Autore: John Freccero
Tratto da: Dante. The poetics of conversion
Editore: Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.)-London
Saveral times in the course of his poem Dante insists that his verses be read allegorically, but nowhere is his insistence more peremptory or more baffling than in Canto IX of the Irferzo, after Virgil covers the pilgrim’s eyes to protect him from the sight of the Medusa:
O voi ch’avete li ’ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s'asconde
sotto ’l velame de li versi strani.
O you who have sound understanding, mark
the doctrine that is hidden under the veil of
the strange verses!
These lines have always represented something of a scandal in the interpretation of Dante’s allegory, primarily because they seem to fail in ther didactic intent: the dottrina referred to here remains as veiled to us as it was to the poet's contemporaries. More than that, however, the dottrina, whatever it is, seems scarcely worth the effort. The verses suggest a personification allegory—Medusa as moral abstraction—very different from the theological allegory that, since the work of Charles Singleton, we have taken to be uniquely Dantesque. The allegory of the episode would seem to be no different from the “allegory of poets,” described in the Convivio as a menzogna hiding a moral truth, so that we are tempted to conclude either that Dante’s allegory, though obscure, is no different from that of other poets, or that this first explicit reference to itin the poem is somehow atypical.
My argument is that neither of these alternatives is correct and that this passage, when property understood, can supply a model for understanding Dante's allegory throughout the poem. I hope to show that the allegory is essentially theological and, far from being of purely antiquarian interest as a bizarre exegetical theory irrelevant to poetic practice, it is actually indistinguishable from the poem’s narrative structure. Christian allegory, I will argue, is identical with the phenomenology of confession, for both involve a comprehension of the self in history within a retrospective literary structure.
Perhaps the principal difficulty with the address to the reader in the episode of the Medusa has arisen from our tendency to read it as though it were dramatically unrelated to its context, a generic recall to a moral code exterior to the text. In fact, however, this passage, like all of the addresses to the reader, is exterior to the fiction, but central to the text. The authorial voice is at once the creation of the journey and its creator, an alter Dantes who knows, but does not as yet exist, dialectically related to the pilgrim, who exists but does not as yet know. The addresses to the reader create the author as much as they create his audience; they compose the paradigm of the entire narrative, ensuring the presence of the goal at each step along the way. It is Dante's fiction that the authors existence precedes that of the poem, as though the experience had been concluded before the poem were begun. In reality, however, the experience of the pilgrim and the creation of the authorial voice take place at the same time, in the writing of the poem. The progress of the pilgrim and the addresses to the reader are dramatic repre- sentations of the dialectic that is the process of the poem. Journey’s end, the vision of the Incarnation, is at the same time the incarnation of the story, when pilgrim and author, being and knowing, become one.
In precisely the same way that the pilgrim and the authorial voice are dialectically related to each other, the dramatic action involving the Medusa is related to the address to the reader immediately following it. This is suggested by a certain inverse symmetty: the covering of the pilgrim’s eyes calls forth a command to wncover and see (mirate) the doctrine hidden beneath the verses, as if the command were consequent to the action rather than simply the interruption that it is usually taken to be. As readers of the poem, we ordinarily assume that the dramatic action is stopped from time to time for an authorial gloss, as if the poet were arbitrarily intruding upon a rerun of his own past in order to guide us in our interpretation. Here, however, the symmetry between the action and the gloss suggests a more intimate, even recessary, relationship. The antithetical actions (covering/uncovering) suggest that we look for antithetical objects (Medusa/dottrina) in two analogous or parallel realms: the progress of the pilgrim and the progress of the poem. The threat of the Medusa lends a certain moral force to the command to see beneath the strange verses, just as the address to the reader lends to the Medusa a certain hermeneutic resonance. It is becazse the pilgrim averted his eyes from the Medusa that there is a truth to be seen beneath the veil; because seeing it is a way of understanding a text, however, the implication seems to be that the Medusa is an interpretive as well as a moral threat. In other words, the aversion from the Medusa and the conversion to the text are related temporally, as the before and after of the same poetic event. Between those two moments, there extends the experience of the pilgrim, who has himself seen the dottrina and has returned as poet to reveal it to us.
