ITAL 310: Dante in Translation

Lecture 19

 - Paradise XV, XVI, XVII


This lecture focuses on the cantos of Cacciaguida (Paradise XV-XVII). The pilgrim’s encounter with his great-great grandfather brings to the fore the relationship between history, self and exile. Through his ancestor’s mythology of their native Florence, Dante is shown to move from one historiographic mode to another, from the grandeur of epic to the localism of medieval chronicles. Underlying both is the understanding of history in terms of genealogy reinforced and reproved by Dante’s mythic references to fathers and sons, from Aeneas and Anchises to Phaeton and Apollo to Hippolytus and Theseus. The classical and medieval idea of the self’s relation to history in terms of the spatial continuity these genealogies provide is unsettled by Cacciaguida’s prophecy of Dante’s exile. The very premise of the poem’s composition, exile is redeemed as an alternative means of reentering the world of history.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Dante in Translation

ITAL 310 - Lecture 19 - Paradise XV, XVI, XVII

Chapter 1. Canto XV, XVI and XVII: Self and History [00:00:00]

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Last time we looked at the cantos of the sun, which is the canto of arithmetic and so — and we discussed actually the variety of philosophical strengths, theological and philosophical ideas that compose Dante’s circle of knowledge, this encyclopedic compass or what’s worth knowing.

Today, we move into the Heaven of Mars, which is as you know, the god of war, the name of the planet, and it’s the heaven of music. Dante links Mars and music because harmony, out of the belief that harmony is the meeting point or the result of discordant elements, a kind of concordia, a concord, an attuning of hearts reached through discordant elements. The discordant elements can be different sounds; it can be the passions within us that need tempering and so on. This canto is — can be read prophetably and you can do some of this on your own in conjunction — I will allude to it in passing — in conjunction with canto, for instance, XV of Hell; within XV, XVI, and XVII of Paradise. You could read it; XV was the encounter with Dante’s own ancestor Cacciaguida, and so inevitably the reference to Brunetto Lantini literally imposes itself on us, it compels us, we are compelled to draw parallels and see differences between the two ancestors who claim, make different claims on this descendant — intellectual and dynastic descendant — who is Dante himself.

You could also look at it from other, many other points of view. The point of view, for instance, of the other references to war and the kind of the clashing sounds throughout Inferno that Dante produces. If I were to give a title to my remarks today, which I really don’t because I think it’s the variety of suggestions coming from a canto takes over the desire to be too schematic and thematic, but if I were to give a title today I think it’s really very encompassing, I would call it “Self and History.” These seem to the most — the strongest questions that Dante raises. They’re not — the terms, the question self and history — the relationship between the two may be new to us here, but we certainly have been talking about history before. The last time we did was in the discussion of Canto VI of Paradise, where Dante gives — in the Heaven of Mercury — Dante gives this overall history of Rome, its humble beginnings and then the deconstruction of the empire and the crisis of the empire. So that’s really one thing that you know.

The issue of self in itself is something we have been discussing ever since we started the Vita nuova, with the idea of a lyrical self, of a self who removes himself, as you recall. That’s what we mean by a lyrical self, removes oneself from the world of history, the contingencies of time, the viscous realities of the city, and takes shelter in the chamber of his imagination in the world of his ideas, his dreams, and memories, and there he constructs his own self. That was the point of the Vita nuova.

When we began reading the Divine Comedy I insisted on the autobiographical focus with which at least the Divine Comedy begins. This is his story, this is his unique experience, the pilgrim’s own — Dante’s own unique experience and that seems to have come to an end with Purgatorio XXX when finally the novel of the self is sealed. As you remember, with the mentioning of the name Dante, then a new phase begins in Dante’s construction, which is more educational, more speculative, which is really the world of Paradise.

But so, we talk about self and history in a way that maybe Dante’s never quite coupled the two terms before; he does so in Canto XV, XVI, and XVII of Paradise. This is really the double focus around which everything moves. Let me give you — I will give you a reading of the various details, but let me give you an idea of what I have in mind first of all and the way of thinking about this issue. I want to draw your attention to the presence of some mythic, mythological figures that Dante — whom Dante is evoking and they are very different among themselves, but they’re all — it’s a way of reflecting on Dante’s own idea of selfhood, Dante’s own relationship to an ancestor, his own private history, who in turn has had a very complex and for Dante nobling relationship to history. He is a crusader; he fought in the Second Crusade of 1149 under the Emperor Conrad; he is proud of this belonging to the crusader, to fight as a crusader. A version of the relationship one has or thinks one has with history, both Cacciaguida’s and Dante’s own relationship to his grandfather.

Let me tell you first of all these mythic figures and then we’ll talk about them. Dante is — beginning with Canto XV I will just remark in passing, I will not — I will leave it to you do more diligently than we could do it here. The presence of musical metaphors, which is not surprising, in the Heaven of the Music, “Gracious will, into which — ” this is the beginning of Canto XV, “Rightly-breathing love, always resolves itself, as does cupidity into an ill-will, imposed silence on that sweet lyre.” This is the — The soul becomes a kind of musical instrument, the sweet lyre and stilled the sacred strings which the right hand of heaven tightens and relaxes and so on.” Then this, “And the gem,” at one point, this is line 20, “And the gem did not leave its ribbon, but ran across by the radial strip and seemed fire behind alabaster. With such affection did Anchises’ shade reached out, if we may trust our greatest muse, when in Elysium he knew his son,” and then in Latin, a quotation, “O sanguis meus, o superinfusa gratia Dei, sicut tibi cui bis unquam coeli janua reclusa?” To whom has this privilege ever been given of having the gates of heaven open to him twice, “the light spoke thus.” So this is the first mythical reference.

