Saturday, April 29, 2006
Dante has a problem. Much of his Comedy is untrue. An example: in the second canto of the Paradiso Beatrice takes Dante to the orb of the moon. Dante is curious as to why the face of the moon is particoloured, and wonders if it’s because the material out of which the moon is made varies in density. Beatrice rebukes him for his stupidity, and explains at length, and with no little obscurity, that the moon is the celestial object furthest removed from the Pure Intelligence of the Divine Empyrion, and is therefore the celestial object least purged of mutability by the eternal light and truth of God, which thereby causes the changes in colour.
As an explanation of the spots in the moon this is untrue. In fact the moon is particoloured because the material out of which it is made varies in density.
I start with this example because it seems to me unarguable that Beatrice’s dogmatic explanation contains a material untruth. There is another level of the poem, concerning what we might call moral truths, in which I would be similarly eager to argue the toss; but here my instances are not as straightforward as the moon one. I’ll give you an example of what I mean by the latter sort of untruths. The deeper in hell you go the worse the punishment. Dante pays pedantic attention to the justice and order of his arrangement of punishment and reward; which is to say to the truth of his assessment of the various degrees of severity in sin. They are all disposed according to a logical disposition of sin and virtue. Accordingly it will be easy for you to arrange the following sinners in order of respective dismerit, and guess their relative positions in Hell.
First, alchemists, doing nobody any harm, labouring away trying to turn base metals into gold. Secondly, the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. Thirdly, Attila the Hun, godless mass-murderer and invader.
You’ve guessed it, haven’t you? Attila is in Upper Hell, in the seventh circle with ‘the wrathful’. Mohammed is Lower Hell, in the eighth circle, ‘fraud simple’ (in the ninth bolgia). Alchemists are down even lower; in the tenth bolgia. They’re there not because alchemic was considered a Satanic or magical art; but rather because it involved ‘the falsification of commodities’. Ah, those wicked chemists.
As I say, this seems to me morally untrue. But I have no comeback to the obvious objection—that I am merely attempting to foist my own, arbitrarily modern-day moral schema (‘genocide a worse crime than metallurgic chemistry’) upon a text which is, whatever else you may think, perfectly consistent in its own views. Dante, after all, does not consider me compelled to believe his morality. I have free will, in his schema. All he believes is that his morality, the Catholic-Christian morality of the fourteenth-century, is the true one.
But the explanation of the spots in the moon is straightforwardly untrue. And that’s a problem for Dante.
The point is that this would not be a problem, were it not the case that Dante’s great three-cornered Commedia is predicated fundamentally upon truth. More specifically, it is a poem that dramatises the whole of divine creation as a vast arena in which judgment, and love, are the twin intertwined determinants: God’s judgment divides souls into hell, the magic mountain resort of purgatory or heaven on the basis of how far they have accepted, and acted upon, the truth of divine revelation. If the Commedia is not true, then what good is it? Harold Bloom puts the case forcefully:
The reader who comes freshly to Dante will see very quickly that no other secular author is so absolutely convinced that his own work is the truth, all of the truth that matters most. [Harold Bloom, ‘The Strangeness of Dante: Ulysses and Beatrice’, The Western Canon (1994)]
Robin Kirkpatric concurs: ‘plainly Dante himself was concerned in the poem with what he thought to be true … the Comedy is devoted to truth in the strongest sense .. the Comedy, then, is not, in any simple sense, a fictional work.’ [Dante: The Divine Comedy (CUP 2004), 1-3]. There’s a consensus on this point: Dante’s poem depends upon its truthfulness. It is predicated theologically, aesthetically and morally on the truth. Moreover, it seems clear to me plenty of people, and not just medieval-nostalgic Catholics, think it is true. Perhaps the formulation invoked might be something like ‘OK, not literally true, but spiritually true …’ By this readers might mean that they accept that there isn’t literally a huge cavern stretching from beneath Jerusalem to the centre of the globe where a three-headed monster fans the core to ice with his leathern wings (modern geology and physics tell us this is impossible); but that they nevertheless believe that this functions truly as a poetic image of the subterranean, lowly and monstrous nature of sin.
This won’t do. Dante was perfectly well aware of the different valences of ‘truth’. The Commedia does not operate only on the level of ‘poetic’ or allegorical truth. It does operate on that level, of course; but it also strives—explicitly, at length, and with a dedicated dialogic energy—for all the other sorts of truth as well. These various truths include: moral truth; scientific truth; doctrinal truth and aesthetic truth. All these quantities have true and false explanations, or aspects, or figures, and in a thousand various ways Dante’s poem exhorts us to choose the truth, and turn away the false. Moreover all these forms of truth are fundamentally determined by the same source: God. What this means is that it really isn’t possible to cherry-pick truths in Dante’s poem. It isn’t a matter of myriad tessellated assertions and judgments, any of which can be picked out without damage to the core truth of God. These truths are all true because God is true; they are interdependent and interwoven threads in the cosmos which God created.
This, then, is the problem. The presence of untruth in the Commedia is corrosive in ways that it would not be in a differently-configured text. It’s not that Dante is speculating about the nature of the spots in the moon, and happens to speculate wrongly. The explanation the poem offers is not Dantean speculation; it is a rigorously argued-through application of the entire logic of the poem. If it is untrue, then what is called into question is not Dante’s speculative powers but the truthfulness of the whole.
Now of course truth is not a simple monolithic quantity of right or wrong, against which a poem (particularly a poem as complex and deep-thinking—a poem as thoroughly engaged in dialectic progression—as this) can be judged. We don’t think so today, and Dante, for all his religious devotion, didn’t think so in the fourteenth-century. Indeed, it is clear that medieval philosophers had just as nuanced and sophisticated understanding of ‘truth’ as we do today. But this is precisely the problem. When faced with the untruthfulness of sections of the Commedia, we may be tempted to respond with a specie of surreptitious condescension—surreptitious because one thing all the Dante critics I have read agree upon is their explicit respect for Dante. It does not mix well with this to, in effect, patronise him: to say ‘well, perhaps Dante’s explanation for the markings in the moon (which observation stands synecdochally for his entire cosmology) is incorrect; but what else could you expect of somebody limited by medieval astronomy?’ To condescend to Dante in this way is to diminish the poem, haughtily characterising it as a work from the cultural adolescence of Europe. I know of no critics who are so disrespectful.
The Commedia is of course a work of elaborate and profound variety. It contains scores of expertly rendered and differentiated characters. Who could not love its inventive fabulation, its extraordinarily supple and assured command of its poetic idiom> But all this variety is summoned into existence in order to dramatise subordination to a singular identity, that of God’s. Everything in the poem necessarily exists underneath the monologic divine. This, we might say, goes without saying; what devout monotheist could do otherwise? Dante’s unitary impulse is evident in most of his work.
The De Monarchia, for instance, argues that, just as mankind possesses one spiritual leader (the Pope), so all the peoples of the world should be united into a universal community (universalis civilitas humani generis) under a single unitary secular leader. Let’s find an up-to-date terminological descriptor for this Dantean Caesar (such i one of the tasks of translation, after all). Let’s call him Czar. Or Kaiser. Or, indeed, let’s call him Fuhrer and be done with it. Dante is unambiguously advocating a Leader with absolute power over humanity, whose authority is derived from God and cannot be questioned. Naturally, as is the way with the rhetoric of fascism, this Fuhrer would devote himself to establishing peace, freedom, order, unity, harmony (destroying the beast of ‘multiplicity’) and so on.
The startling thing in all this is not that a medieval thinker might valorise a figure of ur-fascist political authority, but that modern-day Dantean scholars can become so thoroughly integrated into the textus corpus Dantei as to lose all perspective on such a political vision. ‘Unfortunately, what Dante wished for in the De Monarchia did not come about,’ says the usually sane Mark Musa, ‘and it is for this reason that the poet’s political focal point shifted from the empire to the Church when he was writing his Divine Comedy.’ I lay my finger on one word in that assessment, with my mouth open and my eyes wide. The word is ‘unfortunately.’
Dante is beguiling, as the very greatest artists almost always are; but do we really want to get carried quite so far away as that? The Commedia creates a world in which we can, imaginatively, enter; explore; in which we can (as many critics have) spend decades in delighted mental pilgrimage and devotion. To take the work as a master Fantasy, perhaps (and this is surely a case that can be argued) the ur-text in the long and fertile tradition of Catholic Fantasy, that leads to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings is also a devout and devotional work; it also generates an imaginative space in which readers can spend years exploring, contemplating, working through. There are differences. Some might consider it infra dig to bracket Tolkien and Dante together, since the one writes elevated poetry and the other populist prose, but I can’t agree with that. It seems to me increasingly apparent that Tolkien’s big book is one of the most significant pieces of fiction of the last century. More to the point, perhaps, is Tolkien’s explicit and ‘cordial’ dislike of allegory; the textual strategy which Dante inhabits more fully, more complexly, than most. But this point of difference is not so divisive as all that. Tolkien preferred ‘sub-creation’, as a post-Romantic (post Coleridgean) aesthetic of respectful imitation of the Divine act of creation. He eschews allegory because the world in which we live is not allegorical; because Christ is an incarnation, not an allegory, of God. But he shares with Dante the desire verbally to embody a truth he took to be core—a divine and Catholic truth.
But this is my nub. Tolkien’s sub-creation inoculates itself against the charge of untruthfulness by presenting itself precisely as fiction. Dante marches boldly into the malarial swamp of interpretation with no such protection. Everything in The Lord of the Rings is true by virtue of being sub-true, as its created world is sub-created; and what it is ‘sub’ is Divine reality. If anything in it is untrue, literally (magic) or otherwise (crypto-racist, some say) this need not corrode the larger truth of the whole. Dante presents us with a representation that presents this truth as unmediated; this, he says, is not some fantasy he’s spun out of his brain confected of his reading in Anglo Saxon culture and the legends of Charlemagne. This, he says, is how things really are.
‘Really are’ in several senses, of course; and most of them not transparently so. Did Dante and his readers really believe that the point antipodal on the globe to Jerusalem was the location for a mountain so tall that it reached literally into outer space? Maybe they did; but surely it need not upset us too much that the actual Jerusalem-antipode is a stretch of Pacific brine that cannot, by definition, reach higher than sea-level. After all Dante can hardly be blamed for not mounting an anachronistic expedition to the far side of the world to check his geography before writing? But this means that either we patronise Dante (refusing to ‘blame’ him) or else we confront the fact that his epic of truth is threaded through with untruth.
To put it another way; within the varieties of truth with which medieval thinkers were comfortable there was room for both a correspondence theory of truth and a notion of truth as revealed transcendental quantity. Charles Singleton in ‘Dante’s Allegory’ [in Robert J Clements (ed), American Critical Essays on the Divine Comedy (New York Univ. Press 1967), 91-103] describes how Dante distinguishes two kinds of allegory; the allegory of theologians and the allegory of poets. In the latter, there are two meanings: a fictional ‘surface’ meaning that yields, on proper reading, a true secondary meaning. In the allegory of the theologians there are also two meanings, but in this instance a true ‘surface’ meaning yields a true secondary meaning. For example; the Parliament of Fowls is a fictional poetic text that can be decoded as conveying a true meaning. The Bible on the other hand is true on both surface and allegorical levels. Singleton comments:
The Divine Comedy is for me so clearly the ‘allegory of the theologians’ that I can only continue to wonder at any efforts made to see it as the ‘allegory of the poets’ 
And quite right too. Corrosively right.
So, to return to the example of Dante’s (or Dante’s Beatrice’s) account of the marks on the face of the moon. This account is untrue. Now, it might be possible to argue that though this account is untrue its untruth doesn’t matter. Possible, but unhelpful; because this is tantamount to saying that, in this place in the poem, truth doesn’t matter, and this would be a proposition radically destructive of Dante’s whole project. It might, then again, be possible to say something along the lines of ‘were Dante alive today, and apprised of more accurate information concerning the discolouration of the moon, he would undoubtedly incorporate them in his poem.’ The point in saying this, presumably, is to absolve Dante of the charge of deliberately misleading us. But untruth need not involve a malicious and deliberate attempt to mislead. Moreover, it is inconceivable to me that Dante could incorporate modern scientific data into his vision—a heliocentric cosmos in which travelling to the moon, even when hurtling along faster than any bullet (the Apollo spacecraft traversed space at a speed of over ten kilometres a second) nevertheless takes the best part of three days … this is simply immiscible with the total design of the Commedia. It is a trivial observation that Dante’s poem does not take place in our cosmos; but in a Dante pre-Copernican one. Trivial except for the single destructive fact that the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos was untrue.
If we read Dante as Fantasy this problem goes away. But I don’t think we can read Dante as Fantasy. Or to be more accurate, I don’t believe Dante’s text wants us to read it as Fantasy. Its mode of allegory is not one of fictional correspondence to factual reality. It is that the truths of reality, of science, of art and of theology are all made possible by (and only by) the core truth of God.
This is only to say what Auerbach says in Mimesis: that Dante insists not only that ‘in the Commedia he presented a true reality’ but that the poem embodies what Auerbach calls ‘a serious realism.’ (‘however different medieval and modern realism may be, they are at one in this basic attitude’: a figural attitude in which every detail is true in itself and true in the larger, transcendental sense). The success of Madame Bovary depends on our sense, as readers, that people really are like this, really interact in these ways, really do live according to these habits, beliefs, joys and miseries. If Charles Bovary’s neighbour were a forty foot giant breathing fire and calling his friends on his mobile phone it would undo Flaubert’s good work. The weave would unravel. And this is precisely the problem of that earlier, greater realist, Dante.
I would be curious to know where The Bible fits into your schema, as it too is a text riddled with factual errors that nevertheless presents itself as the truth.
I am also curious about the consequences of this problem. What do we do with the text, now that we have identified this problem? Make a note in the margins and move on? give up and read Boccaccio instead?
In the Universe in which Adam Roberts lives, an anti-real universe, “universalis civilitas humani generis” can mean only one thing: rightist, statist, fascist rulership.
In the Universe in which I live, a fellow from Trier by the name of Marx wrote of an ideal, social world-society, a sort of “kommunismus.” In the Universe in which I live, people are considered doltish for calling that arrangement “fascist.” That arrangement prides itself on a type of fairness to all, something about “to their needs” and such. Maybe if this Marx person lived in Roberts’ Universe he’d be a fascist.