A passage in the Purgatorio lends considerable weight to our suggestion that petrification is an interpretive as well as a moral threat and that the act of interpretation depends on a moral condition. At the end of the second carticz, on the occasion of Dante’s own revelation, Beatrice chides him for his “pensier vani” and for the delight he has taken in them:
io veggio te ne lo ’ntelletto
fatto di pietra e, impetrato, tinto,
sì che t’abbaglia il lume del mio detto...
I see you turned to stone in your mind, and
stonelike, such in hue that the light of my word
If we apply this imagery to the episode of Canto IX, then it is clear that petrification can mean the inability to see the light of truth in an interpretive glance. Thus, the threat of the Medusa may in a sense be a danger to be averted by the reader as well as the pilgrim: an “intelletto sano,” as Dante tells us in the Corvivio, is a mind that is not obscured by ignorance or malizia, a mind that is not petrified.
The dialectic of blindness and vision, aversion and conversion in the interpretation of the text, is central to biblical hermeneutics and is discussed by St. Paul with the figure of the veil. The use of the word “velame” in Dante’s verses would seem to be an allusion to the Pauline tradition. To speak of a truth hidden beneath a veil was of course a banality in Dante’s day, as it is in ours, but its familiarity derived from its biblical origin, where the veil was literally a covering for the radiant face of Moses and figuratively the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Paul, in II Corinthians, extends his discussion of the “letter that kills” and of the “spirit that gives life” by blending the words of Jeremiah about God writing his law in che hearts of his people with those of Ezekiel about the people of God having hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone. In St. Paul's New Testament perspective, the hearts of stone become the inscribed tablets of the law of Moses, contrasted with the inscribed hearts of the faithful. He then discusses the meaning of the veil:
Having therefore such hope, we show great boldness. We do not act as Moses did, who used to put a veil over his face that the Israelites might not observe the glory of his countenance, which was to pass away. But their minds were darkened (obzusi sunt sensus eorum); for to this day, when the Old Testament is read to them, the selfsame veil remains, not being lifted (non revelatum) to disclose the Christ in whom it is made void. Yes, down to this very day, when Moses is read, the veil covers their hearts; but when they turn in repentance to God, the veil shall be taken away (Cm autem conversus fuerit ad Dominum, auferetur velamen).
(II Cor 3:12—16)
Paul here contrasts the letter of the Old Testament, written on tablets of stone, with the spirit of the New, who is Christ, the “unveiling” or re-velation. The significance of the letter is in its final term, Christ, who was present all along, but revealed as the spirit only at the end, the conversion of the Old Testament to the New. Understanding the truth is not then a question of critical intelligence applied here and there, but rather of a retrospective illumination by faith from the standpoint of the ending, a conversion. In the original Greek, the term used to describe the darkening of the minds of the Jews, porosis, petrification, is rendered in the Vulgate as obtzsi0, but the sense of hardness remains alive in the exegetical tradition, where the condition is glossed as duritia cordis.
After the Revelation, the inability to see beneath the veil is attributable to the “God of this world,” who strikes the unbeliever senseless. It is this God, which later tradition was to identify with the devil, that provides a generic biblical meaning for the Medusa:
But if our gospel also is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case, the God of this world has blinded their unbelieving minds, that they should not see the light . . . while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen. For the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.
(II Cor. 4:3 ff.)
The familiar dialectic of blindness and vision, as old as Sophocles, assumes a special poignancy in the life of Paul, who was at successive moments blind: first to the truth of Christ and then, on the road to Damascus, to the things of this world. Conversion is for him, much as it was for Plato, a turning away from the false light of temporal things, seen with the eyes of the body, to the light of eternity, seen with the eyes of the soul. Above all, blindness and vision are in the Pauline text metaphors for interpretation, the obtuse reading of faithless literalists transformed, by unveiling, into a reading of the same text in a new light.
