|NUMBER 3||FALL 1988|
Canto V of Dante's Inferno begins and ends with confession. The frightening image of Minos who «confesses» the damned sinners and then hurls them down to their eternal punishment contrasts with the almost familial image of Francesca and Dante, who confess to one another. In a real sense confession seems to be defective or inadequate in Hell. The huddled masses who declare their sins to Minos do so because they are compelled to declare or make manifest in speech the character of their offenses and although they confess everything (each soul «tutta si confessa», v. 8) it is not an admission of guilt prompted by true contrition or the timely desire to reform their lives. In Hell confession is a formal ritual that is not especially «good» for the soul. This is a confession that serves only as a sign that identifies and seals their eternal fates. The brief and compressed description of Minos and his «offizio» would suggest that this confession of the sinners is largely a formal requirement full of sound and fury signifying only the level of their eternal degradation. Minos is not caught up in the sinners' confessions, and, indeed, Dante's concise description of the entire process of confession and judgment («dicono e odono e poi son giù volte», v. 15) is accomplished with dispatch and aesthetic distancing.1 Unlike Dante the wayfarer who will be moved to pity by Francesca's confession, Minos, the brutish judge, is not captivated by the texts provided by the sinners and seems to represent a fierce but orderly administration of justice. Within the moral architecture of the Commedia Francesca's own words identify and confirm the justice of her punishment, but as the structure and nature of this moral architecture are only fully comprehensible for the pilgrim and for us at the end of his journey, i.e., when Dante the pilgrim becomes Dante the poet who can now communicate his vision and experience, our first encounter with Francesca, much as the pilgrim's initial encounter with her, is a naive encounter that does not necessarily enable us to place or situate her confession within that moral system that is just unfolding; and if our initial encounter is naive then no less so may be our (including the pilgrim's) first reading of Francesca's confessional text.
Dante structures the Commedia in such a way as to enable the pilgrim to function as a progressively more sophisticated reader of confessional texts throughout his journey, and as such he becomes a reflection of our own possibilities as interpreters of these canti. Our initial attempts at interpreting the equivocal texts provided by the sinners are fitful, inadequate, and constantly in need of later correction and reassessment, thus reflecting the pilgrim's own progress. In the reading and re-reading, these confessional passages and canti define themselves as exercises in humility: as understanding becomes the product of a series of misreadings and revisions of the text. In the case of Francesca we have a confession that is more a literary rationale for her offense than an admission of individual culpability, for Francesca seeks to use the language of dolce stil novo poetry as a kind of cloaking device to hide herself as the historical agent or subject who bears responsibility for her actions and for the eternal consequences of those actions. Precisely because Francesca employs an ornate and highly-charged rhetorical strategy to «confess» to Dante, the attention of the auditor is directed towards the beauty of her speech, towards the disarmingly sweet and gentle manner in which she enlists our sympathy for her plight in being joined with her lover, Paolo, for all eternity while the infernal storm «di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena» (v. 43). Edward Said suggests in his book Orientalism that the voice of woman in Western culture is usually equated with the voice of the Other, the voice of the trivial, the voice of the child (see Said 1-11). This is a voice that is often discounted or ignored. Certainly Francesca's own voice, for all its «beauty» (meaning among other things, that it has achieved a degree of mastery of what Hélène Cixous calls «the language of men and their grammar», see Cixous 887), is not to be taken seriously by the informed reader. Indeed what identifies her articulations as marginal discourse is its character as a particular kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: before Francesca speaks, her discourse is discounted, for it can only belong to the unholy family of already discredited sinners «che la ragion sommettono al talento» (v. 39). This pre-established context, along with Virgil's accounts of how passion ruled the lives of wanton women from Semiramis to Dido, to Cleopatra, to Helen, prepares the reader for a voice of special pleading, a petulant or childish voice characterized by trembling adolescent passion («la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante», v. 136) rather than by logic.
Traditional readings of this canto from Francesco De Sanctis (see 242-255) to Renato Poggioli (see 313-314)2 call attention to Dante's ability to manipulate the reader's sympathy on behalf of Francesca within the context of the ethical structure that ultimately condemns such sympathy as, sub specie aeternitatis, defective and misguided. In the typical lyric poem of those artists, such as Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, and Cino da Pistoia, who write as poets of the dolce stil novo, the poem is ostensibly addressed to the beloved lady, but in truth the intended audience consists of other males for whom the poem exists as a display of bravura and a challenge to the ideal, i.e., male, reader, the «legitimate» audience to whom the work is addressed (there are but five contemporary women mentioned in the 100 canti of the Commedia), to recognize the marvelous consistency, power, and appropriateness of Francesca's punishment. This ideal reader is invited to identify with God's perspective rather than with Francesca's. Within such a moral system Francesca is seen as the seductive alternative to God Himself, and the vehicle of her seduction is her genteel and courteous speech.
