ITAL 310: Dante in Translation

Lecture 24

 - General Review


The last class of the semester consists of a brief recapitulation of topics in the Divine Comedy addressed throughout the course, followed by an extensive question and answer session with the students. The questions posed allow Professor Mazzotta to elaborate on issues raised over the course of the semester, from Dante’s place within the medieval love tradition to the relationship between his roles as poet and theologian.

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Dante in Translation

ITAL 310 - Lecture 24 - General Review

Chapter 1. Distinctive Theological Concerns in the Divine Comedy [00:00:00]

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Here we are, talking about — recapitulating the work done on — in reading part of the poem, selections of this poem. It’s a little difficult; of course, I’m not going to tell you exactly what we have been talking about. We have been reading from the work outside of the Divine Comedy; we started there with the Vita nuova, which we read as you recall, as a visionary text, as a story of an education, as an autobiography and we tried to explore what those terms mean and how they interact with each other. How does one term shed light on the other? What does it mean to write an autobiography and at the same time having an education? The two converge, of course, in Dante’s imagination.

You can only write an education — a story of your education if you have a sense of what your whole life is about. If you have some pattern of coherence and intelligibility that you can impose on, and extract from, respectively, the sense of your life. But above all, I was interested in that partial, because it’s sort of — it’s truncated at the end as a sort of interruption — deliberate interruption, because what kind of preparation it gives us. To what extent is it repeated that adventure Dante narrates in the Vita nuova is kind of an adumbration of the Divine Comedy? In many ways the two texts really are implicating each other in the sense that Dante finishes the Vita nuova — stops writing the Vita nuova, that’s the inconclusive, the unfinished quality of the text so that he can go on writing the Divine Comedy, if you see what I’m saying. The Vita nuova ends with the statement of a project, of a project to come, which therefore will be in a certain way the fulfillment of what is only hinted at in the Vita nuova.

The two texts are literally one is preparing for the other, the other one — then the Divine Comedy turns out the way we were reading the Divine Comedy last time. The Divine Comedy itself has a sort of inconclusive quality about it. Dante reaches and experiences the beatific vision, and yet his text succumbs to the enormity of the task of describing it, and there were a number of reasons why we said Dante does that. What seems to be, and is, a defeat at the level of the imagination turns out to be a great triumph for Dante’s own theology, right? The measure in which that the poem ends in a kind of defeat, in sort of the — with the admission of the impossibility for Dante — the poet’s language to contain and therefore reify, circumscribe that which he has seen, right?

He’s sort of ending with this question mark, this vision of effigy as he says, our own image. That’s all that is left for him to recall, which really means that — in the refusal to pinpoint, describe, and define the so called beatific vision, some people could be very disappointed; why doesn’t he tell us what he really saw? Because that would be the statement valid for him; he wants us, at the end of the poem to adventure, to take our own journey and make our own discoveries about that which remains the essential point of the Divine Comedy, as is the essential point of all great texts about tradition: the encounter between the human and the Divine. That is the point of all the great epics.

Whether it is in the form the Aeneid where the hero is always uncertain about what the gods are telling him, uncertain as how to decipher it, and yet he nonetheless pursues what he takes to be — and makes mistakes — Aeneas, along the way — but what he takes to be God’s will. This is the way he can live out his own sense of ethical imperative to himself, to his people, the refugees that are coming from Asia Minor and going toward an unknown land, and the Divine imperative, or whether it’s going to be the renaissance text from Spencer’s Fairy Queen to Tasso’s, to Milton, to Lucretius, who writes in a theological epic. The idea he wants to cure his readers, he has one reader in mind: the young epicurean, and this is Lucretius, whom Dante had never read — he read in parts and was very fascinated by what he read, who wants to educate one young man, Manaus, a young epicurean to the real and bitter truth of what the epicurean philosophy may be and that bitter truth, the harsh truth — Lucretius thinks that there is no such thing.

That ours — the Roman world is a desecrated world, that the gods have fled, that’s the — but that is still in the mode of an atheist, it is still a theological concern because the implication of what I’m saying is that atheism itself may be a way of addressing, of course, it’s a way of addressing the question of God, the un-knowability of God, the distance of God, maybe the non-existence of the gods. The Divine Comedy from this point of view partakes of this extraordinary tradition. But he does it in a way which is remarkably different; Dante does his theology in a way which is remarkably different from anything else that has gone on before him and, in many ways, after him. I think there is a mode of recapitulation, this is what I have to — I will have to briefly illustrate and give you the chance to ask more questions specifically about the poem.

Some of these things that I have said to you — the whole poem moves towards this kind of theology. Condensed in Canto XXXIII of Paradise, recapitulated right there. Of course Inferno goes on talking about issues of politics, which is not that they are easy, they are very complicated, but in some ways they are rooted in Dante’s own theology. That is, it’s too easy to believe that, you know, this is politics, this is theology; they are always implicated with one another. In fact, sometimes the best way to understand the theology is to talk about the politics, and the best way to understand the politics is to really talk about the theology. They are completely, always implicating each other. Inferno talks about the ethics and the politics, Purgatorio talks about aesthetics and ethics above all. The possibility of reconstructing the human beings; so flawed they seem to be, so incredibly sunk into the ditches of their own perversions, of our perversions. How do you — so radical, Dante’s condemnation of the political realities, of civil war, people cannibalizing each other, and not in a metaphor that man is a wolf to man, but literally they are doing this. How do you get out of it?

