Dante, Virgil, Minos and the hall of mirrors

My developing interest in Dante led a few weeks ago to a reflection on his narrative powers of expression and the way he breaks the canons of storytelling in order to bring out new possibilities and new narrative angles of attack. This is noticeable in the way he programs (or better yet engineers) his own projection in the Divine Comedy as well as his characters, who have the ability to break out of their narrative confinement and even rebel against their author. In the process, the authorial identity also undergoes some changes, whilst the text acquires features that bring it ever so closely to existentialist and postmodernist ideas.

After I’d uploaded the draft (see below) on Academia.edu, a topical discussion started, with Arthur Chapin, poet and critic, providing valuable insights and ideas which are collected below.

But first, my text:

The drama of Hell’s powers of dispossession and entanglement (the very opposites of belonging and order) is clearly visible in the narrative construction of the first section of Dante’s Inferno 5: Virgil – Minos – Dante. Because of Dante, Virgil’s character Minos (the infernal judge in Aeneid 6) breaks away from the Aeneid just as Virgil breaks away from his own world and is being appropriated by Dante as ‘Virgilio’ – a poetic figure straddling both classical and Christian worlds. Minos knows more than a reader of the Aeneid would have understood, that for all his art, Virgil is unsaved and a tenant of Limbo. The assumption, highlighted by the critics, is that Dante shouldn’t expect to be illuminated, and therefore guided, by someone who himself was without light – a suggestion otherwise invalidated by Statius in Purgatorio.

Arresting his extraordinary task,
Minos, as soon as he had seen me, said:
O you who reach this house of suffering,

be careful how you enter, whom you trust;
the gate is wide, but do not be deceived!”
To which my guide replied: “But why protest?

Do not attempt to block his fated path:
our passage has been willed above, where
One can do what He has willed; and ask no more.

(Inferno 5:16-24)

Minos abandons the Aeneid in a spirit of resentment and defiance vis-à-vis his author, suggesting to Dante that his guide may not be the best choice (”guarda di cui tu ti fide’). It makes one wonder if Virgil silences him for Dante’s sake or rather for his own, an authorial rebuke to a character out of line.

Minos’ infernal features echo through the centuries all the way to Kierkegaard. There is another kind of hell, that of the person despairing of herself.

“Just as the weak, despairing person is unwilling to hear anything about any consolation eternity has for him, so a person in such despair does not want to hear anything about it, either, but for a different reason: this very consolation would be his undoing; as a denunciation of all existence. Figuratively speaking, it is as if an error slipped into an author’s writing and the error became conscious of itself as an error; perhaps it actually was not a mistake but in a much higher sense an essential part of the whole production, and now this error wants to mutiny against the author, out of hatred toward him, forbidding him to correct it and in maniacal defiance saying to him: No! I refuse to be erased! I will stand as a witness against you; a witness that you are a second-rate author.” (Sickness Unto Death, 74)

In Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla (inspired perhaps by Kierkegaard’s Either/Or), the character Augusto Perez pays the author Unamuno a visit, asking for permission to kill himself. This is denied, because Augusto is a character and has no authority over himself or over his (narrative) life. Unamuno the author also reminds him that he himself might be a character in God’s dream. This mise en abîme parallels Dante’s use of Virgilio as a character in his fantastic dreamscape, where Virgil’s Minos rebels against his author, who himself is but a product of Dante’s classically-infused imagination.

More to the point, Dante’s technique serves a more exegetical purpose than hitherto noticed. His orchestration of the interplay of characters and characterified authors, as it were (let us remember that Dante the pilgrim is himself a voice of Dante the author), explains what Hell is really about. It is a place of rebellion; a rebellion which may begin with Satan’s fall from grace and heaven, but also including narrative rebellion and dispossession, where characters undermine their authors, authors lose control of their creation, and the whole fictitious, but rationally-ordered universe becomes one grotesque, entangled spectacle. Bearing this in mind, Minos represents more than an introduction to the second circle of hell; he is a gloss on what the circle of the lussuriosi (“the lustful”) really is – an indictment against restraint and self-control. And self-control also includes control over one’s thoughts, deeds and, as the triangle Minos-Virgil-Dante suggests, over one’s poetic creation.


