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Tag: dante

Dante at the River Lethe, Memory and Forgetting

The end of Purgatorio is my favorite part of the entire Divine Comedy, perhaps because it’s the point at which there seems to be the greatest human drama, the greatest sense of a story that has not yet been fully told and solidified into the cosmos. Dante’s confrontation and reconciliation with Beatrice is one of the few moments where he is not taking the role of an impervious (though not disinterested) observer. And it momentarily breaks the fabric of the entire epic, because Dante is no longer any sort of traditional epic narrator.

In XXXI, at the very top of Purgatory, Dante is dipped into the River Lethe, which will cause amnesia. The chant of Asperges me [purge me] accompanies his immersion, and he then forgets his past sins and his atonement for them is complete. (Even the memory of sin is apparently too polluted for the purified soul.)

Then, in XXXIII, Beatrice accuses Dante of having strayed from God’s way, and this bizarre exchange takes place between the two of them:

To that I answered: ‘As far as I remember
I have not ever estranged myself from You,
nor does my conscience prick me for it.’

‘But if you cannot remember that,’
she answered, smiling, ‘only recollect
how you have drunk today of Lethe,

‘and if from seeing smoke we argue there is fire
then this forgetfulness would clearly prove
your faulty will had been directed elsewhere.’

Purgatorio XXXIII.91-99 (tr. Hollander)

For Dante as an epic narrator, there’s a problem in recounting these events. In writing the Divine Comedy, he has to remember remembering that he forgot the sins that he previously remembered. So he still remembers remembering having sinned.

Not even Lucretius and Lucan (probably the two most eccentric employers of the epic style prior to Dante, at least that I know of) had placed themselves in such a paradoxically unauthoritative position in their work. I don’t think Dante can resolve this knot without damaging his authority, and that humanizes the poem for me. It seems insolubly paradoxical. That seems to be the one crack in the otherwise hermetically sealed world he creates.

Dante needs such a move, of course, for his Christian narrative. It would not do for him to be an impersonal narrator in the way of the pagan epics, even a highly contentious and chummy one like Lucretius. Ironically, for all of Erich Auerbach’s emphasis on Dante’s portrayal of the organized human cosmos in Dante: Poet of the Secular World, this scene reifies the distinction that Mimesis makes between the more external, fatalistic Greco-Roman epic mentality and the inward-turning, single-person psychological focus that he sees born out of Judeo-Christianity. The modern, psychological “secular” world seems to arise out of the salvation myth itself and the necessity of mental moral purgation. Or, more frequently, the failure to do so.

(Even more ironically, the source for the forgetting is classical and pagan, the Lethe being a Greek invention. I won’t even speculate on the implications of this here.)

Nightspore added a comment generalizing this slippery loss of authority to the entire poem:

I think it refracts into all the addresses to the reader, all the moments when he has to reflect on himself: his apology at having to name himself, for example.

Again, specificity endangers authority.

I suspect Dante inherited at least part of this memory/forgetting framework from Augustine, who obsesses over time and memory to no end. In particular, there is this passage from the Confessions:

I can mention forgetfulness and recognize what the word means, but how can I recognize the thing itself unless I remember it? I am not speaking of the sound of the word but of the thing which it signifies. If I had forgotten the thing itself, I should be utterly unable to recognize what the sound implied. When I remember memory, my memory is present to itself by its own power; but when I remember forgetfulness, two things are present, memory, by which I remember it, and forgetfulness, which is what I remember. Yet what is forgetfulness but absence of memory? When it is present, I cannot remember. Then how can it be present in such a way that I can remember it? If it is true that what we remember we retain in our memory, and if it is also true that unless we remembered forgetfulness, we could not possibly recognize the meaning of the word when we heard it, then it is true that forgetfulness is retained in the memory. It follows that the very thing which by its presence causes us to forget must be present if we are to remember it. Are we to understand from this that, when we remember it, it is not itself present in the memory, but is only there by means of its image? For if forgetfulness were itself present, would not its effect be to make us forget, not to remember?

…Yet, however it may be, and in whatever inexplicable and incomprehensible way it happens, I am certain that I remember forgetfulness, even though forgetfulness obliterates all that we remember.

Confessions X.16

I’ve trimmed this passage; Augustine actually goes on at much greater length. Once you realize that Augustine is talking about sin in this passage, it becomes obvious why he is being so obsessive.

This paradox of memory as it relates to salvation and authority may be an indicator of the sort of problems Scholasticism faced in fighting off gnosticism, as posited by Hans Blumenberg. Worldly authority (especially in the form of narrative and memory) cannot survive when it is critically dependent on the idea of an otherworldly salvation and deity. More to come on this subject.

