Allegory and autobiography [John Freccero]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: John Freccero

Tratto da: The Cambridge Companion to Dante

Editore: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Anno: 2007

Pagine: 161-180

Among the last words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of John are those directed to Peter, predicting the disciple’s martyrdom:

Verily, verily, I say unto you that when you were young you girt yourself and walked wherever you wished; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and another shall gird you and lead you where you would not go.
(John 21:18)

In his commentary, St. Augustine explains that these verses mark the passage in Peter’s life from youthful self-reliance to humility, from the sin of presumption to confession and contrition. In middle age (for Peter is neither young nor old), he is called upon to demonstrate his love by caring for the Lord’s sheep and by being willing to accept crucifixion.
The conversion from presumption to humility is also the theme of Dante’s descent into Hell, which likewise takes place in middle age: “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.” The landscape of the prologue scene borrows several details from book 7 of Augustine’s Confessions, where philosophical presumption is distinguished from confession: “it is one thing, from a wooded mountain top, to see the land of peace and quite another to reach it, when one’s way is beset by the lion and the dragon.”
It is likely that casting off the rope girdle halfway through the Inferno signifies a surrender of self-reliance analogous to Peter’s, while the rush with which the pilgrim is girt at the beginning of the Purgatorio is a traditional emblem of humility (“umile pianta”).
If one attempts to read these episodes simply as autobiographical anecdotes, they are bound to seem enigmatic, raising more questions about Dante’s life than they answer. So, for example, some early commentators felt compelled to gloss them with biographical details invented for the occasion, identifying the rope girdle as part of the Franciscan habit and suggesting that Dante may once have wanted to become a Franciscan. Such inventions are unnecessary, however, once we recognize that, whatever the events in Dante’s life to which such episodes supposedly allude, they have been represented in the text in terms of a biblical figure of conversion. The passage from the Gospel of John authorizes us to read Dante’s verses, “io avea una corda intorno cinta,” not as a description of his dress, but rather as an emblem of his spiritual state: he was guilty of the same presumption of which Christ accused Peter and of which Augustine accused himself. Unlike modern biographies, which seek to establish above all the uniqueness of their subject, Christian biographies stress conformity to a biblical pattern, even at the expense of originality. When it comes to plot, such biographies, like Tolstoy’s happy families, are all alike.
Casting off the rope is meant to attract Geryon, “the filthy image of fraud.” This image seems to have no direct biblical precedent, but is reminiscent, if only by contrast, of ancient allegories of transcendence represented in terms of flight. Its spiral path is a clear indication that the monster is of celestial derivation, since the planets, sun, and moon all move in a spiral. Several studies have suggested that ancient allegories of flight, extending back to Plato, underlie the voyage of Ulysses as Dante recounts it. The same may perhaps be said of the voyage on Geryon. In any case, along with biblical themes, ancient philosophical allegories of the ascent of the soul constitute another source for the figures or paradigms that the poet uses to represent the events of his life in general terms. Autobiography is represented schematically in Dante’s poem by this synthesis of Platonic allegory with traditional biblical motifs, just as it was in St. Augustine’s Confessions.
For all of its originality, Geryon’s meaning in terms of the poet’s biography is not difficult to decipher. Although the monster is fearsome, it is strangely docile, grudgingly responsive to Virgil’s commands. This apparent inconsistency illustrates a familiar paradox of confessional literature: adversity and evil turn out retrospectively to have been of spiritual help even when they seemed most threatening. Dante’s reaction to his exile embodies this paradox. In the Convivio, he bitterly complains of the injustice done to him, while in the Commedia he seems to regard his exile as having been necessary for his salvation, irrespective of the culpability of those who condemned him. The contrast between the slow, spiral descent of Geryon, and its almost instantaneous departure after its mission is accomplished, suggests a momentary, providential constraint of the forces of evil for the benefit of the pilgrim. Like Antaeus bending gently with the voyagers in his hand and then snapping back into place, Geryon participates in a “command performance” to speed the pilgrim on his way.
This providential intervention is a response to the submissiveness of the pilgrim, who will now be “led where he would not go.” On this voyage, he is to be simply a passenger, rather than a Ulysses, and Virgil is there to sustain him. The self-reliance of Ulysses was interpreted by Dante (and by Augustine before him) as a form of presumption of which the young Dante – especially the Dante of the Convivio – might himself have been guilty. The voyage on Geryon functions as an ironic parody of the Homeric journey, a critique of the presumption of youth from the perspective of middle age.
Whatever the moral intent, Geryon is exquisitely literary; its various motifs form a patchwork whose seams Dante scarcely bothers to conceal. Elements of the monster’s composition are drawn from the Apocalypse, or perhaps from the lunar dragon of the astrologers (from which the dragon of the Apocalypse probably derives). Scholars have suggested various classical sources for the image as well, notably from Virgil and Solinus. Apart from its thematic function, however, its literally central position in the Inferno, and the elaborate address to the reader introducing it, suggest that it was also meant to stand for the poet’s own prodigious imagination. Throughout the story, the progress of the pilgrim is, at the same time, the progress of the poem. Here too, perhaps, Geryon is both theme and, like Ariosto’s “hippogryph,” a self-conscious emblem of the poet’s creative act. Ariosto’s fantastic steed is obviously a descendant of Pegasus, said to have sprung from Medusa’s blood. That chthonic origin would qualify Pegasus as an ancestor of Geryon as well.
