Category Archives: Italian Literature

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben

Macrobius was a Roman grammarian, philosopher and author who lived and produced his most important work, the Saturnalia, in the early part of the 5th century A.D. The Saturnalia is a symposium, a conversation among friends, that takes place on the day before and three days during the Saturnalia, the festival dedicated to celebrating the harvest and the Roman god Saturn. The conversation encompasses a wide range of topics that include religion, literature, philosophy and rhetoric. In Book 1, a dinner guest describes the Egyptian belief that four important deities preside over the birth of every human (this translation is my own):

The Egyptians explain the significance of the Caduceus at the begetting of all humans, which is called genesis, by saying that there are four gods present at the birth of each person: Daimon (Spirit), Tyche (Chance), Eros (Love), Ananke (Necessity). The first two they wish to be understood as the sun and the moon, because the sun is the source of spirit, heat and light and both the procreator of human life and its guardian, and thus it is the Daimon or the deity of a person being born; the moon, however, is Tyche, because she is the guardian of bodies which are thrown about by the varieties of fortune. Love is signified by a kiss; nesessity is signified by a nod.

Giorgio Agamben, in his latest short philosophical work entitled The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa), borrows these four gods from Macrobius to build his discussion and definition of the word “adventure.” And following the example of Goethe, who, in his Urworte, adds Elpis (hope), Agamben translates these deities as Demon, Event, Love, Necessity and Hope. He writes, “Every human is caught up in the adventure; for this reason, every human deals with Daimon, Eros, Ananke, and Elpis. They are the faces—or masks—that adventure—tyche—presents us with at each turn.” Agamben argues against the modern definition of adventure, which is seen as an event that is strange and out-of-the-ordinary, and wants to replace it with a more universal term that corresponds to our everyday Being and experience in the world. “The idea that adventure is something external—and therefore eccentric and bizarre—with respect to ordinary life defines its modern conception,” he asserts.

Agamben begins, as usual, with the history and etymology of the word “adventure”; previous authors have argued that the term comes from the Latin advenio as the neuter, plural, future, active participle—adventura. But, Agamben points out, there is no proof of its use in Classical Latin. He concludes, “Whether it derives from the classical and Christian Latin adventus (the advent of a prince or a messiah), as is likely, or from eventus, as the late Du Cange suggested, the term designates something mysterious or marvelous that happens to a given man, which could be equally positive or negative.” And in the love poetry of the troubadours, adventure is used to describe not only the event but also the story that is told about the event:

The aventure (or aventiure) may be marvelous or fortuitous (in which case it means “chance”), beneficial or malefic (one will then call it bonne or male aventure; the term seems to be equivalent to “fate” or “fortune”), or more or less perilous (it will thus stand as a challenge to the knight’s courage); however, it is not always easy to distinguish between the event and its transposition into words.

It is this medieval idea of adventure towards which we ought to return, Agamben argues. In the next two chapters he elaborates on the influence that Eros (Love) and Tyche (Event) have on the concept of adventure. Eros is the very thing that gives life to the demon, it is Eros that drives us to abandon ourselves to the adventure and the event without reservations. Eros and adventure are intertwined “..not because love gives meaning and legitimacy to adventure, but, on the contrary because only a life that has the form of adventure can truly find love.” And, as far as the event is concerned, “Not only are the event and speech given together in the adventure but—as we saw—the latter always demands a subject to whom it must be told.” A refreshing, hopeful, even playful definition of adventure emerges from Agamben’s essay. In the concluding chapter, Elpis (Hope), is the concept that links all of the other ideas together. But this is not the modern concept of hope from silly Internet memes or self-help gurus; it is more immediate, in the here and now, the hope that affects the essence of our Being daily: “Just as hope overcomes its satisfaction, so too does it surpass salvation (and love).”

