ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 15 - Purgatory XXX, XXXI, XXXIII
Chapter 1. Virgil’s Last Words [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: With Canto XXVI, the purgation of the pilgrim is completed. He has been going through the various stages of Purgatory: from pride, as you remember, to the sin of lust and in XXVII, he crosses a wall of fire, so that he can be cleansed completely of all the stains that may be residual on his soul and approach and enter the Garden of Eden.
This is the action that takes place in XXVII and Canto XXVII comes to a close with a passage that I would like to read to you and comment on. It’s at the end of Canto XXVII and these are really the last words that Virgil will speak. We will not hear from him again. In fact, from now on, the pilgrim will be entirely on his own. There’s no dependency on him. There is a sort of — actually very personal moment now that starts and we’ll see the drama that goes with time of — this attainment of self-mastery and Dante goes on dramatizing.
These are the last words that he speaks from lines 130 on, “The temporal fire and the eternal thou hast seen,” meaning Purgatory and Hell which lasts forever, “my son, and art come to a part where of myself I discern no further.” This is the limitation of Virgil’s vision. This is — from now on he will be following — even the geometry, the arrangement of their journey will be completely reversed. Up to now, the pilgrim has been a disciple, therefore, one who follows the vestiges of the teacher. Now the teacher with Statius will be following Virgil. He sees no further. And actually I can anticipate for you the pathos of Virgil’s departure — sudden departure — when he, the pilgrim, most wants him and needs him, because Beatrice is approaching and the terror that — with a terror that Beatrice represents for the pilgrim, the pilgrim will turn back and his eyes will never see Virgil again. Virgil has disappeared an instant before he vanishes, an instant before Beatrice arrives, as if there’s a hiatus. Dante is dramatizing the hiatus between the two guides and the two particular stages of his own self-knowledge and life.
Let me continue with this, “Take henceforth thy pleasure for guide.” What an extraordinary line: “take then henceforth thy pleasure for guide.” This is the poem of desire in the sense that what pushes the pilgrim to go on and impels him to this journey of discovery and self-discovery is really desire. Desire is the moving force in him, but now the language changes. Now in a sense a certain — the first part of the journey is over and pleasure can become the guide, the guidance of his own pleasure, what he likes. That is to say, in a sense, it’s an adumbration of free will. We’ll talk more about the relationship between actually pleasure and happiness, the way Dante will go on dramatizing it and thinking about in Paradise.
“Thou hast come forth from the steep and narrow ways. See the sun that shines on thy brow. See the grass,” near the earthly paradise, “See the grass, the flowers, and trees which the ground here brings forth of itself alone.” It is as, by Dante, by taking his own pleasure as his guidance, he now has reached an edenic place. Virgil is speaking of the pilgrim as if he were speaking of the ground that thrives until the ground, the land produces spontaneously. Now he’s capable at spontaneous action and spontaneous decisions.
“Till their fair eyes come rejoicing which weeping may come — made me come to thee thou mayst sit or go among them.” Two details are expressed by these lines: one is Virgil is recapitulating in many ways this first part of the journey, the journey that began in Inferno I and ends here in Purgatorio, in the Garden of Eden. It began in the wilderness and ends in the Garden. This is the first step of — the first stage of the journey. You can now — he remembers, that’s how recapitulates “the fair eyes… that made me,” that begged me to come to your help when you were lost and shipwrecked on the wilderness of Inferno I; so now Virgil is going back to that.
The second element is that this is the exercise: “Now thou mayest sit or go among them.” Now this is exactly the major temptation for the pilgrim. Is he going to think that the journey to the Garden of Eden, which is a journey ahead, forward, but a journey back in time? The Garden of Eden is behind all of us and yet it lies ahead of us. The past is really the future. He must decide whether he can go on or sit here. It’s a first decision. Is he going to think that the journey is the journey to the complacencies of the Garden, to the beauty and attraction of the Garden? Or is he going to turn, as he actually will — we can say that because we have Paradise, that he writes — into an anti-pastoral poet. That is to say one, a poet who is always questioning the sense of arrival and is always going on to new departures that’s really what the — Virgil is telling him. Now this is up to you; you have arrived here; you have arrived there where I am, where Virgil is, or you can even go further.
There’s a peculiar language that resonates behind this kind of moral dilemma which is placed in front of the pilgrim’s mind. It’s called felix culpa, I don’t know if you have — those of you who are readers of Milton may know what I’m talking about. Felix culpa, the idea that the fall of man was actually a happy fall, because it allows human beings to even want to go beyond it. That’s exactly what is resonating behind this. You may sit and therefore turn into an Adam figure, who is going back to the beauty and innocence which the pilgrim doesn’t have really. He has a wisdom now of the Garden or you can go on even further than that.
Then here is the final moment of a circle which now takes over for the Purgatorio itself: “No longer expect word or sign from me.” That’s exactly — the teaching of Virgil has been completed and then he ends with: “Free, upright and whole is thy will, and it were a fault not to act on its bidding; therefore, over thyself I crown and miter thee.”
This is the attainment of the free will so that the whole Purgatorio moves between two poles: the pole of liberty which was Cato’s object, the object of his quest through the wilderness of the Libyan desert, and now the attainment of the free will which allows the pilgrim to view it as a condition, not just a point of arrival, but the necessary pre-condition for moral life. You can never really have an autonomous moral life only in the measure in which you think you can have the free will. Now the pilgrim is his own responsibility.
