|NUMBER 4||SPRING 1989|
Two of the three great continuing arguments of Dante's Commedia are announced in cantos V and VI of the Inferno (we have wait until canto XXVI before the Ulyssean adventure of knowledge is confronted). The first, dramatized in the swirling and vulnerable passions of Paolo and Francesca, concerns the nature of love. Dante will return again and again throughout the Purgatorio and the Paradiso to confront what has become for him the challenging thesis that love is essentially an unavoidable, noble and tragic emotion, one somehow fused with death. The setting of the encounter is understandably elevated and courtly. But this context is abruptly shifted to the urban setting and concerns of canto VI. Indeed, such abrupt changes and startling juxtapositions are a few of the structural resources that Dante employs to reinforce meaning Francesca would arrest us by her compelling story but the very serial arrangement of the poem requires us to move on to other issues and other stories («novi tormenti, novi tormentati...»), that is, it promotes the very freedom of response that Francesca's mortifying pathos would deny us.
That the new setting is municipal does not debase it in Dante's mind but rather grants it a kind of elevation as well as urgency. In fact, the theme that Ciacco announces in canto VI could be regarded as forming the dominant plot-line of the poem. By means of an accumulating series of prophecies not only is the broader political history of Florence over the previous century invoked but these same ominous utterances are brought home to adumbrate the decisive event in Dante's own life, his exile. From the words of Ciacco, Farinata, Brunetto Latini and Vanni Fucci in the Inferno, to those of Currado Malaspina in the Purgatorio, Dante the pilgrim is brought closer to the full understanding of his own personal crisis until, in the culminating encounter with Cacciaguida, he receives its clearest and fullest blow when he has already acquired the means for coping with it. This is why the Commedia is so appropriately entitled, not simply because it ends happily but because tragedy and the means for its transcendence are conjoined. Severance and fulfillment are not only sequentially connected, they are causally related, with the latter coming only by means of separation just as surely as the Resurrection is dependent upon the Crucifixion. This is another way of understanding why Francesca and Ciacco (so grotesquely contrasting) are juxtaposed: following the presentation of the sublime tragic spirit of classical culture in canto IV, each of their accounts leads to a tragic vision that is in the context of the poem overcome by the larger offerings of the human spirit as realized in Dante's Christian philosophy.
The municipal theme leads to and insists upon the tragedy of history, that is, it compels Dante to confront the city's preeminent myth, that of foundation sacrifice, and to convert it into an anti-myth. Dante comes to learn that his city's collapse and his exile share much more ancient historical and philosophical roots, and that the common misfortunes of each are not accidental but are part of a much larger pattern pertaining to the origins and the development of the earthly city. In this sense, then, the means by which Dante comes to fortify himself are inseparable from his coming to understand the nature of his city, that is, the ways in which his city fits the archetypal pattern of the city. The two are closely related: to understand the one is to be on the way to understanding the other and to converting exile into the positive Christian role of pilgrimage and historical tragedy into an individual triumph.
As Dante attempted to make some sense of his own personal disaster and of the ruin toward which he felt his city was rushing, he turned to Florence's past: thus disaster doth make historians of us all. How did we come to be where we are? is the first question of history. This question sends us back not only to immediate causes of things but also to more distant turning-points. When Dante scoured the history of his city he found the decisive event to be the Buondelmonte murder. To be sure, from frequent reference this event has been so overlaid and trivialized that it begins to sound like «1066 and all that». It has succumbed to what René Girard has termed l'effacement des traces; that is, its original meaning has been obscured. What has been lost is the way in which Dante casts this original event as a foundation sacrifice.
Dante offers many explanations for Florence's troubles. Some are sociological __ an influx of new immigrants from the countryside and unbridled economic growth, the new people and fast money that Cacciaguida laments. Some are historical __ the abiding ancient quarrel and animosity between the original Etruscans and the remaining campaigners from Caesar's armies. Some are philosophical __ it is foolish to assume that Florence should be immune to the savage reversals of Fortune, the same devastations and decline that have overwhelmed other cities. This last consolation of philosophy uttered by Cacciaguida emphasizes the extraordinary presence of Boethius not only in Dante's poem but throughout the fourteenth century. But there is something distanced and removed in this consolation, something lacking the kind of tragic intensity of Dante's particular involvement with his city. Florence was his birthplace, the source of his deepest affections and loyalties, the society he knew as a burgeoning post-war triumphant society. The death of his city requires more than the consolation of philosophy; it leads to the bitter recognition of tragedy in experience, an encounter with irreversibility in history, the fact that things do happen and that events do occur that are decisive and determining.
