Archive for the ‘Understanding Dante’ Category

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Religion And The Artist 2: Introduction To A Poem On Dante by Paul Claudel

September 24, 2013
The lady crowned with olive branches justifies all of these accusations because, she says, if the world were perfect, what would a Redeemer have to do with it? Why see only the superficial and apparent disorder in things rather than (listen to my name!) the hidden joy, praise, and beatitude, which it is precisely the poet's task to reveal? To this desire for the absolute and necessary which is the heart of Dante's petition, Beatrice sets in opposition the praise of freedom, of an essentially gratuitous grace, of a living God, always new, always a fresh spring on the brink of irruption, never subjugated by the necessity of the universe he created from nothing, a God who is eternally inventing the Heaven of his abode, and whose action will remain for us forever unforeseen.

The lady crowned with olive branches justifies all of these accusations because, she says, if the world were perfect, what would a Redeemer have to do with it? Why see only the superficial and apparent disorder in things rather than (listen to my name!) the hidden joy, praise, and beatitude, which it is precisely the poet’s task to reveal? To this desire for the absolute and necessary which is the heart of Dante’s petition, Beatrice sets in opposition the praise of freedom, of an essentially gratuitous grace, of a living God, always new, always a fresh spring on the brink of irruption, never subjugated by the necessity of the universe he created from nothing, a God who is eternally inventing the Heaven of his abode, and whose action will remain for us forever unforeseen.

Paul Claudel was a poet, playwright, essayist, a towering force in French literature of the first half of the 20th century, whose works derive their lyrical inspiration, their unity and scope, and their prophetic tone from his faith in God. Claudel, the brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel, was born in a village of Champagne. Their family was one of farmers and gentry, an inauspicious background for his subsequent diplomatic career. Becoming expert in economic affairs, in 1890 he embarked on a long and brilliant career in the foreign service that took him from New York City to China (for 14 years), back to Europe, and then to South America. While pursuing his literary career, he was the French ambassador to Tokyo (1921), Washington (1927), and Brussels (1933).

As he traveled the world, removed from the literary circles of Paris, he slowly elaborated his theocentric conception of the universe and conceived his vocation: the revelation through poetry, both lyrical and dramatic, of the grand design of creation. This enthusiastic and relentless deciphering of the cosmos was inspired in Claudel’s 18th year by a double revelation: the discovery of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and his sudden conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Claudel reached his largest audience through his Symbolist plays  –  works that powerfully synthesized all theatrical elements to evoke a unified mood, atmosphere, and leitmotif. He reorchestrates his themes, expressed by a few symbolic types, again and again. His heroes are men of action  –  generals, conquerors, born masters of the earth. La Ville (published 1890), L’Echange (written 1893), and Le Repos du septième jour (written 1896) all portray heroes burning with all the lusts of the flesh: pride, greed, ambition, violence, and passion. But Claudel moves beyond man’s appetites along a firm path to redemption.

In 1900 Claudel underwent a religious crisis and decided to abandon his artistic and diplomatic career and enter a Benedictine monastery. Discouraged by the Order and deeply disappointed, he left France to take up a consular post in China. On shipboard he met a married Polish woman with whom he shared an adulterous love for the next four years, after which time it was mutually renounced.

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Alone among all the poets, Dante depicted the universe of things and of souls not from within the perspective of the spectator, but from within that of the Creator; trying to situate them not within the context of how, but of why; judging them in a certain way, or rather adjudicating them in view of their relation to their final ends.

He understood that in this visible world we do not see whole beings, but, as St. James the Apostle put it, “the beginnings of the creature,”[The apostle adds: We gaze at ourselves in the mirror of our birth.] ephemeral signs whose eternal significance escapes us. He attempted to present a moment of time within which an entire history had taken place, tracing the definitive figure that it forms from its contingent origins up to its unchanging results buried in the bosom of God’s Wisdom. He spells out a single page from the Liber scriptus which is spoken of in the Mass for All Souls.

Is such an attitude legitimate on the part of a Christian poet? Was it possible for him to try to penetrate with his imagination and reason those shadows that envelope our future destiny and whose opacity our modern treatises and predictions seek forever to diminish? Do not the Scriptures say that he who scrutinizes the majesty of God will be crushed and devoured by his glory and that no human eye can ever probe the destiny that God reserves for his elect? Despite this I cannot help but believe that Dante’s enterprise was not only legitimate, but even beneficial, and in this context I will permit myself to mention several lines from an English author named Gemble that really struck me:

All hope rests in large part on the support provided it by the imagination. If we are unable to form for ourselves a real conception of the thing desired, we are inclined to let our spirit stray and place it outside the field of our actual interest. Now, we cannot ignore the fact that, for many years, work has been undertaken to undermine, one after the other, each of the foundations upon which the belief in immortality has until recently rested in the popular imagination.

If we persist in closing, one after the other, each of the issues by which a person has sought to attain to his destination, in the end he will abandon this endeavor and will set himself in a different direction. Therefore if people maintain hope and if we continue to tell them that its fulfillment could not possibly take any of the forms they thought it could, in the end they will do an about- face and claim that hope itself is an illusion. Such seems to be the present consequence of our destruction of the vision of a future life in the place of which we have put nothing but a void.

These remarks are perfectly just. Christians are well-advised to desire Paradise, and this desire, like all the others, ought to interest not only our reason but the whole of our being, which includes the soul and the body. We must desire God, of whom it is said in the Our Father that he is in Heaven, and consequently, we must also desire the Heaven that is his abode, a sort of milieu between him and us. “Where the Father is,” St. John says, “there also will you be.”

Now how can we desire in the depths of our heart and our soul, with the help of grace which does not contradict nature but perfects it, something that we cannot form, not just as an idea, but as a sensible image? It was for this reason that the eternal Wisdom, being himself made flesh, addressed us only in parables; rather than using arguments, he explained to us the language of the things around us that have not ceased to speak to us since the day of creation. Things are not an arbitrary veil which conceal hidden meanings. They are really a part — at least — of their meaning, or rather they do not become complete themselves until their meaning is complete.

When the Bible uses created things to designate eternal realities, it does so not as some scatterbrained litterateur who chooses haphazardly from his repertoire of images, but in virtue of an intimate and natural affinity  –  nothing can issue from the mouth of God, who created all things by naming them, but what is eternal. There is not a radical separation between this world and the next, which are said to have been created simultaneously (creavit cuncta simul), but each forms the catholic unity in different ways, like a book that is said to have been written both from within and from without.

It is perhaps for having forgotten these great truths under the work of Jansenism, whose pestilent influence we can never sufficiently regret; it is perhaps for having had contempt for one part of God’s work, the noble faculties of the imagination and sense perception (and some madmen would have even tried to include reason itself), that religion has come to suffer through the long crisis from which it has barely begun to heal. This crisis, which reached its peak in the nineteenth century, was not above all an intellectual crisis.

[Ultimately, what disturbs Voltaire and his scant modern descendants is not so much the truths contained within the Bible as it is the picturesque splendor of its stories and the language that adorns them. Dante and Shakespeare shock them no less; they too are excessive and obscure authors. Such is the humane respect among the parvenus, like the Parisian janitor who is ashamed to introduce his friends to his mother clothed in her magnificent country-folk finery Notice the modesty with which our Renan dares not risk the least image without veiling it under a chaste curtain. Many of the people who believe they have classical tastes have nothing more than bourgeois tastes.]

The catalogue of errors has scarcely varied over time, and one could not say that their modern disciples have presented them any more powerfully or seductively. I would rather say that the crisis was the drama of a starved imagination.  On one hand, our superficial knowledge of the world has prodigiously increased due to the new materials that science has put at the disposal of each of us; fields of interest have multiplied, calling on all the resources of our intellectual appetite. On the other hand, God belongs to an unknown world, which is also, they say, unknowable, and so it is too easy, for minds elsewhere occupied and accustomed only to tactile matters, to confuse this unknown world with Nothing.

This is why it is particularly useful to meditate on Dante’s work and lesson in our present time. Some have wanted to make him above all a theologian. This is an untenable and even dangerous exaggeration. Many people are only too ready to believe that theology borrows the poet’s beautiful imagery for its own use, and has no other representation of the future life but these fresh illuminations. In reality, it seems that Dante ignored the most profound theses developed by the Sacred Science of his time.  His Hell is merely a Hell of the senses; he seems to ignore the suffering of the damned, or of the simultaneous privation of, and need for, God, which is the cruelest suffering of all since its cause is infinite.

His Purgatory (from this perspective) exhibits the same defect. The great purging suffering ought to have been not so much fire or hunger as light, the torture of seeing oneself as impure in the face of the eternal Innocence, and to have offended the Father and the Spouse. Finally, in Paradise we find only vague and rather imprecise allusions to the sublime theory of the beatific vision, in which we are allowed to penetrate even to the extent that the divinity somehow adds his powers to our own — like in the Platonic theory of optics where sunlight adapts itself to the powers of the eye — and forms us not into beings “like God,” according to the Tempter’s promise, but truly into “God,” fully adorned in the Son’s patrimony.

These complaints alter nothing about the unbounded admiration and profound veneration we ought to have for the work of this man from Florence. One has nothing to reproach a poet if he fully attains the goal he seeks, any more than one could reproach a pilgrim travelling to Montmartre for not having gone at the same time to Charonne and Passy. Now, Dante’s goal was not to teach us but to lead us, to take us with him, to have us see and touch, and, all the while reassuring our intelligence, to train our imagination by surrounding it only with known forms and familiar objects. 

Such was his plan, not as a missionary but as a poet, and he carried it out so vividly, so convincingly, with such beautiful language, that, little by little, and despite our doubts and hesitations, we yield to our guiding companion, and we too take up his journey in the flesh; we rhyme our steps with his; we see what he describes, and his prodigious voyage becomes as real for us as that of Robinson Crusoe.

We are numbed by the frozen pond; we clamber up the length of the hairy body of the great worm lodged in the center of the terrestrial fruit; we emerge in the middle of the vast expanse of the virgin sea where the fall of a cursed star chased away every human shore; we hear the chant proclaiming the presence of angels in the chill of the antarctic aurora, and the noise of the dark, dark wave, faster and more hidden than the canals of Lombardy, which irrigates the somber fields of Purgatory.

In truth, it is likely that the new citizens of the next life never witness the visions of the damned who try to recognize each other by squinting their eyes, “like an old tailor threading a needle or people who meet each other by the light of the moon,” or of the beautiful ladies who sing and dance among the worms of Purgatory, or of the sublime clock that the holy doctors fashion in the loftiest heights of Paradise. But what is real is the joy, hope, and terror that the beautiful images chosen by the poet pour into the depths of our hearts. So, the tambourine and viola in the hands of the elect in primitive paintings are but naive images of the sublime harmony established among souls.

IV.

The word that explains the whole of Dante’s work is love. In his vision, this word finds itself written over the very door of Hell, and is the guide in his itinerary through the three worlds of retribution. It is love, as the poet explains in mysterious and enchanting verse, that forms the secret of the dolce stile nuovo that enfolds his narration; it is the secret of his solemn and delicious measure, of his magical progression, where even the most horrid visions cannot alter for us the profound and sovereign gentleness.

Love, for Dante, is a full and integral love, the desire for the absolute good which was sparked in his heart by the innocent glance of a maiden. Fr. Lacordaire explains that there are not two different loves. Indeed, God’s love calls upon the same faculties in us as that of other creatures; it draws on that feeling we have that we are not complete alone, that the supreme good that will fulfill us is something beyond us, a person. But God alone is this reality, of which creatures are only an image I say image, and not phantom, because the creature has its own personal beauty and its proper existence.  The removal of this image, this betrothed, began Dante’s exile; and it is she who, outside the walls of an ungrateful homeland, invited him to the realm of the living.

Dante did not resign himself to separation from his beloved, and his work is nothing but an immense effort of the intelligence and imagination to reunite this world of trials, where he prepares himself, this world of effects which, seen from where we stand, seems the domain of chance and incomprehensible mechanisms, with the world of causes and final ends. His is a gigantic work of engineering to rejoin, to unify, the two parts of creation, to fasten them into one indestructible expression, and thus to achieve a hint of that vision of justice which another great poet says belongs to God alone.

And because the whole of the Divine Comedy finally resumes itself in the encounter between Dante and Beatrice, in the reciprocal effort of two souls separated by death in which each works to bring himself to the other in the solidarity of this world that each has endured, it is this essential encounter that I have tried in turn, after so many other readers, to imagine and to paint; it is this dialogue between two souls and two worlds which forms the subject of the poem to which these lines serve as introduction.

Dante speaks a verse inspired by the drudgery of this base and banal life, ultimately so foreign to the best nature in each of us. He too experienced the same exile that we do — one could say he is the paradigm of the exiled soul, banished from a world in which no part was large enough to hold him. Because he could not remake that world, Dante undertook to judge it and bring it onto the plane of justice to which Dona Bice had invited him.

Because he found himself the plaything of chance in this life, that which inspires the poet’s soul is a passionate need for unity, for the absolute, and for necessity, all participating in a rational Cause. He conceived of the human society as a monarchy in which each individual will embraced a central reason. And because the terrestrial horizons could not provide him with this image of a perfect circle, he will seek it by stages in each of those circles destined for punishment or for the purging of the inadequacy of one of our vices, of one of the particular crimes by which we have sinned against the universal and catholic Truth.

Hell is not enough to stop him; nor are the painful and delicious detours of Purgatory. Not until the thirty-third canto of Paradise, with the infrangible figure of the Trinity, does he find the principle of the concentric rose whose chosen orders formulate the successive enclosures appropriate to his desire. One last glance at this earth that has been delivered over to him as to a new Caesar, for him to unify within the intelligence and analogy, and under his feet stands Ravenna, that antique imperial city filled with dead basilicas, whose half-submerged earth takes to the air when the sun sets, to be engulfed by water and fire. — One last glance at this earth which has ended for him, and already he hears Beatrice, who has begun to speak. What does she say?

For Dante, Beatrice is love, and in our life, love is the essential element that always eludes our control; it is gratuitous and independent; it is that which intervenes into our tiny little worlds, so comfortably arranged by our mediocre reason, as a profoundly disturbing element.

