Dante and modern hermeneutic thought [William Franke]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Willam Franke

Tratto da: Lectura Dantis

Numero: 12

Anno: 1993

Pagine: 34-52

The question of truth has riddled reception of Dante's poem from the beginning of a tradition of commentary as old as the poem itself. How are the truth-claims made by the poem to be taken? For a very numerous company of critics stretching from Dante's contemporaries to our own, they are typically poetic posturings, one more fine example of the art of self-staging which Dante masters to perfection. For no less imposing and persistent a constituency of interpreters, however, everything depends on recognizing that some kind of claim beyond the compass of poetic art is being made: a claim that actual historical experience or true religious vision is being reported.
Even that such issues should be raised marks the Commedia as an exceptional case among the works we study as literature in our academic curriculum. Like perhaps no other literary work, Dante's poem imposes itself as somehow more than imaginative literature, according to the usual conception, as in some way religious truth, divine revelation. We need to ask how on earth it does this. The premise of the approach to be adopted here is that insight into interpretation gained through contemporary hermeneutic philosophy and theology enables us to understand some things about Dante's poetic and interpretive procedures perhaps even better than he understood them himself.
Understood hermeneutically, in terms of a dialogue between past and present, the question of the truth of the Commedia does not concern merely a textual artefact; it interrogates the questioner and places modernity en face of a claim out of its past. Of course, it is perfectly possible to accept that a claim is being made to authentic religious revelation and nevertheless to view this as all part of a poetic pretending, a rhetorical hypothesis or hyperbole. Yet such a neutralization of the claim already entails a decision as to what is at stake and as to what kind of interest it is possible, or at least preferable, for the poetry of the Commedia to hold for us.
Can we be sure that the poem, with its Christian medieval ethos, no longer can make a claim of truth upon us as moderns? This is often simply assumed in the scholarship, but must rather be responsibly assumed as an interpretive decision, not just a given, as if «modernity» were an orthodoxy in itself impenetrable to beliefs arriving from «elsewhere». This would obviously be an egregious misreading of modernity, which has in fact been the scene of numerous religious revivals, some of them Christian. A past we simply assume we are liberated from may only have been forgotten and thereby bind us the more insidiously.
Although in general we have long ceased to consider the question of truth relevant to the understanding and appreciation of poetry, in Dante criticism even presently it can still be described as «the one fundamental question for all readers of Dante's poem». Teodolinda Barolini reviews recent Italian and American criticism in order to show that both in different ways have come to an impasse over «the one central issue of the poet's truth claims» (p. 35). Why should the question of truth be so peculiarly important and so vexed in the case of the Commedia? For a start, it is observed on all sides that Dante's poem makes exceptional and exceptionally insistent claims for its status as true revelation, vision or experiential record. Can these claims be comprehended as simply part of the pretending that we grant as a charter right to poetry? Or do they rather outstrip the poetry as assertions of truth of a theological order to which poetic inventions can but serve as handmaiden? Even the apparently straightforward claim to be reporting faithfully a first-personal experience - where the speaker actually was (fu io) and what he really saw (vidi) - sunders into the two seemingly incompatible possibilities of either the fictive discourse of poetry or (allegedly) true religious witness. Formulated naively, the question is easily dismissed as a natural response of wonderment such as might be expected of children - «Did it really happen?» - and not the sort of matter the literary critic need be seriously concerned about. But the peculiarly affecting power of Dante's poem is inseparable from these claims, in such a way that they have proved unavoidable even in evaluating his poetry and its effectiveness as such.
Of course, the poem itself cannot answer the question as to whether its truth-claims are within it or beside it, whether they are just poetic postures or «serious» in a sense exceeding poetry as a rhetorical form altogether. This is an interpretive choice, and on it depends what the poem is for us. Suffice it to say that Dante creates for us this choice. Though there is always the possibility that «believing» readings err in taking seriously what was intended only as a literary fiction, the invitations within the poem make this an option that cannot simply be ignored. It has entailed undeniable consequences in the history of reading which, intended or not, belong to the poem and its life down through the ages.
The question of the truth of the Commedia actually comprises many questions. Is it a true story? Does the narrative relating Dante's journey through the three realms of the world to come purport to be literally true and so to be an historical account? Was Dante a prophet? Is his poem inspired? Is it supposed to be a true revelation of a metaphysical order of being or of an eschatological dimension of existence? And these formulations cover only what might be termed «religious truth», whereas the poem certainly has no less pretensions to disclosing philosophical, psychological, social, existential, etc., truth and truths, although a powerful compulsion to unity in Dante's Christian, semiologically centered universe would make all these appear as facets of the poem's Truth.