It is for this reason that I wish to concentrate on Dante's description of the original event, the origin of Florence's troubles: the murder of Buondelmonte and the civil war that can be traced back to the division of the feuding families. The tercet in which Dante describes this event is in itself among the most powerful in the entire Commedia __ this by virtue of its compact poetic density and yet its radiating scope of reference, particularly where the murder of Buondelmonte on Easter Sunday 1215 is placed in terms of a foundation sacrifice, a foundation sacrifice that yielded far from beneficent results. This description of the Buondelmonte murder in terms of a foundation sacrifice brings Dante to far other and profounder interpretations of the divided city, la città partita that Ciacco had in brief described.
Cacciaguida's historical chronicle of the happier more primitive days of the Florentine commune leads up to the former grandeur of the Amidei family, one of whose daughters was jilted by Buondelmonte and who then retaliated by murdering the young man as he rode in carriage to church. The civil war destroyed the Amidei family. And for the Buondelmonti, who were latecomers to the city, it would have been better had they been thrown into the Ema river, rather than become actors in such fateful events. But, and the ma of the concluding tercet is forceful, like a vast historical sigh at what was not to be (Par. XVI, 145-147):
«But it was needful that to the wasted stone which guards the bridge Florence should offer a victim in her last days of peace». (The wasted stone was the statue of Mars that stood at the entrance of the Ponte Vecchio. Here Buondelmonte's carriage was assaulted on Easter Sunday.) The feast of the Resurrection following the sacrifice of Christ stands in ironic contrast to the consequences of the Buondelmonte murder. What Dante has done in this tercet is to call attention to two different versions of blood sacrifice, the one of the earthly, the other of the heavenly city.
René Girard has written brilliantly, in La Violence et le sacré, of the sacrificial murder as a kind of self-regulating device whereby society stabilizes and maintains its conditions.1 The scapegoat absorbs the blows of society, bundles them up and carries them away with him. The obvious purpose and presumed effect of this process of «unanimous victimage» is the prevention of just that kind of accelerating reciprocal violence and undifferentiation that the feud and its heir the civil war seem to engender. Hence the importance of this primitive «dark event» at the origin of what was for Dante modern Florentine history. It was to put a halt to the wheeling exchange of violence that foundation sacrifice was established. This may have been in Mosca dei Lamberti's mind when he uttered the pernicious advice that became so notorious, «Capo ha cosa fatta» (What's done is done), and thus persuaded the Amidei not simply to punish the offending Buondelmonte but rather to kill him. Mosca is rightly punished in Hell for this bad counsel. His advice was nefarious because it did not put an end to hostilities, but rather initiated the extraordinary long and bloody cycle of hostilities, of attack and counterattack, that came to typify proceedings of Guelphs and Ghibellines and subsequently the replication of these procedures in the antagonisms of White and Black Guelphs. This advice was the bad seed («mal seme») for the Tuscan people: its tendency was to proliferate and reproduce its own repeated chain of likenesses. The advice brought its own power of retaliation, as Dante indignantly reminds Mosca, «e la morte di tua schiatta», the death of his own line.
Far from resolving the consequences of «crisis» the foundation sacrifice at the heart of Florence's modern history seems in fact to have precipitated just those actions that it was designed to forestall: replication, accelerating reciprocal violence and undifferentiation. The city in which Dante flourished in his youth and young manhood had been for almost a decade prior the fictional time of the poem a divided city. The Guelph ascendancy, since the defeat of the Ghibellines in 1266, had itself become fragmented, as a factionalized split among rival parties plunged the city into yet another conflict. While this is the most immediate and significant conflict, it is not an isolated event. Dante's personal history, the history of his city and the primal story of his great poem bear witness not to one but to two series of civil war. These experiences serve to intensify and make more permanent the status of hostility in the very nature of the city. Pattern begins to take shape and predominate. The wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines are not only followed by the strife between the Whites and the Blacks, they are actually duplicated in the latter struggle in which Dante was so personally involved. The division between the Black Guelphs that Ciacco alludes to and that dominated Florentine political life in the 1290s, culminating in the outbreak of hostilities in 1300, is regarded by Dante as not only a sequel but as an actual replication of the civil wars between Guelphs and Ghibellines. Repeated in the later conflict __ or series of conflicts __ are the mutual exchanges of accusation and outright hostilities wherein one party defeats the other, only to be defeated and exiled in its turn. In this experience of final exile the fate of the White Guelphs repeats that of the Ghibellines. And this pattern forms the basis of the encounter between Farinata, the splendid Ghibelline warlord, and Dante in Inferno X.
