ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 18 - Paradise XI, XII
Chapter 1. Additional Remarks on Canto X [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Last time we got into Canto X and I began with the Heaven of the Sun, and I began with the description of — Dante begins, we went over the phases of the canto. On the one hand the description of the Trinity of the inner life of the Trinity as a life of love, the breath and the father — love, the sun, the father bound by the breath of love as it were. Then Dante moves onto a description of the spectacle of the whole — this heaven and of this fragment of the cosmos by turning to us readers twice, asking us to look up. It is that by looking up we can see the givenness of creation, the fact that this has been given; it’s a gift to us. It’s also a way of — if it’s a gift, if there’s an economy, a feel economy in the cosmos, it’s a divine economy, it also means that somehow we cannot really claim to own it. That seems to be a natural consequence of something being a gift does not imply, does not entail necessarily ownership of this gift; it has been given and therefore we are invited to have an aesthetic admiration of it.
This kind of — this scene of the divine, even a kind of feel drama, a divine drama, a spectacle that unfolds ends — folds throughout the cosmos, ends with a description of the encyclopedia as I was describing it to you. That is to say with Aquinas who recounts the names and mentions one after the other, the twelve representatives of various disciplines. We talked a little bit about Solomon and the scandal that his inclusion here caused in Dante’s own time, since Dante is responding to a real crisis about unknowledge of the ultimate fate of Solomon, the wisest of all men. Was he saved or not on account of his weaknesses in terms of his, well his lechery?
Then the canto focuses on — ends really with Siger of Brabant who was a logician, a philosopher and Dante describes him really on the way to knowledge. He was a heretic, he was viewed of as a heretic. Dante dismisses that whole charge, and in many ways he represents therefore knowledge as — or the circle of knowledge as one made of contradictory voices, where those who had been blaming Siger of Brabant, such as Aquinas himself, now retract their positions; so the whole process of getting to know the world is one of errors and it’s one of retractions.
There are some interesting details that I could even — I think that I should even mention to you as we approach XI and XII. Siger is described as he’s absorbed in his grave thoughts. In Italian it is gravi pensieri, the word pensiero is, in English, is pensive. I think that that is such a remarkable word because it really means “to think” in Latin, and they always exploit this resonance of the verb — means to be at an impasse, to be suspended literally, so he’s suspended in thoughts as if the thoughts could not quite make him reach the threshold of the knowledge he wanted. At any rate, that’s the way Canto X — that’s the economy of Canto X.
Chapter 2. Franciscan and Dominican Saints [00:04:53]
I want to — since there are three cantos that go together to really — I ask you to turn to the end of Canto XII where Bonaventure, who is a Franciscan, you probably know what is meant by that. The Franciscan is one of the orders of Francis, just as Aquinas is Dominican. The Franciscans are those who believe in the priority of will and love in the act of knowledge. The Dominicans or neo-Aristotelians like Aquinas believe in the priority of the intellect in the apprehension of the world. The Dominicans were founded with the explicit mandate to teach in the universities where heresies they thought abounded and therefore they had to extirpate, block off the routes of heresies. The Franciscans were going to be witnessing in the world, and both orders are shaped by a belief in poverty that we have to examine a little bit. We have to understand what it means.
At any rate, Bonaventure is a Franciscan and by the end of Canto XII, after he has been chronicling the life of Dominic. This is sort of another case of extraordinary openness of, in Dante’s view, of these characters in the sense that the Franciscans and Dominicans were really at odds with each other, both in terms of their theologies and their premises, intellectual premises above all. Here, Dante has a Franciscan tell the life of Dominic just as earlier in Canto XI a Dominican, Aquinas, tells the life of Francis. The two cantos are controlled by what we call a chiasmus that’s — this is a chiasmus from the Greek word “chi,” a chiasmus, right? You have an intersection of voices, a sort of — a sense of the interdependence of the two perspectives.
I will say a little bit more about Bonaventure after I read this paragraph. This paragraph here, the last paragraph in Canto XII, lines 130 and following, sort of functions as a counterweight to the description of the encyclopedia that Aquinas had given at the end of Canto X and ending with Siger of Brabant so let me just see who the people are here. “I am the living soul of Bonaventura of Bagnorea, who in great offices ever put last the left-hand care. Here are Illuminato and Augustine, who were among the first barefoot Poor Brothers that in the cord made themselves God’s friends.” Then a theorist of medieval encyclopedias, Hugh of St. Victor, a Parisian friar who really wrote the so called Didascalicon, which is a text about what is — what are the stages of education? How does the mind come to the knowledge of God starting from the small elements in the outside life, the material world, then the interior lights, etc., before reaching the — God’s supreme light?
Then is here with them Peter the bookworm, Peter the Spaniard, another theorist of medieval logic who shines below in twelve books, then Nathan the prophet — I’ll come back to this name, the prophet Nathan. He is known, to those who know, as being David’s bad conscience, or good conscience, the one who is pricking him to think about himself. Nathan, the prophet sensor counselor of the King, a little bit more about him in a while and Chrysostom, the Metropolitan, meaning that guy with the golden mouth. Language here is the flower of eloquence is what he possesses. And Anselm, another theologian who writes about the reasons for the incarnations, famous texts about why did God become a man and then Donatus “who deigned to set his hand to the first art; grammar. So you see you have the whole array, the whole wide spectrum of what we call the encyclopedia. Logic, eloquence, grammar, Donatus is a Roman grammarian, and then Rabanus a historian, “and beside me shines the Calabrian Abbot Joachim, who was endowed with a spirit of prophecy. The glowing courtesy and well-judged language of Brother Thomas have moved me to celebrate so great a paladin, and with me have moved this company.” Bonaventure ends with the tip of the hat in the direction of Aquinas whose example he has followed. An example, once again, of a dialogue and openness between the two orders and the two members of different orders and yet — and somehow interdependent with each other.
