ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 6 - Inferno XII, XIII, XV, XVI
Chapter 1. Canto XII-XVI: The Middle Ground and Its Presiding Figures [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: With Canto XII — from Canto XII to Canto XVI we are still in what is known the middle ground, which is a moral ground: the middle ground of Hell. We are between the area of incontinence, that we saw in the last few weeks and the area of malice: this middle ground, which is a ground of violence or bestiality, as it is also called.
What I want to draw your attention to first of all is the fact that Dante’s presiding symbols, the presiding figures in this area are all figures — hybrid figures, figures of doubleness: the Minotaur and the Centaurs in Canto XII. You have the Harpies, the filthy, foul figures, monsters with the face of women devouring the foliage and the trees in Canto XIII. And then, this will go on with other emblems of, again, monsters and the figure of — but that’s the figure of fraud. I don’t want to get into that. Figures of — again, Minotaurs and Centaurs in XV.
What is the importance of these figures? There are neo-Platonic images — figures of Centaurs, Minotaurs — understood to signify the doubleness of human beings. The capacity of human beings to join within themselves both the human and the bestial, or the animal experiences, possibilities of being. In neo-Platonic thinking, especially in the twelfth century, to give you the historical ring to it, we are saying the twelfth century, the so-called Chartrians, and more so in the fifteenth-century Florence, with Pico, the figures — the whole idea is that human beings are really a kind of copular or neutral entities capable of — ;who have the potential of this doubleness within them. They’re capable of becoming fully rational or descending into bestiality. The position in the ladder of being is one of utter indeterminacy.
In the twelfth century, this is not the case. They still believe in these images. They are fixed images of entities, creatures capable of being, at the same time, expressing these dual impulses, the bestial and the human impulse. This is — Dante seems to be quite aware that somehow — that these symbols do not completely characterize what human beings really are, that the ability of human beings to redeem themselves, to free themselves out of a certain state or fall, plunge, into the opposite state. There’s a difference between the symbols and what human beings are going to be able to do.
This is really the — these are why I focused on canto — I asked you to read Canto XII, where Dante places tyrants. It’s really an anonymous canto. There are no great figures, no great personalities. We do know, and Dante gives a list of all the tyrants of his time and the tyrants: Dionysius of Syracuse, Alexander, the Ezzolino of his own time, in Padua, etc. They are figures of tyranny, but at the same time he places next to them figures of educators, figures of teachers, such as, for instance, Chiron. And this is a little bit ironic, because he says, come straight after Dante’s exemplary representation of Virgil’s own teaching in Canto XI.
You remember when Virgil goes on explaining in great detail the shape of Inferno. Here now, once again Dante takes the other perspective, that which he takes to be the tyranny of teaching. That is to say, a sort of teaching does not allow that freedom, that the very symbols, the very presiding figures of this canto, also seem to deny. They are forever man and beast. And Dante claims, clearly, that there is a teaching that has to allow the sort of the freedom to move, either in the direction of rationality or the freedom, or the choice, to move in its opposite direction. This is the substance, I think, of Canto XII.
Chapter 2. Canto XIII: The Suicides [00:05:22]
We come, though, to Canto XIII which is one of the most remarkable cantos of Inferno, it’s the canto of the suicides, and Dante encounters here a figure — a poet, a very well-known poet, a very well-known figure of maybe the late — the middle part of the thirteenth century called Pier delle Vigne. And as you read through the canto, you will see that he puns on both terms of the name. Peter and he thinks of himself as a figure of Peter, one who holds the keys, the two keys of the kingdom, the keys of power, but also the last name Pier delle Vigne, meaning of the vineyard. And this is — of course we are going to witness now a metamorphosis of a human being: the metamorphosis of a human being, from being human to becoming a vegetable, a plant.
This is the story of suicides and we shall see what Dante thinks about suicides. What he — why does he think that such an evil as to be condemned in this area of violence against the self? We do know that Dante — I don’t have to go over this but you do know that Dante distinguishes violence against self, violence against others as in Canto XII, violence against nature and violence even against the divinity in Canto IV.
Let’s look at Canto XIII and a little bit of some textual details and then we’ll discuss some of the issues of the canto. “Nessus had not yet reached the other side again when we set out through a wood which was not marked by any path.” Here, there seems to be no directions at all, almost as if Dante were revisiting Canto I of Inferno. The same idea of — a sense of loss of self and adumbrating what suicide may also be at some level. A loss of — some idea of one’s own being, some idea of what one is or should be. We are not told anything more but then — rather Dante shifts to a description of the natural landscape, the world of nature, the landscape and you — as you read you must be struck by how he’s highlighting a peculiar style and I want to emphasize this style, this figuration of style.
“No green leaves, but of dusky hue,” a series of antithesis. First of all, a series of antithesis, but also anaphoras, negatives. “No smooth bows, but knotted and warped,” antithetical but at the same time repetition of this “no,” anaphoric, “no, no.” “No fruits were there, but poisonous thorns. No breaks so harsh and dense have these savage beasts that hate the tilled lands between Cecina and Corneto.”
We are in what — in a place, in a landscape where this is the style called, there is a technical term for the rhetoric Dante deploys, it’s called privatio which simply means a privation. Emphasizing, there’s nothing positive here but it’s a way of subtracting from what is missing rather than what is there. That is really a negation, the style of a negation, but at the same time through the antithesis, making us think about how the world might be, “no green leaves, but of dusky hue.” This is a style of taking away and again taking away from any substantial description of the landscape.
“No breaks so harsh and dense,” etc. “Here make their nests, the loathsome Harpies,” again hybrid figures, just as we had the Centaur in the previous canto,” from the Strophades with dismal presage of future ill; they have wide wings and human necks and faces, feet clawed and their great bellies feathered, and they make lamentations on the strange trees.”