Chapter 2. Mythic Figures and the Exilic Self [00:07:39]

We are really — we could just say, well Dante of course at the very beginning of Inferno makes a reference to Paul and Aeneas disavowing any strict connection with them. You remember when he resists the call to this huge risky enterprise of going through hell that comes to him from Virgil. He says, I’m not Aeneas, I’m not Paul, why should I do what you are calling me to perform and Aeneas is the one who had visited Hades to meet the shade of his father, Anchises, now recalled here, and of course Paul is the who had been taken wrapped to the third heaven, meaning a third mode of vision that allowed him to — and kept quiet about it, to see God face to face. Anchises, the encounter between Anchises and Aeneas here, stands for a sort of relationship of Aeneas that Aeneas has with history. Aeneas goes to Hades in order to find out what the purposes are for his journeying from Troy toward an unknown land and he discovers — it’s a way of Anchises discovers that he — from his own father the presage, the prophetic if you wish announcement of what it is for him to be part of history.

Somehow a definition of self, that’s what you find with Anchises and the Aeneid, can be understood as that. The sense that one — how does one belong in history? One belongs in history as part of a providential pattern as the idea that this was a destined empire that he, Anchises, has to found, and a new history would start, so that he confirms his attachment to the dead father and yet he starts now as the point of beginning for a new history. This is one way of understanding an epic, the epic account, a myth of one’s own self belonging in the world of history. This is mythical. We move on, and it’s really a big — sort of a reversal of this. I will come back into Canto XVI; Dante gives a chronicle of the City of Florence. That is to say, first of all, he’s making problematical to us the idea of where are we to understand this as self? This is — it’s not clear what we are to understand as a self. In the Vita nuova the self is this nexus of memories, fantasies, and a will to write poetry. In that sense the text constitutes oneself, into a self. I am myself; I’m the author of this text. This becomes a point of reference and this is what I am. The image and poetry that I give of myself gives you an idea of who I am. It doubles me, it perpetuates me, it’s a poetic version of self, but we don’t know yet what are we to take as a self.

Anchises has a different understanding of himself. I am who I am only because I belong to a larger pattern of history. This larger pattern of history is going to be me as a founder, a founder of a new way of looking at the world, the founder of Rome and he gets the message from his own father. In Canto XVI, and I will not go into this as I’m pursuing the theme of the mythic references, Dante goes on really thinking about writing a chronicle as I will say in the City of Florence. One, Florence is famous for its chroniclers, the beginning of the Middle Ages, and so is history then the other problematical notion to be understood as the loco, events, or is to be understood the way Anchises understands it, as a myth that somehow has a sort of paradigmatic value and which can regulate and also arrange. We can go on arranging our lives according to the demands of that myth. Dante will not answer this question directly here, but he does talk about all the Florentine families and talks about them in an elegiac manner. That is to say they’re all decayed, they’re all finished and extinct, so whatever value this history may have it’s an elegiac commemoration of the past. Cacciaguida, by the way, is very elated at the idea that the son, the grandson, the descendant wants to find out about the past.

We move then into Canto XVII, where I think we find something about this whole issue about history and the self. It begins in a peculiar manner, look at the beginning of Canto XVII, the reference is really — it’s a long periphrastic construction, a long turn of phrase to — for the pilgrim to describe himself in terms of Phaeton, the famous figure as you know, from the classical myth who challenges Apollo. We saw him in the corresponding Canto XVII of Inferno. There was an illusion there to Phaeton so a little touch of the symmetry of cantos but that’s really secondary at this point. Look at what the scripture is, “Like him who came to Clemente, to be reassured about that which he had against himself.” The Disowning, first of all, is the story of the uncertainty of Phaeton’s descendents, that his father was Apollo, so he reassured himself, “Him who still makes fathers weary with their sons.” This is in the Canto of Cacciaguida. What is the real relationship? That’s what that is asking. That I have to this noble heroic figure of whom I’m proud, but what is the actual relationship that joins me to them?

“Such was I and such I was perceived to be both by Beatrice and by the holy lamb that had changed its place for me before.” He’s happy that — he seems to reaffirm this genealogical line so history now becomes no longer a chronicle, becomes now a genealogy. Can we establish some certainties that we belong into a genealogical line? Can that really account for us and for who we are? This is the issue that Dante’s raising. The figure of Phaeton is a tragic figure because it introduces the possibility of, and Dante says this, that’s what makes fathers weary of their sons all the time. The idea that the son wants to outdo the father, wants to go beyond the father, and the idea of tragic transgression that it can exist and therefore breach that line of continuity between — inter generations, across the generations. That’s one of the myths.

The other one is much more tragic than before. Canto XVII, as you know, goes on discussing among other things the — let me read the passage. I think Dante says it much more sparingly, that is to say without — to my despair — he says it much better than anybody else can, “Contingency,” this is line 36, “Contingency, which does not extend beyond the volume of your material world is all depicted in Eternal Vision.” This is another way, still another way of understanding history. That there is a contingency that the world of contingency can be subsumed within a larger transcendent paradigm, that seems to be the order of necessity. The contingent world is linked to the volume where all things are present in the eternal vision. Yet, that’s not man’s derive necessity anymore than does a ship that dropped — is there some autonomy to contingency or things determined by the order of necessity downstream from the icing which is mirrored. “From thence as sweet harmony,” last time I mentioned it musical language, musical lexicon abounds here, “comes from an organ to the ear, comes to my sight the time that is in store for thee.”

