|NUMBER 5||FALL 1989|
Lest a new (or a forgetful «old») reader take these paragraphs for an integral part of the issue, we remind or inform that our endpaper is just that: a filler, thrown in «for good measure» by an otiose editor __ in part to reward himself for having seen into print one more issue. Its function is to bring the number of pages to an economical multiple of 16. Instead of leaving the supernumerary pages blank or marbling them or filling them in with publicity the editor prints here some more or less subject-related paragraphs. His understanding is that the reader will at once reach for the glue bottle and carefully attach these leaves to the back cover. Thus the idle text will disappear __ just as the cover «stuffing» used to in a medieval codex. Yet consider this (and it is also an idea for an obituary, in the event): At times the «stuff» the happy philologist finds in a codex cover is as interesting to him as the open text. And we shall confess, under Dantesque torture, that some entries for our endpapers cost us no less plastic pen-end chewing than our most careful and fully signed writing elsewhere.
LD keeps receiving requests from libraries and also individual readers for its initial issues now out of print. Hence our decision to reprint the lecturae given in the Dante series sponsored by the University of Virginia during 1986-88, to complete the Inferno readings, and to distribute the resulting collection as a supplement to #6 (Spring 1990) of LD. Old and new subscribers for 1989-90 will receive the supplement; it is not intended to circulate as an independent publication.
LD with embarrassment owing to its unwonted reliance here on an odious and misshapen academic term wishes to state that it is a «refereed» (here's the beast) publication. All articles and reviews printed in LD (except for this rubric) must have the approval of two readers with expertise in the topic. Refusal to publish may be based on one negative report. The editor arrogates, but has not so far had to employ, a veto right in declining writing approved by both readers; moreover a non-critical refusal or rather withdrawal may be suggested by the editor when a general backlog or a topical glut would postpone publication beyond «tolerable» limits (these currently are 12-18 months). __ As to backlogs and LD's reluctance to extend them: an unwritten policy of the journal is to remain accessible to, in fact actively attract, younger collaborators; in each issue LD strives to carry a «first» (or first Dante) publication.
Victor Brombert in presenting at the New Orleans MLA Convention the Marraro Prize (won by M. Marcus) identified (a procedure unusual but to our mind quite right) the three members of the panel appointed by the Association for the evaluation of the entries (William Kennedy, Elissa Weaver, Tibor Wlassics). It was noted that the panel had unanimously recommended to award honorable mention to John Freccero's book, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, the result of a distinguished career in the teaching of Italian literature.
Guest editorials (these are cullings from recent readings: dogmata critica we have long held but could never express so vigorously): «All the information genuinely necessary for a valid reading of the Commedia can be found in the poem itself» (Steven Botterill). __ «The Commedia is not a world, but a text, and all we know about the possible world represented by the text is what the text chooses to tell us» (Teodolinda Barolini). __ «Unfortunately, scholarly emphasis on his allegorical passages and on the more abstruse aspects of his work has made it all too easy to overlook his passion for realism and naturalism» (Thomas G. Bergin).
We occasionally catch ourself at referring, mentally, to LD as the «trumpeteer». The Little Trumpeteer was its earliest predecessor. Will you allow us, reader, to reminisce? We were six at the time. LTr had a run of six copies, the limit of carbons accepted by our first «real» typewriter. The first (and only) issue took months of agony and pleasure to produce. It had four pages. It had an opening poem, an editorial addressed to «Dear Readers!», local and international news (a war was then raging in the land). It had the incipit of a novel («chapter two follows in the next issue»); it had a rubric of chatty tidbits (an early endpaper?); it even had a crossword puzzle with prizes for the happy solvers. In spite of these attractions LTr had the problem its late descendant now has: diffusion. Like LD it was underpriced: one florin per issue. Mother got the first, the «best» copy; brother, then two, urged by mother, bought another exemplar __ starting at once to crumple it, to the editor's secret heartache. An unmarried elderly aunt, living with us, put on her glasses to peruse her subscriber's copy. We don't recall what happened to the rest of the run. But we vividly recall one authorial emotion. Mother said: «Now, let us see»; and then we had the never-never privilege of an author who actually can watch his Loved One read his work of love. A quaint feeling, reader: unbearable doubt, unbearable happiness. We followed her eyes, now dust, slowly move down LTr, p. 1, the poem. Reaching our first «printed» signature she looked up with the luminous smile we had longed for: «But this is beautiful, so beautiful!» __ If we could hope for a smile like that, perhaps we could, even now, even this late in the day, write something as beautiful as that first poem in The Little Trumpeteer.
Dying Ugolino's «blindness» (già cieco) calls to mind dying Goethe's «Mehr Licht», the parting prayer by this protagonist of Enlightenment. Is there a possibility here for an additional, non-exclusive, understanding of the text? The «first to go» are the delicate brain cells pertaining to sight; hence the recurring complaint, of «darkness», by the dying. At first, dying is going blind. «I could not see to see», Emily sings, prëexperiencing her end. __ But: did Dante know? It is the wrong question. The reader knows. Shakespeare knew; Lear dying on his feet, «Mine eyes are not of the best», complains to Kent; and his last words are: «look, look, see, see, see». Dante did not need to know about the nervous system or brain electronics or cellular chemistry to have the cannibal father lamely apologize or self-justify (they all do: the damned both in Dante's Hell and on the deathrow of our own jails) by claiming the blindness of extreme inanition. Vergil in a passage Dante much admired shows he knows too. Dying Dido «ter sese adtollens cubitoque adnixa levavit / ter revoluta toro est oculisque errantibus alto / quaesivit caelo lucem ingemuitque reperta». The «erring» eyes of the suicide look for light and (ambivalently, just as dying Goethe and Lear and, I believe, count Hugolin) life (lux meant both, like Fr. jour). __ By the way (and a wonder for ever): Vergil does not even say that Dido «died». She just looks for light, with failing sight («unfocused eyes»), and when she's found it (reperta!) she sighs a deep sigh.