I should like to propose that the episode of the Medusa is an application of this dialectic to both the pilgrim and the reader. The “before” and the “after” of the conversion experience are rendered sequentially and dramatically by the threat to the pilgrim, on one hand, and the authorial voice on the other. Between the aversion from a temporal threat and the conversion to the Christian truth, the dottrina, there is the Christ event in the experience of the pilgrim, the moment that marks the coming together of pilgrim and poet. From that ideal moment, Dante fulfills the role of a Virgil to the reader, sufficient to the task of averting his pupil’s glance from the “God of this world,” the temptation of temporalia, yet not sufficient for the task of re-veletion. The threat to the pilgrim, petrification, seems to correspond to the various conditions of unbelief suggested by the Pauline text: blindness, hardness of heart, darkening of the mind, senselessness; while vision (presumably accomplished by the pilgrim/author and now proffered to the reader) corresponds to the eternity of “things that are not seen.” Literalists are blind to spiritual truth precisely because they see temporal things, while the things of this world are invisible to those who see the spirit within. The Christ event in history, as described by St. Paul, is applied to the nOw of the pilgrim’s journey in his meeting with Beatrice and is left as testament to the reader, who is exhorted to follow in his own way. En route, however, both must avert their glance from the God of this world.
Whatever the merit of this dramatic outline, it still leaves us in the realm of poetic fiction. Several difficulties immediately present themselves, which can be resolved only by exploring more deeply the relationship between the Pauline text and the verses of Canto IX. In the first place, the Pauline dialectic is built upon the fundamental opposition of two terms that are a unity in the Bible: the letter and the spirit, figuratively translated into visual terms by the opposition “veil”/“face of Moses” (Christ). Dante’s use of the word “velame” also suggests a translation into visual terms of the interpretive act required of the reader at this point; what is not as yet clear is the sense in which the threat of the Medusa is in Dante’s text, as petrification is in Paul's, the corresponding threat of the “letter that kills.” In other words, how is the face of Medusa the opposite of the face of Moses? Secondly, once the opposition between the threat of the Medusa and the dottrina is established, there remains the problem of their relationship, for letter and spirit, though opposed, are still one, as the Old Testament, written on tablets of stone or engraved on the stony hearts of unbelievers, is still one with its New Testament interpretation, written upon the “fleshly tablets of the heart” (II Cor. 3:3). The same is true of the figure of the veil: it is under the same veil, perceived by believers and unbelievers alike, that the truth is hidden. Paul attributes interpretive blindness to the “God of this world” but in Dante's text it is the diabolic threat that must somehow lead beyond itself. In what sense might it be said that the threat of the Medusa masks a dottrina that is nowhere to be found on the printed page? The resolution of both difficulties will become clear when we decide which, precisely, are the versi strazzi referred to in the text.
Our solution must begin with some interpretive and historical remarks about the Medusa herself. Her story in antiquity seems a perfect counterpart to the story of the veiling of Moses’ face. Dante was doubtless aware of the false etymology of her name concocted by the mythographers: mé idisan, quod videre non possit. To see her was death; to protect himself Perseus required the shield of Minerva, just as we, according to the allegorization of Albertus Magnus, require the shield of wisdom to protect us against delectationes concupiscentiae. On the other hand, the face of Moses is a figure for the glory of Christ, illuminatio Evangelii gloriae Christi (II Cor. 4:4), requiring nothing less than a conversion in order to be unveiled (revelatio). It remained for Dante to associate the two stories, recasting the Pauline dialectic of blindness and vision into the figure of the Medusa (corresponding to St. Paul's “God of this world”) and contrasting it with the admonition, immediately following, to gaze at the truth beneath the veil. The two stories serve as excellent dramatizations of the two moments of conversion: aversion from the self and the things of this world, conversion to God. Separating those two moments at that point extends the whole of the journey.