Let me say that once he’s under the guidance of Beatrice the issues, especially when it comes to Paradise, there will be moral problems while he is in the Garden of Eden we are going to look at in a moment, but in Paradise aesthetics takes over. It’s no longer an ethical problem. Dante refers, you may have heard about recent philosophers who think that life is arranged — or knowledge is arranged — according to stages: the aesthetic, the ethical and then the theological. Dante reverses this, the point that seems to be the most mature is that dealing with the aesthetic one, which others may view as the superficial, the elementary one, the one where we are — perceptions are going to be engaged and then at the time of disengagement even before you can get involved and mature in ethical experiences. Dante changes; there are no ethical dilemmas in Paradise. Once you are in Paradise you can only enjoy and get to know the world. All the problems are intellectual problems, not moral issues.
“So free upright and whole is the will, and it were a fall not to act on its bidding, therefore, over thyself I crown and miter thee.” This is a kind of secular coronation ceremony, the crown — the royal and the episcopal — royal and the bishop, which is a way of consecrating. Virgil acts as a kind of lay priest, consecrating the attainment of self-mastery in this moment which could become a moment of self-assertion and yet Dante is very careful in how he navigates all of this.
Chapter 2. Cantos XXVIII to XXXIII: Pastoral Oasis Segment [00:11:03]
Now from Canto XXVIII to Canto XXXIII, which is the end of the poem, we come to an area which is another fragment. You already read a kind of segment which I will call the literary segment that — with Professor Lummus whom I’m very grateful to — covered and explained to you and did with you last time. That’s a literary segment that goes from XXI to XXVI. Now from XXVIII to XXXIII we have a different segment which is — let’s call it a pastoral oasis. It’s also the representation of what in classical literature is called locus amoenus. You may have seen adumbrations of this even in Limbo. That’s one of them, this lovely spot outside of the world of history where something of relaxation can take place and it’s also which Dante combines actually with a biblical hortus, enclosed garden, the Song of Songs, for instance, or the Garden of Eden hortus conclusus.
The interesting thing about Dante’s representation of the locus amoenus is it’s never really outside of history; it becomes. That’s the assumption: you have the garden and you have the city. This is the dual imagination whenever life becomes unbearable in the city you take off and go into a villa in the garden somewhere and find a relief, aesthetic relief from the hustle — the time — of hustle and bustle of the city. Dante combines the two. There’s no easy position between them, in the sense that the Garden of Eden where he finds himself, is going to be the place of — a very problematical place, a place where the pilgrim is engaged in a self-confrontation. He experiences some actually terrifying moments in the encounter with Beatrice, so the Garden of Eden is represented in Canto XXVIII and I want to read a few passages.
This is — you see how this representation is carried out, “Eager now to search,” I’m reading from XXVIII, lines 1 and following, and I’ll go pretty slowly over this: “Eager now to search within and about the divine forest green and dense, which tempered to my eyes the new day, I left the slope without waiting longer, taking the level very slowly over the ground which gave fragrance on every side.”
It’s the classical — this is — the warehouse of the pastoral tradition is found here, a fragrance; there’s a running brook, deep shades, the birds seem to be rivaling human beings, introducing songs; plentitude of the natural order and even the innocence of the natural order, with the exception that Dante comes and though he has been cleansed and gone through the wall of fire to further purify him, he is not the kind of new Adam. He carries with him the stains of experience and the stains of history, so there is desire that acts in him, but let me continue.
“A sweet air that was without change was striking on my brow with the force only of a gentle breeze, by which the fluttering bows all bent freely to the part where the holy mountain throws its first shadow, yet were not so much swayed from their erectness that the little birds in the tops did not still practice all their arts, but, singing, they greeted the morning hours with full gladness among the leaves, which kept such undertone to their rhymes as gathers from branch to branch in the pine wood of the Chiassi shore when Aeolus looses the Sirocco.”
The interesting thing which is some kind of — the poignancy of the autobiography and — is that Dante is imagining the Garden of Eden as the pine wood near Ravenna, which has completely disappeared since then, but you can imagine how he would take the morning walks in the pine trees around the city and on the way to the sea. And that, to him, was the garden: this mixture of the ordinary and the great sublime imagination. That’s what I’m — I think he wants to convey to us.
And now he continues, and I will ask you a question. I want you to think about what I’m going to ask you, because you’re expected to have a shock of recognition in the next three lines, and these are the lines in English. I’ll read them in Italian, another little homage to my friend, Professor Brooks:
And in English is: “Already my small steps had brought me so far within the ancient wood that I could not see the place where I had entered, and lo, my going farther was prevented by stream with which its little waves bent leftwards the grass that sprang on its bank.”
This is my question, what is this — what do these lines remind you of? They are meant to remind you of something. The very beginning of Inferno. Very good — which means that this is now really a new departure for him, which means that the Garden of Eden is exactly the wilderness that we saw — that we left behind, seen from a different perspective, which means that the supernatural world is the natural world with a different — to a different lens and different perspective.
