ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 20 - Paradise XVIII, XIX, XXI, XXI
Chapter 1. Continuity and Thematic Expansion in the Cantos [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: I realize that as we read from assignment to assignment, and partly because we read in a very selective way, I know there are a lot of gaps in our readings. I never really have tried to share with you the idea that there is a line, a narrative line, a conceptual line running through the poem. The cantos are not discrete units, poetic units, without much relationship where the links are to be found symmetrically maybe with cantos far apart from the cantos that we are reading. I think that there is a continuity going through many of them. There is no doubt, for instance, between Cantos XV, XVI, and XVII of Paradise we read last time and Cantos XVII, XVIII, and XIX there is actually a thematic expansion of some of the issues that Dante raises in the Heaven of Mars.
To begin with, Dante in Canto XVIII is still in the Heaven of Mars and he meets and he lists — I know that I did not — the number does not appear in your syllabus, but just bear with me so that I can go on with these ideas. He just lists the number of warriors, souls who are figures, heroic figures, the heroic life very much like Cacciaguida himself who appears as one of the blessed, from lines 40 and following of Canto XVIII. He mentions, he sees and he mentions Joshua, biblical figures Joshua and Judas Maccabaeus and then he goes on mentioning medieval figures.
Charlemagne was clearly — he’s justifying retrospectively the whole issue of the crusades to which Cacciaguida took part, and which can really be brought back to Charlemagne’s experience in France and in Spain against the Muslims. He mentions and lists Charlemagne and of course his paladin the great, the so called, the Achilles-like invulnerable Roland, who however, dies at Roncevaux which is the site of the war between Muslims and Christians and he dies because of the hubris that characterizes his life, the hubris of not wanting to blow the bugle, that it would be heard by Charlemagne and Charlemagne could have come to his rescue. As I have probably said before, that became in the Western imagination a most traumatic experience. A traumatic experience because it showed that the myth of invincibility of the Christian — of Christian Europe was simply that, an illusion to be turned into rubble by the invading and victorious Christian armies.
Then he goes on mentioning the figures of the second crusade, 1109 the Godfrey of Bouillon and a figure — a Normand who defeated actually the Muslims in Sicily, the Guiscard, Robert Guiscard, and brought about in the early ninth century — in the late ninth century; after about 75 years the Muslims were there the expulsion of the Muslims from Sicily. A clear, thematic thread between the previous cantos and this canto is the question of what is a heroic life. The heroic life can even involve a defeat, as in the case of Roland. It implies, however, a heroic life clearly, though there is a typology that runs from Joshua’s defeat of and seizure of Jericho. This is the great epic biblical story to Guiscard, contemporary history, almost contemporary history. For Dante it implies really a division, it implies a heroic life which is — it implies the power to establish and live for a cause which is going to be — for Dante it’s a just cause but it’s a cause that brings about divisions so it’s not — a heroic figure is not necessarily a figure that would unify and cut across barriers and divisions. On the contrary, Dante is indicating that there’s a possible heroic life onto a giving of oneself to a cause much larger than oneself. We could just leave it at that and we will come back to this issue in a moment. What I would stress — in a few minutes.
What I would stress though about this particular scene is that Dante is really aware of divisions, aware of the need even to separate what is mine from what is not mine, what is ours from what is not ours so it would seem — he seems to be perpetuating a myth that’s — or an idea that some might find even objectionable that indeed this separation is dangerous and it’s in itself caused by war and a cause of wars. This is the objection to this problem. It’s not the only time that Dante is establishing divisions, when I have been talking over the past few weeks about, for instance, divisions and boundaries that Dante establishes even when talking about continents. You remember in Canto VI of Paradise when there’s the story of the eagle of the Roman Empire Dante goes on talking about the periphery of Europe where the Justinian and the bird of the empire had nestled; the eastern part of the empire. That was the periphery of Europe and we have been talking about the whole how in Canto XII of Paradise meeting Dominic, St. Dominic, Dante talks about the western part of Europe. He goes out of the way to mention this idea so there are always divisions that always buries.
He seems to believe that Rome and the history of Rome really escapes this logic of separation. In effect, this I know that I mentioned to you, in Monarchia, the political track that he writes, he does stress the fact that Aeneas is really a Roman and not; for instance, he cannot really be thought of as an Asian, which he was, nor can he be thought of as a European, and he stresses the fact that he has a kind of some — there is a sort of universalizing history in him, a universalizing impulse in the measure in which he married three women from three different continents, Creusa from Asia, Dido from Africa, and Lavinia from Europe. He does distinguish between a kind — a sort of — the history that transcends barriers but also an idea which is really heroic here of a history that manages — what keeps barriers, that these are people who fought at the crusades. These are the — many of them such as Joshua and Judah Maccabaeus, but Charlemagne, not of the crusades but against a Muslim named Roland, but Godfrey of Bouillon and so on. We’ll see what the consequences of this may be.
Now another conceptual thread, I’m really going around two or three — I think I’m keeping two or three themes in my head now. Another conceptual thread between XVII and the remaining part of XVIII, XIX and XX which is the Heaven of Jupiter, is the question of a very abstract question that Dante asks. What is a place? That was the underlying problem in XV, XVI, and XVII. In XV Dante tries to determine whether his history could be reduced to the boundaries of his own native town and decides that that was no longer possible for him to conceive.
