Danteblogging Purgatorio VI

Purgatory Canto VI
In the University of California Lectura Dantis, Purgatorio ( a canto-by-canto commentary, and one I should read more thorougly), Maria Picchio Simonelli points out that the 6th canton in all three cantiche is political. Canto VI in the Inferno, the circle of the Gluttons, was mainly about partisan politics, Guelphs and Ghibbelines. This canto is the introduction to the negligent princes, with Sordello as guide.
Before we get in Canto VII to the princes who neglected their souls to be about their business we read here some of Dante’s most famous denunciations of Italy – and he even calls her Italia (VI.76), rather than the land of the Latins (see Inferno XIX) or some such.

Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello
  nave sanza nocchiere in gran tempesta,
  non donna di provincie, ma bordello!

Ah Italy, you slave, you inn of grief,
  you ship without a pilot in the storm,
  no lady of the shire, you house for whores!

Dante plays again and again the contrast between localism and nationalism – the love for non-existant Italy and the love of City. Here in Purgatorio VI, Sordello, a man who lived in France, wrote poetry in Provencal, and retired to the Abruzzi, goes all gushy over his fellow Mantuan, Virgil. Dante is not portraying that as an entirely positive reaction.
Now here’s something about which I’m sure I could find more discussion. Dante and Virgil consider (VI.25-VI.48) the inefficacy of prayer to the Olympian deities (based on a quotation from the Aeneid about the uselessness of praying for Palinurus). Esolen talks about that as a misalignment of ends — the prayer is directed to the wrong deities, but when it seemed to be answered it was because it happened to correspond to God’s will. Virgil evades the question (a little) by saying that Beatrice will clear all this up, and Dante rises to the bait of Beatrice.
Then 100 lines later, in what is at least an ironic usage and at best a weird classicism, Dante prays:

And if you will allow me, highest Jove,
  you who on earth were crucified for us,
  have your just eyes turned elsewhere? Or is this
The preface to some benefit you’ve planned
  in the abyss of providence, cut off
  from our capacity to understand?

Because if those 2 tercets aren’t about the mystery of unanswered prayer and the inscrutability of theodicy I’m not sure what they’re about — and they’re addressed to Giove. Neither Esolen nor Simonelli help at all. Oh – the mystery Dante’s talking about is still why Italy is such a bordello.
So much to learn!
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Hilarious! Secretary of Education instructs employees to attend rally

You know, the counter-rally Al Sharpton held.
That’s right — or left — the Secretary of Education was speaking at the Counter-Glen-Beck rally, so:

“ED staff are invited to join Secretary Arne Duncan, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and other leaders on Saturday, Aug. 28, for the ‘Reclaim the Dream’ rally and march,” began an internal e-mail sent to more than 4,000 employees of the Department of Education on Wednesday.
Sharpton created the event after Glenn Beck announced a massive Tea Party “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where King spoke in 1963.
. . .
Education Department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya defended Duncan’s decision. “This was a back-to-school event,” she said.

That’s right — making sure that there’s no separation between a bureaucracy and the partisan appointees who run it! Inappropriate for any administration of any partisan stripe — and pretty tacky to encourage your employees to come swell the crowd listening to you even if it weren’t an obviously politically charged event, even if voluntary and even if on a weekend.
Someone from the Cato Institute interviewed for the story says the email doesn’t violate the Hatch Act, but it’s certainly not far off. I wonder how many DoE folks took their Saturdays to rally with Al and Arne?

Danteblogging Purgatorio Canto V

Purgatory Canto V
Some people have a better excuse for being late-repenters — and so they’re further up the slope: the people who repented at the last moment because they died by violence. They’re engaged in the 2nd example of psalm-singing, the Miserere (Psalm 51, Vulgate 50), “Have mercy on me, O God, according to they mercy; according to the multitude of thy kindnesses blot out my iniquity,” but the chant changes when they see that Dante casts a shadow.

mutar lor canto in un “oh!” lungo e roco;  

they changed their song to one long speechless “Oh!” (V.27)

Listen to all the Os in the Italian! They may have delayed their earlier repentence, but they rush over to the pilgrims with three similes!

