the Republic by Plato: the idea of the place of love and the place of poetry and philosophy. Dante changes that tradition. This is not just poetry versus philosophy; it’s two different types of poetry. Poetry can be also a philosophical poetry. Poetry can be meretricious and poetry can be also the sort of rigorous, severe form of investigation of oneself in the world. Two different types of poetry, two different types of loves, two different types of women.
Which of the two is better? How can we go on deciding that one is better than the other? Is there an objective pattern, an objective criterion, by which we can say Beatrice, is actually better than the siren? Does Dante — is Dante aware of this idea of — yes, and the reason is going to be the following, very simple: the avoidance of death. The siren is the figure that stands for death. Underneath the pleasures of her language, there is a stench that emanates from underneath that allegory. Dante sees the danger of closing and the danger of making the here and now, and the limitations of the here and now, and the limitations of that song the end of his journey. It’s really a choice between an open-ended quest and the foreclosure of the siren. This is the only way in which you can objectively believe that there is a hierarchy between these two loves and between these two women.
We move to Canto XXI and XXII, but I’m wondering if I shouldn’t take a few questions here about this canto, or any other problems, before we move onto something a little bit more — a little bit different, more classical: the encounter between Statius and Virgil. Let me see if there are some questions now about this phase, these cantos, or would you like to — me to go on and then maybe we can come back to them?
Student: Are we supposed to draw a connection between Casella and anti-Purgatory?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Very good. Say again?
Student: Are we supposed to draw a connection between Casella and the siren?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is excellent. Are we supposed to draw some connection between this scene and the scene of Casella in Canto II, above all of Purgatory? I call it excellent, because I agree you are supposed to — and it’s the reappearance under different guises of the same temptation. How the aesthetic can become both a way of gathering people around itself. That’s the famous story of Casella, the power of the song just collects, gathers, but at the same time it induces us all to forgetfulness of whatever purposes those souls are supposed to entertain and carry out. The difference of course is that it’s the same story here now, the difference is not between, let’s say, Casella and others with the language of Cato. Here it’s more an autobio — directly, we are moved into the consciousness of the pilgrim. We have entered this — as deep as we can into his unconscious mind. This is the moment of what — he comes to an amazing self-revelation.
The story of Casella had the ring of a public discourse: poetry as a public act, gathering a number of people around it. So this is very good. That’s — thank you for mentioning that. By the way, I don’t know that I — we never probably read it, but if you read the beginning, I think I read it in Italian for Professor Brooks as I know she likes the Provençal song, but the beginning of Canto XVIII also that moment of the nostalgia for the safety of home, the weariness of — the evening song, etc. That represents another version of the same kind of dilemma with which the pilgrim is confronted. Okay, we can come back to some of this.
Chapter 3. Cantos XXI and XXII: Statius’s Moral Conversion [00:40:29]
We move into this segment of the poem: XXI, XXII going through XXIII, XXIV, which really has poetry now as the subject matter. Dante begins with, let’s say, the classical tradition. The relationship between an encounter that takes place, wherein they, in the world of avarice and prodigality, the encounter between Statius and Virgil. As you know Statius views himself as a disciple of Virgil, and in many ways he challenges Virgil’s ideology, Virgil’s thought. Whereas Virgil can go on writing a poem, the Aeneid and the Eclogues, which are about the pastoral world, or the Georgics, this world about the cultivation of the earth, where Virgil appears at his most anti-Orphic. He distinguishes and distances himself from the traditional of Orpheus, the poet of mad love who descends into the depths of Hades and, of course, is waylaid by the mad love for Eurydices — the way of conquering death through the song. He believes that through — by singing he can bend the laws of death and therefore gain immortality. Virgil opposes the world of work, the world of mature — the responsible world of Aeneas, the hero who is so divided against himself, and yet manages to always find his way around in this kind of wriggly, erratic path of his epic.
Statius counters Virgil. Statius writes the Thebaid, he writes another — which he never finishes — another little epic, called the Achilleid, a story about Achilles, but it’s only a fragment. He writes the Thebaid, which really goes against those claims of Virgil. He retrieves — makes a conjunction between tragedy and the epic, the world of Jocasta and Oedipus, the monstrosity of that world, the world of Polyneices and the Eteocles, the world of Antigone, cast as a kind of nightmarish world. It’s literally the most psychological of these epics, the wars that happen in the mind, and this idea of monstrosity of human fate and human desires.
