|NUMBER 2||SPRING 1988|
I: Brunetto the Sodomite (Inferno XV)
To speak of «unchanging human nature» is to sail over very calm and very dull seas. Yet I want to consider Dante's portrait of Brunetto Latini precisely as an example of human nature at its most stubbornly unchangeable. I want to argue, not that Brunetto is a Sodomite __ most readers of the Inferno would agree about that __ but rather that Dante has portrayed him as a Sodomite: as a homosexual man with characteristically, even stereotypically, gay attributes and mannerisms. What I am claiming is that Brunetto would have been as recognizably gay to Dante's first readers and auditors as he is to us in the late twentieth century. In making this claim I do not intend, like Ulysses, to sail off the map, but rather to explore some possibly new territory.
Dante and Virgil first encounter Brunetto amidst a troop __ «una schiera» (v. 16) __ of souls who are hurrying through the gloom of the Seventh Circle. This «schiera» is the first of half-a-dozen collective nouns that will be used of the Sodomites in the course of Canto XV: «cotal famiglia»; «la traccia»; «questa greggia»; «la mia masnada»; «quella turba grama» («that company», «the train», «this flock», «my band», «that wretched crowd», vv. 22, 33, 37, 41, 109; the translations are by J. D. Sinclair). Dante, as he does so often, uses reiterated images to make a point, here, to set off these sinners as a particular group who share a defining sin, and so to make clear that Brunetto is of this group: whatever his claims upon Dante's esteem and affection, he is definitely a member of this scorched army whose rubric is Sodomy.
As the «schiera» approaches, Dante writes of them:
Each looked at us as men look at one another under a new moon at dusk... (vv. 17-19).
Here again Dante is underlining, through word choice and image, an important fact, namely, the fiercely visual nature of this group's interest in the two travellers who have appeared in their midst: «riguardava» and «guardare». Note, too, the intentness indicated by: each one of them looked, just as at dusk, under a new moon, men look «uno altro» __ at each other. The intensity of their gaze is unmistakable, as is the sharpness of its focus. Of course, the light in the Seventh Circle is dim, as Dante tells us; but beyond this simple narrative fact is the demonstrable true-to-life quality of this encounter: true to homosexual life. In this twilit atmosphere, the souls of the Sodomites are, in modern gay slang, cruising the two strangers in their midst: they are appraising Dante and his companion. And here we consider yet another instance of Dante's grim, often cruel comedic sense: even after death, these souls cannot change their ways; cannot resist the temptation to ogle newcomers as objects of possible erotic interest. Their compulsion to cruise survives even in Hell.
Dante underscores the intentness of the group's gaze with a famous analogy:
They puckered their brows on us like an old tailor on the eye of his needle... (vv. 20-21).
Their brows are puckered, wrinkled, like an old tailor's as he threads a needle: the scrutiny that these souls train upon Dante and Virgil is here brilliantly, unforgettably rendered. There is an almost brutal exactness about it, and a submerged sarcasm. Clearly Dante the Poet has observed men observing other men: observed them closely: the image is surely the result of simple, everyday experience, only captured and described with Dante's typical acuity. (As so often in Dante's poetry, it is not just the detail __ «le ciglia» or «sartor» __ but the detail within the detail __ «aguzzavan le ciglia»; «vecchio sartor» __ that renders the image all the more believable, all the more vivid.)
The image of the «vecchio sartor» is interesting for other reasons as well: for one, because Brunetto himself is old and the «vecchio sartor» subtly prepares us for Brunetto's appearance; for another because clothes play a strangely prominent part in Canto XV, and in Canto XVI. This is, I suspect, another example of Dante's often «sadistic» infernal humor: these souls are painfully naked, exposed, hence clothing is all the more important to them; for the same reason, clothing imagery rather cruelly recurs in the cantos in which they appear. This comes out especially clearly in Canto XVI, where the three Florentine Sodomites recognize Dante by his apparel:
«Stop thou, who by thy dress seemest to be one from our degenerate city» (XVI, 89).
As far as I know this is the only instance in the Inferno where Dante is recognized by his Florentine clothing. I am tempted to cite this as another gay stereotype __ the marked interest in clothing __ but I will refrain. Yet true it is that the souls of these gay men notice things __ notice visual details. They size people up visually; the are very observant about fine points, just as a tailor threading his needle is as focused on details as anyone could possibly be. The combination of visual interest and clothing imagery occurs in the lines that introduce Ser Brunetto himself:
Eyed thus by that company, I was recognized by one who took me by the hem and cried: «How marvelous!» (vv. 22-24).