. . . No shooting stars
  have I seen slash the calm and starlit eve,
  nor shafts of sunset split the August clouds,
As quickly as I saw those spirits run
  and with the others turn their eyes our way–
  like horsemen charging on without the rein.

Their re-formation is well underway.
One of the three who speak is the son of someone in Hell – Bonconte da Montefeltro, son of Guido da Montefeltro (Inferno XXVII). Where Guido made an outward conversion, even becoming a Franciscan, Bonconte died on the field of battle, and fighting against Florence. Once again, Dante rises above his own loyalties.
Here’s an even stronger example of speaking to the 14th Century audience than I wondered about in Canto III — and took some nerve on Dante’s part. Bonconte says that his wife and other relatives aren’t bothering to pray for him (V.89). Bonconte is about Dante’s age — Esolen suggests that Dante was present at the battle when Bonconte died — we might suppose that the widow was still alive when Dante was writing. Did he know something about her life? Had she happily remarried? Had she failed to have masses said – and was this public knowledge? It’s really a pretty stiff charge!
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Danteblogging – Purgatorio Canto IV

Purgatory Canto IV
I guess Canto IV is the kind of passage that makes people say “Purgatorio is dull.”
Dante and Virgil have a couple of long conversations about the location of Purgatory (directly opposite Jerusalem) and astronomy (the sun rises to the moves from NORTHeast to northwest in the Southern Hemisphere) Dante is demonstrating his mastery of medieval science – and doing it all in poetry.
Dante doesn’t notice the latter until the pilgrims sit down for a rest, having scaled the steep slope from the beach towards (but not to, yet) the Gate. While they’re sitting down and speculating about the sun rising over the left shoulder they notice some souls resting in the shade – the laggards, those who put off their repentance until the end. Again, like the excommunicate, Dante has them wait as many years as they delayed; these two are good examples of what scholars see as the rising habit of numeration in the Middle Ages.
I can’t say the canto gripped me, either!
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Danteblogging Purgatorio Canto III

Purgatory Canto III
The first tercet of Canto III ends with an excellent 4-word statement of the method of Purgatory: it is the place ove ragion ne fruga, “where reason winnows us” (III.3). If Hell is a place where the souls have rejected and still reject Divine Reason, Purgatory is the place where the souls learn to increasingly conform themselves to that pattern. Dante has just compared the scattering souls at the end of Canto II to pigeons scattered from a wheat field, so the verb frugare, “winnow,” is especially pointed.
The souls the pilgrims first met in Hell were the indecisive, who were condemned to perpetually chasing a flag as fast as they could fly. The first established group of souls Dante meets here are moving slowly, deliberately. They are “a happy flock” (III.86), the excommunicate.
Dante meets Manfred, King of Sicily. His father Frederick was in the circle of the heretics and his aunt Constance will show up in Paradise — our first example of this sort of family division. Manfred explains the technical effect of excommunication. Excommunication doesn’t damn a soul to Hell — popes can’t do that, souls damn themselves or not — but for every year he lived excommunicate he has to wait here on this beach before starting to climb the mountain.
However, that time can be shortened by the prayers of the living — and we see here for the first time a shift in Dante’s relation to the dead souls. While in the Inferno he or Virgil offered fame in exchange for conversation or help (e.g., Antaeus), here the souls will ask or Dante will offer to carry word to their survivors. Manfred asks:

See now if you can bring me happiness,
  revealing to my daughter the good Constance
  the law that binds me here. For we can gain

Much profit from what prayers on earth obtain.