So we are in the world — we’re in the world of negation, a world of monstrosities, and a world of privation. What is happening to human beings here? That’s really the question that he seems to be raising, but let me just proceed even more carefully here. The whole scene recasts an important scene in Book III of the Aeneid. This is indeed also a major confrontation between Dante — the whole canto dramatizes a major confrontation between Dante and Virgil, the author of the Aeneid — about some of these issues. What is a metamorphosis? What is nature? What is the place of human beings within nature? Because Dante and Virgil think in sharply different ways.
For the metamorphosis, for instance, the scene that Dante here is recalling, is the scene of Book III of the Aeneid, where Polydorus, a cousin of Aeneas, has been killed and he’s — you remember there is this speaking tree seen there too. Aeneas arrives in Thracia, which is Asia Minor, he thinks that his — that is the place which the gods have assigned to him, and he does that which he feels is, that which he knows has to be done, whatever and whenever you want to build a city: consecrate the ground. Hallow the ground by building an altar and by purifying the ground through fire.
As he tries to do this, the altar is always at the center in the Aeneid, at the center of the human community he’s pulling, he’s plucking a bough and he hears a voice; mysterious. He shudders, he’s scared and the voice comes. It’s Polydorus, his cousin, who tells the story that he has been killed because of the sacrileges that have been committed. Whatever consecration Virgil wants us to believe, to think of cannot be really carried out because a sacrilege has been that of the killing of Polydorus on account of the gold that he carried — they wanted to plunder him of; they want to rob him of.
Aeneas hears a voice, ‘Why do you pull me out of this?’ And Polydorus simply asks that a proper burial be given to him so that he can descend peacefully into Hades. Aeneas complies and leaves that place in the knowledge that is not the place assigned to him. The sacrilege was such that he cannot really quite found the city on the place of the crime, of such an atrocious crime.
Dante’s revisiting that particular scene. In fact, I repeat, Canto XIII recasts that scene and it’s a major encounter with Virgil and Virgil’s whole pattern, whole system of values. And let’s see how this is going to continue. We have the background with some — stylistics of negativity, styles of negation, as if suicide were this fundamental sacrilege that denies the — some reality that we don’t know yet.
“And the good master began to speak to me,” so Virgil intervenes reminding us that this is indeed Book III of the Aeneid, which by the way, another little detail, Book III of the Aeneid is the book of the Aeneid Dante draws from the most. If some of you want to write a paper on how many scenes Dante — and why — you should go and — go ahead and write that kind of paper. One reason is that Book III of the Aeneid is the book of Aeneas’ exile, the homelessness of Aeneas. Aeneas was still nowhere. He is just — has just left Troy, he is going to — about to leave Carthage, Dido’s home, and about to get into Sicily, but never really quite being able to say, ‘this is really where I belong.’ This is really the place where one can call home, whatever that may be for him.
“The good master began to speak to me,” Virgil interrupts, “ ‘Before thou go farther, know that thou art in the second round and shalt be until thou come to the horrible sand; look well therefore, and thou shalt see things which will discredit my telling of them.” This is a hyperbole on the part of Virgil. You are going to see what I have been describing. In a sense, this is the reason why I’m the — an authority and why I’m guiding through — you — through this because I have seen, imaginatively at least, I have seen some of the things that you are experiencing and what you will see, the reality of it all, will exceed my own abilities to tell of it. A stance of humility on the part of the teacher. Therefore, a mild correction of the claims about teaching in Canto XII. We said this is one theme that seems to be running through and then Dante continues.
“I heard from every side wailings poured forth, and saw none that made them, so that, all bewildered I stopped” — and now another conceit that we should come back to: “I think he thought I thought.” It’s clearly — we call it an amplification, a way of playing with one verb, but also inferring what the thought of the other would be. It’s a descent into a kind — into the boundaries of one’s own mind; a way in which Dante dramatizes the fact that there’s no real conversation now going on between him and Virgil. It’s a way of descending into the, what I call exactly, the loneliness of Dante’s own thoughts. “I think,” and then reiterated once again. Anaphoric: “I think he thought, I thought.” More of this later — “that all these voices among the trunks came from people who were hiding from us, so the Master said: ‘If thou break off any little branch from one of these trees, all thy present thoughts will prove mistaken.’ Then I put out my hand a little and plucked a twig from a great thorn and its trunk cried.”
This is Aeneid III, lines 39 and following, that’s the way the Book III of the Aeneid, begins. “ ‘Why dost thou tear me? When it turned dark with blood it began again, ‘Why manglest thou me? Hast thou no spirit of pity? We were men and now are turned to stalks, thy hand might well have been more pitiful had we been souls of serpents.’ As a green brand that is burning at one end drips from the other and hisses with escaping wind, so from the broken splinter came forth words and blood together; at which, I left for the tip and stood as one afraid.”
And Virgil intervenes: “ ‘If he could have believed before, wounded soul, what he had never seen but in my lines,” my Aeneid, “he would not have stretched forth his hand against thee,’ my Sage replied ‘but the thing being incredible made me prompt him to the deed which grieves myself. But tell him who thou wast, so that, for some amends, he may revive thy fame in the world above when he is permitted to return.’”
The irony of reviving the fame in a place where there is no possibility of revival; there is no possibility of coming back to life. Indeed, where the natural world is not capable of behaving naturally, where there is no real growth, no real change here. It’s always going to be — it’s the most unnatural of places. So the shadow of this unnaturalness is going to be cast over the scene with the encounter with Brunetto Latini.
What is this idea here? In a sense, this is already the confrontation between Virgil and Dante: “if he could have believed that which he had discovered.” It is as if Dante wants to test the truth value of what he had read in the Aeneid. He had read the scene of the Aeneid, let me see how this is, and finds out that that which he sees is entirely different from Virgil’s account. In a way we are really — he is really drawing his — our attention to what we call the act of reading.
