Medieval Hermeneutics: Dante's Poetic and Historicity [Joseph A. Mazzeo]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Joseph A. Mazzeo

Tratto da: Religion and Literature

Numero: 17

Anno: 1985

Pagine: 1-24

If an earlier generation of Dante’s admirers found allegorism something of an embarrassment and located Dante’s poetic genius in his power to transcend the limitations of a poet committed to allegorical didacticism, a later generation of scholars remained to pray where their forerunners had mocked. But our contemporaries—or nearcontemporaries — had been trained to admire poetry for its presumed richness of ambiguity, its condensation of multiple allusions, its conflation of complex and mutually reinforcing meanings in single expressions. They found all this in Dante and so hailed the great poet for his “unified sensibility,” his power to amalgamate disparate experiences, and thereby located his genius in his power to create an integrated “polysemous” text, a text not only with multiple meanings but the most coherent and comprehensive ordering of the complexities of experience we possess.
Dante had intended that his poem would contribute not only to his own salvation but that of his readers, who would, he hoped, find the poem a channel of grace, much as many readers of Scripture have found that text illuminating in a religious and not merely in an intellectual sense. It is not, of course, possible to say whether or not Dante’s work served as a means of grace to many of his readers but it is obvious that the Comedy has attracted an exegetical activity, often so minute and laborious, as to rival the kind of attention Scripture received when large portions of that text were believed to be a kind of tightly packed code wherein we might find graciously revealed divine truths once we could decode and unpack it.
Allegory has been called a metaphor which has been dramatized and such a definition surely calls our attention to the importance of personification in allegorical literature. Yet, as we shall see, there is little personification in the Commedia, if we mean by personification the sort of practice we find in the Roman de la Rose or Pilgrim Progress. A metaphor, further, would be the source of a simile, for the latter is nothing else than a metaphor with the explicitness of the comparison suppressed. Thus allegory may be viewed as a dramatized simile by which a likeness is drawn between something we understand and something we understand less well. In this sense, a simile of a journey is the root analogy of the Commedia.
Some readers, and the greatest instance would be Coleridge, have denied that the Commedia is allegorical and would have preferred to think of it as symbolic. Here of course we open up a complex question, but if we prefer to think of the Commedia as symbolic rather than allegorical narrative we should come up with a definition of symbolism we may find serviceable. I think we can all agree that a symbol is simply a metaphor which has suppressed all explicit comparisons by suppressing one root of an analogy. In this way the object or event which forms one term of the fundamental analogy comes to have, in addition to its obvious objective meaning, a more remote reference or relation to something not itself. Thus the dance may be a symbol of heavenly bliss. Modern criticism is saturated with the term “imagery” but it is used in too many different ways and with little more meaning than that of “a figure of speech.” In any event we can agree that if the Commedia is going to be called an allegory it must be so called in some special sense, nor can we assume that it is allegorical for all of its 14,233 lines.
There is a considerable literature both on Dante’s allegory and on allegory in general, and I must confess that I am culpable of contributing to it both early and late. The literature is, I fear, a confusing one, for we find often enough the absence of careful discriminations between allegory as a principle of interpretation and allegory as a principle of literary construction. Also, allegory is sometimes discussed as if it were coextensive with interpretation as such, or so rigidly defined that we must treat any allegorical text as if it were a code. Motives for allegorical interpretation are not always clearly elucidated and we are allowed to forget that allegorical interpretations of Homer, for example, were intended to save the morality of the text for a later time which found the simple and direct meaning of many passages offensive. Nor is such allegorizing distinguished from the allegorical impulse which seeks to refine a religious text in the interest of more exalted and less anthropomorphic conceptions of the divine. Finally, we are not always sufficiently reminded of the vast difference between the ancient rhetorical tradition of allegory which is simply “to say one thing and mean another” and that metaphysically and religiously based tradition of allegorism which finds in events and realities latent meanings which God made intrinsic to them.
Dante himself was not very illuminating or even very clear, as we can see, about what he distinguished as the “allegory of poets” and the “allegory of theologians” in the Convivio (II,i). That discussion appears incomplete and the later discussion of allegory in the Letter to Can Grande makes no mention of the allegory of poets and assumes the allegory of theologians as the sole basis for understanding what sort of poem the Commedia is supposed to be. Now this shift, while very significant, does not solve the problem of what Dante’s opinions on allegory were precisely, for no sane man who understood what the allegory of theologians implied în 1ts strict meaning would have claimed to be writing such an allegory directly, that is, on his own artistic authority and out of his own spiritual substance. Only Sacred Scripture could be strictly described as constructed according to the allegory of theologians for only such a text, divinely authored and inspired, descriptive of the men, events, and realities which God created and ordained for his own self-disclosure, could have both meanings that are verbal (in litteris) and further meanings to be read out of the realities the text presents and describes (in rebus).
To assume, as Dante seems to in the Convivio, that both the allegory of poets and that of theologians might be analyzed as possessing four senses and that three of these are spiritual would have been, as we have seen, quite wrong. True, he there acknowledges that poets understand the second sense differentiy than do the theologians, but that is never explained although the text might seem to indicate that the second sense, for poets, would be a moral sense. In the Letter to Can Grande, the second sense is correctly indicated as doctrinal, that is, allegorical in reference to the Christ. Neither in the Convivio nor in any other discussion of his poetry and the method of reading it does Dante work out for us a fourfold interpretation of his own text in any specific way. In practice, he regards his poetry as certainly possessing an allegorical meaning in some sense of the word, but he never invokes the apparatus of theological exegesis to explain his narrative. On the other hand, the ample symbolism of certain important episodes of the Purgatorio, drawn from the Biblical and the iconographic tradition of the Church, might well be read as “polysemous” in the full theological sense. But we should distinguish between the nature of any poets narrative and the symbolic landscape he may introduce and which he derives from a tradition wherein the symbolic elements were already endowed with a full quota of higher senses. Dante abundantly uses pre-established symbolic natures.
