“Ulysses, Geryon and the Aeronautics of Narrative Transition”
What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed
when he hid himself among women, though puzling
Questions are not beyond all conjecture.
(Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Burial)
The sin of man is that he seeks to make himself God.
(Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man)
Io mi credea del tutto esser partito
da queste nostre rime, messer Cino,
che si conviene omai altro cammino
a la mia nave piu lungi dal lito
(Dante to Cino da Pistoia)
Su per la costa, Amor, de l’alto monte,
drieto a lo stil del nostro ragionare
or chi potra montare,
poi che son rotte l’ale d’ogni ingegno?
(Cino da Pistoia on Dante’s death)
ULYSSES IS AS fundamental to the Commedia as the voyage theme that he incarnates and dramatizes, as irrepressible as the trope whose most living embodiment within the poem he is. He is linked to the poem’s metaphorization of desire as flight, a metaphor whose origin is the celebrated verse from Ulysses’ oration, in which the adventurer indicates the extent of the enthusiasm he had solicited from his aged crew by saying “de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo” (“of our oars we made wings for the mad flight” [Inf.26.125]).  Ulysses and his surrogates, other failed flyers like Phaeton and Icarus, are thus connected to one of the Commedia‘s most basic metaphorical assumptions: if we desire sufficiently, we fly. In other words, if we desire sufficiently, our quest takes on wings; if we desire sufficiently, we vault all obstacles, we cross all boundaries (perhaps we even trans-gress, vaulting in a varco folle). Thus the passage in the Purgatorio in which the narrator overtly establishes the metaphorical identity between desire and flight, saying that in order to climb the steep grade of lower purgatory one needs to fly with the wings of desire: “ma qui convien ch’om voli; / dico con l’ale snelle e con le piume / del gran disio” (“but here a man must fly–I mean with the slender wings and with the feathers of great desire” [Purg. 4.27-29]). The pilgrim flies on the “piume del gran disio,” and the saturation of the Commedia with flight imagery–Ulyssean flight imagery–is due to the importance of desire as the impulse that governs all questing, all voyaging, all coming to know. Desire and the search for understanding are intimately linked, indeed ultimately one: desire is spiritual motion, “disire e moto spiritale.” This equivalence, desire = spiritual motion, crucially recasts in the metaphorical language of voyage and pilgrimage the Aristotelian precept that stands on the Convivio’s threshold, where we already find articulated the link between desiderio and sapere: “tutti li uomini naturalmente desiderano di sapere” (“all men naturally desire to know” [Conv. 1.1.1]). The treatise’s abstract conceptual pairing returns in the Commedia‘s metaphorical copulae: the winged oars, the plumage of great desire. Desire– Ulyssean arDoré–is the motor propelling all voyage: both right voyages, conversions, and those that, like Ulysses’ own, tend toward the left, the “lato mancino” (Inf. 26.126). Readings of Dante’s Ulysses thus focus on his desires as appropriate or transgressive, as well as on the way his desires reflect those of the poem’s other voyager, Dante himself.
Dante criticism has been divided on the subject of Ulysses essentially since its inception. Among the early commentators, Buti takes a moralizing position critical of the Homeric hero, while Benvenuto sees him as exciting Dante’s admiration.  We could sketch the positions of various modem critics around the same polarity: there is a pro-Ulysses group, spearheaded by Fubini, who maintains that Dante feels only admiration for the folle volo, the desire for knowledge it represents, and the oration that justifies it; and there is a less unified group that emphasizes the Greek hero’s sinfulness and seeks to determine the primary cause for his infernal abode (rendered less clear by the poet’s avoidance of the eighth bolgia’s label until the end of his colloquy with Guido da Montefeltro in the next canto). This second group could be divided into those who see the folle volo itself as the chief of Ulysses’ sins, and those who concentrate instead on the sin of fraudulent counsel as described by Guido and the hero’s rhetorical deceitfulness as manifested in the orazion picciola.  Most influential in the first category has been the position of Nardi, who argues that Dante’s Ulysses is a new Adam, a new Lucifer, and that his sin is precisely Adam’s, namely “il trapassar del segno.” Ulysses is thus a transgressor, whose pride incites him to seek a knowledge that is beyond the limits set for man by God, in the same way that Adam’s pride drove him to a similar transgression, also in pursuit of a knowledge that would make him Godlike. Ulysses rebels against the limits marked by the pillars of Hercules, and his rebellion is akin to that of Lucifer and the rebel angels. To account for Ulysses’ heroic stature within the poem, Nardi posits a split within Dante himself, whereby the poet is moved by what the theologian condemns.  Nardi’s reading has much in common with that of an earlier critic, Luigi Valli, who also considered Ulysses deeply embedded within the symbolism of the Commedia and representative of the perilous pride that besets mankind. Valli too sees the sin of Dante’s Ulysses as akin to Adam’s eating of the tree of knowledge, as a trapassar del segno analogous to the original sin. The key difference between the two is that Valli relates the figure of Ulysses to Dante’s sense of a peril within himself, rather than arguing for an unconsciously divided Dante; indeed, Valli goes so far as to invoke the Convivio as an example of Dante’s own propensities toward intellectual pride, thus anticipating the positions of such critics as Freccero, Thompson, and Corti. 
As is frequently the case in Dante criticism, the Ulysses querelle abounds in ironies, which in this instance are centered on the much bandied charge of romantic reading. Fubini and Sapegno attempt to discredit Nardi by charging him with imposing an anachronistically Promethean shape onto Dante’s character, with unwittingly falling into a romantic trap, the nonmedieval pitfall of glorifying the quest for knowledge and the rebellious hero who pursues it.  By invoking antiromanticism in the name of a purer medievalism, critics who are at pains to demonstrate that Ulysses is not a typical sinner, that he is instead someone for whom Dante feels a special admiration, draw very near to those who originally were at the furthest remove from them on the ideological spectrum, namely the sternest moralists: those, like Anthony Cassell, who deny any special importance to Ulysses at all.  For, if at one extreme we place those who argue that Dante feels only admiration for Ulysses’ voyage and that it has nothing whatever to do with his damnation (and here the hero’s crimes as listed by Vergil and the issue of the nature of this bolgia and Ulysses’ relation to Guido are brought into play), since his shipwreck cannot be considered a punishment nor the pillars of Hercules to be limits, at the other extreme we find those who urge us not to be taken in by the hero’s rhetoric, who tell us that the poet feels nothing but scorn for his creature and that to see anything else at work in the canto is to read it through romantic, DeSanctisian eyes. Ironically, both these extreme positions use an alleged romanticism as their foil: the pro-Ulysseans by insisting that to make the folle volo into a sin is to romanticize it, and the moralists by claiming that to see anything special or positive about the hero is to invest him with an anachronistic romantic glamour. These extreme readings have yet more in common: both rob the episode of its tension and deflate it of its energy, on the one hand by making the fact that Ulysses is in hell irrelevant, and on the other by denying that this particular sinner means more to the poem than do his companions. Fubini’s simple admiration fails to deal with the fact that Dante places Ulysses in hell; Cassell’s simple condemnation fails to take into account the structural and thematic significance that the Greek hero bears for the whole poem.