The flight on Geryon seems to call forth as its antithesis the ship of Ulysses, a “navicella dell’ingegno” sailing to disaster. Both Geryon and Ulysses are recalled in the course of the poem: Ulysses is referred to twice in the Purgatorio and once in the Paradiso, while Virgil refers back to this flight as his claim to the pilgrim’s continued faith in his guidance, even through purgatorial fire. His reminder to Dante, “Did I not guide you safely on the back of Geryon?” (Purgatorio 27, 23) recalls Exodus 19:4: “you saw how I bore you up on eagle’s wings.”
The flight of Geryon is described with navigational imagery, while the navigation of Ulysses is described, with a memorable phrase, in terms of flight: “il folle volo.” This symmetrical opposition is reinforced by antitypes. The successful flight of Geryon evokes allusions to Icarus and Phaeton, while Ulysses is introduced by a comparison to the successful flight of Elijah. This parallelism suggests that the two journeys exist on the same level of signification, as dramatic representations of opposing attempts to reach the absolute. Because the voyage is also a figure for the writing of the poem (as is clear from the invocations to the second and last canticles, as well as from the narrative logic that makes of the journey’s end the poem’s beginning), the contrast between Ulysses and Geryon is also a contrast between literary genres.
The Homeric story had been interpreted since antiquity as an allegory of the soul’s education. The disastrous conclusion of the story, in Dante’s revised version, amounts to a Christian critique of philosophical presumption: specifically, of the claim that anyone could accomplish such a journey without a guide. The flight on Geryon, on the other hand, is providentially guided, like God’s eagle in Exodus. It is a descent that precedes an ascent, in keeping with the Augustinian admonition, “Descend, so that you may ascend.” Moreover, it takes place in the inner space of Hell, which may be said to stand for the interior distance of a descent within the self. Once more, Augustine comes to mind: “Noli foras ire; in te ipsum redi” (“do not go outside; enter within yourself”). This inner dimension is totally lacking in Ulysses’ account of his journey. He may be thought of as the archetypal explorer in outer space, describing his feat with the same understatement, litotes, used by American astronauts when they landed on the moon (“one small step for man…”). This voyage, and all other such voyages, are the stuff of epic. In contrast, Dante’s journey on the Geryon of his own experience is a descent into himself. Such a turning inward is distinctly confessional.
The bizarre vehicle of Dante’s descent into Malebolge is neither ship nor chariot in the tradition of Neoplatonic allegory, although it bears a grotesque resemblance to those flights of the soul; the surly beast might be compared to the horse veering to the left in the allegory of the Phaedrus, while the navigational imagery in Geryon’s flight, like the flight imagery in Ulysses’ navigation, is reminiscent of allusions to flights of the soul in Plotinus, Ambrose, or Augustine, where the means of escape from this world are compared to horses, chariots, ships, and wings. However, it is Providence, rather than a charioteer, who reins in Geryon, and it is fraud, rather than passions, that must be dominated. This flight does not take place in an interior void, but rather in the course of Dante’s life, reinterpreted from the perspective of Hell. Geryon adds to the Neoplatonic tradition a political dimension of meaning. One is enjoined not simply to escape the hypocrisy and fraud of human society, as Plotinus had urged, but to understand it from within and so transcend it. This is the social significance of Virgil’s warning: “a te convien tenere altro viaggio” (Inferno 1, 91).
Understanding in the Inferno is a process that might be characterized as hyperbolic doubt systematically applied to the values of contemporary society. Each encounter in Hell amounts to the ironic undercutting of the values enunciated by the separate characters. Even when those values seem perfectly defensible from a human point of view, as is the case, for example, with the humanistic aspirations expressed by Brunetto Latini in canto 15, the values are undermined by the fact of being championed by the damned. An incidental phrase meant as polite qualification, Brunetto’s “se ben m’accorsi nella vita bella,” becomes charged with irony as the infernal context exposes it to the obvious and therefore cruel rejoinder: if his discernment were acute, why would he be here – “siete voi qui, Ser Brunetto?” (15, 30).
This corrosive irony gives the Inferno its negative quality; not only is this canticle devoid of redemptive possibilities, it seems devoid of all affirmation as well. The goal of the descent is to reach the zero-point from which the climb of the Purgatorio can begin. In order to do this, it is necessary first to strip away all the illusory values with which we ordinarily comfort ourselves. In Plato’s myth, the star-soul had to shed all its layers of materiality in order to return to its celestial home; in the Christian myth, it is sin, rather than matter, that weighs down the soul. Before any ascent can begin, it is necessary to go through Hell simply to reach the cave (“natural burella”) which Plato assumed to be the point of departure. Christian ascent begins, not from a point zero, but rather from a point minus one. In the poem, that point is described in the prologue scene: the landscape is derived from what Augustine called “the region of unlikeness.”
