ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 7 - Inferno XIX, XXI, XXV, XXVI
Chapter 1. Returning to Canto XV and Brunetto Latini; The Prophetic Voice [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Last time we looked at Canto XV of Inferno, the canto of Brunetto, the teacher of — Dante’s teacher, and the teacher of the Florentines, and we pointed out the rhetoric of the canto. After all, Brunetto is a master rhetorician, so it was quite appropriate that Dante’s account of his meeting with his teacher would be carried out through a careful, very careful, highlighting of the ambiguities of language; the way a language is used very carefully to mean one thing for one order of experience: Brunetto’s for instance, anthropocentric, political understanding of the world and then Dante’s own understanding of the world which we could call theological, but it really means the point of view of someone who is questing, who is moving and who will move beyond Brunetto. And how a language oscillates. The same words seem to acquire different meanings in those different contexts. In many ways, that language would become, that language, that rhetoric, which should be the instrument of persuasion and agreement, becomes in and of itself the cause of two of the misunderstandings between them, between master and disciple.
The canto, Brunetto, for all of its — the intensity and poignancy of a personal confrontation of a disciple who meets his teacher and in many ways shows — even there, there is a great deal of ambivalence, a great deal of acknowledgement, a recognition of the importance of Brunetto’s teaching on him, but, at the same time a sort of distance taking, leave-taking from that teaching. That too, though, for all of its private quality, the quality of the great humanistic values of acknowledging a teaching that shows the way to how man makes himself eternal, that is anthropocentric as it can be; that kind of aphorism, in a way, which is the way Dante seals the personality of rhetoric.
Yet, it always had — or actually has as always this — and personal encounters do in Dante, a political focus. There was something a little bit larger than their own private story. It is — the encounter between them was placed within the crisis of Florence. The city of Florence, the divisions between Guelfs and Ghibellines, and then there’s also the announcements to Dante by Brunetto that he is going to go into — he’s going to end up in exile.
That the comfort, the human bonds, the comfort of the city and family, and what not, even that will be denied to him. For Brunetto, of course, that is also a strategy of thinking that Dante’s own experience is really the mirror image of his own, because as you remember, and I said this at the beginning of my remarks last time, Brunetto also experiences exile as he was in Roncesvalles, the classical place of the most traumatic experience in medieval history, the place where the paladin, Roland, in Italian, Orlando, and the Carolingian drama, the Charlemagne’s soldiers are defeated and Brunetto, that’s where he — that’s how he views his own defeat in the city of Florence.
So there was always a public focus. The public focus was not just a context for their relationship, but it was really a way of shedding light on the very nature of their own divisions. It is as if the oscillations of language that they experience in the exchange between them are really a consequence also of larger divisions, larger suspicions, that these characters living in Florence entertained toward each other. I mentioned that because I’m going to move today to Canto XIX.
We are taking quite a jump. We went through XVI; we saw the flight on the back of Geryon or some adumbration of that flight on the back of Geryon. Canto XVII, if you were to read it on your own, it’s an extraordinary canto. It’s the only time that Virgil leaves Dante alone and Dante has to meet the usurers and it is as if he had to be left without any guidance. It is as if he had to discover by himself and by his own powers what those temptations are and what the implications of usury would be for him. Let me be biographical, a biographical resonance there, in the sense that not only the poet is edging toward the condition of the usurer, engaged in illusory recreations, illusory productions, but also a biographical reference to Dante’s own father who was engaged in that sort of activity.
Then we go through Canto XIX, which is really a canto I don’t want to talk about now. That’s the point of my remarks about — my recapitulations of what I said about Brunetto. Dante now takes a public voice, not only he takes a — so you have an experience of the shifts in his own voice. You do know the kind of romance atmosphere and the encounter with Francesca. You do have the kind of seminar-like tones that he uses in the encounter in Limbo with the poets of antiquity where he either goes on talking about art and the secrets of the craft, etc.
pter 2. The Prophetic Voice and the Writer of Epistles [00:06:58]
Now Dante takes what I do not hesitate to call a prophetic voice. He plays now, he sees himself as a public role. The shift or the change, the departure from the political rhetorical tone used in the encounter with Brunetto could not be more — could not be sharper or more radical. This is an argument now that engages him as a public figure, as it were, indeed, as a prophet.
What does it mean to be a prophet for Dante? What kind of — how can one take on this sort of voice? How does one go on talk — how does a prophet talk like? One thing that you may want to keep in mind as I go on, to understand this canto, is that if clearly the pattern for all of this, the model would be the prophetic voice in the Bible, the biblical prophets. Do not make a mistake of thinking for a moment that prophets are those who foretell the future; that’s not really their role.
In fact, Dante goes out of the way, and I’m not going to talk about that, we really haven’t got time, in Canto XX, highlighting the differences as it were between prophets and diviners. The diviners are those who foretell, predict the future, so if the prophets do not foretell the future, what do they do? They are literally readers of the present. This is the point. For Dante, the biblical prophets are those who read the present history in its unfolding from the perspective of what they perceive to have been God’s promise to Israel and to them.
The prophets are, in a way and I do not — I don’t say this in any way to degrade them, but on the contrary, to highlight the importance of their intervention into the present that you could call them as commentators. Those who are in the true sense of the word, those who remember, that’s what a commentator is. A commentator is an exercise of memory, a way of bringing ancient memories to bear on the present. That’s the way Dante understands the prophetic voice.