The only way a poet could legitimately claim to be writing a poem endowed with spiritual senses with some analogy to the way in which we might find them in Scripture is to introduce sacred symbols, personages, and events into his own poem, to use Scripture as interpreted in theological allegory as a source for symbols, images, and patterns. This Dante certainly does. In addition, he might claim the power of prophetic inspiration whereby the poet inspired by the Holy Spirit is empowered to discern and disclose the higher meanings in the events of his experience, historical or contemporary, which are not covered by the tradition of theological exegesis. This I think Dante also claims. What he thus can claim is to occupy analogically a relation to the inspired writers of Scripture. But he certainly cannot and does not claim to be writing and composing in exact correspondence to the state of the authors of the canonical books of Scripture. Dante surely wanted to give to his readers the truth which saves but he knew as well as we do that what he had to give us in the way of that kind of truth was well known and well established. He never claims to have an original revelation, however inspired he may have thought himself to be. Let us now return to the problems of theological exegesis to clarify further precisely what Dante’s conception of his poetic might have been.
A text describing the Exodus, for example, has first of all a meaning in simply what the words signify. No doubt, even the ordinary reader may discern an allegorical significance beyond it, some paradigmatic moral significance in all likelihood, but it is the event of the Exodus itself which provides us with spiritual meanings, for the Exodus is not merely an occurence but a type of the passage of the soul from sin to salvation, from the miseries of this life to the beatitude of the other. Exodus is thus the type of a salvific event, salvific in itself and prophetic of other salvific events to follow. Now such spiritual meanings do not derive from language as the vehicle of meanings but from the events described in language. They are ontological realities, placed in.the events by God Himself, discerned but not created by the interpreter understanding under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the reader would not find spiritual meanings, although he might well find one or another “allegorical,” beyond the literal. In the late antique and medieval understanding of the nature of literature, any narrative would be capable of allegorical interpretation in this sense. No one, however, expected to find spiritual senses in Ovid or Lucan, although such authors were regularly read allegorically as well as literally. But the act of reading Scripture was differently conceived foto genere, for God not only authored the text, he is also, as the Holy Spirit, its interpreter.
In a way, Dante admits that his work cannot quite be read like Scripture, for in the Convivio the three higher meanings are all treated as belonging together although he does distinguish between allegorical, moral, and anagogical, while in the letter to Can Grande Dante denominates all the higher meanings as allegorical in the general sense while distinguishing moral and anagogical as subordinated divisions of allegorical. Moreover, in the Convivio he explicitly states that he will confine his exegesis of his odes to the allegorical sense for the most part and only touch upon the other senses. In the Letter to Can Grande he distinguishes only between literal and allegorical when he describes his poem as dealing with “man as liable to the reward or punishment of justice according to the way in which he has used his free will.” He does not offer the slightest clue here as to what the moral or anagogical meanings of the poem might be. Any number of scholars and critics have offered to provide this information for us but they have all done so without the slightest help from Dante.
On the other hand, there is a good deal of teaching of doctrine through allegorical or—if you prefer — symbolic means, in the poem. In the Purgatorio above all we encounter constant allegorical instruction in the sculptured figures on one terrace or the voices of another, in the angel who carves seven P’s on Dante’s brow, as well as in his colleagues who remove them successively. At the entrance to Purgatory we find three steps symbolizing the three stages of confession, while the angelic porter has two keys and his robe is the grey color of the ashes of penitence. Dante gives a great deal of attention to the sacrament of penance perhaps because it was only about a hundred years before his time at the Lateran Council of 1215 that it became an obligation of the faithful to practice auricular confession.
The great pageant at the top of Purgatory is surely allegorical or symbolic in some perfectly plain sense of either of these terms and it has called forth an anagogical interpretation, yielding a story of the soul’s return to God, from Charles Singleton. Here figural or typological methods of interpretation have been of importance, and they disclose Beatrice as a figura Christi. It is the figural view of reality, the sense that men and events are realities and prophetic meanings both, which in the view of Erich Auerbach is the source of Dante’s Christian realism. Charles Williams among others takes Dante’s allegorical and figural strategies as evidence that Dante was a mystic. While it is impossible for us to decide such a question, it is surely true that the pilgrim of the poem ends his journey with the possession of the beatific vision while still in this life. And that surely is one definition of a mystic. The pilgrim’s claim to a mystical vision leads us to the question of whether Dante claimed supernatural inspiration for his poetry and this quite directly leads us to consider the problem of the meaning of the phrase “sweet new style” (dolce stil nuovo).
In the famous episode in which this phrase occurs (Purg. XXIV) Dante has Bonagiunta da Lucca refer to the “sweet new style” practiced by Dante and, it seems, an uncertain number of others. The phrase comes in reply to Dante'’s self-definition of himself as a poet who is inspired by love, takes note according to the dictation of love, and so “signifies.”

…Io mi son un che quando
Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo
ch'è ditta dentro, vo significando. (52-54)

[I am one who, when love inspires me,
takes note, and goes setting
it forth in that manner which he dictates within.]

Now a great deal has been written about this passage and the meaning of it is still uncertain. The sweet new style has been taken to signify the sort of poetry to be found in the Vita Nuova, an intellectualized version of the Troubadour adoration of the lady composed with elegance and grace. The word amor has been taken in this instance to refer to an intimate quasi-religious experience of inspiration, or to an introspective approach to poetry rather than a craft-like approach.
Whatever the case may be I would like to submit that the interpreter of these lines should bear in mind that the pilgrim who says them is in Purgatory, well advanced on his way to Paradise, and that the process he describes is precisely that of inspired dictation used to describe the inspiration of prophets by the Holy Spirit. If Dante can adapt Biblical theories of exegesis to tell us that his poem is not a fiction in any ordinary sense of the term fiction, he can adapt the concept of the Holy Spirit as the spirit who will lead us into all truth to the purposes of telling us that he, Dante, is an inspired poet, a poet who traces the source of his poetry finally to the Love, the third person of the Trinity.
