The irriducible dove [Charles S. Singleton]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Charles S. Singleton

Tratto da: Comparative Literature

Numero: 2

Volume: 9

Anno: 1957

Pagine: 129-135

Upon reading Mr. Green's concluding words, on the preceding page, it is to me a wonder that there can have seemed to him to be enough disagreement between us to occasion his writing as he does. He tells us that in the Comedy "the illusion of historical reality is Dante's fiction," whereas I had myself written that "the fiction of the Comedy is that it is not fiction." But it is as if I had not made that (I had thought) unambiguous statement or supported it with a whole chapter of argument respecting the "make-believe" of the poem.1
It has somehow seemed to Mr. Green that he has reason still to dispute with me on just this score. In fact, one must note that, if he is concerned to stress any one point respecting Dante's allegory in the Comedy, it is this: Dante's journey through the realms of the afterlife is a fiction, is a fiction. It did not really take place. Dante invented this thing. And Dante, as Mr. Green would remind us, said as much to Can Grande when he wrote that the form or manner of his poem was poetic and fictive.
I can only gather that Mr. Green is here revealing a sense of some- thing amounting to alarm that I, and perhaps all who have appeared to agree with me so far in the matter of Dante's allegory, are in danger of succumbing so completely to the illusion of reality in Dante's poem as to forget that it is illusion-which rather suggests the picture of a whole group of mediaevalist Don Quixotes, I suppose, and is at least worth something as comedy. But such men would be dangerous, too, hoodwinked, and what is worse, hoodwinking others, and, if their number should continue to grow, who knows what could happen!
To come into the clear on this particular point of concern (Mr. Green is not the first to show signs of it), let us think for a moment of some other work of fiction in which the illusion of reality is so powerful that the reader, while in the act of reading, may be said to fall quite under the spell of that fiction. Perhaps War and Peace may serve as well, or better, than another as example. Part of the novel is truly historical, of course, but we speak now of the whole illusion of a reality which Tolstoy had the undoubted power to produce. Thus all will agree, I suppose, that, while we give ourselves over to his account of events, we read them as real. And then when we put down the book, for one reason or another, it is to be assumed (and certainly hoped) the spell is broken, and, insofar as we reflect on it, we would then think of the work as a great fiction. And, if Tolstoy had written for his novel some introduction comparable to Dante's letter to Can Grande, it would not have surprised us if he himself had spoken of his manner as being, among other things, "fictive."
Tolstoy's novel and Dante's Comedy, thus, have at least this in com- mon-the power of producing the illusion of reality. While we read each of these works with full sympathy, or empathy, giving ourselves over to them in the act, we assent to the events narrated as being real. But Mr. Green will agree, I take it, that we do not read other works in this way: a fable of Aesop, say, or a parable told by Christ, or Pilgrim's Progress, or a canzone of the Convviov. But Mr. Green will say, of course, that this is simply a matter of a difference in quality. Some works produce the sense of reality, some do not. This, to be sure, is an easy and simple way to settle the matter. But can it be so easily settled in our minds?
If War and Peace and the Divine Comedy have the power of an "il- lusion of reality" in common, they reveal to all readers a very great difference in another respect, in the matter of allegory. While we are under Tolstoy's illusion of reality we get no "other meaning"; while we are under Dante's, we do. In one case vision is single, in the other it is double. And here precisely is the problem, as I trust Mr. Green will agree: How is it that we read the Comedy with essentially the same sense of reality as we get in reading War and Peace and yet get also, in the poem, as an inseparable part of its illusion, the double vision which is allegory as Dante constructed it?
This is both the problem (if we choose to make it that) and the most important thing about our reading of the poem-the fact of the double vision in Dante, with the first sense or illusion being that of real event2. As for mediaeval theory about allegory or Dante's own theory, for that matter, these are concerns of secondary importance when it is a question of the poem-precisely because such an experience of the poem is in itself more important than any and all the theories which might be devised to account for it.
However, for those readers of the Comedy who can have that experi- ence (in the original, of course, with its full power), the question can and does arise whether Dante could have had some model in mind when he wrote his poem to be read in such a focus of double vision-or the question, say, whether Dante's great structure and Dante's art is, in any sense, an "imitation." But here I may be brief and assume that a thesis on this point may now be safely taken as demonstrated and widely accepted. Dante's structure is an imitation of two works by God, two books written by God, the created universe with its symbol- ism as one "book," and Holy Scripture with its allegory as the other. And through this realization we have come to a very fruitful distinc- tion between what is the dimension of allegory in the poem and what is the dimension of symbolism.3 But perhaps Mr. Green will say that this begs the question, and that his own article is at least clear evidence that all are not agreed on this.
In which case I must say I think we shall not get out of a consider- able confusion on this matter of the two allegories unless we keep in mind one fundamental point respecting them-they are essentially statements of "reader's attitudes," or "focuses for reading." The "alle- gory of poets" is one, the "allegory of theologians" is another. And, once we have taken note of this fact, it becomes a simple matter for us to see the radical opposition between the two. This they have in com- mon-both are focuses for reading allegory, that is, for reading in double vision. But between the two the whole point of difference lies with the way of reading the literal or first sense. Taken as reader's at- titudes, the crucial questions which separate them as such are these: (1) Does the reader, in the act of reading, view the literal sense as "fable," "fiction," as "imaginary," and justified only if it conveys a "truth"? If so, this is the reading focus for the allegory of poets. Or (2) does the reader, in the act of reading, take the literal sense to be real, that is, take the events narrated as real, and does it happen that this literal line of event discloses along its way the shape of other events, also real? If so, this is the reading focus of the allegory of theologians. The difference is not insignificant. And, if we put it so, then there can surely be no doubt as to which of these reader's attitudes is re- quired for a canzone of the Convivio. Dante's prescription for the reader in this case is clearly stated in the work itself. The canzoni are to be read in the focus "allegory of poets." They were composed for that kind of reading. And this Mr. Green grants, of course. But the question, he tells us, remains for the Comedy. And, though he will grant a con- siderable difference in quality as between Convivio and Comedy, still he appears to maintain that the reader does not need to change his "focus for reading," in any essential or categorical way, as he turns from one work to the other. And that is indeed the question.
