The 20th Century Critics of the Comedy.
By Ulises Gonzales
According to the critic George Steiner, “All serious art, music and literature is a critical act.” (Steiner, 11.) Steiner says that every artist exercises criticism when choosing a style, a subject or a story to tell. Therefore Dante, heavily influenced by the poetry of Virgil, could also be, his greatest critic.
Jorge Luis Borges, one of the best readers of Dante, declared that there were a lot of beautiful lines from Virgil in the Commedia, and that some of these lines had even been improved by Dante. Borges never pointed out which lines, but through out his life he wrote many essays about the Commedia, which are collected in the book Nueve ensayos dantescos. His passion for Dante’s masterpiece was so intense that he wrote: “the knowledge and the direct contact with the Commedia is the most infinite source of happiness that the literature could provide to the reader.” (Borges, 127.) One of Borges’ best essays about the Commedia is “The Pious Executioner” where he tries to explain the reason why Francesca and his lover are being punished after their death in the second circle of Dante’s Hell.
In “The Pious Executioner,” Borges explains four theories: The first one is that Francesca’s presence in Hell is a trick to get the reader’s attention. The second is that Dante feels compassion but, as a Christian, knows that Francesca and her lover deserve punishment. The third theory is more elaborate–Dante is dreaming and, in his dream, he is feeling compassion even if he punishes the lovers.
The fourth theory is the most beautiful and the one that Borges thinks to be the right one: we, the readers, know that the criminals deserve punishment and, at the same time, we know that Radion Raskolnikov deserves punishment. Raskolnikov is not a real person, but the readers consider him a real person. Dante, according to Borges, does the same: He writes about Francesca, depicting her sins so passionately that the readers understand that Dante has no freedom, that he can’t do anything but what that which he does. The lovers deserve punishment and compassion at the same time. “Dante refiere con tan delicada piedad la culpa de Francesca que todos la sentimos inevitable” (Borges, 60.) Marguerite Yourcenar comments this interpretation by Borges in her book of essays A Pilgrim and a Foreigner.
George Steiner argues that the process of imitatio and contaminatio –when a writer takes excerpts from other writers, some lines, a few paragraphs or whole ideas– is the best way of criticism. He states: “Criticism is energized into creative responsibility” (Steiner, 15.) Therefore, imitating Dante’s work, American poet Ezra Pound transforms himself into one of the most talented critics of the Commedia in the English language.
Stuart Y. MacDougal, in his essay “Dreaming a Renaissance, Pound’s Dantean Inheritance,” offers a few lines of a poem found in one of the earliest notebooks of the student Ezra Pound:
“Come and see the place
where hell hath lain
& I “Who art thou
master that speakest
with such authority”–
& he, “I am that one
that through the heavens
before it was willed that
I leave forever my earthly
dwelling” (Bronstein, 64)
If Dante chooses Virgil to be his guide in the Commedia, Pound chooses Dante to be his guide in his own Commedia. The poem suggests that Pound envisaged a journey much like Dante’s, although a secular one. Instead of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, Pound names the three stages of his poem “Hell in world, body”; “Good in world, mind”, and “Spirit, soul.” The influence of Dante in Pound’s work is immense. The imaginist style that identifies most of Pound’s poems is heavily indebted to the writer that he picked up as his guide in that early poem of youth and whom he continued to read, praise and learn from, during his whole life. The origin of one of Pound’s most praised Cantos, Canto XLV, With Usura, could be traced all the way to the Seventh circle of Dante’s Hell.
In “The Waste Land” the idea of an entire world revisited by a pilgrim going from one point to another –Tiresias going from “The Burial of the Dead” to “What the Thunder said”–also could be traced to the structure of the Commedia. T.S. Eliot, even mentions in the notes at the end of the poem, a few lines from Inferno and Purgatorio that he uses for purposes of contaminatio. His praise for Dante is shown also in the long essay that he wrote about Dante’s work where he qualifies him as: “the most universal of poets in the modern languages.” (Eliot, 206.) Eliot defines Dante’s universality as a product of his brilliant usage of allegory, which helps him to create–as only the classics did before him– some of the most powerful images of modern literature.
Taking one of the images from the Commedia , the meeting of Dante in the Sixth circle of Hell with Farinata and the father of his friend Guido Cavalcanti, Erich Auerbach writes an essay in his book Mimesis. Auerbach states:
“his style is so immensurable richer in directness, vigor, and subtlety, he knows and uses such an immeasurably greater stock of forms, he expresses the most varied phenomena and subjects with such immeasurably superior assurance and firmness, that we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew” (Auerbach, 182-183.)
Farinata and Cavalcante are sinners being punished together in the Sixth circle of Hell. Both are masterly depicted: Farinata keeps feeling that he has the power of a feudal knight, and speaks to Dante with the authority of one of them: “Chi fuor li maggior tui?” (Inf. 10, 42.) Farinata, who stands over the flames of his tomb, seems to live oblivious to Hell and the tone of his question demonstrates that he is acting as if he were among the living. On the other hand, Cavalcanti, on his knees, shows up briefly, just to ask some questions about his son. When he understands wrongly that his son is dead he falls down again to the flames. He is suffering more than Farinata, because he wants to. Farinata keeps asking questions of Dante as to whether Cavalcanti is an insignificant fly. Both are in Hell but Dante gives them freedom to act as if they were living with the personality that they had when living on Earth.
Auerbach realizes that Dante was the first of the medieval writers capable of understanding and reaching the gravitas proper to the antique elevated style. Dante uses examples from lifes very close in time, trying to vulgarize his work, to make it accessible to his people. That is why he names his work a comedy, as opposite to the classical tragedy. But he writes a comedy with a so high understanding of the antique elevated style, that even the vulgarities that horrified some of her readers have an elevated style that no writer reached before him. Auerbach praises him as a creator of a new language, using periodic articulations and devices of sentence structure that nobody used since the classics: “Since Antiquity nothing comparable had existed in literature.” (Auerbach, 199.)
The style of Dante, boosted by his interest to create a language that uses the tools of the Classical pagan authors but to serve God, keeps him at a considerable distance from other Medieval writers. Gilbert Highet, in his book The Classical Tradition, praises Dante’s vision to pick up among the classical authors the best ones, and to understand them better than anybody else before him:
“It is sometimes said that he prefigured the Renaissance. So far that is true, it is justified by the intensity of his admiration for the Greco-Roman world, and by his knowledge of the true classics. He understands that Cicero is greater than Boethius, that Vergil is greater than Prudentius, and that Aristotle is the greatest of the ancient thinkers (…) he knew at the distance who were the lesser lights in it, and who the greater” (Highet, 80)
Dante was a bit more than a Medieval writer because he was more than a writer: he was also a critic of the classical world who served a transition between the old and the new. As Steiner says: “ A Translator between languages, between cultures and between performative conventions.” (Steiner, 7)
Aligheri, Dante. Inferno. New York: FSG, 1996
Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. New Jersey: Princeton, 2003
Borges, Jorge Luis. Nueve ensayos dantescos. Buenos Aires: Emece, 1999
Bornstein, George. Ezra Pound among the Poets. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985
Eliot, T.S. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: FSG, 1975
Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition. New York: Oxford, 1976
Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989