This is — and is now re-enacting exactly the drama of Inferno I; it’s no shipwreck. The mountain has been climbed. Remember that he tried to climb the mountain? The mountain has been climbed. A new departure is going to take place. Here we go then with this idea of the — that’s what I mean the anti-pastoral Dante: the poet who dismisses and refuses, and repudiates all the temptations of gardens, all the temptations of premature halting, premature self-enclosure into the fiction of gardens. So this is really the strongest element that I would have to point out about what’s happening in Canto XXVIII.
Now what does he see? “All the waters that are purest here would seem to have some defilement in them beside that, which conceals nothing, though it flows quite dark under the perpetual shade, which never lets sun or moon shine there. With feet I stopped and with eyes passed over beyond the streamlet to look at the great variety of fresh flowering boughs, and there appeared to me,” and the word, now, is really with a power and force of an apparition, another epiphany of beauty and love to him, “as appears of a sudden a thing that for wonder drives away every other thought, a lady all alone, who went singing and culling flower from flower from which all her way was painted.”
This is Matelda, as you have read, the woman who goes dancing, singing, and gathering flowers. A true picture a fascination, aesthetic fascination for him. To give you the sense of how some resonance — and in case you’re stilling for a term that — the final paper topic you might want to read — there is a poem — there is a traditional poetry which is really Provençal called pastourelle. The pastourelle was — a big practitioner is Dante here. That’s what he’s writing. It’s the idea of the knight who goes to the woods or the meadow and meets a young shepherdess — gets off — it’s very sensual, and woos — off the horse and woos this young woman and usually ends with a kind of pun on the promises of the ecstasies of paradise. So it’s an erotic kind of song. The other practitioner of this genre was Dante’s own friend, Guido Cavalcanti.
Dante is using the mode and really definitely taking his distance from him. There is — this is a love scene. There’s nothing of the overtones of violence — an erotic violence — that Guido Cavalcanti had celebrated in his own version of the pastourelle, a genre which is common to them.
This instead is what he says: “Pray, fair lady, who warmest thyself in love’s beam.” Now Dante has just come out of the circle of lust. He has been cleansing himself and yet, this is the lingering trace of his history, the lingering trace of his body, and his humanity. Here he goes through the Garden of Eden as a fallen man who is redeemed and not quite redeemed, certainly not in the restored or reinstated into the innocence of the pre-lapsarian garden.
“If I am to believe the looks which are wont to be testimony of the heart,’ I said to her, ‘may it please thee to come forward to this stream so near that I may hear what thou singest. Thou makest me recall where and what was Proserpina, at the time her mother,” Ceres, “lost her and she is praying.” That’s the first — there is a series of three mythological images, this is the first. I think of you as Proserpina, but it’s also a story of Proserpina, as you know. Well it’s stated in the text: the story of the young woman who is walking — picking flowers on the plains of Enna in Sicily and then death comes and takes her away. It’s a kind of death itself, loving human beings and taking them, that’s one myth.
The second one is “a lady turns in the dance with feet close together” and so on, and I skip a few lines: “And I do not believe such light shone from beneath the lids of Venus when, through strange mischance, she was pierced by her son.” The second image, I think, it’s more telling. It’s the story of Venus wounded by the arrows of Cupid and falling in love with Cupid. I think it’s more telling because it’s Dante’s way of casting, without going into psychoanalysis — a psychoanalytical explanation — that Dante is casting the Garden of Eden as also a desire to return to the state of infancy of the child with the mother, only to understand that this is really a fantasy that would lead him nowhere.
And in fact, the third image is that of an erotic image again, but one of distance. “Three paces the river kept us apart; the Hellespont where Xerxes passed, a bridle still on all men’s boasts, did bear more hatred from Leander for its swelling waters between Sestos and Abydos, than that from me because it did not open then.”
So, this barrier between Matelda and the pilgrim. Between Dante and the fantasy of what the Garden of Eden may be, the mother here is kept. And Dante has to continue. He goes on explain — she goes on explaining what this — how the mechanics, so to say, about the Garden of Eden and then the canto ends in — and I’ll look at this from lines 140 and following.
“Those,” line 140 and following, “Those who in old times sang of the age of gold and of its happy state, perhaps dreamed on Parnassus of this place; here the human root was innocent, here was lasting spring and every fruit, this is the nectar of which each tells. I turned then right round to my poets and saw that they had heard the last sentence with a smile. Then I brought my eyes back to the fair lady.”
From Dante’s point of view, the perplexity that he feels, is the perplexity of Virgil and the perplexity of Statius. They know no more than he does; he knows no more than they do. What is the other — the burden of this passage is that the — clearly Dante is alluding to the bucolic quality of this place, but it also suggests that in passing that the ancient — actually, he says that the ancient poets prefigured the Garden of Eden in the fabulous visions of the golden age and the Parnassus. He’s establishing a link between the poetic visions and this encounter that he has in the Garden of Eden, both projections of the poetic imagination. So it also means that the Garden of Eden can be like the bucolic fantasy of the poets and Parnassus.
Chapter 3. Canto XXX: Beatrice Arrives [00:25:52]
We skip XXIX which is the story of — really the world history here from — it’s an allegory that pageant of revelation and I will move to Canto XXX which will take us a little bit of time. This is the canto predictably where — since Beatrice is the one who is linked to the number three, this is the canto where Beatrice will arrive. And surprisingly, for those of you who are lovers of this open or hidden symmetry in the poem, Canto XXX of Paradise is also the canto where Beatrice will disappear. Her residence in the poem lasts for exactly XXXIII cantos. Clearly it’s sort of an accident: her name is three times the good; she’s in the Vita nuova as linked with three. It’s this kind of way of — the arcane significance of her presence in the pilgrim’s — in the lover’s life.
