10 July 2009

Postscript to Dante & St Augustine

I mentioned in the postscript to this post on St Augustine in Dante that I had meant to look for anything relevant to my argument in Umberto Eco, by which I meant primarily his superb essay, ‘A Reading of the Paradiso’ (On Literature, trans. Martin McLaughlin [Orlando, FL: Harvest, 2004], pp. 16-22), but also, it occurred to me, his Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, trans. Hugh Bredin (New Haven: Yale U, 1986). Well, in the latter, I found a single line that seems to suggest something similar to some of Harold Bloom’s reading of Dante (and for that matter, all 'great' writers). Eco writes:

This was a period of transition, between the aesthetic theories of the thirteenth century and the Renaissance. During this time it was the artists, ranging all the way from Dante to the troubadours, filled with a sense of their power and displaying a new and proud individuality, who added to the history of aesthetic feeling and theory. (p. 91)

But then, in the essay on Paradiso, Eco seems to sound a rather different note:

Dante did not, therefore, invent his poetics of light by playing on a subject matter that was recalcitrant to poetry. He found it all around him, and he reformulated it, as only he could, for a reading public who felt light and color as passions. In rereading one of the best essays I know on Dante’s Paradiso, Giovanni Getto’s ‘Aspetti della poesia di Dante’ (Aspects of Dante’s Poetry, 1947), one can see that there is not a single image of Paradise that does not stem from a tradition that was part of the medieval reader’s heritage, I won’t say of ideas, but of daily fantasies and feelings. It is from the biblical tradition and the church fathers that these radiances come, these vortices of flames, these lamps, these suns, these brilliances and brightnesses emerging ‘like a horizon clearing’ (Par. 14.69), these candid roses and ruby flowers. As Getto says, ‘Dante found before him a terminology, or, rather, a whole language already established to express the reality of the life of the spirit, the mysterious experience of the soul in its catharsis, the life of grace as stupendous joy, a prelude to a joyous, sacred eternity.’ (p. 20)

Whatever we say about Dante’s ‘new and proud individuality’, these observations on Paradiso appear to me directly to contradict Harold Bloom’s claim that Dante ‘imposed his vision on Eternity’ (The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages [NY: Riverhead, 1995], p. 78).

Finally, Helen Gardner's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, In Defence of Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1982), helped me to articulate my own response to Bloom, in part by pointing me towards a wonderful statement from William Blake (p. 25). In his ‘Annotations to “Poems” by William Wordsworth’, Blake writes, ‘I cannot think that Real Poets have any competition. None are greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven; it is so in Poetry’ (Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes [London: Oxford U, 1969], p. 783).

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