Now, since my thesis as to Dante's model for allegory in the Comtedy is that such a model can be found in Scriptural allegory and nowhere else, and since this is a matter of "reader's attitudes," I may refer the debate on this point to the reading of Scripture itself-to recall that both kinds of allegory were recognized to exist in Holy Scripture and therefore both "reader's attitudes" were demanded in the reading of it. On this point the whole exegetical tradition is clear. The Bible con- tains parables. And a parable told by Christ requires, of course, the kind of reading which is provided for in the "allegory of poets." On the other hand, the Bible contains the narrative of real historical events, such as the Exodus. These events signify other events, and this we may see if we adopt the kind of reading provided for in the "allegory of theologians." Now to read a parable in the latter focus or to read of the Exodus as if it were an imaginary event is simply wrong because not in focus. And I would suggest that to do what Mr. Green would have us do, put down the Convivio and take up the Cotmedy without chang- ing our focus, is to require us to do something which, translated to the other case, would mean to read a parable told by Christ and then go right on with the narrative of Christ's actions as if there were no essen- tial difference between the two, or only "a difference of quality." But I do not really believe that Mr. Green would read the Bible this way. In fact, I feel sure he would not. Why then does he insist that it should be done in passing from Convivio to Comedy? Or will he say that the Bible is one thing and Dante's poem another, and that the two are simply incommensurable?
But the fact that the Bible is one thing for Dante and his poem quite another is indeed the very point and foundation of what I take to be the simple truth about Dante's art. The Comedy is an imitation, and one of the most impressive that we shall ever know. Its mode of alle- gory has its unique model in Holy Scripture read in the focus of the "allegory of theologians." It could not be an "imitation" if there were not a difference between God's way of writing and the poet's. Surely there is no need for Mr. Green to point out once more that the theolo- gians were firm to a man in insisting that only God could write as God did "write," making events themselves signify other events. Shall we really be so literal-minded as to think that, because this is so (and because we know that Dante must have agreed), there can be no imzita- tion of God's way of writing? Only God could create a universe, for that matter, in which things point beyond themselves. But can art not imitate His art? What of the mediaeval cathedral? And, granting the possibility of imitation, what better model could an artist find than God's work?
But it is by now evident, I think, that this whole view has a curious way of provoking reactions and indeed resentments, which go quite beyond historical or literary confines. To be sure, Mr. Green appears to state his own resentment in purely literary terms when he finds that such a view of Dante's art tends to disparage much mediaeval poetry or perhaps much poetry of any time. But over and beyond this feeling, is there not with him and with others who have objected to the reading of the Comtedy in the focus "allegory of theologians" a sense of real repugnance at the notion that anyone, in this latter day of our en- lightenment, should be asked to adopt a "reader's attitude" which looks so like superstition or obscurantism, or at least to require an act of "faith" which one is not at all disposed to make? In fine, there are here symptoms, it has seemed to me, of some deep revolt in the mind which in this case is very much the "modern" mind as we so loosely call it. And I have thought that it would be interesting if we could devise some simple touchstone, a shibboleth, by which to test the formta mentis of this or that reader on this particular matter. What I have to suggest at the moment is a particular question which comes toward the end of the Sunmma Theologica (III, 39, 7) of Thomas Aquinas where the baptism of Christ is the general topic. The question is: "Whether the dove in which the Holy Ghost appeared was real?" Now let it be noted that this is a question of "reader's attitude." Shall the reader, as he reads of Christ's baptism, understand that the dove which descends to alight upon His head is a real dove, or not. It is granted that this is the Holy Ghost or an appearance of the Holy Ghost. But what of the dove? Is it a real dove ("verum animal") or is it merely the semblance of a dove?
Thomas Aquinas shows no hesitation in formulating his answer, of course, as every reader may see for himself. The dove is a real dove. The Holy Ghost chose to appear in a real dove on this occasion. There is no question of either-or, for Thomas. Nor would there have been f6r Augustine or for Dante, to encompass a span of a thousand years of thought and feeling on this matter. Philo Judaeus, of course, would have read in the other focus, even as he read his Genesis and the de- scription there of Eden. Philo read in the "allegory of poets."
But Philo's mind is the Greek mind that in his own day was finding the Incarnation to be foolishness. And it is of interest to note that the strongest argument which Thomas Aquinas can adduce to support the view that the dove is a real dove is the fact of the Incarnation. For Christ, he says, took not an imaginary body but a real body.
In studies of mine to which Mr. Green has referred I have proposed what for me remains a firm persuasion4 - that the kind of allegory which Dante gives us in the Comedy has its root and very life-spring in the mystery of the Incarnation, by which I mean that such allegory is not even thinkable without the conception of the Logos made flesh and dwelling among us, and the mystery of two natures conjoined. And I would not further argue the point here.
But the problem, as Mr. Green raises it, is with Dante's "flesh." And we do well to consider the dove which is both a real dove and the Holy Ghost. And then think of Beatrice who is both the Florentine woman who died in 1290 and a person whom Virgil can recognize at once as that "lady of virtue through whom alone mankind ascends," etc., that is, Lady Philosophy or Sapientia.5 Now the question of the dove is easily transferred to Beatrice, but it would be tedious to pursue it. Every serious student of Dante can see that this Beatrice of the Comedy is a Beatrice in whom an "incarnation" is manifest-two natures are here conjoined. The historical Beatrice of the Vita Nuova and the Logos figure of Sapientia of the Conviztio are joined, in the Comedy, in one person-two natures in one person, and "or con altri or con altri reggi menti." The event is a poetic mystery. It was not predictable out of the perspective of either earlier work. It happened, and Dante began to write the Comedy with that "incarnation" at its center, leaving the Convzvio the mere fragment we have.
But what was foolishness to the Greek mind will remain foolishness to many a modern mind. And these "modern minds" began to manifest themselves, in the reading of Dante, very early indeed; they were al- ready Boccaccio and Petrarch and more than one of the early com- mentators. Mr. Green has reminded us of Boccaccio's views of the Comedy and of the ideas by which he defended poetry. Petrarch's views generally on poetry and the grounds for its defense are the same. Both refer frequently to Scripture, of course, in this defense. Yet there is a distinct tendency in both to avoid a clear recognition of the "allegory of theologians" in its essential difference from the "allegory of poets"; and one has the clear impression that the former notion has in it something (and we know what that is!) which is already unacceptable to their humanistic minds. But, if this is a true impression, it is but another telltale sign that the Renaissance was indeed beginning with them, as we have so often claimed. And, though it took two centuries yet for the adjective Divina to attach itself to Dante's simple title Comedia, Boccaccio comes so close to doing this himself that the wonder is that it took so long to happen.
Why does the Renaissance see Dante's poem as divine? Why would Dante never have thought to name it so himself in his title? The ques- tion is not as idle as it may at first appear. That adjective is assigned to the Comedy out of a perspective of humanism already evident in Boccaccio and in Petrarch, a single generation after Dante-a per- spective which, through the Renaissance, came to prevail in Dante studies down into our own century. It is a frame of thought in which the Comedy is inevitably, and because of its very subject matter, "distanced" or "skied." It is divine because it is theological. Whenever Boccaccio speaks of Dante as divine or theologian, he is of course read- ing him in the focus "allegory of poets," in a reader's attitude, that is, by which the poem becomes reducible to the theology it contains. Mr. Green approves, and would have it so himself. But, I would ask him finally: May we not be allowed to recover from the Renaissance, if only for a brief reader's moment, long enough to see that the dove is irreducible?