Another little detail before we go on with the canto, you do not know, some of you may know that Dante actually is a writer of many epistles. He was a letter writer. We do not know the letters he wrote on behalf of his patrons, but we do know that the letters that he wrote in his own name, and he would be writing letters that the array of which is — can be sometimes moving. For instance, when he writes to a friend, he would like to attend the funeral of his friend’s wife and cannot. He’s practically begging because he doesn’t have the adequate clothes to go to the funeral; so he’s clearly begging for some kind of assistance.
He writes also letters that probably never reached their destination. He wrote letters, for instance, to the Italian cardinals who were in conclave. You understand what I mean when I say “conclave.” A conclave means that they are shut under key and kept in some place where they can make decisions about electing from within themselves or from the outside, a pope, and they could not agree about whom to choose.
He writes a letter, a letter to the Italian cardinals and he begins the letter addressing them, saying perhaps all of you will wonder who is this man, who gives him the authority to say — to speak to us and address us and spur us on to action. Doesn’t he remember — this is Dante speaking and attributing his thoughts to the cardinals — the possible objection to the intervention of a layman’s voice within sacred things? Doesn’t he remember the lesson of the biblical prophet — which he doesn’t mention — the name that’s mentioned — who, on seeing the ark of the alliance being carried into the city of Jerusalem and seeing the ark tottering, he stretches his hand trying to protect it, to make sure that it won’t collapse and it breaks into pieces? And God intervenes and through lightening and fulminates and then kills him.
Dante is aware of the danger of taking on — that’s the point — he goes on saying, spurring them, saying, I’m not really touching the ark, I’m really spurring the oxen who are not going anywhere. That’s the substance of the letter, but this does not concern us here. But the point that concerns us here is that in the background to this canto where he takes on the prophetic voice. He’s aware of the possible profanation that he is engaged in, in addressing as he does the so-called simonists.
Chapter 3. Canto XIX: Simony, Sacrilege and the Sacred [00:12:12]
It’s time to get into the canto of the so-called simonists. Who are the simonists? In fact let me just — I was just reading this little story, “The Sisters” of Joyce. I have been reading that before but I know that that is really a story of — I don’t know how many of you are English students, students of English literature, but he writes this story. This is a story about — it’s early twentieth-century version of simony, and if someone of you might want to write a paper connecting “The Sisters,” this beautiful gem of a story by Joyce, and Canto XIX. You can, and you see the differences that — between the two of them. The simonists are the followers. It’s a word, like we said the Machiavellians for instance, they are the followers of Machiavelli, those who think like Machiavelli. The simonists are the followers of Simon, who was called a magus, or a sorcerer, or a magician, Simon, and actually we call this phenomenon when you have a name that gives or sort of creates a trend or a way of thinking, it’s called an eponym. I thought that you might — from the Greek, eponym. This is an eponym.
Simonists are the followers of Simon, the magician. So it’s — Dante’s beginning this story with reference to a founding event in the constitution of the church. It goes back to the Acts of the Apostles where there is this story that — of a sorcerer, a man engaged in witchcraft and illusions, Simon who wants to buy the gift of prophecy and the power of making miracles from Peter. And therefore then he challenges him to let’s see who can fly, etc., and they go up on a tower and try to fly. Simon, of course, will go down and will die.
What Dante is doing, he’s now encountering the popes of his own time: Nicholas V, Boniface VIII — one of the great minds and a great jurist, by the way. In fact there are those historians who really think that Dante is badmouthing him, that there’s something personal but we can’t quite see. Boniface VIII and Clement VI — V, I’m sorry. The three popes are under whom Dante lived, who are engaged in simony. What is simony? It’s a sacrilege. Simony is the act, exactly like Simon in the Acts of the Apostles, who wanted to buy the gift of prophecy. It is a sin, whereby one can go on in making commerce of sacred things and thereby engaging in blasphemy.
The question then is, what does Dante think the sacred is? It’s a constant theme in his reflections; it’s a constant theme of his thoughts. What is the sacred? How do we determine it? What does it mean to violate the sacred? Simon violates the sacred. The popes now, who are of his own generation, are engaged in the same kind of blasphemy and the same kind of profanation.
In effect, let me just give you a little detail that you might appreciate this ambiguity, the other name of Peter, St. Peter, the guy with the two keys we saw an illusion to him with Canto XIII. The other name of Peter is Simon, so in fact he’s known as Simon Peter. It is as if by having this too, the sorcerer, the magician called Simon and the pope called Simon Peter, and this should be — whose successors, the popes should be, the first pope and the others. He’s — Dante’s actually giving us a sense of what we call, forgive them, the rhetorical term, a metonymic proximity, a contiguity, a nearness between them. The nearness between the prophetic mode and the profanation of the prophetic mode. How precarious is the boundary line that divides the two? How precarious the divided line that separates the sacred from the profanation of the sacred? So this is really what Dante is doing.
Let’s see how he dramatizes all of this. First of all and the question that I raised with you is, how do prophets talk? One thing that you will see here is the apostrophe. This is a canto written in terms of apostrophes. Look at this and we read the canto, so I’m reading the canto. This is for the transcriber — Canto XIX. “Ah, Simon Magus,” see there is the apostrophe. Think about why the apostrophe. What is an apostrophe? “You his wretched followers who, rapacious, prostitute for gold and silver the things of God which should be brides of righteousness.” That’s the definition of simony. Viewed as an adultery, a corruption therefore of the chastity of the marriage between God and the soul.
“Now must the trumpet sound for you, for your place is in the third pouch. We were now at the next tomb and had climbed to that part of the ridge which hangs right over the middle of the ditch.” Another invocation we call it, but it’s — I’m not so sure that we can quite decide the difference between an invocation, which is obviously a prayer, for an apostrophe, a calling on, an address, that’s what the apostrophe is.