A canto that describes a double drama, the drama of Virgil’s disappearance and the arrival of Beatrice, a change of the guard as it were, in many ways, but you have two different moods. One of elegy for the loss of Virgil and the other one of sacred terror at the arrival of Beatrice. So it begins, he hears singing, line 70: Veni, sponsa de Libano, which, of course, is an echo from the Song of Songs. So the erotics of the previous canto continues now here. The Song of Songs is notoriously one of a sublime love poem. It continues here in Canto XXX in anticipation of the arrival of Beatrice.
“As the blessed shall rise at the last trump, each eager for his tomb, the reclad voice singing Hallelujah, there rose up on the divine chariot at the voice of so great an elder, a hundred ministers and messengers of eternal life, who all cried: ‘Benedictus qui venis.’”
This is now an allusion, as maybe your notes will tell you — should tell you — to the greetings of Jesus in the garden when he comes — I’m sorry — to Jerusalem and he says, ‘Benedictus qui venit,’ which means that Beatrice — it means a number of things. First of all, a typological connection between garden and city which we have already been seeing here. The garden is not opposed to the political, let’s say, to the city, it is the history and the garden come together in Dante’s imagination. But there is a further typology that Beatrice comes the way Jesus came into history. Beatrice will come into the soul of the lover. So that she is surrounded, she is wrapped in a kind of aura of Christological language and she will become, let’s say, grace; the way one can experience grace in the world through this kind of direct love onto oneself, so Latin again.
Then, a third image, and throwing flowers up around, “Manibus o date lilia plenis,” another three phrases in Latin. He will go on translating a fourth one. This is a more interesting image because it’s taken straight out of the Aeneid — of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid — so it’s already an homage to Virgil who is about to disappear.
Do you see how the dramas here are sort of interwoven? The idea of what the garden is and how is the garden related to oneself and to one’s history. The idea of — the arrival and the meaning of Beatrice into the life of the pilgrim and then also the loss of Virgil as a poet and whatever his vision may be. Whatever his vision may be is indicated by these fragments, the fragments refer to the premature death that Virgil celebrates in a very elegiac way in Book VI of the Aeneid where Aeneas has gone down into Hades in order to see the whole of history. This is the descent into the oracles’ father and to see Anchises, that it is the future that is going to derive and stem from him. And Anchises will point out to him the shade of a young man who sits on the side, his name is Marcellus, who will die too young and then he will add, “all throw lilies with open hands,” the lily being a funereal symbol like the chrysanthemums, for instance, or some such things in some cultures.
It’s an image of a premature death which clearly is linked also to Beatrice, but who died in a premature death, but also to Virgil, because it’s the anticipation of the loss of Virgil. It’s an elegiac way. It is as if Virgil’s vision was under the aegis of mortality and finitude, as if Virgil could never really be thought of as saved because his song is a song limited to the world of death.
Let’s see how this continues, “I once saw at the beginning of the day the eastern parts all rosy and the rest of the sky clear and beautiful and the sun’s face come forth shaded… ” etc. “… a lady appeared to me,” this is Beatrice, “girt with olive over a white veil.” Look at her elegance. Listen to how he describes the colors, the fashions. “Girt with olive over a white veil, clothed under a green mantle with the color of a living flame. And my spirit,” I call that the Italian flag by the way, the way she seems to be the red, white and green, “and my spirit, which now so long had not been overcome with awe, trembling in her presence, without having more knowledge by the eyes, through hidden virtue that came from her, felt old love’s great power.”
This is a rewriting of the poem of the autobiography of Dante that you remember, reading the Vita nuova. He’s experiencing the presence of Beatrice through exactly the kind of effects that she has over him: the courtly love, the sweet new style, the trembling, the inability to speak.
“As soon as the lofty virtue smote on my sight which already had pierced me before I was out of my boyhood, I turned to the left with the confidence of a little child that runs to his mother when he’s afraid or in distress, to say to Virgil: ‘Not a drop of blood is left in me that does not tremble. I know the marks of the ancient flame.”
He’s scared and turns to Virgil and is about to say, and will say the famous lines, “I know the marks of the ancient flame,” which is a translation of the words Dido will speak when she meets Aeneas in Hades: “I know the marks of the ancient flame,” another image of death and mortality taken from the Aeneid. Dante’s linking Virgil with that kind of metaphor and that sort of limitation of passion.
“But Virgil had left us bereft of him, Virgil sweetest father, Virgil to whom I gave myself for my salvation, nor did all the ancient mother lost avail my cheeks washed with dew that they should not be stained again with tears.”
These are Beatrice’s first words: “Dante, because Virgil leaves thee weep not, weep not yet, for thou must weep for another sword.’ Like an admiral who goes to poop and prow to see the men that serve on the other ships and to hearten them in their work, so on the left side of the car — when I turned at the sound of my name, which is noted here of necessity — I saw the lady who first appeared to me veiled under the angelic festival direct her eyes on me beyond the stream. Already the veil that fell from her head, and circled with Minerva’s leaves, did not let her be plainly seen, royally, still stern in her bearing, she continued like one who while he speaks holds back his hottest words: ‘Look at me well; I am, I am indeed Beatrice. How durst thou approach the mountain? Didst thou not know that here man is happy?”