Arthur Chapin‘s response, for which I am immensely grateful:

“One thought that comes to mind is that there are two Minoses in Classical mythology, or at least Plutarch makes this claim in order to reconcile the contradictory attributes of this figure. One is the just Minos, a Lycurgus-like lawgiver, founder of Crete and wiser ruler. This is the Homeric Minos. The other Minos is the more notorious figure, the tyrant who demands blood sacrifice, breaks a promise to a god and is punished when his wife commits bestiality with a bull, spawning the monstrous Minotaur, who in Inferno guards the lower Circles as a kind of emanation of Minos.

The Minotaur’s ferocity, in turn, leads to cannibalism, for his hunger can be appeased only by consuming seven girls and seven boys every seventh year. It appears to be the just Minos that we encounter in Virgil’s Underworld; the monstrous Minos is the one Dante and Virgil confront in Inferno. This latter Minos, rebelling as you say against his author, shows his evil and rebellious character, as you suggest, by his insolence toward Virgil, impugning his trustworthiness (thus playing on Dante’s own doubts as to his Guide’s credibility, since Virgil according to his own admission wrote during the time of the “false and lying gods”).

And there is the further tortuosity that Minos, an untrustworthy oath-breaker, pretends to offer Dante trustworthy advice against trusting Virgil. Is he trying to pit Virgil and Dante against one another? They are in a sense already pitted. Perhaps Virgil has been naïve in his characterization of Minos in his Underworld, and perhaps Dante suspects this. It is even possible that Minos is acting as the mouthpiece of Dante’s own Unconscious. (On the other hand, Minos is an “infallible judge” in assigning sinners to their proper punishment in Inferno (which leads to other paradoxes I won’t go into here.)

There is a persistent undercurrent of ambivalence in the relationship between Dante and Virgil that exceeds the bounds of narrative protocol, becoming a kind of meta-narrative agon. Whatever Virgil recounts in Aeneid VI regarding the Underworld is subject to doubt, for the reason stated above, and by extension, so perhaps is Virgil’s guidance. Virgil seems to be countering Dante’s implicit challenge to his authority when in Canto XIII he apologizes to Pier delle Vigne for Dante, who has broken off a twig of Pier’s thorn bush (at Virgil’s behest) to clear up his confusion as to where the human voices in the Wood of the Suicides are issuing from. When Pier protests, Virgil responds:

 “If he, O wounded spirit, had been able to believe before…what he had seen in my verses, he would not have stretched forth his hand against you; but the incredible thing made me prompt him to a deed that grieves me.” (Inferno, XIII, Singleton trans.)

In these words there is perhaps an implicit rebuke to Dante for not taking Virgil the author at his word: this has led to Pier’s suffering unnecessary pain, and also offended Virgil, who in Aeneid III, ll. 22-48 described Polydorus as a tree that bleeds black blood when uprooted, and who cries out, “Woe is me! why, Aeneas, dost thou tear me?” Clearly Polydorus is Dante’s model for his Pier, and yet within the narrative Virgil reproaches him for giving no credence to this passage. Again, Virgil the character as Virgil the author confronts Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Poet, and there is slippage between these ontological levels, between fictional and (relatively) real. There is further sniping between Guide and Pilgrim. In Canto XIV Dante seems almost passive-aggressive in giving Virgil a backhanded compliment:

“Master, you who overcome all things except the obdurate demons that came out against us at the entrance of the gate…” (Inferno, XIV, Singleton’s translation.)

He praises him as nearly omnipotent but doesn’t shrink from pointing out his shortcomings in this regard. After all, Virgil is subject to fear; he is fooled by a clownish Devil. Virgil in turns rebukes Dante in Canto XXX more strongly than anywhere else in Inferno when the latter lingers to listen to Sinon and Master Adam insulting each other:

“Continue in this vein, and we shall quarrel!” (Inferno, XXX) 

Perhaps Virgil here is stepping out of his role as a fictional character and acting as Dante’s artistic conscience, warning him that his dialogue between the Counterfeiter and the False Witness is in danger of degenerating into mere comedy at an inopportune moment, when the reader’s terror should be nearing its climax.

