ITAL 310: Dante in Translation

Lecture 9



The final cantos of Inferno are read with a view to the role of the tragic within Dante’s Comedy. Using Dante’s discussion of tragedy in the De vulgari eloquentia as a point of departure, Professor Mazzotta traces the disintegration of language that accompanies the pilgrim’s descent into the pit of Hell, the zone of treachery, from the distorted speech of Nimrod inInferno XXXI to the silence of Satan in Inferno XXXIV. The ultimate triumph of comedy over tragedy is dramatized by the pilgrim’s ascent, by means of Lucifer, onto the shores of Mount Purgatory.

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Dante in Translation

ITAL 310 - Lecture 9 - Inferno XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV

Chapter 1. The Mode of the Tragic [00:00:00]

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: We are going to try to finish with Inferno today and I would like to look at the last Cantos XXX, XXXI, XXXII maybe a little bit, XXXIII for sure, and there are a couple of details in XXXIV.

From one point of view, I’ll be talking about Dante’s tragic mode at the bottom of Hell. This is — I hope to argue with you that — I will be arguing exactly, this is a tragic representation. As soon as I say that, you might wonder, you probably should wonder, about the difficulty of such an enterprise. And the difficulty of the enterprise has to do, first of all, with the fact that this is a comedy. So that difficulty should go away in the sense that the tragic is really part not an end, not a final vision, but part of a larger discourse that Dante will go into, which is a comical idea.

He really has this idea of a comical vision, even of the divinity and certainly of the cosmos. Comical, in the sense that it’s really the feast, the feast — in classical times, it would be the feast of the gods. Here is the redemptive, happy, harmonious sense of the whole. That’s one of the difficulties. The other difficulty that — about this mode of the tragic is that the — within the Christian vision that Dante — that sort of shapes Dante’s poem, it’s very difficult to locate the tragic: there is no such a thing as a Christian tragedy.

Though one might say, and I will say here, just to sort of give you a sense of how nuanced the issue maybe, is that within that vision, within that Christian vision, we are always told that the only thing we know of God’s presence in history is the Crucifixion. There’s the story of the dying god, the story of the suffering of the divinity itself. It is not, once again, a final vision. So there’s a theological problem that he has to confront and there is also an aesthetic problem, a larger aesthetic problem.

To really clarify these issues, rather than just telling you that all this comes from — I will look at these cantos from one point view. The point of view of Dante’s writing a particular text, a text about language. So it’s really going to be about language and tragedy, in the belief that this is exactly Dante’s insight about what the tragic may be. Let me tell you — I have to go a little bit outside of the text for a while — so that when I point out details here that we’ll talk about in other texts you will see what I mean.

You know — this is a sort of also a little bit of a recapitulation for you — you know that Dante goes into exile in 1302. By that time, he had written only one book, an autobiographical book that had he — the Vita nuova, the New Life. Had he written only that book, he would still be known as one of the great poets of the Middle Ages, but he would not really be known for more than that. It’s a little bit of a self-enclosure, a lyrical poem, self-enclosed: it’s about, as you recall, a kind of sense that the self is absolute, that love is an absolute itself. It does not allow for the intrusion of anything within its own orbit and its perimeter and Dante finishes it off with a vision, realizing that he has to do other things in order to go on writing.

He just doesn’t write much at that point. He may be writing some songs. He is involved in political life, in the footsteps of his teacher, Brunetto Latini, and hoping that his life will really be very different from Brunetto Latini. Ironically, it is not, because actually it’s even more tragic than Brunetto Latini’s life, because Brunetto Latini is politically involved in the history of Florence. He will experience exile, but he will return to Florence enough to even go on teaching Dante. He has written encyclopedic texts, like the Trésor; he has written allegories, autobiographical allegories about his life.

Chapter 2. De vulgari eloquentia [00:05:19]

Dante will go into exile in 1302 and the first thing that he writes is a treatise on language which is called On the Vulgar Tongue. It’s a text that — written from the perspective of exile, very much like the Divine Comedy, because, as I repeat, Dante will never go back to Florence. The reasons why he writes this kind of text — it’s written in Latin — the reasons are very unclear, also because he never finishes it. I’m going to suggest to you that there are good reasons why he could never finish it, but he wrote two books. We don’t even know how many he had conceived of writing.

What is this text about? Let me give you a little bit of a summary of the text and then you will see how it will go on reappearing in Dante’s poem, the final cantos of Inferno, where in effect, he rewrites, he writes and gives a whole — a sense of the wholeness of this text and the difficulties of — and he will share with us his sense of the difficulties why that tract could never have been finished. At any rate it starts, it’s called the De vulgari eloquentia as it deals with the origin of the vulgar tongues. He starts very much like medieval treatises start with — from a metaphysical standpoint, from the very high: what does human language do, is language something human and the answer that he gives is yes and no. It is human because we are the only ones who do speak, though he makes room for animals, also occasionally speaking in a human voice and being understood by human beings, making sounds that are — and he’s not talking about parrots. He’s talking about miraculous biblical scenes.

He starts by saying the angels do not speak. They don’t use the language we do. They communicate — Lucifer for instance, he communicates, but he communicates with the other angels or with God intuitively. There is a kind of — so there is a reality that escapes the human language, the language that we use, there are some things happening that we do not have. Then the language is — it’s only human and yet, it’s not human because it’s actually a gift. We couldn’t really make it on our own; it’s really God’s gift. This is the metaphysical premise. Who was the first — who are the first people to speak? He goes on: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. That’s biblical enough; I think it’s fairly clear.

What was the first language that they spoke? Hebrew. Hebrew is acknowledged as the primal language and he will even go on so far as to say that Hebrew is never really extinguished by, for instance, either the fall of man, of mankind, or by the building of the Tower of Babel and the whole question of Nimrod. There’s a whole story about who this Nimrod is — the famous biblical giant who built the Tower of Babel, an act which he even — he, Dante, but this is very much in the tradition of the so-called patristic writings — we’ll see as the counter to the descent of the word, or the redemptive event of the word made flesh, is really the counter to this human effort; this ascent in pride of Nimrod to try to bridge the gap between earth and heaven. And the effort to that fails.

