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Literary Device & Spiritual Truth

O voi ch'avete li'ntelletti sani
mirate la dottrina che s'asconde
sotto 'l velame de li versi strani

Ye that are of good understanding, 
note the teaching that is hidden 
under the veil of the strange lines. 

-- Canto IX

Allegory, as Northorp Frye defines it, is a fiction in which the narrative details “obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas, whether historical events, moral or philosophical ideas, or natural phenomena,” indicating, as Dante tells the reader of the Inferno, that there is “teaching…hidden under the veil” of the fiction.

In the Convivio, Dante, distinguishing the allegory of poets from the allegory of the theologians, which both means and is, described the former as “truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie”. The conflict between, on the one hand, this “beautiful lie” which the poet must employ in order to express meaning, and, on the other hand, the simplicity of the truth which is the intended meaning, is one that is central to the Divine Comedy as a whole, and to Cantos XVI and XVII of the Inferno in particular.

At the end of Canto XVI, the poet, in a prolonged address to the reader, introduces “a figure amazing to the stoutest heart.” There are several stages to this introduction. To begin with, the pilgrim anticipates the reader’s disbelief, making the vision of fraud more believable by first calling it unbelievable. Then, delaying the description of the monster to the beginning of the next canto, the poet leaves the reader with what is, in a sense, a cliffhanger, as the deliberately elusive language of the whole passage culminates in the image of the diver. This image both introduces the recurrent sea/navigation imagery of Canto XVII and reinforces the sense that this figure, the “foul image of fraud” cannot be imagined until seen, and consequently cannot be adequately described. Therefore, the poet has to employ literary devices – images – to try to convey to the reader the “truth that has the face of a lie.” Finally, in Canto XVII, there is a long and elaborate description of “the beast with a pointed tail” with “the face of a just man.” This description points to the contrast between the pilgrim’s truth which has the face of fraud, and fraud, which has the face of truth – for while one reveals (the Dante-protagonist’s voice merges with that of the Dante-poet to admit that the truth seems a lie) the other conceals (the monster does not draw it’s scorpions tail, which gives the lie to it’s face of truth, on to the bank).

The fact that the monster is a composite creature, a foul image marked with elaborate interweaving knots and circlets that combines a number of other ‘images’ and attributes, is significant in that, to some extent, it can be seen as illustrating the process of fiction-making. While Geryon’s name is taken from the classical monster, in merging the monster’s treacherous character with the Biblical story of the serpent, and adding the scorpion’s tail and man’s face of the locusts of the Apocalypse, Dante has created his own creature.

This, as well as the fact that Geryon appears at what is more or less the halfway point of the descent into hell, occupying a “literally central position” in the text, might indicate that, as John Freccero has noted, Geryon is ultimately a “self-conscious emblem of the poet’s creative act,” the focal point for the poet’s discourse on imagery and the validity of image-making.

This returns us to the central conflict between literary devices – or “beautiful lies” – and the truths they attempt to convey. In a sense, Dante deliberately complicates this conflict when he implies through the description of Geryon that truths are incommunicable without images, because ultimately this points not only to the “beautiful lies” of poetry but also to language itself.

The central question becomes then a question of the adequacy of language, which is problematized by the fact that the poet must go on with the fiction/fraud of the journey in order to express, and in order to reach, the ultimate Truth of salvation and redemption. God is indescribable and unimaginable. Geryon is implausible and inconceivable. For the reader, the pilgrim implies, the truth must be seen in order to be believed. And since the truth cannot be seen, it can only be imagined, imaged. The language of poetry, the language of imagery, deals with universals in order to convey the unique, which, because it is unique, cannot otherwise be imagined. Ultimately, such a truth can only 'recreated' through a lie.

This disconnection between truth and image is a recurring motif in the Inferno. As A. R Shoaf has pointed out, “in Hell...images refer without a referent; they "mean" only themselves.” For example, in Canto XXX, Master Adam says he “rained into this trough” (30.95) an image that is paradoxically effective, given that this is a place of “burning fever”, where, as Master Adam says (30.63) “I crave one drop of water.” Further, Shoaf argues, the disconnection or “disjunction” between image and referent is emphasized as the image not only refers to an unreal truth (“It rains…only to assert that it is not raining”) but also becomes itself real, as in lines 64-69 of the same canto, where Master Adam complains that the image of “little streams” parches him. Here, “the figure of water…is disfigured” since water cannot parch and in fact “it is the image and not the water that parches”. Therefore, the image is “palpable and effective”; while it’s referent is “impalpable and ineffective”. The image has become “the only reality, the only matter, the only efficacy.”

The poet, as a maker of images, identifies the danger, the capacity for perversion, in the image which is to some extent necessarily a fraud referring to it’s truth, but which can easily become nothing but a fraud referring only to itself, when the truth is absent.

