8. Inferno XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII

8. Inferno XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII

September 12, 2019 0 By Peter Engel


Prof: We’ll continue the
discussion we left open last time.
Remember we are–we were saying
a few things about Ulysses. The overarching question of my
remarks– and your questions actually
took my remarks in a different and sometimes deeper direction
than I had intended– is the whole issue of Ulysses
but around Ulysses, Dante’s reading of what we call
the Hellenic world. Around Ulysses–Ulysses
is–appears in Canto XXVI with Diomedes who is silent.
Ulysses, the polytropic
intelligence of classic antiquity,
the crafty mind is–he appears as a philosopher,
but also as a rhetorician and this is exactly that kind of
complicity between the two modes that Dante wants to explore.
Let me continue with this
overarching theme. The overarching theme is the
reading of the Greek world. You remember that we saw
Eteocles and Polyneices, that clearly for Dante is–the
knowledge of which is filtered through a Greek Roman poet,
Statius, who was born and lived in a Greek Roman city,
Naples. So he’s discussing through
Eteocles and Polyneices the whole story of Thebes.
The two brothers,
who are enemies, the enemies-brothers,
and therefore the tragic history, the tragic knot of
Theban mythology. It is Diomedes who is silent
and–but above all the focus of the canto falls on the greatness
of this hero. Ulysses, who I repeat,
plays a pivotal role in Dante’s imagination.
He is a paradigm,
he has a paradigmatic role. Dante can’t quite get enough of
him, nor can he get over the phantasm of Ulysses.
Ulysses literally appears in
his dreams in Canto XIX of Purgatorio,
and then Ulysses will also appear when Dante has to measure
the great imaginative distance that he traveled when he’s at
the border of the physical and the metaphysical worlds.
He looks back and he will see
Ulysses, or he’ll remember–he will see
the place which has been the place of Ulysses’ transgression,
because this is apparently Ulysses’ sin.
Ulysses’ sin is to have
counseled his companions to go beyond the boundaries of
knowledge. This is–so,
it’s the effects of counseling. Let me just say one thing,
that for Dante there’s no figure which is more
interesting, more important,
more full of–for whom he has so many questions than the
figure of the counsel. A counsel was of course Pier
della Vigna, how does he advise? How does he take the pressure?
He’s the secretary, the counsel.
How does he take the pressure
of the court? What does he counsel Frederick
the Great, his emperor? And then we’re going to see
other counsels. We’re going to find very soon,
later today, a Provençal poet who
literally advises war between father and son.
He divides father from son.
He breaches the unity of the
body politic and we’ll come to that in Inferno XXVIII.
Ulysses is the counsel who–he
gives the wrong counsel to his companions.
He makes rhetorical promises
which he knows he cannot quite keep.
They are grand questions,
but are–what questions does he pass on to these companions?
What he says is,
after the captivity, after they’re being in bondage
to Circe, he wants to reform them–the
companions– who as you know,
are caught into the story that Dante may have read in medieval
accounts with Ulysses: they had been metamorphosed
into hogs, into pigs, into Epicureans.
They had yielded to the
pleasures of sensual happiness, the sensual understanding of
happiness. He says, “you were not
made,” this is part of the speech that he makes to his
companions, “you were not made to live
as beasts,” an illusion to Circe,
to Circe’s metamorphosis, “but to pursue,
to follow virtue and knowledge.”
This is grandiose advice that
he gives. Grandiose advice,
but which has one little problem that Dante places him–
and that’s not necessarily the major problem–
he places Ulysses and his companions as they are going to
go beyond, as they are going beyond the
Pillars of Hercules. It is as if Dante implies and
seems to agree with, if one were to read the
trajectory of the Divine Comedy,
that there is no knowledge worthy of its name unless it is
connected to some degree of transgression.
That somehow transgression is
part of knowing, of an original and new knowing.
Ulysses has to go beyond the
limits of the known world in order to truly uncover,
discover something anew that nobody else knew.
That makes him,
as they used to say, a Renaissance figure avant
la lettre; that’s the way he’s known.
There is the famous joke of
Ulysses, and the graduate paper refers
to Ulysses as the great hero who is with one foot firmly rooted
in the Middle Ages and with the other one,
he salutes the rising sun of the Renaissance.
It’s a little bit of a comical
account of Ulysses but it gives you a sense of how–the novelty
that he represents. There is this bit of a
transgression, but Dante doesn’t seem to be
terribly bothered by it, since he himself,
in the different circumstances, is engaged in exactly the same
kind of transgression of the perimeter.
Apparently the geographic,
even the cosmic, perimeter, he goes beyond the
sun. He’s even–he even goes farther
than Daedalus and certainly farther than Icarus:
these other mythical coordinates with him.
How does Dante find out–how
does he want us to know that somehow the promises Ulysses
makes to his companions– he wants to lead them to virtue
of knowledge– may really be a faulty promise.
This is, I think,
the substance of the canto. Dante will refer to it with a
famous metaphor as a “mad flight.”
Remember Ulysses recounts how
they made– a mad flight out of the oars,
mixing metaphors as Dante had done before–
the maritime journey and the air journey.
This is the journey,
the flight of the mind, the flight of the intellect as
if it were described by a sailor;
Ulysses is a sailor. How does Dante make us aware
that this is indeed–there is madness in what Ulysses is
trying to accomplish? Very simply,
he puts him within a peculiar, distinct political and
rhetorical context so that you really have to wonder:
can he really deliver these promises and what are the
political consequences of the promises that he makes?