We hear all of the reproaches that the dead woman was able to address to her lover in the sublime thirty-first canto of Purgatory, where Dante, in the presence of the Heavenly City which he will mount by degrees, confesses himself with so much nobility and humility. And we ask ourselves: But doesn’t Dante himself have some questions to ask; doesn’t he too have some reproaches to make to this lady who so cruelly and suddenly abandoned him? Did he not think to ask of the shade who preceded him along the paths of exile: Why? Why did you do this? It is to this question that Beatrice will quickly respond, and it is not only her that this eternally banished soul has the right to accuse; there is also his terrestrial fatherland, Florence, and the shameful thirteenth-century Italy, so bitter to a soul enamored with order and reason.

The lady crowned with olive branches justifies all of these accusations because, she says, if the world were perfect, what would a Redeemer have to do with it? Why see only the superficial and apparent disorder in things rather than (listen to my name!) the hidden joy, praise, and beatitude, which it is precisely the poet’s task to reveal? To this desire for the absolute and necessary which is the heart of Dante’s petition, Beatrice sets in opposition the praise of freedom, of an essentially gratuitous grace, of a living God, always new, always a fresh spring on the brink of irruption, never subjugated by the necessity of the universe he created from nothing, a God who is eternally inventing the Heaven of his abode, and whose action will remain for us forever unforeseen.

God in his Heaven teaches us things not by explaining them, but by showing them to us so that we may, as it were, do them with him, like the shepherd of Andre Chenier’s idyll who places his younger brother’s lips and fingers upon the flute. And so he brings us into his creative power, as well as into his work of redemption, by placing in our hands not only material things, but the very souls that depend on us so that we may offer them to him because, in a certain sense, they cannot receive light and salvation except from us.

He has allowed us truly to give him something, and not just a fistful of incense and wheat, but all of these immortal souls — or this particular brother laid into our hands.  Thus understood, the very defects that we see in things are not a source of sadness for us, but of joy. Lucifer alone considered himself perfect and, just as quickly, fell like a stone under his own weight. It is because all created things are imperfect, because they all have a certain lack, a certain radical emptiness, that they breathe, that they live, that they can enter into relation, that they need God and other creatures, that they lend themselves to every analogy in poetry and love.

And these analogies do not have absolute value in themselves; there is no enclosure impermeable to God’s grace, there is no measure, according to the Psalmist, that can exhaust God’s mercy or that is adequate to our debt of thanksgiving. This infinite universe that appalled Pascal and whose astronomical heavens serve as a conventional image, these billions of stars scattered with a sublime carelessness across the abyss, this is not enough! It will never be enough to repay our debt of gratitude,  – says Beatrice.

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Religion And The Artist 1: Introduction To A Poem On Dante by Paul Claudel

September 23, 2013
The object of poetry, thus, is not dreams, illusions, or ideas, as many believe. Instead, its object is this sacred reality, given once and for all, in the center of which we have been placed. It is the universe of things invisible. It is all this that beholds us and that we behold. All of this is God's work, which cannot be exhausted by any description or any song, whether from the greatest of poets or from the tiniest little bird.

The object of poetry, thus, is not dreams, illusions, or ideas, as many believe. Instead, its object is this sacred reality, given once and for all, in the center of which we have been placed. It is the universe of things invisible. It is all this that beholds us and that we behold. All of this is God’s work, which cannot be exhausted by any description or any song, whether from the greatest of poets or from the tiniest little bird.

I.

Dante is one of five poets who, I believe, deserves the adjective sovereign or catholic and whose work encompasses the three following traits:

  1. First, inspiration. There is not a single poet who does not need to inspire before he respires; who does not receive from elsewhere that mysterious breath which the ancients called the Muse and which does not resist comparison to the theological charism that the manuals designated as gratia gratis data. This inspiration is not without analogy to the prophetic spirit, which the Holy Scriptures take great care to distinguish from sanctity.

    We thus see Caiphus, Balaam, and Balaam’s ass itself, resonate under the breath that momentarily animates them. Poetic inspiration distinguishes itself by the gifts of imagery and meter. With imagery, the poet is like a man who, by ascending to a higher place, can now see around him a greater horizon, where new relationships establish themselves between things, relationships that are determined not by logic and the law of causality, but rather by a harmonic or complementary association with respect to meaning. With meter, meaning is relieved of the constraints of chance and circumstance; it reaches the mind through the ear with a delicious plenitude that satisfies both the soul and the body simultaneously.

    Inspiration by itself would not suffice to create one of those great poets I mentioned. To meet the work of grace, the subject would have to respond not only with perfect good will, simplicity and good faith, but also with exceptional natural abilities, governed and administered by a hardy, prudent and subtle intelligence, as well as a consummate experience. That is why, for example, even admirable talents, a Victor Hugo or a Seneca the Tragic, who are poets of genius, are not great poets and must even be placed below those talented writers who responded faithfully to their vocation.

  2. And this spares us from insisting extensively on the second trait, the gift of an extraordinary degree of intelligence and discrimination or taste. With intelligence, the poet, who most often receives from inspiration what amounts at best to an incomplete vision, a call, or a vague and enigmatic word, becomes capable by diligent and courageous study, by a rigorous investigation of his subject matter, by the abnegation of any preconceived idea before the end–of forging a complete spectacle, a world within himself wherein each part is governed by organic relations and indissoluble analogies. By discrimination and an inner taste, the poet immediately knows which things are appropriate and which are not. Discrimination is, so to speak, the negative side of creation. In this manner, one could contemplate in a statue either the statue itself, or the shards that have been chiseled away.
  3. The third trait, finally, is catholicity. What I mean by this is that these outstanding poets have received from God such vast things to express that only the entire universe will suffice for their work. Their creation is an image and a vision of the whole of creation, of which their inferior brothers can give only particular aspects. It is by a lack of this catholicity, and at the same time a lack of an essential vigor, that Racine must concede his place to Shakespeare, to whom he is nevertheless far superior in other respects.

If I wanted to summarize all the preceding comments, I could say that the supreme poetic genius, such as it is manifest in Dante, is a particular grace of attention.

II

The object of poetry, thus, is not dreams, illusions, or ideas, as many believe. Instead, its object is this sacred reality, given once and for all, in the center of which we have been placed. It is the universe of things invisible. It is all this that beholds us and that we behold. All of this is God’s work, which cannot be exhausted by any description or any song, whether from the greatest of poets or from the tiniest little bird.

And just as the philosophia perennis does not, like those stories fabricated by Spinoza and Leibniz, invent abstract beings which no one had seen before their authors, but rather contents itself with the terms furnished by reality; just as it gathers simple principles and draws the names of things around us from the definition of the noun, adjective, and verb; likewise, there exists a poesis perennis which does not invent its themes, but eternally gathers that which creation grants it.

For example, there is our liturgy, which one never tires of any more than of the spectacle of the seasons. The goal of poetry is not, as Baudelaire says, to plunge “into the depths of the Infinite in order to forge it anew,” but rather to plunge into the depths of the finite in order to discover it as inexhaustible. Such a poetry is Dante’s poetry.

Let us consider in contrast the various themes that nineteenth-century poetry invented and that have inspired the pages of many a volume already grown dusty. We find that they do not compose; they do not try to reconcile themselves with the whole of reality.  In this, they resemble heresies. And since books can never destroy reality, it is they themselves that are destroyed.

Let us take, for example, the theme of revolt and blasphemy that has provided much eloquent ranting from Byron to Leconte de Lisle.  These insults hurled into the void have something childish about them and really do none of us any good. They banish us to our own inner world; they make us into refugees from this grand peace, from which we have enjoyed excluding ourselves, but upon which the sun will not cease to rise and to set in spite of our sulking.

Again: many poets have sung about the coldness of nature, which cares neither for our joys nor for our sorrows. Is it possible to conceive of such grotesque misery? Do we really expect to revive the vegetables with our joys, or to influence barometric pressure with our tears? As Chesterton has insightfully put it, nature is not our mother; she is our sister. Truth alone gathers, and he who is not with it scatters.

Let us take another theme, that of a universe without God. It may satisfy our childishly mischievous desire for independence, but, ultimately, what decay comes to take the place of a well-ordered temple; what sort of debris is this incomprehensible chaos in the middle of which these pretentious artists never cease to set up their easels and pallets!–The theme of Humanity. What insubstantial idolatry!

One of the most absurd and hateful scenes commonly taken up by this cheap poetry is that of the immortality promised not to our soul (the great nineteenth-century vulgarizers deny that we have one), but to those purely material elements of which we are composed. Listen to what they say, dear reader! “It is true that what you wrongly consider to be your person will perish, but your flesh will live again eternally among the roses, your breath in the blowing of the wind, your eyes in the glowing fireflies, etc.” It is as if one were to say: “Here is the Venus de Milo, which I am going to reduce to rubble. It’s true that it will no longer exist as a statue, but it will continue to exist as stone and powder for the sharpening of knives.” I hold that from this moment the statue has wholly and absolutely ceased to exist, as much as the rose, now turned to dung. Please spare us your insipid consolations.

Finally, nineteenth-century poetry found its preferred text in the ideas of the infinite and evolution. There is nothing more hateful to the spirit of a true poet. The idea of a material infinite, that is to say, a boundless finitude, such as we find it presented in the horrid poem by Victor Hugo entitled Plein Ciel — what a scandal to our reason, what a disaster it is for our imagination, which finds itself frustrated in its essential source: the power of order, measure, and disposition that God has given it in the image of his creative Word.

The idea of evolution is no less abominable, since it tends to give all of creation an infinitely provisory and precarious character. Earnestly despising the universe’s momentary results, these poets entreat us to prefer what is not to what is. A true poet hasn’t the least need for grander stars or more beautiful roses. What exists already is enough, and the poet understands that his own life is too short for the lesson it gives and the respect it deserves. He knows that God’s works are very good, and he does not require more.

He knows that nature, with the insistence of a child who demands to be understood, never ceases to repeat each year, like a word to which it attaches immense importance, the same rose, the same cornflower; and the feisty erythrium that pierces the snow in the month of May with its tiny purple lance: what an immense conglomeration of concentric causes is needed so that this again becomes possible at every winter’s end!

Thus the mysterious poet, given its paradigm in Dante, is not he who invents but he who synthesizes and who, in his approach to things, allows us to comprehend them.

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Dante’s The Vita Nuova – A.N. Wilson

January 31, 2013
Through his study of Averroës, and perhaps due to his native temperament, Cavalcanti held the pessimistic view that humans were limited in the sort of ultimate attainment they could achieve. The intellect could never be brought into a harmony based on reason with bodily desires. This affinity for the ideas of Averroës would have lent to his reputation that he was an atheist. The crowning achievement of Guido’s poetic career is his masterpiece, the philosophical canzone Donna me prega (A woman asks me). It is a full fledged treatise of his personal thoughts and beliefs on love. Through it, he transforms all that came before him and influenced him: courtly love, the troubadours, the Sicilian School and his peers of the Dolce stil novo.

Through his study of Averroës, and perhaps due to his native temperament, Cavalcanti held the pessimistic view that humans were limited in the sort of ultimate attainment they could achieve. The intellect could never be brought into a harmony based on reason with bodily desires. This affinity for the ideas of Averroës would have lent to his reputation that he was an atheist. The crowning achievement of Guido’s poetic career is his masterpiece, the philosophical canzone Donna me prega (A woman asks me). It is a full fledged treatise of his personal thoughts and beliefs on love. Through it, he transforms all that came before him and influenced him: courtly love, the troubadours, the Sicilian School and his peers of the Dolce stil novo.

For the five years after the Battle of Campaldino, we can infer that Dante was writing poetry, composing the Vita Nuova, and laying the foundations of his career as a negotiator and politician. This was the period when he began his informal absorption in philosophy, with the ideas of contemporary philosophers forming part of the imaginative process which would eventually fructify in the Comedy. When Dante began to study philosophy in Florence, the prime philosophical school — in the absence of a university — was at the newly built Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, where a pupil of Aquinas, Remigio de’ Girolami, gave lectures.

It was almost certainly at Remigio’s feet that Dante revived his interest in the classical past. The points of overlap between Remigio’s teaching and Dante’s writings suggest that the Dominican lectures went deep. With Remigio, Dante learnt to see Cicero as the great defender of the res publica, and to perceive in history the Divine Mission of Rome. Quite how much Aquinas himself influenced Dante, and how much of his work Dante had read remains a matter of debate.

At this particular stage of Dante’s journey, however, in the 1290s, there as unfinished business, with his earlier self, with the ideas and the poetics he had learnt from Guido Cavalcanti, with his feelings for Beatrice. And the finishing of this unfinished business was the theme of his first book, the Vita Nuova.

We should misunderstand the Vita Nuova if we formed our impressions of it from, for example, the great paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who depicted such famous scenes as Dante drawing an angel, while in distracted grief for Beatrice, or Beatrice in her Beatitude. From Rossetti’s painting, as from many a devout commentary on the book, you might form the impression that the Vita Nuova is about Beatrice, whereas center-stage, and the book’s real subject, is Dante himself.

Ezra Pound was probably right to say that Cavalcanti was more modern than Dante, if by modern is meant less orthodox. But the Vita Nuova is in some senses a very modern, even very modernist, book. And it is possible that in this fact consists the solution of the problem, as well as the problem itself, outlined above, of whether or not Dante rejected Beatrice in favor of the Window Lady or vice versa.

When he was writing the sonnet already quoted — `Oltre la spera’ — his sigh was following Beatrice up to the Crystalline sphere. When he was writing Il Convivio, he was reflecting upon a time when he had devoted himself to free inquiry and philosophy. In one mood, Beatrice was to the fore, in another mood he loved the Donna Gentile. The positions would be incompatible if we were cross-examining counsel in a divorce case. But he is a poet, using the two women as figures for his own moods and preoccupations.

The Vita Nuova is modern in the sense that it is a text which devours itself, reflects upon itself, and makes itself, and its author, its own subject. It is a solipsism within a solipsism, ostensibly a commentary on Dante’s poetic career to date and an exposition of his own poetry — some of which is sublime and some of which, the early stuff, is pretty dull. Young poets, as a breed, are as egotistical as any human beings you are likely to meet, but even by the standards of young poets, it is an extraordinary exercise. Who, you might suppose, would be expected to read this disquisition on Dante’s philosophical and poetic development?

The answer, one suspects, is a very small number of people indeed – the circle to which Dante belonged, in which Guido had been preeminent. Dante is in effect saying in the Vita Nuova. “I used to write in your manner. I used to think like you. I used to share your “philosophy of love’: But now — Beatrice is dead, and with her “Beatrice” is dead. I am moving on until I can think of a way of using the Beatrician material to write something entirely different.”