How do we read? What do we believe when we read the story? When we read a story we yield, in many ways to the story, its part. We want the story that we read to read us as much as we want to read it. We want the story to explain us to ourselves, to hold a mirror up to us to see who we are; but Dante is literally also implying the need to violate the letter of the Aeneid.
He had to do because whatever Virgil had described exceeded believability, it was just an incredible account and he has to test the reality of that scene. So that’s really the part of the confrontation between the two. And now, let’s see what he hears: “and the trunk said, thou so allurest me with thy gentle speech.” It’s what we call captatio. I won’t have to write it here on the board, the captatio benevolentiae.
You know, it’s a great rhetorical trick: whenever you give a speech, or whatever people speak to you in public, especially, or privately, they will engage in this, a way of capturing your benevolence by telling a story, playing something about their modesty or whatever. Now you saw “allurest me.” It’s so — fascinates, so I — the lure of your rhetorical language or your rhetorical powers. We are dealing with rhetoric, first of all, with style and now with the language of the text, and now with the language of the exchange. So it is as if the suicide has a lot to do with this trait of language, this characteristic of language.
“Thou so allurest me with thy gentle speech that I cannot be silent, and let it not burden you if I am beguiled into talk for a little. I am he that held both the keys.” Here is the pun on Peter. Now it’s as if he were St. Peter who holds the two keys of the kingdom of Frederick’s heart.
Chapter 3. Pier delle Vigne [00:20:49]
Now the — you can see that all the language of believing, faith, that has been going around in the previous lines of the canto seem to be gravitating around the figure of Frederick, the king, who is a kind of, let’s call him the god of the city, because his name that’s what it means. In Italian especially, it’s not — in English we say Frederick. In Italian, you say Federico which really repeats the idea of faith within it.
As if all faith, all beliefs, really have to converge and go toward this emperor of Sicily. He’s a Hohenstaufen, he’s a famous — a German king, ruling over Sicily and Pier delle Vigne was the chancellor of the Empire and also the founder, by the way.
Let me say something more about him. He’s the founder, he’s the one who conceived the first university — the first state university in Europe, the University of Naples, because Frederick wanted a university that would prepare lawyers, diplomats, people who could go on state missions, who could write papers for the state. And it would not be at all one of the schools that the way universities were under the aegis of, for instance, the canon lawyers, the theologians. So, this was the first lay, secular school in Europe. It was an imperial see; unlike, for instance, the University of Paris, which was under the — simultaneously under the dominion of both the Bishop of Paris and the King of France and hence a lot of conflicts between the two.
So, he’s chancellor, he is the founder of the university. He was a poet and he also compiled the so-called institutes of justice for the kingdom where — which is all inspired — his institutes are all inspired by the language of moderation, the language of idealistic language of order, and natural law that could follow — that could organize the state. And clearly the reality is that, by his act, Pier delle Vigne shows that there’s no such a thing, or that he doesn’t really believe in what he claims to be the principle of the legal organization of the state, which is natural law.
“I am he that held both the keys to Frederick’s heart and turned them, locking and unlocking, so softly that I kept nearly every other man from his secrets.” He is the secretary of the emperor. A word, as you know, which becomes very crucial throughout the Renaissance. He’s a counselor, but a secretary means — comes from the — it’s a word that comes from the Latin, from ‘to secrete.’ That this is as if — he’s the figure who distills, that’s secreting, distills that which the emperor keeps hidden in his heart. Some of his — he has this power of distillation, and knowing also and through this distillation, what has to be shared and what has to be kept concealed from all others. Quite a figure of prestige, he views himself as a strict — and he was — collaborator of the emperor.
“And I brought,” again, “such faithfulness.” Now that question of fidelity in the way we read the text, in the way we believe what we read is brought into a sort of refracted — into the language of fidelity — loyalty as faithfulness to the emperor, “to the glorious office that I lost for it for sleep and strength.”
The causes of the suicide — the causes of his tragic — of Pier delle Vigne’s tragic downfall, are going to be “the harlot,” the personification for envy. The sin — there is — that Aquinas for instance views as the worst possible sin because it is a really very close to hatred. And close to hatred in the sense that it has nothing — all sins have some positivity to it and all you — you are a glutton — it’s because that piece of cake, there’s something about it that lures you to it. You are — you have this — you are proud, it’s because you really have some sense of your excellence, or some, which is a real sin, contempt for others; you believe that others are not as good as you think you are. It’s not so much that you look at yourself as stretching the hand toward the divinity, the pride of Lucifer, right? The real sin is that you kick around those who you perceive are below you.
All sins have some kind of positivity except for one, and that’s envy, because envy only likes nothing. It’s not jealousy, you do have the kind of story. All of you, I’m sure are readers of Othello, because that’s really a confrontation between envy and jealousy. There is the envy of — Othello may be jealous, but the one who is really envious is Iago, one wants nothing — he doesn’t want this Desdemona, himself. He can’t stand the idea that the other guy is happy: that’s envy. Jealousy is the fear of losing. Jealousy is almost an ingredient of love, Andreas Cappellanus says. If you really are in love there must be some rational aspect to have jealousy in it but here are the cause of the court, the court which is always — that little microcosm, right? Even for Dante who writes a treaty from language, even the theorists of — about the function of language in the court, because the court is a place of laws, is the place of poetry, is the place of political persuasion. These are the various dimensions of the powers of language.
