NGO attacks . . . Dante?


The classic work should be removed from school curricula, according to Gherush 92, a human rights organisation which acts as a consultant to UN bodies on racism and discrimination.

Dante’s epic is “offensive and discriminatory” and has no place in a modern classroom, said Valentina Sereni, the group’s president.

As though anyone who teaches Dante teaches him as doctrine. Of course we already put the Commedia in context. That’s what teachers do!

via Prof. Soltan.

Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XXII

Paradiso Canto XXII
The roles for Dante’s guides, Virgil and Beatrice, shift around a lot. Sometimes they’re stern, sometimes they’re professorial, and sometimes, like here, motherly. Dante reacts thus to the great thunderclap of a shout that ends Canto XX:

I turned — oppressed with wonder, stupefied,
  exactly as a little child will run
  back to the one he trusts most — to my guide,
And as a mother comes to help her son,
  who, pale and breathless, hears her ready voice
  that always seems to make him strong again,
“Didn’t you know that you’re in Paradise?
(Par XXII.1-7)

I think this is the first fear Dante has shown lately, but I’m not certain – I’ll have to look next time.
Another element I’m going to be reading for next time is love-vocabulary. The two meet St. Benedict in this canto. Dante thanks him for talking to them, for his love and kindness (XXII.52). The Italian here is affetto, affection. When I get to Rome in January, I’m going to look around for a Dante concordance! Given the amount they teach in the schools, there’s got to be a paperback version. I haven’t been paying close enough attention, but I think this may be the first use of this word. Love is an overwhelmingly important theme in the Comedy – maybe the most important theme of all – so I should have been watching more carefully.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XXI

Paradiso Canto XXI
The transitions from sphere to sphere become less and less noticeable. Here in Canto XXI, Dante and Beatrice have moved from Jupiter to Saturn in one line: “Weve risen to the seventh splendor now…” (Par XXI.13). That’s all Dante needs – an assertion from Beatrice.
When they look around they see Jacob’s ladder, the ladder of contemplation. Some people want to see an influence from a French translation of a Spanish version of a poem about Muhammad’s Night Journey here – especially because it has a title like The Book of the Staircase to Heaven. Maybe so, but it’s hardly necessary. Ladder imagery is, as the first sentence of this paragraph suggests, Biblical. And the idea of seeing Heaven is Scriptural. Did Dante know something about Islam? Maybe. Me, I insisted on showing a Byzantine version of St. John Climacus’s vision, who was a 7th century monk at Mount Sinai (note the coincidence with Muhammad!). Go to his Wikipedia entry – there are a couple of versions. We have an image of the 12 century version in the collection. In fact, there’s a greater chance that Muhammad knew the deuterocanonical and legendary Christian materials as there is that Dante knew anything Islamic.
The interlocutor in the sphere of Saturn is Peter Damian, a hermit-monk who, perhaps needless to say, castigates the decline of hermits and the degeneracy of monasteries. Dante can’t hear any singing and asks about the silence. Peter Damian explains that the problem is that Dante’s hearing is limited by his moral body; Dante is reaching the end of his ability to even see and hear, let alone express what he saw and heard for us!
The canto began with a problem with seeing. Dante was staring at Beatrice again; she explained why she wasn’t smiling:

…”If I should smile,”
  she began, “you’d become like Semele
  reduced to ashes by the power of Jove
(Par XXI.4-6)

What a funny gender reversal — Dante becomes Semele, mother of Dionysus, and Beatrice becomes Jove (whose sphere they’ve just left!). The canto ends with a reminder. After that talk about not-seeing and not-hearing with Peter Damian, al the saints in this sphere gather:

Round him they came and stopped and gave a shout
  so deep,no roar on earth I’ve ever heard
  compares: the crack of thunder overcame me
And in the shock I did not hear a word.

So Dante gets his Jovial thunder anyway!
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XX

Paradiso Canto XX
Early in Canto XX Dante offers us an odd combination of an image from nature and ideas from music to describe the Eagle’s voice.