The famous chronicles, he tries to figure out where exactly he can be in the history of — in the midst of Florence itself and decides that he is an exile. That was the final prophecy of Cacciaguida. Exiled is a word that means — it’s a Latin word, in Italian or in English, it comes “being out of one’s own soil.” That’s what the meaning is so that in the Middle Ages they never really thought of exile as just a spiritual condition. That is to say I feel dislocated, I am — my personal existential predicament is that of feeling that I’m out of it, that I don’t belong, or that kind of — that was not the conventional understanding. Dante changes this meaning of exile in making it into a spiritual condition. It’s the condition of — it’s the pre-condition for his writing poetry to begin with, so that poetry and exile seem to be going together.
Chapter 2. Space, Place and Justice [00:10:35]
In XVIII, the real issue that he raises is what is a place? I am an exile, I do not belong anywhere, what is — how do we understand here and how do we understand there? What does it mean? What are these terms? At any rate, he starts and enters now into canto with the remaining part of Canto XVIII, he enters into the Heaven of Jupiter. A heaven of white light which he links with geometry. You know what geometry is? A science, very complex science, it encompasses — what it means is the measurement of the Earth, it’s the whole Earth that anyone can measure with medieval geometry. It means — it implies the presence of perspective within it, with the idea that geometry is what regulates the idea of space and the arrangement of space it implies altimetry, it implies the measurement of the depths and so on.
It is, as you know, traditionally linked to ethics. It has a profound intimate linkage with ethics for the simple reason — well, when Dante discusses justice; for instance, in cantos — in Inferno he distinguishes between distributive justice. Remember Inferno VII, the god is fortuna who manages to distribute with some idea of impenetrable occult, equity a cold justice the goods of the Earth, though she’s blindfolded and moves the wheel around so there can be some kind of uniform — If you are up you are not going to be up all the time, you may be down, etc., and if you are down you eventually — if you are on the shifty curve of fortune you are going to be up. It’s a sort of arithmetical notion of equity. If you have — sometimes you have five then you lose three and you get to have two, whoever have one will get two, etc.
The other form of justice was also geometric justice which Dante describes in the so called rule of the counterpart, counter passion, in the contrapasso in Inferno XXVIII when he has to establish the relationship between crime and punishment. It could not be an even one, one and one; you cannot pluck someone’s eye because someone has plucked your eye, that’s not necessarily justice. You cannot cut someone’s arm off because you have perpetrated that crime or kill because you just have been killed, there should be some kind of proportionality, is the argument. The idea is that geometry is always part, geometry in fact is related to ethics simply because its extension always implies a point which is the beginning of a geometric reflection, always implies the existence of other points; it establishes relations therefore. That’s the language.
In this canto Dante discusses primarily justice. What is justice? That’s the idea that runs through this. The other thing that you have to be — as you read these cantos, and I hope you read them with care, and I will not say much about it, is that he deploys — Dante deploys the language of geometry. Now you know that this is a technique of his. If he were dealing with arithmetic he would do music, he would do that, but I just want to give you a few examples of these issues.
For instance, just let me open here and the notion of God, the geometer, he will go on talking for instance, this is in Canto XIX, anywhere really, line 90. Look at this, “The Primal Will, which in itself is good, from itself, the Supreme Good, never was moved; whatever accords with it is in that measure just;” the language of measure, “no created good draws it to itself, but it, raying forth”; “ray,” which in Italian is both radius, it’s the ray of the sunlight but also the radius of a circle, “creates that good. As the stork circles,” there it goes, even the very shapes, “circles over the nest,” and then a little bit further down, “Wheeling, it sang, then spoke,” wheeling again a circular motion and this continues — literally continues throughout.
I want to find for you the image of the compass that I thought was in Canto XIX. It’s not, we’ll get to that, we’ll find it. There are a number of these geometrical terms. However, the most important thing here in Canto XIX is that as soon as he enters the heaven of geometry now we encounter in Canto XVIII, we come across a plane, a divine spectacle, it’s a sort of — the heavens are a sacred theatre where God will go on speaking to human beings by using to us on Earth — by using the souls of the blessed. This is the passage, “I saw,” Canto XVIII line 70 and following, “I saw in that torch of Jove the sparkling of the love that was there, trace out our speech to my eyes; and as birds risen from a river-bank, as if rejoicing together over their pasture, make of themselves, now a round flock,” that’s a geometric image for you, “now another shape, so within the lights holy creatures were singing as they flew and made themselves, in the figures they formed, now D, now I, now L. First, singing, they moved to their own notes; then, becoming one of these shapes, they paused for a little and were silent.”
Within the heaven of geometry, even the letters of the alphabet draw geometrical lines, the semi-circle of D, the two — the perpendicular line of the L, and the perpendicular line of the I, we are — we really discover that the beauty of geometry underlies the rigor of the alphabet so to speak, but more importantly, we discover that these souls that dispose themselves in letters are really God’s way of speaking to us. The language that Dante — that God uses is the language of human beings. We are the syllables, we are the letters disposed in order to convey this — whatever God’s message may be. “They showed themselves, then, in five times seven vowels and consonants, and I noted them severally, and what they seemed to me to mean. DILIGITE IUSTITIAM.” They spell out a line taken from the book — a verse from the Book of Wisdom; love, justice, diligite iustitiam, you who judge the Earth. That’s another reference to the actual ultimate measurement of geometry, the Earth. That’s the meaning of geometry, the measuring of the Earth, so geography in a certain way is part of the world of geometry.