These are the two worlds that Dante now wants to bring together in this little epyllion, I would call it. “Epyllion” is a Greek word meaning a ‘little epic,’ that is to say, a transcription of two epic texts gathered into one, into a lyrical form. He has a tough task because what he wants to show is the possibility of harmonizing the two of them and he shows how the two of them really talk as friends, friends across time of course.
Statius lives around the year 70 A.D., Virgil dies in the year 19. And now they are friends because poetry has managed — their poetry has made them — the poetry of Virgil has made them friends and Statius is a sort of classical version of Dante himself. Dante is the disciple of Virgil and so was Statius, so he has to bring them together.
But it’s not a question of making them agree, only because they had two different visions, that in and of itself may not be all that difficult. Statius is very skeptical about the Empire, Virgil is not all that skeptical. It’s possible to read the Aeneid and see that there is a lot of ambiguity in the way in which he talks about Augustus and the Empire, but he’s basically writing the epic that justifies the ideology of the Empire. The real difficulty between them is that Dante is — the real difficulty and challenge for Dante — is that he has to try to understand how Statius has tried — to adjust Statius’ vision of monstrosity to some of idea of the sacred. This is the real challenge. This is the difference that Dante has from the classical world.
How do we understand the sacred? In what way is it possible to use Statius, Virgil, as he already did with Cato, who is by the way the hero of Lucan; a third poet of this epic tradition, Virgil, Lucan, Statius — is it possible to see in these texts of Statius the seeds of something good? How can we build anything good out of this vision of heroes and characters who fornicate with their own fantasies? Who cannot really get out of their minds, who just are — discover their own unchanging submission to a force that transcends them to fate. It’s really absolutely a different world view from the world of Virgil.
Let me just go on a little bit with XXI, I’ll just start talking first of all with — Dante begins with an allusion to this natural thirst, which is this world of — the natural thirst for knowledge. It’s really much the world of the Banquet, the world of Aristotle. We have this incredible thirst for knowledge and then this figure called Statius appears. We are also being told here that nature, the natural world is mysteriously shaking. There’s an earthquake, because every time that a soul gets liberated from the purgatorial experience of expiation, this purification and expiation, then the mountain trembles and Statius can go on with them up to the Garden of Eden and then Statius reveals himself and he will say around line 60, “And I, who have lain in this pain five hundred years and more,” Statius speaking, “felt but now my will free for a better threshold, therefore thou didst feel the earthquake and hear the devout spirits through the mountain render praises to the Lord — soon.” The resurrection has taken place.
This is going to be the resurrection of Statius and Virgil. It’s Statius, but also Virgil, and their own vision. So he goes on describing himself, “In the time when the good Titus, the emperor,” he’s evoking the time of the — he’s recalling the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem at a time when the good Titus, “by help with the King most high avenged,” means justice, divine, the mysteries of justice, “the wounds from which pour the blood sold by Judas,’ replied the spirit, ‘I bore yonder the name that most endures and honors most, famous indeed, but still without faith.” Statius a pagan, really born again, this is the born again pagan that appears in this canto.
“So sweet was my spirit of song that Rome drew me,” it’s an interesting image. It’s really speaking of Rome having a kind of power that usually will lead with love, with desire, the pull of desire. Rome brought him to it, to herself, “a Toulousan, to itself and there I was worthy to have my brows adorned with myrtle. Men yonder still speak my name, which is Statius; and I sang of Thebes and then of great Achilles, but fell by the way with the second burden.” He could never complete the second text.
Now look at the way he speaks about poetry; he speaks through sparks, as a kind of fire. “The sparks that kindled the fire in me were from the divine flame, the divine flame from which more than a thousand have been lit — I mean the Aeneid” — That’s already — poetry now is invested with power. The power to light the fire in the readers and in its followers, “which was in poetry my mother and my nurse; without it I had not weighed a drachm and to have lived yonder, when Virgil lived I would have contented to a sun more than I was due before coming forth from banishment.”
