The Monk's Tale and the Inferno
Of all the tales in The Canterbury Tales, the Monk's has the clearest intertextual relationship to the Comedy . I stress the idea of intertextuality here not just because of the tale's explicit reference to Dante and the Ugolino episode of Inferno XXXIII—Dante is mentioned by name in the Wife of Bath's Tale and the Friar's Tale—but also because it seems to me that even though it can certainly stand on its own, it becomes most meaningful when considered as a response to Dante's epic. As response, it also involves a degree of imitation, for with its varied "tragedies" of famous individuals the tale bears a distinct resemblance to one aspect of the Comedy, namely, the sense in which it can be considered, without undue simplification, a series of vignettes or "case studies" of the deceased. Like the Comedy, furthermore, and especially the Inferno, the Monk's Tale draws for its characters on such varied sources as the Bible, classical myth and legend, ancient and contemporary history, without regard for chronological sequence or distinctions between real and fictitious, sacred and profane.
The effect is a sense that the Monk's Tale's characters exist in an imaginary simultaneity, a tout ensemble not unlike Dante's otherworld. Paradoxically, this does not diminish or blur the sense that in the tale as in the Comedy the basic theme is history, the nature and meaning of human existence in time. Rather, what the conjunction of imaginary and actual cases brings out is that there is no history apart from the way it is written and therefore interpreted;
that there are, in other words, narrative patterns and genres among which a writer must ultimately choose to present his vision of the past, so that a historical account is also, to a considerable extent, a fiction or a myth.
In the Monk's Tale and the Comedy the implied stress on history as a literary construct has an important corollary, for it leads to a questioning of a fundamental assumption of biblical theology, namely, that human history has a supernatural basis. The Monk's Tale, indeed, does more than question this assumption. It offers, as I intend to show, an implicit critique of providential theories of history, according to which earthly events represent the unfolding of a divine plan whose central feature is that justice will prevail in the sublunary world.
At this point the reader is likely to feel that the thesis might be defensible for the Monk's Tale but does not apply to the Comedy . To this objection I would respond by agreeing that the Comedy has little of the critical reductiveness of the Monk's Tale—it also has an incomparably richer texture—and yet, on balance, the Monk's non-or antiprovidential vision of history seems to me astonishingly faithful to the spirit of the Comedy . I suggest that his is the pivotal tale by which Chaucer aligns his own epic project with Dante's in its refusal of theodicy, the attempt, in Milton's words, to "assert eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men."
The refusal of theodicy doubtless is based on a variety of reasons, but it seems to me connected above all with a conception of individual human autonomy that was certainly not absent from antiquity but gathered momentum, particularly during the Christian centu-
ries, reaching a kind of apogee in the late Middle Ages. Obviously, this conception could coexist quite successfully with a strictly providential outlook, as it does in Augustine, who in fundamental ways set the orthodoxy here. In the long run, however, it was surely bound to lead to a different, more vaguely defined view of history, not as divinely orchestrated drama, but as the realm where human beings are free, within limits, to determine the conditions of their existence.
The idea that at the center of their respective epics Chaucer and Dante put an unorthodox, though not, I think, heterodox, notion of history, is so far merely a hypothesis, an assertion that needs to be backed by evidence from the texts. Before I undertake that task, however, I must express the belief that at least part of the reason for the low estimate of the Monk's Tale in Chaucer criticism, which has rarely even taken the tale seriously, is that, like its teller, it flaunts its disregard for tradition and the "rules" to which a tale told by a religious should conform. The tradition, at least as far as Chaucer scholarship is concerned, has meant a rather narrow band of religious and intellectual orthodoxy beyond which a medieval text was not supposed to stray. Along with other long-held assumptions, this tradition has been changing, and the critical climate now seems more favorable to a secondary aim of this chapter, which is to rehabilitate, as it were, the Monk and his tale as a serious meditation on the nature of history.
