Figure and Allegory in the "Commedia" [David Thompson]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: David Thompson

Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society

Numero: 90

Anno: 1972

Pagine: 1-11

Without belittling the valuable work of many other scholars, we can fairly say that Erich Auerbach and Charles Singleton have effected a revolution in our understanding of the Commedia. Each brought to his reading of Dante a profound knowledge of Scriptural exegesis, which has opened important new perspectives toward a more satisfactory interpretation of the poem; and their various studies have rightly achieved something like canonical status in the field of Dante criticism. Not surprisingly, their work is often mentioned in the same breath. So astute a critic as Dante Della Terza has even declared that Singleton's reading of the poem is a rigorous application of Auerbach's figural method; but while there are certain similarities in their approaches to the poem, I believe that Professor Della Terza's assertion betokens a serious (and probably widespread) misunderstanding. In this essay I wish to show that there is a radical difference between Auerbach's theory of figural realism and Singleton's allegory of theologians; that both theories are grounded on false assumptions; and that the Commedia is nevertheless both figural and allegorical.

1. Personification allegory

Before advancing his own explanation of Virgil, Auerbach offered an illuminating survey of the various types of interpretation to which he had been subject:

Virgil has been taken by almost all commentators as an allegory for reason - the human, natural reason which leads to the right earthly order, that is, in Dante's view, the secular monarchy. The older commentators had no objections to a purely allegorical interpretation, for they did not, as we do today, feel that allegory was incompatible with authentic poetry. Many modern critics have argued against this idea, stressing the poetic, human, personal quality of Dante's Virgil; still, they have been unable either to deny that he "means something" or to find a satisfactory relation between this meaning and the human reality.

As if bedeviled by a host of shadowy personifications, Auerbach went on to declare rather emphatically that "Virgil is not an allegory of an attribute, virtue, capacity, power, or historical institution. He is neither reason nor poetry nor the Empire. He is Virgil himself." Virgil is there, in his own person, as surely as any character in the Iliad or War and Peace. Auerbach's view is an inheritance from the German critics and scholars of the nineteenth century, who seem to have regarded allegory with a special aversion. Their pronouncements culminated in Vossler's magisterial judgment that in the history of art allegory must appear "as a useless epilogue... a soulless repetition or a dull imitation of antiquity... pagan form without heathen faith, classic drapery without bodies beneath it, a Graeco-Roman paper flower - in short, philological art." Harsh words, indeed, from this great philologist! And we latter-day exegetes will find no little good sense, and a fair warning, in his observation that "Dante the poet would have found a place in Hell for those modern commentators who even to this day break up his glorious poem according to antiquated Thomistic and Dantesque prescriptions...."
The whole question of Dante's allegory is of more than merely technical interest; and Vossler might feel a pang of despair if he could view the current state of affairs, for the personification theory which he tried to lay to rest has been well embalmed in the very texts through which many students first encounter the poem. These readers must often carry away a woefully stilted image of Dante's poetic achievement, because the Commedia simply does not make much sense if one translates "Reason" every time Virgil is mentioned, or "Revelation" whenever Beatrice opens her mouth.
Let us consider for a moment the Virgil - Reason formulation. This makes him a personification or emblem of reason; and we might then expect that his esse is to be Reasonable in every context. But this is clearly not the case. He embraces, kisses and blesses Dante for his harsh words to Phlegyas; he is then vexed by the reception that they receive before the gate of Dis; and later he is angrily contemptuous of Capaneus, who elicits this from one commentator: "Flat on his back, feeling hour after hour eternally the power of the God he is defying, his attitude seems stupid rather than courageous, and is peculiarly disgusting to Reason." That is, since Virgil reacts more strongly here than at any other point, there must be something especially unreasonable about Capaneus. (By this logic, Virgil should become positively rabid when confronted by those who misused their powers of reason.) An a priori assumption governs the reading, as though Capaneus has some sort of monopoly on stupidity, and the allegorical blinders prevent a more obvious interpretation of the incident - for wouldn't the singer of pius Aeneas naturally feel a particular animus toward this rebellious sinner against Jove?
We need only the evidence of our eyes to tell us that Dante's language is representational, nor referential; yet, as Auerbach himself observes, we cannot deny that it "means something." And in my view, the major problem of modern Dante criticism has been not so much the conflict between poetry and belief (or poesia and non poesia, or whatever) as finding "a satisfactory relation between this meaning and the human reality”. How can a poem both mean and be?