I thought I heard the rushing of a stream
  splashing in open sky from stone to stone,
  showing the plenty of its spilling spring.
And as the music will assume its tone
  at the neck of the lute, and wind will play
  as it sings whistling through the bagpipes’ stops,
Setting aside all waiting and delay,
  the whooshing climbed up through the Eagle’s neck
  as in a hollow, assumed a voice,
And in the form of words rushed through the beak,
   stilling the expectation of my heart
  wherein I wrote them. It began to speak
(Par XX.19-30

That’s one of the longest chunks I’ve ever transcribed here, and that’s because the tercets are rushing on like the water and whooshing like the bagpipe notes. The Eagle tells Dante who the bright lights are in his eye – David, Trajan, Hezekiah, Constantine, some Sicilian king, and Ripheus the Trojan. Trajan and a Trojan? Dante is still interested in how the justice of God can be comported with the limit of the spread of the Christian message — how can that man born on the Ganges bank be held accountable to Christ? The Eagle tells him:

O predestination, how remote
  your root is from those sights that cannot see
  the fulness of the primal cause! And you
Mortals, withhold your judgement: even we
  who see the face of God do not yet know
  the number chosen from eternity
And it is sweet, such lack in what we know,
  because in this good is our good made fine,
  that what the Lord may will, we too will so.
(Par XX.130-138)

It’s a mystery that won’t be resolved until the very end, but Dante finds that news “soothing medicine” (XX.139).
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XIX

Paradiso Canto XIX
The image of the Eagle-made-of-Rulers which Dante first sees in Canto XVIII continues throughout Canto XIX, and leads to questions about the difference between the real and the symbolic. For instance, Dante notes that the Eagle speaks in the first person rather than the third, thought it is visibly made up of many spirits. My colleague thinks this has to do with the radical community nature of Paradise, especially as contrasted with the terrible individualism of the Inferno. I’m not so sure – I think it is surreal, and more about those who were supreme individuals, rulers, becoming part of something larger, a symbol of Rule.
What’s more, I’m not sure why Dante should be asking an Eagle made up of rulers, however just, about the salvation of pagans. Maybe because they were just judges, and a standard accusation against God’s justice is that it is unjust, since it judges people who never knew the rules. I’m not at all sure.
Certainly Dante asks the Eagle these questions because – surprise – there are two pagan rulers in the composite Eagle, Trajan and Ripheus the Trojan. But we won’t meet them till the next Canto.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XVIII

Paradiso Canto XVIII
Dante describes Cacciaguida close to the first of Canto XVIII as il folgór santo, “the saintly thunderbolt” (XVIII.25). How apt! The Thunderbolt goes on to name the warriors of God in another dantean list – Joshua, Judaas Maccabaeus, Roland, Charlemagne — on to a nice full list of seven or eight. And then they’re off to the Sixth Sphere, Jupiter, where just rulers rest.
Dante sees souls spelling out words — kind of like those old sign made up of individual bulbs, where each letter blings. The texts say DILIGITE IUSTITIAM and QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM, “love justice, you who judge the earth.” The blinking souls reconfigure into the shape of an eagle in weird ways.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XVII

Paradiso Canto XVII
Canto XVII, the mid-point of Paradiso, shows us the new Dante, refined by fire in Purgatory he is now not fearful. All along the way people have predicted his exile, but those were damned souls in Hell and souls with clouded vision in Purgatory. Now that he feels “solid as a tetragon” (Par XVII.24), Dante asks Cacciaguida, “Make me content,/tell me the fortune that awaits me now!” (Par XVII.25-26). Cacciaguida tells him that he will be exiled, but he puts it differently. Rather than being expelled, he will flee Florence (48). Cacciaguida also uses a suitably martial metaphor for the sphere of Mars:

You’ll leave behind you everything you love
  most dearly; this will be the arrow shot
  first from the bow of exile.
(Par XVII.55-57)

After Cacciaguida predicts some of the trials and comforts to come, Dante asks him a really interesting question about the poem — should he use the names of the sinners — repentant and unrepentant — he’s seen? Cacciaguida assures him that there’s been a reason behind the meetings; hearing the stories of known folks will teach future readers more, and:

This is the reason why, within these spheres,
  upon the mount and in the sorrowing pit,
  you’ve been shown only souls whose names men know…
(Par XVII.136-138)

Just think how much inky commentaries the world would have saved without that advice!
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XVI

Paradiso Canto XVI
Oh dear – I don’t think that I reminded you in blogging about Canto XV that we are still in the Sphere of Mars – so Caccciaguida, crusader and Florentine, is an appropriate resident. I remembered the “ancient temple of Mars” legend, which will come up again here.
Canto XVI is a description – not entirely a complaint – of the rise and fall of Florentine families. Esolen mischaracterizes them as “noble.” One of the characteristics of Italy in the middle middle ages (though I’m oversimplifying) is that nobility was rural, and the new towns were something else. They might have striven to become knights under imperial legates, but knighthood itself was not heritable. We tend to read Italy through the hyper-nobilized later Renaissance rather than for itself.
There are a few moments of language interest in this canto. At line 10 and 16 Dante comments on and then uses an unusual pronoun.

