Autore: Ronald L. Martinez
Tratto da: The Dante Encyclopedia
Editore: Garland, New York-London
A technique both of composition and interpretation, allegory is found throughout the Western tradition from Homer to the present. Ifwe understand allegory as medieval writers did-that is, as verbal expression in which "one thing is said, another signified" then allegory is employed in nearly ail of Dante's works, from the Vita Nuova and the lyrics to the Monarchia; Dante's masterpiece in the mode, the Commedia, is arguably one of the most compelling instances ever wrought. In the long history of study of Dante, scrutiny of the poet's allegory has raised fundamental questions, from the status of truth-claims for the Commedia to the problematics of representation inherent in language.
The word allegoria comes from the Greek allosagoeurein, to speak elsewhere than in the agora" - thus to speak secretly or obliquely. It first appears in Latin in rhetorical treatises around the beginning of the Christian Era, where it refers to extended metaphor: Quintilian's example is Horace's "ship of state" (Odes 1.14.1ff.; cf. Purg. 6.76). Not long before (first century B.C.E.), the term had been adopted by Hellenistic literary critics for philosophical interpretation of the Homeric narratives, a practice that antedated Plato and that served, early in the first century c.E., as the model for the platonizing interpretations of the Old Testament by Philo of Alexandria. By the early centuries of the Christian Era, the term is used to describe hidden meanings of the Bible, especially prefigurations of Christ and Christianity held to be implicit in the Old Testament, following numerous gospel passages (e.g., Luke 24:44; John 5:38) and following Paul's account of the consorts of Abraham in Gal. 4.21-26, where the slave Hagar and the freewoman Sarah are said to represent, "by allegory" (per allegoriam) Jews under the Law and Christians free of the Law (this is the sole occurrence of the word in the New Testament).
The vast Greek exegetical legacy of Origen (second to third centuries)-especially his threefold division of scripture into historical, moral, and spiritual senses-was shaped for Latin Christians by Jerome and Augustine into a "figural" or "typological" system (fourth to fifth centuries). The text of the Bible narrated historical events and referred to things in the created world themselves significant: Christ is adumbrated by such Old Testament patriarchs as Adam, Abel, and Isaac, as well as by the brazen serpent raised aloft by Moses (Num. 21:8-9). Thus scriptural allegory was of events ordained and things made by God (in factis), not merely things said, as in human speech or writing (in verbis). John Cassian (fourth to fifth centuries) standardized the identification of historical fact with the literal sense of the Bible (thus, Jerusalem is the city in Judaea), while the allegorical or mystical or spiritual senses were arranged in a threefold scheme that expressed a historical progress: Jerusalem as the Christian community (allegorical sense proper, the faith that was established with the life of Christ); as the human soul (tropological sense, expressing moral choice); and as the celestial city (spiritual or anagogical sense, the destination of the elect). In Dante's day students learned this system using a mnemonic composed by the late-thirteenth-century philosopher Augustine of Dacia: Littera gesta docet I Quid credas allegoria I Moralis quid agas I Quo tendis anagogia ("The letter indicates the deed; allegory, what you should believe; the moral teaches what behavior's sound; anagogy where your soul is bound"). Application of this scheme to Dante's Commedia, initiated by fourteenth-century commentators, was decisively refreshed in the mid-twentieth century, especially with Auerbach's view that Dante's representation of his characters in the afterlife is a fulfillment of their historical existence.
The influential seventh-century definition of allegory as alieniloquium ("other-speech") by Isidore, Bishop of Seville, also reiterates the formula of the ancient grammarians: aliud dicitur, aliud intelligitur ("one thing is said, another signified"; cf. Epist. 13.22). But Isidore's illustration from Virgil's Aen. 1.191 is more than rhetorical, taking the three stags seen by Aeneas as the three Punic wars destined to be fought by Rome. Isidore's example places him in the tradition of allegorical interpretation of Virgil's narrative that sprang from the commentaries of Servius (fourth century) and Fulgentius (fifth to sixth centuries); for the Middle Ages, Virgil's poem was an encyclopedia of science, history, morality, and politics-itself, moreover, "figural" in its structure, with Aeneas' victory prefiguring Augustus' establishment of an imperial line. Courcelle has shown that the sixth book, recounting Aeneas' journey through the underworld, was especially congenial to Christian exegetes with Neoplatonizing tendencies, from Macrobius (fourth to fifth centuries) to Bernard Silvestris (twelfth century). Fulgentius' moralized collection of pagan myths nourished allegorical interpretation of Ovid, Lucan, and Statius as well-the writers found in Dante's list of "regular poets" (DVE 2.6.7; see also VN25). This tradition also influenced Dante's own allegoresis of the Aeneid (Conv. 4.26), but the allegorical use of Virgil in the Commedia transcends all known models (Hollander 1969).
