Wednesday, February 11, 2009

funny, I don't remember that part of the Odyssey

So Ulysses/Odysseus is in hell, and I think we're all ok with that. According to Ciardi, Circle Eight: Bolgia Eight is for the Evil Counselors. Ciardi describes these as "men of gift who abused their genius, perverting it to wiles and stratagems" (Intro to Canto XXVI, p. 134). "Seeing them in Hell," Ciardi continues, "he [Dante] knows his must be another road: his way shall not be by deception."

Since Fiona's edition seems to say (confusingly enough) that no one's sure what sin is being punished in Bolgia Eight, I'll give you the rest of Ciardi's explanation:
Here the Evil Counselors move about endlessly, hidden from view inside great flames. Their sin was to abuse the gifts of the Almighty, to steal his virtues for low purposes. And as they stole from God in their lives and worked by hidden ways, so are they stolen from sight and hidden in the great flames which are their own guilty consciences. And as, in most instances at least, they sinned by glibness of tongue, so are the flames made into a fiery travesty of tongues.

Now. As for Ulysses. He and Diomede(s) share one "great flame which splits away/ into two great horns" (XXVI.52-3), " 'united in pain as once they were in wrath' " (57), as Virgil explains.

I don't see a problem with Diomede(s) being in hell, either, although for rather unfair reasons. I wrote pages and pages of thesis about what a d-bag he is in Troilus and Cressida, so that's my strongest impression of him, but of course everyone in that play is more or less unbearable; that's sort of the point. And since Dante's Diomede(s) predates Shakespeare's by a couple of centuries, it's obviously unfair to blame the former for the sins of the latter. But I still do a little.

I feel like Diomede(s) was a jerk in Chaucer, too, although it's been a while.

Anyway. Back to Ulysses.

The real surprise is not that he is in hell, but how he got there. Fiona mentioned in her post Monday that he died at sea, which is not how it's supposed to go -- as I recall, it is prophesied in the Odyssey that if he does all his sacrifices and everything right on his final, post-homecoming journey (where he must go deeply inland, "to a race of people who know nothing of the sea"), then he will die "a gentle, painless death, far from the sea...".

Dante tells a very, very different story.

Virgil's Ulysses seems to say that he never went home at all, after Troy. Or maybe he did.:
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 came and gave the place that name,
not fondness for my son, nor reverence
for my aged father, nor Penelope's claim

to the joys of love, could drive out of my mind
the lust to experience the far-flung world
and the failings and felicities of mankind.
I put out on the high and 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 of the open main." (XXVI.81-99)

Uh... what? I'm sorry, Dante, you've completely lost me. "When I left Circe," so like immediately, like Ulysses didn't even make a pit stop in Ithaca first? Or more like, "when I left Circe, I was full of wanderlust and all that stuff, so AFTER I stopped by Ithaca to kill all the suitors, THEN I went on another journey."

As far as I can tell, there is no way to tell which he means. And apparently the Hollander translation doesn't clarify that either.*

So leaving aside this little mystery, let's talk about Ulysses' death. He's on this voyage, whenever that took place, and, as Fiona mentioned, he encourages his crew to keep going even though it's clearly unwise to do so:
"With this brief exhortation 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 fool's flight.

That night we raised the other pole ahead
with all its stars, and ours had so declined
it did not rise out of its ocean bed.

Five times since we had 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 squall

broke hard upon our bow from the new land;
three times it sucked the ship and the sea about
as it pleased Another to order and command.

At the fourth, the poop rose and the bow went down
till the sea closed over us and the light was gone." (XXVI.112-31)

That's a whole lot of confusing, right there. And it doesn't get better, either. Here are a couple of Ciardi's (not very helpful) notes. For line 118, "we raised the other pole ahead," he offers,
i.e., They drove south across the equator, observed the southern stars, and found that the North Star had sunk below the horizon. The altitude of the North Star is the easiest approximation of latitude. Except for a small correction, it is directly overhead at the North Pole, shows an altitude of 45 degrees at North latitude 45, and is on the horizon at the equator. (p. 138)

Thanks for nothing, Ciardi. And here's the last note he gives for this passage, for line 124: "a peak: Purgatory. They sight it after five months of passage. According to Dante's geography, the Northern hemisphere is land and the Southern is all water except for the Mountain of Purgatory which rises above the surface at a point directly opposite Jerusalem."

So... Ulysses and his men... sailed to Purgatory, where their ship sank and they all died.

No, seriously. What?! Dante, did you even read the Cliff's Notes for the Odyssey? You didn't, did you. Oh, I see how it is. Your precious Virgil told you what happens, so you totally didn't even need to read it. You're gonna ace your Homer test, for sure.

Ciardi does have a note that sheds a little light on this, when he explains why Virgil speaks to Ulysses rather than allowing Dante to do so:
Dante knew no Greek, and these sinners might scorn him, first, because he spoke what to them would seem a barbarous tongue, and second, because as an Italian he would seem a descendant of Aeneas and the defeated Trojans. Virgil, on the other hand, appeal to them as a man of virtuous life (who therefore has a power over sin) and as a poet who celebrated their earthly fame. (Prof. MacAllister suggests another meaning as well: that Dante [and his world] had no direct knowledge of the Greeks, knowing their works through Latin intermediaries. Thus Virgil stood between Homer and Dante.) (p. 138, note to 72.)

"No direct knowledge of the Greeks." Why, you don't say.

*yo: so in your version
does it sound like ulysses never went home after the trojan war
or like he set out again?
because mine is very, very ambiguous
Enviado a la(s) 13:27 del martes
Fiona: "not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty toward my aged father, nor the love I owed penelope that would have made her glad, could overcome the fervor that was mine to gain experience of the world and learn about man's vices and his worth"
yo: sooooo
'cause mine says "when i left circe"
Fiona: "and so I set forth on the open deep with but a single ship, with that handful of shipmates who had not deserted me"
yo: but it doesn't say anything
Fiona: dante knows SHIT about ulysses
yo: about whether or not
he want back to ithaca first
so yours is ambiguous too, yeah?
Fiona: oh yeah I have that part too
about circe
but it's like
he totally could have gone home
yo: or not
Fiona: and then his tenderness and whatever couldn't KEEP him there
Fiona: I hate you dante
shipmates that had not deserted him
welll they're all DEAD
yo: haha
Fiona: you should copy this conversation and put it on the blog
yo: ok

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