Autore: Peter Hawkins
Tratto da: Dante's testaments. Essays in scriptural imagination
Editore: Stanford University Press, Stanford
In the opening sentence of La poesia di Dante, Benedetto Croce asks if there is any reason to judge Dante’poetry differently from that of others. Behind the question stands a challenge to any assumption that the Commedia’s alleged “divinity” confers upon it some kind of supraliterary status. Such notions mean nothing to Croce. Instead, what interests him is the artistic or “lyric” impulse of the poet that continually interrupts Dante’ construction of a “romanzo teologico,” overrides its structures with the revenge of the repressed, and finally unites Dante to other men of genius. If Croce acknowledges the poets grandeur, therefore, he refuses to treat him as a unique case. He wants instead to see him (with Shakespeare and Goethe) no longer even as an individual but as an articulation of a “universal poetry” that resounds with the same quality in all great poets and artists. If Dante spoke divinely, it was because he spoke as a genius: “e Dante fu un Genio.”
Croce has not fared well in the annals of postwar American Dante criticism, which not only has repudiated his distinction between poesig and non poesia but by and large has taken the theological structures of the Commedia very seriously. Nonetheless, the very same question he posed at the outset of his work—the question whether Dante should be read and judged apart from other poets—has remained fundamental even for those whose answer is different from Croce’s, and perhaps especially so for those for whom Dante is (to recall the Latin epitaph of Giovanni del Virgilio) “Theologus Dantes.”
Many professional readers of the poem—beginning with Dante’s own sons—have been made nervous by the poets claims and have insisted that he was only speaking figuratively. Others have upheld the poems essential connection to Scripture, even his assertions of something like “scripturality.” Some have concentrated on the identity of the poet himself, specifically his kinship to the prophets of Israel or to those biblical writers who openly use poetic form: the Psalmist, the author of the Song of Songs, and John the Evangelist, who was believed also to be the seer of the Apocalypse. Still others have linked Dante to the medieval visionaries and mystics who claimed that heaven told them to “Write down what I tell you!” — twelfth-century figures like Joachim of Fiore and Hildegard of Bingen, or, closer to his own time, Marguerite Porete and Bridget of Sweden.
In addition to discussion of the poets identity as at least a quasibiblical author, there has been interest in the way the Scripture informs the Commedia, both on the micro-level of its literary style and with regard to its overall composition. Erich Auerbach, for instance, claimed that biblical typology or “figuralism”—“something real and historical which announces something else that is also real and historical” —determines the whole structure of the poem. Likewise, in trying to account for the range of Dante’ diction, its dramatic mixture of the lofty and the lowly, Auerbach pointed to che Scripture's sermo bumzilisas the poets own model of writing. And finally, there is Dante” epistle to Can Grande della Scala, with its breathtaking assertion that the Commedia is to be read according to the four “senses” of Scripture. Because only God could write according to this “allegory of the theologians,” any claim of such fourfold exegesis by a human author is astounding, perhaps even blasphemous. Could Dante possibly mean that his poem was the Bible?
The American Dante scholar perhaps still most influential in our own day, Charles Singleton, answered this question with a Yes and a No. For him, the Commedia is a human poem and not the Word of God. But because it is manifestly a biblica poem, whose author deliberately set out to “imitate God's way of writing,” it may legitimately be treated as “scriptural’—as long as there are scare marks surrounding the assertion. Such sympathetic skepticism requires of the reader a kind of sophisticated naiveré. Dante’s journey is “make-believe,” but it demands that we treat it as if it were no less literal or historical than the Exodus from Egypt, and therefore as possessed of the Bible's other “senses” in full array. To do otherwise is to betray the poems predominant mode of representation, even to rob it of its premise.
Following Singleton's direction, the reader of the Commedia becomes something like the religious believer who cannot accept the Bible’s literal veracity yet is nonetheless able to give Scripture the benefit of the doubr. Disbelief is willingly suspended, and literary myth treated as if it were history. Indeed, what is certainly only “feigned history,” to recall W. H. Auden definition of fiction, is turned into something more substantial, until in effect it becomes substantial. As the author of God: A Biography put it recently, “The Christmas story didn't happen, in sum, and it need not be believed, but it still matters, and it still works.” By analogy, Singleton's readers allow Dante poem to be the gospel truth. They understand, to quote the critics most memorable formulation, that “the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not fiction.” They acknowledge the fact of Dante” “make-believe,” and then forget it. Although Singleton identified the poems dominant strategy as its imitation of Scripture, his actual work with che Commedia was more exegetical than critical. He played almost exclusively by Dante’s rules and, ignoring the “make-believe,” stayed reverently within Dante” fictional universe.