Head-clearing. Yes, that's it: head-clearing, that's what Dante's similes are __ whether «rambling» or Augenblick; whether «illustrative» or anti-illustrative (the «linguistic-cultural shock» kind); whether one link in a vast network of syntonic imagery or a one-shot but indelible mark of Alighieri's scientific curiosity (i.e., of the Renaissance man in him, with his nosy interest in gizmos and contraptions and hickamajiggies). Head-clearing: an adjective it took another poet to hit upon. He is Seamus Heaney; and I hope the New Yorker won't charge us a fortune for the quote (Rich Colleagues of the Nyer! LD is poor, and its humble run of 700 copies qualifies it as semi-clandestine, almost a samizdat...). The final 12 lines from the April 17, 1989, poemetto in terzine, «Crossings»: «And yes, my friend, we, too, walked through a valley, / Once. In darkness. With all the street lamps off. / When scaresome night made valley of that town. // Scene from Dante, made more memorable / By one of his head-clearing similes __ / Fireflies, say, since the policemen's torches // Clustered and flicked and tempted us to trust / The unpredictable, attractive light. / We were like herded shades who had to cross // And did cross, in a panic, to the car / Parked as we'd left it, that gave when we got in / Like Charon's boat under the faring poets.»
Who could, having at his disposal only the means of plain prose... «Chi poria mai pur con parole sciolte...» Only the kaleidoscopic magic of Dante's verse is capable of depicting in full (a pieno is underlined by the rhyme, and underlines in turn the initial insistence on pur: «merely», «just», «alone», «exclusively») the infernal slaughterhouse where Mahomet, Curio, Mosca, and Bertram are tortured. Prose, «words at loose», cannot undertake such a task __ even if, in prose, the storyteller can occasionally meander back and forth, «tell and retell» («narrar più volte»), unlike Dichter, the «condenser» by definition. Set to such a task in prose the narrator's tongue itself would refuse obedience: «ogne lingua per certo verria meno». __ The incipit of Inf. XXVIII is an ars poetica; it is an affirmation of the powers of Dante's verse. Its like in versatility had not been seen, or rather heard, since Vergil's hexameters. Thus our interpretation seems to us Dantesque a pieno. __ No interpreter, however, among the one-hundred or so available to our perusal, ever understood the text in this way or even hinted that it might be understood in this way. Pur of course means, in Dante's usage, both only and even: both are well represented in all his texts. And since we all know, at least from teenage trials (roses are red...), that verse is harder to write (why, it must rhyme!) than prose, common sense prevails, and all comments explain: «Who ever could, even if he or she did not have to bother with rhyme and rhythm etc...». A very un-Dantesque lament: the poet seems to condemn his own invention, the terzina, or his self-imposed obligation to respect its rules. __ Well, and what is then the sense of the overture of Inf. XXVIII? The patient reader of these endpapers (Greetings, Reader! O rare lectorcule, greetings!) knows that we are about to suggest ambivalence. As in another one-thousand instances in his Comedy, Dante with one word addresses two audiences or rather two layers in his readership: «regular guys» like you and me who know that verse writing must be a devilish job; and the irregular guys, or poets, who know that as to «difficulty» of writing there is no difference between prose and verse, but that there are tasks of «telling» that only prose can handle and there are tasks of telling that only verse, and some verse at that, can handle. (By the way: Alighieri is a rather indifferent prose writer: to judge by the «pedantry», involution, even «stammering» of some of his prose, prose came to him «harder» than verse.)
Quantum mutatus ab illo... This soul-shaker topos of Vergil has no place in Dante's Hades. How come? Well, because his damned are not «changed». They are, rather, more like themselves than ever. Quantum inmutatus would better fit their aspects __ outer and inner. This is in fact what Auerbach discovered and, perhaps unfortunately, defined figura. The soul in Dante's Beyond is the quintessence of its earthly existence; the changes wrought in it by Hell are no more than a further demasking of its monstrosities «in life». Thus Dante, opportunely (but, I like to think, with regret), had to renounce this rich matrix of Vergilian poesis.
At Littlelawn College (OH? PA? MA? MN... __ OK: ME), after the pregnant postlecture silence, we were asked by a kind soul whether we felt more American or «Continental» as a student of Dante. We at once contested the existence of an original American brand of Dantology (we should have allowed for Dantemania). Even more vehemently we objected to the term «continental»: it abusively suggests the British disrelish for the «Continent». Thus while destroying the Q we forgot to A. Let us once more employ this extraspatial space for an apology. Try an answer as well? It is like this, gentle Colleague. Imagine a steamer that has lost its route in mid-course, longitude unknown, latitude circa the Azores. It slowly feels its way through the thick vapors of the North Atlantic, foghorns ablaze. The shore beyond is too far to reach; too faraway now are the old shores too. Hence you hear these forlorn toots in the mist.