A closer look at the tradition surrounding the Medusa suggests a more than dramatic aptness in the choice of this figure for the representation of a diabolic threat. The most startling thing about traditional efforts to discuss this episode is that they have missed what to a modern reader is most obvious: whatever the horror the Medusa represents to the male imagination, it is in some sense a female horror. In mythology, the Medusa was said to be powerless against women, for it was her feminine beauty that constituted the mortal threat to her admirers. From the ancient Physiologus through the mythographers to Boccaccio, the Medusa represented a sensual fascination, a pulchritudo so excessive that it turned men to stone. In Dante’s text the theme of fascination survives; otherwise it would be difficult to imagine why Virgil does not trust the pilgrim’s ability to shield his own eyes if the image were not an entrapment.
Fascination, in this context, suggests above all the sensual fascination celebrated in the literature of love. Whatever the significance of the Medusa motif to Freud and Ferenczi, we are dealing here with a highly self-conscious poetry and a kind of love poetry at that. An explicit reference in the text helps to identify the subject matter as specifically erotic and literary, rather than abstractly moral. When the Furies scream out for the Medusa, they recall the assault of Theseus: “Mal non vengiammo in Teseo l’assalto” (IX, 54). This would seem to be an allusion to Theseus’ descent into the underworld with his friend Pirithoiis, a disastrous enterprise from which he, unlike his hapless companion, was rescued by Hercules, but the point is that the descent had for its objective the abduction of Persephone; it was therefore an erotic, not to say sexual, assault.
The presence of the theme here is not merely anecdotal; Dante is himself in a sense searching for a prelapsarian Persephone, an erotic innocence which he recaptures, at one remove, in his encounter with Matelda at the top of the Mountain of Purgatory:
Tu mi fai rimembrar dove e qual era
Proserpina nel tempo che perdette
la madre lei, ed ella primavera.
(Purg., XXVII, 49-51)
You make me recall where and what Proser-
pine was at the time her mother lost her, and
she the spring.
These two references to Persephone in the poem, the first implied and the second clearly stated, suggest that the figure of the Medusa is somehow coordinate to that of Matelda. Whatever else she may represent, the pastoral landscape and the erotic feelings of the pilgrim would indicate the recapture, or near recapture, of a pastoral (and therefore poetic) innocence, a return to Eden after a long askesis. For the moment, it might be argued that the Medusa represents precisely the impediment to such a recapture: her association with Persephone goes back to the Odyssey, where Odysseus in the underworld fears that Persephone will send the gorgon to prevent him from leaving. Whatever Dante’s sources for making the same association, the point is that, short of Eden, there is no erotic—or poetic—innocence.
A generation later, Geoffrey Chaucer was to use the Furies in a way that is quite consistent with my hypothesis about the passage in Canto IX. The invocation of Troilus and Creseyde, that bookish tale of woe, addresses the Furies, rather than the Muses, as the proper inspirers of the dark passion that is the subject of the romance. Indeed, the insistence on the Furies foreshadows the “anti-romance” quality of Chaucer’s poem, a deliberate undercutting of a genre that had been the poet's own. The Troilus is in many ways a palinodic autocritique: the language with which it begins, with its address to “Thesiphone ... cruwel Furie sorynge,” may even be an allusion to the passage under discussion here, as well as to Statius. At any rate, it would seem to support our hypothesis: the threat of the Medusa proffered by the Furies represents, in the pilgrim’s askesis, a sensual fascination and potential entrapment precluding all further progress.
Of all the texts that might support the hypothesis, one seems to me to give to the Medusa a specificity that is lacking in most moralizing interpretations: the Roman de la Rose. A passage from that work will establish the sense in which Dante’s Medusa exists as ‘a dark counter-statement to the celebration of a poetic eros for which the Roman was the quintessential type. It offers us a precise, if inverted, parallel of the action of Canto IX, an illusion, in Dante’s view, of which the Medusa is the disillusioning reality. At the ending of Jean de Meun’s poem, as the lover is about to besiege the castle, an image is presented to him from a tower, a sculptured image far surpassing in beauty the image of Pygmalion, fired by Venus’ arrow. Of interest to us is that in some versions of the poem that might have been available to Dante, the image is contrasted for some fifty lines with the image of the Medusa:
Tel ymage n’ot mais en tour;
Plus avienent miracle entour
Qu’onc n’avint entour Medusa...