“How great is the art Thou showest, in Heaven, on earth, and in the evil world, and how justly does Thy power dispense! I saw along the sides and on the bottom the livid stone full of holes all of one size and each was round. They seemed to me of a width no more or less than those that were made in my beautiful St. John,” the baptistery of St. John in Florence. These are the wells where baptisms take place; they’re usually octagonal in shape. It was the eighth day, the idea that the Resurrection is on the eighth day. It’s the idea of history based on the seven days of creation, the eighth day of the Resurrection.
“They… were made in my beautiful St. John as fonts for baptism, one of which, not many years ago, I broke for one that was drowning in it — and to this I set my seal, to clear the mind of everyone.” What Dante is doing is acknowledging what could have been seen as an act of profanation. He broke one — which is really a figurative, because they are huge and I can’t believe that he could have — you need ten people to break these things apart — so it’s a figurative idea that he stretched his hand into holy things and violated the holy things, but he did it and that’s the excuse he’s giving. He did it in order to save someone’s life.
There is nothing gratuitous — that’s the point, in his own intervention as it is called. It’s called an interventio in sacris, stretching the profane hands into holy things, into safer things. What he is really removing himself from is the charge that his act may appear purely gratuitous. If it’s not gratuitous what is it driven by? Where does it come from? If it’s not — one can say well it’s a gratuitous act, which means you can dismiss it, but this is not gratuitous. So what is the reason behind it and he — if he’s serious enough he should provide us the description.
“From the mouth of each projected, of each projected the feet of a sinner and the legs as far as the calf, and the rest was inside.” He’s representing the Popes who were here upside down, that’s the way Simon fell, and I’ll have a little story about that too. It was also the position that, according to legend, St. Peter wanted for himself. He asked that he be buried upside down because he wanted to show what the true direction of — for the souls are sent for the perfection of being — that idea that — remember in an inverted world, a world which is upside down and therefore to be with the head down, you are really — are right side up. You’re going toward your proper destination.
Dante is playing with this iconographic motif of Peter who asks to be crucified up — with the head upside down and the story of Simon who, very much like him now, is as a punishment is with the head upside down. How are they punished? In an overt parody of the Pentecost and the flames of fire. You know the story of the Pentecost: that’s the story of the Pentecost, is the story of the gift of language. They come down as a rain of fire on them, now they have flames on their feet. This is what — this is the sort of horrible turning around of prophecy and of the gift of languages, meaning that we all speak everybody else’s language, which clearly means — I’m sure that there are polyglots among you, but it clearly means that we all speak one language: the language of charity. And therefore we can all understand each other that way.
“That they would have snapped withies or ropes. As flames on oily things,” the oil of unction. So it’s a further illusion to the desecration that is taking place here,” moves only over the outer surface, so it did there from the heels to the toe. ‘Who is that one?’” Dante asks. He wants to know who it is, but he sees.
“Master that writhes in his torment more than any of his fellows,’ I said, ‘and is licked by a redder flame?’ And he answered me, ‘If thou wilt have me carry thee down there by that more sloping bank, thou shalt know from himself of him and of his misdeeds.’ And I, ‘All is well for me that is thy pleasure. Thou art my Lord and knowest that I depart not from thy will; thou knowest too what I do not speak.’ Then we came onto the fourth dike, turned and descended on our left down to the pitted and narrow bottom, and the good master did not set me down from his haunch until he brought me to the hole of him that so lamented with his shanks. ‘Whoever thou art,’ I began, ‘unhappy soul that art held upside down planted like a post, if thou art able, speak.’”
Now the series of inversions is introduced here. “I,” Dante says, “stood there like the friar” — he is the layman, the changing of roles, and the pope who is going to be — unveil his own — reveal his own identity in a moment, he is there like an assassin, a perfidious assassin, meaning the one who brought faith. That’s what the word “perfidy” means. “That shrives the treacherous,” in Italian it’s the perfido, “assassin who after being fixed calls him back so that he delays his death, and he cried.”
This is one of the popes, Nicholas, who misunderstands, but this misunderstanding is highly suggestive. He’s telling Dante and us that the reigning pope while Dante’s writing, Boniface VIII, one of the Orsini family, one of the great families, Roman families, has already arrived and he says, “Standest thou there already Boniface? By several years the writing lied to me. Art thou so soon sated with these gains for which thou didst not fear to take that by guile, the Lady Beautiful and then to do her outrage.” This is the coming — the accusation that Dante can launch at the figures of power. The prophet who takes on power and unveils its abusers.
“I became like those that stand as if mocked, not comprehending the reply made to them, and know not what to answer.’ Then Virgil said: ‘Tell him quickly, I’m not he, I’m not he thou thinkest,’ and I answered as if I was bidden. At that the spirit twisted his feet together, then, sighing with lamenting voice, he said to me, ‘What dost thou want with me then? If to know who I am concerns thee so much that thou hast come down the bank for it, know that I was invested with the great mantle.” And so on. And Dante will go on into a general attack, which is really the prophetic moment. “I do not know,” I’m reading from lines 90 and following, “I do not know if on that I was overbold when all my answer to him was in this strain: ‘Pray, tell me now, how much treasure did our Lord require of St. Peter before He gave the keys into his charge? Surely he asked nothing but “Follow me,” nor did Peter or the others take gold or silver from Matthias,” and so on.
This is Dante now the prophet. Dante, the man who speaks because — and he feels that he ought to speak and that’s the distance taking from the gratuitousness of the accusation because all figures of authority are lacking. In the presence of this eclipse of authority, he thinks that it is incumbent upon him to go on taking that authority. It’s a usurpation of a voice; it’s a usurpation of authority in order to make up for what he thinks is missing.