The charm and power of Francesca's linguistic performance are such that the sordid content of her confession seems to be less interesting than the polished and captivating manner in which the confession is made. Indeed, the word «adultery» never appears in the canto. By fashioning a discourse so fluid and melodic that the auditor's attention is all but riveted to the aesthetic dimension rather than to the didactic, Dante the author makes incarnate the substance of the canto's warning about the danger of allowing immediate and sensual attraction to overpower the demands of ethical or rational living, for Francesca's words do become a kind of fleshly impediment to the apprehension of the moral category. We are, as the text tells us, in the realm where sinners are being punished because in life they placed passion above reason. Dante then must make Francesca as immediately attractive as possible if he is to effectively demonstrate the dangers to salvation represented by the woman whose beauty, charm, and sexuality divert the pilgrim's, or any man's, attention from God and the pursuit of the ethical life. Francesca, as her own speech will show, is no mirror onto the Divine, but a temptress whose magic spell is language itself, a carefully constructed recitazione that has the capacity to seduce the naive or irresponsible reader who, like Francesca, reads only «per diletto». As Marianne Shapiro has noted, «Francesca is the exponent of what amounts to a rival form of worship» (see Shapiro 85). What her language offers then is the vocabulary of this alternative religion.
Both Robert Hollander (see 3-56 and 104-114) and Giuseppe Mazzotta (see 147-191) recognize that Inferno V is, in part, a critical and polemical response to Saint Augustine's condemnation of Virgil's Dido and Aeneas episode. Dante appropriates numerous figures from Saint Augustine in canto V in spite of his uneasiness with Augustine's distrust of secular literatures as represented by Virgil's Aeneid. For Augustine, secular literature is fraught with danger to man's salvation, and, in recent times, it is perhaps Dante Della Terza who best summarizes for us the Augustinian position towards literature and allegory as found in The Confessions:
Literacy is the end-result of the graspable effect of the process of learning; literature, experienced as the distorted and evasive mirror of my responsibility in a universe created by God, is the dangerous itinerary toward dissipation and defeat.... The curtains hanging at the entrance of schools where literature is taught are not symbols honoring the secrecy of the poetic world but veils concealing errors (Della Terza 1).
Canto V functions then as part of a larger Dantean critique of the uncompromising moralism that blinds readers such as Augustine to the further didactic possibilities of allegory and the broader implications of realism. Dante, as a writer in the late Middle Ages when Christianity was firmly entrenched as the dominant cultural force in the West, does not read secular and classical texts with the same apprehension as does Augustine who lives during an age when Christianity is still only taking root in the soil of Western civilization. While explicitly and implicitly acknowledging the lures of secular literature in general and amorous literature in particular in the text of the Commedia, Dante is less threatened by the text and what it re-presents than is Augustine; yet Dante, too, is disturbed by the challenge that Francesca's sexual energy and license represent to his own androcentric moral system in which «man is the son of God, but woman is the daughter of man» (Schweickart 43). Dante's retelling of the, even by then, well-known tragedy of Francesca and Paolo is a deformation of the historical account, a powerful misreading that serves his own aesthetic and ideological purposes. What, to paraphrase Barthes, goes so eloquently without saying is that Dante's own historical misreading serves a literary system in which we see that
the male reader is invited to feel his difference (concretely from the girl) and to equate that with the universal. Relevant here is Lévi-Strauss's theory that the woman functions as currency exchanged between men. The woman in the text converts the text into a woman, and the circulation of this text/woman becomes the central ritual that establishes the bond between the author and his male readers (Schweickart 41).
Dante the wayfarer, who speaks Francesca's very own literary language, makes a confession that is partial, troubled, and indirect, and his responses to her own confessional text enable us to see that he knows intimately the abyss of passion and lust that Francesca's discourse betrays in spite of itself. Dante the wayfarer expresses his troubled desire to learn of the nature of Francesca's desire by employing the language of desire.