Prosopopeia, or personification-treated by the ancients not as allegory but as a trope, or figure of speech-has nevertheless been for modern critics typical of medieval allegory generally, from Prudentius' Psychomachia (early fifth century), the "mental battle" of Christian virtues with the vices ( e.g., Pride, Lust), to the thirteenth-century Old French vernacular Roman de la rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, in which personified agents such as Reason, Nature, and Fair Welcome discourse with the protagonist-lover. Personification allegory could work with other kinds of allegory: in Prudentius' poem, the personification of Fides ("faith") is accompanied by its biblical exemplar (cf. Heb. 11:8). Indeed, Paul's having Hagar and Sarah signify two communities also works as personification allegory; Christian iconography would later personify both Synagoga and Ecclesia (the Church) as female figures. Prosopopeia is conspicuous in Dante's work, which inherited the tradition of the twelfth-century personification allegories of Bernard Silvestris and Alain de Lille (see below, "Kinds of Dantean Allegory," and Dronke), as well as of the Roman de la rose.
Along with the text of the Bible, or "book of Scripture," medieval theologians were inspired by Ps. 18.2-3 and Rom. 1:20 to consider the Creation - insofar as it resulted from divine utterance (cf. Gen. 1:3)-as a "book of creatures," which might be read allegorically to find the vestiges of its divine maker. Buttressed by the text of Wisd. of Sol. 11:21, this method gave rise to bestiaries and lapidaries, their animals and gems decoded as signs of Christ. Classical and Jewish traditions that descried secret meanings in letters and numbers (gematria) also informed Christian interpretive practices, especially those of Franciscans like Bonaventura (cf. Par. 12.46--105). Such use of the cosmos and its creatures to signify the Creator also informs, if in complex ways, the mystical theology of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (in reality a Christian Neoplatonist of the fifth to sixth centuries), whether in naming God analogically (for example, "God is a strong right arm" and "Christ the sun of justice") or negatively and by unlikeness ("God is indefinable" or "God is like a lowly worm"). A Pseudo-Dionysian understanding of allegory-highly influential in thirteenth-century discussions of figurative language in the Bibleemerges most forcefully in Dante's work in the Paradiso and its partial commentary, the "Letter to Cangrande" (Epist. 13.60; cf. Par. 4.40--48, 30.76-81; Mazzeo 1958; Minnis et al.).
Although the attribution of the Epistle to Dante is still disputed, it will here be treated as his. Although distinctions among various forms of allegorical composition and allegorical interpretation were possible for medieval thinkers, in practice the nomenclature and uses of allegory were freely transposed: "allegory" continues to refer to scriptural exegesis, to fictions using personifications, and to the moralization of classical fables and secular texts, as well as to riddles and emblems-in short, to all the ways in which "one thing is said, another signified." All of the following Latin terms can and do refer to allegory (most are in Paul's letters): figura, forma, velamen ("veil"); mysterium, umbra (shadow"); symbolum, sacramentum, typus, exemplarium, parabola, signum, imago, enigma. The earlyfourteenth-century Old French Ovide moralise uses sentence, sen, exemple, entendement ("understanding"), and allegorie without distinction to refer to the "truth" (veritez) under the lying surface (mencoignable matire; cf. Conv. 2.1.3). Nor is Dante more consistent: in the Monarchia, taking the Sun and the Moon as representing Church and empire is allegorice (3.4.2), while explaining the two swords" that Christ offers his disciples as representing the spiritual and temporal powers is typice (3.9.18); in the Monarchia, figurare is used for how the sons of Jacob, Levi and Juda, "figure" Church and empire (3.5.2), but the same word serves for the Ovidian characters Atalanta and Hippomenes and for Lucan 's Hercules and Antaeus-pairs who "figure" the struggle for empire (2.7.10-11).