This “universalis civilitas humani generis” that was described in Roberts’ Universe, it consisted of a society administered by an individual, on behalf of an entity called “God.” This God person was famous for something called the Beatitudes, a series of statements on who gets preference in His eye. Presumably, the Monarch, only administering on behalf of this God, would be bound by the preferences set forth in those Beatitudes. This is the arrangement Roberts calls fascist, a simple truth in his Universe ("Let’s. . . be done with it"). In my Universe that would be considered contentious (in my Universe, fascists don’t bless the meek, or give them the earth).
Now, despite the fact that there are things that Roberts tells me are true in his Universe, that I know are not in mine, I am still willing to believe certain things he says, and even find them useful and informative. For example, he says, “[I]n the second canto of the Paradiso Beatrice takes Dante to the orb of the moon.” I checked my bookshelf, and that’s true in my Universe too! I can learn things from Roberts’ Universe. I hope he’s willing to learn things from mine, where we are eager to learn from Dante.
First, let me say that we’re in full agreement on the inaccuracy of Dante’s account of the spots on the moon. Let me further say that I am fully united with you in the unequivocal rejection of fascism as a political project.
Now, as for the main point of your post: you admit that Dante’s universe is internally consistent. Indeed, it is a marvellous intellectual production. We’ve stopped believing in the presuppositions that underlie its physical descriptions of the world, but it has not come undone for all that—and if we switch our perspective from a factual to a poetic one, we can admire the work as something that was lovingly and exquisitely made.
This use of his text was not Dante’s intention when he wrote it. We’re in a position now to know that it doesn’t actually work in the way that Dante intended it to—but it does work as poetry (particularly if we locate the implicit declaration “This is totally true” inside the poetic production itself). Using it as poetry (and therefore focusing on the Inferno and Purgatorio at the expense of the much more boring Paradiso) is to some extent a reinvention of the poem, or arguably even a betrayal of Dante’s intention. But I’d rather betray Dante’s intention than be deprived of his poem.
Finally, your jump to politics is completely unwarranted. An unappealling political opinion and a factual error are not the same thing, are they?
Thinking back (and perhaps saving you some typing), I realize that you’re briding the gap from factual error to politics by referring to Dante’s unappealing moral hierarchy. That does make your position more defensible, though still ultimately (to use one of your favorite words) wrong.
Yet Dante expects us to take as wholly “ficitional” the following story: that he took a grand tour of hell, purgatory, and heaven, guided by the poet Virgil and by Beatrice, the spirit of a young girl of which he was once enamoured. His story is an outright fiction. ( I don’t know what word he would have used for “fiction.”???) I’m sure he assumed that those three places really existed, but certainly he wouldn’t have been certain of what the various inhabitants would have to say to him. He must have been conscious of inventing all the details, all of the actual events at the literal level of his allegory. So the problem is not with the truth claims of his story: “I went to hell and here is what I saw,” but with the truth claims of his moral theology: “this is my hierarchy of moral goodness and depravity.”
One might as well complain to Aesop that foxes don’t really have converstions with crows.
For exactly the reasons you name, I have never been able to enjoy the Divine Comedy. Perhaps my feelings about it would be different if I could read it easily in Italian; or if there were really beautiful translations out there; perhaps then I could enjoy it as “poetry” without regard to its truth. (Perhaps). As it is, I have had to read it as “fantasy” (just as you seem to recommend). But as such it is more like 1984 to me than like Tolkien. Just imagine: men in Purgatorio carry haeavy weights in order that they may not turn their faces away from religious base-reliefs on the ground which instruct them in faith. As they become purified, they can gradually straighten up, thus paying less and less attention to art. This vision of art—as device for delivering messages and something to be discarded and “transcended” I find too much to bear, more so perhaps than the fascist messages you detect in Dante.
My thanks to dunno for reminding us that Marx is essentially a religious thinker.
I think Roberts would reply that it’s ok to say that to Aesop:
Some might consider it infra dig to bracket Tolkien and Dante together, since the one writes elevated poetry and the other populist prose, but I can’t agree with that. It seems to me increasingly apparent that Tolkien’s big book is one of the most significant pieces of fiction of the last century. More to the point, perhaps, is Tolkien’s explicit and ‘cordial’ dislike of allegory; the textual strategy which Dante inhabits more fully, more complexly, than most.
Robert likes Tolein better because “[h]e eschews allegory because the world in which we live is not allegorical; because Christ is an incarnation, not an allegory, of God.” Now this is problematical. Dante wrote in allegory because God talked in allegory (flip open the Book of Matthew to a random page). Tolkien did not write in allegory because a person is not also a narrative structure ("Christ is an incarnation").
That seems like an odd excuse to prefer one author to another (or one narrative form to another, especially if you’re using the “good enough for God” argument Roberts attributes to Tolkien, against God’s own speech pattern).
dunno writes: “In the Universe in which I live, a fellow from Trier by the name of Marx wrote of an ideal, social world-society, a sort of “kommunismus.””
Ruled, as Adam Roberts points out, “under a single unitary secular leader.” Right? Hmm, maybe this is not such a good analogy.
dunno: “Presumably, the Monarch, only administering on behalf of this God, would be bound by the preferences set forth in those Beatitudes. This is the arrangement Roberts calls fascist, a simple truth in his Universe”
Theocratic rule under a single person generally is called theofascism, yes, no matter what its claims towards enforcing God’s will.
dunno: “That seems like an odd excuse to prefer one author to another (or one narrative form to another”
I didn’t read any such claim.
“Under a single unitary secular ruler” meant something different before concepts of Deism and separation of church and state. It’s safe to assume that Dante was not defending a ruler who would flaunt religious requirements. (Another way to put it: Edward the Confessor, the saint, was a secular ruler). As I might have phrased it in my first comment, “In my Universe time flows in one direction and a fourteenth-century person is not assumed to be using a definition of ‘secular’ that first appeared in the eighteenth century.”
In regards to theofascism, my point was not that Dante somehow got it right (he didn’t). My point is that when other people that we are more disposed to like (Marx) present utopias that are utterly unobtainable, and by their nature (a nature not too dissimilar from Dante’s ideal) likely to devolve into despotism, we are not so eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
If we can approve of some of Marx (who claims also to be so very right), while knowing about mid-twentieth century China, then Roberts should let us approve of some of Dante, while knowing about early fourteenth century Spain.
As to your last two paragraphs, your elision is admirable. You imply my “That” was a a statement of preference for theocracy. What I said was (and you can check if you don’t believe me):
Dante wrote in allegory because God talked in allegory (flip open the Book of Matthew to a random page). Tolkien did not write in allegory because a person is not also a narrative structure ("Christ is an incarnation").
That seems like an odd excuse to prefer one author to another (or one narrative form to another, especially if you’re using the “good enough for God” argument Roberts attributes to Tolkien, against God’s own speech pattern).
I said that in an entirely different comment, about an entirely different part of Roberts’ post. If you disagree with me on reading Tolkien and Dante side by side, that’s fine, say so. But I would appreciate it if you did not shred my comments to make your straw man.
I apologize for the error in my previous post. It sould read “early fifteenth century Spain.”
That’s not what I meant by my last two paragraphs at all. I took your statement to be a claim that Adam Roberts wrote that he prefers Tolkien to Dante, or one narrative form to another. He wrote neither of those things.
“In regards to theofascism, my point was not that Dante somehow got it right (he didn’t).”
But Adam’s point, as I understand it, is Dante chose to bind up his various forms of truth-claims with each other. Therefore if he is wrong on some, all of them suffer, and we are forced to read his work in a completely different sense than he intended.
“My point is that when other people that we are more disposed to like (Marx) present utopias that are utterly unobtainable, and by their nature (a nature not too dissimilar from Dante’s ideal) likely to devolve into despotism, we are not so eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Actually, I think that we are, for most values of “we”. My point was that you were saying that we don’t call Marx’ utopia fascist, despite it being a utopia. That is because it doesn’t have a single unitary ruler, among other things, not because we necessarily think it would work out well.
This isn’t a new debate. Renaissance editions of Dante bounced between heavily annotated versions and editions with no commentary at all. Some wanted Dante the Theologian, others wanted Dante the poet.
I’m reaching way, way back to an undergraduate honors seminar devoted to Dante, but isn’t it critical commonplace to distinguish between Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Poet? I say this not to undermine Adam’s fantastic post, but to complicate it. We assume that Dante, a Catholic, believed in the literal truth of his spiritual journey; but we only do that because he’s a Catholic. Whereas we don’t question the inviolability of Tolkien’s worldview(s) because there’s no precedent for thinking that his fictional one corresponds with his actual. (Hence his pouty insistence that it’s not Not NOT about WWI or WWII.) Tolkien wants his fictional creation treated as a New Critical object, wholly distinct from the world in which it was created. And he has more of a case for that than, say, an Agrarian poet with an Agrarian agenda. But that doesn’t mean it’s wholly inviolable. Same with Dante, no? We can make these hard and fast distinctions, disallow Dante the Poet liberties in his depictions of Dante the Pilgrim, but it seems an odd move given what we know about how Catholics felt about the Catholic worldview...and I had a point, but I seem to have lost it halfway through the journey of my life.
Any force that Adam’s post has, it has only because he has managed to overlook the single most important fact about Dante’s poem: it is an allegory. (Adam acknowledges this, of course, but only to dismiss its importance.) The Inferno is not a poem which seeks to describe Hell: it is a poem which seeks to describe sin via the image of Hell. Likewise, Purgatorio is the vehicle through which Dante describes sanctification, and Paradise that through which he describes the state of blessedness. The “places” of the poem are allegories of spiritual states which people experience, to some degree and in a mixed way now, but completely after we die. Dante believed in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but that doesn’t mean that his poem is meant to describe them.
So Adam’s frustration with Dante’s placing of some people lower, and others higher, than Adam would place them is totally misbegotten. Pause to think about this for one minute: does anyone really believe that Dante thought that each person in Hell is guilty of one sin and one sin only? Dante’s placing of people in certain circles has nothing — literally nothing — to do with where Dante thinks that that person might actually spend Eternity. (Dante knows perfectly well how presumptuous such judgments would be: he knows that all those fellow Florentines whom he consigns to the Inferno — one of them while still, to all appearances, alive! — may well be among the “late repentant” who he places at the foot of the mountain of Purgatory, among the redeemed.) The people, rather, take their places in the poem in order to provide vivid illustration of what Dante is primarily concerned to represent, which is the character of certain sins and virtues.
So Adam has quite thoroughly misunderstood what Dante is representing and the literary/mimetic means which is is employing in the task. To say that there is a level of “‘poetic’ or allegorical truth” in the poem which is to be distinguished from “other sorts of truth” is a colossal blunder. All those “other sorts of truth” are represented through and only through the medium of the allegory. Which means that if “the poem is not, in any simple sense, a fictional work” it is also not in any simple sense a realistic or mimetic work. We need to get this straight before we can have a meaningful conversation about what the poem affirms and whether those affirmations are warranted.
But Adam’s point, as I understand it, is Dante chose to bind up his various forms of truth-claims with each other. Therefore if he is wrong on some, all of them suffer, and we are forced to read his work in a completely different sense than he intended.
Here you get to the reason I was comparing Dante to Marx. Not to say that they are both fascist, but to say that they both present utopias for which they claim beneficial effects, but which fall short. Now I don’t particularly mind dinging Dante for being so very wrong about what his utopia does; I just think that if we do so, we should not peg him any more than we do Marx. I would like to place a restraint on our urge to devalue his writings.
I would not be surprised. In Chaucer the distinction is between Chaucer the poet and “Geffrey” (no “o"), the pilgrim/narrator/&c. It’s a vital distinction in that case, because Geffrey’s a real dolt. He’s a moron. (But he has the same biography as Geoffrey Chaucer). He gets made fun of mercilessly in Book I of The House of Fame, and he demonstrates his horrific storytelling skills when his turn comes up in the Cantebury Tales. Confusing him with Chaucer the author would create problems ("That‘s Chaucer’s ideal story?").
For someone who denounces “condescend[ing] to Dante [as a product of] the cultural adolescence of Europe,” Roberts shows a surprising unwillingness to permit him the capacity of reflexivity that we generally grant to authors.
Roberts seems to want to deny Dante reflexivity because his philosophy is religiously-based (just like that of so many other medieval poets). But that’s ridiculous. All philosophies have a tendency to believe that they are right. Christianity is not different in this regard. Saying that Dante’s world is dependent on the reality of his notion of a God is the functional equivalent of saying Faulkner’s world is dependent on the reality of his notion of a Yoknapatawpha County. We are left to ask, “yeah, so?”
Just a brief addendum to illustrate my earlier comment: Attila is placed where he is in order to exemplify bestial rage. The alchemists are where they are, not in the least because they are “labouring away trying to turn base metals into gold,” but because they claim falsely to have achieved that transmutation. So, if we can just remember the allegory for a minute and pay a little less attention to the specific people representing the sins, we can ask ourselves the relevant question: who does more harm in the world, those who unreflectively do violent deeds in fits of anger, or those who calculate to manipulate and deceive?
Um, Alan, you seem to be missing the point here: Dante is wrong.
The alchemists really did turn lead into gold?
Turning up late to my own post’s comment thread. What a dreadful social faux pas; terribly sorry.
Alan: “we can ask ourselves the relevant question: who does more harm in the world, those who unreflectively do violent deeds in fits of anger, or those who calculate to manipulate and deceive?” We can indeed ask this question. And we can answer it by agreeing with Dante that the guy selling dodgy rolexes door-to-door is clearly a much greater sinner than that guy who was in charge during the Mai Lai massacre. On what possible grounds could anybody claim such an answer was untrue?
Actually I agree with Alan: the poem “is also not in any simple sense a realistic or mimetic work. We need to get this straight before we can have a meaningful conversation about what the poem affirms and whether those affirmations are warranted.” It’s realist, I think, only in Auerbach’s specialist sense of ‘realism’. It’s not mimetic in the same way that Zola’s novels are. But ‘literary mimesis’ doesn’t have the sole monopolistic rights on literary truth.
Virgil is chosen as guide not just because Dante thinks the Aeneid a really cool poem; it’s because he stands as the key example of a poet who gets as close as it’s possible to truth whilst still missing the one thing – Christ – that actually determines all truth. This from Teodolina Barolini’s Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the “Comedy”: ‘Virgil is presented as the author of the greatest historical poem ignorant of the greatest truth of Christian history. For this reason he becomes identified with falsehood, whereas Dante’s poem is ‘quel ver c’ha faccia di menzogna’ [Inf. 16, 124].’