The question specifically of the truth or «historicity» of its narrative - the question whether and in what sense it may be given out as a true story - has insistently asserted itself as the central question concerning its truth throughout the history of interpretation of the poem. It was already an issue for the first generation of commentators including Dante's own son, Pietro. Evidently concerned to ward off accusations of heterodoxy and madness which seem to have dogged Dante to his grave, Pietro explains that his father only poetically feigns {poetando fingit) to have gone on the journey through the other world to the Empyrean narrated in the Commedia. Pietro is joined by other 14th-century commentators such as Benvenuto da Imola and Francesco da Buti in their somewhat nervous and hedging explanations that Dante visited Paradise mentaliter et non corporaliter , that he was there «intellettualmente, ma non corporalmente, ma finge secondo la lettera eh 'elli vi fusse corporalmente».
From these origins and ever since, discussion of the Divine Comedy has been haunted by the supposition or the claim, whether it is affirmed or denied, that this poem is somehow more than a poem, more than an imaginative fiction; readers of all persuasions have had to reckon with the insinuation that it is a true account of an actual historical journey, an elevano ad coelum , whether in the body or out of the body one knows not, God knows, to echo the passage from 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 about Paul's being rapt to the third heaven that Dante himself echoes in the proem to the Paradiso.
Today critical reflection on this issue is largely beholden to the accounts of Dante's poetics produced around mid-century by Erich Auerbach and Charles Singleton. Both critics strongly maintained that the Commedia is fundamentally different from other poems in that the story it relates is presented not as poetic fiction but as true history; as in the case of Scripture, the narrative of the Commedia must be taken to be literally and therefore historically true. Both critics stressed the primacy of the literal, historical sense of the narrative as an autonomous reality and the basis for all the other, allegorical senses. For both critics, the poem's claim to being true was founded upon the claim that its narrative ļ is a true story, or in other words that it is history.
The synonymity of the literal and historical senses of a narrative, thitherto in Christian exegetical tradition reserved for Scripture as the writing of the Author who can write with things in the language of real events rather than just with words, was thereby extended to a poem of human authorship, but therefore unique among sub-canonical Christian writings. Auerbach's seminal study of Dante's figurai realism established that the Divine Comedy's mode. of signifying was like that of the Bible, known in exegetical hermeneutics as «typology», in that the literal sense of the narrative was given as true and historical, in such a way that the real persons and events literally designated by the narrative were then used to refer allegorically to other realities in the historical, moral and eschatological orders: «in a figurai relation both the signifying and the signified facts are real and concrete historical events… Neither the prefiguring nor the prefigured event lose their literal and historical reality by their figurative meaning and inter-relation».
The emphasis upon «reality» of an historical nature, so strong in both Singleton and Auerbach, was promoted by Dante's significance for them as the quintessentially Christian poet. For Judeo-Christianity is distinguished as an historical religion, and Dante's poetics are conceived within and in order to mediate a world-historical dispensation opened up by the Incarnation of Christ. The Word made flesh or the truth become substantially manifest in visible, palpable form is the master model of revelation by which any claim to reveal truth in poetry must inevitably be measured.
Singleton framed the question in terms, going back to Dante himself, of the contrast between poetic and theological allegory. Construed according to the allegory of the poets, the literal sense of the poem, the story it tells, is no more than a fictional construct. Beneath this «beautiful lie» are hidden realities or concepts only obliquely referred to, i. e. allegorically signified, as opposed to being mimetically represented or presenced in the narrative. For example, Orpheus' taming the beasts with his music is treated by Dante in the Convivio (II.i.3) as a myth whose true intention is to represent the real power music has to subdue the brutishness in men's souls. The story about Orpheus has no truth except as a sign of a condition that does really obtain in the human race.
The allegory of the theologians, on the other hand, postulates the literal and historical truth of the narrative, specifically on the model of the Bible, held to be historically inerrant. For instance, when Psalm 113 states that «Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Aaron from a barbarous people», this describes an historical event, the Exodus. This event is further laden with allegorical significances having to do with the préfiguration of Christ's rising up out of death's kingdom, the moral agent's being liberated from the bondage of sin, and the soul's exit from this ephemeral world into eternity, but all of these the Exodus story signifies on the basis of its being first itself given as a real historical event. The letter of the narrative describes in verbis an actual happening which then signifies in factis these allegorical meanings. Thus the autobiographical event verbally described by Dante's poem would in fact stand for theologically conceived events at each of the three levels of allegorical meaning.
