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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bersani the snake: Peculato

Bersani the snake: Peculato

Let Ovid now be silent, where he tells

of Cadmus, Arethusa; if his verse

has made of one a serpent, one a fountain,

I do not envy him; he never did

transmute two natures, face to face, so that

both forms were ready to exchange their matter.

Oh, what a week it has been in Italian politics! This rump of a parliament has responded to the loud cry for change that the electorate delivered in February by doing something so new it has never happened Giorgio Napoletano their 85 year old President to a second 7 year term! This is change!?!?

The sense of frustration with politics as usually in Italy-- the caste system of the politicians (left and right), the inability of politicians to find a reasonable solution to any of Italy's myriad problems, the massive salaries and benefits of their bloated parliament-- has reached a new level this weekend. After months of mud slinging, posturing, and wars of words in the press (all the groups have done their fair share, including Sig. B. Grillo), Italy's two great enemies, the center-left PD (Partito Democratico) and the center-right PDL (Popolo dell LibertĂ ) have joined forces to re-elect an ancient man as President of Italy. An example of blatant and disgusting politics of self-conservation.

It was unfathomable that the party of former communists, socialists, and Green party supporters lead by Pier Luigi Bersani would unite with the party of Silvio Berlusconi and the Lega Nord separatists. But the advent and popularity of the Movimento Cinque Stelle and their unwillingness to set aside its scruples and "fare l'inciucio (underhand schemes), has brought Left and Right together to create a new type of government in Italy. They have created a monster.

this political cartoon offers the best definition I could find for the Italian word "inciucio"

I have already put Berlusconi in Hell, so I can't move him (Divine Justice does not make changes!), but Bersani and his PD conspirators have yet to receive Minos' bestial judgment!

The bestial union of two opposites into a new monstrosity recalls most vividly Dante's description of the transformations of the thieves in Inf. XXIV and Inf. XXV. Dante describes three different types of transformations, but the one the fits these the best describes the sin of Peculato, or theft of a public good.

These sinners are attacked by a reptile and then merge with that reptile to form a new monstrous serpentine beast. Bersani here takes a majority of the blame for the PD's collective sin, and he has merged with the slimy reptile Berlusconi (leader of the PDL) to form this new hideous government.
Why is this a monstrosity and not a positive moment of bi-partisanship? The motive for this unnatural union is the preservation of the two-party system, the caste system, that benefits both parties while not serving Italy's interests or respecting the clear call of the vox populi.

The crime of Peculato is the specifically theft of a public good. What has public good has the PD and PDL stolen here?  Democracy itself. Nobody can deny Italians voted for change and specifically for change in the politics of the parties (and their massive government funding), but they got an unprecedented "more of the same" outcome. PD and PDL ignored the voters will; even their own voters who are now protesting the idea of unifying with their enemies. PD's self-immolation is the only consolation for voters feeling stunned and dismayed at this new low.

Italians are mad and disillusioned, and I understand why better now than ever. The best we can hope is that the young Italians who voted M5S or PD keep their heads up, as they did this weekend with their peaceful march in Rome.

We can hope that they continue to make their voices heard democratically and refuse invitations to violence or despair. After all, an 86 year old president is like a 76 year old Pope with one lung: a temporary solution.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Inferno is In-Vernal

Inferno is In-Vernal


Canto 32

And after that I saw a thousand faces

made doglike by the cold; for which I shudder-

and always will when I face frozen fords.

And while we were advancing toward the center

to which all weight is drawn-I, shivering

in that eternally cold shadow-I

know not if it was will or destiny

or chance, but as I walked among the heads,

I struck my foot hard in the face of one.

One thing that often surprises students of Dante when the come to the end of the Inferno, as it surprised me when I first read these canti, is that Dante's lowest depths of Hell are cold, frozen, not hot. The souls at the bottom of Hell are frozen nearly inanimate in a lake of ice, the worst of them all entirely submerged.

Dante has us understand that this coldness results as a product of the distance these souls are from God, the source of all light and heat.