The two poets’ relationship is, to use your word, “entangled.” Returning to Canto XIII (Pier delle Vigne in the Wood of the Suicides), we read:

“I believe that he believed that I believed…”

(Cred’ io ch’ei credette ch’io credesse…”), Inferno, XIII 

The sentence continues:

“That all those voices from amid the trunks came from people who were hidden from us. Therefore the Master said, ‘If you break off a little branch from one of these plants, the thoughts you have will all be cut short” (Inferno, XIII)

“I believe” is ambiguous: It can mean “I’m sure it’s true” (“I believe you”) or “I think it’s true but I’m not sure.” For the duration of that remarkable phrase, with its play on inflections and grammatical moods enacting tortuous complexity, we have a mise-en-abime of ambiguity, oscillating between certainty and uncertainty: “I believe (but am not sure) that he believed (but was not sure) that I believed (but was not sure)…”

Again, Dante and Virgil have an ongoing contestation regarding who is author of whom, who is the authority, who is writing whom. When Dante first meets Virgil in Canto I he hails him as “lo mio maestro e ‘l mio autore”—where “autore” means both authority and author. But Dante is also of course the author of Virgil the fictional character. In this contestation, Virgil at times becomes in relation to Dante what Minos is in relation to Virgil, a character breaking the frame of his fictional status to confront his author on equal ontological (equally real) terms. At one point at least, Dante himself breaks or rebels against his own narrative premise. As a rule Dante the Poet asks us to read his narration as absolutely factual and therefore credible—not a dream, not even a “vision,” but a report. Before he describes Bertrand de Born in his decapitated state in Canto XXVIII, holding his weeping head that acts as his lantern through the darkness, Dante forestalls incredulity (apparently fearing that the spectacle will prove too outlandishly grotesque for readers to give believe):

“But I stayed to view the troop, and saw a thing that I should be afraid even to relate without more proof, but that conscience, the good companion that emboldens a man under the hauberk of feeling itself pure, reassures me. Truly I saw, and seem to see it still, a trunk without the head….” (Inferno, XXVIII, Singleton trans.)

We are to see Bertrand and the other sinners’ punishments as the work of God’s Justice, as recounted by an eye-witness, Dante the Pilgrim. Hence Dante’s strong emphasis on memory over inspiration in his Invocation to the Muses at the beginning of Canto II—though the invocation to “high Genius” (“alto ingegno”) is ambiguous in this connection. Yet among the Thieves in Canto XXIV, before describing the inter-metamorphosis of Buoso and Francesco, he seems to forget his own fictional premise (he is merely a witness) and takes credit for what we are about to see, coming into the cinematic frame, as it were, like the director of a movie who looks directly into the camera and announces the marvel to come, boasting to his audience of the superior imagination he will display.

Thus Dante allows himself to vaunt arrogantly over the same Ovid and Lucan he has honored in Limbo:

“Let Lucan now be silent, where he tells of the wretched Sabellus and of Nasidius, and let him wait to hear what now comes forth. Concerning Cadmus and Arethusa let Ovid be silent, for if he, poetizing, converts the one into a serpent and the other into a fountain, I envy him not, for two natures front to front he never so transmuted that both forms were prompt to exchange their substance.” (Inferno, XXV, Singleton trans.)

Ovid and Lucan give us mere metamorphoses; Dante will give us a kind of meta-metamorphosis, more complex and dynamic than their “poetizing” imaginations devised. But if Dante is opposing, as elsewhere, the mere poetic fictions of his pagan precursors to the truth he as a Christian has access to, he is also undermining his own claim to objective truth by stating that he will be the one transmuting Buoso and Francesco: their punishment is purely his invention, not God’s. He steps forth as the autore and the usurping Creator of Hell’s punishments. In so doing he (Dante the author) risks the sins of Blasphemy (Violence against God) and Pride.

If, as you say, Hell is the place of rebellion against God (and of a kind of metaphysical rebellion as such), Dante here shows signs of being infected with its toxic moral atmosphere; after all, he is behind enemy lines. Liability to infernal influences in Inferno is part of what makes Dante’s journey through Inferno so dangerous, what makes it Hell—though at the same time that journey is a necessary stage in his pilgrimage to Paradiso.

