Dante's Two Beloveds: Ethics and Erotics in the "Divine Comedy"

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Overview

Re-examining key passages in Dante’s oeuvre in the light of the crucial issue of moral choice, this book provides a new thematic framework for interpreting the Divine Comedy. Olivia Holmes shows how Dante articulated the relationship between the human and the divine as an erotic choice between two attractive women—Beatrice and the “other woman.”  Investigating the traditions and archetypes that contributed to the formation of Dante’s two beloveds, Holmes shows how Dante brilliantly overlaid and combined these paradigms in his poem.  In doing so he re-imagined the two women as not merely oppositional condensations of apparently conflicting cultural traditions but also complementary versions of the same. This visionary insight sheds new light on Dante’s corpus and on the essential paradox at the poem’s heart: the unabashed eroticism of Dante’s turn away from the earthly in favor of the divine.

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Editorial Reviews

F. Regina Psaki
“This superlative study of Dante shows the signs of long study and contemplation, honing and refining. Holmes offers a persuasive and original interpretation.”—F. Regina Psaki, University of Oregon
Simone Marchesi
Dante’s Two Beloveds maintains a rare balance between the philological and semiological perspective. Holmes makes an important contribution to Dante studies.”—Simone Marchesi, Princeton University
Choice
Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300125429
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/11/2008
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Olivia Holmes is visiting associate professor of Italian, Dartmouth College. Her previous book, Assembling the Lyric Self, won the American Association of Italian Studies Book Award in 2000. She lives in Hanover, NH.

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Read an Excerpt

Dante's Two Beloveds

ETHICS AND EROTICS IN THE DIVINE COMEDY
By Olivia Holmes

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12542-9


Chapter One

Two Ways and Two Ladies

At the beginning of the Commedia, the character Dante, already in the middle of his life's journey, has lost his way in a dark wood. After centuries of commentary, there can be little doubt that the straight way, now lost, represents the virtuous life that leads to God and eternal salvation and that, in stepping off the direct route, the pilgrim has made his journey to Heaven more roundabout and arduous. As the poet explains in his treatise Convivio, the supreme desire of every created thing is to return to its maker, but we may lose the path through error: "che sì come d'una cittade a un'altra di necessitade è una ottima e dirittissima via, e un'altra che sempre se ne dilunga (cioè quella che va ne l'altra parte), e molte altre quale meno allungandosi e quale meno appressandosi, così ne la vita umana sono diversi cammini, de li quali uno è veracissimo e un altro è fallacissimo, e certi meno fallaci e certi meno veraci" (for just as when someone wants to go from one city to another there is, of necessity, one road that is the best and most direct, and another that always increases the distance from one's goal-the road that goesin the opposite direction-and a host of others, some increasing the distance less quickly, others bringing the goal nearer less quickly, so, too, in human life there are various paths: one that is absolutely right, another that is absolutely wrong, and others that are right or wrong to a greater or lesser extent; 4.12.18). There are available to the wayfarer, on the one hand, the Lord's straight highway through the wilderness prophesied in Isaiah 40:3, and, on the other, the labyrinthine wanderings of the ancient Israelites in the desert for forty years. The metaphor of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt to Jerusalem for both the individual soul's pilgrimage on earth and Dante-the-pilgrim's otherworldly journey is put in the mouths of the passengers on the angelic boat who arrive on the shores of Purgatory singing Psalm 113, "In exitu Isräel de Aegypto" (When Israel went out of Egypt; Purg. 2.46), as well as in that of Beatrice in the Sphere of the Fixed Stars, when she says of the pilgrim: "li è conceduto che d'Egitto / vegna in Ierusalemme per vedere, / anzi che 'l militar li sia prescritto" (he is allowed to come to Jerusalem from Egypt in order to see it before he has put down his arms; Par. 25.55-57)-where the notion of life as a crusade is also implied. Like Israel, the pilgrim does reach the promised land in the long run; indeed, the simplest way to describe the narrative structure of the entire poema is in terms of departure from the path and return to it, or loss and recovery.