I have read this delightful book a few times since last week and one thing that has bothered me about it is the translation of the Ancient Greek word daimon as “demon.” Although it can be used as an alternative for “daemon” (a spirit or numen), demon, in the monotheistic, Christian sense, has a decidedly negative connotation as something evil. In Ancient Greek daimon is used to denote a spirit in relation to a deity, and can also be translated as “power” or “fate”. Macrobius’ description, cited above, of the Egyptians belief that it is the source of heat, light and a guardian for humans at birth is very similar to the Ancient Greek understanding of it. (I’ve discussed the word daimon more thoroughly elsewhere in the context of Ancient Greek tragedy in a review of Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides Bakkhai.) Agamben is arguing that this spirit, this Being, present at birth is the every day, driving force behind adventure. Maybe I am mistaken, but it seems that an English speaking audience would automatically assume that demon is used in the negative, Christian context. I don’t have access to the Italian text, but I wonder what the word for daimon is in Italian and if it is closer to the original Ancient Greek meaning? Perhaps it would have been more beneficial for the sake of his argument if the translator used the Latin word daemon or, better yet, left it untranslated as daimon?

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Filed under Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Philosophy

The Vital Force of the Kore: The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando

The Ancient Greek goddess Demeter (Ceres to the Romans) was associated with the harvest and agriculture and was worshipped at her temple in Eleusis.  The Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells us that the goddess has a daughter, Persephone or Kore, fathered by Zeus, who was abducted by Hades and forced to live in the underworld with her husband for part of the year.  The story of Demeter and Persephone can be viewed as a nature myth—Persephone represents the seed, planted under the ground and fertilized by Zeus, that grows in the spring as the harvest and whose maturity is represented by Demeter herself.  The story can also be viewed as an etiological myth whereby the seasons are explained—the months in which Persephone spends with her husband in Hades Demeter does not let anything grow and thus it is winter.  Finally, the story of Demeter can be viewed as a charter myth that explains the origins for the rituals that take place during the Eleusinian Mysteries at the temple of Demeter.

During the autumnal celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were organized by the Athenian polis, there were rituals that involved fasting, a procession with sacrificial pigs, purification in the sea, and the consumption of a sacred drink.  The nocturnal procession went from Athens to the Temple of Demeter at Eleusis where initiates would gather in the Hall of Initiations, the Telesterion, where the hierophant (sacred revealer) revealed the “holy things.”  It was said that Demeter bestowed two gifts to her initiates: a stalk of grain and the mysteries that were said to hold a promise to a happier afterlife.  The mysteries that took place at the annual celebration were kept secret by all participants.

In his essay, The Unspeakable Girl,  published in English by Seagull Books and translated by Leland De La Durantaye and Annie Julia Wyman, Italian philosopher and author Giorgio Agamben begins with a discussion of the Ancient Greek word Kore.  Agamben’s writing is challenging but of the few things I read so far, he begins with the etymology of important words, which makes his narrative, for me, more accessible.  He writes:

The Greek term kore (masculine form: koros) does not refer to a precise chronological age.  Derived from a root meaning ‘vital force’, it refers to the principle that makes both plants and animals grow (koros also means ‘offshoot’ in the botanical sense.)  A kore, can thus be old, like the Phorcydes, called denaiai korai, the ‘long-lived girls’ and the graiai, ‘those with white hair.’ Aeschylus calls the terrifying avengers of blood crime Erinyes (or Furies), korai, as well as graiai palaiai pades (ancient children with white hair.)

Agamben concludes that “Kore is life in so much as it does not allow itself to be ‘spoken’, in so much as it cannot be defined by age, family, sexual identity or social role.”  The philosopher uses this idea of Kore as the unspeakable for a further discussion of the mysteries involving Demeter and Kore that take place during the Eleusinian rituals.  His thesis is that the mystery is not so much a sacred object that is revealed or an event that happens during the ritual, but a mystical transformation which the initiates experience that is unspeakable—not unspeakable in the sense that it is prohibited to be spoken about but in the sense that there is no language that adequately expresses the experience.  Agamben cites and discusses key passages from Aristotle and Plato who describe the acquisition of philosophical knowledge as a mystic experience or initiation.  Agamben concludes, “When she was abducted by Hades, Kore was ‘playing (paizousan) with the girls of Ocean’ (kouresi syn Okeanou; Homeri Hymnus in Cecerem 5.5).  That a girl at play became the ideal figure for the supreme initiation and the completion of philosophy, the figure for something that is at once thought and initiation and thus unspeakable—this is the ‘mystery.'”