That could be one paraphrase of the Vita Nuova. So, one of the things he does is to take Cavalcanti’s `philosophy of love’ and discard it, Cavalcanti had portrayed love as an aberration of reason, an enemy of peace of mind, a terrible interruption to life. His poem `Donna me prega, the one on which most of his commentators concentrate as the core of his philosophy, sees love as one of the appetites.

Love, in Cavalcanti’s vision, is an illusion. Following Averroes, Cavalcanti had seen love as an interruption to contemplation. Only in the world of abstract contemplation can the reason be satisfied. The Vita Nuova is a tribute to Cavalcanti and to what he has taught Dante, but it is also a somewhat confused farewell to him.

A far greater egotist even than Cavalcanti himself, Dante can yet see that there is something wrong with his philosophy of love. Love is not something which gets in the way of life. If any of these poems, any of these experiences of desire, longing, lust, worship, death, are true love must be central to experience. But what exactly is it?

Paradoxically, for so self-centered an imagination as the young Dante’s, he realizes that his experience of Beatrice in death and of the Donna Gentile in life is an experience of the other. Dante wrote well over three centuries before Descartes locked the Western imagination into the artesian conundrum — how can we know anything except our own existence, our own sensations, our own thoughts?

Aristotle thought it was legitimate to question everything and so did his greatest medieval exponent, St Thomas. Dante was never going to be philosopher professionally, but his sojourn among the philosophers had disturbed his sense that the intellectuals and poets within his own small Florentine circle possessed all the answers.

By the end of the Vita Nuova, he has admitted both to loving the Other Lady — to following philosophical inquiry rather than blind piety, of moving on to new experiences and not being locked in childhood and youth — and he has said that Beatrice or “Beatrice,” that is the beautiful Florentine girl he has loved since nine and all she stands for, will remain the end of all his searchings and inquiries.

The reader of the Vita Nuova finishes the book rather baffled, and the bafflement will not be diminished by many a re-reading of its circular, inward-looking, self-devouring manner. Like so much in Dante it shimmers with paradox. For it opens the heart of the reader to the possibility of new worlds, new imaginative possibilities. What these are, Dante does not himself know. But after this period he was ready to place his literary and intellectual career to one side and enter the arena of politics.

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Dante and St. Thomas – A.N. Wilson

January 30, 2013
For Dante, an objective reality existed. “There is no subjectivism or idealism in his world,” Christopher Dawson claimed; “everything has its profound ontological basis in an objective spiritual order.” Unfortunately, Dawson lamented, no one of Dante's caliber followed him... This was unfortunate, Dawson wrote; “otherwise we might have been saved alike from the narrow rationalism of eighteenth-century Classicism and from the emotional debauches of nineteenth-century Romanticism.”

For Dante, an objective reality existed. “There is no subjectivism or idealism in his world,” Christopher Dawson claimed; “everything has its profound ontological basis in an objective spiritual order.” Unfortunately, Dawson lamented, no one of Dante’s caliber followed him… This was unfortunate, Dawson wrote; “otherwise we might have been saved alike from the narrow rationalism of eighteenth-century Classicism and from the emotional debauches of nineteenth-century Romanticism.”

In 1215, Aristotle’s works had been banned by the statutes of the University of Paris. But largely through the labors of one supremely great and saintly intellect, Aristotle’s thought was saved for the Christian church. This figure, whose gigantic intellect rolls like thunder through the centuries reducing the tentative speculations of our modern theologians to so many squeaks on the margin, was an early recruit to Dominic’s order known to posterity as Thomas Aquinas. He was gigantic in every sense.

When Dante meets him in Heaven, Thomas is immediately recognizable because he is so enormously fat.

I was a lamb among the holy flock
that Dominic leads on the path where one
may fatten well if one does not stray off.
[Paradisio X.94-6, Mandelbaum]

He was in all senses a giant, immensely tall, and rotund. His brother friars nicknamed him the Sicilian Ox.

This intellectual Friar Tuck was one of the most brilliant and influential of all European philosophers. Like Dante, he was viewed with considerable distrust in the Church during his lifetime. In Spain, the philosophy of Aristotle had been brought by the Arab conquerors and at last translated into Latin. So too had the works of the Arab metaphysicians and mathematicians themselves. Naturally enough, the Church viewed with disquiet the arrival of so much new learning, much of which appeared to be incompatible with traditional Catholicism.

Thomas Aquinas was supreme among those intellects of his age in absorbing the new wisdom and seeing whether a synthesis of Greek and Arab insights could not be drawn into the Christian way of looking at the world. He was not alone. It was an extraordinary age, with such giants as Roger Bacon, Albert of Cologne, .known as Albert the Great, Siger of Brabant, Duns Scotus and Meister Eckhart all at work over a fifty-year period in Paris.

Older Dante scholars liked to imagine that Dante must have studied in Paris at some stage, though, in fact, no evidence can be found which demonstrates that he ever left Italy. But what could be truthfully said of the period of the second decade of the fourteenth century when Dante began to write his Comedy, when Duns Scotus had just finished and Meister Eckhart was still teaching at Paris, was that Dante was `far removed from Paris in body but very much there in spirit.

Of all these great thinkers, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) stands out as the most far-reaching and ambitious. He did not live fifty years in the world, but he left Christianity with an intellectual armor which it had not altogether possessed before. This was not because he supplied the Church with a set of answers, so much as because he taught it — hence the extreme suspicion with which he was regarded in some quarters — the robustness to ask questions, to take the Aristotelian habit of asking questions into every single area of life, including the most basic questions about God — namely, is His existence self-evident? Can His existence be demonstrated? And does He, in fact, exist?

He also, in a way which anticipated the work of mid-twentieth-century philosophers, explored the problems of existence/Being itself, questions of language and meaning from an epistemological point of view, as well as the philosophy of ethics, of aesthetics and of politics. In fact, in the post-classical world it is hard to think of any philosopher, with the possible exception of Hegel, who gave his mind to a wider range of issues. Certainly, he must have been one of the most prolific of the philosophers.

His works consist of many millions of words, many or most of them dictated. As has been said by one of his fellow-Dominicans, He worked himself literally to death. He had a nervous breakdown and a complete writing block in 1274 and died a few months later:  This writer clearly discounts the sensationalist medieval rumor, repeated by Dante and Villani, that Thomas was poisoned at the behest of Charles of Anjou.

Thomas was of noble, very nearly of royal, stock. He was a cousin of the Emperor Frederick II and of the Kings of France. Though regarded by Popes and traditionalist thinkers as a radical who was prepared to question everything, he was by no stretch of the modern imagination • radical in politics. ‘Aquinas accepted in toto the traditional hierarchy of aristocratic Europe, as it had existed from Homeric times up to his own day; slavery, warfare, capital punishment were all a natural part of it.

For this very reason, he was distrustful of what we can see as the origins of “capitalism — not merely usury, but the very notions of property were ones which he held up to question. Like most Christians of the Middle Ages, he was anti-Semitic. He believed that Jews should be forced to wear special clothing, that their money was tainted, and should not be used by Christians and that, by virtue of their having urged the Crucifixion of Christ, they were subject to a perpetual servitude.

He denounced Jewish usurers because they were usurers, not because they were Jews. A modern defender of Aquinas, presumably seeing him as less rabidly anti-Semitic than some of his medieval contemporaries, pleaded that, on the issue of Jewish worship as on forced conversion and baptism of Jewish children, Aquinas adopted a relatively tolerant position.

Thomas Aquinas was born, either in 1225 or 1227, at Roccasecca, in the region of Naples, the castle belonging to his father, Count Landulf of Aquino. At the age of five, he was placed in the monastery founded by St Benedict (c.480-c.544), father of Western monasticism, at Monte Cassino in the sixth century. In all the intervening years, between the life of Benedict and the life of Thomas Aquinas, European philosophy had slept. (‘There is no philosophy between the end of the third century after Christ, which saw the death, of Porphyrius, and the middle of the thirteenth century, which witnessed the appearance of the “Summa contra gentiles”)

At Monte Cassino, Thomas was given the equivalent of a boarding-school education, following the medieval pattern of the Trivium and the Quadrivium. In 1239, he had what was a lucky break. The monks were forced to abandon the monastery, and Thomas was sent to the newly founded University of Naples. Frederick II, deemed by orthodox Catholics to be the child of Satan, had founded this university to train civil servants in deliberate opposition to the papal-chartered universities of Bologna and Paris.

It was in every sense a freethinking university which, because of its links with Sicily where Frederick had his court, was in touch with the new learning brought to Europe by the Arabs. It was at Naples that Thomas encountered an Irishman, Petrus Hibernicus, who introduced him to the works of Aristotle. After nearly a millennium of philosophical stagnation, Europe was again reminded of what philosophy was.

Latin Europe had possessed a few bits of Aristotle — a translation of the Physics was known at Chartres, for example — but it was in the Arab world that Aristotle was known, and in the ecumenical climate of late twelfth-century Toledo that Aristotle was translated into Latin and came to be known by such intellectuals as Peter the Irishman.

From the point of view of the mature Dante, who wrote the Comedy and turned much of Aquinas’s hyper-energetic dialectic into deeply charged poetry, three things above all others need to be mentioned out of the whole eight-million-word conversation which Aquinas was having with the world.

First, the notion of ecstasy. Dante’s great poem is about a man who journeys out of the dark wood of middle life into the Empyrean itself. He is transported from earth to Paradise. Few human beings have ever claimed to do this, but one who seems to have made the claim is the Apostle Paul who, in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, wrote to his converts in Corinth in the late fifties of our era,

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know: God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

This was an important Scriptural passage for Aquinas. He interpreted the third Heaven’ to mean the Empyrean (as Dante would do). It is the `spiritual Heaven where angels and holy souls enjoy the contemplation of God. This contemplation could, says Thomas, either be seen as an imaginative vision, such as Isaiah enjoyed (in his sixth chapter) or such as was seen by the New Testament seer in the Apocalypse.

Or it could be seen, as the last great philosopher of the Latin world before the Dark Ages (St Augustine of Hippo) saw it, as an intellectual vision. The point which Thomas emphasizes is that it is not natural for human beings to see God. St Paul was in ecstasy, a word which means being taken out of your normal state, a word which even, says Thomas, implies a certain violence. A mere man cannot see the essence of God.

In a sense, Thomas’s reflections on this strange passage from Paul anticipate the whole problem of knowledge post-Descartes, that is, how can you escape your own sense-impressions into a world of objectivity? As far as our knowledge of God is concerned (and perhaps as far as our knowledge of anything else), Aquinas, who appears to be one of those thinkers who has thought of everything, says you need to leave yourself, in the Cartesian sense, in order to know anything.

In order to know God, you need to do something like violence to nature. But although God is the beginning and the end of our intellectual journey, He is irreducible. `The ultimate happiness of man consists in his highest activity, which is the exercise of his mind. If, therefore, the created mind were never able to see the essence of God, either it would never attain happiness, or its happiness would consist in something other than God. This is contrary to faith [alienum a fide], for the ultimate perfection of the rational creature lies in that which is the source of its being — each thing achieves its perfection by rising as high as its source.

There is a paradox, therefore, at the heart of human intellectual endeavor. The thing which brings the human mind its ultimate happiness, the knowledge of God, cannot be enjoyed by the mere pursuit of the intellect. (This is why Thomas, after his `nervous breakdown, described all his philosophical works as mere straw.) Mere thinking about God, however exact and sustained, remains incomplete theology unless charged with dilectio, or choosing to be in love with God himself.

Bishop Berkeley took skepticism in the eighteenth century to its ultimate extreme by refusing to believe in matter itself. We can have no certainty of the material existence of bodies outside ourselves, only the mind of God can keep such things in existence. As a good Aristotelian, Aquinas would have thought this was nonsense, which it is, and he would no doubt have approved of another large, fat Christian man, Samuel Johnson, responding to Berkeley’s difficulty literally with a kick against a material object. (`Striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded for it, “I refute it thus“.’)

But Aquinas, as a fellow-philosopher of Berkeley’s, would have sympathized with the absurdity more than Johnson did. Aquinas devised what he called Five Ways to prove God’s existence. In asking the question whether God is self-evident, he refutes the so-called ontological proof of Anselm. God’s self-evidence can never be self-evident to us. It can only be self-evident to God. Even when Paul had been up to the `third Heaven’ and had his vision, he did not know whether his experience was in the body not. He lacked something, which is the full and perfect knowledge which is the lot of angels, says Thomas.

Our minds can operate — here he is an Aristotelian, not an eighteenth century empiricist — to grasp their own limitations. We can see that there things which, with mental equipment, cannot be known. But where-Cartesian philosopher would be tempted to subject God Himself to same set of criteria by which we judge the knowability of material objects, or objects within nature, in a Thomist view of things this is the wrong way round. It is only because of God that anything exists at all. God is the ultimate reality, and our reality only begins to take shape, like the coming into vision of material objects with each sunrise, in His light.

Later philosophers have been divided about the extent to which Thomas was successful in `proving’ the existence of God. For the present purpose — drawing a picture of the mind of Dante Alighieri, and attempting to assess the effect upon it of reading the philosophy of Aquinas — the validity of the arguments is secondary to their imaginative power.

One would note three things.

  1. First, then, the importance Thomas attaches to ecstasy, and his interest in the journey (whether in the body or not) supposedly made by the Apostle Paul to the `third Heaven’ Dante was to make such a journey — the journey in the Comedy is a journey to Heaven in the body – and what Thomas says about this must be relevant. Dante’s journey is one of sanctification. He himself is journeying to blessedness, and he hopes his readers will accompany him. When he has been uplifted out of the present life, it is no accident that he meets Thomas Aquinas.
  2. Secondly, having said that — and this is crucial for any understanding either of Dante’s, or of his contemporaries, way of thinking — what Aquinas was exploring in his philosophy (as was Aristotle) was objective knowledge. There is no skepticism about the possibility of knowledge (as there would be for Berkeley and Hume). The world is that which is the case. This will pose critical, as well as philosophical, problems for the modern reader of Dante.The `story’ — of Dante starting out in the middle of a dark wood and ending up in the Empyrean gazing upon God Himself — is surely an invention, a fiction? Along the way, he will meet mythological creatures such as the Minotaur and the Centaurs; he will also meet real, historical characters; and he will meet angels and figures from the Bible. How much of his vision are we to take as fiction, and how much is real? How we answer this question will depend upon how we read the whole of Dante’s life and age. Thomas Aquinas, a rigorously realist, Aristotelian philosopher, will help us here.
  3. Third — Thomas’s philosophy of politics and law. They are not the only influence upon Dante, but they are a significant part of it. In much of his prose work, Dante is trying to explore the idea of the Good City, and the idea of the ideal political condition of the world. In this, as in other areas of life, he would change his mind radically, at least three times. When living in Florence, he was a Guelf, a supporter of the papal party against the domination of the Emperor. In exile, he became a sort of Ghibelline, and in his book on monarchy he saw the Emperor Henry VII as a universal Emperor.