And then you do know about the court from Andreas Capellanus, that’s another topic for you to explore: Dante’s figuration of the court and from all possible points of view. Here Dante views — now the court, this microcosm of political order and idealism has been literally poisoned by the presence of — contaminated by the presence of envy. “The harlot that never turned her shameless eyes,” and you understand that metaphor. It’s not so much that it belongs to the harlot, the fact is that the word envy as you know is a word that in Italian or in English, “invidious.” It’s invidia, which is etymologized as non video. So, it’s always an idea, it’s a kind of blindness to the world outside and here Dante’s punning with his “turned the shameless eyes.” It would seem to be a sort of representation of the harlot and the seduction of the harlot, but it also plays on this notion of what envy really means.
“…the common bane and the vice of courts, inflamed all minds against me… ” Look how the language now sort of takes over. It takes over and Dante is just playing with and multiplying these terms, the same terms repeated over and over again. ” . . and those inflamed, so inflamed Augustus, the name for the emperor, or Caesar, “that happy honors turned to dismal woes.” This is the formula for — the formulaic definition of tragedy that he’s giving: “happy honors turn to dismal woes.” Pier delle Vigne is aware of his own tragic destiny, his own tragic downfall, and seals his fate as a tragic fate.
And, “now, my mind in scornful temper thinking by dying to escape from scorn, made me, just, unjust to myself.” And once again the style of repetitions — anaphoric — Pier delle Vigne constitutes himself into a closed circuit and the doubling of language reflects the self-babbling. Let me just go on and tell you what I think is going on here. When you read the sentence: “… by dying … made me, just, unjust to myself.” And the obvious question that I think you should really ask, if I gave you a chance to ask, you would ask, how many selves are there in him? “…made me, just, unjust to myself…” How many persons are there? How many figures are there in one, in Pier delle Vigne?
The text that best glosses this scene, this tragic of carentia, appears in The City of God, of St. Augustine, Book I, where Augustine is telling the story of Rome and the death of — and the end of the period of the monarchy. You know the seven kings, right? The story goes and with the — the story of the seven — the expulsion of the Tarquins, the last king, is attributed to the fact that the famous matron of Rome by the name of Lucretia, whom Dante by the way, mentions in Limbo though. He has a lot of ideas about who, or what, is the guilt of a suicide. We shall see that a great figure from an antiquity, Cato, a suicide, will appear and will inaugurate the Purgatorio in Canto I, so Dante’s always making some crucial discriminations, crucial distinctions.
At any rate, they are the story that Augustine tells in Book I of the City of God is that of the rape of Lucretia. The rape of Lucretia and Augustine is fierce about the fact that she commits suicide. How does she die? She commits suicide out of the guilt and shame that she had been violated in rape by the — by Brutus. And he says, how does she dare to take her own life, because here is the chaste Lucretia who is embarrassed of the unchaste Lucretia, this is a sin of false transcendence; the belief that I can be not completely — I do not coincide fully with who I am, so that I have to double myself. I have to see myself as different from what I am. I can do justice against myself.
By doing this for Dante, and I’ll go into Dante’s text, this doubling of Pier delle Vigne, is a sin of false transcendence. The way a suicide is playing God to oneself and this punishing oneself for wrongs that he, the suicide, perceives. Lucretia, she that perceived, as her — as fouling her reality. You see what I mean? This is the kind of a — a kind of doubleness that seems to be running through and Dante’s rendering through this idea of style. “By the new roots of this tree I swear to you, never did I break faith with my lord, who was so worthy of honor; and if either of you return to the world, let him establish my memory, which still lies under the blow that envy gave it.”
The story of Pier delle Vigne exemplifies the story of — or dramatizes the story of the tragic experience of suicide, and Dante here gives of suicide an exactly theological and Augustinian account. He views it, looks at it from an Augustinian point of view.
Chapter 4. Canto XV: Brunetto Latini; Dante’s Understanding of Sodomy [00:33:41]
We skip Canto XIV and we go now to another memorable canto, a memorable Canto XV: a memorable encounter with Dante’s teacher, Brunetto Latini, who was probably 50 years his senior, who was a translator who adapted in the vernacular Cicero’s rhetorical works, also who was a teacher of the Florentines. So he was a teacher of Dante, and who really stands for the great values of the rhetorical humanistic, or Ciceronian, tradition.
The idea of — he opposed the idea of the republic of Florence. He’s a Guelf because he does not want — you do know that the Ghibellines are those who are in favor of the imperial control of the state, and for him to be a Guelf is really to claim that he’s on the side of the republic, that he wants the Florentine republic. He was sent to an embassy — he went to Toledo by the way, which at the time was the center of great translations. And he may have brought from Toledo translations of — that Dante knew, such as, perhaps, the account of the Mohammad’s vision and the ascent to Paradise. That’s really a very doubtful question, but it circulates increasingly within Dante studies, the perimeter of Dante studies.
Brunetto, while he was going on an embassy to France, was banned from Florence. He eventually returned to Florence; but he’s a figure that Dante really tries to pattern himself after. Effectively, it’s the teaching of Brunetto is what guides him, at least in the initial phase of his political concerns — that other experiences, intellectual experiences that will intervene and will change radically Dante’s thinking. What I’m trying to do in this class is also to give you a sense of the shifts in his perceptions and his understanding of the world. I will be telling you at some point that there were extraordinary encounters that he had with some theologians and some philosophers within Florence, that gave him a completely different view from the one that Brunetto Latini instilled in him.
Let’s see what happens between the two of them. We are in the area once again of violence. This time violence against nature, and there is an — Brunetto Latini is damned, is condemned for a sin of sodomy. There is no evidence at all from any other sources that that is what he was. And I have to tell you that Dante also has a different understanding of sodomy, when he comes to Purgatory; for instance, in Canto XXVI, where the sodomites are in the process of redeeming, of seeking some kind of redemption, and cleansing. Anyway, this is the canto here. Let’s see how he proceeds. “Now one of the hard margins bears us on and the vapor from the stream makes a shade above that shelters the water and the banks from the fire.”