The problem, this whole question about the confusion of orders, the confusion between the secular and the sacred, the profane and the sacred, is brought back to one great event which was known in the Middle Ages as the second sin of Adam. It was so great — you understand what the first sin of Adam was: the transgression of the command given to him not to eat of the tree — of the forbidden tree, the forbidden fruit of the tree. The event that Dante goes back to is the event of the so-called Donation of Constantine, about which I want to say a few things and then we move onto the next cantos.
It’s the Donation of Constantine. It refers to the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine, whose name I think I have mentioned, gave — extended, gave the land to the pope. In other words, made the pope the ruler of a secular domain. To Dante, this was a confusion of registers, a confusion of responsibilities, that the pope should be only engaged in spiritual pursuits and spiritual matters. He becomes instead involved in secular matters. The sin of simony is really the problem between the — has to do with the Donation of Constantine.
An issue, by the way, I will tell you why this is important in a second. The issue is — will be really clarified around the fifteenth century when two people, two figures, one is Cusanus, some of you may know him. Nicholas of Cusa went home repeating the moral arguments against the Donation of Constantine as much as Dante does here, but the one who really proved the falseness of the documents with which Constantine supposedly made the donation to the pope was Lorenzo Valla, with a philologist who went on examining the language of that text and by examining that language, found out that the donation was not really — the document had not possibly been written in the fourth century because it bore the traces of eleventh-century Latin. And so he went on specifying that that Donation had been a forgery and the forgery had been committed in a convent in the south of France with extraordinary linguistic precision.
Why is this important to Dante? Dante makes this issue of the Donation of Constantine, the confusion of orders, the spiritual and the secular which simony embodies; simony crystallizes the real problem of the crisis of his own time. So huge, I repeat, that it’s called the second sin of Adam. Dante wrote a political text called Monarchia, which is really an argument in favor of the separation between these two orders, the Church and the State: it had to be neatly divided, both to protect the State from the intrusions of the Church and to protect the Church from the likely intrusions of the State. So it’s really an argument that goes in two directions. So much then for Canto XIX.
The last thing I have to say because I began talking about the rhetoric of the prophets, I said the prophets really used apostrophes. Apostrophes which are forms of lament, “Ah, Simon,” you can see it’s a kind of mourning. It’s the language of grief primarily, but there is also, from a linguistic point of view, something else about an apostrophe, because an apostrophe — it has in indeterminacy of its own. It’s not really language. It says nothing. It’s a scream, but it’s the sense of a need to break the silence. In other words, you use an apostrophe or emit a cry because you cannot be quiet and that’s really exactly what makes this aspect of prophetic language so crucial. It’s between silence, one is overcome by what one — the enormity of what one sees and the refusal to acquiesce. And I could give you — “Ah Constantine,” that’s another apostrophe that we saw. The whole canto is punctuated by this rhetorical form that wants to break the silence and cannot quite find the words. That’s what I call the indeterminacy of the rhetorical artifice.
Chapter 4. Short Remarks about Comedy and the Fall [00:32:24]
Let me just go — I know that I said that I would read XXI; maybe I can talk about it. I have to say very little about comedy. Dante uses the language of comedy and what I — had we time, I would talk about how Dante goes out of the way, in XXI, and says here, “Now my comedy, the language, the humble style.” It is as if he wants to free himself from the shackles, the complications of using a lofty language or taking on this extraordinary position of being the prophet of his own times.
He goes on to say, “my comedy,” but this comedy is also link to a peculiar experience that he tells in Canto XXI: the fear of falling. The devils are after him and — the devils, of course — he calls them Guelfs and Ghibellines. Another way of thinking about them was the war between, he says, whites and blacks, bianchi and neri. That’s the way they would distinguish themselves. These demons are — his enemies are the blacks, the Ghibellines who are trying to throw him down, and the point is that comedy is always attached, always flanked with the idea of the fall. Laughter, as it were, begins at the moment when someone falls, someone slips and so we could really talk about that a little bit more, but not much more, if we had a chance to — if we had a little bit more time.
Chapter 5. Canto XV: Reenacting the Aesthetic Temptation [00:33:56]
I’m anxious to get into XXVI, and before we get to XXVI, there is a passage in Canto XXV that I have to read. Dante’s been going through the realm of the thieves, Canto XXIV and XXV, and he is overwhelmed by the metamorphosis: the form of punishment of these thieves that go on changing form. They become snakes. They are human beings bitten by snakes, they become snakes, they turn into ashes, and they recompose themselves in an endless cycle. This is the punishment. Dante goes on writing as a poet, breaking the flow of the narrative of what has been happening to him, and this is what he says. This is from Canto XXV, lines 90 and following. He describes the — actually reading from lines 80 and following:
“As the lizard under the great scourge of the dogdays, passing from hedge to hedge, seems lightening if it crossed the way, so appeared, making for the bellies of the other two, a small fiery serpent, livid and black as a peppercorn; and that part by which we first received our nourishment, it transfixed in one of them, then fell down before him stretched out. The one transfixed stared at it, but said nothing, only stood still and yawned, as if sleep or fever had come upon him. He kept looking at the serpent and it at him; the one from the wound, the other from the mouth, smoked violently and their smoke met.”
Now here is Dante talking as a poet. He breaks the account, the chronicle of what he has seen, the witnessing since that’s what he is, he’s the witness in all these experiences and that’s what he says: “Let Lucan now be silent with his tales of wretched Sebellus and Nasidius, and let him wait to hear what now comes forth. Let Ovid be silent about Cadmus and Arethusa; for if in his lines he turns him into a serpent and her into a fountain, I do not grudge it to him, for two natures face to face he never saw transmuted that both kinds were ready to exchange their substance.”