What then can we say that Dante was doing when he applied the concept of the allegory of theologians to his own poem? He was, I think, adapting as best he could, but not too precisely, a theologicalexegetical doctrine to the description of his poem in order to establish an analogy between his poem and Scripture. So too, the claim to be a poet who takes the dictation of love establishes an analogy between the poet and prophet. The claims implicit in the assumption of a poetic of the allegory of theologians and the assumption of a prophetic role serve to remove Dante’s poem from the category of “fiction,” as his theologically and philosophically erudite contemporaries would have understood the term fiction, and assimilate the poet to the category of prophet, far from the poet whom St. Thomas regarded as able to dispense only the lowest form of truth.
These claims endow Dante’s poem with an enormous claim to truth. Any simple rhetorical theory of poetic allegory, a two-level theory of narrative as an extended metaphor of moral truths of greater generality than the immediate narrative, would simply not have accounted for the fact that the Commedia is a poem filled with moral truth about real characters, with intellectual truth about the real world as the greatest thinkers known to the poet had described it, and with religious truth concerning God’s will for mankind and the means for our salvation.
Now Dante would never have claimed that he could create typological realities, realities with intrinsic prophetic or salvific meanings. He could, however, legitimately claim to have discovered such meanings both where all those under grace discover them and where, under personal inspiration, some may read more deeply into the divine book of history and nature than the rest of us. Only God can make realities which are simultaneously realities or “things” (res) and also meanings or “signs” (signa). God uses his creation and its history as his selfrevelations; they are his “Book” and the “Book” is written in events and realities which are also meanings, in this special sense, “words.” With God's grace and with a measure of the gift of prophetic insight, one may discern the meaning of things, discern in some degree how the welter of experience is ordered in the mind of God. To have this knowledge is to have what reason discerns infused with charity and with wisdom.
Now, by analogy, God's way of self-disclosure may describe the way in which inspired poets celebrating Christian truth write their poems, for as the truth of God is embedded in the flow of experience, so the truth of the poem is embedded in the “fiction,” the matrix which holds the various truths together in those relations which reveal those truths as inducive to charity and revelatory of wisdom. Dante required what we would today call a theory of “fiction” which would confer on poetry a high and singular modality of truth. He was able to find the lineaments of such a theory only in the exegetical theory applied to Scripture. By adapting that theory to his poem he was able to claim for himself, alongside the theologian and philosopher, a valid vision of the order of things.
The uncertainties and obscurities of Dante’s discussions of allegory or, indeed, of any of the classic discussions of allegory, stem from a conceptual instability inherent in the theory itself. One may conveniently describe four levels of meaning in theological interpretive allegory but surely not every portion of the sacred text can be presumed to display this pattern nor need we stop at four levels. Why not five? Or six or more? Indeed, the theory is no more rigorous philosophically than the “Seven Types of Ambiguity” which Empson discerned as fundamental to the structure of poetry. This is the case because theological allegorism is basically a theory about the analogical potential of a preferred metaphorical system, the Christian narrative understood as the outcome of prophetic history and in the light of a full creedal amplification. Understood in this way, the Christian story sets some kind of limit to exegetical amplifications although the story becomes paradigmatic even in its details. The interpreter then actualizes its analogical potential by assimilating all kinds of different ranges of experience and significance to the paradigm. Thus although the number of possible analogies which may derive from the basic narrative may be indefinitely large, there are really only two essential levels to the sacred text, the narrative-historical (and literal) level, and the spiritual level discerned in the content of the literal level.
In secularized terms, the reader brings to the text not only appropriate questions but an ontological scheme which realizes meanings in what the text conveys beyond its immediate meaning. In fact, this implies nothing other than Heidegger's hermeneutical circle. Everyone brings to any text certain questions and presuppositions, if only in the sense that no interpreter is a blank receiver of significances. On the contrary, each significance discerned is the product of the meanings the historically shaped self carries with it to the act of interpretation. Exegesis without presuppositions in this sense is impossible. What is possible is the elimination, in principle, of arbitrary presuppositions.
I need not, of course, point out that some at least of the presuppositions required of the exegete reading Scripture according to the classical four-fold method would seem quite arbitrary to the non-believer. The Old Testament was certainly not constructed to be simply a prophetic forerunner of the New, although the great narratives of the Gospels are clearly constructed to illustrate its events as fulfiliments of prophecy. This is true everywhere but Matthew is surely the great example of this practice. Thus, while the reading of the Old Testament as prophetic in the minute sense in which the theological allegorists would have understood it may be arbitrary, reading the New Testament narratives, framed with constant allusions to prophecy, would not be arbitrary. The New Testament narratives are theologically evolved narratives, written to be read with “spiritual significances.”
We may, without violating the domain of the sacred, appropriately describe Dante as writing a work written so that the reader may find spiritual significances in the narrative and that he may do so because Dante incorporated in his narrative and his system of allusions those events, symbols, and metaphors which his religious culture had imbued with rich significances we may understand as spiritual senses.
Dante shapes the characters and events introduced into the poem to disclose larger significances. There is nothing new in this. We have long known that although Dante insists on the historicity of his dramatis personae he treats historical realities to serve his moral and artistic purposes. As one scholar eloquently observed: Dante was not interested in finding for each character in his poem a niche to correspond exactly to the merits of that person as a historical figure; he is interested in creating ideal categories that will illuminate the structure of reality as he sees it. Into these categories he fits his characters. Only in this way could his poem avoid being an inventory of dead souls and become what he wanted it to be and what it is— an insight into the nature of things so compelling that it directs the wills of the living and obliges them, through a recognition of reality, to be saved.