2. Figura

Auerbach answered that Virgil is in a very peculiar way: "... Virgil in the Divine Comedy is the historical Virgil himself, but then again he is not; for the historical Virgil is only a figura of the fulfilled truth that the poem reveals, and this fulfillment is more real, more significant than the figura" Therefore, with regard to Virgil "actually there is no choice between historical and hidden meaning; both are present."
As Tertullian had reacted against attempts to allegorize Scripture into a series of moral abstractions, Auerbach reacted to similar assaults on Dante's text. No critic has shown a better feel for Dante's represen- tation of reality, and his essay on Farinata and Cavalcante stands as one of the finest close analyses of the Commedia's poetic texture. However, while it displays Auerbach at his best as an explicator, it also gives an indication of how he went wrong in applying figura to a theoretical comprehension of the poem.
Auerbach observes an "astounding paradox" in Dante's realism, for "Imitation of reality is imitation of the sensory experience of life on earth - among the most essential characteristics of which would seem to be its possessing a history, its changing and developing... But Dante's inhabitants of the three realms lead a 'changeless existence.'" Yet Farinata and Cavalcante seem alive; although their punishment is the same, expressive of God's judgment upon a whole class of sinners, "in their utterances, their individual character is manifest in all its force… each, in gesture and word, completely reveals the nature proper to each, which can be and is none other than that which each possessed in his life upon earth" (p. 192). Their earthly lives have ceased and cannot change, but in the persistence of their earthly characters we "behold an intensified image of the essence of their being, fixed for all eternity in gigantic dimensions, behold it in a purity and distinctiveness which could never for one moment have been possible during their lives upon earth" (p. 192). And throughout the poem, "earthly existence remains always manifest, for it is always the basis of God's judgment and hence of the eternal condition of the soul..." (p. 193).
The basis of this lies in Dante's figural view of human history. Just as the Roman Empire is "an earthly figure of heavenly fulfillment in the Kingdom of God" (p. 195), so

The world beyond... is God's design in active fulfillment. In relation to it, earthly phenomena are on the whole merely figural, potential, requiring fulfillment. This also applies to the individual souls of the dead: it is only here, in the beyond, that they attain fulfillment and the true reality of their being. Their career on earth was only the figure of this fulfillment.... Both figure and fulfillment possess... the character of actual historical events and phenomena. The fulfillment possesses it in greater and more intense measure, for it is, compared with the figure, forma perfectior. This explains the overwhelming realism of Dante's beyond (pp. 196-197).

But Auerbach was not entirely comfortable with his alleged explanation; and in the last pages of the essay he recurs to the effect of Dante's figural realism. He claims that "never before has this realism been carried so far; never before - scarcely even in antiquity - has so much art and so much expressive power been employed to produce an almost painfully immediate impression of the earthly reality of human beings" (p. 199). The argument begins to take a new turn, as Auerbach's sensitive personal response to the poem systematically undercuts his whole figural interpretation:

In the very heart of the other world, he created a world of earthly beings and passions so powerful that it breaks bounds and proclaims its independence. Figure surpasses fulfillment, or more properly: the fulfillment serves to bring out the figure in still more impressive relief. We cannot but admire Farinata and weep with Cavalcantc.And by virtue of this immediate and admiring sympathy with man, the principle, rooted in the divine order, of the indestructibility of the whole historical and individual man turns against that order, makes it subservient to its own purposes, and obscures it. The image of man eclipses the image of God. Dante's work made man's Christian-figural being a reality, and destroyed it in the very process of realizing it. The tremendous pattern was broken by the overwhelming power of the images it had to contain (pp. 220-202).

