Poetry by Way of Theology [Denys Turner]

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Autore: Denys Turner

Tratto da: Dante the Theologian

Editore: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Anno: 2022

Pagine: 28-38

[…] Though it will need qualification, it is worthwhile pursuing a little further the thought that there is an analogy, at least partial, between the character of the sacramental and the poiesis of Dante’s epic. And to take one step further on the way to clarity about the nature of the speech acts that define Dante’s work in those terms, it seems profitable to give thought to the seminal statement of Charles Singleton that, taking the Comedy as a whole, “the fiction ... is that it is not a fiction,” a statement that is as revealingly misconceived as it is possible to be. It is, as one might put it, wrong with perfect exactness. Why this is so is evident if we ask what distinguishes Singleton’s supposed Dantean pretence that the Comedy is no fiction from that parallel but limit case of the priest’s saying those words of consecration in the canon of the mass, “hoc est enim corpus meum.” At face value the priest’s words uttered are grammatically in the form of an oratio obliqua, for they are the priest’s recollecting Luke’s Gospel’s report of the words of Jesus at that last supper — which fact is the reason why some say that the Eucharistic words are but a memorial, an imitative invocation of the historical record, a history play. But within the ritual of the Mass, they are uttered as oratio recta, for the priest is standing in for Christ’s saying the words and thus it is he, the priest, who, by uttering them, makes the words to be true; and if his doing so is but instrumental within the economy of divine grace, still it is by means of Ais utterance of them that the thing is done. Therefore, one asks which is correct: To say that the priest is not pretending to be Christ but only reporting his words? Or that it is just by means of his pretending that Christ is made to be truly present? Historically the difference is significant, for the first is Protestant, typically Zwinglian, the second is Catholic, typically Thomist.
Naturally it is not the first, the Zwinglian option, not if you are the Dante obedient to the doctrinal requirements of the orthodox sacramental theology of his day. For when the priest utters those words he does so not as an individual but as priest, that is, on behalf of the Church, which acts in obedience to Christ’s command. Nor are the words to be heard as if in quotation marks, as they would be heard were the priest merely reporting Jesus to have said them. For he utters them in persona Christi, and so it is that what otherwise would be impossible is true, namely that the priest’s uttering those words on behalf of the Church truly effects as instrumental cause what they signify. And if this causality is but instrumental, it is still true that it is by his saying them that the deed is done: He is not pretending at all. The ax truly cuts though it is I who wield it; and in the same way the priest’s uttering the words instrumentally and as subordinate to the divine agency truly does it. So here there is a fiction but no pretending: it is the priest, standing in for Christ, whose utterance makes to be true what the words signify, makes them do what they say. Here there is a fiction that is, as one might say, a true faction.
Given this, what are we to say about Singleton’s account of Dante’s authorship of the Comedy? Is it that though Dante’s standing vis-a-vis the narrative truth of his Comedy is that of the priest, Dante’s fiction but imitates the priestly act and cannot have the same otological value as it, whose sacramental fiction brings about the fact? In a way it is. What is in any case certain is that it cannot be in the same sacramental sense that Dante’s epic “effects what it signifies.” For the Eucharistic signification is a unique case among performatives, it is what the Church alone does and alone can do. Even if it is true that in some way Dante’s epic “does what it says,” that in some way his ritual act of “saying” pulls off the doing, the poiesis achieving the praxis, the question remains whether, if it is not sacramental, what the Comedy effects is no more than what poetry always effects, simply as poetry; or does Dante claim more for the Comedy’s efficacy, something more than the rhetorical efficacy of the poet, something closer to the sacramental efficacy of the priest? Is it in that sacramental sense that Dante’s Comedy is a performative act, a poiesis?
The answer to that question in the end must be that the analogy between them does succeed, but only with careful qualifications. Dante’s is a poetic praxis, the Comedy’s speech acts do effect what they signify in its own way, that is, by rhetorical force; but the work’s “efficacy” is not strictly sacramental, because if the poetic act by itself — that is to say, in its own reality as poetry — belongs within a sacramental act, and within it may realize a certain sacramental force, it does not do so in its own right as poetry. For the poet’s performativity is not in itself an act of the ecclesial community in its specific agency, as the words of the liturgy are. The Comedy is Dante’s authorial act, the priest’s action is the Church’s. Therefore, even if there is some sort of sacramental shape to Dante’s self-understanding as poet, a shape that derives from poetry’s generic character as performative, Dante-poet is not, qua poet, priest. What is it, then, if it is not to cast Dante as a priestly poet, to say that he is a poeta-theologus, a poet-theologian?