There are two sustained discussions of allegory in Dante's writings. The first appears in the Convivio (1304-1307), which contains a prose exposition of three canzoni, the first two of which, Dante claims, have allegorical senses. The love sung in these poems is not, he insists, for a real lady but for Lady Philosophy (filosofia), for the love of Wisdom. As a propaedeutic for reading the canzoni (Conv. 2.1), Dante sets out an analysis of allegorical scritture ("writings" in general), which are to be expounded according to four senses. The first, literal sense "does not go beyond the surface of the letter, as in the fables of the poets." The second, allegorical sense "is hidden beneath the cloak of these fables, and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction." As an example, Dante offers the tale of Orpheus, whose movement of rocks, trees, and wild beasts with his music signifies the truth that the wise man, with his voice, tames the proud and influences the untutored, whose lack of art or science makes them like stones. Dante avers that although theologians take the second sense differently, he will follow the use of the poets. The third, moral level-concerning ethical instruction discernible in writings (scritture) - Dante illustrates with the Transfiguration (Matt. 17.1-8), which Dante suggests means that few should be present at secret events. The fourth sense is anagogic: when a writing is interpreted spiritually and is true (that is, historical) in its literal sense, then by the things signified it also means the supreme things of eternal glory. Dante's example is Ps. 113, "In exitu Israel de Aegypto," referring to the Exodus but also meaning "the exit of the soul from sin."
The second of Dante's discussions of allegory appears in the "Letter to Cangrande" (Epist. 13; 1317-13202). The Epistle has three parts: the letter proper, an accessus to the Paradiso, and a literal exposition of the first fifteen lines of the work. The accessus, which is an introduction to a sacred or secular work, calls for identifying six "parts": subject, author, form, aim, title, and branch of philosophy. Somewhat unconventionally, Dante's discussion of allegory (Epist. 13.20-25) prefaces his discussion of the subject matter of his work, which he says is twofold: literally, the state of souls after death; allegorically, man's exercise of free will, by which he merits eternal punishment or reward. Dante claims that the meaning of his poem is "polysemous"; that is, that it has several meanings: the first is the literal, and the second is the allegorical or moral. This severalness is exemplified by Ps. 113, "In exitu Israel de Aegypto," which Dante conventionally interprets as signifying the Exodus of Israel on the literal level, followed by the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses (see Sarolli, who has noted parallels in the thirteenthcentury commentary of Hugh of St. Cher). Dante observes that "although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may one and all be termed allegorical, inasmuch as they are different" ("diversi") from the literal or historical; for the word "allegory" is so called from the Greek alleon, which in Latin is alienum (strange) or diversum (different; Epist. 13.22). As in the Convivio, Dante's example potentially has four senses, but the etymological analysis distinguishes only two: one literal (sometimes also historical), the other allegorical or mystical, which includes subspecies (e.g., moral, anagogical). This emphasis on the basic doubleness of allegory-much clearer than in the Convivio-seems to resonate with the previous presentation of the subject of the poem as double, a presentation that tends to underscore the moral sense. Indeed, for many critics the proper purpose of medieval allegory was the formation of its reader, and it is striking that the Epistle suggests a similar close connection between the moral sense, which portrays examples of moral choices good and bad, and what Dante says later is the practical end and moral purpose of his poem, that of removing souls from a state of sin to a state of grace (Epist. 13.39).
Generations of readers have struggled over these two passages, the interpretation of the Convivio being rendered more difficult by a substantial textual lacuna, and that of the Epistle by disputes over its authenticity. Students from Bruno Nardi to Peter Dronke have objected, too, that the theory of the letter does not seem to account for the practice of the Commedia. In both the Convivio and the Epistle the rhetorical purposes of the text framing the discussions of allegory dictate specific emphases, which should probably temper use of them as guides to Dante's thinking. In the Convivio, for example, the charming of stones by Orpheus is exquisitely self-referential, given that Dante's purpose is to illuminate those who, having no leisure for liberal studies, are as insensible as rocks (although several critics, including John Scott and Albert Ascoli, have also called attention to the medieval roles of Orpheus as a philosophical, even "theological," poet often also taken as a figure of Christ). But there is a more fundamental rhetorical imperative: the writer requires a fictional literal sense of the canzoni to blunt attacks based on the assumption that the lady is a real one and thus that the courting of her is a betrayal of Beatrice (Scott 1973). This imperative informs much of the work (note the allegorical battle of the "old thought in opposition to the new" in Conv. 2.9-10).
In the Epistle, the rhetorical purpose is to offer, in exchange for patronage already granted (and in quest of more), a magnificent gift to Cangrande della Scala, signore of Verona, and to unfold for him the text of the Paradiso. To this munificent end the author of the letter displays mastery of the principal authoritative discourses of his day-the theological-exegetical, the poetic, and the philosophical. The marking of the two latter discourses is explicit: Dante's description of the "form of treatment" of the Paradiso consists of a double set of adjectives, listing the work as fictive, poetic, and metaphorical; as well as digressive, descriptive, and probative categories associated, respectively, with poetic (but also biblical) and philosophical works (Epist. 13.27). Similar emphases recur throughout: Dante begins comparing his curiosity about Cangrande to the Queen of Sheba's about Solomon and to Pallas Athena's about Helicon (Solomon was renowned for sacred wisdom and poetry; Pallas signifies pagan wisdom, Mount Helicon, and the Muses of poetry; see Epist. 13.3). Very near the conclusion, he refers to Plato's use of metaphorismus - what we now call myths - to express difficult truths (cf. Par. 4.49-60), which for Dante is an explicit task of allegory (Epist. 13.84; see also 44-52, 57, 60, 61, 79). Although theological exposition predominates, as is consistent with glossing a journey to God, Dante's exposition balances poetic, philosophical, and theological discourses, and it suggests a key role for allegory in all three.