The whole Canto XXVI is
literally littered with fallen cities.
From this point through it
begins with Troy– I’m sorry with Florence–Dante
has this apostrophe against the city of Florence:
the city of Thebes, that’s what he calls it,
spreading its wings as if it were also–
as if cities were like heroes, engaged in great flights.
That is a clear desire on
Dante’s part to have us connect the story of Ulysses’
self-degradation, turpitude, with the story of
Ulysses, Florence’s turpitude and
Ulysses’ own fall. Then there is a reference to
the city of Troy, a fallen city.
There is a reference to Thebes
with–through Eteocles and Polyneices.
There is also a reference to
Rome. The canto is full of references
to cities from this point of view.
Canto XXVI is a version–a
brief version–of the epic, because the impulse of the epic
is always political. There is no epic that you can
think of which doesn’t think about–
it’s not trying to represent the–either the falling cities
and the edification of new cities,
or for that matter, some locating of a city that
could be in a great, grand metaphysical drama.
It could be in the heavenly
Jerusalem, or it’s Rome, it’s Carthage,
it’s Thebes. Falling cities and rising
cities: so this is the strategy of Dante.
Dante’s strategy is to show
then how the grand philosophical claims of Ulysses have effects
that make it appear as empty rhetoric.
Dante places Ulysses nowhere,
somewhere in the ocean without a particular place.
He goes from one city to
another, and at the same time because of this,
he can never quite–doesn’t seem to be able to deliver on
what he has promised. It’s a reflection on one
particular aspect of the tragic story of Ulysses.
It’s the tragedy of language:
a language that contains with itself all the most incredible
mirages and yet, it falls short of reality.
Ulysses is literally placed in
the empty ocean away from all responsibilities and all
locations, and it is this gratuitousness
of his quest that also counts for his being in Hell among the
evil counselors. This is what I was trying to
tell you last time and I think that I have added on today a few
other details but we can go back to that if there is to be a
discussion, and I hope there will be,
a little later. Let me turn now to Canto XXVII
which I really like to read in conjunction–
it should be read in conjunction with Canto XXVI,
because here we have what I would call a counter myth to the
story of Ulysses. There is a contraction of focus;
there’s even a revision of the claims of epic grandeur that we
have in Canto XXVI. Dante meets,
and he’s the one to become the interlocutor of,
Guido da Montefeltro, an extraordinary figure,
a political leader, that’s what he was,
who then experienced the conversion.
He became a Franciscan friar
and historically– this is a historical
figure–historically he is called in by the Pope Boniface
VIII, by now you know him.
He’s not someone that Dante
really holds in the highest esteem possible,
but Boniface VIII, in an inversion of the
relations between priest and cleric,
high priest and cleric, asks Guido da Montefeltro for
some advice. We are dealing again with evil
counselors and the advice is the following: you have to teach me,
you are a great man of arms, you have to tell me what is–
what are the strategies I should pursue in order to
conquer Palestrina, a small town.
You may know it as a place
of–the origin of a great musician from there,
but a small town near Rome. I want to conquer and destroy
the city of Palestrina; you tell me how I am to do this.
We’re really dealing with a
Machiavellian world of counselors.
For Machiavelli,
it’s actually the language of Machiavelli avant la
lettre. Machiavelli uses,
takes the language I think that Guido will deploy for himself.
At one point Guido says,
my works were those of– not of a lion but of a fox,
and you remember, these are the two attributes in
The Prince of Machiavelli that the man–
the perfect prince ought to have.
That is to say,
the perfect prince is the one who knows how to use strength,
but how to use also slyness. You have to know when you have
to be crafty and foxy. You have to know when to be
violent and lion-like. Two images that clearly
originate from Cicero. They are not Dante’s own
invention but–and it’s likely that Machiavelli got them from
Cicero, as well as from this canto.
The connections between the two
cantos are several. Let me just go–first of all,
it begins– Canto XXVII–there is this
reference to the Sicilian bull, clearly a counter to the Trojan
horse of the previous canto. “As the Sicilian bull
which bellowed for the first time–
and it was just–with a cry of him who had shaped it with his
file, used to bellow with a voice of
the victim so though it was of brass,
and yet it seemed pierced with pain; thus…
” etc.
What is the story?
It’s exactly the same version,
a demotic, vulgar version of the great situation–of what has
happened to Ulysses. Ulysses is condemned to be held
prisoner of the flames and the two tongues of fire,
literally tongues of fire, because here is a rhetorician,
the philosopher, the neo-Platonist who actually
is a rhetorician, trying to persuade others about
his ideas, and managing,
and being very proud of this– his success,
but then he gets caught by his own tongue.
It’s always the temptation of
the artist himself, it’s Daedalus who builds the
labyrinth and gets caught by it. It’s the story of the artist
who becomes a captive of that which he himself is constructed.
This is true for Ulysses,
a rhetorician caught by his own language,
and here Dante begins with a story of the Sicilian bull,
the first victim of which was the artist itself.
So I think it’s literally a way
of reflecting on the scene that precedes it.
Virgil and Dante are
interrupted, line 20: “O thou to whom I direct
my voice and who now just spoke in Lombard.”
What an extraordinary little
misreading of the language, of the rhetoric deployed in the
previous canto. You remember in the previous
canto, Dante has Virgil go out of his way to say don’t talk to
these people–they are Greeks, so let me talk to them.