Shades of Friedrich Hegel! This is a magnificent appreciation of Dante's art; but we may well suspect that if Dante's realism breaks through any figural "bounds" it is because those bounds were in the first place a figment of Auerbach's imagination.

Dante's characters are indeed present in their variety, their greatness (and depravity), their full human reality; and Auerbach's reading has the merit of rescuing Virgil and company from the status of mere personifications. We must observe, though, that the characters of the Purgatorio are not exactly fixed and static: they are after all peregrin in transit from one condition to another. And is it necessary to talk of figure and fulfillment to explain Dante's realism? By the logic of Auerbach's formulation, Dante could achieve his realistic representation, comparable to what we find in ancient and modern literature, only in describing the afterlife: untransfigured reality, our terrestrial world of figures, would not lend itself to such vivid depiction. But given the infernal situation, and the ground to be covered, are Farinata and Cavalcante different in the poem from what we should expect if Dante were writing a novel about people he had met recently on a journey through Italy? Dante's Farinata may strike us as the quintessential Farinata (just as a novelist's brief picture may seem to capture a character's essential features); but if so, this is a literary, not an ontological matter. As Auerbach himself was well aware, we are shown in Farinata not a condemned heretic but a haughty Ghibelline; and political preoccupations have nothing to do with his particular place in the divine order. (This same "fulfilled" essence might just as easily confront Dante in any other circle of Hell.) Dante's corporeal, realized picture of the afterlife has more an aesthetic than a theological rationale.

Furthermore, for all the apparent attractiveness of the schema, in what way is Virgil (alive) : Virgil (dead) comparable to a figure : fulfillment pattern such as Moses : Christ? One historical person figures another historical person, not a later version of himself. Also, it seems that Auerbach has exactly turned around the whole figural concept. This sort of interpretation was used to preserve the historicity of the Old Testament against outright allegorization; that is, it saved the reality of the first element in the figure: fulfillment pattern, not the second. But Auerbach wishes to stress the reality of the second element, Virgil (dead). (After all, who ever denied the historical existence of term one, Virgil the Roman poet?) He has adopted a method which rescued the reality of the first term and applied it to a reading which emphasizes the human reality of the second, the allegedly fulfilled figure; and although we must applaud his aims, this is a rather tortuous way to demonstrate the obvious, that Dante's Virgil is not a shadowy abstraction.