I enjoy very much the implicit connection between time and music. Music becoming the metaphor that makes audible time itself. Time is constitutive of music of course but it really makes it — it’s an acoustic translation of the silent arrow of time and now this is the other, the third mythological reference, Anchises, the tragic of Anchises who recognizes himself in the history and in the break, in the continuity with his father and in the break with Troy from his father, from Troy and the beginning of a new, let’s say, history. Phaeton, who turns against his father and burns the heavens in doing so, that is the famous metamorphosis of the origin of the Milky Way. As you know, the Milky Way was understood as the scorched heavens, a cosmological disaster that was happening on account of the rivalry between father and son, and now the third is Hippolytus, Hippolytus, the Ephedra, the story of Ephedra and I have to tell you. “As Hippolytus was driven from Athens on account of his cruel and perfidious stepmother, so must thou be driven from Florence.”

This is Cacciaguida who announces the exile as the fatality that is hovering over Dante and for which he has to prepare himself and exile — you see what it implies also a sort of necessary detachment from one’s family, one’s country, one’s whole — all the possible lines that tend to join us and limit us too. Dante is not quite Anchises, he’s not out to establish an empire, he’s not like the Phaeton, he does not want to overdo, at least literally the father, and now let’s see who is Hippolytus, “As Hippolytus was driven from Athens on account of his cruel and perfidious stepmother,” Phaedra, “so must thou be driven from Florence. This is determined, nay is already contrived,” look at the difference between determine and contrived, and the conjunction between the order of eternal, the eternal destinies and the contrivance, the order of contingency, the maneuvers, infernal maneuvers against the pilgrim, “and will soon be accomplished by him who meditates it in the place where Christ is bought and sold all day. The blame, in the common cry, shall follow the injured side, as always, but the vengeance shall be testimony to the truth that dispenses it. Thou,” that’s the announcement of the exile, “Thou shalt leave everything loved most dearly, and this is the shaft which the bow of exile shoots first. Thou shalt prove how salt is the taste of another man’s bread and how hard is the way up and down another man’s salary — another man’s stairs.”

Excuse me. Here there is a terrible mistake that Sinclair makes because Dante is very careful, line 60 he writes, lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale, which means going down and up and your translator — my translator here has it the other way around because he’s following a logic which is — we’ll call it naturalistic logic. You go to the palace of the duke, you go up, you climb the stairs, and then you come down after you have been begging for some charity and then you have taken your morsel of bread, then you can go down. But that’s not what Dante says. He says you first go down and then you go up, and I hesitate to gloss it for you because I think it’s a little bit clear the kind of thing he means that for him to go up is really a descent, was lowering himself. It’s a little bit of — it would seem to be a descent into pride — into humility but at the same time because he’s reversing the natural order, the ordinary order of the action; it’s really an ascent into pride. For me to go up here is — it’s like going down and I’m really degrading myself. It’s a very interesting line, acknowledgement of a sense of gratitude, a sense of the spiritual ascent being inevitably at first a descent into the self, and then becoming an ascent. It’s really — turns the whole thing around, was up and down, another man’s stairs and “that which shall weigh heaviest on thy shoulder is the wicked and senseless company with which thou shall fall into that valley, which shall become wholly ungrateful, quite mad and furious against thee.”

The story of Hippolytus is the story of the stepmother, to go back to this idea of self, is the story of a stepmother who is trying to seduce Hippolytus; she’s married to Theseus, and he runs away. The family becoming the destructive — the form of the destructive desires within that family forces him to go away, run away and dies. You wonder why Dante is taking on and thinking of this tragic figure to compare himself too as an exile, he had this potentially destructive and tragic consequences that are happening to Hippolytus, and at any rate, we have three great images by which Dante is thinking about what is the self and how is the self to be determined. How does the self enter the world of history? What examples did he give? Can we talk about any of the examples in the past?

I think that this is really the extraordinary — the burden actually of a text that I have been talking about in the past and it’s the Confessions of St. Augustine. That text is about the question of how the self is related to history and Dante disagrees with Augustine. For Augustine, the self is one that takes refuge in the interiority of oneself and goes on. At the time of the conversion he can now rejoin history and that is thought — to Dante clearly, a way of entering history.

The other motif that you can have is the motif of the — the other model you have is the model of Cacciaguida who goes onto a self-sacrifice of himself for the benefit of a larger cause. The cause of the Christian crusade in Jerusalem; then there is the Aeneid that represents the idea of how the self enters the world of history, its political activity and Dante really sort of rejects all of them. This prophesy of exile with which Canto XVII ends gives an entirely different twist to the self’s relationship to history. I — inevitably I will belong in history. There is no other way, Dante says, for the self to exist if not by measuring oneself with the historical, the pressures of historical realities, but my own relationship to it is not that — or that of belonging as Aeneas does into the world of history with feeling that I am — the political world is going to be my way out of this maze. It’s not going to be the one like Phaeton and it’s not going to be the one represented by Hippolytus. It’s the exilic self; an idea of a self is an art of dislocation from the world of history.