Then Dante goes on describing a metamorphosis, how “in the M of the fifth word they kept their order, so that Jupiter seemed there silver pricked out with gold; and I saw other lights descend on the very summit of the M and settle there, singing, I think, of the good that draws them to itself. Then, as when burning logs are struck rise innumerable sparks, from which the foolish are accustomed to make auguries, so more than a thousand lights appeared to rise again from there and to mount, some much, some little, as the Sun that kindles them appointed; and when each had settled in its place,” etc.
I know that some of you are working on the aesthetics of colors; I would point out this scene to you and the complications of color. The white of Jupiter, the gold of the letters, the red of the flames, there is a kind of chromatic — a deployment of chromatic elements within this grand spectacle. Dante is indicating directly and indirectly this chromatic symbolism, so this is what we — the way the heavens speak to us on Earth and to the — and the rulers of the Earth and then Dante goes on in the next Canto XIX, wondering what is this idea of justice. What does it mean?
He’ll ask, Canto XIX, line 28, “I know well that though the Divine Justice is mirrored in another realm of heaven yours apprehends it without a veil. You know with what intentness I am prepared to listen, you know what is that doubt which is old a fast in me.” He’s hungry; Dante’s hungry to know what Divine Justice is. What we hear is the bird, the eagle goes on saying, “He that turned His compass,” that’s God, that’s the geometer, an image that clearly echoes two biblical texts. One is of Job 38, a famous passage, some of you may know. Dante returns to it repeatedly. “Where were you when I drew the boundaries of the Earth,” that’s the geometrical, the matrix so to speak, of this metaphor of God the geometer. And the other one is in the Book of Wisdom that goes on talking about, “I was there with him and I was His delight when He was drawing the circle around the deep.” Those are two biblical passages that insist on this — both the geometric and then aesthetic. A theatre, the idea that through the shapes of the world are really the representations of this perfection of God’s geometry.
They are two metaphors that Dante goes on deploying but let’s see what the substance of the argument now is. “He that turned his compass,” we understand why he uses the word compass and the image of the compass, that’s clear. “Not remain in infinite excess,” that’s to me another geometrical language though the two words are slightly redundant because excess means something which is measure or less. The language of measure, the language of accounting, and the language of limits is set against this idea of something not finite, something that escapes the logic of geometry, the logic of measurement, an infinite and excess. In fact, I find the phrase deliberately redundant, it’s not only infinite but it’s also excessive idea of the infinite to drive the point home; “and manifest, could not make His Power to be so impressed on that whole universe.”
Even the word universe is — as much as a poetic term we speak of verse in poetry and I wonder how many of you have ever wondered whether that stuff — that word comes from? It comes from geometry because it implies a turning. You come to the end of the line and you turn, and you draw a geometrical figure, and so does the universe. It’s one turning, it’s the sphere, you can have hemispheres but the two hemispheres make the universe. These are all, as you see — I hope you enjoy them as I enjoy them telling you about this. “And, in proof of this, the first proud spirit,” Lucifer, now that’s geometry of the soul, the first proud spirit who was — as you know Dante connects pride and geometry or perspective, as we said before. “The first proud spirit, who was in the highest of all creatures, fair and ripe,” what a great adjective. Lucifer falls unripe because grace implies ripeness. The idea that you are ripe when you have been touched by grace, ripeness is all one could say using another — referring to another text, not by Dante.
“Through not waiting for light,” that’s Lucifer, “from which it is plain that every lesser nature is too scant a vessel for that good which has no limit and measures,” I’m not going indicate that anymore, “itself by itself. Thus our vision, which must needs be one of the rays of the Mind of which all things are full, cannot by its nature be of such power that it should not perceive its origin to be far beyond all that appears to it. Therefore,” and that seems to be the essence, the brunt of the argument, “the sight that is granted to your world penetrates within the Eternal Justice as the eye into the sea; for though from the shore it sees the bottom, in the open sea it does not, and yet the bottom is there but the depth conceals it.”
The idea that we can see justice only when we have a very superficial, we see just as we see the bottom of the sea when we are near the shore, only when we have a superficial understanding of — do we see the bottom otherwise we don’t. God’s justice is as imponderable and unfathomable as the sea floor can be out in — away from the shore. “There is no light there but that which comes from the clear,” and so on and the changes — then Dante complicates the issue a little bit and he really asks where is the justice. Is justice limited to a place, to a continent, to the economy of Christian Europe, and how is it related to other places?
Chapter 3. A Conversation between Philosophy and Theology [00:26:49]
We have a notion of what nowadays we call alterity; you must have heard that term, “the other,” the idea of the other. In the Middle Ages, by the way, it was not alien to this thought of the other. I can give you a few titles of Aquinas writing a track against the errors of the Greeks; that’s a sense of idleness. Establishing, that is to say differences, or Aquinas writing a suma against the Gentiles, the pagans who usually — who actually were the philosophers of the time. Those who do not have excess or exceed or want to exceed to Revelations. They have an idea of otherness and the idea of otherness is always that of acknowledging that particular difference.
I do not see, at this point yet, any substantial deviation on the part of Dante from the myth and the examples of the heroic life. The examples of the heroic life are those who literally establish boundaries, who within those boundaries manage to live according to the fullness of their virtues. That’s the heroic life and that’s really the boundary that he establishes. Now Dante asks what is that boundary. I understand that Divine Justice is impenetrable but then he asks this extraordinary question, what is a place? This was a — a man is born at the bank of the Indus, line 72, I think this is the most complex and the most extraordinary question in the whole of the Divine Comedy from the point of the awareness of let’s say alterity.