There are two metaphors to speak of poetry, one is that of the sparks of fire, and the second one is that of nourishing the inner hunger, mother and nurse. It’s nursing — the nursing of its readers so a great acknowledgement of a master, without his knowledge that it is Virgil to whom he is speaking. And then Canto XXI which is another image that may remind you of the story of Casella. Statius reveals — Dante reveals Statius identity, Virgil’s identity to Statius, and they try to — the two of them try to embrace — “Already he was bending to embrace,” lines 130 and following, “my Teacher’s feet; but he said to him, ‘Brother do not so, for thou art a shade and a shade thou seest.’ And he rising: ‘Now thou canst understand the measure of the love that burns in me for thee, when I forget our emptiness and treat shades as solid things.”
A mistake that has been made before and a mistake that I think is meant to convey the claims or the illusions of poets to believe that there is some kind of solidity to them, and not just to their poetry, to their works, but a solidity to them that this embrace belies. There’s no solidity to them. There is a kind of emptiness. There’s a sort of distance between the poets and their works. This is not going to, I think, interfere very much because it’s the works, the works of art that we are going to be talking about in Canto XXII.
The two poets now are self — each in acknowledgement of the other and they go on talking about line 10 and following, Virgil asks Statius to explain to him why this moral blight existed in him, why this sin of avarice, and he says — this is the passage: “Love,” Canto XXII, lines 12 and following, “Love kindled by virtue always kindles another” — That’s the sort of vitality and power of love. It’s not self-enclosed; it’s one that goes on creating and propagating itself. It has a generosity of its own. It has a kind of charitableness of it’s, “if only its flame appear without” — So fire and love seem to be conjoined by this common element, the common element of the power of propagation or self-perpetuation.
“From the hour, therefore, when Juvenal descended among us in the LImbo of Hell and made thy affection known to me my goodwill toward thee was as great as ever held anyone for a person not seen, so that now these stairs will seem short to me. But tell me, and as a friend, forgive me with too much assurance I slacken the rein, and as a friend speak with me know — how could avarice find a place in thy breast along with so much wisdom as by thy zeal thou wast filled with?”
This is a passage of some importance. Because, first of all, the claim of friendship between Virgil — he’s moved by the show of friendship on the part of Statius. Let’s talk now as friends. Friendship is an ethical virtue as you know, in Aristotle’s Ethics and for Cicero, who writes a treatise called On Friendship, which Dante mentions at the beginning of his philosophical text, in the belief that friendship is really the other language the other term for philosophy.
It’s the friend and the philosopher that are interchangeable because there is a love — in friendship, there is a love of truth that is the idea. There is some exaggeration on the part of Virgil because there is really — a friendship implies some kind — some degree of equality. You must have — in order to be friends you must have some idea, because in fact it’s usually said that tyrants and slaves are not capable of love or friendship, because both — since one is the inversion of the other — both really have a kind of inequality vis-à-vis the other. The slave is, by definition inferior, the tyrant thinks that he’s superior so friendship demands that kind if equality.
This is a little bit of exaggeration because there is no equality between Statius. It’s a rhetorical exaggeration of Statius and Virgil. Virgil is — acknowledges being superior to Statius. Statius sees himself as a disciple and therefore views Virgil as superior from a poetic point of view; from a theological point of view Statius is superior to Virgil. Statius is going on to Paradise and Virgil is going to go back Limbo. So there is a kind of the push in the direction of wishful thinking maybe on the part of Virgil.
I must also add that Dante has a kind of — some work also to do about — he may be aware that friendship was never really thought of as a Christian virtue. It’s a classical and pagan virtue, and because it really confuses — it’s the idea a friend is always part of one’s soul. It’s really earthbound. It’s an earthbound experience, so it was always the thought — not Augustine. Augustine who has a friend Alypius and feels responsible for Alypius, but by and large — it was this idea that the friendship could distract the mind from an ascent to higher and superior ends, paradisiac ecstasies and pleasures. Dante has to be aware that there were efforts to Christianize this idea.
Nonetheless, it brings the conversation between them back to the earth and they talk as if they were two friends really meeting in the forum, in the agora, and chatting about their moral failings or their own poetic crafts and visions. How could you find — how could you be so avaricious, when you are so enlightened in so many other ways? That’s the question. Statius responds that he’s not avaricious and I think that that adds a great deal about their understandings — the misunderstandings of each other — but also their understandings of poetry.