Chapter 3. Different Mode of Historiography [00:25:14]

But then how are we to understand this dislocation? Is dislocation a way of actually removing oneself altogether? Or just saying that I’m out of place, just saying that I’m out of time and somehow I have a relationship to history which is maybe polemical, maybe arguably constructive and if so what is the way? I think that we have to reread now the three cantos in some detail and we come up with an answer. You see then what this — what the issues here are. Let me start with Canto XV and see what Dante is specifically doing above and beyond this overall pattern that he’s putting forth in canto — in the various cantos. You will see how in Canto XV the — let’s go back to Canto XV and you will see that the relationship to Cacciaguida is also played etymologically. How often Dante’s punning with the metaphor of wings; in Italian it’s ali, Alighieri, Aligher, that was the name, the bearers of wings so the — for instance line 52, “I speak of thee, thanks to her who clad thee with wings for the lofty flight,” or a little later on line 70, “I turned to Beatrice, and she heard before I spoke and smiled to me, a sign that made the wings grow on my will,” and later line 80 many, many times. He stops after the third time. “For the reason that is plain to you, are not equally feathered in their wings,” etc.

The first thing that they do though with the exchange — in the encounter with Cacciaguida is focus on the City of Florence of old, an invocation of the golden age, a certain golden age where a kind of utopian construction. These are the lines, “Florence,” page — line — Canto XV lines 94-97 and following, “Florence, within her ancient circle, from which she still takes tierce and nones,” these are the times of the day rung by the bells of the nearby church, “abode in peace, sober and chased. She had no bracelet, no tiara, no embroidered gowns, no girdle that should be seen more than the wearer. Nor yet did the daughter at her birth put the father in fear, for age and dowry did not part from the due measure on the one side and the other. She had no houses empty of family, nor had Sardanapalus yet come there to show what could be done in the chamber.” This is a kind of inferno — evocations, so these are — you are really thinking of Cleopatra in Canto V, you are thinking of Semiramis, all these figures of the chaos of the appetites and they are being recalled now in this context “Not yet did your Uccellatoio” and so on, and goes on talking about Cacciaguida’s own birth.

Let me focus a little bit on this — the metaphors of the — of Florence. First of all, Florence is evoked within a closed circle of self sufficiency called “within her ancient circle.” The circularity of the city also implies a kind of plentitude and a sort of boundary. Dante does not have an idea of an expanding city, just he enjoys the — projects this idea of a city held within its own perimeter, “from which she still takes tierce and nones,” the language of space and the language of time follows, as if everything could be measured and everything could be interrelated. One is interrelated with the other. Then this language of — Florence is a woman, sober, chaste, abode in peace, sober and chaste, implying that here at least he believes and it’s lingering in him the memory of the famous idea of the so called body politic that you have heard. The idea of the organic structure of the city as made of interdependent parts just as space and time indicate the interdependent coordinates within which the life of the city can be recalled.

Now — this is followed in turn by a sequence of Anaphorus, all in the negatives, “she had no bracelet, no tiara,” this is the city, dressed like a woman.” Dante — you know that one way of thinking about cosmetics is also to think of it — they used to think of cosmetics as bad rhetoric, perverse forms of seduction by means of which one could disfigure the natural continents and beauty of the human form. So Dante goes on in a sense by repeating these negatives, literally dispossessing, literally stripping the woman of all the superfluities, all these complications and bring the city back to its own simplicity, its original chastity and simplicity — let me just see this passage, “She had no tiara, no embroidered gowns, no girdle, not yet did the daughter at her birth put the father in fear, as she had no houses empty,” etc. This is the golden age.

Does Dante really believe though in this myth of the golden age? This is what we call — there is a rhetorical phrase for this sort of move. Praising the bygone times, it’s the so-called laudatio, that means praise of the past, which is more of a rhetorical strategy to denounce the imperfections of today. In effect, Dante has a radically polemical view of the utopian spirit. This idea of a perfection that — or the claim of a perfection that we push back into the past because it’s no longer with us, but we want to fantasize about and nonetheless he is still — he preserves it because utopia can become a kind of normative idea by means of which we can alter the configuration of our own contingencies, our own history. It may — utopias don’t exist, they may even be dangerous some people can claim. A lot of interesting figures in the history of ideas claim that utopias are dangerous constructions because they ferment illusions about who we are, and yet they become for Dante necessary because we — in the light of those ideas we can go on altering what we perceive as the degradations of our own times.

Of course this myth of the golden age of Florence of the past literally disintegrates when seen in contrast with the reality of Dante’s life as an exile which is going to await him in the future. That is going to be — so it’s exile as the realistic perspective of his being in history. He makes a virtue of it. It’s not a suffering as we are going to see, I’m just — let me just continue with my thought. He doesn’t see that as a punishment, it induces suffering, but it becomes a virtue and we shall see why it becomes a virtue. In effect, it will become a paradigm in which we can all recognize ourselves.

In Canto XVI this myth of — there’s also this golden age of Florence, there’s this illusion that it abode in peace, they lived in peace, whenever I hear the language of peace I do hear, I do overhear the echo of Jerusalem, the city of peace, and that’s what makes it interesting, so it’s a typology of another city, a golden — the great time, the golden age of the past is a kind of — what the prophets would always recall as the peace time of Jerusalem that they had — that the Jews themselves had lost and kept on commemorating in the history. What makes this conjunction very strong is that — to me is that in Canto XVI Dante goes on, first of all, talking about this at the chronicles. What is a chronicle? How does the chronicle change history? The chronicle reduces — it’s a mode of historiography, a different mode of historiography.