Others coming after him have chosen to probe Dante’ strategy itself According to Robert Hollander, “Dante creates a fiction which he pretends to consider not to be literally fictitious, while at the same time contriving to share the knowledge with us that it is precisely fictional.” In The Undivine Comedy, Teodolinda Barolini takes a different tack and shows the extent to which that knowledge is not shared. She is interested in how Dante covers his traces, how he makes us believe that his words are the Word of the Lord. The Commedia’s “likeness” to the Bible, therefore, is perhaps the poet's most sustained tour de force, his supreme fiction.
Somewhere in the far left of this playing field stands Harold Bloom. For him, Dante pious admirers who consider the Commedia “another Scripture, a Newer Testament chat supplements the canonical Christian Bible” have actually betrayed Dante. Except for the Psalms, Bloom's poet has no “pragmatic use” for Scripture whatsoever: “The Comedy, for all its learning, is not deeply involved with the Bible.” Yet, when Bloom looks for a way to characrerize the poets sublime presumption, he inevitably resorts ro the Bible: “His poem is a prophecy and takes on the function of a third Testament in no way subservient to the Old and the New.” Unlike the theologian-Dante proposed by others, Bloom sacred poet is akin to the Satan of Paradise Lost, “passionately ambitious and desperately willful.” Rather than toe any orthodox line, this Dante ignores the yoke of external authority and listens only to the dictates of his own imagination. He is “the author of the final testament,” a “poem that prefers itself to the Bible.” In other words, Dante himself writes the only “Scripture” he cares about.
Few readers of the Commedia are likely to find Bloom lively contribution to Dante studies adequate to their own experience of the text, if only because Bloom dispenses with most of the poems content—its profound engagement not only with theology but with history and politics as well. Could it be that Dante’ “achieved strangeness, his perpetual originality” were all that the poet really cared about? Nonetheless, this passion to “ruin che sacred truths” of Dante criticism creates an opportunity. Bloomis assertion, “The Comedy, for all its learning, is not deeply involved with the Bible,” provokes an assessment of precisely what that involvement is. Did Dante write a latter-day Scripture, or a text that only imitates the Bible, or a poem that tries to supplant the Book it only pretends to supplement?
These questions are, in effect, raised at a particular moment in the poem when Dante stands face to face with an allegorical representation of the Scripture in Purgatorio 29, which we looked at briefly in the previous chapter, “Old and New Parchments.” Elaborately staged two thirds of the way through the journey, this encounter with che Bible is a significant variation on what becomesa familiar scenario —a personal meeting between the character Dante and other writers. While these moments are usually warm and valedictory, even a way for the poet to offer his authorial “acknowledgments,” it is clear that Dante has another agenda in addition to the obvious. At the same time he delivers kudos, he invariably establishes the limits of those he meets, as well as his own superiority to them. He is always moving, quite literally, beyond. However, by the time he reaches the summit of Mount Purgatory he finally meets his match. For there, in the Garden of Eden, he stands before the Book whose author is none other than God. He sees an allegorization of the entire canon, an unfolding “script” that in its very order reenacts the Bible's own temporal composition.
The complexity of this encounter requires of us a slow approach. As Dante and Matelda walk on opposite shores of Eden’s Lethe, a bend in the river turns Dante toward the east. He faces in the direction from which Christ prophesied that the Son of Man would make his appearance at the end of time, “as lightning cometh out of the east and appeareth even into the west? (Matt. 24:27). With Eden’s horizon thereby prepared for apocalypse, Matelda turns to Dante and commands him to look and listen: “Frate mio, guarda e ascolta” (v. 15). From that point on he falls into a silence that lasts for the rest of the canto, becomes the awed spectator of a son et lumière in which sights and sounds follow in rapid succession and with increasing clarity. Seven slowly moving candlesticks are the vanguard of an elaborate procession. Behind them a file begins with twenty-four old men (“seniori,” v. 83) walking two by two, clothed in white, and garlanded with lilies. Four winged animals, their wings full of eyes, come next and serve as escort to a splendid griffin-drawn chariot. Alongside its right wheel, three maidens dance in a circle (v. 121); to the left, “quattro facean festa” (“four other ladies made festival,” v. 130). Following behind the chariot and its retinue there appears another file of serziori, also dressed in white, but this time wearing crowns of roses that make them seem “tutti ardesser di sopra da' cigli” (“all afame above their eyebrows,” v. 150). At the head of this group Dante sees a pair walking side by side, then four men “of lowly aspect,” and in last place a figure marching alone. Although his eyes are shut, chis solitary has the “keen look” of someone caught up in a visionary trance. At the exact moment when the chariot is positioned directly across the river from Dante—the entire procession centered, therefore, on him—a thunderclap signals the completion of the scene, just as a lightning flash marked its beginning. All motion stops, and the canto comes to a close.