Singleton devoted himself to the cause of establishing as a fact beyond dispute that Dante had adopted the allegory of the theologians as his mode of signifying in the Commedia. Accordingly, the narrative of Dante's journey to the other world was asserted as literally true, and valid interpretation of the poem depended above all on first recognizing this fact. Still, Singleton allowed that this very assertion of truth was part of the basic fiction of the poem, so that the convention of theological allegory and its literal/historical truth-claim was itself operative within the jurisdiction of another convention, namely that of poetry or fiction, which can make believe whatever it pleases. It is possible for poetry to pretend even that it is not pretense but rather truth, and this is exactly what happens in the peculiar allegorical mode of the Commedia. Hence Singleton's famous and paradoxical formula, «the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not a fiction».
To the extent we keep in focus this outer frame in which the claiming of historicity for the literal sense of the narrative according to the allegory of the theologians amounts to a poetic posturing, however serious and sincere it may be supposed to be, the mode of the narrative must be qualified as «realism», a simulation of the real, rather than as the literal signification of reality. Both Auerbach and Singleton exalted Dante's art of realism as something of an original departure in the history of culture. They saw the expression and manifestation of the poem's assertion of literal, historical truth in the realism which they recognized as distinguishing Dante's art from that of his contemporaries and predecessors, indeed as the outstanding breakthrough of his genius, both in the history of literature and in the pursuit of his theological ends. The mimetic life-likeness of Dante's representations seemed implicitly to assert that they were real and true, and so realism seemed to be of a piece with the poem's claim to truth and historicity. Indeed it might be inferred that this claim was actually made principally only in and through the realism itself. Nowhere does the poem make any unrhetorical statement that it is a true account. Indeed how could it do any such thing, being a poem?
Furthermore, realism seemed uniquely appropriate as a style of art for representing an empathically Christian truth. For Christianity proclaimed that truth had been revealed in an historically incarnate form. The man from Nazareth, of the lineage of David, had declared that he was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And how could an historically embodied truth be represented, if not in realistic terms? Dante's realism was so important to Auerbach and Singleton because it seemed to respond to the exigency of revealing a Christian truth in a Christian way, i. e. as incarnate in concrete, historical form. The abstract, rational truths of Platonism might well be expressed in a symbolic language and allegorical code, such as are found in the works of Alain de Lille and Bernard Silvestris, that did not try to imitate the world as we know it but rather gestured beyond it towards an ideal world of pure forms. But the incarnate truth of the Christian religion demanded to be represented in the full historical concreteness that only realism was capable of achieving.
This association of realism as Dante's style of representation with the poem's claim to represent reality has often proved too patent to be resisted. The characteristics which make the narrative of the Commedia «realistic» were thus at the same time supposed to be those which certified it as being true, and this brought it about that realism was taken as a warrant for literal or historical truth. Although both Singleton and Auerbach underscore the «margin» between them, refusing to forget that for Dante poetry is in any case, following the definition in De vulgāri eloquentia , a «fictio rhetorica musicaque poita», it became all too tempting for criticism under their sway to take this connection between realism and historicity as perfectly natural and obvious: why else would Dante make his creations so life-like except in order that they be taken as actual, real-life, historical agents and events, since just this historicity of the literal meaning of his poem is what is demanded by the allegory of the theologians or the figurai realism which Singleton and Auerbach respectively were convinced was the poem's mode of signifying?
Hence in her recent review of critical view-points on the truth-claims of the Commedia, Teodolinda Barolini takes for granted that realism is «the consequence», as if it were the inevitable consequence, of the poem's claim to being true (p. 51). This is all the more remarkable inasmuch as the poem's truth-claim, in Barolini's treatment of it, is not narrowly identified with the presumed historicity of its literal sense but more broadly embraces its prophetic truth, which for one like Nardi, whom Barolini cites, can consist in its being true vision (visione verace), which it is even harder to understand should necessarily have to be conveyed through realistic representation. We might rather expect the opposite of a realistic style for the representation of an extraordinary visionary experience, in religious terms a miracle granted by exceptional grace.
