From Homer to Dante [Harold Bloom]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Harold Bloom

Tratto da: Ruin the sacred. Poetry and belief from the Bible to the present

Editore: Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Anno: 1991

Pagine: 39-46

[...] Singleton remarks that "the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not a fiction." That joins the issue: that his poem is not a fiction is Dante's agon with all previous fictions. Curtius insists that Dante saw himself as an apocalyptic figure or a prophet, with expectations that the prophecy would be fulfilled in his own lifetime. Presumably this sanctioned Dante's audacity in claiming for his Beatrice a place in the objective process ofsalvation for all believers, not just for Dante. Like Joachim of Flora, Dante is the author of a personal gnosis. Through Beatrice alone, the race of man excels all that is under the moon, all that is earthly. Lucia, a rather obscure martyr from Syracuse, is exalted by Dante as the particular enemy of all cruelty. She sends Beatrice to Dante, and she herselfis sent by an even higher heavenly lady, whom we have no reason to believe is the Virgin Mary. Curtius reminds us how sublimely arbitrary this is. It does not stem from Paul or from Augustine. Manifestly it is an allegory, but if it is an allegory ofthe theologians and not of the poets, then we do not know who these inventive theologians are.
Singleton apparently followed Dante himselfin exalting the allegory of the theologians over the allegory of the poets. In the allegory of the poets, the first or literal sense is a fiction, and the second or allegorical sense is the true one; thus, Orpheus and his music constitute a fiction, but it is true that Orphic wisdom tames cruel hearts. In biblical or theological allegory, the literal sense is true and historical, and the second or allegorical sense is spiritual, being an interpretation of fact and history. Thus the Exodus, when Israel went out of Egypt, is supposedly a historical fact, but spiritually interpreted it is our redemption by Christ. On this distinction between an allegory of the poets that is so palpably weak and an allegory of the theologians at once true and prophetic, it is obvious why Dante made his choice. But it is not quite the same choice when Singleton and the Singletonian side of Freccero try to follow Dante. Singleton sensibly reminds us that "Beatrice is not Christ" although her advent is an analogy to the advent of Christ:

Thus it is that the figure of a rising sun by which Beatrice comes at last to stand upon the triumphal chariot is the most revealing image which the poet might have found not only to affirm the analogy ofher advent to Christ's in the present tense, but to stress, in so doing, the very basis upon which that analogy rests: the advent of light.