He goes on talking about the fact that he is prodigal all the time. So that is to say that he — you may remember from Canto VII of Inferno, the difference between the avaricious and the sins of prodigality. Prodigality was a violation of the economy of goods by devaluing, by getting rid — devaluing them, not holding onto them. The avaricious overvalues the goods and tries to heap — amass larger quantities of goods, so he goes on really thinking — Statius wants to make it clear for at least 40 lines about the fact that he’s — he was prodigal and we have to understand why he would say that. Then in fact he goes on acknowledging, once again, Statius, for his moral conversion. So that’s the first thing about what poetry can do.
“Know then that avarice was too far removed from me, and this excess thousands of moons have punished. And had it not been that I corrected my ways when I understood the lines, where as if enraged at human nature, thou didst cry: “To what, O cursed hunger for gold, dost thou not drive the appetite of mortals?’ I should be rolling the weights and know the dismal jousts.”
What he’s saying is that he read a passage in Book III of the Aeneid, the story that we already saw of Polydorus, who had been killed because of — they want to rob him of his gold and Statius reached a moral conversion. There’s a lot we can say about these lines. First of all, I think this exemplifies how we actually read and we dismember the integrity of the text. We take out of a book, out of a passage, that which we find relevant to us and he takes some lines, and not only takes some lines from the Book III of the Aeneid, he also alters their meaning.
The original text of Virgil’s is exactly the opposite to what — why do you not contain the appetite of mortals or sacred hunger for gold? Which the text translates as ‘cursed’ — because the word sacred, which Dante is using here, why do you not contain, “O sacred fame of gold” O sacra fame dell’oro. The word “sacred,” as you probably know, some of you may know, means two things. It’s the most ambiguous term that you — semantically speaking — because it can describe both that which we call the holy, and that which we call the profane. It joins them together: there’s no clear-cut distinction between the profanation or blasphemy, on the other hand, or the sense of holiness. I can understand why my translation, Sinclair, my translator, decides to choose the ‘cursed’ instead of call it ‘sacred,’ for it’s the curse. He’s dismembering, he is taking one side over — there’s a much more complicated version of the meaning of the word.
So that’s one thing, but the poetic text of Virgil has a moral power over and against Virgil’s own intentions. We can understand now retrospectively why Dante has to distinguish between poets and their works. We can read the works regardless of the intentions of the authors and we can select or take out of those texts whatever we think that we — however we think that they speak to us and then he goes on describing his poetic growth.
“Now,” lines 55, “Now, when thou did sing the cruel arms of the double woe of Jocasta,” the double woe is the two children, Eteocles and Polyneices, in the tragic and epic text called the Thebaid, “said the singer of the Bucolics.” That’s already the opposition. Virgil now appears as the author of a pastoral poem, the Bucolics, where rivalries are always going to be placated. The Bucolics of — the pastoral poems of Virgil are always about rivalry. A rivalry between two shepherds: which of us they ask, is the better singer? Which of us is the better poet? That is always — there’s never any tragic outcome. There’s some uneasiness, some anxiety between in — running through that kind of debate between the poets, but it’s not the rivalry of Polyneices and Eteocles. That’s really the difference that Dante is highlighting between them.
And then it continues, “… it does not appear by the notes which Clio touches with thee,” the Bucolics, and on other hand Clio is the muse of history. So Clio is the muse for history, the world of Statius, “that the faith yet made thee faithful without which well-doing is not enough. If that is so, what sun or what candles dispelled thy darkness, so that thereafter thou didst lift the sails behind the fisherman?”
Now we know that what he’s really asking, in a general way, is the relationship between poetry and faith. How could Statius — we know how he reached this moral conversion, now we have to be told somehow, how did he go on finding faith? What is the relationship between the two of them? Can poetry reveal and lead us onto the world of faith or not?
Statius has already — that’s really the answer that he will provide: “And the other answered him, ‘Thou first directed me to Parnassus,” the mountain of poetry. The poetic experience, the poetic apprenticeship, is the preamble to the experience of faith — “to drink in its caves” — a metaphor that picks up the natural thirst of the previous canto, “to drink in its caves and, first, after God enlightens me. Thou didst like him that goes by night and carries the light behind him and does not help himself but makes wise those that follow when thou saidst.”
