Autore: Giuseppe Mazzotta
Tratto da: Dante poet of the desert. History and allegory in the Divine Comedy
Editore: Princeton University Press, Princeton
No single issue in the Divine Comedy has been more divisive and more persistently debated by Dante scholarship than that of allegory. This is hardly surprising, one might add, for allegory is not merely a distinct, isolated theme which can be exhaustively treated by following its incidental textual movement. What is largely at stake in the recurrent critical debate is nothing less than the fundamental decision ot how to read the poem, how to identify, that is to say, the interpretative laws which govern the poem and come to grips with the poet's authorial claims, his sense of the nature of figurative language, its relation to a moral truth and even the place, if any, that truth occupies in the economy of poetic fiction.
The truly problematic and elusive nature of these questions cannot be overemphasized: they reach into the very heart of Dante's literary enterprise and, it may be said without exaggeration, they determine the status, the epistemological value of the explicit thematic patterns of the text. Aware of the stakes, critics have recently probed anew medieval allegorical conventions, techniques of biblical exegesis and general theories of reading, the so-called accessus ad auctores, in the belief that a secure foothold in the massive and often contradictory documentary evidence of tradition can possibly help them to decipher these questions.
The critics' historical research came primarily as a genuine reaction to the impasse reached by Romantic principles and practices of literary interpretation. Croce, for instance, in the wake of German idealism, views allegory as an act of the will, a doctrinaire and discursive structure superimposed on and extraneous to the poetic immediacy of symbolic representation. The lyrical substance, he argues, resides in fragments where images and their meaning are bound together in a pure and spontaneous intimacy, while allegory, because ot the heterogencity which characterizes it, shatters the esthetic unity of the symbolic discourse. Croce's sense of the intrinsic superiority of symbol over allegory is certainly debatable just as is his notion that sharp and stable distinctions can be drawn between what is "’poetry" and what is “non-poetry." Yet, his insight into the disjunctions present in all allegorical writings has been dismissed by medievalists, with quick and occasionally questionable condescension, as idealistic prejudice. They have appealed to the canons of medieval esthetics as the background against which Dante's allegorv can be legitimately assessed and through which the laws governing the imaginative unity of ‘‘poetry’’ and ‘structure’ in the text can be found.
It has been increasingly acknowledged that the allegory of the Divine Comedy, far from being simply a device to induce mechanically from the outside a moral sense into the poetic texture or a rhetorical modality only sporadically present in the poem, is indeed its very principle of structure. It is the active framework within which the symbolic layers are invested with moral determinations and which sustains Dante's narrative strategy, the double perspective on which the movement of the poem is ostensibly articulated. John Freccero, for instance, has recently argued that Dante's allegory coincides with the structure of autobiography in that it affords precisely the temporal horizon within which the poet maps his spiritual conversion, the self-interpretative process of his prior experience as a pilgrim.
Opinions are still divided, however, between those who believe that the Divine Comedy is an allegory of poets and those for whom the mode belongs to the tradition of the allegory of theologians. The proponents of the allegory of poets see the Divine Comedy essentially as a fabula, a poetic construct in which theology, figuralism and Dante's prophetic vocation, which manifestly are the props of the poem, are part and parcel of the fictional strategy, the literal sense ot which is a pure fiction. For those critics, such as Singleton, who argue in favor of the allegory ot theologians, the poem is written in imitation of God's way of writing and, like Scripture, it exceeds metaphor and comes forth with the “irreducibility of reality itself.” If for Singleton the historicity of the literal sense is what might be called a formal quality of the text, if it depends, that is to say, on a conniving reader manipulated by the author to believe that the “ficrion is not a fiction,” for Auerbach this historicity is the prominent feature of biblical figuralism which Dante rigorously deploys in his poem. Figura is both a theory of interpretation of history and a mode of writing in which signs and their significations are historically true, and which - just as in the Bible, where the reader is never pampered into the safety of esthetic illusions - demands the reader's radical commitment.
But Dante, Auerbach suggests in the last paragraph of his chapter on “Farinata and Cavalcante” in Mimesis, no longer believes in the figural grid which organizes his poem and, ultimately, subverts the order and stability ot the world he represents. “By virtue of this immediate and admiring sympathy with man," says Auerbach, “the principle, rooted in the divine order, of the indestructibility of the whole historical and individual man turns against that order, makes it subservwient to its own purposes, and obscures it. The image of man eclipses the image of God. Darite's work made man's Christian-figural bemmg a reality, and destroyed it in the very process of realizing it." This ironic disruption, which markedly resembles Croce's sense of the split between poetry and doctrine, has generally been neglected by critics, probably because Auerbach, with some hesitancy, places this view of Dante as a Romantic rebel avant la lettre, a Prometheus who steals the fire from the gods, outside of the text, and because the disruption for him is more the work of a Hegelian “cunning ot history” than a conscious strategy of the text.
Most of the later critical strains flow either from the achievements ot Singleton or the more orthodox insights of Auerbach, and frequently attempt to harmonize the two. G. R. Sarolli sees the Divine Comedy as a secularized prophecy, a visionary allegory which irrupts into a concrete historical crisis with the confessed intent'to reshape the moral order ot the world and reconcile its two providential structures, Empire and Church. For A. C. Charity the poem is sustained by typology and carries out an inteniorized, existential call for the readers private redemption. Mineo, in a systematic study, places Dante's voice in the line of biblical prophets; Hollander and P. Giannantonio, on the other hand, accept Singleton's view of the poem as a fiction which predominantly employs the techniques of rheological allegory. It was left to Hollander, however, to cxemplify, in a critical move aimed at capturing the text's internal correspondences, the controlled presence of the fourfold senses ot biblical exegesis. Paradoxically, while the historical research has given the critics’ own make-believe the strength of fact, the critics have ended up disclosing, as is perhaps inevitable, their own sense of esthetic values.
That such a self-disclosure should take place may not go entirely against the grain of Dante's poetry and its purposes, and one concern of this chapter is to show that critics read the Divine Comedy in ways that Dante precisely anticipates. This statement is not meant to justify or preempt likely interpretative errors: it is meant to suggest, rather, that the Divine Comedy is the allegory of its possible readings, or to put it in different terms, that the act of reading, essentially a criticalphilological operation, is at the same time for Dante a veritable allegory of the quest, the outcome of which is as tentative and possibly aberrant as the significance we extract from that reading. It has been my contention in the preceding chapters that Statius' philological “mistake’’ in the reading of the Aeneid turns out to be a spiritual insight into Vergil's text, and that Francesca and Statius, much hke Augustine reading the Aeneid and St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans in the Confessions, are paradigms of opposced experiences in which books come forth as avenues of the readers’ “fate,” in the full meaning of the word, as that which is spoken to them.
In this context, the question of whether Dante's allegory belongs to a rheological or ficttonal mode cannot be simply solved, as critics would have it, by some a priori decision about the fictiveness or reality of the literal sense. Dante's reader is constantly reminded, in effect, that the practice of reading deals precisely with how that decision can be made, that reading is an imaginary operation in which truth and fiction, far from being mutually exclusive categories, are simultaneously engendered by the ambiguous structure of metaphoric language. The locus classicus where the ambivalence of the literal sense is formulated is the passage in Convivio (II, 1) in which Dante distinguishes between the allegory of poets and the allegory of theologians. I say that, as has been stated in the first chapter, this explanation should be both literal and allegorical. And to understand this, we should know that books can be understood, and ought to be explained, in four principal senses. One is called literal, and this it is which goes no further than the letter, such as the simple narration of the thing of which you treat: [of which a perfect and appropriate example is to be found in the third canzone, treating of nobility]. The second is called allegorical, and this is the meaning hidden under the cloak of fables, and is a truth concealed beneath a fair fiction; as when Ovid says that Orpheus with his lute tamed wild beasts, and moved trees and rocks; which means that the wise man, with the instrument of his voice, sottens and humbles cruel hearts, and moves at his will those who live neither for science nor for art, and those who, having no rational life whatever, are almost like stones. And how this hidden thing [the allegorical meaning] may be found by the wise, will be explained in the last book but one. The theologians, however, take this meaning differently from the poets; but because I intend to follow here the method of the poets, I shall take the allegorical meaning according to their usage.