In this elaborate Pageant of Revelation, Dante does more than remind us of Scripture and tradition. He conjures up a vision of the Bible itself, his own version of what Bonaventure speaks of'as the “length” of Scripture: “it begins with the commencement of the world and of time, in the beginning of Genesis, and extends to the end ofthe world and of time, namely, to the end of the Apocalypse.” In the file of elders, therefore, the Bible is spelled out, book by book. The twenty-four old men represent the books of the Hebrew Bible as Jerome numbered them in his “helmeted” prologue to Samuel and Kings. The four winged creatures that succeed them, representing the Gospels, here surrounded by dancing personifications of the virtues, mark the succession from one Testament to the other. Following the griffin and his chariot, commonly associated by commentators with Christ and the church, two figures appear walking side by side who represent the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles. Behind them come the four Catholic Epistles (Peter, James, John, Jude) and, at the end of the canonical line, the entranced “vecchio solo” (v. 143) who signifies the Apocalypse. With the whole “corpus” of Scripture thus spelled out, Purgatorio 29 comes to an end as Dante stands directly across from the griffin and his chariot. Upon that chariots stage Beatrice makes her dramatic entrance in canto 30, appearing in the midst of the Pageant of Revelation as God's particular word of revelation to Dante. In cantos 30-31, she calls him to personal repentance; then in Purgazorio 32-33, with a sudden swing from the individual to the universal, she affords him the Commedia’s own version of the biblical Apocalypse—a dark vision of history ending with the enigmatic prophecy of a redeemer, the DXV (33.40—45).
It is customary to treat this stretch of cantos as highly traditional, despite the many ways in which Dante seems to have assembled bits and pieces of the past only to move off on his own. Who else, after all, would have dared to place his otherwise unknown earthly beloved at the very heart of scriptural revelation, or shift so abruptly from his own particularity to the vicissitudes of universal history? Who else would choose the Garden of Eden to heighten our sense of the artfulness, perhaps even the “artificiality,” of divine revelation? The emphasis on art is, in fact, striking. From the moment Matelda tells Dante to look and listen, we, too, become spectators of a theological masque, a drama framed by lightning and thunder, staged in discrete episodes, and marked by such phantasmagoric stagecraft as moving candlesticks that seem to the observer like giant paint brushes streaking the air with rainbows (29.73-78). In the company of a Virgil who is “carca di stupor non meno” (“charged no less with amazement,” v. 57), Dante is all eyes and ears, fixed on the spectacle that plays before him—transfixed, that is, by the heavenly Creator's artistry. For it is God who is the metteur en scène of this entire drama, even as he has been author of the other special effects along the purgatorial way. From the evening “dumb show” in the Valley of Princes (8:94-108), to the “visible speech” (10.95) and “high fantasy” (17.25) encountered along the mountainside, and, finally, to this allegorical tableau vivant at the summit of the mountain, purgatory is an extended celebration of a God who is the “miglior fabbro” (26.117), the always incomparably “better craftsman.” In Inferno 29-30 Dante exposed us to the demonic theatrics of the falsifiers; now, in this corresponding moment in the Purgatorio, he focuses our attention on divine artifice and inspired fiction. He celebrates God as impresario of the afterlife:
Qual di pennel fu maestro o di stile
che ritraesse l’ombre e’ tratti ch’ivi
mirar farieno uno ingegno sottile?
(What master was he of brush or of pencil who drew the forms and lineaments which there would make every subtle genius wonder?)