He will go on acknowledging Hebrew, but I must say, not only he says that it survives the story of Nimrod, he says it has never really disappeared. He takes, and I’m only qualifying it, what we would call an ahistorical viewpoint. It was almost as if Hebrew is accepted from — it does not belong to the flow of history and the reality of the mutations to which all things — all sublunary things — are prone and are vulnerable: Hebrew is excepted from it.

I stress this fact because I’m going to come back to this, maybe toward the end of the term, when we’re going to read Paradiso XXVI, where Dante meets Adam, and there blatantly, he changes his mind. It is as if something has intervened in between the writing of the De vulgari eloquentia and the encounter with Adam, when Adam says, look, the Hebrew language I spoke completely, vanished as soon as I ate of the fruit — of the forbidden fruit of the tree. Dante goes on and says there’s no trace of the original language. That is to say, in Paradise, Dante’s ready to historicize the question of human language, but not in this treatise of the De vulgari eloquentia. He goes on describing the descent of the word, so it’s a theology of language and then Book I ends and he moves on to Book II.

In Book II, Dante gives a completely different — takes a different direction in this treatise. He starts talking, not about the grammar of language, what we can call the grammar of language, that is to say the ordering, how this language was ordered — that’s what I mean by grammar. Of course it’s a word that explains letters, correct uses of things, but also the ordering of a certain reality. He talks now about rhetoric and he becomes almost a theorist of poetry and style. He goes on explaining, for instance, he goes on wondering: what are the three styles of writing poetry? And that you know, because I have been mentioning some of them.

You may recall the high style, the medium style, the middle style, and the low style; the style of comedy, the style of tragedy and the style of the elegy, the middle style, the elegiac style. He even suggests that style should never really be thought of as a pure ornamentation. Some of us maybe we do whatever we think about that: so and so has style. We all remember the phrase that the style is the man, the character; but sometimes we say, well that guy writes with style, meaning that he has brio. He has a particular gift in pulling together words and writing sentences. Dante sort of implies that style is really a mode of knowledge. In the measure in which he says there’s a high style for high reality and the middle style for the middle reality — the mixed world, the elegiac world and then a low style for the comical world.

He really says that if you really want to understand those who are far below: the fisherman, for instance, or the clowns, you cannot really give them the — treat them with the decorum with which you treat the kings. Kings speak differently, the sublime kind of language. Do you see what I’m saying? There is an idea that style becomes an instrument of knowledge. He goes on describing the theory of the song, which is the greatest poetic lyrical form and it’s the song because it’s a way of bringing out the music of the language.

The music — Dante’s response — this is a little historical detail, it’s responding to a poetic revolution that had taken place within — in Sicily at the court of Frederick II. Because prior to that time, the Provençal poets would be writing, composing poetry, and would accompany their songs with the lute, the famous Provençal poets’ instrument. The Sicilians had divided those two modes. It was possible to write poetry in and of itself, without the accompaniment of music, in the persuasion that the art of poetry was the effort to bring out the inherent harmony of the language.

He discusses the song; he discusses themes: what are the great themes of poetry and we alluded to that with Bertran de Born, because Dante says Bertran de Born was the greatest in writing war poetry. The other themes of course are rectitude — the rectitude of the will, that is to say, a sense of the ethical: what are the ethical directions that one should take? The word direction and rectitude, they really have the same etymology. Then also love poems.

So this is the way he precedes. He defines poetry, by the way. He ends with a great definition of poetry: that poetry is that art that combines music — the art of music — and rhetoric together and he ends there. It’s unfinished. Dante will go on writing other things, for instance, a philosophical text about ethics, which he also will leave unfinished and then will go on writing the political text De Monarchia, etc., which he finishes.

This is the preamble to what we are going to talk about today. I think that the best way to begin is to tell you, since I’ll be talking mainly about tragedy and language, I really want to tell you how much Dante retrieves of the De vulgari eloquentia. For instance, and I’m not going to be — really giving you a lot of details, but some, so that you can be persuaded about this — that there’s really a deliberate pattern. This is a deliberate retrospective view that he takes of his past, of a failure of his own, of a certain way of — why does one fail? What is so unaccomplishable about a particular task that — I’m using the words that Nimrod uses for his own Tower of Babel — I realize that it was an unaccomplishable task. And I find myself using those words for Dante’s earlier effort in writing on the vulgar tongue. Some connections between the treatise and these lower — the cantos of lower Hell.

Where are we by the way? We haven’t talked about that, we got to talk about these are the cantos of the lower Hell: we are in the general area of fraud. You remember that, right? We saw violence. Now we see fraud, but if you recall Canto XI where the map of — the ethical map of Inferno had been given, Dante distinguishes between the sins of fraud and the sins of treachery. Treachery is a subdivision of fraud because fraud can be rhetoricians, falsifiers in general, flatterers, etc. These are the — but treachery is worse than that. That’s where we are now. We’re in the realm of treachery.

Treachery — the treacherous sinners are those who engage in a deceptive violation of the trust others place in us. This is not necessarily true for all fraudulent people. There’s those who can perpetrate a fraud on you without even knowing you or without even having anything to do with you. The question of treachery is different. It implies a violation of what Dante calls the erasure of the bonds of love, because it implies friends, family, country, hosts. I think, for instance, Macbeth would belong to this type of — the tragedy of Macbeth — would belong to this type of ethical judgment. The erasure of the bonds of love and nature: it is as if the treacherous sinners are really those who, in betraying, they really betray nature itself. It is as if something is being said about that, they annihilate all possible ties within a community, within the self and others.

Treachery is the language of nothing. It’s a way of saying that nothing matters, there’s no bond that I can — that I could feel an attachment too. It’s a — literally a severing of self in the domain of a pure arbitrariness. I mean this: I am above everything or I’m below everything; it doesn’t matter, but I certainly have no attachments to anything around me. That’s where we are, there is so much to say where we are in the context, but the connections with the De vulgari eloquentia.

