Monday, April 16, 2007

The Soothsayings of the Sibyl Lost

Dante was a man of great learning but little intellect; he ignored vast treasures of ancient culture rediscovered prior to the Renaissance. He was hopelessly behind his own time in philosophy and religion; he was a serious adherent to dogmas and doctrines that many people were abandoning in his own day. No poem contains more versified hopeless speculation than the Paradiso. Much of this section is no longer considered of any aesthetic import and is studied by commentators who wish to know the beliefs entertained by the poet. From the very first canto where the universe is vaguely described as something like unto God, to the last where the poet actually tells us that he caught a glimpse of God Himself, we marvel as we read that his intellect was so limited. His power as a poet is corroded by his weakness as a thinker.

In the Divine Comedy we having [sic] living before us again all the bigotry and fatuity of the medieval ages; we have a summing up of all the speculation which rational men to-day reject; all the superstition, darkness and intolerance of a millennium are crystallized in this poem.

From the Appendix: Adverse Views on Dante:

Goethe registered this opinion in his Italian Travels: "The hell was to me altogether horrible, the purgatory neither one thing nor another, and the paradise dreadfully slow."

Leigh Hunt says: "Such a vision as that of his poem (in a theological point of view) seems no better than the dream of a hypochondriacal savage and his nutshell a rottenness to be spit out of the mouth."

To Nietzsche Dante was "the hyena poetising in the tombs."

- Dante and other Waning Classics by Albert Mordell, 1915

When you read Dante or Shakespeare, you experience the limits of art, and then you discover that the limits are extended or broken. Dante breaks through all limitations far more personally than Shakespeare does, and if he is more of a supernaturalist than Shakespeare, his transcending of nature remains as much his own as Shakespeare's unique and idiosyncratic naturalism.
- The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god. That Dante professed an idolatrous adoration of Beatrice is a truth that does not bear contradicting; that she once ridiculed him and another time rebuffed him are facts recorded by the Vita nuova. Some maintain that those facts are symbolic of others. If that were true, it would strengthen even more our certainty of an unhappy and superstitious love. Dante, when Beatrice was dead, when Beatrice was lost forever, played with the idea of finding her, to mitigate his sorrow. I believe that he erected the triple architecture of his poem simply to insert that encounter. Then what usually happens in dreams happened to him. In adversity we dream of good fortune, and the intimate awareness that we cannot attain it is enough to corrupt our dream, clouding it with sad restraints. That was the case with Dante. Refused forever by Beatrice, he dreamed of Beatrice, but he dreamed her very austere, but he dreamed her inaccessible, but he dreamed her in a chariot drawn by a lion that was a bird and was all bird or all lion when reflected in her eyes (Purgatorio, XXXI, 121). Those facts can be the prefiguration of a nightmare, which is set forth and described in the following canto. Beatrice disappears; an eagle, a vixen, and a dragon attach the chariot; the wheels and the pole are covered with feathers; then the chariot ejects seven heads (Transformato cosi'l dificio santo Mise fuor teste); a giant and a harlot usurp Beatrice's place.

Infinitely Beatrice existed for Dante; Dante existed very little, perhaps not at all, for Beatrice.

- Other Inquisitions by Jorge Luis Borges

It is in the spirit and intellect of Dante, more closely than in that of any other western presence of whom we have certain record, that the three semantic fields of 'creation' and 'creativity' - the theological, the philosophical and the poetic - are organically made one. Dante is our meridian. To turn to him is neither academic philology, nor literary criticism nor simple delight, legitimate and fertile as these are. It is to measure with the greatest possible precision the distance from the center, the length of our current afternoon shadows - though, assuredly, these shadows announce a new and different day, what Dante himself would have called a vita nuova. To repeat about Dante what others may have said already, and said better, but in the context of my argument, is a necessity. His 'triplicity' informs that argument. For he organizes, makes irreducibly vital, the reciprocities of religious, metaphysical and aesthetic codes in respect of being and of generation. Dante's apprehension of theology is schooled and profound. No faith is more innervated by thought. He engages with philosophical issues at the highest level of general perception and technicality. (Dante was a logician of the intuitive.) There is - banality - no greater poet, none in whom the summa of knowledge, of imagining, of formal construction is made to reveal itself in language more commensurate to its purpose. Thus any reflection on the intersecting spheres of creation in the religious, metaphysical and aesthetic senses, is, at one level, a rereading of Dante.

- Grammars of Creation by George Steiner

Così la neve al sol si disigilla;
così al vento ne le foglie levi
si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.

Even thus the snow is in the sun unsealed,
Even thus upon the wind in the light leaves
Were the soothsayings of the Sibyl lost.

- Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, Longfellow Translation

1 comment:

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