Now the presence of Abbot Joachim is another counterweight to Siger of Brabant in Canto X. He too, Joachim, whom you have met because I sort of mentioned his name to you in discussing the prophecy — glossing the prophecy of the DXV in Purgatorio XXXIII. You remember where I tried to explain it; there seems to be a kind of apocalyptic meaning to that prophecy, the numerical enigma, an enigmatic prophecy about the coming of Christ at the end of time, who will come and therefore the prophecy of the consummation of history, and the consummation of time, the DXV, the 500, 10, and 5 as that is called. And I said that the joachistic interpretation of that emblem, of that symbol seemed to me to be accurate. I really meant, it really sort of introduces the idea of the end of time, however, I rejected — I asked you to also reject the implications of that prophecy.
The joachistic prophecy — it was viewed as heretical for a number of important reasons. It expresses a sort of impatience about history. That is to say it really believes, first of all, in the imminent and closure of history, the end is close at hand, and this is a kind of — the end of history implies the coming into being of a utopia, a utopia of the spirit, the third age of the spirit, when finally all institutions, all barriers are shattered and torn down. This is a kind of — this is really what — from Dante’s point of view would be wrong with a joachistic utopian impulse. The idea that it always begs for a closure of what we can never really fathom, which is the world of historical occurrences, but another reason why he was viewed as heretical by exactly Bonaventure, it was Bonaventure who asked that his views be damned and now he is sort of writing a palinode. Dante allows him to make amends for the previous condemnation.
Bonaventure found objectionable the ideas of Joachim of Flora because Joachim de facto is dissolving the whole notion of the unity of the Trinitarian life. He theorizes an idea of history, a tripartite idea of history according to the three persons of the Trinity: the age of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He believes there was once, in biblical times, there was the age of the Father, God was understood as the Father. Then we enter the age of the Son, brotherhoods of all, and now the spiritual age of the Holy Spirit. De facto really means that the three ways — the three manifestations, this kind of complex way of understanding a unity from different viewpoints is actually dissolved.
It becomes separate, each person of the Trinity becomes a separate entity, and that view from — for Bonaventure was heretical, he condemns it, now he acknowledges that he actually was Abbot Joachim who was endowed with a spiritual prophecy. It is something only prophetic, in other words, what seemed to here heresy, an intellectual question of thoughts and opinions now appears as some divination about things to come, not specified any further. Retrospectively, it’s Dante himself who is legitimizing Joachim and therefore also legitimizing his own position in Canto XXXIII of Purgatorio. Dante shares the view of the apocalyptic denuma of history, however, he refuses, he rejects the idea that it’s possible to establish a date for such an occurrence. Joachim appears now as a visionary among them.
The other figure that I would like to say something about is Nathan the prophet for a very simple reason, because Nathan as you probably know — because it’s very strange, why would Dante include Nathan a prophet among — there’s Joachim of Flora who is prophetic, but why include Nathan among these wise spirits? I mean, he could have chosen so many others. He could have chosen those who actually have written and whose works are canonical in the Bible. He doesn’t. He chooses Nathan and the idea is, I think, a little bit of an autobiographical, a pun about Dante himself, because Nathan, the word Nathan means “he who gives.” In other words, Dante saw in the name of Nathan his own name, and it pleases him, that’s what Dante means, he who gives. Nathan becomes a kind of mask for Dante himself. It is as if he were saying, had I another life or a posthumous life in the heavenly apotheosis that’s where I probably would like — that’s where I probably will end up, certainly that’s what I would like to be, so in Nathan there is a mask for himself.
Now why — what is this so peculiar about this encyclopedic ordering of the arts and the sciences? It doesn’t really differ very much from Aquinas, but it’s interesting that it’s Bonaventure who articulates, who voices this kind of — who celebrates all these names and all these arts because Bonaventure is himself a theorist of the encyclopedia very much as Hugh of St. Victor, but he has one crucial reflection at the beginning of his encyclopedia. He says that the activity of knowing and learning is like going up and down a ladder. You might say, if you read that metaphor, you might say well that’s an extraordinary metaphor but it’s the metaphor of the ladder of Jacob in the Bible, which is where he probably found it. The ladder of Plato, that’s where this idea that we ascend, the mind ascends when we learn something, when we get educated the mind goes up and it actually can go down.
The interesting thing about Bonaventure is that he goes on saying that as in a ladder the lowest rung are always more important than the higher ones, because without those no one of us would be capable to climb up the ladder, so the lowest, the lowly forms of knowledge, grammar — the external lights of the senses you see distinguishes — his is a theory of knowledge as a proliferation of lights, as a universe of lights, internal, external lights, internal lights, the lights of the senses, the lights that come to us from books and the light of God and so on. So we are always going to be enlightened in our process, but as we are enlightened the lowest lights are, first of all, self-sufficient. There are those who may not be capable of ascending much higher in the — along the ladder than the first few rungs. There is already a self-sufficient knowledge that they can acquire. The arts of — to him the arts of poetry that’s the lowest rung and yet that is its own self sufficiency and then you can go up the ladder and really learn more — but the interesting thing about the ladder is that there is no sense, though it establishes a hierarchy, in that hierarchy the lower elements are as crucial as the higher elements, because without the lower rungs you never really can go up to the end.