Charles Williams, in his study The Figure of Beatrice, says that "the entire work of Dante…. is a description ofthe great act of knowledge, in which Dante himselfis the Knower, and God is the Known, and Beatrice is the Knowing." Can we, with Singleton, accept her as an analogy or, with Williams, as Dante's knowing or gnosis, or is she now the principal embarrassment of Dante's poem? As a fiction she retains her astonishing force, but does not Dante present her as more than a fiction, as a theological or biblical allegory? How are we to recapture Dante's sense of Beatrice if we cannot accept the analogy of her advent to Christ's? Singleton's answer is that Beatrice is the representation of wisdom in a Christian sense, or of the light of grace. That is not poetically persuasive, unless its analogical matrix is light rather than grace. Yet Dante persuades not by his theology but by his uncanny mastery of the trope of light, a mastery in which he surpasses even the blind Milton among the poets. Here is Paradiso 30: 100-102, in John Sinclair's translation (which I use throughout, with one exception): "There is a light up there which makes the Creator visible to the creature, who finds his peace only in seeing Him."
This, Singleton says, is the light of glory rather than the light of grace, which is Beatrice's, or the natural light, which is Virgil's. Dante's peculiar gift supposedly is to have found perpetually valid analogies for all three lights. Since his poem's fiction of duration is not temporal but final, all three modes of light must be portrayed by him as though they were beyond change. And yet an unchanging fiction cannot give pleasure, as Dante clearly knew. What does he give us that more than compensates for his poem's apparent refusal of temporal anguish?
Auerbach's answer was the trope of figura: "something real and historical which announces something else that is also real and historical." Cato of Utica in the first canto of Purgatorio is a famous Auerbachian example, which I wish to worry a bit, for a moment. How is the historical Cato of Utica the figura of Dante's Cato of Purgatory? The historical Cato sought freedom, but he was a pagan, an opponent of Caesar, and a suicide. Auerbach argues that Cato's quest for civic freedom finds its fulfillment in the Christian freedom through purgation that Dante sets him to supervise. Yes, but that quest for freedom was expressed through his suicide, itself an act of his anti-Caesarism and his paganism. And is the historical Virgil truly a figura of which Dante's Virgil is the fulfillment?
Is the poet Virgil in any way more reasonable than, say, the poet Horace? Like Lucretius, but less dogmatically, Virgil was an Epicurean. Dante could have relied upon Virgil's Epicurean consciousness of pain, with its deep awareness that the cosmos and the gods were unreasonable, as an intimation that Virgil needed Christianity. Instead, Dante strongly misread Virgil as a believer in a rational cosmos. But Dante, and Auerbach, and Saint Paul, cannot really have it both ways at once. You cannot say that Virgil in Dante's Comedy is the historical Virgil, but then again is not. If the historical Virgil or Cato or Moses or Joshua is only a figura of the fulfilled truth that Dante's Comedy, or the New Testament, reveals, then this fulfillment necessarily is more real, more replete with significance, than the figura was or is. As soon as Virgil or Cato, Moses or Joshua, becomes less significant or real than Dante or Jesus or Saint Paul, then the Aeneid and the Hebrew Bible also become less significant and less real than the Comedy or the New Testament. Indeed, the Aeneid and the Hebrew Bible are replaced. Instead of Virgil's Aeneid) the nightmare poem dominated by the sinister Juno and her horrible ministers Allecto and the Dira, we get Dante's tamer or castrated Aeneid, which dwindles eventually into Matthew Arnold's and T. S. Eliot's banal and priggish Aeneid. Instead of the Hebrew Bible of J, Jeremiah, and Job, we get that captive work, the Old or indeed senescent Testament, considerably less vital than the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible becomes the letter, while Saint Paul and Saint John become the spirit.
In merest fact, and so in history, no text can fulfill another, except through some self-serving caricature of the earlier text by the later. To argue otherwise is to indulge in a dangerous idealization of the relationship between literary texts, akin to Singleton's idealization of the allegory of the theologians. Both stances - Auerbach's and Singleton's - refuse the temporal anguish ofliterary history. We have learned that Freud's later account of repetition compulsion is the final Western figural prophesying our urge to drive beyond the pleasure principle. For us, now, the only text that can fulfill earlier texts, rather than correct or negate them, is what ought to be called the text of death, which is totally opposed to what Dante sought to write.