It’s very difficult to be so — to ostracize politics from the possibility of the human imagination and then at one point saying, well I still need this. How are you going to make a persuasive case for your readers? This was the great challenge of Purgatorio. We saw the question of time, the great problem of freedom, that all of a sudden seemed to surface in Purgatorio with Cato’s suicide, you remember, with the debate about the soul, and created freedom, and by an act of freedom, God’s freedom to the attainment of the free will. Around this extraordinary concern of freedom, and therefore the possibilities of the moral life, we came to the conclusion of Purgatorio with a garden, the Garden of Eden, the place of pleasures, the place where pleasures are not damned in and of themselves. The question becomes now, because that is the Sabbath, that is the moment where you — pleasure can be seen as the crown of work that which crowns, the correlation of one’s own labors and so on. That is also rooted in theology.

Then we ended up in Paradise where we really talked directly, because I think that’s really the substance of Paradise, the possibility of thinking of an aesthetic theology. How art and theology go hand in hand, because what joins them is the question of — not just the question of the art being the temptation, ethical temptation, but now the question of beauty as the mode of revelation of the Divine. Therefore, the implication was, and let’s hope — I have said that very clearly, that art becomes a way to know God, a way to know the Divine, so we are moving away from traditional assumptions about what is the path to go and encounter God. What is really the discovery of the Sacred; is the Sacred going to be found, some texts in Dante seems to have believed that at some point in a particular — in the animation of nature, is it going to be found in the love that you have for your Beatrice, or you, or Beatrice’s for your Dante, or whatever. He goes on thinking about these concerns and how everything that belongs to the world of art is the part of the path to the Divine.

Theology and aesthetics not just as — well, aesthetics as a way of making beautiful the reality, the theological content of Dante’s faith. Not just that, but — that’s no longer the question of an ornamentation. That was the problem, by the way, of Lucretius who at one point says, I wanted to write poetry because I want to make pleasant the bitter medicine that Epicurus goes on administering to you. The way he says it, that the gods have fled, that there is no such a thing as sacredness in the cosmos, that’s too bitter to bear. I’m going to say it nicely, now that’s really — not so for Dante. How the actual exercise of art, it’s an ascetic exercise. You move through art, you refine, you think, and you question all the things. It’s not just an ornamentation — ornamentation of being the word for cosmetics, for beautifying that which one has — that which he will say.

These were the concerns and we came to Canto XXXIII of Paradise, and I maintain to you and as way of recapitulation, I think I have said to you, I hope that I have said it all to you, but I will gladly go over it and I hope that if you see more or not quite, haven’t seen what I think I’ve been saying, say it, that’s really your last chance as far as I go in this public mode here.

Chapter 2. Three Elements of Dante’s Theology [00:12:05]

The first thing that we understand about Dante’s theology is the extraordinary rootedness of this theology in the human reality. Canto XXXIII is the canto of prayer, and we’ll talk more about the prayer as a mode of theologizing. Why is it a special mode of theologizing? The first thing is that it is a prayer to the Virgin Mary, that is to say a way of thinking about how the Divine has entered the world of history and the human flesh.

There’s no such thing as an extraordinary — and I think — even talking about the cosmology of Dante I tried to hint, tried to say — look the physical world and the metaphysical world are all part of one universe. They are two separate hemispheres and yet there is always a cross, there is a chiasmus that will connect them, but will make them because that’s the irony of every chiasmus. You know what I mean by chiasmus? It comes from the Greek letter chi in Greek, that’s a chiasmus, an X, and wherever a chiasmus you have a point of intersection of the two arms, but that becomes also a point of flight. Things come together and can be seen to come together, but things also seem to be divergent, seem to be going away from each other, okay. This is the cosmos of Dante; it’s an extension of what he will say in the prayer to the Virgin.

The human rootedness of the Divine, not dualities, okay, that’s really a primary item. This will conclude, with the idea that with the — and makes it persuasive that what Dante sees and remembers at the end is our effigy, which is clearly a throwback to Genesis. Let us make man in our image and likeness, that’s what Dante will see, but this also means that we are in the world of images, that Dante’s own journey ends in the world of images, but not in images as deceptive appearances, only — that which we saw the whole of Purgatorio is full of, now somehow the image probably because of our, the shared quality of that image becomes the locus of the Sacred itself. It becomes, not something that just hides, but also reveals the Divine.

The second thing that I think that we have learned to understand about this theology of Dante is freedom. That the foundation of Dante’s own — the foundation of his beliefs, the foundation of his theological beliefs, is in freedom. We talked about the theological virtues, as you recall, the theological virtues faith, hope, and charity: XXIV, XXV, and XXVI with the various examinations that Dante goes on. If you recall, we were talking about the fact that Dante thinks of faith as an act of freedom. That’s not unusual for those who have any theological interest to even find traces and implications of this kind of statement. Faith is, for Dante, a way of knowing; he connects it with knowledge, which is not just a way of saying that faith intervenes when knowledge stops because someone who is interested in his curiosity of knowing — now I don’t know I’ll try hard, maybe tomorrow I will know, I don’t need any faith, right?

If you really think about the relationship between knowledge and faith, you can’t say faith emerges at the boundary line of knowledge because that boundary line is always shifting, and that would imply the progressive reduction of a kind of receding, and diminishing fragment of the dimension of faith. Dante’s saying by connecting a university examination and the problem of faith is that faith itself is a way of knowing I have faith, and that means that I see the world in an entirely different way; I can see myself disengaged from everything around me. I can see that nothing really matters; that all the patterns and parameters of reasons are going to be found wanting. That’s really — so it’s tied with freedom. Hope introduces the question of the future, and you cannot have freedom without the future. We talked about these temporal issues. You can only think about the possibility of a future if you believe that it is a novelty, if there is a freedom — if you are in bondage you cannot really think of that.