In a further irony, it should be noted that Nardi and Fubini, despite their critical wrangling, share a major conviction, to wit that Ulysses cannot be entirely defined by the bolgia in which we find him, that he is a thematic pillar of the poem who cannot be reduced but must be understood in his complex integrity. A key sign of Ulysses’ irreducibility, of the fact that he is not just any sinner in Malebolge, is his sustained presence in the poem: he is the only single-episode sinner–with the exception of Nimrod, whom I consider an echoing talisman of overweening pride in human endeavor – to be named in each canticle. The fact that Ulysses has been invested with a significance that goes beyond one bolgia, or even one cantica, is thus a matter of record, not of impressionistic interpretation: if, to the unique number of episodes in which he is referred to by name (Inferno 26, Purgatorio 19, Paradiso 27), we add the many instances in which he is invoked– through surrogate figures like Phaeton and Icarus; through semantic tags like folle, that Dante has taken care to associate with him; and, most encompassingly, through Ulyssean flight imagery–our sense of his textual weight is confirmed.  The many readers who have glorified Ulysses (like those who have glorified Francesca , Farinata , Brunetto, an d Ugolino) were privileging a figure who is indeed privileged by the poet, not morally or eschatologically but textually and poetically. Rather than argue against the testimony of centuries of readers who tell us that they react more passionately to this particular narrative, it seems more profitable to ask why the poet confers on some of his characters a greater textual resonance, a more inviolate ability to seduce. Dante deliberately manipulates the level of his poem’s textual tension by making it more difficult not to react affectively to some sinners than to others. Moreover, such sinners invariably signify in a “larger,” more metaphoric mode than their fellows (and are frequently coordinated in a textual variatio with souls who signify more simply and literally, as Francesca with Ciacco and Ulysses with Guido): not simply lust, in Francesca’s case, but an in malo exploration of the poem’s basic premises–the possibility of transcendence through love and the salvific mission of the word; not simply fraudulent counsel, in Ulysses’ case, but the seductive dangers of disobedience and transgression, and a meditation on pride as the sin most capable of bringing the life-voyage to disaster. The textual privileging of these sinners is, accordingly, a way of underlining them, of pointing to the significance they bear–and that love and pride bear–for life and for the Commedia as a whole. This notion of textual privileging could be seen, moreover, as a reformulation of Croce’s fundamental insight. There are indeed narrative highs and lows in the Commedia, but since these are a function of narrative itself–one could not have the one without the other–it makes little sense to accord value as “poesia” and “non poesia” to what is all part of the same narrative continuum. 
In my opinion, then, the folle volo cannot be overlooked in an assessment of Ulysses’ role within the poem, and to this extent I follow Nardi, whose reading echoes those of Dante’s contemporaries. Dante’s Adam explains that his banishment was caused by his overreaching, a trespass the poem has long coded as Ulyssean: “non il gustar del legno / fu per se la cagion di tanto essilio, / ma solamente il trapassar del segno” (“the tasting of the tree was not in itself the cause of so long an exile, but solely the going beyond the bound” [Par. 26.115-17]). Boccaccio echoes the Adamic “trapassar del segno” in his characterization of the Greek hero, who “per voler veder trapasso il segno / dal qual nessun pote mai in qua reddire” (“in his desire to see went beyond the bound from which no one has ever been able to return” [Amorosa visione, redaction A, 27.86-87]). For Petrarch, too, Ulysses “desio del mondo veder troppo” (“desired to see too much of the world” [Triumphus fame 2.18]). Far from being anachronistic, as claimed by Fubini, Nardi is reviving a contemporary insight when he associates Ulysses with Adam.  I disagree, however, with Nardi’s formulation of an unconsciously divided poet, believing instead that Ulysses reflects Dante’s conscious concern for himself. The perception of a profound autobiographical alignment between the poet and his creation seems also to have early roots; Umberto Bosco shows that Dante’s intransigence in not accepting Florentine terms for repatriation despite the suffering of his family elicited contrasting reactions from Boccaccio, who defended him, and Petrarch, whose criticism implicitly brands him a Ulysses.  In sum, then, the Dante who is implicated in the figure of Ulysses is not solely the Dante of the Convivio, a Dante of the past, but also the Dante of the Commedia. By the Dante of the Commedia, I refer not to the pilgrim, who, as many studies have shown, is related to Ulysses as an inverse type, his negative double.  I refer rather to the poet, who has embarked on a voyage whose Ulyssean component he recognizes, fears, and never fully overcomes.
Ulysses is the lightning rod Dante places in his poem to attract and defuse his own consciousness of the presumption involved in anointing oneself God’s scribe. In other words, Ulysses documents Dante’s self-awareness: Dante knows that, in constructing a system whose fiction is that it is not fictional, he has given himself a license to write the world, to play God unchecked. In the “Amor mi spira” passage of Purgatorio 24, Dante establishes a conduit between himself and Love, transcendent authority and poetic dictator, which is precisely analogous to the conduit established in Paradiso 10 between himself and God, also a poetic dictator, the dittatore of “quella materia ond’io son fatto scriba” (“that matter of which I am made the scribe”  ). As Amor’s inspiration gives the poet the vantage to assess the history of the love lyric, so his scribal relation to God–also Amor, indeed “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” (“the love that moves the sun and the other stars” [Par. 33.145])–permits an assessment of universal history. The vantage of scriba Dei confers a breathtaking advantage. From it the poet is able to claim knowledge of the truth not only with respect to the historical moment but also sub specie aeternitatis, for to know what happens after death, in the context of the Christian afterlife, is to know what every action really accomplished, what every thought really contributed, what every thing, in short, really signifies. “Vo significando” is no exaggeration in this context. I cannot, as none of us can, speak authoritatively regarding what Dante believed he saw; in my opinion, he believed that he was inspired by God with a true vision. However, although I believe that he believed, I do not think Dante was an unconscious visionary; on the contrary I think he was fully aware–and afraid–of the implications that follow from believing that what one writes is true. The Ulyssean component of the poem is thus related to the basic representational impresa of the Commedia, which involves transgressing the boundary between life and death: “che non e impresa da pigliare a gabbo / discriver fondo a tutto l’universo” (“for it is not an enterprise to take in jest, to describe the bottom of all the universe” [Inf. 32.74]). The Ulysses theme, as Dante uses it, is in fact intimately related to the practical exigencies of writing the Commedia, if by practical we refer to the actual praxis of the poet in the construction and composition of a text that claims to tell truth.
The Ulysses theme, if looked at from the angle of the poet rather than the pilgrim, forces us to challenge the theological grid with which we read the Commedia (following interpretative guidelines suggested by the text itself), whereby whatever happens in hell is “bad,” problematic, and whatever happens in heaven is “good,” problem-free. As noted in the first chapter, this formulation may be accurate with respect to the text’s content, its plot, but it need not be accurate with respect to its form. Critics who have posited the Ulyssean tendencies of the poet have generally been led by the theological grid to a reading that confuses what the poet says he is doing with what he has actually done, forgetting that how Dante chooses to portray the experience of writing the Commedia–how the poet chooses to describe being a poet–is one thing, while the actual experience of being the Commedia‘s author, to the extent that it can be reconstructed from the evidence of the poem, is another. Thus, it has been argued that Dante-poet’s Ulyssean tendencies are confronted in the Inferno and resolved before we reach the other canticles: Peter Hawkins claims that the Ulyssean virtuosity displayed in the bolgia of the thieves is corrected later in the poem; Karla Taylor, too, while going further than Hawkins in recognizing the hubris that underlies the humility of the terrace of pride, simply postpones the venue of correction, moving it from Purgatorio to Paradiso.  Giuliana Carugati, who insists on the poet as a Ulyssean maker of menzogna, nonetheless believes that the mendacious texture of Dante’s poetic language is progressively frayed as he approaches the redemptive silence of Paradiso.  The critical assumptions that back up these readings are stated straightforwardly by James T. Chiampi: “Because it is the key to the poem’s immanent typology, the Paradiso is to the Inferno as criticism is to poetry. The Paradiso is the very center of the poem’s structure of values because it is the locus of the proper object of representation, the good.” Once again, form and content have been conflated, and we have forgotten that a “good” object of representation does not guarantee a “good” representation. As Marguerite Mills Chiarenza puts it in her salutary reminder: “In the Inferno and the Purgatorio the poet’s struggle is secondary to the pilgrim’s and the danger is essentially in the voyage. In the Paradiso it is the poet who struggles while the pilgrim is safe.”
The poetic humility of which the later canticles tell cannot simply be taken at face value. Such a procedure constitutes an extrapolation from the content–the declared humility that overwhelms both pilgrim and poet in paradise–to a conclusion for which there is no textual basis, namely that Dante-poet actually is more humble in writing Paradiso. I see no signs of this oft-imputed humility; indeed, the only real way to have practiced humility in writing Paradiso would have been not to write it. By the same token, the silence that the Paradiso will eventually attain cannot be factored in before it occurs, which is not until the entire Paradiso–not incidentally, the longest of the three canticles–has been written. The real story of the Paradiso is in the words that are written, not in the incapacity to find such words of which its author repeatedly writes. Neither Carugati’s notion of a mystical passage through linguistic fraudulence to silence, nor Jeremy Tambling’s Derridean paraphrasing of Dante’s own ineffability topoi, whereby Paradiso has “given up the possibility of literal referentiality,” deal with the reality of Dante’s struggle with referentiality in the third canticle, where rather than surrendering at the outset he seeks repeatedly to wed the “essemplo” to the “essemplare.” Dante himself tells us that he cannot represent his vision; rather than paraphrase him, it seems more worthwhile to try to understand how Dante did what he said could not be done, how he vaults the limits that he was the first to declare.