Dante would have first come across these ideas in the church of Santa Maria Novella at the lectures given by Dominican followers of St Thomas. I mention them here because they clearly will emerge in his work when it comes to maturity and there is a case for noting when the seeds of an idea are planted in a writer’s imagination even if we cannot be sure when those seeds gestated.

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Dante, Boethius and St. Thomas – A. N. Wilson

January 29, 2013
Boethius and Philosophy by Mattia Preti, 17th century

Boethius and Philosophy by Mattia Preti, 17th century

Dante tells us after the death of Beatrice that he gave himself up to the reading of philosophy and two of the works which he studied were Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, and Cicero’s On Friendship, in particular that passage known as the Dream of Scipio, on which Macrobius wrote a commentary. These are two of the most popular `classics’ of the medieval world and in order to understand Dante’s work (or, indeed, the medieval mind generally) one should have a knowledge of them.

Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius (480-524) was a Roman aristocrat who served as a government minister to the first barbarian King in Italy, Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Theodoric was an Arian Christian — that is to say, he followed the teachings of Arius, the Libyan who denied the Trinity. Boethius was an orthodox Christian, and he wrote a tract on the Trinity. It is not for this, however, that he is remembered.

He was implicated — history cannot guess whether justly or otherwise — in a plot formed by the Roman Senate and the Eastern Emperor to oust Theodoric from his position. He was put in gaol in Pavia and eventually killed by having ropes twisted round his head until his eyes popped out. He e was finished off with a bludgeon.

Although he was canonized as St Severinus, very few ever think of him this title. (The church of Saint Severin in Paris, for example, commemorates a quite different person, a sixth-century hermit who lived in a hut the site of what would become the Latin Quarter.) Our man is always own as Boethius. And he is famous for the book he wrote while he was awaiting sentence of death, The Consolation of Philosophy, a book translated into English by Alfred the Great, by Chaucer, and by Queen Elizabeth I, and which Edward Gibbon deemed `a golden volume not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or of Tully.

C. S. Lewis, in his Cambridge lectures, said that, `Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.

It is certainly to be recommended, if you are to become a real Dante reader, that you read Boethius. To start with, however, it is perhaps enough to know a few salient points. First, Boethius, although a Christian, devoted his last work to seeing what consolation could be derived from the exercise of pure reason. There would come a time for imploring the grace and mercy of God — when he laid down his pen in the evenings, and, presumably, when he came to face his executioners.

But the lofty purpose of his book is not to dip into the consolations of piety. It is to see how a rational person, and it must be added, a gentleman, faces up to adversity, injustice and death. In doing so, Boethius the Roman senator and aristocrat draws himself up to his full height, as it were, and he writes in the polished prose of classical Latin; he lards his text with allusions to Pythagoras, to Homer, to Herodotus and Livy, to Tacitus and Cicero. Condemned by a barbarian king for wishing to preserve the Roman Senate, he says that the documents being used to condemn him are forgeries but, `what is the point of talking about those forgeries in which I am accused of having striven for Roman liberty?

What he leaves behind, then, is the classical era’s last shout in a world taken over by barbarians. In a world where the Dark Ages have engulfed Europe, in which literacy is confined to the few (Theodoric was illiterate) and books were more and more to be found in monastic libraries or not at all, Boethius gives us the world seen through the eyes of a classically educated person. If there were to be a classical revival in our own day, there would be worse ways of starting it than by putting The Consolation of Philosophy on the school curriculum. Here are many of the tropes and types which will become commonplace in so much medieval literature, and which, fairly obviously, are central to Dante.

First, the Consolation is an allegory in which, in his distress, Boethius is visited by the figure of a woman who seemed both eternally young and very old. She is Philosophy, but we shall be visited again and again by this image, of a male figure, whether in a dream-vision or not, being visited by an allegorical female figure. Clearly, the figure of Philosophy as she appears to Boethius influences, not so much Dante’s feelings about the Lady of the Window, as of Beatrice in the Comedy.

Central to the whole book is the puzzle of how God can permit such chaos in human affairs, and how the wise person conducts himself in relation to the unpredictable mutability of things. Boethius is one of the great popularizers of the idea of Fortune’s Wheel. `Will you really try to stop the whirl of her turning wheel? He also paints the classic, as well as classical, picture of the Unmoved Mover.

By the completion of Book IV, with its exposition of how to retain an equable temper in the face of adversity, are conscious of Boethius’ debts to the classical moralists, and also of the influence he spreads over the Elizabethan poets (Spenser above all), on the Augustan moralists such as Pope and Johnson, right down to Kipling meeting with Triumph and Disaster and treating those two imposters just the same. Yet there is nothing trite about Boethius. As well as recognizing his influence in so much of later moralizers, we shall feel there is something which he possesses in common with the Vedic wisdom of India. To be wise is to become close to God’s simplicity.

In reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Dante likewise puts himself in touch with one of the few classical texts widely known by medieval literates. In this book may be found a potted version of Plato’s creation myths in the Timaeus — it is the closest Dante ever got to reading Plato. Here too are the accounts of the soul’s journeys through the universe as it returns to Heaven upon death. (There is no resurrection for Cicero.)

Dante came to these classics of the educated medieval man comparatively late in life. He was old enough to absorb them, hold on to them for what would be useful to him when he came to write his masterpiece. There would always be what a wise English Dante scholar, Father Kenelm Foster OP, called the two Dantes: the classical Roman man who was, if not exactly pagan, a self-conscious continuer in the footsteps of Virgil and Cicero, and the Catholic pilgrim-poet, who would write a Comedy which was about personal sanctification in the Christian mould.

When he came to study philosophy in an informal way in Florence, Dante was perhaps inevitably made aware of the dichotomy between the two stances. There was no university in Florence, but it was not long since the arrival in the city of two comparatively new religious orders – the Franciscans, started by St Francis of Assisi some forty years before Dante was born, and the Order of Preachers, which had taken shape at Bologna in 1220-21 under the direction of St Dominic.

Both these saints, and their orders, played an enormous part in Dante’s life, and in his vision of what the Church had a chance to become. Both their orders were departures from the traditional pattern of Western monasticism, in which a man or woman took a vow to remain in one place for life. The friars, Franciscan and Dominican, were roving preachers, missionaries, lecturers, ascetics and, especially in the case of the Dominicans, intellectuals. Dominic and his order are forever associated with two movements, or episodes, which suggest a somewhat dualistic nature in his outlook and that of his friars. On the one hand, Dominic, a Spaniard who, in his thirties, toured the South of France rooting out Cathar heretics, was the leading voice in excoriating the Cathars, and one of the principal functions of the order he founded was to convert them to Catholicism.

Yet while this part of Dominic’s work must be seen by posterity as an exercise in intolerance (however calamitous we might see it would have been if the fanatical Cathars had come to outnumber Catholics or dominate the religious climate of Europe), the other aspect of the Dominican intellectual life seems to be of an opposite coloring. For with Dominic’s order will always be associated the cult of Aristotle and the growth of Catholic intellectualism based upon debate and inquiry. In Dominic’s spiritual war against the Cathars (which, as we have seen, turned into an actual war in which many were massacred), the Church authorities were only too happy to tap into his order’s resources of ascetic and intellectual strength.

With his friars’ love affair with the new learning, the authorities were less happy. Above all they were suspicious of the revival of interest in Aristotle, who denied the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting. In 1215, Aristotle’s works had been banned by the statutes of the University of Paris. `But largely through the labors of one supremely great and saintly intellect, Aristotle’s thought was saved for the Christian church.”‘ This figure, `whose gigantic intellect rolls like thunder through the centuries reducing the tentative speculations of our modern theologians to so many squeaks on the margin,” was an early recruit to Dominic’s order known to posterity as Thomas Aquinas. He was gigantic in every sense.

When Dante meets him in Heaven, Thomas is immediately recognizable because he is so enormously fat.

I was a lamb among the holy flock
that Dominic leads on the path where one
may fatten well if one does not stray off.
[Paradisio X.94-6, Mandelbaum]

He was in all senses a giant, immensely tall, and rotund. His brother friars nicknamed him the Sicilian Ox.

This intellectual Friar Tuck was one of the most brilliant and influential of all European philosophers. Like Dante, he was viewed with considerable distrust in the Church during his lifetime. In Spain, the philosophy of Aristotle had been brought by the Arab conquerors and at last translated into Latin. So too had the works of the Arab metaphysicians and mathematicians themselves. Naturally enough, the Church viewed with disquiet the arrival of so much new learning, much of which appeared to be incompatible with traditional Catholicism.

Thomas Aquinas was supreme among those intellects of his age in absorbing the new wisdom and seeing whether a synthesis of Greek and Arab insights could not be drawn into the Christian way of looking at the world. He was not alone. It was an extraordinary age, with such giants as Roger Bacon, Albert of Cologne, known as Albert the Great, Siger of Brabant, Duns Scotus and Meister Eckhart all at work over a fifty-year period in Paris.

Older Dante scholars liked to imagine that Dante must have studied in Paris at some stage, though, in fact, no evidence can be found which demonstrates that he ever left Italy. But what could be truthfully said of the period of the second decade of the fourteenth century when Dante began to write his Comedy, when Duns Scotus had just finished and Meister Eckhart was still teaching at Paris, was that Dante was `far removed from Paris in body but very much there in spirit.

Of all these great thinkers, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) stands out as the most far-reaching and ambitious. He did not live fifty years in the world, but he left Christianity with an intellectual armor which it had not altogether possessed before. This was not because he supplied the Church with a set of answers, so much as because he taught it — hence the extreme suspicion with which he was regarded in some quarters — the robustness to ask questions, to take the Aristotelian habit of asking questions into every single area of life, including the most basic questions about God — namely, is His existence self-evident? Can His existence be demonstrated? And does He, in fact, exist?

He also, in a way which anticipated the work of mid-twentieth-century philosophers, explored the problems of existence/Being itself, questions of language and meaning from an epistemological point of view, as well as the philosophy of ethics, of aesthetics and of politics. In fact, in the post-classical world it is hard to think of any philosopher, with the possible exception of Hegel, who gave his mind to a wider range of issues. Certainly, he must have been one of the most prolific of the philosophers. His works consist of many millions of words, many or most of them dictated. As has been said by one of his fellow-Dominicans, He worked himself literally to death. He had a nervous breakdown and a complete writing block in 1274 and died a few months later:  This writer clearly discounts the sensationalist medieval rumor, repeated by Dante and Villani, that Thomas was poisoned at the behest of Charles of Anjou.

Thomas was of noble, very nearly of royal, stock. He was a cousin of the Emperor Frederick II and of the Kings of France. Though regarded by Popes and traditionalist thinkers as a radical who was prepared to question everything, he was by no stretch of the modern imagination radical in politics. ‘Aquinas accepted in toto the traditional hierarchy of aristocratic Europe, as it had existed from Homeric times up to his own day; slavery, warfare, capital punishment were all a natural part of it.  For this very reason, he was distrustful of what we can see as the origins of “capitalism — not merely usury, but the very notions of property were ones which he held up to question. Like most Christians of the Middle Ages, he was anti-Semitic. He believed that Jews should be forced to wear special clothing, that their money was tainted, and should not be used by Christians and that, by virtue of their having urged the Crucifixion of Christ, they were subject to a `perpetual servitude.

He denounced Jewish usurers because they were usurers, not because they were Jews. A modern defender of Aquinas, presumably seeing him as less rabidly anti-Semitic than some of his medieval contemporaries, pleaded that, `On the issue of Jewish worship as on forced conversion and baptism of Jewish children, Aquinas adopted a relatively tolerant position.

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The Dream Of Dante’s Late Teens: The False Distinctions Of Sacred And Profane Love – A.N. Wilson

January 16, 2013
Victorian Art A.C. Lalli’s Dante’s Dream

Victorian Art A.C. Lalli’s Dante’s Dream

While I respect Mr. Wilson’s scholarship and his contributions to my understanding Dante and church history, his occasional forays into theology and current controversies are less than appreciated. Pardon my outbursts when coming across the latter in this essay.
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There are many paradoxes, of course, about the fact that the Church which persecuted the Albigensians for their cult of personal virginity should themselves worship a Virgin, that a Church which resented the Manichaean fear of the flesh expressed by the Albigensians should itself celebrate those human beings who had forsworn sexual relations. But the `paradox’ is in this instance simply explained. The Church owed much to the `heretical’ Albigensians. Much of its own asceticism derived from theirs. In order to win converts from the Cathar ranks, it was necessary to borrow Cathar clothes.

It was no accident or paradox that in the years when the Cathar threat to Catholicism rose to its height, the Church should have seen a revival of ascetic monasticism and the growth of the two most eloquent itinerant religious orders, those of St Francis and St Dominic.

The love poets of the Languedoc region, the inventors of Courtly Love, were themselves deeply imbued with the Cathar contempt for the body. In Purgatory, Dante and Virgil enter the circle of the sodomites. There they are greeted by the poet Guido Guinizelli, who was praised by Dante in his prose writings. Dante acknowledged Guinizelli as his, literary father or forebear. When he has recognized his old hero as Guinizelli, he exclaims:

It is your sweet lines that, for
as long as modern usage lasts, will still make dear their very inks.
[Purgatorio XXVI.112-14, Mandelbaum]

But here is something strange. Just as his old friend Brunetto Latini is among the sodomites in Hell, so his two heroes among the poets, Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel, are in Purgatory being purified of their of… once again, sodomy. Why they are in Purgatory when Brunetto is Hell, Dante does not tell us.

They confess: ‘Nostro peccato fu ermafrodito‘ [Purgatorio. XXVI.82) Mandelbaum translates `our sin was with the other sex, but Dante is surely subscribing to the view of gay sex which Proust adopted (much to Gide' rage) at the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe, namely that gay men ar somehow hermaphroditic, or that they are women struggling to get out of men's bodies.

St Augustine of Hippo recalled that, during the exodus from Egypt, the Hebrew women stole the jewellery of the Egyptians. When Christian; thinkers took from the wisdom of the pagans -- as in his own borrowings from Plato -- it was `plundering the Egyptians.