For an answer I think that we must turn to the vexed question of what Dante is saying about the Comedy, and what is he claiming for himself as its author, when he says in his Epistle to Can Grande della Scala - assuming it is his, and if so, written when he is well into the composition of the Comedy, — that his poem is to be interpreted according to the theologian’s understanding of allegory and not, as he had once said in his Convivio, merely according to the allegory of the poets.
First, though, let us not be too quick to set the two allegories in principle at odds. Where today theologians claim to be sharp and clear as to what has the authority of inspired canonical Scripture and what is merely secondary commentary on it, medieval writers, and especially reflective theologians in the fourteenth century, can allow the categories endlessly to seep into one another. Indeed, they positively encourage the seepage. Two hundred years after Dante, the Protestant reform will stem the seepage and construct dykes and ditches designed to stem the easy flow between text and interpretation, and even in Dante’s own time Nicholas of Lyra, and, thirty-five years before Dante, Aquinas, had insisted upon sharp theological demarcations between literal and allegorical senses of Scripture, as also in general between the allegory of the theologians and the allegory of the poets.
Still, for Aquinas, not all distinctions are disjunctions. As to the distinction itself he is indeed quite firm: The literal sense of Scripture is “all that can genuinely be got from the meaning of the words themselves,” and he is far from denying that Scripture itself is littered with every form of literary trope (he rather lazily calls it all “metaphor”) as part of Scripture’s way into the literal historia of salvation, salvation’s res gestae. For Aquinas, it is those res, facts, events, of salvation history, not the words that record them, that provide the literal ground of theological allegory, or have moral bearing on a personal life, or make gesture to an eschatological, mystical, sense of creation as a whole — those so-called allegorical, tropological, and anagogical, senses of Scripture. All three, he says, are grounded in Scripture’s literal sense.
And having said all that, Aquinas explains why the distinction between the literal and the allegorical senses of Scripture matters: Don’t confuse the literary devices of the poets that generate complex, overlapping, associative, meanings, with the significance that the Holy Spirit inscribes in the events of salvation history. All the same, if it is necessary not to confuse the allegory of the poets with the allegory of Scripture, that distinction, Aquinas says, by no means rules out the allegory of the poets haying a scriptural role. On the contrary, he is insistent that the literal sense of Scripture is frequently, or, as in the case of the Psalms almost entirely, constructed out of literary trope, the literal out of the poetic, which is much what Nicholas of Lyra, Dante’s contemporary, said about the Song of Songs too: Literally it is salvation history, he said, by way of poetry. So, for Aquinas and Nicholas, in such cases the allegory of the poets is part of the theologically literal sense of Scripture, so that Scripture itself contains fiction not needing to pretend that it is nota fiction and for all that, he says, containing the literal truth.
In such ways within the Church’s own reception of the Scriptures of which it is also the author — Scriptures that are at once authoritatively regulative for the Church and written by it — the categories do begin to seep into one another, text into hermeneutic, trope into literalness, and in both cases in reverse directions too, in the manner that most medieval theological writers of his times took quite for granted as proper and desirable, and not just in the case of scriptural texts. If in search of a sense, then, in which Dante’s Comedy can, even on Aquinas’s account, be read according to the theologians’ four senses of Scripture one should think of that early twelfthcentury creation, the Glossa Ordinaria, that written-out page of Scripture, the sacra pagina, visibly setting between the lines of the inspired text an interpreter’s interlinear gloss and surrounding it with the marginal gloss containing whole traditions of interpretation, and so presenting to the eye Scripture received and absorbed over a thousand years or so by the communities whose writings they are, writings that are reciprocally regulative of the communities which wrote them. Scripture is the whole complex interaction of text, the community interpreting it, and the community for which it is interpreted, the Church, thus far, the Sacra Pagina. And the manuscript pages look like what in truth they are hermeneutically, scriptural text interleaved and surrounded by its centuries of reception, writing that is read, Scripture proclaimed, Scripture as historical ecclesial practice of the teaching community at prayer, witnessing to salvation history. In the medieval world in which Dante writes his Comedy the inside and the outside of Scripture leach into one another through a thin and porous skin — for the very distinction between literal and allegorical is itself authorized by the Scriptures it exists to interpret, as in the famous passage in Galatians 4:22—27, where St. Paul instructs his audience to read the fates respectively of Hagar and Sarah as a second-order allegory of the first-order allegorical text of Scripture itself. This hermeneutic is not thought of as added to Scripture: It is there én what is written.