While this answer is theologically satisfying, as is his description of Lucifer's wings functioning as a huge swamp cooler at the bottom of Hell, I have come to learn another way in which frozen Inferno makes sense.

Have you ever spent a winter in Tuscany? Under the Tuscan Sun, especially in Arezzo, becomes "Within the Tuscan Frozen Fog." This place is bone-chillingly cold during Winter, and it lasts a long time--October to April. Now let's imagine it in the Middle Ages with no heat, refrigeration, and antibiotics. A uncomfortable existence today was miserable, precarious, and isolating in 1300. Winter is the time of death, disease, and, if you our lucky, survival.


So how great a relief it is that Spring has arrived in Tuscany, a little late. Because easter was early (Pasqua bassa), it was not a seasonal re-birth, only a spiritual one. However, an April Easter, which Dante surely had in mind in his Commedia, means the arrival of Spring. So, when Dante arrives at the top of Purgatorio, having left Hell a few days earlier on Good Friday, he finds Spring waiting for him, the eternal Spring of the uncorrupted Garden of Eden:

Purg 28

A gentle breeze, which did not seem to vary

within itself, was striking at my brow

but with no greater force than a kind wind’s,

a wind that made the trembling boughs—they all

bent eagerly—incline in the direction

of morning shadows from the holy mountain;

but they were not deflected with such force

as to disturb the little birds upon

the branches in the practice of their arts;

for to the leaves, with song, birds welcomed those

first hours of the morning joyously,

and leaves supplied the burden to their rhymes—

just like the wind that sounds from branch to branch

along the shore of Classe, through the pines

when Aeolus has set Sirocco loose.

The Locus amoenus, the pleasant place, is decidedly springlike in its gentility and freshness. Rebirth is metaphorical but only after it is actual and practical.

Summer (Minor)

But we have Summer to arrive, and that brings more misery to the Tuscan micro-climate. Just before Dante enters the terrible cold of lower Inferno, he passes through the stifling humidity of the last ditch of the malebolge, where the alchemists and other falsifiers are punished. Here all are misshapen by diseases of purification, like leprosy and dropsy. He compares this too the summers in Tuscany, and the area around Arezzo, the Val di Chiana.

When we had climbed above the final cloister

PL of Malebolge, so that its lay brothers

were able to appear before our eyes,

I felt the force of strange laments, like arrows

whose shafts are barbed with pity; and at this,

I had to place my hands across my ears.

Just like the sufferings that all the sick

PL of Val di Chiana's hospitals, Maremma's,

PL Sardina's, from July until September

would muster if assembled in one ditch-

so was it here, and such a stench rose up

as usually comes from festering limbs.

Things are better now. The swamp has been drained and malaria eradicated. But I am certainly going to enjoy Spring while it lasts.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dante Through Song and Dance: OU in Arezzo students do Dante

Dante Through Song and Dance: OU in Arezzo students do Dante

Teaching Dante in Italy is a joy. From here in Arezzo I can often just point out the window of our classroom and say "see, that is exactly what Dante is talking about!" Another pleasure is the small class size, less than half of what I have in Norman. This has allowed me to include a new assignment for the class. My "creative interpretation" assignment (I lack creativity, hence the boring name), invites students to create something that, in their own way, interprets Dante. I invite songs, interpretive dance, drawings, whatever each students feels inspired (amor mi spira, Purg. XXIV), to create. Below are three videos examples of what my students did. I enjoyed evaluating these assignments, and I think the students really enjoyed the change of pace. These three are below are fitting for this blog.

First, Amanda and Michela did a "interpretive dance" of Inf. XXVI. I often joke that students should do an interpretive dance of Dante, never imagining that someone would be bold enough to do it. Well, I guess I have to change my stock line.

The second video is of Kolby and Tanner who perform their rewritten version of the theme song  to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Noting my gray hair, the students kindly explained to me who Will Smith is.

Finally, Jordan and Will did a 70's classic rock medley with lyrics to some great songs rewritten to tell of Dante's journey. Noting my gray hair, the students assured me that I would recognize some of the songs (from the 60s and 70s).