The Monk's interest in history should not surprise us. Medieval monasteries were, as is well known, centers of historical study. By the twelfth century "historian-monks" were active in secular politics, and to them goes the credit for the fact that history eventually became
a respectable part of the scholastic curriculum. As an "outridere" (I.66), or supervisor of monastic estates, and a passionate huntsman, our Monk probably does not belong in the ranks of the historian-monks, if such there were in fourteenth-century England. His portrait in the General Prologue, however, is more than usually deceptive. Jill Mann has shown how much in that portrait is left to the reader's willingness, or refusal, to draw inferences. A striking example of this is Chaucer's expressed agreement with the Monk's blunt repudiation of monastic rules: "And I seyde his opinion was good" (I.183). Commentators have been all but unanimous in taking this as ironically meant, but that is by no means a necessary inference, any more than that the Monk is a mere playboy. From the prologue to his tale it seems clear that he has spent time reading books and studying—though not to the point to "make hymselven wood" (I.184). "I wol doon al my diligence," he declares, ignoring the Host's banter about his wasted masculinity,
As fer as sowneth into honestee,
To telle yow a tale, or two, or three.
And if yow list to herkne hyderward,
I wol yow seyn the lyf of Seint Edward;
Or ellis, first, tragedies wol I telle,
Of whiche I have an hundred in my celle.
His reference to "the lyf of Seint Edward" seems highly significant. Not just another saint's life, the archetypal genre of monastic literary production, it is presumably the history of Edward the Confessor, the saintly king of England who lost his throne to the Norman
invader in 1066. This biography, in other words, combines secular and sacred, dynastic and ecclesiastical history and might well raise questions about a divine Providence governing earthly affairs, the problem that, I have said, concerns the Monk in his tale. Then there are the hundred tragedies in his monastery library. In the first instance these probably belong to the genre of the "falls" of famous persons represented by Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium . But the latter work clearly owes a considerable debt to the tradition of the monastic "universal" chronicle, in which the idea of history as a tragedy is no stranger, even in the context of an Augustinian scheme. Otto von Freising, for example, in his Chronicon, quod de duabus civitatibus intitulavimus (twelfth century), speaks of "aerumnosas mortalium tragaedias" ("the sad tragedies of mortals") and thinks of the present age in eschatological terms as the prelude to the end of history.
From the lines just quoted, furthermore, it is evident that our Monk is someone with literary ambition of his own. His words to the Host suggest that he is prepared to take over the entire tale-telling game: he will tell a tale, or two, or three and "the life of Seint Edward; / or ellis, first, tragedies wol I telle, / Of whiche I have an hundred in my celle" (1970–72). It is difficult to know what to make of this list of narrative possibilities. Chaucer, who has just preceded him in tale-telling, is the only one among the Canterbury pilgrims to tell two tales, though the first was cut short by the Host. Is the Monk, then, indicating that, given the opportunity, he could do considerably better than that? It is in any case noteworthy that his prologal apology for failure, due to ignorance, to observe the chronological order of his "matere" (1984–90) closely echoes Chaucer's near the end of the General Prologue, especially for his failure, likewise because of ignorance, to set down the pilgrims in the order of their "degree" (743–46).
Perhaps, too, the numbers so casually mentioned by the Monk, one, two, three, a hundred, are intended to suggest that in his "cell"—his monastery and his brain—he has a store of narrative to rival a Dantean epic, which also contains a one-two-three and pre-
cisely a hundred cantos. Further, the Monk's reference to "popes, emperours, or kynges" (1986) as the subjects of his tragedies once again sounds like a pointed reference to the Comedy . There is no mention of a pope in his tale, but all three types of ruler are to be found in the Comedy, and especially in the Inferno, which is particularly concerned with those who by various means have tried to control and dominate the world around them. With this canticle, then, the Monk's Tale would seem to have the most direct relationship, just as it is this canticle that most nearly approximates—at least in certain episodes—the Monk's chosen genre of tragedy. By exploring their intertextual relations, accordingly, I aim to demonstrate that the Monk's Tale deserves to be regarded as one of the cornerstones in the edifice of Chaucer's Dantean epic.
The tale begins where the Inferno ended, with Lucifer, who here is no grotesque but a splendid creature about to fall. Like a biblical "fall of princes," the tale continues with Adam and Samson, neither of whom appears in the Inferno . Next, the tragedy of Hercules is told as though he were another biblical hero; the opinions of "clerkes" on different parts of the story are cited (2121, 2127), as though it were a sacred text over which the commentators have fought. There is obviously no reason for falling back here on the hoary view of the Monk as naive or confused in his attempt to fit disparate materials into a familiar pattern. We have already seen ample reason to believe that he is adept in literary matters, and there is further evidence to support this belief, starting with his precise, not to say pedantic, definition of tragedy and going on to his knowledgeable references to Dante (2459–62 in "Ugolino") and "my maister Petrak" (2325 in "Zenobia"). He knows what he is doing in his tale, which is, precisely, to break with the expected, familiar patterns of narrative by introducing into them elements of now subtle, now fairly outrageous incongruity.