Nor does the intractable problem of self-legitimization, self-investiture, disappear in the Paradiso: again, Dante is aware of a fact that we tend to forget, namely that he is writing what Bonagiunta says, what Beatrice says, what Cacciaguida says, what St. Peter says. Far from diminishing as the pilgrim draws nearer to his goal, the poet’s problems become ever more acute: if the pilgrim learns to be not like Ulysses; the poet is conscious of having to be ever more like him. The Paradiso, if it is to exist at all, cannot fail to be transgressive; its poet cannot fail to be a Ulysses, since only a trapassar del segno will be able to render the experience of trasumanar. In a context where “significar per verba / non si poria” (“signifying through words cannot be done” [Par. 1 .70-71 ] ), and where “l’essemplo / e l’essemplare non vanno d’un modo” (“the model and the copy do not match” [Par. 28.5556]), a representational process that is avowedly based on the principles of mimesis, on the seamless match of “essemplo” and “essemplare,” becomes ever more arduous. In such a context signs must be trespassed, since only a trespass of the sign can render an experience for which no signs are sufficient. If the poet cannot express a thousandth part of the truth of Beatrice’s smile (“al millesmo del vero / non si verria, cantando il santo riso” [Par. 23.58-59]), his only solution is a going beyond the sign, the poetic equivalent of the varcare (passing beyond, crossing over) associated with Ulysses and his mad flight: “il varco / folle d’Ulisse” (Par. 27.82-83). And so the poem is forced to jump (“convien saltar lo sacrato poema”)–saltare being a kind of homely “comedic” version of varcare–as the narrator announces the need to trespass the normative linearity of narrative signifying in the Ulyssean outburst of Paradiso 23:
e cosi, figurando il paradiso,
convien saltar lo sacrato poema,
come chi trova suo cammin riciso.
Ma chi pensasse il ponderoso tema
e l’omero mortal che se ne carca,
nol biasmerebbe se sott’esso trema:
non e pareggio da picciola barca
quel che fendendo va l’ardita prora,
ne da nocchier ch’a se medesmo parca.
And so, figuring paradise, the sacred poem is forced to jump, like one who finds his path cut off. But he who thinks of the ponderous theme and the mortal shoulder that is burdened with it will not blame it for trembling beneath the load; it is not a crossing for a little boat, this which my bold prow now cleaves, nor for a helmsman who would spare himself.
The Paradiso‘s Ulyssean materia first manifests itself in the great address to the reader that stands at the canticle’s threshold, where Dante (putting a new spin on the rhetoric of persuasion) challenges us to follow him by telling us that we are not up to the task:
O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,
tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, che forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.
L’acqua ch’io prendo gia mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse.
Voialtri pochi che drizzaste il collo
per tempo al pan de li angeli, del quale
vivesi qui ma non sen vien satollo,
metter potete ben per l’alto sale
vostro navigio, servando mio solco
dinanzi a l’acqua che ritorna equale.
Que’ gloriosi che passaro al Colco
non s’ammiraron come voi farete
, quando Iason vider fatto bifolco.
O you that are in little boats, desiring to hear, having followed behind my ship that singing leaps, turn back to see again your shores; don’t set out for the deep lest, perhaps, losing me, you find yourselves astray. The water that I draw has never yet been coursed; Minerva breathes and Apollo guides me, and nine [new] Muses show me the Bears. You other few who straightened your necks in time for the bread of the angels (on which you live here without ever growing sated), you may indeed set your course for the high sea, keeping to my wake ahead of the water that always comes back equal. Those glorious ones who crossed to Colchis were not as amazed as you will be, when they saw Jason turned ploughman. (Par. 2.1-18)
Here Ulyssean imagery is fused around a specific mythological figure, Jason, whose metamorphosis into a ploughman will cause his crew no greater amazement than that for which the reader of the Paradiso is destined; there is an implicit analogy between Jason, a sailor, and the poet, also a sailor on his “legno che cantando varca,” whose account will awaken wonder in us. Jason returns in the poem’s last canto, where the compound of oblivion and remembered wonder experienced by the pilgrim at his momentary insight into the universal form of creation is rendered by analogy with Neptune, who was similarly struck with wonder at the sight of the first ship passing overhead: “Un punto solo m’e maggior letargo / che venticinque secoli a la ‘mpresa / che fe Nettuno ammirar l’ombra d’Argon (“A single moment is to me greater oblivion than are twenty-five centuries to the enterprise that made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo” [Par. 33.94-96]). Both pilgrim and god experience an astounding vision–an ultimately new thing, as indeed the Argo is a literal cosa nova— which is irretrievable but whose impress remains indelibly: the pilgrim’s amazement at what he perceives about the “great sea of being” (“gran mar de l’essere” [Par. 1.113]), the metaphorical waters of the cosmos, finds its counterpart in Neptune’s amazement at seeing the uncharted waters over his head shadowed for the first time by a ship. Here too then, as in the earlier address to the reader, although the reference is to the pilgrim’s experience, which is compared to Neptune’s, it is the poet’s ability to recount that experience, to create the “legno che cantando varca” that will rescue it from oblivion, that is at stake. If the pilgrim is like Neptune (by virtue of the trasumanar that has made him a sea god, made him, like Glaucus, a lesser Neptune), then the poet is like Jason, a Ulysses bent on his most daring impresa. 
The Ulysses theme enters the Commedia in its first verse, in the word cammino, and more pointedly in its first simile, in which the pilgrim compares himself to one who (unlike Dante’s Ulysses) emerges from dangerous waters, “del pelago a la riva” (“from the deep to the shore” [Inf. 1.23]) and turns to look at what he has escaped: “si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo / che non lascio gia mai persona viva” (“he turned back to look at the pass that never yet let any go alive” [26-27]). The beginnings of a contrastive Ulyssean lexicon are here established: from “pelago” to “passo,” which will be given its Ulyssean twist in canto 2 when Dante asks his guide to ascertain his courage before entrusting him to the “alto passo” (12), thus anticipating the “alto passo” (Inf. 26.132) that leads to Ulysses’ death. It is the task of Infemo 2 to show us, in retrospect, that the pilgrim is not Ulysses, that his mpresa and Ulysses’–their respective alti passi–are related as inverse types. Recapitulating what is by now critical dogma, the pilgrim is an anti-Ulysses, whose voyage is charted in great part by a counter-Ulyssean emulation: “se del venire io m’abbandono, / temo che la venuta non sia folle” (“if I yield and come, I fear that my coming may be mad” [Inf. 2.34-35]). He is afraid of abandoning himself to this voyage, as he had in the past abandoned the true path (“che la verace via abbandonai”[Inf. 1.12]), and as Phaeton abandoned the chariot reins that served to keep his horses on the straight way (“abbandono li freni” [Inf. 17.107]). All this fear, which it is the agenda of Inferno 2 to defuse, keeps us focused on the difference between the self-willed adventurer and the pilgrim touched by grace, but it should also alert us to the poet’s awareness of his potentially Ulyssean trespasses: if there were no such potential, there would be no need of a Ulyssean agenda to defuse it, no need for the poet to stage the pilgrim’s momentary disconversion, his fear that he is not Aeneas or St. Paul. Indeed, the pilgrim’s concern that “Io non Enea, io non Paulo sono” (Inf. 2.32) is a supreme example of the double bind in which Dante is placed as the guarantor of his own prophetic status: the very act by which the pilgrim demonstrates humility serves the poet as a vehicle for recording his visionary models and for telling us, essentially, that “Io si Enea, io si Paulo sono.” Thus, the poet’s voyage runs not counter to Ulysses’ but parallel to it: Ulysses persuades his tired old men to pass the markers set by Hercules, “dov’ Ercule segno li suoi riguardi” (Inf. 26.108); Dante persuades us to pass the markers set by death. Both are linguistic transgressions, grounded in the “trespass of the sign”: “il trapassar del segno” hearkens back to the Ulysses episode, where we find not only segnare but also an injunction containing oltre (Hercules places his markers “accio che l’uom piu oltre non si metta” [“so that man should not pass beyond” (109)]), a term that works throughout the Commedia as the adverbial correlative of trapassare.