In the subsequent paragraphs Dante describes the third sense, which is called moral, by referring to the account of Christ's transfiguration: the fact that Christ took with him only three of his twelve apostles exemplifies the moral that in the most secret things we should have but few companions. The fourth sense, the anagogical or “sovrasenso," occurs when even in the literal sense, by the very things it signifies (‘la quale ancora sia vera eziandio nel senso litterale, per le cose significate"), it signifies the supernatural things of the eternal glory. The illustration for this “sovrasenso" is provided by the psalm, ‘’In exitu Israel de Aegypto,” which is historically true according to both the letter and its spiritual intentions.
The distinction between poetic allegory and theological allegory depends not on an intrinsic separation of truth and lies in the literal sense, but on an act of interpretation: ‘’the theologians take the literal sense otherwise than the poets do”; the truth of the literal sense, then, lies not in the actual enunciation, but in what the literal sense signifies. The same argument, as some critics have remarked, recurs in the Letter to Cangrande, which, in spite of its doubtful authenticity, is conventionally granted a privileged place in the debate over the accessus to the Divine Comedy. Here Dante claims that the underlying structural model for his allegory is Scripture and illustrates the four senses by expounding the verse from the psalm, “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judea became his sanctification, Israel his power.” By virtue ot this allusion, which indeed provides the pattern for the poem, scholars have recently argued for the historicity of the literal sense. Yet, in no less explicit terms the Letter asserts that the poem's forma tractandi is ‘‘poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, metaphorical, and, in addition, defimtive, analytical, probative, censorious, and exemplificative.” The metaphoricity of the text is stressed with equal overtness in parapraph 29 of the Letter where the line ‘which he has no knowledge or power to tell again" (Paradiso I, 16) is glossed as follows: “For there are many things which we see by the intellect for which verbal.signs are lacking, which Plato suggests in his books by means of metaphors, tor he saw many things by the light ot his intellect that he could not express in suitable words.''
But critics, for all their specific differences, generally bypass the importance and complications of metaphor in the Divine Comedy. They argue that Dante's language, like its biblical model, goes beyond metaphor and comes forth with the immediacy of reality itself; or, when Dante's representation is drawn within a Platonic theory of poetic expression, as in Mazzeo's essay, it is still believed that it manages to give an untroubled and direct access to reality. The common assumption is that literary language conveys a univocal sense and the critical efforts are directed at establishing whether the overall meaning of the poem is prophecy or political theology or spiritual intellectual conversion. Textual ambiguities are repressed in favor of univocal truth and the acknowledged polysemy of Dante's poem is viewed to describe the steps in a hierarchy of fixed and stable meanings. Thus, allegory appears as the wrapping in which experience is packed, but the disguises can be penetrated by the application of the right exegetical tools.
While these critical perspectives cannot be dismissed as wrong, they are nonetheless partial, and the burden of this chapter is to show that Dante's allegory intends to provide a theological scheme by which the world of reality, history and the self can be intelligible in God's providential plan. But | also want to show that the metaphoric movement of the poem denounces the illusoriness of the project and draws the theological structure of sense into the possibility of error, that Dante writes in the mode of theological allegory and also recoils from it. This wavering, partially elaborated in the preceding chapters, is not simply a way of describing occasional moments of the poet’s troubled doubt meant ultimately to heighten the poet's authority. It describes, rather, the bind within which the voice of the poet is forever caught and disrupts the sense of a stable continuity between reality and its representation. The poem, it must be stressed, is neither the Imitation of God's way of writing nor a prodigious crystal, an idolatrous self-referential construct; it occupies the ambiguous space between these two possibilities; and allegory, as I see it, dramatizes the choice with which the reader is confronted. ls this ambiguous pattern at all necessary? What are the reasons for it? I shall try to answer these questions by focusing mainly on Purgatorio X and Paradiso XXXIII.
In Purgatorio X, the first ledge where pride is expiated, the pilgrim confronts the exemplary allegorical representations of humility carved on the marble sides of the cliff. If pride is the root of all evils, humility is literally the ‘ground’ from which the spiritual ascent of both penitents and pilgrim is to start. This is no mere abstract virtue statically opposed to pride in what is a purgatorial version of a psychomachia; humility also appears as the meaning that underlìes the providential order of history. The icons, in effect, unfold the allegory of history and enact a compressed synopsis of salvation history. Gabriel's descent and the humility of the Virgin at the Annunciation (II. 34-45), the Old Testament account of David dancing in front of the ark of the covenafit (II. 55-72), and finally Trajan's surrender to the widow's plea for justice (II. 73-93) are images of prophetic and secular history drawn together into a coherent unity pivoted on the Incarnation. Christ's descent, the paradigm of humility, is tellingly adumbrated by the allusion to David. In patristic exegesis, the ark is the conventional prophetic sign of the Church and David is both the type of the just emperor (he appears as more and less than King, I. 66) and a veritable figura Christi. It is more openly hinted in the reference to Gabriel's salutation to the Virgin.
Giurato si saria ch'el dicesse "Ave";
perchè iv'era imaginata quella
ch'ad aprir l'alto amor volse la chiave;
e avea in atto impressa esta favella
‘Ecce ancilla Dei," propriamente
come figura in cera si suggella.
(One would have sworn that he was saying, ‘Ave, for there she was imaged who turned the key to open the supreme love, and these words were imprinted in her attitude: ‘Ecce ancilla Dei," as clearly as a figure is impressed on wax.)
“Ave” is commonly glossed as the typological reversal of Eve, the first woman who figures the pride of the Fall, and the image of Mary as she who “volse la chiave” stresses the reversal. The birth of Christ, the new Adam, appears as the unique event which transforms and redeems the Fall into the new beginning of history. Its uniqueness is dramatized by a significant detail in Dante's narrative: the Annunciation is the only instance of the new life granted to the world whereas, in contrast to it, Michal, as we gather from the biblical context, is ‘’sterilitati damnata," and the widow weeps for her dead son.
Dante actually exploits for this synoptic theology of history the force of the technical term “storia” and its variant “storiato.'' The pilgrim turns his eyes beyond the representation of Mary to ‘un'altra storia ne la roccia imposta" (I. 52); he moves his feet beyond the picture of Michal, “per avvisar da presso un'altra istoria” (I. 71) in which “era storiata l'alta gloria / del roman principato, il cui valore / mosse Gregorio a la sua gran vittoria” (II. 73-5). In the measure in which the three representations are allegorical examples of humility, Dante suggests, following upon rhetorical traditions, that history is an imaginative reservoir of exempla and moralized myths. At the same time, these are images seen and the emphasis on vision, which occupies a conspicuous place in the canto, carries a more specialized overtone of the word ‘storia.’ Hugh of St. Victor, among others, gives the etymology of history precisely in terms of vision: "History is derived from the Greek word ‘istorèo’ which means ‘l see and recount.' For this reason, among the ancients it was allowed to no one to write about events unless he had scen them him self so that falsechood would mot get mixed with truth… Thus is history properly and strictly defined." But Dante's historical sequence in Purgatorio x is unambiguous: it is a theological allegory both because of the historicity of the events and because the images are constructed by God himself, the Deus Artifex,
Colui che mai non vide cosa nova
produsse esto visibile parlare,
novello a noi perchè qui non si trova.
(He who never beheld any new thing wrought this visible speech, new to us because it is not found here.)
The detail that this is God's work exemplifies, from one point ot view, the doctrinal counterpoint of pride and humility on which the canto is explicitly articulated and is tailored to suggest that this art surpasses and humbles both the imitations of nature and the artifice of man (II. 31-3). It also exemplities what has come to be known as God's way of writing. Much as in Holy Scripture, God signifies his meaning by both words and things, or as Aquinas puts it.