The Church has always borrowed most shamelessly from those whose viewpoints it claimed most articulately to deplore. From the Albigensians, it derived its high medieval asceticism, its belief in a celibate clergy and, in part, its exaggerated cult of the Virgin. Dante, likewise, is able to borrow and develop the quasi-idolatrous worship of Idealized Woman of the troubadours and of the Courtly Love convention.

But while doing so, he can dismiss Guido Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel to the company of the sodomites. He is saying that this treatment of women as an idealized figure, unapproachable, is a bit gay. This, perhaps, is what Dante is partly saying about his great precursors as love poets. Yet it beggars belief that this is all he is saying. Arnaut Daniel and Guido Guinizelli could have been suffering in Purgatory for any of the sins. Dante chose to specify this one.

The figure of Arnaut is, Momigliano says in his commentary, among the most delicate and nuanced in the entire Purgatorio. He was one of the most famous of the great Provencal troubadours. Petrarch gives him the first place among non-Italian love poets -- he calls him the `gran maestro d’amor.’ He represents all that is best in the Courtly Love tradition.

We might suppose that as Dante became more `mature, he gave up believing in the courtly conventions of romantic love, that he in some way or another `saw through' it as a sham. It would seem, though, as if the opposite were the case. He began a cynic. Trained by sour, misogynistic Jean de Meun, he had written in Il Fiore that love was just another word for pain (see the sonnet called `Reason' [Casciani and Kleinhenz, p. 109]). `Separate yourself from him or you will die.’ Reason teaches us, in Jean de Meun, to shun love. The many cynical sonnets in the later part of the sequence entitled `The Old Woman’La Vecchia — could have been written by Becky Sharp in old age:

If I had been a true expert
In the game of love when I was young,
I would be richer than any young noble woman
Or lady, whom you can see today.
[Casciani and Kleinhenz, p. 327]

Or

Many times my door was broken down
And battered, when I was sleeping:
But despite this I said nothing to them,
Since I had the company of another man;
I made him believe that his sexual pleasure
Pleased me more than any other thing in the world.
[Casciani and Kleinhenz, p. 329]

This breezy cynicism which so appealed to the very young Dante would give place, when he was broken and middle-aged, to a sense of the overwhelming power of romantic love. Arnaut Daniel had written of it in his now lost romance of Launcelot, the book which beguiled the lovers Paulo and Francesca.

This is the passage of the Inferno that even the most cursory readers of Dante remember. And again, as in the encounter with the totally charming Brunetto, suffering for the sin of sodomy, we are so made to sympathize with the adulterous lovers that we all but forget that what they have done is a sin. Thus, while being the most famous and most haunting passage in the Inferno, it is also the most subversive of the very doctrine of Hell, and of eternal punishment.

When I had listened to those injured souls
I bent my head and held it low until
the poet asked of me: `What are you thinking?’

When I replied, my words began, Alas,
how many gentle thoughts, how deep a longing,
had led them to the agonizing pass!’

Then I addressed my speech again to them,
and I began, `Francesca, your afflictions
move me to tears of sorrow and of pity.

But tell me, in the time of gentle sighs,
with what and in what way did Love allow you
to recognize your still uncertain longings?’

And she to me: `There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery — and this your teacher knows.

Yet if you long so much to understand
the first root of our love, then I shall tell
my tale to you as one who weeps and speaks.

One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot — how love had overcome him.
We were alone and we suspected nothing.

And time and time again that reading led
our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
and yet one point alone, defeated us.

When we had read how the desired smile
was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
this one, who never shall be parted from me,

while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
A Gallehault [Queen Guinevere's steward] indeed, that book and he
Who wrote it too; that day we read no more.’

And while one spirit said these words to me,
the other wept, so that — because of pity –
I fainted, as if I had met my death.
[Inferno V.109-41, Mandelbaum]

Arnaut speaks to Dante in his own language of Provençal. He says that he `plor e vau cantan, he weeps and sings at the same time. In thought he sees his past madness; with joy, he looks forward to the day of joy which awaits him [Puratorio XXVI.142-8]; but there is still some purging to be completed, so he retreats back into the refining fire.

In the dualistic mindset which possessed, and possesses, most Christian thinking, there would be no difficulty in seeing Arnaut Dani as a representative of false love; he laments his devotion to profane love, and rejoices because he is looking ahead to sacred love. It may even be the case that at certain points of Dante’s career, he too would have thought in this way.

But the reason that Charles Williams thought that the world was still not ready for Dante was that the Comedy is much bolder than this. In Dante’s finished and mature work, there is no such thing as profane love. Arnaut Daniel, and the Italian love poets who imitated him, and the traditions of Courtly Love poetry into which Dante, as a young man, were initiated were not idolaters — in the sense of focusing their love on false idols. What Dante was to venture was the possibility that in loving a woman, a man is not turning away from God but towards Him; that the meaning of Incarnation was that men and women, in the flesh as well as in the spirit, became like Christ. The Comedy is much too subtle a work to make its points loudly or by banging a drum. But the pity of the poet-traveler in Hell is more powerful, rhetorically, for the reader, than the supposed orthodoxy which condemns the lovers everlastingly.

The Cathars had believed that matter was evil, that the body was in itself impure, that the only good was spiritual good. The Church had rejected the heresy and persecuted it with the most terrible cruelty. But although the Church saw that the ideas of the Cathars were false, it was itself seduced by the very heresy which it purported to suppress. After the suppression of the Cathars, the Church laid more and more emphasis on the need for priestly celibacy. Sex itself was suspect. The body was suspect. Christianity lives, to this hour, with those old Cathar falsehoods — as is demonstrated from time to time when `orthodox’ Christians rise up to persecute, for example, gays in the twenty-first century. [Ugh. Such an ignorant observation. dj]

Even if you are not a Christian, common sense teaches us that the Cathar heresy is wrong. Of course, we are bodies not spirits! [Duh. How about embodied spirits? Wilson writes entertainingly and informingly of Dante but doesn’t know shit about Catholic theology. DJ ] Yet, from Plato to Mrs Baker Eddy and the Christian Scientists, from the Cathars to the Muslim men who swathe their women in burkhas, the human race has been attracted by the thrilling falsehood that their very bodily existence is sinful, that matter is illusory or evil. Common sense teaches us that physical existence — appetites of stomach or sexuality, the appearance of our bodies, the nerve endings in our brains — are what determine our existence. [So hard not to comment:This guy IS stupid! dj]

The mature Dante had put behind him the false distinctions of sacred and profane love. These he had learned, not from reading theology, but from reading the `heretical’ love-religion of Arnaut Daniel and the Provencal poets, and perhaps from dabbling with the heresy of the Cathars. The religion of Courtly Love had set the ideal Lady on a pedestal. The `tragedy’ of Paolo and Francesca was that in reading Arnaut Daniel’s romance of Launcelot, they had moved away from the fantasy of literature into an actual sexual encounter. `That day we read no more’ — ‘Quel giorno piix no vi leggemmo avante’ — a line of characteristic economy, irony, punch.

The confused erotic preoccupations of adolescence come to focus on an actual sexual object. The nine-year-old Beatrice, the little girl in a red frock, becomes an eighteen-year-old Beatrice, and Dante becomes aware of the body beneath the dress. Dante is walking along a street in Florence and sees her. We are not, surely, meant to suppose that Beatrice Portinari, who lived only yards from the Alighieri house, had really not been seen by a neighbor for nine years. There are seeings and there are `seeings.’ This is not a regular good-morning, it is an epiphany — and for the moment the girl next door is little lower than the angels. She is between two other women. `The miraculous lady appeared, dressed in purest white’ [VN III Musa]. She greets him, and he is overwhelmed. As he was to write of the incident after she had died, this was the first time that she had ever actually spoken to him.

If this account of his meeting the adult Beatrice is to be taken as literally true, it would suggest that Florentines kept their women in purdah until they were free to be handed over to their husbands, but I do not think you need to take it as the literal truth, even though the customs of the time and the doctrines of the Church both conspired to agree that women were inferior beings. `Whether of good or bad character, women needed to be kept down, if necessary violently. Buona femmina e mala femmina vuol baston. The common to a young bridegroom was to wish him, `Salute e figli maschi!’ and boy-children.

When, towards 1318-20, Francesco da Batberin his Reggimento e costume di donna he was not sure whether to recommend families of the middle class or the nobility to teach their children to read. As for the behavior of young girls and women, their great virtue is reserve, modesty and stillness. To agitate the limbs too much signifies in a female child, affectation, and in a young woman, an inconstant heart.

Beatrice, then, as she walked out with two female companions or chaperones, would have led an existence which was as restricted as that of the most strictly brought-up Muslim girl of today. Her daring to speak out of turn and to greet Dante, even if they had been neighbors for eighteen years, was a token of some boldness. Perhaps this was his reason — apart from the fact that she had for nine years become a goddess inside his head — for being so overwhelmed by the experience. He went home to his bedroom. We do not know where this bedroom was. Was it still with his half-brother and half-sister and stepmother? Or was it in the house of a guardian?

The vision of the child Beatrice had touched the most secret chamber of his heart. Here, once again, he goes to his secret chamber. His way of writing about these things, and his articulation of his feelings, signal a new development not only in literature, but in European consciousness. As the great Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt said, `The human spirit had taken a mighty step towards the consciousness of its own secret life.’

As he lay in his bedroom, Dante fell asleep. A fiery mist filled the room, and through its vapours he made out the fearsome Lord of Love, who declared that he was Dante’s Master. In the arms of the Lord of Love, a woman was asleep. She was naked, except for a blood-red cloth loosely wrapped around her body. Dante recognized the lady whom he had met in the street. In one of the Lord’s hands, Dante saw a flaming object. `Vide cor tuum’ — see your heart, says the Lord in Latin. (In the dream, which is related in Italian, the Lord of Love always speaks Latin, some of it unintelligible.) Then the Lord of Love woke up the young woman and forced her to eat the heart. The Lord, who had been joyful, started to weep, as he and Beatrice vanished, drifting upwards towards Heaven.

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The Dream of Dante’s Late Teens: Cathars and The Cult of Courtly Love – A.N. Wilson

January 15, 2013
Dante Alighieri, attributed to Giotto, in the chapel of the Bargello palace in Florence. This oldest picture of Dante was painted just prior to his exile and has since been heavily restored.

Dante Alighieri, attributed to Giotto, in the chapel of the Bargello palace in Florence. This oldest picture of Dante was painted just prior to his exile and has since been heavily restored.

The ideals and archetypes of Courtly Love were never more fully exemplified than in the troubadours of twelfth-century Provence, where it was called fin’amoramor cortese in Italian. They in turn were the great influence upon the poets who flourished at the Sicilian court of the Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250). The poets personified Love as a king, a god, a figure who commanded the absolute obedience of his slaves, who were people of noble heart, full of virtues such as courtesy and fidelity to the object of their worship — the Lady.

By the mid-thirteenth century, as Tuscany grew in political and commercial affluence, it was the Tuscan cities, rather than Sicily, which became the centre of literary interest and activity. The greater number of surviving manuscripts recording the Sicilian poets was written in Tuscany. By the time Dante began to write, the most notable ‘Siculo-Tuscan’ poet was probably Guittone d’Arezzo, who began as a conventional love poet, and then, after a religious conversion, wrote poems of a moralistic character.

Dante’s friends in Florence deplored Guittone and his influence, and thought much more highly of the work of Guido Guinizelli (who probably died about 1276), and whose canzone provided Dante with a model for his early work. He called Guinizelli

The father
of me and of the others — those, my betters -
who ever used sweet, gracious rhymes of love –
[Purgatorio. XXVI.97-9, Mandelbaum]

In another place (Vita Nuova [hereafter VN] XX) he speaks of Guinizelli as the sage, `il saggio’. Guinizelli’s poems see the experience of love as essentially ennobling. Null’om po mal pensar fin che la vede, one of his most celebrated lines, sums up his message: `No man could have evil thoughts as long as he sees her’.

Of all the cities in Europe, Florence was now undoubtedly the centre of an exciting poetic flowering. Vernacular literature was still in its youth. The circle of very young men were producing lyrics of crystalline beauty, and they were also dabbling, as young men like to dabble, in ideas which their parents, and the religious authorities, would have regarded as dangerous. During Dante’s teens Florence was not merely becoming the centre of a poetic flowering and an exciting literary coterie. It was also a hotbed of the heresy which more than any other was seen by the authorities of the medieval Church to undermine the roots of Christianity.

Denis de Rougemont could write in his history, Love in the Western World, that all European poetry has come out of the Provencal poetry written in the twelfth century by the troubadours of Languedoc is now accepted on every side. This poetry magnified unhappy love. There was no doubt in the minds of the Italians that they owed the beginnings of their vernacular poetry, both its form and its subject matter, to these Provencal models. Nor can it have been an accident that this highly stylized way of addressing women — the expression of abject love with no hint of physical union with love’s object, the spiritualization of the Adored One, the treatment of the woman as an allegory — should have sprung from the same soil which simultaneously adopted the most potent heresy of the Middle Ages: dualism.

If the incursion of Islam upon Christian lands represented the greatest outward threat to the Christendom of the Middle Ages, and if the schism between the Churches of the West and the East was Christendom’s deepest historical tragedy, the dualist heresy was a third great threat, which the Popes and theologians of the Catholic Church attacked with the most utmost violence. Perhaps it was the Popes’ very inability to convert the Muslim infidel or to contain the great Churches of Byzantium, Antioch and Egypt which quickened their resolve to overcome the sectaries of Southern France, known variously as the Cathars (from the Greek adjective katharos, meaning pure) or the Albigensians (from the proximity of some of them to the city and diocese of Albi). Or it could be seen in a different light.

The official Churches of East and West, each claiming to be more orthodox than the other, had split apart, seemingly forever. While these monoliths proclaimed Catholic orthodoxy, or orthodox truth, was it not inevitable that the Natural heresy should reassert itself? The periodic proclamation of orthodoxy has always been the assertion of a paradox, a wrestling with something which, even to the brilliant and contorted mind of Augustine in the fourth century or Aquinas in the thirteenth, was Against Nature: that is to believe in the Unity of God. The Natural way of viewing the world is the one against which Christianity has been wrestling ever since the Apostle Paul.

That heresy in its different variations is the dualist manner of seeing the world which has often surfaced in the human mind. The Gnostics and Manichaeans of North Africa in the early ages of the Church had comparable doctrines. Most modern forms of `materialism’ are, when examined, repetitions of the Manichaean idea that matter interferes with, or conquers, spirit.