There are numerous other biblical and patristic precedents for figuring the good life as the right road; see, to cite just one, Psalm 1, verse 6: "For the Lord knows the way of the just, and the way of the wicked shall perish." Classical precedents abound, too; in particular, critics have connected Dante's taking the wrong path with the Pythagorean topos-picked up by early Christian writers such as St. Jerome and Lactantius-of comparing human existence to the letter "Y": the fork represents the choice in each man's life between the path of virtue and that of vice, the one leading to heaven and the other to hell. In some medieval commentaries on Virgil's Aeneid, the golden bough given Aeneas in book six is interpreted as the Pythagorean "Y," symbol of virtuous choice. Similarly, the early Dante commentator Francesco da Buti reads Inferno 1.1-9 allegorically as representing how a young man, coming to the proverbial fork in the road, is overcome by sensuality and abandons the straight way in favor of false goods or earthly delights, but later realizes his error in not taking the road leading directly to the highest good.

Dante's epic consists of the continual dramatization of ethical choices, with the purpose of teaching readers how to distinguish right from wrong, so that they, too, can make it out of the wilderness. According to the Epistle to Can Grande (which also uses Psalm 113, "In exitu Isräel de Aegypto," to illustrate the allegorical layers of meaning in Paradiso), the poem's aim "is to lead those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of happiness," and it goes on explicitly to place the third canticle under the heading of moral philosophy, or ethics, "inasmuch as the whole and the part have been conceived for the sake of practical results, not for the sake of speculation." This collocation is conventional: scholastic commentaries typically begin by assigning the work under consideration to its proper part of philosophy, and poetry is generally classified as belonging to ethics (Allen, Ethical Poetic, 5-6). Imaginative literature was seen as teaching by offering examples of both virtuous and sinful behavior to be imitated or eschewed, and thus as affecting moral decisions. The twelfth-century Arab philosopher Averroes, translated into Latin in the thirteenth, paraphrased Aristotle's Poetics as saying "Every poem and all poetry are either blame or praise," and his understanding was influential. According to John Dagenais, for medieval readers, texts were "acts of demonstrative rhetoric that reached out and grabbed the reader, involved him or her in praise and blame, in judgments about effective and ineffective human behavior" (Ethics of Reading, xvii). Modern critics generally see the medieval attribution of a didactic function to classical texts (such as when the sixth-century commentator Fulgentius and his followers read the Aeneid as an allegory of human life from birth to maturity, with Aeneas as a sort of everyman) as a misunderstanding, which imposes an alien ethos onto what we now tend to consider essentially aesthetic objects. In Dante's case, however, the didactic meaning is deeply inscribed within the poem's very depiction of the effects of God's justice on the condition of souls after death. Indeed, in his ranking of the sciences in Convivio 2.14, Dante makes an extraordinary claim for ethics, unsupported by earlier classical or medieval authorities, by moving it to first place, ahead of physics and metaphysics. As Giuseppe Mazzotta puts it, "ethics describes the fact that the poem charts the characters' vast range of moral acts and moral plights; ... it is a perspective from which to summon readers to an awareness of moral choices and to the inexorable consequences of those choices in the making of history."

The poet-protagonist's voyage can be interpreted as an exemplary acting out of the consequences of free will, and the distance covered as from the bondage of vice to the liberation of the will and the freedom of virtue. According to Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics, an important text for Dante (which he cites by name in Inferno 11.80): "the incontinent person acts from appetite, but not from rational choice; while the self-controlled person acts from rational choice, but not from appetite." At the beginning of Purgatorio, the character Virgilio says of Dante (to Cato), "libertà va cercando" (he seeks freedom; 1.71); this central canticle itself centers around a discussion of the concept of "libero arbitrio" (free will) in cantos 16-18; and when the pilgrim gets to the top of the mountain of Purgatory, Virgilio declares his will now "libero, dritto e sano" (free, upright, and whole; 27.140). Dante's "dritto arbitrio" (upright will) corresponds to the "diritta via" (straight way) that he lost at the poem's opening. He is finally back on track, and the last canticle-in which a "beatitudo" both Aristotelian and Christian is represented-might even be seen as superfluous in terms of the narrative, as an extra, an act of grace, or gratuitous corollary. Early in Paradiso, the pilgrim figuratively exercises his newly acquired ability to choose freely-or, in this case, his inability to do so, as he must choose between two equally good options: "Intra due cibi, distanti e moventi / d'un modo, prima si morria di fame, / che liber' omo l'un recasse ai denti" (between two foods, at equal distance and equally appetizing, a free man would first die of hunger before eating one of them; Par. 4.1-4). My point is not the temporary impasse in which he finds himself here, but simply that the free man is the continent man who acts only rationally, who is not a slave to his passions or impulses. When the pilgrim finally ascends to the highest heaven and approaches the Beatific Vision, he takes leave of Beatrice with the words of praise: "Tu m'hai di servo tratto a libertate" (you have drawn me from slavery to freedom; Par. 31.85). He has left time and space and, with them, all material appetites behind. As Christian Moevs describes it, to be free in medieval Christian thought is "not to be in the power of any thing that exists, to know oneself as ontologically prior to the order of nature, one with the Empyrean itself" (Metaphysics, 129).

One of the poem's earliest commentators observes that when Dante represents himself at the outset of the Commedia as having already made a wrong choice and stepped off the true path, he puts himself in the place of a common man, endowed with a rational soul and free will, who is "intento nelle sensualitadi di questo mondo, inchinato ad esse" (intent on the sensual pleasures of this world, inclined toward them; Ottimo Commento, 1). Dante depicts himself as having fallen into the same trap as St. Augustine's paradigmatic traveler in this mortal life who, enjoying the delights of the journey, becomes reluctant to finish it quickly, "being ensnared in the wrong kind of pleasure and estranged from the homeland whose pleasures could make us happy." Dante's pilgrim, like Augustine's, has erroneously chosen the corporeal and temporal over the spiritual and eternal, the literal over the figurative. As Augustine explains later in his treatise De doctrina christiana, interpreting the Pauline dictum "the letter kills but the spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6): "For when something meant figuratively is interpreted as if it were meant literally, it is understood in a carnal way. No 'death of the soul' is more aptly given that name than the situation in which the intelligence, which is what raises the soul above the level of animals, is subjected to the flesh by following the letter.... It is, then, a miserable kind of spiritual slavery [animae servitus] to interpret signs as things, and to be incapable of raising the mind's eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light" (3.5.9).

In the scene which dramatically stages, in his reunion with his first love in the Earthly Paradise, Dante's own liberation from sin and recovery of God's grace, Beatrice accuses her lover that after her death "volse i passi suoi per via non vera, / imagini di ben seguendo false" (he turned his steps along a way not true, following false images of good; Purg. 30.130-31). In the following canto, the pilgrim admits that present things "col falso lor piacer volser miei passi" (with their false pleasure turned my steps; Purg. 31.35). In order that he understand the shamefulness of his wandering ("errore") and better resist the Sirens in the future, Beatrice explains that she represented for him the "sommo piacer" (highest beauty) and he never should have been drawn toward "pargoletta / o altra novit" (a young girl or some other new thing; Purg. 31.43-60). An enormous amount of critical attention has been devoted to identifying this "pargoletta" and the precise nature of the guilt of which Beatrice accuses the pilgrim. I will have more to say about the passage myself, but for the time being I simply mean to point out that here, as elsewhere in Dante's writings, the choice between the paths leading to heaven or hell is consistently figured as an erotic choice between two courtly beloveds, and the downward pull of fleshly pleasures and of idolatry is always also an act of erotic seduction.