At face value, Dante’s praise of God’ artistry is an act of humble piety, an admission that the Creator is without peer. Yet, as soon as we acknowledge that everything we behold comes from the brush or pencil of Dante himself who else can we applaud for “così bel ciel com'io diviso” (“so fair a sky as I describe,” 29.82) if not the “I” of the poet? It is Dante” subrle genius that brings us every form and lineament we see, his fiery paintbrush that streaks the imagined air with rainbows. Reading his lines, we inevitably stand in admiration of his handiwork. In Purgatorio 29, moreover, we admire that work by his explicit invitation. Although throughout the canto the pilgrim is rapt before the intricacies of the “mystical procession,” our attention is several times drawn away from the allegorical vision to the voice ofthe poet—the poet who, rather than disappearing from the text so that we, too, may follow Matelda's command to watch and listen, reaches out from the narrative to include us in the drama of his own representational act. This shift in focus first occurs early on in the canto, just before the Pageant makes its grand entrance into Eden:
O sacrosante Vergini, se fami,
freddi o vigilie mai per voi soffersi
cagion mi sprona ch'io mercé vi chiami.
Or convien che Elicona per me versi,
e Uranìe m’aiuti col suo coro
forti cose a pensar mettere in versi.
(O most holy Virgins, if hunger, cold, or vigils I have ever endured for you, the occasion spurs me to claim my reward. Now it is meet that Helicon stream forth for me, and Urania aid me with her choir to put in verse things difficult to think.)
Purgatorio opened with a petition to the “sante Muse” in general and to Calliope in particular (1.7-12). But here the stakes are raised higher, as “sante” becomes “sacrosante” and the Muses become “Vergini.” The rhetorical purpose of such moments, of course, is to signal a heightening of poetic material and to dramatize the poets struggle to live up to it. Invocations typically prepare us to admire what the author is about to do—or, as in this case, to recall also what he has already done by way of preparation for this new moment.
Dante begins, therefore, by drawing attention to his poetic vocation and the rigors endured in its behalf. Leaving the merit of his poetry discretely unspoken, his claim to reward is the “hunger, cold, or vigils” he has suffered for the Muses. This brief catalogue of endurance clearly echoes St. Paul's lengthier “boasting” in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33; where he establishes his authority as an apostle by listing the many adversities he has endured: “In labour and painfulness, in much watching, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness” (11:27). Paul's memory of past occasions when he gloried in infirmity then leads him in the following verses to mention “a certain man in Christ” who was enraptured to the third heaven of paradise, where he heard such ineffable words as are unlawful for anyone to utter (12:2—5). Although Paul says that of #4îs man he will boast, and not of himself, tradition has never for a moment seriously doubted that he was speaking of himself.
Dante later takes on this Pauline identification in the opening of the Paradiso (1.73—75), where he charts his own ascent in paradisum with direct allusion to 2 Corinthians 12. Here in Purgatorio, however, his invocation to the Muses establishes literary credentials and gives just cause why the poet should be assisted in writing about “things difficult to think.” And so, walking the fine line between weakness and strength that Paul also traverses in 2 Corinthians, Dante presents himself at once as supplicant and commander. While he may need Helicon' stream and Uranias celestial choir, he does not hesitate to specify “Or convien’—now is the time for his reward. Nor should we overlook the fact that the Pauline language he borrows here refers to sacrifices made for the gospel’s sake, not those suffered in behalf of art. The hard work of writing “in versi” becomes the equivalent of the apostle’s trials.
After this invocation, the Pageant itselfis rendered more or less straight-forwardly as something once beheld, with the often repeated claim “I saw” continuing to link Dante’ narration to the eyewitness accounts of Ezekiel and John the Divine. But again our absorption in the narrative is interrupted by Dante’s once more drawing us to himself as poet. Describing the four living creatures that surround the griffin's chariot, Dante notes that each was “plumed with six wings, the plumes full of eyes.” After briefly mentioning a resemblance between their myriad eyes and those of Ovid's Argus (Met. 1.625-27), he addresses the reader with a somewhat labored aside that nonetheless warrants close scrutiny:
A descriver lor forme più non spargo
rime, lettor; ch’altra spesa mi strigne,
tanto ch’a questa non posso esser largo;
ma leggi Ezechiel, che li dipigne
come li vide da la fredda parte
venir con vento e con nube e con igne;
e quali i troverai ne le sue carte,
tali eran quivi, salvo ch’a le penne
Giovanni è meco e da lui si diparte.