So this is another image then of the — finally let me just say with the Joachim, the inclusion of Joachim, here we are getting into the erasure of strict barriers, strict boundaries between what is heretical and what is canonical. I think this is the sort of openness, Dante’s openness that somehow reverberates with the lesson of Francis and Dominic, and therefore now, let me turn to those two cantos. Keep in mind then as we read Canto XI, we are again — I repeat in the Heaven of the Sun and I don’t know that the passage that I read to you from the pseudo Dionysus last time about the divine names where the pseudo Dionysus goes on talking about why is the metaphor of the sun such a fundamental image for the divine generosity.
This is as an image of the sun that always gives of itself without ever asking anything back so it’s an activity of purely — pure generosity and I think that’s a Franciscan image of — also of poverty to which I will talk about in a moment. The Canto XI, I repeat, ends with the extraordinary encomium of Siger of Brabant; by a counterpoint Canto XI has an apostrophe against logical, legal forms of knowledge. The kind of knowledge that tries to define the world in formulas and so Dante begins — this is Dante speaking on his own — in his own voice, “Oh insensate care of mortals, how vain are the reasonings that make thee beat thy wings in downward flight! One was going after law, another after the Aphorisms, one following the priesthood and another seeking to rule by force or craft, one set on robbery and another on affairs of state, one labouring in the toils of fleshly delights, and another given up to idleness; while I, set free from all these things, was high in heaven with Beatrice, received thus gloriously.”
Chapter 3. Canto XI: Counterpoints; Orientation [00:21:40]
I think it’s an interesting counterpoint between these icons of power that derive from the study of low and logic, and then on the other hand, this — Dante’s own self reference to himself as free from all of these concerns. I think this idea of freedom will be the dominant theme of Canto XI. Who — it continues then, “When each had come back to the point of the circle where it was before,” the two wheels of dancing old men, holding their hands around the sun, which is a metaphorical sun — so that the universe is not even — is not heliocentric. Dante’s universe — they’re going to move now beyond the sun, “is stopped like a candle on its stand.” And then there is a little prayer here and the introduction of the two, Dominic and Francis, lines 30 and following: “The Providence that rules the world with that counsel in which every created site is vanquished before it reaches the bottom- in order that the bride of Him who, with loud cries, wedded her with His sacred blood should go to her Beloved secure in herself and faithfuller to Him- ordained for her behoof two princes to be her guides on this side and that. The one was all seraphic in ardour,” and that’s Francis, “the other, for wisdom, was on earth a splendour of cherubic light. I shall tell of the one, since to praise one, whichever we take, is to speak of both; for the labours where to one end.”
That’s really the formula that seals the sense of the interdependence of intellect and will of love and knowledge and of the two voices. Now this is the — what we call a hagiography or a legend, the life of a saint, a saint’s life of Francis, which is told by Aquinas, by the Dominican Aquinas. What we are told is, first of all — “Between the Topino and the water that falls from the hill chosen by the blessed Ubaldo hangs a fertile slope of the lofty mountain from which Perugia feels cold and heat at Porta Sole, and behind it Nocera and Gualdo grieve under a heavy yoke.” It’s an extraordinarily localized representation of Francis’ origin. It’s a topography, he was born as you know in Assisi, but it’s almost as if he were just placing him in a specific place, near the gate that leads — on the road to Perugia; very precise and it’s called Porta Sole, more about this in a moment.
“From this slope, where it most breaks its steepness, a sun,” now we go from the toponymic, the name of a place, the gate of the sun — -to a metaphor for Francis as the sun. He is the sun, so we are in the Heaven of the Sun and now Dante invests Francis with all the attributes of this solarity, this continuous, steady giving of oneself as the sun does in the Neo-platonic imagery, the mystical neo-Platonic imagery of the pseudo Dionysus. A sun rose on the world as this does sometimes from the Ganges. As soon as we — Dante has mentioned the specific place for Francis’ birth, then the coordinates of — the geographic coordinates completely change. We go from the specific and local to literally the global, the world of the Ganges, the Orient, something a little vaster. As if the sun, Francis really acts between the concrete and local, and the widest possible reference.
“Therefore let him who makes mention of that place not say Ascesi,” which means I rise, but it’s punning with Assisi, “for he would say too little, but Orient, if he would name it rightly.” It’s an extraordinary image and two astronomical terms, the sun and the Orient for Francis. Francis appears as — not just as the sun does, as one who can — and I’m playing with the text here a little bit but not much — one who orients us, one who is supposed to orient and re-orient us is born in Assisi and yet disappears as if it were the East. What were his — What Dante is implying, I think, is that for those who go on the face of the earth and lose their ways then Francis becomes one who can tell them how to find their way back wherever they are going. For those who do not know their way at all, have never known the way, they are capable of discovering it.