I think that even the story of Ulysses can be read in the light of the De vulgari eloquentia because it’s the story of a tragic style. Dante had been describing the tragic style, and the tragic style and the failure of the tragic style. Even the canto — the successive canto of Guido de Montefeltro can be — it’s literally the counterpoint, the rhetorical counterpoint to Ulysses. It’s a story of the comical style. Certainly Bertran de Born is a figure who, for the first time, and now the second time, appears in the De vulgari eloquentia, and Dante has a great admiration for Bertran de Born’s poetic art. He says the Italians don’t have the language of the poetry of war, but the one who has a poetry of war and modernity is Bertran de Born.

Clearly Dante has changed his opinion here. He may admire Bertran de Born, but the strife, the divisiveness that his poetry fosters, now sort of has made a victim of him. By the way, Pound writes a great poem about — Ezra Pound — about Bertran de Born, but really keeping in mind more that Bertran de Born of the De vulgari eloquentia than the Bertran de Born, as far as I can tell, of Inferno.

Chapter 3. Canto XXX: Juno, Myrrha, Sinon [00:19:45]

We come to Canto XXIX, which I already looked at that — saw a little bit, but I will come to Canto XXX, for instance, and Dante enters deliberately now, and on the face of it very little — There is very little here that has to do with the De vulgari eloquentia, but here though, he’s talking about two experiences that define the tragic mode.

One is, look at this: “In the time,” beginning from Canto XXX, “In the time when Juno was enraged because Semele, the mistress of Jupiter against the Theban blood as she showed once and again, Athamas so insane.” He’s really talking about the tragic text, the Thebaid, where the gods themselves within the world — the classical world — the gods themselves seem to have been wounded by exactly the same mad passions that drive human beings to destruction. This is Juno. Juno doesn’t really die but she will — she suffers the same passions. There’s a language here of the tragic and let’s call it the mythopoeic. It’s a kind of classical theology being tied to it.

And then the story of the Trojans once again: “But no fury of Thebes or Troy was ever so cruel against any,” etc. Then even further on Canto XXX, line 40, the story of Myrrha, the young woman who — it’s a classical story. It’s an Ovidian story: the woman who is inflamed by passion, incestuous passion, and impersonates somebody else in order to be able to sleep with her father. There is — this is part of all this tragic, let me call it, tragic perimeter, but everything focuses on the story of Sinon, I think.

I like this idea of Sinon who is an impersonator and a falsifier. You don’t really have to know a lot of Italian to know that Dante is really punning on the name Si / non, which means yes and no. The very representation of the falsification of personality but it’s the — so the tragic is tied to some sense of identity, people who do not know exactly — and that’s impersonation. Human beings who may not know who they are and who may take on some kind of either figuration or the reality of somebody else. So it’s this idea of an ambiguity already betrayed by the name, so the connection between madness and tragedy.

Chapter 4. Canto XXXI: The Giants; Theory of Perspective [00:22:47]

Let me move on to Canto XXXI where Dante enters and now meets the giants, clearly a figuration and an echo of the De vulgari eloquentia. One of them is Nimrod. So this is really a deliberate reflection. Let me just read a little bit of this on line 60 and following, where Dante hears some kinds of sounds. And every commentator of yours, mine certainly does, will tell you that Dante’s using just some gibberish. Nobody knows what it means.

These are the words: “Raphèl may amèch zabi almi’ began the savage mouth to cry, for which no sweeter psalms were fit; and my Leader towards him: ‘Stupid soul keep to thy horn and vent thyself with that when rage or other passion takes thee. Search at thy neck, bewildered soul, and thus shalt find the strap that holds it tied. See how it lies across thy great chest.’ Then he said to me: ‘He is his own accuser. This is Nimrod, through whose wicked device the world is not of one sole speech. Let us leave him there and not talk in vain, for every language is to him as his to others, which is known to none. We made our way, therefore, farther on, turning left, and found the next a bowshot off, far savager and larger,” etc. And he meets other — a number of other giants.

Why does Dante first of all mention giants? Both the De vulgari eloquentia and here, what is really the point of the De vulgari eloquentia? There is a way in which the De vulgari eloquentia is written from the viewpoint of Nimrod, because what Dante wants to do is something exactly like what Nimrod attempted. Nimrod wanted to combine all the possible languages, that’s how Babel, the confusion of tongues comes about. He wanted to combine — to build a tower whereby human beings can reach Heaven. And I said that it’s really the other side of the incarnational word: the word that joins Heaven and Earth. One is one of descent, the other one is the pride of ascent. Nimrod wants — this is the giantess, this is — his is a sin of — not a sin. It’s a trait, it’s a trait of his — of knowing things.

He wants to occupy a kind of superior perspective, that’s what his being a giant means. A superior perspective from which he can really see the whole of the world around him and then be able to transcend the world of contingency: this is the problem with Nimrod. This is what the Tower of Babel is about and the theological answer is that you don’t do this by pride. You really ought to do it by humility, not by trying to go up but really by going down. What I’m really also saying and we could talk about this, that there is a connection between pride and perspective.

The De vulgari eloquentia is also a text of perspectivism. Do you know what I mean by perspectivism? What we have read so far. Perspectivism simply means the presence of viewpoints, various viewpoints, which one somehow manages to control, or know, all viewpoints. In Dante, this is the case — the way the whole of Inferno is written. The perspective on styles: Dante uses all possible styles that I have been exemplifying for you here as we discuss the poem. He wrote — he uses the courtly language and the courtly rhetoric of Francesca, the other court — the legal court of Pier della Vigna, the court of the — let’s say, the schools, with Brunetto Latini, the language of the prophets. He uses all perspectives. It’s the whole of the Divine Comedy is such a perspective, a perspectivist story.

Some of you might say, well you really are using a language that doesn’t belong to Dante’s own culture. That would be a very legitimate objection because when we talk about perspective, we usually think about — this is really the revolutionary language of fifteenth-century art. You may — some of you may be art historians. You may know that, though I could respond to you that actually there was a certain knowledge of perspective earlier than Dante. Nonetheless, even if they did not have a theory of perspective, which I’ll explain in a moment, they had the practice of perspective.