Dunno: “Saying that Dante’s world is dependent on the reality of his notion of a God is the functional equivalent of saying Faulkner’s world is dependent on the reality of his notion of a Yoknapatawpha County.” Don’t think so. Faulkner writes fiction; he doesn’t pretend to be writing anything other than fiction. He’s interested in the lie that tells the truth (to quote, uh, V for Vendetta). Dante gives us the truth that tells the truth. This really does strike me, the more I think about it, as a massive and crucial difference. Perhaps it’s just me.
I’m thinking of for instance Carlyle and his inability to see any merit in fiction at all: trying to browbeat Browning into giving up writing poetry and write history instead, because history is, you know, true and lying is morally deplorable. He simply couldn’t see the justification for lying. But this (forgive me for stating the obvious) is one of the really cool things about fiction, one of the reasons why it has Taken Over The World of Literary Art. It is a lie, actually, but being a lie actually frees it up to be truthful in ways that other modes don’t permit.
Scott: “…and I had a point, but I seem to have lost it halfway through the journey of my life.” Ah, yes. This post got spawned by me re-reading the Comedy, and finding myself slipping almost automatically into reader-responses conditioned by all the Fantasy I’ve read, whilst simultaneously having this grit-under-the-eyelid sense that of course you can’t read Dante as if he’s just a superior Robert Jordan. This is not just a question of Dante’s superior artistry but of a fundamentally different aesthetic premise. Or, again: this poem is so thoroughly integrated into discourses of judgment that it can’t help presenting itself to its readers in those terms. Judge my theology! Go on, I dare you! Judge my politics! Judge my physics! Judge the criteria I use to judge! And in that case …
In my ideal world I’d read Dante as fiction, as one of the greatest and most imaginative fictions in Western art, on a par with The Odyssey and LotR. But I don’t know if that’s possible. Which is to say, I don’t know if the text allows such a reading, or whether reading it that way would be too distorting and violent.
Adam K: “Thinking back (and perhaps saving you some typing), I realize that you’re briding the gap from factual error to politics by referring to Dante’s unappealing moral hierarchy. That does make your position more defensible, though still ultimately (to use one of your favorite words) wrong.” Why, thank you for your realization. I do find it hard to see how, or more precisely on what specific criteria (other than readerly whim, ‘yeah this bit chimes with my views, no that bit doesn’t’) one separates out the different registers of truthfulness in the poem: the religious, political, aesthetic, scientific, psychoanalytic (or personal, or whatever). But this is part of my larger problem. It’s a shame you let the ‘wrong’ gag go after only one iteration, because it is a good gag, and. Hey, wait… what’s this further on in the comment thread? Um, Alan, you seem to be missing the point here: Dante is wrong. Hah! Excellent. I feel like that US President standing next to the guy made-up to look like him and acting out all the idiocies of the President for a room full of journalists. Hah, you got me there!
Me, I do worry about the term ‘wrong’. But then again, I’m curious about what other people called Adam do when they encounter people who genuinely believe that gravity is caused by rotating shifts of angels in the earth’s core sucking, or who believe that the British Royal Family are actually alien lizards in latex masks, or who believe that the newsreaders are giving them instructions to murder their neighbour. If you can’t call them wrong, then how do you engage with them? If you call them wrong, on what basis do you do so? But I’m getting distracted here.
Justin: “I would be curious to know where The Bible fits into your schema, as it too is a text riddled with factual errors that nevertheless presents itself as the truth.” Yes, this does interest me. Because it seems to me a mistake to mock or otherwise dismiss that broad group who insist on the absolute literal truth of every word in the Bible. Don’t misunderstand me; they’re clearly wrong to do so. I’m sure Adam K. wouldn’t say so, for that would involve invoking the W-word, but, you know. Nevertheless many of these literalists are intelligent and genuine people, and they have one very good reason for doing as they do, despite the contorpulations into which their position drives them. Because accepting the whole thing as true provides a consistency that picking and choosing from your holy text doesn’t. On what grounds do you decide that loving your neighbour is true and stoning people to death for working on the Sabbath is not true? On your own gut response? On the consensus of a bunch of other people? Do you do so without much thinking about it? It all seems rather rickety. And you do need something to stop the thought ‘this little bit of the Bible isn’t true’ from dominoing through ‘but if this bit is untrue, then what about other bits?’ to ‘the Bible as a whole is untrue’. Perhaps it would be better to say ‘the level of truth in the Bible does not rise above what would be expected by the combination of stopped-clock-right-twice-a-day-ishness and a ‘wisdom of the tribe’ core of common sense. But that’s my sense of it, and might well be wrong.
Dunno: “In the Universe in which Adam Roberts lives…” Sorry, Dunno, you’re breaking up. I think alphawave quantum harmonics are interfering with the communication channels between our two universes.
And we can answer it by agreeing with Dante that the guy selling dodgy rolexes door-to-door is clearly a much greater sinner than that guy who was in charge during the Mai Lai massacre. On what possible grounds could anybody claim such an answer was untrue?
That would be a really snappy comeback, except that it bears no resemblance to the point I made, or to Dante’s organization of Hell. I doubt that anyone has ever thought that every individual act of unreflective violence is less evil than every individual act of deception! — certainly not Dante, who, as I pointed out, is not interested in the game of pigeonholing people like toy soldiers in cigar boxes (Lt. Calley in here, fake Rolex guys over there). Fascinatingly nifty as the notion of “wrongness” is, it’s worthwhile to try paying some attention to what Dante actually wrote: for instance, to see that many of the people whom Dante punishes in the two circles of the fraudulent are also guilty of great acts of violence — indeed, their violence is typically enabled and intensified by their deceptiveness, which is why the fraudulent do more damage in the world than the merely and unreflectively violent. (Do you really think that the only sin of the My-Lai soldiers was that of thoughtless violence? Only forza involved, no froda?)
Again: there’s no way to know whether and how a writer is wrong if you don’t have even a basic understanding of what that writer is affirming. And the same goes for your invocation of “Auerbach’s specialist sense of ‘realism,’” since Auerbach doesn’t have such a sense. He produces an anatomy of representational strategies, among them being Dante’s “figural realism,” and if you understand Auerbach’s elaboration of the concept of figura you’ll have a much better sense of what Dante is affirming and how he affirms it.
I’m sure we can all agree that “‘literary mimesis’ doesn’t have the sole monopolistic rights on literary truth,” but what that has to do with this conversation I can’t see.
In your post, you refer to the Divine Commedy as “creat[ing] a world,” as well as being nonfiction. I figured if you could insist that the Comedy was a nonfiction, but still created a world (that is presumably not this one: you can’t create something that prefigures you), then I should treat your nonfiction as creating a world (I called it a Universe) that is also not this one. If you can assume that Dante’s nonfiction poem sets another world, I thought I’d assume your nonfiction post set another Universe. I was only trying to apply your logic, and apologize if it came across wrong.
I am surprised that, after insisting on the nonfictionality of Dante, further comparison to other authors is limited to authors Roberts acknowledges write fiction. Since Roberts brought in physics in his last post, we ought to begin there.
Newton has a problem. His understanding of gravity is untrue. (Sound familiar?). But yet we still teach Newtonian physics. Scientists still use Newtonian physics in certain circumstances, because there are times when his calculations do provide the right answer, and at those times they are useful because they are simpler to perform. The scientists use Newton at those times knowing that he, like Dante and many other nonfiction writers, was wrong on the grand scale, but his descriptions of how things work are too helpful to discard entirely.
(This is before we even reach the fact that for the terribly religious Newton, his physics “necessarily exist underneath the monologic divine. This, we might say, goes without saying; what devout monotheist could do otherwise").
It seems to me to be unfair to insist Dante writes nonfiction, and then knock him for not writing the way Tolkien does, who was, as Roberts points out, not writing about the World Wars.
(and now you’ve made me all grumpy on Monday morning.)
Adam R., I’m not calling into question the possibility of wrongness. That seems to be a leap that has come up often in similar conversations (i.e., I think you’re wrong to apply a scientific view of time to Heidegger’s phenomenological investigations; you respond that apparently it’s impossible for a philosopher to be wrong about something). How could I be rejecting the category of wrongness in the process of declaring you to be wrong about something?
The Bible is not only wrong in terms of modern science—certain texts are wrong in terms of other texts within the Bible itself. And you know what? The people who claim to be “literally” following the Bible are not, because it is impossible to do so (viz., contradictions). Everyone has to make interpretative decisions, even the fundamentalists. The anti-gay stuff is cherry-picked out of Leviticus; prohibitions against mixing fabrics are left out—for example. <i>Claiming</i> literal adherence to scripture is a <i>rhetorical</i> move, meant to put all other Christians on the defensive (and, incidentally, to convince secular people that their “literal” version of Christianity is the most consistent version of Christianity—mission accomplished, apparently!).
It’s actually pretty similar to how you start off these threads claiming to be arguing on behalf of reality itself.
It got cut off: “Claiming literal adherence to scripture is a rhetorical strategy, meant to put all other Christians on the defensive (and, incidentally, to convince secular people that their “literal” version of Christianity is the most logically consistent—mission accomplished, apparently).”
Adam Kotsko: “Um, Alan, you seem to be missing the point here: Dante is wrong.” (complete comment quoted)
Adam Kotsko again: “It’s actually pretty similar to how you start off these threads claiming to be arguing on behalf of reality itself.”
Adam Kotsko, I’ve previously suggested that you should no longer comment on this site. I suggest once again that you leave off and go back to your own blog, where you can engage in your favored modes of “argument” to your heart’s content.
You see, you are writing as you always do, and the discussion has nothing to do with Theory. The problem is not with the subject matter, but with yourself.
Alan: “The people, rather, take their places in the poem in order to provide vivid illustration of what Dante is primarily concerned to represent, which is the character of certain sins and virtues.”
I don’t think that’s complete, and it is incomplete in a way which makes it difficult to understand Adam’s response. The people do not simply represent the character of sins and virtues, they also, and you write later, take their place within a scheme which classifies the sins and virtues according to seriousness or merit. By using Attila to “exemplify bestial rage”, and some fraudulent alchemists further down, there is necessarily some slippage from the classification back to the allegorical people used. You wish to read Dante as only saying “who does more harm in the world, those who unreflectively do violent deeds in fits of anger, or those who calculate to manipulate and deceive?” But Attila did more harm, by our standards, than all the fraudulent alchemists in the world put together. This can not really be abstracted from his value as an allegorical figure; it is part of the small fund of information that “everyone knows” about him, making him work as an allegorical figure in the first place. This becomes a serious aesthetic problem for contemporary readers, unless they can come to terms with the different senses of “wrongness” in Dante in some way. Which is, of course, what Adam R. is trying to do, and which really is more difficult in Dante than in many other factually wrong or morally non-contemporary texts because of the way in which everything in Dante is interlinked.
The case of the Christian Bible really does seem to me to be somewhat different, because of its internal divisions into books, which suggest different authors, different historical times, different points of view. When Dante writes about the Moon and why it has to be how it is, it’s all integrated into why the moral judgements have to be as they are.
Rich, I’m willing to leave our personal dislike of each other aside from now on if you are.
In fact, even if you’re not.
Rich, I agree fully that “Attila did more harm, by our standards, than all the fraudulent alchemists in the world put together,” and I think Dante would also agree. But Dante is not really interested in the question of whether particular people are worse than other particular people. (That’s my problem with Adam’s post: by forgetting the allegorical purposes of the people in the Commedia he sets us of fon a wild goose chase.) Dante’s argument is that habits of deception and fraudulence pave the way for increasingly greater evils and therefore in the very long term can do more damage than even horrific outbursts of mindless violence (as opposed, note, to calculated violence, which almost always comprises fraud as well). Indeed, this is one of the architectonic themes of Gibbon’s history of the Roman empire, in which we can see again and again how deceptive practices which seem relatively innocuous when practiced by certain emperors — especially emperors whom Gibbon sees as basically virtuous, like Diocletian — end up having devastating consequences when continued and extended by less virtuous successors. Gibbon is not like Dante in many respects, but he is in this one: both of them understand that one must make a clear distinction between (a) the character of individual persons and (b) the effects of certain virtues or vices when they are distributed among many people through space or time. So, once more: the question of whether Attila did more harm than any number of fraudulent alchemists is different than the question of whether, overall and universally, bestial violence is less damaging than deception.
The problem for Dante is that this point is not easily representable in narrative: what Attila did is far easier for an artist to show us and for us to recognize than the long-term consequences of deception. Habits of deception can build for a long time “underground” without manifesting themselves in representable action. This is one reason why Gibbon’s favorite adverb is “insensibly” — profound changes are always happening “insensibly” in Gibbon’s narrative, but he’s great at showing how that happens. So maybe the kind of point that Dante wants to make by putting alchemists below tyrants is actually better made in historical narrative than poetic allegory.
Finally: you are right that there is indeed “slippage” between the historical characters Dante includes in his story and the allegorical meaning they contain. But this is because Dante’s figural imagination (to go back to Auerbach) is concerned with how history develops according to a pattern of prefiguration and fulfillment (“from shadowy types to truth”). What the figure of Attila is meant to indicate is the teleology — or, more properly, the eschatology — of bestial violence: the tendency towards violence in anyone is, in germ, the atrocities of Attila. (“A History of Violence,” anyone?)
One point that might be helpful with this problem of allegory is the way in which so many medieval allegories work in the opposite direction (i.e., opposite from Attila the Hun representing a moral problem smaller than the actual enormity of his crimes): characters who are named after particular vices and virtues take on personalities in excess of what they’re supposed to represent. (I’m thinking specifically of Piers Plowman, but there are others.) The “slippage” can happen in both directions.
I have to say I don’t understand the critics who claim the Commedia isn’t fictional. Of course it is. Dante didn’t, as a matter of fact, meet up with the shade of Virgil while trying to escape from allegorical beasts at the age of thirty five. He didn’t, as a matter of fact, descend into hell and have conversations with the people he found there. In particular, he held no conversation with Ulysses, who was already a fictional character, invented by an earlier poet.
Every word in the Commedia is a lie, precisely as Plato said it would be.
The comparison with Madame Bovary is apt. “People are like that.” This is close, I think, to Tolkien’s view of the applicability of (even feined) history. Judge Brack thought, “People don’t do such things.” One of the points of Hedda Gabler is they do. But Hedda herself never existed, never killed herself. And any argument (say for gun control) which assumed that Hedda Gabler was true would be laughed at. You can’t base a case on a fiction.
If you’re permitted to make up the evidence, you can prove anything.