«Adocchiato»: again, Dante is heavily underscoring the kind of interest taken in the two travellers: they are not just looked at but are eyed by the Sodomites __ this collective «famiglia». And one of them, recognizing Dante, reaches up and grabs him «per lo lembo» __ by the hem of his gown: once more, the suggestive emphasis on clothing, as this lost soul makes his dramatic, his remarkably intimate, gesture, followed immediately by his equally dramatic (even flamboyant) exclamation: «Qual maraviglia!» Accompanied by such a gesture, and in such a context, these words have an unmistakable intonation: «gridò» here has the sense of «shrieked»: «How amazing! Incredible!» The expression of at surprise has, in gay parlance, a distinctly queeny pitch: a flamboyance that is stereotypically characteristic of vehement homosexual speech.
The shock of Dante's recognition of his old teacher is conveyed through a combination of Dante's typical sardonic humor and the eye imagery that recurs in this canto: «ficcaï li occhi per lo cotto aspetto» («fixed my eyes on his baked looks», v. 26), Dante says. Despite the shade's ghastly condition __ its «viso abbrusciato» («scorched features», v. 27) makes even more hideously vivid the already brutal description __ the student still manages to recognize his old teacher: the «conoscenza» in this moment of recognition echoes the earlier (v. 23) «fui conosciuto»: Dante conveys the simultaneity of recognizing and being recognized through his use of almost-identical words, thus leading to his famous, startled cry: «Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?» («Are you here, Ser Brunetto?», v. 30).
In the exchange that follows Brunetto immediately adopts a conciliatory tone __ «non ti dispiaccia / se Brunetto Latino un poco teco / ritorna 'n dietro...» («let it not displease thee if Brunetto Latini turn back with thee a little...», vv. 31-33) __ a tone that has, if my ears don't deceive me, an initially fluttery cast to it. «O figliuol mio» (v. 31), he begins, and repeats the diminutive six lines later (v. 37). This diminutive is of course a sign of real affection, and is not necessarily meaningful in homosexual terms (St. Peter, for instance, will use it when addressing Dante in the Paradiso); yet Brunetto's «filgiuol mio» seems very much of a piece with the specifically gay characteristics that I have been sketching in: I think Brunetto's «my son»'s have more of a «my boy» intonation, or even the modern gay «my dear»: the expression of an older gay man's affection for a much younger man.
«Ti verrò a' panni» («I shall come at thy skirt», v. 40), Brunetto says to Dante: again, with the peculiar emphasis on clothing; and the student and his master walk on, lost in conversation, so much so that it comes as something of a shock to realize that Virgil is the strangely silent third party in their company. Indeed, Virgil is rather shunted aside throughout Dante's interview with Ser Brunetto. Dante seems to be so excited by his encounter with his dearly loved teacher that he all but ignores Virgil, who will make only one remark __ and that a brief and ambiguous one __ in the course of the episode. Brunetto asks Dante what «fortuna o destino» (v. 46) has brought him here alive; he also asks him «chi è questi che mostra 'l cammino?» (v. 48). Both questions are significant, the latter because it reveals Brunetto's quick and accurate appraisal of the situation: he doesn't ask «Who is that with you?» but rather «Who is that who is showing you the way?». Yet Brunetto proves to be curiously uncurious about just who this stranger actually is; and Dante is oddly unforthcoming about Virgil's identity. (One would think he would be more than eager for his beloved teacher to meet the shade of the greatest Latin poet.) I suspect the reason for this disinterest is, again, the simple fact that the teacher and student are so caught up in their own excitement at seeing each other that they find it very easy to all but ignore Virgil. As when two old friends get together, a kind of synergy (to be modish) takes over: they find their private agenda so enthralling that they cannot include a third party in their excited conversation.
Until he begins his tirade against Florence, Brunetto's speech has, as I indicated, a rather garrulous, distracted quality. Especially after the furious egotism of a Farinata or a Capaneus, there is in Ser Brunetto a noticeable reluctance to talk about himself, a reticence behind his volubility. He seems to be intent on engaging and keeping his audience's attention while skillfully steering the topics of conversation safely away from himself. He barely listens to Dante's reply to his two questions; then he tells Dante, rather vaguely, that, if only he himself weren't dead, he would have helped him with his great work. It is only then __ after this fluttery, or flustered, preamble __ that he launches into his tirade against Florence. This latter he couches in flattering, revealing terms, for his former student's benefit: «è ragion», he says, «ché tra li lazzi sorbi / si disconvien fruttare lo dolce fico» («with reason, for among the bitter sorbs it is not natural the sweet fig should come to fruit», vv. 65-66). There is an almost coquettishly sexual quality to this image of the «sweet fig» amidst the «bitter sorbs». As commentators remind us, the image of the fig has, ultimately, a biblical provenance; yet in Brunetto's «dolce fico» there is, I think, a faintly unpleasant flirtatiousness in the tone __ a «sweet young thing» quality which he continues a few lines later, when he warns Dante that the Guelphs and Ghibellines «avranno fame / di te» («shall be ravenous against thee», v. 71). «They'll want to gobble you up!», Brunetto tells the sweet fig. I can't think of any other character in the poem who dares to assume such a tone with Dante; yet Dante is not at all offended by such treatment, such a tone: familiarity thas bred affection.