With the voi that was offered first at Rome
  (usage in which they do not persevere),
  my words to him resumed…
(Par XVI.10-12)


Io cominciai: “Voi siete il padre mio;
  voi mi date a parlar tutta baldeza;
  voi mi levate sì, ch’i’ son più ch’io.

“You are my father,” I began in reply.
  “You fill my heart with confidence to speak,
  you raise me so, that I am more than I!
(Par XVI.16-18)

Esolen tells us that the disquisition on voi, the 2nd person plural pronoun used as a singular, is based on the idea that the Romans first used vos for Julius Caesar (and that it is a bad thing that they, and the Church, have stopped using it, Dante suggests). Pronouns are always fraught in Italy! The now-polite way to say “you” in Rome is Lei, one of those converted 3rd person pronouns, literally “she.” The way to make your neighborhood merchants think you’re not an American barbarian, just an American, is to return their “grazie” at the end of a transaction with “a Lei.” Rather old fashioned, but polite, and seldom heard much north of Rome, I’m told.
Still, Dante is hammering it home — Cacciaguida deserves a polite pronoun. But then he asks him who their ancestors were, their names, how long they lived (22-24). Cacciaguida doesn’t particularly know. This is a sign of the great shift in heredity-mongering that had occurred between Cacciaguida’s time and Dante’s.
Again at 32-33, Dante refers to Cacciaguida speaking in a dialect of more sweetness, not like we talk today. Dante, of course, was very interested in the vernacular — but it is interesting that Toscana, usually pretty unmodified by time (remember that Farinata degli Uberti recognized him by his speech) is getting inflected here.
When Cacciaguida talks about all the country folk moved to town of the new Florence he makes a nice usage of the State-as-body metaphor.

As when you bolt two different suppers down
  you rouse diseases, so a town grows sick
  from populations all confused in one
(Par XVI.67-69)

The rest of the canto is, I fear, impenetrably localist. I’ve said before that I understand, but can’t pretend to be interested in, Dante’s love of Florence. Gimme an Orsini or a Colonna and I might pay attention, but the distant origin of the Guelph/Ghibelline feuds in a jilted bride (XVI.140) doesn’t do much for me.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XV


Originally uploaded by Sacred Destinations.

Paradiso Canto XV

As Canto XIV ended, Dante saw a massive cross of souls, gleaming like a gemmed cross (oh – go here to see a mosaic of a gemmed cross in Rome that Dante probably knew). Canto XV begins with the cross continuing to gleam, until one of the gems shoots across it, like a shooting star, and then comes to speak to them . . .

With such a loving piety for his son,

  if we may trust our greater muse, Anchises

  once hailed Aeneas in Elysium.

“O blood of mine, O overbrimming grace

  poured out by God! for whom has Heaven’s door

  been opened twice, as it has been for you?”

So spoke that light . . . . (Par XV.25-31)

Here Dante invokes Virgil, “our greater muse,” and contradicts himself. Remember Inferno II.32? I’ll admit that I let Esolen give me the line number in the note, but I remembered Dante exclaiming to Virgil: “I’m not Aeneas! I’m not St Paul!” But he is – he has been to Hell, and here he is in Heaven, and he’ll bring us reports of both.

But the ancestor of Dante goes on to speak, and Dante doesn’t understand him — “all was in a langauge too profound / Not that he chose to veil his thought from me” (Par XV.39-40). Almost everyone Dante has recognized or who has recognized Dante did it by speech, whether Dante called it italian, Tuscan, or Latin. This speech is too deep because the concepts are beyond mortal minds. Eventually the soul’s speech slackens enough that Dante can understand him, and it turns out that this is his great-great grandfather, father of the Alighero who gives Dante his name. His own name, Cacciaguida, will be postponed until line 135, almost the end of the canto.