He is providing this light, so what is this light that he provides? What kind of light does he bring out? “He was not yet far from his rising,” the metaphorics of the sun continues, “when he began to make the earth feel some strengthening from his mighty influence; for,” and now he gives the story of Francis’ life. Before I go there I just want to tell you that Dante — and I brought a translation of a poem that Dante knew that Francis is an extraordinary — is a great poet. He’s actually — we consider him the first poet in Italian, in the Italian language. I Just want to read a few stanzas from the so called Canticle of Brother Sun so that you can see how Dante’s own metaphorics derive straight out of this Franciscan vision, Franciscan spirituality.
He begins, “Most high,” it’s a prayer, a Canticle of Brother Sun, “all powerful good Lord! Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing. To you alone most high do they belong, and no man is worthy to mention your name. Praise be you my Lord with all your creatures, especially Brother Sun who is the day and through whom you give us light, and it’s beautiful and radiant with great splendor and bears a likeness of you most High One. Praise be you my Lord through Sister Moon and the stars. In heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful, praised be you my Lord through Brother Wind.”
He goes through all the four elements and part of the suggestiveness of this poem is that it’s a song of praise to God, clearly enough, but it is also — we never know if Francis is thinking of these elements: the sun, the moon, the wind, the water, death itself — as the medium through whom he can praise, or the cause on account of which he should praise, or the other agents; the Italian is very ambiguous. “Por,” for those of you who may know a little French or a little Spanish, for, by, through, this is — so there’s a kind of extraordinarily choir and orchestration. The other thing that I should mention is that finally we can understand the rhetoric of praise that is running through this poem, but we also saw as describing the rhetoric of praise in Dante’s Vita nuova when he finds out that the best way of writing about Beatrice is really to write praise poems, not actually — which he distinguishes from flattery but praise poems, the poems of praise means in many ways rejecting all sense of ownership.
Realizing that not — the fact that one may know, the world doesn’t mean that one owns it and also it means that not knowing Beatrice is not just a cover to wish to own her, so the praise is as disinterested and as free a mode of acknowledgement of Beatrice herself. Let’s see how this continues, this whole poetic vision of Francis continues with Canto XI.
Chapter 4. The Life of Francis [00:30:39]
Dante goes on giving us the life of Francis and he catches Francis in what is — in what I would call using the language of anthropology really, a liminal stage. You know what I mean by the liminal stage? The world liminal comes from — it’s the Latin threshold or comes from the Latin for limit, there are two words, in many ways very contradictory, but it has the power liman is one thing meaning threshold, but also the word might also be limit, so the threshold may be a limit and the threshold may also be an opportunity to cross, a way of going over. I call it — Dante doesn’t use here; he does use the word limit several times, not in this context. Dante places Francis in a liminal position that is to say, between and betweest two different orders.
On the one hand the world, and on the other hand, some kind of utopian idea that we never — which would be the order that he goes on to institute or some general vision about what the world ought to be. He places Francis in between neither part of the world, nor part of this final utopia and let’s see what he does in this liminal position. That’s where he catches him and look at these lines here, “Still a youth,” this is the biography of Francis modeled on a number of biographies that existed at the time. “For still a youth he ran into strife with his father, for a lady to whom as to death not willingly unlocks the door,” which is an extraordinarily difficult line to translate. The Italian really could be read to say unlocks the door of pleasure. “And before his spiritual court,” and now he uses a Latin phrase, which is a legal formula and has the value of a legal formula, coram patre, that is to say he marries this woman, we don’t know who she is yet, in the presence of his own father, thus giving legitimacy to his act, the act of marriage.
“Coram patre he was joined to her and thenceforth loved her better every day. She, bereft of her first husband,” Christ, “despised and obscure eleven hundred years and more, remained without a suitor till he came; nor did it avail when men heard that he who put all the world in fear found her unmoved, with Amyclas, at the sound of his voice; nor did it avail her to have such courage and constancy that, where Mary stayed below, she mounted on the cross with Christ. But, lest I proceed too darkly, take now Francis and Poverty for these lovers in all I have said. Their harmony and happy looks moved men to love and wonder and sweet contemplation and led them to holy thoughts, so that the venerable Bernard first went barefoot and ran after that great peace and, running, thought himself too slow. Oh wealth unknown and fruitful good!”
There is clearly a reversal, Francis marries poverty, and yet to have that marriage of Poverty we have to understand what — in a moment what that is. A lot of wealth, a lot of riches can be produced, a clear turning of whatever intentions he may have had and the consequences of that act of his. What is this representation of Francis? It’s, I think, in this liminal position, Francis is shown as he is turning upside down all the values that the world holds dear. He wants to marry nothing. Poverty, to marry Poverty is to marry nothing. You marry to be — you want to — you yoked yourself, you embrace owning nothing, but that marriage or that union appears as a sacramental act so he is making fun, he is parodying marriage. Just let me be a bit more — because I don’t want to imply at all any blasphemy here, but he’s parodying even the sacrament of marriage, he is marrying nothing.
It’s not a legal person, some age in Poverty, it’s just an idealization or an allegory for nothing, but that is conducted, that ceremony, is conducted as if it were a sacramental act. Not only a sacramental act, he’s parodying the law, because he’s marrying Poverty in the presence of his own father. He undress — he divests himself of all the clothes, which in the Middle Ages, as much as now, always stands for some form of symbolic status. The way you dress according to the job you want, they usually say, right? That is to say — what I mean to say is that dresses, clothes are part of a social set of values which Francis is flouting and parodying. We have — we are in the presence of the parody of legal language, sacramental language, even the language of love. At one point, the language of sexuality, the idea of marrying Poverty to — does not — I changed the translation of the phrase the way Sinclair, because it’s a little bit torturous even in Italian, the way Sinclair has it — he says “none willingly unlocks the door,” that unwillingly is the door of pleasure. Even sexuality, which is certainly a value of the world, Francis will turn around.