But now from the perspective of
Guido da Montefeltro–they are not speaking some kind of
Homeric, Attic Greek, they’re speaking a dialect of
Italy. Which is to say,
that language–it’s not a question of what kind of style
you are using, language always shows a sort of
distance. It shows you yourself where you
are and the kind of distance that you have from the world of
truth, or the kind of proximity that
you may have to some self-complacency,
as in the case of Ulysses. “You who …
now spoke Lombard…
” Clearly a way of reading
the pretence– the rhetorical stylistic
pretensions of the other two speakers in the previous canto
saying, “Now go thy way,
I do not urge thee more, though I have come,
perhaps, somewhat late, let it not irk thee to stay and
speak with me; thou seest that it irks not me,
and I am burning. If thou hast fallen but now
into this blind world from the sweet land of Italy,
whence I bring all my guilt, tell me if the Romagnoles have
peace or war, for I was of the mountains
there between Urbino and the height where Tiber is
released.” As opposed to the lofty
rhetoric of Ulysses in the previous canto,
who speaks through the grandest generalities about what is the
destination and destiny, and fate of human beings:
virtue, knowledge, the journey to the west,
going through a hundred thousand perils.
Here the language
becomes–there’s a sort of deliberate diminution,
a contraction of focus, as if the language becomes one
of indeed local, peace and war between
neighboring towns. “I was still bent down
and… ” etc.
And then, as a way of adjusting
the register, the stylistic register,
Virgil will say to Dante, “Speak thou;
he is Italian.” Once again, on the surface,
the observance of degrees of style and the laws of rhetorical
decorum are always observed and now he continues:
“O soul… ” etc.
And he will–the pilgrim will
inform Guido da Montefeltro about the situation of Italy,
and this is the whole paragraph on page 337.
And then Guido goes on saying,
“If I thought my answer were to one who would ever
return to the world, this flame should stay without
another movement. But since none ever returned
alive from this depth, if what I hear is true,
I answer thee without fear of infamy.”
This is a passage that most of
you remember very well; you may know this very well.
It’s a passage that Eliot,
T.S. Eliot, uses an epigraphy,
an epitaph actually, for “The Love Song of
Prufrock.” So it gives you an idea of the
kind of reading that Eliot has of his own modest–
the solitary–this man Prufrock and the kind of infernal reality
that this figure also evokes. What I want to emphasize though
here, at the level of style, is how Guido speaks.
Curses, hypothetical sentences,
parenthetical remarks, not just a style that
is–deliberately goes contrary to the smooth high–
once again high style of Ulysses in the preceding canto.
Then, “I was a man of
arms, and then a corded friar, thinking, so girt,
to make amends; and indeed my thought had come
true, but for the Great Priest,”
here is the curse against Boniface,
“may ill befall him!– who put me back in the old
sins, and how and wherefore, I would have thee hear from me.
While I informed the bones and
flesh my mother gave me.” Another reference to birth with
which, as you know, characters start telling us
their story. The making of birth,
the first major event of their lives and then whatever happens,
whatever biographical account may be a descent from or a
deviation from the promises that that birth may have held.
“While I informed the
bones…” etc., “my deeds were those
not of the lion, but of the fox.”
This is
Machiavellian–eventually will become Machiavellian language.
We are moving into the secret
halls of power. There where big deals are
struck, big deals of the destruction of cities,
where the pope will ask the secret advice from his
counselor. Let’s see what he says.
“I knew all wiles and
covert ways and so practice their arts…”
I cannot but remark to you how
Canto XXVI also takes place through the language of
concealment and covertness. Even which is–in Italian it’s
actually the language for thievery at the same time,
the furtiveness of it all. You remember Dante speaks of
the sun through a periphrasis, to say that it was hidden,
that sinners are hidden and concealed from view in the
tongues of fire. This is the language of
manipulation of the political stratagems and machinations and
here it becomes highlighted and made visible to us.
He continues the covert ways.
“When I saw myself come to
that part of my life where every man should lower their
sails,” as if he were another mariner like Ulysses,
“and gather in the ropes that which before had pleased me
then grieved me, and with repentance and
confession I turned friar and– woe is me!–it would have
served. The prince of the new
Pharisees–being at war near the Lateran and not with Saracens or
Jews, for every one of his enemies
was Christian and none had been at the taking of Acre or trading
in the land of the Soldan– regarded neither the supreme
office and holy orders in himself,
nor in me, that cord which used to make its wearers lean;
but as Constantine…” It’s really–we are moving
within the–I said within the halls of–we say the Vatican
today, but at the time it was the Church of St.
John the Lateran,
which was the residence of the Bishop of Rome.
And it was famous then as it is
famous now, for the mosaics about Constantine’s Donation to
Pope Sylvester. The whole issue of the temporal
power of the papacy really is to be seen–it’s to be glimpsed
through this scene of Guido and Boniface.
“He asked counsel of me,
and I was silent, for his words seemed drunken;
and then he spoke again.” This is the extraordinary
caricature of the holy office, giving the absolution before
even the commission of the crime.
You can go and do what you
want, I give you absolution before you do anything,
so it’s, “Do not let thy heart mistrust;
I absolve thee henceforth, and do thou teach me how I may
cast Palestrina to the ground. I have power to lock and
unlock,” the new Peter,
“Heaven, as thou knowest, for the keys are two which my
predecessor did not hold dear.”