In sum, then, the Ulyssean component of the poem is ultimately related to the impresa of the Commedia itself, to the poet’s transgressing of the boundary between life and death, between God and man. The Ulysses episode is not unique in reflecting Dante’s awareness of the dangers of his position: such awareness informs the canto of the false prophets, for instance, which is governed by a need to disavow any connection with what Dante knows he could be considered. The diviners also seek to cross the boundary between divine and human prerogatives; their attempt to read the future in God’s “magno volume” (Par. 15.50) is an attempt to reach a vantage from which they, like God, “Colui che mai non vide cosa nova,” will never see a new thing. And so, these sinners, who would have obliterated by foretelling all the new things before they occurred, whose attitude of conquest toward life’s manifold cose nove is like Ulysses’ toward the “nova terra” (Inf. 26.137) he burns to reach, are reduced to being one more instance of the new on the poet’s narrative path: “Di nova pena mi conven far versi” (Inf. 20.1). But most important from this perspective is Ulysses, most important because the poet makes him so, investing him not only with the unforgettable language of Inferno 26 but making his name a hrmeneutic lodestone of the Commedia, associating it with the voyage metaphor that keeps the Ulyssean thematic alive even in the hero’s absence. Ulysses is designed as a recurring presence because the issue of the trapassar del segno of Adam’s sin conceived not literally as the eating of the tree but metaphorically as a transgression, is one that Dante cannot discount. It is an issue that does not belong safely to the past, like the Convivio and his excessive adoration of Lady Philosophy. No matter how orthodox his theology (and it is not so orthodox), no matter how fervently Dante believes in and claims the status of true prophet, of directly inspired poet, of scriba Dei, the very fiber of the Commedia consists of a going beyond. Thus Ulysses dies, over and over again, for Dante’s sins.
The locus classicus for textual self-awareness in the Commedia is the passage in Inferno 16 where the poet announces the arrival of Geryon, a monster derived from classical mythology whose patently fictional characteristics Dante first heightens and then uses as the stake on which to gamble the veracity of his poem:
Sempre a quel ver c’ha faccia di menzogna
de’ I’uom chiuder le labbra fin ch’el puote,
pero che sanza colpa la vergogna;
ma qui tacer nol posso; e per le note
di questa comedia, lettor, ti giuro,
s’elle non sien di lunga grazia vote,
ch’i’ vidi per quell’aere grosso e scuro
venir notando una figura in suso,
maravigliosa ad ogne cor sicuro
To that truth which has the face of a lie a man should always close his lips as long as he can, since without fault it brings him shame, but here I cannot be silent; and by the notes of this comedy, reader, I swear to you– so may they not be empty of long grace–that I saw through that dense and dark air a figure come swimming upward, a cause for marvel to even the most secure of hearts
Keeping in mind that “narrative verisimilitude tends to flaunt rather than mask its fictitious nature,” and that there is a “constant coincidence between textual features declaring the fictionality of a story and a reassertion of the truth of that story,”I propose that Geryon serves as an outrageously paradoxical authenticating device: one that, by being so overtly inauthentic–so literally a figure for inauthenticity, a figure for “fraud”– confronts and attempts to defuse the belatedness or inauthenticity to which the need for an authenticating device necessarily testifies. Geryon also serves as the poem’s very baptismal font: this is the passage in which Dante first anoints his poem a comedia, using a term that he will contrast to tragedia later in the Inferno. In the Paradiso this same term will be implicitly redefined a sacrato poema, indeed a teodia. Without attempting to reproduce the detail of my earlier argumentation on this subject, I will simply note that the poet achieves his redefinition of the term comedia by contextualizing it vis-a-vis tragedia in ways that align comedia (Dante) with truth, and tragedia (Vergil) with falsehood, menzogna. Key to this process of redefinition and to the significance with which the poet intends to endow his “new” genre–the comedia/teodia for which he has invented both a new lifebased form and a new truth-based content–is the phrase used to designate the act of representing Geryon: the discourse that undertakes to represent that incredible beast is a “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna,” a “truth that has the face of a lie.” In other words, although a comedia may at times, as when representing Geryon, have the “face of a lie”–give the appearance of lying– it is intractably always truth: “VER c’ha faccia di menzogna.” By explicitly confronting the inauthenticity inherent in all narrative, Dante attempts to neutralize it with respect to his own narrative truth claims.
The Geryon episode is fundamental to the Commedia‘s poetics, which is a poetics of realism, with its concomitant surrealism, not a poetics of naturalism. It establishes a precedent that has important repercussions for the rest of the poem: the least credible (i.e., least naturalistic) of Dante’s representations will be supported by the most unyielding and overt of authorial interventions. This is the poetics of the “mira vera,” true marvels, to use the expression Dante coins in his second eclogue for another encounter with a magically heightened reality, in this case a miraculous flute that produces not sounds but sung words. Here Dante, personified as the aged Tityrus, receives the young Melibeus, who plays him Mopsus’s (Giovanni del Virgilio’s) new eclogue on his flute. The wonder is that, when Melibeus lifts the instrument to his lips, it sings Mopsus’s opening verse; describing this miracle of the singing flute, the narrator inserts the phrase, “I tell of marvels, but they are nonetheless true” (“mira loquar, sed vera tamen” [4.40]). The poetics of the incredible and nonetheless true–“Io diro cosa incredibile e vera” says Cacciaguida in Par. 16.124–is the poetics of the “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna.” The oxymoronic formulations–“mira vera,” “incredibile e vera”–demonstrate the poet’s awareness of his own intransigence and correspond precisely to the equally oxymoronic juxtaposition of “maravigliosa” (“mira”) with “io vidi” (“vera”) in the Geryon episode. Far from giving quarter, backing off when the materia being represented is too “maravigliosa” to be credible, Dante raises the ante by using such moments to underscore his poem’s veracity, its status as historical scribal record of what he saw. Thus, just as in the Geryon episode Dante weds “maravigliosa” with “vidi,” thereby closing off all escape routes to himself and his reader by insisting that he actually sees something that he acknowledges is “maravigliosa”– fantastic, incredible–so, faced with the equally fantastic sight of the thieves’ metamorphoses, the poet opts for another bold frontal attack on the reader’s credulity, again arming himself with the verb vedere:. “Se tu se’ or, lettore, a creder lento / cio ch’io diro, non sara maraviglia, / che io che ‘l vidi, a pena il mi consento” (“If you are now, reader, slow to believe what I will say, it is no wonder, since I who saw it hardly consent to it myself” [Inf. 25.46-48]). Similarly, in another of the Inferno’s moments of greatest maraviglia, as the narrator sets out to represent the headless Bertran de Born, he reapplies the Geryon principle, once again challenging the reader to disbelieve him:
Ma io rimasi a riguardar lo stuolo,
e vidi cosa ch’io avrei paura,
sanza piu prova, di contarla solo;
se non che coscienza m’assicura,
la buona compagnia che l’uom francheggia
sotto l’asbergo del sentirsi pura.
Io vidi certo, e ancor Par ch’io l veggia,
un busto sanza capo…
But I remained to look over the troop, and I saw a thing that I would be afraid even to recount without more proof, except that my conscience–the good companion that gives a man courage under the hauberk of feeling itself pure–reassures me. I certainly saw, and still seem to see, a trunk without a head…
Dante’s strategy is bold, but it is also logical. By underlining what is apparently least verisimilar in his representation, and by letting us know that he fully shares our assessment regarding this material’s lack of verisimilitude, which he does by posing as reluctant to represent it lest we lose confidence in him, the narrator secures our confidence for the rest of his story. Why is the plight of the lustful or the gluttonous any more verisimilar, or any more credible, than the plight of the thieves or the schismatics? Is being blown for all eternity by an infernal wind or pelted by filthy rain really more verisimilar than exchanging shapes with a serpent or carrying one’s head in one’s hand? By urging us to identify heightened drama with decreased verisimilitude and credibility, Dante is subtly encouraging us to accept his text’s basic fictions and assumptions: sodomites dancing in a circle under a pouring rain of fire or usurers sitting on the edge of an abyss with purses around their necks (to mention just the groups of sinners who bracket Geryon’s arrival) are acceptable, but flying monsters are not and therefore require the author’s direct intervention. In this way the poet becomes the arbiter of our skepticism, allowing it to blossom forth only in authorially-sanctioned moments of high drama. Far from demonstrating humor or Ariostesque irony (as per Hollander’s suggestion that the Geryon episode involves an “authorial wink”), these passages are the most exposed weapons in a massive and unrelenting campaign to coerce our suspension of disbelief, a campaign that the history of the Commedia‘s reception shows to have been remarkably successful. The Geryon episode, however, constitutes an even more profound poetic gamble for the poet of the Commedia than we have hitherto noted, for its emblematic verse is a double-edged sword and may be approached from the perspective of its last word, “menzogna,” as well as from the perspective of its first word, “ver.” Rather than emphasize the poet’s claim that his poem is a ver and remains such no matter what marvels it is forced to recount, we could ask: Why does this truth, this comedia, have a faccia di menzogna? The answer is that even a comedia, in order to come into existence as text, must to some extent accommodate that human and thus ultimately fraudulent construct, language.