(To describe their forms, reader, I do not lay out more rhymes, for other spending constrains me so that I cannot be lavish in this but read Ezekiel who depicts them as he saw them come from the cold parts, with wind and cloud and fire; and such as you shall find them on his pages, such were they here, except that, as to the wings, John is with me, and differs from him.)
Here Dante the visionary becomes a commentator on his own text, as he points first to one source and then to another. It is a passage of such selfconsciousness that some critics have taken it for an inexcusable act of pedantry and others as a prescient parody of the future commentary tradition itself. The shift in tone, in any event, is oddly abrupt; suddenly we find ourselves shaken out of our absorption in the Pageant and embroiled with the composition of the poets “sacred page.” As Dante juggles his sources and negotiates a discrepancy between scriptural texts, he recalls not only the exegetical practice of the schools but also something of the academic tone of the Schoolmen.
In addition to establishing himself as a master of his pagina sacra, moreover, he specifically reminds us that he is a poet who must make hard choices about his words. “A descriver” opens this digression, which includes a witty word play on the decision to save rather than spend his rhymes. By way of economy, he refers us to other texts, first to Ezekiels pages and then to John's, with Ovid’s Metamorphoses not so very far in the background. Presumably by referring us to familiar sources he means to help us imagine the exact form of the “four living creatures” that surround the griffin's chariot. But if only for the moment, the effect is to preoccupy us more with his artistic choices than with the Pageant itself. The process of writing “in versi” takes center stage. Prophet’ vision gives way to poets shoptalk.
One looks in vain to Dante’ biblical precursors for anything even remotely like this. It is true that both Ezekiel and John are deeply involved with the Word of the Lord as written text. But in these biblical authors there is no emphasis on literary invention or on artistic choices to be made. Rather, Ezekiel is given a scroll containing “lamentations, and canticles, and woe,” and then told to swallow it whole: “Son of man, eat all that thou shalt find: eat this book, and so speak to the children of Israel” (Ezek. 2:9—3:1). John the Divine also receives a divine command to eat a heavenly book (Apoc. 10:8-11), and he is charged more than ten times to write down what he beholds. Like Jeremiah, Daniel, and Habakkuk before him, therefore, John is told to take dictation: “Write, for these words are most faithful and true” (Apoc. 21:5).
In none of these cases, however, is there interest in “literature.” For even though biblical prophets customarily use language rich in image and metaphor, language full of rhetorical figures, they take no personal stock in their own styles, let alone in themselves as poets. Their texts are received from God, their words are trustworthy and true only because those words come from heaven. This self-effacement is not what we find in Purgatorio 29, where the eyewitness account of the visionary who simply reports what he sees gives way abruptly to the deliberations of a poet who invokes the Muses, courts the reader, ponders the spending of his rhymes, and openly weighs first one source and then another. To appreciate the full extent of this departure from the literary style of Scripture one has only to insert Dante’s address to the reader into the pages of Ezekiel or John. The result would be an obvious paste-up, with no possible confusion as to which lines revealed the presence of a later hand.
It is not Dante difference from these biblical writers, however, that we are asked to consider in this brief passage; it is his similarity. When describing the winged creatures surrounding the griffin chariot, for instance, he states that he is largely following Ezekiel’s account: “che li dipigne / come li vide da la fredda parte / venir con vento e con nube e con igne” (‘who depicts them as he saw them come from the cold parts, with wind and cloud and fire,” vv. 100-102). Yet when it comes to a particular detail, he finds himself parting company with Ezekiel and standing instead in accord with John: “salvo ch'a le penne / Giovanni è meco e da lui si diparte” (“as to the wings, John is with me, and differs from him,” vv. 104-5).
This choice between authorities might well seem a predictable one for any Christian writer to make. A special reliance on Johns vision in Apocalypse 4 would indicate the greater authority of the New Testament in comparison with the Old. We find something similar in Paradiso 25, when Dante invokes both Isaiah and John on a particular point only to declare chat it is nonetheless John who “assai vie più digesta . . . questa revelazione ci manifesta” (“makes manifest this revelation to us far more expressly,” vv. 94, 96). There was also an exegetical tradition that equated the six wings of the living creatures with che six ages of human history. Whereas Ezekiel’s vision of four wings suggests that he was able to see only as far as the fourth age, John's sight extended beyond the Incarnation's “fullness of time” to afford him knowledge of the sixth and final age. Given this background, it might well stand to reason that when Dante admits to seeing six wings instead of four he is essentially proclaiming that, as a Christian, he sees beyond the prophets of Israel. In order to join his Commedia to the New Testament fuller revelation, he must of necessity owe a special allegiance to John.