This is the famous story of
Celestine V, who gave up the office of the
papacy and who stands even in the historical recollections and
scholarship of today as the embodiment of one of a pope,
of a figure who understood that the drama and the issue is
always between power, maybe a little bit too
dualistically, and holiness and how the two
for Celestine were really incommensurable and cannot
quite– there could not be a dialectic
between the two and he gave up. Dante refers to him with a
little bit of harshness for not being heroic enough and
withstanding the tide of corruption and deciding to
retreat to a contemplative life. “Then the weighty,”
let me continue– this is a little sermon that I
apologize for, let me continue with this.”
Then the weighty arguments
drove me to the point where silence seemed to me the worst
offense and I said,” and this is the advice he
gives: simple and spectacular in its simplicity,
“Father, since thou dost cleanse me from
this sin into which I must now fall,” I love the “I
must.” I cannot–I find it so
irresistible especially because now I am guaranteed of this
absolution, I can really go on and do whatever I want.
So there is not just a coercion
on Guido, but a kind of pleasure that he feels.
He feels now that it is a
necessity for him to go out and perpetrate–
and commit the evil he will perpetrate and this is the
advice: “Large promise with scant observance will make thee
triumph in the lofty seat.” What is he saying?
Make promises and plan not to
keep them. Go and tell the people in
Palestrina that you are going to respect them,
that you are going to make them even rich, whatever you want to
tell them. Then of course,
as soon as they open the gates of the city, don’t keep any of
these promises. This is the–a restatement by
the way that one– that finds its original source
in Cicero’s text about rhetoric which is known as–
it’s not really Cicero’s but it was thought to be Cicero’s and
this is the text. From the person to whom it was
dedicated, it was meant for this Ad Herrenium.
It was thought in the Middle
Ages to be Cicero’s rhetorical treatises and the rhetorical
treatises is based– all treaties–like many other
treatises are based on one premise,
that rhetoric is the art of making the city and the citizens
agree in order to keep the city going.
In a properly governed city
promises are made and are always going to be observed.
It’s a way of explaining
rhetoric in moral terms. What Dante’s saying is those
kind of dictates, those kinds of propositions can
easily be turned around and they are being turned around in the
practice, the historical practice.
“Then, as soon as I was
dead, Francis came for me,”
there is a little rivalry between Francis and the devil,
fighting over the soul of Guido and Guido is–
Francis loses and Guido is, of course, here in Hell.
I mention these details because
you will see that Dante will pick up this genre of medieval
disputation when– later in Purgatorio–in
a couple of weeks we’ll hit the canto where Dante meets Guido’s
son, because in this poem fathers
and sons do not necessarily belong in the same moral space
and sons do not necessarily follow in the footsteps of their
fathers. So you will see how Dante
echoes this whole scene and this is a kind of pre-figuration.
I’m giving you a pre-figuration
of things to come. Then we come–and I really want
to pay a little bit of attention to this Canto XXVIII because
we’re entering the world of the truly tragic world,
the tragic–the most tragic section of the Divine
Comedy. And I mention that because from
here to Canto XXXIII, the story of Ugolino,
we’re going to talk about what does Dante think of tragedy and
how can he go on really envisioning the tragic.
After all, I just called the
poem, as he calls it, a comedy.
What is the role and the place
of the tragic? Is there room for the tragic
vision in Dante’s comedy? The point is that the tragic–I
want to make this point now and I will be elaborating it as we
go on next time– especially next time–the
tragic is never the final vision.
I will go on even saying
something now that the essence of tragedy is always linguistic
for Dante. It has to do with issues of the
inherent ambiguities of language,
the impossibility of decoding and deciphering what is being
said by one particular– by one statement as opposed to
another. Here Dante begins then with a
reflection about tragedy. Where are we now?
We are in Canto XXVIII;
it’s the–Dante encounters the one figure,
the figure of Bertran de Born who was a Provençal poet,
a Provençal poet whom Dante actually admires greatly.
In the treaties on language
that he writes, this famous–I have been
referring to it, De vulgari eloquentia,
he singles him out as– Dante singles out Bertran de
Born as a great poet because he knew how to write the most
difficult genre. He was Provençal poet,
you know who they are–the area of Provence,
wedged between the Ligurian part of Italy and France–
because he was such a great poet, because he knew how to
rhyme and write war poems. This is really the most
difficult type of poetry, aesthetically very difficult to
sustain and Bertran de Born was a genius at this.
Now Dante places him among the
so-called makers of discord. This is Canto XXVIII,
Bertran de Born. Let’s see how–Dante starts
with a reflection of war. I want to tell you a couple of
things. This is a canto,
a difficult canto. Dante begins with the story of
by–with a reference to ineffability–would you please
read the passages? I–my version is–my English
version–from Canto XXVIII, the first paragraph,
who could? Yes, do you want to do
this–would you like to do it please?
Student: Sure.
“Who could ever tell,
even with words untrammeled and the tale often repeated,
of all the blood in the wounds I saw now?
Surely every tongue would fail,
for our speech and memory have not the capacity to take in so
much. Were all the people assembled
again who once in the fateful land of Apulia,
bewailed their blood shed by the Trojans and in the long war
which made the high-piled spoil of rings–
as Livy writes who does not err–with those who suffered
grievous strokes in the struggle with Robert Guiscard and those
others whose bones are still in heaps at Ceperano where every
Apulian was faithless, and there by Tagliacozzo,
where old Alardo conquered without arms;
and were one to show his wounded limb and another his cut
off, it would be nothing to compare with the foul fashion of
the ninth ditch.” Prof: Very well read.
Thank you so much, excellent.
What is this metaphor?
It’s the–we could call it the
adoption of the so-called ineffability topos.
You understand what I mean by
ineffability topos? That is to say,
usually it’s a device, a poetic device,
where the poet admits the difficulty,
or even impossibility of describing a particular reality.