In a moment we will see he said, but the metaphor is that of really — Virgil is a prophetic voice who speaks, but that language he uses like the — a lamp that he carries on his back for the benefit of those who follow, and himself clearly remains in the dark. That’s what he said. “The age turns new again; justice comes back and the primal years of men, and a new race descends from heaven.”
This is the famous fourth eclogue of Virgil, where Virgil is celebrating the birth of a child, Pollio, and around this birth of a child, he is also talking about the rejuvenation of the world. It’s an emblem, Pollio’s birth is an emblem for this Pythagorean vision that he has, a vision whereby the world goes through 360,000 years of the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and so on, and then degrades itself and goes right back to where it started. A Pythagorean vision of metamorphosis and circulation of the universe. It’s the fourth eclogue.
Interestingly, this also crystallizes that which is the fundamental issue of Virgil’s vision. The concern with birth, the concern with the fact of being born, that the fact of being born has within itself the potential to renew the world, to effect the world and change the direction of the world.
And then we know that he will say, and I will stop here, because we are coming to the end of the period: “Through thee I was a poet, through thee Christian; but that thou mayst see better what I outline, I shall set my hand to color it. Already the world was everywhere big,” pregnant the Italian says, “with the true faith sown by the messengers… ” and so on. He’s going to talk how the world outside, only buttressed and reinforced the message of faith that he had found in the fourth eclogue. The fourth eclogue is seen as a messianic eclogue, but that line that makes the transition from poetry to faith, “I was a poet through thee, I was a poet, through thee a Christian,” I think really makes it necessary for us to linger on it for a little bit.
First of all the line has what we call an anaphora, “Through thee I was a poet, I was a poet through thee Christian.” This is the same line that says, per te, the Italian word line 73, per te poeta fui, per te cristiano. The anaphora gives continuity to the movement of the line from poetry to faith, per te…per te. Nonetheless, if you read this line carefully in Italian you see that there is also a caesura. You know what I mean by caesura? Falling in the middle, a break, per te, break, per te cristiano. The lines — gives a — has a mobility that seems to promise the transition from poetry to faith, but at the same time technically, it forces you to stop as if there were two discontinuous experiences. You cannot quite go from one world of poetry to the one world of faith. You can go from one world of poetry to one world of faith. That ambiguity of poetry is exactly what they are trying to retrieve.
What did I say here today about this issue of Statius and Virgil? Statius is dealing with the tragedy of birth. Virgil deals with, optimistically, about the history-making quality of the event of birth. That is, at the same time, a desire to establish a sense of what is the sacred? I will try to discuss with you, later, how poetry is now invested with the kind of sacredness, the ambiguous sense of the word about the profane and the holy within it. It’s a hybrid, and it’s this hybrid that will allow Dante to assimilate Statius’ vision to his own understanding of history and the sacred.
Chapter 4. Question and Answer [01:09:30]
Let me stop here and see if there are questions. Please.
Student: It seems like it’s more common for Dante to be the one to ask the people they meet for their stories. Is this the only place that Virgil is the one who asks the questions or what is the specific event here?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Virgil is the — the question is, it seems that usually it’s Dante who interviews the people he meets and — but here in Canto XXI and XXII, it’s Virgil and is that the case, and if it’s true why would that be the case? The answer is that that’s not really true because in the canto of Ulysses, it is he who — it is Virgil who speaks, you remember, to Ulysses. It’s Virgil — so it’s Virgil and Ulysses. It really has more to do with the figures of the classical world that seem to be, in this case, Virgil seems to be best indicated for Statius as he was for Virgil.
Since you are interested in this aspect of the dramatization of the poem, I could mention to you for instance there are cantos in Inferno, we didn’t have a chance to talk about them where the — Virgil would completely abandon — Dante says, well you go here, I don’t want to be with you, you go and on your own carry out this introduction without — I’ll wait for you here. That happens, for instance, in the canto of fraud and usury. It is as if Dante had something to better understand on his own without Virgil’s presence, but usually that is the way in which the style of the representation takes place, who is most apt in the case of the classical figures, the classical poet speaking for a classical character.
Student: I wondered if you could comment a little further on the significance in Canto XIX of what looks like a kind of re-enactment of the Fall of Adam and Eve. It’s almost as if this woman even in the —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: In the dream.