Thanks to all the students who gave me permission to post their performances.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Donte's Inferno : Mad Men does Dante

Donte's Inferno : Mad Men does Dante

Don Draper reads Dante! What more could we dantista want then to have the poster-boy for Hollywood cool reading and reciting Dante aloud to begin the new season of Mad Men!

I don't have too much smart to say about what this means just yet, but I will certainly keep an eye on the series this season to see if this thread continues.

If you want a quick take on Don as Don-te (hat tip for the title of this post), see this link:

What did initially strike me was the setting for the opening scene, Hawaii, or America's antipodes. Don does seem to by a Ulysses (Inf. XXVI)character doesn't he? Convinced of his own skill, full of noble intentions, and willing to lead others on his "mad" course away from self knowledge.

What this scene does remind me of his the subject of my next post. How inappropriate Dante's Inferno is for summer (or beach) reading. Inferno is in-vernal. Of course, it is hot in winter in the antipodes!
What do you think Don is doing reading Dante? Leave a comment.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

La Dolce Vita and the Face of Fraud

La Dolce Vita and the Face of Fraud

Many have celebrated, and many have loathed, Fellini's modernist epic La Dolce Vita. It is a break from so much in Italy's past. It is Rome undone; the Rome of the new suburbs, not of the Roman ruins. Rome as prostitute with debauched suitors trying to win her love.

But, would Dante find Fellini's Rome so different from his Rome or from his Florence? Indeed, how "dantean" is La Dolce Vita? Rather than focusing on the entire movie, which might be seen as Marcello's own descent through the levels of sin in Hell, without the promise of salvation, I would like to look at one scene the renders a final "dantean" judgment on the film. Of course this scene is at the end of the film when Marcello is in his moral free-fall.

The debauched party goers greet the arrival of dawn at the end of the revels by leaving their villa signorile to go out to the beach. Tired from their drinking, dancing, and "debauching" (three times that word already!), they see a group of men doing something novel....working. None of these elites actually has a job, beyond being gadflies, but these fishermen instead are working hard to pull in the bounty of the sea. What emerges from their efforts? A sea monster!

The huge sea monster is a marvel, a wonder. The fisherman swear that they will make a million off of it! The party goers are repulsed and attracted to the beast. Marcello in particular, can't take his eyes off of it, particularly of the all-too human large eyes. He says, "And how it insists on looking at you."

The creature from the deep with a human aspect that hides its monstrosity, reminds me of a central image in Dante's Hell. Geryon. This beast represents fraud. He has the fair face that hides a monstrous body. His face is a lie to hide the wickedness of his essence.

E quella sozza imagine di froda 17.7
And he came on, that filthy effigy
sen venne, e arrivò la testa e 'l busto,

of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
ma 'n su la riva non trasse la coda.

but did not draw his tail onto the bank.

La faccia sua era faccia d'uom giusto, 17.10
The face he wore was that of a just man,
tanto benigna avea di fuor la pelle,

so gracious was his features' outer semblance;
e d'un serpente tutto l'altro fusto;

and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;

due branche avea pilose insin l'ascelle; 17.13
he had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
lo dosso e 'l petto e ambedue le coste

his back and chest as well as both his flanks
dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.

had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.

So, why is Geryon at the end of Fellini's La Dolce Vita? First of all, Geryon is the image of fraud and treachery, and I think Fellini is hinting that Marcello has moved beyond his simple debauchery to real moral corruption. The suicide of his friend, the breaking off of his engagement leaves Marcello without a brake on his vice. He is transiting from venial to mortal sins.

In Dante, Geryon also stood in for the risk of Dante's own poetry: telling a lie (the dream vision of his supposed journey) to get at a deeper truth (an ethical lesson). So too, perhaps, the monstrosity of the sea monster reminds us of Fellini's craft as a filmmaker. His interest in spectacle, absurdity, beauty seem to be a cover for a moral critique of contemporary Italian society. How Dantean!

Italytodaywithdante is going to Paris this week! Let's see what Dante finds there to judge harshly (besides the weather!) I can tell you one thing, we are going to go looking for Street of Straw (Par. X).