Well a number of things here — Virgil has disappeared. Dante now is alone, so that’s what I call the self-confrontation with his past. Who is Beatrice? How am I going to account for my failings to Beatrice? What is she going to expect of me? She’s harsh, the harsh language of love, to the point if I may be a little bit too — without really lessening the intensity of this passage, this passage is pretty intense, but I feel that I have to tell you a little — to distract you a little bit for ten seconds. Borges has written about this passage, a beautiful essay on this scene and he says, this is the only time that Dante really made a mistake. Because if Beatrice spoke to me the way he spoke — she spoke to Virgil — to Dante — I’m sorry — I would have said to her, look if that’s the way you feel I’m going to go right back and — but Dante won’t say that. This is a contemporary visionary like Borges, not Dante.
What we are told is that this is the first, and only, time in the poem that Dante’s name is heard. Dante. She will never call him Dante again and he has never been called Dante before. In other words, this the point where the poem, from the epic that it has been, the epic of desire, the epic of hope, the pilgrim, lost the longing and memory, between hope and memory, the poem of justice, now it becomes an autobiography. Now it is his own story. There is a shift in genre: from an epic story: from the loss of Virgil, the epic poet, to an autobiographical focus. Dante, this is you, the specificity and irreducibility of his own experience. Dante, she says, and he will add that his name is here registered out of necessity. And what is the necessity that he has?
What’s the necessity about speaking of oneself? Why would one go on speaking of oneself? One speaks of oneself because one wants to be exemplary to others. One believes that what one has experienced is crucial for somebody else’s self knowledge, somebody else’s experience or one wants to exempt vituperation from his own name. It’s — I’m paraphrasing Dante’s words, and the way he registers them in this philosophical text that he writes called, the Banquet, where he speaks of — about himself. And he says, there are two people who have spoken about themselves in exemplary ways. One is Augustine in the Confessions, a book that I have asked you repeatedly to read and I have read from, and the other one is Boethius that I have alluded to in The Consolation of Philosophy. The philosopher, who is in jail, seeks to find comfort to the imputations of criminal conduct laid on him, by thinking about philosophy and talking about himself, and whereas, Augustine, of course, is discussing his own conversion. The idea of the necessity is both — Dante is alluding to two autobiographical texts, both of which make it the — talking about oneself indeed, as he calls it, a necessity.
Chapter 4. Canto XXXI: The Confession [00:38:43]
So this now will continue with Canto XXX. The first thing that she will do — Beatrice will do — and we turn to Canto XXXI. There’s an account — and Canto XXX continues with the story of his failures when she died as told in the Vita nuova, he went on looking for someone who could replace Beatrice. And now Dante goes on asking — actually indulging in a confession, literally an Augustinian moment, another part of the autobiographical moment and a confessional form and this is — let me just read a few lines here, before we move on.
“Oh thou that art on that side of the sacred river,’ she began again, turning against me the point of her speech which even with the edge that seemed sharp to me and continuing without pause, ‘say, say if this is true; to such an accusation thy confession must needs be joined.’ My faculties were so confounded that my voice began and was spent before it was released from its organs. She forebore a little, then said, ‘What thinkest thou?” — A phrase that should remind you — I know that it’s too little and I will not too demanding, but it should remind you of the fact that this is Francesca’s, this is what Dante was asking Francesca in Canto 5. And now it’s Beatrice — the roles are inverted — who is asking Dante to resume as if it were that confession of a failing that Francesca had undergone in Canto V of Inferno.
“What thinkest thou? Answer me, for the sad memories are not yet destroyed in thee by the water.’ Confusion and fear mingled together drove forth from my mouth a Yes such that to hear it there was need of sight. As a crossbow shot with too great strain breaks the cord,” let me just go on. “After,” with line 36, “After heaving a bitter sigh, I had — I had hardly the voice to answer and the lips shaped it with difficulty; weeping, I said: ‘Present things with their false pleasure turned my steps as soon as your face was hid.”
The — he’s alluding, exactly as he did in the Vita nuova, to his change of heart as soon as Beatrice died, and now she continues. “And she: ‘Hadst thou kept silence or denied what thou confessest, thy fault would be not less plain, by such a judge as it known, but when from a man’s own cheek breaks forth condemnation of his sin, in our court the wheel turns back against the edge. Nevertheless, in order that thou mayst now bear the shame of thy wandering, and another time hearing the Sirens, be stronger, lay aside the sowing of tears, and hearken; so shalt thou hear how my buried flesh should have directed thee the other way. Never did nature or art set before thee beauty so great as the fair members,” etc.
The passage is extraordinary because it helps us to gloss retrospectively what was a fairly mysterious allegory in Purgatory. You remember, where Dante meets the siren, or dreams of the siren and then a lady appeared? The siren was an allegory of a temptation, an erotic temptation. Someone who wants to lure the pilgrim and promises happiness. Remember? I’m going to make you happy, you need to go nowhere else and now — and then there was also the appearance of a mysterious woman, an equally mysterious woman who manages to send away the siren. She wakes up the pilgrim and the journey there can continue. As you recall, we are saying, well we don’t know who this mysterious woman is, though there are a number of hints. I had read this part of the poem before you had, probably, and it’s Beatrice.