Sicut enim dicit Apostolus ad hebr. "Lex vetus figura est novace legis,” et ipsa nova lex, ut Dionysius dicit, "est figura futurae gloriae." In nova etiam lege et quae in capite sunt gesta sunt signa eorum quae nos agere debemus.
Secundum ergo quod ca quae sunt veteris legis significant ea quae sunt novae legis est sensus allegoricus; secundum vero quod ca quae in Christo sunt facta vel in his quae Christum significant sunt signa eorum quae nos agere debemus est sensus moralis; prout vero significant ea quae sunt in aeterna gloria est sensus anagogicus.
Aquinas' definition of the fourfold sense of biblical exegesis is clearly applicable to the ecphrasis of Purgatorio X, a Christocentric vision of history which fultills the Old Testament figure, points out how the moral edification of the sinners can be obtained, and foreshadows the glory to come.
The primary sense of the word “storia,” however, is representation and Dante insistently focuses on the mimetic power of the fiction, on the subtlety of God's craft by which the illusion of reality is achieved. Thus, the angel “pareva sì verace" (I. 37), the fragrance of the incense seems real (II. 61-3), Trajan's banners “in vista” Hutter in the wind (II. 80-1), and the little widow “pareva dir: ‘Segnor, fammi vendetta’” (II. 82-4). The central expedient in this fiction of reality is the “visibile parlare,” the synesthesia which simulates the symbolic bond of words and vision and which organizes the triptych into a formal and sensorial totality. The phrase, to be sure, recallis the classical chiastic formula, here applied to sculpture, ‘‘poema loquens pictura pictura loquens poema." But it recalls, more closely, St. Augustine's verba visibilia, an expression which he uses in at least two different but related contexts. In De Doctrina Christiana, a treatise which lays down the criteria for a Christian hermeneutics, Augustine devotes the third chapter ot the second book to a description of conventional signs as distinguished from natural signs, The phrase ‘quasi quaedam verba visibilia” occurs to describe conventional signs such as silent gesticulations of mimes or military insignia which convey a full and unmistakable sense. In De Vera Religione, in a section on the rules for interpreting Scripture, Augustine envisions fallen man delighting in ‘‘figmentis ludicris” and to them he opposes the semblances and parables, “quasi quaedam verba visibilia," given by God's mercy to cure ‘‘interiores oculos nostros.”
Much as for St. Augustine, for Dante the ‘‘visibile parlare" ostensibly designates God's art which, unlike man's figments, is removed from duplicity and deception and which cures pride's spiritual blindness, the condition of sinners whom the poet later in the canto refers to as being “de la vista de la mente infermi” (I. 122). The presence of the language of fiction in what is the allegory of God's way of writing in no way challenges the moral knowledge that Dante's passage conveys nor does it undermine the reality of its historical referents. It simply states, in Aquinas’ words, that fictio can be a “figura veritatis” and asserts the power of metaphors to duplicate the world of reality in all its sensuous multiplicity and to recover signs and meaning into a symbolic plenitude. Even the Bible, according to St. Thomas, fittingly employs metaphorical language to deliver its spiritual realities. “For God provides for all things according to the kind of things they are. Now we are of the kind to reach the world of intelligence through the world of sense, since all our knowledge takes its rise from sensation. Congenially, then, Holy Scripture delivers spiritual things to us beneath metaphors taken from bodily things. Dionysius agrees, ‘The divine rays cannot enlighten us except wrapped up in many sacred veils.’”
Aquinas, to be sure, proceeds to distinguish between secular poetry which employs metaphors for the sake of representation, for ‘‘repraesentatio naturaliter homuini delectabilis est," and Scripture which adopts metaphors "propter necessitatem et utilitatem.” In what seems to be a deliberate tempering of St. Thomas’ rigid dichotomy, Dante insists on the feeling of delight engendered by God's art, ‘‘mentr’io mi dilettava di guardare / l'imagini di tante umilitadi'' (II. 97-8). But this is no illicita delectatio ot the mind trapped by esthetic lures and forgetful of its askesis: rather it leads the pilgrim back to its Creator, “per lo fabbro loro a veder care" (I, 99).
In this sense, Dante stresses the absolute morality of God's art: unlike human art which in Purgatorio XI is symbolically envisioned as the impermanent work of pride the fame of which lasts briefly (II. 91-102), God's exemplary art does not stand isolated from moral practice and actually contains within itself its own interpretative paradigms and, in tum, inspires man to moral action. Although in Purgatorio x1 Dante releases his own work within a temporal succession whereby the earthly fame procured by art is but a breath of wind (Il. 97-9), he also claims that his own poetics is subsumed under the general category of ethics. The claim is common in medieval critical theories and as the Letter to Cangrande has it, “the branch ot philosophy which regulates this work in its whole and its parts is morals or ethics, because the whole was undertaken not tor speculation but for practical results.”
This ethical finality is concretely borne out in Purgatorio X by the allusion to the legend of Trajan's salvation. The legend, which was very popular throughout the Middle Ages, tells how Pope Gregory was moved to prayer after hearing the accounts of Trajan's humility and sceing his statue in the Roman forum. It is borne out, more dramatically, by the pilgrim's own process ot education which is consistently played out in the canto. The pilgrim is absorbed by the imaginative wonders of God's art and Vergil interrupts him, first, prompting him not to fix “ad un loco la mente" (I. 46), second, announcing the arrival of the proud penitents (Il. 100- 3). The pilgrim doubts his perception: in sharp contrast ro the clarity of the divine artifice, these shapes are disfigured, veritable images of dissemblances, ‘maestro, quel ch'io veggio / muover a noi, non mi sembian persone, / e non so che, sì nel veder vaneggio" (Il. 112-4). In effect, we are confronted here by what Dante in the Letter to Cangrande calls the literal sense of the poem, “the subject of the whole work, understood only literally, is simply the state of the souls after death. For the course of the whole work tums from and around this.” The literal sense, however, does not speak its univocal meaning: the shapes are literally figures which, as Buti glosses the line, deceive the sight, ‘‘parendo ora una cosa et ora un'altra." To remove the confusion, Vergil provides the doctrinal rationale for the sinners’ cramped forms, ‘la grave condizione / di lor tormento a terra li rannicchia" (II. 115-6), The phrase ‘a terra” renders graphically and even extends the etymological overtone ot humility; the epithet ‘‘grave” alludes to grawitas, the burden of sinful love that pulled the sinners downward, under the stones, from which finally they can begin their ascent.
Dante, in a gesture that mimes Vergil's repeated moral guidance of the pilgrim, addresses his readers urging them to look beyond the corrupt forms:
Non vo però, lettor, che tu ti smaghi
di buon proponimento per udire
come Dio vuol che ‘l debito sì paghi.
Non attender la forma del martìre:
pensa la succession; pensa ch'al peggio
oltre la gran sentenza non può ire,
(But, reader, I would not have you turned from good resolution for hearing how God wills the debt shall be paid. Heed not the form of the pain: think what follows, think that at the worst it cannot go beyond the great Judgment.)
In a real sense, the address is a miniature compression of the dialectical movement of the poem, the effort of the poet, that is to say, to make his text an act of knowledge, an ‘‘essemplo,” and give the reader the same cognitive standpoint as the poet. Just as Cato and Vergil have alerted the pilgrim to the dangers of the esthetic snares, Dante now moves to dispel the possible enchantments and to remind the reader of the wedge that separates the form from its truth. This caveat hinges on the word “smaghi”; this word, used elsewhere to describe the guiles of the sirens, the talse honey of their songs and promises, or Rachel enthralled by self-reflection in the mirror, provides an esthetic context for the temptation that might otherwise lead the reader away from good resolve. Obliquely, Dante raises the possibility that the moral meaning of the image may be forfeited by the appearance and that a temporal split exists between appearance and meaning.