The consensus about Dante's realism tended to overlook or play down, or else to ingeniously re-interpret as «pre-emptive psychology» still in the interest of maintaining the literal truth-claim, all the disclaimers, which punctuate the narrative with deliberate exposures of its artificiality, of the fact that it is not real however much it may seem so; the continual reminders that it is only a verbal construct, grossly inadequate to the task at that (see e. g. Inf. IV. 145-47; Purg. IX.70-72; Par. XXIII. 55-69), and those junctures where the narrative becomes frankly fantastic, the very opposite of realistic. The poem is instinct with warnings, both subtle and blatant, against mistaking realism for reality. One of the most conspicuous is the episode concerning the monster Geryon, who rises out of the depths and out of many texts, a sort of literary collage, to ferry Dante and Vergil down to the eighth circle of Hell. Aware that he is severely straining credibility, Dante reminds his reader that truth often has the face of a lie and ironically swears by the notes of his «comedia» that he actually saw the marvelous monster just as he describes it come swimming up from the infernal ditch. There are no limits to how far a fiction can go in vouching for its own truth. Not only what is said in story but even the poet's own affirmations in propria persona are within the poem and participate in its condition as fiction, so that the narrator can swear an oath and have this too belong to the playful pretending of a fictive mode. He exploits the fact that the most realistic narration and the most solemn profession alike are nonetheless wholly fictive in the discourse of a poem.
This need not be taken to mean that the literal sense of the narrative is definitely not historical, and purely a fiction. The narrative oscillates between these two possibilities of interpretation, and finds its true sense only within its appropriation by the reader in an act of interpretation and decision. Only so, in the interpretive process moving beyond what the fiction itself affirms, can the poem become revelatory of something true. There is a suggestion that Dante may really have gone to the other world, a possibility of taking this in the most direct, literal way, which however cannot be definitively confirmed on the basis of the poem's representations. Belief in this is possible only on the basis of faith. But whether it is believed or not, the narrative opens up possibilities of existence to its readers, which can be taken over and made their own. Such appropriation is the event in which the poem assumes concrete historical reality, and in this event the poem can happen as a personally experienced revelation of truth, based on re-enactment of Dante's «essemplo» {Par. 1.70-72).
Singleton and Auerbach made it unmistakably clear that Dante's poetry is in its essence historical and incarnati onal. This followed directly from its essentially Christian inspiration. But what is truly historical, more than the literal sense of the narrative, which becomes overtly and conspicuously fictive, preposterous, impossible, for example, in the episode involving Geryon, is the historicity of the reader. The main locus of history in the poem is not the literal sense and mimetic surface of the narrative - as if by ever more perfect imitation this might pass out of the realm of fiction into the real - but the existence of a reader who can really and historically appropriate a text, bringing its implications to fruition in life and action. This is what Christian incarnation ultimately entails, as when the Church in the world becomes the embodiment of Christ by its receptivity to and enàctment of his Word. Thus the truth of the poem only happens through appropriation, when the narrative and its possibilities for existence are appropriated into the life-story and personal history of individuals presumably discovering the authentic historicity of their existence in Christian conversion.
This is to understand the truth of the poem as historical in an existential sense. The historicity in question pertains to the existence of the reader, an individual who exists as a relation between a personal past and a future destiny. Dante-protagonist as literal, historical presence in the narrative is vitally important as an image of the concrete historically with which each reader is endowed or to which, rather, each can attain. He illustrates how relating one's past tradition and future horizon through a present of decision works to construct the historical reality of an individual life. Hardly any more compelling illustration of this historical character of personal existence could be imagined than Dante's own life-story as represented in the Commedia, in its trajectory between the dark wood of a past of error and the anticipation of the divine vision for endless eternity. But even beyond this image, the reader finds a model for the historizing (history-making) structure of his/her existence in Dante as author interpreting his whole life as directed towards a final destination, synthesizing the narrative from a point projected beyond it, articulating his own existence into that of a protagonist and a distinctly figured authorial persona who interprets the protagonist's journey.
I suggest Dante felt the truth of his poem was fully historical, as he seems to have implied in the Letter to Can Grande, as incredible as that perhaps seemed even to him, because he divined the existential grounds of the sense and intelligibility of history. In other words, he felt that he could claim historicity for the experience proposed by his poem on the basis of his sense that the story of his journey, for all its use of fictions, was the very reality of his own life as an interpretive venture. The same would go, presumably, for the story of any Christian conversion. It is a multi-dimensional, a polysemous historicity, truer than any one-dimensional narration of facts could be, for it is laden with all the possible ways of construing one's past and relating it to a future one projects in a present one decides. Even the pure fictions have everything to do with Dante's interpretation of his past and his defining for himself his future, and in this sense they have everything to do with his real, personal historicity. This is historicity in a sense ultimately more important than that which may or may not belong to an historical ride on the back of a monster composed out of literary pastiche, or to the historical fart of a devil called Malacoda.