In the catalogue of famous lovers in whose lives lust overpowered reason more than a thousand souls are pointed out to the wayfarer: «e più di mille / ombre mostrommi e nominommi a dito» (vv. 67-68). This list ends with the name of Tristan, a name that, for Dante and his contemporaries, indicates the emblematic love story of modern times. Denis de Rougemont in his book Love in the Western World observes that in the story of Tristan and Isolde the presence of the love potion of which they partake allows them to avoid responsibility for their passion. They are seen as victims of a power far greater than any resources they might marshal against it. Indeed, in all the early versions of the Tristan and Isolde story only Thomas' version seeks to minimize the importance of the love potion as the decisive factor that leads the lovers to their tragic fate (Rougemont 47-48). Thus when Francesca weaves her tale of woe she places herself within a literary tradition that rejects the notion of individual responsibility, and she places the blame for her damnation squarely upon the personified shoulders of «Amor», the sweet and fatal tyrant.
Virgil advises Dante to wait until the two lovers are closer to him and «allor li priega / per quello amor che i mena» (vv. 77-78). Virgil, in effect, has instructed his pupil to address the lovers in terms that characterize their particular «love», i.e., passion, that now drives them about for all eternity. Dante the wayfarer, in expressing his desire to learn of the nature of their desire, must choose his words in such a way as to indicate to the lovers that his request to them to speak of their situation is not so much a judgment upon them as it is an invitation to converse with one whose words show him to be familiar with the rhetoric and internal logic of the «gentle heart» («cor gentil», v. 100). His first words then to the couple are, «O anime affannate» (v. 80), and the adjective «affannate» indicates that the pilgrim has understood his master's injunction, for «affannate» also translates the idea of afflicting or tormenting through a process of wearing out or exhausting. Thus the term «affannate» or «weary» is for the wayfarer the «objective correlative» encoding both general recognition of the effects of that «talento» («desire») their punishment symbolically suggests, yet ignorance of that passion's specific character. It is a punishment that both literally and figuratively takes their breath away, in the most basic sense of «affannato».
In responding to the wayfarer's request to come and speak to him Francesca acknowledges that her willingness to do so is the direct result of Dante's compassion for her and for Paolo: «poi c'hai pietà del nostro mal perverso» (v. 93), but within Dante's greeting (that expression of his own restless desire for knowledge) the only word that might be construed as expressing «pietà» is that adjective «affannate», but the word functions, on one level, as an almost clinical, objective description, i.e., the pilgrim's assessment of how divine justice punishes the lovers. The pilgrim's own language is operating to establish a context for the meaning of passion as restless and wearying torment, and, simultaneously, to imply, at the level on which Francesca interprets texts, a compassion so deep and intense that Francesca's first words to Dante are the vocative, «O animal grazïoso e benigno» (v. 88).
One may object that if Francesca discerns pity rather than censure in Dante's salutation then she is once more merely reading a particular text for her own pleasure; yet such an objection can in no way authoritatively limit the reverberations of the wayfarer's initial assessment of the eternal condition of the lovers, a condition of wearying torment whose shorthand is «affannato», for Francesca's deformation of the text of justice can be read, and is read, as a text of compassion. In the course of their dialogue the wayfarer is compelled to admit that, «Francesca, i tuoi martìri / a lagrimar mi fanno tristo e pio» (vv. 116-117) and thus it would appear that Francesca's deformation of the wayfarer's greeting is a perceptive misreading, accurately anticipating the nuance of sympathy that was always already there in his salutation.
Francesca in her dialogue with Dante uses highly figurative language to «explain away» her actual situation in subjective terms (vv. 100-107):
The studied eloquence of her speech allows Francesca a view of adultery as a wholly consistent response by noble or genteel hearts to the promptings of physical passion. The language of the dolce stil novo, as deployed by Francesca, tends to produce a sense of the inevitability of sin in her rationale, an account that indicates an inability to accept responsibility for her deeds. A literary language becomes for her the vehicle for gesturing in the direction of both meaning and meaning's concealment. She describes the growth of the passion between herself and her brother-in-law, Paolo, how the two of them fuel this passion by their reading of the forbidden love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and, gratuitously, even adds how the depths of Hell will hold her husband Gianciotto Malatesta, for his murder of them; yet, what she does not reveal is any sense of guilt for her adultery. There is in her delicately wrought tale no recognition of responsibility for any of her actions. It is as if Dante wishes to suggest that in winning her mastery of this literary language she herself has been seduced by that language and is unable to see clearly through her own discourse to ethical issues in the «cieco mondo» («blind world», IV, 13) __ that is Hell.
