Tuesday, May 4, 2010

DANTE IN AUSCHWITZ, lecture notes

The Homeric part, the prophesy of how Odysseus would die, had to be very brief due to the time limit of the lecture, but here is the longer version:

Book XI: Odysseus embarks on his voyage to the mouth of Hades.

We bore down on the ship at the sea’s edge
and launched her on the salt immortal sea.

[He doesn’t know the way, but lets his black ship sail on its own, sped by the wind sent by Circe, “the singing nymph with sun-bright hair”]

until the sun dipped, and all the ways grew dark
upon the fathomless unresting sea.

[They arrive in the land of mist and cloud, the land of Winter.]

Then I addressed the blurred and breathless dead . . .

Thus to assuage the nations of the dead
I pledged these rites, then slashed the lamb and ewe,
letting their black blood stream into the wellpit.
Now the souls gathered, stirring out of Erebos,
brides and young men, and men grown old in pain,
and tender girls whose hearts were new to grief;
many were there, too, torn by brazen lanceheads,
battle-slain, bearing still their bloody gear.
From every side they came and sought the pit
with rustling cries . . .

[Tiresias prophesies how Odysseus must reconcile with Poseidon]

Go overland on foot, and take an oar,
until one day you come where men have lived
with meat unsalted, never known the sea,
nor seen seagoing ships, with crimson bows
and oars that fledge light hulls for dipping flight.
The spot will soon be plain to you; some passerby
will say, “What winnowing fan is that upon your shoulder?”
Halt, and plant your smooth oar in the turf
and make fair sacrifice to Lord Poseidon. . . 

                      Then a seaborne death
soft as this hand of mist will come upon you
when you are wearied out with rich old age,
your country folk in blessed peace around you.

[Next, Odysseus speaks with the shade of his mother, Antikleia (“before glory” or, in a more interesting interpretation, “against glory”)]

My child, how did you come here
beneath the fog and darkness

[She explains what killed her:]

                      . . . no true illness
wasting the body to undo the spirit;
only my loneliness for you, Odysseus,
for your kind heart and counsel, gentle Odysseus,
took my own life away.

                               I bit my lip,
rising perplexed, longing to embrace her,
and tried three times, putting my arms around her,
but she went sifting through my hands
. . . and wavering like a dream.


For the lecture I used only four lines of all this astonishing music (“then a seaborne death / soft as this hand of mist . . .”), but how could I resist posting all this dark beauty. It’s Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, except for

My child, how did you come here
beneath the fog and darkness

-- that’s where Lattimore is more musical.

Parenthetically, I also particularly admire the insight of these lines:

no true illness
wasting the body to undo the spirit

. . . physical affliction, chronic pain, chronic hunger (as in a concentration camp) -- these do not destroy only the body. Affliction has a terrible power to undermine the person's spirit. 


This becomes more interesting yet when Dante unfolds his heretical view of O's last voyage, sweeping away any such nonsense as waiting for a gentle death from the sea.  But I like the idea of a rich old age for Odysseus, so rich that finally it's more than he can bear. He dies of bliss.


Dante envisions a radically different ending.

from Canto 26, Eighth Circle: DECEITFUL COUNSELORS

As many as the fireflies that the farmer sees
when he rests on a hill and looks into the valley
(where he tills or gathers grapes or prunes his trees)

such multitude of flames I saw shine through
the gloom of the eighth abyss when I arrived
at the rim from which its floor comes into view.

. . . only those flames, forever passing by
were visible, ahead, to right, to left.
My Guide said, “There are souls within those flames;

each sinner shrouds himself in his own torment.”
(one bright flame is split in two, la fiamma cornuta, “horned flame”)
“Forever round this path
Ulysses and Diomede move in such dress,

united in pain as once they were in anger;
there they lament the ambush of the Horse
that was the door through which the noble seed

of the Romans issued from its holy source;
there they mourn for Achilles slain,
for whom sweet Deidamia weeps even in death;
there they recall the Palladium in their pain.”
. . .
(Virgil addresses the flame concealing Ulysses and Diomedes)

. . . . “O you two souls who pace together in one fire,
if I was worthy of you [s’io meritari di voi]
when I was alive, if I was worthy of you

even a little when I wrote high verse,
then stop and do not move, and let one of you tell
where, when lost, he went away to die.”

As if it fought the wind, the greater prong
of the ancient flame began to quiver and hum:
then moving its tip as if it were the tongue

that spoke, gave out a voice above the roar.
“When I left Circe,” it said, “who more than a year
detained me near Gaeta long before Aeneas

gave the place that name, not fondness
for my son, nor reverence for my old father,
nor the debt of love I owed Penelope,

could drive out of my mind
my longing to experience the far-flung world,
and all the human iniquities and worth.

So I set forth on the open sea
with a single ship and only those few souls
who stayed true when the rest deserted me.

As far as Morocco and as far as Spain
I saw both shores; and I saw Sardinia
and the other islands in the open main.

I and my men were slow and stiff with age
when we sailed into the narrow pass
where, warning all men back from further voyage,

the Pillars of Hercules rose upon our sight.
Already I had left Ceuta on my left hand;
Seville now sank behind me on my right.

Brothers, I said, who through a hundred thousand
perils at last with me have reached the West:
in that brief wakefulness that still to us remains,

let us experience the unpeopled world
that lies beyond the sun. 

Remember who you are:
you were not made to live like beasts,
but to pursue excellence and knowledge.’

[Considerate la vostra semenza:
Fatti no foste a viver come bruti,
Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.]

With this brief speech I made my crew
so eager for the voyage I could hardly
have held them back from it when I was through;

and turning our stern toward morning, our bow toward night,
we bore southwest out of the world of man;
we made wings of our oars for our mad flight.

That night we raised the other pole ahead
with all its stars, and ours [the North Star] so declined
it did not rise out of its ocean bed. [i.e. above the horizon = they cross the Equator]
Five times since we have dipped our bending oars

beyond the world, the light beneath the moon
had waxed and waned, when dead upon our course
we sighted, dark in space, a peak so tall

I doubted any man had seen the like.
Our cheers were hardly sounded, when a storm
broke hard upon us from the newfound land:

three times it whirled the ship, as it pleased Another.
Then the stern rose and the prow went down
until the sea closed up over us.”

translated by John Ciardi (slightly modified by Oriana)


Possible influence: Horace, Seventh Ode, speech by Teukros before leaving his homeland on a voyage of discovery: “nil desperandum” – “tomorrow we set out on the vast ocean.

Tennyson’s based his “Ulysses” more on Dante's subversive imagination than on Homer.


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle –
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me –
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads -you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. 

~ Alfred Tennyson, 1802-1892 (poem written in 1833, first published in 1842)


PRIMO LEVI (1919-1987)

born in Turin, 25 when he was taken to Auschwitz in Feb 1944, spent 11 months there.
1947 – first Italian publication. If This Is a Man was the title of the first English translation in 1959, later changed to Survival in Auschwitz. In 1959 the book was translated into German; in Israel the book wasn’t published until after Levi’s death.

Consider if this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.

        ~ Primo Levi, “Shema,” in Collected Poems

Primo Levi, like Ulysses, considers the question, WHAT IS A MAN?

"It is not at all an idle matter trying to define what a human being is."

What is it that makes a human being human? How can that quality of humanity be destroyed? How can it be recovered?

Reciting Dante in Auschwitz, Primo becomes very excited when he comes to the lines "You were not meant to live like brutes." But the very fact of reciting poetry in this dehumanizing heart of darkness, or remembering that poetry exists, has an uplifting effect. 


Forgive but do not forget.


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