Historicity in this sense is completed in the application of Dante's adventures in interpretation to the life of the reader, for it is a historicity that comes about always in conjunction with a present act of interpretation, determined by and determining past, present, and future in an event of understanding in which they come to be understood. The claim to historicity, then, cannot be reduced to a claim to know past fact (including the future prophetically disclosed as if it were fact). If the history in question were to be merely a past event, it could not be experienced as religious truth by anyone, not even by Dante the author. Hermeneutic access to the truth of history as an ultimately religious truth can be secured only through its event in the present. To understand how this is so - and it is something Dante profoundly understood - we are greatly aided by the hermeneutical-existential theology of modem times, which has explored the way religious truth is conditioned by, and is the expression of, the historical-existential structure of human being.
The work especially of Rudolph Bultmann, along with many followers, has pointed in this direction. As read through Bultmann's existentialist hermeneutic, even the historical affirmations of the New Testament need to be understood first as appeals to understand oneself in accordance with what those affirmations disclose about the fundamental structure of human existence, before they can be understood at all. Everything that can be understood in and as history is conditioned by how one understands oneself presently. Thus Bultmann writes, «And just as little as the proclamation [in preaching Christ] communicates something that happened at a certain place and at a certain time, but rather says what has occurred to the person being addressed, so little is faith the knowledge of some fact within the world or the willingness to hold some remarkable dogma to be true. Rather it is the obedience that obeys God not in general or in abstracto, but in the concrete now» (Bultmann, p. 87).
Sometimes Bultmann seems to recommend that faith disembarrass itself altogether of beliefs concerning an historical past, substituting instead understanding of oneself in the present exclusively. This emphasis risks divorcing one time dimension - that of the present - from the others. Dante, for all his keen appreciation of the retroactive shaping power of interpretation and self-understanding, of how interpretation in the present impinges upon the very reality of the past, does not elide the past nor even diminish the effect of its presentation as «fact», but rather holds this always together with its determination by interpretation in the present. Conversely, present interpretation, and centrally the interpretive decision of faith (i. e. to understand oneself as God's creation redeemed by Christ), is not simply an arbitrary existentialist leap ex nihilo. Although this aspect of the human situation is certainly to be experienced to the full - indeed all the way to the bottom of Hell's abyss - it is not to be taken as the ultimate truth about human existence, but rather as a very basic, universal experience out of which it is also possible to participate in a continuation of the past and particularly of the act of faith of Christ himself transmitted through gospel and tradition. Belief in the historical facts of the gospel is certainly not irrelevant to the articulation of this faith, but neither can it be divorced from the act of understanding oneself in the present in relation to the Savior. The historical veracity of the gospel story, as of Dante's miracle story, to be neither proved nor dismissed, makes for the tension of faith, and Dante exploits and explicitâtes such tension poetically.
Read in the perspective of existentialist theology, the New Testament, mythology and all, serves to manifest an interpretive understanding of human existence. Existentialist interpretation of the New Testament uncovers behind its mythological representations, i. e. its representations of otherworldly realities as objective, historical entities in this world, the manifestation of an interpretation of human existence, as revealed by these very Scriptures, in its character as openness to the future (or hopefulness), full acceptance of one's being as contingent and as given together with and shared with that of one's fellows (or love), and resolute commitment to assume one's destiny freely (or faith). It is in this, their existential import, that the affirmations of the New Testament, then, would have their religious truth. Does this mean that their supposed historical truth is null and void? No. It means that the positivist myth of history is exploded and that the historicity of faith belongs in the first instance to the interpretive acts which constitute the historical being of one who believes. History can never be reached except through a present act of interpretation reactivating the past as it is meaningful presently in existence.
This helps us gain some insight into why Jesus' miracles generally, as recounted in the gospel, are not even discernible except to the eyes of faith. That Jesus is Lord of my life now, as witnessed by faith, not documentary evidence, is the basis for affirmations about his miracles and resurrection. In this sense, all the statements of the Bible are to be read fundamentally as interpellations, appeals not to accept objective facts but to define oneself in such a way as opens a whole new field of objectivity from a perspective of faith: «Therefore, faith also, like the word, is revelation because it is only real in this occurrence and otherwise is nothing». It is «no disposition of the human soul, no being convinced, but rather the answer to an address» (Bultmann, p. 87).