The history of criticism of Dante's allegory can seem one of important distinctions pressed too far. Although the preference of Romantic critics for symbolism over allegory has been largely superseded, the distinction has persisted in Singleton's hen the Commedia reenacts the Exodus, it should be taken as allegory, whereas its use to signify the creatures (the "book of the world") should be considered symbolism. But Singleton's terminology is arbitrary: the two books" are closely correlated by medieval writers, as in Bonaventura's Journey of the Mind to God, where the soul's path of return to God is illustrated by paining Jacob's Ladder, a spatial vision of the spiritual cosmos, with the historical narrative of Exodus-a conflation assimilated as such by Dante (Par. 22.70, 94).
Nor does it seem useful to sharply distinguish personification from other types of allegory. In the VN 25, Dante discusses his use of the personified figure of Love (Amore) in his book, which he concedes might lead the reader to think love is a person, and thus a substance, rather than an "accident in a substance." But Dante's digression-sometimes unjustifiably taken as implying disapproval of personification-must be qualified in light of the preceding chapter, where Love shows the protagonist a waking vision of Beatrice and Giovanna: as Giovanna, the lady of Guido Cavalcanti, goes before Beatrice in their procession, so Giovanni (John the Baptist) was the forerunner of the true light (vera luce, VN24.4). Love does not complete the proportion, saying only that Beatrice most resembles himself: but by establishing relations best described as figural, Dante suggests that Love and Beatrice both point to Christ. Taken as a whole, the text suggests that no sharp distinction can be drawn between Love as an accident (as might suit a merely rhetorical aIIegory) and Love as Beatrice or Christ, in which cases it would be a substance, in the latter case Being itself. In the end, all love participates in Love.
For Pepin, the distinction to make is between allegory as compositional method and allegorical reading, or allegoresis. Fair enough; but we should not let the distinction blind us to the "scenes of reading" that-from Francesca's fatal reading of the Old French Lancelot to Statius's famous "misreadings" of Virgili an passages-are among the richest episodes in the Commedia: nor, on the other hand, should we leave unread the allegorical dimensions of Dante's Latin treatises. Whitman has pointed out that the complexity of Western allegory owes much to the fact that the same term describes both the divinely inspired text of the Bible, thought of as inexhaustible to human interpretation, and "philosophical" meanings read into pagan fables. Like reading and writing, allegory goes both ways; but whether spoken, written, or read, allegory remains a single habit of mind, best summarized with Isidore's formula.
Finally, for a number of influential critics (Singleton, Hollander), the Letter to Cangrande seems to ratify the distinction of two kinds of allegory supposed in the Convivio, but it decisively rejects the "beautiful fictions" of poetic allegory and adopts a figural "allegory of the theologians" as the key to decoding the Commedia. The view that the Convivio assumes two distinct kinds of allegory has dominated American Dante criticism but has not gone uncontested. Scott (1990), for example, observes that Dante never clearly distinguishes between two different fourfold systems and never employs the phrase "allegory of theologians" at all. The Convivio discussion might well be read as proposing one fourfold system of interpretation for all texts (scritture), with subdistinctions accounting for the different status of Scripture. Dante's separation of two kinds of allegory seems much less decisive, for example, than Bernard Silvestris' attempt to distinguish scriptural allegory from fables (integumenta, "coverings") with philosophical meanings and may signal the convergence of theological and poetic disciplines under way in the early fourteenth century (see next section).
With respect to the Epistle, many readers have felt that Thomas Aquinas' pronouncement (ST 1.1.10) that only God could write signification into history and into created things and that human writers could write only a literal sense that contained the whole intention of the author (including any figurative language) should have ruled out a "figurally" composed Commedia. But Dante's use in the Epistle of the fourfold interpretation of Ps. 113 has also appeared to many as a provocative appropriation by a human author of a technique Aquinas strictly reserved for Scripture. Early commentators, like Guido da Pisa and Dante's son Pietro, ratify the appropriation, if in different ways, and open the way to later assertions by Boccaccio and Petrarch that poetry is the peer of theology.