Mais l’ymage dont ci vous conte
Les vertux Medusa seurmonte,
Qu'el ne sert pas de genz tuer,
Ne d’eus faire en roche muet.
Such an image was never in a tower; more
miracles happen around it than ever occurred
around Medusa... But the image I'm telling
you about here goes beyond the powers of
Medusa. For it doesn't seem to kill people or
to change them into stone.
The passage goes on to draw an extraordinary parallel to the drama of Canto IX, an ironically optimistic view of the power of eros, of which Dante’s Medusa seems the dark and reversed counter-image. The presence of mock-epic machinery in this erotomachia is matched by the pointedly non-Christian fortifications of Dante’s infernal city. The Medusa does not appear in the Roman, any more than she does in the Inferno, but exists only as an antitype to Venus’ idol. Dante’s Medusa, on the other hand, is Venus’ idol, stripped of its charm and seen, or almost seen, under the aspect of death. Recent study suggests that, as a youth, Dante had written a poetic paraphrase of the Roman; hence this episode constitutes his final judgment on the dark eros celebrated in that work.
The figure of the Medusa is a perfect vehicle for conveying this kind of retrospective judgment because it is inherently diachronic, stressing historicity and change: before and after, then and now, the beauty of the lady changed to ugliness, fascination turned to horror. In ancient mythology she was said to be a kind of siren, and in this temporal respect she resembles Dante’s siren, the stinking hag of the Purgatorio whom the pilgrim, under the influence of song, takes to be a ravishing beauty.
A simple abstraction of personification allegory is least able to account for this temporal dimension of meaning, for the temporality is derived not from the gap that separates the poetic statement from some abstract moral code, but rather from the temporality of the beholder. I should like to suggest that the temporality we sense in the threat of the Medusa is a representation of the temporality of retrospection, of a danger narrowly averted, of a former illusion seen for what it is. Such a temporality is the essence of the descent into hell, the past seen under the aspect of death. The traditional threat on all such journeys is the threat of nostalgia, a retrospective glance that evades the imperative to accept an authentically temporal destiny. Moreover, the threat is not merely a petrification, but also a no return: “Nulla sarebbe del tornar mai suso.” The Gospel of Luke (17:32) warns of such a danger with an Old Testament figure that seems peculiarly appropriate here: “Remember Lot’s wife.”
The threat of the past faces St. Augustine just before his conversion, when his former mistresses seem to appear behind him, tempting him to turn and look at them, respicere, as they pluck at his “feshly garment.” In the medieval allegorization of the journey of Orpheus to the underworld, a similar significance is given to the irreparable loss of Eurydice. According to Guillaume de Conches, Orpheus’ descent represents the sage’s effort to find himself, his Eurydice, and he is defeated by his nostalgia for his own former sin. At this point in his descent, the pilgrim faces a similar temptation: the Furies, a traditional representation of guilt and remorse, urge him to confront what is, in effect, his own past as poet. Dante did not have to read the Roman de la Rose in order to learn of a lady who turned her lovers to stone, for he had in fact celebrated such a lady in his Rime Petrose, the stony rhymes, written for the mysterious Donna Pietra.