And it’s no good cherry-picking: saying, fleeing from obviously allegorical animals is presented as fictional, but the cosmology is presented as true. Because that’s no test. Remember Eco’s character walking across Paris on a specific day. Except that on that specific day there was a fire. In a fiction, everything is fictional, even that which is presented as real. Naturalmente un manoscritto. Naturally a hole in the ground reaching to the earth’s very center. These are circumstantial details intended to give verisimilitude to a tale. Dante imports “established truths” into his fable; it isn’t his fault they turned out to be false.
jim: “I have to say I don’t understand the critics who claim the Commedia isn’t fictional.”
jim, maybe I’m just not understanding your comment, but I don’t understand this reaction to Adam Roberts’ comment. Dante seems to want to teach us things, or at least cause us to think about morally serious things. And sometimes they aren’t even quite moral per se; when Alan writes about “the long-term consequences of deception”, he seems to be writing about historical consequences, not a moral judgement about whether deception is worse than anger. Jonathan Mayhew writes that the problem is with “the truth claims of his moral theology”, but Alan goes farther than that. But in either case, as Adam Roberts wrote, we can’t just read Dante as if he’s a theologically oriented fabulist, as you seem to suggest, because that’s not what he seems to be trying to do.
Ray Davis, in the response post above, brings up the comparison to hard SF. Well, to use a homely example, there is a certain subgenre of hard SF written by techno-libertarians whose extra-fictional purpose appears to be to convince the reader that technology, if not interfered with, will lead humanity through a quick-development Singularity to a great, utopian future. dunno writes: “I don’t particularly mind dinging Dante for being so very wrong about what his utopia does; I just think that if we do so, we should not peg him any more than we do Marx.” Leaving aside how much people do blame Marx for the failure of his utopian thinking (which I think that people actually do quite a bit), the discrediting of this kind of scenario goes in both directions, both from premise to conclusion and from conclusion to premise. If our understanding of technology was such that we can fairly definitively say that that there would be no fast technological change leading to Singularity, the techo-utopia is discredited. If the techno-utopia fails to occur as scheduled, then we start to doubt the premise, and say that the type of technological change isn’t likely to occur. If the whole thing has embedded observations about e.g. whether deception is worse than anger (libertarians are often ideologically concerned with deception, by the way, in their rejection of “force or fraud"), then those observations are in turn discredited by the failure of the overall “argument” that they are embedded in; the reader can not help but feel that an author that is wrong about an overall schema that they relate everything to must be wrong about details as well. At the last, you’re left with something that is certainly a fiction, just as it always was, but it is a drained, enervated fiction, which devotes most of its energy to a argument that we feel is false.
In the case of Dante, this is very bad, since Dante is not some hack turning out techno-libertarian SF, but rather someone who we should put effort into maintaining our ability to read, even as we learn that his facts were wrong, then disagree with his moral judgement, and finally disbelieve even his details. (The historian Priscus portrays Attila as not at all characterized by bestial rage; his reputation seems to be partly romanticized, partly propaganda.) At the end, Dante is on a system of life support, at least in translation: you have to first explain what people thought of Attila in Dante’s time, then the particular way in which “Dante’s figural imagination [...] is concerned with how history develops”, all in the service of a moral judgement that we disagree agree with on first consideration, and which can only be saved by what seems to be a highly subtle argument that is perhaps not convincing when compared to straightforward arguments about Dante being committed to his symbolic structure.
Too much of this thread appears to be either “don’t touch those life support tubes!” or “Dante’s dead, now we can just read him as a poet”. Adam Roberts is not writing some positivistic tract, as far as I can tell, but presenting a real problem that is different than the standard one of keeping up with the details needed to understand any centuries-old work of art.
Adam Kotsko: “Rich, I’m willing to leave our personal dislike of each other aside from now on if you are.”
Adam Kotsko, it’s not a personal dislike. I don’t like it when you write things like
“Um, Alan, you seem to be missing the point here: Dante is wrong” (a meaningless taunt) or “It’s actually pretty similar to how you start off these threads claiming to be arguing on behalf of reality itself” (a misrepresentation that seeks to find a pattern of misbehavior, so that your annoyance can be built up over multiple instances). It has nothing to do with anything except your evident urge to fight, misdirects conversation, makes other people think twice about commenting, directs attacks at a person rather than at a text, and leads to full-blown disputes when one of your friends decides that you’ve been wronged.
If you don’t want me pointing this out, you can simply stop writing in this way. Until then, please go away. I do the same thing by generally not commenting on blogs where I feel like I’ll just be causing fights all the time (except in cases in which I feel all have been invited to comment, such as the recent symposium), so I’m not asking you to do something that I wouldn’t do.
Rich, Could you state briefly what you take the central problem of Adam R.’s post to be? I agree with you that “saving Dante” requires a huge amount of effort, and I can’t be the only reader who was initially put off by the vast superstructure of annotation that is necessary to even get at the surface level of Dante’s work—diagrams, footnotes, etc. At the same time, I didn’t see that as one of the main complaints that Adam was lodging—obviously he was willing to put in the work and study Dante very closely, or else this post would have been impossible to write. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’m possibly missing the point (stereotyping him based on past posts, etc.—although this does seem to be part of a series based on the premise of “Great Minds Who Are Wrong"). I’d find it helpful if a more pro-Roberts reader could briefly clarify the point that he’s making here.
Cross-posted—I don’t feel like my latest comment fits the description of the type of behavior you find objectionable. It is a good-faith effort to continue a substantive discussion. If you don’t want to answer, I understand.
As I understood Adam’s argument:
Major Premise: The “Commedia is predicated fundamentally upon truth”
Support for Major Premise: Harold Bloom says so; Robin Kirkpatric says so, Singleton says so and generally, “There’s a consensus on this point: Dante’s poem depends upon its truthfulness. It is predicated theologically, aesthetically and morally on the truth. Moreover, it seems clear to me plenty of people, and not just medieval-nostalgic Catholics, think it is true.”
Minor Premise: Here’s an untrue bit. Here’s another.
Conclusion: “in this place in the poem, truth doesn’t matter, [. . .] a proposition radically destructive of Dante’s whole project.”
My reply to this argument is to deny his major.
More generally, I have noticed an occasional tendency to criticise an acknowledged fiction for not being true. And I sort of assimilated Adam’s argument to that tendency (perhaps wrongly).
Fiction isn’t true. That doesn’t make it worse than history. It may make it better, since history often isn’t true, either, but pretends to be.
Dante is a special case since he puts so many “real” people into his fiction and visualizes the cosmology he was told was true. This creates precisely the sort of problem you cite in your penultimate paragraph. We come to believe that the fact that the sufferers in hell were real people means that the facts about the real people are relevant. Not so. Walter Scott’s Richard I has almost nothing in common with his real-world counterpart except the name, and it doesn’t damage the novel.
How about Gilgamesh? Do we have a problem there? How about The Iliad? I still don’t get why Dante is singled out as particularly problematic. Isn’t that just the normal thing, that any work of literature from a past age will not accord with present day understandings of things?
Is it because we can’t take Dante seriously? Or that we are taking him too seriously, in a way we wouldn’t with the Poem of Gilgamesh? It seems incredibly naive to even think Dante would be “right” in any meaningful sense.
Jonathan M., the Divine Comedy differs from Gilgamesh in basic ways. First, the Gilgamesh story is in some ways quite contemporary in its focus on the fear of death, and the inevitable death of the hero. You can easily read the magical events as mythical without harming it as a work of art at all. Second, we’re still living with Dante’s theology as a going proposition in living people’s minds. Third, the Divine Comedy is highly *structured* in a way that the Gilgamesh poem is not, and makes internal claims that the truth of God is all part of an essential whole.
jim, thanks for the explanation. I think that I would characterize disagreement with what you call the major premise as saying that we should just read Dante as a poet. I think that this is problematic since the mental model that I have of Dante would seem to indicate that he wouldn’t have wanted the work to be read this way. And if I did read Dante this way, then I would have to think something like “This poet has ur-fascist beliefs—oh well, he was writing in the unenlightened ages” which Adam Roberts rightly, I think, argues against.
Adam K.: “Could you state briefly what you take the central problem of Adam R.’s post to be?”
That reading Dante presents special problems because what he seems to want to do as an author is inextricably bound up with truth claims that we now know to be false. That the standard ways of getting around this condescend to Dante as victim of his time, or as writer of fiction like any other. That this problem is different in kind from the standard problems of reading fiction.
Rich, isn’t it kind of odd—a violation of standard blog procedure, even—for a regular visitor to a site to tell another regular visitor to that site to go away? I mean, isn’t that kind of presumptuous?
(Either that or I’ve missed a hell of a lot of opportunities, and have some catching up to do. “Begone, varlet!")
Alan, I started it by first asking that he not respond to me, then more recently suggesting that he sit out one of the Theory conversations (which itself just echoed a long-ago comment directed against Rich: “Has it ever occurred to you not to dominate one of these threads?"). He has turned my tactic against me and upped the stakes!
Oh, also I declared him to be “banished from the land” at one point, “the land” being “my blog.”
Ah yes, Adam, it’s all coming back to me now.
Here is one kind of potential solution to this problem, although people will of course be able to slag me for naivete in suggesting it. Adam R., you know about my preoccupation with the concept of Demiurgy. For everyone else, briefly, I feel that the writer of fiction necessarily stands in relation to the work as the Gnostic Demiurge does in relation to the cosmos. This religious concept appears to me to have the right proportions of writing as creation, writing as inevitable failure, and writing as perhaps deceptive mirror of reality. It’s something that James Branch Cabell writes about; when you get to a serious consideration of modern genre fantasy, I think it’s a very useful concept (compare Tolkien’s “subcreation”, or the more general “worldbuilding"). Of course Tolkien found a way to view it as doing something right rather than, as the Gnostics would have held, doing something wrong; I prefer to think that it holds elements of both of these.
A good deal of how you read a work with an apparently problematic implied author can be affected by how you view the author as Demiurge. In Dante’s case, the universe he created is highly concerned with order, as such, and meaning. Everything means something—the death of Beatrice wasn’t just a life cut short through disease, the people in his city aren’t only people but also can be made to be allegorical figures, the markings on the Moon reveal something about how the universe is made. So far, so ordinary for his time, I suppose. But he he crystalized it all in a way that people who otherwise believed in this worldview were unable to do. Even if every individual part of it was now known to be wrong, the whole thing works as a structure.
This mundane observation may seem to be just repeating the idea that it’s fiction, and fiction with an interesting structure, and that’s it. But the idea of Dante as Demiurge presents certain advantages. If you believe in Dante’s God, you can choose to believe that some reflection of divine orderliness shone through to his work, that he dimly perceived something from a distance that is not invalidated by the untruth of its materials. If you don’t, an element of pathos is introduced—the person in a meaningless world, perhaps, trying to create order out of nothing. Either one helps you to avoid getting stopped by Dante’s problematic by contemporary standards moral judgements and his truth claims, which become both internally consistent *and* a reflection of something outside, without having to be actually true factually, morally, or theologically.
This might be objected to as Tolkien’s solution condescendingly applied to Dante, who was writing allegorically rather than, as Tolkien did, embracing fictional subcreation. I don’t think that it quite is. After all, creation with the knowledge that the creation must be imperfect is something that every writer of fiction necessarily does.
I’m not sure what’s meant by, “just read Dante as a poet.” Clearly he is a poet and the Commedia is, whatever else it might be, a poem. “Just” seems to intimate that it is not enough to be a poet, that the work aspires to be something higher than a poem. Though it’s nowhere specified what that higher thing might be. There’s a similar denigration of the genre in “condescend to Dante . . . as a writer of fiction like any other.” No. Not like any other. All writers of fiction are not the same. But, yes, a writer of fiction, of poems. Only a poem: “Only a novel.”
Dante is a poet of moral choices. Yes, since he regards political acts as moral choices, this poet has beliefs both you and I disagree with. But then so did Pound and Eliot, and I don’t think anyone has suggested that it’s bad to read either of them as “just” a poet.
I don’t know how Dante would have wanted to be read. I’m not sure it matters. I do think that how Michelangelo or how Primo Levi read Dante does matter (Levi found a copy in Auschwitz and held on to it through his travails; it succoured him). There’s an issue of intertextuality here. Se questo e un uomo wouldn’t be what it is if it were not for Levi’s engagement with Dante. Reading Dante, then, we have to read forward. A purely antiquarian reading, “this poet has ur-fascist beliefs,” is unhelpful, even though Brutus is in the lowest depths because he killed the One True Leader.
Luther and others referred to Dante the Theologian vs Dante the Poet, jim. “Just” is meant in the sense of having a single rather than dual role, not in a derogatory sense.
Alan; I’m not expert enough with the protocols of e-communication, if anybody is, to ensure, without using (hateful) emoticons, that my words don’t come across as snotty or sarcastic: but I am sorry to have made you grumpy on a Monday morning. Wasn’t my intention. I don’t mean to make Adam K grumpy either, of course; except within the acceptable tolerates of grumpiness occasioned by the whole ‘opposition is true friendship’ thing.
More, I’m tentative about locking horns with you re: allegory (if, as perhaps is true, you’re the chap who wrote the recent and well-regarded C S Lewis bio; difficult to know who’s whom in these anonymous electronic and virtual halls). But I really don’t get what you’re arguing. I think Rich has it more or less right, in his own comments and his responses to you.
‘Adam has quite thoroughly misunderstood what Dante is representing and the literary/mimetic means which is is employing in the task.’ OK so far; stranger things have certainly happened. ‘To say that there is a level of “‘poetic’ or allegorical truth” in the poem which is to be distinguished from “other sorts of truth” is a colossal blunder.” This isn’t what I’m saying, though. It seems to me that Dante’s different arenas or magisteria of truth precisely can’t be separated out from one another.
“All those “other sorts of truth” are represented through and only through the medium of the allegory”’ This seems, to my foggy brain, to be saying in effect: ‘when Dante is true it is through his allegorical strategy; but when he is untrue it doesn’t matter because of his allegorical strategy’. I can’t see how allegory functions as a universal poetic solvent in this way. Surely it’s exactly as possible for an allegory for be wrongheaded as for any other literary mode? Lewis, in the The Allegory of Love runs the Psychomachia through the mill because it tries to represent the virtues fighting the vices in an allegorical war, thereby requiring the poet to find ways of characterising not just ‘bravery’ and ‘fortitude’ as appropriately Martial, but also to give Patience, Mercy and Humility with the AK-47s of their day and send them off to spill blood.
