07 June 2012

'Making our oars wings'—Dante on the Flight of the Soul

One of the great joys of this last school year has been the opportunity to teach some of my favourite books—St Benedict’s Rule and Life, St Basil’s homilies On Social Justice, St Anthony’s Life by St Athanasius, Beowulf, the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Sir Gawain & the Green Knight and Pearl, The Canterbury Tales, and Dante’s Inferno (unfortunately not the whole Divine Comedy). This opportunity has of course allowed me to delve more deeply into some of these myself. Particularly with regard to Dante, while I had read the Comedy and read bits and pieces of a few secondary sources on it, I’d never read it in the kind of detail and intensity I had to devote to it—to the first cantica at least—for my class. I learned a lot, and I’d like to share one of the more fascinating things I came across.

In Canto XXVI, lines 19-24, the poet writes (at least in Dorothy Sayers’s translation):

I sorrowed then; I sorrow now again,
Pondering the things I saw, and curb my hot
Spirit with an unwontedly strong rein

For fear it run where virtue guide it not,
Lest, if kind star or greater grace have blest
Me with good gifts, I mar my own fair lot. [1]

The ‘things I saw’ is a glance backwards at the horrific metamorphoses of Canto XXV, where Dante self-consciously outdoes Lucan (in the Pharsalia) and Ovid (in the Metamorphoses) in his description of the various transmogrifications of the souls. [2] The poet’s ‘Spirit’ is lo ’ngegno, his ‘genius’, which must be curbed lest he indulge his vanity in his poetic gift and risk the damnation of his own soul.

But the ‘fear [that] it run where virtue guide it not’ is also a look ahead at the central encounter of this canto—that with the shade of Ulysses. In recounting his ‘little speech’ to his mariners, [3] Ulysses exhorts them, ‘you were made men, / To follow after knowledge and excellence [virtute e canoscenza—literally ‘virtue and knowledge’].’ [4] Yet this is not virtue in the Christian sense, but in a sense more akin to the original proud glory of the Homeric heroes. Dante’s prudent curbing of his genius is foreign to Ulysses. The latter tells the two pilgrims:

No tenderness for my son, nor piety
To my old father, nor the wedded love
That should have comforted Penelope

Could conquer in me the restless itch to rove
And rummage through the world exploring it,
All human worth and wickedness to prove. [5]

On the basis of these lines, Anthony Esolen writes of Ulysses, ‘Proud, avaricious for knowledge, he abandons his legitimate ties in Ithaca (unlike Dante, he is not exiled) and thinks to gain experience (the lowest form of knowledge) of the other hemisphere all by himself’, but that ‘is a realm opened by the will of God and not by human intelligence’. [6] Furthermore, John Freccero points out that the insistence of Dante the poet on—

the distinction between ingegno and virtù, between the motive power of his journey and his guide, contrasts sharply with the speech of Ulysses, in which ‘virtute e canoscenza’ (v. 120) seem almost synonymous, the single, somewhat exterior objective of the ‘folle volo’. Just as the ancients equated knowledge and virtue, so too Ulysses seems to equate them, making no provision in his calculations for the journey within, the personal askesis upon which all such attempts at transcendence must be based. [7]

More interesting than all of this, however, is the expression Ulysses uses to describe their embarking on the folle volo: ‘we plied, / Making our oars wings [de’ remi facemmo ali] to the witless flight’ (XXVI.124-5). [8] In an astonishing analysis of the expression de’ remi facemmo ali, Freccero has demonstrated that Dante is quite certainly drawing on a tradition of allegorical interpretation of the flight of Daedelus. [9] In the Aeneid, Book VI, lines 18-9, Virgil writes:

redditus his primum terris tibi, Phoebe, sacravit
remigium alarum posuitque immania templa.

Here first restored to earth, to you, O Phoebus, he consecrated
the oarage of his wings and built a vast temple. [10]

One can of course recognise the remigium alarum in Dante’s remi...ali, though of course Virgil is using the metaphor of a sea voyage for Daedelus’s flight through the air while Dante is using the metaphor of a flight through the air to describe a sea voyage. But it is not only the expression that the Florentine has inherited from his masters. Freccero notes that Pierre Courcelle has shown ‘both the story of Ulysses and the flight of Daedelus were interpreted by neoplatonists to signify the flight of the soul’. [11] Both St Ambrose and St Augustine use the Daedelus myth ‘to describe the liberation of the soul from matter’, even including the phrase remigium alarum. To these Freccero adds the following statement from Bernardus Silvestris’s Commentum super sex libros Eneidos Virgilii, by which the tradition associating remigium alarum with reason was ‘probably made...directly accessible to Dante’:

Daedalus came to the temple of Apollo, that is, to the contemplation of sublime things with the reason. And journeying with the intellect he turned his attention completely to the study of philosophy, and there he dedicated the oarage of his wings, that is, the exercise of his reason and intellect (alarum remigium i.e. rationis et intellectus exercitium sacravit). [12]

Of course, in the original sources of this tradition concerning Daedelus, this flight is not ‘witless’, and Ulysses’s shipwreck seems more akin to Icarus’s fate than his fathers. In Freccero’s words, ‘If Ulysses is shipwrecked and if the wings of Daedelus seem rather to recall Icarus, it is because the regressus that both stories represent is, in Dante’s view, philosophical presumption that is bound to end in failure.’ [13] Freccero then grounds Dante’s view in his Augustinianism:

For Plotinus the power of intellect was a sufficient vehicle for the flight to the truth; the great neoplatonist specifically denied the need for any guide on such a journey. For Augustine, on the contrary, and for all Christian thinkers thereafter, the journey had to be accomplished ‘et per intellectum et per affectum.’ [14] Such insistence on the volitive power of the soul is the constant theme of Augustine’s polemic against neoplatonism in the Confessions. This polemic, I believe, lies at the heart of Dante’s representation in the canto of Ulysses. [15]

Of course, Freccero goes on to look at how this theme plays out in several passages of the Confessions, but I’ll stop there.

[1] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy—1: Hell, tr. Dorothy Sayers (London: Penguin, 1949), p. 233.

[2] Inferno, Canto XXV.94-102.

[3] This is of course the origin of Tennyson’s much longer speech, ‘Ulysses’, where the hero would ‘follow knowledge like a sinking star’. Charles Singleton compares it to Aeneas’s speech in Aen. I.198-203, one in Lucan, Phars. I, and Horace’s Odes I.vii.25-6—see Charles Singleton, tr., The Divine Comedy I, Inferno: Commentary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 1991), pp. 466-7.

[4] Dante, p. 236.

[5] Ibid., p. 235.

[6] Anthony Esolen, tr. & ed., Inferno, by Dante (NY: Modern Library, 2002), p. 470, n. to p. 271, l. 84.

[7] John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1986), p. 18.

[8] Dante, p. 236.

[9] Freccero, pp. 15-24.

[10] The Virgilian text is from P. Vergili Maronis Opera, ed. Frederic Arthur Hirtzel (Oxford: Oxford, 1966); the English translation is my tampering with that of Freccero, p. 16, to make it follow the Latin syntax a bit more closely.

[11] Freccero, p. 16.

[12] Freccero, p. 17.

[13] Freccero, p. 18.

[14] Freccero notes, ‘See, for example, Thomas Aquinas, In IV Sent. d. XVII, q.1 a.3, sol.3, quoting Augustine’s Enar. in Psalm. Ps. CXVIII, 14, 8’ (p. 277, n. 42).

[15] Freccero, pp. 18-9.

No comments: