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Synchronicity: Death and the Vita nuova
No snowflake falls in an inappropriate place.
That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called "visions," the whole so-called "spirit world," death, all those things so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.
—Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
A sleep trance, a dream dance, A shared romance, Synchronicity ...
The story of the Vita nuova is deceptively simple. The artist as a very young man falls hopelessly in love with an equally youthful Beatrice, and over a precisely marked period of years—the numbers will all turn out, in retrospect, to have been key markers—he acts out all the conceits of what we have come to call "courtly" love. In this endlessly suffering pursuit, hopeless beyond fulfillment, he sings the anguishes of such love and gives his readers a number of poems that are as lovely hymns to his ancestor troubadours as any those father figures ever wrote themselves. The living Beatrice in the first half of the book is thus the provocation of and the evocation in much marvelously self-serving and self-loving poetry, poetry that, in the strong vernacular tradition that fathered it, is primarily fascinated with itself and with the love object always just beyond its reach. The poetry itself is spun from that desire fueled and sustained by perpetual failure and endless seeking. The young poet playing the lover, then, indulges himself endlessly, has sleepless nights (some with remarkable dream visions), is physically ill, pines away ... and sure enough, love poetry comes forth from the ordeal, as it is supposed to. All is well. Until, in a kabbalistically inscribed twist of events, Beatrice dies, and with her, for that young poet, so does inspiration. Without the absent object of desire, the young man is left without song—but he will not give in to such a fate. And it is Beatrice's death that provokes the realization that there is more to both life and poetry than that, than desire never fulfilled, than poetry that is its own center.
It is the dead Beatrice who is not only the focus of Dante's new life as a poet, but also, perhaps, a keen metaphor for his own first life and death as a poet. The new poet emerges from the crucible of her death a far abler reader of the text than the young troubadour who fell in love with Beatrice: he has turned to the truths that lie in the poetry itself, truths that were there before but that he could not read because he could not decipher the language they were written in. The centrality and necessity of death for this sort of revelation—a revelation rooted in both synchronistic and kabbalistic truths that taunt the modern reader—was keenly understood (and mocked, not so gently, perhaps) by Borges: his incarnation of Beatrice is a Beatriz who is not only dead but seems never to have been alive, but whose portraits reign over the house that shelters the Aleph, in the dark pit of the basement, that Aleph, that magic looking-glass that enables one to see, and thus write, the literature of the cosmos.
It has been, at least in part, the tremendously authoritative power of Charles Singleton's reading of theVita nuova as an authentic and all-powerful religious conversion that has kept us in the intervening years from seeing the full extent to which Dante's so-called prologue to the Commedia is first and foremost his manifesto of literary conversion. By this I mean—and this will be the point of this chapter—that the Vita nuova is first and last about writing, that other conversions and other "themes" are ancillary to this principal, literal story, that of the artist as a young man. I will argue, in fact, that to convince the reader of the literal truth of that story—a literal truth we have taken, by and large, as a metaphor—is the very point of Dante's narration of this remarkably failed love story. It is quite remarkable that one of the dominant clusters of themes of Dante criticism vis-a-vis the Commedia in recent years, that of tracing out the almost unending instances of self-reflection, literary conversions, literary invention reinscribed in the text, in sum, Dante's preoccupation with his work and his craft and his text, has been far less visible in readings of this text. This is true despite the fact that almost everyone views the Vita nuova as the important—if at times arcane and impenetrable—prolegomenon to the masterpiece. While a number of key critics have certainly understood and explored the metaliterary dimensions of the Vita nuova, I want to suggest that what we call metaliterary is, in the case of this text, the plainly literary as well, the story at the surface as well as just below it, and that the combination, which is a species of kabbalistic writing, has by and large evaded our modern critical readings.