If you believe God to be good, and His true followers to be spiritually wise, how does it come about that there is so much evil in the world — whence comes the confusion of sensuality, the pain of disease, the simple phenomenon of change? To Plato, the first truly popular and articulate monotheist, and his followers, it had been clear that God who was all spirit had nothing to do with the physical world. The world must be the creation of a Demiurge, and human souls had fallen, either through inadvertence (some said boredom) or sin, into a physical existence. By leading a spiritual life and by concentrating upon things of the mind, it would be possible for the earth-shackled soul to rise once more and to ascend, when it had shuffled off this mortal coil, to the spirit-world which was its home.

Cathar beliefs were similar, but they were formalized into rituals and doctrines, some of which, happily, have survived, even though nearly all their books were destroyed by the Inquisition of the larger and more powerful Catholic Church.

The essence of the Cathar faith was that the world had been created by Satan, who had also inspired the less edifying passages in the Old Testament. Human beings were imprisoned in flesh as a result of the great war in Heaven between Satan and the loyal angels. They believed that man died still entangled in sin, he would have to be reincarnated to suffer the pains of the flesh once more, since there will be no resurrection of body. The purified soul will eventually fly to God who is its home.

There were two grades of Cathar — corresponding to the two grades Christian in the early Church, namely the catechumens and the baptized. The Cathars were divided into the Perfect, or the `consoled,’ who had received the gift of the Holy Paraclete, and the Believers, who had not been so blessed. Only the Perfect could say the Lord’s Prayer, for only in the bosoms of the Perfect did the spirit cry out ‘Abba, Father!’

They were extreme ascetics, keeping three Lents each year, in contrast to the forty-day fast of the Catholics. Most Believers postponed becoming. Perfect until their deathbeds, since the rule of life was so strict. If married Believers had sexual intercourse, they had to fast afterwards for three days. All sexual relations were on a par with fornication, and the Perfect were celibates.

The passages in the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, in which he feels tormented guilt for continuing sexual relations with his wife, would have found an echo among the Cathars. Like Indian ascetics, they abstained not merely from meat but also from dairy produce, though they were allowed to eat fish. (Fish were believed to have been born without sexual union between male and female, and hence to be pure.)

The Cathars’ view of sex (and that of the troubadour poets) bears striking parallels with the ‘Tantrism’ which, beginning in the sixth century,spread rapidly over India, converting both Buddhists and Hindus. A secret force was believed to animate the Cosmos and sustain the gods themselves. This force is a Feminine principle, it is personified as a Wife and Mother, a Goddess. In Tantric sects the woman becomes a sacred object, an incarnation of the Mother. “Tantrism is par excellence a technique even though it is fundamentally a metaphysic and a form of mysticism …Meditation “wakens” certain occult forces, which slumber within every man, and these, once awakened, transform the human body into a mystical Body.”

Tantric sex involved the ability to perform the sexual act without consummation. In one of the Upanishads, it is said that `he who keeps (or takes back) his seed into his body, what can he have to fear of death?’ In such actions, the woman was seen as entirely passive, and attention was given by the Indian mystics wholly to the mystical states of mind which could be achieved by the man, either by tantric sexual union, or by abstention from sex. Thereby the act which `in every form of asceticism symbolizes the state par excellence of sin and death’ — the sexual act — was transubstantiated into a mystic state.

It is not clear to what extent the Perfect among the Cathars indulged in equivalents of Tantric exercises, or whether they were total celibates. The `idea’ behind Tantrism, however, can be seen very clearly to have much in common, not merely with the Cathar heretics, but also with the erotic mysticism which Dante himself would take to unparalleled heights in the Comedy.

The Cathars were not merely different, but hostile, to Rome and to the power of the Pope. It was clear that they were preaching doctrines which undermined the Catholic faith entirely. They denied the Virgin Birth, they denied the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They were, said the great musical Abbess of Bingen, Hildegard, `worse than the Jews.’ She implored her local clergy to expel them from their territories, since they were ‘contemptuous of the Divine command to increase and multiply…Meager with much fasting and yet addicted to incestuous Lusts.’

Though the Church made every effort to extirpate the heresy during the twelfth century, it was not until the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216) that a determined effort was made to root out the Cathars by force. By now, they were abundant all over Southern Europe, particularly wherever the great rivers flowed — the Danube, the Rhone, the Rhine, Saone — for they were often merchants, weavers and craftsmen, and were attracted to the larger industrial and trading centers. In May 1204 Innocent addressed to his legate in Narbonne a letter calling attention to the demoralized state of the clergy in his province. Monks had abandoned any pretence to keep their vows. They openly went hunting, enjoyed gambling, kept concubines, `and turned jugglers or doctors.’

It was essential, if the `Crusade’ were to be successful, that the Pope should get the barony of Southern France on his side. Raymond of Toulouse, the most powerful landowner in the region, was sympathetic to the Cathars, whereas some of his envious neighbors saw in the Crusade the chance themselves to increase their landholdings or influence. The, Pope, who had already excommunicated Raymond’s brother-in-law King John of England for his lack of obedience in a different sphere to the Holy See, threatened Raymond with the same fate if he did not attack the heretics. Raymond feigned submission, but after a number of exchanges with the Holy See, marred by the murder of a papal representative by one of his officers, Raymond was indeed excommunicated.

A Crusade was then proclaimed. The task of providing the intellectual justification for the outrage, and for preaching the virtue of it throughout France, was entrusted to the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans. More than 20,000 armed knights and 200,000 foot-soldiers rallied to the Pope — or, as the poet who sang his Chanson de la Croisade termed it, to the Cross. Raymond of Toulouse was forced to submit, and in a humiliating ceremony in the cathedral at St-Gilles, he was made to swear upon the Gospels and upon holy relics that he would treat all heretics as his personal foes, and expel the Jews from his territory.

By the end of the summer, Innocent could boast that 500 towns and castles had been wrested from the enemies of the faith. Simon de Montfort, the brutal knight who had forced King John to sign Magna Carta in England, was placed in charge of restoring order to the Languedoc after the massacres. But they did not submit easily. In 1215, a whole eight years after the initial Crusade, Simon de Montfort was proclaimed the prince and sovereign of Languedoc’ at the Council of Montpellier, but this was after yet more mercenaries — `pilgrims,’ as Innocent III called them — had flooded into the South of France in order to suppress and massacre heretics.

Innocent died in July 1216, but his successor, Honorius III, maintained the policy of persecuting Cathars. Simon de Montfort was killed on 25 June 1218 when a huge stone was hurled at him from the walls of Toulouse by a mangonel. His brother Guy died at his side. Inspired by this success, the Cathars and their supporters attempted a resurgence. The Bishop of Saintes ordered a massacre at Marmande, when 5,000 men, women and children were put to death.

In spite of these sufferings, the Cathars continued to preach their faith, though many fled to do so in Bulgaria and Croatia. Anthony, later St Anthony, of Padua went to Toulouse and Narbonne in 1226 to urge further hostilities against the heretics, and it was only with the Treaty of Meaux in 1229 that Count Raymond VII and the people of the Languedoc were forced to submit to what appeared to be a final humiliation, the acceptance of the Catholic faith and the destruction of the walls of Toulouse.

After this period, the Inquisition was established for the suppression of heresy. Dante tells us that he had seen people being burnt alive. This may or may not have been the burning of heretics. Women (and Jews) were burned for quite simple felonies at this period, such as theft.

Thirteenth-century Italian heretics were not, as were later victims of the Spanish Inquisition, strangled before the lighting of the faggots. Nor had gunpowder been pioneered as an agent of mercy. Opinions differ about when it was invented — Friar Roger Bacon had written about the explosive qualities of saltpetre as early as 1242; Berthold Schwartz is sometimes credited with the `invention’ of gunpowder, in Freiburg in 1354. In either event, the heretics of Dante’s day did not, as did later sufferers at stake, enjoy the merciful addition of a bag of gunpowder hung round the necks to shorten the torture when the flames reached it. The culprit would be tied to a post set sufficiently high over a pile of combustibles to allow the crowd to watch every last stage of the victim’s screaming agony.

The Inquisition, led by the Order of Preachers at Santa Maria Novella, was vigorous in Florence, and it needed to be, since Florence was a key center of the Cathar heresy. It did not limit itself to the South of France. Peter: the Martyr (Peter of Verona) was dispatched by Pope Innocent IV to stamp out Catharism in the city in 1244.

The period of Dante’s life in Florence corresponds with the period of the strongest Cathar presence there. It was a doctrine which was naturally attractive — since it was so’ fiercely opposed by Popes — to Ghibellines, and many of the great Ghibelline families either followed Catharism or gave shelter to Cathars during the Inquisition’s police searches. Even after it had supposedly been stamped out altogether, a Cathar bishop, Cione di ser Bernardo, was in the city in 1321.

It was no accident that the cult of Courtly Love grew up in the selfsame Southern France that was the chief nurse of the Cathar heresy. We. can have no doubts about what Dante in his maturity thought of the Crusades in the South of France. Folco, Folchetto or Folquet of Marseilles (died 1213) appears in the circle of Venus in Dante’s Heaven.” He had been a troubadour poet, and then a monk, and eventually the Catholic Bishop of Toulouse, that very city whose orthodoxy was bought at the expense of so much bloodshed and destruction.

He is in the circle of Venus because he has given his life to Love — at first as a love poet, and then as a priest. But what has he meant by the word Love? (We’ll come back to this again and again, it is the central question for anyone reading Dante.) St Bernard, who had preached against the Albigensians, has almost the highest place in Heaven. He it is who at the very end of the Paradiso leads Dante in his prayer to the Virgin Mary, and his eventual vision of God himself. It is the culmination of the entire work.

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The Dream of Dante’s Late Teens: Learning Allegory – A.N. Wilson

January 14, 2013
Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, in Michelino's fresco on the west wall of Florence's "Duomo" (cathedral) Santa Maria del Fiore.

Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above, in Michelino’s fresco on the west wall of Florence’s “Duomo” (cathedral) Santa Maria del Fiore.

Dante was only in his teens when his father died. It happened sometime between 1281 and 1283. In accordance with the laws of Florence, he needed a guardian until the age of twenty-five. Is it possible that, had Signor Alighieri Senior lived, Dante would have been forced to follow in his father’s footsteps and develop his talents as a notary and moneylender?

If so, it would not necessarily have diminished his poetic life. T. S. Eliot worked in a bank. Wallace Stevens was an insurance lawyer. Dante was to involve himself in the world of politics and probably took his turn in the military, as we shall see. He had a life outside literature, and one of the reasons that the Comedy is not simply a good poem but The Good Poem, the all-encompassing portrait of its age, is precisely that Dante was so profoundly involved with the current affairs of his time, with the rivalries of great families and political factions, with the religious crises and philosophical problems, as well as with the loves and lives, of his contemporaries.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to feel that as a fatherless teenager of restless as yet, unacademic brilliance, he was in a better position to begin his poetic apprenticeship than would a boy living beneath the task-master’s eye of a living father — like Frank Osbaldistone, the boy-narrator who would like to be a poet but is forced to work in the counting house in Rob Roy.

It is worth learning Italian just to see how incredibly deft and accomplished Dante was, almost from the beginning; just to enjoy his seemingly effortless craftsmanship. The drawings done by Picasso in his teens and boyhood show a total control of the pencil — not a line he drew ever seems to be a mistake. Mozart seemingly wrote music by instinct. Dante’s youthful poems are points of comparison. We are meeting genius of a like order.

The poems are perfectly made, like wonderfully carpentered furniture which needs, so flawlessly close are the joints, no nails to hold it together. It is a safe bet to say, even though he tells us that he was not especially well grounded in Latin or its literature at school, that he read poetry in the modern language(s) of Europe.

One book which we know he read, and knew intimately, was The Romance of the Rose. This book became known to English readers in the fourteenth century through Chaucer’s translation. It was begun, probably in 1237, by a Northern Frenchman named Guillaume de Lorris, and it began the fashion for allegorical poems in what is called the Courtly Love convention. Guillaume was in the service of his Lady.

In his vision, he wanders into a beautiful garden, and among the flowers he sees a Rosebud, symbolic of his Lady’s heart. Wounded by Cupid’s arrows, he longs to possess the Bud, but is prevented from doing so by a crowd of allegorical figures — Chastity, Danger (which means Disdain here), Shame, and so forth. Partly through the intervention of Venus, he has some allies as well as these disagreeable enemies — Pity and Belacueil, or Welcome, who allows him to kiss the Bud. But after the kiss has been granted, Belacueil is put in prison and the Lover is banished from the garden.

At this point of writing over 4,000 rambling lines, Guillaume died. Forty years later, a very different writer took up the unfinished tale and. made it into a philosophical tract. This was Jean de Meun, who seems to have been a learned type who had translated Boethius, Giraldus, Cambrensis and that medieval gay classic author Aelred of Rievaulx. Jean de Meun extended Guillaume’s poem by a further 18,000 lines. By the end of them, the Lover gains possession of the Rosebud, but not before discoursing on theology, philosophy and science. Whereas Guillaume’s pursuit of the Rosebud had been a serious Love allegory, Jean de Meun’s is a scornful gay satire of Love. He has been called `the Voltaire of the thirteenth century’, who spent much of the poem making biting remarks about corrupt friars, shyster lawyers, incompetent doctors and women,whom he seems to have detested.

Dante evidently revelled in the poem, and produced a breathtakingly brilliant condensation of it in some 232 sonnets, which is a bit like having rewritten Homer’s Odyssey in limericks, or War and Peace as a Guy de Maupassant short story. For many years, scholars did not believe that Il Fiore, as this tour de force is entitled, was the work of Dante, but their modern editor makes out a strong case for believing that he was indeed the author. If so, he probably wrote the sonnets when he was in his early twenties, but we will discuss it a little out of chronological order, because it clearly suggests the reading he did in his late teens.

In so far as Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose was one of the key books in the young Dante’s mind, we need to be aware of it before he wrote Il Fiore. The writing of that work, accomplished as it is, was less important than the reading which led up to it. And in so far as he was absorbing the `Voltaire of the thirteenth century; we watch Dante’s imagination adopting some of its most characteristic mindsets. We see him fascinated, from the beginning, by Love and theories of Love. We see him writing about experience not directly, but allegorically. And we see him — though this is much more difficult to focus upon, because his meaning was deliberately concealed liar reasons of self-preservation — dabbling with ideas which were dangerous and disruptive, ideas at variance with the Church and the Holy Inquisition.