While for some (Hollander) Dante's use of the fourfold scheme marks his radical rejection of the use of the poets and announces the boldness and uniqueness of his claim to write in imitation of God's way of writing, for others (Allen, Minni s et al.) Dante's gesture can be adequately situated within a broad, late Scholastic trend that saw techniques of scriptural interpretation and understanding of scriptural authors increasingly assimilated to the practices of an emerging vernacular literature and its newly prestigious authors. But even these critics would not deny to Dante an exceptional, indeed historically unparalleled, role in this process (see Ascoli).
In a famous attempt to elude Aquinas' strictures, Singleton suggested that "the fiction of the Comedy is that it is not fiction." But, as Scott has noted, this means only that the poem, like works of fiction in all ages, is convincing in its verisimilitude, and it leaves intact the poem's status as a fiction by a human agent. Is there then any point in debating whether the literal sense of the Commedia is "true," that is, historical? Many readers, Padoan and Dronke among them, continue to insist on the literal truth of the poem's vision, although both concede that the vision is necessarily mediated by human imagery and language.
Rather than locating the poem's vivid "realism" in the veracity of its narrated story, it might be useful to consider what meaning the terms "historical" and "fictional" would have had for Dante. Although medieval thinkers routinely distinguished historiae (real events) from argumenta (possible but fictional events) and fabulae (fanciful events), their sense of history did not correspond to a modern, positivist one. In fact, in some ways the medieval concept of the historical as a verbal construct, rhetorical and exemplary, is closer to the postmodern view of history as a construct calibrated by ideology. From this perspective, what is "true" is what fulfills preestablished exemplars, as a man or woman becomes a saint through imitation of Christ. Judson Allen's concept of assimilatio (thinking analogically) as the function by which the conceptual, the imaginative, the linguistic, and the "historical" or "real" are correlated rhetorically in an "ethical poetic" remains a promising model for understanding the poem's imaginative workings.
Yet the striking vividness of the poem in representing the afterlife is not without its own strong historical and cultural roots, and this has been a constant theme of critics. The identification of Dante's poem as a uniquely rich mixture of "history" and "allegory," of vital circumstance and theological system, goes back, at the least, to F. W. J. Schelling, and it informs Auerbach's influential documentation of the mixed style of Christian writing as manifesting the central paradox of Christianity: a God who is incarnated to suffer the fate of a criminal. For Auerbach this "creatural° aspect of divinity grounds Dante's ability to bring a secular, realistic vision into a systematic theological edifice (although for Auerbach the realism explodes the edifice, a debatable conclusion). In any case, the poem's prophetic urgency, its intricate contextualization within the history of its own epoch-something unmatched by any other poem of its time-would seem to have inevitable implications for its use of allegory. In the literal sense of an allegorical Commedia, where might the "historical" be located?
There is space here for but one hypothesis. To advance a suggestion by Joseph Mazzeo (1960), richly developed through much of Freccero's work, what is historically authentic about the poem's literal sense, the pilgrim's journey, is its autobiographical basis. Thus the Commedia,excerpted from the author's preexisting but wholly subjective "book of memory," like the Vita Nuova, also has an underlying, historical "literal sense." Prefigured throughout, this sense emerges explicitly in Par. 17 .19-27, where the pilgrim is informed of bis future exile by Cacciaguida. Often, however, the underlying autobiography is obliquely rendered, as in the pilgrim's escape from the devils in Inf. 21-22, a passage read by Pirandello-but the reading goes back to Rossetti, in the nineteenth centuryas a fictionalized memory of the poet's near capture by the Black Guelfs, who condemned him to death. To cite Freccero's comparison of Dante's poem to Augustine's Confessions: "It [the Commedia] 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" (1993). Through allegory, the exile can fashion a poetic voice equal to the task of addressing his fellow creatures and thus intervene in the historical process. From this vantage, allegory has a direct role in making the poem's unique historicity possible.