It was a commonplace of the schools that Scripture teaches preeminently in the historical mode (historice). Christianity is of course a religion firmly rooted in historical figures and historical events. But Scripture also teaches with parables or similitudes and with figures of speech (parabolice and metaphorice). Certainly Dante followed the Scriptural model by insisting on the historicity of his characters. The Commedia has nearly six hundred explicitly named characters. About two hundred and fifty of them are classical, some eighty are Biblical, while at least two hundred and fifty are of his own time or the immediately preceding periods. Even their distribution in three realms has a significance. Hell has the greatest number of Florentines, as we might expect, thirty-two, and eleven other Tuscans. The number of Dante's compatriots drops sharply in Purgatory to four with again eleven other Tuscans, while Paradise has only two Florentines and no Tuscans.
Of course, that Dante insisted on historicity does not mean that he did not select and shape historical attributes to reveal moral significance. The true meaning of history is not the factual but the moral and so Dante must also teach metaphorice and parabolice. In the Letter to Can Grande Dante recognized in a reference to Plato’s use of metaphor that metaphor may be the only recourse of one whose intellect has seen many things for which he cannot find vocal signs permitting the direct expression of them. We may surmise then that Dante’s poetic method was to embed the historical into a gigantic metaphor which established a similitude between this life and the next so that the imaginary journey becomes a necessary and true fiction. Parabolically, the poet teaches everywhere he draws similitudes which issue in moral insight.
The doctrine of theological allegory is nothing else than an aspect, a particular formulation of what Erich Auerbach, inspired by the extraordinary insights into Dante’s poem and culture of Schelling and Hegel, and by the profound observations of Vico on the relation between language and culture, called Christian realism. Let us turn now and consider this great literary and cultural revolution.
Ferdinand Lot, the great historian of late antique and medieval culture, remarked that Christianity had placed an abyss between us and the classical world. Such a view is perhaps too strong and it is legitimate to view Christianity, as a number of Church fathers did, as emerging quite naturally out of classical civilization and, indeed, as fulfilling it. Nevertheless, there are profound differences between the ancient and modern points of view on any number of subjects which may be traced to the influence of Christianity. It surely marked, as Nietzsche observed, a great transvaluation of values.
Ancient and modern historiography offer us, as we have seen, a profound contrast, for where the modern historian discerns the action of forces in history the ancients saw examples of virtues and vices.
The kind of historiography we find in Scripture is, as we have seen, prophetic, and the method for understanding it can be called figural or typological interpretation. Persons and events become the bearers of meanings, figures of another order of reality, transcendental in meaning but lying on the axis of time. This view establishes an ontological relationship between two persons or events such that the first is not simply itself in its own proper significance but also signifies the second which comes after it. The second implies, refers to, or fulfills the first. They are related as shadow to image (umbra and imago), as types of each other or as type to antitype. The two elements of a figure are separated on the temporal axis but they lie along it. They are both real persons or real events and are incorporated into temporality and the flow of history. They are therefore real and only our grasp of their deep and real inter-relatedness is an act of the inspired mind. The interconnectedness is not ordinarily perceived by the skeptic for it is not a causal interconnection but rather flows from the relation of both elements of such a figure to Divine Providence which both ordains the history of salvation and bestows on man the means of comprehending it. The link between both ends of such an analogy or real metaphor is provided by God, who permits us to see the resemblance through the structures of revelation.
Auerbach traced the great Christian revolution in style to two crucial religious motifs: the hiddenness of God whose true nature had only effectively manifested itself to Israel in its history and finally, in the Christian outcome of that history, and the parousia, the Incarnation in a man just like other men, living a common life with his fellow men, of the very Godhead. Both history and ordinary daily reality were thus made the settings and the vehicles for the ultimate divine self-disclosure. Such a view of God and his workings in the world shattered the canons of classical ideals of style and of the gulf which Hellenistic piety had placed between the supreme God and man, for it mandated the serious literary and intellectual treatment of ordinary reality. The tragic element of existence, although transcended in Christianity, nevertheless entered as a moment in it, and it henceforth became possible to confer on ordinary life a tragic dimension as well as that dimension of sublimity which transcends the tragic in the Christian scheme of things.
I here use the term “tragic” in a loose way for there is a sense in which the figural treatment of reality, based as it is on the providential ordination by God of all things, renders the tragic vision impossible, for Providence justifies and reconciles, without loss or incomprehensibility, all sufferings and conflicts. Tragedy as we experience it in Sophocles or Aeschylus could only be subsumed, for the Christian, as an element in the much larger whole which is the Christian cosmic drama. Hence the drama of the Flizabethans, for example, incorporated the Christian influence on culture by enlarging the setting in which action takes place, dealing with a variety of possible subjects and conflicts, and creating characters with more “background.” Their fate is less external to them than the fate of the protagonist of classical drama, more the result of what we would interpret as psychological and social forces expressed through their heightened individuality.
Although deeply rooted in a concrete sense of history, of events and persons, figural interpretation showed a strong tendency to reduce such concrete realities simply to “meanings.” This was in part a result of the classical historical tradition which was thoroughly exemplaristic and morally didactic. The interesting element in the protagonists of history was, from this point of view, a virtue or a vice, a dominating ability or a fatal flaw. Moreover, the learned Biblical exegete who had been trained in the classical ideals of rhetoric and philosophy would have been inclined to allegorize away much of the concreteness of Scripture in the interests of a higher morality or of conceptual clarity.
Now, according to the tenets of Christian realism, Cato, Virgil, Beatrice and other important figures of the Commedia are figurae. Please note that the figural method is also applied to pagans like Cato, one of the very few pagans to be saved (and quite unexpectedly), and Virgil, so important to Dante but who will nevertheless spend eternity in Limbo. What they are in the next world is the fulfillment, the sensus plenior, of what they were in this, and what they were in their temporal life was simply a fraefiguratto of the final eternal definition. They are thus, in eternity, fulfilled figures, figurae impletae.