3. The allegory of theologians

The basis of Professor Singleton's theory is his notion that Dante wrote a poem that is unique in being both representational and allegorical. Unlike the sort of allegory criticized by Vossler, Auerbach and Croce, which is the only sort recognized by many scholars, Dante's allegory is not a matter of this for that, but this and that. The literal level of the poem is not a mere veil hiding a deeper, allegorical sense: it stands on its own as the fully realized representation of a specific journey to the other world by one Dante Alighieri: "The particular, the individual, the concrete, the fleshed, the incarnate, is everywhere with the strength of reality and the irreducibility of reality itself." But although Dante's language is not merely referential and transparent, the poem also has a more general subject, the journey of the soul to God in this life, nostra vita. Thus we observe a dual journey, literal and allegorical, corporeal and spiritual, the literal figuring the allegorical but not on that account any the less vivid and mimetic.
For Dante's allegorical mode Singleton makes a large claim: "There is no literary allegory to compare with this." But if Dante had no literary precedents, he nevertheless did have an example for this sort of allegory. In Scripture - according to the "allegory of theologians" - events are not merely fictions devised to convey spiritual truths: they are real, historical events, and they have allegorical significance. Of course, a poet is not God: but "he may imitate God's way of writing." Thus, "in the poem, as in the mode of scriptural allegory, the literal sense is given as an historical sense standing in its own right, like Milton's, say - Not devised in order to convey a hidden truth, but given in the focus of single vision."
Singleton's theory has undoubtedly gained acceptance as a result of the insights which seem to accrue from it. Many of his particular readings of the Commedia seem to me incontrovertible; and his work has had a seminal effect, giving rise to further studies of great value. But the bother is that the elaborate theoretical structure on which these insights osten- sibly rest is not really necessary; and besides, it is wrong, and wrong in such a way as to lead to extravagant pronouncements about the poem and its author.
The Commedia is of course an extraordinary creation - a unique work of genius, if you will. But let us emphasize the obvious: it is a poem, not a candidate for scriptural inclusion. And rather than entering into an involved discussion of theological interpretation and God's way of writing, let us ask the obvious question: Is Singleton's initial assertion correct? Is Dante's poem unique in being both representational and allegorical? Students of medieval literature (or of modern literature, for that matter) could well protest that other works are allegorical without being a parade of fleshless emblems and personifications. Or, to avoid a Christian context entirely, let us consider the work of Dante's master.
The Aeneid, we should all acknowledge, is mimetic, a representation of life on an heroic scale: real human beings love and fight and shed blood and die. It may seem less vivid and realistic in its mimesis than the Commedia (at least, the infernal portion of Dante's poem); but this is a matter of convention and expectation. (Racine and Voltaire probably found Dido much more "real" than Beatrice - as may we.) Dido and Beatrice are both intended to have the same mimetic status, as, say, Natasha or Grushenka: they are real people, not referential personifications. Thus, making due allowance for their differences in style, we may say that the Aeneid and the Commedia have the same sort of literal level, "given in the focus of single vision."
But Virgil's language is transparent in a way Homer's had not been; and although modern criticism tends to call the Aeneid symbolic, not allegorical, that shows more about post-Romantic critical prejudices than it does about the poem. In any case, the poem had been interpreted since late antiquity as a consistent, large-scale allegory. Dante himself offered an allegorization of the Aeneid, in the fourth book of the Convivio; yet Dante also considered the poem to be true. In fact, Aeneas' literal journey was more historically real to Dante than Dante's is to Singleton, who feels compelled to equivocate by asserting that Dante's fiction is that the Commedia is not a fiction. Therefore, if forced to use Singleton's terms Dante would have to call the Aeneid an "allegory of theologians," a story presented in its own right as true (in a fully mimetic style), and in turn yielding an allegorical sense. But we need not pursue such speculations. Surely, even on Dante's own terms the narrative mode of the Commedia is not entirely unique. There is no call for bringing in Thomas Aquinas to explain his combination of mimesis and allegory: any epic poem was expected to function this way .

4. Allegory and figure

Although Singleton confidently takes Dante's citation of Scripture (in the Letter to Can Grande) to mean that he intended his work to be an "allegory of theologians," that "allegory of theologians" must become no allegory at all before Singleton can discuss the allegory he finds in the Commedia:

In spite of Dante's own terminology in the Letter, we might somewhat help a prevailing and growing critical confusion in these matters if we could agree to call this aspect of the poem, the state of souls after death along with its "other" meaning, symbolism rather than allegory. We may consider that had Dante, like Milton, couched his poem merely in terms of things seen and known under inspiration of the heavenly Muse, with no narrative of a journey to God and with no protagonist moving as our post of observation within the field of vision, we might still have his twofold subject as he explains it in the Letter. In this way, for instance, we should see Virgil dwelling with his companions in Limbo in the hemisphere of light, we should see Beatrice sitting beside ancient Rachel in the light of glory .