In art — we usually speak of perspective in art, and we usually link it with, for instance, a figure such as Alberti. You know who he is, this fifteenth-century theorist of art, who wrote a treatise called On Painting, in 1436, where he literally theorizes that which other painters from Giotto, Dante’s friend. Dante’s — they were together in Padua for years when Dante was in exile and Giotto was painting in the Scrovegni Chapel right there. So you could imagine they would be meeting; they knew each other. They were contemporaries: one is a year younger than the other. Dante’s a year older than Giotto, actually.

So there was a practice of perspective. What is perspective? For Alberti, it simply means the discovery that the mode of representation practiced in the Middle Ages really lacked depth. Not only that, lacked depth, and that somehow the belief that the world of appearance and the world of reality coincided. Perspective means that the world that I see shifts, changes according to the position that I, the spectator, occupy in the field of vision. I’m here and I can assure you that I see things that you sitting there cannot see and vice versa. You see things that I cannot see, so the perception of reality changes according to the position we occupy. That’s perspective.

Not only that, it also implies the possibility of manipulation of the space that we witness — we see — as a particular space. We can change it according to distance, according to the laws of the eyes, the position of the eye, according to the hour of the day. I see things which are always different. So this is perspective and therefore the language of Renaissance, the so-called Quattrocento, the fifteenth-century changes the whole medieval idea of representation where things were represented the way they appeared. They say that’s not true. We are never going to give the sense of the reality of things, but the appearance of things. So that’s really the great — the difference.

Dante uses this perspectivism, which I repeat, really means a way of assembling various points of view. In the persuasion that this is what really he has: he’s in exile in 1302; he has been traveling all over Italy; and he thinks that he can go on forging the language, the vernacular language of Italy.

He will go on — let me just go back to say other things about the De vulgari eloquentia I didn’t say. He will go on writing about the proximity of the romance languages. He invents this idea of romance language. And he says that the way in which French, Provençal, Spanish, Italian are connected together — he says it’s one particle: the way we use the ‘S’ When he talks about the Provençal, he says they actually call it — they say ‘Oc’ when they are to make affirmative statement. He goes on talking about this ‘S,’ the language of the ‘,’ the way the language of what they know. This is the way the families of languages are being built together.

Nimrod, to go back to the text, the story of Nimrod and the story of Dante seem to be strangely very close. There’s more. Look at what he does because it’s so — the link with the De vulgari eloquentia is just extraordinary. Even this line, that everybody thinks doesn’t mean anything: “Raphèl may amèch zabi almi.” If you look at it carefully — I really want to tell you something, it is an imperfect — there’s one letter anagram of a Hebrew line from the Psalms, and the reference to ‘sweeter Psalms’ next will tell you that Dante’s really giving you the source. The line in the Psalm, Psalm 22, is Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? The fact that there is no exact correspondence only means that the editors have missed the point: that they should amend the text. So it would be an argument for textual emendation. That’s something that the philologists are very careful about doing but they always welcome possibilities.

This is really — it’s an amazing — so he’s using Hebrew because that’s what he had said in the De vulgari eloquentia, that Hebrew — this is an inverted, twisted language by the builder of the Tower of Babel, we are not supposed to understand it and yet behind all confusion there is still something intelligible, that’s the argument. Behind all twisted appearances of things there is a residue of intellect, of intelligent, intelligible — an intelligible message that is going to be given. What are these words, by the way? Eli, Eli, lama, sabachthani? — I am going right past it very quickly in the belief that you could — that everybody will know it. These are the words, Psalm 22, they are the words that Jesus on the Cross cites, “Father, Father why have you forsaken me?”

It’s really the tragic moment or the moment of the Crucifixion where the Son feels that he is completely abandoned and that somehow the whole divine play, the whole divine order is no longer responsive to him. It’s really the moment of the theological despair, they call it. Okay. Dante’s aware that if Nimrod — that’s what he’s — Dante, I think is telling Nimrod obliquely, had he not been so stupid he would have known by using this kind of language, the way in which it would have been reaching Heaven. The way to Heaven is the way to go down into humility and not up through the building of the Tower of Babel, and the confusion of tongues.

Then there is this whole argument here which I’m not going to go into, but the confusion, the perceptual confusion, perspective. Dante makes his — he is far away and he mistakes the giants for towers, reference to this famous town that is still — if you go on the highway you can still see Monteriggioni, that’s what Dante went by and he thinks that the giants are towers, because you have no perspective. Because in perspective, you learn that you see according to the distance of the — where you arrive from the object. This is the basic mathematics, the geometry that rules and sustains the theory of perspective.

Chapter 5. Canto XXXII: More on the Question of Perspective; Tragic Representation [00:35:10]

Then it will continue with — let me just go on to a further case of this question of perspective and I want to read with some care XXXIII. Let me turn to Canto XXXII with more, pursuing this line of references to the De vulgari eloquentia. Look at this, “Had I the harsh…” It’s at the beginning of the text. Would you like to read? We’re reading from Canto XXXII, line 1 to 12.

Student: The version I have is only Italian.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: I’m impressed. I didn’t mean that — you go ahead. From Canto XXXII, line 1 to 12 in English.

Student: “Had I the harsh and grating rhymes that would be fitting for the dismal hole on which all the other rocks bear down, I would press out more completely the sap of my conception; but since I have not, it is not without fear I bring myself to speak, for to describe the bottom of all the universe is no enterprise to undertake in sport or for a tongue that cries, mamma and babbo. But may those ladies aid my verse who aided Amphion to wall in Thebes, so that the telling may not be diverse from the past. O beyond all others misbegotten crowd who are in the place it is hard to speak of, better had you here been sheep or goats!”

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Thank you. Here, this is the beginning that in many ways rehashes what last time I called the ineffability topos. You remember at the beginning of Canto XXVIII, Dante there is talking about the sublime, sort of parodic, a sort of inverted form of the sublime. So the horror of what he was witnessing was such that he could not know that he could find the metaphors for it. This is now the deployment of a variant of that conceit. The conceit here is that Dante’s looking for a style, he has perspective. There must be a unique style for this particular reality and he starts, I cannot go on using the language of familiarity. I have to use the babbo and mamma, the language of the child because this is just — they are the treacherous souls who have betrayed, first of all, family so there is a sort of tragic resonance even around that little motif.