Developing Bultmann's thought, Gerhard Ebeling in Word and Faith writes, «the content of what God says always unconditionally concerns the person of the hearer. ... God's Word rightly understood is never statement but always address» (cited in Funk, p. 25). The same needs to be said in some sense of the Divine Comedy, and the addresses to the reader make evident the extent to which Dante himself was conscious of this dimension of address in which, necessarily, the significance of his discourse is realized. It is especially in the addresses to the reader that Dante shows how the historical sense and meaning of the whole poem becomes actual precisely at the locus of the individual whose existence in the past, present and future is engaged by the event of the poem.
A paradigm shift analogous to that brought about by existentialist interpretation of the New Testament is due to occur in Dante studies (and often in practice already has occured, perhaps more than is realized), if the Commedia' s theological dimension is to be understood in a manner commensurate with modern hermeneutical insight itself a recovery, I would suggest, of a sense of interpretation as intrinsic to history and its truth that was second nature to Dante.
Dante as poet understands that history can never be attained as an achieved fact, over and done with in the past. History always reaches us out of the past through the mediation of an interpretation in the present, an appropriation determined by what is meaningful in a new situation. Dante refuses to overlook this dynamic factor of interpretive activation of the past, the historizing in the present and with a view to the future that alone gives a meaning to history and lets «facts» emerge, because significant in these relations, as what they are. He illustrates this by the way Statius and he himself appropriate Vergil, discovering latent Christian meanings in Vergil's pagan text. The basis for this appropriation even by misprision is a present context of interpretation. Statius explains (Purg. XXII.75-80) how the whole world was pregnant with the true faith sown by the gospel message with which Vergil's word consounded (consonava):

Già era 'l mondo tutto quanto pregno
de la vera credenza, seminata
per li messaggi de l’etterno regno;

e la parola tua sopra toccata
si consonava a' nuovi predicanti;
onď io a visitarli presi usata.

In this way, Vergil became for Statius like one bearing a lamp behind his back, illuminating those who came behind while remaining in darkness himself (XXII.67-69).
What shows up as history always depends radically on an act of reading, which Dante foregrounds; his poem consistently presents history as a series of just such acts of reading. For history can be apprehended only through its on-going happening in a present of interpretation. Dante is always showing how histories happen the way they do precisely because the reader is in their midst. Interpretation does not stand over against history but is radically implicated in its making.
Dante contrasts Statius as reader with Francesca, correcting the amorous rhetoric of Inferno V, which exalts love as a sort of spontaneous combustion («Amor ch'ai cor gentil ratto s'apprende»), by an ethical rhetoric transfiguring the motif of amorous inspiration: «Amore, acceso di virtù, sempre altro accese...» (Purg. XXII.10-11). Francesca's courtly rhetoric, designed to cast her sinful lust in the lyric light of the noble passions of troubadour and dolce stil novo love poetry, actually shows the extent to which she fails to recognize her own ineradicable difference from such ideal models and her own belonging rather to a corrupt world of the petty bourgeoisie. This is betrayed by the cruder language, the questi for her beloved and the anatomical terms like bocca, that unmask the ugly lust behind her high, refined citations. By interpreting herself through the ennobling language of courtly love, she refuses to accept God's judgment upon her, which is nevertheless manifest in the place and state in which she dwells eternally. Moreover, her own language, marking the distance between herself and that nobler world, interprets her to the reader as a mendacious sinner, in mockery of her strategems and in spite of the way Dante as character literally falls, symbolically into moral death («E caddi come corpo morto cade»), for the pietà she evokes.
Dante's text contrives to lay open all this background of interpretation, and of interpretations of interpretations, behind the story Francesca tells, and it succeeds by linguistic nuances in implying a whole history contrary in meaning and moral significance to the one Francesca relates. The truer history, the one resulting in manifest punishment, is that of Francesca's mendacious self-interpretation. This history is made manifest, not so crucially in any facts or events that are represented by Francesca as in the interpretations performed in and by the text, and in turn by the reader upon the text, in the first instance Dante himself and behind him the rest of us, vulnerable to the seductions of the story Francesca is nevertheless exposed as fabricating. We may admit that there is something immediately compelling about the image of Francesca and Paolo enveloped in turbulence - but that is not where we touch history fundamentally in this canto. It is rather in the interpretations by which Francesca makes up her own story, dissembling her sin with lovely language, and in Dante's interpretive unveiling of this history of deception by the subtle suggestions of his poetry with its direct involvement of reading in determining the dynamic force of all such facts as can be represented, that the historical character of the poem is achieved. The poem gives us access to human historicity being constituted by interpretation, rather than just to history being represented by realistic mimesis.