It’s called ineffability.
It’s so sublime;
it usually has to do with, let’s say, the vision of God.
I cannot really go on:
whoever has seen God, whatever mystic may have had a
vision, they always fall into the
contingency, the facticity of language that
cannot quite grasp the sublime quality of what they have seen.
Dante now deploys the same
device for the world of–let’s call it for what it is,
the evil world. It is as if Hell now has its
own sublimity, a sublime quality that is a
parallel and counter to that which Dante will witness in the
divine spectacles at the top of Paradise.
This is the first thing;
language cannot quite be adequate to the reality it wants
to represent. What he’s talking about now is
all the–he wants to describe the whole of Hell.
And all the limbs,
the dismemberments of bodies from old wars cannot quite come
close to what he has seen in this area of Hell.
This is really the idea.
What Dante first of all will go
on describing is– first of all then,
the question of the ineffability topos,
which we’ll see what it means in the unfolding of the canto,
and let me just continue actually with this.
Then the canto really comes to
a close with a meeting of a–with a poet Bertran de Born.
So we go from the language of
the ineffable and a language of the ineffable that is–
has also this little detail, a reference to Livy,
a Roman historian. And his voice,
and his authority, are unquestioned.
Livy cannot make mistakes.
They are unerring in their
chronicles, in their accounts of what they
have seen, but somehow the poetic voice is
not quite the same thing as the historian’s voice.
You see what the tension is in
the first few lines of the poem, and then the canto comes to a
close with a different form of poetic reflection.
Dante is here describing
something altogether different, the meeting of Bertran de Born,
and look how this scene– this is the end of Canto
XXVIII: “I stayed to watch the troop and saw a thing I
should fear simply to tell without more proof,”
another, the threat of the ineffable
once again. The poet is unable to
represent–feels the difficulty of representing that–the
extraordinary quality of what he has seen.
“..
.but that conscience reassures
me, the good companion which emboldens a man under the
breastplate of his felt integrity.
Verily I saw,
and I seem to see it still, a trunk without a head,
going as were the others of the miserable herd,
and it held the severed head by the hair,
swinging in its hand like a lantern,
and that was looking at us and saying: ‘Woe is me!’
Of itself it made for itself a
lamp, and they were two in one, and one in two.”
Strangely mathematical
language, the divided body of Bertran de Born:
he’s a maker of discord and he’s being punished by having
his own body divided from itself.
I’ll come back to this metaphor
in a moment, but the idea for now stylistically is that the
two is one, and one is two; “how it can be He knows
who so ordains.” A mathematical language,
as if there is no equality even possible.
Remember that was exactly the
language that he was– he used for the metaphor,
the impossible metaphor to contain all–
the description of all the battlefields and all the dead
people at the beginning of Canto XXVIII.
I cannot find a metaphor that
somehow can equal, can give an idea,
a fair idea, a proportionate idea of what I
have seen in these bodies one on top of the other,
limbs accumulated one on top of the other.
And now Dante’s using again the
language of a quantity but sort of making us think that somehow
there is some equality or some rationale in the disparity of
one being two. I don’t know,
he says, but He knows, God knows, who so ordains.
I don’t know,
that’s what the statement means.
“When it was just below
the bridge, it raised its arm high,
and with it the head so as to bring its words near us,”
and they were: “See now my grievous
punishment, thou who, breathing,
goest looking on the dead; see if any other is so great as
this.” Clearly, this is the first
character in Hell who complains that the punishment inflicted on
him is really beyond all justice, beyond all proportion.
And there’s no proportionality
between what the punishment he gets and the crime he has
committed. And he proceeds to explain:
“And, that thou mayst bear news of me, know that I am
Bertran de Born. He that gave evil backing to
the Young King.” And he explains,
“I made rebellion between the father and the son;
I divided father and son; Ahithophel did no worse,”
a biblical typology, “for Absalom and David
with his wicked goadings. Because I parted those so
joined I carry my brain, alas, parted from its root in
this trunk; thus is observed in me the
retribution.” What is going on here?
It’s a number of things.
Let me just explain a few
things. Why should the Bertran de Born,
the poet, be the one who bears now visible, the mark of the
division on his own body? We know that this is the way
punishments occur. The idea of a punishment in
Hell is that a punishment is just usually the prolongation of
what the extension of what one has chosen to do in this life.
You choose to create division
and it means that that’s where you belong.
You did not believe in the
mortality of the soul and you are always after death you are
going to be dead and so on. This is the reflection on
punishment, or if you wish, on the justice that regulates
this world of Hell or what Dante calls the retribution.
The word he uses is,
in Italian, contrapasso, means a counterpart I would
say, or counter suffering. The last word in Italian is
contrapasso which really means that there
is–passo comes from passion, to suffer.
You suffer equally for what you
have done, that’s it. It’s–in a sense it’s really
the–not quite, but the equivalent of the eye
for the eye and the tooth for the tooth.
The whole idea of retributive
justice: there is a fair correspondence between what you
have done and what you are going to suffer.
And Bertran de Born seems to
do–why, what is the issue with the body?
The whole point of this canto
is that Bertran de Born divides father and son.
He violates a principle
of–fundamental principle of political theology.
Whereby, if some of you are
interested in this issue, you can read the work of a
historian, a great medieval historian who
died actually almost half a century ago: it’s The King’s
Two Bodies by a historian by the name of Kantorowicz.
Some of you may know it.
What is the idea of the king?