What we see at work here, I think, is a rather subtle instance of Dante the Poet seeing more, and capturing more, than Dante the Traveller is aware of. Dante the Traveller and Ser Brunetto quickly and effortlessly fall into their old intimacy that is filled with love and respect; while Dante the Poet has caught in his teacher's speech and mannerisms something that the youthful Dante was unaware of. Dante undeniably shares his younger self's «reverenza» for Ser Brunetto; only he sees more, and knows more, than his younger self possibly could.
As Ser Brunetto's and Dante's colloquy reaches its conclusion, Dante queries his teacher for the names of his fellow sinners. Brunetto claims there really isn't time to list them all, then singles out Priscian and Francesco d'Accorso for a kind of tongue-clucking dismissal: the two of them consort, he says, with «quella turba grama» (v. 109). Then he describes the corrupt career of Andrea de' Mozzi, which began in Florence and ended in Vicenza, where he «lasciò i mal protesi nervi» («he left his sin-strained nerves», v. 114). This last is a striking and very strange image indeed. «O the terrible, terrible nerves of the invert!» exclaimed Radclyffe Hall in The Well of Loneliness. Can this stereotype have held true 700 years ago, when Brunetto Latini spoke of his infernal compatriot? I think it could.
The encounter now ends as Ser Brunetto spies another crowd approaching: with his usual visual sharpness, he sees «nuovo fummo» (v. 117) rising from the sand, the sign of people with whom he cannot associate. And so he rushes off, in the famous image of the naked runners in the race at Verona. First, though, he recommends his Tesoro, «nel qual io vivo ancora» («in which I yet live», v. 120): a pathetic touch that is genuinely moving. For all of his occasional posturing or histrionics, Brunetto Latini is, even so, a scholar, and a great teacher, who asks only to be remembered by his book; though, sadly, he cannot know that the book in which he will live on is not his Tesoro at all, but a quite different work, written by a former pupil. Genuine pathos is here combined with a subtle mockery, just as the two are combined in the canto's closing image. For Ser Brunetto is not a beautiful, naked young athlete: he is an unclothed old man who is covered with ruinous burns and is, as I have suggested, something of a queen. Yet he does seem to be «di costoro / quelli che vince, non colui che perde» («not the loser among them, but the winner», vv. 123-124). Reading these words we cannot help but regard him with something of Dante's youthful affection. The Poet-Who-Writes has made his judgment and now sees Ser Brunetto for what he was, and still is; though he yet retains his youthful feelings for the teacher who influenced him so profoundly.
II: Guido's Portrait (Inferno XXVII)
The Inferno is a geography book, a dictionary, and an encyclopedia; it is also an album. In size and comprehensiveness, in quantity and quality, Dante's portraits are astonishing in their immediacy and vivacity. And perhaps the single most remarkable feature of these portraits is their poetic concision. In one gesture Dante captures an entire personality: «ei levò le ciglia un poco in soso» («he raised his eyebrows a little», X, 45), he says, and Farinata's character is summed up, captured, for all time. («Un poco» is the detail within the detail that makes the image so unforgettable.) Similarly, in two lines he manages to convey all of the pathos of Brunetto Latinits character and fate:
Let my Treasure, in which I yet live, be commended to thee, and I ask no more... (XV, 119-120).
Has there ever been a more moving portrait of a scholar? Old and naked, covered with ghastly burns, Brunetto asks for nothing more than to be remembered for his great book, in which he still lives his real, his essential life; and so he disappears, «e parve di costoro / quelli che vince, non colui che perde» («he seemed not the loser among them, but the winner», XV, 123-124). He seems to win, indeed.
Among the portraits in Dante's infernal album, perhaps only the figure of Francesca da Rimini is more famous than that of Guido da Montefeltro. I want to take a close look at Dante's art of portraiture as it is manifested in Canto XXVII of the Inferno: Guido's canto. Within 100 lines Dante creates an indelible picture of a cunning man who, even in Hell, is still possessed by the same self-serving, and self-defeating, guile that condemned him in the first place.
But before I discuss Guido da Montefeltro, I want to take a quick look at the canto that immediately precedes this consummate portrait. Canto XXVI contains another of Dante's most famous figures, that of Ulysses, who, like Guido, is condemned to the Eighth Bolgia for the sin of false counsel. Ulysses and Guido together form a kind of diptych, and the subtlety and power of Dante' portrait of Guido are intensified by their close proximity to the very different picture of Ulysses.
It hardly needs repeating that the figure of Ulysses is majestic, imposing, like Farinata before him. Much of this majestic quality is the result of the figure's forthrightness, which becomes immediately apparent when he begins to speak from inside the «fiamma antica» (XXVI, 85):
Then, waving the point to and fro as if it were the tongue that spoke, it flung forth a voice and said: «When I parted from Circe...» (XXVI, 88-91).
