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Dante’s stand against ‘the poison of representation’

Thursday, 20 Oct 2016

Dante and Beatrice on Dr John Dunn.

Beatrice and Dante.
An Etching with drawing by Jiří Anderle

Canto IV of Paradise marks Dante’s stand against the tyranny of sense perception.

Given the choice of explaining the power of the will, or representation, Beatrice turns her attention to the latter as the one ‘most bitter’. She does so because the intellect is superior to the will and ‘the poison of representation’, as she describes it, is a deadly threat to the intellect.

By failing to understand the danger, Beatrice fears the pilgrim could be led in ‘another direction’. There is only one ‘other direction’, Aristoelianism, or, in Dante’s terms, the descent to Hell, for it is the damned who lead lives on the sensuous level alone.

How can representation, merely the world that we take at face value, be so dangerous that Beatrice resorts to such adjectives as bitter and poisonous?

Representation has the power to make appearances the only reality, simulacra, the only reality that we manage to see. It literally covers, it eclipses all references. Where it triumphs, we end up believing that representation is all that there is. That which is visible becomes the only real thing and we invest the appearance, the simulacra, with a value they should not have. Shadows are taken for reality. We return as prisoners to the cave of appearances and the ‘unexamined life’.

Metaphor, the power of poetry, was central to Dante’s stand against such a regression. We saw this when he employed poetry itself as metaphor. A surrender to appearances would mean a return to the courtly poetic conventions of Bonagiunta Orbicciani, Jacopo da Lentino, Fra Guittone, Guido Guinicelli and Arnaut Daniel. In Purgatory, Cantos XXIV and XXVI, Dante described how he had surpassed these poets and moved beyond their conventions to write something new. His point was that imagination is not bound by the limitations of the world any more than poetry. The mind really can shape new worlds.

Do the souls inhabit the stars as in Dante’s Paradise? Of course not. It is a make believe, fiction, all pyrotechnics. It is a theatrical performance. The whole of Paradise, the representation of Paradise, is fictional. Beatrice explains the need for fiction, for theatre, for metaphor and allegory.

There must be such a language for your mind
Because it learns only from what is sensible
Matter which, afterwards, it makes fit for the intellect.

The whole of Paradise is literally an accommodation of realities that far exceed the powers of our mind. There must be condescension, descent, a coming down to our level. Dante opened the canto by talking about the limitations of the will, now he's talking about the limitations of the intellect. These are the two issues that conjoin in Canto IV. Each needs the other and to be made stronger in the light of the other.

But metaphor is critical to both. It is in metaphor that freedom lies. Without metaphor the intellect is ineffectual and the will is nothing, or worse, open to manipulation.

‘For this reason Scripture condescends,’ in the literal sense of the word, the etymological sense, to come down to us. It accommodates itself to our limited faculties, ‘condescends’ Beatrice says, ‘to your capacities, and so attributes feet and hands to God, but means something else’. That is the definition of an allegory. The Bible indeed speaks of the hand of God, but as an anthropomorphic trope. God has no feet and has no hand, but the trope means something else. It means the power of God or the majesty of God. In other words, the language of representation in the Bible authorises Dante's own use of metaphor.

In a remarkably contiguous transition to Plato, Beatrice says that the same condescension is true of metaphor in the Timaeus. She acknowledges that Plato ‘appears to be speaking literally’ when he ‘says that the soul returns to its star’. ‘Or’, she continues rhetorically, ‘perhaps his meaning is not what it seems’.

Of course it is not what it seems. In turning to Plato’s work as the apotheosis of metaphor, Dante emphasises how poetic images work through the imagination. If the reader is drawn into the poetic imagery and it rings true, then seeing the stars is a reminder that our role in the universe is integral to the function and process of the cosmos, and that something of the heavenly nature of stars remains in us, to be brought out by poetry.

Plato’s metaphor stands against those models which would account for the nature of the universe through sense perception in purely material terms. In overtly making reference to the Timaeus, Dante opposed his own platonism to the prevailing Aristotelian view. In Plato’s myth, the star and the human soul, which were one, are now separated, and long to be reunited. Dante’s Comedy as a whole must be read as an effort to achieve reunification, as can all great works of literature, art and music.

Dante had legitimised his own use of metaphor. More than this, he made the platonic argument that metaphor is essential if man is to fulfil his role in the universe. Those who would erase metaphor do so in order to limit, imprison and control mankind.

That is what makes Canto IV, indeed the whole of the Comedy, not only a highly politicised statement of Dante’s beliefs, but also a political treatise of lasting value.

© John Dunn.

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