The primary destruction that must take place in this mythic representation of biography is the destruction of the poet’s former self. If Plato’s myth of education is the account of morphosis, the formation of the soul, then the story of a conversion is a meta-morphosis, in which an illusory self must be destroyed before a new soul can take its place. One of the ways in which this destruction takes place in the poem is through a series of ironic autocitations, in which Dante undercuts his own previous work. The most obvious of these is his citation of his own earlier love poetry, placed in the mouth of Francesca da Rimini, who was ill-served by the theory of “love and the gentle heart.” But it is perhaps the canto of Ulysses that constitutes Dante’s most important and most critical autocitation.
According to a hypothesis first advanced by Bruno Nardi, there is a certain parallelism between the attempt of Ulysses to reach the absolute and Dante’s attempt, in the Convivio, to outline a guide to happiness through the pursuit of secular philosophy. Both attempts were doomed to failure. The parallel between this failure and the experience of Augustine was first pointed out by Giorgio Padoan, who showed how Augustine, in the De beata vita, outlined the disastrous course of his life, including his search for happiness through secular philosophy, in terms of a tedious allegory based on the voyage of Ulysses. He suggested that the episode of Ulysses in the Inferno is biographical in the same way that Augustine’s prologue to the De beata vita was biographical: that is, an allegorical outline of an experience of which the literal elements are suppressed. The voyage of the Divina Commedia begins where the shipwreck of Ulysses ends, with the survival of a metaphoric shipwreck (Inferno 1, 23). The survival, “come altrui piacque,” marks the difference between Dante’s own epic presumption and his novelistic conversion.
We can only speculate about the details of Dante’s experience, for the text provides us only with figures such as these. In a sense, no experience can be conveyed except by a figure, since, according to a medieval maxim, what is individual is ineffable. Allegory and other figures serve to generalize experience so that it can be communicated, as Dante says with the simile of Glaucus in the Paradiso: “Trasumanar significar per verba/non si poria; pero’ l’essemplo basti/a cui esperienza grazia serba” (1, 70–72).
One would expect heavenly vision to be ineffable, of course, but there are good institutional reasons for expressing even penitential sentiments in general terms. Confession requires the translation of individual experience into general terms in order to affirm the equality of all sinners in the sight of God, no matter how imaginative their transgressions. Thus Augustine, in his Confessions, chooses to illustrate the nature of sin by confessing that as a boy he stole some pears from a neighbor’s orchard. Had he been writing “confessions” in the modern sense, he might have dwelt upon any number of actions in his life that even today strike us as reprehensible. He might have gone into greater detail, for instance, about how, because of his mother’s fear of scandal, he rejected his mistress, taking their son from her and sending her back to Africa. That gesture tells us more about Augustine as a young man, more perhaps than we might want to know, than it does about the humdrum sinfulness of Everyman.
The theft of forbidden fruit in Augustine’s text was obviously meant to recall the sin of Adam and Eve. At the level of anecdote, any of his readers might have been guilty of such a sin; in an allegorical sense they in fact were, through the sin of the first parents. At the other pole of the drama of salvation stands the fig tree of the conversion in book 8 of the Confessions. It would also appear to be the recounting of an historical event – Augustine weeping under the fig tree and the voices of children singing “tolle, lege” – yet the scene recalls the calling out of Nathanael from under the fig tree in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Whether or not Augustine actually ever wept under a fig tree, the episode is an allusion to the call for the conversion of the Jews at the beginning of the Gospel. For all of its apparent historicity, Augustine’s conversion is a re-enactment of the paradigm for all conversion.
There is no symbolic theft involved in Dante’s confession. Unlike Augustine’s, his drama of self-appropriation is accomplished without transgression or parental interdiction. It takes place in the Earthly Paradise, when Virgil dismisses him with a secular blessing and Beatrice calls him by name. Whatever the nature of his guilt, it is represented here in erotic terms, but inscribed within a penitential context – Beatrice was once the occasion of his sin and is now its judge – as if to suggest that Eros is here redeemed rather than condemned. The return of Beatrice, in contrast with the banishment of Augustine’s mistress or of Rousseau’s Marianne, marks the return of an Eros now domesticated and transformed into that amalgam of Christian and cosmic love which is distinctively Dantesque. This insistence on the recuperability of his erotic past distinguishes Dante’s confession from virtually all others in the Christian tradition.
The confession itself is completely generic, with schematic allusions to the drama of salvation. There is a tree whose fruit must not be eaten, and a tree, perhaps even a fig tree, under which repentance takes place. These are elements of an elaborately stylized dumb show, revealing almost nothing of the concrete details of Dante’s life. On the other hand, because of her previous appearance in the Vita nuova, Beatrice seems to be more than simply an allegorical figure. Her literary existence outside the confines of the Purgatorio confers a certain reality upon her, just as reality is conferred upon Virgil. In both cases, intertextuality counterfeits a history, about which we would otherwise know nothing.