The Knight would seem to have a sense of what the Monk is up to, so that he exclaims, at the end of "Croesus," "Ho! . . . good sire, namoore of this!" (2676). With that the Knight clearly intends to stop the Monk, and the scribal Heere stynteth the Knyght the Monk of his tale takes the intention for a fact. But it is possible, as I attempt
to show, that with the "Croesus" the Monk had reached the climax of his argument regarding history and was in fact finished with his tale. If the Knight is unaware of this, he is nonetheless uneasy about the direction in which the Monk's Tale is moving. His comments (2767–79) show that Kaske and others are right in saying that the Knight's objections are not, finally, literary so much as philosophical. But his philosophical perspective has not, in my opinion, been accurately defined, and I intend to deal with this question later in this chapter; here I merely suggest that the Knight is an upholder of "olde thynges" confronting one who holds "after the newe world the space" (I.175, 176 [General Prologue]).
First, then, let us examine "Croesus," which demonstrates as well as any of the tragedies the Monk's engagement with the kind of philosophic poetry represented in the fourteenth century above all by the Comedy . It may be an exaggeration to say that the tale alludes to Boethius's Consolation, but given the popularity of this work throughout the Middle Ages, some members of the audience could surely be counted on to catch a Boethian echo in the last line of the story (and the tale), where Fortune is said to "covere hire brighte face with a clowde." In the opening metrum of the Consolation Boethius complains that "Nunc . . . fallacem mutauit [sc. fortuna] nubila uultum" (l. 19), "now . . . Fortune cloudy hath chaunged hir deceyvable chere," in Chaucer's translation. The image recurs, though not in direct relation to Fortune, in the "Croesus passage" of the Consolation, from which I quote at length, for I believe that it contains the dramatic as well as the intellectual germ of the Monk's Tale. Fortune is speaking in her own defense, declaring her lack of malice, since she is only doing what comes naturally:
An ego sola meum ius exercere prohibebor? Licet caelo proferre lucidos dies eosdemque tenebrosis noctibus condere. Licet anno terrae uultum nunc floribus frugibusque redimire, nunc nimbis frigoribusque confundere. Ius est mari nunc strato aequore blandiri, nunc procellis ac fluctibus inhorrescere. Nos ad constantiam nostris moribus alienam inexpleta hominum cupiditas alligabit? Haec nostra uis est, hunc continuum ludum ludimus; rotam uolubili orbe uersamus, infima summis summa infimis mutare gaudemus. Ascende si placet, sed ea lege ne utique cum ludicri mei ratio poscet, descendere iniuriam putes. An tu mores ignorabas meos? Nesciebas Croesum regem Lydorum Cyro paulo ante formidabilem mox deinde miserandum rogi flammis traditum misso caelitus imbre defensum? Num te praeterit
Paulum Persi regis a se capti calamitatibus pias inpendisse lacrimas? Quid tragoediarum clamor aliud deflet nisi indiscreto ictu fortunam felicia regna uertentem?
(Must I only be forbidden to use my right? It is lawful for the heaven to bring forth fair days, and to hide them again in darksome nights. It is lawful for the year sometime to compass the face of the earth with flowers and fruits, and sometime to cover it with clouds and cold. The sea hath right sometime to fawn with calms, and sometime to frown with storms and waves. And shall the insatiable desire of men tie me to constancy, so contrary to my custom? This is my force, this is the sport which I continually use. I turn about my wheel with speed, and take a pleasure to turn things upside down. Ascend, if thou wilt, but with this condition that thou thinkest it not an injury to descend when the course of my sport so requireth. Didst thou not know my fashion? Wert thou ignorant how Croesus, King of the Lydians, not long before a terror to Cyrus, within a while after came to such misery that he should have been burnt had he not been saved by a shower sent from heaven? Hast thou forgotten how Paul piously bewailed the calamities of King Perses his prisoner? What other thing doth the outcry of tragedies lament, but that fortune having no respect, overturneth happy states?)