This cannot be done in the ordinary familiar language of everyday because these sinners have indeed betrayed all of that. Nor can it probably be done at all, because I’m aware, and how he could not be, in this area of treachery and fraud, that words and deeds do not necessarily belong to him. And I’m only paraphrasing the text. A search for style, which he understands as a form of what is convenient, what is decorous, what is appropriate. That’s the metaphor he uses. It’s, by the way, an argument of the De vulgari eloquentia, the principle of convention and convenientia: in Latin the convenience of a particular language over another when one is dealing with a particular reality.

The further problem of what kind of style do I have? Is it — can I get in order to represent this kind of world? He appeals to Amphion and the building of Thebes. Once again, this is a tragic story of Thebes, and obliquely, he’s also appealing to something that he himself has written. Since Amphion is the poet who moves stones by the power of his language, a version of Orpheus, who placates, tames the savage beasts within the heart within us, he wants to be a kind of Amphion.

The fact is that he has written stony rhymes, he has written — he is moving. It is a sort of retrospective view that he takes. He thinks that the only kind of style adequate to this reality is the style of the crazy poems representing a crazy time of his life for this Lady of stone who would change him into stone. We — an illusion to this appeared in the canto of the Medusa in Canto IX of Inferno, so that’s really — it begins with this search for a particular style and Dante will go on through this kind of — this whole world of furthering to the frozen iciness of Hell. There is no fire, burning fire. And now that’s how the canto ends.

And we start with the next canto: “We already left him,” line 122, “when I saw two frozen in one hole, so that the one head was a hood to the other, and, as bread is devoured for hunger” So you know we’re approaching the most, to me, the most unbearable scene of Inferno, the cannibalization: a human being cannibalizing, literally eating, the other. I know that some of you may have your sense of — your taste can be different. To me, this is really the worst possible representation, tragic representation here.

“The one above set his teeth in the other at the place where the brain joins the nape; Tydeus gnawed the temples of Menalippus for rage just as he was doing with the skull and the other parts. ‘O thou who by so bestial a token shows the hatred against him thou eatest, tell me the cause,’ I said, ‘on this agreement, that if thou has reason in thy complaint against him I, knowing who you are and what his sin, shall yet requite thee in the world above, if this tongue I talk with be not withered.’”

We are approaching a moment where literally silence envelops all possible representations. It’s something that nothing — not all can be altogether sayable. It is something that can — escapes the sayable and it’s that boundary, we are at that boundary that Dante places us. This is — you know where this — I have to read this exchange. I will read it and then try to comment on it. I wish you could have a discussion about this canto.

“That sinner,” actually the Italian really begins — the sentence structure of the English wouldn’t allow it — begins with ‘the mouth.’ That occupies the primary place in the line. In Italian it’s la bocca, the mouth. The object is primary here. In English: “That sinner lifted his mouth from the savage meal, wiping it on the hair of the head he had wasted behind, then began: ‘Thou wilt have me renew desperate grief which even to think of already wrings my heart before I speak of it. But if my words are to be seed that may bear the fruit of infamy to the traitor I gnaw, thou shalt see me speak and weep together.’”

If we had time and I were to ask you whether these lines remind you of anything in particular, I’m sure some of you would immediately jump and tell me. These are clearly an echo of Inferno V, Francesca’s language. The language of love has become now a language of hatred, because from the point of view of Ugolino, and that’s part of his tragedy, he can’t tell them apart. He does not know what love is and what hatred is, and he can exchange one for the other. You could even argue that retrospectively, the language of love of Francesca maybe was also the language of hatred, but you would be pushing it beyond the limits of believability. I think that Dante’s really echoing Francesca and the love, and the romance with Paolo, in order to explain this hatred and that’s the blindness of Ugolino and I use the word deliberately. What he lacks is any perspective on himself and on the world around him.

He then continues, “Thou art — I know not who thou art, nor by what means thou hast come down here, but indeed thou seemest to me Florentine when I hear thee.” The focus is on language. Language here, which is a part of one managing to, first of all, know the other and understand the other. They may know the inflections of the dialects, the Florentine dialect, and they may even think that indeed, and Dante has a lot to say in the De vulgari eloquentia, about the question of the dialects and the instances that they can communicate. In effect, there’s no possible communication between the two of them.

If I were to define for you the rhetorical genre that Dante deploys here, it is that of what we call a dramatic monologue. Ugolino goes on speaking and therefore he expects nor does he get, any response from his interlocutor, his apparent interlocutor. It’s a dramatic monologue when he goes on telling us the story of his life the way he sees it. You all know nineteenth-century dramatic monologues in English literature. This is an occurrence of that genre: I can speak; I can tell you. I can go on fictionalizing myself and I believe that my perspective or the way I fictionalize myself will become your reality. Dante entices of course Ugolino to do exactly that because this is exactly — this is the way in which you are in Hell: where you go on really believing that whatever you tell, that you can go on telling stories and deceive yourself that others are going to believe what you are saying. The reality that you’re going on constructing is everybody’s accepted reality. This is one of the issues, clearly, that we are going to confront.

“Thou art to know that I was Count Ugolino and this is the Archbishop Ruggieri.” What an extraordinary line. What makes this extraordinary is, first of all, the occurrence of what we call attributes, titles, and then the shift in verbal tense. Ugolino will go on attributing time, “I was Count Ugolino and this is… ” That is to say the object of his hatred is unalterable, is timeless, and that object of his hatred is exactly what goes on defining him. I — time belongs to me. I know that I belong; I have a history. There is a history behind me and there is — and this one here, the reified the object of my hatred is unchanging, Archbishop Ruggieri. There is the secular and the sacred, if you wish: Guelfs and Ghibellines, with the idea that Ugolino had really betrayed the side. A Guelf became a Ghibelline and a Ghibelline became a Guelf and so on. So it’s the recapitulation of all the Inferno satanic sins we have seen so far.

“How by means of his evil devices…” “I shall tell thee now why I am such a neighbor to him…” What another extraordinary line, because it’s the idea of what a neighbor is and what the neighborhood has become. This is the way: the neighbors cannibalizing, one cannibalizing the other. “How by means of his evil devices, confiding him, I was taken and then killed, there is no need to tell; but what thou canst not have learnt, that is, how cruel was my death, thou shalt hear and shalt know if he has done me wrong.”