Now the temporal self and the eternal self are both concrete. To be eternalized, for Dante, does not mean to dissolve into an impersonal abstraction, a mere symbol or an abstract allegorical significance. The Christian believed that he took himself into eternity, however much he might be changed, and that the eternal self would be recognizably related to the temporal one. To be sure they neither marry nor are given in marriage in heaven, but we shall surely recognize those we have known and loved. Historical and personal realities thus do not end up as mere meanings. Even after they have ceased to exist in the flux of time they always retain that measure of concrete existence persons can take with them into eternity. Thus the eternal world is laden, for Dante, with all the concreteness of this one. It is full of historical memory and personal phenomena. Schelling observed that Dante was the first poet to present the self as the result of an historical and temporal process. A man's final definition is thus the resultant of his actions over time, and eternity is given in the vectorial sum of all the actions and events which life has engendered. But eternity gives a decisive, final, and definitive estimate to all the aspects of human life and of each individual character. Eternity is therefore a grand cosmic spectacle for there is only one comprehensive cosmic drama of judgment in which the myriads of individual dramas are subsumed.
It was Dorothy Sayers who expressed this difference of Dante’s allegory from other kinds aptly in a comparison between Dante and Spenser. Spenser offers us a figure, Belphoebe, who stands for chastity and who also represents, along with other meanings, Queen Elizabeth. Dante would have reversed Spenser’s procedure and given us a figure called Queen Elizabeth who would also represent chastity. In other words, in Dante’s poem, the mimesis of the character is primary and the disclosure of significances occurs through the character’s qualities and conduct rather than by attrition.
Dante thus takes all of the elements of the real world and its history and sets them in a new system of relationships, a new environment of analogical relations structured by the cosmology of the eternal world. By annihilating the temporal and spatial relationships which separated the characters of the poem as they lived in the flux of history, Dante transfers them to a contemporaneous existence, to an essentially timeless present. They are therefore seen with a definitive reality and value. They are seen as the poet, imitating the judgment of God, finally saw them, presented to us in the fiction of the journey in imitation of the way God undoubtedly might view them, with all of their historical reality intensified as well as transformed, and their meanings defined under the supreme fiction of absolute judgment sub specie aeternitatis. They are all, of course, creatures of the poetic imagination but, since Dante created them by analogy with the great structures governing the physical and moral world of his time, they are creations about which one might ask the same questions as one asks about the content of the real world. Dante’s mimes:s is thus truly Aristotelian, for it gives us the concrete particular in the general, the individual in the formally universal. Hence the pilgrim wonders, asks questions, and obtains real knowledge in answer to them.
We may view Dante’s grand system of analogies to eternity as based on a number of presuppositions. As we have seen, history and biography are the arena in which divine intentions and powers manifest themselves. And although God may disclose himself in an obvious way through extraordinary and miraculous interventions, He regularly discloses himself in the on-going history of nations and in the lives of individuals. Of course, there is no absolutely unequivocal selfdisclosure of the divine in the sense that all men would be persuaded by it. Such an event would simply obviate the requirement of faith. But, to the eyes of faith, historical and biographical realities are also signs, located along the temporal axis of the creation. Similarly, the objects of creation distributed in space along the grand hierarchy of being and value are signs, along the space axis of the space-time of medieval cosmology, mirror images of varying size and power (specula) of divine being and beauty, each one reflecting back the image of God in its own peculiar modality to its origin in Him.
Christian tradition from its beginnings had found room for the expression of two quite contrary views toward nature. The beautiful words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount enjoining us to consider the lilies of the field who neither toil nor spin yet who are arrayed in a greater glory than that of Solomon always inspired those who saw in nature’s beauty an evident manifestation of God. So, too, St. Paul tells the gentiles that they had been given a revelation in the very creation they inhabit and that the visible things of this world direct us to the invisible realities of God. St. Augustine, in spite of the strongly pessimistic strain we find in his last great work, The City of God, nevertheless spends many pages lauding the beauty of the creation and using it as evidence for the providential governance of the world in his wrestlings with the problem of evil. Of course, along with this tradition there existed its contrary, which rejected nature and sought to escape the realm of the natural altogether. But this outlook found its clearest manifestation in heretical movements such as Gnosticism. The affirmation of the creation as good that we find in the very beginning of Genesis generally served as a check to extreme world-denying tendencies.
Certainly the influence of the great Franciscan revolution in the forms of Christian piety, the changes it brought about in the Christian sensibility, undoubtedly greatly fostered an increasingly profound sympathy for the created world, both animate and inanimate. St. Bonaventura’s marvelous little treatise, the Itinerarium mentis ad Deum, the journey of the mind to God along the paths marked out by the creation, is a manifestation at the philosophical level of the magnificent laudations of nature and its beauty that we find in Franciscan poetry and prayer. Any tendencies some Christian had to view nature in its degradation and enjoin upon believers a flight from it were overwhelmed by those who saw in nature, even in its ruin brought about by the Fall, the grand plan and a residual image of the Creator. Franciscan prayer and poetry of praise encouraged the contemplative to see in nature something of its primordial power and beauty, something of what it looked like as it emerged fresh from the hands of the Divine architect. After all, even in its ruins, a great cathedral or temple may yet disclose much of its original intention.
Hence we find in poetry and prayer which comes under this inspiration all kinds of comparisons drawn from nature. We discern various inner sacred harmonies in nature through the eyes of such contemplatives as we also learn of unsuspected affinities between realities which had appeared unrelated and widely separated over space and time. All created things, all temporal events, as we have seen, are signs. Thus as we find affinities over objects widely separated in space, we also find relations of great illuminating power between men and events separated by centuries. They are prophecies and fulfillments, questions and answers, the bearers of those meanings constantly interrupting from eternity to time. As cosmological analogy obliterated conceptual distance, so time was annihilated by prophetic typological vision. Past and future interpenetrated a timeless present.