The place where you can find these modalities of history is really Boethius, who writes the Consolation of Philosophy, at the center of which he figures the Wheel of Fortune. You remember the Wheel of Fortune; there’s this blindfolded woman who revolves, who rotates this wheel, and which means that we who are always on the shifting curve of the wheel will be up and down, so that a kind of historiography that derives from this Boethian insight is that of writing the lives of families that ascend and descend. Note, the other mode of historiography, should be the historiography of the fall of empires, for instance, Augustine. So there are two historiographic models. The one that you — available in the City of God, we are really told about the fall of the Persian Empire, the fall of the Roman Empire in a few pages, kind of given sort of in a much more detailed way, but this is really the idea.

On the other hand, Dante goes to another historiographic model which is that of chronicle. The idea that history is reducible to the events, the local events and circumstances of one’s own life. He recalls all the families to the joy of the grandfather who is — you can understand the pleasure of memory. He shuttles back and forth between, in memory, between one item and the other, recalling everything and Dante soon discovers that he does not quite belong, that that kind of history does not really account for who he is and who he wants to be above all, and that somehow his definition of self will depend on a certain idea of the future and not of the past. I am trying to go back to this idea of who the self is and what is history, and how are we to understand history.

Chapter 4. Language [00:37:08]

Here, to continue with the notion of Jerusalem, which I have not — which I bracketed a little bit and gave you a little digression on history, Dante goes on talking about a language, turn to Canto XVI line 50 please where he again talks about — it’s all about Florence. “All who were there at the time between Mars and the Baptist,” the mythology of Florence, cities, not only you recount stories of families, you have to recount stories of the predominant, the sovereignty of mythologies that control our own self understanding. We tend to understand ourselves in the light of presiding myths, of imaginative myths above us, so there’s Mars who’s the god of Florence before the Baptist, John the Baptist replaced him. This is the account about the shifting mythology of the city, “Mars the Baptist able to bear arms was a fifth of the number now living,” this is really an accounting, a chronicler’s precision and accounting of Florentine local history. “But the citizenship, which is now mixed with Campi and Certaldo and Figline,” and so on.

That language of mixture which later becomes confusion and Dante will call it a confusion when he has to give a diagnosis at the top of page — line 67. Dante has to give a — goes into a diagnosis of the crisis of the city, “The mixture of peoples was ever the beginning of the city’s ills, as food in excess is of the body’s.” Once again the connection between — he’s talking about the malaise of the city by the connection between body and cities. Cities grow and decay and get sick because of what he calls the confusion. First of all he called the mixture, en confusio, is the other name for Babylon. When you have to etymologize Babylon into the romance languages and in English, it’s confusion, so that the two myths of the city that Dante has in mind is Jerusalem for Florence and then Babylon for Florence of today. The two myths of the cities are not antithetical; they are both possible within the same body politic. Florence can look like Jerusalem or it can look like Babylon according to the way the moral life of the city is lived out.

This is something that Dante will preserve, but it really implies that the city, the political world is one which one has to shape all the time, that you cannot — there is no definite metaphor or emblem to define a particular city. A city can change its very identity, it can become like — it can be like a Jerusalem as it was in the old or it can be like Babylon now. The city involves us, we are involved in the city’s history in the way of making it according to our own aspirations, our own ideas; we share in the shaping and construction of the city. This is no longer the perspective of the chronicler, it’s the perspective of Dante as the poet; so it’s a critique of the inadequacy of the chronicle’s view of what history could be.

Now we go back to Canto XVII where once again and I’m going to — I will not go up to our — you remember it comes to Phaeton and a rivalry with the father. Dante’s saying if I don’t belong to the city and I — and city and families go on decaying and disappearing what is the true relationship that I have to this man who is actually directing me, and unveiling for me that which the future — that which I have to expect from the future. These are the kind of questions that he’s very carefully raising, so we go back to the famous description of Dante’s exile where we describe here, “Thou shalt leave everything loved most dearly,” lines 55, “loved most dearly, and this is the shaft which the bow, the bow of exile shoots first.” The condition, the harshness of exile could not be crystallized in sharpest terms. The severance, the separation of self from family as apparently as a punishment at this point. “Thou shalt prove how salt is the taste of another man’s bread.”

Those who think that here Dante is finding a little bit mildly comical relief in remembering the fact that in Florence they do not use salt in their bread, but anywhere else around we have a frequent flyer to Italy who knows very well this little history, but I don’t think that it’s all that comical. I think it’s the bread, it’s the most sacramental of foods that he’s talking about and then we shall see how he picks up the idea of bread in a moment. It’s just not a metaphor there, “Thou shall — and how hard is the way up and down another man’s stairs. And that which shall weigh heaviest on thy shoulder is the wicked and senseless company.” The word picks up the metaphor of the bread because company means, and that which — it simply means the sharing of bread with others, so bread is truly sacramental in the sense that it adjoins and brings about the unity of the body of the body politic.

What Dante’s saying is that it’s a reflection on his own life, a literal reflection of his own life. He went into exile as you know in the year 1302, and for a number of years he went on at least two or three years, plotting along the side of his other fellow exiles the return to Florence and the destruction of the enemies who had banished them. Really a plot of revenge in order to restore what they saw as justice. Dante very quickly understood that this was the way to absolute destruction, so he just from then on moves like a shabby derelict. He represents himself limping at the beginning of Inferno and that is really the way we can — we are asked by him to imagine him as he goes when he’s talking about exile. We are not talking about living in some kind of isolated splendor in some court or other. It literally means going from place to place begging, so this is punishment for him, and yet, let’s see what happens, “With which thou shalt fall into that valley which shall become wholly ungrateful, quite mad and furious against thee.”

