Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Purgatorio

The fire of the terrace of the lustful reverses the fires of earthly lust, purifying and undoing the sins with which those lower fires raged. Apparently, the reverse sexuality of Dante's entrance into the fire has not been noted (according to my desultory research into various commentaries, anyhow), which gives me a chance to quote and translate some more. Dante, having a body (hence still subject to bodily desire), hesitates to breach the surface of the refining fires from which the love poets have spoken to him, Arnault Daniel most recently. In Canto 27 Virgil urges him to enter into the fire, despite his physical body:

"Pon giù omai, pon giù ogne temenza;
volgiti in qua e vieni: entra sicuro!".
E io pur fermo e contra coscïenza.

Quando mi vide star pur fermo e duro,
turbato un poco disse: "Or vedi, figlio:
tra Bëatrice e te è questo muro".

Come al nome di Tisbe aperse il ciglio
Piramo in su la morte, e riguardolla,
allor che ’l gelso diventò vermiglio;

così, la mia durezza fatta solla,
mi volsi al savio duca, udendo il nome
che ne la mente sempre mi rampolla.

Ond’ei crollò la fronte e disse: "Come!
volenci star di qua?"; indi sorrise
come al fanciul si fa ch’è vinto al pome. (Purgatorio XXVII, 31-45)

"Now put away, now put away all fear:
and come this way, with trust in your safeguard"
And me just standing firm, conscience unclear.

And when he saw me standing firm and hard,
a little vexed he said, "Look here, my son,
by this sole wall from Beatrice are you barred."

As at the name of Thisbe, his life done,
Pyramus looked up at her, his body sloughed,
his blood too, the red mulberries begun;

Just so, my hardness instantly made soft,
I turned to my wise leader, my mind's chapel
a source whence always that name wells aloft.

He shook indulgent brows, and feigned to grapple
with the question: "Standing pat then, are we?"
then smiled, as at a boy won with an apple.

This is Virgil already mothering him, teasing him affectionately rather than commanding him, and the same little boy ("fanciul") will turn to Virgil as to his mother later -- to Virgil who is gone.

But here I want to note the sexuality of the lines.  Dante won't enter the fire, he feels in some sense impotent to do so: impotent with lust, paradoxically, because the lust that brought him here in Beatrice's pursuit makes him inappropriately firm and hard -- he has a human body, and so human appetites, and the fire will burn him, punish him with physical pain, as it won't the pure images who are its denizens and who love the fire and who disappear into its depths.  His conscience is unclear: he feels bodily desire.  But Virgil assures him that it's this wall that separates him from Beatrice -- and that wall is hymenal.  It's as though crossing the never broken wall of flame is to suffer the pain of regaining virginity, a shared virginity with her, the wall between them no longer an issue.  That regaining virginity means suffering a wound that reverses the loss of virginity, means suffering an anti-wound as it were, is clear in the reference to Pyramus and Thisbe.  The wall separated them, and now Pyramus stabs himself, undergoes symbolically what in the more standard, reversed course of events Thisbe would undergo.  "The wall is down" that parted them, and the result of this is not their sexual union but their union in death, which is the painful guarantee of their virginity.

Virgil sees that Beatrice will win Dante to this anti-sexuality: the reversal now is that he can only enter the fire when his hardness is made soft ("la mia durezza fatta solla"), and the sound of Beatrice's name is like an easy bribe to an innocent boy, won with an apple - not the apple of the tree of sexual knowledge and original sin, but the apple that tempts him back to childish sexual innocence, painful as that might be.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Purgatorio XXVI: His body's not fictitious!

The terrace of the lustful - the last and least blameworthy of the sinners are near the top of Purgatory, just as the lustful have been near the top of Inferno.  After all, their crime is love!  So of course is everyone's, at every level, but the lustful love others, not themselves, and love those others to get what they conceive of as good: love the others to have the experience of love as well.  Lust is for Dante the most generous, the least perverted of sins.