As we can see, figural and typological interpretation, exemplaristic analogies between the creation and the Creator, between this world and a transcendental one, the belief in correspondences and affinities between orders of being, are all essentially poetic ways of looking at the world, ways conducive to metaphorical plenitude and exuberance. If we may think of prose as establishing a rather direct relationship between the thought and the words expressing the thought, then poetry in a way replaces thought with images which are, however, signs of still more complex ranges of thought which convey meanings through indirection. Such a way of looking at the world places every object in it in an environment made up of relations. Realities are not merely placed in an environment of Euclidean space and linear time but are each the nodal point of a network of analogies and relations expressing its universal affinities, attractions, and harmonies.
Every comparison then for one living in such a universe is a very weighty matter for it discloses a real aspect of the being of a reality. Hence, we are constrained to view the characters of Dante’s universe and his landscapes as incarnate ideas, concrete or living symbols, universals which conserve unalloyed their very concreteness or individuality. The actions of the characters too express the relations between the various ideas they embody. Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the drama of the Commedia is the interplay between the variety of ideas and corresponding moods or feelings one may find embodied in the events of each level.
We might now consider as an example of figuralism the choice of Virgil as the guide for Hell and Purgatory. Much has been written on this subject and, in the nature of things, some insoluble problems will remain for some readers, especially if we wish to reconstruct what Dante’s thought processes may have been in determining this choice. Why not, after all, choose Aristotle? Surely “il maestro di color che sanno” would have been a most appropriate choice. Dante's essential intellectual culture was largely Aristotelian and what better guide to the first two realms than the author of the Ethics? The Virgil problem has a further aspect. Why, when Dante can save Ripheus or Cato, does he not save Virgil? Ripheus was most just but merely a name in the Aeneid and Cato, however just, was a suicide. Surely, as far as anyone can tell, Virgil’s credentials for salvation in the universe of the Commedia are better than theirs. There is, I think, a simple answer to this latter question although it cannot convince everyone.
Dante surely intended in his poem to give us an artistic representation of the workings of grace, and that working is first and last paradoxical and laden with moral antinomies from the purely human point of view. God will surely save those whom he chooses to save regardless of all human views of justice or fair play. The Church of the elect and the sacramental Church may overlap, but they are by no means contiguous. If we turn to Peter Damian in the Paradiso he will tell us just this, that the mystery of predestination is indeed a mystery, one whose answer is hidden even from the blessed who see most deeply into the divine essence in the beatific vision. If Dante had saved Virgil he would have perpetrated an artistic banality. It is just the sort of thing ordinary minds would do and thereby deprive the poem of one of its most profound themes and of a good deal of its moral richness and complexity. In religious terms, God transcends every human conception of ethics and morality, and God's justice simply cannot be made contiguous with human justice at every point. If I may paraphrase St. Augustine, the merest, humblest Christian whose soul is saved is infinitely better off than Plato whose soul was lost.
All of us, even educated and civilized believers, are likely to find such views of God repugnant and distasteful, and with good reason. They lie at the root of much of the history of Christian religious terrorism. But as Kierkegaard spent many pages illustrating, the religious sphere is not the same as the sphere of ethics and morality, or the sphere of the aesthetic. Hence Dante’s imagined world is truly reflective of the moral antinomies which form part of the real world for any reflective man who does not wear the spectacles of unqualified cosmic optimism. There are real losses in Dante’s theocentric world just as there are in the real world as viewed by the most stringent of religious skeptics. Today, it is often enough believers who insist on trying to rationalize morally the whole of our experience as well as God Himself. If you insist on such a world and such a God there are many pages of Emerson, for example, you might read instead of Dante.
Now artistically if one would illustrate the gulf between the best of the pagan view of life and the Christian, what better choice could Dante have made, what more poignant, dramatic choice, than to use Virgil as his guide and mentor but finally leave him in the Limbo from which he came? Virgil, the Augustan born when the time of the world had arrived at its fulness, Virgil, the unconscious prophet of Christ, Virgil the poet of Empire, the moral guide, the paragon of poetic learning, nevertheless lost to eternal bliss. There is an abyss in the Christian scheme of things between the empirical self and the transcendental self, between the self visible in the world and the self hidden in God. The theme goes back to St. Paul himself and, in the Commedia, it reaches its most intense and complex expression in the interplay among Dante, Virgil, and Statius in Purgatory.
There we learn that one not himself saved may nevertheless serve as a channel of grace to another, and that artistic and moral greatness of the highest kind are not enough to warrant salvation, for in the final analysis salvation cannot be earned nor can we save ourselves. Grace renders all normal human values finally incommensurable with each other and with itself. The Pauline conversion, the change from Saul to Paul, from persecutor to the “chosen vessel” is surely the paradigm of the revolutionary and transvaluational character of grace. Now Dante was not a Calvinist nor does he share the dark pessimism of the late St. Augustine. Orthodoxy has always maintained that man's will is free to cooperate with grace or to refuse it but that grace is necessary to be saved. No believer should dare to number the elect nor dare to exclude anyone from the mercy of God. God alone knows who are numbered among the elect but He does know. That Virgil should have been an unconscious prophet, an unwitting instrument in the salvation of Statius as both man and artist, himself lost, simply heightens the mystery, incommensurability and paradoxicality of grace.