Of my Dodgy Rolexes/My Lai comment, Alan wrote “That would be a really snappy comeback, except that it bears no resemblance to the point I made, or to Dante’s organization of Hell”. Given that I called the village ‘Mai Lai’ and couldn’t remember Lt Calley’s name, I was shamed enough by my ignorance to google the massacre. Apart from discovering that Calley served only one night in prison (then 3 years house arrest) for the crime, that he currently resides in Georgia where he manages a jewellery store, and that the number of old men, women and children murdered (not including those raped) is disputed, with some saying about 350 and some over 500—apart from those things, I didn’t learn anything that helped me make sense of Alan’s comment: ‘Do you really think that the only sin of the My-Lai soldiers was that of thoughtless violence? Only forza involved, no froda?’
Where’s the froda in pushing a bunch of women and children into a trench and gunning them to death, exactly? The forza is clearly there; ira too; but why is it deceitful to do this? It was certainly deceitful to try and cover the massacre up afterwards; but happy as I am, as any Liberal would be, to knock the US State Department I can’t see that attempting a public relations spin on an event in an on-going war is a worse crime than lifting up your gun and shooting many hundreds of unarmed civilians.
“Their violence is typically enabled and intensified by their deceptiveness, which is why the fraudulent do more damage in the world than the merely and unreflectively violent.” I’ve been pondering this, and I really don’t see it at all. I can’t believe that the fraudulent do do more damage than the ‘merely’ violent. I don’t want to appear flip, but it wasn’t fraud that enabled and intensified the My Lai soldiers’ violence. It was their guns. Violence, indeed, is very often the place where fraud is no longer necessary. A man was arrested not long ago in London for stabbing another to death. Interviewed after the attack he recalled that his victim’s reaction on being attacked had been one of ‘but what are you doing?’; and that he, the attacker, had replied, ‘it’s obvious isn’t it? I’m killing you. And so I did.’ Nothing fraudulent there.
I’m of course not denying that fraud, in its various forms from conning people out of money to conning nations into war, is a very bad thing. But it’s also a good thing, in that ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ sense of ‘good’. One of the problems with violence, or violent people, is precisely that they refuse to have any truck with the hypocrisy of going through the motions of forgiving if their heart is still enflamed with hate. Since I seem to have diverted from Dante to Vietnam (not sure why) I’ll mention the scene in Apocalypse Now where they inspect a Vietnamese sampan and end up wounding the civilian occupants. Chief Philips wants to take these civilians back downstream for hospitalisation, but Charlie Sheen’s Marlowe shoots them in cold blood instead. Is it ‘them’? Or is there only one person in the sampan? I’m ashamed I can’t remember. But I do remember Marlowe’s voice-over justification, which is that he has grown tired of the ‘lie’ of shooting civilians and then offering them a sticking plaster. That he’s grown tired of all lies, in fact. His murderous action is precisely anti-fraudulent, and he’s reserving himself a less severe place in Hell because of it. Of course, the civilian(s) killed might have preferred the fraud, if it got them to hospital and saved their life/lives.
My point, to try and drag it back to Dante, is that one (of many) functions of his Commedia is a morally heuristic one. Reading it should make us think about our own sinfulness; best not to sin at all, but if we are going to sin then we do need a moral ruler that helps us gauge which are the worst sins, so as to put special effort into avoiding those … indeed, to understanding the underlying logic of why God hates some sins more than others. But Dante’s moral ruler says ‘Marty Sheen? What you did was bad, but not as bad as taking those wounded people to a hospital on the fraudulent grounds that American troops are in Vietnam to help the Vietnamese.’
Hmm. I’m wonder if I’m convicing Alan?
“Again: there’s no way to know whether and how a writer is wrong if you don’t have even a basic understanding of what that writer is affirming.” My basic understanding is that Dante is affirming the truth of his God of Love, a truth that operates simultaneously on the natural and the supernatural level; that he makes great effort in his poem to be as true (doctrinally and aesthetically, but also in other ways) to his belief as he can; and that his allegory is what Singleton calls ‘the allegory of the theologians’, not the allegory of the poets where we can separate out fanciful surface meaning from true depth-meaning. Sorry to have gotten this so spectacularly wrong.
“And the same goes for your invocation of “Auerbach’s specialist sense of ‘realism,’” since Auerbach doesn’t have such a sense.” It’s fair to say that Auerbach doesn’t deploy a single, coherent sense of ‘realism’ in his Mimesis book. But he does distinguish between different sorts of textual verisimilitude, doesn’t he. He distinguishes, for instance, between what many people take for Realism (the European “realist’ novels of Flaubert, Zola, Gissing) and Russian Realism, which is more in touch with this deeper tradition of mixing the low and the sublime, something he dates to the gospels and which finds one of its greatest embodiments in Dante. By ‘specialist’ I meant that this isn’t what many people think of when they think of realism.
“Fascinatingly nifty as the notion of “wrongness” is, it’s worthwhile to try paying some attention to what Dante actually wrote …” Really? Hey, but, you’re right! There’s a whole poem here, in three cantos. Let me go off and read this, and then I’ll get back to you.
Sorry, Dunno, you’re breaking up. I think alphawave quantum harmonics are interfering with the communication channels between our two universes.
Really? Hey, but, you’re right! There’s a whole poem here, in three cantos. Let me go off and read this, and then I’ll get back to you.
Alan; I’m not expert enough with the protocols of e-communication, if anybody is, to ensure, without using (hateful) emoticons, that my words don’t come across as snotty or sarcastic
Maybe not ending your comments with exercises in unreflexive rhetorical kneecapping could help. Both comments you replied to in the bow-shots above were just single parts of two dialogues, the substance of which you managed to ignore by being, if not “snotty or sarcastic,” then certainly neatly clever.
Adam K: ‘Adam R., I’m not calling into question the possibility of wrongness ... How could I be rejecting the category of wrongness in the process of declaring you to be wrong about something?’
Point taken. You’re quite right: I can be wrong. Heidegger not, but wrongness is a judgment that can, under the right circumstances, be made.
‘The people who claim to be “literally” following the Bible are not, because it is impossible to do so (viz., contradictions).’
Impossible? Really? I mean, I’d say you know more about this than me, what with me being a godless atheist and all; but aren’t there many people who would disagree with you? Perhaps the point is that people like this person aren’t representative of Christianity. Of course it’s a large faith with many varieties, and his view doesn’t represent all or even most of these. But he represents some, and he’s clear enough that “classic Christianity rests on the assurance that the Bible is completely accurate. It may contain statements that are (1) figures of speech; (2) non-technical descriptions; or (3) difficult to understand. But actual errors would fall into a different kind of category. If there are any errors in Scripture, no matter how small, the book can no longer be our standard of truth. I become the standard of truth, as I determine which Bible statements are right and which are wrong. And if I can’t trust God to get the facts straight on things like dates and measurements (where I can check on Him), why should I expect Him to be more accurate in areas like sin and salvation (where I can’t check on Him)?”
I agree with you that the Bible seems to me full of contradictions and elements that a sane 21st-century person should disregard. But I’m assuming it doesn’t seem so to Dr John Bechtle or his flock. My point is that for all the intellectual difficulties Dr John is (it seems to me) letting himself in for, at least he doesn’t have the difficulty of an internally incoherent or randomly selected Holy Book. Isn’t he only doing what the majority of Islamic imams do with the Qu’ran?
‘Claiming literal adherence to scripture is a rhetorical strategy, meant to put all other Christians on the defensive (and, incidentally, to convince secular people that their “literal” version of Christianity is the most logically consistent—-mission accomplished, apparently)’
See, this interests me a great deal. My instinct is to agree with what you say here. But it means that you are in effect accusing Dr John B. of asserting his beliefs for reasons of rhetoric rather than personal belief. And I see the logic: he can’t actually be arguing the whole Bible is literally true (’impossible’) so he must have some hidden agenda ...
‘Mission accomplished apparently’, I take it, is a way of saying ‘these people are trying to fool you, Roberts, and--guess what--you were fooled. Why don’t you try talking to some real Christians for a change?’ Am I right to take it that way? In which case my next question would be: how am I to tell the difference between the Christians I should talk to and the ones who are only trying to put people on the back foot?
[Tell me if I’m being offensive here, by the way. Really; I don’t mean to be (’it’s just my manner’ as T E Lawrence says in the film) and I apologise if I am.]
I think there’d be many exceptions to the Bible As All True And Wholly Literal school. At the Catholic end, for most of the Church’s history, translating the Bible was considered wrong, as was private reading of it, in part because without the interperetive structure afforded by seminary, itwould be misread. Even today, the joke about the Catholic lost without a Book of Prayer in the pew at a Baptist service, and the Baptist searching in vain for a Bible in the pew of a mass points to the remnants of this attitude.
Similar is the Anglican Communion’s laying on of hands by a bishop at Confirmation and Ordination. The idea is the joining of the apostolic succession means something in becoming a functioning member of the Church, in a way that only reading the Bible does not. There is not the assumption that the Bible is the Alpha and the Omega when it comes to truth (they leave that to someone else).
On the other end of the spectrum, many nondenominational Christians, even ones who profess belief in the literal truth of the Bible, will say that all that is needed for entrance into Heaven is to “accept Christ as your one true and personal Saviour.” Needless to say, Leviticus disagrees, and Adam Kotsko is right: they’re cherry-picking.
The textual absolutism that Roberts seems to advocate in reading works seems to serve only to remove them from consideration (which is why I tried to get him to adress what happened when Marx was wrong. I was curious if Roberts is so willing to write off Marx wholesale for the sort of moon-constitutional errors he shares with the Bible and Dante). I think the whole exercise is a bit foolish, like refusing to read The History of King Lear because it isn’t a history of King Lear.
Adam R, thanks for the thoughtful response. (I wasn’t really grumpy, but re-reading my post I realized that I sounded grumpy.)
One last shot at forza and froda: even My Lai could happen only because the Americans were in that part of Vietnam in the guise of protectors. If the Vietnamese villagers had known that the American soldiers were coming to kill them, they wouldn’t have been there when Lt. Calley and his troops arrived. Calley knew this and took advantage of it: his use of violence was only possible because of the prior deception. For Dante—and I think this is not only right but evidently right—simple violence is extremely limited in the damage it can do (you can stab a guy outside a pub, for instance); in order to make it to the Big Leagues of evil you must scheme and plan, you must take the Image of God in you (what Dante calls your intelleto) and pervert it so that instead of leading you to the knowledge of God it empowers you to destroy your fellow creatures. Pure forza operates with scarce resources and short range; it is froda that almost infinitely magnifies the scope of forza. And that’s why Dante says that it is the greater kind of sin.
And it is the nature of sin that Dante is primarily concerned to depict, not the character of sinners: so you’re continuing to miss The Point when you keep bringing the discussion down to specific actions of individual actors. Thus: “Dante’s moral ruler says ‘Marty Sheen? What you did was bad, but not as bad as taking those wounded people to a hospital on the fraudulent grounds that American troops are in Vietnam to help the Vietnamese.’” Well of course his moral ruler says no such thing. Wherever did you get such an odd idea?
I get now what you meant by “Auerbach’s specialist sense of ‘realism,’” and so I would just encourage you to take your own point more seriously. The realism of Dante is what Auerbach calls “figural realism”—see not only the chapter on Dante in <i>Mimesis</i> but also his magisterial long essay “Figura”—which means, among other things, that the characters, events, and places in the Commedia always figure forth something. Which is not to say that they don’t possess substantial reality of their own, but that such reality that they possess is clarified and fulfilled only in what they figure—in precisely the same way that, in the account of Dante and for that matter Luther and Calvin, the Hebrew scriptures typologically prefigure the events of the New Testament. They mean something in themselves, but usually not what they appear to mean. So too Dante and Beatrice and the markings on the moon—figural characters, figural landscape—have a substantial reality of their own but not the reality they appear to have. Understanding that Dante’s mode of representation is thus figural is anything but a “universal solvent”: it doesn’t solve any interpretive problems. But I would say that it is the only door into the Commedia so that, if you don’t get this mode of representation, you’re not in a position to know what Dante is affirming, much less whether those affirmations are true.</p>
So: “All those “other sorts of truth” are represented through and only through the medium of the allegory”’ This seems, to my foggy brain, to be saying in effect: ‘when Dante is true it is through his allegorical strategy; but when he is untrue it doesn’t matter because of his allegorical strategy’. Nah, I haven’t yet arrived at the point where I feel able to discuss with you what’s true and untrue in Dante. Though that would be an enjoyable conversation.
In that very conversation I told you that there were points where I thought Heidegger was “wrong.” Failure to adhere to the Einsteinian definition of time when he is trying to analyze the everyday human experience of time does not seem to me to be an example of being “wrong.”
And it doesn’t matter whether the Christian apologist you quote is “sincere” or not—what matters is that he’s wrong. The very earliest interpreters (hence, representatives of something like “classic Christianity") recognized the plain *fact* that there are contradictions and inaccuracies in the Bible. I’m talking about Origen and Augustine here—hardly obscure figures (Origen was later regarded as a heretic, but not for his methods of biblical interpretation, which were hugely influential). Their solution to this problem was to employ “allegorical” (i.e., non-literal) interpretation at those points—or, more accurately, to claim that those contradictions must be the Holy Spirit’s way of telling us that there’s a *really important* allegorical (i.e., non-literal) meaning hidden at that point. More generally, they preferred allegorical over literal meanings of Scripture—as did no less an authority than St. Paul himself, in his readings of Old Testament passages in his letters. This is all in the public record.
In short, I don’t care how “sincere” these people are—they are wrong, on a factual, historical level. If they think they’re taking the whole Bible literally but are not following kosher, then they are wrong to think that they’re taking the whole Bible literally. (I don’t think it makes sense here to talk about “well, depends on what you mean by literally,” since the whole point of using the word “literally” is because there’s only one literal meaning, as opposed to the groundless speculation *other* Christians do.)
I’d be surprised if this comment got a productive response, though, so I’ll stop here.
And yeah, I am the guy who wrote the Lewis bio. (Though there are other things that I would prefer to be remembered for. . . .)
I’m no Dante scholar, though I’ve read the Comedy, and this thread has given me a lot to think about. My thanks to all those who have participated in it.