On the face of it, Dante’s saying that the kind of metamorphosis he’s describing really is more horrifying than anything that Ovid, the author of the Metamorphosis, who has always guided his metamorphosis by a belief in the bondage, in the bond of — in the solidarity between humans, human beings and the natural world. We can go on shifting forms and there is a kind of serene transformation happening in Ovid. He also says that he’s different from Lucan, another author of scenes of metamorphosis in his story about the civil war. The point that I think is really crucial here is that it’s a different one.
Dante is repeating and reenacting exactly the kind of aesthetic temptation that we already witnessed in Canto IV of Inferno, in Limbo, where Dante meets the poets and he’s so taken, so complacent about undoubtedly the great temptation of sitting with — can you imagine — Homer, Virgil, Horace, Lucan, Ovid, exactly the people that he mentions. Retrospectively, that scene of harmony that Canto IV seemed to dramatize, now is completely vanquished.
Here he is, he’s really saying, I am their rival, I am even better, I’m seeing things that they didn’t even imagine. If you had the illusion of an idyllic relationship among poets, you are disabused at this point. It is a temptation nonetheless, because once again Dante is going down for — in a descent, which is a descent of spiritual humility, and yet his voice seems to be going in an opposite direction, one of hubris, the same kind of temptation that he had in Canto IV. This is what happens, again, the structure repeats itself.
In Canto IV, Dante claims that he builds fellowship with the great poets. He comes into Canto V and he has to confront the responsibilities of writing, the responsibilities of being a writer and he encounters his own — a reader of his own.
Chapter 6. Canto XXVI: Ulysses as a Mode of Being for Dante [00:38:50]
Dante merges into Canto XXVI and meets none other than Ulysses, the master rhetorician, whose experience and whose journey will lead himself and his companions to a tragic end.
For Dante this is an extraordinary moment for a number of reasons. Ulysses is a steady point of reference for his own adventure. He will keep thinking of him in Canto XIX of Purgatorio and in Canto XXVIII of Paradise, when Dante is about to live beyond the whole — the physical universe. He looks back to see the distance he has traveled, and the only thing that he sees is really that passageway where Ulysses violated all boundaries. Clearly, what kind of boundaries am I violating? Ulysses is a mode of being, a possibility of being, for Dante himself.
We come into Canto XXVI and I would like to take as much time as I possibly can without tiring you all about this canto. Let me begin with — as a sort of preamble — tell you a general point. Every school child in antiquity and in Dante’s own time knew one thing, that Ulysses was a famous Greek hero, polytropic as Homer calls him: the man of many terms, a man who knew it all, the man who had been seasoned in all experiences. They know that he had gone to the War of Troy, that he was the one to suggest the building of the Trojan horse and the stealing of the Palladium, as you know, the simulacrum of Minerva. Wisdom, the figure of — the image of wisdom and then it took him — that he was involved in the battle about inheriting Achilles’ arms with Ajax and then everybody knew that it took him ten years to return to Ithaca.
This is the story of the Odyssey. He returns, he goes to — we do know only that the nostos as the Greeks call it, the return, the journey of return. He becomes the hero of nostalgia, the going back to a place that he has. Everybody knew this in Dante — in antiquity and in Dante’s time.
In antiquity they knew it very well because then the story of Ulysses had become an allegory, a philosophical allegory of the fate of the soul. The idea of Ulysses who goes from Ithaca to Troy and then goes back for ten years after a war of ten years, another ten years of vicissitudes, cleansing himself in order to reach — to go back to and testing himself to go back to his home town, was really the story of the soul. That’s what the soul does. It incarnates itself, strophe and antistrophe, it goes through — the soul goes through the planets and gets tainted by the attributes of the planets. Some of us are lunatics, others are mercurial, others are saturnine. That’s from the planets, but then by cleansing ourselves the soul can go back to its place of origin. That’s the circle of the return. That’s the way the Alexandrian neo-Platonists understood the allegory of the Odyssey. This is clear.
Dante violates this rule: that’s what you have in Canto XXVI. Dante begins with Ulysses who has returned to Ithaca and starts his journeys of exploration all over again. The idea of the eternal return, the idea of a closure that he has come back home, is not part of Dante’s imagination or sensibility. He is the poet who is truly restless and always placing himself and his heroes on some kind of quest, on a method, on a road, on an address or whatever the idea, the philosophers who are always on — always thinking about some way of reaching wisdom, reaching truth. That’s where he puts them and that’s what happens with the story of Ulysses.
Ulysses starts all over again and goes to die. He’s involved in a journey that is absolutely gratuitous: a journey for wisdom, a journey for wisdom into the unpeopled world. We’re going to see this in a moment, and he dies. That’s it. From one point of view — and I want you to be careful as you read the canto because you will see — you will notice one thing, the first thing you will notice that it’s not Dante who conducts the interview with Ulysses. It is Virgil, the poet of Latin antiquity and supposedly they speak maybe Greek or some form of — clearly Greek. It is Virgil, the poet of the Aeneid who thinks of himself as the fitting interlocutor of the great Greek hero. Not Dante, Dante’s excluded. Dante just watches and witnesses this, but there’s more to this idea of stylistic decorum. One can say well Virgil — this is in fact as tragic as a text could ever get, sublime. This is not a comical text, this is Virgil the author of a tragedy. That’s what Dante calls it, the tragic style, the sublime style, and Ulysses speaks in the most — in the loftiest way possible. It’s not just a question of stylistic decorum, at stake there is something else. Ulysses disguises himself as Aeneas and tells the story of his life as if he were Aeneas.