To return to the general outline of autobiographical allegory in the Inferno, it may be said that the descent itself, and particularly the figure of Geryon which epitomizes it, are allegorical motifs claiming no existence outside the text. They structure elements of Dante’s experience in such a way that an account of his life has at the same time a moral significance for “nostra vita.” The protagonist of the story is at once Dante Alighieri and, as Charles Singleton pointed out, “whichever man,” meaning by that phrase not the abstract “everyman” of morality plays, but rather an historical individual, elected by grace. If we were to ask about the “truth” of such an account, in the everyday, biographical sense, the answer would certainly not be found in these allegorical motifs – rope, dragon, abyss – but rather in the existential realities underlying them.
We have said that Geryon introduces a social dimension into the tradition of Neoplatonic allegories, inasmuch as it suggests that the corruption of society can serve as a vehicle for plumbing the depths and then transcending them. Similarly, the central cantos of the Inferno embody a social and political critique unlike anything in Augustine’s Confessions. Specific details of Dante’s personal life elude us, as Augustine’s do not, since they are represented – sometimes, perhaps, masked – by allegorical figures. Dante’s public battles, however, are more readily accessible to interpretation.
The “veil” of allegory seems most transparent in the central cantos of the Inferno. Luigi Pirandello once suggested that the so-called “comedy of the devils” in the circle of barratry should be understood autobiographically, as Dante’s grotesque indictment of the political corruption of his day, especially of the Black Guelfs, and also as his defense against a trumped-up charge of barratry brought against him during his absence. This, for Pirandello, is the significance of the episode in which the pilgrim is nearly “tarred with the same brush” as the barrators. In these cantos, Dante uses the weapon of farce, rather than moral indignation, to refute the charges brought against him by his enemies.
Pirandello’s observations may be adapted to apply to the flight on Geryon and other mysterious and apparently irreducible autobiographical details. The description of the crowds in Rome during the Jubilee year suggests perhaps an association between Dante’s flight and his embassy to Rome to avert the entry of Charles of Valois into Florence. The duplicity of the pope might aptly be represented by a duplicitous Geryon, while the imagery of Antichrist that is used to describe the monster is consistent with traditional descriptions of a corrupt papacy. Finally, Dante’s defense for the smashing of the baptismal font would seem to be a New Testament version of his defense, in his letter to the Italian cardinals, for having laid hands on the Ark; that is, for having, as a layman, interfered in ecclesiastical matters, as did Uzzah, who was struck dead for his pains. The meaning of such a clearly symbolic action – to smash the font, literally, would have been impossible without a wrecking crew – and of others like it can be derived from reading the events of Dante’s public career in the biblical figures and patterns by which he has represented them.
As for the rest, the personal details that we would expect in autobiography, the text is mute. Dante’s realism, his ability to endow traditional allegorical motifs with realistic substance (as did Augustine before him, with similar protestations about the historicity of his account), should not obscure for us the extent to which the particulars of Dante’s life escape us.
Dante’s journey is neither a poetic fiction nor a historical account; it is exemplary and allegorical. Like Augustine’s life, it was meant to be both autobiographical and emblematic, a synthesis of the particular circumstances of an individual’s life with paradigms of salvation history drawn from the Bible. It is what A. C. Charity has called “applied typology,” meaning by that phrase the manifestation in Dante’s life of the redemptive pattern of biblical history. In the following pages, we attempt to discuss the sense in which Dante’s narrative may be thought of as theological allegory, and the degree to which its theological quality may be acknowledged even in a purely secular reading.

1. Allegory of poets, allegory of theologians

Just before Geryon appears, the narrator anticipates the reader’s incredulity by insisting that he is telling the truth, even if it would seem to be a lie – “quel ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” (Inferno 16, 124). This remark amounts to distinguishing a fiction from a fraud: his story is the truth with the face of a lie, while fraud, Geryon, has the face of truth (“la faccia d’uom giusto”), hiding a lie, or at least the tail of a scorpion.
The contrast between a fraudulent lie and a fiction, a lie secundum quid, is reminiscent of Augustine’s defense of poetic fiction in his Contra mendacium, where he remarks that “fictive narrations with true significations” are to be found in the Bible as well as in secular literature. The episode of Geryon is just such a poetic fiction. The narrator swears to the truth of his account by “le note di questa comed`ıa,” which is perhaps an arch way of attributing a purely verbal reality to the monster. If this central part of the journey can be characterized as a fiction, then we may be justified in thinking of the whole journey in that way. The Epistle to Can Grande gives us some encouragement, since it uses the adverb “fictive” in order to describe the poem’s forma tractandi. In spite of some complications which we shall have to discuss, the poem could then be said to conform to the definition of the “allegory of poets” given in the Convivio: “truth hidden under a beautiful lie.”
We shall see that the “allegory of poets” may be interpreted broadly to mean all of the figures and tropes a poet must employ in order to express his intended meaning. Because the meaning is intended, theologians sometimes referred to this kind of allegory as “allegory of the letter.” Like the fictive narrations mentioned by Augustine, it is to be found in the Bible, as well as in secular literature. Beyond this kind of allegory, however, there is another kind, not in the writer’s control, called the “allegory of theologians,” which appears only in the Bible and was thought to be divinely inspired. From a modern, naturalistic point of view, it might be said that the allegory of theologians was sometimes a way of interpreting a text in spite of the author’s intended meaning, as a way of superimposing a Christian significance anachronistically on an Old Testament text. This significance might also be referred to as the “allegory of the spirit,” or, simply, the spiritual sense.