Within the metapoetic discourse that this supremely self-conscious author has inscribed into his poem, Geryon, “quella sozza imagine di froda” (“that filthy image of fraud” [Inf. 17.7] ), is, as Franco Ferrucci has noted, an image of representational fraud: he is the vehicle required for the naming–the coming into being–of even this text. Let us look at the verses that precede the monster’s arrival. The sequence begins with the crux in which Dante removes from his waist a cord of whose existence we were previously unaware; specifying that with this cord he once thought to take the painted leopard, in an overt reference to the second of the opening canto’s three beasts, he hands the knotted skein to Vergil at his guide’s behest:
Io avea una corda intorno cinta,
e con essa pensai alcuna volta
prender la lonza a la pelle dipinta.
Poscia ch’io l’ebbi tutta da me sciolta,
si come ‘l duca m’avea comandato,
porsila a lui aggroppata e ravvolta.
I had a cord tied around me, and with it I on occasion thought to take the leopard with the painted skin. After I had completely loosened it from me, as my leader had commanded, l handed it to him knotted and coiled. (Inf. 16.106-11)
Vergil throws the cord into the abyss, while the pilgrim thinks about the novelty that so remarkable a signal must command:
Ond’ei si volse inver lo destro lato,
e alquanto di lunge da la sponda
la gitto giuso in quell’alto burrato.
“E’ pur convien che novita risponda,”
dicea fra me medesmo, “al novo cenno
che ‘l maestro con l’occhio si seconda.”
Then he turned to the right and threw it some distance from the edge down into that deep ravine. “Surely,” I said to myself, “something strange [new] must answer to the strange [new] sign that my master follows with his eye.”
At this point the poet interrupts the action with a tercet on the caution that should govern our behavior in the company of those who can read our thoughts, followed by Vergil’s confirmation that he has in fact divined the pilgrim’s excitement regarding the “novita” that will respond to the “novo cenno.” He announces the arrival of such a thing as dreams are made of, such a thing as the writer fishes for in the deep waters of the imagination with the thin cord of reason: “Tosto verra di sovra / cio ch’io attendo e che il tuo pensier sogna; / tosto convien ch’al tuo viso si scovra” (“Soon will come up what I await and what your mind dreams; soon it must be discovered to your sight” [Inf. 16.121-23]). This long crescendo concludes with the verses cited earlier, in which the narrator first compares himself to one who should keep silent but cannot, then appeals directly to the reader, and finally presents Geryon. The canto closes with a brief simile in which the monster is compared to a diver who returns from the depths of the sea.
Because of the intrusion of elements that seem entirely disconnected from the literal story line, this passage has always been read allegorically; besides Buti, who takes the cord as the Franciscan cordon and thus proof of Dante’s belonging to minor orders, interpretations range from the cord as a symbol of chastity contrasted to lust (the leopard), the cord as truth contrasted to fraud (Geryon), and the cord as the pity that the pilgrim must shed before venturing into lower hell.  In a study that analyzes the language of the Geryon episode for its biblical and patristic valences, Roberto Mercuri proposes that taking off the cord represents a renunciation of sin as the pilgrim completes the conversion begun in the poem’s first canto.  I would advance instead the following metapoetic interpretation, based on the traditional interpretation of the cord as a symbol of fraud. The cord is knotted and tortuous (“aggroppata e ravvolta”), signifying the deceit of language; it was used for catching the leopard, lust, because Dante comes out of a tradition where language serves to deal with–capture–eros: his major previous experience with poetic language is the experience of love poetry. He hands the cord to Vergil, thus signifying the development of his discourse, its enlargement from the lyric to the epic–“Vergilian”–mode. Only this mode can provide the new language, the new signs (“novo cenno”) required to bring forth a novita, because only this mode imitates life, defined as a path punctuated by the continual arrival of new things. The use of a novo cenno to elicit a novita is thus a paradigm for the writing of a new kind of poetry, a poetry founded on the poetics of the new. The knotty skein of an exclusively erotic textuality (of Petrarchan dolci nodi) calls forth the even knottier, supremely embellished emblem of a new and larger textuality:
lo dosso e ‘l petto e ambedue le coste
dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.
Con piu color, sommesse e sovraposte
non fer mai drappi Tartari ne Turchi,
ne fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte.
His back and chest and both his sides were painted with knots and circlets. Never did Tartars or Turks make fabrics with more colors, more threads of warp and woof; nor were such webs loomed by Arachne.
Everything about this description speaks to the identification of “la sozza imagine di froda” with textuality (“imagine” virtually authorizes us to read Geryon in a representational key, as does this canto’s unusually high proportion of imagines, i.e., similes): the monster’s knotty surface, reminiscent of the knots of discourse that imprison Pier della Vigna;  the emphasis on painting and color, reminiscent of the colores retorici;  the reference to weaving, to the warp and woof of a woven fabric, which reminds us that the poet on occasion speaks of his testo in terms of weaving or tessere, the activity that lies at the etymological roots of textuality;  and finally, the name that brings all the above into focus, that of Arachne. By comparing the designs woven on Geryon’s flanks to the tele woven by Arachne, Dante summons the mythological figure who more than any other is an emblem for textuality, for weaving the webs of discourse. Her tele are the webs of textuality, of art: they signify the inherent deceptiveness of an art that can deceive through its mimetic perfection, its achievement of verisimilitude (art therefore, as “craft” in both its senses, as handiwork and Ulyssean guile), also, because Arachne challenged Minerva, her webs signify our hubris (again Ulyssean), our will to challenge, to go beyond. In other words, Arachne is the textual/ artistic correlative of Ulysses, and also therefore of those surrogates for Ulysses who figure so prominently at the end of the Geryon episode. In his own moment of flight, Dante likens the fear he experiences on Geryon’s back first to that of Phaeton when he let go the reins and doomed his ride in his father’s chariot to perdition–“Maggior paura non credo che fosse / quando Fetonte abbandono li freni” (“Greater fear I do not think there was when Phaeton abandoned the reins” [Inf. 17.1067] )–and then to that of Icarus, as his wings melt: “ne quando Icaro misero le reni / senti spennar per la scaldata cera, / gridando il padre a lui ‘Mala via tieni!”‘ (“nor while poor Icarus felt his sides unfeathering on account of the heated wax, while his father cried to him ‘You’re on the wrong path!”‘ [Inf. 17.109-11]). Thus, Ulysses is proleptically evoked in the Geryon episode: first by Arachne, at the beginning of canto 17, and then by Phaeton and Icarus, at the canto’s end.
It is worth noting, moreover, that the image cluster we associate with Ulysses, the conflation of sailing with flying epitomized by “de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo,” is also used for the presentation of Geryon. As we recall, Geryon both flies and swims, or rather–although we know that he is flying, since the element in which he navigates is air, not water–he is presented as swimming. The narrator recounts seeing “per quell’aere grosso e scuro / venir notando una figura in suso” and then reinforces the swimming image with the simile of the diver that closes canto 16:
si come torna colui che va giuso
talora a solver l’ancora ch’aggrappa
o scoglio o altro che nel mare e chiuso,
che ‘n su si stende e da pie si rattrappa.
as one returns who sometimes goes down to release the anchor caught on a reef or on something else hidden in the sea, who stretches himself upward and pushes off with his feet.