The first book of the De vulgari eloquentia, Dante's treatise on language and poetry, defines itself as an allegorical hunt for a "panther" representing the ideal Italian vernacular (1.16.1), while the poet's political treatise, the Monarchia, has been seen quite conventionally as portraying an allegorical duel of syllogisms on the wrestling mat of discourse (Mon. 1.1.5-6, 3.1.3). But of course it is principally the allegory of Dante's major poem, the Commedia, that has interested most readers. Few students of the poem would now share the skepticism of Coleridge, Nardi, and Gilson and deny that Dante's Commedia is an allegorical poem. Near the end of the Paradiso, the pilgrim's voyage from Hell to Paradise is described as one "to the divine from the human, to the eternal from time, and from Florence to a people just and whole" (Par. 31.37-39), which is to say, to cite the Epistle to Cangrande, a journey from bondage to freedom. This is the basis of Singleton's formula juxtaposing the "journey there and the journey here": the coordination, through allegory, of the pilgrim's voyage with that of every soul through the moral dangers of life. More specifically, the descent into Hell and subsequent emergence on the shores of Purgatory imitates the descent and Resurrection of Christ-indeed, follows his very route. In these ways, the pilgrim's itinerary is part of a narrative allegorical pattern all but universal in the late Middle Ages, one that the Christian collectivity performed through the symbolic action of the Mass and the liturgy, which daily commemorate God's saving action in history. The individual, as we have seen, was called to take up the cross and follow the way of Christ, an invitation duly followed by Dante's pilgrim, whom Cacciaguida invests with his poetic task of retelling his experience for the profit of others, like a knight who takes up the cross.
Beyond this, the extent and specific uses of allegory in the Commedia are still much debated. Singleton's claim for a fourfold system of meaning in the Purgatorio-announced by the singing of "In exitu Israel de Aegypto" (Ps. 113) by the souls as they move, anagogically, from this life toward salvation-has been vastly influential, though Singleton limits himself to noting Exodus references scattered in the text (the ambitious reader may wish to tease out four senses from Dante's account of Statius, the Roman imitator of Virgil, as the risen Christ, Purg. 21.7-9). In this context, a number ofreaders (Charity, Allen) suggest that the literal sense of the poem is anagogy and that its principal additional level is the "moral," or ethical, given that Dante's otherworld archives the results of moral choices (tropology).
In addition to Dante's late medieval, syncretic use of "applied typology" (Charity), other allegorical species such as personification, metaphor, fable, emblem, enigma, and numerological and alphabetic figures are also indispensable to Dante's allegorical arsenal in the great poem, and they have received, comparatively speaking, much less discussion (but see Dronke ). Dante makes vivid use ofprosopopeia: Fortune (Inf. 7.62-96), historically the most banal instance of the trope, is transformed by Dante into an angelic intelligence controlling the sphere of the mutable. The figure is infused with angelic dynamism without ceasing to be a construct of Virgil's discourse (precisely the status she has in Boethius, where all of Fortune's words are related by Lady Philosophy). In the Paradiso, in an intentionally "obscure" passage, Thomas Aquinas unfolds the life of Francis of Assisi as an elaborate allegorical marriage: Poverty is personified as the spouse (recalling the Church as spouse of Christ), while Francis becomes a heavenly orb, the sun-a cosmic sign of Christ-as well as such a perfect embodiment of his virtues (and personification of them) that Francis comes to bear the stigmata of Christ.
Dante's use of "historical" figures to personify abstractions is, in fact, common in the Commedia. The cardinal virtues possessed by Cato make his face shine as if in sunlight; Matelda, Cato's counterpart on the other end of Purgatory, has been treated by Singleton as figuring Astraea, Justice personified, and by Armour as a compendium of biblical Wisdom. Even Dante's Virgil is a kind of personification, not so much of Reason, his traditional label, but of his Aeneid, its full voice reemerging to medieval readers through Dante's poem (a function linking him to the personified biblical books of the procession in Purg. 29). Key messages of the poem are voiced by personifications, such as at Purg. 6.72, where Rome, echoing the widowed Jerusalem of Lamentations, calls out to the emperor who neglects her; and in Par. 20, where the eagle personifies the collectivity of the Just as it inscribes the sixth heaven with the opening words of the book of Wisdom (Love justice, you who judge the earth"). In Rome's cry of longing and in the eagle's imperative to rule justly, we hear in a sense the personified voice of the poem, or perhaps of its author, "a man preaching justice" (Epist. 12.7).