Except that what Dante actually says here is far more audacious. It is not “I am with John” but quite the contrary, “Giovanni è meco”—John is with me. This means that when it comes to the correct number of wings, the truth of the matter rests with his own eyewitness. He confirms Johns vision on Patmos by squaring it with his own: final authority on the matter rests with him.
So too does the license to embellish and innovate. For when we look closely at Dante actual borrowing from the Apocalypse, it becomes clear that he is not consistently “with John” at all. Nor is such an observation something we are allowed to miss. Quite the contrary, the poet makes a point of telling us to “read Ezekiel,” and then to improve his vision with John's. Following that command, however, we note an extensive if subtle reworking of the Johannine text he is otherwise following. To begin with, while Dante's creatures are full of eyes only in their wings (“le penne piene d’occhi,” Purg. 29.95), John's are twice said to be “full of eyes fore and behind... and round about and within they are full of eyes” (Apoc. 4:6, 8). Dante also crowns the creature heads with green garlands (“coronati ciascun di verde fronda,” v. 93), and thereby adds his own imagistic touch to what is already a surfeit of inherited biblical imagery. Once we notice these obvious “departures” from John, moreover, others also come to light. Dante's white-robed elders are garlanded with lilies or roses, not with the familiar gold crowns of John's seriores; they also process together in stately movement rather than sitting stationary upon thrones (Apoc. 4:4). Furthermore, instead of chanting the songs that John reports as rising up from God's throne—the “Sanctus” (4:8) or the “Dignus es, domine” (4:11), both of which were incorporated into the liturgy of the church—Dante’ elders sing original texts, which are, if strongly evocative of the style of both Scripture and liturgy, nonetheless written in Dante’ distinctive amalgam of Latin and vernacular:
Tutti cantavan: “Benedicta tue
ne le figlie d’Adamo, e benedette
sieno in etterno le bellezze tue!”
(All were singing: “Blessed art thou among the daughters of Adam, and blessed forever be thy beauties.”)
Who is the one proclaimed both as “Benedicta” (29.85) and as “Benedictus” (30.19)? In John's Apocalypse, the object of praise is God, “who was, and who is, and who is to come” (4:8). But in the Purgatorio, the woman who is said to be blessed among the daughters of Adam seems to be Dante “private” beloved, Beatrice. Even the griffin, so confidently identified by the commentators as a “traditional” figure of Christ, on closer examination may well be Dante’ own quite enigmatic invention. One could go on. For all the many features chat serve to ground the “mystical procession” in church culture, not to mention in the Scriptures themselves, the Pageant is, in fact, a new account. Dante repeatedly goes the Apocalypse one better.
This situation seems tailor-made for Harold Bloom, who indeed observes of the Pageant that, when Dante cites the authors of Scripture in Purgatorio 29; it is “not to rely on them but to get them out of his way.” On the whole, however, the particular audacity of “Giovanni è meco” has been ignored by the commentary tradition, has even on occasion been interpreted to mean exactly the opposite of what it actually says, so that the critic steps in to correct the slip of Dante pen. According to the earlyfifteenth-century commentator Serravalle, for instance, “John is with me” should be understood to mean the reverse: “excepto quod ad pennas Ioannes est mecum (ego teneo cum Ioanne),” “except when it comes to the wings, John is with me (I hold with John).”
An exception to this flight from the audacious literal is Robert Hollander. For him, “Giovanni è meco” asserts the primacy of the poet's own vision, his refusal to play the role of scribe or take his humble place at the margin of the scriptural canon. This is one of the several places, Hollander suggests, where we can see Dante having fun, even sharing a conspiratorial wink with his readers about the “comedy” ofhis whole enterprise: “That he could rear up this splendid edifice upon the brilliant and fictitious construction of a ‘vision, and then play with his own construction, is still another sign of his utter superiority as a maker of literature.”
I agree chat “John is with me” is capable of provoking laughter, as it does routinely in the classroom. But I suspect that the laughs have less to do with Dante “play with his own construction,” or with any invitation to go backstage and look behind the Commedia’s stagecraft, than with the breezy way the poet makes his monumental claims. We smile because the authority he has so carefully constructed over the long course of the poem is here so casually presumed in what appears to be a throwaway line. The confidence is dazzling. Presumably, John is meant to be relieved that, when it comes to the number of the heavenly creatures’ wings, it is 4e (rather than Ezekiel) who keeps company with Dante!