In the opening sequence of canto 17, describing the monster’s position on the edge of the abyss, the poet compares him first to boats that are banked on the shore, part in the water and part on land, and then to the beaver:
Come talvolta stanno a riva i burchi,
che parte sono in acqua e parte in terra,
e come la tra li Tedeschi lurchi
lo bivero s’assetta a far sua guerra
as boats sometimes lie along the shore, part in the water and part on land, and as there among the gluttonous Germans the beaver makes ready to wage its war
And, in order to describe the way in which Geryon backs up from the edge and turns around, Dante again pairs the image of a boat, a “navicella,” with a marine animal, the eel:
Come la navicella esce di loco
in dietro in dietro, si quindi si tolse;
e poi ch’al tutto si senti a gioco,
la ‘v’era ‘l petto, la coda rivolse,
e quella tesa, come anguilla, mosse,
e con le branche l’aere a se raccolse.
As the little ship backs out of its place a little at a time, so did Geryon take himself from there; and as soon as he felt himself completely in the clear he turned his tail to where his chest had been and, having stretched it, moved it like an eel and with his paws gathered the air to himself (Inf. 17.100-105)
In the passage that follows Dante reconflates navigation by air and by sea, telling us that the fera “sen va notando lenta lenta; / rota e discende, ma non me n’accorgo / se non che al viso e di sotto mi venta” (“goes swimming slowly on; he wheels and descends, but I can make out nothing but the wind blowing on my face and from below” [17.115-17]). The canto closes with an image of unadulterated flight; as though to balance the ascent of the swimming diver at the end of canto 16, here we find the descent of a flying falcon.
From this welter of navigational images, I would like to isolate one as particularly important for my present purposes, that of the navicella. The word occurs only thrice in the poem; undoubtedly the most conspicuous of its three appearances is that of Purgatorio 1, where it serves in the canticle’s second verse as an image for the text itself, about to sail onto better waters: “Per correr miglior acque alza le vele / omai la navicella del mio ingegno, / che lascia dietro a se mar si crudele” (“To course over better waters the little ship of my intellect now lifts its sails, leaving behind her a sea so cruel” [Purg. 1 .1-3] )  I would suggest that there is an analogy between the poem, “la navicella del mio ingegno,” sailed by Dante poet, and Geryon, also a “navicella,” sailed by Dante pilgrim. Much of what is said about Geryon in Inferno 16 and 17 could be taken as a description of the poem. Geryon– who like God, Lucifer, and the Commedia possesses both a single and a triple nature (the Latin poets call him tergeminus, threefold, three-bodied)–concedes his strong shoulders (the “omeri forti” of Inf 17.42 bring to mind the poet’s “omero mortal” in the metapoetic Ulyssean passage of Paradiso 23) for a spiraling voyage that synthesizes the journey through hell: the verses “lo scendere e ‘l girar per li gran mali / che s’appressavan da diversi canti” (“the descending and the turning through the great evils that drew near on different sides” [Inf. 17.125-26]) provide a punning description not only of the pilgrim’s flight but of the reader’s narrative descent through the text’s diversi canti.  We have already noted the emblematic value for the poem as a whole of “quel ver c’ha faccia di menzogna,” a phrase that prepares the reader for Geryon; also significant are Vergil’s words describing the unknown new object as “cio ch’io attendo e che il tuo pensier sogna,” which cast Dante as a visionary and Geryon as what he has created, envisioned, imagined, dreamed up. As we shall see, there are ample grounds for believing that Dante viewed his vision as the product of a waking dream, and himself as akin both to St. Paul, confused regarding the status of his otherworldly experience, and to Christ’s disciples upon witnessing their master’s transfiguration; it is worth noting that Guido da Pisa glosses “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” with the examples of Paul’s raptus, which he dared not reveal lest it be thought a lie, and the disciples’ similar concern to hide what they had seen until after the resurrection, lest their truth be considered false. Finally, if we look at the similes of the diver and the falcon in this light, we are struck by the extent to which they are paradigms for the action of the poem as a whole. Thus, Geryon arrives “si come torna colui che va giuso / talora a solver l’ancora ch’aggrappa / o scoglio o altro che nel mare e chiuso,” in verses that seem to gloss the return of the pilgrim from hell, that “mar si crudele” into which he dove in order to free his own ship’s anchor from the reef of sin. Likewise, the image of the falcon that falls to earth without having seen its master’s lure– “Come ‘l falcon ch’e stato assai su l’ali, / che sanza veder logoro o uccello / fa dire al falconiere ‘Ome, tu cali!”‘ (“As the falcon that has been long upon the wing, that without seeing lure or bird makes the falconer cry Alas, you fall!”‘ [Inf 17.127-29])– glosses the fall of the soul that refuses the upward lure set out by God and insists on heading downward, a condition Dante refers to, using the same falcon imagery, in the Purgatorio.
With respect to the analogy between Geryon and the Ulyssean “navicella del mio ingegno,” I would argue that Geryon both is the poem and is its antithesis, in the same way that Ulysses both is Dante and is his antithesis. On the one hand, the poem is defined as truth, Geryon is defined as mendacity, fraud; therefore, Geryon and the poem are opposites, Geryon is the Commedia’s antithesis. A passage with great bearing on this reading may be found, significantly, immediately preceding Geryon’s arrival, in the context of the pilgrim’s meeting with the three noble Florentine sodomites. To their request for a statement regarding the condition of Florence, the pilgrim replies with the famous verses about the “gente nuova e i subiti guadagni” (“new people and sudden gains” [Inf. 16.73]) that have corrupted his city. Less noted are the verses that follow, in which Dante characterizes himself as one who speaks in the posture of an angry prophet– “Cosi gridai con la faccia levata” (“So I cried with uplifted face” )–and with a prophet’s claim to truth: “e i tre, che cio inteser per risposta, / guardar l’un l’altro com’al ver si guata” (“and the three, who took this as my answer, looked at each other as one looks at the truth” [77-78] ). This “ver,” like the “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” to be introduced shortly, is the part of the poem that will triumph over the fraudulence of the medium to which it is tied, because its truth has been secured by one who transcends the mendacity of language. Because, in fact, he is using the Iying medium of language to write a truth, Dante dares to confront the “faccia di menzogna” that is his necessary vehicle, which he does precisely by tackling head-on the representation of the vehicle itself: Geryon. Thus it is not surprising that Vergil should much later single out the ride on Geryon, the ride that made Dante akin to Phaeton and Icarus, the ride that made him a Ulyssean aeronaut, as emblematic of all the dangers they have encountered together in the course of their journey: “Ricorditi, ricorditi! E se io / sovresso Gerion ti guidai salvo, / che faro ora presso piu a Dio?” (“Remember, remember! And if on Geryon I guided you safely, what shall I do now nearer to God?” [Purg. 27.22-24]). The encounter with Geryon dramatizes the text’s confrontation with its own necessary representational fraud, and as such is the moment of maximum peril, when the text gambles all on being accepted as a “ver c’ha faccia di menzoga,” a comedia. Dante establishes the parallel between Geryon and Ulysses because he knows that with respect to the textual voyage the Ulyssean component is finally inevitable: the text is a ship, a “navicella” identified with Geryon, and it is sailed by a Dante afraid of being Ulysses, a Dante who hears in simile the words “Mala via tieni!” shouted by Daedalus at his erring son and fears lest they be directed at him.