The focus of the canto is once again the natural world. A natural world which is one of sheer chaos and the natural world which is one of violence, and look at this image: “as the Flemings between Wissant and Bruges,” the Netherlands, he’s describing literally the Netherlands. Called such because they are lower, the surface of the land is lower than that of the water, and have to protect the land from the violence of the water and the floods. So, they build these dykes around.
“As the flames between Wissant and Bruges, fearing the flood rushing in on them make their bulwark to drive back the sea, and as the Paduans do along the Brenta to protect their towns and castles before the Chiarentana feels the heat, these were made of the same fashion, except that the builder, whoever he was, made them neither so high nor so broad.”
So the natural world can hardly be contained. That’s the idea, the natural world that is always is going to overwhelm all efforts to — all barriers trying to impede its violence. By the way, this is an image, for those of you who are readers of literature even beyond the Middle Ages; it’s a famous image that Machiavelli will use in Chapter XXV of The Prince. Remember when he talks about virtue and fortune, and that the virtue of human beings, virtue — the word character, arete, the virtue of human beings is to build shelters which are too — whenever we expect a flood, but in the full knowledge that we are never really going to succeed and yet we need these shelters just in case we might succeed. Virtue is always as little bit less powerful than fortune in his — in that world. It’s an image that — in one of the history plays, Shakespeare also uses them. I’m not saying that he takes it from Dante. We don’t know whether he actually read Dante or not.
“Already,” so this is the background of this encounter, “already we had gotten so far from the wood that I should not have seen where it was if I had turned backward, when we met a troop of souls who were coming alongside the bank, and each looked at us as men look at one another under a new moon at dusk.” It seems to create this kind of strange world of — the night world. “And they puckered their brows on us like an old tailor on the eye of his needle.” What an extraordinary image. Dante will use something like this, not quite the same image, the tailor when he’s arriving — when he is to describe his own vision of Paradise. It is as if the most — the humblest experience in the city, in Florence, of all the artists and the tailor can only help him — the only thing he can think about as he’s approaching the most sublime of experiences, that’s Paradiso XXXIII.
And here this most extraordinary story has also the ring of familiarity. That is really the image — of the way I think this image works, the sense of a familiarity and with a familiar image of the tailor; and the tailor also a figure that takes your measure. The tailor is a figure of the artisan who in order to fit you properly has to have your measures, your idea of who you are. “Eyed thus by that company, I was recognized by one who took me by the hem and cried: ‘How marvelous!’ And I, when he reached out his arm to me, fixed my eye on his baked looks so that the scorched features did not keep my mind from recognizing him and, bending my face to his, I answered: ‘Are you here, Ser Brunetto?’”
Are you here, Ser Brunetto? So he — this is the scene of the recognition. In Inferno that’s what you have, scenes of recognition, more than first encounters. It is as if, literally, recognizing means knowing people that you thought you knew, and you knowing them and you, all the figures that you thought you had — knew something about, recognition. It means also giving a kind of understanding, giving a kind of view to them, recognizing in that sense too.
“And he: ‘O my son, let it not displease thee if Brunetto Latini turn back with thee a little and let the train go on.’” Twice Brunetto will refer to Dante as “Oh my son.” It’s sort of acknowledged in this affiliation, acknowledging a kind of familiarity that goes beyond even — any form of discipleship. Dante will resist that solicitation, that affectionate solicitation, that familiarity. He will always refer to him as the image of a father, but twice.
And then he says, “I said to him: ‘With all my heart I beg it of you, and if you wish me to sit with you I will, if it please him here with whom I go,’” meaning Virgil and unmentioned, as if Dante now were concealing, pro forma to be sure, the shifted loyalty from one teacher to another, and were concealing it from Brunetto Latini. Once again Brunetto: “O son whoever of this flock stops,” etc. “Go on, therefore; I shall come at thy skirt,” which some critics have seen as the sign that this is — that really Dante may have known something about Brunetto Latini that nobody else knew, “and later rejoin my band who go mourning their eternal loss.”
Look at the spatial configuration of the scene. I think it’s very significant. The disciple is above, the teacher is below; so that the disciple has to bow in order to be able to speak to the teacher, which would be a sign of his reverence for the authority of the master, but at the same time, it indicates that the hierarchy between them is both. The hierarchy between them really has completely altered from the days that there they were on — in the city — in the streets of Florence.
And then he tells the story: “ ‘Up above there in the bright life,’ I answered him,” no, I’m sorry, “I durst not descend from the track,” etc. And he says, “what chance or destiny,” Brunetto says, “brings thee down here before thy last day and who is this that shows the way?”
Chance? Destiny? Brunetto has no understanding of the trajectory of Dante’s life and adventure. This is really the beginning of a series of misunderstandings between the teacher and the disciple. Two different value systems are being deployed and they are going to be in collision with each other. Brunetto speaks like a true humanist, a man who belongs to the Ciceronian and espouses the Ciceronian ethics, for whom here the world is one indeed of chance encounters, destiny that takes us one way or the other, and there is nothing indeed providential about it.
Dante responds by really giving a kind of pithy summary of his experience in the last few hours. “ ‘Up above there, in the bright life’ I answered him, ‘before my age was at the full,” he repeats Inferno I, “I lost my way in a valley…He appeared to me when I was returning to it, and by this road he leads me home.”
These are extraordinary words because what home means for the politically-minded, Florence-centered, sense of existence of Brunetto, is not the idea of what home means for Dante. For Dante, home is the place of the soul, and the place where the soul is at its most distended, the distension of the soul occurs. For Brunetto, home can only be city of Florence. One has a political frame of reference, the other one has a theological frame of reference, and the two are colliding with each other.