Clearly, on many points and at many key junctures, my reading of this text will intersect and parallel previous readings, especially Singleton's powerful and canonical model. But the difference, I think, is fundamental, rather than merely one of emphasis or tone: to say that the story is about literature at the surface and that the conversion story is about a crucial change in an ideology of writing is apparently to situate the Vita nuova within a category of texts somewhat outside the bounds of conventional criticism. Indeed, this shift renders it highly accessible to the modern reader—precisely the opposite of what Singleton's reading does. The Christian conversion story, on the other hand, one in which an ideology of writing and literature is ancillary to the specific detail of Christian belief, is, as Singleton himself was the first to point out, profoundly distanced from us, from all readers since the Council of Trent, in fact, and remarkably difficult if not impossible to recapture (Singleton 1949, 3—5). However, Dante's story about arriving at strong—indeed, categorical—opinions about what is "right" and "wrong" in literature possesses a clearly transcendental importance and is readable within various historical constructs, including our own.
In fact, Dante in the Vita nuova is unabashedly, shockingly concerned with texts and writing, with how one reads the text of life and then makes it literature. The work begins with the invocation of the Libro della memoria and the narrator's thus establishing himself as an author, a writer. This explicit self-characterization, abundantly ratified throughout the work, is sealed at the end of the work, when the author-narrator reveals his future plans and tells us what he will write in the future—a future which is postconversionary, of course, because he learned how to read a certain language. One of the major effects of the prose-poetry format of the Vita nuova is the continual affirmation, with each poem "transcribed" from the old text to the new, that the protagonist is, of course, a Poet. The story of the Poet rises most consistently to the surface, presented without allegorical or symbolic intermediary. As Ezra Pound says, emerging from the critical/philological constraints of 1910 (not far different from our own in many ways), "Saving the grace of a greatly honored scholar, to speak of the Vita Nuova as 'embroidered with conceits' is errant nonsense. The Vita Nuova is strangely unadorned.... It is without strange, strained similes.... The 'Lord of the terrible aspect' is no abstraction, no figure of speech. There are those who can not or will not understand these things" (Pound  1952: 126).
Indeed, to believe in the literal truth of the literary story of the Vita nuova is, first of all, to begin to account for the otherwise unaccountably strange power of the story; it is rendered readable, what some might call "relevant" (if the latter had not become, in recent years, a term of opprobrium among so many), not just to the modern critic and reader but, crucially, to other writers, writers who, after Dante, struggled with his very deeply seated and in many ways very rigid views on the proper nature and function of poetry and literature. While the import of the specifics of an individual's faith may indeed, as Singleton recognized, dissolve into history, a strong poet's vision of poetry is never impenetrable or insignificant, even in its detail. In this text, then, as much as at the heart of the Commedia, Dante is a literary historian and theoretician; but here, in this more primitive story of his conversion, we have a starkly kabbalistic story as well, one in which the poet stands far less adorned, naked, vulnerable. The young artist has bared his soul and told us of his massive disappointments—his failures, really—and how he turns things around. As has been recently pointed out, Dantology has been a slave to Dante himself, a Dante who has convinced us, through the most remarkable rhetoric, of what his texts are about—and in this case, the authorially guided emphasis on the positive future has indeed obscured how much death and a dead past are the obsessions of a text thus deceptively entitled. In this, as in much else, Dante is a kabbalist, reading and interpreting "with excessive audacity and extravagance" (Bloom 1975: 12526). What is at stake everywhere in the Vita nuova is the Book, its reading and its rewriting, and, of course, it is Beatrice's death that constitutes the indispensable heart of the conversion (and this is equally true whether we read it as principally poetic, theological or amorous). Above all, the Vita nuova, the story so charmingly called the "New Life," is in fact the story of the death—the purposeful and necessary death—for Dante of the old ways of reading and writing, the old kind of Literature, that had proved so disappointing.
The momentous break that marks the beginning of lyric poetry in the European vernaculars has been an obsessive fascination for critics since Dante himself first made it a legitimate object of study in his De vulgari eloquentia. It is one of a number of literary-historical subjects about which the braggart claim can be made that more has been written about it than about any other. Of the many entangled issues in this domain, I wish to single out the two major metaliterary ones that seem to me to have been of greatest concern to Dante the author of the Vita nuova: the issue of the "new life" or new beginning for poetry that is so starkly raised by the conspicuous establishment of the vernaculars of eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe as a new beginning in literary cycles, and the deeply solipsistic nature of that newly minted poetry itself.