And why should the modern reader care about initiation into ancient mystery cults.  This is, perhaps, my favorite part of Agamben’s argument; he makes this ancient thought and practice relevant to a 21st century audience: “Whether it be Lucius in The Golden Ass or Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the novel places us before a mysterion to which life itself is at once that which initiates us and that into which we are initiated.”

“The goddess threw herself like a maenad down the woody mountainside.” Pastel on recycled paper. Monica Ferrando.

This Seagull edition also includes gorgeous paintings by artist Monica Ferrando as well as her translations of Ancient Greek and Latin text sources for Demeter, Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

 

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Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Philosophy

One Final Dante Post: A List of Helpful Resources

For my last post on the Divine Comedy I thought I would share of list of various resources—-translations, essays, books, etc.—that I found helpful and a joy to read along the way.

Translations:

The Divine Comedy, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick, Penguin: I started out with this translation, but I found it tedious and at times downright inaccessible.  But I still list it because the notes that go along with the text are excellent.

The Divine Comedy, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, Everyman’s Library: I have always loved Mandelbaum’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses so I switched from Kirkpatrick to this translation and found it much more accessible.  I’ve read that it is also very close to the Italian—he doesn’t take much poetic license, which is the exact reason why I like his Ovid so much.

The Divine Comedy, translated by John D. Sinclair: This was recommended by a fellow reader on Twitter and I am so glad I bought the complete set.  I will use this prose translation the next time I do a complete reread of Dante.  It also comes with the Italian text.

Dante in English, Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, eds., Penguin: This book is a nice way to sample different translations of Dante.  It also includes selections from different poems that have been inspired by the Divine Comedy

Vita Nuova, translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:  This is Dante’s poem about Beatrice and I actually read it before the Divine Comedy.  It greatly enhanced my reading of Paradise in particular.  This has been reissued recently by NYRB.

Dante: De Vulgari Eloquentia (Cambridge Medieval Classics), translated by Steven Botterill:  This is an essay, written in Latin by Dante, on literary theory.  It contains the Latin text as well as an English translation.  A crazy rabbit hole I followed because I was curious about Dante’s Latin text.

Books:

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw:  A very informative book in which each chapter is a discussion of a different theme or thread in Dante—Friendship, Power, Life, Love, Time, Numbers and Words.

Reading Dante (The Open Yale Courses Series) by Giuseppe Mazzotta: This was one of my favorite resources, especially for understanding Paradise.  It is more like an extended commentary and helps to unpack the historical and theological ideas of Dante.  I also bought a copy that was signed and inscribed by the author that said, “May you continue on your own journey” which I thought was a very nice find.

Dante A Very Short Introduction by Peter Hainsworth:  Exactly what the title says, a very brief introduction at 115 pages.  I especially like his emphasis on how Dante is still relevant in the modern age.

Dante A Brief History by Peter S. Hawkins:  An excellent overview of Dante’s life and work.  This one has some very good black and white illustrations.  I especially appreciated Hawkins’s chapter on Beatrice.

Dante: Poet of the Secular World by Eric Auerbach:  An excellent discussion of the overall structure of Dante’s works that argues he was the first great realist writer.  This has been reissued by NYRB.

Introductory Papers on Dante: The Poet Alive in his Writings by Dorothy Sayers:  This, with the two books listed below, is a three volume collection of lectures given by Sayers on Dante.  And excellent, helpful introduction to Dante.

Further Papers on Dante: His Heirs and His Ancestors by Dorothy Sayers:  This volume contains essays that compare Dante to other authors who explore similar themes in their writing.

The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement: On Dante and Other Writers by Dorothy Sayers:  This one comes with a fabulous bonus essay describing Sayers’s learning Latin from the age of six and why she thinks learning Latin is so valuable.  All of her points about learning Latin are still relevant today, I will be sharing this with my own students.

Essays:

The Cambridge Companion to Dante, Rachel Jacoff, ed.: As with other books in the series, this Cambridge Companion contains essays on a wide variety of topics covering the Divine Comedy, the Vita Nuova, Dante’s Theology, Dante and Florence, Dante and the classical poets, etc.

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam: a beautiful moving essay about the Divine Comedy.  The essay is included as part of Mandelstam’s Selected Poems published by NYRB.