I said that Fortune is here speaking in her own defense. That is not strictly accurate. In actuality, it is Philosophy who speaks in Fortune's behalf, addressing Boethius as she imagines Fortune might do. Now, this rhetorical situation is a perfect anticipation of the Monk's Tale: he speaks with the voice of Fortune, or, more accurately, with tragoediarum clamor : "I wol biwaille," he says, "in manere of tragedie, / The harm of hem that stoode in heigh degree . . . , " and, more distantly, at the conclusion:
Tragediës noon oother maner thyng
Ne kan in syngyng crie ne biwaille
But that Fortune alwey wole assaille
With unwar strook the regnes that been proude;
For whan men trusteth hire, thanne wol she faille,
And covere hire brighte face with a clowde.
Behind the "clamor" of tragedy, there is the reflective Monk, a figure
of Boethian Philosophy, but one intent on upsetting the metaphysical applecart of Boethius's Philosophy.
The passage cited from the Consolation also provides the model for this undoing of metaphysical pretensions. In asserting her right (ius ) alongside that of heaven, earth, and sea, Fortune leaves herself no space of her own but becomes part of the natural order, her continuus ludus just another way of saying "the law of change." And in the specifically human realm Fortune becomes a kind of shorthand for the inexpleta hominum cupiditas, "the insatiable desire of men," as an explanatory cause of historical upheavals. Like the "pious tears" (pias lacrimas ) that, somewhat absurdly, Aemilius Paulus sheds over the calamities of King Perses, whom he himself holds prisoner, concepts like Fortune have a self-generated quality, responding not so much to a situation out there as to a need the mind has found within itself. Thus, the Paulus example can also be applied to the concept of tragedy as the overthrow of happy states (felicia regna ) by fortune, in other words, as the idea of a certain causal pattern in the face of which human agents appear helpless and thereby absolved of responsibility for what has happened.
Let us now consider Fortune's reference to Croesus. Its single sentence sums up a kaleidoscope of different causes operating in human affairs and attributes them all to Fortune, as it pictures Croesus the feared king and military leader becoming the pitiable man consigned to the flames of a pyre and then suddenly saved by a shower sent from heaven (misso caelitus imbre ). What does the sentence really tell us? That Croesus is the mere plaything of Fortune's caprices? That he gets the comeuppance that the rich and powerful must expect? Or that he is somehow still blessed by heaven, which miraculously saves him from catastrophe? Obviously there is no consistent answer to these questions, since in various ways they cancel each other out. Fortune, after all, is speaking (via Philosophy), precisely to demonstrate the basic unreliability of intellectual categories that presume to explain the vagaries of historical events.
Fortune's "Croesus" can be seen as a perfect distillation of the Monk's "Croesus," with this difference, that the confusion she creates rhetorically in her one-sentence account is by the Monk located largely in Croesus's mind. Thus, no matter what happens, his Croesus sees the event as a cause for pride. Wealthy, a king, and feared
by his rival, Croesus is "caught amyddes al his pryde" (2729) and led off to be burned. He is saved, not by a heaven-sent miracle but by a quite mundane rain "that slow the fyr, and made hym to escape" (2732). Nonetheless, Croesus now believes himself the invulnerable protégé of Fortune. Next, he has a dream in which the gods serve him, and this now increases his pride and desire for military revenge. In the dream he is on a tree, Jupiter washes him "bothe bak and syde" (2744), and Phoebus supplies a towel. Croesus's unsentimental daughter Phania interprets the dream for him in a deflatingly naturalistic manner, by demythologizing the gods: Jupiter is really the rain and snow that will wash him; Phoebus is the sun that will dry him while he is hanging from the tree, which is really a gallows. Phania's dream interpretation is meant as a warning to Croesus (2757), presumably to abandon his pride, but it is to no avail: "Anhanged was Cresus, the proude kyng; / His roial trone myghte hym nat availle" (2759–60). And this leads directly to the Monk's concluding observation that the only theme of tragedies is Fortune's unforeseen attacks on "the regnes that been proude" (2764).
"Croesus," then, caps the Monk's own playfully malicious assault on providential and moralistic attitudes to history, for by the end of his tale the term "proud" has also lost any determinate meaning and become part of a vast tautology: it is now a fixed attribute of the rich and powerful, who are made such by Fortune, just as, in the normal course of things, they are also unmade by Fortune. Such is the invariable stuff of tragedy, the contemplation of which gives enjoyment to many, though apparently not to the Knight.
