Dante and allegory [Albert R. Ascoli]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Albert Russell Ascoli

Tratto da: The Cambridge Companion to allegory

Editore: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Anno: 2010

Pagine: 128-135

Since the seminal work of Charles Singleton in the 1950s, the subject of allegory has been at the controversial heart of Dante scholarship. The debate focuses on the Commedia and in particular on the question of whether Dante is there writing an allegory “of theologians,” that is, an imitation of the fourfold model of Scriptural signification, or not. Around this central question several others are arrayed. Is the “letter” of the “holy poem” to be taken as “true” like that of the Bible or as a “beautiful lie”? If the Commedia is modeled on the Bible, does it include all or some of the three allegorical senses (allegorical or Christological; moral or tropological; anagogical or eschatological) attributed to Scripture in the exegetical tradition? Is it more appropriate to talk about the Commedia in terms of allegory per se or rather in those of the typological ordering of God’s two books – the Bible and creation as a whole – sub specie aeternitatis, which provides the ontological and epistemological basis out of which the fourfold scheme is developed?
Most of what has been written – far more than can be summarized here – has been aimed at determining the Commedia’s intrinsic mode of signification and has consistently begged the question of how Dante might have come to displace into the domain of lay vernacular poetry an exegetical practice designed for exclusive application to Holy Scripture, and what might the wider significance of such an extraordinary displacement have been. In examining these latter issues, this essay will not consider the Commedia itself – in which the word allegoria does not appear – but rather the two theoretical statements, in which Dante explicitly defines his own allegorical practice, situating it in relation to two different types of allegory and/or allegoresis: the first chapter of the second book of the unfinished treatise, Convivio (written c. 1303–06, in the period just preceding the Commedia) and the Epistle to Cangrande (c. 1316–18; attribution contested), which presents itself as accompanying, introducing, and beginning to comment upon a gift of the early cantos of Paradiso to Cangrande della Scala, Lord of Verona.
These texts, which have been invoked time and again in scholarly battles over the Commedia, have not usually been considered on their own terms and/or in wider historical perspective, which, though understandable, is nonetheless regrettable. Just to begin with, before Dante no practicing medieval poet, and, a fortiori, no poet writing in a vernacular, ever undertook systematic interpretations of his own works (in Convivio, of three philosophical canzoni; in the Epistle, of the Commedia itself), much less offered a theory of allegorical writing and/or reading to underpin it. I will not attempt here to describe how this came to be, although it falls under the general rubric of transformative appropriation of high Latin cultural authority for a medieval vernacular author, and is addressed amply elsewhere in this volume [see within essays by Brownlee, Kamath and Copeland, and Zeeman]. My focus, instead, is Dante’s manipulations – at once brilliant, innovative, and deeply confused – of received models of poetic and biblical signification and exegesis.
My argument is twofold: first, that, in an apparent paradox, Dante’s invocation of biblical allegory has as much to do with affirming the importance of the literal sense, true or false as may be, as with discovering hidden meanings beneath the textual surface; second, that what is usually called Dante’s allegory, meaning his mode of signification, is better understood as an attempt to conflate allegoresis, a practice of reading, with allegory, a practice of writing, so as to suggest that the text’s author is also its best reader. Put another way, Dante’s career-long obsession with defining how his texts signify and how they should be interpreted points to a relatively novel investment, historically speaking, in the power of the author to realize his intentions in writing and to control the reception of that writing by readers.
The Convivio, projected to be fifteen books in length, and to comment upon fourteen of Dante’s canzoni, actually consists of an introductory, justificatory book, plus commentaries on three canzoni. In its commitment to turning vernacular poetry into an instrument for the communication of philosophical knowledge, the Banquet resembles Jean de Meun’s Rose, but in its poem-commentary form it is more closely aligned with a Scholastic tradition which provided elucidating commentaries on classical literary and philosophical authors (Ovid, Virgil, Aristotle, et al.), as well as on the Bible. As Dante begins the first book of commentary proper (book 2, commenting upon “You who by understanding move the third heaven”), he stops to explain the exegetical method which he will use. I reproduce a large portion of the explanation in order to convey its density, complexity and, perhaps most importantly, its daring innovations:

I say… that this exposition ought to be literal and allegorical. And so that this may be understood, it is necessary to know that writings may be understood and must be expounded primarily according to four senses. The first is called the literal [and this is that sense which does not go beyond the letter of the fictitious words, as in the fables of the poets. The next is called allegorical] and this that which is hidden beneath the mantle of such fables and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful falsehood: such as when Ovid says that Orpheus tamed the beasts with his lyre and made trees and stones move towards him, which means that the wise man makes cruel hearts grow tame and humble with the instrument of his voice, and how he makes those that have no life in science or in art move according to his will: and they who have no rational life are little better than stones… Truly speaking, the theologians take this sense otherwise than the poets, but because it is my intention here to follow the manner of the poets, I take the allegorical sense in the way that it is used by those poets. The third sense is called moral; and readers must watch out for this most carefully as they go through writings, both for their own benefit and for that of their pupils. So, for example, one may note in the Gospel that when Christ ascended the mountain to transfigure himself he took three of the twelve apostles with him. The moral sense of this is that we should have few companions in our most secret undertakings. The fourth sense is called anagogical, that is, above the senses, and this sense appears when one expounds the spiritual meaning of a text which, even though [it may also be true] in the literal sense, nevertheless points through the things signified to the supernal things of eternal glory. This may be seen in that song of the prophet which says that Judea was made holy and free in the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt (Psalm 113:1–2). And although it is manifestly clear that this is true according to the letter, that which is understood spiritually is no less true: that the soul in her exodus from sin is made holy and free… And in demonstrating this, the literal sense must always come first as that which contains in its meaning all other meanings, and without this literal sense it would be impossible and irrational to attend to the others, especially the allegorical, without first coming to the literal.