Dante: Old Maps of Hell

Divine Comedy Map

I’m always surprised that there haven’t been vastly more attempts to capture, in a single image, the architectural entirety of Dante’s Hell, if not the other two regions. (You can see which one dominates in the above picture.) Hell is by far the most sensible (sensory, that is), visceral realm, as Anne Stevenson so well put it:

In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls

Anne Stevenson

Painters who painted the flights of martyrs for money,
Who filled the drapery of angels with rose-tinted oil,
Had to please rich patrons with trapeze acts of the body,
Since no one can paint the electricity of the soul.

My lady in her blue silk cowl must by now be topsoil;
She swans into Heaven, almond eyes uplifted in piety.
My lord kneels at prayer in a cassock, blade at his heel.
Not a single electron remains of his sin or sanctity.

While in Hell, for example in the water church of Torcello,
The wicked receive their desserts. Disembowelled and dismembered,
They are set upon eternally, yet their bodies alone are touched;
Unless souls, flushed out of the flesh, are the flames that torch them.

No wonder evil’s so interesting and goodness so pitifully dull.
Torture of the body symbolizes torture of the mind;
And burning in the bonfires of conscience is hardly confined
To hell for bad Italians, who, being damned, are being saved as well.

I suppose the thing is just too massive, encompassing an entire cosmos, as Erich Auerbach said in his book on Dante. Botticelli certainly did brilliantly on the massive front, but I have an affection for the more human-scale version by Bartolomeo, which replaces the vastness with claustrophobia:

Bartolomeo's Inferno

The Driftless Area Review recently posted a set of Infernal images in The Landscape of Hell, including this lovely version of Dante’s:

Anne Stevenson: In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls

As much as I appreciate the TLS’s loveletter to Anne Stevenson for her Collected Poems, I was not satisfied with it as criticism, so I thought I’d try to illuminate some more of her peculiar essence here. Stevenson was born in America but has lived in England most of her life, and by no coincidence her first book was on Elizabeth Bishop. Stevenson’s own work clearly owes debts to Bishop and Marianne Moore (not for nothing does Stevenson proclaim her Puritan ethic), but she’s less imagistic than either of them, and more prone to abrupt jumps in scene dictated only by a guiding idea.

Her biography consists of an academic upbringing, four marriages, and her life of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame. I still fail to see much of an affinity between Plath’s poetry and Stevenson’s; the connection seems to be more personal and psychological than that. Stevenson is less cagey than Plath, and more given to express herself plainly and steadily, removing herself from the center of her voice. Here is one of my favorites:

In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls
For Angela Leighton

Painters who painted the flights of martyrs for money,
Who filled the drapery of angels with rose-tinted oil,
Had to please rich patrons with trapeze acts of the body,
Since no one can paint the electricity of the soul.

My lady in her blue silk cowl must by now be topsoil;
She swans into Heaven, almond eyes uplifted in piety.
My lord kneels at prayer in a cassock, blade at his heel.
Not a single electron remains of his sin or sanctity.

While in Hell–well preserved in the water church of Torcello–
The wicked receive their deserts. Disembowelled and dismembered,
They are set upon eternally, yet their bodies alone are touched;
Unless souls, flushed out of the flesh, are the flames that torch them.

No wonder evil’s so interesting and goodness pitifully dull.
Torture of the body symbolises torture of the mind;
And burning in the bonfires of conscience is hardly confined
To a hell for bad Italians, being damned and being saved as well.

The idea is simultaneously obvious and abstract: the physicality of evil and the intangibility of good. Next to the visceral language of Dante, the baroque art of the saints is gauzy and perfumed. Stevenson lets the language be guided by the imagery of the stanza, adopting florid description for the first half before shifting to a more commonplace portrayal of horrors. The first line of the last stanza is a coup, I think; the pointed banality of the adjectives “interesting” and “dull” clearly render the inadequacy of language for the meat of the topics under discussion. Stevenson in parallel leaps from the the physical to the more ambiguous language of the mind, contrasting body and soul. Even though it is a classical distinction, she paints it as a contradiction, with good and evil locked up in the mind and rendered invisible.

Stevenson’s careful modulations of style are a salve for endless reams of modern poetry that either affect a single voice on high or seek to abandon voice in an artificial suspension of sense. When she marshals them to polemical effect, the effect is brutal, as in “New York Is Crying,” partly an attack on selective post-9/11 mawkishness:

The hole in New York is a hole in a belief
That desperately needs to hide itself in grief

It’s only because of Stevenson’s surgical control of emotion and tone that she can get away with this. Stevenson is a literary classicist in positioning herself as a lone voice amongst many, but she possesses the uncommon perspective that lets her take up that voice with authority.

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