“A man is born on the bank of Indus,” Asia, “and none is there to speak, or read, or write of Christ, and all his desires and doings are good so far as human reason sees, without sin in life or speech. He dies unbaptized and without faith. Where is this justice that condemns him? Where is his fault if he does not believe? Now, who art thou that wouldst sit upon the bench and judge a thousand miles away,” more geometry here, more space, more distance comes to be not only one of depth, now one of huge distances in space “with a site short of a span.” The span, by the way, it’s a great — it’s a measurement, a geometric term too. That’s the span, the distance that goes from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger. This is technically Italian, spanna and the English is span, it comes from it.
“Assuredly, for him that would reason it out with me, if the Scriptures were not set over you there would be abundant room for question,” and then he goes on talking and as the storks circle, and Dante’s clearly circling of — himself over these issues and we have a return to Europe, the whole of Europe now appears. The whole of canto’s [line] 100 until the end; let me just read this passage where, the eagle, the Roman symbol, Dante goes out of the way to say, “When these shining fires of the Holy Ghost had paused, still in the sign that made the Romans reverend to the world, it began again,” with allusions therefore to the Romans as if to — as a kind of idea, Rome to Dante has become an idea, an idea of universality. “To this kingdom none ever rose who did not believe in Christ, either before or after He was nailed to the tree. But note, many cry Christ, Christ ! who shall be far less near to Him at the Judgment than such as know not Christ, and such Christians.”
The Ethiopians, Africa is being mentioned, “shall condemn when the two companies are parted… What can the Persians,” Asia once again, the three continents are going to be — there are divisions of belief now and these divisions of belief seem to lose all consistency because you may be a European and there is a moral alterity within Europe. Alterity is not just a question of geographic disposition. It’s not part of the economy; someone who is a Persian is other me; it is, but there is in terms of the moral life, clearly there is an alterity within Europe.
In fact Dante does not — he starts with a Kingdom of Prague, lines 118, “Albert… by which the Kingdom [of Prague] shall be made desolate,” and then to France, then shall be the seen the misery brought on this.” Count all the countries; by the way, he seems to know the history of, “on the Seine from the debasement of the currency by him that shall die from the charge of a boar. There shall be seen the pride that makes men thirst and so maddens the Scot, and the Englishman that neither can keep within his bounds.” There is a history of violence that transgresses also boundaries, and that can be violence, and I will give you a little story about that. “It will show the wantonness and soft living of him of Spain, and of him of Bohemia who never knew worth nor sought it. It will show for the Cripple of Jerusalem his goodness marked with an I, while an M will mark the opposite. It will show the avarice and cowardice of him that holds the island of the fire,” Sicily, “where Anchises ended his long life; and to make plain his insignificance his records shall be in contractions that will note much in little space; and manifest to all shall be the foul deeds of his uncle and his brother, by whom a lineage so illustrious and two crowns have been dishonoured; and he of Portugal and he of Norway shall be known there, and he of Russia,” meaning literally Russia, “who to his own hurt has been the coin of Venice. ‘Oh happy Hungary,” the irony is heavy, “if she no longer let herself be wronged! And happy Navarre, if she arm herself with the mountains that surround her! And, for earnest of this, all men shall know that Nicosia and Famagosta lament and complain of their own beast, which keeps its place beside the rest.’”
The whole of Europe, this is now the history of Europe, in a way that Dante has given the history of the empire, Roman Empire, but this is the history of Europe and a history of desolation and moral dereliction. These are the terms of — what is here and what is there? What is within an economy of redemption? What is not out of the economy of redemption? This is exactly the question that Dante asks and the answer is that we do not know. We do not know how this salvation is going to work out. No one can claim, therefore, to decide what exact moral boundaries can exist between a place and another. That seems to be the idea that he tempers therefore the notion, on the one hand, the idea of boundaries and on the other hand, there is also this notion that boundaries are political but they are not nor can they be thought of as being moral boundaries; so he distinguishes the two issues. What is his answer? What is he trying to say?
Before I try to tell you about this, let me tell you about a little text that has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, but I’m sure you know the text. It’s that little story that Herodotus, who is a great Greek historian, tells this story in the Histories, in the year before the Greeks are getting ready to invade Egypt, going to Egypt. He really writes the story to warn them about what the dangers that they might be surprised by or the dangers wherever you go across boundaries that — and violate boundaries. It’s really an argument in favor of boundaries.
And he tells the story of a king, the King of Egypt, Calloderus, I think his name is who was, who not a very sharp man, a very bright man, not only was he not a very bright man, he also had a very beautiful wife and he was so taken with the beauty of his wife that he wanted everybody to know about it but he can’t tell everybody; but he tells his advisor and his advisor was a very prudent man, says, “sire, your majesty I don’t want to know, I believe you, don’t tell me more about this.” “But you’ve got to know, you’ve got to hear me, because you know not only you got hear me I want you to see the naked beauty of my wife. It’s beyond belief and I want you to see it because human beings tend to trust their eyes more than what they hear, more than their ears.” We don’t really believe what we hear, but what we see is direct and we want to have access to it.
The counselor very prudently says, “no sire, this is really too much trouble, I cannot disobey you but you are forcing me to really insist that — I believe you completely, you can go on telling me about her beauty, I don’t want to see it.” “No, I’m arranging this” and he contrives a little plot. The wife has to go bathing in a room next to the bedroom. He, the King, leaves the door ajar, open for her to come in the bedroom door, and so while she’s away he allows the counselor to hide in the shadows of the room, in a little corner.