Now, let me just tell you one little thing and then we’ll get into the canto. This is part of the story in many ways. If you ask readers of Virgil and Homer, they probably will tell you — well Virgil is a good poet, but let’s face it the first six books are just the Odyssey and the second books are just the Iliad that he sort of gives a resume of and so on. Not at all. The difference between the two heroes is this: Ulysses has a place to go back to. He goes from Ithaca to Troy, back to Ithaca. Aeneas has no place to go to. His is the open quest, the road, on open-ended road, and open-ended journey and this is the way Ulysses will think of himself.
For the last thing, and then really we’ll get into the canto, the last thing I’ll say is that the extraordinary ambiguity — I want to point out the extraordinary ambiguity with which Dante represents Ulysses. But the ambiguity of Ulysses is part of the story of Ulysses from the start. From the very beginning, Ulysses is a philosopher and he is a rhetorician. He is someone who can manipulate all knowledge for his own ends, and it is this ambiguity that in many ways Dante finds very alluring.
Let me start with the canto. The canto starts with another very topical relation, a very topical allusion. Dante is drawing their attention to a specific place, to the city of Florence. It is as if he wants to moor himself, anchor himself to something as concrete as is immediate with — immediate place, his own native place. And it’s an apostrophe to Florence: “Rejoice Florence, since thou art so great.” Let me just stop here a moment.
Pay attention as you read the canto, pay attention to one stylistic element: the antithetical use of ‘great’ or ‘tall and small’ at the same time. Rhetorically sometimes, all with the idea that — of making us ask and wonder what is the relationship between that which claims to be so large and so big, and that which claims to be so small. Ulysses obviously thinks of himself in terms of loftiness and Dante now rhetorically starts with Florence: “so great,” the satire is obvious, “that over land and sea thou beatest thy wings and through Hell thy name is spread abroad.” The whole point is that he has seen some Florentine thieves, and named even: “Among the thieves… five such citizens of thine that shame for them comes.” Once again the prophetic voice of Dante appears here and you will see that this is fairly important in the narrative.
Second paragraph, “We set out, and, on the stairs which the projecting rocks had made for a descent before, my Leader mounted again and drew me up, and, following the lonely way among the rocks and splinters of the ridge, the foot made no speed without the hand. I grieved then and grieve now anew” — ;then, when he was a pilgrim, watching and witnessing the stories that he is going to tell. And now, as a writer. There’s a double focus that Dante’s using: the focus of the pilgrim and the focus of the narrator.
“I grieved then and I grieve now anew when I turn my mind to what I saw, and more than I am wont I curb my powers.” And this is going to be at least the attempt of Dante to curb his powers as he witnesses the story of immoderate hunger for knowledge of a flight of the mind. That’s what we have here. The flight of the mind which is like the flight of Daedalus, which is like the flight of Icarus that seems to know no boundaries.
Ulysses is he who transgresses all boundaries, but doesn’t Dante also transgress boundaries? He won’t say so here, he wants — it seems that he takes Ulysses as an exemplary figure that would lead him to — one to curb his powers. Let’s continue, “lest they run where virtue does not guide them.” The language is that of horses, of course, the horses of the soul. And virtue is the ability to hold the black and the white horse of the chariot, to hold them together and — that’s the allusion that Dante is using in neo-Platonic language.
“If favoring star or something better have granted me such boon, I may not grudge it to myself.” Now, the first description of the landscape: a somber landscape, “as many as the fireflies which the peasant resting on the hill — in the season when he that lights the world least hides his face from us…” What an extraordinary image, a periphrasis, to talk about the sun, to describe the night, when the sun is hiding, and you’ll see the implications of this metaphor — I hope — in a moment.
“Sees along the valley below, in the fields, perhaps, where he gathers the grapes and tills; with so many flames the eighth ditch was all gleaming, as I perceived as soon as I came where the bottom was in sight. And as he that was avenged by the bears saw the chariot of Elijah at his departure when the horses reared and rose to heaven, who could not follow it with his eyes so as to see anything but the flame alone like a little cloud mounting up; so each flame moves along the gullet of the ditch, for none shows the theft and every one steals away a sinner.”
Dante’s not comparing himself to Elijah, he’s comparing to someone who watches Elijah. Elijah is also engaged in a flight to — a flight of the soul, exactly like Ulysses who is going to be represented as — is the antithesis to Ulysses, but Dante is neither like Elijah and he would like us to believe that he’s not really like Ulysses. He is like Eliseus, the one who inherits the mantle of prophecy from Elijah, and the one who witnesses, who watches. It’s his way of trying to avoid the extreme of the prophet and now, as it turns out, the rhetorician. This is the way the layout here is between Ulysses and Elijah.
“I was standing on the bridge,” and then he goes on. He’s told that within the flames are the spirits. There’s a forked flame and there are two souls: Ulysses and Diomedes. Pay attention to this little detail. Except in the case of the suicides, Dante always sees pairs of sinners. Here’s Diomedes who doesn’t talk and he sees also Ulysses, and I suppose that the reason is that Dante really wants us to know about the social quality of a moral violation, that a moral violation always implies somebody else. It’s not quite ever — except for the suicide which has a peculiar form because you have witness, homicide, and victim all in one — but in the other sinners you always have a sense of a witness, somebody else who has been touched or an accomplice of the sinner. “Within,” we know what he answered who are these people. “I already wished to ask thee who is in that fire which comes so cloven at the top that seems to rise from the pyre with Eteocles was laid with his brother.”