Il Fiore is not an inspired book, but it is one of admirable brio and competence. But the poem takes some getting used to, if most of your poetic reading is post-nineteenth century. The mindset whereby everything can be read allegorically is artificial to us, but to Dante’s generation it was normal. It was, for example, their way of reading the Bible. St Paul may be said to have started this way of reading the Scriptures, as far as European readers are concerned, when he speaks of Abraham having two women — one a free woman, the wife Sarah, and the other a slave-woman, Hagar (Galatians 4:24). He urged his readers to see themselves as Isaac, the free son of the covenant, and not as Ishmael, the son of the bonded concubine. And this was an allegory of Christians and Jews.

The sons of the free wife were free — they could eat and drink what they liked, they did not need to circumcise their children; the sons of the concubine were in bondage — they were the Jews who still felt the need to keep the dietary laws and to circumcise. Clearly, a modern `literal’ reading of the story of Abraham and his women will say that this explanation of the text is preposterous. Obviously, the original folk tales were written years before the Jews developed their strict religion of dietary laws, and certainly years before St Paul discarded them. In their original form, the stories are not allegories about keeping the Torah. But Paul makes them allegories.

By the time Augustine, the greatest philosopher and Scriptural exegete of the Latin Church in late classical times (354-430), had begun to write, allegorical interpretations of Scripture were commonplace. The Good Samaritan is not just a story – as we should suppose — telling us to be kind to our neighbor. It is an allegory. When the Samaritan picks up the half-dead stranger on the road and takes him to an inn, this is an allegory of the Christian soul being led to the Church. And when he offers t1i innkeeper two pennies to look after the stranger, this is an allegory o Christ the Good Samaritan giving the innkeeper (St Paul) two sacrament) — Baptism and Holy Communion.

By the time of the High Middle Ages, this allegorical way of reading Scripture had been institutionalized, especially by the influential Abbey of St Victor in Paris. Dante thought it was natural to read the Bible like this, as with his, to us astounding and almost blasphemous, belief that the story of the Resurrection itself was an allegory about Philosophy — the three Marys found at the Tomb in Mark 16 being the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Peripatetics. They had gone there hoping to see the Lord by the exercise of reason alone and they could not do so. The Savior (that is, ‘Happiness’) could only be found by Contemplation. (Dante believed the word `Galilee’ meant `white’, and that the injunction by the Angel to go to Galilee to see the Saviour was to contemplate intellectual virtues if you wished to be happy [Conversion IV.xxii].)

Dante came to understand his own poems allegorically, and his own experience which led to the creation of those poems was also an allegory. One thinks of John Keats here, in that long letter to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana in spring 1819: “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory — and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life — a life like the scriptures, figurative — which such people can no more make out than they can the Hebrew Bible.”

This was not to abandon a belief in the surface meaning of stories and events, but to expand that meaning. When we read a book, according to Dante, we experience it on four levels. The first, obviously, is literal. But the second is allegorical. When Ovid tells us that Orpheus could make wild beasts, and even stones and trees, follow his music, it means that art can tame and soften cruel hearts. The third sense is moral. The moral lesson of the story of the Transfiguration in the Gospels, when Jesus went up a mountainside and was seen in a shining vision by the three Apostles conversing with Moses and Elijah, is that we should only have a few companions in matters which touch us most closely. And finally, Dante’s fourth level was that we should be able to read anagogically — that is, relating the text to The End — to one’s own death or to the End of the World. He gives as an example, that when we read of the Israelites escaping Egypt, we should see it as an anagogue for the soul escaping sin.

When he came to write his Comedy, his life itself had become an allegory. His wandering and homelessness were emblems of the human exile from Paradise. The decline of Florence was an allegory of the decline of the world into sin and corruption. Beatrice would always continue to be Beatrice, but she was also an allegory for the perception of Divine Truth by an acceptance of grace, rather than by the exertion of reason. Having been the object of his devoted love, she would become its emblem.

Clearly, by the time Dante was steeping himself in vernacular literature and in the `modern classics’ of his day, such as Jean de Meun, the allegorical/anagogical method of reading both experience and books had become inseparable. To read, to write, to experience were to allegorize. Everything, including your first experience of love, `stood for’ something else.

Le Roman de la Rose grew out of the convention of Courtly Love. It is a tradition to which Guillaume de Lorris so clearly subscribed and Jean de Meun (who was obviously a gay misogynist) equally clearly thought absurd. Guillaume, as has been said, was a Northern Frenchman. In the Provencal South, and the regions where Oc was the word for Yes — the Languedoc — the troubadours (lyric poets) fervently developed this religion of Love.

The Courtly Love code was an adulterous one: that is one reason why the Church from the beginning rejected it, and why it was developed as a rebellion against the Church. In the House of the Countess of Champagne in 1174, the semi-serious proclamation was delivered:

We declare and affirm by the tenor of these presents, that love cannot extend its rights over two married persons. For indeed lovers grant one another all things mutually and freely, without being impelled by any motive of necessity, whereas husband and wife are held by their duty to submit their wills to each other and to refuse each other nothing.

May this judgment, which we have delivered with extreme caution, and after consulting with a great number of other ladies, be for you a constant and unassailable truth. Delivered in this year 1174, on the third day before the Kalends of May, Proclamation VII.5

The classic expression of the Courtly Love ideal was the story of Tristan and Iseult. According to one of the greatest French cultural historians, Denis de Rougemont, Happy Love has no history in European literature:

“Tristan and Iseult do not love one another. Their need of one another is in order to be aflame, and they do not need one another as they are. What they need is not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence. Real life is elsewhere, as Rimbaud observed. Suffering and understanding are deeply entwined. Death and self-awareness are in league. On this alliance Hegel was able to ground a general explanation of the human mind, and also of human history.”

It is in this tradition that Dante was to cut his teeth as a teenage reader and as an apprentice poet. The ideals and archetypes of Courtly Love were never more fully exemplified than in the troubadours of twelfth-century Provence, where it was called fin’amoramor cortese in Italian. They in turn were the great influence upon the poets who flourished at the Sicilian court of the Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250).

The poets personified Love as a king, a god, a figure who commanded the absolute obedience of his staves, who were people of noble heart, full of virtues such as courtesy and fidelity to the object of their worship — the Lady. By the mid-thirteenth century, as Tuscany grew in political and commercial affluence, it was the Tuscan cities, rather than Sicily, which became the centre of literary interest and activity. The greater number of surviving manuscripts recording the Sicilian poets was written in Tuscany. By the time Dante began to write, the most notable ‘Siculo-Tuscan’ poet was probably Guittone d’Arezzo, who began as a conventional love poet, and then, after a religious conversion, wrote poems of a moralistic character.

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Gemma Donati And Beatrice Portinari 2 – A.N. Wilson

December 12, 2012
Dante and Beatrice in Bellagio Italy

Dante and Beatrice in Bellagio Italy

Hell is the destined home for these nameless Donati. Since the vision is supposed to be happening in 1300, Dante cannot include the gruesome end of Corso in October 1308. Corso achieved his ambition, as leader of the Black faction, and displaced Dante and the whites. But achieving an ambition in Florentine politics was itself a kind of punishment; he came to learn how much he was detested by his rivals and enemies.

The Priors charged him with conspiracy, together with his father-in-law Uguccione della Faggiuola, of conspiring against the liberties of the commonwealth. He was summoned to appear before the podesta,  a summons which, needless to say, he evaded. His house was besieged and he attempted an escape on horseback. He fell. Benvenuto, in his commentary on Dante’s Purgatorio, says that Corso’s foot caught in the stirrup and he was dragged along the ground until mercenaries caught up with him and slit his throat.

Dante was to envisage the brother, Forese, telling us from Purgatory Corso was more to blame than anyone for the sorry state of Florence, and he foresees his death:

I see him, dragged by the tail of a beast,
towards the valley where sins are not forgiven.
[Purgatorio. XXIV.83-4, author]

Dante makes Corso’s grisly end grislier by giving him the punishment meted out to traitors — he is dragged by the tail of the animal.

Forese Donati, who utters the prophecy, was one of the youths with whom the young Dante developed his passion for literature and his ambition to be a poet. Dante was to find him in Purgatory, making reparation for°his gluttony, and so emaciated as to be unrecognizable. It is Forese who flatteringly has a dawning recognition of Dante: `Tell me if I see here him who invented the new rhymes which begin, “Ladies who have intelligence in love” [Purgatorio. XXIV.49-51, author] — one of Dante’s most celebrated canzoni. Forese himself was a poet, who belonged to the same literary circle as Dante.

He is fully aware of his brother Corso’s vile character, and is able to tell Dante that at least one member of the Donati family — their sister Piccarda — is in Paradise.

Quite possibly, Piccarda was friends with her cousin Gemma, Dante’s wife. Florence was divided into six wards or sesti. Gemma, Dante and the other Donati, including Piccarda, all grew up in the same small sesto. Dante was to meet Piccarda again in the Heaven of the Moon among those who had failed to keep their religious vows. She is in Paradise, and she is at peace, so she does not trouble to rehearse with Dante what they both know already — why she had neglected her vows [Paradiso III.55].

Piccarda Donati entered the Franciscan order of St Clare in Florence. She took the name of Sister Costanza — Constance — the name of the Empress who also appears alongside her in Heaven — heiress of the Kingdom of Sicily and Southern Italy. Marriage was, as we have seen, big business for the eminent families of Florence, and the grandi were reluctant to see their daughters enter religious orders and renounce the chance to form alliances with other gangsters. Nor could the teaching of the Franciscans – the insistence upon poverty and the vanity of accumulating riches — have been congenial to the bankers, merchants and mercenaries who made up the city’s elite, any more than their persistent criticism of papal interference in the affairs of the popolo can have recommended itself to the Guelfs.

The great church of Santa Croce which we seetoday was begun in 1295, but there was a strong Franciscan presence there before, centered upon a smaller church which was the origin — in the absence of a university at this date in the city — of one of the great philosophical and intellectual schools of medieval Florence. The other was the Dominican community at Santa Maria Novella — but it is striking that whereas 43per cent of the Dominicans came from the great city families — Donati, Bardi, Cavalcanti, Adimari and so forth — the Franciscans tended not to be so attractive to the native-born. Only 14 per cent of Franciscans at Santa Croce were Florentine born. All this is highly suggestive that Piccarda was a Poor Clare (that is, a female Franciscan) by conviction, and against the will of her family.

In 1283 (possibly 1288)while Corso Donati was podesta of Bologna, he took it into his head that Piccarda should marry a Florentine called Rossellino della Tosa. Accordingly, he wrenched her from the cloister and made her go through the marriage ceremony. It appears that the marriage was unconsummated and that she died shortly thereafter. Hence her not being accorded a high place in Heaven as she had broken her vows.

Dante’s journey of sanctification is taken with reference to childhood friends and acquaintances — to figures he had known in the streets of Florence since boyhood. From the dreadful end of Corso, and the monstrous, phallic lizard-transformed hissings and snarlings of the Donati in Hell, he stares implacably at the full consequences of deliberately setting the human will towards evil, not good. No one goes to Hell unless he or she has willed it, that is, willed something other than God’s will.

Forese, wit, poet, glutton, Dante’s friend, still has a long way to go in Purgatory before he can say that he has conformed his will to that of God; but he wants to do so, which shows he is not conjoined with the monstrous, scaly penis-eruptions of his kinsmen in Hell. But it is the sister, who tried to live in the Franciscan cloister at Florence, and was dragged out to become a pawn in the ridiculous phallic game of money and violence which was Corso’s lifeblood, it is Piccarda who has under‑ stood the simplicity of the secret.

St Augustine had begun his Confessions with the recognition that God made us for Himself, and that our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him. Piccarda absorbs this wisdom with one of the most beautiful lines Dante ever wrote: `E ‘n la sua volontade e nostra pace’ — `In his will is our peace’ [Paradiso III.85, author].

Though Dante was to glimpse this idea in his vision, he was, even within the terms of his own personal mythology, a very long way from realizing it in his youth, where other ambitions — to be a great poet, and to rise to a position of civic importance in his powerful city — vied with his concentrated love of Beatrice as his utmost preoccupations. Peace was a long way in the future, perhaps never attained in his lifetime.

Such were the Donati, the great faction to which the child Dante was politically and maritally attached. He tells us of `il gran’ Barone’ — his great enemy; he was to write, as we shall see, skittish rimes to Forese, and he was to canonize Piccarda. But of his wife, Gemma Donati, he would write not one word. Not a word! Inevitably, any reader of Dante is bound to be puzzled by this. How could he, who wrote so much about himself in the Comedy, not even mention that he was allied to one of the most powerful factions in Florence — one that he satirized so mercilessly? How could he not have mentioned the mother of his children? Yet in spite of Gemma being the mother of these children, Dante never tells us, when the tragedy befell him, whether or not Gemma shared his exile.

Boccaccio, whose metier in the Decameron was to write farcical stories About unhappy marriages, made Dante and Gemma into the ill-matched pair of a medieval fabliau, the sort of tale that Chaucer enjoyed.

Accustomed to devote himself by night to his sacred studies, he was wont to converse as often as he pleased with emperors, kings, and all other exalted princes of the earth, dispute with philosophers, and find pleasure with the most delightful poets, mitigating his own sorrows by listening to theirs. But now he could be with them only so long as it pleased his bride, and whenever she wished to withdraw him from such high company, he was obliged to spend his time listening to womanish conversation which, if he wanted to avoid further annoyance, he had, against his will, not only to agree to but to praise.

He was accustomed, whenever the vulgar crowd wearied him, to withdraw into some solitary place, and there to speculate what spirit moves the heavens, whence comes the life of all creatures on earth, and what are the causes of things, or brood over strange ideas, or compose verses whose fame should after his death make him live to posterity. But now he was not only deprived of all this pleasant contemplation at the whim of his bride, but he had to keep company with those who are ill-suited to such things.

He was accustomed to laugh, to weep, to sing, or to sigh freely, as sweet or bitter passions moved him. Now, however, he either did not dare to do so, or he had to give account to his wife, not only of important things but even of the slightest sigh, showing its cause, where it came from, and where it went. This was because she believed his joy was occasioned by love for someone else, his sadness by hate for her.
Boccaccio, Life of Dante, tr, Nichols

But the truth is that we cannot draw inferences from total silence. Although Dante made an allegory of his whole life, and although his life was changed into a poem, he did not necessarily wish to use every element of his life. Humanly speaking, we sense the plausibility of Boccaccio’s version. How could Gemma not have been distressed that her husband devoted his exile to hymning the glory of another woman?