Now he tells the story that he was put as a prisoner in a tower, which we are meant to understand all the languages of the other towers. A tower which isolates him is a tower in Pisa. By the way it’s really the tower — this has nothing to do with, but I find it irresistible — If you read the Cantos of Ezra Pound, some of the most extraordinary poetry of his, I think, comes from when he was declared a traitor in the aftermath of the Second World War. He was put in a cage not too far from this tower of Pisa which is really one of the most beautiful part is where the Scuola Normale in Pisa, and he writes this poetry about the tower that he sees. Clearly his own sense of trying to understand what treachery really means, and what I’m really saying is these are issues that keep being present in the consciousness of the leading imaginative figures of our time. He goes into this — the tower of the hunger, as it is called, and was shut up. “… had already shown me through its slits several moons when I had the bad dream which rent for me the veil of the future.”

He had dreams that — he has a dream and the mistake he makes is to think that the dream is going to be real. And the dream is this: “This man appeared to me as master and lord hunting the wolf and the whelps,” the word Guelf comes from wolf, Guelf and Ghibellines, “on the mountains for which the Pisans cannot see Lucca. With hounds lean, trained and eager he sent them the Gualandi…that when I awoke” — he has this idea of destruction, the mutual destructions of the wolf, etc.

“When I awoke before morning I heard my children, who were with me crying in their sleep and asking for bread. Thou art cruel indeed if thou grieve not now, thinking what my heart forboded, and if thou weep not, at what does thou ever weep? They were now awake and the hour approached when our food used to be brought to us, and each was afraid because of his dream and I heard below the door of the horrible tower nailed up; at which I looked in the faces of my sons without a word. I did not weep, I so turned to stone within. They wept, and my little Anselm said…” By the way, to understand how there is a counter: there is a sort of movement between the horror of this tragedy and the tenderness, the pathos of it. One of the ways in which Dante suggests this, is the use of diminutives for Anselmuccio, this little kid that he has, this kid.

“Thou lookest so, father, what ails thee?’ At that I shed no tears, nor answered all that day, nor that night after, till another sun came forth on the world. As soon as a little ray made its way into the doleful prison and I discerned in four faces my own look, I bit both hands for grief; and they, thinking I did it from a desire to eat, rose up suddenly and said, ‘Father it would be far less pain for us if thou eat of us. Thou didst clothe us with this wretched flesh and do thou strip us of it.’ I calmed myself then, not to make them more unhappy, that day and the next we stayed all silent. Ah hard earth, why didst thou not open? When we had come to the fourth day Gaddo threw himself outstretched at my feet saying, ‘My father why dost thou not help me?’

I don’t think it’s far fetched if I were to ask you to overhear behind this question of one of the children, exactly an echo of the prayer of Jesus on the Cross that we heard, that we read, a few cantos back. There is a way in which the violence inflicted on Ugolino’s children seems to repeat or re-enact the great drama of the Christian sacrifice. “There he died,” also crucified, in fact, “there he died and, as thou seest me, I saw the three drop one by one during the fifth day and the sixth; therefore I gave myself, now blind.”

That’s what it is, the lack of perspective: he sees nothing. He therefore has no distance from anything, nor can he tell things apart or distinguish things one from the other, “… to groping over each and for two days called on them after they were dead. Then fasting had more power than grief.” An extraordinarily ambiguous line because we really do not know what he’s saying. According to Rodin, for instance, who will go on making a statue of this, it’s at the — at the MOMA, you can go and see that. The story is that of — that Ugolino ate his own children, “then fasting had more power than grief.” I yielded to the appetites, the urging of hunger more than grief. Or maybe he’s saying just something else. Maybe he’s saying then fasting had more power than grief, I really died of fasting for hunger rather than for the grief.

We don’t know, and I think that part of the tragic mode that Dante is trying to convey to us, is that we are left — and this is by the way, is Borges’ reading. Borges writes nine lectures on Dante, what else? Realizing the importance of number nine for Dante, he writes nine lectures on Dante and one of them is on the story of Ugolino. And he says, he actually wants us to leave — he wants to leave us in suspension, to believe that it’s possible that he may have been eating the children, but maybe it is the sensibility of so many critics have been offended by this suggestion that he actually could go on cannibalizing his own children. I think that Borges is right, that we are not supposed to be able to tell apart, that the ambiguity of that line is never going to be quite resolved. It’s going to be forever there.

But, the most important element of this tragic occurrence and Dante — before I go on let me just say, “Ah, Pisa…” Dante goes on into an apostrophe against Pisa, again with this language of now he talks, he breaks the silence. “Ah Pisa, shame of the peoples of the fair land where sounds the …” Another little touch, another little echo of the De vulgari eloquentia. That is to say, in the moment where he’s dealing with treachery, which I call the most nihilistic of all sins, because you really declare null and void any bond that you may have with others, he uses, and the irony is, to me, glaring the affirmative part. As if here, there is a possible affirmation, there is none.

“… where sounds the , since thy neighbors are slow to punish thee make Capraia and Gorgona shift and put a bar on Arno’s mouth so that it drown every soul in thee.” This is really the kind of language that Ugolino himself had used when before the consumation of the tragedy, he really begs the earth for an earthquake, that the earth may open up and swallow all of them. Here Dante is using exactly the same language. The idea that it is so horrifying, he’s a spectacle; that he has been in the tragic spectacle he has been witnessing, that the whole world here could be an apocalyptic ending to the world.

To go back to the key issue — there may not be time for a discussion today and I apologize — but the real tragic event though, what is the tragic event other than… “What if Count Ugolino had the name of betraying thy strongholds, thou shouldst not have put his children to such torment,” So this has been the crucifixion of innocence. “Their youthful years, thou new Thebes,” Pisa is the new Thebes, a new Thebaid that we have been witnessing now, “… made them innocent, Uguccione and Brigata and the other two named already in my song.”