Meanwhile, Cacciaguida, who died around 1150, has described what Florence was like in his day, when it was all contained in its Roman walls. Cacciaguida praises the simplicity and modesty of 12th C Florence, when the birth of a daughter didn’t fill a father in dread for her dowry and when men didn’t leave their women to sleep alone while they went off to France for money. Cacciaguida claims to have been baptized in the ancient baptistery, but…oh, well. It certainly wasn’t begun until after his death on the Second Crusade (if he’s right and he was with Emperor Conrad, he never made it past Anatolia).

Art History commonplace (though I think it’s in Villani, it’s something that I learned in Art 102 and again in Renaissance Architecture) is that the Florentines believed their (actually 1150s Romanesque) octagonal Baptistery of St John was an ancient Roman temple to Mars converted by the early Christians (and hence a classical building that was admired on those grounds by some early Renaissance Tuscans), in fact it was perhaps built on the foundations of a tower on the city wall.

For Cacciaguida, and Dante, the important part is that Conrad raised him to a knighthood. That puts his family among the early Florentine elite. Though Florence didn’t have a hereditary nobility, imperial knighthoods were coveted markers. Cacciaguida didn’t live to enjoy his — but he died a crusader-martyr, and “From martyrdom I came unto this peace” (XIII.148), which is a better trade.

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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XIV

Paradiso Canto XIV
Canto XIV is a transition canto — we hear the end of the conversation with Solomon and then Beatrice move on to the sphere of Mars.
Dante’s last question for the wise is about the resurrected body — won’t it dim their lights? Solomon replies:

. . . When, blessed and glorified,
  the flesh is robed about us once again,
  we shall be lovelier for being whole
(Par XIV.43-45)

The souls circling round respond:

So prompt and ready was the loud “Amen!”
  both choirs responded, it was clear to me
  how much they yearned to see their flesh again,
Maybe less for themselves than for their mamas,
  their fathers, and the others they held dear
  before they had become eternal flames.
(Par XIV.61-66)

And thence they pass on to the sphere of Mars.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XIII

Paradiso Canto XIII
If I thought the appearance of Juno’s messenger at the start of Canto XII was odd, the mention of Minos early in Canto XIII is downright jarring! This time we’re talking about Ariadne, who became a constellation (given how often that happens in world myth I’m amazed I don’t know a happy greco-english word for it, like apotheosized). Still, minos surfaces again. But she is only a ghost of that true constellation, the Wise (Par XIII.20).
Thomas begins speaking again (this is his fourth cano – he’s becoming the Statius of this canticle) and makes a lovely parallel between biblical types — Adam and the New Adam.

You’re thinking of the breast that gave its rib,
  drawn forth to form the woman of fair cheek
  whose palate made the whole world pay so dearly,
and of that breast pierced with a lance to make
  full recompense forfuture sins and past,
  causing the scales of human debt to break.

All this is in service of some mind reading — Thomas had said in Canto X (line 109) that the fifth light (whoever that was) was the wisest ever. He’s accusing Dante of thinking that surely Adam or Christ must have been wiser – but he goes on to identify the fifth light and explain how he was the wisest ever — Solomon was best in class, rulers.

From what I’ve spoken you can see he was
  a king, and asked for the capacity
  to fulfill a king’s duties – not to muse
About the angels and the quantity
  of movers of the stars; or if a must
  and might together make necessity;
(Par XIII.94-99)

Solomon wanted to be the wisest king – not the best scholastic. I think this is also another jab at Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, who we saw denounced by his dead brother back in Canto VIII. Dante’s theory of kingship is coming clearler – a separation of duties and of intelligences.
Canto XIII ends with Aquinas denouncing misdirected intelligence and inquiry – very Dominican!
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XII

Paradiso Canto XII
So Thomas Aquinas praised Francis and his chivalric love of Lady Poverty and chastened his own order for wandering astray, a second garland or ring comes wit h Bonaventure. Interestingly, Dante gives the classical comparison first – “When the clouds are fine/and Juno sends her herald to earth” (Par XII.10-11) precedes “Rainbows that make us mortals early wise / by the pact God made Noah” (Par XII.16-17). I sometimes think our students wonder about Dante’s devotion to the classics. Is he emulating? Rivaling? Showing off? I tend to think a little of all of those.
So Bonaventure joins them, and praises the mendicant founders together. And where Thomas’s talk was full of chivalry, Bonaventure’s is full of military and imperial terms – even to calling God “the high Emperor who rains forever” (Par XII.40). Bonaventure describes Dominic’s (miraculous) birth and then the military zeal with which he fought heresy:

Then armed with zeal and doctrine and the charge
  of apostolic duty, he fell quick
  as torrents bursting from a mountain vein
And slammed the thickets of the heretic,
  pummeling onward with his surging drive
  where the resistance was most harsh and thick
(Par XII.97-102).

Dominic must indeed have been some kind of force! And then Bonaventure turns to deprecating his Franciscans and how far they have turned from Francis’s path.
Bonaventure’s list of those lights who accompany him includes a few names that interest me. A second Hebrew appears – the prophet Nathan. Aelius Donatus the grammarian – I didn’t know he was a Christian, but he’s certainly late enough (mid 4th C). Rabanus Maurus, Carolingian abbot of Fulda! And finally and weirdest, Joachim of Fiore, the Calabrian abbot and apocalypticist. Odd company.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto XI

Paradiso Canto XI
Canti XI and XII run in parallel. Here are Esolen’s prose summaries:
XI: Thomas Aquinas recounts for Dante the life of Francis of Assisi, and concludes by decrying the corruption of the Dominicans of the present day.
XII: Out of a second garland of spirits another soul speaks: it is the soul of Bonaventure, who describes the life of Dominic and concludes by decrying the corruption of the Franciscans of the present day.
OK – to get the joke you have to have minimal Mendicant Friar Knowledge — Aquinas is a Dominican, and praises the founder of the Franciscans. Bonaventure a Franciscan, etc., etc. Dante’s Thomas fully adopts the chivalrous Francis — troubador of Lady Poverty. Remember that nostalgia for the nobler days of the 12th century is pretty thick in the Commedia, and here it gets linked to the Franciscans.
It’s important to remember, at least for people who believe that persistence in vocation and communal direction is probable (like all the nice conservatives who whine that the money of rich endowments is being misdirected by left-trending 3rd generation administrators) get a grip! Dante is setting his poem less than 100 years after the foundations (Dominic, 1206 at Prouille; Francis, 1210 at Rome) and things are already almost hopeless perverted from their original purity. So there. Pessimism about human organizations will go a long way towards making you happier.
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Danteblogging Paradiso Canto X

Paradiso Canto X
Canto X takes us to the fourth sphere, that of the sun. We’re mainly going to talk to theologians here — and it lasts a long time — all the way to Canto XIV. Dante begins with an exposition on why an ecliptic — why that seeming imbalance in the otherwise perfect cosmos? After all, this is a model that depends on spheres because, well, they’re SPHERICAL and we all know that spheres are perfect. As are circular orbits. As our physicist friend pointed out to our class, the ancients (and medievals) had enormous amounts of very good observational data, but they occasionally tripped over a dogma like that.
Dante’s explanation? We need a skew system to keep each hemisphere habitable. Well, I like seasons, too (which is good, because I woke up to more-than-a-dusting of snow this morning).
Dante tells the reader to sit as he sets the table with a feast of poetry (Par X.25). But this is the level of the Theologians, and what satisfies their appetite is knowledge:

So the fourth family of the Father shone,
  who fills their hunger ever, revealing how
  He breathes His Spirit and begets His Son.

That is, there are no Mysteries anymore – the Trinity will be revealed. The description of the souls here is one of my favorite passages in the whole Commedia. Dante see them from a little distance:

Those ardent suns that had not ceased to sing,
  as stars revolving round the pole nearby,
  as stars revolved about us three times in a ring,
Then stopped: as ladies pausing in their glee
  hold the reel’s places and resume the dance
  when they catch the returning melody.

The first time I ever read that I was reminded of the dance scene in the Franco Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet. I’ll see if I can scare that up on youtube for my class.
Their interlocutor, the dancer who speaks to them, turns out to be Thomas Aquinas. He names a lot of the others — Albert the Great, Gratian, Dionysius the Areopagite, Boethius, and (the only Englishman in the Comedy, according to my colleague), Bede.
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