In episode after episode, Dante exposes history as histories of interpretation, and moreover re-designs and configures history through poetic interpretation. It is no exaggeration to say that the destinies of characters throughout all three realms of the after-life - which destinies reveal in full, as in the sight of God, the true sense of the character's earthly history - coincide with their own readings or misreadings of themselves and of their places in God's plan. Everything in Dante's poem and its implicit ontology is interpretation, and is revealed as such. The characters' self-interpretations are the rationale for their being just where they are in eternity. From Francesca to Brunetto, from Capaneo to Ulysses, the denizens of Hell are shown as sinning fundamentally by obstinate, irreversible misunderstandings of themselves and what they really are. The judgments manifest in them show how God sees them, but they generally do not see themselves that way; all have trapped themselves in an eternal struggle against the truth, their truth.
Of course, the sinners are punished for what they have done, yet this is consistently presented in its inextricable relation to how they understand themselves and the significance of what they do. Fundamentally, understanding oneself as separate from God is what makes certain ways of behaving sinful. By exposing the act of self-interpretation that is bound up with the external act in which sin is manifest, Dante reveals how an on-going reality of constituting oneself as historical through self-interpretation in a certain, freely chosen way, rather than just some nefarious deed that might simply be forgiven and let rest in peace as «history», is the direct cause of unending suffering for damned souls.
History is disclosed as a hermeneutically constructed historicality at the level not only of personal histories but also of universal history, that of the Roman Empire. Dante «makes» Roman history into a secular parallel to the sacred history of the Old Testament. Reading Saint Augustine's version of Roman history as a bloodbath in the city of men together with Vergil's story of the providential election of Aeneas' descendants to rule the earth's peoples, Dante brings an entirely new sense out of both. The lust and violence of Roman history are not in the least attenuated in Justinian's recapitulation of this history as symbolized by the vicissitudes of the providential sign of the eagle in Paradiso VI, in which «by telling the history of the empire through its emblem, Dante implies that history is a representation and a purely symbolic construct» (Mazzotta, p. 180). The apparently senseless violence rather takes on typological significance in terms of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, echoed by Augustus' defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, and of Christ's violent sacrificial death, turning the unedifying saga into a species of Heilsgeschichte.
Thus the realism paradigm oversimplifies in making the literal sense of the narrative the locus of incarnation in history, rather than finding this in the sense-making process set in motion by the interpretations of the poem (over and above those represented within it) and particularly in the historical existence of the reader as a site for this process as expressly invoked in the addresses. Not the presumed historical sense of the narrative but the historicity of reading is the key to Dante's truth's becoming fully historical and so a conformable sequel to the Christian revelation founded on the Incarnation. The true understanding to be occasioned by the narrative can be described most generally as understanding of the interpretive structure of our human, historical reality, of the fact that we are implicated in the real which discloses itself to us in and as the understanding we come to of ourselves.
The most serious problem, then, with the view that situates the poem's claim to historical reality primarily in its mimetic realism is that it shallows out history into a narrative surface, the so-called «first sense». Equating historicity as the ground and anchor for Dante's truth-claims with mimesis in this way defrauds Dante's richly hermeneutic understanding of history by a narrow, positivistic conception of it as what manifestly happens on the scene of history, like a sequence of images across a movie screen. For Dante, it is no longer necessary to take history as something flatly given like a spectacle on a screen. Dante's poetry's greatness resides perhaps principally in its opening to view the interpretive depths out of which historicity emerges as a complex product, a poiesis, that is, a «making», in the etymological sense of the word Dante himself calls to mind in De vulgari eloquentia.
Singleton's final statement on the poetics of the Commedia was entitled «The Irreducible Dove». This title alludes to St. Thomas Aquinas' famous quaestio as to whether the dove which descended upon Jesus at the moment of his baptism, according to the gospels, was a real dove. Singleton echoes Thomas' resounding affirmative that the literal sense of the Scripture designates an unequivocally real and historical event, and maintains that the same must hold for the Commedia, if we accept its special, quasi-scriptural mode of signifying. What is irreducible, then, for Singleton is history. As Singleton construes it for Dante, history is the writing of God, which Dante imitates, so that his journey through the other worlds is taken as historically real and the narrative which recounts it as literally true, all within the convention of the poem as a fiction.