To be sure, critics have always noted the ambiguities in what is often referred to as the poet's drama, the tension between “esthetic'” compassion and “ethical” distance in the representation of characters punished in Hell. In Paradiso, the appearance of the souls is overtly given as a pure metaphor drained of any substantial reality. In Paradiso IV, we are told at some length, the spirits showed themselves forth in the heaven of the Moon, not because that sphere is allotted to them, but ‘‘per far segno” (I. 38) of the degree of beatitude they enjoy. In poetic terms this is a metaphoric accommodation of spiritual realities to sense perception, a condescension to the human faculty which can only apprehend through visible representations. This same principle, Beatrice says, alluding to Aquinas' account of biblical metaphor, sustains Scripture which metaphorically “piedi è mano / attribuisce a Dio e altro intende” (Il. 44-5). Even the opinion of the Timaeus to the effect that the souls return to the stars cannot be taken literally, ‘‘e forse sua sentenza è d'altra guisa / che la voce non suona" (II. 55-6). The two phrases, "altro intende," and ‘altra guisa che la voce non suona," it might be pointed out, echo the conventional terminology of allegory. iIsidore of Seville defines allegory as “alieniloquium. Aliud enim sonat, et aliud intelligitur.”
Though without the moral implications that characterize the representations of Inferno, metaphor in Paradiso dramatizes the internal distance between signs and their reality in both biblical and secular texts and in the pictorial representation of the angels in Church (Il. 46-8). This distance is the thread that also runs through the various modes of representation that Dante deploys in his poem. The sense ot a deeply divided perception has thematic weight in Purgatorio: on the one hand, experience is arranged according to degrees and quality of sin which convey the poet's firm and unremitting moral judgment; on the other hand, we are confronted with the figments of both penitents and pilgrim variously seeking esthetic relief, tempted by nostalgia and the chimeras ot the mght which threaten that moral pattern with disruption. All of these uncertainties have always been treated as local oscillations, momentary illusory lapses which the poet always transcends in the compass of his moral vision.
And more forcetully now than ever before, the poet interrupts the narrative to correct the faulty vision of fallen man and give the “superbi cristian” an insight beyond the blindness of self-deceprion.
O superbi cristian, miseri lassi,
che, de la vista de la mente infermi,
fidanza avete ne’ retrosi passi,
non v'accorgete voi che noi siam vermi
nati a formar l'angelica farfalla,
che vola a la giustizia sanza schermi?
Di che l'animo vostro in alto galla,
poi siete quasi antomata in difetto,
sì come vermo in cui formazion falla?
Purgatorio X, II, 121-9
(O proud Christians, weary wretches who, sick in the mind's vision, put trust in backward steps, are you not aware that we are worms born to form the angelic butterfly that flies to judgment without defences? Why does vour mind soar up so high, since you are as it were imperfect insects, like the worm in which full form is wanting?)
The rapid shift of pronoun, “voi, “noi” overtly collapses the distance between the poet, who generally occupies an omniscient perspective, and fallen man by the suggestion that either is caught in the bane and sorrow ot original sin. The image of “vermi”, employed in Inferno for Lucifer and in patristic exegesis for the fallen children of Adam, stresses precisely the reality ot the Fall and the sense of shared degradation. But this identification with the sinners is also a strategy to give weight to the poet's moral wisdom, root it in the awareness of a common plight and, thus, sanction the authority of his stance. This is, in reality, the tone of Dante's voice that readers are most familiar with: a voice which combines affective identification with ethical detachment and which, for all the alliterative resonances of the apostrophe (the fricatives “v" and "f" abound), does not cajole the reader into fatuous complacencies but forces him to stare into the depths of man's misery and glimpse, beyond that, beneath the cocoon the redemption available to him.
The soul's redemption, described through the metamorphosis of the worm into a butterfly, is primarily a specimen ot Dante's revision of the neoplatonic allegoresis of the flight ot the soul. Though in Plato the myth is generally represented in the guise of a bird in flight, che symbolic equation between soul and butterfly depends on the ambivalence of the term psyché, an equivocal homonym which designates both the soul and the butterfly. Undoubtedly, the ambivalence ot the Greek word was not directly available to Dante. Yet, the associatton persisted in a Latin tradition which is highly significant to Dante"'s present context of plastic representations. It can be found in an epitaph on a Florentine gravestone; in addition, among the symbolic bas-reliets and decorations hewn on murals, monuments and cinerary urns, a steady emblem is precisely the allegory of Psyche in the form of a butterfly to mark death as the point where the perilous journey into the beyond begins. There is good reason to believe that this figurative tradition stands behind Dante’s own dramatic embodiment of the flight of the soul: in a canto filled with allegorical sculptures, it is apt that Dante should employ an allegorical motif which in all likelihood could only be found as a sculpture.
In the pagan representations, largely inspired by Apuleius’ Metamorphosis, the fabulous allegory of the ascent of Psyche is consigned to the natural order: the soul is a butterfly when at death the tortures ot Eros cease and the garments of the body are finally shed. Dante displaces this allegory into the order of grace, moors the myth to a theological structure. The key word for this conceptual transvaluation is the epithet ‘’superbi.” Superhia, etymologically an upward flight of the natural man, turns out for Dante ro be inevitably a fall. The word "lassi," on which line 121 comes to an end, cartries with it the overtone ot the Latin "lapsi’ and scals this fall. The soul returns to its pristine purity not when it is a disembodiéd spirit: in Dante's context, it is beyond death, through the pain ot purification, that the worm is metamorphosed into a butterfly.
If the doctrinal strain of the apostrophe is to invert both the substance and the direction of the soul’s paideia, its main burden is to refocus on the notion of form. In the address to the reader, “forma” as a mere esthetic category darkening the reader's moral judgment had to be eschewed by him. In the apostrophe to the “superbi cristian,” Dante redefines form in rigorously ethical terms: “formar" and “formazion” imply that form cannot designate a fixed and self-enclosed totality; it epitomizes, on the contrarv, an ongoing process of spiritual unfolding, an emblem of a constant and gradual movement to be pertected when the soul reaches the “giustizia senza schermi." It is, in effect, only after this detour on the ethical value of form that Dante returns to the narrative and clearly discerns the distorted shapes of the penitents which he likens to the classical caryatids, the figures that lend support to ceilings.
Come per sostentar solaio o tetto,
per mensola talvolta una figura
si vede giugner le ginocchia al petto,
la qual fa del non ver vera rancura
nascere ‘n chi la vede; così fatti
vid' io color, quando puosi ben cura.
(As for corbel to support a ceiling or a root, sometimes a figure is seen to join the knees to the breast which, though unreal, begets real distress in him that sees it, so fashioned did I see these when I gave good heed.)
The force of the simile is extraordinary: in literal terms, it resumes and extends the iconographic metaphorics which sustain the vault of the canto; it hints at the same time, by comparing the low-lying souls with the figures set on high, at those souls’ askesis; it implies that, like corbels supporting a roof, the sinners' suffering is no gratuitous esthetic decoration, but is functional to their redemption; it renders exactly the patient appearance of the penitents. From Buti to Sapegno, critics have remarked on the realism of the simile, but have neglected the complications of the term “figura'’: for the caryatid is literally a fictura, a mere fictional surface devoid of depth and, for all its materiality, is an empty stone, an image of “non ver." In the address to the reader, the appearance was a potentially misleading illusion, a contingent condition distracting the mind from the inner truth of the appearance, the forma perfectior which awaits the sinners; now, the simile, which ostensibly denotes the ultimate unreality of the “forma del martire”, reverses the terms: it gives substantiality to the fictional appearance and is not itself directed toward a meaning to be eventually disclosed. More important, however hollow the outside surface may be, it cannot be bypassed and, actually, it begets a real pathos which resists and is possi bly foreign to facile transpositions to a detinite moral sense.