The story is the Thebaid, the two brothers were enemies, Eteocles and Polyneices, Thebes — we already have an introduction of — this is all about Greek mythology. In Greek mythology with brothers — the city of — the story of Thebes which Dante knows through Statius, the idea of Oedipus, of course and Jocasta, and the tragic city. The Thebes becomes the term, becomes the metaphor, the basic metaphor of the tragic city because in effect it presents also — one of the reasons for Dante it’s crucial, it presents birth, Eteocles and Polyneices, the children of Oedipus and Jocasta, as tragic events. This is something that distinguishes radically the Greek idea, as Dante understands it, the Greek idea of cities and birth from say, Virgil’s idea of birth, something to be celebrated all the time and Virgil is always the one who celebrates the birth — Assinius Pollio, etc.
Now we know who these are. “He answered me: ‘Within there are tormented, Ulysses and Diomed, and thus together they go under vengeance as once under wrath…” etc. “ ‘If they’re able to speak within these lights,’ I said, ‘I earnestly pray thee, Master, and pray again that my prayer avail a thousandfold that thou do not forbid me to stay tils the horned flame comes near; thou seest how I bend toward it with desire.’ And he said to me, ‘Thy prayer deserves much praise, therefore I consent to it. But do thou restrain thy tongue.’”
Earlier he wanted to curb his powers, now Virgil asks him to restrain his tongue, “Leave it to me to speak, for I have understood what thou wishest; for perhaps, since they were Greeks, they would disdain thy speech.” We have really a sense of the hierarchy of styles: Virgil and Ulysses, and then in Canto XXVII it’s going to be Guido da Montefeltro and Dante.
“You who are two within one fire, if I deserved of you while I lived, if I deserved of you much or little,” once again, the oscillation between high and low, “much or little, when in the world I wrote the lofty lines, do not move on, but let the one of you tell where, being lost, he went to die.’ The greater horn of the ancient flame began to toss and murmur, just as if it were beaten by the wind, then, waving the point to and fro as if it were the tongue that spoke, it flung forth a voice and said: ‘When I parted from Circe, who held me more than a year near Gaeta before Aeneas so named it,” so you see clearly Ulysses tells his story through the myth of Aeneas. Claiming priority over Aeneas, but also the knowledge in one thing. It’s an incredibly — I find it a very moving line that Aeneas names places in memory of his nurse. He names the city of Gaeta, he’s a founder of cities, and names the city of Gaeta.
“Not fondness for his son, not duty to an aged father, not the love I owed Penelope…” Look at this, it’s what we call heavily ethical language. Ulysses speaks in terms of what his duties are: the duty to an aged father Laertes, “the love I owed Penelope, which should have gladdened her, could conquer within me the passion I had to gain experience of the world and of the vices and the worth of men.”
This is — seems to be an ethical quest and nothing can stand in the way of this virtuous action. Ulysses thinks of himself as a virtuous quester after vices, understanding and gaining experience “…of vices and virtues and the worth of men; and I put forth on the open deep with but one ship… The one shore and the other I saw as far as Spain… Morocco… Sardinia…”
And he’s a man of — mentions places all the time, in this narrative. He always mentions places, cities, Morocco, Seville, Ceuta on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is as if here is a man who lives in space. He left his father, he left his son, that would be temporal description of him, but he lives in space. It’s as if he never really knew his own place in the world. He’s always looking for something, he doesn’t even — he doesn’t know where he belongs. “My companions were old and slow when we came to that narrow outlet where Hercules set up his landmarks so that men should not pass beyond. On my right hand I left Seville, on the other had already left Ceuta.”
And now the speech he makes to his own companions. Look at the rhetorical wisdom with which he moves. He addresses them as brothers which is the biggest captatio benevolentiae: we are all together, there is no hierarchy here, I’m not your leader, I’m not your king: “O brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand perils,” look at the hyperboles. If you want to seduce people to come, companions to come with you, you have to tell them they — that theirs are mighty actions and he does, and then magnify all the possible dangers. “A hundred thousand perils have reached the west,” not a definite place, the west, vague and yet lofty, “to this so brief vigil of the senses.” The modesty, the oscillation between hyperbole and litotes, as it were, the recoiling into the sense of ordinariness and small.
“That remains to us, choose not to deny experience,” which I find an extraordinary word, an experience, and I probably will stop here with this. Experience, as you know, is a word only with prepositions, experire. It’s a journey, it’s a going through, an experience. It’s understood as a journey, it is as if knowledge — that’s the etymology of the word is, it’s a going through. If knowledge literally is compared to a displacement through a traveling, through a katabasis even, in this case, which is the term to indicate the descent into the beyond.
“In the sun’s tracks of the unpeopled world. Take thought of the seed from which you spread.” If you want to know the end of things you have to know the beginnings, you have to know the seeds. This is the — his is Ulysses’ perception and because you have a noble seed then you do know that you are — there’s a kind of natural determination in his own mind that he will reach, indeed, the noble end.
“You were not born to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” That’s an extraordinary line. He promises that human beings will leave behind — the allusion maybe to the metamorphosis of Circe, that had changed the companions into pigs, the Epicureans, the hogs of Epicurus into the voluptuary experiences — and he promises to restore in them not only the human image but to bring them to virtue, knowledge. It’s an extraordinary promise; it’s a very difficult promise. It’s almost an impossible promise; it may even not be a correct promise, because he’s making a promise that virtue is knowledge. I lead you to virtue and knowledge, and they may not be the same thing. I may have knowledge, but it doesn’t mean that I have the virtue that I claim to have knowledge about. It could be anything, anything at all. I can know what prudence is. It doesn’t — that doesn’t really make me prudent.