The rhetoric of Fortune, then, is the instrument by which the Monk seeks to banish from history the specters of a grand design. Behind its deconstructive façade, however, the Monk has his own philosophic agenda, which can perhaps be summed up by his question in the General Prologue, "How shal the world be served?" (187). This might seem to imply something rather different from the conquest and domination of the world with which his tale is preoccupied, but I think for the Monk the crucial term is "the world," that is, the historical world in which human beings create
their own social and political arrangements and for which they feel responsible. That this is also a world in which conflict and suffering of all kinds are unavoidable is of course understood by the Monk, and it means that for him there is a concept of tragedy worth taking seriously after all. This concept, I suggest, has to do with the belief that in the midst of catastrophic failure (whether due to sin, error, or simply "misfortune") there is a vision of hope for humanity.
A nontragic version of this belief is to be found in the Purgatorio . There, one goal of the otherworld pilgrimage is shown to be the attainment of political and spiritual autonomy when, in canto XXVII, Virgil turns to the Pilgrim with the words "I crown and mitre you over yourself" ("io te sovra te corono e mitrio," 142). The Earthly Paradise, furthermore, where this scene takes place, implies that this autonomy is more than an individual possibility, that the struggle in human history for the same goal is, despite setbacks, not foredoomed to failure. Such, at any rate, I take to be one implication of the procession, in the Earthly Paradise, with the chariot drawn by the Griffin, usually interpreted as a symbolic history of the Church in its relation to the Empire. Like the other symbolic visions of history in the Comedy, the procession ends inconclusively, even negatively, and yet with a mysterious and exhilarating sense that it is part of the Pilgrim's existence, as Bernard Stambler has pointed out. Whatever its claims to transcendence, in other words, an institution like the Church is part of human history because it exists not merely for individual beings but also in and by them. More clearly than other institutions could, therefore, the Church shows that in the Comedy individual and collectivity are, in terms of their history, distinct but inseparable, mirror images one to the other.
Given this interdependence of the two, the Comedy 's stress on individuals and their moral responsibility can be seen, not as an evasion of history, but as a particular way of seeing and understand-
ing it. In this connection it is worth noting that even those symbolic figures that project the history of institutions and other large-scale, collective events—including the procession in the Earthly Paradise, the Old Man of Crete (Inferno XIV) and the Roman Eagle (Paradiso VI)—are all somehow individualized. They are presented, not as (in Stambler's terms) universal and transcendent, but as particular historical phenomena that coexist with others. At no point in the Comedy is the multiplicity of the historical world reduced to a unitary scheme in the manner, say, of the City of God .
For all that, commentators have traditionally felt that the majestic otherworld ("metahistorical") structure of the Comedy imposes what is ultimately a clear-cut and definitive moral judgment on the historical world known to Dante, definitive, furthermore, in the sense that it is presented as if it were an expression of the divine will, part of the objective structure of the divinely created universe. My objection to such a view is twofold. First, the poem itself, as I hope to show, constantly undermines any idea of a final judgment. Second, the idea that any system of morality can do justice to human history is inherently implausible, not to say absurd. The principles of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which Virgil uses to explain the organization of hell (Inf . XI), had by Dante's time achieved something of the status of natural law (by way of Aquinas); even they, however, soon come to appear provisional and arbitrary in the course of Dante's poem, especially when the souls in hell present themselves in their social and political context.
The further down in hell we go, the more insistent the indications become that it is a construct, and a totally problematic one at that. The climactic indication is the Ugolino episode in canto XXXIII, which, because of its importance to my argument, I examine at some length here, with the further motive of showing that it was the logical choice for the Monk to include in his own version, sub specie fortunae, of the Inferno .