He is an exile to the exiles. Both the Guelfs and Ghibellines distrust him and take their distance from him, “but before long they, not thou shall have the brows red for this. Of their brutish folly their doings shall give proof, so that it shall be to thine honour to have made a party by thyself.” What an extraordinary line to be absolutely on your own, “a party to thyself.” This should make you — should give you some perplexity, to say the least, because you may remember that the Divine Comedy begins with the representation of the so called neutral angels, and those neutral angels were angels who wanted to be neither with God nor against God, but they want to be by themselves. You remember how I pointed that out to you, that for Dante this was the most despicable of conditions and choices, though it seems to be non-choice. One is really choosing anyway, even when we are not choosing we are choosing and he is; he was separating that to him it’s despicable not to take sides, to sit on the fence, and now he seems to attribute that very condition to himself.

But to you it will be to your honor to be a party to thyself, and not only — we did not read it, but those of you who were so taken with the poem, you can go and read Canto VIII of Paradise, where Dante will ask one question he — to the soul that he meets he says, is it right for a man in the city to be a citizen? Yes, he says, and I don’t even want to ask why; it’s so clear that has — it needs no justification, no explanation, you have to be part of the — belong to the world where you are, and yet now he takes the other side. He has to be by himself. What does it mean to be by himself? Is that a kind of neutrality he’s imagining? Is that — it’s really the condition of exile I think that he’s really describing the destitution, the loneliness, the severance of the self from others, but even that can become a condition that triggers a new form of relationship.

The exile is still part of the community and let’s see how he is thinking of this. I don’t want to — this is his — this is now the specific prophecy of what’s in store for the exiled. I think it retrieves, in this sense I mean that Dante’s bringing about a transformation of the idea of exile from what seemed to be a punishment into a virtue. There is such a thing as a virtue of exile. The language with which Dante presents the world to come for him, the future, this is his future, it’s not the past, history then is understood as above all futurity. We are here oriented to the future, the only real time that we have, we don’t have it yet, but we can — it’s the time of one’s projects, it’s the time in which one can really define oneself. I’m not really my past so there is — I have some contact with the past, my memories and my memories can tell you — me where I’m going but then a catastrophe occurs.

The need to sever yourself from anything that you know, and you love most dearly — family, city, loyalties, your habits, your bread — all of these details here are given and this is what he finds. “Thy first refuge, and inn,” the inn as those of you who read, it’s an interesting metaphor in the medieval literature. Those of you who read Chaucer, is there anybody here who reads Chaucer? The Canterbury Tales, of course, it’s the story of pilgrims and the inn becomes the station — the temporary dwelling of people who are on the road and always moving. It’s really one of the most welcome images in the medieval imagination, the inn, the provisional comforts for the night that the inn offers.

Anyway, “ ‘Thy first refuge and inn thou shalt find in the courtesy of the great Lombard,” this is the gentleman of Verona, the one gentleman of Verona who houses him and hosted him for a while, “who bears on the ladder the sacred bird, and he will hold thee in so gracious regard that, of doing and asking between you two, that shall be first which with others come after. With him thou shalt see one who at his birth so took the impress of this mighty star that his deeds will be renowned. The people have not yet taken note of him, because of his youth, for these wheels have circled about him only nine years; but before the Gascon deceives the noble Henry sparks of his heroism shall appear in his disregard both of wealth and toil, and his munificence shall yet be known so that his enemies cannot keep silence about it. Look to him and to his benefits. Through him there shall be altered fortune for many, rich changing state with beggars. And thou shalt bear this written in thy mind about him and shalt not tell it,’ — and he told things which shall be incredible to those that witness them. Then he added: ‘Son, these are the glosses on what was told thee,” in Inferno XV of course. Remember when Brunetto says, “This is the prophecy of your future exile but it will be glossed for you by somebody else.” He doesn’t even mention who, Dante goes on thinking that it’s going to be Beatrice; it turns out to be his father, his ancestor. “These are the snares that are hid behind a few revolving years; yet I would not have thee envious of thy fellow-citizens, for thy life shall far outlast the punishment of the perfidies.’”

The exile can turn into a virtue and the language here that accompanies this prediction is the language of the ethics of exile. That the exile brings about and needs in order to be bearable and tolerable, the hospitality. These are the great, the courtesy, the hospitality, the language of gratitude, the giving, so it’s a new ethics is going to be described in — from the perspective of this exilic experience of Dante. Then Dante concludes, which I think it seals what I have been saying, “ ‘I see well my father,” this is line 113 and following, 110 and following, “ ‘I see well, my father, how time spurs towards me to deal me such a blow as falls most heavily on him that is most heedless; it is well, therefore, that I arm me with foresight,’” that’s another virtue of exile. The word translates, of course, prudence.