Shoaf has argued that “the act which grounds Dante's discourse about imagery is falsification” and since this discourse doubles as a discourse about image-making and the working of language, it can be said to be illustrating a deep-rooted unease with the functions and fictions of poetry, while simultaneously expressing this unease through these functions and fictions. This “Platonistic trust and distrust simultaneously of figures and figurativity” figures forth the poet’s ultimate question:

“What has literature and all its mediations-- images and figures and "beautiful lies"--to do with divinity and the purity of Christ's truth? We recognize the trenchant problem for the whole of the Middle Ages of the justification for poetry.”

St. Augustine, in his justification for poetic fiction in Contra Mendacium, diffrentiates between a fradulent lie and "fictive narrations with true significations." In this way, one could argue that figures, metaphors and other literary devices are simply a way to generalise experience so that it can be comminicated. These "fictive narrations" Augustine said, are found not only in secular literature but also in the Bible. The 'problem' with th Divine Comedy however is that Dante presents the literal level of his 'poema sacro' as true. This is a claim only God can make.

Returning to the distinction between the allegory of the poets and the allegory of the theologians in the Convivio, it is clear that ‘literal’ in the allegory of the poets is only ‘what the words say’. Not only does it not mean ‘true’ it in fact means the opposite, since ‘what the words say’ is ultimately a fiction - albeit with 'true significations'. In Scripture on the other hand, what is literal is always true. Poets use fraud – images/signs - to point to truths; God alone uses truths to point to other truths.

Thus Dante, in presenting the literal level of his poem as true, seems to imitate God’s way of writing, as Charles Singleton and many others have argued. He begins his description of Geryon with a prophet’s words – “here, I cannot be silent”, even though he knows that “a man should always close his lips…to the truth that has the face of a lie.” The voice of the Dante-poet insists on the reality of ‘what the words say’. Geryon is not a symbol for fraud, Geryon both means and is fraud and no distinction is made between the two. The blurred line extends even to the rhyme scheme of the poem, where for example, in Freccero’s words, “the inscription on the gates of hell is written in terza rima as though there were no distinction between what he saw and what we read”. Thus, as Peter S. Hawkins put it, “the implication is that, like God, Dante writes not only in metaphors but also in events.”

The dispute between early commentators as to whether Dante was in fact “the pen of the Holy Spirit” as Guido da Pisa insisted, or whether, as Pietro Alighieri maintained, the literal level of the ‘poema sacro’ should be interpreted as a biblical figure can be said to have endured in another form – while most critics today would agree that the text’s claims to divine inspiration should be considered as a literary device, they disagree as to the intention behind the imitation. Charles Singleton’s argument that Dante did intend his poem to be a theological allegory takes the view that the extraordinary realism of the ‘poema sacro’ makes it too ‘real’ to be classified as one more poetic allegory. This faces the obvious problem that, as Freccero pointed out, to say that Dante’s poem is a theological allegory is to say that it is not fiction but fact. Singleton avoids this by arguing that Dante only pretended to be describing ‘true’ events – “the fiction of the Commedia is that it is not fiction”. Freccero sees this as “true but trivial”, since it is true of every fiction, and while he agrees that Dante’s allegory is biblical, argues that “it is not the poem’s mimetic power that so qualifies it, it is rather it’s narrative structure”, since it is equivalent to the “retrospective rereading of one’s own history thematically represented as a conversion”. As in the Old Testament, the ‘then’ of experience is reinterpreted in the ‘now’ of the story - the New Testament. As St. Augustine expressed the principle of typological interpretation: “In the Old Testament the New Testament is concealed, in the New Testament the Old Testament is revealed.”

Quoting Abrams, it is possible to “distinguish between the typological and allegorical modes of interpretion by saying that typology is horizontal, in that it relates items in two texts…that are separated in time, while allegorical interpretation is vertical, in that it uncovers multiple layers of signification in a single textual item.” Both methods were often employed simultaneously in biblical exegesis. Thus, Dante’s claims for his ‘poema sacro’ are reinforced by his suggestion, in the Epistle to Can Grande, that the Commedia should be read according to the fourfold interpretation reserved for scripture, stating that he had composed the poem to signify literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical meaning.

In this way, Dante, as Hawkins has argued “re-imagined the world of the Bible.” He attempted to reach the simplicity of spiritual truth by “imitating God’s book in its straightforward assertions of ‘I saw’ and ‘it came to pass’.” Insisting on the blurring of lines, in the Commedia’s lexicon “scrittura means both scripture and writing”. Ultimately, it is perhaps precisely this blurring of lines, this “dialectic between human poetry and divine text, between fiction and truth” which has been the Divine Comedy’s greatest achievement.

written: 2006
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