The Rime Petrose, the dazzling virtuoso pieces of Dante’s youth, celebrate a violent passion for the “Stony Lady” whose hardness turns the poet, her lover, into a man of stone. In the survey of the progress of Dante’s love and of his poetry from the Vita Nova to the Commedia, the Rime Petrose constitute a surd element, radically fragmentary, Contini has called them, finding no clearly identifiable place in the poet's development. At one point in the Purgatorio when Beatrice castigates the pilgrim for his infidelity, she accuses him of a love for “vanità,” a “pargoletta,” or little girl, using precisely the same word that the poet had used somewhat disparagingly of his Donna Pietra in one of the rime. The recall in the Purgatorio of this word has given rise to endless speculation about the identity of the woman whom Dante denoted with the code name of “Donna Pietra.” Critics have been right, I think, to wish to see biography in the poem, but they have been incorrect to imagine that the words of the poem were simply vehicles for communicating true confessions. We have learned from Contini that the biography of a poet, as poet, is his poetry, and it is in a quite literal sense that the Rime Petrose are present and relevant here. In the same poem that has given rise to speculation about the “pargoletta,” there appear some verses of potentially greater significance. They paint a wintry scene described by a despairing lover. They should be compared with the versi strani of Canto IX:
Versan le vene le fummifere acque
per li vapor che la terra ha nel ventre,
che d’abisso li tira suso in alto;
onde cammino al bel giorno mi piacque
che ora è fatto rivo, e sarà mentre
che durerà del verno il grande assalto;
la terra fa un suol che per di smalto,
e l’acqua morta si converte in vetro
(Rime 43c, 53-60)
The springs spew forth fumy waters because the earth draws the gases that are in its bowels upwards from the abyss; a path that pleased me in fine weather is now a stream, and so will remain as long as winter’s great onslaught endures; the earth has formed a crust like rock and the dead waters turn into glass.
Con l’unghie si fendea ciascuna il petto;
battiensi a palme e gridavan sì alto,
ch'i’ mi strinsi al poeta per sospetto.
“Vegna Medusa: sì ’l farem di smalto,”
dicevan tutte riguardando in giuso;
“mal non vengiammo in Teseo l'assalto.”
(Inf. IX, 49-54)
Each was tearing her breast with her nails; and they were beating themselves with their hands, and crying out so loudly that in fear I pressed close to the poet.
“Let Medusa come and we'll turn him to stone,” they all cried, looking downward. “Poorly did we avenge the assault of Theseus.”
The description of a world without love, matching the poet’s winter of the soul, contains exactly the rhyme words from Dante’s description of the Medusa, sibilants that might qualify as versi strani in the address to the reader. Thus a passage that threatens petrification recalls, in a reified, concrete way, precisely the poem that described such a reification at the hands of a kind of Medusa. The words themselves reflect each other in such a way that they constitute a short-circuit across the temporal distance that separates the two moments of poetic history, a block that threatens to make further progress impossible. For the reader, the parallel threat is to refuse to see the allegory through the letter, to ignore the double focus of the versi strani. The echo of the Rime Petrose is an invitation to the reader to measure the distance that separates the now of the poet from the then of his persona; in the fiction of the poem, the Medusa is, like the lady of stone, no historic character at all, but the poet’s own creation. Its threat is the threat of idolatry. In terms of mythological exempla, petrification by the Medusa is the real consequence of Pygmalion’s folly.
The point is worth stressing. Ever since Augustine, the Middle Ages insisted upon the link between eros and language, between the reaching out in desire for what mortals can never possess and the reaching out of language toward the significance of silence. To refuse to see in human desire an incompleteness that urges the soul on to transcendence is to remain within the realm of creatures, worshipping them as only the Creator was to be worshipped. Similarly, to refuse to see language and poetry as continual askesis, pointing beyond themselves, is to remain within the letter, treating it as an absolute devoid of the spirit which gives meaning to human discourse. The subject matter of love poetry is f0etry, as much as it is love, and the reification of love is at the same time a reification of the words that celebrate it.
The search for the self which is the quest of the poet can only be accomplished through the mediation of the imagination, the Narcissus image which is at once an image of the self and all that the self is not. For a medieval poet steeped in the Augustinian tradition, the search for the self in che mirror of creatures, the beloved, ends with a false image of the self which is either rejected in favor of God, the light which casts the reflection, or accepted as a true image, an image which is totally other. Seeing the self in otherness and accepting the vision as true reduces the spirit to something alienated from itself, like a rock or a tree, deprived of consciousness. Like language itself, the image can only represent by pointing beyond itself, by beckoning the beholder to pierce through it to its ultimate significance. Idolatry in this context is a refusal to go beyond, a selfpetrification.