We should certainly agree that history is what makes the difference between Dante's prophetic poetics and the Platonic poetics of his predecessors together with all other forms of poetic allegory. But history in the Commedia is anything but irreducible. Where Singleton sees history and the real as something given, «irreducible», concrete, Dante illustrates dramatically and compellingly the nature of the historically real as hermeneutically constructed. The history that Singleton assumes as an extra-poetical given, an irreducible ground of truth in the poem, is opaque, but Dante opens up history to view in its making; and where Singleton's theory shallows out the historical sense of the poem to the literal, mimetic surface of its narrative, Dante reveals its hermeneutical depths. The poem does not hypostatize history, as Singleton does; it interprets history dynamically through investment in the movements of meaning in language of which history, in specific case after specific case, is shown to be an effect. Dante suggests beneath the visibile spectacle of the narrative the conflict of interpretations, the complications and continuities as well as the exclusions and mutations and misprisions of tradition, which show through the mimetic action at every point.
Both verbally and visually Dante's mimesis is full of depths of allusion and a referentiality reaching way beyond the immediate literal sense of the narrative, revealing and concealing far more than is present in the here, now of the narrative action. Indeed the locus of the making of history is not the plot of the poem so much as the act of reading. The more significant implications of the poem's claim to truth and historicity concern not the historical sense of the narrative so much as the existential historicity of the reader as the basis for the interpreting that makes history and discloses truth. This is pointed up in instancej after instance within the poetic fiction, as well as being instanced by Dante's poem itself as a monumental work of interpretation.
Generally, it is only at the theoretical level that the constriction of the sense of history to the literal sense of the narrative has been operative. Singleton and Auerbach themselves have led the way in discovering the interpretive constructions of history that are so^ powerfully manifest in Dante's poem. Singleton's championing of the Augustinián principle of retrospective comprehension of the meaning of an historical, as of any syntactical sequence, the meaning of the whole becoming comprehensible from the end-point which completes its sense («Vistas»), belongs to the appreciation of history as a structure of meaning rather than as an empirical given. And to Auerbach we owe the understanding of history in the Commedia as figura.
Moreover, Singleton is profoundly right and virtually visionary in his perception that Dante's hermeneutic - call it allegory of the theologians (or perhaps theological poetics) - aims to reach a truth that transcends history (projected, we must add, from within the very historical conditionedness of all understanding in language). This is of capital importance, and it is worth quoting Singleton at some length: «our faith in the ability of the word to contain a changeless truth continues to diminish until we find it hard and some of us find it intolerable to see things timelessly. When we shall have completely lost the belief in the possibility of transcending the world of change which is the world of history, then we shall have lost a space, a dimension, which is needed not only by religion and metaphysics but by myth and poetry as well. When there is no transcendence of change, no escape from the flux of things, how can we have anything but history? (I will not press the question, that being true, how we can have history either!) How, in short, can the word any longer hold truth as it did for Plato and for Dante?» (Elements, p. 78).
This gestures towards what has been largely lost from the contemporary hermeneutic horizon. It is fairly typical of contemporary philosophers and critics to embrace hermeneutics as the good news of a radical and irreparable breaking away from «any transcendental standpoint beyond historical consciousness» (Marshall, p. 73). Dante well understood, at least in poetic practice, what has been rediscovered and elaborated theoretically by the modern hermeneutic revolution: namely, how history is constructed through retrospective projections of significance, with all the contingencies of language and interpretation that this entails. The interpretive dynamics of his text can be more sharply focused today than ever on the basis of what is in some respects a more finely articulated theoretical understanding of the hermeneutic principles of historical interpretation. But Dante also understood something about truth and history that has become almost impossible for us to think today, in our conceit of being disabused of all illusions in having achieved a «post-metaphysical» standpoint. We stand to understand our own interpretive reality much better by heeding the phenomenon of interpretation revealed with a certain primordial wholeness in Dante's poem. His belief in eternal truth lies beyond, not before, the «revelation» of historical contingency, and specifically of the historicity of truth, that has had so great an impact on the present age that no recovery from this insight - blinding like all insight - seems yet to be in sight.

Date: 2021-12-22