Beatrice was a kind of — an allegory of the confrontation of two women, the siren on the one hand, and on the other hand, this unknown, mysterious Beatrice. Now this scene just makes it clear, because what Beatrice says, you have to make a confession in case shame, “Now bear the shame of thy wanderings and another time, hearing the Sirens, be stronger, lay aside the sowing of tears and hearken; so shalt thou hear how my buried flesh,” and so on.
She is now glossing the scene of the siren that appeared in Canto XIX, but there is more to it. There is a little phrase that Dante’s using, or Beatrice is using for him: “another time,” when you hear the siren, which means that the siren is not just the encounter with the siren. It’s not just an event that happened in the past. It can happen all over again. “Another time.” In other words, it can still happen in the future, which means that Dante’s conversion, which is really what this poem has been telling us — especially now that it has reached this kind of autobiographical quality — is not over and done with, that it is a conversion. It has to be understood as an ongoing journey and that the future itself is fraught with temptations, just as much as it was fraught with temptations in the past.
What Dante is changing is the Augustinian idea of a conversion that takes place once and for all and is making — it is replacing that paradigm with a different paradigm, a paradigm of a conversion in its openness to time, with the idea that it is an ongoing process. You have — look what the poetic technique — as Dante is remembering a scene of the past and glossing that, the encounter, the temptation of the siren moved away, dispelled by the arrival of Beatrice. Now Beatrice is talking once again about the siren, “another time,” meaning, I know who she was in Canto XIX of — in the dream of Canto XIX — she may come back again.
In other words, once again, this is the anti-pastoral imagination of the poet. Do not believe that you can ever stop on the way. Do not ever believe that there are truths that are going to be unchallenged or untested in time. I think that this is a way of truly casting Dante for what he is; the poet of — open to the power of the future and drawn to the idea that the future is still part of his experience.
By the way, he goes on, which would really takes us — but that’s the essential point, “Truly that thou,” this is line 55, “thou oughtest, at the first shaft of deceptive things, to have risen up after me who was such no longer. No young girl or other vanity of such brief worth should have bent thy wings downward to await more shots. A young chick waits for two or three, but in vain is the net spread,” and so on. This is another, literally, the allusion to the poems that Dante wrote for what he called the pargoletta, the little — the young woman that Beatrice seems to be — remind him of.
Chapter 5. Canto XXXIII: The End of Purgatory [00:46:47]
Now we come to Canto XXXIII, the end of Purgatory — the end of Purgatory, where I really want to focus on one image and one image in particular, which is the image of a prophecy that Beatrice will make. Beatrice — we are at the end of time — Purgatory, and he goes on — I’m sorry, she goes on promising a deliverer who will come. The argument now is no longer about Dante himself; it’s an argument about history. Is there a deliverance for history? Is it possible for the whole human family to go back to a condition that, at least if not the Garden of Eden as such, from the point of view which we can see, at least the towers of the true city, that’s the way Dante calls it in the political tract Monarchia. He’s talking about a figure that may enter history — that will enter history at the end of time, that’s why I stress that dramatically the poem is literally poised at the outer edge of time.
There’s not time, when we are going to Paradise once again, so let me tell you what this — and we’ll try to explain it for you, lines 30 and following: “And she said to me: ‘From fear and shame I would have thee free thyself henceforth, that thou mayst no longer speak like one that dreams. Know that the vessel,” she is tough. The way she is attacking him, she will be the teacher from now on, “Know that the vessel the serpent broke was and is not, but let him that has the blame be assured that God’s vengeance fears no sop. Not for all the time shall the eagle,” probably the eagle of the empire, “be without heir that left its feathers on the car so that it became monster, and then prey; for I see assuredly, and therefore tell of it, stars already near, to give us the time, secure from all check and hindrance, when a five hundred, ten and five, one sent from God, shall slay the thievish woman and the giant who sins with her. And perhaps my dark tale, like Themis and the Sphinx, persuades thee less because, in their fashion, it clouds thy mind; but soon the facts shall be the Naiads that will solve this hard enigma without loss of flocks and corn.”
She delivers an enigma — an enigmatic prophecy. Enigma is a word that obviously means mystery, but it’s also linked to allegory. You talk about irony, allegory; they’re all tropes that grammarians place under the same general subdivision. It’s an enigma. It’s mysterious. It’s not quite clear, and the lack of clarity only adds, I think, to the fear and the speculations of course about what this is. It’s a numerical symbol, which he says, it’s a five hundred, ten and five. That’s the way it’s written, five hundred, ten and five: DXV. And you do know that numbers — we have been talking a little bit about this, numbers viewed as containing medieval numerical symbolism views numbers as containing the essence of the secret actually of creation. They would go writing — this is Isidore of Seville, goes on writing, take the number away from things and things will perish, will fall apart.