I wonder about the 14th Century! How many early readers of Dante came across the name of a relative or friend in Purgatory and offered up a prayer? Surely some!
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Danteblogging – Purgatory Canto II

Purgatory Canto II
Canto II begins with much astronomy, situating Mount Purgatory for the informed medieval reader — all of whom believed, of course, in a spherical world hanging at the center of the cosmos. Jerusalem was at the center of the inhabitable land mass and directly antipodeal to Mount Purgatory. The Pillars of Hercules were 90 degrees west of Jerusalem and the mouth of the Ganges 90 degrees east (neat, if inaccurate). No one who survives this course will ever believe in the Flat Earth Theory, concocted in the 19th century.
Across the waters of Ocean Dante sees the angelic opposite of Charon bringing souls to Mount Purgatory. Esolen has a graceful little note: The details of this scene echo and, as it were, correct those of the crossing of Acheron Inf 3.82-120)–boat, waters, pilot, speed, instruments, attitude of passengers.” I like that “correct” – a good word for Purgatory.
Most importantly for readers and interpreters of Dante, the souls are singing the Psalm 113, In exitu Israel de Aegypto, “When from the land of Egypt Israel came.” This is the very verse Dante explicated for Cangrande della Scala, lord of Verona, in the letter dedicating the Paradiso to him. Dante lays out four levels of polysemous meaning for the Big Dog: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical.
So in the first 50 lines of the Canto we’re going to get to discuss medieval cosmology and medieval hermeneutics. Does it get better than that?
Here’s the letter, in Latin and English.
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Danteblogging – Purgatory Canto I

Purgatory Canto I
I rush on with the pilgrims to the mountain of Purgatory.

My little ship of ingenuity
   now hoists her sails to speed through better waters,
   leaving behind so pitiless a sea

The commonplace is that everyone finds Hell more interesting than the other two realms. We’ll see how Romantic our students are.
Dante begins the canticle with an invocation of the Muses, but the strangest, most backhanded invocation of classical precedent I can think of — he calls on Calliope to sing this canticle of pardon while reminding her that she is merciless.

Here rise to life again, dead poetry!
  Let it, O holy Muses, for I am yours,
  and here, Calliope, strike a higher key,
Accompanying my song with that sweet air
  which made the wretched Magpies feel a blow
  that turned all hope of pardon to despair.
(Purg 1.7-12)

Esolen’s note reminds us that Virgil addressed Calliope and that Ovid told us the story (Metamorphoses 6.294-340, 662-78). Some foolish humans engaged in a singing match with the muse. She won, of course, and to remind them of their presumption turned them into magpies. No one ever came out ahead in those challenges to the Olympian gods – Arachne, Marsyas, these girls – and no mercy was shown, no chance of forgiveness. Dante is subtle here, reminding us that however much he loved those old poets, he did not love their gods.
The first soul they meet, the guardian of the beach of Mt Purgatory, is a puzzler – Marcus Porcius Cato – pagan, anti-Caesarian, and suicide. At best you’d think we was with the virtuous pagans in Limbo, at worst getting chewed by Satan, and most logically in the wood of the suicides. But here he is!
Esolen’s note helps a lot.

The explanation lies in Cato’s motive and in the meaning of Purgatory. Dante insisted (De monarchia 2.5) that Cato’s death was an act of devotion to freedom, a self-sacrifiing witness to its pricelessness. It was an act, althought Cato himself was not aware of it at the time, in imitation of Chrsti, who died that all men might be free. Dante could claim impressive precedent from the poet Lucan, whose Cato, after decrying the injustice of the Roman gods in leading the nation into civil war, seems to wish to do what those gods would not exclaiming: “Would it were possible for me to lay my head down, condemned by the gods of Heaven and Hell, and take upon myself all punishments!” (Pharsalia 2.306-7). “Let my blood redeem the nations” (2.312), he cries, longing not to enjoy freedom himself but to restore freedom to others. And freedom–the liberation of will from sin–is the aim of Purgatory. ( (Purgatory, 412)

There were some astronomical moments in the Inferno, but they become more frequent in Purgatory — here we see the the Southern Cross in the sky. I’ve got to look up how much of that was fancy and how much based on reports from sailors.
In Hell Dante and Virgil sometimes bargained with the damned – they wanted information and they offered fame through Dante’s poetry in return. In Purgatory they will offer or the souls will request that news be taken to their loved ones so that prayers can be said for them. The first attempt to carry news falls flat, though — Virgil offers to carry news to Martia, Cato’s wife, who is in the Click here for all the Danteblogging and none of my other ramblings.

