Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How literary transference ends

Reading a great note of Jeff Nunokawa's (you may have to friend him on Facebook to read it) -- two notes, actually -- got me thinking about the moment when, seeing Beatrice's presence flame up before him, Dante attains to the full sublimity of the earthly Paradise that Eve has lost and turns to share the transport with Virgil, who's been silent these last cantos, lost in his own awe and wonder. (The higher they go in Purgatory, the more Virgil's authority reduces to his still-parental capacity to ask intelligent questions of the guides they meet and to interpret their answers, even if he can't answer those questions himself as he'd done below.)  She's not only a counter-Eve; she's a counter-Dido too, meeting him "vestita di color di fiamma viva," dressed in the color of living flame, in contrast with the flames of Dido's funeral pyre which Aeneas sees as he abandons Carthage.

This is indeed a return to Eden for Dante: Beatrice has been dead for ten years now, and it's ten years since he felt the awe that now overcomes him again in her presence.  Virgil has seen him through the lowest depths of hell and to this glory, and so now:

Tosto che ne la vista mi percosse
l'alta virtù che già m'avea trafitto
prima ch'io fuor di püerizia fosse,

volsimi a la sinistra col respitto
col quale il fantolin corre a la mamma
quando ha paura o quando elli è afflitto,

per dicere a Virgilio: 'Men che dramma
di sangue m'è rimaso che non tremi:
conosco i segni de l'antica fiamma'.

Ma Virgilio n'avea lasciati scemi
di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre,
Virgilio a cui per mia salute die'mi;

né quantunque perdeo l'antica matre,
valse a le guance nette di rugiada,
che, lagrimando, non tornasser atre.  (Purgatorio 30, 40-54)


As soon as all my sight was driven wild
by that same force which, timelessly archaic,
transfixed me then while I was yet a child,

I turned back to the left, with hopes as quick
as when a little boy runs to his mama
if he's afraid of something or is sick,

To say to Virgil, "No drop of blood is calm: a
trembling has rapt me: I see all about
the returning fire of that blazing drama."

But Virgil was not there. We were without
him now. O Virgil! sweetest father,
to whom my soul I'd trusted without doubt!

Nor could the world, recovered, our first mother
lost once in Eden keep my dew-cleansed cheeks
unstained by tears I now wept for the other.
Dante lost his mother when he was five years old, and he has already seen that Beatrice must have taken her place in his soul, especially once she too has died. But Virgil has been so tender, and it's to Virgil he turns, as to a mother, as to his childhood, away for a moment from the Godlike blaze of Beatrice.  It's to Virgil that he entrusts his own wondrous and direct acknowledgment that he recognizes the archaic feeling he'd once felt in Beatrice's presence on earth: "conosco i segni de l'antica fiamma," I recognize the signs of that ancient flame (my translation above sacrificed the directness of this line for the even more important rhyme on mama) -- words which directly translate Virgil's Dido -  "Adgnosco veteris vestigia flammae".  Her ancient flame had been for her husband Sichaeus, now dead, and now she fears (accurately) that she will betray his memory and turn from him to Aeneas.

So for a moment Virgil and Dante take on the rolls of women, of Dante's mother and of Dido, while Beatrice takes the role of Aeneas. Since Dante will follow her, he abandons Virgil, perforce, and so he disappears, another abandoning himself before he is abandoned for Beatrice's living flame.  Over now, the fictive world that returned Dante to childhood, and gave him back a mother in Virgil.

If Dante is thinking of the Aeneid he must also be thinking of the binding of Isaac, the moment John Limon aptly describes as Isaac's adulthood.  For Abraham leads him to this terrible pass, seemingly knowing what he's doing but hiding his own terror and bewilderment.  We know this because Isaac asks his what's going on:
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
He doesn't trust Isaac with (what he thinks is) the truth.  (Note that his intended lie isn't going to turn out to be the truth either, since it's a ram, not a lamb, that God provides, falsifying the inadvertent prophecy.)  But then he binds Isaac.  After this episode (as is notorious) Isaac disappears for several years, and we see him again only as an adult, after his mother dies.  The binding of Isaac is the end of his childhood: he has turned to his father in anxiety and trust, and his father has betrayed him.  God intervenes, but that's hardly recompense for the loss he indemnifies.

I don't mean to suggest the Virgil should be equated with Abraham, only to say that Dante is underlining the terrible moment when the child turns to the parent to find that the parent cannot help.  That's in Eden too.

As I say, I was thinking about this because I'd put together the moment in Dante with that in the frame to Turn of the Screw, the story of Griffin's ghost which is about
an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him.
He turns to her and she can't help him.  What scene more archaic than the child turning to a parent when haunted by ghosts? What comfort more primal than that which the parent gives? And when she can't -- that's the failure of Abraham, of Virgil, of Wordsworth in "Surprised by Joy" ("I turned to share the transport, O with whom, / But  thee, deep-buried in the silent tomb"), of the mother in Griffin's story (and of the Governess), of the father dreaming of his burning child whose story Freud reports (how often Abraham must have had this same dream, on his way to Moriah, and on his way home too!), and indeed of Gertrude, that inaugurates adulthood and its ultimate failure to be able to lay the ghosts of mortality that haunt our children.

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