The queen comes in, undresses, the counselor sees her naked and very quickly walks out, hoping silently and hoping not to have been seen. The morning after the queen was a sharp queen calls him into her office and says, “I saw you, tell me what you were doing there.” The counselor has no choice but saying, “your majesty the king, your husband, asked me to come in there.” The queen says, “I imagined that that’s really what happened but at this point one of you two is one too much — too many. One of you — either you kill the king or you kill yourself. The idea that I have been ashamed and been seen naked by two men is unbearable to me.” And the counselor does what I’m sure all of you would do, he became the king.
By the way, Herodotus goes on even saying, that he lived a very undistinguished life; it was not a big deal, but he’s warning, Herodotus is really warning us to understand that there is always a limit to — that we have to set up and protect between what we say me, or mine, I, and what I say you, this is the language that Dante uses at the beginning of Canto XX. They say “I and mine” when they mean “we and our”; this is a very thin line that has to be observed.
The king, of course, just to finish that little story, the king was a fool, he had no prudence, he had no sense of the difference between the private life and the public needs. He had no idea that there are things that you keep to yourself and you don’t share with others. One can go on complicating the problem but the issue is that he understood limits. You are going on into another man’s country you have to act as if you don’t have to go too deep into it, and you don’t have to try to violate its — a country’s a woman’s nakedness meaning the essential — the private sense of oneself.
I do not know that Dante would really agree with Herodotus in these cantos, but what he has been doing is literally setting up a needed cultural difference. Somehow there is a — they exist, cultural differences, and at the same time allow for a kind of moral circulation of ideas. Let me put in general medieval terms to tell you what I think he has been doing because the argument — when he makes this argument a man is born on the river of the Indus, he does not know anything about Christian faith and baptism, dies, why should he be condemned, etc. He has been living decorously and rationally, why should he be not saved? That’s the question he asks.
What he is taking on there would seem to be what we call, in medieval terms, a Pelagian, a Pelagian stance. You know now, I think I have said before, but let me just repeat this, Pelagian is an adjective that comes from the name of a British monk of the — roughly the time of St. Augustine, the fifth century Pelagius, who really maintained that by the exercise of — through works, through good works human beings, living according to principles of nature, human beings can be saved. It would seem almost that Dante’s taking that position to — a position by the way which he probably even held in the philosophical text called the Banquet. That was one of — it’s one of either — I don’t agree with that but it’s — there seems to be such an emphasis on the ability of human beings to live rationally that the demands of grace and the demands of faith are somewhat bracketed and a little dim. Nonetheless, I think that they are there, only that he is talking as a philosopher.
The issue is this — that Dante here is asking for a conversation between philosophy and theology, within reason and faith. In the sense that, he really understands that philosophy without theology ends up in a sort of labyrinth of its own constructions and may lose the way. In theology, without philosophy, may end up in mere opinion which has no validity at all on — for people who believe in the power of reason. Now, to connect it with the previous cantos, I think that Dante has been literally extending this whole problem about what exile is. An exile, which does not mean the random movement, but always a kind of — a sense of the problematical qualities of a place in the world and the relationship that we have with ourselves and our own ideas.
Chapter 4. The Contemplatives [00:42:49]
I know that this is starting to get — that I — it has taken me away from the other cantos but let me just read XXI and the cantos and I just want to turn very briefly — I don’t think that XXI and XXII which are cantos where Dante meets. It’s the Sphere of Saturn, which as you know, is the heaven of contemplation. The word Saturn — the myth of Saturn is the myth of time devouring everything that it engenders that’s what — remember that time is the first cannibal of history, eating up what it produces. This is the minutes that are just taken in. It’s — the name seems to come from the saturation of time. Dante is coming to — this is the last planet and it’s also the heaven of astronomy, so he’s forcing on us the idea of contemplation. Here he finds the contemplatives and among them there is the soul of a founder by the name of Benedict. The first from the contemplative order.
The word contemplation really implies two things if you ask “what is a contemplation” because there is always a debate as to whether Dante is a mystic, or he’s not a mystic, I think that if there is anything that he has it’s — he’s a contemplative in the true sense of the word. The word contemplation translates the Greek theory which is really the turning of the mind toward the essentials; theory, a contemplation. The word comes from templum, contemplation which is, as you know, the Latin word for temple, but also from the Latin word for tempus, they are the same word. The word for temple and the word for time have the same origin, and they both come from the Greek word called temno, the Greek work is temno, which means “to cut.” Saturn, time, with a side cuts; the contemplatives are those who cut a space of time and privilege it, or a space in place, and cut it off from the flow of history and the flow of profane place and make it the sort of ground for turning the minds to the consideration of higher things.
This is the point that Dante is driving. He is going to discuss the degeneracy of the order but I want to really end with you and I really meant to talk about this final image at the end of Canto XXII where Dante now — has really reached the periphery of the planetary system; now he will go into the stars, the heaven of the fixed stars. We have a little bit of time so I can go slow here. Lines — Canto XXII, lines, let’s say 126; this is Beatrice speaking, “ ‘Thou art so near to the final blessedness,’ Beatrice began, ‘that thou must have thine eyes clear and keen.” That’s — Dante’s — he will deploy this language of visionariness, and the language of visionariness will start with the emphasis on purifying one’s and refining one’s own eyes and one’s physical eyesight.
“Therefore, before you go farther into it, look down.” Beatrice, it’s one of the two invitations by Beatrice now to turn back — to turn the eyes back and have a contemplation, and Dante will contemplate so to speak the Earth, not up where the heavens turn. “Therefore, before you go farther into it to look down and see how much of the universe I’ve already put beneath thy feet, so that with all fulness of joy thy heart may present itself to the triumphal host that comes rejoicing through this rounded ether.’ With my sight,” Dante now is engaged in this retrospective glance down to the Earth, “I returned through every one of the seven spheres, and I saw this globe such that I smiled,” our Earth, “at its paltry semblance.”