Midtown East scenery

I lucked out in new-neighborhood scenery for me. I stayed at some hotel named Roger Something or Other a few years ago, but this time I had better weather for strolling around. The Central Synagogue (congregation established 1839; current building by Henry Fehrnbach, 1872) was great fun! Except for the weird little onion domes it’s very much like Mameluk Cairo — but the plan and side facades are much more Gothic. Well, sort of.


Danteblogging – Inferno Canto XXXIV

Inferno Canto XXXIV – the last canto
The pilgrimage takes 100 cantos — and thus the Inferno is one canto longer than the other two canticles. The structure doesn’t fall as neatly as 1 introductory canto and 33 in Hell – Dante and Virgil get to the gates of Hell at the start of Canto III.
Here in XXXIV we have the end of the descent into Hell and the beginning of the climb to Paradise – the pilgrims pass the center of the cosmos. But first they must past Satan’s faces. What Dante sees from a distance are the turning arms of a giant windmill – the sails that are eventually revealed to be the fruitlessly beating wings of Satan, imprisoned in the ice. Again, language fails Dante when he neither dies nor lives as he see “The emperor of the reign of misery” (34.28). But he goes on – and language ceases to fail. Begins to work? And he describes the ludicrous parody of the Trinity that Satan has become – a three-headed monster chewing three of the worst sinners, traitors against their benefactors.
Once again I’m left a little puzzled — Judas, sure. Brutus, sure, given the way Dante feels about Caesar and the Roman Empire. Cassius, fine, ditto.
But couldn’t Dante have thought of a third traitor that belongs in the mouth of Satan? Imagination is failing me at the moment, but perhaps it is part of the relentlessly Mediterranean world-view that Dante can’t think of anyone better than Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar.
After all this long journey the end comes remarkably quickly. Virgil says

   But night is rising, and it’s time to leave,
   for Hell has nothing more for us to see.

Then Dante climbs on Virgil’s back and Virgil begins to mountaineer down Satan’s hairy flanks into a crevasse. At a certain point they reverse and begin to climb up the legs. It was the center of the spherical cosmos — Satan had fallen from heaven and stuck like a dart in the center of the world, “…the point/toward which all weight from every side is drawn” (34.110-1). The heart of the material universe, of matter, is Satan’s selfishness.
The Inferno began with a middle aged man lost in a dark forest; it ends on another note.

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
And we came out to see, once more, the stars.

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Danteblogging – Inferno Canto XXXIII

Inferno Canto XXXIII
I first tried to read the Divine Comedy all the way through when I was in 11th grade – I think in the John Ciardi translation, which my high school library had just bought in hardback. I can’t say I did a very good job, but at least I’d already read big chunks of the Aeneid in Latin, so I was better prepared than some people. I still remember the creeps Canto XXXIII gave me – the story of the cannibalistic Count Ugolino.
Ugolino betrayed his city, Pisa, but was in turn betrayed by his bishop. They’re locked together in the ice of Antenora, Ugolino chewing on the bishop’s brain in a very Dawn of the Dead image. Except that Ugolino raises his gorey chops and tells Dante why he’s chewing the bishop’s skull – he and his offspring were nailed into a tower in Pisa (I’ve seen what purports to be the tower!). The boys died one by one of hunger. Dante leaves the conclusion a little ambiguous, but I assumed at 17 that Ugolino ate them – as he is now eating the bishop. Ugh! Dantesque, and in the bad way.
Ugolino perceives that Dante is a Florentine by the sound of speech, and by the failure of speech in the tower he is turned into a monster, a stone. Dante damns the Pisans with a linguistic touch, too:

Ahi Pisa, vituperio de le genti
  del bel paese là dove ‘l sì suona,

Ah Pisa, vile disgrace of all the folk
   in the sweet land where
is uttered (33, 79-80)

The land of Sì – not a polity, but a shared vernacular.
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Those crazy Bolsheviks

For various reasons of self-flagellation and book donation (gee, thanks, John) I spent a big chunk of bedroom reading this year on Robert Service’s triology: Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky. Yikes.
I’d read lots of stuff about the period — from Doctor Zhivago to Darkness at Noon. These three are more soul-deadening than anything else. There are dissenting views, but mainly about tone, not detail.
Let’s all admit it – the Soviets were worse than we were, however craaaaaaazy that Woodrow Wilson ever got. The best anti-Wilson treatment I’ve ever read (well, heard – Audible on iPod) was The Great Influenza by John Barry. If anyone ever told you that George W. was a fascist just read this treatment of Totalitarian America.