This is a radical critique of the value system of the world. Call it a prophetic mode of abandoning the idols of the world in favor of some kind of utopia or unexpected or really not clarified, not very well described vision of how the world ought to be, but this is — he rejects all of this so “She, bereft of her first husband” — “coram patre he was joined to her, and thenceforth loved her better every day. She, bereft of her first husband, despised and obscure eleven hundred years and more, remained without a suitor till he came; nor did it avail when men heard that he who put all the world in fear found her unmoved, with Amyclas, at the sound of his voice; nor did it avail her to have such courage and constancy that, where Mary stayed below, she,” Poverty, “mounted on the cross with Christ.” She does something even better than what Mary does, “But lest I proceed too darkly, take now Francis and Poverty for these lovers in all I have said.”
“Their harmony and happy looks,” this is another parody of the language of the amorous discourse of medieval love poetry. They go on — he just — it’s a dalliance with nothing, so they have now finally an inclusion of an extraordinary non-value because that’s what poverty is, something that questions all values and it’s a Franciscan idea of poverty. What do they mean by that? What did Francis mean by this, by this idea of poverty, what is this poverty?
First of all, you know that this subject became part of an extensive iconographic representation. One can think of the Giotto frescos, the cycles of, Franciscan cycles in Assisi, but all over Tuscany and Umbria. It’s not only unique to Dante’s understanding, and Dante’s insight, it’s a sort of representation and fascination with Francis. Another little detail that I should tell you is that Francis, in Italian, is Franciscos, meaning that he is French, and there was the — like Francesca, the other Francesca, the other one who also understood a lot about love, but lost her way in Canto V. It really means free, the word in English, you have the word “frank” which in many ways carries over the resonance of the Latin word Franciscos.
Francis, true to his name, is now as being poor is absolutely free, there’s no bondage to anything. There’s nothing that holds him to anything in the world, so this is one important, let’s call it ethical extension of poverty. What did they mean? What did the other Franciscans, like Bonaventure, who was there listening to what Aquinas may say about the founder of his order, what did they understand by that? Remember we talked about — Dante certainly seems to have stressed the idea of poverty being poverty in a very material bodily way, corporeal, physical. In this sense, I call it prophetic in the sense that, as you know, what distinguishes the biblical prophets from other prophets is that they usually choose to bear on their flesh the signs that they utter against the world. If they want to speak about this infidelity of Israel they would marry a prostitute. If they want to denounce the dissidence, heresies, and lacerations within the body politic of Israel they would even go on cutting off an arm of theirs to dramatize on the flesh this idea of — these prophetic pronouncements that we’re making.
This is part of what Francis then is doing here, and this idea that he’s living — Poverty it’s not just an allegory as an allegorical representation, it is something lived in the flesh; the literal and the allegorical are now compressed, but there’s more, what did — what does, for instance, Bonaventure think of what poverty is? Dante, I repeat, thinks about the material idea of poverty, so a way of opposing avarice, a way of opposing prodigality, attachment or contempt for the values. We have seen all of that before, but poverty to them also means poverty of language. Francis, the first one to — I’ve articulated, even that poem of his; repetitive, the same simple formulaic expressions, praise be omnipotent it said, Oh Lord it said, repeated, it’s a poverty of language, the poverty of our thoughts, that which Dante at the beginning of Canto XI has been calling the “defective.”
Remember that is the word that I did not stress when we were, “insensate care of mortals, how vain are the reasonings.” How “defective” the Italian original says how “defective,” I hope some translators pick up “defective” and make it and say that it’s “defective” in the idea that they are lacking, that they have nothing of their own, so that retrospectively you can understand what I’m talking about that we cannot own the world, that this — the world is a world of gifts that the economies — an economy of giving, constant giving, because the more you give and the less you have of yourself, the more you are free and the more productive your own acts can become as were the case of Francis.
This is not all that Dante will do with Francis this is now — there is one little reference that I want to mention. This is around lines 102 or so, Francis will go on trying to have this — to receive a seal of approval from the popes about the fraternity, the order, the confraternity, whatever — that he organized “When the company of Poor Brothers increased behind him whose wondrous life were better sung in heaven’s glory, the holy purpose of this chief shepherd was encircled with a second crown by the Eternal Spirit through Honorius.” Honorius agrees — the Pope Honorius agrees to recognize this new order. Now listen to this, that’s really the point that I want to stop on for a while. “And when in thirst for martyrdom, he had preached Christ and them that followed Him in the proud presence of the Sultan, and, finding the people unripe for conversion and not being willing to remain for no purpose, he had returned to the harvest of the Italian fields, then, on the rough crag between Tiber and Arno, he received from Christ the last seal, which his members bore for two years.”
He’s alluding to the famous story of the stigmata that Francis received; the body becomes a sign. What I was trying to explain with the reference to the Hebrew prophets who dramatize their — and legitimize the validity of the message by an inscription of that message on the literal — the physicality of their own flesh and it’s — let’s leave at that. The point though, that Dante is making, this is the story of the stigmata, but it’s also the story of Francis who tries to go and preach to the Sultan. He fails on having the theological argument and the two — the Sultan and Francis depart, each along his way — on his way and that’s it. It’s a story of — that can be understood apparently as a failure of Francis’ message. At the same time, it is an extraordinary hermeneutical term that has taken place in Dante’s thinking. We have had, and we will have, celebrations of the crusades.