Virgil is the mediator between Dante’s former dark passion and verbal virtuosity on one hand and the restless striving of the pilgrim on the other, at least until his guidance gives way to the guidance of Beatrice. It may seem strange to think of Virgil at all in the context of love poetry, except insofar as every poet is a poet of desire. Yet Virgil’s portrait of Aeneas was a portrait of passion overcome. At the opening of the fifth book, as Aeneas sails away from Carthage, he looks back at its burning walls and leaves Dido forever behind him. The chaotic force of folle amore—mad passion—was epitomized for Dante by the figure of Dido and of Cupid, who sat in her lap. Further, it is under the sign of Dido that Paolo and Francesca bewail their adulterous love in hell. In the struggle between individual desire and providential destiny, Virgil’s Aeneas is the man who renounces self in the name of his mission. It is for this reason that he helps the pilgrim avert his glance, until Beatrice shows the way to a reconciliation of human love with the divine plan. Just as the historic Virgil, in Dante’s reading, had pointed the way out of the erotic impasse toward lo bello stilo, so in the poem it is Virgil who helps him to avoid the pitfall facing all poets of love. It is perhaps in this sense, specifically, that his help was spurned by Guido Cavalcanti (Inf. X, 63). In any case, Dante’s encounter with Beatrice is the moment at which the poem transcends the Virgilian view of human love. Dante marks his beloved’s return with the words “conosco i segni dell'antica fiamma” (Purg. XXX, 48), echoing the despairing words of Dido, while the angels sing “Maribus, ob, date lilia plenis” (give lilies with full hands), echoing the funereal gesture of Anchises in the underworld, but transforming the purple lilies of mourning into the white lilies of the Resurrection. At that point Virgil definitively disappears, when death, before which even he and his Rome had to bow, gives way to transcendent love (Carzticum Cant. via, 6).
There is some evidence that our suggested reading of the Medusa episode may have been anticipated by a near contemporaty of the poet, or at least that the problematic was recognized and radically transformed by him. I refer of course to Petrarch, whose very name was for him an occasion for stony puns. In the course of his Canzoniere, he provides us with a definitive gloss of Dante’s Medusa. Like Pygmalion, Petrarch falls in love with his own creation and is in turn created by her: the pun Lauro/Laura points to this selfcontained process which is the essence of his creation. He creates with his poetry the Lady Laura who in turn creates his reputation as poet laureate. She is therefore not a mediatrix, pointing beyond herself, but is rather enclosed within the confines of his own being as poet, which is to say, the poem. This is precisely what Petrarch acknowledges when he confesses in his final prayer to the sin of idolatry, adoration of the work of his own hands. Speaking of Laura no longer as the infinitely beloved, he calls her a Medusa: “Medusa e l’error mio m’han fatto un sasso.” For all of his tears of repentance, however, there seems to be a consolation for a more secular age. Petrarch's enduring fame as the weeping lover suggests that if he was turned to stone because of idolatry, at least a stone lasts forever. If it is devoid of the spirit linking it to reality and to the life of the poet, it is nevertheless immune to the ravages of time, a monumental portrait of the artist. In the same poem, he sees the problem of reification and idolatry as inherent in all poetry, including that of his illustrious predecessor. This, I take it, is the point of his address to the Virgin as the only true mediatrix and “bringer-ofblessings”; vera beatrice, where the absence of capitalization drives the point home more forcefully. For Petrarch, precursor of Romanticism, there can be no middle ground, not even that occupied by Dante.
We are now in a position to answer some of the fundamental questions concerning Dante’s allegory raised by the episode of the Medusa. Doubtless, the Pauline “God of this world” provides an appropriate and abstract moral meaning in the dramatization that might lead us to classify it as an example of the allegory of poets. Atthe same time, however, we have seen that the passage is charged with che temporality of the poet's own career, the Dante who is, looking back at the Dante who was, through the medium of words. This retrospective illumination is the very essence of biblical allegory, what Dante called the “allegory of theologians.” The Christ event was the end term of an historical process, the “fullness of time,” from the perspective of which the history of the world might be read and judged according to a meaning which perhaps even the participants in that history could not perceive. The “then” and “now,” the Old Testament and the New, were at once the continuity and discontinuity of universal history, the letter and the spirit respectively of God’s revelation. Christian autobiography is the application of this diachronicity to one’s own life for the purpose of witness, “confession,” of the continual unfolding of the Word.