Obviously, the fact that both poets and theologians used the word “allegory” has led to considerable confusion, especially among Dante’s interpreters. Most of the confusion has to do with the meaning of the word “literal.” For poets, “literal” means what the words say, even if what they say is clearly a fable or a fiction. “Allegory” is what such fables or fictions mean: hence Dante’s definition of allegory as truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie. For theologians, on the other hand, concerned with the historical authority of the Bible, the “letter” is thought of as the history of the Jews: the people, facts, and events of the Old Testament, rather than the mode in which the words convey that history. “Littera gesta docet,” according to the mnemonic jingle of the Schools, “the letter teaches us what happened.” This is why the literal level is always true: no matter how poetically recounted, the events of the Old Testament did in fact take place. Such an assertion has nothing whatever to do with whether the words conveying those events are figurative or realistic.
An example will help to make this clear. Since the Bible is written in human language, it may be subjected to the same analysis as the writings of a human author. Thus, in a purely poetic analysis of Exodus 19:4, “You saw how I bore you up on eagles’ wings,” what the poets would call the letter is the figurative language, having to do with eagles and wings, while the allegorical sense has to do with what is signified by that figure, the events of Exodus. For the theologian, on the other hand, the letter lies beyond the words, in the historical fact: God leading the Jews out of Egypt into the desert. The metaphoric or figurative language conveying this literal meaning (wings and the eagle in the present instance) is simply rhetoric, what Thomas Aquinas calls “allegory of the letter.” Any meaning clearly intended by a human author is from a theological standpoint necessarily a literal meaning, even if conveyed by a most elaborate allegory of poets. No human author living in the time of Moses, however, could have foreseen what theological allegory would make of Exodus: for the theologian, the events of Exodus signify our redemption, wrought by Christ. The allegory of theologians is therefore an allegory in factis, not in verbis; it is not a way of writing at all, since the literal events were thought to exist quite apart from the words that commemorated them. It was, rather, the retrospective interpretation of the events of Jewish history in order to read in (or into) them the coming of Christ.
Theological allegory may be thought of as meta-allegory, in which the reality signified by the words of the text – say, Moses, or the river Jordan – is in turn taken as a sign to be further allegorized – Moses “means” John the Baptist, and Jordan “means” baptism – without any compromise of historicity. Taken together, all the persons and events of the Old Testament signify the coming of Christ. Put most simply, allegory in this sense is the relationship of the Old Testament to the New.
Only in a text of which God is the author can things both mean and be. From such a perspective, Joshua, for example, would not only be the man who led the Jews across the Jordan, he would also mean Jesus, whose name is the same as Joshua in Aramaic. Joshua existed, which is what is meant by the truth of the literal level, but he also functions as a figure for Christ. For this reason, he may be said to be a “shadow-bearing preface” of his own truth (Paradiso 30, 78).
The Old Testament is not the only repository for such signs; theological allegory looks at all reality as though it were so many signs written into a book, of which God is the author. This is what Augustine meant when he said that men use signs to point to things, but only God can use things to point to other things. It is as though there were no “thing-in-itself,” but only signs in the “book” of the universe. Dante makes this point in the heaven of Jupiter, where presumably historical individuals, some mentioned only in secular texts, function as signs, semiotic sparks spelling out a biblical text. This suggests that the Bible could be considered the divinely inspired translation of God’s anterior “book,” historical gesta, into human language.
Moses and the Jews really existed and the events of Exodus took place, irrespective of whether the history was recounted in descriptive prose or allegorical poetry. The literal level of the Book of Exodus is the same as the literal level of Psalm 113 (114), “In Exitu Israel de Aegypto,” in spite of the fact that the words of the psalm could scarcely be more figurative, with the sea and the river personified and the mountains and hills compared to rams and sheep. The author of the Epistle to Can Grande certainly speaks as a theologian rather than a poet when he ignores the lyrical prosopopaeia, the “bella menzogna” of Psalm 113 (114), telling us simply that “the letter [of the first verse] presents us with the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses.” The truth-value of the psalm and that of the Book of Exodus are exactly the same, for it is the truth of history, not of words. “Realism” and “lyricism” are part of the poet’s craft; to a theologian defending the truth of the literal level, they are irrelevant.
The theological meaning allegorically signified by the verses beginning “In Exitu Israel de Aegypto” is, according to the epistle, “our redemption, wrought by Christ.” Here too, it is clear that the author speaks as a theologian, since the meaning he ascribes to the verse is recoverable only by accepting on faith the authoritative interpretation given to the Exodus by St. Paul: “we were all with Moses, under the cloud and in the sea.” This significance, not discernible in the words of the text or even in the events they signify, could be read into those verses only by a Christian. In fact, theological allegory was virtually synonymous with the Christ-event: “quid credas allegoria.” The New Testament was thought to be not so much a separate revelation, as the definitive ending of the revelation begun with the Old Testament, the fulfillment of its promise. If the letter of biblical allegory is the history of the Jews, then the spirit, the allegorical sense, is the coming of Christ.