Theologically, because I don’t want to confuse you at all, you remember that all three cantos were literally woven with references to Exodus. All three cantos and the story of Exodus, which is crucial to Dante’s poetic figuration, is the story of the freedom from a state of bondage. This is the way we understand him, but Dante also knows that freedom can — you only have to shift — this is Luther of course; freedom and faith are one in the same thing. In his attack — you remember that? I mentioned this to you, it doesn’t concern Dante but concerns the issue and so we’ll mention for clarity. They debated, the two of them, Luther and Erasmus over the idea of what freedom of the will means, and they are really debating a text written a century earlier by one humanist by the name of Valla and they disagree about what that text means.

Luther says to Erasmus, you really are interested in faith as a form of order. I’m interested in faith as a form of freedom because that frees me from all loyalties. It’s madness by the sublime quality of the statement, but you only have to shift the ground a little bit and realize that freedom, can really become, and is the source of atheism. Atheism, all of a sudden, becomes important because human beings don’t want to be subjected to anybody. It’s part of the project to say I am my own man, I am my own woman, I want to do exactly what I want. I don’t want to have any loyalties or accept anything that I don’t even see. We can bear with the master that we see and maybe has a knife at us, but someone as distant and remote we — Dante then says that’s the peculiarity of this religious belief of mine, which is really all about freedom, including the freedom to deny the divinity. This is extraordinary, never heard of in the history of — as far as I know and I have a very limited knowledge believe me, it’s no rhetoric; very limited knowledge but I have never seen anything like this.

The third element about this theology is really the great element of love, to discover that the way to God, yes it’s hard; there are many ways first of all to God. There is the philosophical of going through knowing, there is the linguistic way through the language, and I’ll come to this issue in a moment. There is poetry, there is the world of beauty, then there’s the language of the heart, but primarily it is the path to the Divine is love. Dante understands, I wasn’t saying that love is so mysterious because I know that deep down you are all young people, many of you are, a couple here are younger, much younger than I am but not really that young, so they are not surprised by any this. But I know that deep down, I remember being young, how I think about the mystery of love, ah… that really speaks to everybody’s heart. I wasn’t meaning it that way. It is really a thought point that the principle of election, which is so crucial to love, it really cannot be quite explained. I really was meaning it in this theological way as possible. I was already thinking about the statements that I was going to make today about Dante’s theology. These are some of the issues that Dante has.

The other day, yesterday, the day before I was asked the question about one line in Dante and I was very — it was a very good question about the fact that Dante’s allowed to see the truth, that the light he saw was the truth. That was a very good question. What does it mean? To me it was so clear, and I apologize, because I said well this is really the biblical idea in your light, which your notes will tell you. In your light I see the light, we see the light, and what does it mean? In your light we see the light. What it is that it’s part of this mystery that if you are a mystic and you think that the Divine is wrapped in a kind of transcendent darkness, that’s the language, or that it is really all wrapped in impenetrable light, it’s both the same because neither light has the peculiarity never letting you see the origin of the light, and darkness has the peculiarity of never letting you see the origin of the darkness. When Dante reaches Paradiso XXXIII, and that’s the meaning your light, we see the light, Dante sees finally the origin of light. That’s the point. There are moments where his sight can become so incredibly sharp and so penetrating, so look at all these ways. The ways — there are many ways in which we can take available to us and it seems that we are always stumbling against something that in the long run you have to stop, and yet if you love, if you think that beauty is part — which is part of love, beauty is part of — love is the hunger for beauty the neo-Platonist will say. In the Florentine neo-Platonist Lorenzo — I don’t know where he found it probably in Plotinus; love is the hunger for beauty.

Chapter 3. The Question of Language [00:22:12]

All of these are ways that Dante keeps opening for us in our journey to the Divine, and then there is the prayer which is the question of language. That has also become one of the ways in which I indicate that there is a theological root to the question of language. Not only that we speak out of speaking and language is an allegory, a parable of our desires, a parable of what we lack, we speak because we don’t have. That’s the specific — and we speak because we — the seat mate and we are pointing maybe without really knowing to what we need. It’s always a question of need. Dante has always had a way of connecting language and desire, we talked about that, that’s one the themes we discussed. Then all of a sudden in Paradiso XXXIII, though I said to you, look the language now changes.

First of all, the prayer to the Virgin is all about longing, this state of longing but not languishing. There is an etymological connection there somewhere which is not — I’m not going to get into but there’s a longing for the Divine to show itself to Bernard of Clairvaux, the great mystic. He who is the great fierce opponent of Abelard, appears on the scene and therefore they — you can overhear the polemics which we haven’t got time for, the polemics between Abelard and Bernard that are clearly behind his apparition in Paradiso XXXIII. They all are waiting for the Divine to show itself forth, right, and this language — and yet this desire all of a sudden becomes the language of joy, of enjoyment. That’s such an extraordinary shift. Why? Because Dante understands the problem with desire; of course, we like to — we’re always talking about how much — how permanent we like to be, in a state of permanent desires because that’s what makes us feel alive, young, to desire, you want something. It’s true, it’s part of the great power of desire, and the language of desire, but if desire were without an object ever then desire becomes of the greatest absurdity and futility. If we go around thinking that we are in a labyrinth of desires then really that is — it’s a joke, desire becomes a joke. Dante places this idea of enjoyment, the possibility of this sweetness that instills in his heart. These are the issues.

Then finally, this idea of prayer, and I want to stop there. Let me stop with the question of prayer and then get your questions. The whole poem, I think, from the perspective of Paradiso XXXIII, taking retrospectively the view, not only the fact that there are references to the first words Dante uses in Inferno I is a prayer. “Miserere di me,” “Have mercy on me,” he doesn’t even know whether you are a shade or a man, he sees something, a shape indistinct, turns out to be Virgil, turns out to be poetry. This is the poetry that lends itself, offers itself completely freely. You can go to the library and pick up a book, a free act of someone’s generosity. There it is. He turns to it and begins with a prayer, and the poem ends with a prayer, and ends with — it begins with a prayer — the whole poem, the real quality and nature of language is to be a prayer. A prayer implying the tension that we have all the time told what, for Dante, told what necessarily transcends us. There’s always a reality that is touched directly by the hand of God, but escapes the world of the human plans, and the human projects. This is what I think the whole poem is about, and it’s above all a poem addressed to the future, addressed to us. That is to say, it’s not a poem about the past, Dante is the least nostalgic of poets, it’s so easy, if you really go wherever and you tell your grandchildren you read Dante. I thought that Dante is a nice little story about the Middle Ages; we are all nostalgic about the Middle Ages. Maybe some of you are here — how were these guys, how were they living? In a world of absolute certainties, right?