Inspired perhaps in part by Boethius's allegories of fables in the Consolatio philosophiae, Dante's comparisons between the pilgrim and the personnel of pagan fables also point to key meanings in the poem. One example, recalled by Pepin as the object of Stoic allegoresis, is Phaethon, the son of Apollo, who fails to control his father's solar chariot and, after setting fire to heaven and earth, is fulminated by Zeus' thunderbolt. In Inf 17 the unruly Phaethon is the inverse of the pilgrim, whose mount, Geryon, is bridled by Virgil; he returns allusively in Purg. 4. 72, in a description of solar motion, and in Purg. 29.118--120, where his chariot is compared to that of the church, which for Pante was disastrously off its rails well before its removal to Avignon in 1309. In fact, the fable anchors the language of discipline and control in the Purgatorio, from the ship of state lacking a steersman in 6.94, to the bridles and lures of 14.143-151 (and 19.61-66), and to the bridle of poetic art itself in 33 .141, thereby expressing the chief moral action of the whole canticle. In the Paradiso, Phaethon is compared to the pilgrim about to meet his great-great-grandfather, in a comparison that becomes more resonant with the parallel Cacciaguida draws between the pilgrim's exile from Florence and the death of Hippolytus, also flung to his death from a runaway chariot. Tensions between the poet's ambition for vatic status, which the meeting with Cacciaguida is designed to confirm, and bis fear of having undertaken a doomed "mad flight" like Ulysses', are, so to speak, funneled through the pagan fable of Phaethon.
Recent accounts of allegory have emphasized the instability of the mode. For Whitman, allegory coordinates both the resemblance and dissemblance between a concept and a more complex reality or verbal expression ( e.g., the virtue faith and a real woman or literary character named "Faith"). Consequently the difference established is constantly in tension with the resemblance that empowers the mode to create meaning in the first place. Van Dyke, with a similar analysis, points out that in Dante's poem the distance between concept and expression is never allowed to collapse, with the result that the meaning of the text seems inexhaustible. Of course, that Dante's poem enacts a passage from occulted to revealed meaning, a journey of interpretation, has long been argued in readings by Freccero and Mazzotta, whose views are ultimately informed by Augustine's account in the Confessions of the human drive to return from this life-a place of exile and mere signs-to the fullness of meaning in the presence of God.
If the poem traces a journey of interpretation that is analogous to the act of decoding allegory, it also stages the process by which allegorical meaning comes about. When Dante adopts quasitechnical terms such as "veil" and "doctrine," he alerts us to an inquiry into allegory itself: he writes an allegory of allegory. The scene in which the wayfarers' entry into Dis is blocked (Inf. 8-9) suggests both the figural structure of the poem and Dante's self-consciousness regarding its use. Musa and others have pointed out the multiple adumbrations (the harrowing of Hell by Christ and the prophecy of its ultimate defeat, the descent of the spirit through grace, the transcendence of paganism) in the action of the "messenger" who descends to open the Gate of Dis, which the devils closed in Virgil's face. But an important dimension of the action is hermeneutic: the arrival of a messenger who releases the wayfarers from their impasse reenacts the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost ( as well as that of Mercury, the gods' messenger, in Statius' Theb. 2.1 ff.). This advent does not so much make language intelligible as reintegrate it: the messenger's "holy words" (Inf 9 .105) guaranteeing entry into Dis complete the "truncated words" (Inf 9.14) of Virgil's speech, to which the pilgrim had given "a meaning ... worse than they held" (Inf 9 .15) and which had created in him the fear that the wayfarers' hope, like that of the damned, might be "cut off" (Inf 9.16) - in short, that the entire journey might be thwarted.
In an important essay, "Medusa: The Letter and the Spirit" (1986) Freccero associated the invitation of Inf 9.63 to look "beneath the veil of the strange verses" with Paul's gloss on the veiled face of Moses, which only Christian truth could uncover (2 Cor. 3:13-16). Thus the messenger's "opening" of the Gate of Dis is comparable to the "opening" of meaning when Scripture is expounded spiritually, that is, allegorically. Such an opening of the way, and the emphasis on integrating speech, point to the "way" itself as one of interpretation. Thus the enigma of the "strange verses" must be read back into the whole text: capitalizing on medieval accounts of metaphor as the transfer of words from native to alien locations, Dante implies that all verses may be "strange" when infused with allegorical meaning ("othermeaning," alieniloquium) that literally descends from Heaven. And this descent of meaning from above is mirrored by the attention the passage demands from the reader: only when hidden meaning is sought are the poem's moral purpose and allegorical poetics satisfied.
The prominence of allegory in Dante's work is, ultimately, a reflection of the prominence of allegorical thinking in general in the Middle Ages. The centrality of the notion of "book as symbol" to medieval culture was long ago pointed out in Curtius's great omnibus, and the centrality of both allegory and language to Dante's project is implicit in Dante's choice of a book to express how all Creation is held, in archetype, in the mind of God (Par: 33.84-87). Inevitably, the book in God's mind is the model for the two allegorical "books" that man was given to read, namely, the book of Scripture and the book of Creation. Inevitably, too, the book in God's mind is mirrored by Dante's poem, the book that records it-each being an allegory of the other. As Freccero (1986, 260) has noted, borrowing a concept of Kenneth Burke's, Dante's poem is at once theological and logological: in the beginning and in the end is the Word.