From the point of view of his poetic career, the more momentous encounter was with another neighbor of his in the sesto of San Piero. The house where Corso, Forese and Piccarda grew up is only a few yards down the street from the family whom the Donati made into their greatest enemies, the Cerchi. And only a few yards further away from that is the Casa Portinari. All the people who are central to Dante’s history, both to his personal tragedy as a failed politician, and to his imaginative life as author of the Comedy, grew up a few blocks away from one another, cheek by jowl in the high-towered via San Martino.

In the Casa Portinari on May Day 1274, Dante was taken by his father to a party given by a wealthy banker named Folco Portinari, where guests included Folco’s daughter, Bice, a common diminutive of Beatrice. (The Portinari were rich. Folco was several times Prior of the city and endowed the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.) When the food was served, the children ran off to play. Dante, a brooding boy, was arrested by the sight of Beatrice in her bright red dress, with her delicate features and her shy, quiet manners.

There is no parallel in literature for the significance of this sight. Readers might think of the narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu coming upon Gilberte, the daughter of Odette and M. Swann, on one of his childhood walks at Combray; a homelier parallel would be the love fell by David Copperfield for Little Em’ly. But, from the beginning, in Dante’s passion for Beatrice there was something quite extraordinary.

At that very moment,’ he tells us, `and I speak the truth, the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that even the most minute veins of my body were strangely affected; and trembling, it spoke these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi [Here is a God stronger than I who comes to rule over me]. At that point the animal spirit, the one abiding in the high chamber to which all the senses bring their perceptions, was stricken with amazement and, speaking directly to the spirits of sight, said these words: Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra [Now your bliss has appeared].

Some grown-ups remember, others forget, what it was like to be a child. The intensity of feeling — of taste, sight, personal slight, pain of various kinds — is sometimes all but intolerable. It is both an inestimable privilege, and a curse, to fall in love during childhood. It is a curse because pain is unendurable — and what does a child `do’ with such feelings? The child cannot make love as older bodies can. The child can only adore, sufferingly.

At the level on which these things are conceived by callous adults who have either forgotten their childhood or not experienced love during it, all that had happened was that a little boy had formed a crush on a little girl. But it it was out of this touching but commonplace happening that Dante was to interpret all his subsequent experiences, all his philosophy of life, and ultimately his idea of God Himself.

Although Dante’s obsession with Beatrice was to become the framework through which he viewed all other experience, we should not suppose that the book in which he first wrote about it, the Vita Nuova, tells us very much in way of novelistic or gossipy detail. The city in which the encounters with Beatrice take place is not so much as named in the book. `We are never given a glimpse of the city of Florence; wrote Professor Mark Musa, one of the best modern Dante scholars and translators, in his essay on the Vita Nuova. ‘Its massive medieval architecture has dissolved; its twisted, busy colorful streets have been reduced to straight lines in space, along which Beatrice or a group of pilgrims passes.’[Mark Mussa. Vita Nuova]

The life-changing significance of the encounter seems to force Dante to exclude the sort of detail which the novelist (or the modern reader of Dante!) would look for. Indeed, the two children — his childhood self, falling in love, and the girl-object of his passion — are frozen into symbol immediately by his seeing them in terms of numerological mystery. She would grow up and so would he. She, like Dante, had an arranged marriage — to a wealthy banker named Simone de’ Bardi. But Beatrice and Dante were not sweethearts, or doomed lovers. His love for her was some- thing other.

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Gemma Donati And Beatrice Portinari 1 – A.N. Wilson

December 11, 2012
Profile portrait of Dante, by Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510) Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321, Italian poet, author of The Divine Comedy. A Florentine patrician, he fought on the side of the Guelphs but later supported the imperial party. In 1290, after the death of his exalted Beatrice (Beatrice Portinari, 1266-90), he plunged into the study of philosophy and Provençal poetry. Politically active in Florence from 1295, he was banished in 1302 and became a citizen of all Italy, dying in Ravenna.

Profile portrait of Dante, by Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510) Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321, Italian poet, author of The Divine Comedy. A Florentine patrician, he fought on the side of the Guelphs but later supported the imperial party. In 1290, after the death of his exalted Beatrice (Beatrice Portinari, 1266-90), he plunged into the study of philosophy and Provençal poetry. Politically active in Florence from 1295, he was banished in 1302 and became a citizen of all Italy, dying in Ravenna.

Before we go any further, we need to take note of two little girls who had a momentous importance in Dante’s life. And before we meet them, we need to be aware of the continuing political story in which Dante and his father were swept up, following the Guelph victory at Benevento, and the arrival of Charles of Anjou on Italian soil to take the place previously occupied by the Hohenstaufens — that is, to become King of Naples and Sicily and the prime political power in the peninsula

Pope Clement IV, although a Frenchman, realized that he had bought an ally against the Hohenstaufens at a high price. After the death of Manfred at Benevento, Conradin — strictly speaking the legitimate heir to the Imperial throne — left Germany and entered Italy. The son of Frederick II’s dead son Conrad, he was sixteen years old, blond, beautiful, naively ignorant of Italy and its politics, and the Ghibelline cities went wild in their enthusiasm for him.

But as he made his triumphal progress southwards, cheered by the Pisans and followed by the Sienese, the youth had no idea of what he was marching into. The Pope, from his fortress at Viterbo, watched the armies ride past. “He will vanish like that golden dust,” said the hard old man, `they are leading him like a lamb to the slaughter.”

A reminder of how fragmented Italy was in the XI-XIII centuries.

A reminder of how fragmented Italy was in Dante’s time.

So, indeed, proved to be the case. Charles of Anjou’s army eventually outmaneuvered Conradin. They captured him as he tried to escape the battlefield not far from Tagliacozzo, south of. Rome. In a piece of sadistic theatre which shocked even his contemporaries, Charles had the beautiful boy brought to the public square in Naples and beheaded. By now, the Pope was beginning to wonder what monster he had enlisted to help him in his, political balancing tricks.

He did not have long to wonder since he died soon after the boy’s execution. When the College of Cardinals met at Viterbo to elect a successor, the process of decision descended, into a blatant wrangle between French and Italian cardinals. Three years passed before they could reach any kind of agreement. Eventually, public outrage at the absence of either Pope or Emperor forced them to a decision.

For three years, Italy had been divided between supporters of. the Emperor and supporters of the Pope, even though neither Emperor nor Pope existed. The College handed over to a mere six cardinals the responsibility of finding a new Pope, and they made the bold choice of a Crusader in minor orders, the Archdeacon of Liege. He was an Italian aristocrat named Tebaldo Visconti, who, at the time of his election, was in the Holy Land fighting the Saracen, alongside King Edward I of England. He hastened back to Italy, determined to make the object of his Papacy the recapturing of the Holy Places in Palestine, and reunion with the Christian Churches of the East.

Unlike his two predecessors, he was determined to be consecrated in Rome, and to reassert the primacy of that city and that see in the affairs of the Church. To Rome he went, on landing in Italy. In Rome he was ordained priest, and then consecrated as Bishop of Rome and Pope. He took the title of Gregory X.

Of all the Popes of Dante’s childhood and youth, Gregory X was the most sympathetic towards the Hohenstaufen claims to the Empire. He supported the election of an obscure South German count, Rudolph of Habsburg, as King of Germany (the first stage on the path to being elected as Emperor). Gregory was a politician. He wanted to reconcile the warring factions of Guelph and Ghibelline, above all in that source of wealth and .power, the city of Florence. When Dante was eight years old, Gregory X came to the city in a grand ceremony, with the Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin, and with Charles of Anjou.

‘And so it came about, on the wand of July 1273, that the Pope with his cardinals, and with King Charles, and with the said Emperor Baldwin, and with all the barons and gentlemen of the court (the people of Florence being assembled on the sands of the  Arno hard by the head of the Rubaconte bridge, great scaffolds of wood having been erected in that place whereon stood the said lords gave sentence, under pain of excommunication if it were disobeyed, upon the differences between the Guelph and Ghibelline parties, causing the representatives of either party to kiss one another on the mouth, and to make peace, and to give sureties and hostages; and all the castles which the Ghibellines held they gave back into the hands of King Charles, and the Ghibelline hostages went into Maremma under charge of Count Rosso. The which peace endured but a short time.’
Villani, Tr. Selfe Translation

It is scarcely conceivable that the boy Dante did not witness this political spectacular. He had set eyes on his first Pope.

As an enthusiastic supporter of the Guelph cause, Dante’s father would have been there. And we have evidence of the father’s desire to strengthen his family’s position by his arrangement of Dante’s marriage into the most powerful Guelph faction in the city — the Donati. There survives the legal instrument (instrumentum dotis) dated 9 January 1277, whereby Dante Alighieri, aged eleven, was betrothed to Gemma Donati. Medieval Florentine marriage customs were not like those of modern Europe or America. For modern people in the West, a family is a little nuclear group, consisting of one or two children and a couple, living together in a flat or house, isolated from the rest of the world.

The greater family — the wider circle of brothers, sisters, cousins, mothers-in-law – might be important, or they might not, but the unit of the family, as discussed by sociologists or governments, is the so-called nuclear family. It is doubtful whether a medieval person would have recognized a nuclear family as detached from the wider clan. The attitude of thirteenth-century Florentines would have been much closer to the family and marriage arrangements which in the twenty-first century still obtain in the Muslim and Hindu worlds, where the betrothal of two young people signifies the desire of two clans to come together in a wider alliance. Mahatma Gandhi, who was married aged thirteen, would be less surprised than we are by the fact that Dante was engaged to be married aged eleven.

Though we shall never know how the poet and Gemma Donati got along, whether they enjoyed a satisfactory sexual life or a shared sense of humor, we shall never be able to forget that Dante, by his marriage, was absorbed into the great clan of the Donati. And his ambivalent attitude to this experience was celebrated in the Comedy by the fact that one great Donati is sent to Hell, another is met in Purgatory, and a third is in Heaven.

Dante’s father had thereby secured an alliance with a family-faction of enormous power. Go to Florence, and you will see reminders of their great power. Fiorenzino, `the Baron,’ showed how important they were in 1065, when he set up a hospital and other charitable institutions in the city, Donati owned land and mills all around the city and made money front rents within Florence itself. Very likely, they were the landlords of the Alighieri house. They owned a tower and a house in via San Martino, quite near the Dante house, and they owned the Corte dei Donati, a group of houses set around a square just outside the city walls. Their trophies of war were to be hung up in the enormous Franciscan church of Santa Croce, adorned by the brush of Giotto; there are Donati buried splendidly in Santa Margherita, Santa Croce and Santa Reparata, the church which became Santa Maria del Fiore — the cathedral of Florence.

The Donati used their wealth to hold office in other cities, as podestà and capitani. They did not need to follow any profession. Their task, apart from the accumulation of money and the manipulation of other people, Was fighting. They were a family of professional mercenaries, condottieri, who could raise fighting men from among their circles of dependents. They also had a reputation as thieves — cattle thieves, extortioners and embezzlers.

When Dante went to Heaven and met his grand old crusading ancestor Cacciaguida, they were soon united in a catalogue of regrets for the aristocratic old days, and in lofty, not to say snobbish, reflections on the mercantile and commercial occupations of so many of the powerful Florentine families. In the simple, golden times of Cacciaguida’s manhood, Florence was peaceable, sober and unostentatious.

No daughter’s birth brought fear unto her father,
for age and dowry did not then imbalance –
to this side and to that – the proper measure.
[Paradiso XV 103-5, Allen Mandelbaum's translation]

The dread of not being able to afford the daughter’s dowry is the common feature of clan-based societies.

Gemma, his espoused wife from late childhood onwards — if only we knew more about her! — was a kinswoman of three Donati whom Dante I child knew well — Corso, Forese and Piccarda.

Corso, described by the chronicler Dino Compagni as Catiline the Roman but more cruel, was a man of great brilliance; very handsome all his life, a fluent public speaker, a wit and a brave, unscrupulous knight. `He was the enemy of the popolo and of popolani, and was loved by his soldiers; he was full of malicious thoughts, cruel and astute.” Corso was destined to be the poet’s downfall. You get the flavour of the man in Compagni’s description — `when armed and mounted on his charger, Corso rode through the streets, he was greeted on all hands with a spontaneous Viva il Barone!‘ To have made an enemy of Corso (as Dante evidently did in later life) was to be dead meat. Fate had its own plans for Corso himself, which are glancingly alluded to in one of the more grotesque passages of horror in the Inferno.

When Dante and Virgil enter the circle of Hell reserved for thieves, they find it is a place haunted by hideous monsters, such as Cacus (Dante makes him into a centaur) who was killed by Hercules. Then there occurs one of those devices most beloved of Dante — recognition. It has been deftly compared’ to Proust’s technique of encountering half-forgotten characters from his early past at a party of the Guermantes, the annoying laugh of a schoolboy being retained in the body of an old man, for example, causing instant recognition. Similarly, after the horror-movie of Cacus the centaur thundering past them, three spirits drift by and Dante overhears one of them ask, `Where has Cianfa got to?’ [Inferno XXV.43, author's translation]. The reader is not given much help by Dante at this point. Certainly, there is no direct explanation that Cianfa is Cianfa Donati, and in a sense there does not need to be a specific explanation.

Partly, this is because Dante has here inflicted the grossest punishment possible upon a family so proud of its illustrious name — he has made them nameless. But more than that, he makes them actually into an indistinguishable, writhing mass of monstrosity. One of the unnamed Donati spirits who is asking for the whereabouts of Cianfa realizes that Cianfa has turned into a giant lizard and is squeezing him round the neck and clawing at his thighs. Then the lizard and the man start to turn into one another, their two heads blend together, human arms are formed out of the front claws of the serpent, and the hybrid monster then attacks the other two Donati.

In the confusion, it is difficult to tell which spirit is which, and which monster is a man-serpent, and which a serpent-man. Two snake-claws burst out of the man’s penis. The man-serpent lies down, and pushes out his snout, pulls his ears into his head as a snail does his horns. The soul which has turned into a serpent hisses and disappears into the valley. The other transformed monster says, `Buoso will go crawling down the road as I have done’ [Inferno XXV.140-41, author's translation]. Buoso is another Donati again, contemptuously deprived of his surname. It is one of the most disgusting episodes in the Inferno: stomach churning, in fact.

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