Nevertheless, Virgil and his Aeneid obviously had an incalculably great significance for Dante, far beyond the general significance of the poet and his work even for enthusiasts among Dante’s contemporaries. The great poem of antiquity was nothing less for Dante than a praefiguratio of the Commedia and the latter was truly the sensus plenior, the figura impleta of the earlier. Dante, early in his life, had worked out his own particular version of the prasparatio evangelica, and we can find a complete draft of his vision of the historical process necessary for the advent of Christianity and the full disclosure of God's plan for the human race in De Monarchia as well as in the Comedy itself. Aeneas, like St. Paul, and like Dante himself, was granted a universal vision of things, but only enough was disclosed to him to fit him for his proper task of founding the Empire, a necessary but certainly not a sufficient step in the history of salvation. That the Empire was to play a role in the plan of the divine providence that neither Aeneas nor the poet who celebrated the Roman imperial destiny could foresee is simply an aspect of the tragic and unfulfilled side of the grandeur that was Rome. In Hegel’s scheme of things the great world-historical figures who realize the advance of the Absolute Spirit do not know that they are such and it is part of the cunning of Universal Reason to use their conscious intentions to realize purposes unknown to them. The great figures of providential history are, at least until the fulness of revelation, also quite unconscious of their true significance in that history.
As pagan Rome yielded to Christian Rome so, in a way, Virgil must yield to Statius even as the latter pays him homage. Statius owed his artistic accomplishment to Virgil’s great exemplary poem and, since the path of salvation had been opened in his time, he could read the Fourth Eclogue as a prophecy of the Advent. Pagan culture in its greatest representative had served the purpose of Statius's salvation as both a man and an artist. His stature as a poet was not by any means the equal of his masters but his eternal destiny would take him to a bliss from which Virgil was forever excluded. God may not save the pagans and their culture but he certainly uses them to accomplish his own redemptive purposes in his own way both for the race and the individual.
Of course, there are any number of quite obvious and plausible reasons for the choice of Virgil. He was, as we have seen, the greatest poet whose works Dante knew and the ancient poet who celebrated the glories of Italy and the glory that was Rome. Moreover, centuries of allegorical interpretation had made it possible to read the Aeneid as a progress of the soul to moral perfection as well as the presumed historical narrative it was taken to be. Virgil was, I think, above all, the unconscious prophet of the coming of Christ and thus represented pagan culture seen in its role as a fraeparatio evangelica with all of the ironies and tragic perspectives that implies. Indispensable as it was, pagan civilization and its greatest representatives must be condemned if they are to be considered as autonomous realities. Their work was preparatory and their banishment from bliss possesses that disproportion between guilt and retribution characteristic of tragedy and the workings of divine election.
Dante’s Virgil is, I think, the greatest act of the historical imagination up to his time, for Dante has reconstructed an authentic ancient whose mind and outlook are as classical as careful study could make them. Of course, the dead Virgil has learned the truth and accepts the incomprehensible justice of his fate. Dante does not fail to remind us often that there is a careful distinction to be made between what Virgil was alive and what he is dead. The dead Virgil knows more and talks more like a Christian than the living one would have but that is simply a realistic representation of the addition death had made to the knowledge, inadequate for salvation, that the living sage possessed.
One grand indication of the way in which Virgil and his poem are precursors to the figura impleta of the Commedia is that Dante never once calls our attention to the differences between the way Virgil portrayed the underworld and the way he does. Dante'’s Virgil, we recall, had after his death made a journey down to Giudecca to fetch a soul up to earth for purposes of necromancy, conjured thereto by Erichto (Eriton) (Inf. IX), a Thessalian sorceress Dante learned about from Lucan. Dante seems to have invented the story of this prior journey and he did so in order, most tactfully, to call attention to the fact that his poem corrects the landscape Virgil gave us in life but to avoid having the dead Virgil act surprised at every step of the journey through Hell.
This is just one more example of the freedom with which Dante treats history and tradition in order to render its meaning, its ideality, and not its factuality. Dante ignores all those matters, good or bad, which confuse our perception of the eternal ideality of reality, the significance events and characters finally achieve. Empirical reality has too much of the accidental and fortuitous and the meaning must be abstracted from it. Aristotle would have understood his meaning of mimesis in what Dante does in this regard.
When we turn to Dante’s powers of mimetic characterization we note that, although he views all of his characters under a universal aspect, he never altogether sacrifices their individuality to their general significance. His great characters are overwhelmingly vivid and they define themselves with astonishing brevity. A distinctive and concrete individual reveals himself in the speech of a Pier della Vigne or a La Pia not to mention a Farinata degli Uberti. One grasps the process or the events in time which made them what we find them in eternity even though their temporal existence endures only as memory. Any scandals or aberrations or even virtues which may have been imputed to them in real life are either used or ignored depending on the exemplary use to which they are put. Cato might have been in Limbo with the virtuous heathen or in the wood of the suicides. Instead he is given a most important place in the working of purgation and possesses the promise of joining the blessed at the resurrection.
We hear much in the Commedia of Roman Emperors, and the names of Augustus or Trajan, saved by a miracle, or Justinian himself appear, the last to give us the course of Roman history from the eternal standpoint. But we may note that Dante never even mentions the bad emperors such as Nero or Caligula even if only to castigate them. They would have marred the ideal picture of the place of Roman history in the scheme of salvation. Even St. Bernard is a figura impleta with all of his immense polemical and forceful aspect completely ignored. His final meaning is his role as a contemplative and as a special votary of the Virgin.
Beatrice too appears in Paradise as something wholly other than a young Florentine woman of surpassing virtue and beauty. She discourses, for example, eloquently of philosophical and theological matters, a trait some critics have not admired. But, after all, theological and philosophical truths which we hold by faith are vision to her and simply part of her heavenly landscape. She now is a figura impleta and a fully conscious imago Christi for Dante, for revelation came to Dante through Beatrice as a divine lure. Of course, she bears analogies to Christ as do all the saved, for if the time before the Incarnation is praefiguratio Christi, the time after is imitatio Christi. As Virgil, Bernard, St. Lucy and the Virgin were all universally known figures who served in various ways to effect the salvation of Dante, Beatrice was his personal vehicle of saving grace.