The voice of Ulysses is hurled, thrown, flung out from the flame. This kind of energy and directness characterizes both Ulysses and his utterance. Ulysses, in a way, leaves nothing to the imagination; and, mysteriously, this same quality makes him all the more powerful to the imagination. For he holds nothing back; he tells the truth, as he understands it, about himself and his motives:
Not fondness for a son, nor duty to an aged father, nor the love I owed Penelope which should have gladdened her, could conquer within me the passion I had to gain experience of the world and of the vices and worth of men... (XXVI, 94-99).
Ulysses disarms his critics: he ticks off, as it were, the very charges that could be leveled against him, then admits, with characteristic directness, that none of those accusations could conquer his «ardore» to become «esperto» in the ways of men. Ulysses admits the truth, vigorously, with a full knowledge of what he is doing, and why, and the alternatives he has rejected in the name of a higher, more intense, calling.
Ulysses' forthrightness, then, captivates the reader, even as it captivates his fellow sailors, who, after his famous speech, are inflamed by Ulysses' own passion:
My companions I made so eager for the road with these brief words that then I could hardly have held them back... (XXVI 121-123).
And here we see a second major element in Ulysses' character (or, more correctly, in Dante's presentation of Ulysses' character): namely, the public nature of Ulysses' undertaking. Put another way, Ulysses' great adventure is a shared experience. Even in Hell, he is joined with the soul of Diomedes within the «fiamma antica»: «O voi che siete due dentro ad un foco» («O ye who are two within one fire...», XXVI, 79), Virgil addresses them. This union of the two souls within one flame is poetically appropriate, since, in life, Ulysses had a shared, fraternal relation with his men: «quella compagna», he calls them (v. 101); «io e' compagni» several lines later (v. 106); «li miei compagni» in the lines quoted above; «O frati», he says at the beginning of his famous address (v. 112). Ulysses lives and dies with his companions __ he shares his life and death with them __ and even after death, he shares his fate with Diomedes. This is one of the most powerful, and moving, elements in Dante's portrait.
One other characteristic I would like to mention here is closely allied to Ulysses' forthrightness and to the public nature of his calling, and that is his scrupulous attention to objective truth, «outer» truth, so to speak. Sailor that he is, Ulysses fills his narrative with careful observations of natural fact: he is always very careful to locate himself geographically (he mentions, for example, Spain, Morocco, and Sardinia). After he and his companions set out, he tells us with characteristic accuracy:
Night then saw all the stars of the other pole and ours so low that it did not rise from the ocean floor (XXVI, 127-129).
I could list other examples, but these should suffice to provide some sense of what I mean about Ulysses' characterization. He is, as I have said, unapologetic, forthright, and factual in his account; fiercely unsentimental (as in his description of his fatal shipwreck). He is unblinking in his analysis of himself and his motives and the consequences of his actions, all of which involve him in the public world, or in a world of shared experiences with his fellow-men. These are some of the traits that make him the imposing figure that he is. They also make him the perfect foil for the figure of Guido da Montefeltro.
We can perceive much of the difference between Ulysses and Guido by comparing the ways in which the two characters are first presented. Ulysses, as we saw, begins speaking almost immediately: «gittò voce di fuori» (XXVI, 90). When Guido's flame appears, Dante and Virgil hear «un confuso suon che fuor n'uscia» (XXVII, 6). Then follows the famous description of the Sicilian bull of Phalaris, which became the instrument of death for its overly ingenious inventor. This image provides our first, and essential, key to the canto and its characterization. Like Perillus, who invented the Sicilian bull, Guido, too, will prove to be his own victim. This self-negating, self-destructive quality (of which Guido is unaware) makes for much of the grimly satirical tone of Dante's verbal portrait.
It is very difficult for Guido's words to find their way out of the flame in which he is imprisoned: language itself becomes strangulated as Guido seeks to express himself, and in this we immediately sense his difference from, his distance from, the heroic Ulysses, who expressed himself in a kind of majestic calm. Not so Guido. Of his «parole grame» («doleful words», v. 15) Dante says:
But after they had made their way up through the point, giving it the same vibration that the tongue had given in their passage, we heard it say: «O thou to whom I direct my voice and who just spoke in Lombard, saying: "Now go thy way, I do not urge thee more", though I have come, perhaps, somewhat late, let it not irk thee to stay and speak with me; thou seest it irks not me, and I am burning)» (vv. 16-24).
After such tremendous difficulty, Guido at last manages to make himself heard, and immediately begins to reveal more of himself than he realizes: after the simplicity and gravity of Ulysses' discourse, Guido is all the more obviously the crafty courtier, listening for verbal nuance. («I heard what you said: you're from Lombardy, aren't you? You gave yourself away!» is, really, what Guido is telling Dante and Virgil.) Then, again like the overly-polite and fussy creature of a court, he says: «perch'io sia giunto forse alquanto tardo...» It is as if he has been late for a court appearance. Wishing to tidy up any loose ends of etiquette, Guido apologizes, or almost apologizes: notice his use of the dubitative form: «maybe I am a bit late». The subjunctive is Guido's characteristic verbal mood: it is a masterstroke on Dante's part that subjunctive verbs should constantly be playing on Guido's lips, for the subjunctive is, of course, the «maybe» mood: maybe so... maybe not. The indefinite maybe is Guido's tool for outmaneuvering others in conversational gambits; yet even so, Guido loses, definitively.