What do you mean by the king’s
two bodies? Yes, a king has always two
bodies, the visible body that one has and also the mystical
body of the royalty. They used to say in the Middle
Ages, and we still do maybe, if you are into the news about
royalty: the king is dead, long live the king.
The king never dies.
The king never dies because he
has always two bodies; there are two bodies of the
king. I may die as an incumbent but
the office of the king always remains, this is fundamental.
That’s one idea.
So, by dividing the father from
the son, Dante has Bertran de Born breaching the unity of the
mystical body of the king. The two, father and son,
are really one. The other metaphor that is
behind it, which we already saw a little
bit–sort of traced, finally traced in the canto of
Ciacco in Canto VI of Inferno was the idea of
the body politic that you may remember I mentioned to you.
The famous fable of Menenius,
who thinks that the body, the city is really constructed
like a body: an organic set of correspondences,
organic correspondences like the human body.
There’s no difference
between–there is a difference between patricians and
plebeians. That’s Menenius’ argument,
but they’re all part of one organic unified whole.
That is true for the body
politic, from a Roman point of view, but it’s the principle of
so-called mystical body of the Church.
Saint Paul, in the Letter to
the Ephesians, refers to the Church as the
mystical body of Christ a kind of–
so that the State becomes a secular counter,
a secular extension of this mystical body.
The Church, we are all members,
some of us thumbs, other are just toes,
or whatever, hair or whatever in this body,
mystical body of Christ. I mention this because Canto
XXVIII you have a political focus on Rome,
or Bertran de Born, breaching the unity of father
and son but also reference to Mohammed and I know there are a
lot of people who just find this just absolutely odious that
Mohammed should be placed, the prophet should be placed
here in this area of Inferno. The only argument that one can
have about this, is that, for Dante,
Mohammed was actually a member of the Church who created a
schism, which is different from heresy.
We saw the heretics in Cantos
IX and X. The heretics are those who do
not believe in certain tenets of the doctrine.
The schismatics are those who
want to double, who divide.
The word “schism”
in Greek means to tear apart the unity, the world of unity,
and doubling it. So this is really the argument,
the symbols and images of Canto XXVIII.
Let me go to the actual heart
of this problem, the question of justice and the
question of Bertran de Born. We will go back to that.
“When I was just below the
bridge… See now my grievous punishment,
thou who, breathing, goest looking on the dead;
see if any other is so great as this.”
Bertran thinks that there is no
justice in this hellish world that he inhabits.
All the ideas that the
Ethics of Aristotle really account for devices that
are so prevalent here, it’s just not true.
Not only that’s not true,
this idea of the retribution– is it an idea,
this idea of the contrapasso,
is that an idea that Dante really believes in?
There is a lot of–what kind of
justice is that–what are the justices that we have in
Inferno? Let me just give you a little
bit of–a piece of intellectual history about this whole issue.
I want to make it very simple,
because it’s really not a difficult problem anyway.
It’s not that I’m simplifying
the issue, it’s–there are two types:
the people who think that the– the thinkers who think about
this issue and of course, Aristotle in the Ethics.
And Dante’s aware of the great
commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics by Thomas Aquinas.
He keeps them in mind and they
discuss justice and they wonder what is justice.
This is a great problem for
Dante, because Dante is–I have been calling him a number of
things, but he’s clearly a poet of justice.
He really believes the whole
point of his quest is to establish some degree of justice
in his soul, try to find out justice in the
city, and probe the possibility of
some universal justice, as opposed to Lucretian ideas
of anarchy and chaos in the cosmos.
So there can be some continuity
between the outside and the inside world.
What is the idea of justice?
What main types of justice do
they have? They usually think about two
types of justice. The so called–the retributive
justice which is the one that we have in Hell here,
but also distributive justice. Is Dante–is Dante aware of the
two? Yes, it’s impossible not to
think of the representation of the Wheel of Fortune in
Inferno VII, as anything less than a case of
distributive justice. The distributive justice
follows an arithmetical model. That is to say,
in a distributive justice, as imagined in the Wheel of
Fortune, some have more, some have less.
If someone has five,
you want to establish some justice,
you take away from one who has five and give to one who has
zero or one, and you create some kind of
equality. Distributive justice has
equality as its aim. In retributive justice,
things are a little bit different because if I say–
and Aquinas reflects on this, this is not a concern at all of
Aristotle– if I say an eye for an eye,
and a tooth for a tooth, am I really establishing
justice or am I just doubling the offense that has been
perpetrated? If I–someone takes an eye,
plucks an eye out of me, if I do the same to whoever has
damaged me that way, am I having–am I being
restored in my original position?
No, that doesn’t happen.
So how do you–how does one go
around thinking about the whole question of retributive justice?
Aquinas, and this also
Aristotle, who goes on thinking, he says, well of course it’s
always very difficult to find exact counterparts between crime
and punishment. If a clown were to slap the
king, it’s not enough for the king to slap the clown back
because, one might say, well, its one slap.
There is the violation of the
office and then both Aristotle, that is implied,
and it can never quite be restored by having the king slap
the clown back. Both Aristotle and Aquinas say
that’s why money was invented, so one can really give
whatever, there is a principle of inequality,
one can go on repaying it through other forms,
other punishments. The fact is,
I think, that Dante–first of all, I want to go back to the
structure of the canto. It’s crucial that Dante should
think about this fundamental problem of justice which is the
aim of the ethical structure of the poem,
in Inferno in particular, through the poet,
through Bertran de Born. Not only through the poet,
it’s Dante himself who has just been announcing the
impossibility of finding through language the exact metaphor,
the exact correspondence between a reality and its
representation. What Dante is doing,
is telling us how arbitrary are his own judgments in Hell,
how the notion of a position in the way punishments and crimes
are related are never quite reliable.