It’s a Pythagorean idea, what keeps all things together is just a sense of — call it musical rhythmic numerical ordering. Of course, there are — a great other number that maybe everybody knows is 666, which is the number of anti-Christ. Dante’s writing a five hundred, one, and five — what on earth could it be? Oh the speculations I could — they’re hilarious, some of the spec — what they could mean. There are those who believe, well it really refers to the year 1315. We have no reason to believe that is the case, because it’s 800, the year of Charlemagne’s declaring the Holy Roman Empire and 515 gives you 1315. So Dante’s really thinking about an imminent event in his own time. There’s nothing in the text that would allow us to see this and allow us to make it credible.
So what is it? Actually, it was found that the way — the best way to describe it is really in — written in DXV in five hundred, ten, and five that this is — the best way to try to make any sense of this prophecy and of course, another hilarious interpretation that I just regale to you for your own temporary relaxation this was immediately — became the D V X. Between 1923 and 1943, this was a prophecy of Mussolini, of all people, who would come and deliver the world. Another ridiculous — of course — interpretation.
But it was found by some very good — by two, simultaneously, it’s amazing — by two historians, one actually a historian and one a literary historian, and therefore they took two different views, that in the medieval illustrations, there is a moment — By the way, let me just preamble this, they found it in medieval illustrations of the mass. There’s a moment in the mass, where there’s a so-called antiphonal prayer, the idea that Christ is coming sacramentally and they have ‘it is truly right and just’ and in Latin veridignum et justus est, and it’s always written like this and they explain V and X, a cross that joins the human and the divine. So that really the prayer, or the enigma of Beatrice, is for the apocalyptic end of time. The time when Christ will return to the earth, the first time he came, first of all, as a human being five, ten and five hundred. The second time he will come first in his divinity so five hundred, ten and five: the divinity and the humanity second, the second element. The two, humanity and divinity join together by the X of the cross. A great discovery, a number of infinite problems that I have. I hope I have — let me — bear with me for a couple of minutes so that I can tell you more about this.
If this is an apocalyptic symbol, that is to say, you understand what we mean by an apocalyptic symbol, apocalyptic prophecy, that for prophecy apocalypse means for visionary coming from the Apocalypse of St. John, and implying that Dante believes in some kind of imminent end of time. History is coming to an end. If he believed in this, and this is to be understood as an apocalyptic symbol of an imminent end of time, this would make Dante what is called a Joachist, and I have to explain to you who this man is.
There’s a man by the name of Joachim of Flora who was — and we’ll see him in Paradise, Joachim of Flora, who had a theory of history in a kind of tripartite structure, Joachim of Flora. The idea is that history is patterned on the Trinity, so there is an age of the father which roughly goes from creation to the time of the biblical patriarchs. Then there is the age of the son that goes from the time of the incarnation to roughly 1260, his own time. This is Joachim of Flora and then there’s in the age of the spirit, that goes from the time of 1260 — with thanks to the fraternal orders, all structures and all institutions will disappear and mankind will experience a time of brotherhood and chastity. There will be no marriages, there will be no state, there will be nothing, and I say California is already anticipated and seen by this great figure of Joachim of Flora.
If Dante were a Joachist that would create a number of problems, because what I have just been describing to you was viewed as a most heretical theory of history. Why was it heretical? Because, in effect, Joachim of Flora was, with this theory of an age of the father, the age of the son, and the age of the spirit — was in effect undoing the unity of the Trinity. That is to say, the Trinity is no longer simultaneously together. He’s dividing the Trinity into three distinct parts, and no less a great theologian of Dante’s own time, and whom Dante will encounter very soon in Paradise, and they are going to discuss Joachim of Flora together, Bonaventure, will go really writing a piece in order to declare Joachim of Flora heretical. So if this a very powerful explanation that Dante’s really alluding to the second coming at the end of time, the DXV, when Christ will return to earth to restore the Messianic advent, to restore justice to the world, and it will come first of all in glory of the divinity first and the humanity second, both joined by the cross, the humanity and the divinity together. Then and — if there’s not enough — is he an apocalyptic writer?
I doubt that he is an apocalyptic writer, because there’s no poet I know, and I think we have given plenty of evidence of this over the last two months, who cares more about the institutions, who believes that the institutions are history. And of course he attacks them in the measuring in which he thinks that they have to be revitalized, refreshed, and improved. You cannot go on attacking the institutions from — without really believing in their vital importance in history. He talks about the Empire, he talks about the Church, he talks about law, he talks about family, etc. They’re all institutions that preserve their enduring importance.
If he’s not an apocalyptic writer, what is he then? I think that this is an allusion to the coming of — the second coming, but without — removing all of the Joachist paraphernalia that accompanied that prophecy. This is indeed the time. It doesn’t refer to the now of history, it refers to a time that nobody can really fathom and nobody can really know. So I’m giving — I have given you a reading of this passage and given you a glimpse of the logical complications that usually accompany what it would seem to be such a neat discovery or a neat glossing of an image.
Of course with this prophecy the poem will come to an end, and the poem comes to an end with Dante, who goes — and I will talk about this image again — who has to be ritually immersed. He will be immersed into two rivers. The river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and the river Eunoe, the river of good memories. It’s a ritual — this is toward the end of Canto XXXIII — that reminds you of the ritual actions at the beginning of Canto I, where Dante washes his face and has to gird his loins with — you remember with the reed that was growing spontaneously on the shore of the sea.
