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Dante Notes

...Coscienza fusca 

o de la propria o de l'altrui vergogna

pur sentirà la tua parola brusca.

Ma nondimen, rimossa ogni menzogna,

tutta tua vision fa manifesta;

e lascia pur grattar dov'è la rogna.

Ché se la voce tua sarà molesta

nel primo gusto, vital nutrimento

lascerà poi, quando sarà digesta.


The darkened conscience
either of one's own or of another's shame
shall simply hear your word as stinging.
But nonetheless, having removed every conceit,
make your whole vision manifest;
and leave them simply scratching upon the scabies.
For if your voice will be annoying
as they first taste it, a vital nutrient
it shall leave thereafter, when it will be digested.
                                                        (Paradiso XVII.124-132; boldface added)

The words quoted above are placed by Dante in his ancestor Cacciaguida's mouth to point back prophetically to Dante's own words.  Key to Cacciaguida's prophecy is the problem of menzogna as poetic conceit.  Here, in Paradiso XVII.127, the term menzogna is mentioned for the last time.  The first time, it had appeared in Inferno XVI.123, uttered by Dante's Virgil in response to Dante's appeal to caution in the company of the politically-minded who see the depths of our thoughts (entro i pensier miran--120 after 39):

He said to me: «Promptly shall come above
that which I attend and which your own thought dreams of;
promptly it behooves it to uncover itself to your sight».
Always to that true thing that has the facade of conceit
must man close his lips as long as he can,
since though without fault it brings shame...
                                                                                                   (Inferno XVI.121-126; boldface added)

The "shame" or vergogna that "master" (maestro) Virgil refers to has a positive function, highlighted in Canto XVII.89, where it serves as incentive to make his servant (servo) be strong (forte).  The terms maestro and servo (Latin: magister and servus) qualify the relation between Virgil and Dante, but more importantly the relation, being poetic, qualifies the "deep" sense of political hierarchies.  In a poetic context, "shame" has the positive function intimated already in Inferno III.126, where "divine justice" (divina giustizia) is welcomed as occasion "for fear to turn itself into desire" (sì che la tema si volve in disio).  

To uncover poetic secrets before "the darkened conscience" (coscienza fusca) of those who see merely "works" (ovra), being blind to thoughts themselves (XVI.119-120), is to bring the false appearance of shamefulness or sin upon oneself (compare 108 and I.42).  But true poetic things (vera, or parole vere) are disclosed as masks before those who, like Virgil, see with the eye of the mind.  These philosophical poets are pleased by the beautiful sound of true lies flowing as a circular stream (XIX.121-123 after IV.106-108) insofar as it "defends" faultless thought or the noble reputation of philosophers from its misological detractors. 

In Inferno XVI.121-123, Virgil is intimating the emergence of Dante as full-fledged philosophical poet, but the "master" is also intimating the "true lies" that Cacciaguida discloses before Dante's "sight" (viso) in Paradiso XVII.  On Dante's poetic ascent, the appearance of "shamefulness" is redeemed regardless of the opinion of those who, seeing only the "short" sense of words (cf. Inferno XVII.40), regard lies unqualifiedly as sinful.  These opinion-holders shall remain indignated by the words of philosophical poets as long as their "master" shall be, not a poet of Virgil's caliber, but the "she-wolf" we encounter in Inferno I.  Dante rises above her reach, leaving behind himself the "emaciated" beast (I.50) empty handed.  The "filthy and dissolute maid" (sozza e scapigliata fante) is left behind scratching herself with her "shit-filled nails" (unghie merdose--XVIII.130-131), in the company of all of her "servants." Cacciaguida's words come to no surprise, then, when in Paradiso XVII, he invites a Dante who, through Purgatorio, has become his own master, to "leave them simply scratching upon the scabies."

© 2013 by M. A. Andreacchio. All rights reserved