Like this choice in verbs, Guido's exclamation «non t'incresca restare a parlare meco; / vedi che non incresce a me, e ardo!» is all too revealing, striking as it does the note of self-dramatizing self-pity that will run throughout the portrait (and that stands in the boldest contrast to Ulysses' absolute refusal to indulge in the same practice). «I am not annoyed», Guido says, «and look at me: I'm on fire!». Guido, of course, does not mean to be funny; but the unintentional humor is nonetheless there: humor of a rather grisly, sadistic kind, which Dante, on occasion, is perfectly capable of employing, and enjoying.
Guido then goes on:
If thou hast fallen but now into this blind world from that sweet land of Italy whence I bring all my guilt, tell me if the Romagnoles have peace or war... (vv. 25-28).
Here again: «If you have come... tell me if...». These are characteristic locutions for Guido. Through such verbal tics, Dante quickly sketches a portrait of a very careful man, a man who is very afraid of saying too much about anything, yet who is constantly, unwittingly, giving himself away. (Though I must add that here, as everywhere in the Inferno, the reference to «quella dolce terra / latina» is truly, legitimately poignant.)
These same «if» constructions occur in Guido's famous lines to Dante, following the Poet's exposition of the political chaos in Romagna:
«If I thought my answer were to one who would ever return to the world, this flame should stay without another movement; but since none ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer thee without fear of infamy...» (vv. 61-66).
These two tercets contain an entire portrait in miniature: a portrait of overweening self-assurance; cleverness that, in the end, is stupidity; suave confidence that undermines itself completely. Present here are the characteristic «if» construction, and three subjunctive verbs («fosse», «tornasse», «credesse»). Guido is so sure of himself that he feels safe in being subtly rude: «If I thought there was the slightest chance of your getting back...». But Guido blithely rules out that possibility: «non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero». After a lifetime at court, Guido, even in his misplaced self-confidence, is unable to open his mouth without carefully qualifying the statement: «If what I hear is true». The corollary to which is of course: «If what I'm saying is not true, you can't blame me, because I'm only repeating what I've heard!» Guido twists and turns through subjunctive tortuosities, always, always seeking to avoid a definite statement that, he fears, could be used against him. And naturally, he ruins himself in the process, simply by failing to ask the obvious, point-blank question: «Are you returning to the world? How?» But Guido deftly sidesteps the direct approach. Suavely quoting hearsay, he brings about his own ruin __ like Perillus in his Sicilian bull. And so, «sanza tema d'infamia» (v. 66) he proceeds to expose himself to posterity.
The account that Guido gives of himself is, naturally, self-serving and presents him as a victim, not as an agent, of his spiritual undoing:
I was a man of arms, and then a corded friar, thinking, so girt, to make amends; and indeed my thought had come true but for the Great Priest __ may ill befall him! __ who put me back in the old sins, and how and wherefore I would have thee hear from me... (vv. 67-72).
Note the forms of «credere»: Guido believed he was doing the right thing; he thought he could make amends for his former life. But «belief», of course, is at the very center of his tragedy: Guido doesn't believe anything; or rather, belief, for him, is a matter of dressing-up: «sì cinto» («so girt»), he says; later he will refer to «quel capestro / che solea fare i suoi cinti più macri» («that cord which used to make its wearers lean», vv. 92-93). And Guido actually thinks his dressing-the-part would have saved him, if __ the typical «se» __ «non fosse il gran prete»: another subjunctive. If only it weren't for that «great priest», «a cui mal prenda!» Again, the accusatory, whining note, the self-pity, as Guido blames his downfall on someone __ anyone __ else. In Guido's account of his seduction-into-evil by Boniface, we are presented with a masterpiece of spite and self-justification and, always, self-pity («ahi miser lasso», «woe is me!», v. 84; «oh me dolente!», «O wretched me!», v. 121). Guido stresses his own good intentions: after his sinful life as a scheming fox, he was ready to change his ways; to do the «correct», the appropriate thing:
When I saw myself come to that part of my life when every man should lower the sails and gather in the ropes, that which before had pleased me then grieved me and with repentance and confession I turned friar, and __ woe is me! __ it would have served... (vv. 79-84).
The nautical image that Guido employs is a startling reminder of the integrity (even in Hell) of the mariner Ulysses: what for Ulysses is literal truth becomes, in Guido's mouth, nothing more than a fancy image, a circumlocution, a way of announcing a «change of heart» with a literary flourish. And this change in heart would have been effective, would have «served» __ if only... again, this subjunctive mood (implied here) of Guido's entire narrative: If only it hadn't been for Boniface.
