Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Inferno II: Better call soul

When I first read the Divine Comedy it wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare it to a television show – TV was a bit shit in the 80s – but now it does. The first canto is the pilot episode in which we are introduced to the main characters and given a glimpse to the kind of show that the Comedy will turn into. It begins in media res, right in the middle of the action (‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark’…), and a bunch of stuff happens involving exotic wild animals, setting us up for an equally exciting second episode. But those expectations – like in the best kind of television – are set to be confounded.

If in the first canto everything happened, in the second one nothing does. The action spans a few moments, the time necessary for Virgil and Dante to exchange a few words and for the sun to set behind the crest of the hill they are about to climb.

Or are they? Dante is not so sure anymore. His resolve has drained out of him. He doubts that he is capable and worthy of the journey made before him by the likes of Aeneas and Saint Paul. Virgil is unmoved: quit being a coward, he rebukes him. Then, to restore his courage, he tells him of the mission that was entrusted upon him (meaning Virgil) by the soul of a woman, now deceased, whom Dante loved as a younger man. The bulk of the canto takes the form of a flashback, or rather a series of nested flashbacks, as the plan to shepherd Dante out of his dark forest is formulated and transmitted through the celestial chain of command, from the Virgin Mary down to Virgil. The speech has the desired effect on Dante, who is once again ready to take his first step up the hill. We are back to where we started.

A 15th century illustration of the canto by Priamo de la Quercia
But a synopsis does not account for what words make happen in this canto. We are at the threshold between cultures: from the classic one of Virgil to the middle-age of Dante, at the height of the Catholic Church’s secular dominion over Europe; but also – like a prophecy – from that late feudal age of almost universal illiteracy into the modern one, in which an encyclopaedic poem about theology, philosophy, politics and history is accessible to the masses.

In the early 14th century, Latin was still the language of the pan-European intellectual class. It was also the language of the fathers of the church, therefore things spoken or written in Latin were automatically closer to the truth.

Dante’s decision to write the great poetic testament of European medieval culture in the vernacular, that is to say the language of the people, was both daring and visionary, for it presupposed a public that didn’t yet exist, in a country that didn’t become a country for another five and a half centuries. In so doing, not only did Dante practically invent the Italian language, but the very idea of Italy.

William Blake, 'Dante and Virgil enter the woods'
But the poem has just begun, in fact it’s almost unbeginning, retracing the steps of that boastful first canto. We’re still at the foot of the hill and the edge of the forest, and simultaneously in the present time of Dante-the-writer, as he sets down to record his adventures. After the ritual invocation to the muses, in a famous line he appeals to the mente che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi, literally ‘the mind that wrote down the things I saw’, although back then ‘mind’ really meant ‘memory’.

It’s a dense and contradictory image, that of the poet seeking divine inspiration while at the same time claiming that his job is merely to jot down the things he remembers, in the order in which they occurred. Of course this is a narrative frame, as any of Dante’s contemporary readers, if pressed, would have acknowledged: none would be so credulous and devout to think that the poet had really travelled to the other world, on a mission from God. Yet those same readers would have also believed – as no doubt Dante himself did – that poetry was an instrument for investigating the truth. Their relationship with the text, which we can only vaguely imagine, would have been radically different from that of a modern reader. But it pays to bear that radical difference in mind, as the question of what is true in the poem and about the poem is a key to its interpretation.

The ritual invocation to the muses and the power of memory segues wonderfully into Dante’s doubts – as expressed to Virgil – that he is the guy for the job. Here Dante is simply trying to talk himself out of proceeding, like someone who disvuol ciò che volle –unwills what he willed. Had Dante succeeded, there would be no poem. So naturally Virgil has to dissuade him. "S’i’ ho ben la parola tua intesa, l’anima tua è da viltade offesa. Or, in prose: ‘If I get what you’re saying, cowardice got the better of you.’

Gustave Doré, 'I am Beatrice'

What follows is Virgil’s account of having been approached in limbo (where he dwells as someone who died before the birth of Christ) by a donna beata e bella – ‘a fair, saintly lady’ (per Longfellow): it’s Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine banker, whom Dante loved desperately as a young man but who was married in her teens into another banking family, and who died – probably of childbirth – at the age of 24, ten years before the setting of the poem. Beatrice explains she was approached by Santa Lucia, who alerted her to the grave circumstances in which Dante found himself. Santa Lucia in turn had been sent by the Virgin Mary herself, this triple relationship symbolically reflecting three different stages of Christian grace. But Beatrice – who will play a starring role in the Paradiso, 66 cantos from now – is not merely a symbol, nor a messenger. Her eloquence is her own, as is the pity she feels for the man who once loved her, and she is not shy about asserting her own identity:
I’ son Beatrice che ti faccio andare;
vegno del loco ove tornar disio;
amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare.

Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go;
I come from there, where I would fain return;
Love moved me, which compels me to speak.
The effect of these words on Dante borders on the erotic:
Quali fioretti dal notturno gelo
chinati e chiusi, poi che ’l sol li ’mbianca,
si drizzan tutti aperti in loro stelo,
tal mi fec’io di mia virtude stanca
More or less: ‘Like little flowers that the chill of night had forced to bow and close, once warmed by the sun open up and stand upright on their stem, so did I regain my exhausted strength.’

Dante is rearing to go now. It’s his turn to encourage Virgil: tu duca, tu segnore, tu maestro – ‘my guide, my lord, my inspiration’ – as if he had been waiting all the time to be pointed in the right direction.

Thus ends this extraordinary, circular canto, in which nothing happens and human time has no meaning. For when was Virgil summoned by Beatrice? When were those decisions made, and the message passed along, that the poet should be rescued from his deathly moral crisis? Recall how in the first canto Virgil is introduced as someone who had long been silent (che per lungo silenzio parea fioco). Perhaps, then, like this canto suspended in time, Virgil had always been there, a shadow waiting for a man of flesh and blood to get lost in the dark forest of his mind.