The earlier Auerbach, seer of Dante as poet of the secular world, seems to me a better guide than the Auerbach who became the prophet of figura. Dante's way of representing reality, according to the earlier Auerbach, was to depict not the Homeric "time in which destiny gradually unfolds, but the final time in which it is fulfilled." If time indeed is finality, beyond all unfolding, then reality indeed can be represented in a single act that is both character and fate. Dante's men and women reveal themselves totally in what they say and do, but they do not and cannot change because of what Dante has them say or do. Chaucer, though he was more indebted to Dante than he would acknowledge, departed from Dante precisely in this, a departure that constitutes the largest Chaucerian influence upon Shakespeare. The Pardoner listens to himself speaking, is moved by his own sermon and his own tale, and is made more doom-eager through just that listening. This mode of representation expands in Shakespeare to a perfection that no writer since has attained so consistently. Hamlet may be the most bewilderingly metamorphic of Shakespeare's people, but as such he helps establish what becomes the general mode. Nearly everyone of consequence in Shakespeare helps to inaugurate a mimetic mode that has naturalized itself for us, so that it now contains us, as it were; it has become a contingency that we do not recognize as such. Shakespeare's characters (and we ourselves) are strengthened or victimized, reach an apotheosis or are destroyed, by themselves (like ourselves) reacting to what they say and do. It may be more than an irony to observe that we have learned to affect ourselves so strongly, in part, because involuntarily we imitate Shakespeare's characters. We never imitate Dante's creatures because we do not live in finalities; we know that we are not fulfilled.
Freccero, student of Singleton and disciple of Auerbach, happily is prevented from vanishing utterly into their idealizing historicisms by his keen sense of the agonistic basis of Dante's actual poetics, a sense in which Curtius is Freccero's precursor. Freccero's Singletonian emphasis upon a "poetics of conversion" misrepresents, to a surprising degree, his own praxis as a critic of Dante, which is always to locate the strength of what I would call Dante's transumptions or metaleptic reversals of all poetic precursors-Latin, Provençal, and Italian. This returns Freccero, and ourselves, to the earlier Auerbach's emphasis upon Dante's originality in the representation of persons. As seer, Dante identified character with fate, ethos with the daimon) and what he saw in his contemporaries he transferred to the three final worlds of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante's friends and enemies alike are beheld by us, shown to us without ambivalence or ambiguity, as being consistent with themselves, beyond change, their eternal destinies overdetermined not by God and the angels but by their own fixed characters.
There are perpetual surprises in his Comedy for Dante himself, as for us, but there are no accidents. The magnificent Farinata, as sublimely proud as Milton's Satan, stands upright in his tomb, as if of Hell he had a great disdain, and he is heroic, because he is massively consistent with himself: he can be nothing but what he is. But his poetic splendor has little to do with the allegory of the theologians, as that is simply not an available mode for us any longer, despite Auerbach's devotion to figural Singleton's passion for Thomas Aquinas, and Freccero's reliance upon Augustine as the inventor of the novel of the self. Singleton, in rejecting the allegory of the poets, said that it would reduce Dante's Virgil to a mere personification of reason. I would reply that Virgil, an allegory of the poets indeed, should be read not as Reason, the light of nature, but as the trope of that light, reflecting among much else the lusters of the tears of universal nature. When Dante says farewell to Virgil, he takes leave not of Reason but of the pathos of a certain natural light. Dante abandons Virgil not to seek grace but to find his own image of voice. In the oldest and most authentic allegory of the poets, Virgil represents poetic fatherhood, the scene of instruction that Dante must transcend if he is to complete his journey to Beatrice.
Beatrice is the most difficult of all Dante's tropes, because sublimation no longer seems a human possibility. One highly respected feminist critic has characterized Beatrice as a "dumb broad," presumably because she contemplates the One without understanding Him. I venture that Beatrice is now so difficult to apprehend precisely because she participates both in the allegory ofthe poets and in that of the theologians. Since her advent follows Dante's poetic maturation, or the vanishing of Virgil the precursor, Beatrice is a poetic allegory ofthe Muse, whose function is to help the poet remember. Remembering is, in poetry, always the major mode of cognition, so Beatrice is Dante's power of invention, the essence of his art. Already the highest of the Muses, Beatrice is also far above them because she has the status of a heretical myth, a saint canonized by Dante, or even an angel created by him. It is now customary to speak of Dante as the Catholic poet, even as Milton is called the Protestant poet. Perhaps someday Kafka will be named as the Jewish writer, though his distance from normative Judaism is infinite. Dante and Milton were not less idiosyncratic, each in his own time, than Kafka is in ours, and the figure of Beatrice would be heresy and not myth if Dante had not been so strong a poet that the Church of later centuries has been happy to claim him. Auerbach knew that Dante was not Tertullian, while Singleton escaped his own temptation of confounding Aquinas with Dante, and Freccero does not confuse Dante and Augustine. Unfortunately, the readers of all three critics sometimes seem to have learned to read Dante precisely as they would read theology. A distorted emphasis upon doctrine is the unhappy result, and soon readers forget the insight of Curtius, which is that Dante's Beatrice is the central figure in a purely personal gnosis. Dante was a ruthless visionary, passionately ambitious and desperately willful, whose poem triumphantly expresses his own unique personality. The Comedy is not an allegory of the theologians, but an immense trope of pathos or power, the power of the singular individual who was Dante.

Date: 2021-12-23