Dante is the poet of openness, the poet who understands reason, and understands the risk. Now, that’s really what this poem is about, a poem about the future, the poem addressed with a number of apostrophes to readers, and whenever you read apostrophe to readers from beginning of Inferno to roughly Paradiso X, every so often Dante addresses us. You remember I said, at one point he stops, he made this point, what are these addresses to readers? We can read it — whenever you have a kind of — up to the eighteenth century you always read novels, now my dear reader, now my gentle reader, they are coaxing you, pretending they’re coaxing you, they couldn’t care whether you read it or not I don’t think ultimately. Dante doesn’t really care whether we are reading him or not. Now you’re following the little shape of poetry, the few of you, and I think he means it, who are not afraid of how rough the seas are. You could shipwreck and all of that — of course you could read those apostrophes as a way of saying, look I need you readers because if I have readers I’m constituting myself into an author.

The measure in which there are readers, then I am the author, I am an author because I have — because the poem has made me into an author. Of course there is that, but what I think this is about is you are going to use my poem as the boat with which you can start your own journey. That’s the understanding of the future. The poet, Dante, is a poet of the future, which is a way of saying there is a little bit of irony as I say this, that Dante’s not a poet of the past, he is the poet toward which we are going. The Middle Ages may not be a time of the past, it may be the Middle Ages in a different form or certainly will come back, will probably come back in the future. This is what Dante clearly thinks.

Chapter 4. Question and Answer on Desire, the Papacy [00:29:01]

So let’s go now with your questions. I hope you have many and — not many, a few so that we can talk a bit about this. Yes, whoever wants to — you came in late so I must say — must repeat this — you have to sign and there is that beautiful young woman right there, Maria Derlipanska, that adjective, you forgive me but it’s true but also — the other thing is you have to talk very closely to the microphone.

Student: Well, I wanted to talk a little bit more about desire and I’m glad you brought that up because it’s been on my mind for the last couple of days. I was just reading Shakespeare’s 147th sonnet yesterday in which he says, “desire is death,” and it struck me how different Dante’s inception of desire is and it’s something that he seems to want to stay in and relish and it’s almost life to him. We started this course with the Vita nuova and I got so frustrated reading it because I — part of me was saying if you love this woman so much why don’t you do something about it? But it’s like Dante no, he wants to stay in this place of longing; longing is life for him in some way. That seems to me something vitally important to understanding what the Divine Comedy means and I wonder if you could just go back and talk a little bit about the courtly love tradition, how that might have influenced Dante’s thinking about desire, and more specifically, in a spiritual sense as to Dante’s theology, how desire played a role in Dante’s conception of his relationship to God?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes, okay. Well good question. I like the fact that you bring in, I will take the points as I remember them, but also following at my own inner logic. I like the way you bring in Shakespeare’s understanding of desire and that desire — it’s not that it’s really death but ends in death, that the desire leads you to death. That this is a kind of — that is in many ways also a view largely shared by Dante in this sense, but it’s not only that, Dante does not stop there. In this sense that you have to understand that there’s such a thing as a metaphysics of desire. I don’t know if the term is new to you or not. What could that phrase possibly mean? Why do we talk — what does it mean? Metaphysics of desire, to some of you, it may be a little bit unusual, it really means this, that desire — there is a dialectics to desire, a movement to desire that necessarily I want this today then I want that, the desire is inexhaustible, that’s what it means. From that point of view it’s very important for all those like Augustine, it’s part of this restlessness of the heart as St. Augustine mentions. That’s the — a theological understanding of desire.

We call it metaphysical because it really wants the absolutes. Desire, by definition, I want now this, the smoking of a cigarette for a great novelist, an Italian novelist at the beginning of the last century was the true emblem of desire, ending in ashes but always like a phoenix you can start over again. It really means that it always — it will come to an end either in death, in nothingness; finally you renounce all desire which is the death of desire or some idea of the absolute of God. That’s really — that’s what we mean by the absolute — this absolute tension that desire entails. Now then you asked me to talk about the Vita nuova and the uneasiness you had. I mean, you expressed the uneasiness and I respect your uneasiness. I know a man of action like you, a student of philosophy as you are, then you obviously have that kind — I think that you’re supposed to have that.

There is such a thing as a passivity of the state of dejection, the sense of the mastery of love that throws the lover poet into — who doesn’t really understand what love is at this point, that’s what part of the education is. He wants to — the story of the Vita nuova is the story of a poet who knows — he doesn’t know Beatrice, he calls her Beatrice only because in the nearness of her he would feel beatitudes; that’s what he says, so there’s a kind of arbitrariness to names. We don’t care about that now, we go on with — there is this idea that he is — the power of love dejects him. It’s not yet a virtue, it’s a passion, and the word passion really implies that. We think that a passion is what makes us go but Dante makes a careful distinction of the will that becomes paralyzed, the desire to be discovered by the woman he loves. It’s very important for him that she says “hi” when they meet in the streets and he — she won’t say “hi” and so he goes home and he’s dejected and says I’m worthless, etc. That is — he’s explaining the kind of — that sort of state of dejection that love can bring in — or the passion of love can bring into the mind.