Let’s continue and see how this is extraordinary. “And he said to me: ‘If thou follow thy star,” now again an extension of the language, the metaphor, picks up the metaphor of chance, or destiny, a kind of astrology. Follow your star, the astrology of the destiny — in the destiny of Dante, “thou canst not fail the glorious heaven.” In other — Dante is dramatizing the radical ambiguity of words that seem to be so bland like glorious: what glorious means to a humanist is not what glorious means to a theologically-minded thinker. In theology, one thinks of nature, grace, and glory. And Dante begins Paradise I, the first word with which it begins is the glory of him, la gloria, of him who moves all things, and glory for Brunetto means the happy ending, fame, and whatever.
“The glorious haven, if I discerned rightly in the fair life, and had I not died too soon, seeing heaven so gracious to thee,” again, this is ‘glorious’ and ‘grace’ once again, “to thee, I would have strengthened thee in thy work. But the thankless and malignant folk which came down of old from Fiesole, and still keeps something of the mountain and the rock shall become, for thy well-doing thine enemy — and with reason, for among the bitter sorbs, it is not natural the sweet fig should come to fruit. Old fame…”
So, from Brunetto’s point of view, the reference of all the crisis, the spiritual crisis, the loss of self of Dante can only be political. That Brunetto makes an incredible mistake of believing that Dante’s experience is exactly the replica of his own. He lost the city, where he was by the way, at Roncesvalles, the place where the great paladin of Charlemagne, or Roland, was — it’s a symbolic place he chooses — was defeated and now this is exactly what he thinks is happening also to Dante, to the pilgrim.
“Among the bitter sorbs, etc… Old fame in the world calls them blind, a people avaricious, envious and proud…” This is the three sparks that have set the hearts of the Florentines on fire and this: pride, envy — avaricious, envy and pride. “Thy fortune holds for thee such honor that the one party and the other shall be ravenous against thee…” So then, the language — the prophecy of Dante’s exile: the two parties, Guelfs and Ghibellines will turn against him, etc.
And Dante answers: “ ‘Were all my prayers fulfilled!’ I answered him, ‘you had not yet been banished from humanity; for in my memory is fixed, and now goes to my heart, the dear and kind paternal image of you when many a time in the world you taught me how man makes himself immortal; and how much I am grateful for it my tongue, while I live, must needs declare. That which you tell of my course, I write and keep with another text for comment by a lady who will know, if I reach her…”
Clearly an illusion to Beatrice, though it will not be Beatrice who will make the prophecy of Dante’s exile, but in the symmetrically connected cantos XV and XVI of Paradise it will be Dante’s real grandfather. So the distinction between this fictional figure of a self-claimed spiritual father Brunetto and the heroic grandfather, Cacciaguida, the antithesis is very clear.
In the acknowledgement that Dante gives of Brunetto’s teaching when he says, “for in my memory is fixed and now goes to my heart the dear and kind paternal image of you were many time in the world, you taught me how men makes himself immortal.” There is also a little bit of a critique, a little bit of a distance that Dante establishes between himself and Brunetto. For the true poet, the real authentic poet, of Dante’s experience is that man does not make himself immortal. Of course, when a bold stroke works, maybe there are many other forms of achieving some degree of immortality. One can make children to become immortal, one — at least in provisional immortality, a continuity, but from Dante’s point of view, the immortality that he is seeking is not manmade. It can only be a question of the salvation of his soul.
In the very great acknowledgement the form in which is a disciple who just loved making these claims of indebtedness to the teacher, there is also a sense of a difference between them and misunderstandings, and this will be in fact the trait of this encounter. To a teacher, who has been shaping the disciple and the disciple who has been going his own way, who somehow thinks that education means also — is tantamount to the experience of freedom. It’s what we — this is the way we began when I spoke about the figures of doubleness in Canto XII. And this is the theme that seems to be going through even in the encounter with Brunetto.
Let’s see now exactly then what is Brunetto’s sodomy or a way of understanding Brunetto’s sodomy. Clearly linked to violence, we’re in the world of violence, and so Dante wants to know about who the other sinners are and Brunetto will comply and says that all clerks and great and famous scholars. And he mentions them all, “who defiled the world by one and the same sin.” Priscian, a famous grammarian, Francesco d’Accorso, who also is — by the way, I think he’s a lawyer — and “if thou has a craving for such scurf…” etc. Now then, he says, “I would say more, but I can go no further talking with thee, for I see there a new cloud rising from the sand; people are coming with whom I must not be. Let my Treasure, in which I yet live, be commended to thee; and I ask no more.”
A true teacher, I say, who gives the bibliography at the end. He says, okay now you go and read my book, not just read anybody’s book, but I recommend to you my Treasure, “in which I yet live, be commended to thee. Then he turned about and seemed like one of those who ran for the green cloth in the field at Verona,” a ludic image, an image of a race which is run in Verona, “and he seemed not the loser among them, but the winner.” So he leaves with the illusion that he is a precursor, as it were. Do you understand what I mean? That he is in a race, he’s so far behind everybody else, that he’s seems not be ahead of them. He’s really behind one circle. That’s the image with which Dante ends this encounter.
Brunetto recommends this Treasure which is a French text that he wrote. It’s an encyclopedia that he wrote — while in France and he wrote it in French so much that — and it’s so important this text. It’s one of the most important encyclopedias in the vernacular. Encyclopedias being — I may have — I even gave you — I remember you — I don’t expect you to remember it but I gave a definition of the Divine Comedy as a poetic encyclopedia in the sense that it tries to gather together the broken pieces of knowledge, of experience and at the same time, unlike the technical encyclopedias such as the Britannica give you — dramatize the presence of someone who is being educated through them, a process of education.