The Ugolino episode extends over two cantos and is the most elaborate, gruesome, and enigmatic of all the episodes in the Inferno . It begins and ends with the cannibalism of Ugolino's shade chewing the skull and neck of Archbishop Ruggieri's shade (XXXII. 127ff.; XXXIII.77–78). Ugolino's own story—the center of the episode—concludes with a hint that he may have eaten his dead sons: "Then
fasting had more force than grief" ("Poscia, più che 'l dolor, poté 'l digiuno," XXXIII.75). The line is entirely symptomatic of this episode. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is clear or straightforward here. And no wonder; we are in the region where nothing is to be trusted, that of the traitors to homeland and party, the second ring of the ninth circle, called Antenora, where they are immersed in a frozen lake, with only their faces showing above the surface. The heads of Ugolino and Ruggieri emerge from a single hole: in death, in hatred, in mutual betrayal, they are joined like Siamese twins. Only Ugolino speaks, but we know, from the silent presence of the other head, that there is at least one other version of his story (as we surmise when Francesca speaks while Paolo maintains his silence in Inf . V). The immersion in icy water suggests a paralysis of some kind, perhaps of the emotions, because Ugolino expects his auditor to weep at his story—"if you don't weep now, when would you weep?" ("se non piangi, di che pianger suoli?" 42)—and yet he notes that he himself did not weep, because within he had already turned to stone (49). Even when the children imprisoned with him weep and ask what is wrong, he neither weeps nor replies (52).
The setting of Ugolino's narrative is Pisa, specifically "the Eagles" Tower, / Which now, through me, is called the Hunger Tower, / a cage in which still others will be locked" ("la Muda, / la qual per me ha 'l titol de la fame, / e che conviene ancor ch'altrui si chiuda," 22–24). Now, this orribile torre is surely intended as a precise analogue of the intraterrestrial tower that is Dante's hell. Ugolino calls it a doloroso carcere, "sorry prison" (56), echoing Cavalcanti's cieco / carcere, "blind prison" (X.58–59), and adjectivally anticipating canto XXXIV, where Lucifer appears as "The emperor of the despondent kingdom" ("Lo 'mperador del doloroso regno," 28). The tower, in other words, represents the hell people create for each other
on earth, and what makes it particularly like Dante's hell is the presence of the children in it.
Those children, the innocent victims of murderous adults, have their own analogue in the children whom Dante, with a kind of Miltonic delight in facing theological difficulties head-on, places in Limbo alongside the virtuous pagans. These children were sinless, and they appear in Limbo only because they died before they could receive baptism (canto IV.34–36; and cf. Purg . VII.28–33). Like the admirable souls who lived before the time of Christ, we could say that the children in Limbo represent part of the great mystery of divine justice. However, I think the children in the tower, and especially their gruesomely pathetic death from slow starvation, argue against a resort to "mystery" as, in the final analysis, an evasion. Because the question that must be confronted here is this: Can the human mind construct or conceive a scheme that will "justify" the course of human history, especially the enormous gratuitous suffering that it entails?
Dante the poet-philosopher-theologian has just elaborated such a scheme over more than thirty cantos. But the Ugolino episode now serves to dismantle this elaborate structure, not only because it is hopelessly inadequate from the point of view of justice, but also because it is a kind of tautology, mankind being all too proficient at creating for itself a hell right here on earth. Let us look further at the ways in which this same episode completes the deconstruction of Dante's hell.
When Ugolino has finished his narrative, the poet, in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, exclaims against Pisa as
vituperio de le genti
del bel paese là dove 'l sì suona,
poi che i vicini a te punir son lenti,
muovasi la Capraia e la Gorgona,
e faccian siepe ad Arno in su la foce,
sì ch'elli annieghi in te ogne persona!
Che se 'l conte Ugolino aveva voce
d'aver tradita te de le castella,
non dovei tu i figliuoi porre a tal croce.
Innocenti facea l'età novella,
novella Tebe, Uguiccione e 'l Brigata
e l' altri due che 'l canto suso appella.
(the scandal of the peoples
of that fair land where si is heard, because
your neighbors are so slow to punish you,
may, then, Caprara and Gorgona move
And build a hedge across the Arno's mouth,
So that it may drown every soul in you!
For if Count Ugolino was reputed
to have betrayed your fortresses, there was
no need to have his sons endure such torment.
O Thebes renewed, their years were innocent
and young—Brigata, Uguiccione, and
the other two my song has named above.)