My Dante Studies, cited by Mr. Green, pp. 62 ff. and the last chapter on the poem as myth.
It will not do to demand the "illusion of reality" from the reading of the pro- logue scene of the poem, Cantos I and II of the Inferno. Dante is there concerned to establish precisely the terms or condition of his "other" sense, to which he can then recall the reader as the latter moves along the line of the literal journey beyond. But this I have already said in a chapter on the allegory. I might add that I consider the addresses to the reader which come along that line (such as the "Aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero...," etc., which for Mr. Green would be the clearest evidence of the allegory of poets) to be deliberate recalls to the pro- logue scene and the "other" journey which is there staged. On one point I cannot see how there can be any debate; Dante will never (wzithin the poem) speak out in such a way as to undermine the "reality" of the journey. It is no dream, it is no vision. And, if he speaks of a velo in such a passage and of a vero to be seen through it, it must be that the literal event at the moment, taken as real, can be seen to point to and disclose the other meaning, which is that of moral allegory, even as the allegory of theologians would have it. Consider the Exodus disclosing the meaning called the moral sense: "the conversion of the soul from the misery of sin to the state of grace" (Epist. ad Can. G., 22). The prologue of the poem is setting the reader up in such terms, and making recall possibile.
Dante Studies, pp. 1 ff.
Ibid., pp. 93 ff.
See Report of the Dante Society, 1956, pp. 29 ff., where I have dealt with this particular point at greater length.
Date: 2021-12-25