Bypassing the Bible. New Approaches to Dante's Allegory - [Marguerite Mills Chiarenza]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Marguerite Mills Chiarenza

Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society

Numeero: 93

Anno: 1975

Pagine: 215-221

Almost twenty years ago Charles Singleton put forth the theory that, in Dante's own terminology, the Divine Comedy was better understood as an allegory of theologians than as an allegory of poets. His theory proved to be a milestone in the history of Dante criticism, provoking a whole trend of works aimed at clarifying the Comedy's relation to certain aspects of medieval theology. At the same time, historians of theology have revolutionized scholarly understanding of the scope of medieval Biblical exegesis and their theories have nourished the works of those critics who now assume as their premise that the structure of Dante's poem is ultimately derived from Biblical allegory. While this school has produced what is probably the most penetrating criticism ever done on the Divine Comedy, it has also so dominated the field of Dante studies that reaction to a potential monopoly is to be expected. It is, in fact, with polemic intentions that David Thompson takes the very straightforward position that a work of literature is most logically placed in a literary tradition. Although recent critics have felt this to be impossible in the case of the Divine Comedy, he believes that he can define a type of allegory which would disprove the claim of Dante's being unique and thereby clarify "where Dante stands in the European literary tradition."
Thompson would like to direct his readers' attention away from the Bible and medieval Biblical exegesis and back to the epic journeys of Ulysses and Aeneas as more obvious models for the pilgrim's allegorical journey. But, as he rightly maintains, these models must be considered within the allegorizing tradition which viewed Ulysses and Aeneas as heroes engaged in physical journeys representing the Platonic progress of the soul toward perfection. With this tradition as his premise Thompson argues his two main points: the allegorized A eneid, not the Bible, is Dante's literary model and the story of Ulysses' voyage in Inferno xxvi represents simulta- neously a purposeful deviation from the classical tradition and a deviation, of the character, from the path observed by Aeneas as he is echoed in the Comedy.
Thompson's analysis of Ulysses allows us to recognize more clearly than we had before that Inferno xxvi is not simply the account of the misfortunes of one of the damned souls, but primarily the account of the model of a voyage the pilgrim might have taken. As such it both clarifies the alternative voyage the pilgrim does take and constitutes an essential moment in the poet's "confession" (one of Thompson's most important suggestions is that Ulysses' voyage reflects the poet's previous attempt, in the Convivio, to reach his goal through philosophy). Such an interpretation of the Ulysses episode is especially welcome in that it renders obsolete the worn out controversy over whether or not Ulysses is to be considered guilty of his voyage. It becomes clear in fact that his role in the Comedy greatly overshadows his placement in Hell. Like Jason, he is both a character and an emblem and, as an emblem, he is not subject to moral categories nor is his relevance limited to the context of Hell. Ulysses' voyage is the reminder of what the pilgrim success- fully avoided when he followed Virgil in the spiritual footsteps of Aeneas.
Thompson's reading of Inferno xxvi is both penetrating and sound but, while it is very convincing as a clarification of the the- matic importance the epic voyages have in the Comedy, it also gives rise to some questions about the theory that these voyages consti- tute the model for the pilgrim's. As he appears in the poem Aeneas is not really a Platonic hero at all, he is a hero of Providence. At the same time, despite the geographical distortion of Ulysses' journey, it is he who emerges more Platonically as a hero who progresses from knowledge and rejection of his physical limitations to the attempt to break free from them. If the Platonic allegorizing tradi- tion is indeed behind Dante's representation, is he not rejecting it in some form? And does this not require us to qualify radically our definition of his relation to such a tradition? The issue can be evaded by pointing out that a poet can appropriately be inserted into a tradition from which he deviates ideologically (indeed his deviation can be seen as proof of the tradition's relevance), but I think it better to see the ambiguity of Thompson's argument as reflecting an important ambiguity of the poem with which he is dealing.
Thompson has more understanding of than tolerance for the school of criticism which has redeemed the role played by theology in the poetics of the Divine Comedy. He is fundamentally inspired by a kind of crusade to reinsert Dante in a literary tradition because he feels that the literary nature of the poem has been underplayed by the best modern critics. The problem is actually much more than an argument between critics about where emphasis is best placed. In fact, Dante is unremittingly both a poet and a Christian. As God's scribe it would seem that a poet might very well be a Chris- tian as well, or better, first a Christian and then a poet. However, the poetic tradition to which Dante owed allegiance is not Christian and his allegiance to it, like the Christian faith, is a premise of the poem. The relation of poetry to faith, in the Divine Comedy, is not easily defined. On the one hand, the poet's art is unequivocally sub- servient to his Christian message while, on the other, the role of poets and poetry preserves, throughout the poem, an unexpected autonomy which allows Dante, in the Paradiso, to give some ut- terance to that which Saint Paul kept silent.
A glaring example of this is found in Purgatorio vi. The pilgrim is confronted by a seeming contradiction between a verse in the Aeneid and the Church's teaching on the value of prayers for the souls in Purgatory:

…E' par che tu mi nieghi,
o luce mia, espresso in alcun testo,
che decreto del ciel orazion pieghi;
e questa gente prega pur di questo:
sarebbe dunque loro speme vana,
o non m'e il detto tuo ben manifesto?
(vv. 28-33)