The denunciation emphasizes the innocence of the children who are the victims in the tower, and the (apparent) absence (so far) of a historical nemesis for what is now treated as Pisa's collective guilt rather than the archbishop's responsibility—as though, furthermore, Pisa's "punishment" would not exact another, larger toll of innocent victims on both sides! Finally, the reference to novella Tebe ("Thebes renewed") links Pisa, too, with hell as a literary construct in the Inferno, where Thebes serves as the type of hell. Thus the invocation to the Muses in the previous canto mentions with apparent casualness that they "helped Amphion when he walled up Thebes" ("aiutaro Anfione a chiuder Tebe," 10–11). Amphion, an Orpheus figure who raised the walls of Thebes by the power of his music, in this context is clearly an analogue of the poet Dante. Just as Amphion, with the help of the Muses, completed the construction of Thebes by putting a wall around it, so Dante is completing his "city of hell" and bringing the first canticle to a close. Like Thebes, the Inferno is the creation of an Orphic music or poetry, and the (en) closure announced by the invocation invites the further, radical interpretation that with the end of the canticle the notion of an otherworld hell will be "closed" (another meaning of chiuder ) as well. For support of this idea we go ahead once more to the next canto and to Ugolino's prophecy about the Tower of Hunger, "che conviene ancor ch'altrui si chiuda" (24). The usual interpretation takes altrui as the subject of "si chiuda," yielding the translation "in which others are yet to be shut up" (S). But it is possible to take altrui as a dative plural—as at Inf . II.89—and la Muda (the Eagles' Tower) as the subject of "si chiuda," so that the line could be translated as "it will yet be
fitting that to others it will be closed." As Singleton indicates in his note to the line, during Dante's lifetime the tower ceased to be used as a prison. Did Dante anticipate as much for the very idea of hell?
The deconstruction of this idea is, I believe, coupled with a kind of theological critique. I mean that the father and his sons in the Ugolino episode represent a somewhat grotesque parody of Christianity, with the covert suggestion that the hell idea implies a vengeful God who is, in a manner of speaking, a cannibal to his own creation. Singleton has noted two allusions to the Crucifixion, the first when the fourth son, little Gaddo, throws himself at his father's feet and implores him, "Father, why do you not help me?" ("Padre mio, ché non m'aiuti?" 69), recalling Christ's words on the cross (Matthew 27.46). Later, when Dante denounces Pisa for its cruelty, he says, in a passage quoted earlier, that it need not have put the little sons to such a cross: "non dovei tu i figluoli porre a tal croce" (87). These allusions gain force from the Eucharistic implications of the sons offering themselves to be eaten by the father.
The idea of hell, then, is of a piece with the insistence on the bloody sacrifice of the cross as central to human salvation, in that both bring the God of transcendence close to the Saturn of Greco-Roman myth, who devours his offspring in order to secure his cosmic throne. Boccaccio's discussion of the myth—in his Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri —is of considerable interest for the theme I am pursuing and seems to have overtones critical of traditional Christian doctrine as well:
Eum [sc. Saturnus] devorasse filios et evomisse demum, duplicem tegit sensum, hystorialem scilicet, et naturalem. . . . Saturnus ut retineret regnum, cum Tytano fratre pactionem habuit occidendi omnem masculinam prolem, que a se gigneretur. . . . Circa autem naturalem rationem dicit Cicero: Saturnus autem est appellatus, quod saturetur annis; edere enim natos fingitur, quia consumit etas temporis spatia, annisque preteritis insatiabiliter expletur etc. Et hoc quantum ad devorationem filiorum dictum; de emissione autem dicetur, de fructibus annuis e terra susceptis; nam producte in tempore fruges ex terra, esto devorentur, omnes in tempore, ab eodem tempore, agente deo, anno sequenti redduntur. Ob hanc fictionem ab ignaris minime intellectam, a nonnullis creditum est detestabilem illum sacrorum ritum
apud quosdem barbaros nationes exortum, quo scilicet Saturno quidam, nedum alios, sed natos immolabant proprios, quasi ad instar illius acturi. Macrobius autem dicit in libro Saturnaliorum, quod Hercules, Gerione superato, sacrum hoc apud Ytalos immutavit, iussitque loco humanorum capitum, quibus conficiebatur, oscilla, ad humanam effigiem ex cera composita, Saturni aris accensis luminibus imponerent; quod postea diu observatum est.