The mind is clouded, unable to think straight but that — for him also sheds light on the way he understands poetry because he waits for poetry. He’s a sort of poet, very romantic poet, who doesn’t think that poetry entails discipline. It’s almost like somebody else says, it’s almost like going to the office at 7:00 a.m., you sit down at the desk, and keep at it, and then maybe you’ll manage to come up with a great line. He hopes for — romantically for poetry to come to him, for inspiration to come to him, and then he realizes that his understanding of love was as wrong as his — of the love passion was as wrong as his understanding of poetry, that you’ve got to really get down and do something about it. When he understands it, it’s too late for him, because Beatrice has died, so now the poem — the project of the Divine Comedy — she may be — he has a vision, he sees her at the foot of God’s majesty and says I want to go there an meet with her, that’s action. You agree that that really is quite — has completely changed.

How does this understanding of love connect with the courtly love tradition? That is really not a difficult question. In fact I would give you a little bit of a bibliography that C.S. Lewis has written a very good book on The Allegory of Love, a book written probably in the late 50s, but last time I read it which was recently some twenty years ago, it was still very good, very powerful. The idea is this that — and I’m really paraphrasing C.S. Lewis more or less, I mean with a lot of gaps in my mind about the richness of the text. That clearly what we think of love today as a romantic understanding, it’s really a discovery of the Middle Ages. I have been talking about the fact that, you may all recall, the Greeks did not have this romantic understanding. The Romans didn’t have this understanding of love. When you read Catullus, the passion for a woman is something that he’s always a little uneasy about. That’s not what a virtuous man should be doing. It’s a weakness of the will. The weakness of the will, it’s a vice, what can you do, we are fallible — we are Romans but we are also occasionally a little fallible.

The idea of romantic love comes with Provencal poets in the south of France, what you call courtly love. I would distinguish that, that’s all, the only thing I would say about it. You don’t read the C.S. Lewis who ends up with love and the history of love in the — how it changes, that is to say, in the Renaissance. I would distinguish between the two; I would not use indiscriminately courtly love and medieval ideas of love. Courtly love implies a formalization of love and it goes back — some of you I know are writing a paper on this, on Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, which is a way of setting rules for loves, in the perception that love is a potentially disruptive experience and so let us make it into a joke, that’s the idea. Let us establish protocols, a code by means of which the woman and the man can really interact and tell each other what this is about. Don’t hope marriage because that’s a serious business concerning property, and wealth, and status so within the fairly close boundaries of the courtly love tradition, then you go on making such assumptions about yourself about — you can play about the greatness of women, the secret of love, there’s a certain code. In the other forms of courtly love, or the sweet new style, and the way it develops. Another book I could mention to you is Valency which is love something — I can’t even remember the title, Maurice Valency, he also discusses the shifts between Provencal understanding of love and the sweet new style articulated by Dante and his coterie of poets. That makes it I hope.

Student: Thank you for an extraordinary series of lectures. I was curious about the ending and I wondered if you could comment on Dante’s views about the papacy? I thought his choice of Bernard of Clairvaux was very curious and throughout the Divine Comedy he previously was grumbling about papal intervention over temporal powers, so I wondered if you could comment on that conclusion.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yeah, very good question. Of course I didn’t talk about it, and I think that what you’re really referring to, I don’t know, but I think what you’re referring to is the fact that Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a great book called, On Consideration, which seems to be about contemplative life. He’s the great reformer of the Benedictine movement, monastic movement in France, and the so called Cistercian monasteries which became the centers of culture where they would copy — they would do poetry, they would write music, they would sing. I mean the arts, the way we know them, really originated with him. He wrote this text On Consideration which actually, in spite of the title, because you know what consideration is a step before you come to contemplation. There are a number — reflection, consideration, and then contemplation. He chooses to write on consideration. He dedicates the book to — this treatise to Pope Eugene IV who had been his disciple, he had been a — a Frenchman who had been a Benedictine monk with him and it’s — and this is probably one reason why Dante chooses Bernard.

Bernard, the contemplative monk, the reformer, all of Paradise is populated with founders and great reformers, founders of orders or Justinian and the law, etc. France is Benedict, Dominic, Bernard and so in spite of the fact that he’s a contemplative, Bernard did not hesitate to write a text for the spiritual edification of his ex-disciple, Eugene the IV, who is now a Pope and he’s aware how the office of the shepherd of the church can distract him from the loftier spiritual aims and the longings, so it’s really a sequence of arguments about what you should — how should you administer your time so that you are never really going to lose sight of what your true aim is, Heaven. Dante mentions this text, by the way, in a letter that so many — not I, go on challenging the authority of, the letter to Cangrande that maybe I have — no not with you, with my graduate students we have gone over, but to me that is actually the indication, the fact that he refers to the treatise by Bernard that the authority of — he is the author of that letter.

Now, you see it clearly another way in which I can understand your question is that you see some kind of divergence, some sort of break. On the one hand this kind of invective, the mode of the invective in Dante when talking about Peter, St. Peter in Paradiso XXVII. I mean, he doesn’t — he looks back after the examination on faith, he looks back and he starts attacking what he takes to be the use of patience, my place; remember that, an incredibly moral voice that rises right at the very end. You seem to be worried about the fact that Dante seems to be so moral and — when it comes about the popes and then becomes mystical all of a sudden, is that really one of your concerns? It could be, it could become one of your concerns in asking this question about — at the end of Paradise XXXIII he talks about Bernard such a mystic and yet all over he has been talking about the papacy.