So now what has happened to Singleton’s “fiction?” Have we not turned the tables on at least the anti-realist versions of his formula? Is it not truer to say that Dante’s fiction is that his narrative is but a fiction, and that by means of a poetic epic and as if in a literal narrative he gives us what could be got at in its theological truth by no other means, or by no other means as well, in the same way that by means of seven openly sexy poems the Song of Songs offers the best way into the truth of the love affair between Israel and Yahweh — that is, by way of its erotic allegory of making love truly to make it? In the same way the Dante of the Can Grande epistle knows he has no other way into the literal truth at the heart of the Comedy’s narrative than by means of the allegory of the poets, and that in its being precisely as such theological allegory his poem is to be read as a para-scriptural text, accessing Scripture’s literal truth. And might it not be that Dante realized that his poetic strategy was forced upon him by a necessity that is truly theological? Could it not be the case that there are some theological truths he knew can be got at only by way of a poetic narrative fiction, thereby to get at those “facts” to which poetry alone can give expression? If that is how Dante thinks, would it not be better to say that for him the fiction of the Comedy is that it is a fiction, for of course the journey he describes is theologically impossible, but in its description is contained a profound theological truth? And why should we be surprised to find Dante thinking that a poetic fiction is sometimes the only way into a theological truth, since from Origen in the third century all the way through to Dante’s own day theologians almost invariably knew that such are the necessary devices of their scriptural authors, especially of the biblical poets? For what else are those 150 Psalms doing centrally in the biblical canon?
In such a thought-world one can begin to see just how theologically judicious, and lacking in theologically self-important pretentiousness, was Dante’s conception of his Comedy as bearing the hermeneutical weight of theological allegory: Its truth is scriptural, a truth got at by means of a fiction which, precisely as fiction, gets to the fact. And then, if we read it that way, we no longer need in Aquinas’s name to demote the theological standing of poetry as such, as some of his more confused soi-disant followers and opponents alike suppose him have done, and so to have depreciated the theological deployment of the distinctively literary apparatus of allegory. For if we follow the logic of this argument that literary trope is a compositional device of the theologically literal sense of the Comedy, then of course metaphor and literary allegory and the rest do belong to it as literary text, but as trope required by the theologically allegorical intent of the Comedy, bearing its literal meaning. Thereby Scripture itself, read within and by the community whose Scriptures they are, retains some of the core meaning of the sacramental, effecting in its own way what it signifies, in the sort of way in which for the partners in a marriage rite to have said before the community “I do” is to have done it.
Distinctions, then, matter. But not all distinctions are dichotomies, excluding one another — not for Dante. The fact is that in Dante’s time the very notion of literal meaning was passing through a phase of development, and he knew exactly what that development was and what he was doing with it. In short, Dante perceived the need to be a poet in order adequately to meet the demands of the theologian that, as author of the Comedy, he claimed to be, claiming, not exactly for himself personally but for his poem, a place within the historically continuous scriptural practices of the Church, and in consequence claiming for it the right to be read according to the appropriate hermeneutic, the allegory of the theologians.
If in response to the pressures of the sixteenth-century reforms the two senses of allegory fall apart into opposition, as do the two senses of the literal, if indeed allegory in the theologian’s sense falls entirely away, leaving a regnant literary allegory unchallenged and a contrasting notion of the literal truth of Scripture scarcely defined at all, that is no good reason for a neglect of the theologian’s allegory in the reading of Dante. ‘There is no better reason for wielding the allegory of the theologians as a stick with which to beat down the allegory of the poets as of little or no theological concern. For Dante’s poetic allegory is a literary device crucial in the Comedy’s foundation in a literal reading of Scripture. And if that is at the heart of Dante’s intent, then it is reason enough to claim Dante for the theologians precisely insofar as he is a poet-theologian who boldly plays the two allegories in and out of one another, each interpreting the other. Truth is not wisely said always to be better than fiction, for sometimes fiction is the only way into the truth. And very often it is the best way of all.

Date: 2023-01-13