By so doing, Dante insinuates the oblique and shadowy path of metaphoric language in which truth and fiction have a simultaneous existence and the presumed unity of sign and meaning is shattered. He decidedly obliterates, in other words, the distinction between allegory ot poets and allegory of theologians conventionally based on the fictive or nonfictive status of the literal sense, and in effect, he absorbs what is radically new in Aquinas’ hermeneutics. Aquinas knew well that because of figurative language, the road of understanding is nota priori certain and that the very foundation of scriptural meaning could be sapped by the presence of metaphors. He short-circuits the impasse by claiming that we should interpret the semantic doubleness of metaphors and bring to a closure the displacements of meaning from the perspective of the Divine Author. It is from this same awareness that Dante's sense ot the necessity of interpretation derives. Because literary language is engulfed in duplicity, whereby things are not what they appear and images are seductive traps, Dante interprets the neoplatonic allegory from a definite theological standpoint; at the same time, the reader is overtly urged to transcend the contingent and deceptive forms and see the penitents from the endpoint of the temporal sequence. The lines, “pensa la succession; pensa ch'al peggio / oltre la gran sentenza non può ire”, refer precisely to the Day of Judgment, the apocalyptic time when the drama ot history reaches its denouement and no rupture will exist between appearance and reality.
The emphasis on the “end” is possibly the most Augustinian trait in Dante's poetics. In St. Augustine's cpisremology, signs and their meanings never coincide and it is in the silent space of the end, when the articulation of the syllables of a text, a life, and history is over, that meaning surfaces. The present has no space and, as he writes in the famous passage in book XI of the Confessions, understanding has necessarily a retrospective structure:
Suppose I am about to recite a psalm which I know. Before I begin, my éxpectation [or “looking forward"] is extended over the whole psalm. But once I have begun, whatever I pluck off from it and let fall into the past enters the province of my memory [or “looking back at]. So the life of this action of mine is extended in rwo directions - toward my memory, as regards what I have recited, and toward my expectation, as regards what I am about to recite... And as I proceed further and further with my recitation, so the expectation grows shorter and the memory grows longer, until all the expectation is tinished at the point when the whole of this action is over and has passed into the memory. And what is true of the whole psalm is also true of every part of the psalm and of every syllable in it. The same holds good tor any longer action, of which the psalm may be a part. It is true also ot the whole of a man's life, of which all of his actions are parts. And it is true of the whole history of humamity, of which the lives of men are parts.
Critics have variously spoken of the “typology of death" in the Divine Comedy, and have given a special importance to the end as the point where the temporal dislocation of meaning ceases and in retrospect the sense of one's life emerges in its immutable essence.
This notion of the end, it has been maintained, structures i the very movement of the poem. The poet writes from the point of view of a self that has reached selt-understanding in God and looks back in memory to recount the stages of the pilgrim's painful itinerary to God. In this sense, the vision of God's book in Paradiso XXXIII is the solid ground, the substance on which the poet's authority rests; and it is the point where the linear quest of the pilgrim ends, bends into a circle and its metaphoric narrative starts. This dramatic strategy accounts for the double focus of the poem as it is conventionally understood: as a story of a conversion that the poem tells, the poet knows more than the pilgrim does and the text is seen to enact an extended series ot palinodes, a systematic discharging of convictions and beliefs the pilgrim once held while the text is an experience which in itself is outside of error.
The critical fruitfulness of this notion of the end and its concomitant view of conversion has been such that one hesitates to reexamine and probe its limits. Yet, it can be shown that this image of reassuring coherence that the text overtly displays is unsettled at its very core. For in the Divine Comedy writing is not a pure act ot recollection ot the pilgrim's past experience or a metaphoric version of that past. It is, rather, an interpretative quest which throws into question the poet's voice of authority and the stability of his standpoint. To illustrate briefly this point let us look at Inferno xxv where the poet qua poet starts the gruesome description of the thieves metamorphosed into snakes and breaks out into a poetic challenge to the poets of the pagan past.
Taccia Lucano omai lì dov' e' tocca
del misero Sabello e di Nasidio,
e attenda a udir quel ch'or si scocca.
Taccia di Cadmo e d'Aretusa Ovidio,
ché se quello in serpente è quella in fonte
converte poetando, io non l'invidio
(Let Lucan from this moment on be silent, where he tells of wretched Sabellus and of Nasidius, and wait to hear that which now is uttered. Let Ovid be silent concerning Cadmus and Arethusa, for if, poetizing, he converts one into a snake and the other into a fountain, I envy him not.)
By this hybristic apostrophe (an extension of the taceat or cedat nunc rhetorical motif) Dante crushes any lingering impression that the limbo of poets, among whom he met both Ovid and Lucan, is an imaginative oasis where poets are engaged in serene conversation. More to the point, the apostrophe marks a dramatic and hidden discrepancy between the pilgrim's descent into humility and the poet's voice of pride. As the poet lapses into pride, he insinuates that he is caught in a precariousness which both undermines any claim of the poet, who has reached a synoptic view of reality, to a privileged position, and negates the notion that.the poem is simply an ‘‘essemplo," a moral and ironic fable in which time is the ironic principle of knowledge.
One cannot dismiss the scene simply as an imaginative experience bound to Hell: on the contrary, much like the paradigmatic canto of Ulysses, which follows this act of hybris and which to a large extent is occasioned by it, the scene isa warning that the poem, in spite of its doctrine and its subtle moral distinctions, has no quick moral substance that the reader can extract. Writing is an act fraught with threats and temptattons in the same way that the journey of the pilgrim was, and the text describes more than a temporal movement from the partial, fragmented knowledge of the pilgrim to the poet's total view at the end. The poem is actually openended, with the poet away from his promised land and still in exile.
If the journey of writing has not an end where all its promises are fulfilled, how does the poem come to an end? What is the exile with which poetry seems to be synonymous? We must provisionally single out as having a special, revelatory function the ending of the poem, the point which is conventionally given special importance, because it is there that the sense of the poem lies. Quite explicitly, in Paradiso xxxm, the focus of attention is the mighty effort to bring the poem to a closure and sanction it as a totality. The canto is articulated along a metaphoric pattern of gathering and closing, which, though it has gone unnoticed by critics, is of paramount importance to Dante's poetic strategy. The canto opens with St. Bernard's prayer to the Virgin, who is still point in the chain of mediations to God. Through her, the hierarchical order of the universe reverses into paradoxes, and her womb appears, in the tradition of St. Bernard's own commentary on the Song of Songs, as the sacred space, the Hortus conclusus in which Christ, the flower, has spontaneously blossomed. More fundamentally, the anaphoric sequence on which the prayer is articulated insists on the Virgin as the fixed point to which all things return, the enclosure of salvation history, “In te misericordia, in te pietate, / in te magnificenza, in te s'aduna / quantunque in creatura è di bontate” (II. 19-21).
The metaphorics ofingathering and closure are explicitly recalled both at the point where the poet defines the supreme light as that in which the good “tutto s'accoglie in lei” (I. 104) and where the pilgrim looks into the universal form of the knot, the holy center that sustains and binds the scattered multiplicity of the world.
Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l'universo si squaderna:
sustanze e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch'i’ dico è un semplice lume.
La forma universal di questo nodo
credo ch'i’ vidi, perchè più di largo,
dicendo questo, mi sento ch'i' godo.
(In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe: substances and accidents and their relations, as though fused together in such a way that what I tell is but a simple light. The universal form of this knot I believe that I saw, because, in telling this, | feel my joy increase.)
The metaphor faintly recalls Ezckiel's vision of the book, “and behold, a hand was sent to me, wherein was a book rolled up, and he spread it before me, and it was written within and without,” which Aquinas glosses as “liber involutus ornatu verborum... Est etiam involutus profunditate mysteriorum.” The pilgrim stands and gains access to the love that binds the book together, the Author, who, according to the definition Dante gives in Convivio, chains words together. In book IV, chapter vi, Dante defines “authority" as follows:
We must know, then, that authority is nothing else than an act of an author. This word [that is autore and without its third letter c] may have two origins: one from a verb quite fallen into disuse in grammar which means to link words together, namely AUIEO (“che significa tanto quanto ‘legare parole,’ cioè auieo”). And anyone who considers it in its first voice will plainly sce that it demonstrates itself, that it is made entirely of the links of words, that is of the five vowels alone which are the soul and connecting links ot every word; and is composed of them in a way that may be varied to represent the image of a link (“che solo di legame di parole è fatto, cioè di sole cinque vocali, che sono anima e legame d'ogni parole, e composto d'esse per modo volubile, a figurare imagine di legame"). Because beginning with A we then turn back into U and come directly by I into E, whence we turn again to the O; so that this figure of a link really represents the vowels aciou. And how far “author” comes from this verb we learn only from the poets, who have linked their words together with musical art.