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner: I actually found the Mandelstam essay because Steiner references it in his essay.  This essay is included in his book On Difficulty.

Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, John Freccero, ed.: A nice collection of some of the most famous essays written about Dante in the 20th century.  It includes a copy of Mandelstam’s essay.

The Poets’ Dante: Twentieth Century Responses, Peter S. Hawkins, ed.:  A collection of essays by some of the most important 20th century poets including Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, and Heaney among many others. (I did a previous post with a couple of quotes from this book.)

Dante Comparisons (Publications of the Foundation for Italian Studies, University College Dublin), Eric Haywood, ed.:  I know this is sort of an odd and obscure book to have searched for, but it promised an essay about Dante, Catullus and Propertius! In two previous posts I noted some of the similarities between sections of the Vita Nuova and the Divine Comedy and Catullus’s poetry so I was thrilled to find this unique collection of essays that covers this very topic.

Ancient Resources:

The Aeneid, Vergil: As I mentioned in my first post on Dante, an appreciation for the Aeneid will greatly enhance any reading of Dante.  I honestly don’t know how anyone could read The Divine Comedy and not be compelled to read Vergil as well.  My favorite translations are Robert Fagles, David Ferry and Robert Fitzgerald.

The Metamorphoses, Ovid: Dante actually makes more references to Ovid than to Vergil.  The two commentaries I used were very thorough with explaining Dante’s references to Ovid.  But reading Ovid’s epic poem will also greatly enhance one’s understanding of many parts of the Divine Comedy.  My favorite translation, as noted above, is Mandelbaum.

Achilleid, Statius translated by Stanley Lombardo:  I fell down a long, winding rabbit hole by reading and translating Statius, an author whose work I have not picked up in 20 years.  The Achilleid is a beautiful, unfinished epic that describes Achilles as a boy before he goes off to fight in Troy.  It is really not necessary to read any Statius to understand his role in the Divine Comedy even though this Roman poet guides Dante at the end of Purgatory and into Paradise.

Thebaid, Statius, translated by Jane Wilson Joyce:  This poem, about the destruction and havoc that Oedipus’s sons cause one another while battling over who will rule  Thebes, is long, lugubrious and dense.  Statius likes to go into great detail about obscure mythological names and references.  When I first translated this 20 years ago in a Silver Age Epic course in graduate school, I did not have the patience for it.  This time around I did find some stunning passages that I truly enjoyed.  But there is still a lot of very dense material that, at times, can be incomprehensible.

Pharsalia, Lucan:  I also translated this in my Silver Age Epic course and really fell in love with Lucan’s underappreciated work.  Since Dante mentions Lucan as being among the ancient poets in limbo I decided to revisit a few of my favorite passages—his description of Pompey and the witch scene.  The Loeb translation of this epic is very good.

Websites:

A series of lectures by Yale Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta.  If you don’t want to read his book I cited above, you can watch his series of lectures: http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/a-free-course-on-dantes-divine-comedy-from-yale-university.html

Digital Dante from Columbia University.  This was a great resource for looking at the Italian text and commentaries for the Divine Comedy.  This site includes illustrations of the Divine Comedy and readings of it  as well as a good historical timeline of Dante’s life: https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/

Finis.

Please let me know in the comments if there are other resources that I should add to my list.

I was feeling lost for several days when I finished Dante.  But I have decided on a new reading project that I am very excited about: Kafka!

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Filed under Essay, Italian Literature, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry

Full of Delights, of Pleasure, Of Tenderness: The Poets’ Dante

I have been reading some of the essays from The Poets’ Dante which arrived in the mail yesterday. It is a collection of writing from some of the most prominent 20th century poets who reflect on how Dante has shaped their own verses. I offer here a few passages from some of my favorite essays so far:

Ezra Pound comments on the genre and classification of the Divine Comedy:

The Divine Comedy must not be considered as an epic; to compare it with epic poems is usually unprofitable. It is in a sense lyric, the tremendous lyric of the subjective Dante; but the soundest classification of the poem is Dante’s own, ‘as a comedy which differs from tragedy in its content,’ for ‘tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly,’ and the end is terrible, ‘whereas comedy introduces some harsh complication, but brings the matter to a prosperous end.’ The is, in fact, a great mystery play, or better, a cycle of mystery plays.