What Dante goes on saying is the two rivers, Lethe and Eunoe, derive — flow out of the same source. And then he says, like two lazy friends, friends who are fond of each other, they go on departing lazily. That’s the image that he uses. What is interesting is that he’s thinking of memory and forgetfulness, the Lethe and Eunoe, as entailing each other, so that there’s no erasure which is not at the same time a memory, that each contains the other and Dante will go — has a lot to say about forgetful memory, especially in the way the poem will be written.
Finally, with a line, the whole poem ends with — the whole of Purgatorio ends with a line that obviously reminds you of the very end Inferno, “From the most holy waters,” this is Canto XXXIII, “I came forth again remade, even as new plants,” the very language of the beginning of Purgatorio, “renewed with new leaves, pure and ready to mount to the stars.” Dante once again now is at the top of Purgatory and he will fly next, like lightening, onto the Moon and we shall see him in this kind of planetary epic, cosmological epic that we’ll start on next time.
Chapter 6. Question and Answer [01:01:05]
Now I’m sure you have questions and we are doing okay with timing, so please shoot. Yes.
Student: You mentioned a transition from the ethical in Purgatory to the aesthetic in Paradise. Could you just expand [inaudible]?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Very good question. The question is — that I spoke about in Canto XXX of Purgatorio, I spoke about the transition, formal transition from the structure of the epic with Virgil, the poet of the epic, and then moving onto — in effect I spoke of the autobiographical, first of all where Beatrice refers to — calls Dante by name. So it’s his story, Dante, don’t cry because Virgil has disappeared, I’m going to give you a chance to cry for other reasons and then goes on into a confession, which is an Augustinian poem.
But also it’s true, I mentioned there is a transition to — I mean, I did say that in Paradise is the world of aesthetics where the ethical ordering is liquidated in a certain sense. So the question is, how does this respond to the whole arc of the poem? What kind of — what am I really saying about the whole experience of the poem to make the aesthetic essential for knowledge, if that’s the argument? That is true. I really welcome this question because that’s the way I’m reading poetry, as if poetry were a way of knowing. I keep saying this, that it’s really a way of knowing from that point of view, a philosophical kind of poetry, realizing and keeping in mind that there are always distinctions and ongoing quarrels between poetry and philosophy.
Paradiso is — like any true ethics, this is a general pronouncement, Dante doesn’t make it, but it’s a kind of premise to what I’ll be saying later. Any true ethics can only be successful in the measure in which it stops operating. That’s when the ethics is really — you can say that it has done its job as it were. So we enter a world where now is the world of Paradise and Dante goes on representing this world. He’ll never forget the earth. I have to qualify that, even in Paradise, he’s going to look at the earth. He celebrates the greatest aspects of human life: work, love, things that join — joy — the community together. He will see also the distortions that are going on — where they are the — in the Empire, in the political life or in the life of the Church. Every time that there is a retrospective look, there is a kind of dismay that he will feel.
So there is all of that, but the emphasis is on the world of Paradise: it’s about dance, it’s about songs, it’s about love, it’s about stars wooing each other, it’s about spectacular mise en scène, the pyrotechnics of — it’s about different forms of light. What is this about? Exactly what I call the aesthetic experience; these are all poetic artistic experiences. The first thing we are to keep in mind is Dante really thinks of a theology that is really like poetry: a theology that is like poetry, in the sense that both are part of — or if you wish an even — won’t even call it theology. Let me call it — finish that sentence — theology which is like poetry in the sense that it’s a playful theology, a way of understanding that the essence of God now can be seen in his comical figuration. A God who is the artist, a God who thinks that this the way in which human beings were supposed — were first created in the Garden of Eden, where we are really in a garden, meant to play, and that’s where we are going back too. It’s a way of casting the divinity in the most — as beauty, a beauty that also encompasses the good.
Beyond that, beyond this playful or ludic theology, this idea of an aesthetic theology, there is something else that Dante is saying about the proximity between the poetic and the religious. It’s not a connection that is usually made because we tend to believe that the poetic is just the world of deceptions, make believe. In fact, it’s both, the poetic and the religious, and we can say that even about the philosophical if you wish, they respond to profound impulses within us. They are emotions that we have. You see beauty and you tremble in the presence of beauty, whether it’s a human beauty, it’s natural beauty, or artistic beauty. Whatever it is that we’re encountering there is something that responds in us and the same thing about the idea of awe, and the idea of discovery of sense of the sublime, whenever you have what we call a religious experience. The two are not neatly separated; this is what drives the poet in the journey of Paradise. This is where the actual source of his inspiration, that’s the novelty that Dante represents and which probably some Romantic poets much later — I’m talking about the nineteenth century have been trying to restore or grasp, or understand. You do have that in Dante.
Do you have it for instance in the Bible? I dare say you do, because whenever we think about — there are so many courses at Yale that used to be taught, I don’t look at the offerings anymore because I think I know them by heart, not for any other reason — but “the Bible as literature.” It is great, but the idea, the underlying idea is always that the Bible can only has to be read — novels — that’s all right, that’s very good but that’s not all. To say that, as I did, that the Song of Songs is a fantastic — I said it ten minutes ago, that the Song of Songs is a fantastic love poem. What I’m really saying is that the poetic is already in itself proximate to the religious, so that when we think about the Bible and literature we are already rephrasing another version of this problem which is that of — that Dante presents as the religious and the poetic in Paradise. I hope I’ve answered your question. Thank you.
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