A few quick comments on Alan’s posts:
“who does more harm in the world, those who unreflectively do violent deeds in fits of anger, or those who calculate to manipulate and deceive? “ (4/30, 10:57 PM)
But the “violent” sinners placed in the seventh circle, above the frauds, are not just “those who unreflectively do violent deeds in fits of anger,” but tyrants in general. (Canto XII, lines 105-6 (98 in Pinsky’s translation))
“Dante ... is not interested in the game of pigeonholing people like toy soldiers in cigar boxes (Lt. Calley in here, fake Rolex guys over there).” (5/1, 8:29 AM)
But Dante is, in fact, “pigeonholing people like toy soldiers in cigar boxes” throughout the Comedy, so I’d like to see some evidence for the claim that he’s not interested in it.
“Dante’s argument is that habits of deception and fraudulence pave the way for increasingly greater evils and therefore in the very long term can do more damage than even horrific outbursts of mindless violence (as opposed, note, to calculated violence, which almost always comprises fraud as well).” (5/1, 11:17 AM)
But Dante’s own explanation (through Virgil) of why fraud is placed below force is quite different: “since fraud is found/In humankind as its peculiar vice,/It angers God more: so the fraudulent/Are lower, and suffer more unhappiness.” (Canto XI, 25-27 (24-27 in Pinsky trans.) If he were really making the argument you attribute to him, why wouldn’t he do so explicitly, since he’s not adverse to making the principles of his poem explicit in general?
And, as I said, fraud is placed below calculated violence as well as mindless violence.
“For Dante—and I think this is not only right but evidently right—simple violence is extremely limited in the damage it can do (you can stab a guy outside a pub, for instance); in order to make it to the Big Leagues of evil you must scheme and plan, you must take the Image of God in you (what Dante calls your intelleto) and pervert it so that instead of leading you to the knowledge of God it empowers you to destroy your fellow creatures.” (5/2, 10:40 AM)
How about Genghis Khan? He schemed and planned, to be sure, but not in an intrinsically fraudulent way, at least in my recollection. He was quite up front that his intent was conquest, and that he would massacre anybody who resisted; and he generally kept his word about not massacring those who submitted without resistance.
In any case, even if we grant that force+fraud is more damaging than force alone, that doesn’t show that fraud is worse than force, since force+fraud is also more damaging than fraud alone. The proper comparison would be force alone vs. fraud alone.
Adam K. “And it doesn’t matter whether the Christian apologist you quote is “sincere” or not—what matters is that he’s wrong.” Hey! You sound like me! Please accept my assurances (which you may or may not consider as falling within the rubric of ‘productive response’ to your comment) that I think he’s wrong, too.
“If they think they’re taking the whole Bible literally but are not following kosher, then they are wrong to think that they’re taking the whole Bible literally ...” Though doesn’t the NT specifically overturn the dietary laws? That dream of all the animals tumbling in the big blanket together? Similarly the necessity of circumcision, plus eg the need to stone women taken in adultery and so on. I’m assuming that ‘literalists’, whom I’m very happy to call ‘so-called literalists’, limit themselves to those parts of the OT not directly trumped by the NT. But what do I know?
Thanks for yours, Alan. I don’t mean to come over as stubborn, but I’m afraid I still don’t see your My Lai reasoning: ‘even My Lai could happen only because the Americans were in that part of Vietnam in the guise of protectors. If the Vietnamese villagers had known that the American soldiers were coming to kill them, they wouldn’t have been there when Lt. Calley and his troops arrived.’ Um ... on the grounds that if they’d’ve known the Americans were coming to kill them and stayed they would have been complicit and therefore culpable? Couldn’t you say the same thing about your example of ‘simple violence’: ‘you can stab a guy outside a pub’ ... if the stabee knows you’re coming to stab him, wouldn’t he also bugger-off? Indeed, any and every crime of violence becomes, magically, a crime of ‘fraud’ insofar as criminals don’t usually go around with a megaphone shouting that they’re about to commit a crime ...
Marching into a village with big guns, shooting several hundred people dead there-and-then, raping some of the survivors: I really can’t think of a more straightforward example of simple violence. But this is off the point of Dante, except in an oblique sense.
Adam S. I heartily agree with your points. Heartily, no less.
I think that the My Lai example is rapidly becoming a distraction, but now that it’s gone this far, I should point out that the idea of anyone fooling the villagers into staying does not appear to be well-founded. When Alan writes that the American troops were in that part of Vietnam “in the guise of protectors. If the Vietnamese villagers had known that the American soldiers were coming to kill them, they wouldn’t have been there when Lt. Calley and his troops arrived”, I think that he leaves aside the simpler explanation that they stayed because they had nowhere else to go. The Americans did regularly shell and bomb that area, after all, which are not the actions of a protector.
In any case, this is getting away from Alan’s emphasis that to read Dante, the historical facts of personal biography of characters are immaterial; only their figural or allegorical meaning is important. In that case, Calley is “known” or “figures” in American allegory as person representing unthinking violence. You can’t say that Adam R. is wrong to use him as example of force without fraud unless you go against the allegorical reading that you’re arguing for.
These guys named Adam would cause me to pull every hair out of my head if I had enough hair left to pull. You’re makin’ me NUTS, I tell you. And the whole problem is that you just can’t get your minds around the fact that the poem is an allegory. So, my last attempt:
No, Adam S, Dante is not pigeonholing people throughout the Commedia. As the structure of his poem (especially the ante-Purgatory) shows, and as I have already noted, he doesn’t know and doesn’t claim to know who is where in the afterlife. The people here are used to represent or figure forth sins. If we take the view that you and Adam R take, that the poem straightforwardly represents the placement of individual people in the afterlife, then it immediately becomes totally senseless, since no one is guilty of one sin. Think about this one example: why is Dido in the circle of the lustful? Do you think it’s because Dante didn’t know that she committed suicide? Of course he knew—but he put her in the circle of the lustful because she figures forth something about lust that Dante wants to call attention to. Likewise, the presence of the tyrants in the seventh circle is not to make a point about the eternal fate of individual tyrants, but to make a point about the sins of violence associated with tyranny. It’s an allegory, not a friggin’ Baedecker’s Guide to Hell. Read Dante’s letter to Can Grande della Scala on this matter if you don’t believe me.
You also say that my explanation for why fraud is worse than violence is different than Dante’s but it isn’t at all. You missed the part where I summarized that very passage from Canto XI (go back to my earlier posts and look for the word intelletto, which is the gift distinctive to humanity, the gift of which fraud is especially abusive). All I was doing was moving from this definition to the way, later in the poem, Dante and Virgil unpack the implications of it in the anatomies of the various sins.
And briefly (because I am once more going on too long): so you think Genghis Khan used no fraud or deception? Never made surprise attacks? Never broke treaties or other agreements? Never sent soldiers in one direction as a diversionary tactic? These are all deceptions, in Dante’s sense froda. We could have a debate about whether deception is sometimes warranted, but not about whether even the most openly violent of tyrants relies on it.
And finally, to Adam R, I do not understand this sentence at all: “Um ... on the grounds that if they’d’ve known the Americans were coming to kill them and stayed they would have been complicit and therefore culpable?” All I meant was this: if I’m a Vietnamese villager and there’s an army around which has continually advertised itself as my guardian and protector, I’m not so likely to flee at their approach; but if I knew that that they might kill me and all my neighbors with no provocation whatsoever, I’d get the hell out of there ASAP. So the violence that Lt. Calley et al. were able to do was enabled by the lies and deceptions already in place. Clearer now?
Okay, okay, one last thing. Adam S wrote: “In any case, even if we grant that force+fraud is more damaging than force alone, that doesn’t show that fraud is worse than force, since force+fraud is also more damaging than fraud alone. The proper comparison would be force alone vs. fraud alone.”
But I already addressed that, by noting that force alone has a very short reach. By pure force I can do comparatively little damage—if in a fit of rage I grab a machine gun from a soldier and fire into a crowd, I probably won’t be able to kill very many people before I am stopped. But by fraud alone I can, for instance, prompt many people to perform acts of violence on my behalf. How many direct acts of violence did Hitler commit? Very few if any. But through deception he caused the deaths of millions.
I tried commenting using another browser, and my comment went into a moderation queue somewhere. But the gist of it was that Alan can’t really use this argument: he’s said that allegorical rather than factual information is what’s important in this case, and Calley is allegorically a symbol of unthinking force rather than deception, no matter what the actual facts were.
More generally, Alan, I think that you’re on the wrong track. Dante has set up an allegory, and you’re trying to argue that it’s really true in the sense that Dante was a good predictor of the real-life general severity of consequence of one type of sin vs another. I don’t think that’s convincing. I mean, your argument about deception being necessary sounds forced: there really were tyrants who caused mass murder not through deception but by advocating mass murder, through the same logic that says that Dante was trying to say that fraud was worse than force you must try to show the reasonableness of the subdivisions, etc. I don’t think that we should have to agree that Dante’s schema is true in terms of historical contingency in order to appreciate Dante.
I guess that no one is interested in the demiurgy bit. The story of my life. Actually, the subcreated story of my Internet persona, I suppose.
"I guess that no one is interested in the demiurgy bit. The story of my life. Actually, the subcreated story of my Internet persona, I suppose.”
Heh. I want to see more of your sense of humour, Rich! I’ve always thought that, like other such curmudgeons, you were cuddly at heart.
Alan can’t really use this argument: he’s said that allegorical rather than factual information is what’s important in this case
No, I haven’t!
Dante has set up an allegory, and you’re trying to argue that it’s really true in the sense that Dante was a good predictor of the real-life general severity of consequence of one type of sin vs another.
No, I’m not!
there really were tyrants who caused mass murder not through deception but by advocating mass murder
Remember that my point was about how deception lays the groundwork for violence. So name a tyrant or mass-murdered who didn’t use deception to lay the groundwork for violence. Go ahead, I dare you.
I don’t think that we should have to agree that Dante’s schema is true in terms of historical contingency in order to appreciate Dante.
Sorry about not coming through for you on the demiourgos front.
Me: “Dante has set up an allegory, and you’re trying to argue that it’s really true in the sense that Dante was a good predictor of the real-life general severity of consequence of one type of sin vs another.”
Alan: “No, I’m not!”
You’re not? OK, I’m confused. Here is some mega-quotage of paragraphs from your comments above that I thought were addressing this argument:
“So, if we can just remember the allegory for a minute and pay a little less attention to the specific people representing the sins, we can ask ourselves the relevant question: who does more harm in the world, those who unreflectively do violent deeds in fits of anger, or those who calculate to manipulate and deceive?”
“indeed, their violence is typically enabled and intensified by their deceptiveness, which is why the fraudulent do more damage in the world than the merely and unreflectively violent.”
“Dante’s argument is that habits of deception and fraudulence pave the way for increasingly greater evils and therefore in the very long term can do more damage than even horrific outbursts of mindless violence (as opposed, note, to calculated violence, which almost always comprises fraud as well).”
“So, once more: the question of whether Attila did more harm than any number of fraudulent alchemists is different than the question of whether, overall and universally, bestial violence is less damaging than deception.”
“But I already addressed that, by noting that force alone has a very short reach. By pure force I can do comparatively little damage—if in a fit of rage I grab a machine gun from a soldier and fire into a crowd, I probably won’t be able to kill very many people before I am stopped. But by fraud alone I can, for instance, prompt many people to perform acts of violence on my behalf.”
This appears to me to be an extended argument that says something like: 1) when Dante put the fraudulent below the merely violent in Hell, he was indicating that deceptiveness does more harm in the world than mere violence, and 2) that this opinion of Dante’s is essentially true. If I did misinterpret it so badly, please correct me.
The first point is a bit more complex, but Dante’s allegory certainly seems on the surface to be theological—concerned with severity of sin, not severity of consequence in the world. By shifting from one to the other, I think that you call into question the claim that Dante’s allegorical choices can’t be impeached by fact. If Dante was using these examples to illustrate judgements of consequence, then doesn’t it make a difference if real-life events and consequences were not as he thought? But you’re attacking Adam R.’s examples based on fact, so he’s not allowed to use Calley as a countervailing allegorical figure.
“Remember that my point was about how deception lays the groundwork for violence. So name a tyrant or mass-murdered who didn’t use deception to lay the groundwork for violence. Go ahead, I dare you.”
Is hate speech such as “We should kill all X, if we let them live, they will come back into power” deception if the speaker really believes it? The Rwandan genocide was carried out in great part through this kind of message, as well as threats against those who wouldn’t cooperate in the killing. People could not escape, despite the open threat of massacre, because there was nowhere to go.
Rich, I think, puts it very well.
But I’m sensing a differend here. It may be (not to put words in Alan’s mouth. he’ll correct me of course) that he and I start from different places on the whole ‘sin’ question. It may be that for Alan the primary violence that sin does is to that inner part of a person which is modelled on God, made in His image. Deception seems worse than simple violence because (here I’m casting about) deception perverts God’s inner-truthiness. If Christ were in this situation he might get cross (casting the moneylenders out of the temple etc) but he would continue loving any given human beings in a straightforward, way-truth-light manner, and wouldn’t do anything incompatible with that love. So a human being who stifles his inner Christ by acting in a way deliberately, sinfully counter to that manner does greater violence (self- and other-) by his froda than a simple ira ever could.
But this isn’t how I see it. Morality must be judged by its effects. If you shoot me, or perpetrate genocide upon my people, I don’t really care what’s going on in your soul; I just want you to stop. This, as I said above, is a post ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ ethics: one that believes that, for good and ill, deceit is a necessary component of human behaviour. It’s how we all manage to rub along with one another in our tight-packed cities without giving way to murderous or raping rages. It’s another word for ‘restraint’, just as Lt Calley’s type of violence is a pure example of releasing inner restraint. Morality is performative, not inward.
But it would be a barren exercise for me to try and browbeat Alan into believing my morality; or vice verse, him to threaten to tear out his hair until I see things from his point of view.
Dunno: ‘ I think the whole exercise is a bit foolish, like refusing to read The History of King Lear because it isn’t a history of King Lear.’
I see what you’re saying, but the premise of my post is entirely that Dante’s Comedy presents a special case. Homer, Aesop, The History of King Lear, Tolkien, these are all fictions. You know where you are with fictions.
I think everybody’s points on this thread have started to converge (not that there’s not disagreement; just that Rich’s demiurgy and Alan’s allegory, to take an example, are showing themselves much more compatable (in my view, at any event) than say, their positions seemed at the beginning of the thread).
You seem to bring up a possiblilty for a compromise reading.
It may be that for Alan the primary violence that sin does is to that inner part of a person which is modelled on God, made in His image. . . .
But this isn’t how I see it.
It seems to me that Alan is capturing the classic Christian view on the nature of sin (a view that may be, to ressurect a fighting word, wrong) while you express a view that is more contemporary. Both views attempt to comment on the world in which we live, and are mutually exclusive.