Jorge Luis Borges on the intensity and gentleness of Dante:

Carlyle and other critics have observed that the most notable characteristic of Dante is intensity. If we think of the hundred cantos of the poem, it seems a miracle that that intensity never lets up, except in a few places in the Paradiso which for the poet were light and for us are shadow. I can’t think of another example, except perhaps Macbeth, which begins with the three witches and continues to the death of the hero without a weak moment.

I would like to mention another aspect: the gentleness of Dante. We always think of the somber and sententious Florentine poem, and we forget that the work is full of delights, of pleasure, of tenderness. That tenderness is part of the structure of the work. For example, Dante must have read somewhere that the cube is the most solid of volumes. It was a current, unpoetical observation, and yet Dante used it as a metaphor for man, who must support misfortune: ‘ben tetragono ai colpi di fortuna,’ man is a good tetragon, a cube. That is truly rare.

And Seamus Heaney’s personal reflection on his experiences with the Divine Comedy:

What I first loved in the Commedia was the local intensity, the vehemence and fondness attaching to individual shades, the way personalities and values were emotionally soldered together, the strong strain of what has been called personal realism in the celebration of bonds of friendship and bonds of enmity. The way in which Dante could place himself in an historical world yet submit that world to a scrutiny from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate the political and the transcendent, this too encouraged my attempt at a sequence of poems which would explore the typical strains which the consciousness labours under in this country. The main tension is between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognitions of the emerging self.

This is only a very small sampling of the book and I will, no doubt, spend some time with this volume as I pick my way through the variety of essays it contains.

Earlier today my husband noticed, with a wry comment and smirk, that I had acquired yet two more books on Dante. The intensity with which I throw myself into things has become a bit of a family joke—books, blogging, gift wrapping, acquiring the best coffee/teas, fashion/shoes, etc. (a small selection of my “obsessions” that my husband has pointed out, for which he claims he loves me dearly). And, yes, I have applied the same intensity to reading Dante and everything I can get my hands on about Dante. I have, I think, one final post left in me—a wrap up of sorts with a list of various books, essays, and translations I have acquired along the way. The journey from Hell, to Purgatory to Heaven has been a truly rich, rewarding and intense reading experience for me—an intense book, indeed, to match the intense person I can be. If you’ve enjoyed my posts then thanks for paying attention; if you are sick of me going on about the Divine Comedy then I promise the end is nigh and I will be reading different authors this week!

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Open Your Eyes and See What I am Now: Beatrice and Dante in Paradise

Beata Beatrix. Dante Gabriel Rossetti Oil on Canvas. 1864-1870.

This has already proven to be a long, tough week but I have been elevated by reading Dante’s Paradise. My favorite experience in reading this final book in the Divine Comedy has been the interaction between Dante and Beatrice as they journey through heaven.  The respect and awe the poet has for Beatrice, his muse and inspiration, even when she is scolding him, is moving. One of my favorite passages of Paradise is Canto XXI where Beatrice explains to him that she can’t smile at Dante because he would burst into flames, like Semele did when she looks at the god Jupiter in all of his celestial splendor (trans. Mandelbaum):

By now my eyes were set again upon
my lady’s face, and with my eyes, my mind:
from every other thought, it was withdrawn.
She did not smile. Instead her speech to me
began: “Were I to smile, then you would be
like Semele when she was turned to ashes,
because, as you have seen, my loveliness—
which, even as we climb the steps of this
eternal palace, blazes with more brightness—
were it not tempered here, would be so brilliant
that, as it flashed, your mortal faculty
would see a branch a lightning bolt has cracked.

Dante follows Beatrice’s guidance through one stage after the next of heaven and takes her chiding seriously because he knows it is for his benefit. His reward is that, in a few spheres later, he is able, through his ordeal and his learning, to bear her smile:

Open your eyes and see what I now am;
the things you witnessed will have made you strong
enough to bear the power of my smile.

That spine tingling, lover’s gaze which occurs over and over; a lover who not only teaches, but challenges you to become a better person. How could this not be a love story?  It is, I think, an ideal love towards which it is nice to aspire.

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