If you were interested in that I would say there is no divergence in Dante between the prophetic voice and the mystical voice. That is something — even those who read the Bible would go on saying, well, the prophets were visionaries. In a way it’s true but in a way it’s not true, the prophets were not visionaries, the prophets were readers of history. They don’t need to have Daniel give an interpretation; Ezekiel has visions, but Isaiah doesn’t have visions so it’s — you see what I’m saying? There is no clear-cut distinction between the prophetic and the mystical, certainly not in Dante. The two belong together so that’s — I don’t know that I’m answering your concerns but I overheard a number of let’s say rumblings in your question. I’m trying to take care of them.

Student: Is it a reconciliation with the papacy?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: No, not in the sense — no. To talk about — even Bernard is someone who understands how waylaying the office can be and he was obviously writing because he must be aware of what has been happening and what was likely to happen. You don’t have to become a chronicler or an historian to do that; you can imagine this can happen. No, there is not that. I think that’s Dante’s judgment about history is always very clear until the very end. History needs a reform and of course he would say, because he’s one who believes in the sacramentality and presence of the self, how the self is crucial — before I start talking about how the world needs reforming let me just begin here. That would be an obvious way to say it, so I call it the language of presence in him, a sense of, I am present to my own self and therefore I have responsibilities toward my own self before I became — I started using the megaphones and let’s reform the world. That probably — if there were ever to come and Dante’s not a utopian thinker, it would come only because so many people of good will, men and women of good will, his saints, his blessed — the blessed souls that he meets are willing to do something about that. No, no reconciliation, not a sense of finally things will be becoming together, I don’t think. Actually I hold onto that.

Chapter 5. Question and Answer on Hermeneutics, Other Religions, Violence [00:46:54]

Student: Just thinking more about desire and wealth and the fact that the will is what loves and the will always contains some element of lack, or desire it seems, so even if it can attain plentitude it still seems that Dante in talking so much about the will and the will as loving, Dante says that love always has some element of lack. It’s not just lack, there is plentitude, but still there’s always this restlessness and so the love at the end where there is plentitude it seems to be a completely transformed understanding of love, that it’s not possible to go — to return from in the beatific vision. If you have this plentitude, is it possible to go back because it does seem like it’s a completely transformed understanding of love when you have just the plentitude and not lack anymore so with that mind does — is Dante ever able to attain this love because this love that does have plentitude seems like it should end in silence with no language and Dante does go back and speak, and he does — he is still — he is a pilgrim and a poet and so does he really ever move from the images to the essences and is the uncertainty at the end not just because we have to go on the journey our self but because he is still on the journey?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Well, you are really voicing a very delicate issue in the poem. It’s a very controversial issue because that also implies the status of the poem. Do you understand what I’m saying? In other words, if you really think that Dante has seen — has had a beatific vision and he has, and now he’s writing the poem to tell us about it, then you’re really saying that the poem itself belongs to a higher level of experience because it’s written by someone who is in full possession of grace. That’s your point, right?

That’s a very delicate point because I have not been teaching Dante that way, right, I have not. We are right to say this, at the moment of recapitulation, I probably would — I have wasted your time all along. One little detail that I want to bring to your attention and then I will go to the more general problem; when Dante meets Beatrice in Purgatorio XXXI, this is getting really to be a recapitulation, we’re talking about everything in the poem now, he meets Beatrice in Purgatorio XXX and then in XXXI. In Purgatorio XXXI Beatrice forces Dante to go into a confession. You have to go into an admission of who you are, and has to be public; cannot say I know you know, but you have to be duly ashamed because only that way you can transcend whatever it is that you have within you. Dante reluctantly will agree to do that and then Beatrice will say, I want you to go through this so that another time, the future tense, when you will see, will meet the siren I want you to be stronger.

This to me implies, that’s one of the many — Dante sees Casella, another aesthetic temptation. One doesn’t have to have the temptation to kill someone, to really feel that what is out — has fallen out of grace but this is — he meets Casella and he remembers how sweet was that song he heard from Casella and that sweetness still resounds within me. Now Dante is writing — is talking as a poet — he meets Ulysses, I grieve then and I grieve now. There is a way in which states within the pilgrim do not really go on changing; they are the same, implying that there is some kind of continuity between pilgrimage and poetry writing. To me, the writing of poetry is an extension of the pilgrimage. Dante though goes on saying; I have had the beatific vision. I am now — I know what enjoyment means, not just desire, but I’m coming back to the Earth and therefore I cannot come back to the Earth as anything less than a human being with one project, the project to write a poem, because I want to retrieve that joy and because I want to share that joy.

So I have set down two things in my answer to you. One talking about the question of the pilgrim’s experience and the relationship of the pilgrim’s experience to the writing of a poem, but I have also said that the poem stands as a sign for us. A hermeneutical moment; Dante means it for us so that we can — his journey continues. That’s my answer. You don’t have to agree with it because there are — I know there is — there are other people, I have been fighting those people for a long time in my life, I don’t want to go back to those fights, but I think that that this my way of looking at it, okay. I can give you more bibliography; I would rather not actually, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to tell you about those people who are writing the other way. I have written about them in my books.

Student: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how Dante views other religions. In particular, Judaism and if it sort of falls underneath his idea of religion as freedom, and that if you have the freedom to become an atheist you also have the freedom to choose a different religion and if he views Judaism and Christianity as sort of a continuity both deriving from the same basis or if he ascribes the idea of secessionism that Christianity has succeeded Judaism and invalidates it, and for that reason we don’t find, from what I can remember, and Jews in Paradise.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Oh yes you do.