In the context of Convivio, this is the significance that Dante leaves behind in favor of philosophical authority in the sense of “autentin," that which is worthy of faith. Here in Paradiso, the notion of God the Poet and Author, “Alfa” and “O (Paradiso XXVI, I. 17) is retrieved to seal, as it were, by the authority and power of the Logos the poet's words.
St. Bernard's prayer culminates with a reference to the saints, who, interceding that the final vision may be granted to the pilgrim, emblematically ‘‘chiudon le mani” (I. 39). The prayer also requests that the fog of the flesh may be dispelled from the pilgrim, “… tutti miei prieghi / ti porgo, e priego che non sieno scarsi, / perchè tu ogne nube li disleghi / di sua mortalità co' prieghi tuoi” (II. 29-30). The phrase, “ogne nube li disleghi di sua mortalità" partially translates ‘‘dissice terrenae nebulas et pondera molis” from the famous ninth hymn of the third book of De Consolatione Philosophiae. The context that surrounds the line is immediately relevant, I would like to propose, to the thematics of Paradiso XXXIII. In strictly neoplatonic language, Boethius addresses the Creator as “Tu numeris elementa ligas” and celebrates the order of creation held together by ‘‘sure knots which nothing can untie”; in this context, the prayer that the earthly weight may be cast off is for him, as well as for Dante, the condition which allows man to be part of the harmonious whole of the universe. But Dante, unlike the neoplatonists, also insists that man cannot measure the design of creation: by an oblique recall of the metaphors of enclosure, he describes the vision of the Trinity as three circles of three colors and one magnitude, each circle reflecting the other (II. 116-9). The pilgrim seems to see the circling depicted “de la nostra effige” (I. 131), but he, like rhe geometer who cannot square the circle, cannot find the principle and the point at which the image is conformed to the circle (II. 133-8), The allusion to the geometer, etymologically the earth measurer who tries to establish boundaries and the shape of space, implies that the mathematical representation of nature does not give an exact knowledge and is thwarted by an elusive surd. The final vision is granted to the pilgrim by a special grace whereby the mind is smitten by a flash and joins the whirling spheres revolving concentrically around the Prime Mover.
These images of binding, gathering, and untying are the thematic scaffolds which dramatize the perfection of the cosmos and within which the poet attempts to recollect and enclose all he has seen within the intelligibility of his language. Memory is the crucial metaphor for this process of gathering. For Augustine, who ponders the problem ot memory in order to find God's traces in it, memory is the “belly of the mind," “a large and boundless chamber” which contains ‘reasons and laws innumerable of numbers,” the affections of the mind and the ‘‘treasures of innumerable images.” Experiences glide into its deeper recesses and to think means to collect the images out of their dispersion ("ex quadam dispersione colligenda”) and rearrange them in the memory. More explicitly, as Hugh of St. Victor explores the didactic function of memory, he defines it as an act of gathering.
I do not think one should tail to say here that just as aptitude investigates and discovers through analysis, so memory retains by gathering. The things which we have analysed in the course of learning and we must commit to memory we ought, therefore, to gather. Now “gathering'' is reducing to a brief and compendious outline which has been written or discussed ar some length [... Memoria colligendo custodit. Oportet ergo ut quae discendo divisimus commendando memoriae ea colligamus. Colligere est ea de quibus prolixius vel scriptum vel disputatum est ad brevem quamdam et compendiosam summam redigere]. The ancients called such an outline an ‘‘epilogue,” that is, a short restatement, by headings, of things already said... The fountainhead is one, but its derivative streams are many: why follow the windings of the latter? Lay hold upon the source and you have the whole thing. I say this because the memory of man is dull and likes brevity, and, if it is dissipated in many things, it has less to bestow upon each of them. We ought, therefore, in all that we learn gather brief and dependable abstracts to be stored in the little chest of memory, so that later on, when need arises, we can derive everything else from them…
The importance of mnemonic devices and techniques for Hugh's theory of learning is the very principle of structure in Dante's literary works. The Vita nuova is openly acknowledged as a book of memory. Its exordium states that in that part of the “libro de la mia memoria dinanzi a la quale poco si potrebbe leggere, si trova una rubrica la quale dice: Incipit Vita Nova,” and that the poet's intention is to “assemplare,” to copy and edit into a little book the essential meaning (the ‘’sentenzia’’) of the larger book of memory. In this autobiographical account, memory gives itself as the paradigm which grounds the representation not in a fine fabling (‘parlare fabuloso'"), but in the poets personal history.
The Divine Comedy is also a book of memory. In the protasis of Infemo, the invocation of the Muses “O muse, o alto ingegno, or m’ aiutate; / o mente che scrivesti ciò ch'io vidi, / qui si parrà la tua nobilitate" (Inferno II, II. 7-9), casts memory as the custodian of the pilgrim’s vision and the metaphor which scans the untolding of the poem. In Paradiso xxm, while the poet has no remembrance of the spectacle of Christ's trumph, he cannot efface from the book that records the past (“non si stingue / del libro che ’l preterito rassegna,” II. 53-4) Beatrice's proffer that he open his eyes and look on her.
We cannot minimize, in effect, the poet"s intense effort to remember in Paradiso XXXIII: repeatedly the poet asks the “somma luce" to relend to his mind "un poco di quel che parevi'” (I. 69) for “per tornare alquanto a mia memoria / e per sonare un poco in questi versi, / più si conceperà di tua vittoria" (II. 73-5). And he registers both the memory of his boldness in sustaining with his gaze the keenness of the living ray (II. 76-81) and the faint recollection of the light in which all the good is gathered (Il. 99-108). We cannot minimize the importance of the memorative effort because it implies more than simply a nostalgia for the original epiphany. It brings into focus, rather, the poet's desire to give his language a referential stability, to found the traces and signs of memory in the substance of God's vision. It is from the standpoint ot this remembered final vision that the author can be led to a retrospective unification of his experience and the reader to a critical decipherment of the work.
But memory, conventionally the mother of the Muses and a priviledged metaphor because through it the images of the past survive and are given a renewed presence, fails the poet. lt fails primarily because it cannot duplicate the world of reality. Dante, actually, entertains no naive illusion about the power of memory to recover the past in its immediacy. As the oculus imaginationis, which is its standard definition, memory preserves only images and phantasms and always lags behind the experience it attempts to represent. In Paradiso I, while the poet states his theme to be what memory has treasured up (II. 10-11), he also acknowledges that memory cannot follow the movement of the intellect, ‘’che dietro la memoria “non può ire" (I.9). Memory is a metaphor of time in the most profound sense of the term: it tries to recover the past and safeguard it from oblivion; by the same token, it marks the temporal distance between reality and its image and makes the text a pure representation, not in the sense of a mimesis, but in the sense of an interpretation, just as in the Vita nuova, of the experience it attempts to renew. This interpretation has no absolute validity because memory is endangered by forgetfulness.
Statements of forgetfulness abound in Paradiso XXXIII: “Da quinci innanzi il mio veder fu maggio / che ‘| parlar mostra, ch'a tal vista cede, / e cede la memoria a tanto oltraggio” (Il. 55-7); the single moment of vision, we are told, is shrouded in more oblivion than ‘venticinque secoli a la 'mpresa / che fè Nettuno ammirar l'ombra d'Argo" (II. 94-6); the poet's speech falls shorter, ‘pur a quel ch'io ricordo, than that ot an infant still bathing his tongue at the breast (II. 106-8). In a sense, this oblivion is as important as the act of remembrance. For by forgetting the final vision Dante gives what is forgotten a unique and unrepeatable presence and preserves it intact and inviolate. Yet, the logical implications of forgetting are such that it releases the presence it supposedly guards into a fundamental paradox. To forget means that the past is kept hidden and concealed, it reveals what is hidden. At the same time, forgetting suggests the corruption and unreliability of memory, opens up a gap in the book of memory. Memory, the exercise by which the vision reappears from what has not been concealed and which gathers the fragments out of their dispersion, is laid open and scattered into the shapelessness of oblivion.
e cede la memoria a tanto oltraggio.