There are instances in Inferno where Dante the author seems to be consciously cautioning himself against the hubris he shows in Canto XXIV. It only takes two facing mirrors to construct a labyrinth, writes Borges. Dante enters the labyrinthine hall of mirrors when he encounters Francesca in Canto V: her rationalization of lust as courtly love is an admonishment to Dante the Troubadour. He sees his image in her, and perhaps she looks back at him and sees her own image.

As with Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, there is no part of the Inferno that does not see us. Dante’s fictional Ulysses in a sense looks at and sees his author, who like the myriad-minded Greek may be seeking forbidden knowledge; Dante’s overpowering urge to hear Ulysses’ story betrays anxiety born of moral scruple regarding his own authorial quest to explain the ways of God to Man. “…Dante felt, in some way, that he was Ulysses,” writes Borges, adding, “Ulysses is the mirror of Dante.” (See “The Divine Comedy,” in Seven Nights.)

The fact that Ulysses’ tale is entirely an invention of Dante’s underscores its status as an urgent message from the poet to himself. Dante’s defense against his own scruples (is he putting himself in God’s place, is he a blasphemer?), is to make a very indirect appeal to the Christian idea of what Dante in Canto II calls the vas d’elezione, the chosen vessel, instancing St. Paul. As Dante himself says, Paul, like Virgil, descended into Hell and returned. Dante deprecates his own worthiness to undertake this Pauline quest, but that is of course precisely what he does.

To return to your characterization of Inferno as a place of dispossession, rebellion and loss of control, I would venture the following:

Hell is also the power-generator of God’s cosmos. It is nuclear and radioactive: plutonium or an infernal sun, potentially annihilating when approached incautiously. It generates its chaotic violence in the centre of the world, the centre of Evil’s gravity, and geographically the centre of the Universe (Evil being confined in that centre like the Minotaur in his underground labyrinth).

But Hell (or Evil) also generates the energy needed for the painful struggles and sublimations that constitute the Good; it is both the culpa and felix in felix culpa. Evil’s resistance gives the sinner a force to overcome. It is part of the pain or anxiety that according Augustine is intrinsic to all desire. And as Virgil says in Canto VI, following Aristotle,

“…the more a thing is perfect, the more it feels the good, and so the pain.” (Inferno, VI)

By overcoming, by being spurred on by the pain of Evil (itself a small forlorn fraction of the Good), one truly earns Salvation. Heaven ultimately runs on Devil-fuel, to use a bit of Gnostic hyperbole.

Dante in Hell is exposing himself directly to this violent but not entirely destructive energy (for energy, according to Blake, is potentially superior to the rigid Urizenic “solid without fluctuation”—it is from the Devil, and energy is eternal joy). The Inferno’s anti-God aggression ultimately strengthens God’s monotheistic-yet-dualistic Order, even as it threatens it; God, like Agnello-Cianfi, is both one in two and two in one, and perhaps the Trinity is a way of outflanking this paradox, though it generates its own paradoxes.

It isn’t merely Dante the Pilgrim who is at risk of “being of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” as his attitude in the Buoso-Francesco episode shows; Dante the Author is also subject to this risk. As for the seemingly neat duality between Dante-Pilgrim and Dante-Author, it proves radically unstable. The duality is a regulating principle in the Commedia but not a rule—i.e., it is subject to randomness and the caprices of desire and ambivalence. It can’t be dialecticized without suppressing the contingency that makes it a dramatic and compelling literary strategy. Dante the author becomes pilgrim and viceversa; he, too, can be both two in one and one in two. Dante the fictional character (the Pilgrim) can characterify himself as Poet, step out from behind the scenes of his fiction, and (implicitly and unconsciously) become a Titanic rival to God-as-Creator.”

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When Dante’s Commedia became divine

0107virgil.jpgDante may have been the most imaginative and transgressive medieval poet, but he was also one of the most immodest authors since Antiquity. It is well known that what we came to call ‘The Divine Comedy’ (“La Divina Commedia“) was initially known simply as ‘La Commedia di Dante Alaghieri di Fiorenze‘. It was Boccaccio who later added the epithet ‘divina‘, as we know it today. It may be that Boccaccio, famous for his veneration for Dante, retitled the Commedia as a homage to its author – or as a gloss on the sacred matter it treats of –, but, as I argue below, he may have done it mainly because he, before everyone else, really understood what Dante was trying to do. As Dante claimed to know the mind of God, so Boccaccio, by ‘deifying’ the Commedia, claimed to know the mind of Dante.