The perspective is that of space. I wouldn’t call it infinite space but a vast distance of space. I don’t call it infinite space because Dante’s notion of the universe is not that it’s infinite. Dante has the notion of the universe as a bounded but vast connect — vast enclave. It’s really like a book, that’s the image that he uses. “And that judgment which holds it for least, I approve as best, and he whose thought is on the other things may rightly be called just. I saw Latonia’s daughter,” the Moon, “growing, without that shadow for which I once believed her to be rare or dense; thy son’s aspect, Hyperion, I endured there, and I saw how Maia and Dione move in their circles,” meaning Mercury, “near him; from thence appeared to me the tempering of Jove, between his father and his son, and from thence the changes were clear to me which they make in their positions; and all seven showed me what is their magnitude and what their speed, and at what distance their stations.”
We have an astronomy here, the heaven of astronomy, but we have an astronomy which is indicated mythically, and not only mythically but also through a process of affiliation; it’s the daughter of Latonia, the son of Hyperion, a process of affiliation, it’s really as if the universe itself has followed the logic of generation of production as being — producing and reproducing itself and then he continues, Dante goes back to looking at the Earth. “All seven showed to me what is the magnitude and what their speed, and at what distances their stations. The little threshing-floor that makes us so fierce all appeared to me from hills to river-mouths, while I was wheeling with the eternal Twins. Then to the fair eyes I turned my eyes again.”
I want to draw your attention to line 151, where Dante says, “The little threshing-floor that makes us so fierce all appeared to me, l’aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci.” “Ci fa,” look at that line, look at it, “to me from little hills, to little mountains while I was wheeling with the eternal Twins.” Dante, in many ways has now — that’s part of his view of astronomy. He’s giving his horoscope indirectly here. This idea of the Twins being the sign under which he was born, it doesn’t really imply any astrological lapse on his part, it’s now that he can be free and he has determined the limitations of — astrological determinations he can go on alluding to his birth sign. I want to draw — I just want to draw the attention to this whole point about the “ci” where Dante says “the little threshing-floor that makes us so fierce,” because for all its distance, Dante says, distance as it can be — for all the distance which is implied by this poetic fiction, he’s distant from the Earth as he ever was. This pronoun, ci, us, the pronoun strains to have it both ways; on the one hand Dante asserts distance, the claim of a perspective of eternity on the world and — but he does not, that’s the other way, he does not want to surrender his place in time and in history.
He is part of us so at the end of all this great gyration through the universe, Dante again claims and reclaims for himself a place with us in the world of history and the world of time. The synthesis of the two, the claim of eternity and the sense of contingency of the self in time is the ultimate goal of the poem, and the ultimate goal of the journey. That for Dante will be, as we shall see maybe next week, the very vision of the incarnation. The two — the idea where these two, this structure, the immutable structure of history and the process of time will come together.
Let me stop here and see if there are questions that I would — about some of these issues that I raised that I would welcome them, please.
The passage, by the way, may be we should even — the passage about where Dante talks about his own horoscope was given a little bit earlier, line 112 of Canto XXII, where Dante says, “O glorious stars, O light pregnant with mighty power, from which I acknowledge all my genius, whatever it be, with you was born and with you hidden, he that is the father of each mortal life when I first tasted the Tuscan air; and after, when grace was granted me to enter into the high wheel that bears you round, your region was assigned to me. To you my soul now sighs devoutly that it may gain strength for the hard task that draws it to itself.”
This is the — Dante abolishes the differences between astronomy and astrology. From this point of view he belongs fully to his time where there is no intrinsic — we think of them as astrologists, of superstition, and astronomy is the science that was not the case for Dante. Another little detail since I’m introducing the question of visionariness now in cantos — with the contemplation. Let me just mention this initial image to give you an idea of how Dante proceeds. The initial image at Canto XXI of — the very beginning of Canto XXI, Dante is in the sphere of Saturn where the contemplatives are and he sees the ladder, the ladder of ascent but before we get there this is the passage, “Already my eyes were fixed on the face of my Lady, and within my mind, which was withdrawn from every other thought; and she did not smile, but ‘Were I to smile’ she began to me, ‘thou wouldst become like Semele when she was turned to ashes; for my beauty, which thou hast seen kindle more the higher we climb by the stairs of the eternal palace, is so shining that if it were not tempered thy mortal powers in its blaze would be as a branch split by a thunderbolt. We have risen to the seventh splendour, which beneath the breast of the burning Lion rays down now mingled with its power. Set thy mind behind thine eyes and make of them mirrors to the shape which in this mirror will appear to thee.’”
This is an extraordinary image, the image of the myth of Semele, the young woman who fell in love with God. That would seem to be, of course, an extraordinary spiritual story. Ovid tells it as a very carnal story, she wants to love Jupiter, and Jupiter will agree to love Semele back on one condition, that she never ask the god to show himself forth for what he is. She has to accept his — the god’s disguises. A variant, if you wish, of what later will appear with Apuleius, the idea of Eros and Psyche, you remember the love of — the relationship with the mind and love. Love does not want to be seen for what it is, and always Simulacra and deceptive figures to cover its essence. This is the same thing that he’s asking, that Dante’s recalling, and of course what happens in Ovid is that Semele, in love, and because of love, love impels curiosity, she wants Jupiter to show himself forth for what he is, mindless of the danger that Jupiter had predicted this would befall — and the danger of the death that would befall her. In fact, he shows himself and she cannot bear the extraordinary beauty of the god and gets destroyed and turned into ashes.