Student: You do? Okay then that’s my fault.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Well, now I have to correct you immediately because then maybe you rephrase it — stay there — because you probably will rephrase the question. When Dante goes on listing, in the mystical rose, we even are told that Beatrice sits next to Rachel. She has a way of elevating her and then he goes on describing all the other — we talked at length about Solomon who is a Jew, I think right? He was a Jew in the Bible. We went on talking about Nathan, I tried to make light of it because I wanted to tell you that Dante saw his own name but it’s Nathan, a prophet of David, and also in the harrowing of hell which is Inferno IV, where Dante describes what happens to Jesus after his death, what does he do? He harrows hell. He goes into hell. What is he doing in hell? He goes there to take the patriarchs and the women of Israel and take them to heaven. That’s — these are facts — you want to change your question or I can go on telling you more and answering the real questions that you are raising, that is to say the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and the other religions. You want me to talk about that?

Student: That’s definitely the issue that I have. Whether Dante — I guess like I said before, I guess by having Jews in Paradise and having the figure of Christ come in and collect the patriarchs, if he’s trying to integrate Judaism within Christianity or somehow to find a way between the two?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes. That is — so you’re interested especially about Dante’s sense of — the relationship between Christianity and Judaism? Do you want me to also address the other issue of the way he looks at the Hindus and the Muslims? We talked about Dante and the other religions. In fact, when I — when we talked about Dante’s relationship with a sense of Christianity to the other religions, I never mentioned the Jews and probably that to you may have been a kind of glaring omission. This guy is talking about the big religions, what about the matriarchs of the religions? The Judaism — it’s likely — I occasionally thought maybe I should say something, and then I said no because Dante doesn’t talk about it and so I wouldn’t.

Dante does talk when he has — and he is not the only one, centuries before him they were talking — a man like — a great theologian by the name of Bonaventure, a professor of theology at the University of Paris. I mentioned that text I’m sure, and the year 1274 which is also the year of his death, he was invited to Paris, he was teaching there, because he was invited to deliver a number of lectures and he gives these lectures, and then he goes on talking about the other religions, the religions he knows: Hindu and the Muslim religion.

It’s an argument — I mention that because it seems to me that Dante follows Bonaventure fairly closely when in the canto of St. Francis, Canto X, the description of the — that legend of St. Francis, Francis is said to have gone to the sultan to try to convert him and fails, and then Dante also talks of the Hindus, with the reference to the Ganges. When talking about justice, Dante is talking about Europe, but in between he alludes to the — he talks about the Persians and the Hindu, the guy from the Hin who is born on the river Hindus, he says you are of the Hindus.

What is the conception there? The critique, they are talking as Christians and they are talking from the point of view of Christianity. The position that Bonaventure will have, and Dante I think follows him, is the following. How does it — how it can be — can they be distinguished? What do they share? They talk about what they share. What do they have in common? They have in common, especially with the case of the Muslims, the biblical — the Jewish tradition. Let me just not mince words here, the Jewish tradition, that’s really the common matrix for him.

He also notices differences, that for instance, the theology of the Hindus is one that presumes the diffusiveness of God into all things. That’s not — I don’t think that’s something that unusual. What does it imply? Because they become critical of it, it then implies the difficulty of making judgments about what’s good and evil. If God is everywhere you have to — the sacrality of all things, which is a great idea, and yet there are some aspects of reality where you don’t like to think that they are all alike. There is a way in which — this is pantheism and can become — therefore can become — can be critiqued as the lack of distinctions and hierarchies, and ordering. When they come to the Muslims, since the Muslim religion is one that talks about the absolute impenetrability of the human mind cannot ever hope to understand the Divine. We are here at the mercy of God and we live only by the mercy of God. We cannot go on and say, but I live by reason and I die by reason, and I can get to know God. There is a great distance between the human and the Divine. That’s the critique.

If this is true then we have nothing to — there is an absolute transcendence and he sees Christianity as that which literally mediates between the two because there is that transcendence and absolute transcendence of God, the way the Muslims understand it, but there is also a possibility of a mediation. Not total mediation the way the Hindus understand it, but the mediation of the cross, the mediation of the incarnation. This is the way Dante takes the other religions. When it comes to the pagan religions, not because they are the pagan religions for instance, and Dante there follows very much the pagan religion, the religion of the Greeks, the religion of the Romans. Dante follows very much St. Augustine, who is the one who talks at length about these issues. That’s the ambiguity; there are adumbrations of the Divine, but at the same time, they can become also blasphemous idols of the infernal powers. There is this way of really the smashing, if you wish, of the idols.

When it comes to Judaism, which is really the question that — with which you started actually. I think that Dante is — I talked about that. I shouldn’t say that I didn’t talk about it. You may recall that I made a point in — at the beginning of the readings of the poem, maybe I was not — it didn’t seem to be very important, it was important to me; I sort of went on talking a little bit at length about the question of birth. You remember how there are some characters, representations, all characters? Dante continues, I could have said the same thing in the prayer to the Virgin; Virgin, mother, daughter of your son; two birds in one stone, in half a line as it were. Daughter of your son, Dante focuses on birth. I did say, I went on talking since — Dante talks like this about Virgil, then talks about the birth of Francesca, Giacco in Canto VI, Farinata in Canto X, endlessly talks about this whole issue.

Then I went on talking, this concern with birth is specifically Roman, I said. This is really a Roman insight into the importance — it’s really what distinguishes the Greek tragic understanding of birth. Children can really become a curse in — when you read the Thebaid, for instance, where you read the story of Oedipus, with Statius being half Greek, sort of incorporates. Then I added, after saying that this a Roman concern, because it’s the whole — it’s tied to the notion of foundation. The Roman idea that you can start things over and over again with the foundations of cities and the birth being the way in which nature becomes historical, and therefore, I potentially like all of you potentially can change everything around you. It’s not true, as someone at a round table the other night in my department, was saying that you have no experience, there are no events. Of course there are experiences and events, every birth is an event, that’s Dante’s understanding because he can change history, he can change the future.