Qual è colui che sognando vede,
che dopo ‘l sogno la passione impressa
rimane, e l'altro a la mente non riede,
cotal son io, chè quasi tutta cessa
mia visione, e ancora mi distilla
nel core il dolce che nacque da essa.
Così la neve al sol si disigilla;
così al vento ne le foglie levi
si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.
(And at such excess memory fails. As is he who dreaming sees, and atter the dream the passion remains imprinted and the rest returns not to the mind; such am I, for my vision almost wholly fades away, yet the sweetness that was born ot it still drops within my heart. Thus is the snow unsealed by the sun; thus in the wind, on the light leaves, the Sybil's sentence was lost.)
In fiagrant contrast to the metaphors of gathering and closure which pervade the doctrinal substance of the canto, we are confronted here with a double image of opening and dispersion, the unsealing of the snow in the sun and the scattering of the Sybil's leaves when the door of her cave is opened. Since the thematic burden of the passage is forgetfulness, it is possible to understand the two images as an explicit reversal of commonplace definitions of memory. From Aristotle on to medieval theorists, the impressions on memory are conventionally described as analogous to the imprinting on waxed tablets and to the permanent marks of a seal on wax; at the same time, the scattering of leaves in the Sybil's cave turns around the view held by Augustine that memory is the dark cave where images are stored to be gathered ‘‘ex quadam dispersione'' by an act of thought. But beyond these reversals by which Dante insinuates a breach in the book of memory, the word "disigilla’’ has another important resonance. The sigillum marks the act of creation; the process of imposing a form and sealing it with authority: ‘‘disigilla," thus, traces the distance between the book of the gathering Logos and the dispersion and openness of the poet's book of memory; it stresses Dante's technique of giving up the myth of the poet as Autore who binds and is conspicuously in charge ot his creation and who, like the Creator, shapes a self-sufficient closed form.
His text, actually, originates from the confusion and fragmentation of a blotted memory, the only lingering trace ot which is the impression of swecetness in the heart. It ought to be remarked that the phrase ‘ancora mi distilla nel core il dolce che nacque da essa gives the thematic movement of the poem an unmistakable dramatic coherence. In Inferno I, the poem starts by recording the sense of bitterness of the pilgrim lost in the dark wood (“Tant'è amara che poco è più morte," I. 7), and the fear which “nel lago del cor m'era durata" (I. 20). In Paradiso XXXIII, the heart is the receptacle where swceetness is distilled and gathered. Ostensibly, the poem maps a linear movement which consists in the purification of the affections, troubled by sin in the plight of Hell but now experiencing joy after the final vision. The phrase, in effect, is introduced to suggest that the text is what is left over from the vision - as if the text, unable to sustain the visionary burden in its totality, still shares in the original emotion: by what is possibly a pun on the etymology of “ricordo," the “core’' preserves a tàint memory ot the vision.
But this memory is encased in oblivion. Paradiso XXX, from this point of view, gives a sustained interplay of memory and forgetfulness which symmetrically echoes the one in Purgatorio XXXIII. In Purgatorio we witness the pilgrim’s immersion first into Lethe, which induces a cathartic oblivion of his sinful past, then into Eunoe which revives his weakened faculty. The cleansing ritually prepares the pilgrim to enter the domain of the blessed and, in this sense, it dramatizes the moral import of memory, its central role in the spiritual askesis of the pilgrim. Memory and forgetfulness are coextensive in his moral progress; they implicate and complement cach other: the two rivers, we aro explicitly told, issue from the same spring, ‘‘dinanzi ad esse Eufratès e Tigri / veder mi parve uscir d'una fontana, / e, quasi amici, dipartirsi pigri" (II. 112-4). In Pafudiso XXX Dante's language oscillates between efforts to remember and statements of oblivion which are st multaneously applied, not to the moral experience ot the pil grim, but to the constitution ot the text.
This means that for Dante memory is not the only starting point by which his poetic account is determined and projected, but that the outer layers of memory are blurred by forgetfulness. To say that the matrix of the text is the interplay ot memory and forgettulness is also to imply that memory is always a forgetful memory, permeated by error and forever telling the story of a representation punctuated by absences and gaps which both reveal and hide its significance. There is a special aptness, it should be remarked, in the metaphoric bond that Dante suggests between memory and the revelatory power of dreams. In a sense, he restates the traditional link between memory and the imagination. Like memory, imagination is the world of phantoms deprived of substantiality and arises when its contacts with reality are precarious and uncertain. The famous apostrophe to, and exploration of, the ‘‘imaginativa,'' the image-receiving taculty, in the very center of the poem (Purgatorio XVII, ll. 13-45) is introduced by an appeal to the readers’ memory which evokes a landscape of half light perccived as if through a thick mist dissipated by the feeble rays of the setting sun (II. 1-11). This half light mediates between the blinding cloud of smoke in the preceding circle of wrath and the revelation that the eye of the imagination produces. The ‘‘imaginativa’’ does not stem from the impressions of the senses; it descends directly from God who grants to the ‘alta fantasia" (I. 25) three images of punished wrath, which disappear “come si frange il sonno ove di butto / nova luce percuote il viso chiuso" (II. 40-1).
In Paradiso XXX, the content of the vision remains an undeciphered enigma, and as the poet remembers that yet “mi distilla / nel core il dolce che nacque da essa," he casts himself as a writer of glosses. The phrase, I submit, closely echoes a stylized definition of the tropological intelligence of Scripture. In the mystical tradition of biblical exegesis, which owes a great deal to St. Bernard's homilies on the Song of Songs, the tropological level was referred to as a honeycomb, “favus distillat quia quanta dulcedo sapientiae in corde lateat." This was a floating formula which had variations such as “qualia mella sacri favus distillat eloquii” and which is often crystallized in the expression "'stillat dulcedo.'' As the poet registers the sediment of memory, in itself an interpretative process, the sediment constitutes the poet as a reader of God's book. The hint of the poet as interpreter is countered by the allusion to the loss of the ‘’sentenza di Sibilla." The term ‘sentenza,’ which Dante employs in the Vita nuova to indicate the allegorical substance extrapolated from the book of memory and in Paradiso IV to describe the allegorical sense of Plato's myth ot the return of the souls to the stars, calls attention to the poet's interpretative operation. But the “sentenza" is lost and the metaphor of the scattering of the Sybil's leaves, actually, discloses the impossibility of reading and interpreting. In the third book of the Aeneid, widely acknowledged as the source of the image, Helenus describes to Aeneas the leaves with signs and dark symbols which flutter in the rocky cave of the Sybil when its door opens, and which cannot be read: the oracle remains undeciphered and the questers who consult the prophetess depart uncounseled, ‘’inconsulti abeunt sedemque odere Sybillae" (I. 452). Even in the Aeneid Aeneas' vision of the future of his own life and Roman history, under the guidance ot the Sybil, ends on a note that ironically undercuts the substantiality of his vision. The House of Sleep, we are told, has two gates: one is ofivory and it gives exit to delusions and false dreams; the other is of horn and through it pass true shades. After leading Aeneas over every scene of his future, Anchises dismisses the Sybil and his son through the gate of polished ivory (Aeneid VI, II, 893-901). Just as in the Aeneid, there is no univocal truth in the vision at the end of the Divine Comedy. There is only an interpretation countered by the presence of a concealed and impenetrabile message and both together dramatize what might be called the marginality of the text to the Logos.