Dante is the one who is in the middle of learning, so this is an encyclopedia with a path about how to learn, not the abstract one that Brunetto had written. It’s written in French and its — and I stress this fact because elsewhere, in one of his philosophical reflections, Dante goes on saying that we are all bound by natural affection for our own language, and because on account of that, there are those who have put forth the interpretation that Brunetto is here for violating the natural bonds of affection that we have, that human beings have, to their own natural language, to their own mother language let’s call it that. It could be.
What I think this is, is it dramatizes an incredible self-delusion on the part of Brunetto. Here he is, dead. Here he is, circling around under the reign of fire, and he thinks he still lives in his own text. He mistakes, first of all, the symbolic life that he has within a text with reality. That’s really — that’s the first confusion. The language of images, the language of seeming that pervades this canto has to be understood in these terms of this confusion of the part of Brunetto, but there is more to it. The mistake that Brunetto makes, is to believe that Dante’s own life is a replica of his own. Read my text because whatever it is that you have to know, it’s already available to you in my own book.
That is to say, he faces the difference between Dante and himself, and Brunetto. He refuses to see that Dante’s own life can have its own development and its own destination, a destination which he cannot understand at all. That’s the end of Canto XV; this sodomy then is also a confusion between the real and the imaginary, the way of drawing the real world into one of fictional fictions and imaginations. There is one scene before I stop and give you a chance to ask a question.
Chapter 5. Canto XI: The Figure of Geryon [00:57:07]
Now we’ll go into Canto XVI. It’s the end really. We are reaching the end of the intermediate area, the moral, the ground of violence which to us, of course, I just presume that you may be surprised at this. So we are — our culture seems to view violence really as the worst possible crime and violence in all of its forms and its expressions. And there are several: psychological, physical, political and so on. For Dante the real — the worst crimes are the crimes of fraud, as you know. These are bad enough, to be sure, but the — and Dante’s about to enter in Canto XVII and he will see a strange figure. They are — they have to go over a huge ravine, there’s no way that they can do this, but then miraculously a figure, a strange figure, a monster stands at the edge of the pit and a figure appears.
This is the figure of Geryon, at the end of Canto XVI. Let me read this image, the figure of Geryon. Dante will mount on Geryon and Virgil will sit behind him; and the descent takes place into the area of fraud. So this is the — these are the — this is the sequence of happenings in the canto. And now let’s see what Dante says. It’s an experience of — we could even call it wonder, in Hell. This experience from the sublime, an infernal sublime.
“A man,” I’m reading from XVI, line 130, around line 130 and following. “A man should always close his lips, as far as he can to the truth that has the face of the lie.” That’s fraud. A mixture of truth and deception, truth and lies, now that’s what literature seems to do. “Since without fault it brings him shame, but here I cannot be silent; and by the strains of this Comedy,” this text, called ‘comedy.’ It is the story, a moment of an experience of descent. ‘Comedy’ also captures this rhetoric of descent, of lowering oneself, not just an ascetic experience.
“I swear to thee, reader,” another, the second address to the reader. And you may remember that we saw one in Canto IX and I tried to explain it to you as the address to the reader as part of the strategy of authority on the part of Dante, in the measure in which I need readers and I may have readers, then I’m constituted into an author and understand that kind of strategic move. “I swear to thee, reader, that I saw come swimming up through that gross and murky air, a figure amazing to the stoutest heart, even as he returns and goes to down sometime to loose the anchor that is caught in a reef or something else hidden in the sea, stretching upward and drawing in his feet.”
This is the story; this is the approach of Geryon. What I want to point out is a number of metaphors here. This is an aerial journey; Geryon is flapping his wings and going through the murky air. Dante describes it as if it were a journey by sea. The metaphor he uses is swimming. “I saw come swimming up through the gross and murky air,” and by the way, when Dante is to describe the story of a mythic sailor, mythic mariner, Ulysses, whom we are going to encounter, hopefully next week, I think it’s going to be next week or next time, he describes this journey by sea of Ulysses as if it were a journey by air. And he does this because for Dante it doesn’t matter how you are traveling. If you fly or you go by water, it doesn’t matter, because all journeys are journeys to the same destination. All journeys are really journeys to the absolute.
Here, Geryon seems only to come to play a ministerial function, he’s going to minister, to serve, Dante and his guide, and at the same time Dante says, here too there is some plan, here too there’s some kind of — something of the absolute that I have to see. That’s the first image.
The second image is this idea of — which will be described a little later, there will be rotatory movement of Geryon through the air and I have been describing the circle, the spiral, the movement in a spiral, the spiral motion of all movement in Inferno. The third is this idea of swearing by Dante’s own text. The text is given now the value of a sacred object. Something that has something one can swear by. If we began with a violation of the Aeneid in Canto XIII, now in Canto XVI, Dante opposes to the Aeneid and it replaces, therefore the new text for us is this comedy.
Chapter 6. Question and Answer [01:03:05]
Let me stop here and let me see that we have a few minutes for questions which I will welcome and try to answer for about five or ten minutes.
Student: Yeah I have a quick thing I want to clear up, Canto XIII, at the end, when Pier delle Vigne is talking about Augustus, he’s referring to Frederick instead of Augustus?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes the — it’s what we call a typological use of the emperor has to be — it’s Augustus or Caesar. These are the two terms used for the emperor. So it’s a type, it’s the kind of abstract type of the czar, or the kaiser; old versions of the Caesar myth in modern languages. That’s it, Augustus. Yes?
Student: You talked about those people who are guilty of [inaudible]?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: They are guilty of?
