Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper
The metaphorical pilgrimage to the inexhaustible source of light, brings us to the still point around which all else revolves.
The nature of the universe, which is still
At the centre while all the rest moves round it,
Begins here as it were from its starting point. (Canto XXVII)
T. S. Eliot amplified this vision of the primum mobile in Burnt Norton. He was inspired to think of this ‘still point of the turning world’ as a wheeling dance, in the sense of creativity and engagement, as though dancing with a lover, in the moment, an eternal dance.
Eliot in Little Gidding also cut to the essence of Dante’s pilgrimage metaphor, much more prosaically than Dante, but reaffirming our reading of the Comedy nevertheless.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
In this return to the beginning there is something of the exile’s return. In our incoherent longings we are all pilgrims in exile. This is the story of Canto XXVI, in which Dante examines language theologically. In a return to the beginning, there is an encounter with Adam, the arch poet, the one who named the world.
Adam says that before the Tower of Babel was ever attempted, the language he spoke had fallen into disuse...
...For because human wishes are always changing,
Following the stars, never was any product
of human reason made to last for ever.
That man should speak is a natural phenomenon;
But whether this way or that, nature allows
You to work out, as seems best to you.
The loss of the sacred language marked our own distance from the divine. The failure of the words is emblematic of our own exilic circumstances and predicament. The longing is inexpressible and the meaning always mysteriously escapes us.
The longing expressed in Canto XXV was heartfelt from Dante’s own political refugee status. In his fantasy of the hero’s return he imagines his hometown welcomers gathered around a baptismal font. He has returned to his point of departure. The scene evokes Paul’s words to the Corinthians, themselves an echo of Exodus, and alludes to the condition of exile of all those baptised (1 Corinthians 10:2).
In Canto XXVII, Beatrice tells the pilgrim to look back and see the distance he has travelled. Through eons of space and time he pinpoints that little place where Ulysses trespassed the boundaries of the world
...I saw beyond Cadiz the passage
The demented Ulysses took...
The goal of Ulysses was to gain knowledge of the unknown. Dante would surely have related his own poetical and metaphorical quest to that of Ulysses. And yet his journey exceeds massively the one envisaged by Homer in scale and deed. Ulysses only went past the Pillars of Hercules; the pilgrim, Dante, is now at the outer most boundary of the visible physical universe. And yet both broke the chains of convention in order to discover truth. Was not Ulysses even the stronger in their separate encounters with the siren?
There is detachment and yet a constant fascination. Like Ulysses, Dante’s journey is one of return. Yet Dante returns to the beginning of all beginnings, God’s mind. But like Ulysses, Dante had to break out of current thinking, discard convention, in order to get there.
Aristotelianism was the convention transgressed by Dante. The sources of his cosmology and cosmography were neo-platonic and drawn from Cosmographia by Bernard Sylvester who, in turn, drew upon the only available extensive text of Plato then available in the Latin West, the Timaeus.
Ultimately, the Timaeus stands behind Dante’s cosmology in the Comedy. The Timaeus offers a theory of creation that has unpredictable possibilities because of man’s role. Recall the words of Marco Lombardo in Canto XVI of Purgatory. There is a part of the ‘mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge’. God permits risk in this uncontrollable element, the human imagination.
There is risk in a Ulysses-like transgression (as the Ulysses in the Comedy found to his cost), but in a neo-platonic reading, man must step beyond the physical realm of sense perception and into the world of the imagination if renewal is to happen. The implication of this reading is that if you stay within the boundaries of the physical conception of the world you cannot expect anything other than what you already have. You cannot expect any more or less evil than you already experience.
The only idea, the way in which human beings can think about renewal, can think about change or freedom, is within the context of creation. That is the implication of the Timaeus and that is exactly why Dante made this the central argument of the Comedy as a whole.
Recall how creative spontaneity was likened by Dante to a child at play, who turns eagerly to what delights it. What followed this allegorisation occurred at the very centre of Purgatory and, thus, at the very centre of the Comedy.
In Canto XVII, Dante presented the mind’s penchant for acts of creation that are unprompted by sense sensations and external influences, be they natural,social, cultural or political.
Dante developed his thesis at the fulcrum point, making it the crux of the matter for the work as a whole.
The imagination is a power that removes us from the outside world. It needs nothing of the world of perception. It is a power, he wrote, ‘which so steals us at times from outward things that we pay no heed though a thousand trumpets sound about us.’
Dante poses the question - what moves the imagination when the senses offer nothing? ‘A light which takes its shape in heaven moves you’, he answers.
With the imagination, man is of all animals uniquely endowed to imagine, look forward, contemplate new futures and, above all, hope.
Dante made clear what was in store for those who lived less than fully human lives.
"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate", "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
© John Dunn.