Formerly I had thought that the keys to the encounter were the same experiences of identification and supersession that are active throughout the Inferno. More and more, however, I sense that a larger and more terrifying theatre of history is being arranged by Dante, and that the main experience is the more terrible one of replication: the first generation of exiled Florentines will be joined and their fortunes replicated in those of another exiled generation. Not only is this clear in the stark warning delivered to Dante, but the meeting itself serves in its retaliatory arrangement to recapitulate the literal «tencioni» that existed between Guelphs and Ghibellines for more than half a century. This compact of in-bred replicative antagonism has other even more horrendous results. Long-lasting civil war, as Shakespeare well understood, yields not only repetition but a dizzying round of accelerating reciprocal violence, as each turn of the dial increases the volume of the horrors perpetrated. In addition the dynamic of reciprocal violence converts the combatants into counterparts, mirror images indistinguishable one from the other.
Changes that Dante brings to the usual dimensions of the Cain and Abel story alert us to the special significance of accelerating reciprocal violence and undifferentiation. Cain as a significant exemplum bursts upon the scene at the end of Purgatorio XIV. In the canto where envy is purged his appearance is not too surprising. But what is unexpected are the words he utters. They are not indicative of the origins of envy (the nominal subject of these cantos), or of any of the more celebrated or notorious aspects of the story. Rather they express Cain's final and fearful realization that whoever finds him will kill him. «Anciderammi qualunque m'apprende». Cain's thunderous and panicked appearance follows Guido del Duca's heart-rending account of the deterioration of his native Romagna as a consequence of the feuds among the noble families. That is, Cain does not precede but rather follows his own progeny, the handiwork of his first crime. He is presented not as the epitome of envy but rather as the initiator of violence, who turns out to be its ultimate, retributive victim, himself living in fear of retaliation. This is a picture of Cain the terrified, not Cain the terrible. He is the first victim of the personal terror brought about by the effects of accelerating reciprocal violence __ an aspect of the feud and the civil war that he has now come to represent as murderer of his brother.
The other effect of civil war is undifferentiation, where antagonists __ victors and victims __ come to resemble one another. This results in another significant alteration in the Cain and Abel story. Within the experience of civil war, or its more primitive antecedent, the feud, the Cain and Abel theme loses its polarities. Everyone comes to be contaminated by the spreading guilt of reciprocal violence. The more pernicious effect, of course, is that no one can speak for justice (that is why one of Dante's persistent questions concerns the survival of any just people amidst the ruins of the divided city). So it is then that in the Caina, that initiatory and determining stage in the downward and degenerative processes of Cocytus and the true Gateway to Hell, the brothers are victim-culprits, so bound together by mutual animosity as to be practically indistinguishable. The Alberti brothers are so constricted because like Cain and Abel they issued from the same womb, «d'un corpo usciro». This elementary and natural basis for union makes all the more hideous their later division. But in the Cocytus there exists a crueler intensity of infernal geometry to punishment. The Alberti brothers are actually locked together in a ferocity that mimics their earlier and pacific unity as innocent children. Their punishment is made to mirror the ideal they violated, as the very links that should have bound them together in brotherhood are here reinstituted with a terrible vengeance, that of undifferentiation. If the feud is the opposite of reciprocity, then undifferentiation is the travesty of communion. The undifferentiation of the Caina is in effect a perverse product of the civil discord, the divisions of which the brothers reflect. One brother, Napoleone, was a Ghibelline and the other, Alessandro, was a Guelph. The brothers literally killed one another, and this mortal enmity was transmitted to their heirs when Alberto, the son of Alessandro, killed Orso, the son of Napoleone.