Can’t we solve this problem by saying that the Commedia isn’t about the results of (im)moral acts in this world, but instead that it is about the Christian model of such acts’ consequences? In that event we can admit a rightness to Dante, and go from there (what he says the Christian model is) to here (the way the world works). We preserve Roberts’ questions about relative placement of alchemists nad tyrants, with the exception that they change slightly from “Was Dante wrong about” to “Is the Christian model Dante describes wrong about.” I’d personally prefer the second question: it seems to give a more widely applicable answer.
That, I think, gets to what I have been trying to say in my earlier comments, that we should try to preserve the utility of texts in our construction of a reading, be they Tolkien, Dante, Bible, Shakespeare, Marx, or Newton.
Gee, I used to be praised for the clarity of my writing until I started posting on the Valve. . . . but I really am at fault here for not distinguishing with sufficient care my voice from that of Dante. My whole purpose in this thread, Rich, has simply been to say that you can’t know whether Dante is right or wrong about something if you don’t know what he is affirming, and Adam R in his post (and in some of his responses) clearly didn’t know what Dante was affirming. So when Adam says, “Dante thinks forza is worse than froda, therefore he thinks that taking civilians to the hospital under false pretenses is worse than butchering them with machine guns,” I was honor bound, I thought, to point out that that’s an utterly ridiculous claim, and that Dante’s actual position on the subject is something far more reasonable, even to people who share none of his theological commitments.
So all of what you quote was meant to clarify Dante’s position as a propadeutic to evaluating it—but sometimes I got carried away. (My views are quite similar to Dante’s on some points but not all.) But I blame Adam because of the dumb stuff he said.
Like this: “Morality is performative, not inward.” Isn’t that the greatest false dichotomy in the history of human thought? or at least in the history of the Valve? Well, anyway: Adam, you may be interested only in what people do, but Dante—like Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Marx, and Freud, among others—is interested in both the etiology or moral behavior and its teleology, where it comes from and where it’s going. And in fact most of the problems modern readers have with understanding the Divine Comedy is that they want to treat it as a work of 19th-century naturalism, concerned with the individual person and the immediate moment. As you know, I think you make that mistake. But Dante’s figural realism is concerned with the whole arc of sin from its initiation to its “perfection” (see Inferno, Canto X), not with particular actors in particular moments. Of course, no one else has to be interested in such things.
Thank you all for your interlocution. I certainly haven’t felt “browbeaten” by you, Adam, and I hope I haven’t been doing any browbeating. Please forgive me if I have.
All right, thanks, I think that I now understand better what was going on. I still think, however, that when you (Alan) write that
“Dante’s actual position on the subject is something far more reasonable, even to people who share none of his theological commitments”, you may be putting the question closer to positions about consequence and farther from positions about theology than it needs to be.
And now I’m going to go on about demiurgy, even though no one has expressed interest. (This is one of my talents.) I think that this interpretive concept is good for three things: 1) solving some problems with reading a work that seem to come down to implied author position (e.g. the many mentions in this argument of Dante said this, Dante means that), 2) solving some problems with reading a work in which characters appear to behave in otherwise inexplicable ways (e.g., when the character Judah is killed rather than forced to undo his work in Mieville’s _Iron Council_, the best explanation appears to be that he is a sort of necessary sacrifice to Mieville’s demiurgic problem of not being able to let the revolution succeed or fail), 3) addressing the general problems of fantasy and SF (Cabell referred to “romance") as genre forms.
This is an example of case 1), of course. It’s impossible to read Dante’s text without feeling that he, as implied author, is making a series of claims (whether the claims are moral, theological, factual, or whatever is not important to my interpretation). Contra Alan, I don’t think that a question about whether Dante was right or wrong is best addressed by figuring out what Dante “really was affirming”, so that you can figure out whether you agree with it or not. That may be a good approach for people who are Dante scholars, or anyway literature professors, but it requires time and expertise that most people don’t have to go through the expansive Dante marginalia.
Instead, I advocate theorizing Dante’s relationship to the work in such a way that you can appreciate the qualities of the work, and whatever moral/theological points you’re ready to either agree with or think about, without having to commit to an opinion on whether Dante’s entire linked structure is still standing or has come crashing down. This is done, in effect, by placing Dante the writer—not Dante the narrator within the work—as a character within your mental model of the work. Dante as demiurge may or may not bear any relationship to the “historical Dante”, although whatever you’ve read will inform your picture of him. Considering Dante specifically as demiurge rather than many of the other authorial models seems to work well in this case because of the particular qualities of Dante’s allegorical construction.
Alan: “I blame Adam because of the dumb stuff he said...” Well I’ve certainly said more than my fair share of dumb stuff in my time. Although, to be fair to me, I never said: “Dante thinks forza is worse than froda, therefore he thinks that taking civilians to the hospital under false pretenses is worse than butchering them with machine guns.” Never said that dumb thing. So when Alan says “So when Adam says, et seq“ I really have to step in. Not that I feel browbet, but this really is one-eighty-degrees on what I said. Of course Dante does think froda worse than forza, which is why he puts deceivers and traitors in the deepest bits of Hell. The Apocalypse Now reference is not to Dante, but to another agent who believes violence, whilst not good, is better than ‘the lie’.
“‘Morality is performative, not inward.’ Isn’t that the greatest false dichotomy in the history of human thought? or at least in the history of the Valve?” You think? I’m sure there’s something about ‘eclecticism’ or ‘Zizek’ in one of these posts that might challenge for the title.
“Adam, you may be interested only in what people do, but Dante—like Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Marx, and Freud, among others—is interested in both the etiology or moral behavior and its teleology, where it comes from and where it’s going.” But I’m interested in these things too! I certainly never said I wasn’t! I fear you have misunderstood me. I’m enormously interested in what goes on in people’s minds; what I’m not interested in is judging people on any grounds except what they do. If I’m talking to Alan J. and my dumb speechifying makes the red mist come down over his eyes, such that the thought briefly crosses his mind of whipping out his twelve-inch Bowie knife and slitting my gizzard there and then but he restrains himself, then that’s good enough for me. People are going to piss people off from time to time as we all go through life; what’s important is not that people get pissed off, but that they’re in control of themselves enough to restrain their antisocial emotions, to exercise a little healthy froda. I’d judge you for acting violently towards me; not for thinking passingly about acting violently towards me but holding back.
Now, of course there’s an inward component here; but what’s going on inside Alan, provided it doesn’t impact upon me, is his business not mind, surely? Maybe he’d be happier if he didn’t get the blind rages; maybe he should have therapy, meditate, medicate, whatever he thinks best. Up to him. But it’s enough for me, and for social interaction generally, only that he blocks off antisocial performance. The alternative, it seems to me, is a policy of indoctrinating the whole population in a newspeak consciousness that doesn’t allow even the thinking of transgressive thoughts, and would be a bad thing.
Dumb stuff does get said, though, I know. For instance it seems to me that saying ‘it’s only because they were in Vietnam as protectors that Caley’s men were able to perpetrate mass murder’, is like saying ‘it’s only because they were able to walk around and see well enough with their eyes to aim their guns that they were able to perpetrate mass murder’. It really goes without saying. It’s not that walking about and looking make the crime much worse than it would otherwise be. It’s the shooting, killing and raping that make the crime so terrible. If they hadn’t been in Vietnam (as protectors), well then of course they couldn’t have been killing Vietnamese, because they wouldn’t have been in Vietnam ... unless you’re saying that being in Vietnam as unambiguous aggressors would have lessened the severity of what happened at My Lai? That the crimes of the Nazis in Poland, say, are somehow less terrible than My Lai because there was less froda involved? But, no, that would be dumb. Wouldn’t it.
Dunno: “Can’t we solve this problem by saying that the Commedia isn’t about the results of (im)moral acts in this world, but instead that it is about the Christian model of such acts’ consequences? In that event we can admit a rightness to Dante, and go from there (what he says the Christian model is) to here (the way the world works). We preserve Roberts’ questions about relative placement of alchemists and tyrants, with the exception that they change slightly from “Was Dante wrong about” to “Is the Christian model Dante describes wrong about.” I’d personally prefer the second question: it seems to give a more widely applicable answer.”
Well, this is very interesting, and makes sense: but it also makes me wonder whether the truthiness problem doesn’t go even deeper in Dante than I was arguing in my original post. Because if I’m understanding Alan properly, then the Christian model of ethics is premised on being true to the inner Christ in every person; that sin itself (as single act or Inferno-to-Paradiso trajectory) becomes in effect a kind of lying, a deceit and treachery to the proper Divine authority. Which makes departures from the truth even more problematical. No?
The elongated composition of my last two posts meant that I crossed Rich’s v. interesting one. I think my problem with it is summarised in his earlier post when he says: “this might be objected to as Tolkien’s solution condescendingly applied to Dante, who was writing allegorically rather than, as Tolkien did, embracing fictional subcreation. I don’t think that it quite is.” I don’t think I see why it isn’t. You add: “after all, creation with the knowledge that the creation must be imperfect is something that every writer of fiction necessarily does.” It’s the difference between a positive Coleridgean-Tolkienian stress on the ‘creativity’ of subcreation on the one hand, and the negative Platonic dismissal of subcreation as erroneous imperfection and removal of us further from the Forms. But Dante is in the former camp, isn’t he? How isn’t the demiurge argument just “Tolkien’s solution condescendingly applied”?
As one who lurks at the valve from time to time I must say this is one of the more compelling discussions I have witnessed - perhaps because the object of critical inquiry is a complex and ambitious work of art rather than a piece of contmporary criticism?
I am unschooled in christian ways and am not an academic. However, I’ll throw in my two cents by echoing what I’m reading in this thread about the distinction between sin as a wrongful act against humankind and sin as transgression against god. This issue is one I had to grapple with when reading Milton. Attila seems to represent true brute force and his “animal” nature may be seen in the context of medieval racism. The Huns were probably viewed as resembling a pack of wolves more than human beings. And violence per se was probably justified under wider circumstances than today (e.g. defending honor in addition to participation in ‘just’ warfare).
Abuse of our more divine nature, and in particular the one nature closest to godlike - wisdom - here perhaps represented by the fruadulent alchemists - is the greater sin. (Again I think of Milton)
So, rather than being a catalogue of (all of) humankind’s ‘wrongfulness’, the Comedy may be indended more for an audience of pilgrims - those who arm aiming for spiritual perfection rather than being a more modern, post-enlightenment enterprise concerned with ‘human progress’ ?
Adam R.: “But Dante is in the former camp, isn’t he? How isn’t the demiurge argument just “Tolkien’s solution condescendingly applied”?”
From context, I’m pretty sure that you mean the latter, Platonic, camp. But we know certain things about what Dante was doing, don’t we? For simplicity, though not completeness, I’ll divide Dante’s readers into Catholics and non-Catholics. For Catholics, Dante does not appear to be an official theologian. To quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “The power of the sacred poem in popularizing Catholic theology and Catholic philosophy, and rendering it acceptable, or at least intelligible to non-Catholics, is at the present day almost incalculable.” So it is not a position of the church that Dante was writing theological truth, although it may be regarded as a popularization of parts of it. For non-Catholics, Dante’s text falls more towards the spectrum of “fiction like any other”, as Jonathan M. and jim have in various ways expressed. And fiction necessarily, in my view, must fail in some respect.
Therefore, Dante need not have had a positive Coleridgean-Tolkienian stress on his work for us to look at him as a demiurge, and to feel that such a characterization is not merely a dismissal of part of the value of what Dante was trying to do. Of course the word “demiurge” has connotations of heresy that are perhaps troublesome, but I think that the associations of the word are better than those of “subcreation”, which is rather clinical and already has a specific, slightly differing meaning in this context.
That “I blame Adam” was an attempt at a joke—I really don’t blame Adam for my own lack of clarity. Sorry: online tone management is difficult sometimes. Also, I don’t have a knife, nor have I been tempted by this conversation to buy one. For what it’s worth.
Adam, you wrote above: “Dante’s moral ruler says ‘Marty Sheen? What you did was bad, but not as bad as taking those wounded people to a hospital on the fraudulent grounds that American troops are in Vietnam to help the Vietnamese.’” Isn’t that exactly what I claimed you said?
In your most recent post: “If they hadn’t been in Vietnam (as protectors), well then of course they couldn’t have been killing Vietnamese, because they wouldn’t have been in Vietnam ... unless you’re saying that being in Vietnam as unambiguous aggressors would have lessened the severity of what happened at My Lai?” No, what I said was that if people knew that a platoon was coming to kill them, they would be more likely to get the hell out of there, if they possibly could, thus making a massacre less likely. If you want to blow up a bus full of people, you hide the bomb in your bag. If you want to attack Omaha Beach, you try to make the Germans think you’re going to attack somewhere else. Deception enables violence, deception lays the groundwork for and extends the range of violence. I just don’t see what there is to contest in this point!
"I just don’t see what there is to contest in this point!” Aren’t we contesting, pace Dante, whether deception is worse than violence? Deception can enable violence, of course. But if you’re a Polish villager and you see Nazi panzers careering towards you, you probably don’t ‘get the hell out of there’ (though you might; and refugeeism is of course a major problem of human suffering); you probably think ‘blimey, hope this doesn’t get too gnarly’. And when the commander decides to machinegun you all into a hastily dug trench, you certainly don’t go, ‘well at least they didn’t pretend to be here to protect me! That lack of hypocrisy makes what they’re doing considerably less blameworthy!’
“Isn’t that exactly what I claimed you said?” Well you claimed I said (and I quote): ‘Dante thinks forza is worse than froda, therefore he thinks that taking civilians to the hospital under false pretenses is worse than butchering them with machine guns.’ To which I replied ... but, hey, you can check my earlier post.
"Aren’t we contesting, pace Dante, whether deception is worse than violence?” Not at the moment, no.
“Deception can enable violence, of course.” Then we agree on the only point I was concerned to make there. The range of possible response by victims to approaching violence is, to say the least, not germane. My only comment about that is: if someone’s planning to kill me, I’d rather know about it in advance.
“. . . but, hey, you can check my earlier post.” I’m not sure which post you mean, but I did quote you. Your statement: “Dante’s moral ruler says ‘Marty Sheen? What you did was bad, but not as bad as taking those wounded people to a hospital on the fraudulent grounds that American troops are in Vietnam to help the Vietnamese.’” My paraphrase of your statement: “Dante thinks forza is worse than froda, therefore he thinks that taking civilians to the hospital under false pretenses is worse than butchering them with machine guns.” How is that paraphrase inaccurate?