Guido's presentation of Boniface is a triumph, in turn, of Dante's art: through Guido's words, we learn as much about Guido as we do about «lo principe d'i novi Farisei» («the Prince of the new Pharisees», v. 85). Guido's catalogue of «né» («neither ... nor») statements (vv. 87-92) brings to mind Ulysses' «né» statements which we have already encountered in the previous canto (XXVI, 94-96); only, by contrast, Guido's catalogue is motivated by pure spite and hatred, and concludes with a self-flattering analogy in which he is compared with Pope Sylvester, the saint who cured Constantine of leprosy. But what was Guido to do? «Io tacetti, / perché le sue parole parver ebbre» («I was silent, for his words seemed drunken», vv. 98-99). Here again, the stiletto attack of the well-trained courtier: «His words seemed drunken». Was the Pope drunk? Guido isn't saying; but the Pope's words appeared drunken: that much, Guido will spitefully venture. Even in Hell, the courtier continues to gossip, continues to spread rumors.
Guido's verbal sparring with Boniface proves that the Fox has met his match in the wiley pontiff. In two brilliantly witty lines, the Pope calms the worried advisor: «Finor t'assolvo, e tu m'insegna a fare / sì come Penestrino in terra getti» («I absolve thee henceforth, and do thou teach me how I may cast Palestrina to the ground», vv. 101-102). The celestial and the brutally earthy collide here in the Pope's wonderfully funny assurance __ an assurance that Guido is all too easily able (even eager) to take at face value. The Pope knows his man.
Guido is now at his crossroads. What will he do? How will he respond to the Pope's request? Put another way: how deep will Guido's newfound religiosity prove to be? The answer is foregone: not very deep. He analyzes his dilemma strictly in terms of strategy and worldly prudence:
Then the weighty arguments drove me to the point where silence seemed to me the worse offense, and I said: «Father...» (vv. 106-108).
He only worries about offending the Pope: to keep silent at this critical moment would be indecorous, and so he decides to forfeit his soul rather than arouse the corrupt pontiff's displeasure. With the single word «padre», Guido announces his decision: the Pope and the advisor had been sparring, and the advisor now proceeds to throw the match:
«Father, since thou dost cleanse me from this sin into which I must now fall, large promise with scant observance will make thee triumph in the lofty seat» (vv. 101-111).
One can almost see the smile of self-satisfaction as Guido pronounces these carefully chosen words. Without naming names, without saying anything specifically, and by referring to the Pope's goal only euphemistically (the «alto seggio»), Guido has created a small jewel of the courtier's art. He has also revealed his awareness of the sin he is committing __ «quel peccato» __ and his typically superficial conception of penitence and absolution: Boniface can simply «wash» the sin away. Guido's self-awareness is pathetically limited, as is his understanding of sin and redemption.
The consequences of Guido's decision follow immediately, with the comical account of Saint Francis' confrontation with the logician-devil for the soul of the self-pitying counsellor. The black cherub captures, in three lines, the spiritual tragedy of Guido da Montefeltro:
For he cannot be absolved who repents not, nor can there be repenting and willing at once, for the contradistion does not permit it (vv. 118-120).
Dressing for the part and observing formalities are of no avail; Guido's «repentance» has been skin deep, a matter of striking the appropriate pose. Real contrition has been unable to penetrate his surprisingly durable façade of «politeness», flattery, and love of intrigue. One thinks of Oscar Wilde's famous line about Max Beerbohm: in his narrative, Guido takes off his face to reveal the mask underneath.
The black cherub pays Guido back in his own verbal coin: «Forse / tu non pensavi ch'io löico fossi!» (vv. 122-123): another «perhaps» subjunctive. And so Guido is condemned by Minos to the Eighth Bolgia, which he shares with the great figure of Ulysses: «là dove vedi son perduto, / e sì vestito, andando, mi rancuro» («Therefore I am lost where thou seest and, thus clothed, go in bitterness», vv. 128-129). Now, at the end of his story, Guido remains perfectly in character, talking about his infernal punishment in terms of dress: «sì vestito». And «mi rancuro». These are perhaps the truest words he speaks: he does go about in rancor, in bitterness, so that even his flame in the end «dolorando si partio, / torcendo e dibattendo 'l corno aguto» («the flame, grieving, departed, twisting and tossing the pointed horn», vv.131-132).
Without uttering a critical word, Dante the Traveller simply listens as Guido exposes his spiritual shallowness __ his soul __ to the world, even as he tries unsuccessfully to lie, evade, and posture for his own self-aggrandizement and to arouse self-pity in his listeners. Dante's Olympian detachment is very evident in this portrait: it is as if he, Dante the Poet, need not lift a finger: Guido can condemn himself to Hell with his own too-revealing volubility.