Now we have a story of an encounter between Christians and Muslims in terms of peaceful language, peaceful speech, where the two exponents, or — two of the exponents of the particular beliefs can come together and encounter, and they can discuss. The Sultan says no, for him we are not ripe, and for — the Sultan probably says, well I don’t think you know what you are talking about and they leave. This is an extraordinary change in the dissemination of violence that had been at the center of so much theological discourse and here Dante seems to be opting and following Francis on a different route. This is, I think, an important change in the consciousness, the historic understanding of the relationship between Christians and Muslims and their interpretations of the crusade.
There is a further detail that I want to mention here. The detail is this detail about two geographic coordinates in this canto. Now we have just read about Francis’ trip to Egypt and the Sultan. A little earlier Dante gives the — refers to the birthplace of Francis by talking about the Ganges. In other words Dante has — is aware that there is a European world that we talked about last time, but there are two other coordinates. One, a Hindu world of the Ganges and we shall see what the means for him, and the other one is the Muslim world of the Sultan. He’s acknowledging in many ways that which is — we probably may not be entirely familiar with this problem. He’s acknowledging that which the — someone like Bonaventure had been discussing.
In 1273, Bonaventure, the man that we shall see in the next canto, traveled to Paris to give a number of lectures at the University of Paris, he will die a year later in 1274, and they are called Conferences. A number of conferences in which he just debates the question of the relationship between what he calls these three cultures: Hindu, the Christian, and the Muslim, and tries to see in what way they can be harmonized. He connects, it’s Bonaventure, connects the Hindu religion with joachism, in the sense that the Joachim of the third age, not complicated at all, you remember that Joachim has this paradigm of history according to a tripartite structure: the age of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The third age, which is his own age, the age when Bonaventure lives, when Dante lives, is the age of the Spirit implies the elimination of all institutions.
The idea that the Spirit now is everywhere and there is no need for any hierarchy or any order. Bonaventure says this is exactly the world of the Hindus who believe that God is everywhere, and then he goes on talking about he, Bonaventure, talks about the Muslims for whose theologies are a theology of an impassable distance between God — a transcendence that nothing can really bridge between a God who remains invisible and the world of every man here. Of course for him, the mediation between the two is given by Christianity because with the idea of — there is a transcendence and at the same time an imminence of God in the transcendence of God. Dante is, I think, echoing this text and these problems in the canto of Francis, so he places Francis between the Ganges and Egypt, and places him as the one who is carving a new space, the space that he calls that of poverty meaning freedom, meaning the will, meaning the way of love as a way of coming to the knowledge of God.
Chapter 5. Canto XII: Life of Dominic [00:50:17]
Then I would like to move on to, very briefly, to Canto XII. Briefly, not because I am not — I’m insensitive to what Dante will do with Dominic in Canto XII, we really haven’t got time, but I want to mention to you a number of things. How the encounter with Bonaventure — I’m sorry the encounter with the description of Dominic told by Bonaventure really rewrites the previous canto. There, in the previous canto of Francis where the marriage, parodic, kind of anarchic idea of the valuelessness of all the worldly values. Here now, we have a different wedding, a different marriage between Dominic and faith; between knowledge and theology if you want to put it at a very generic and general level. Here too, there is the — let me just go over with lines 45, “In that part,” that’s the description of the legend of Dominic, the life of Dominic, “In that part where sweet Zephyr rises to open the new leaves in which Europe,” once again see how Dante’s — there is a kind of continental imagination here, the Asia, Africa, and Europe, the three continents “in which Europe sees herself reclad, not far from the beating of the waves behind which the sun, after his long flight, sometimes hides himself from all men, lies favoured Calahorra.”
You’ll love this detail; I know that — I can tell by the way the eyes of some of you smile when I point this thing. Dante is talking about the birthplace of Dominic and places that — which is where it was, in the western part of Spain, there were the sun sets. Dominic becomes the counter to Francis; he was born where the sun rises and now Dominic is within where the sun sets. So between the two of them the whole movement of the sun, the translatio, the translation of faith, not the translation of empires, not the translation of culture, the translation of faith seems to be encompassed between the two of them. That which will make you smile is that Dante mentions, and you can check, Francis’ birth in the East where the sun rises at line 50 of Canto XI, and he mentions the setting sun of Dominic in line 52 of Canto XII, as if there is a kind of — this is a kind of little touch, I think it’s — I find it a very amusing touch between them. To account for the difference in proximity between the two, as if this movement also has a kind of — the movement of the sun from east to west on account of them has its own quickness, its own rhythm.
“In it was born the loving liegeman of the Christian faith, the holy athlete, gracious to his own and pitiless to enemies; and his mind, as soon as it was created, was so full of living power that in his mother’s womb it made her prophetic. When the espousals between him and the faith were completed at the holy font,” here there is another marriage ceremony that counters the previous marriage ceremony of Canto XI. I want to draw your attention to the use of these playful images, the athletes of faith, the liegemen. In the previous canto, we had Francis, who I said, parodies all the values of the world. He is called — and that has really become a formula to describe both Francis — unless Dominic though, they are the so-called — I’ll give it to you in Latin and translate it. In English we would call them the “clowns of the lord,” lociulatories; they are the clowns, lociulatories domini. The “clowns of the Lord,” that is to say they are playing, they are playing at the world; they play with the world. They bring in what we would call a perspective of play in the world. They are making fun of the world, they are challenging the values of the world and in this sense they bring out that which becomes the most impressive aspect of their theology, which is that of a playful theology. We’ll talk more about this.