The strategy employed to respond to the wayfarer's request for them to speak about their downfall is a linguistic performance that seeks to make present adultery as a literary ideal through a metaphorical and figurative language that removes the deed, adultery, as historical fact and concept, farther away from the understanding of the wayfarer by offering merely a literary rationalization of the power Francesca sees controlling her fate: «Amor, ch'a nullo amato amar perdona» (v. 103). Francesca is in no way being furba or disingenuous in her indirect account, for she is, in the final analysis, simply engaged in what Frank Lentricchia would call «a problematic textual maneuver... which creates the illusion of a nonlinguistic object that is being mirrored, or... provisionally deferred» (see Lentricchia 171). Francesca provides the wayfarer with Sweet New Style formulae that ask to be interpreted as symbols or indices of a presence that is absent __ «adultery» __ but her well-formed words, in calling attention to language itself, only serve to emphasize that difference between the sin as a concept and the sinner's articulation of the concept. Her words are the sign of a radical alienation between her experiential reality and that of Dante's, but as it is Dante the author who puts the words into Francesca's mouth these same words may also indicate his own distance or alienation from the aesthetic morality Francesca now enunciates. Francesca has provided the pilgrim with a text whose implied general heading is «adultery», and whose individual case is represented by the sad chronicle of the two lovers, but the meaning of the offense in this context is extremely unstable because the strategies and focus of the stil novo literary performance shift attention from Dante's theological context to a private or subjective context and interpretation, i.e., what adultery means for Francesca (apparently, adultery is for her a kind of literary null set, in which it has not content for her as a concept, although it does have consequences), yet her own literary interpretation of moral concepts can only be disseminated, can only be recognized as subjective, as a result of that larger ideological context established through the Commedia. We are aware that her account represents merely one limited interpretation because Dante's moral architecture had foregrounded a broad definition of all the «sinners of the flesh», a definition that her account totally ignores (vv. 37-39):
This particular absent meaning that for Dante serves to define the offense of all the sinners in the second circle from Dido to Francesca is precisely that meaning that makes intelligible for Dante's informed reader Francesca's own interpretation: the difference established by her literary interpretation of her offense is dependent upon that absent meaning that demands to be played off against her account. Francesca's courtly speech seems to support the assertion that «there has always been but writing» (Derrida 158) and, certainly, the language Francesca directs towards the wayfarer is not actually spoken by Dante, Francesca, or their contemporaries, but is instead a purely literary construct, a cultural convention that within Dante's allegory now reverses the phonocentric assumptions of Western society. As members of the cultured reading class, Francesca and the wayfarer have their dialogue shaped and determined by a linguistic system in which writing, dolce stil novo poetry, is prior to speech, and this writing asks to be understood as a radical displacement that draws attention to itself, i.e., to its ability to defer meaning indefinitely. Dante suggests then that Francesca's speech, much like the speech of a child, is often in need of a supplement in the form of an authoritative clarification in order for such discourse to achieve, if not legitimacy, then some degree of intelligibility. The accepted values of the male-dominated society that associated the masculine principle with intellect and the spirit, and the female principle with appetite and the weakness of the flesh, would have to proscribe the limits of both the intelligibility and the legitimacy of the child's, that is to say, Francesca's, speech. By entering the figurative language of dolce stil novo poetry and ignoring its ethical content, Francesca simply makes more apparent her subjugation to passion, to desire, by calling attention not to an ethical argument, but to language itself.
The passion of which she speaks to the wayfarer, the passion that she defines according to the formal conventions of a literary vocabulary, the passion that is twice mediated by literature itself in the forms of the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere and the sweet new language used to express it, is a notion that seeks to be grounded outside the real, outside the physical, historical world where their adultery actually transpires. The passion that is mediated by literature and a literary language does not implicate Francesca in the historical play of language. Indeed, the only genuine movement towards the actual, historical passion of Francesca and Paolo occurs in those instances when Francesca's sweet new language becomes silent about itself, either directly, «quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante» (v. 138) or indirectly, «l'altro piangëa» (v. 140). What has made this confessional text audible in eternity is the fact that the wind itself, the restless eternal wind, is now silent: «mentre che 'l vento, come fa, ci tace» (v. 96). It is as if silence, paradoxically, is a precondition for speech itself. To speak of a «silence pregnant with meaning», in this Dantean context, is nothing less than the recognition of the tautological character of such a phrase. Writing then becomes a response to that teeming, pregnant silence. In its very attempt to make material and present what was dimly perceived as the constitutive element of that silence, writing is seen as a critical commentary upon the fertility of silence. That fertility and its concomitant stillness offer an implicit invitation to the auditor to fill up with meaning the temporal space that silence defines. Dante's writing here comes to be understood as another aspect of silence rearranged, and this rearrangement «is an act which crosses and erases all the apparently clear demarcations» (Riddel 207). What the wayfarer then learns is that Francesca's tongue can only instruct him when it is silent. Those silences represent gaps in the text through which historical passion can be glimpsed. It is precisely at this moment of «insight» that the wayfarer faints from his first true view in Hell of the monumentality of sin.