Another poet might have understood the wisdom of keeping such audacity under wraps. Yet in Purgatorio 29, where Dante stands face to face with Scripture, the poet seems to court the charge of presumption, not run away from it. Why else, when describing the griffin's chariot, should he remind us of Phaeton, that Ovidian overreacher who took hold of the sun's chariot and then destroyed himself through sheer temerity? The story is introduced into the canto when Dante, having contrasted the chariot with the inferior triumphal cars of ancient Rome, now compares it to
quel del Sol che, sviando, fu combusto
per l’orazion de la Terra devota,
quando fu Giove arcanamente giusto.
(that of the Sun which, going astray, was consumed at devout Earth prayer, when Jove in his secrecy was just.)
This recollection of Phaeton tragic fall—of going astray (“sviando”), of human powers unrestrained by a due sense of mortal limitation—reintroduces one of the poet’ favorite cautionary tales precisely at a moment in the work when his own presumption has just been brought into the foreground with “Giovanni è meco.”
Nor is Phaeton the only warning encoded in the mystical procession. Later on in the Pageant (29.133-41), in the chariot’s wake, the pilgrim sees a pair of elders “unlike in dress but alike in bearing.” One of these is the Book of Acts, written by Luke, “who showed himself of the household of Hippocrates,” and who radiates a solicitude for human well-being that one might expect to find in a great physician. The other elder, who “showed the contrary care,” embodies the entire Pauline corpus. Seeing this latter figure, identified by an emblematic sword that is “sharp and shining,” the poet registers an emotion new to the canto. Throughout the procession Dante Pilgrim has been in doubt, enraptured, deceived, full of wonder; but here for the first time he is afraid. The sight of Paul's Epistles frightens him: “mi fé paura” (v. 141). Commentators have long conjectured that Paul's eloquent severity is the reason for the pilgrim's fear. Unlike Luke's comfortable words, Paul’s rouse and even wound the hearer. Beyond this general observation about the writings of the apostle, however, the figure’ identifying sword suggests that a specific Pauline text may be relevant here. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:12-13) we read: “The word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword: piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and searching out the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And in his sight no creature is invisible: but all are open andilaid bare to his eyes, to whom we must give a word of account.” As author of this text, with its contrast between the penetrating power of God's Word. (“sermo Dei”) and the exposed impotence of “nobis sermo,” Paul might well stand before Dante as a figure of the divine judgment on human speech. In the presence of Paul's two-edged sword, a human poet could easily find himself “nuda et aperta,” cut to the quick and rendered silent, especially if the words he is shortly to speak in the Paradiso are a similitude of those “arcana verba” that Paul himself put off limits.
Once Phaeton and the Pauline Epistles have had their chastising effects, the final member of the procession appears: the book of the Apocalypse. The Pageant gives no sign ofany Joachite “eternal gospel” bringing up the rear, no hint that the canon might yet be open to newer testaments. Instead, the march culminates in a book that ends with a solemn warning to anyone who would dare add another word: “I testify to every one that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man shall add to these things, God shall add unto him the plagues written in this book” (Apoc. 22:18). For #is John to be “with” an ambitious fourteenth-century poet, therefore, would seem to require some explanation. But absolutely none is offered. Rather, Dante stands before the finished ranks of the biblical canon and prepares to join the end of the line.
“What shall we then say to these things?” (Rom. 8: 31). Viewed in one way, Dante is offering his poem only as a midrash on the biblical tradition, a fresh telling of God” story as it was entrusted to the church and presented anew in every era. Such a poem might well constitute the kind of prophecy that Albertus Magnus or Thomas Aquinas believed was still possible in Christian times—not the proclamation of any new revelation, but rather a call to take the old one seriously. Viewed from the opposite point of view, however, the Commedia is a third testament meant to “fulfill” the promise of the other two. The Bible itself is of use, therefore, only when it is “with Dante.” In this light, the Pageants presentation of a closed canon is only a subterfuge to mask the extent of the poet' idiosyncrasy and invention— what Harold Bloom frequently refers to as Dantes “Gnosticism.” Although the biblical procession moves in lock step from Genesis to Apocalypse, it has at its center Dante’s utterly private revelation, Beatrice, whose mediator role in the plan of salvation can be found nowhere else in scripture or tradition.