Student: They’re guilty of lust, the thing that shows the pleasure over rationality and they’re in the second circle. The sodomites are in the seventh circle and there’s a difference there because of — were serious violations of natural law, or is this really an intellectual choice on their part to engage in behavior both intellectual and physical which is much more serious than the incontinence of the people in the second circle.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is, is meant to have me think about the relationship between the sinners of lust and the sinners of sodomy, and the premise of the question is that the sinners of lust, we have sinners who invert the order of reason and pleasure. Whereas, in the sin of — the question then is why are the sinners of sodomy placed in a — further down in Hell and if this is because there’s a question of an intellectual choice. This has been a — my answer is the following that the — No, there is no indication in this canto, in Canto XV, that the sin here is that there is some — there are intellectual perversions, which you are right, your question is well taken that all clerics, in the sense of clerics, meaning not just where we today think as man of the cloth, but meaning intellectuals, Priscius, Accursius, who is also mentioned, a famous crusader of the laws then Brunetto Latini himself.
The sin here is a sin of violence. Just as we had the idea that education, the educators in Canto XII, are those who are — who could pervert the very process of teaching. Just as in Canto XIII we had a stoic, Pier delle Vigne, is really stoic who — a stoic who now reflects that suicide is not a virtue and the virtuous choice. But these are sinners who have yielded to — whether it is anger — they have yielded to the impulses of violence within them. Dante I think is condemning sodomy, because I think this is also part of the question you’re asking, it may not be the central part, but because there is whatever — there has been violence connected to their activity. This is the — why would he place them in the circle of violence?
Unlike, for instance, what happens to Guido Guinizelli in Canto XXVI, or Caesar by the way, there is also an illusion to Caesar in Canto XXVI of Purgatorio. So there is a difference there, a teacher who uses violence, so that’s the link between teaching of violence in Canto XII. The man of reason, the stoic believer in the logos and the order of rationality exasperates that principle and believes that he can be both judge and victim, executioner and the executed one. And now, in Canto XV is this idea of an — the way in which violence has taken over and obfuscated their order of rationality. I don’t see the element of choice in that. Yes?
Student: Can you briefly discuss how Dante differentiates various representations of suicide, since Lucretia is in Limbo, Dido is [inaudible] in the circle of the lustful, and then you have Pier delle Vigne within the actual circle of suicide, and how is it that he makes the distinction between the different forms of suicides?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Excellent, the question is, is it possible to differentiate within different forms of suicide since Dante — and that’s exactly right, exactly true, Dante would have Lucretia in Limbo; we have Dido in Canto II among the lustful souls; we have Cato in Purgatory, etc., and why here in Canto XIII the suicides are punished? Is there some kind of rationale that we can see behind the various — that’s the question, the various forms of suicide.
The answer that I would give is the following, Dante knows so well that there are — that the phenomenology of acts, of various acts, is vast and cannot quite ever be brought to one common element. So much that at the beginning of Canto XIV, if you turn to Canto XIV, Dante is going through the hot sands, because it’s the burning sands of Hell and he remembers — he recalls there, this must be exactly the burning sands of the Libyan desert that Cato crossed, which is a way of saying don’t be surprised — I think — if you are going to encounter Cato a little further down. I know that you expect him to be here.
So the question then is, how does Dante go on determining the particular — the value of a particular act? When we sin, this may be a little bit — I have to be very clear about this. When we sin we usually can say, well, how can it be — I’m going to give you a kind of — I’m going to take a little bit of distance from this whole question.
It’s easy to say, how can Dante be so ruthless: that someone, for all we know, may have been a good human being, and then they committed one crime and they are in Hell forever, for eternity. And that, on the face of it, would seem to be a reasonable query; a sort of indirect, oblique way of asking for a little bit more tolerance and benevolence from this man who claims to be the supreme judge of all that human beings have been perpetrating. The fact is that whenever we sin, all sins are involved. We think that it’s only one, but all sins are involved. Dante highlights one specific aspect. In the case of Dido, her lust is more important than — in the sense, more decisive and determines the character of that figure — than the suicide. This suicide is seen as an extension of her lust.
In the case Lucretia, put in Limbo, there is a way in which Dante really wants to make that clear distinction and even it’s — an anti-Augustinian moment that Lucretia’s virtues seem to have been — limited as they are, she’s not saved in any way, but there is a kind of exemplary virtue that allows him to sort of remember, but not punish her for a crime which is really to be understood as a consequence of an excessive way of understanding virtue. Do you see what I’m saying?
In the case of Cato, and we are going to see that, he sees the sacrifice of self for freedom. That’s really the great understanding: Cato dies for the sake of freedom and all the canto of Purgatory is a — the Canto I of Purgatory is a reflection on the question of freedom. Roman freedom, and by the way, the biblical Jewish understanding of freedom, too.
I’m preparing you for that canto, so maybe I’ll save myself the trouble of repeating these things when we get there. Dante will talk about Roman freedom through Cato and immediately after a troop of angels will arrive, and they sing one song which is In exitu Israel de Aegypto, which is to say the Jewish, the famous Psalm 113. That’s the Psalm of David, where David is reflecting about the epic of Exodus. The lyrical reflection about the idea that getting from Egypt on the way to Jerusalem was — which only some got to, for instance, Moses never did — is really a quest for freedom. There are two ideas of freedom: a political, civil freedom and a theological idea of freedom. And that’s really the key to understanding Cato and understanding the way Dante connects these two traditions: the Roman and the Jewish traditions.
Other questions? We have one minute, the tape probably lasts just about 45 seconds to get the question and answer. Questions?
Student: Well, [inaudible] it seems like you’re saying here that Dante is almost finding a kind of sin when virtue is taken to an excess, in people like Lucretia and Cato, he’s saying you can go too far, you can be too obsessed with a certain — almost a misdirection of virtue.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes. It’s not a question because I said ‘yes’ and I would agree. The reflection is it seems, I don’t like that, it seems that I’m saying — but I’m saying that actually — that in Dante, Dante views the excess of virtue also as part of a sin and I would agree, I would agree yes. Okay. Thank you. See you next time.
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