The coming of Christ was believed to have been an event in time which transcended time, a kairotic moment which could be repeated in the soul of every Christian until the end of time. Thus, the advent of Christ was believed to be threefold: once, in the past, when He appeared among us in human form; again, in the present, in the soul of the convert or regenerate sinner; finally, at the end of time, in the Second Coming. It follows that the spiritual or allegorical sense, which is essentially the coming of Christ, is also threefold: the historical or allegorical sense as it is recounted in the New Testament; the moral or tropological sense (quid agas), meaning the applicability of those events to us now; and the anagogic sense (quo tendas), referring to the Second Coming and the end of time. The four levels of biblical allegory are more easily remembered as one plus three, meaning the history of the Old Testament interpreted by the threefold revelation, past, present, and future, of the New.
The word “historical” means literal when it applies to the history of the Jews, but it is also used to describe the first of the spiritual senses, meaning the historical coming of Christ. The ambiguity can be the source of some confusion, but it can also serve as a reminder that theological allegory is essentially the juxtaposition of two sets of events, two histories, rather than a rhetorical figure. As for the word “allegory,” in its theological acceptance, it too can give rise to some confusion, as the epistle points out. “Allegory” in the strict sense means the second of the four levels of meaning, the historical coming of Christ. But “allegory” broadly speaking, in the theological sense, is synonymous with “spiritual” or “mystical,” meaning all of the theological senses put together, the past, present, and future allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament.
Theological allegory may be said to be a reading of the Old Testament as if its plot were the Incarnation. However, there are other interpretive contexts in which the same allegorical principles have been applied. “Old Testament typology,” for example, is the relationship of providential events in the history of the Jews to subsequent moments of their history, without reference to the coming of the Messiah. The same principles have also been invoked to establish connections between separate moments in the New Testament, without reference to the Old. Finally, just as the principles of poetic allegory were often applied to the interpretation of biblical texts, so theological principles have from time to time been applied to the interpretation of secular literature. Because of both its subject matter and its allegorical mode, the Divina Commedia in particular has been subjected to methods of interpretation that seem more appropriate to the Bible than to a literary work. What is more, many of the bitter disputes about literal truth in Scripture, fundamentalists against latitudinarians, have been recapitulated in the history of Dante criticism, often without the participants being aware of it.
If some interpreters have granted a quasi-biblical status to Dante’s work, it is because the text seems to demand it by claiming to be prophetic and divinely inspired. The most obvious way to deal with such a claim is to accept it uncritically, and to attribute the poem’s genesis to a vision, or to delusion. No critic has been so “fundamentalist” as to maintain that the entire text, complete with Virgilian echoes and autocitations, was dictated in terza rima to the poet/scribe. What has been suggested, however, is that the vision of Beatrice which Dante claimed to have had at the end of the Vita nuova was somehow the inspiration for this very different literary text.
The appeal to divine revelation (or hallucination) in the interpretation of a text has a way of ending all discussion. Source hunting is greatly simplified, and one need no longer be puzzled about whom Dante put where and why if he did so on such unimpeachable authority. The theory breaks down, however, when we try to determine which parts of the poem should be considered intrinsic to his vision, and which are simply literary elaboration. Few critics have difficulty accepting Dante’s claim that he saw God, for example, but it is evident that not even the poet expects us to believe in Geryon. If, on the other hand, we suppose that Dante’s vision is not localized in the text, then it is no more relevant to this poem than Paul’s vision is to his letters: such experiences may enhance the prophetic authority of the visionary among believers, but if they are not in the text, they have little to do with literary interpretation.
A more sophisticated way of dealing with the theological claim is to consider it a literary device, an attempt to imitate Scripture rather than to provide an account of a religious experience. Leo Spitzer perhaps anticipated this formalist approach to the poem when he attempted to understand Dante’s impassioned addresses to the reader not as a claim to prophetic witness, as Erich Auerbach had argued, but rather esthetically, as a way for the poem to create its own audience. By far the most influential formalist interpretation of the poem, however, is the work of Charles Singleton, for whom Dante’s realism seemed to imitate, perhaps even rival, “God’s way of writing.”
According to Singleton, Dante must have intended his allegory to be biblical, since he presented the poem’s literal level as true, rather than as a “bella menzogna,” and only the Bible could make such a claim. Singleton associated the extraordinary realism of Dante’s poem with Scripture’s claim to truth, construing the allegory of theologians to be, among other things, a superlative way of writing. The elegance of Singleton’s argument masked its essential flaw: it blurred the distinction between what seems real and what really happened, between poetry and history, as distinguished by Aristotle in the Poetics. Singleton’s tone was ironic and deliberately provocative, intended to challenge dantisti who were diffident about using theology or biblical exegesis to interpret Dante’s text. Nevertheless, his argument soon became canonical and led to a certain confusion about the meaning of theological allegory and its applicability to the poem.