Omigosh. Two (2) meetings today. Summer is over.

Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha – Sam Cooke
What’s Love Got To Do With It – Tina Turner
Tango-Ballade – Max Raabe & Palast Orchester
Let’s Get It On – Marvin Gaye
Having a Party – Sam Cooke
Wouldn’t It Be Good – Nik Kershaw
Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – The Temptations
You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) – Sylvester
What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations
I Learned the Hard Way – Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Back to My Roots – RuPaul (peace, love, and hair grease!)
My Girl – The Temptations
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough – Michael Jackson
Hold Me Now – Thompson Twins
Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits
I Can’t Get Next to You – The Temptations
Murder On The Dancefloor – Sophie Ellis-Bextor
Mad World – Tears For Fears
Boy – Book of Love
No Parking On the Dance Floor – Midnight Star
Freeway Of Love – Aretha Franklin
Private Idaho – The B-52’s
Use Me – Bill Withers
Heart Of Glass (12″ Version) – Blondie
Ain’t Nobody – Chaka Khan
London Calling – The Clash
Get the Party Started – Dame Shirley Bassey

Just back from a weekend in NYC

And still recovering. I had a great, comfortable, and (as far as I can tell) bedbug free hotel room, but I still slept badly. Who knows.

The Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt was a mix – some impressive stuff and some silly stuff. And where do they get off charging admission, if they’re part of the Smithsonian? Admittedly it was the least I paid anywhere but the Met (where I’m a member, so it’s free).

Best thing? The Otto Dix show at the Neue Gallerie.. Run, don’t walk – it closes at the end of the month. Utterly wonderful view of the horribleness that was the 20th Century. Why they stopped at 1935 I’m not sure, since he lived into the 1960s, but there you go. Their permanent collection is great, too. And remember as you walk around – this is the cubic footage that the really rich used to occupy.

Dante blogging Canto XXXII

Antaeus lowered Dante and Virgil to the frozen river of Cocytus and the region of the traitors. They move in tis canto through Caina, where those who betrayed family are punished (Cain, first fratricide), to Antenora, where traitors to their country suffer (Antenor, a bad Trojan prince).
The damned souls are mainly topical Tuscans and not of much interest to me — but the poetry and the poet’s increasing recognition of his power are.  
The canto starts and ends with sound effects that remind us that this is not only a poem on the page — oral performance is very important.  I’m doing this on the iPad so my formatting may not be as nice as usual, but I’ll try.
S’io avessi le rime aspre e chiocce,
Come si converrebe al tristo buco
Sovra ‘l qual 
Oh I’ll go back and put in the Italian in a bit…word completion is driving me nuts!
Dante starts by talking about his inability as a poet to make the “bitter and crack-throated rhymes” he would need for this lowest part of Hell–not with the tongue that says mama and daddy in Tuscan!  The canto ends with his promise to Ugolino to tell his story: “I will/ make you a good trade in the world above,/unless my tongue should wither to the root.”
That’s a canto about tongues — inadequacy of language, mother dialect, and the poet’s art as currency!  Things are getting thick here at the end of Hell.  In between we have lots of vile activity, with Ugolino the vilest.  But I will pass over that for now because his story is really told in XXXIII.
The idea that Dante has something to offer the Damned has come up before, but it shows up repeatedly in this canto. Here at the end of the canticle Dante is feeling his power as a poet, even if he’s denying his ability to write that kind of rhyme.  He will make the same off in Purgatory, but there he thinks his poem will stimulate prayers for the souls. The Damned have no such motive, only reknown — that very pagan form if the afterlife.  Even that doesn’t interest one if his interlocutors, Bocca (c. Lines 76-115).  If. Dante revealed that he’s in Hell everyone will finally be sure that he WAS guilty of the betrayal of the Guelphs for which he was exiled from Florence.  Dante doesn’t oblige and we all still know.