What also seems to go without saying here in this silent corridor among the lustful is that Dante the author places God himself on the side of the author's allegorization of the received text of Francesca and Paolo, for, as Charles Singleton makes clear, the fact that the wind is now silent at the moment of encounter between Dante and the two lovers involves a special dispensation from God himself (see Singleton 83). Dante's own account of the story of their passion is implicitly valorized by the highest authority and achieves a legitimacy that makes Francesca's account a kind of orphaned speech. Thus the phrase, «ci tace» (v. 96), can be read ironically, as in the broader sense the wind is not stilled «here» or «for us», i.e., for the benefit of the lovers to tell their tale, but for the benefit of the auditor, Dante, so that he might hear and learn from what that lovely and discredited discourse may reveal and conceal. If, on the other hand, Francesca's «ci» includes Dante and Virgil in its reference and not simply the two adulterers themselves, then that tendency to read reality for whatever solace she can obtain is reconfirmed, for Dante's own reading, as we have seen, emphasizes that his ideal reader must disassociate himself from Francesca's company.
In the end we come to see that Francesca's hypnotic charm has more to do with her representation as an alluring figure, as a sensuous and passionate, or better, a stereotypic creature of her time and of our time as well, and far less to do with the quality of her argumentation. What this reveals is the structural undermining of her intellectual position by calling into question her ability to perceive, articulate, and evaluate the categories of the ethical and the real, for Francesca in Hell is the realization of what she was on earth. Within the context of her account the arguments she advances are only literature, i.e., figurative representations of the vicissitudes of idealized passion. A literal reading of such a text by the wayfarer can threaten to make him, too, another victim of the literature of desire, another victim like Francesca. Thus Beauty is seen to be the moral Beast; this monstrous woman
is the woman who refuses to be selfless, acts on her own initiative, who has a story to tell... The monster woman... is duplicitous, precisely because she has something to tell: there is always the possibility that she may choose not to tell __ or to tell a different story (Moi 58).
Dante the author recognizes that Francesca retains her charm for the wayfarer not in spite of all that reason can reveal of her shortcomings, but because the pilgrim's naive literal reading of texts within texts engenders a desire that has nothing to do with reason, a desire that does not recognize the claims of the discourse of rationality.
In canto V, as I have indicated, the text is directly silent about the issue of adultery, and the silence is deafening and strategic, but that silence functions as a kind of fearful reticence that insinuates itself through the text, and undermines it, and this silence looms over the entire dialogue as an implicit form of recognition that, as Tony Tanner suggests, «it is the unstable triangularity of adultery, rather than the static symmetry of marriage, that is the generative form of Western literature as we know it» (see Tanner 12). Thus Francesca's adoption of the sweet new style is, from the view of conventional, i.e., male-imposed, morality, subversive in the extreme because it calls into doubt that same morality by adopting the vocabulary of poetry, the sweet new style, whose primary concerns are ethical, yet such literary speech now refuses to recognize those patriarchal categories and prohibitions with even so much as a perfunctory glance.*
*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on September 19, 1988.
1 Antonino Pagliaro suggests that Dante is so anxious to enter into the real substance of the canto that he devotes scant attention to Minos and his role as judge. This explanation fails to recognize how Dante's direct and economical description of the canto's opening scene establishes an aesthetic and moral distance between himself as author and the spectacle before him by emphasizing the objective, almost mechanical «mass production» nature of this spectacle. In so doing, what is thrown into relief is Dante's consistent strategy of representing the incommensurability between the operations of divine Justice and man's understanding of those operations. See Pagliaro 116-120
2 While Poggioli is one of the few critics to contend that Francesca does not speak the genuine language of the dolce stil novo, he is compelled to admit later in the same essay that between the stilnovisti and Francesca there are «verbal identities».
3 It should be observed that in the Commedia the word talento is spoken only by poets (Inf. II, 81; V, 39; X, 55; Purg. XXI, 64), i.e., by Virgil, Dante, and Statius to designate a notion of desire as perceived in others. It is the poet's reading or assessment of passion as a form of misdirected desire manifesting its character in the lives of men and women. Dante suggests an association of talento with the Scholastic notion of defective desire. As Manfredi Porena notes, «Seguendo da vicino S. Tommaso (Summa, III, suppl. app. II, 2) Dante distingue qui una volontà assoluta (voglia) da una volontà relativa (talento). Per la volontà assoluta noi vogliamo una cosa perché ci piace in sé, indipendente da altre considerazioni; per la volontà, la vogliamo soltanto in quanto ce ne risulti un altro bene o ci venga risparmiato un male».
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