This is the–to understand
this, and I know that I did not ask you to read it for today,
but I have to–I have a few minutes and I want to go the–
ask you to turn to the very beginning of Canto XXIX because
I think it becomes a retrospective gloss here on the
problems that I’ve been trying to explain in Canto XXVIII.
Dante goes through other forms
of– he will enter the world of the
so-called alchemists, those who are engaged in
diabolical mutations, unnatural mutations,
personifications, impersonators,
disguises, etc., but before he gets there,
there is a little long passage. It’s the first time in the
whole poem that usually you know how–
what the narrative economy of each canto is,
Dante comes to the end of the poem–
of a canto and usually closes off with the particular sin or
the particular sinner, this is an exception.
Dante goes into Canto XXIX and
whatever situation he has been describing in Canto XXVIII keeps
reappearing, it worries him and
somehow–well let’s see what worries him about this.
“The many people and the
strange wounds had made my eyes so drunken that they were fain
to stay and weep; but Virgil said to me:
‘What are thou still gazing at?'” The pilgrim is
looking back at what he has seen.
“Why does thy look still
rest down there among the miserable maimed shades?
Thou hast not done this at the
other depths. Consider, if thou think to
number them, that the valley goes twenty-two miles round and
already the moon is beneath our feet.
The time is now short that is
allowed to us and there is more to see than thou seest
here.” Once again numbers,
arithmetical language. What is the measure?
What is the–how do we measure?
How are we going to determine
what is the exact correspondence?
Let me just give you a little
aside about this. As you know,
a great reader of Inferno,
and actually he began his career as a commentator of
Dante, was Galileo, the scientist.
That was the first work that he
did, he published a famous work on Inferno.
He tried to find out what the
actual size of the whole of Inferno was, just by going by
this little detail that Dante gives, the radius.
And he comes up with the idea
that Inferno is as large as the city of Florence,
which is something that he probably would have said anyway,
whether it was a mathematical–there was a
mathematical proof for it or just his own joke.
I’ll leave it to you to decide.
Let me continue with this.
“If thou hadst given heed
to my reason for looking,’ I answered then,
‘perhaps thou wouldst have granted me a longer stay.’
Meantime the Leader was going
on and I went after him, already making my reply,
and I added: ‘Within that den where I held
my eyes so intently just now I think a spirit,”
a kinsmen of his, “one of my blood,
weeps for the guilt that cost so much down there.”
Dante knows that a relative of
his is in this den of Hell. “Then said the master:
‘Let not thy thoughts be distracted about him henceforth;
attend to other things and let him stay there;
for I saw him below the bridge point at thee and threaten
fiercely with his finger, and I heard him called Geri del
Bello,” reminding him, here I am.
“Thou was so wholly
occupied with him who once held Hautefort that thou didst not
look that way till he was gone.”
Dante responds,
“‘O my leader,’ I said, ‘the violent death which is yet
unavenged for him by any that is a partner in his shame made him
indignant, and for that reason,
as I judge, he went on without speaking to me and by this he
has made me more compassionate with him.'”
What’s going on? How is this related to the
previous canto? I think it’s fairly clear.
Dante meets a kinsmen of his
who has been killed and that death is unavenged and clearly
is going to be unavenged, is going to remain unavenged.
Dante is so overwhelmed by pity
and compassion, but he does not say,
nor does he promise that he’s going to go out and take revenge
against the killers of his relative, Geri del Bello.
What he is doing,
he is redefining the notion of justice.
The idea that justice is a
doubling, or could be, of the crime.
Someone is doing something,
kills a kinsmen of mine, I’m going to go out and kill
your kinsmen, because that’s the way justice
could be understood. The idea of justice as revenge,
as a way of establishing the precise relationship is what
Dante is giving up here completely.
It’s retrospectively a gloss on
what I have been saying, that the notion of justice as
the eye for the eye, or the tooth for the tooth,
is no longer valid in this context.
I think this is the beginning
then of Dante’s worrying about what is the nature of God’s
justice. What is–how arbitrary is my
own claim of authority in describing these very issues,
and continuing with this reflection as we shall see next
time. Let me see if there are
questions now about this whole problem–the problems we have
been dealing with today or whatever problems you may have.
Yes?
Student: I’m curious to
know, how knowledgeable Dante was of the Hellenic world since
he did not read Greek. Prof: The question is
how knowledgeable Dante was of the Hellenic world since he did
not read Greek. My answer is yes,
indeed, he did not read Greek at all.
He–for that matter nor did
Aquinas really read Greek. So he knew the Hellenic world
through Latin translations of texts like Aristotle’s was
being–the Ethics, the treatise On the
Soul. Plato, he knew.
He knew medieval romances that
we’ll be dealing with, the so-called medieval romances
deal with the matters of France, the matters of Rome,
the matters of Brittany, the Roman of Alexander which is
part of the Hellenic world. He knew the–he lived in
Ravenna which was part, by the way, until the year 1200
and more and later was part of the exarchy,
a Greek exarchy, the church of Ravenna
Exarchate, as it’s called. So he knew this is where the
resources and the conduit of his knowledge of the Greek world.
Latin, and whatever survives in
Latin, I mean for the philosophical schools of the
Greeks. Clearly Cicero on the ends of
man, De finibus, that is really the sourcebook
for whatever he– I’ve been saying about Stoics,
Epicureans, Aristotelians, etc.