The dramatic and mimetic power of Dante’s story made it seem too real to Singleton for it to be classified as one more poetic allegory “of this for that,” in which the literal level is a lie, so he associated it with biblical allegory, in which the letter is supposed to be true. This, said Singleton, is the allegory of “this and that.” What made this shift possible was the ambiguity of the word “literal.” In poetry, the literal level is the fiction, while in theology, it is the historical event. Thus, to say that Dante’s fiction is theological allegory is to say that it is not fiction, but fact. Singleton attempted to avoid the obvious contradiction by suggesting that Dante was only pretending to be describing historical events: “[the] fiction is that the fiction is not a fiction.” This is true, but trivial; such irony might be used to describe any fiction whatever.
The mimetic power of Dante’s verses tells us nothing about their historicity, nor would historical truth, if it could be ascertained, make the text more profound or even more interesting. On the contrary, according to Aristotle, poetry is more philosophical and more significant than history because it deals with universals, which may be merely possible, rather than with particulars, however true. History makes particular statements that are subject to external criteria of truth or falsity, whereas poetry expresses universals and is judged by its coherence, or by what Northrop Frye called the “centripetal aspect of verbal structure.” Never was there a verbal structure more centripetal than Dante’s poem, as Singleton, more than anyone else, has helped us understand. Its apparent substantiality does not imply historical truth, however, any more than figurality, in the psalm of exodus, precludes it.
No human author could possibly write theological allegory and still have any idea of its significance. It was precisely the point of theological allegory to take meaning out of the hands of an author and place it under the control of an exegetical tradition. So, for example, the Song of Songs was said to be about the relation of Christ to His Church, and Virgil’s fourth Eclogue was about the coming of the Messiah, no matter what the words seemed to say. For theologians, the measure of all meaning, even in ancient literature, was the Bible, as interpreted by the New Testament. Whether the words of the Old Testament relate a fiction, such as the Song of Songs, or the realities of Jewish history, such as the Exodus, only God could make those elements mean the coming of Christ.
There remains the question of whether a human author can imitate theological allegory as Singleton suggests, by imitating reality. In fact, mimesis has the opposite effect, short-circuiting allegory and transforming it into irony. Instead of reaching out for meaning allegorically, realism turns significance back on itself by repeatedly affirming and then denying its own status as fiction. In Dante’s terms, we might say that realism is alternately truth with the face of a lie, and a fraud that looks like the truth. Mimetic representation reaches ironic impasse rather than significance; it is a Geryon incapable of flight, a chimera with its tail in its mouth.
By its very nature, mimetic representation constantly affirms and simultaneously denies its identity with the original it seeks to reproduce. No matter how closely it resembles its model, we remain aware that it is merely a copy. Dante alludes to its inherent instability when he describes the reliefs on the terrace of pride in the Purgatorio. They are so lifelike that they defy interpretation by the pilgrim’s two senses (“Faceva dir l’un ‘No,’ l’altro ‘Sì, canta,’” Purgatorio 10, 60), leaving him unable to decide whether he is perceiving reality or its representation. The continual oscillation between the affirmation and denial of presence (“No . . . S`ı, canta”) is the same irony that we find expressed in Singleton’s repetitive formula (“[the] fiction is that the fiction is not a fiction”). In spite of its mimetic virtuosity, “visibile parlare” remains difficult to interpret. It perplexes precisely because it is so lifelike, more like cinema than iconography.
It may be remarked in passing that if mimesis can provoke the uneasiness we associate with irony, it is also true that our failure to perceive irony may lead us to mistake it for mimesis. Thus Auerbach, in his famous essay on mimesis in Inferno 10, unwittingly revealed himself to be a victim of infernal irony when he perceived in the dazzlingly cerebral verses spoken by Cavalcante only “a direct experience of life which overwhelms everything else.” Praise for Dante’s realism in this encounter masked Auerbach’s impatience with the theological import of the father’s lament. Far from indicating the biblical nature of the allegory, “mimesis” here indicates that even the most learned of Dante’s critics reached an interpretive dead end.
Because he was anxious to account for the poem’s extraordinary realism, Singleton associated it with the allegory of the Bible, and sought to distinguish both from the purely literary allegory of poetry. We have, however, seen that what distinguishes the allegory of theologians from the allegory of poets is not verisimilitude, but the fact that it is expressed in things and events, rather than words. Beyond the words of the Bible, there was said to be another allegorical significance, inherent in things signified by the written text, a “deep structure” of meaning independent of any scribal intention. This significance was thought to be part of God’s plan for the entire cosmos, the text imagined by Augustine as inscribed on “the parchment of the heavens,” without letters and without words.
In reality, of course, this ideal allegory was nothing other than the church’s interpretation of the Bible, particularly of the Old Testament, hypostatized as though it had an autonomous existence and were the source of the written text, rather than its spectral projection. Its “deep structure” was simply the virtual image of surface structure, a reduplication that created the illusion of origin: Derrida would describe it as a form of “archiecriture.” It is in the nature of allegory that it can make no claim to literal truth and that its significance is open to conflicting interpretations. For the believer, however, the illusion that the Bible derived from God’s book, when in fact it was its source, had the effect of conferring ontological reality with significance. In such a perfectly intelligible universe, where things are as meaningful as words, the promise of allegory is already fulfilled by the presence of its Maker.