The election in one's lifestyle of either the path of virtue or that of vice is already represented as an erotic choice between two women in the classical allegory of Hercules at the Crossroads, a version of the Pythagorean "Y." Dante would have known this story principally by way of Cicero's De officiis, in which it is recounted that when Hercules was just becoming a young man, he went out to a lonely place and pondered which road to take, for he could see two: one of pleasure and another of virtue ("unam Voluptatis, alteram Virtutis"; 1.32.118). The two alternatives are not explicitly personified as two women in De officiis, but they are in Xenophon's Memorabilia, which Cicero cites as his source. The ancient Greek general and writer Xenophon was unknown in the Latin West during the Middle Ages, however. Erwin Panofsky argues that the Hercules tale, which became one of the humanists' favorite themes, was neglected by medieval scholarship because it implies a secular moral context that was unimaginable for the medieval Christian, since the two roads stand for what is worthy of praise or of blame in an exclusively earthbound ethical system (155-56). Emma Edelstein counters that in Xenophon's story Hercules accomplishes such meritorious deeds that he lives among the immortals-Heaven is his reward for choosing Virtue-and that the story was understood in this eminently Christian sense by early Christian writers like Justin Martyr and St. Basil. Justin Martyr replicates Xenophon's personifications with Vice in a luxurious dress and with a seductive expression on her face, and Virtue with a squalid look and dress, but offering the promise of everlasting grace, which Justin interprets to mean that "every one who flees those things that seem to be good, and follows hard after what are reckoned difficult and strange, enters into blessedness" (Second Apology, ch. 11). Yet Dante is unlikely to have known this version of the incident, even indirectly; once again we come up against the stumbling block of Greek.

Edelstein also points out a passage from Ambrose's Ennaratio in Psalmum I, in which he speaks of two roads "una justorum, altera peccatorum"(one of the just, the other of sinners; PL 14:933A; cf. Psalm 138:24) and, even more auspiciously, a passage from his De Cain et Abel, in which the saint personifies pleasure and virtue as two women who dwell within us (PL 14:322C; cf. Philo, "Sacrifices of Abel and Cain" 5.21). One might also cite St. Jerome, who explicitly connects Ecclesiastes 10.2 ("The wise man's heart leads him aright, / the fool's heart leads him astray") with the Sibyl's words to Aeneas when he arrives at the place where the road forks, leading to Elysium on the right and Tartarus on the left (Aeneid 6.540-43). In Virgil, the crossroads is placed in the otherworld, and the choice seems to be provided only to the dead, but for Christian writers like Lactantius (b. 250-260 C.E.), "the point where the road forks in two is located in this life, but the ends of the two roads are located in the afterlife" (Divine Institutes 6.3). In numerous patristic and later commentaries, the individual is seen to choose between two roads: "una culpabilis, altera laudabilis," "una carnis, altera spiritus," "una mortis, altera vitae." Thus it is perhaps safe to assume that the theme of Hercules in bivio-so similar to that of the Pythagorean "Y," and also alluded to by both Boccaccio and Petrarch-was not entirely uncongenial to the medieval thinker. It loosely resembles the story of Jesus' temptation by the devil in the desert (Matt. 4:1), and, in the wake of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (book 4 meter 7), Hercules was taken as a prototype of the vir sapiens et eloquens, whose activities conquered vice and ultimately earned him access to the contemplative life, as well as of Jesus Christ himself, who harrowed hell and conquered heaven with his labors. Dante identifies Hercules as a surrogate Christ in Inferno 9.98-99, and almost all of the classical monsters that the pilgrim encounters in the lower realm were conquered by Hercules, too (see Miller, "Hercules").

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Dante's Two Beloveds by Olivia Holmes Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Two Ways and Two Ladies 13

2 Wisdom and Folly; Lady Philosophy and the Sirens 35

3 Romance Narratives of Two Women 68

4 Ulysses at the Crossroads 99

5 Jerusalem and Babylon: Brides, Widows, and Whores 119

6 The "Little While": Departure and Return 157

Conclusion 194

Notes 201

Bibliography 245

Index 265

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