Just as the strife between Whites and Blacks was not the beginning, so, Dante's poem reminds us, it is not the end. There is a worse horror, a more infernal product of the processes of undifferentiation. Here I would like to refer to Walter Burkert's Homo necans («man the hunter»), which incidentally appeared in 1972, the same year as did La Violence et le sacré. These are humanistic texts that help us to focus on Dante's own experience and understanding of fundamental and violent forces in society.2 That Dante utilizes some of the major findings of contemporary cultural and religious theory as «anti-myths» does not diminish either their importance or their usefulness. Nor does the fact that they have been around for some time or that their consequences are deplored detract from their universality.
In part inspired by the work of Konrad Lorenz, Burkert regards the hunt as an original event of necessary violence that nevertheless leads to the formulation of helpful codes for the living. Man is the primate who became a carnivore __ the «hunting ape» __ but one who has elaborated a ritual that somehow compensates for the fact that he must kill in order to live. Hunting itself evolves a ritualized procedure for making reparation. This means of course that there is a direct and continuous evolution from the hunt to sacrifice. The hunt and the practices surrounding it __ the asceticism prior to the hunt, the «dark event» itself and the feast that follows __ all are related to and in some ways dim ancestors of the similar practices attending the foundation sacrifice. In fact, the hunt is a necessary stage in the process of what is called «hominization», the Paleolithic contribution to the establishment of the more civilized Neolithic sacrifice. Burkert, like Girard, posits a «dark event» at the center of existence, and also like Girard regards the positive effects that flow from this event to be inextricably bound up with it.
Dante throws all of this into reverse gear. The foundation sacrifice does not result in a ritualized cap being placed on recurrent reciprocal violence. Nor is man the hunter, homo necans, the generative prototype for higher ritualized sacrifice. Rather in Dante's experience of history homo necans is the degenerative product of a terrible process of reversal. Historically the end result of the ritualized sacrifice to the god of war is not peace but implacability in the figure of Fulcier da' Calboli, the hunter of the remaining White Guelphs of Florence.
This revealing passage occurs in the section of the Purgatorio in which Cain appears, canto XIV, where Guido's own account parallels that of Cacciaguida in the Paradiso. Another father-figure from an earlier generation laments the decline of his region and litanizes the great names from prior generations. Dante introduces this theme of decline by tracing the flow of Arno to the sea as a process of bestial deformation, the inhabitants along the river's course in their turns decline from pigs to dogs, to wolves and to foxes. The Florentines are the wolves, and the Pisans are foxes. In these guises, as we shall see, they are far from innocent. But even Dante is obliged to express his horror when the triumphant Black Guelphs resorted to a professional soldier, Fulcieri da' Calboli, to be their obliging instrument of extirpation. In the pained presence of Rinier da' Calboli, Fulcieri's grandfather and the representative of an older, more honorable generation, Guido foresees the arrival of Fulcier, who shall be as a hunter of the Florentine wolves, «cacciator di quei lupi». In 1303, soon after the expulsion of the Whites, Fulcieri assumed the position of podestà for the commune of Florence __ a post incidentally he was to command in other towns of Central Italy in what was a rather long and apparently thriving career. He hunted down the families of the Whites and brutally killed them. Dante in fact considers him to be a hireling, a bounty-hunter, who is compensated for his nefarious activities by being extraordinarily reappointed to a second semester as podestà beyond the usual term of six months. The entire episode reeks of the slaughter-house, as indeed Fulcieri's victims are described as «antica belva», old cattle ready for slaughter. Fulcieri as hunter emerges covered with blood. «Sanguinoso esce de la trista selva»: the line itself resonantly suggests other forms of human conduct, including the sexual, where brutality may express itself.
Dante rightly casts the Buondelmonte murder as a contemporary reenactment of an ancient rite, an immolated victim is offered to the mutilated god of war. But this act of pagan propitiation does not turn out to be an ameliorative rite, but rather one that led to more carnage. The hunter as butcher emerges out of this blood feast __ homo necans is not the predecessor but rather the consequence of the foundation sacrifice, which does not atone for the blood beginnings of existence but rather makes all too patent the fact that at the center of life is a savage act, a «dark event».