The notion that God plays, that creation itself is a spectacle, I call it a “theodrama,” the idea that God is not — it doesn’t deprive the Divinity of its seriousness but makes that seriousness part of the world of joy. That’s the whole — the aesthetics, the new aesthetics that Francis manages to release, and Dominic manages also to release, this kind of playful idea of the world, a comedy. I tried to explain to you from the very first day when we got together how complicated it was for me, at the time, to explain why Dante calls his text a comedy because this is so sublime. It seems to be — he’s talking about how the ordinary and plain man of the year, around the year 1300, manages to have the most sublime of experiences. And this idea — of course this is about the happy ending because comedies are always the genre of happy endings. It is about the low level of experiences, about the vulgar language that Dante uses, but the real and substantial reason for Dante calling his poem a comedy, and for the readers using the attribute of divine, was exactly — is exactly that; a way of responding to this sense of the joyful quality of creation, that’s the point.
For all the seriousness — for all the horror that we have been witnessing through Hell and Purgatory, joy seems to be, that we’re told which Dante is moving. Not a tragic vision because once you play of — once you think of play you can no longer have the tragic vision because you understand that the tragic vision is part of something larger. It is part — it is vicissitudes, comedies, and tragedies, elegies are all linked to the wheel of fortune in medieval iconography, so you keep going around but they’re all part of something really larger, which is this playful theology, this theologia ludic that he has been encompassing, that he has been preparing for us. Let me just go on with a few more details here, a couple of minutes and then — this relationship now of — the other issue that really and retrospectively, the other issue that Dante is raising, let me just talk about this.
In the canto of Dominic, much more than he did in the canto of Francis, this is really a unique moment. It is a representation in terms of language. It is as if whatever orthodoxy Dominic stands for, because that’s why the Dominicans — the Dominicans were the intellectual arm of the Church; they were, as I said, founded with a specific purpose of entering the universities and debating the various points of view. They were the Aristotelians, they were the poets, they were traditionally the troublemakers of — they were the figures, the philosophers and so on; especially in Paris, that’s the university. There was a — there is an idea of orthodoxy with Dominic and yet, here the whole representation takes place in terms of language. Let me give you a couple of examples around lines 80, “Many a time his nurse found him silent and awake on the ground,” this is part of this lodatio, this encomium now of Dominic, “as if he said ‘For this am I come’. O father of him, Felice,” Felix, “indeed! O mother of him, Giovanna indeed, if, interpreted, it means what they say!”
Dante is playing with etymologies here, the father is really happy; there is a relationship between the name and his state of mind. And the mother is, meaning the one who is full of grace Giovanna, the one who comes before is also, if you interpret it properly. That is to say, orthodoxy or heresy, being its flip side, right? Heresy and orthodoxy; we could have been talking about Siger of Brabant’s heresy, we’ve been talking about Joachim’s heresy, here appears as a question of language, as a question of an order that is above all a grammatical order, and therefore, it means a kind of correction or has a kind of ambiguity that you always assume, and you always presume, to be present within the order of language.
Anything, in fact retrospectively I can say to you, that even the schisms of Inferno, where we saw the poet Bertrand de Born, you remember that horrifying picture of the poet who holds in his own hand like a lamp his own head and goes on talking to Virgil and Dante. Or, in that same canto, there was the presence of Mohammed whose body seemed to be completely lacerated. Even the schisms are questions of language, are questions — Dante understands them as issues of language. Which does not — which only means this, to talk about language, I repeat, they are part of the imponderable quality of language, the ambiguities of language, the force of language, and the power of language.
Chapter 6. Question and Answer [01:01:24]
That’s what I can tell you about these cantos; and let me stop here and see if there are questions that I would most gladly hear, if not answer but — please.
Student: Would Dante have faced any threat from the Church for placing Joachim in Paradise as someone who —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is would Dante have faced some censorship, probably, from the Church authorities for placing Joachim in Paradise? Actually no, not at all, because the formula he uses — here comes the Calabrian Abbot Joachim endowed with the gift of prophecy more or less, that’s the translation. It translates a Latin formula, the spiritu prophetico totato, which was already used. He had been — Joachim had already been exempted of the censure of his thoughts that Bonaventure had voiced, and in the mass, in honor of Joachim they would use that formula. So he’s actually using a canonical formula, a church formula for his own, for Joachim’s own — never happened, he’s not a saint, never was a saint, but what Dante probably — that’s what he did is he should be canonized. No, but the answer is — ;and that’s the reason why he could not have faced any reprimands. Yes.
Student: You were talking about — with St. Francis and sort of how Poverty and St. Francis as a form of freedom. When he weds freedom he’s — or sorry, when he weds Poverty he becomes more free, can we link that to — or how can we link that, is my question, to Dante’s — his own poverty and exile; is that meant to be linked? Are we supposed to be thinking about Dante having to depend on, I guess, the charity of others?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Good question, the question is, I was talking about Poverty as being a state of freedom in the canto of Francis. Are we supposed to also associate Dante’s own fate of poor, exile, beggar that he was during his exile in that description. That’s the question. I would say yes, of course, the — Poverty I hope I explained means several things for Dante. Bonaventure will go on thinking about poverty of language, poverty of philosophy, etc., but all of them understand poverty in a very literal way, but all of them understand one thing that this kind of poverty is really a description of the human condition to begin with. We are all poor, that’s the primary sense. We are all born defective and in need, whatever needs were, some of us go on being needy, and we are, all our lives, so this is a general understanding of the idea of poverty.