"“Dante thinks forza is worse than froda, therefore he thinks that taking civilians to the hospital under false pretenses is worse than butchering them with machine guns.” How is that paraphrase inaccurate?” Well, it gets forza and froda the wrong way round; and it segues from Dante’s Comedy to a C20th film which has nothing specifically to do with Dante. Your paraphrase makes it sound as if I’m taking the Comedy as a specific gloss upon Apocalypse Now. My point was that if we take Dante’s as a morally heuristic text, and if we agree (and we do, don’t we?) that Dante says that deceit is worse than violence, then Charle Sheen’s Marlowe character is acting in consonance with what Dante teaches us.
“Deception can enable violence ... the only point I was concerned to make there” Fair enough. “If someone’s planning to kill me, I’d rather know about it in advance.” Me too. And with respect to both points, perhaps we can agree to make similar points about the Pope’s putative Catholicism and the possuible toiletary habits of bears in the wood.
On the other hand, and at the risk of repeating myself: Dante is saying that deception is a worse sin than violence. You pointed out earlier than several of the cases in the lowest hell used deception to maximize violence. That’s true; but it isn’t true of, eg, the alchemists. Dante is actually saying that fraud by itself is a worse sin than violence (rolex man a worse sinner than Col Calley). If this is too snarky a critical commentary upon Dante’s moral vision, then we can consider the viewpoint that violence + deception is worse than simple violence. Which is to say, Nazi war crimes in Poland are somehow less reprehensible than eg American war crimes in Vietnam. Which makes no sense to me.
One alternative would be to agree that Dante’s scheme of judgment and punishment in the Inferno is out of whack; or as I rather pompously put it earlier, “morally untrue”. But there are other alternatives too, I’m sure.
Adam, you’re right!—I got me forza mixed up w/ me froda! No wonder we were at cross purposes. But is there any point in untangling them now? I doubt it, since you still insist that Dante is pigeonholing sinners ("rolex man a worse sinner than Col Calley") despite my detailed explanations to the contrary. Likewise: “Which is to say, Nazi war crimes in Poland are somehow less reprehensible than eg American war crimes in Vietnam. Which makes no sense to me.” Nor to me, nor, presumably, to anyone else. Clearly, the only way you can speak about these matters is by ranking particulars actions by particular actors; but that, again, is not Dante’s concern, a point I have made in detail and with plenty of textual evidence that you have not responded to.
Sometimes a conversation gets to a certain point and can’t get any further. (Yeah, say wise Valve readers, and you guys reached that point twenty posts ago.)
Alan: “But is there any point in untangling them now? I doubt it, since you still insist that Dante is pigeonholing sinners ("rolex man a worse sinner than Col Calley") despite my detailed explanations to the contrary.”
It’s probably not worth repeating myself either, but Calley and rolex man in Adam R.’s argument are no more individual sinners than Dante’s allegorical figures are. Adam R. likes examples. OK, so did Dante. What he really seems to be saying is that he doesn’t think that fraud is a worse sin than fraudless violence. (I agree with him.) Your counterexamples seem to use historical theories of causation (you can’t have genocide without preceeding deception, etc.) that I don’t agree are always true, but in any case their factual truth or otherwise is irrelevant if you’re defending Dante as allegorist. If you want to argue with him, you really should be arguing theology.
The discussion about whether fraud is “really” worse than force or not seems to have reached the point of diminishing returns, so I’ll leave that aside and stick to Dante. I accept that there are allegorical elements in the Comedy; what I deny is that it is purely allegory, and in particular that the only things about the characters we should be interested in are their allegorical roles.
Alan’s argument for this claim is based upon a false dichotomy: either Dante was claiming to know, for real, the precise fates in the afterlife of all the characters in his poem, or these characters are their purely for their allegorical functions. But of course there is a third possibility: that Dante was writing fiction based upon a true picture of the cosmos (as Dante conceived it). There are a lot of novels, movies, etc. which include real-life characters, either historical or contemporary, to whom are thoughts, words, and deeds the author could have no knowledge of--or worse, which we know the character did not actually think, speak, or do. It doesn’t follow from this that they’re being used in a purely allegorical fashion.
So we’re perfectly within our rights to be interested in the characters in the Comedy as individuals, in the same way that we would be interested in characters in a novel. And it’s legitimate to infer from Dante’s placing Capocchio the alchemist below Attila, not that Dante believed he knew where in Hell Attila and Capocchio would end up, but that he believed that it would be just for Capocchio to be punished more severely than Attila (since presumably he wouldn’t portray God acting unjustly).
(Incidentally, I don’t see the force of Alan’s argument that “If we take the view ... that the poem straightforwardly represents the placement of individual people in the afterlife, then it immediately becomes totally senseless, since no one is guilty of one sin.” When people have committed more than one type of sin Minos chooses which one will determine their punishment. So what?)
There are a couple more specific objections to Alan’s thesis. The first is that it goes violently against the experience of reading the poem. If you don’t see this, than you don’t see this; but frankly I have a hard time seeing how someone can read the story of Paolo and Francesca or of Count Ugolino, to give just two examples, and think that Dante was not interested in his sinners as individuals, or that he didn’t want his readers to be interested in them as individuals.
The second is that if you’re going to claim the characters are there solely for their allegorical significance, it’s not enough to just cherry-pick favorable examples. You have to be able to show that each character was specifically chosen for his or her allegorical significance. And I suspect this will be easier said than done. Let’s go back to the “falsifiers” in the tenth bolgia. Of all the sins of fraud, the sins these people committed are the worst, according to Dante: worse than those of the false counselors, the schismatics, or Pope Nicholas III. So who does Dante choose to exemplify this terrible sin? Two alchemists, one of whom also claimed falsely that he could fly; a woman who pretended to be someone else so she could sleep with her father; a man who impersonated a dying rich man so he could leave himself a legacy; a counterfeiter; Potiphar’s wife; and Sinon, who pretended to have defected to the Trojans to get them to accept the Trojan Horse. Sinon will fit Alan’s argument about why fraud is worse than force well enough, and Potiphar’s wife might be made to fit with some stretching. But taking the group as a whole, I fail to see how they demonstrate Alan’s allegorical scheme, or anybody else’s for that matter.
Alan: “No, Adam S, Dante is not pigeonholing people throughout the Commedia.”
Well, yes he is. You can argue that he doesn’t mean it seriously, but you can’t claim that he doesn’t do it.
Alan: “It’s an allegory, not a friggin’ Baedecker’s Guide to Hell. Read Dante’s letter to Can Grande della Scala on this matter if you don’t believe me.”
I just did. Dante says that the poem has both a literal and an allegorical sense, not that it only has the latter, or that the former is to be disregarded.
Yeah. What he (Adam S) said.
Alan, your words are wise ("sometimes a conversation gets to a certain point and can’t get any further"), whereupon the gracious agreement to disagree may be all that remains.
And yet here I am, Adam R, violating my own wisdom. (I am such a sucker.) But just to say to Adam S:
“I have a hard time seeing how someone can read the story of Paolo and Francesca or of Count Ugolino, to give just two examples, and think that Dante was not interested in his sinners as individuals, or that he didn’t want his readers to be interested in them as individuals.” Me too! All I ever said was that he’s not interested in ranking those individuals, saying “person A is a worse sinner than person B.”
“Dante says that the poem has both a literal and an allegorical sense, not that it only has the latter, or that the former is to be disregarded.” Adam, a text cannot have “only an allegorical sense.” Every text has at least a literal sense. Dante says that his Commedia is one of those that has another level. He does not say that sometimes his poem is literal and sometime it’s allegorical. If you don’t see the allegory that links various characters, couldn’t that be because you haven’t read closely enough or because you don’t know enough? It the best assumption really that Dante just threw them randomly into the same slot in Hell?
Here’s the heart of the matter, I think. You write: “When people have committed more than one type of sin Minos chooses which one will determine their punishment. So what?” Here’s the “so what”: Dante doesn’t believe in Minos. He’s a Christian, not a pagan. Yet Minos is in his poem. If you meditate on that, much will be revealed to you.
Okay, that’s it. I promise: nothing further from me on this topic. You cannot say anything that will bring me back. I will slit myself open, like Mohammed among the Sowers of Discord, with that very Bowie knife I had planned to use on Adam R, rather than say ONE MORE WORD.
Now, see, a comment like that brings out the Bart Simpson in me.
“Dante was not interested ... in ranking individuals, saying ‘person A is a worse sinner than person B’.” Somebody whose inner voice was chanting ‘the knife! the knife! bring out the knife!’ might reply: well, he sure does a good impression of somebody interesting ranking sinners according to the severity of their sins. Your original point, Alan, was that Dante doesn’t know where every soul will end up, after the day of judgment. That’s fair enough; but for now (ie 1320, 2106, ‘til time’s ending) some sinners get ranked in hell as worse than others. Because some sins are worse that others.
And here ("we--want--the knife! we--want--the knife!“) I think you’ve just misunderstood Adam S.
‘Dante says that the poem has both a literal and an allegorical sense, not that it only has the latter, or that the former is to be disregarded.’ Adam, a text cannot have “only an allegorical sense.” Every text has at least a literal sense. Dante says that his Commedia is one of those that has another level. He does not say that sometimes his poem is literal and sometime it’s allegorical.
Adam S isn’t saying that the Commedia is sometimes literal and sometimes allegorical; he’s saying it’s both, all the way through. Confusion may have crept in at ‘sense’ in Adam S’s statement:
“Dante says that the poem has both a literal and an allegorical sense, not that it only has the latter, or that the former is to be disregarded"
wihch I understood to mean
“Dante says that the poem is true both on its literal and its allegorical level, not that its only true in the latter, or that the former is to be disregarded"
but maybe I’ve got it wrong.
That’s fair enough; but for now (ie 1320, 2106, ‘til time’s ending) some sinners get ranked in hell as worse than others. Because some sins are worse that others.
Then why, pray tell, is Dido among the lustful rather than the suicides?
(Dammit! Now I have to join the suicides. Where’s that knife?)
Ah, screw it. This gives me an excuse to put off grading papers, and that’s worth having to commit suppoku.
The Adams claim that an allegory is true on both the literal and allegorical level. But if we read The Romance of the Rose, we don’t think, “Gee, those medieval dudes really could get excited about flowers.” And when we read The Pilgrim’s Progress we don’t think, “That Bunyan guy is weird, he thinks that if you look at a cross your backpack falls off.” Yet that’s just how you guys read Dante. You think, well, if he puts person A in this place in Hell, and that’s lower than person B, he must really think that person A is a worse sinner than person B, because after all the literal level is true too.
Consider this example: the Guardian of the mountain of Purgatory is Cato of Utica. Cato was a pagan who lived before the time of Christ and knew nothing of the God of Israel; he also committed suicide. Dante tells us that at the end of time Cato will ascend the mountain and enter Heaven. All of the other pagans, including Dante’s beloved Virgil, the embodiment of the divine gift of Reason, will remain eternally in Hell; but Cato alone among all the non-Jews and non-Christians who have ever lived will make it into Heaven.
According to my reading Cato is there because his historical act—killing himself rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar—provides Dante with a figural image of the love of freedom and the refusal of bondage (which is the subject of the Purgatorio). But according to the reading of the two Adams, who say that in Dante “the literal level is true too,” Dante must be really seriously affirming that Cato of Utica uniquely gets into Heaven without what Dante elsewhere calls “the merit of Baptism” (Virgil’s words, explaining why he and the other “virtuous pagans” are condemned). Which of these readings makes more sense?
"This gives me an excuse to put off grading papers [...]”
I was wondering what was going on with this thread…
For hanging around reading comments on this blog I should get a special academic almanac that reads “New semester begins—expect light posting” or “Mid-term grading—look out for procrastination flurries”.
Too true, Rich.
“. . . 85% chance of trivial terminological differences escalating to mudslinging and namecalling. . .”
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I suspect that Alan and I have been talking partly at cross purposes, due to different conceptions of allegory. When I hear the word “allegory,” I think of something like Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad” (I use this as an example because I happen to have read it recently, and it’s online, too). In this satirical “update” of The Pilgrim’s Progress, we meet “characters” with names like Mr. Smooth-it-away and Mr. Stick-to-the-truth. Obviously, it would be absurd to try and analyze the psychology of Mr. Stick-to-the-truth or Mr. Smooth-it-away: these figures have no interest aside from their allegorical meanings. So when Alan claimed that the Comedy is an allegory, I assumed he was implying the same thing about Dante’s characters. I’m glad to hear that it’s legitimate to be interested in them as individuals (as one could not be about Mr. Stick-to-the-truth).
But I’m still confused. If one is interested in Dante’s characters as individuals, wouldn’t one also be interested in the question of whether their eternal tortures are justified or not? And how can the former interest be legitimate and the latter illegitimate?
“The Adams claim that an allegory is true on both the literal and allegorical level....
“According to my reading Cato is there because his historical act—killing himself rather than submit to the tyranny of Caesar—provides Dante with a figural image of the love of freedom and the refusal of bondage (which is the subject of the Purgatorio). But according to the reading of the two Adams, who say that in Dante “the literal level is true too,” Dante must be really seriously affirming that Cato of Utica uniquely gets into Heaven without what Dante elsewhere calls “the merit of Baptism” (Virgil’s words, explaining why he and the other “virtuous pagans” are condemned). Which of these readings makes more sense?”
I appreciate the other Adam defending me, but I never claimed that the Comedy was intended to be literally true. What I said was that it was fiction. So Dante is “affirming” that Cato was plucked out of Limbo, yes, but in the same sense that Tolstoy “affirmed” that Anna Karenina committed suicide: in reality Anna Karenina did not commit suicide, since she never existed; but in the world of the novel Anna Karenina, she did exist and committed suicide. Likewise, in the “world” of the Comedy, Cato was plucked out of Limbo, but this doesn’t mean that Dante thought he knew what happened to the actual Cato’s soul. In the same way, Dante’s disbelief in Minos poses no problems to me.
Alan: “If you don’t see the allegory that links various characters, couldn’t that be because you haven’t read closely enough or because you don’t know enough?” I freely admit the possibility of this. If you will point me to books or articles which explain why those particular sinners were placed in the tenth bolgia, I’ll try to look at them. (I’m asking seriously.)
I have more to say on the subject of allegory, but it’ll have to wait.
I never liked the Comedy. Pissing contests aren’t a good spectator sport, even if you check for wind direction. Still, as such contests go, I’m sure it’s one of the best.