It is possible to view this marginality of the poet’s language, the spcechlessness that threatens its articulation (II. 106-8), as the consequence of a moral choice: the choice, that is, to stop on the threshold of profanation, the poet's humble withdrawal into silent listening before the ineffable presence of God. More to the point, this marginality discloses the errors of metaphoric language, its attempt and inability to achieve an absolute self-identity and recover tull sense. No poet, it must be added, attributes more import to error than Dante. As I have shown in the discussion of Ulysses, the paradigm of the erratic voyager, Dante gives error an epic status and makes it the other name of the quest. In the case of Ulysses, error is madness, a radical mistaking of words tor things; in Paradiso XXXIII, it designates the poet's suspension in a world of forgetful memory and shifty impressions, of a truth found and another one lost, ot metaphors that bear simultaneously a likeness and unlikeness to the reality they represent.
These ambiguities of metaphor account for and engender the possibility of a double reading of the poem. The Divine Comedy overtly tells the story of the pilgrim's progress from the sinful state of the ‘‘selva oscura" to the beatific vision of Paradiso XXXIII. From this point of view, Dante dramatizes the spiritual conversion of the self'and envisions the providential order of history and the cosmos as a significant rotality. Critics have correctly pointed out that this is a rheological allegory, for the poem presents itself as reflecting and sharing in man's pilgrimage to God. It is a text, that is, which belongs to a redeemed order and which shifts its modes of representation, the wisio corporalis, spiritualis and intellectualis, according to the order of reality it renders. But the poem undercuts, and recoils from, this prominent pattern of clear and distinct order. It also tells the story of the persistent ambiguity of metaphoric language in which everything is perpetually fragmented and irreducible to any unification. Alongside the presence of a representation adequate to its spiritual reality, the poem repeatedly dramatizes a world of dissemblance, empty forms and illusory appcarances which the poet repeatedly demystifies but to which the poem is irrevocably bound. In this sense, the poem always places us in the land of unlikeness of Inferno I; it reverses the conventional hierarchy of the pilgrim's distorted vision transcended by the poet's synoptic view and, more generally, it shows that poetry is at odds with its own explicit statement.
There is an important understanding, after all, in Croce's notion of the rupture at the heart ot the text and in Auerbach's hesitant conclusion that Dante disrupts the order he creates. These insights are valid, to be sure, only if they are read against the possible intentions of their conceivers - the assumptions, respectively, that the rupture depends on the shortcomings of allegory or on the belief that the ironic movement of history consumes and empties of its sense every literary text. This disruption cannot be accounted for by extrinsic categories of a critic's taste or philosophical bias. It is the very sinew of the text and a consistent and controlled strategy by which Dante turns every statement into an interrogative sentence, reopens questions that seem settled once and for all, asserts the authority of his voice and also knows how fragile the claim to authority can be. It is a banality to say that a reader is a poet's invention; yet, in the case of Dante, one truly feels inescapably caught in the web of his design. The reader is confronted in the Divine Comedy with the possi bility of two opposed readings which do not deconstruct and cancel each other out, but are simultancously present and always involve each other.
Allegory describes the process by which the reader (and this, it might be added, is the empirical reality of existing criticism) decides whether the metaphor of the pilgrim's ascent to God is an illusory fiction or has the weight ot a truth guaranteed by God; whether the sweetness that distills in the heart is the spiritual joy released by Scripture or simply a variant of that other sweetness which "ancor dentro mi suona" (Purgatorio II, I. 114), the esthetic snare of Casella's song. That decision, like Augustine's view of meaning which lies at the end of the temporal articulation of language, places us outside of the text and to decide means that something is always left out, that the poem, bound to a world of representation made of absence and presence, has no simple truth to give; it tells us that the truth of representation is allied to the possibility of error, and the two are undecidable, that the language of man always prevaricates, follows a crooked path and cannot snatch the secrets that lie deep in a dark cave. In this sense, the Divine Comedy is a text that transgresses the very possibility of “being read." But Dante has a way of turning this limit and error of language into a value: the veiled signs ot the quest force us to interpret and decipher; to seek the truth for a truth which is given becomes valuable only when it is found and, in one word, produced.
For Dante production and work are the true essence of art. In Purgatorio X, God is the “fabbro” (I. 99), who “produsse esto visible parlare” (I. 95); in Purgatorio XXI the Aeneid is the embodiment of fecundity, “mamma ...o... nutrice" (II. 97-8). In Inferno XI, while Vergil explains to the pilgrim the sin of usury, he goes into an elaborate and essentially scholastic definition of art as production. Usury is a mockery of poiesis, a parasitic gain obtained in violation ot the productive processes of nature and human industry (‘‘e perchè l'usuriere altra via tene, / per sè natura, e per la sua seguace / dispregia, poi ch' in altro pon la spene," II. 109-11). Art, a virtue of the practical intellect, belongs in the order of making: it is God's grandchild, for it follows nature which in turn follows the supreme Artifex. If the language of filiation (I. 105) clearly implies that art imitates the productivity of nature, the allusion to Genesis (Il. 106-8), where man is told to tend the Garden and to cat bread by the sweat of his face, makes work of art. This metaphor of work, the principal metaphor of history as I have shown in chapter 4, discloses the rime of need and places us in the desert where art is needed to transform the desert into a garden.
To be a reader is to be in the desert of exile or, as the Fathers ot the Church understood it, to undertake a journey in a foreign land. The Bible is commonly seen to be like the world, a deep forest and a labyrinth, an “infinita sensuum silva.'' These patristic commonplaces, to be sure, are caused by Scripture's wondrous depth; yet, cxegetes like Honorius of Autun and Hugh of St. Victor go into a literal identification of reading as exile. In the Didascalicon, which is a treatise on the art of reading, Hugh devotes a paragraph to De Exsilio and writes:
Finally, a foreign soil is proposed, since it, too, gives a man practice. All the world is a foreign soil to those who philosophize. However, as a certain poet says: “I know not by what sweetness native soil attracts a man / and suffers not that he should ever forget." It is, therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his. From boyhood I have dwelt on foreign soil, and I know with what grief sometimes the mind takes leave of the narrow hearth of a peasant's hut, and I know, too, how frankly it afterwards disdains marble firesides and panelled halls.
The allusions to the poetry of Ovid, where exile is turned into a nostalgia for a homecoming, sharpens Hugh's view of the exile of reading as a turning away from the traps of literature and its precious metaphors. To him, as he says elsewhere, ‘all the world is a foreign soil to those whose native land should be heaven... Therefore comes a ‘time for scattering stones’ (Ecclesiastes 3:5), so that man may see he has no stable dwelling here and may get used to withdrawing his mind and freeing it from the chains of carthly pleasures.'' This motif of the exile's longing for the homeland is explicitly thematized in Purgatorio, but Dante, unlike Hugh or Aquinas for that matter, does not think of poetry as a mere appendix artimum: it is the ground of exile where questions that seem settled once and for all are rethought in their original problematical character; it is the imaginative area where faith is exposed to the possibility ot faithlessness and error; it figures a radical displacement where memory is shifty and any univocal meaning is elusive and itselt exiled. In this condition, one must be willing to take hints, follow leads, surrender to encounters, as the pilgrim does in Inferno I, where he confusedly perceives “ombra od omo certo” (I. 66), and always be alert to the possibility that every garden may hide a snake, every definitive answer may be a mirage. One must be a restless nomad, like the poet, till the end comes. In this sense, it makes little difference whether we speak of Dante's poetry as fiction or truth, a secular or theological endeavor. Dante abolishes the boundaries between theology and poetry and carves a metaphoric space of dispersion where exiles seek and work.
Later on in the history of poetic forms a counter tendency develops. We reach with Petrarch the historical moment when Humanism forges its own simulacra and erects its own monuments. Petrarch gathers his three hundred and sixty-six fragments into a florilegiwm, the ephemeral leaves into a flower. But this unity is fictive and illusory and, as I shall show in the following chapter, from Dante's viewpoint this faith in the self is a work of madness. The flower's name is Narcissus.