Then there is a sort of — the other side of this, and the other side is that it’s actually a blessing because it’s the state of freedom. If this is really very much like what you expect to the philosophical freedom, you know, without any cares. Even Horace — I don’t want to have wealth and it’s not worrying about having the cares about how the stock market is doing today or not doing, so I want to be completely free of that and it’s a state of freedom. Is Dante also thinking about himself? Does it have a consolatory note for him to believe that after all I’m not alone? Yes, I would say that that’s the case. In his own life Dante, unlike Petrarch who really died — a poet who follows a few years after Dante, he really died one of the wealthiest men of his time by virtue of being a poet, a writer, and so on, Dante never got to that point.
Student: I mean, I’m wondering if we should take it literally as sort of feelings about Poverty or is it more like an idea like a sort of poetic escape into a perspective I guess that he had gotten in the perspective of Poverty.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Should we take it literally or just as a poetic way of speaking? I think that I answered that by saying — but I think you’re asking something else maybe, and then I’ll get to that since you are. I think I’m saying that this was really the reality of his life. A stand such as that is bound to appear maybe, well, you know, you need a little bit of comfort and consolation, and so you say it’s a poverty but it really has the chrism of Francis’ spirituality. I’m not trying to diminish Dante’s convictions. What I think you’re really asking is, I don’t know you’re really asking, I don’t know, but I know what you are asking — but there is another side to your question. Are you asking me whether or not he was a Franciscan, for instance, is that what you’re asking?
Because if you are that would be a very good question in the sense that there were a lot of ideas. We don’t have any evidence, but a lot of ideas that he became a member of the third order of the Franciscans, a lay order of the Franciscans, so that he practiced therefore, truly, literally in his own life, that which Francis himself had practiced and preached so maybe that’s what — probably if you weren’t asking that maybe you should have been asking that and I would have been — I would have said that. Other questions or — we have a few minutes so — yes.
Student: Is the story of the Sultan — supposed to revise our view of Dante’s relation — Dante’s view of Islam that we took away from the Inferno, from the encounter with Mohammad.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: That’s a very good question. Is the view of Francis going to the Sultan supposed — is it meant to revise the view that we may have formed of Dante’s attitude toward Islam reading Inferno XXVIII? I think so. My answer is that I — that’s why I was stressing this, that there is a sort of a radical turning that takes place in Francis, operates a change in the way that Christians and the Muslims can go on thinking of their encounter. It’s no longer through armies, if it’s through peaceful discourse. From this point of view, Francis carries on a tradition that started with Peter the Venerable, there were a few other theologians who had a kind of view that was not through wars that this kind of dialogue could take place, if war is a form of dialogue, I’m not sure of course.
Dante acknowledges that in Francis, and I think that he dramatizes it, just as he is dramatizing the sense of the awareness, which was very central to Bonaventure, of the relationship of the three, to him, the three religions: the Hindus, the Christians, and the Muslims. And retrospectively, it forced me to now say things about schism that I did not say when we were reading Canto XXVIII, that schism — we have a presence there of, you remember, all forms of schism; the religious schism with a friar who decides who is really a joachist, by the way, Dolcino. There was the poet who, by the power of his words, Bertrand de Born, the Provencal poet divides father from son, the king from the son, and therefore breaks the unity of the body politic, the idea that the king’s two bodies and the famous formula of the book of the great historian [inaudible] so that he broke that kind of unity. There is then an allusion to a story from Lucan, one of the soldiers Curio, who broke away from Pompeii and he had, from Caesar, and he had his own tongue cut off. It’s clear that schism is to be understood linguistically.
I am not revising my view but now I can tell you what I always thought was underlying the representation of even Islam, which means that even the interpretation of Mohammed in XXVIII, horrifying though as it is, it really appears as if Mohammed was the one who was doubling the existing unity — that’s it, through the power of speech, that’s the view. It’s a horrifying representation, that does not take anything away from that, but clearly you see that the — Dante’s understanding of these issues is a little bit more nuanced than it may at first sight appear. When we come later in the Heaven of Justice, and before we get to Heaven of Justice, Dante goes on talking about the warriors and he begins with Joshua, the hero who brings about the destruction of Jericho etc. By the end he also mentions the crusaders, so there is a kind of ambiguity that I would say that he still values what he thinks is the heroic life.
Nonetheless, after I say this, let me just state another point about Dante. That’s true, that clearly he’s talking from a Christina standpoint, there’s no question about this. But the underlying spirituality of Dante is what I call the “spirituality of the desert.” Dante’s truly the “poet of the desert” in the sense that in the desert you have modes of a quest that where everyone is really going, because wherever we are going, we are always going to the absolute. Whatever journey we may take it’s always the same journey and so the spirituality of the quest is sort of — I won’t say overhauls, but at least tempers this idea of Dante being so strict and firm in this universe of degrees and distinctions that he sets up. I don’t know if I clarified this for you, okay. Thank you so much.
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