Both confession and Christian allegory have their roots in the mystery of language. As language is unfolded along a syntagmatic axis, governed at each moment of its articulation by a paradigm present.in the mind of the speaker and made manifest at the ending of the sentence, so the authorial voice in the text is the paradigm of the entire narrative, of which the evolution of the pilgrim is, as it were, the syntax. When this dialectic is translated into dramatic terms that purport to be autobiographical, we are presented with a narrative which seems to demand both continuity and discontinuity: an organic continuity, so that it may make a claim to authenticity, yet with the definitive detachment of the author who makes a claim to finality. For the pilgrim and the author to be one and the same requires nothing short of death and resurrection: death, so that the story may be definitive and final: resurrection, so that it may be told. This narrative translation of the dialectic of language may in turn be translated into theological terms: conversion, the burial of the old man and the birth of the new, the essence of Pauline allegory. Christ, the ending of the story, is simply the manifestation of its subject, paradoxically present as the paradigm, the Logos, from the beginning. The final manifestation of the paradigm is the presence of the Logos made flesh. Just as history required an Archimedean point from which Christians could judge it to have been concluded, so the literature of confession needs a point outside of itself from which its truth can be measured, a point that is at once a beginning and an end, an Alpha and an Omega. “Conversion” was the name that Christians applied to such a moment in history and in the soul. In this sense, biblical allegory, conversion, and narrative all share the same linguistic nature.
When St. Paul refers to the relationship of the Old Testament to the New, he is in fact applying this linguistic metaphor to the Christ event, the spirit inseparable from the letter of the Bible whereby it is made manifest. Without the letter, the spirit is the eternal Logos, with no point of tangency to history; God's intentionality without relation to man. Without the spirit, the letter is utterly devoid of significance, as dead as the mute stones upon which it was written. God's utterance to man is the Word incarnate.
Paul goes on to suggest that the Word of God interprets the hearts of men, the stony tablets turning to stone the hearts of unbelievers, while the spirit writes upon the fleshly tablets of the faithful. So too, in Dante's text, it is the power of the letter to enthrall the beholder that makes of it a Medusa, an expression of desire that turns back to entrap its subject in an immobility which is the very opposite of the dynamism of language and of desire. To see beyond it, however, is to see in the spiritual sense, to transform the eros of the Medusa into the transcendent Eros of Caritas. This is Dante’s whole achievement as a love poet: a refusal of the poetics of reification, sensual and verbal, for the poetics of “translation,” as scribe of the spirit which is written on “the fleshly tablets of the heart”:
“I mi son un che, quando
Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo
ch’e’ ditta dentro vo significando.”
(Purg. XXIV, 52—54)
“I am one who, when Love inspires me, takes
note, and goes setting it forth after the fashion
which he dictates within me.”
The book of memory has as its author God Himself. In this sense, Dante's poem is neither a copy nor an imitation of the Bible. It is the allegory of theologians in his own life.
Nonetheless, the passage from the events of Dante”s life to the words and images he uses to signify them is one that we cannot make. This is why it is impossible to guess at the identity of the Donna Pietra, just as it is impossible to see in the Medusa some event of the poets life. We must be content with words on words, the double focus on a poetic expression, beyond which it would take an act of faith equal to Dante’s to go; beyond which, indeed, there is no Dante we can ever know.
The address to the reader is thus not a stage direction, but an exhortation to conversion, a command to await the celestial messenger so that we, like the pilgrim, may “trapassare dentro”. Beneath the veil of Moses, we behold the light of the Gospel; beneath the veil of Dante’s verses, the dottrina is derived from that, orit is nothing at all.