After making these statements that that’s a Roman idea, and or Dante that’s crucial because he’s a Roman, and he thinks of himself as a Roman; Florence is the daughter of Rome. Then I added that this is also a Jewish idea of creation. That that’s really what we have, mainly the great invention that we have in the Bible, that the world was created and that Dante is connecting two ideas, a Roman and a Jewish idea, which are miraculously convergent. Is this an act of useful patience because that’s really the — what I read in your question. Is that an appropriation? It’s culture. I think that that’s really what you do, but you can say that about the Bible. You read, the Bible is a reading of history, over 800 years of its composition. It’s a reading of events around them and the culture, and that’s exactly what Dante does. How does he look at — he thinks that the Jews — I guess he’s really saying they are not Christians but they believe in a Christ to come and that will save them. This really means that there is an acknowledgement of the dignity and certainly originality of that vision. I answered clearly; you may agree, you may not agree, but it’s clear. We agree about that.

Chapter 6. Question and Answer on Violence, Dante as Saint and Poet [01:04:33]

Student: I was wondering if you could just brief — I was wondering if you could discuss the presence of violence in all of these texts that we’ve been reading. I’m thinking particularly about the Vita nuova and the depiction of violence in these dreams filled with passion and very strange representations of the color red and all — as both a lustful color, the fear of death in these depictions of love which reminds me of courtly love and this idea that our passions are sort of transcendental violent dreams, and images that come to us. That’s one question, one part, but the other is the presence of violence and violent imagery in Paradiso, I’m thinking particularly about marshes at the beginning in Canto I? Also, the implied moral violation of Piccarda and these continuous images that remind us of human violence and passion as violence, and I wonder how they fit in with the final vision of beatitude and human love?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: That brings us right back to the relationship between the historical and the sacred. Violence is a parody almost of the sacred, and in many ways, the alibi for the sacred because the sacred has to be understood as that which tries to redeem the violence. And Dante, you’re absolutely right, never flinches from the understanding that the world of history is an economy of this ongoing violence. It’s true. He even addresses you, right. The human beings, the Cato who kills himself hoping that with his death he can bring an end to the civil war in Rome between Caesar and Pompeii, but then the violence that — someone like Piccarda.

How love engenders violence, it’s an incredibly thing, because then they have perversions. It’s not just that I killed because I want to steal someone’s shoes, but then there is a way in which I think I’m engaged a more tragic understanding of violence because a sort it — it’s so mediated and so disguised as love. I can love, from Paolo and Francesca, and yet that engenders a lot of violence. Dante has gone through all the phases for this sort of thinking. That of thinking that maybe that’s really what history is about; it’s all about violence and that any effort at redemption, Christ’s redemption of violence, that’s really what the whole story of Christian salvation is about.

Dante mentions that, this is not a kind of an opinion, Dante will mention it in Inferno XXXIII. Remember, with the story of Ugolino, in the background of that scene, of that famous cannibalizing, that is the story of the children have been killed, two of his children, and that’s always the death of the innocent is really the beginning — what happens to the children? We can go on arguing but what about these kids? We have no response of what is innocent as Dante says, and then you overhear in the background, and I think that Dante wants us to overhear the experience of the cross that was meant to redeem of violence but didn’t seem to work, so there is a way in which he thinks violence has — to the notion and to the god of violence, even the redemption succumbs to that vision. The idea of redemption loses in connection with — and in relation to violence. That would be the way we can come to understand it.

There are a number of other extensions, even when we read Dante will say, when we read, it seems to be such an innocuous bland operation that we’re engaged in, in the quiet of our studies, etc., then we are still violating the integrity of the text. We still extract, we still break up that unity, we isolate the passage, we make part of what we want, what we want it to signify, hermeneutics is linked, interpretation is linked to an experience of violence. What gives? We agree there, that was your question, how does Dante get beyond that and somehow manage to arrive to a beatific vision?

I think that what Dante is doing is denouncing all forms of violence, confessing to them, admitting them, dramatizing them. It doesn’t mean that he’s espousing them or he shares them, the whole point of the Divine Comedy is to acknowledge that it lodges — it, violence — lodges even in him and within him, but he wants to move beyond it and that’s the ascetic aspect of his text, ascetic in the sense that he’s literally climbing up the ladder of transcending that which is holding him back. I don’t think that — if you are looking for way that — does he get away from it? That’s really the other question, does he ever get away? Not in the measure in which he’s human and wants to remain human, open to these temptations all the time. Please.

Student: As a pilgrim who has become a senior citizen I have had a question throughout the entire course, and having read Auerbach and Thomas Bergen and Mary Reynolds and others, the question has not been answered for me and I’m not sure you can either. The question is who is Dante? As we’ve been responding to these — you’ve been responding to these questions here, I’ve jotted down human, man, citizen, exile, lover, poet, pilgrim, visionary, theologian, saint, Paul, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux had their visions and they became saints. Is this man a saint?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Well, I’m taking a little bit of time to answer because you must know; I think you know that actually there are people who think that he should be canonized. You probably do not know that. Who think that he should be canonized. Actually, I was actually interviewed once about soliciting my ideas. I said I hope not because I want to teach him for what I think he is a poet, a man of extraordinary imagination who divinies our time. That’s what I think he is, the power of the imagination, and who understands that the greatest call on him and on us is really the possibility of the encounter with the Divine. I don’t know — I hate the idea — if I were to make a movie about Dante — I have been — sometimes when people have been — I have been mentioning it to people actually I would make him into a rebellious type who seems to understand everything that he touches, but he also has a way and takes, as he should from everything, and transforms it, so he has a vision from that point of view. The vision of how the world is and — he invents the world, his world, the world of the Divine Comedy, it’s an extraordinary invention. But a saint? I don’t know what these other guys have done exactly to make them deserving of sainthood but maybe I’ll leave it there, I don’t know. Thank you. I think it’s time. Thank you so much for your great questions, thanks.


[end of transcript]

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