There are two main ways to read the Commedia, either from within the text, or from outside it, as it were, although the best way is both at once. If we read from within, we are tempted to take Dante at face value and to accept his truth claims as he chooses to introduce them to us. If we look from without, we get to see the backstage and the props, naturally, but much of the world the poet creates vanishes before our eyes. As far as the sacrality of the Commedia goes, Dante builds a delicate scaffolding. Before he meets the Roman poet Statius in Purgatory (Purgatorio 21), there is no suggestion that Dante’s poem might aspire to anything sacred, saintly or divine, in the way that Scripture or the Sibylline prophecies were understood to be at the time. The words sacro, divino and their cognates were indeed sacred in Dante’s time, and not subject to playful and elastic poetizing. Although Dante’s theological pilgrimage was already booked, no reader in Dante’s time, I think, would have dared qualify his work as ‘divino’. Yet, that is what Dante is doing, if only very subtly and furtively. The key to understanding Dante’s strategy here is his encounter with Statius in Purgatorio 21. Statius was a Roman poet of the 1st century AD (he died in 96), whose major work The Thebaid concluded with a panegyric of Virgil’s Aeneid, its chief model and inspiration:

Wilt thou endure in the time to come, O my Thebaid, for twelve years object of my wakeful toil, wilt thou survive thy master and be read? Of a truth already present Fame hath paved thee a friendly road, and begun to hold thee up, young as thou art, to future ages. Already great-hearted Caesar deigns to know thee, and the youth of Italy eagerly learns and recounts thy verse. O live, I pray! nor rival the divine Aeneid, but follow afar and ever venerate its footsteps. Soon, if any envy as yet o’erclouds thee, it shall pass away, and, after I am gone, thy well-won honours shall be duly paid.

Statius, Thebaid, XII, 810, trans. J. H. Mozley, (1928)

Dante picked up on Statius’ adulation of Virgil and created two ripples in his poetic creation. One has been satisfactorily acknowledged by the critics, the other less so. Dante’s treatment of Statius is one of the most transgressive and risqué poetic choices in the whole of his work. Statius is one of the four pagans who, for various reasons, don’t end up in Hell. For Dante’s time, that is outrageous enough. But to turn Statius into a redeemed soul who converted to morality through the Aeneid and to Christianity through Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue would have been, for later centuries, unforgivable heresy. Not only does Dante astound us with this unprecedented move, but he further confuses us by refusing this honour to Virgil, who has to return to Limbo at the end of his guided tour of Purgatory. Less noticed, however, has been Dante’s triangulation of himself, Virgil and Statius around the words ‘divina fiamma’ in Purgatorio 21:

Stazio la gente ancor di là mi noma:
cantai di Tebe, e poi del grande Achille;
ma caddi in via con la seconda soma.

Al mio ardor fuor seme le faville,
che mi scaldar, de la divina fiamma
onde sono allumati più di mille;

de l’Eneïda dico, la qual mamma
fummi, e fummi nutrice, poetando:
sanz’ essa non fermai peso di dramma.

On earth my name is still remembered—Statius:
I sang of Thebes and then of great Achilles;
I fell along the way of that last labor.

The sparks that warmed me, the seeds of my ardor,
were from the holy fire—the same that gave
more than a thousand poets light and flame.

I speak of the Aeneid; when I wrote
verse, it was mother to me, it was nurse;
my work, without it, would not weigh an ounce.