He had some idea,
Dante had some idea of the Metaphysics.
He writes about in the
Convivio–he writes about the need to connect ethics and
metaphysics for instance. So he knew–that’s what he knew.
I could even add that I’m sure
that–Actually there is going to be in Washington D.C.
in about a year,
we’re going to have a conference.
We’re going to hold it in
Washington for a number of reasons, but on Dante and the
Greeks. So if you stay in touch with
me, I’ll let you know what happens.
One thing that we are really
looking at are the mosaics, the art world,
the relations, the connections with Greek
artists who have been traveling and were in Rome,
in Sicily–that’s what he knew. Yes?
Student: Why is it
appropriate for Dante to move on contrapasso punishment
but for God to keep it in place in Hell?
How does Dante reconcile those
two things that Hell is supposedly a just place,
but he’s not supposed to look back towards like Canto XXVIII,
that he’s not supposed to– Prof: The question is
going back to the problem of justice in Canto XXVIII and then
XXIX. How can Dante go on having some
kind of hesitations about the idea of justice and at the same
time hold the place in Hell, and plays according to some
criteria. The answer is–it will appear a
little bit complicated, but I’m not sure that it’s
complicated. This whole language of doubts
about authority– that Dante is the authority of
himself as the one who can administer justice,
the authority about the–himself as even capable of
remembering that which he has seen and therefore the authority
of the poetic voice. This is very extensive and
really goes into all directions, has a counter to it.
That’s not the only aspect,
the only facet of Dante’s text. The way I see that is that he’s
also capable of taking on a prophetic voice,
so that he appears as the one who has,
by a singular grace of God, been chosen to explore the
world in the beyond, which is really caught and
understood in the most physical and direct way.
So the two voices are
simultaneously present. How does one condition the
other? I think that that is really the
tension of this poem. Dante is both a prophet and
Dante is the poet who knows the arbitrariness of this
construction. He’s the poet theologian and
the poet–the poetic allegorist. The two voices are
simultaneously present. What is the point of doing this?
In many ways this makes the
poem the actual experience of a pilgrimage.
That is to say,
it’s how you connect yourself, what kind of judgment do you
give of what– of the realities that Dante’s
representing, that is going to reveal to you
yourself: who you are and where you are.
It’s a way of shifting the
point of Dante’s– the voice of the master who can
tell you how things are, to the interpretative journey,
to an allegorical journey where you’re going to decipher and all
the time involve yourself in this story.
This can be–can turn out–I
think this is his wish. This story, which is his
journey, can turn out to be your journey.
You can tell your own story.
Do you see what I’m saying?
That’s I think the–that’s a
very good question and I hope I have been clear in answering
this. You may agree or not agree with
it; that’s another story,
but I hope I’ve been really clear in the answer.
Yes?
Student: I have one
more question. In terms of the narrow issue of
justice, do you think that Dante doesn’t
have so much a problem with the system of an eye for an eye as
with the idea that only someone with the intelligence of God
could accurately see the correspondences and prescribe
the right punishments for the crime.
So it’s not that the actual
system is bad, it’s just that Dante and humans
can’t presume to make those judgments.
Prof: The other question
that follows, the follow up question is:
does it mean that Dante may– can one say that Dante actually
doesn’t have problems with the basic structure,
but only with the human ability to grasp how it works?
I would agree with that.
However, I think that what he
really has problems with, is the notion,
which was a practice at the time, the notion of revenge;
the way of understanding justice as revenge.
Now even the Bible will go on
and tell you that the– that ‘revenge is mine,
so says the Lord,’ but Dante would say,
that’s God’s voice and not the human voice.
So he clearly has an objection
to that. Is there some
implication–because that’s really what I think you’re
asking me, I hope that’s what you’re asking me,
otherwise I’m completely off. Is there some implication that
the universe itself, its divine economy,
there may be something unfathomable and I would say
yes, that the whole question of
justice is something we cannot quite measure with human
instruments. There is one great metaphor
that Dante will give in Canto, I believe, XIX of
Paradise where he goes back again to the question of
justice and he talks about justice in terms of the
salvation of the Hindus. Why shouldn’t they be here?
I mean what–he wonders about
that and the answer that he gives is, he says that the
question of justice is like the sea.
When you are really near the
shore you see the bottom and everything seems to be–
the waters are clear and transparent and you really seem
to touch bottom and see the bottom.
As soon as you go in,
then the unfathomable ocean takes over and the foundation,
the ground of it all remains invisible and inaccessible.
Do you see what the
argument–that’s the argument he goes on giving?
It’s not an issue that he has
resolved here once and for all, he will go back to these
questions. Student: I have a
question about the term you were using earlier,
when you were talking about the ineffability,
I couldn’t make out if you were saying the ineffability trope?
Prof: Yeah,
I called it–because it’s really jargon.
The question is:
I’m using ineffability trope. It’s more a–trope is a
device–I called it topos which is a place where some–
they talk about–topos is something that keeps,
like a type, keeps repeating and can be
used. Dante uses this idea of
ineffability. What he’s really talking about,
the impossible metaphor that can hold or represent two
different realities and I think that that’s exactly the way he
wants to think of crime and punishment: the relationship
between crime and punishment, which is a metaphorical one,
which is a kind of relationship that tries to equal–
an equal relationship between two terms.
I called it topos, a Greek word.
We call it commonplace,
it means place. Okay, we’ll see you next time.