And this unwitting self-revelation is intensified by its juxtaposition with the deeply moving narrative that precedes it. Ulysses, as I said, is forthright, vigorous, aboveboard; passionately committed to his great and foolhardy undertaking. Guido is isolated, alone in his self-pity. For Ulysses, life itself is a voyage carried out in the company of others; for Guido, life is a sparring match, a battle of wits in which he, Guido, ultimately loses. The words of Ulysses move with a somber, majestic cadence: «Fatti non foste a viver come bruti» («you were not born to live as brutes», XXVI, 119). Guido's speech is nervous, agitated, «busy»: «Io fui uom d'arme, a poi fui cordigliero, / credendomi, sì cinto, fare ammenda...» (vv. 67-68). Ulysses, as we have seen, is scrupulous in regard to outer, physical, demonstrable truth; to accuracy. For Guido, truth is all contingency __ what if, if only __ and his responses are determined by a hyperconsciousness of the audience he is playing to, appealing too __ courting. In these, as in so many ways, the all-too-real Guido and the mythic Ulysses are counterpoised. In their conduct, their thought, their modes of expression, Ulysses and Guido help define one another, and together they help us define the nature of Dante's subtle and exact art of portraiture.*
*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on November 23, 1987.
III: La gloriosa rota (Paradiso X)
Boethius is one of the twelve sages who appear in __ indeed, who are __ the cosmic clock with which Canto X of the Paradiso ends. This image of the clock which is also a wheel __ «la gloriosa rota» __ is one of the most arresting in the entire Divine Comedy: its resonance extends as far forward as the poem's final image __ the «rota ch'igualmente è mossa» (XXXIII, 144) __ and as far backward as the twelfth chapter of the Vita Nuova and, much further, to Book IV of the Consolation of Philosophy, whose author is such a prominent figure in the circle/clock/wheel of Canto X. Thus my paragraph ends where it began, with Boethius: as my prose circle comes full circle, informal criticism imitates the highest art.
In the Consolation Boethius, in a famous passage, grapples with the problem of Fate and Providence, or rather, Fate vs. Providence. «Everything which is subject to Fate is also subject to Providence», Boethius decides, «and ... Fate is also subject to Providence». To illustrate this idea he employs the image of a circle or, more particularly, «a number of spheres which orbit around the same central point». The innermost sphere, he says, «moves toward the simplicity of the center»: that center is Boethius' image of the Divine Mind, of God. Whatever is furthest from God is more caught up in the action of Fate; «conversely, the freer a thing is from Fate, the nearer it approaches the center of all things». Thus, the center of the cosmic circle is God Himself, Who is unchangeable Providence. In a single powerful sentence Boethius sums up all the significance of this image: «Therefore, the changing course of Fate is to the simple stability of Providence as reasoning is to intellect, as that which is generated is to that which is, as time is to eternity, as a circle is to its center». At the center of this circle, God can, so to speak, see out to the edges of the circumference, which is Fate: the realm in which we live and suffer our terrestrial lives. From the central vantage point of Providence, God witnesses the working-out of Fate without having to interfere or intervene __ without having to make Fate happen. From His position in eternity, He can view the working of time in its entirety.
Eight hundred years after Boethius pondered the Providential circle of time, that circle returned in poetic form in the Vita Nuova, where it provides the source for one of the most hieratic and significant moments in the entire work. In Chapter XII, Dante in a dream has a vision of the God of Love, who appears to him as a «giovane vestito di bianchissime vestimenta». The young man is weeping. «Segnore de la nobiltade», Dante asks him, «e perché piangi tu?» To which the young man replies in Latin: «Ego tanquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentie partes; tu autem non sic». When viewed in Boethian terms, the young man's solemn and mysterious words are explicable in a way in which they cannot be for the puzzled Dante who has dreamed this dream: «Allora, pensando a le sue parole, mi parea che m'avesse parlato molto oscuramente». In the Vita Nuova, as in the Comedy, there are, really, two narrators: there is Dante the Lover, suffering through his experiences without fully understanding their significance; and there is Dante the Writer, who is older and who knows the true meaning of the younger man's trials. The younger Dante is baffled by the God of Love's words, precisely because, in Boethian terms, the younger Dante is still stumbling through the workings of Fate. The older Dante has a privileged, Godlike position at the center of the narrative circle: the older Dante knows. This older Dante does not always (to be vulgar) tip his hand: he doesn't in this case, when he declines to explain the import of the God of Love's words. Yet, again in Boethian terms, the God's words are readily comprehensible; for he stands in a godlike position: at the Providential center of the Circle of Time; and from that privileged position, he knows what Dante the Lover cannot possibly know: that Beatrice will soon die. And for this reason he weeps.
In the Consolation it is God Who is at the center of the Circle of Time; in the Vita Nuova it is the God of Love; and in Canto X of the Paradiso, it is Dante and Beatrice herself who become the center of the cosmic circle: «Io vidi più folgór vivi e vincenti / far di noi centro...» («I saw many flashing lights of surpassing brightness make of us a centre...», vv. 64-65). This image of the circle is introduced at the very beginning of the canto, when Dante enjoins his reader to look up and marvel at the «alte rote» of the paths followed by the sun and the planets. These «circles on high» are, for Dante, manifestations of «order» as he puts it in line 5 (ordine); and, as Kenelm Foster has pointed out, the entire canto is concerned with cosmic ordine, which finds its perfect embodiment in the circle of which Dante and Beatrice are the center.
