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She offers freedom yet enslaves

Saturday, 22 Aug 2015

Siren by Conor Walton on Dr John Dunn. Siren by Conor Walton (2012)

She offers freedom yet enslaves. Dante allegorised the threat to mind and the power to imagine new futures in Canto XIX of Purgatory.

The pilgrim sleeps vulnerably. A passive object, the dream comes to him. Clearly, it is not willed, something that he chooses or wants. He is the passive receptor of sense sensations, the epitome of Aristotelian man.

‘Stammering, cross-eyed and crooked on her feet with maimed hands and of sallow hue’, the evil allegorised by this woman is evident in her ugliness

If Beatrice represents the light of philosophical truth, then the siren is the anti-Beatrice.

‘I gazed at her, and my look readied her tongue, and straightened her completely, in a few moments, as the sun comforts the cold limbs that night weighs down, and her pale face coloured, as love wills.’

Here is the turn, from object to subject, ‘I’. The unexamined life becomes the way of choice. The dreamer’s desires transform the siren from the ugly image that it was, to one invested with attributes of attractiveness, even love. His fall for the siren is unconstrained, in contrast to Ulysses who, by conscious self-restraint, resisted the siren’s song. This dreamer’s fall was more complete, like the first fall. The siren’s debilitating power over the mind, the distractions she represents, are represented thus as pure evil.

Beatrice intervenes. This personification of philosophical truth saves the dreamer. Virgil, his guide, rips open the clothes of the siren, revealing her belly, waking the dreamer by the stench of it. Dante exposed the naked truth of temptation. His dream trope allowed the pilgrim to fall completely and be saved.

They are two different women; two different voices. One false, but sings a sweet song. The other very harsh, who says the journey is not over. One forecloses life’s journey. The other encourages the pilgrim.

‘You saw,’ said Virgil, ‘that ancient sorceress on whose account alone there is weeping above us’.

Those weeping souls lay face downwards on the ground.

‘Why are your backs turned upwards?’ asked the pilgrim.

A former Pope, Adrian V, explained. ‘I was made Pastor of Rome, then I discovered the false life and became a wholly avaricious spirit.

‘Just as our eyes did not lift themselves up to the heights, but were fixed on earthly things, so here in Purgatory justice has sunk them towards the earth.’

Prisoners of their own infantile emotions and sense-perceptions, Pope Adrian and the others had fallen, literally fallen, for the Siren’s sweet song.

Dante and Virgil with Pope Adrian V.
Book illustration. 1444-c. 1450 in Tuscany, probably in the city of Siena, although the identity of the original patron is still unclear. British Library

© John Dunn.

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