Chapter 7. Question and Answer [01:02:31]
Let’s stop here, I want to stop here and I want to see if there are some questions and then resume next time with the canto. Yes?
Student: [Inaudible] with Aeneas — with Ulysses because they both aren’t going to any definite place. Is that what you said? Aeneas is like Ulysses because they both don’t have a definite place to return to?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is, I mentioned — actually Ulysses mentions knowing that he speaks to Virgil, mentions Aeneas and so that’s the answer, why Aeneas and Ulysses vaguely. That’s the — they clearly were fighting the same battle in Troy. Virgil — Ulysses must know that Aeneas had lost his home town and he took his son, unlike Ulysses, he took his father on his back literally, he’s an immigrant and his son and lost his wife Creusa, and goes looking for a place without really knowing what place for him. Ulysses knows where he wants to go; he has a certain idea of his destination, which is Ithaca. He has a lot of temptations along the way: Nausicaa, and what a temptation; Circe, another great temptation. He manages to move beyond those temptations in order to go back to Ithaca. That’s the great difference from the Roman myth of the immigrant.
Student: But in this version aren’t they still really different because Ulysses doesn’t — I mean he — his quest doesn’t have any direction at all, it’s just experience, and Aeneas’ quest, he doesn’t know where he’s going but there’s still an overall plan so that there is a definite [inaudible].
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Exactly, absolutely, so there is a — the difference between them becomes that Aeneas will stop at one point. He has temptations to stop in Sicily, you remember that there are famous games, the games — ritual games in memory of his father who had died, the death that hallows that ground, the death of Anchises, the women burn the ships — this is too — this is utopia. I don’t — we don’t want to go around into this epic adventure, let’s stop here, he won’t. He’s always misunderstanding oracles. He doesn’t know where to go. He’s always looking backwards, but looking forward at the same time, but at one point he stops. And that’s part of, if you wish, the realism of Aeneas. He stops at one point; he will not go any further. Ulysses goes back home and then he starts all over again, but that’s Dante reading of Ulysses. He’s really reading him as very much like, as if he were a variant of Dante by the way. Yes?
Student: Is it possible for Ulysses and Aeneas to represent the dichotomy between Dante the poet and Dante the narrator? One has a definite place as looking back and has a definite place where he’s going and the other is taking a journey of experience and is not sure where he’s going?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is very interesting and is it possible to think of Aeneas and Ulysses as two functions, as it were, of Dante: the pilgrim and the poet. Yes and no. It’s a very interesting question, but I would not — I really hesitate to agree with you for one reason. Because writing, for Dante, is a prolongation of the search. Dante literally cannot stop. It’s not that he — on the face of it, he has seen the beatific vision, right, that’s really the story. A story of a man who goes from the wilderness, goes through Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, and has a beatific vision and now he starts telling us about it. Fighting against forgetfulness, he has a lot of — as a writer, he has a lot of temptations and yet the writing itself is fraught with dangers, temptations. It’s a different sort of journey, but it’s the journey of writing and therefore there’s no clear-cut distinction between the two.
In fact, I just read in Canto XXV the little scene when he challenges Lucan and Ovid, which really is, let the past yield to the present, that’s really the kind of claim that they can make. Let them be quiet, because I know what is happening and the story is that as a writer he is lapsing, he is falling into a number of temptations, as if he were a pilgrim. You can expect that from a pilgrim, to being fascinated by Francesca, having all these inner divisions. Dante is a deeply divided man, he has to condemn and at the same time has to sympathize even as a pilgrim. So that’s really the — that’s the only little detail where I would not agree with you, but maybe you’re right, I don’t know. Yes?
Student: Can you speak about the fact that Dante changes the ending because his story’s [inaudible] in Ithaca and why he [inaudible].
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is, can I speak about how Dante changes the ending of Ulysses’ story? The answer is this. Dante makes Ulysses go back to Ithaca, but then he breaks the circle of this closed circle — let’s call it the circle of the epic. Let me talk formally about it. The idea is that you — what are some traits of the epic? The epics deal with foundations of cities and destruction of cities, all the time, no matter what that city may be. So he has destroyed the city, goes back to his old city to cleanse it. That’s — which is Homer’s way of saying — I think — you Greeks were so great when you went out into the world at Troy, let us see how that heroic ethos is going to help you now that you are back home, where probably you are going to need more courage and more determination — as much courage, at least as much determination as you did have in that great celebration of the newly found Greek unity in Asia Minor in Troy.
That’s — Dante takes that and he says, there’s no closure here, because he rejects the idea of Dante. To the epic he replaces the epic with the novel. This becomes a kind of novelistic story, wherein experience is being arrived at, as one goes. You see what I’m saying? In the epic you have a kind of — indeed things return to the point of departure, so that’s the difference. It’s a difference between two radically different ways of understanding experience and the self. Dante will put himself on the open road, but Ulysses will remain the constant reminder to him. He’s a phantasm, he can never quite exorcise. It will return to him, as I said, when a siren appears and tempts the pilgrim and says look I made — I gave happiness to Ulysses, why don’t you stay with me? And the implication is, first of all, she’s lying because this is the story of Ulysses putting the wax in his ears, which is nicely omitted, but it’s in a way a temptation to Dante to feel that he, too, is an epic hero like Ulysses. Did I answer? Other questions? We’ll come back to this canto which is — truly plays a crucial role in Dante’s imagination and in the Divine Comedy, the unfolding of the Divine Comedy, so read carefully and then we’ll go onto the other cantos. Thank you.
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