That’s the myth that Dante is recalling, so that the inevitable question for us is, why would Dante recall this story here at the beginning of the cantos on contemplation. The answer that I could give you is that Dante does so because he’s aware of the dangers of visionary claims. This is — if you read the Bible, for instance, you do know that there is a tradition in the Bible among the Jews to turn their back, for instance, to even the passing of what is viewed as holy, to be the Holy Arc, or they cover themselves in — because of the wisdom or the tradition of not seeing, or never trying to have mixed the profane and the sacred, that of the sense of the danger that would befall the — those who are in the space of — the profane space, they were outside of the sanctuary.
Dante is making this — or Beatrice is telling him that he has to endure the limitations of his human nature, and that his human nature, the trait of his mortality which is that of seeing through images and through ubiquitous cannot yet be given up. He does this as he enters the heaven of the contemplatives, who they themselves were longing and desiring to see God, but accepted this longing as the sign of God’s presence and gift to them. This is an extraordinary passage in terms of what Dante thinks of contemplation and clearly the danger of thinking of contemplation as the condition that would allow and bring about the vision of God. Such a vision, Dante is saying, is not going to be possible while we are here on Earth.
This is the — a number of ambiguities about this problem and then we could also mention why Benedict — why is Benedict here? The figure that appears in Canto XXII as the example of — first of all he is the founder, as I said, of the life of contemplation, but a life of contemplation that appears as the danger of contemplation; of course, Dante goes on talking about the decadence of the contemplative order, which is by the way, quite true and what — that which occasions historically the foundation of the mendicant orders. Those Franciscans and Dominicans whom we already have encountered who want to be part of the world and roam around in the world, but the danger of the contemplation though is that they can bypass and drive a wedge between the contemplative life and the active life.
The ideal of Benedict has been betrayed because what he wants is an action and a life of action, the life of contemplative prayer, so that’s one of the causes of the degeneracy that Dante pursues. With that we enter the world of — now where Dante returns and this is what we are going to do next time to what I call basic words. Somehow the whole compass of knowledge, the whole idea of geography and spiritual geography, the whole idea of how — of what triggers the writing of a poem, that has been taken care of, or at least Dante seems to have been phasing and delivering to us his particular understanding of these problems.
Now the question is, with all of this in mind, what is the meaning of the basic words we use, and the basic words we use, and that’s what we are going to talk about next time, are going to be love, hope, and faith, what we call the three theological virtues. They are basic words because there is no such a thing as a life without trust, or the difficulties of the life without trust. There is no possibility of a life without hope and certainly that which for Dante remains the biggest mystery of all; there is never the possibility of thinking about a life or without love. It becomes a mystery because he can define the other two words; he never — he escapes the responsibly of defining love. It is as if that were really the biggest mystery throughout the Divine Comedy and in his experience.
Chapter 5. Question and Answer [01:02:30]
Let me see if there are some questions now that I have thrown a lot — put a lot of chestnuts on the fire as we say so let’s — yes.
Student: In one of your earlier lectures you were talking about the whole comedy that it was a physical journey and in hell we could see that was — he emphasized his weight and the Earth and smells of things and so forth, and now that we’re in Paradise it’s more vision and light, and color, and is he trying to characterize God or God’s relation to Earth somehow by contrasting them that way?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is that in the previous lectures I discussed — would talk of hell as the place where the smells, the concrete particulars of the Earth would be mentioned and it would be part of Dante’s warehouse in the representation of hell. Now that we are talking — we are entering the world of Paradise, we have been discussing Paradise, Dante seems to separate himself from the aesthetics, the sensual aspects of hell and talk more — which is still sensual though, colors, light, colors and visionariness. Then the question becomes does this mean that Dante is clearly finding a distinction between Earth and Heaven that this is really the — am I rephrasing it accurately?
Student: Yes. Is he trying to — I mean, because clearly it’s not that he’s trying to separate God from physical reality because what we see and colors are still very physical descriptions so what is the distinction between them?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yeah well I — the answer would be this, that in Paradise you do have a lot of what we call earthly experiences, that’s the only way he can really understand anything about Paradise. There are dances, there are songs, you do have — there are games that they play. You do have the language of playfulness in the forms of simulations. Simulation is very — it’s a form of game, it’s a reduction of the world to unseriousness, the game, the play, and in the form of the degradation of, the noble idea of play because play is — see these things are all very ambivalent.
We are dealing with the same reality only seen from different perspective, and I mention play because Paradise is all about play, it’s about playing, about the dance of the stars, about the spectacle, the theatre which he just — Dante has just seen a little performance put out for him. Can you imagine the dance of the stars that go on? It’s like seeing the spectacle of the Olympics in China; they go on with distribution of shapes and forms, that is play, it’s aesthetics so I don’t — there is no difference there between the two. I don’t see a difference there.
Of course that has nothing to do, whatever he is seeing in Paradise, has really nothing to do with the understanding of the divinity. I am not even — I haven’t decided yet, not for any reason but because there may not really be time and I could — I wouldn’t be doing justice to the difficulty of the problem. I haven’t decided whether to discuss the whole — the cosmology of Paradise, of the universe that appears in Canto XXIX of Paradise where Dante goes on talking about two universes, for instance, so there is the physical universe that somehow he has traversed only to understand that when he goes there, there is another universe which is completely spiritual and it’s not the platonic idea of an inverted — you know Plato has this idea of an inverted cosmos, but we are in the world which is really the projection, a projection, an unreal projection, projection meaning a shadow of the real cosmos.