An implication of the principle that God's utterance, the cosmos itself, has an allegorical structure serves to organize the Paradiso, which, given that souls are located both in the Empyrean and in their specific planetary heavens, has a doubly mapped structure throughout (Par. 4.28-39). Thus in Par. 28.64-78, Beatrice describes the physical cosmos and the spiritual hierarchies of angels in a relation at once specular and chiastic: the nine spheres of the cosmos mirror the nine orders of angels, but by inversion-because the spheres increase in rank extensively as they embrace greater circumferences, but the angelic hierarchies increase in rank intensively as they approach the divine center. The pattern is a plausible model for allegory, in which signifier and signified are related through both similarity and dissimilarity. The human being, in turn, as the union of soul and material body, is the microcosm of the visible and the immaterial universesindeed the horizon of the two (Mon. 3.16). For the Middle Ages, this doubleness of human nature expressed itself in the difference between the inner life of the soul and the exterior life of the body, between intus and Joris-terms also used for the surface and depth of allegory, modeled on the book "written within and without" of Ezek. 2:9. But the soul-body relation can be also figured in the speech-act, as in Purg. 25.106 - 107, where the aerial "bodies" of the souls transmit emotions transparently, as if perfectly intelligible utterances. Is language, then, one might ask, allegorical as well?
At the extreme edge, recent literary criticism, spearheaded by Paul de Man, has proposed the idea that all language, indeed all representation, is allegorical. As Joel Fineman put it, "allegory acquires the status of the trope of tropes, representative of the figurality of all language, of the distance between signifier and signified." Such views, based on the rethinking of consciousness, intention, and language launched by thinkers such as Freud and Saussure, are anticipated by the explanation Dante's pilgrim gives of how his poetry is generated (Purg. 24.50-52): the breath of Amor, a name for the Holy Spirit, descends to the inner audition and notation of the poet ("dictates within"), and this dictation is then transcribed in the social medium of mutable, natural language ("I go signifying"). Because doubly translated, even the inspired word acquires that displacement between what is said and what is meant that is characteristic of allegory.
If recent literary theory assimilates allegory to irony as the modernist form of "saying one thing and meaning another" (and ancient rhetoric knew this species of allegory, too, calling it inversio, the "inversion" of meaning), Dante's view oflanguage and poetry is no less radical in its registration of the homology between allegory and fraud. This possibility is dramatized-or, better, personifiedby Geryon, the explicitly "imaginary" and fictional monster of the pilgrim's waking dream (Inf. 16.22). Describing the hybrid, multiple-bodied Geryon with a torrent of simile and metaphor, Dante unmasks the guises of fraud as Homer's Menelaus mastered the many shapes of Proteus. But as the famous paired, chiastic statements of 16.124 (the poet's "truth which has the face of falsehood") and 17.10 (Geryon's "face... of a just man") make clear, Dante is fully aware of the difficulty the reader faces in distinguishing what is allegorical from what is untrue. So dangerous is allegory that a Renaissance rhetorician would call it Falssemblant, the namesake of the fraudulent monk of the Roman de la rose.
In the Commedia, Dante archives the repertory of fraudulent serniosis with, among others, the panders, simonists, grafters, and thieves of Malebolge. The last bolgia offers a quarrelsome pair, the counterfeiter Master Adam and the perjurer Sinon of Troy. As Durling (1981) argues, the structure of container and thing contained helps explain the swollen, deformed shape of Adam, Sinon's perjury, and the counterfeiter's coinage "with three carats of dross": that is, representations of the body (and "body politic"), legal instruments, and money. But "container and thing contained" also describes the structure of allegory. Durling's arguments make clear that the problem of allegory is not merely semiotic in nature but is also historical. Implicit in Dante's assaying of Adam's coinage is not only awareness of the generic danger to the body politic but also disapproval of the use by King Philip the Fair of France (1285-1314) of devalued coinage (Par. 19.118--119) and perjured testimony (Purg. 20.92-93) as instruments of policy, which marked for Dante a new, dreadful epoch in the misguidance of humankind. Gregory the Great (seventh century), at the beginning of his Exposition on the Song of Songs, writes that "for the soul placed far from God, allegory fashions a sort of stage-machine (machina), so that it might be raised up to Him" (cf. Par. 9.108). But in regard to the French monarchy, Dante's allegorical machinery excoriates Philip and thrusts, by means of prophecy, his compliant pope, Clement V, deep into the pits of Hell among the simonists (Par. 30.145-148). Many are the uses of allegory.