Prudence is the human counterpart of providence. It’s the same etymology, a seeing in advance, trying to not predict but forestall the arrows and flings that come our way, “so that if the dearest place is taken from me, I may not lose the others by my songs. Down through the world of endless bitterness, and on the mountain from whose fair summit the eyes of my Lady lifted me, and after, through the heavens from light to light, I have learned that which, if I tell again, will taste for many of bitter herbs; and if I am a timid friend to truth I fear to lose my life among those who will call these times ancient. ’ The light within which was smiling the treasure,” and then of the reference to Brunetto who wrote the Treasure of course. “I had found there first became ablaze like a golden mirror in the sun, then replied: ‘Conscience dark with its own or another’s shame will indeed feel thy words to be harsh; but none the less put away every falsehood and make plain all thy vision — and then let them scratch where is the itch. For if thy voice is grievous at first taste, it will afterwards leave vital nourishment when it is digested. This cry of thine shall do as does the wind, which strikes most on the highest summits; and that is no small ground of honour. For that reason have been shown to thee, in these wheels, on the mountain, and in the woeful valley, only souls that are known to fame; because the mind of one who hears will not pause or fix its faith for an example that has its roots unknown or hidden or for other proof that it not manifest.’”

What he hears, and the decision that Dante will take as a palliative at least, or a remedy to his exile is writing. The writing of the poem becomes the act by which he is an exilic — as an exile can go on in his dislocation, his utter dislocation from the city, from family, from his habits, can go on actually relating himself to a more writing. The work is the way in which the self enters history and can shape history. It’s not Aeneas, it’s not Phaeton, it’s not going to be the Hippolytus, it’s not even Cacciaguida’s own account of his own grandiloquent connection with the world of history, a way in which Dante’s self enters history is through this idea of poetry — of a writing that is now also described in terms of food, as you can see here first of all, with the bitter herbs and now the voices gives us the first taste that will afterwards leave vital nourishment when it is digested, etc. Words — first of all, let me just clear the air here.

No one of you has these misconceptions about poetic language that somehow it’s some sort of faint symbol divorced from reality. Dante goes beyond this idea of the relationship of language to representation. That was the problem of the chronicles and they gave fairly faithful accounts and he can give fairly faithful accounts. That’s the mode of a certain historiography. What Dante’s saying is that words are things in themselves, that words are food that change, and being things they have a kind of solidity and have a sort of truth value in and of themselves. This is really the biblical language that resurfaces, son of man, eat the book, you remember these lines from Ezekiel? This is exactly the kind of language that is returning here, and which Dante bends, the sort of language to define himself in a relationship to his future project of writing the poem and that project of writing the poem is his way of establishing his place literally in — which is a utopian place in history.

I say utopian because it doesn’t have to be understood in any local sense. I do not belong to the city only because I occupy a particular place in the city. It is the act of writing poetry, that’s really what matters. What I’m referring to is also, and here I am, a sort of correction, very mild correction of the classical idea which is also a medieval — survives in medieval times the idea that the self is decided, the value of the self is decided by the place one occupies within the economy of the city. Dante says that’s not the way it works. I am the project of writing my poetry and through poetry, which is written in exile, and therefore it’s a poetry of exile I can re-enter the world of history. The world of history accusing history and talking as a man who has been touched by the vision of what justice ought to be, so this is really the remarks that I think I can make about these Cantos XV, XVI, and XVII and I welcome questions if you have any. I’m sure you do. Yes.

Chapter 5. Question and Answer [00:57:58]

Student: Would I be right in seeing some biblical references within the lines between 70 and 100, the mention of the star, the birth, the inn. Is that some sort of a Savior?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: This is line 17, the question is would she be right in seeing biblical antecedents, context for the lines with — that go from line 70 you say, the first refuge and inn. No, and I “shalt find in the courtesy of the great Lombard.” That may be a christological or a christal mimetic language behind these sort of references. That would be even more — it would be truer even — would be made more compelling in light of Cacciaguida’s own self representation in christological terms, both in Canto XV and — in Canto XVI actually he talks to himself as if he were a Boethian philosopher. Dante uses the same phrase about the death of Cacciaguida that he had used for Boethius in Paradiso XV, venni dal martiro a questa pace, that he had used for Boethius. But the language is a christological language.

The only difference is that if there is any christological resonance here it very quickly fades because Dante’s really discussing himself as an exile with this — and he understands exile as the real condition of himself but also of human beings. I will go on so far as to say, in order to connect your theological perspective and what I have been saying about the self in history is that exile is also the root of one’s religious consciousness. We have — those of us who have a religious conscious, and I think we all do, just as we have an aesthetic sense we all do, that religious conscious comes always out of the sense or the feeling even better, better than the sense, the feeling that we are not where we should be. That we are somehow not where we should both in terms of time and in terms of space, that we are dislocated. And this exile, this exilic imagination then shapes also the theological language of Dante and accounts for his persuasion that exile defines the human condition. It’s not just an empirical — it is his empirical experience. That is to say, it relates to him but he understands that it’s really — we’re all engaged in this kind of — I’ll talk about this later.

By the way, I’m forcing my hand because the text does not really allow me to do that, but when he discusses hope, the most extraordinary of all virtues, the most deceptive maybe of all virtues, there healing’s hope and exile in a very clear way and I’ll reserve that as a surprise for whatever next week or — yeah next week. Please.