This is really the tragic — Dante has been using now the tragic language indeed, that he had been hoping and theorizing in the De vulgari eloquentia and then they move on. What is the really tragic occurrence? The tragic occurrence is in the very presence of the Christological language in this canto, because the sacrifice of the cross means one thing and one thing only: that now that all violence is finished and because we have found the scapegoat, the voluntary scapegoat, who goes around saying that we’re all innocent and that he is the guilty one, that’s how we are declared — that’s how we are redeemed, that’s why we are made innocent once again, right? The story here, re-enacting and echoing the story of the cross, seems to say the futility — seems to announce the futility of that sacrifice. Retrospectively, he says that that sacrifice too was just one of the senseless acts of violence that have happened in history and that punctuate human history. Of course, this is not the end of the poem, but it’s the most desperate part of the poem, because Dante comes to believe that the law of history, that the law of the world is really a tragic law. And there is something absolute about it, and not quite escapable.

Chapter 6. Canto XXXIV: Satan [00:59:27]

We shall see how he’s going to move through this and I really have to go into Canto XXXIV a little bit. I will not say too much this time. Canto XXXIV is where Dante meets Satan. So the encounter with Satan is, first of all, that which gives incredible coherence to the whole movement of Inferno, because as you remember the story of Inferno began with the neutral angels, those who had been sitting, watching the spectacle of the disruption of the cosmos. Now the neutral angels at the time of the Lucifer’s rebellion of — against God and now it ends with Lucifer, so it’s really as a kind of angelic, cosmic proportion.

The other thing that I have to say is that if you imagine, those of you who are readers of Milton and Paradise Lost, and you know what a brilliant rhetorician Satan — Lucifer — is in Paradise Lost, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, T.S. Eliot, who writes a commentary of this, he says, I really recommend the first time readers of the Divine Comedy to skip Canto XXXIV because it’s strange that Lucifer — Satan doesn’t speak. And that was exactly the point that, I’m sorry to say, T.S. Eliot, at this time, really had probably had never read the De vulgari eloquentia. He’s not supposed to speak, because he’s one of the angels who really do not use the human language, but more importantly, because he represents evil defeated.

Chapter 7. Canto XXXIII: Inventing the Poetic Myth of Purgatory [01:01:03]

From this point of view, Canto XXXIV stands in radical sharp contrast to Canto XXXIII. In Canto XXXIII we saw — we have witnessed the sovereignty of evil. It is as if it were all engulfing and hovering over all of reality. Here now we witness exactly the opposite, how Satan becomes a reified, dumb object and actually an instrument for the pilgrim’s ascent. It’s going through the body of Lucifer that the pilgrim can go on, and the guide and Virgil can turn themselves upside down and finally re-emerge to the light.

The rest of the canto — good. I think that we are going to have a few minutes, but I have to say something about the rest of the canto. The rest of the canto deals with a cosmological argument and the cosmological argument is where does Purgatory come from? And Dante gives an extraordinary — invents — a poetic myth. And the poetic myth that he invents is that when Lucifer fell at the time of the grand angelic disruption, the first rebellion against the Deity, the earth retreats out of fear at the approaching of this fallen angel and re-emerges on the other side of the hemisphere, the southern hemisphere. That’s the beginning of Purgatory. You see the connection from an evil act, the chances of redemption, how in affecting Dante’s cosmos, there is nothing which cannot be utilized, no evil which cannot be utilized to the ends of the good. Everything — the real defeat of evil is when that itself can become the stepping stone over the threshold of evil itself in order to reach the purgatorial island.

The last little detail that I will tell you is — I ask you to read the last line of Canto XXX. You’ll like this. It’s a little detail that you’ll like, I hope. The last line of Inferno is: e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stele — and therefore we came out to see once again the stars. Just a little detail to remind you about the extraordinary love of symmetry in Dante’s poem, that each canticle will end with that same word stele, stars, stars, and stars. That is to say each canticle ends with us looking up, reminding us of where we are and still longing for the stars.

Chapter 8. Question and Answer [01:03:46]

I have come to — in a hurry I have reached the end of the — of Inferno. There’s Purgatory now and then see if there are questions. Yes?

Student: Can you say a little bit more about how Dante was trying to construct almost like a total perspective through his construction of the various languages, from seeing different forms of Italian and trying to get an all encompassing perspective, can you say how that relates too?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yeah, the question is, can I say more — good question. The question is can I say more about how Dante’s trying to construct how he uses total perspectives and — you mean both in the De vulgari eloquentia and here? Yes, thank you, because in effect, I was hoping that someone would ask me this question because I really did not tell you how this — the De vulgari eloquentia is completed here and why couldn’t Dante complete the De vulgari eloquentia when he wrote the tract. When he wrote the tract, he wanted to unify — he believed that they are — the dialects, fourteen dialects in Italian, he acknowledged, he recognizes fourteen dialects. He knew some of them very well and he wanted to make a unified language out of that, a kind of artificial language, a sort of — let’s call it Italian Esperanto: something that you could bring together. And what he was lacking, so much so, that there are those scholars who work on — who have been working — I don’t agree with that, is that almost Dante seemed to have a kind of — seemed to be in agreement with the so-called logicians, those who have a kind of — the idea that language has a sort of, let’s say, a Cartesian linguistics. There’s a kind of rational structure to it and that can be really remade.

The point is that when he writes the De vulgari eloquentia, this is true. I don’t buy the idea that he’s following the logicians of the Middle Ages, the grammarians, who are really logicians. What he really lacked was a historical sense and the little detail that Hebrew was still the surviving language from the creation of man to our own time because — and he had a good theological argument for that, because it would be inconceivable that the Redeemer of the world would use a language other than the language that had been employed by Adam.

When he comes to Paradise, to the Divine Comedy he completely changes view. In Paradiso XXVI, as I’m going to tell you, Dante says no, no. Hebrew disappeared with — immediately after Adam fell. With the fall of Adam through the Garden, there was no longer the primal language and he goes on elaborating the idea that God does not use any language of — that is to say, human beings are the letters and syllables of God’s language. It’s not Hebrew, it’s not Latin, it’s not Greek, it’s not whatever, it’s not Chinese, that’s really the — We are the syllables: that’s Dante’s idea of Paradiso XXVI. This was the — that’s the real change.