But there is an even more important reversal. The result of the events and processes that Dante traces means that the città partita has become the trista selva. The city itself has reverted to the savage place that its very foundation and ideal purpose were intended to transcend. The city itself with its mean streets has become once again the savage wood and man in his nature has reverted to that of a hunter. Far from representing a refuge from savagery, the city in its blood sacrifice and accelerating violence, seems dedicated to reproducing the selva oscura that Dante first sought to elude. This is why his false start at the poem's beginning must be corrected by another commencement. His regeneration requires a full confrontation with fact __ he must be brought up against the bristling thigh of the beast.
As man the primate became a carnivorous hunter it is likely cannibalism became a constant temptation. Therefore, it should come as no surprise if at the bottom of the pit we encounter the ultimate in the processes of undifferentiation and reversal, and that is cannibalism. While so eminent and reliable a guide as the late Charles Singleton has urged us to dismiss the anthropophagal interpretations of the Ugolino episode as unworthy, we can wonder why this should be so. From everything that we have learned there is nothing unknown to human conduct in the practice. As Jane Goodall was so dismayed to learn (to our bemusement), even chimpanzees do it. Fortunately, Singleton's leading disciple and his successor as the leading American dantista, John Freccero, has been willing to transgress his teacher's caveat. In a remarkable essay, «The Bestial Sign and Bread of the Angels: Inferno XXXII and XXXIII», he revives the anthropophagal interpretations of the Ugolino episode by contrasting in brilliant and effective manner, the bestial sign, cannibalism, and the bread of the angels, the Eucharist.3 «As the Eucharist is the opposite of the corpse, so communion is the opposite of cannibalism and the bread is not only the "bread of the angels" but also of the peace of the human community, panis concordiae». While one can doubt that the tragedy of Ugolino is the tragedy of interpretation, or that his fault is an interpretative failure, the failure to see the redemptive significance in the offering of his children __ this smacks too much of converting characters into readers and every text into a debate, or enactment, of its own strategies of reading __ nevertheless, Freccero's reading in its fuller social and theological implications is a profound one. While Ugolino in his blind, crazed animalistic hunger cannot be expected to make nice comparisons between his «fiero pasto» and the host, we as readers most certainly can. As undifferentiation mimics the unity of brotherhood, and mimics it in brutal fashion, so cannibalism is the dark counterpart of communion.
In reversion the original event of pagan sacrifice has led to reciprocal violence and undifferentiation. Homo necans is not the prototype of this pagan sacrifice but rather the blood-filled result, and the end product is cannibalism. We follow this process by means of the logic of the poem and the structures of events, that is by following the story within the Commedia along with that of the Commedia. Modern cultural and religious anthropological theorists like Girard and Burkert have responded to the extraordinary emphasis on violence in Modernist thought, particularly on the intricate connections between violence, or some dark event, and the positive results of hominization. This view is mature, finding in ritualized human practices an attempt to compensate and make reparation for the fact that in the processes of life there is constant loss and sacrifice. From his intensest personal involvement and experience Dante came to learn that it is not easy to placate the god of blood, and that human society might require other bases. The contradictions upon which the city is based become in Dante's experience unbridgeable. His journey to the bottom of the pit might be subtitled, An End to Humanism. But we must also recall that this journey itself was an act of remediation and restoration. By abandoning the city, a change that was forced upon him by the experience of exile, Dante came to accept the spiritual condition of pilgrimage and find in the Purgatorio the brotherhood that was sundered in the foundation sacrifice and the directions toward a better city (XIII, 94-96):
1 The full elaboration of an appreciation of René Girard's thought deserves much more than an endnote. I would be hard-pressed to name a more singular, powerful and compelling body of work over the last thirty years than that of Girard. His own evolution shows the startling jumps of genius particularly from Mensonge romantique et verité romanesque (1961) to La Violence et le sacré (1972) and Des Choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978). Important arguments giving historical placement to his thesis are provided in Le Bouc émissaire (1982) and in a collection of his essays, «To Double Business Bound»: Essays on Literature, Mimesis and Anthropology (1978).
2 Homo Necans (1972) as well as Girard's work should be read in conjunction with their contributions to Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, edited by G. Hamerton-Kelly (1987). Of particular importance is the fully-argued introduction by my colleague, Burton Mack.
3 In John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, edited by Rachel Jacoff (1986). My review of this volume appeared in Annali d'ltalianistica, 6 (1988).