In the Paradiso, the end term of both the journey and the poem are represented by the vision of the Trinity in the form of a book, made up not of words, but of things: “sustanze e accidenti e lor costume” (33, 88). This divine text obviously belongs in the same tradition as Augustine’s cosmic parchment, and has been studied in that way, most prominently by E. R. Curtius. Nevertheless, Dante’s representation of God’s book is distinctively his own. Just as the inscription on the gates of Hell is written in terza rima, as though there were no distinction between what he saw and what we read, so the vision of God as a book corresponds to the closure of the text we hold in our hands, despite the protestations of its fragility and dispersion. Dante asserts that God’s book is his transcendent source, that he is merely God’s humble scribe. It might equally well be said, however, that God’s book is the idealized reflection of Dante’s own text, serving to justify his prophetic (not to say Promethean) claim. He imitated the Bible by aspiring to its authority, not by copying its style.

2. Theology and literary structure

We have seen that the allegory of theologians is analogous to poetic allegory, except that it was believed to be inherent in things, rather than merely expressed in words. The same might be said of the general relationship of theology to poetry. The two systems are analogous, except that theology claims to reflect spiritual reality rather than create it. From a modern point of view, theology would seem to be a form of collective poetry which attempts to bestow existence on the perfection to which it aspires, much as St. Anselm’s ontological argument tried to confer substantiality on a syllogism. The doctrine of the Incarnation would seem the ultimate sanction for granting reality to verbal structures, since it was itself described in the Gospel of John as the Word made flesh.
Once theology is recognized as a verbal system, rather than a religion, its affinity to poetry becomes clear. Both use what Kenneth Burke calls the “logic of perfection” to reach totality and closure. Because of this affinity, theologians often used linguistic analogies to describe the spiritual world. According to Burke, it is possible to reverse the process; that is, to reduce theology to “logology” in order to show how theological principles were in fact derived from verbal systems. The interchangeability of theological and poetic coherence is particularly apparent in the works of Augustine, for whom the mystery of time, the relationship of signs to significance in the Eucharist, the creation of the universe, and the inner life of the Trinity, were all to be understood according to verbal and poetic models. Divine Justice was like a poem with variable meter, death was like phonemic silence, even God’s relationship to the world was thought of as the embodiment of a speech act, the incarnation of a proffered word. The fact that this verbal system was “made flesh” seemed to Augustine to distinguish it from Platonism, which he thought of as an equally logocentric system.
A form of logological analysis will help us to understand the theological claim of Dante’s poem in terms of narrative principles. Only a believer could accept the truth of theological allegory, since it entails a belief in the possibility of death and resurrection. Yet an analogous act of faith is required to take seriously the claim that autobiographical narrative is a faithful and definitive portrait of an author’s former self. The apparent absurdity of theological allegory is much like the narrative absurdity which we accept each time we are presented with a story that purports to be the true and final portrait of a protagonist who has become narrator and judge of his own story. Spiritual death and resurrection constitute not only the theme of such a narrative, but also the logical condition for its existence, since it cannot begin without a separation of the protagonist from the author, nor end without a return. Singleton is correct to say that Dante’s allegory is biblical, but it is not the poem’s mimetic power that so qualifies it. It is, rather, its narrative structure, identical to the narrative structure of the Old Testament in the Christian reading, or of any retrospective reading of one’s own history, thematically represented as a conversion. Our discussion of theological allegory has stressed its diachronicity as the juxtaposition of two sets of historical events, rather than a trope. This corresponds exactly to the diachronicity of narrative structure, the “then” of experience reinterpreted in the “now” of the story. It might be argued that narrative diachronicity stands for the “conversion” of the Old Testament into the New, or for the experience of personal conversion. It might equally well be argued, however, that narrative diachronicity creates the illusion of retrospective reinterpretation, that there is no conversion unless and until the story is told. Whether the diachronism of conversion corresponds to an experience or is an illusion created by the narrative, however, it is the source of the irony that is pervasive in the Inferno. Infernal irony is a dramatization of the conflict inherent in autobiography, the clash between the naive perspective of a former self, and the retrospective correction superimposed upon it from the ending of the story.
To some exegetes, it seemed that the first words of the Gospel of John referred back to the first words of Genesis. Universal history might be understood as the unfolding of God’s word back to its own origin, from the Creation to the Incarnation. It was like a sentence, beginning with the intention of a speaker whose word is gradually unfolded until it has been completely uttered and “made flesh.” An analogous circularity exists in the unfolding of autobiography. Beginning with what Burke would call a narrative tautology (“I am I”), a negative is introduced (“I was not always so”) in order to be refined away (“therefore I am I”). Reconciling the diachronic linearity of the story with this circular return to the beginning is the narrative equivalent of squaring the circle.
The Incarnation is not only the final theme of the Paradiso, but also the moment that, from the standpoint of narrative logic, makes the poem possible. The transformation of the omniscient, disembodied voice of the narrator into the voice of the pilgrim, speaking in the present tense – “cotal son io” – may be thought of as a novelistic incarnation, the coming together of an intelligible “word” with the “flesh” of individual experience. The geometrical paradox to which Dante alludes corresponds to a narrative paradox: the closing of a narrative circle which is at the same time squared by the linear temporality of the journey.

Date: 2021-12-22