Purgatorio 21:91-9, trans. A. Mandelbaum, (1988)

It is clear from the two texts quoted above that Dante glosses Statius’ concluding remarks about the Aeneid in the Thebaid. Dante’s ‘holy fire’ or ‘divine flame’ (“divina fiamma”) echoes Statius’ ‘the divine Aeneid’ (in Latin, ‘divina Aeneida’), the poem that inspired ‘more than a thousand poets’ since him – also a witness to Virgil’s stellar reputation in the medieval period. Just as Statius embedded Virgil in his poem, so Dante embeds both poets in his ‘Comedy of mirrors’ (read my comments on Dante’s technique of mise en abîme here). The only thing missing from this stratigraphy of authorities and authorships is the stasis of the divine poetic attribute. If Statius bestows the divine epithet on the Aeneid and Dante bestows it on Statius as reflecting his own assignation, then who bestows it on Dante’s? This question is bound up with the concept of Dante as author and reader (auctor et lector), brilliantly analysed by Albert Ascoli. Of particular interest here is the idea of self-reading, that is Dante’s own exegesis of the Commedia in his other works, which, according to many critics, prepared that impressive commentary tradition that put the Commedia on a par with Holy Scripture and the classical canon almost immediately after Dante’s death – something no other ‘modern’ or vernacular writer could boast in the Middle Ages.

In Purgatorio, Dante has some unresolved business about poetic pride, and he leaves us on a note of humility regarding the divine poem. He comes back to it from the safety of Paradiso 25, in a grand act of self-anointment, as Teodolinda Barolini nicely put it. Not only does he crown himself poet (‘poeta‘) at the expense of everyone else in Paradiso, but he does something that no-one else had done before – though one would later do – and that is denominate the Commedia as a sacred poem, poema sacro:

Se mai continga che ’l poema sacro
al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra,
sì che m’ha fatto per molti anni macro,

vinca la crudeltà che fuor mi serra
del bello ovile ov’ io dormi’ agnello,
nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra;

If it should happen . . . If this sacred poem—
this work so shared by heaven and by earth
that it has made me lean through these long years—

can ever overcome the cruelty
that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,
a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it …

Paradiso 25:1-6, trans. A. Mandelbaum, (1988)

To my knowledge, none of the early commentators or contemporary critics, except perhaps Boccaccio, realised just how defiant this gesture is in relation to Purgatorio 21. Like a seasoned general, Dante manages to conceal his strategy underneath fine-tuned manoeuvres. We swallow the sacred poem and focus on his weeping for lost Florence. We forget his subversion and turn our affection towards his bitterness for an exile which would never end. All this while under our beguiled noses Dante manages to reverse the humility of Purgatorio 21 into outright self-glorification. By describing his work as sacred, Dante invites us to recall his discussion of the formative role of the Aeneid for Statius in Purgatorio 21. The Commedia is divine not only because it provides a vision of the divine plan, but also because it has the ability to do for others what the Aeneid had done for Statius, namely to turn readers from the dark woods (“selva oscura“) of perdition to “that forest—dense, alive with green, divine” (“la divina foresta spessa e viva“, Purg. 28) of Eden and up the heavenly spheres into the Empyrean with God, the resting-place of redeemed humanity. As Virgil and Statius guided Dante in his vision, so Dante can naratologically guide the readers of his Commedia through the three realms and be a master and an author (“mio maestro e ’l mio autor”, Inf. 1) to them, while his masterpiece can be mother and nurse to them (“mamma … nutrice“, Purg. 21). In a way, Dante the pilgrim crowns Dante the poet and assures that the Commedia receives its guarantee of authority from within.

We can see, therefore, that the concept of poema sacro, understood as divine flame of inspiration, cascading down from Virgil to Statius to Dante-pilgrim to Dante-poet, creates a context in which the Commedia can aspire to the same status as the Scriptures. It has also been suggested that in authoring the Commedia, Dante was trying to write something like a ‘Third Testament’, or at least a totalising synthesis of the Old and the New, a liber caelestis, a heavenly book, in the words of John Ahern. The foregoing discussion seems to lend plausibility to this view.

So where does that leave Boccaccio, with whom I started this post? If Boccaccio had written a visionary poem modelled on the Commedia, then, I think, he would have re-enacted the encounter in Purgatorio 21, casting Dante as Statius and himself as Dante. Boccaccio’s single-handed amendment of the generic title of Commedia strongly suggests he wished to be the one to close the circle on the idea of poetry as a divine mission. If that’s true, then he was successful, for 700 years on, we still acknowledge the Commedia as divine enterprise, set under the Ptolemaic spheres of vision and poetic genius.