The problem of Dante’s allegory and the great interest modern critics and scholars have shown in it has sometimes served to deflect the reader of the poem from a most important aesthetic reality: the supreme values of the poem are dramatic and lyrical, not narrative or directly didactic ones. The length of the Commedia and the enormous importance of Dante’s Virgil leads us, perhaps, to think of it as an epic, and there is no doubt that the Commedia commands comparison with its precursor, the Aene:d. It is, of course, something like an epic although it has more dialogue and less narrative than any comparable poem and it is certainly lacking in anything resembling an epic hero. Also, the overt claim of the poem to be considered an allegory may lead us to give too much attention to its directly didactic intention. Dante did surely intend to give us the omne scibile, all that was knowable about the world and man's place in it, and this intention fosters an allegorical reading of the poem, but the truths he sought to convey, scientific and philosophical, are part of the pastness of our culture.
Thus Francis Fergusson was eminently correct when he called his brilliant study of the Purgatorio, Dante Drama of the Mind. The pilgrim of the Commedia is continually progressing toward understanding and, although that progress is in one sense constantly incremental, it is also marked off at intervals by especially intense moments of disclosure and depth of insight or vision. Some examples of such highlights of understanding occur, for example, at the entrance to the city of Dis, at the purgation of pride in the Purgatorio, at the move from Ante-purgatory to Purgatory proper, and upon the acquisition of the “novell vista” at the passage into the Empyrean.
Dante carefully prepares for the events of the poem which have a crucial character, often through imagery and sometimes through dream and vision. The dreams of the nights on the mountain of Purgatory would offer us examples of symbolic and experiential preparation for doctrinal and spiritual truths which will become more explicit later. Dante also returns often to the same theme, elucidating it further in terms of the development of the pilgrim and of his capacity to understand. Thus love and beauty are treated several times in the Commedia and all the treatments must be placed together if we are to have a full account of what Dante has to tell us on these subjects.
Thus the pilgrim self is a constantly developing and changing one, a self which is constantly assimilating larger and larger wholes of moral experience even as it renders that experience intelligibile. The rhythm of the poem has a retrospective character, in a way, for the full meaning of any particular event is clarified in progress. Even Dante’s visual imagination changes from cantica to cantica to correspond to the changing moral realities of each realm of the spirit. We often discern the nude human figure against its dark background in the Inferno and frequently in one or another activity. There is a sculptural quality derivable from the figures here, as many of Dantes illustrators have discerned, but my own suggestion would be a comparison with the modeling of Giotto. In the Purgatorio, on the other hand, the light is a kind of purified daylight and the figures take on relief, while in the Paradiso the figures disappear for most of the journey through the spheres and light in many manifestations and shapes becomes the complete instrumentum operandi of the heavenly world.
Dante the poet, the persona of the author, frequently enters the poem and interrupts the progress of the pilgrim from time to time to address the reader directly. Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer conducted an instructive debate on Dante’s address to the reader many years ago and it will profit us to glance at its substance.
According to Auerbach, Dante’s addresses to the reader are one of the most significant of the poet’s style patterns, and they serve to establish a relationship between author and reader quite new in the history of literature to that time. Dante does what no one had done before, for he urges the reader to share in his experiences or feelings, to believe some remarkable event that has just occurred, to elucidate a point of interpretation or a poetic and stylistic accomplishment, to call the reader’s attention to a latent or hidden meaning in an event.
The poet will even ask the reader to stop for a moment in his reading if he cannot quite follow the heights the poet’s imagination has reached.
If such interruptions of the narrative are not entirely without precedent, Dante was surely the first to make such ample use of this stylistic device. They are nothing other than a special development of the old rhetorical device of apostrophe, but Auerbach points out that Dante’s use of this device flows from his special role as a prophet and teacher, a role which derives from the universal mission he shares with Aeneas and with St. Paul. Dante presents himself as the reporter of a genuine revelation of universal significance, a revelation comparable to that granted to his Roman and Christian forerunners, and we should expect that his attitude toward the reader will be that of a teacher toward a disciple or a prophet toward his auditor.
The Christian scheme of things demands prophetic interpreters, for God does not disclose his will by giving immediate victory to the cause which is good. On the contrary, left to our own limited view of things we may see nothing but the triumph of evil causes. It is the prophet who reminds us that the good will eventually triumph. He tells us that the divine will is inscrutable in its details even though God has made the general plan of salvation known. Evil and its victories are transient, but evil plays some necessary and mysterious role in the working out of providence. Dante the prophet possesses a vision of universal history and of God's hand in it. His view of history moves between two great themes: the necessary revival of the Imperium Romanum as a universal Christian Empire and the universal theme of man's fall and redemption, a pattern which comprehends the Imperial theme.
Spitzer in his reply to Auerbach's study counted nineteen addresses to the reader as against Auerbach’s twenty and Gmelin’s twenty-one, an uncertainty which may seem an indication, perhaps, of the skill with which Dante moves from the persona of the poet to the adventures of the pilgrim. Spitzer pointed out, along with Scartazzini, that Dante's addresses become less frequent as the pilgrim approaches the beatific vision, and disagreed that they serve the function of authoritative utterances. The addresses seem to Spitzer to be in the service of mimes:s, of enhancing the verisimilitude of the poem so that the poet is essentially appealing to the reader to exercise his capacity for visual imagination, to attend to correct interpretation and to poetic technique. In this view the addresses serve to bring the reader realistically and accurately into the world of the poem.
I do not know that there is any necessary conflict between the view of Spitzer and that of Auerbach, and the doctrinal motif by no means need conflict with the mimetic intention of the poet. Indeed, we might draw at this point an important lesson which all students of the Commedia should bear in mind: it is not possible to separate the doctrinal and the poetic in Dante. There is a most important sense in which the theology, science, and philosophy, however obsolete they may be as propositions, are the poetry itself. We all know that Croce gave a totally different view of the poem and reduced it to an anthology of great passages set in a totally unpoetic and tiresome matrix which occupied too much of the total bulk of the Commedia. It has been the task of much Dante criticism since Croce’s time to work against so fragmented a view of what is the most coherent and integrated poem we possess.

Date: 2021-12-25