Circle imagery takes various forms in the course of this canto: from the opening image of the «ruote» to the «far di noi centro» I just quoted. Then, the circle of sages becomes a halo around the moon (which harkens back to the canto's opening astronomical praise of the planets in their paths); the halo then becomes an image of the dance. Dante says of the circling lights: «donne mu parver, non da ballo sciolte» («they appeared to me like ladies not freed from the dance», v. 79). The circular dance is next compared to a garland («questa ghirlanda», v. 92); it then becomes a crown («lo beato serto», v. 102). Dante's multiplication of circle images is dazzling: a breathless outpouring of similes and metaphors all pertaining to the same phenomenon. Yet Dante's most spectacular creation __ and fusion __ of images is still to come, in the canto's closing lines.
After Thomas Aquinas has pointed out the twelve sages who make up the beato serto, Dante seems to pause; and then, with a simple «indi» he launches into a single ten-line sentence that brings together, not just the circle imagery of this particular canto, but the circle imagery of Boethius and the Vita Nuova, along with the religious and erotic fervor that have inspired Dante's entire poetic vocation. Indi («then»), he says:
Like a clock that calls us at the hour when the bride of God rises to sing matins to the Bridegroom that he may love her, when one part draws or drives another, sounding the chime with notes so sweet that the well-ordered spirit swells with love, so I saw the glorious wheel move and render voice to voice with harmony and sweetness that cannot be known but there where joy becomes eternal (vv. 139-148).
The twelve sages surrounding Dante and Beatrice are suddenly, unexpectedly compared to the numerals on the face of a clock; and not just any clock but, I would suggest, a Boethian clock: Boethius' Circle of Time suddenly becomes modernized: becomes the circular clockface of Time, which is now striking __ «tin tin sonando», writes Dante, with his typical poetic boldness, even effrontery, daring to drop the baby-talk of «tin tin» into one of his most sublime passages.
This «orologio» is sounding the hour to awaken the Bride, who will then sing matins (mattinar, v. 141) to the Bridegroom; in the traditional symbolism of the Song of Songs, the Church will sing to Christ, «perché l'ami». Dante's image of the clock becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of: the singing of the twelve sages, and their circle/ dance/wreath, becomes the sight and sound of a clock chiming, which in turn becomes the awakening call to the Bride that is the Church, so that she can then sing her song to Christ the Bridegroom. Dante then proceeds to elaborate on the clock image __ «l'una parte l'altra tira e urge» (v. 142) __ using words that refer to, and at the same time eroticize, the workings of a clock, so that the words apply equally to the «sposa» and «sposo». And this erotic vocabulary is used even more daringly when Dante writes of the clock's chiming that «'l ben disposto spirto d'amor turge» (v. 144). In these fast-moving lines one encounters __ one experiences __ a kind of sensory, and sensual, overload as the sights and sounds of the twelve sages weave and mesh in a web of associations and sensations that are impossible to account for fully, or even keep track of, in mere discursive prose. In the quickly-shifting terms of his cosmic simile, Dante combines Love, Knowledge, Time, Eroticism, Christ, the Church, Music, and Vision in an elaborate complex of complementary relations that, ever-changing and interwoven, create a visual and aural richness that ultimately baffles analysis. Perhaps in no other passage in Western poetry do sound and vision so intricately mesh in a complex image that is at once intellectually coherent, endlessly mysterious, and profoundly erotic.
And here we return to the Vita Nuova: for at the center of the circle __ «Ego tanquam centrum circuli» __ is love itself, just as love (in the Purgatorio's central cantos) stands in the exact center of Dante's narrative circle that is the Divine Comedy. The twelve sages form the clockface of knowledge, of knowing; and at the center of that larger circle stand Dante and Beatrice, who is, herself, the embodiment of Christian love and its revelation in time; all of this, in Kenelm Foster's words, being «an effort to express, in argument and symbol, an order of relations which should govern the two distinctively human activities of knowing and loving».
Sound and vision fuse once again in the canto's closing lines, in which the cosmic, Boethian clock becomes «la gloriosa rota» that renders «voce a voce in tempra / e in dolcezza» (vv. 146-147). This heavenly music is God's art __ the harmonious «arte / di quel maestro» at which Dante marvels at the beginning (vv. 10- 11) of the canto. And this higher __ highest __ art is reproduced, as much as it can be reproduced, in Dante's lower, human art «lo 'ngegno e l'arte e l'uso» (v. 43). In these closing lines of the tenth canto, Dante, in his perfectly ordered art, captures in words the vision and music of the gloriously turning wheel that is time and love.