"But," he continues, "Beatrice does not keep to her seat, nor does Virgil stay in Limbo." Singleton would grant Auerbach's claim that Virgil is Virgil, not an allegorical personification. "All readers of the Comedy, whatever their allegorical credo, must recognize that Virgil, for instance, if he be taken statically, in isolation from the action of the poem, had and has, as the poem would see him, a real historical existence. He was a living man and now he is a soul dwelling in Limbo." But there is another sort of allegorical significance: "It is by having a role in the action of the poem that Virgil takes on a second meaning." Like Auerbach, Singleton upholds the literal, historical reality of Virgil; but at the same time, he can also read the poem as an allegory, for Dante's main allegory is "an allegory of action, of event, an event given by words which in turn reflects, (in facto), another event. Both are journeys to God." Virgil has a role in mankind's journey to God, in this life, as well as in Dante's individual journey through the other world. Just as Virgil can lead Dante only so far along that journey, so a man in this life can proceed only so far by the natural light of intellect.
Auerbach says almost nothing about Dante's journey: his attention is devoted mainly to what Singleton might encompass by the term "Symbolism." Thus there is a radical difference between Auerbach's figural reading and Singleton's allegorical interpretation: the one emphasizes poetic texture, the other poetic structure. Auerbach studies Dante's realized vision, his representation of reality sub specie aeternitatis, while Singleton stresses the dynamic journey, the series of events, the process in time. Auerbach is concerned with what Dante sees, what the souls are; Singleton, with what Dante himself becomes.
Both Auerbach and Singleton cite scriptural exegesis to maintain the autonomy of the literal level, which must not be allegorized away into a drama of Everyman, Reason, Revelation, etc. But Scripture has many uses, and Auerbach himself supplied a clue to the difference between his interests and Singleton's: "To avoid misunderstanding it should be mentioned here that Dante and his contemporaries termed the figural meaning 'allegory,' while they referred to what is here called allegory as 'ethical' or 'tropological' meaning." Moral interpretations were always anathema to Auerbach, whereas it is the moral sense, the quid agas, upon which Singleton focuses his attention:

Now the poem's main allegory is a much closer imitation of this moral sense of Scriptural allegory than may at first be apparent. Not only is the literal event in the Comedy something of an Exodus in itself, but the event in the poem which is signified by the literal is exactly denoted in Dante's definition of the moral sense of Scripture. The itinerarium mentis, which is the other sense to be found in the literal journey through the other life, could have no better desig- nation than that of a "conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace."

But this is not to say that figural interpretation is irrelevant to our understanding of the Commedia. In fact, his study of Dante's journey led Singleton to a discovery of extraordinary importance. That journey is more than just "something of an Exodus." Exodus was an established figure of conversion and it informs not only the prologue scene but the whole poem: the pattern of Dante's journey is figural. The pilgrim's progress from selva oscura to a vision of God recapitulates, step by step, the various stages of the Israelites' passage from Egypt to the Promised Land. Dante's individual experience reflects a universal pattern; or, to use a biological analogue, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

The Commedia is therefore figural not in its ontology and level of representation, but in its structure. Does this mean that Dante wrote an "allegory of theologians"? Yes and no. There is an important dis- tinction to be made here between spiritual interpretation and allegory as a way of writing. Yes, Dante interpreted his life theologically: viewing it retrospectively (just as he had done in the Vita Nuova), he saw it sub figura Exodi. At the end of the journey, Dante could look back upon it, discern a pattern, and structure his narrative accordingly. But presumably it was God who wrote with the events of Dante's life, the events which when interpreted also figure other events. These figurally structured events are represented by means of a literary form, the allegorical dual journey. As C.S. Lewis observed, "Symbolism is a mode of thought, but allegory is a mode of expression. It belongs to the form of poetry, more than to its content." The content of the Vita Nuova and the Commedia derives from Dante's theological, symbolic interpretation of his life: here he is in the line of Augustine and Aquinas. But in writing the allegory of the Convivio and the Commedia Dante joined an equally illustrious company, "la bella scuola/Di quel signor de l'altissimo canto" (Inf. IV, 94-95).

Date: 2022-12-27