Dante’s Liber Occultorum and the Strucutre of Allegory in the Commedia [Jesse M. Gellrich]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Jesse M. Gellrich

Tratto da: The idea of the book in the Middle Ages : language theory, mythology, and fiction

Editore: Cornell University Press, Ithaca

Anno: 1985

Pagine: 154-157

[…] From these responses to reading, it becomes apparent that canto 5 illustrates a rather different conception of the structure of reference than is argued in the view that Dante's Commedia employs a poetics of imitation as copying. The use of the term "allegory” to describe this poetics usually assumes that the structure of various “levels” of reference is essentially symbolic: the eternal is translucent in the natural, and the timeless is made present in and through the temporal; medieval theory massively underwrites such a concept of structure through its insistence on the organic bond in which image and substance are part and whole— pars pro toto; the veil of the literal sense takes its form from the other levels of the sensus spiritualis, which have a simultaneous order and a simultaneous presence in the literal; diachrony no longer separates levels of sense when the “wood” Isaac carried in the Old Testament is read as the "wood" Christ carried to Calvary in the New.
But this symbolic coalescence of part into whole is not the structure of allegory in canto 5. Dante the pilgrim does not see that Francesca is a sign of Dido, Eve, and other banished daughters, because he sees only “in the present.” Nor does he see that he himself is repeating Paolo's mystified reading of Guinevere and Augustine's of Dido. Lacking a sense of the timeless in this order beyond time, he sees Francesca as “present,” while she is a shade of someone who once was and who is destined to live her past always as her future. She has no present. The pilgrim illustrates ignorance of this temporal difference when, for example, he sheds tears for her, but the text is painfully aware of the demands of time; the Francesca who speaks can never coincide with the Francesca who was to relive, change, or justify her past; her pain is constituted in blindly trying to collapse the distance, close the gap, become that person again; no longer a “person,” she endures a condition in which she is linked “allegorically” to other signs, which she also repeats. Allegory depersonalizes Francesca. Her loss of selfhood is her punishment and the “meaning” of the allegory.
Rather than turn to medieval theoretical treatises to understand the nature of Dante's allegory, we may reverse the procedure and find in his poem the evidence of how he understood them. The “Letter to Can Grande,” which has been used to validate a poetics of imitation for the Commedia, is on the contrary emphatic about the distance between levels ot reference, such as we find in canto 5. For we are told in the “Letter” that all the senses beyond the literal may be called “allegorical” because they are “alien” from the sensus literalis. This definition is justified etymologically, says the “Letter," since “allegory is derived from alleon, in Greek, which means the same as the Latin alienum or divisum." The same point about the alienation of sense also informs Isidore's classic definition ot allegory in the Etymologiarum as alieniloquium: “alien-speech'"—the troping of the literal in such a way that one thing is said by the words, but something else is understood (“allegoria est alieniloquium, aliud enim sonat, aliud intelligitur”).
It would be difficult to offer these definitions in support ot allegory as a symbolic structure, and it is impossible to establish from them a poetics of imitation as copying in canto 5. Dante's allegory insists on the division and separation of signs, on the impossibility of the allegorical sign to erase the anteriority of its origin. In contrast, because symbol, so to speak, forgets its past, Dante creates a mode so mindful of it—a gallery of figures, such as Francesca, Pier delle Vigne, and others, who are always pointing back to their past and the signs from the past whom they repeat. If symbol has no history, allegory in Dante's Commedia is the vehicle ot it. This point, however, is not in effect a reiteration of the view that the poem is an “allegory of theologians” that insists on the literal sense of the poem as documentary history. Instead, the issue here compares with the position argued recently and provocatively bv Giuseppe Mazzotta, that the Commedia is an “allegory of its possible readings... the act ot reading… is at the same time for Dante a veritable allegory of the quest." Dante, Mazzotta claims, does not attempt to render the literal sense as a mimesis of history, but rather “insinuates the oblique and shadowy path of metaphoric language in which truth and fiction have simultaneous existence." The experience of reading created in the Commedia is not, therefore, a historian’s encounter with a journey into the beyond, but an approximation of a quest for “representation adequate to its spiritual reality." Dante is a “poet of the desert” who is “away from his promised land and still in exile.” He has not created a mirror of history but has dramatized the “persistent ambiguity of metaphoric language" in the form of the journey to spiritual clarification.
“Ambiguity" in this discussion does not suggest that the meaning of certain passages in the Commedia is lawed or vague. On the contrary, Mazzotta means that various passages in the poem confront the problem that the relation between spiritual reality and its representation is by its very nature shadowy and ambiguous. The relevance of this point for my argument is that it corresponds to the concept of allegory as alienioquium—a structure that designates the temporal distance between representation and its origin or end. This view has little to do with the assumption that Dante attempted to give us a mirror of the past and future. He gives us, rather, an allegory of reading, a poem about personal and public history and at the same time about the process of representing it. Recognizing Dante's allegory of reading returns us to the claim with which I began, that the poet does not copy the Book of culture but departs from it. Insofar as the allegory of reading effects this departure, my argument differs from the conclusion of Mazzotta. He maintains that the “exile” of poetry and the “desert” of reading in the Commedia correspond to medieval comments on reading, such as may be found in a passage from Hugh of St. Victor. Although the fathers of the church may have looked back at the Hebrews in the desert and imagined intellectual processes as a sort of wandering, when they turned to the subject of reading, the bulk of tradition shows that they recalled the commonplace fourfold hierarchy of the text and looked into the speculum ot nature for validation of it. Dante, on the other hand, gives us his own allegory, and it is not of nature or Scripture, but of the process of conjecturing about such readings. He does not copy old auctores for the allegory in the Commedia or the “desert” of reading. His achievement is unique because it departs from them. Rather than the exegetes, he follows the Hebrews themselves, their wandering in the wilderness and their writings that differ sharply from myths of immanence and totality. Dante was profoundly influenced by the Bible, but specifically that biblical writing so fraught with background that its traces are obvious everywhere in the deep recesses and unknown spaces of the journey into the beyond.

Date: 2021-12-23