What does it mean in terms of the Inferno? It’s that he had understood that, in order to write about a unified language, he had to descend. He could not go on the tower and from there watch all the qualities: aesthetic, what is the sweet — what is the well combed language and what is the less well combed, the harsh language, what are the sounds that he really should be applying and adopt into Italian. What he really understands that in order to have a unified language you have to descend in the political realities of these cities? That’s the difference between the De vulgari eloquentia and the lower Inferno, a sense of history, that’s really the difference. To see this — the sense of history — you can be in a tower as Ugolino is, and be blind, or you can be in a tower like Nimrod is and do not even know what you are talking about, who can go on completely reversing, messing up, and confusing the Hebrew that he should have known. Do you understand what I’m saying? That’s really the difference between the two. Good question because it allowed me to focus on a detail that I probably didn’t explain very clearly.

Student: I don’t understand how he could have said that Hebrew died at the Fall.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: You don’t understand why?

Student: I don’t understand how Dante could think —

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Make that statement?

Student: Yeah, is that what you’re saying he said?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yeah, that’s — I don’t think that there are any traces of Adam’s language. The question is why — it’s a sort of predicament and I don’t know if it — he says he doesn’t quite understand why — how Dante could say that Hebrew died with the fall of man. That’s what he — Adam will tell him. He meets Adam; he’s another poet, because he’s the one who names the world.

Student: Where do the Scriptures come from in Dante’s [inaudible]

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The Scriptures are not in Hebrew, Scriptures are — the language of Jesus, for instance, is Aramaic. We have to be careful about what kind of — the kind of — is that Adam’s language or is that the language — it’s a language that changes in time, that’s all, that’s all he’s really saying. But the New Testaments are in Aramaic, for instance, which is a dialect. Yes?

Student: So this goes back a little bit to the last lecture, but looking back over the entirety of Inferno, it seems like Dante expresses different levels, I guess, of sympathy or pity for the people who are trapped in certain circles of Hell, especially for the sowers of discord, and then later in other cases, like at the end of Canto XXXIII. He’s happy to be with Charles, to someone who’s being tormented —

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes, Bocca degli Abati.

Student: What’s that?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Okay go on.

Student: Right, and I just — it’s interesting though the re — the different relationships that Dante has to — the different reactions he has to these punishments. Given that he’s essentially created all of — the Inferno is supposed to be a representation of divine justice, but it seems like overall Dante is the judge and executioner here. Given that the whole — how sincerely does Dante believe in this divide? Does he think he’s —

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: In this —

Student: In the divide between himself as this narrator who can feel pity for the different — for the people trapped in different areas of Hell versus Dante as sort of the — I mean, in some sense, he’s the creator of all of this.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Absolutely.

Student: He has assigned everyone to each level of Hell — I know this is a broad thing but [inaudible]

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: It is.

Student: [Inaudible] I kind of wanted to see some comment on that divide. How sincerely is this a vision to him?

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is, since Dante’s — Dante, the pilgrim, has different responses to the figures whom he has created, sometimes he’s tender and sympathetic, sometimes he just kicks them, if that’s the scene that you are referring to, and they’re all his creations, how sincere is he in his vision? The response is that I would formulate it a little bit differently, but that’s fine. We agree that Dante has — is not the indifferent spectator to all of them and I think that what matters to him most is to show a degree of passionate involvement with whoever they may be. He’s not going to be sentimentalizing about all of them for a number of reasons. He’s very sentimental with his teacher. I think he’s really very sarcastic with Pier della Vigna whom, you remember, he mocks at language of his, the contrived — I thought he thought, I thought… That’s not Dante’s language, that’s really Pier della Vigna’s own poetry that Dante’s picking up. I think that he is very — he has a sense of pathos, and maybe he’s also seduced by Francesca. Francesca, you can’t put this past her, that she’s trying to seduce him as well as she seduces, or lets Paolo, seduce her.

When he comes further down, the relationship is no longer a relationship of this tenderness, of forms — now there’s this anger. Anger at what? At the extraordinary horror of what human beings can do, and there’s nothing — Dante calls fraud, the sin peculiar to man, to human beings; the sin peculiar to human beings because they are — they have a reason that becomes part of their premeditations, part of their machinations of evil. And I find that repulsion he has, I find that very — dramatically speaking, very convincing. It’s still part of a judgment that he is making and it’s not an attenuation at all of that judgment. The anger with which he attacks Pisa, that the idea that he speaks prophetically there, why isn’t this whole place, disappearing, this is — I think that — to me is — you could say it’s sincere. I wouldn’t be using that language but I think that’s it dramatically very powerful. And I don’t know if you would agree that that’s probably the best way of referring to this term — to describe this situation. Would you agree?

Student: Yeah.

Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: I find it dramatically very apt. It’s — because it’s a consequence of the genuine horror — can you imagine? I mean you had the earlier — even the diviners with a shape — a human shape twisted. The head turned around. Then the alchemists, also represented in a kind of twisted form. It’s this twisting of the human image and this — and the reality of what human beings can do and ongoing and this hatred has taken over. I think that he’s approaching them too. There is a way in which I was saying he echoes Ugolino when Ugolino says, ‘oh earth, why didn’t — wasn’t there an earthquake and which would swallow everything.’ I mean, the language of the eater, the cannibal, so to speak. And then Dante just says: why isn’t there some kind of great drowning of all this? Why aren’t the islands just moving and be a barrier, so that the whole town will go under?

I think that there is a way in which he’s almost doing the same thing. That’s it, almost, re-enacting the kind of sense of nothingness that Ugolino had shown to him. Obviously, he does not agree with Ugolino. It’s not that there is a kind of complete identification with him. And how do we know that this is not going to be the case? He’s writing, Ugolino isn’t. The poem is what rescues Dante from yielding to the temptation of absolute despair and therefore distinguishes him — distinguishes his own temporary impulse for nihilism, with the nihilism that distinguishes, characterizes all the sinners and above all, the treacherous souls.

Maybe we should stop here; we’re going to talk about something so much more serene, Purgatory, next time.

[end of transcript]

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