Student: You mentioned Augustine’s confessions earlier, and talking about the different conceptions of how the self relates to the city, and you said Dante didn’t agree with Augustine. I didn’t catch everything you were saying about Augustine’s view of the self. Can you just review?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is about — I was discussing modalities of this relationship between the self and history at the beginning of my remarks. One of them obviously was — I mentioned — let me just give a little resume of this. I mentioned Cacciaguida himself who has a kind of special understanding of history and that defines him, his taking part in the crusades. The other one is with which Dante begins is Aeneas who is a model for Augustine, as you know. I’m answering your question now. The Confessions of Augustine are constructed as nothing less than what we call — what I call the Aeneid of the heart. That is to say, he goes from Carthage, he has his Didos; you remember when he leaves Carthage to go to Rome, and the Dido doesn’t — he doesn’t just abandon them but he describes as they hold on to his garment, etc. Then he goes to Rome, so it’s really a pattern on an epic, on the Virgilian epic of the Aeneid.

But Augustine is very different from Aeneas. He doesn’t go to Rome to found an empire. He’s a professor of rhetoric, he teaches, he’s a teacher, a professor of rhetoric and he comes to understand himself. Actually the great moment, the great revelation for him, there are two moments of great revelation to him, which we really never talked about. One, which he’s in Ostia, a little town on the — by the sea outside of Rome and he said, he saw this mother at the window and they share in a kind of mystical vision. He describes this ecstasy that they have while they look outside, and then she’s about to die. That is a decisive moment in — clearly in his life and his understanding of himself. The other one comes in the Garden in Milan when he hears voices that tell him to — that he understands in his own way. It’s an idea of a self which is — which understands the self as a death of the old man and the birth of a new man. This is the old Adam and the new Adam. The Christian idea of conversion, St. Paul’s command, you have to let the old man die so that the new man can come into being. That’s the understanding of the self.

Now Dante of course, when I say he doesn’t agree with it, of course he’s not Aeneas, he did say that. He’s not Paul; he did say that; there are those who say well he’s ironic. I don’t see where the irony is. He’s not Aeneas and he’s not Paul; he uses them to relate, to coordinate himself to them and now he’s using a number of other mythical figures. What is one’s own relationship to genealogy? What is one’s own relationship to the chronicles? What is one’s own relationship to mythical empires? You understand what I’m saying? The idea of self that he is going to have is not really Augustine’s; it’s that of the man first of all who can belong to the history of the world by writing the poem. He lives and he understands the fundamental quality of the exilic experience of human beings, that’s not Augustine, that’s really what I meant. No disrespect for Augustine only different — a different experience. Yes.

Student: I’m still thinking about the brief reference to the crusades that Cacciaguida makes at the end of the Canto XV and the presence of sectarian violence, and I wonder if that — if Dante has some idea about that that connects to his idea of the empire as staving off the political violence of civil war or what would Dante suggest as a [inaudible] because we saw St. Francis last week who spoke peacefully with the Sultan of faith.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: This is an extraordinary question. The question is by the way the — how do I explain Cacciaguida’s reference to the crusade, very brief reference to the crusade, and how does that connect with what we have been talking about sectarian violence in the Canto of Dominic for instance in Canto XII and whether Dante is using this as a ploy to explain, just the way he does with the violence within the city to justify the necessity of the Empire, which he does or is this — or does he really have an idea of the peaceful language of Francis?

Accurate — you asked a lot of questions and really, really, really impressive. After all she’s an Italian major, what do you expect? She has — she better impress me — you did, you did. We’ll talk more about Dante’s preparing Canto XVIII, XIX, and XX is really about — it starts with what is a heroic life and how are we to understand the heroic life. There’s a reference there also to crusades, and the question of the crusades, the relationship of justice and Christian ideas of justice to Muslims and Hindus will come to the forefront there. So I really ask you to wait for that for next time because —

However, I can answer one question immediately, which is really implied by what you are saying more than asked directly. Yes, Dante is a peace poet. I would say that with full confidence, though we know Dante was so polemical, kicks shades, is angry, fights, and there’s always competing visions in relation to the tradition and others, but he’s — Fundamentally, you have to establish, you would say, differences; not really renounce your differences, but actually make those differences the orchestration, the musical orchestration that is going on in Cantos XV, XVI, and XVII. This is the heaven of music. This discordance, discourses, are part of a sovereign and transcendent order, but he is a peace poet which is truly scandalous because most poets, except for Isaia, for instance who is a peace poet — prophet, a prophet of peace, with a vision of peace; Dante really has an irenic vision.

Most poets write about victories, about wars, about armistices, truces, epic; the epics in England or in Italy, it’s all about the clashes of armies, etc. Not Dante, so that’s really the direct answer I can give to your question. Then you raise another issue which I find a little bit — I would not want to go there but I owe it to you to give an answer. Well, what about the peaceful language of Francis? That seems to be such a great idea because heresy and schisms and the question — the relationship between Christians and Muslims has always been one of wars, so heresy and war, schism and war, so we can say that Dante seems to be so radical in renouncing war and says, look it’s possible to harmonize relationship or at least confront our differences with using a peace language.

However, things are not as simple as that and that’s why I only mention it but I will not go into that. We haven’t got time for that. It’s really a thought I am a little developing, I must admit. The heresy is a question of language. It’s not just a question of wars. So, there are wars that go on in language and therefore they re-propose the very differences and stubborn divisions of understanding that qualify and describe both the schisms and the heresies. So, to say “peaceful language,” it sounds also like another way of — another route into potential descent and tragedy, you see. But I am not going to go anymore than give you as a kind of suspicion that I have about my own claim that Dante is a peace poet. We’ll talk though about the crusades next time. And may be I have time for another question may be and a very short answer. Anybody? See you next time.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]