So it's appropriate that among the lustful, Dante's living body becomes an issue again.  (This after Statius's long and fascinating lesson in Purgatorio XXV about the meaning of the spectral bodies of the dead, the forms infused into the intellectual soul by the nature they once inhabited and absorbed and refined.)  Here are the lustful, and here is a man with a sexual body, not the mere shades who kiss each other turn by turn, in chaste conformity with Paul's rule in Romans, as they do their endless contra-dance.  A real body, and the lustful in their counterlustful flames can see him:

feriami il sole in su l'omero destro,
che già, raggiando, tutto l'occidente
mutava in bianco aspetto di cilestro;

e io facea con l'ombra più rovente
parer la fiamma; e pur a tanto indizio
vidi molt'ombre, andando, poner mente.

Questa fu la cagion che diede inizio
loro a parlar di me; e cominciarsi
a dir: «Colui non par corpo fittizio»;

poi verso me, quanto potean farsi,
certi si fero, sempre con riguardo
di non uscir dove non fosser arsi.  (XXVI. 4-15)

My shoulder stung by sunshine on the right,
I saw those rays already change the West,
its azure aspect now transformed to white;

my shadow caused strange glowing, for the crest
of flames shone brighter in the shade I cast --
those Shades to this strange sign their minds addressed.

So was it that they spoke to me; first massed
together they said, at this strange sight,
"His body's not fictitious!" From the blast

were certain who approached, as close as might
comport with keeping wholly to the fire:
nor for a moment sought they to take flight.

At the height of Purgatory the difference between allopathic punishment (the correcting "contrapasso" or counter-suffering by which Purgatory purifies you for heaven) and the Inferno's homeopathic punishment (you wanted this? You'll have it in spades, you'll have it to the nth degree), begins to vanish.  Heaven, like hell, gives its denizens what they always wanted in the way they wanted it.  At the end of Purgatory, the flames of purification and the flames of love become one (as do gay and straight: Dante is very clear about this).  And in those flames they burn to know more about Dante, whose real presence (in the theological sense too: "Colui non par corpo fittizio!") is what makes this frankly fictitious word one that matters.  It's no wonder that Dante is about to name himself.

The other to all worlds, says Blanchot about literary space.  And to that fictional world comes this non-fictitious person, like K. to the bleak world of the Castle ("what but the desire to stay here could have brought me to this desolate place?") and in it, in exile, he can find a home.  The love here is the love of the real for the fictional, which when strong enough is self-requiting.

(Of course this will interfere with the theology, so alas Virgil, fictional being and real purveyor of fictions, and who loves him most, is about to disappear, in favor of the Christian Beatrice, in the realm where there are no bodies, fictional or otherwise.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nous autres, or: The peculiar semi-circular stare

A short post on narratees to keep my hand in, until I get this cursed review off....

It's difficult to find a vivid way of explaining narratees to students.  Well, to explain the last narratee, the figure who corresponds to the first narrator, the author-as-narrator or impressario of the fiction, the narrator not meant to be ironized -- who, if ironic, is in control of the ironies we readers savor.  Obviously history has its own ironies, and authors are often their butts.  But in the fictional world, the final narrator is not ironized - not necessarily the first person narrator in a first person fiction, but the third person narrator who presents the first person narrator to us, the writer, as it were, of the speech prefix to the whole narration.

So who corresponds to this narrator on the receiving end? What is the narratee?  The narratee is the figure not meant to be ironized either -- who, if ironic, is in control of the ironies the narrator offers him or her to savor.  Just as obviously as with authors, narratees and readers may be the butt of some historical joke, but not in the fictional world.  But it's very hard to clarify the distinction between readers and narratees, partly because the distinction is so obvious.  People see that they're not the narratee, and they regard this as a failure, structural it may, be of the author.  Structural because no writer can know me!  I survive, a jolly candidate for a future that the author could not dream of - if only because of the lag time between her writing and my reading.  The author may have gone cool-hunting, but didn't anticipate what turns out to be cool today.  What a n00b!

But the obviousness is misleading.  All reading is vicarious (even of history, even of letters): only a fictional reader -- the narratee -- reads with direct and perfect interest and absorption.  Only a fictional reader imagines herself the addressee of the fiction.