This is an astonishing situation. Why does the pilgrim not simply dismiss the pagan text which seems to conflict with Church teaching? It does not help that Virgil explains to the pilgrim that he has merely failed to understand the verse in question which referred to the prayers of souls outside the state of grace. Why does this exclusion from grace not apply to the text from which the verse is taken?
It would seem that in Dante's poem the role of literature transcends the content, though not the goal, of his verses. The subject deserves attention and this attention can only be given after a scrupulous examination, by a critic who is aware of the importance of recent developments in the understanding of the theological and Biblical background of the Comedy, of Dante's position in the strictly literary tradition to which he belongs. It is in this sense that, in my view, Thompson's contribution is most valuable. He accuses Singleton and Auerbach of reading the poem in a literary vacuum while he is obviously and purposefully reading it in a theological vacuum. Perhaps in both cases the vacuum is necessary, at least for a start.
Like Thompson, John G. Demaray argues that in Dante scholarship the Biblical tradition has overshadowed another more obvious model for the pilgrim's allegorical journey. He seeks to remedy what he considers to be an unfortunate tendency of critics to overlook the wealth of available material describing medieval pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Of special importance, in his view, is the Great Circle Pilgrimage, a particularly long and holy journey which took pilgrims across the sea to Egypt, from Egypt to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem on to a climactic visit to the Eternal City. Demaray argues that this route is reflected both in the structure and in many of the particulars of the Divine Comedy and, at the same time, that there is convincing evidence, such as that contained in the last chapters of the Vita Nuova, that Dante was inspired by the practices as well as the spirit of the pilgrims of his time.
The book is so detailed in its application to the poem of what is, it must be said, a relatively neglected source that it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to agree that, in all of the passages and aspects of the Comedy Demaray deals with, the material he presents is relevant or appropriately applied. But most of the time the resemblances he points out between medieval pilgrims' descriptions of the Holy Land and certain landscapes, rituals or psychological moments portrayed in the Comedy appear undeniable. However, while Demaray's thesis that the Great Circle Pilgrimage is relevant to our reading of the Comedy is convincing, his work falls short of persua- siveness in his more theoretical positions on how it is relevant.
It is not easy to grasp Demaray's exact theory partly because certain key terms such as "figure" and "typology" are sometimes used loosely and partly because the important distinctions between the literal and the concrete, events and things, the journey and the characters encountered on the way, and the pilgrim and the poet are ignored. As I understand it, his position seems to be based on the assumption that journeys to the Holy Land and to Rome, which were actually going on in Dante's time and especially during the year of the Jubilee, must somehow be considered more literal than the impossible voyage Dante describes. This voyage has been under- stood by critics, whose theories Demaray seeks to alter, to stand for a real spiritual experience literally narrated as fulfilling the histori- cal Exodus of the Jews. The point of such criticism has been to clarify the literal level of the poem by shedding light on the relation of what is literally present (reflections of the Biblical Exodus as a model for all conversions) and the reality which is being dramatized (the poet's spiritual experience of conversion).
That the actual voyages of pilgrims of Dante's time were more concrete than the poet's conversion or more contemporary than the Jews' journey to Jerusalem only makes them more literal outside the Comedy. Within the poem, allusions to such journeys would point less directly to the spiritual significance of the original Exodus (which they imitate precisely because of that significance) than do allusions to the Biblical event itself. Furthermore, a physical journey we have no reason to believe Dante ever took is neither more real than a spiritual but believable experience nor more literal than the improbable voyage through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise he actually y describes. The similarity of Demaray's theory to that of the critics who have seen the allusions to the Exodus story as central to the poem is clear. However, the Great Circle Pilgrimage and the journey depicted in the Comedy are both, to use A. C. Charity's terminology, "subfulfilments" of the event prefigured by the Exodus of the Jews, which remains the dominating model. Medieval pilgrims' voyages and the voyage of Dante's pilgrim are too parallel to prefigure, signify, or fulfill each other.
I cannot accept, as Demaray's theory of a "double narrative" implies, that Dante's description of his voyage to the other world contains a simultaneous description of, or even a sustained direct allusion to, a concrete journey in this world. I do, of course, accept the obvious that the Dante's journey is a declared pilgrimage and as such must necessarily reflect many aspects, even crucial struc- tures, of ordinary pilgrimages. Thus, the descriptions of travels to Egypt, Jerusalem, and Rome which circulated in Dante's time are most certainly valuable as probable sources of Dante's imagery and of his descriptions. They are even inherently analogous to his narration, but the relation between those descriptions and Dante's is one of imperfect analogy. Ultimately, what the travellers of Dante's time sought to imitate is that which Dante claims his pilgrim- because his journey was to the other world- fulfilled in a unique way, not as others and not just ritualistically.
The Invention of Dante's Commedia is weak in its handling of the difficult problem of the theory of Dante's allegory, which is a disappointment since Demaray's might have been the first major work within a modern critical context to define a role played in the allegory of the Comedy by God's "other book" of Nature. Aside from this, however, it presents many good and some excellent read- ings of passages in Dante (the remarks on the Vita Nuova and the section on "internal recurrences" are particularly suggestive) and contributes validly to our knowledge of the background of the poem.
In the course of their otherwise very different projects, Thompson and Demaray both ask Dante's readers to set aside the Bible, at least temporarily, in order not to underestimate more ordinary models for Dante's allegory. Thompson suggests the literary tradition Dante followed, Demaray concrete experiences in the poet's times and the physical world in which he lived. While neither shakes our belief in the basically theological nature of Dante's allegory, both focus our attention on undeniably important aspects of the poem. Our ability to understand the Comedy as a theological allegory has been greatly heightened by the outstanding contributions recent scholarship has made to the subject of medieval Biblical allegory. Perhaps if we are to make full use of the suggestions Thompson and Demaray offer us, we should seek to obtain similar insight into the other two types of medieval allegory, the allegory of poets and the allegory of nature.

Date: 2021-12-22