One can, paradoxically, dispense with any extended review of the "origins" debate(s), for when and where the story of lyric poetry in the European vernaculars "actually" begins (a matter, of course, of some considerable dispute) is not nearly so important in this discussion as the fact that it does have a discernable beginning, that it is and was perceived as a major rupture vis-a-vis its "classical" antecedents. Indeed, whatever the provocations and contingencies at its beginning, the denouement of the story invariably includes the remarkable invention that did indeed take place as part of the cluster of innovations conveniently tagged as "twelfth century": the vernaculars were born and prospered as literary languages, as the prime matter of a literature perceived (then, as well as now) as "new." It is difficult to overestimate the importance, difficulty, and implications of such an event, and it is supremely important to remember that, unlike the biological analogy that gives rise to the "birth" metaphor, a death is the implacable contingency of such creation: the displacement and substitution of a new language almost invariably constitutes, despite the wishes of many, the death of the one being replaced. Even more dramatically and with greater pain, of course, a number of paternal figures are supplanted by others. Dante, of course, was not only fully aware of these issues but both disturbed and fascinated by them: even his discussion of Latin as never having been a natural language at all but rather a koine, an artificial construct, smacks of self-justification, the defense against some unheard but deeply sensed reproach. His discussion of the inevitable evolution of natural and living languages, as opposed to those that are dead in their immutability—and the embarrassing but lurking hint that the same may hold for the poetry of such languages—leaves in no doubt his sensitivity to the issues of transitions and replacements that are both birth and death.
Thus, the specific historical conditions of the rupture are by and large irrelevant here. Almost any of the models that have been proposed for such origins share the characteristics that are critical for the perspective necessary for this reading of the Vita nuova: a linguistic rupture that involves the canonization of a language previously spoken but not canonized, and the concomitant invention of poetic norms for a complex written poetry springing, in different measures and ways, from both an oral tradition (the spoken and probably sung vernacular languages and songs) and a written tradition or traditions. Dante's descriptive metaphors of heritage are unambiguous: the mother's language (her lullabies andLove songs alike, those models of sung and unwritten literature) is being elevated to the status of what is otherwise the father's, and the father's, the classical, is then, of course, replaced as the model by the child's, by this "new" language of poetry. Of course, there is an important paradox in all of this: the establishment of this new form, when it is sufficiently entrenched to be considered canonical (as was certainly the case soon enough with both Provengal and Mozarabic lyrics, for example), itself becomes a new norm, a new canon, a new father figure to be either followed or replaced. Thus, a Dante acutely aware of the literary history of which he is a product (and out of which, in many ways, he is trying to write himself) has not one but two major ancestral historical forms that have given him birth as a poet: firstly, the classical, since he is still, of course, a reader of that tradition; and secondly, and no less critically, those first several centuries of the vernacular or "troubadour" writings which, by the turn of the fourteenth century, are themselves quite legitimately a tradition. Historical foreshortening should not obscure the fact that the latter was in its own right no less oppressively canonical for a writer like Dante. Dante, then, stands at what may be a unique kind of crossroads in terms of poetic ancestry: because he is still remarkably close to the Latin tradition, certainly enough so that it is a fundamental part of his linguistic and poetic upbringing, it has paternal authority and will constitute, when he writes in Italian, a model he is rejecting. But—and this is the peculiarity and perhaps the paradox—he has imbibed a considerable and powerful vernacular tradition as well (certainly the De vulgari is an homage, among other things, to that part of his ancestry), one which was itself eminently canonical and well established, in many crucial ways decaying and at an end, dead in the death of static and artificiality, by the time Dante began his writing career. Thus, although the extant vernacular tradition also defined itself, in great measure, as breaking from that same classical patronage, it too was a past for Dante; it too has been indispensable in his creation, and it too, inevitably, must be left behind.
Excerpted from Writing in Dante's Cult of Truth From Borges to Boccaccio by María Rosa Menocal. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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