It suddenly occurred to me, reading Nightwood, that one way to make the distinction clear is to think of narrator and narratee as belonging to the exclusive we -- nous autres, and not nous tous.  The narratee seems to use the inclusive we, but doesn't.  This moment in Barnes will illustrate what I mean -- she is talking about Felix and the disturbing element of Jewishness in his presence:
He was not popular, though the post-humous acclaim meted out to his father secured from his acquaintances the peculiar semi-circular stare of those who, unwilling to greet with earthly equality, nevertheless give to the living branch (because of death and its sanction) the slight bend of the head - a reminiscent pardon for future apprehension, - a bow very common to us when in the presence of this people.
Leave aside the question of how ironic Barnes is being, and how ironic history is being at her expense (that is the question of the nature and extent of her own prejudice against "this people").  The us is what interests me here: that "us" embraces nous autres, those who are of a certain aristocratic class for whom "earthly equality" means something, and who think in terms of familial branches (Felix, like his father, passes himself off as a baron); and also those who are male, and who would bow or bend their heads as a token of respect.  Her "us" makes clear who the narratee is -- who the narratee always is: someone who belongs to the same group as the narrator, plays the same language games the same way.  (Language games: we readers of a chess column and its annotations are credited with the exclusive understanding of the significance of moves that the master writing them has worked out for us.)

That "us" is particularly prominent in Barnes, but is to be found passim in Eliot, in Trollope, in Proust most of all.  ("Quand nous aimons une Gilberte, une Albertine....")  It's a genial, empirically philosophical "us" -- read any page of Hume or of Johnson or of Adam Smith to see what I mean.  In a philosophical context it offers qualified people entry into the circle of nous autres: men, say, or Englishmen, or Scotsmen of leisure.  It can of course be ironized even in such contexts: read practically any sentence of Gibbon.  It can be ironized in philosophy and fiction, but it's always ironized, however lightly, in fiction.

I think, paradoxically, that this is why such sentences, containing any form or mode of the word we, are so vanishingly rare in Henry James, that is in his narrators' addresses to the narratee reading the fiction.  He fictionalizes with such radical assiduity that he doesn't want us to confuse inclusive and exclusive we's, as we might if he used them.  The only real counterexample I can think of is a moment at the end of The Golden Bowl, when James's narrator tells us how Amerigo appears to Maggie as she is approaching her final triumph:
he almost pressed upon her, and the warmth of his face--frowning, smiling, she mightn't know which; only beautiful and strange--was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams.
James's tortured, artificial, metaphysical analogies give way, for this once, to an appeal to the experience of the reader.  Objects loom thus largely in all our dreams, dans les rêves de nous tous.  The narratee knows just what the narrator means, and we readers know just how it is that the narratee would know just what the narrator means.  This is an effect all the more powerful and spectacular because James has held it in reserve for, well hundreds of pages and indeed (it is not too much to say) dozens of years.  James's narratees are in general part of the extremely rarefied society of his narrators, those who can trade anecdotes like Henry James.  That's an exchange among an exclusive us that the rest of us take pleasure in following, as the child takes pleasure in the adult conversation of its parents.

One final example of the uses to which this difference may be put, again not from a fictional context, where the difference is always present, but from a sociological one.  In Stigma (and everywhere, but most obviously in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity) Goffman distinguishes categorically between "us normals" and the variously stigmatized persons he treats as his categories and examples.  But the point of the book is that "at some point in...life" everyone is stigmatized.  There is no such thing as the "normal" individual (useful, to some extent, only as a medical category), only the stigmatized person's belief in that norm.  "We normals" are normal only with respect to whatever specific stigma is under discussion, but in the end we find that it is only the narratee who is normal.  In non-fiction, like Goffman's, there isn't a fictional narrator (the irony is the author's, not the narrator's); but there is a fictional narratee.  That's his point.  To be normal is a fiction.

And in fiction, the narratee is the figure the narrator takes as normal: the two of them are ordinary denizens, perhaps the only ones, of a non-existent world, looking at it with their peculiar semi-circular stare.