Most criticism of this passage focuses on two obvious features: on the one hand, the use of a fourfold model of exegesis which derives from biblical commentary; on the other, a distinction between how poets and how “theologians” take allegory, with Dante claiming to follow the poets. However, in the rush to establish what Dante “means” here, the peculiarities, the ambiguities, the confusions of the passage – which are its most telling features from both the historical and the conceptual point of view – are frequently glossed over – and in particular the importance of the examples given is not well understood.
The first point to establish is that, while the most common references to this passage suggest that it can tell us how Dante’s poetry signifies, or how Dante wishes us to believe his poetry signifies, it is in fact concerned with explaining how Dante as prose commentator intends to explicate his canzoni: in other words, it begins as a discussion not of “allegory” but of “allegoresis.” This confusion, however, is generated by the text itself. When Dante says he does not take the allegorical sense(s) as the “theologians” do, he seems to be referring to biblical exegetes, although “theologus” is also sometimes used to refer to the human authors of the Bible. But when he says he does take that sense as the “poets” do, he is clearly referring to writers of poetry, not to its interpreters. In other words, he presents the distinction between allegory and allegoresis, only to elide it. What allows this? The fact that in Convivio, as against typical medieval examples of allegorical commentary, Dante is both the glosser of poetry and its author. In other words, the “confusion” is underpinned by an assumption that in glossing the text he is simply making known his own intentions.
A second point is that while the critical tradition would suggest that the passage is largely concerned with the allegorical sense(s), whether poetic or biblical, Dante in fact says that exposition must be both literal and allegorical, and spends a full half of the chapter explaining why it is that all understanding of the hidden senses depends directly upon first coming to grips with the letter. This emphasis is borne out in his subsequent practice. In books 2 and 3, both fifteen chapters long, ten chapters each are dedicated to expounding the letter, with only four and five respectively given over to allegorical exegesis, while book 4, which is as long as the other two put together (thirty chapters), is entirely taken up with literal interpretation. In other words, whether or not the textual surface may be considered a “beautiful lie,” it is nonetheless the engine which generates all meanings. This second point, of course, is closely intertwined with the first: if the poet’s intended allegory and the exegete’s allegoresis are to coincide anywhere but in Dante’s mind, the letter must serve as the mediator between them – indeed, the letter must, in some sense, already reveal what is by definition hidden.
Finally, but not briefly, we should consider the status of the illustrations that Dante offers of the “four senses.” These are, again, typically taken to illustrate the difference between the allegories traditionally attributed to poetic texts (such as the moral and/or spiritual readings of Ovid and Virgil) and those produced in biblical exegesis. However, both the poetic and the biblical examples, and the collection of the three examples (illustrating the allegorical, the moral-tropological, and the anagogical senses respectively), are idiosyncratic and deeply problematic, and suggest that in bringing together these two traditions Dante ends up deforming and transforming both.
The most extraordinary, and least appreciated, of these examples is the first: that of the Ovidian Orpheus moving rocks and stones with his music, allegorized as the wise man who tames the ignorant with his voice. In the fourfold biblical scheme, this would be the Christological and/or ecclesiological sense (quod credas: “what you should believe”), on which the tropological (quid agas) and anagogical (quo tendas) senses are based – but though the text points to a difference of the Orphic example from theological intentions/interpretations, it does not specify in what that difference consists. At first glance, Dante’s example seems to be a perfect illustration of the typical allegorization of poetic texts, which largely confines itself to uncovering a single hidden sense, usually “moral” in its applicability to the behavior of the reader. This sense, logically speaking, should correspond to the second of the three senses of biblical exegesis – the moral-tropological (what you, the Christian everyperson, should do) – rather than the first.
Further consideration, however, suggests that this is not so much an example as a “meta-example” of poetic allegory, a characteristically Dantean “allegory of allegory” in Martinez’s felicitous phrase: what we are presented with is not a lesson for the reader, but rather an illustration of how the poet-philosopher or poet-theologian goes about instilling such lessons through the power of his language. In other words, Orpheus allegorizes Dante as the poet whose beautiful verses will “delight, instruct, and move,” in the Ciceronian formulation. Moreover, once we have recognized this departure from the standard “allegory of poets,” we can also recognize an implicit assimilation to the Christological sense of biblical exegesis. In fact, Orpheus, because of his descent into and return from Hell, was often treated as a figura Christi in medieval allegorizations. In the present context this means that the poet himself, in this case Dante, is the allegorical referent, where in the usual fourfold scheme it would be Christ. This does not mean, of course, that Dante is equating himself with God made flesh; it does mean that the separation between “allegory of poets” and “allegory of theologians” is breached in the very moment it is supposedly illustrated – and that this happens in the name of justifying Dante’s ambitions for himself and his writings.
In exemplifying the first of the three allegorical senses, Dante uses a poetic text not a biblical one, and no explicit reference is made to how a “theologian” would treat this sense differently. In exemplifying the next two senses, exactly the reverse occurs: both are illustrated with reference to biblical texts (the Transfiguration; the Exodus) and the relationship to Dante’s exegesis of his poems is not evident. Even so, this is by no means a straightforward use of the biblical model. Usually, illustrations of the biblical exegetical model begin with a single literal passage of the Bible and then show how all three allegorical senses proceed from it, as does the Epistle to Cangrande in illustrating the polysemous character of the Commedia:

[T]he first meaning is that which is conveyed by the letter, and the next is that which is conveyed by what the letter signifies; the former is called the literal, while the latter is called the allegorical or mystical. And for the better illustration of this method of exposition we may apply it to the following verses: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion” (Psalm 113:1–2). For if we consider the letter alone, the thing signified to us is the going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption through Christ is signified, if in the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace is signified; if anagogical, the passage of the sanctified soul from the bondage of the corruption of this world is signified. (Par. 7)

Dante, on the other hand, illustrates each sense with a different literal text: first, Orpheus; then, for the moral-tropological sense, the Transfiguration of Christ; finally, for the anagogical sense, the same passage from Psalms which is then used for all four senses in the Epistle.
From this peculiar configuration, one might infer that Dante did not (yet) understand the logic of the three allegorical senses in biblical exegesis, where the first entails the second, which entails the third: the example of Christ in the first allegorical sense gives rise to an imitatio Christi in the life of the individual which in turn, if successful, gives rise to the salvation of “the sanctified soul.” Another way of construing it, however, would be that Dante is deliberately blurring the conceptual boundaries between the two modes of allegory and/or attempting to compensate in some way for his initial substitution of a classical text and a “moral” sense for the usual Christological gloss. This would help to account for the oddity of the second example, where a literally Christological text (Christ unveiling himself as the Messiah in the company of the Old Testament prophets and the three most favored Apostles – Peter, James, and John) is made to yield up an allegorical meaning that seems more Machiavellian than biblical, signifying “that we should have few companions in our most secret undertakings.” Indeed, this example could also be read meta-poetically, since it provides an implicit justification for the obscurity of allegorical discourse. Only the final, anagogical, example represents an unproblematic reproduction of the biblical model.
Having examined each of Dante’s illustrations of the three allegorical sensus, it is tempting to posit an ascending “typology” (in the modern classificatory meaning) of examples: one strictly “according to the poets”; one that mingles elements of poetic and biblical exegesis; and one that keeps strictly to the paradigm of “i teologi,” even apparently referring to the signifying structure of an allegoria in factis (allegory of facts), which is characteristic of God’s writing alone (“by the [literally] signified things, signifying the supernal things”). Even here, however, the “allegory of theologians” is immediately deflected back toward Dante’s allegory and allegoresis, because it becomes the occasion for the insistence, noted earlier, that allegorical interpretation, of whatever kind, must begin from the letter.
One way of understanding what I have described here is as a confused “hybrid” of two types of allegory, a transitional moment in Dante’s movement from standard poetic allegory toward the theological allegory implemented in the Commedia and described in the Epistle to Cangrande. My emphasis, however, is different. Wherever Dante’s engagement with the allegorical tradition would ultimately take him, and it is not so easy to say exactly where that is, Convivio 2.1 serves purposes that point more or less directly toward modern notions of authorial self-reflexivity and intentionality and of the textual letter as the basis for all interpretation.
There is no doubt that both the Commedia and the Epistle go further down the road to imposing the categories of biblical typology and Christian exegesis on the vernacular poetry of a secular writer. Even then, however, it is the exceptional and idiosyncratic elements that stand out, and beg to be understood in historical perspective (as against the endless wrangling over whether the “holy poem” claims biblical status and literal truthfulness, or not). On the one hand, it is surely significant that the Commedia can be said to express both the moral-tropological and anagogical senses not allegorically at all, but literally: in Dante-pilgrim’s imitatio Christi (descending into Hell on Good Friday, emerging to the light on Easter morning); in Dantepoet’s representation of “the state of the souls after death.” On the other, in the midst of that “literal” journey Dante presents us with his representation of Geryon which is not only an allegory of the sin of fraud, but also the embodiment of poetic allegory: “truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie” only barely displaced into “that truth with a lying face” (Inferno 16.124). Similarly, the famous paragraph 7 of the Epistle to Cangrande claims not, as is usually argued, to describe the “mode of signifying” of the Commedia, but rather to exemplify the meaning of the word “polysemous.” The Epistle’s gloss on Paradiso then makes no attempt at all to apply the model of biblical exegesis: rather, it is resolutely, explicitly, literal.

Date: 2022-01-14