Now that we can integrate the Ulysses theme with the issue of new beginnings treated in the preceding chapter, we are in a position to discuss Inferno 8-9 and 16-17 as moments of narrative transition. In the wake of the relentless creation of infernal incipits in the opening cantos, by canto 7 the rhythmic pulse of the Commedia’s forward motion has been somewhat quieted, if only because it has been established as continual and is therefore less noticeable. In cantos 8-9 and 16-17 the text’s forward moving energy, its will to begin again, reemerges, chaneled by interruptions that require noticeable new beginnings to offset them. These cantos evoke Inferno 1 and 2, where too forward motion was coordinated with fearful stasis: cantos 8 and 9 recount the pilgrim’s crossing of the Styx and fearful arrival at the city of Dis, his transition from the circles of incontinence to “questo basso inferno” (Inf. 8.75), while cantos 16 and 17 narrate his encounter with Geryon and fearful transition from the circle of violence to the realm of fraud.  What interests me here is the poet’s handling of these transitional cantos, his playing with narrative in ways that expose the lineaments of the narrative journey more than is usual. It is as though Dante wants us to recognize that there is a narrative voyage alongside the pilgrim’s voyage, that the text’s thematics will always be mirrored by its poetics. In the Commedia, the text’s attention to itself, to its own voyage, is figured, as we have seen, by nautical, indeed aeronautical, imagery, in the same way that the narrator’s presence is figured through Ulyssean language. Although the Inferno’s boats, beginning with Charon’s in canto 3, appear, as is to be expected, in episodes where they are required to assist in physical transition, they also signal increased attention to the poet and his problems. Thus, Charon’s Ulyssean characterization of the pilgrim as a sailor, about to board the first of many boats (“Per altra via, per altri porti / verrai a piaggia, non qui, per passare: / piu lieve legno convien che ti porti” [“By another path, by other ports, you will come to shore, not here shall you pass; a lighter ship must carry you” (3.91-93)]) is coordinated with one of the poem’s least smooth transitions, accomplished by way of a quake and a swoon; the very roughness of this transition draws attention to the narrating poet, who a few verses later will indulge for the first time in one of his favorite narrative devices, opening a sentence with “Vero e” (4.7). In canto 8 too, the reader finds a boat and a boatman–a “nave” and a “nocchier”–and language that, with hindsight, reveals itself as provocatively metapoetical: no arrow ever coursed through the air as fast as this little ship (“nave piccioletta” ) piloted by a furious helmsman (“galeoto” , “nocchier” ), this boat (“barca” ) that cuts through the murky water with its ancient stem (“antica prora” ). The arrow simile offers the rudiments of the aeronautics that will be more developed in the cases of Geryon and Ulysses, and fully achieved in the case of the angel’s boat in Purgatorio 2; that winged sailor, a “celestial nocchiero” (43), will share with Phlegyas, and with no one else, the designation “galeotto” (27). Phlegyas’s “nave piccioletta” anticipates the navicelle of Inferno 17 and Purgatorio 1, as well as the “piccioletta barca” of Paradiso 2 and the “picciola barca” of Paradiso 23, whose more metaphorical “ardita prora” (as compared to Phlegyas’s “antica prora”) is also guided by a nocchier: the poet.
Nautical language, even at this stage of the poem, where it has not yet achieved the metaphorical resonance it will accrete later on, is linked to the self-conscious presence of the poet, a presence testified to at once by canto 8’s uniquely self-conscious opening words, “Io dico” The story the poet tells here is new, a tense drama spread over two cantos that interrupts the pilgrim’s progress by invoking the possibility, whose narrative antecedents derive from canto 2, of his unsuitability for the journey. The encounter with the devils who block the pilgrim’s path, who try to send him back unescorted and unfulfilled, is different from the encounters engineered thus far, and so the poet does new and different things with his narrative. Indeed, cantos 8 and 9 are a display of the author’s narrative prowess, a resolute breaking with the narrative conventions established heretofore. The first break is the self-conscious authorial flashback that begins canto 8, in which the narrator presents events that occurred before the events narrated at the end of the previous canto; before the travelers reached the foot of the tower described in canto 7’s last verse (“Venimmo al pie d’una torre al da sezzo”), they had seen and discussed ominous signals passed between that tower and one further distant:
Io dico, seguitando, ch’assai prima
che noi fossimo al pie de l’alta torre,
li occhi nostri n’andar suso a la cima
per due fiammette che i vedemmo porre,
e un’altra da lungi render cenno,
tanto ch’a pena il potea l’occhio torre.
I say, following, that long before we had reached the foot of the high tower, our eyes went up to its top because of two little flames we saw set there, and another tower returned the signal from such a distance that the eye could barely catch it. (Inf. 8.1-6)
This flashback requires an overt manipulation of narrative time (as indicated by “Io dico, seguitando, ch’assai prima,” where “seguitando,” a word that moves forward, is paired with “assai prima,” words that look back); it highlights the narrator, the one arranging the sequence according to his own rules, the one who says “Io dico” and who will announce, regarding Filippo Argenti, “Quivi il lasciammo, che piu non ne narro” (“There we left him, and I tell no more of him” ). This narrator, a term we use more advisedly than usual, since “narro” in line 64 represents the poem’s first instance of the verb narrare, is in control: he can withhold or dispense narrative attention, textual time, as he chooses. Canto 8 concludes–it is, significantly, the first canto to end transitionally, in medias res–with Vergil’s reference to the heavenly messenger whose assistance they anxiously await; his final verses are projected forward, using the adverb gia and the future tense to forecast the angel’s arrival: “e gia di qua da lei discende l’erta, / passando per li cerchi sanza scorta, / tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (“and already on this side of the gate is descending the steep path, passing without guide through the circles, one by whom the city will be opened to us” [128-30]). We note the careful coordination of the canto’s beginning and end: at the beginning, the narrator looks into the past, via flashback, while at the end he looks (through Vergil) into the future, via suspense. The beginning goes back, and the end goes forward, creating a kind of narrative spiral and emphasizing, once more, the narrator’s control over his text.
The narrator’s presence is felt throughout this sequence, which also contains the poem’s first two addresses to the reader and, in canto 8, the interpolated episode of Filippo Argenti, which complicates the narrative line in an unprecedented fashion by occurring after Phlegyas has picked up the travelers and before he deposits them at the gates of Dis.  Once arrived, the devils suggest that the temerarious pilgrim, “che si ardito intro per questo regno” (“who so daring entered in this kingdom” [Inf. 8.90]), return alone on the reckless path by which he came: “Sol si ritorni per la folle strada” (91). By denoting the pilgrim’s path as “folle,” the devils capitalize on his fears, attempting to diminish his resolve, to reduce him, psychologically, to the condition of canto 2, when he feared that the trip would be Ulyssean: folle.  The fears that in canto 2 were allayed by Vergil’s assurance of grace will soon be swept away by the celestial messenger. But, if the devils are wrong regarding the pilgrim’s “folle strada,” one wonders if they might not have a point regarding the poet, whose “dead poetry” (“morta poesi” [Purg. 1.7]) seems calculated to fill in the blanks of what Vergil now calls, referring to the writing on hell’s gate, God’s “dead script” (“scritta morta” [Inf. 8.127]). Conscious of the Ulyssean dimension of his project, Dante takes particular pains in this episode to distinguish diabolic from angelic sign systems. Besides the relay of threatening diabolic signs with which canto 8 opens, the devils are characterized as creators of “parole maladette” whose effect would be to prevent the pilgrim’s progress, to dead-end him: “Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai / nel suon de le parole maladette, / che non credetti ritornarci mai” (“Think, reader, if I was discomforted by the sound of the cursed words, for I did not think I should ever return here” [Inf. 8.94-96]). Conversely, the angel, who appears after the devils have played their semiotic trump card in canto 9 by bringing forth Medusa, is the bearer of “parole sante,” words invested with the power to convert a dead end into a new beginning: “e noi movemmo i piedi inver’ la terra, / sicuri appresso le parole sante” (“and we moved our feet toward the city, secure in the wake of the holy words” [Inf. 9.104-5]). While Vergil, whose own mutilated word (“parola tronca” [Inf. 9.14]) mediates between the parole maladette and the parole sante, subscribes to the power of the diabolic signifiers and tells the pilgrim to turn back, the angel–God’s sign, his messenger–knows that the divine will is never tronca, that it is “quella voglia / a cui non puote il fin mai esser mozzo” (“that will whose end can never be cut off” [9 94-95]! Thus, while the devils are destined to remain forever impotently insolent (“Questa lor tracotanza non e nova” [“This their arrogance is not new” (Inf. 8.124)]), forever exchanging signs that accomplish nothing, forever “not new,” the poet will successfully navigate his transition, moving forward along the narrative path, along the signpost of the new.