It’s not really that there are two adjacent cosmos, both very real and that’s the — where we live and where we don’t live; beyond that as really a speck of sand he says. There is a light that clearly is the light from which whole or creation emanates, so God remains forever a transcendent. What Dante does see at the end is he sees this image in — his own image in the plural, our image, which to me implies the idea that as Christians read the whole notion of Genesis is that in — since we are shaped in God’s image there is our image in God. There is a human component in God, so that’s all he sees; he sees maybe the incarnation but it’s — all of that is all wrapped in a kind of extraordinary and deliberate fogginess of representation.
The paradise that he describes is not the paradise of sensual delights, of the Qu’ran for instance, but there’s a lot of game and play and — the stars, the amorous discourse of paradise engages and involves even the stars. They go on wooing each other, it’s as if literally the whole cosmos is involved in this extraordinary dance of love that keeps it together, makes it cohere as opposed to say Lucretius’ idea of an anarchic universe forever on the verge of falling apart. These are the real models of the cosmos. Let’s call it Lucretius and Virgil, Epicurus and Plato, this is Dante and heavy, the heavy traditionalist, it’s very heavy the tradition of materialism. The spiritual tradition is very small in comparison to the heaviness of the physical, of the scholars of physics who want to see the cosmos in physical terms. But Dante opposes it and somehow he finds a kind of — that’s what the universe — that’s what keeps the universe together is really love and that’s what we’re going to find out. That I will read, the rest I don’t know. Other questions? Please.
Student: When Beatrice is wanting Dante not to look directly at her face because he might become like Semele and just turn to ashes, do you think Dante is trying to elude back to Medusa and the danger of just looking directly into the face of something so powerful and being reduced to something that isn’t human? I was reading that and she said, “Set thy mind behind thine eyes and make of them mirrors to the shape which in this mirror will appear to thee,” as if like the mirror, so the mirror is like the eyes like the intermediary just like the shield that is the intermediary for maybe Medusa.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Very good. The question — let me just recall the question. The image of Beatrice as Semele, whose smile could potentially destroy the lover, the pilgrim who were to look at her face; the question is, is that supposed to be a sort of, let’s call it palinodic variant, a version of the scene of Medusa in Inferno IX, who threatened also, in that case the pilgrim, with petrification, with a turning into stone, the intellect would petrify, that’s really the allegory and there of course in the canto of Medusa there was always the shield, the shield of poetry, the shield of Perseus, and the answer is yes absolutely, this is exactly what is happening. I think that this is — if you are thinking as I think you are of writing about — are you thinking of writing — no. About Medusa? No.
Student: I was just [inaudible].
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Okay, well if you’re thinking about writing about Medusa I think that you are absolutely — you would — the two scenes you would be absolutely correct. The story of Medusa is — what is interesting — the story of Medusa is the story of — we could view it — we viewed it, as you remember, the temptation of looking at the past, a way of Orpheus, a turning — Dante who casts himself as Orpheus, Orpheus, you know, who is told not to look back and yet Orpheus stands for a sort of impatience, a kind of skepticism about the injunction, the fear that Eurydice may not really be following him, he turns and loses her, some modern mythographers even see that look. I’m thinking about a man by the name of Blanchaux, he really wanted to lose Eurydice because he saw — because this way he could write poetry, so that poetry can become the perpetual voice of absence.
Dante does not go that far but it’s clear that it’s time to — a poetic experience of his own. The interesting thing about what you are saying and we could go into that maybe in a conversation later because it’s — it would take me too far, is that this enigmatic — the double face of Beatrice comes to the fore here that she has — she was confronting the siren and threatens against the siren and now she also appears as the sorcery and danger of beauty. Beauty that is that which was — the language here is beauty, beauty which can — which we hunger after and yet it’s that which can destroy us and this seems to me to be — I put that in the consciousness of Dante’s — of the contemplatives that Dante represents, this doubleness that you’re wrong to see and yet you may not have to — you are better off in not seeing, but it’s true that it appears also with the ambiguity of beauty and the beauty of Beatrice that it would be true. Yes.
Student: So if the mirror is sort of like the intermediary just like the shield, what role does vision and the eyes play in mediating between what you see in the world and the mind that it protects?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Well Dante will — is now slowly preparing for this final vision and it’s going to have intermediate stages. When he will see, at the end he will see not God; he will see his own image within the beatific vision. This is how far he will go, not only that, he will go also — there is an eclipse of the inner eye of memory. Memory is thought of as being the inner eye of the imagination, that’s the classical definition of memory. That too will be completely eclipsed, he will forget, so that at the end of all of these experiences we are ending up with forgetfulness with a fall from that vision. I don’t know that I’m answering exactly your question but I don’t know that I — I haven’t understood what you really want to know, what you’re really asking so —
Student: I guess I’m just asking more about the role of vision like it makes more sense —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Vision — okay.
Student: Yeah, just like I’m — is the eye supposed to be an intermediary or a protection of the mind to let you think or —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The eye — what is the eye, is it the intermediary or an extension of the mind? That’s really what the eye is, but the vision that he will have is not going to be a physical vision. It cannot be a physical vision; it has to be a spiritual vision and so there are the limitations of the eye. Let me leave it at that. Okay, thank you, see you next time.
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