Each of these diametrically opposed perspectives reveals only part of the picture, emphasizing either Dante’s orthodoxy or his heterodox flights of fancy. But each serves to lessen a tension that the poem itself never releases—indeed, a tension that becomes ever more pronounced as the poet moves from purgatory into paradise. Neither “solution” captures Dante's extraordinary complexity or the constant boundary-crossing that characterizes both the Commedia and its author. Dante manages simultaneously to be both the obedient scribe and the radically independent genius. He navigates between the fatal presumption of Phaeton and the loyal discipleship of Saint Paul, who not only warned about the censorious sword of the Spirit but also maintained that speaking boldly, “cum fiducia” (Eph. 6:19), was the way to proclaim the gospel’s mystery. Dante’s interventions as poet-at-work remind us of the constructed, even fictional, nature of his vision; but his profound reliance on Scripture grounds that fiction in a Word chat is finally not ofhis own making. As one who claims that John is “with” him, he may indeed be a theologian with a sense ofhumor. But he is always a comedian in earnest, whose stakes are no less high than the mysterium evangelii itself. He knows he is playing with sacred fire.
This “play,” moreover, may well explain the curious mixture of prophetic vision and literary self-consciousness found in Purgatorio 29. Think of it like this. Dante could see that Ezekiel and John did not consider themselves to be poets in the self-conscious way that he did. Nonetheless, he could see that their texts demonstrated technical accomplishment, forming a sacred literature without profane rival. What, then, if someone who believed himself called to speak the Word of the Lord even as they did were to speak quite openly as a poet? What if poetry itself, far from being merely infirma doctrina, was actually a privileged mode of divine revelation?
Later in the fourteenth century, there would be many others to champion the poet as theologian. But at the time Dante was writing, the worth of poetry was very much under the Schoolmen's rigorous attack. How, then, might he fight back? He had the option, of course, to write yet another Latin prose treatise; or his reply could be a poem. He could answer the theologians’ objections to mere literature by writing a “poema sacro” (Par. 25.1) that required exegesis and commanded belief. He would never abide che ancient dismissal of poets as liars. Rather, he would claim himself to be a scribe of God who felt the guiding pressure of God’ hand and, like Ezekiel and John, wrote down all that he was allowed to behold. In doing so he would also openly reveal his status as a poet, would show himself drawing upon the vast treasury of his own words, holding himself accountable not only to the demands of heaven but to “lo fren de l’arte” (“the curb of art,” Purg. 33.141). His detractors might wonder if such a coincidence of divine revelation and human artistry had ever occurred before. No doubt Virgil would come to mind, given the venerable traditions surrounding his unwitting prophecy of the birth of Christ in the Fourth Eclogue. But what the pagan poet only dreamed of in Parnassus, Dante claims to have seen face-to-face. Jerome had once celebrated the Psalmist David as “our Simonides, Pindar, and Alcaeus, our Horace, our Catullus, and our Serenus all in one.” Now it was time to allow a visionary poet like himself, fully conscious of his literary métier, to take his place not only as our latterday prophet— our David, our Ezekiel, our John, our Paul—but also as our latter-day poeta sacro—our Christian Virgil and Ovid—“all in one.”
How, then, to portray an author of such monumental aspiration and sustained contradiction? Luca Signorelliîs Dante, immortalized in the San Brizio Chapel of Orvieto Cathedral, shows him located securely within an architectural frame, fortified among his books, and (despite the pain etched into those hollowed cheeks) seated at his laurel-crowned ease. While there is some element of drama in the torque of Dante’s body, as he turns his rapt attention from one text to another, the picture as a whole emphasizes the stability ofhis position. A more dynamic portrait of the artist, on the other hand, would render the ceaseless motion behind his apparent stasis. Perhaps only a moving picture would do, for then we would see him as he really is over the long course of the Commedia—less a scholar safely ensconced within his library and more an aerialist of the afterlife, a tightrope walker who negotiates the perilous high wire he has himself strung out berween God’s Book and his own poem. Part of the excitement of watching him make his high-flying moves is the realization that he is always perform ing withouta net, as if inviting the disaster that never quite befalls him. But perhaps the most thrilling aspect of his artistry is the sustained balarce of his entire act, the way his reckless daring is so artfully concealed. One simply cannot stop marveling at the sureness of his footing, the careful measure of each bold step forward, the confident way he holds on to the air.