Vergil’s heralding of Phlegyas’s arrival–“Su per le sucide onde / gia scorger puoi quello che s’aspetta” (“Over the filthy waves you can already discern what is expected” [Inf. 8.10-11])–anticipates his later preannouncement of Geryon: “Tosto verra di sovra / cio ch’io attendo e che il tuo pensier sogna.” The metapoetic content of the later verses is less latent, as indeed everything about the poet’s meditation on narrative is less latent in cantos 16-17 than it was in cantos 8-9. Once more the poet’s concerns have surfaced in a moment of narrative stress; once more he adopts narrative devices that dramatize the very nature of transition as a passing of the baton from the old to the new, a forging of the new out of the old.  If we look at the sequence as a whole, we see how the narrative is spliced: canto 16 begins with a new beginning, the waterfall that signals the passage to the eighth circle; this new beginning is staved off by the arrival of the three Florentine sodomites, recommences when Geryon ascends at the canto’s end, and is again postponed by the encounter with the usurers in canto 17. These interruptions serve to make the sequence’s formal structure a commentary on the nature of ending and beginning: the intercalatory narrative underlines the new beginning by simultaneously announcing and delaying it. All this is worked out textually with great care. Canto 16 introduces change with its first word, the proleptic adverb “Gia” that marks the point of transition to the new, an “altro giro”: “Gia era in loco onde s’udia ‘1 rimbombo / de l’acqua che cadea ne l’altro giro” (“Already I was in a place where one could hear the crashing of the water that fell into the next circle” [Inf. 16.1-2]). The Florentine sodomites, representatives not of the new circle of fraud that seemed so imminent but of the old circle of violence, appear within the same sentence, ushered by “quando”: “quando tre ombre insieme si partiro, / correndo, d’una torma che passava / sotto la pioggia de l’aspro martiro” (“when three shades together broke off, running, from a troop that was passing under the rain of the fierce torment” [4-6]). This description is calculated to bring us back, mentally, to the condition of the sodomites– inhabitants of the third girone of the seventh circle, a place we thought we were leaving–as presented at the end of the preceding canto, when we watched Brunetto rejoin his companions; the political conversation that ensues with the Florentine nobles also echoes the meeting with Brunetto. This encounter with the old, or with a variation thereof, continues until line 90, when the travelers again set off; they are soon overwhelmed by the sound of crashing water that this time receives its due in a lengthy simile (lines 94-105) whose key element for us is the verb “rimbomba” (100), which echoes “rimbombo” in line 1 and repositions us at the waterfall, precisely where we were at the outset of canto 16: we are once more prepared for a new beginning, which now arrives in the form of Geryon. After Geryon’s arrival, however, and after the opening of a new canto that seems to make the new beginning embodied by Geryon definitive, the narrative cuts back to the seventh circle with the pilgrim’s visit to the usurers, who represent a more complex intertwining of the old with the new the usurers are a new group– no longer sodomites–inhabiting the old place, namely the same third ring of the seventh circle. Finally, the actual entry into the new takes place in the last section of canto 17.
The straight narrative line is interrupted in these cantos, much as it was in canto 8 by the various narrative manipulations noted earlier. Like canto 8, canto 16 ends in medias res; here we wait not for an arrival, as in the earlier instance, but for an identification of the creature that has just arrived. In canto 17, which begins with Vergil’s exclamatory verses identifying Geryon, verses that only make sense if one has read the end of canto 16, the disjunctions of the narrative are rendered even more vividly than in the preceding canto.  This is a land of transition, and proximity to the boundary between old and new is stressed: Geryon is on the edge (“su l’orlo” [Inf. 17.24] ) of the abyss, with his tail in the void (“Nel vano” ); in order to reach him the travelers must move ten paces along the extremity (“in su lo stremo” ). Transition is further dramatized in the overlapping events whereby Vergil stays behind to negotiate with Geryon while Dante goes, “tutto solo” (“all alone”  ) for the first time since setting forth on his journey, to gain full knowledge–Ulyssean esperienza piena–of this ring at his guide’s behest: “Accio che tutta piena / esperienza d’esto giron porti” (“so that you may have full experience of this ring” [37-38]). By the same token, he will return to find Vergil “gia su la groppa del fiero animale” (“already on the back of the fierce animal”  ) . Most telling is Dante’s presentation of the usurers, who are used as vehicles of narrative transition; as representatives of a third group of sinners within the seventh circle’s third girone, they are precise embodiments of the grafting of the new onto the old. Thus, they sit next to the edge of the seventh circle (“propinqua al loco scemo”  ), so that the pilgrim is obliged to go even further along, “su per la strema testa / di quel settimo cerchio” (“up along the extreme margin of that seventh circle” [43-44]), in order to speak to them. Not only are they geographically positioned on the outer limits of the seventh circle, on the boundary dividing the seventh circle from the eighth as befits practitioners of a sin that seems to partake more of fraud than of violence, but they are linguistically and dramatically characterized in eighth circle terms: the usurers’ low language, rough rhymes, vulgar gestures, and desire to incriminate each other are all narrative features of Malebolge.  They are the sequence’s most explicit incarnations of the problematic Dante is dealing with: how do we distinguish the end from the beginning when all ends are beginnings and all beginnings are endings? How to render the mysterious process whereby time is accreted and a human being comes to say “I’ fui“–“I was”–the process whereby the new imperceptibly becomes the old and the present imperceptibly becomes the past? This process, represented microcosmically by terza rima, is here dramatized and writ large by the narrative structure of these cantos. Not surprisingly, it is a structure that takes the form of a spiral, i.e., of a dialectic between old and new
The structure of these transitional cantos is spiral-like because transition, history, life itself are spiral-like, ever going backward in order to go forward (as the pilgrim goes anomalously backward from the usurers to Geryon, and as Geryon backs into his spiral), ever finding the new within the old. The poet who designed these cantos was attempting to discover the shape of life, to register the form of things and the rhythm of existence in his verse. He was a Ulysses.
The Undivine Comedy, ch. 03: 01
On flight imagery and the metaphysics of ascent in the Commedia, see Hugh Shankland, “Dante ‘Aliger,”‘ Modern Language Review 70 (1975): 764~~85; Shankland argues persuasively that Dante is aware of the relation between his last name and Vergil’s coinage aliger, “wing bearing.” His later essay focuses on flight imagery and Ulysses; see “Dante Aliger and Ulysses,” Italian Studies 32 (1977): 2140.
The Undivine Comedy, ch. 03: 02
The early dichotomy is noted by Natalino Sapegno, “UIisse,” Letture classensi 7 (1979): 93-98. In what follows I make no attempt to give an exhaustive resume
of the Ulysses querelle but rather to highlight those critical writings that have proved most useful to me. Ample references may be found in Anthony K. Cassell, “Ulisseana: A Bibliography of Dante’s Ulysses to 1981,” Italian Culture 3 (1981): 23-45. *
The Undivine Comedy, ch. 03: 03
Mario Fubini, “11 peccato d’Ulisse” and “11 canto XXVI dell’lnferno,” in 11 peccato d’Ulisse e altri scritti danteschi (Milan: Ricciardi, 1966), 1-76. Much of this material is repeated in Fubini’s “Ulisse” in the ED. His supporters include Sapegno, in the previously cited essay, Antonino Pagliaro (“Ulisse,” in Ulisse: Ricerche semantiche sulla “Divina Commedia,” 2 vols. [Messina: G. D’Anna, 1967], 1: 371-432), Fiorenzo Forti (“‘Curiositas’ o ‘fol hardement’7,” in Magnanimitade: Studi su un tema dantesco [Bologna: Patron, 1977], 161-206), and Lino Pertile, “Dante e l’ingegno di Ulisse,” Stanford Italian Review 1 (1979): 35-65.
The Undivine Comedy, ch. 03: 04
John A. Scott, “L’Ulisse dantesco,” in Dante magnanimo (Florence: Olschki, 1977),117-93, provides a review of the critical issues raised in the debate over Ulysses; his stated goal is to right the balance that had tipped too far toward Ulysses’ heroic aspect. On the problems with knowing what sin to ascribe to this bolgia, see John Ahern, “Dante’s Slyness: The Unnamed Sin of the Eighth Bolgia,” Romanic Review 73 (1982): 275-91. The poet’s avoidance of a label has provided fertile soil for the collocation fallacy discussed in chapter l; Pertile, for instance, claims that the nature of Ulysses’ discourse is not a cause for damnation, “che se fosse un falsario di parole, dovremmo trovarlo piu giu nell’lnferno insieme al suo commilitone Sinone” (“Dante e l’ingegno d’Ulisse,” 42). For another example of the fallacy at work, see note 34 below.
The Undivine Comedy, ch. 03: 05
Scholars who have emphasized the orazion itself as the manifestation of Ulysses’ sinfulness include Giorgio Padoan, “Ulisse ‘fandi fictor’ e le vie della sapienza,” 1960, rpt. in 11 pio Enea, I’empio Ulisse (Ravenna: Longo, 1967), 170-99, and Anna Dolfi, “11 canto di Ulisse: occasione per un discorso di esegesi dantesca,” Forum Italicum 7-8 (1973-1974): 22-45.