Student: The siren — yes, in the dream, when she brings forth this promise of happiness, it’s really echoing the promise of Lucifer of this, I will make you like God. Why is this sort of — why is this theme of sort of the Adam theme coming up here in XIX and is there some sort of strand that I’m missing?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The — well — the question is that it says in Canto XIX, in the dream of the siren, there is an echo of the Fall of Adam more than Lucifer, I would say, the Fall of Adam. Why would there be that — if that’s true why would there be that echo? My answer is, I didn’t catch it. I never caught this echo of Adam there. It’s actually the story of the temptation of this woman fish, that’s what she is, right? The siren who wants to induce forgetfulness in the pilgrim; it’s really a classical figure. I would say that — I sort of resist the — hearing here the figure of — in the figure of Adam because Adam doesn’t really talk about falling.
This is a danger for the pilgrim who — he’s dramatizing his sense of yielding, surrendering his will to the seduction, the seductive song of the siren. Adam with — this is a story of love. With Adam, the story becomes one of knowledge; it’s a little bit different. There may be echoes, I’m not going to be so firm and say no, there is no echo of that but I didn’t catch it. I didn’t feel the necessity for that, actually, for my argument.
Student: Okay, then maybe I’m answering my own question here, but wouldn’t you say that the theme of knowledge and transgression runs through both the dream sequence that Dante has and the story of Adam’s Fall? I mean, is there that theme where Ulysses wanted to sort of gain this knowledge, this experience of hearing the siren’s song, right and to gain that knowledge he had to sort of transgress. Isn’t that what the siren represents? You say he keeps coming back to this theme of Ulysses —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: He does. He mentions the story of Ulysses. He does mention the story of Ulysses.
Student: Is that where the Adam connection really comes in? Because Adam’s — ultimately ate the fruit for knowledge.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yeah, well I indicated that the story of Adam in Canto XXVI retrospectively illuminates what’s happening in Canto XXVI of Inferno and that he too experienced — understands knowledge and transgression, that they go hand in hand, and that it’s difficult — impossible to separate them and that’s the story of Ulysses. Dante does feel that he’s — but it’s a dangerous temptation for him to believe that he’s like Ulysses. Whereas, he has no problem later in — when he understands what the story of Adam is, in thinking, in acknowledging that Adam is the arch poet. We are all reinventing the world, etc.
So I would say that there are three figures here: Ulysses, Adam, and Dante and — but the relation between them is never what one of — full of identification on the part of Dante with either — he comes here approximates them and somehow also pulls away from both. He’s not really Adam. He’s not the arch poet who names the world, and he’s not really Ulysses. That fear that he may be like Ulysses, which is a more dangerous sense that he has, that will continue more openly as he goes on.
The story of Adam is going to be picked up in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden, of course, that is the idea that we lost a garden but Dante does not want to be in that garden anyway. When he comes to the Garden of Eden, he identifies it with a lot of things, really nostalgia for the mother. He doesn’t — he understands that he has to grow up; he has to get out of that fantasy. I don’t know if this is —
Student: What confuses me I guess is that the siren here in the dream sequence seems to be wanting to halt Dante’s quest, his journey forward for knowledge.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes, absolutely.
Student: Yet, with respect to Ulysses, the siren seemed to represent the opposite, in the sense that his interaction with her was something where he was trying to go past the bounds to gain knowledge or gain experience of hearing her. I’m trying to draw the connections in my mind for what is really Dante trying to tell us with this sequence? Why does he go back to this reference to the siren? I mean maybe you could just summarize; I guess maybe it would just help clear it up what she represents to Dante here in Canto XIX versus what she represents to Ulysses?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Good, what does the siren represent? Very briefly, what does the siren represent to Dante and to Ulysses? What is the difference? To Dante, the siren represents the lure of death. He understands that beneath that promises of yield to the here and now and to my voice there is really — there’s a nothingness and he’s attracted to that nothingness. That’s really what it is. For Ulysses, she also represents the extraordinary enchantment of the song that would lead him to death because that’s what happens to all those who listen to the siren. Ulysses wants to hear it and bind himself so that does not yield altogether to her call. That’s how I can put it. Thank you. We’ll see you.
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