Three Allegorical Journeys [David Thompson]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: David Thompson

Tratto da: Dante's epic journeys

Editore: John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore

Anno: 1974

Pagine: 7-11; 31-33

1. 1. Dante’s twofold Itinerary

Are we to believe that in the thirty-fifth year of his life Dante Alighieri clambered down through a large hole in the earth, emerged on the other side, climbed a mountain, and finally ascended to the Empyrean? On the face of it, yes; for instead of relating a dream vision (like Scipio's, for example), the Commedia records a physical journey to God by a man in this life and in full possession of his senses. Yet we all know that such a journey is impossible; so the poem would seem to demand of us a virtually impossible suspension of disbelief.
To some readers the Commedia may present no such stumbling block; after all, they will ask, is it not a fiction? And in a fiction, of course, almost anything goes. If no one complains that Astolfo's journey to the moon was impossible, why worry about Dante's heavenly flight? A poet is no mere historian, fettered by brute fact.
But what if a poet claims to tell the truth?-if, instead of avowedly weaving a fable, he ventures to speak in a prophetic vein, on the basis of his own experience? How can the patently impossible make any claim to be true?

Perhaps we can best appreciate the peculiar nature of Dante's journey by comparing his account with that of another noted mountain climber. In a famous letter to Dionigi da Bargo San Sepolcro, Petrarch describes his ascent of Mount Ventoux, which he ostensibly climbed because it was there. Although some portions of the narrative may seem straightforward enough, it soon becomes apparent that Petrarch's bodily progress (or lack of it) is an analogue of his inner life: the physical journey occasions a consideration of the spiritual. Lest this escape our attention, Petrarch sits down at one point and addresses himself in the following fashion:

Quod totiens hodie in ascensu mantis huius expertus es, id scito et tibi accidere et multis, accedentibus ad beatam vi tam; sed idcirco tam facile ab hominibus non perpendi, quad corporis motus in aperto sunt, animorum vero invisibiles et occulti.

["What thou hast repeatedly experienced today in the ascent of this mountain, happens to thee, as to many, in the ascent toward the blessed life. But this is not so readily perceived by men, since the motions of the body are obvious and external while those of the soul are invisible and hidden."]

It has been the signal merit of Charles Singleton's work to demonstrate that the Commedia represents a twofold itinerary: Dante's "obvious and external" journey is an analogue of the "invisible and hidden" spiritual course he followed, the itinerarium mentis ad Deum. John Freccero, going a step further, has observed that since "pure experience is not directly communicable, being by definition unique," the whole poem is "an extended exemplum of esperienza piena," and that "it is in the experience that we must believe, not in the exemplum, the poem itself, which is his compromise, his expression of what for us is out of reach."
Of course, Dante nowhere spells this out for us the way Petrarch does; but much in the poem that was formerly inexplicable makes sense once we realize that Dante is describing an itinerarium mentis. For example, at the outset Dante's "firm foot was always the lower" (Inf 1. 30: "il pie fermo sempre era il più basso") not because of how men climb actual mountains, but because one foot of his soul was lame and in need of cure. From moving by the feet of the soul, Dante advances gradually to flying on the wings afforded him by Beatrice. Asked to cite the poem's main conceptual image, one might well choose the following (Purg. 12. 121-29):

O superbi Cristian miseri lassi,
che, della vista della mente infermi,
fidanza avete ne' ritrosi passi;

non v'accorgete voi, che noi siam vermi
nati a formar l'angelica farfalla,
che vola alla giustizia senza schermi?

Di che l'animo vostro in alto galla,
poi siete quasi entomata in difetto,
si come vermo, in cui formazion falla?

[O proud Christians, wretched and weary, who, sick in your mind's vision, have faith in backward steps, do you not realize that we are worms born to form the angelic butterfly, which flies to judgment without defence? Why does your spirit soar on high since you are, as it were, defective insects, like a worm in which development is lacking?] (My translation)
If this spiritual dimension of the poem was not immediately apparent, if indeed many fine critics have denied that the poem is allegorical, it has been largely because Dante's literal level is so fully realized, because "The particular, the individual, the concrete, the fleshed, the incarnate, is everywhere with the strength of reality and the irreducibility of reality itself."
Except in certain notable instances, Dante's language is representational, not referential; opaque, not transparent. This distinction between the Commedia and other literary allegory ( as he conceives of it) has led Professor Singleton to argue that Dante's poem must therefore have been written in imitation of scriptural allegory as it was interpreted in the Middle Ages. It will be the argument of this chapter that Dante instead wrote allegory in the epic tradition, as it was conceived of in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and in the Renaissance; and more specifically, that the Aeneid, as allegorized by Bernard Silvestris, afforded Dante a significant precedent for his twofold physical / spiritual journey.


2. 4. Letter and Allegory

The Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Commedia all, then, can be regarded as physical journeys representing spiritual journeys to the soul's patria; and in this light, it is no wonder that Dante had himself welcomed into "la bella scuola / di quel signor dell'altissimo canto" (Inf 4. 94-95: "the splendid school / of that master of loftiest song").
The modern reader will very likely find Numenius and company dangerous guides through the world of Odysseus, and Bernard Silvestris at best an interesting specimen of twelfth-century Platonist. But the validity of their allegorizations is not at issue here. What I wish to stress is that to any reader, of whatever persuasion, the Odyssey and the Aeneid are obviously mimetic: real human beings love and fight and shed blood and die. They may seem less vivid and realistic in their 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 a good deal more "real" than Beatrice-as may we.) Nausicaa and Dido and Beatrice are all intended to have the same mimetic status as, say, Natasha or Grushenka-they are flesh and blood, not referential personifications. Thus, making due allowances for their differences in style, we may say that both epic poems have the same sort of literal level as the Commedia, "given in the focus of single vision." If they were also regarded as allegories, clearly for classical and medieval readers, a poetic allegory could show us "the concrete, the fleshed, the incarnate" with all the "irreducibility of reality itself." And if this seems strange to us, it is because we still permit ourselves to be victimized by Romantic prejudices about the nature of allegory.
But be that as it may, it probably is fair to say that for most of us the major interest of the Commedia lies in its literal level. We care more about the characters that Dante meets along the way than about the spiral psychic course that brings him there. In my view, the major problem now facing Dante criticism (if we can agree to a moratorium on worrying about poesia and non poesia, and "the allegory of poets" versus "the allegory of theologians") is to find a satisfactory relation between this literal level and the allegorical dimension of the poem. The second part of my essay aims to make a contribution in this direction.

Date: 2022-12-27