(His having devoured his sons and eventually vomited them out, conceals a twofold meaning, a historical and a natural one. . . . Saturn, in order to retain his kingdom, made a pact with his brother Titanus of killing every male child that would be produced by him. . . . But concerning the natural reason, Cicero says as follows: He is called Saturn because he is satiated with years; it is fabled that he eats his sons, since time consumes portions of time, and gorges itself insatiably with the past years. And that is said in relation to the devouring of the sons; as for the vomiting, it may be said of the annual fruit received from the earth; for the fruit produced in time from the earth may all, certainly, be devoured, in time, but by the same time, through the agency of the god, they are returned the following year. Because of this fable, ill understood by the ignorant, some believe that there arose that detestable religious rite among certain barbarous nations, in which they sacrificed to Saturn not others' but their own sons, as if, in so doing, they acted like him. Macrobius, however, says in his book The Saturnalia, that Hercules, having overcome Geryon, changed this ritual among the Italians, and ordered that in place of the human heads with which it was carried out they should make from wax little masks in the likeness of human heads and place them on Saturn's altars with lighted candles; something which was afterwards observed for a long time.)
The passage reads astonishingly like a gloss on the Inferno and ultimately on the entire Comedy . The Saturn who devours his children is representative of the dark world of the Inferno and its God, who does require the human sacrifice. But then there is the culture hero Hercules, representative (here, at least) of a new vision of humanity. He subdues Geryon—whose Dantean version we examined in chapter 2—and is then able to reform the religion of the Italians! Instead of rituals using actual human heads, that is, based on flesh-and-blood sacrifice, Hercules gets them to honor the god by means of the human image, an image shaped, furthermore, by human ingenuity and skill. It is hard to imagine a more succinct formulation
of the Inferno 's allegorical paradigm. And this includes the oscilla, ad humanam effigiem ex cero composita (Boccaccio's wording derives from Macrobius), for the oscilla, "little mouths, little faces, little masks," perfectly express the point that the human image is primarily theatrical, verbal as well as visual.
In rendering the Ugolino story in his tale; the Monk replaces Dante's demonically obsessed, mysterious count with a strangely abstracted, self-concerned character. When his three-year-old son dies in his lap, he blames Fortune: "Thy false wheel my wo al may I wyte" (2446). This from someone who, in the Monk's version, is the victim of the archbishop's machinations (241 5ff.)! The Monk further changes or flattens the characterization of his protagonist by omitting one of the most interesting features of Ugolino's narrative in the Inferno, his dream in the tower. This dream reinforces the suggestion that becomes so insistent in the final cantos of this canticle, that the real hell is the one on earth. Ugolino's dream, that is to say, recapitulates or rather anticipates, since he is dreaming while still on earth, the atmosphere and imagery of the Inferno . Even at the level of his dreams this traitor is possessed of an infernal mentality. In the dream he and his sons have lost their human image, as they are being hunted in the form of a wolf and his young whelps ("lupo e' lupicini," 29) by a nameless lord and master ("maestro e donno," 28), presumably the archbishop, "upon the mountain that prevents the Pisans / from seeing Lucca" ("al monte / per che i Pisan veder Lucca non ponno," 29f.). The situation is a telling inversion of the Pilgrim's in canto I, where he, also a fugitive (25), is faced by the three beasts (including a lupa ) and rescued by the man, or rather shade, he calls lo mio maestro (85). The maestro of the dream is, rather, a master of the hunt, and he has his beaters "with lean and keen / and practiced hounds" ("Con cagne magre, studïose e conte," 31) going after his quarry. This recalls those
circles in the Inferno where the sinners are constantly pursued and harassed by demons, most memorably the violent against their neighbors, guarded by the Centaurs, "armed with arrows, / as, in the world above, they used to hunt" ("armati di saette, / come solien nel mondo andare a caccia," XII.57), and the barrators, constantly prodded by demons who, as they rush about, are compared to a mastiff chasing a thief and dogs when they set on a poor wretch (Inf . XXI.44–45 and 68).
His dream, then, shows that Ugolino has already completely "internalized" hell, so that everything that happens in the tower is as if it were written beforehand in the tablets of his imagination. This is not the case with the Monk's Ugolino. When the jailer shuts the doors of the tower at the time when food was usually brought to the prisoners, Hugelyn does draw a grim inference, but again only for himself and with no sense that he pre-intuited it:
He herde it wel, but he spak right noght,
And in his herte anon ther fil a thoght
That they for hunger wolde doon hym dyen.
"Allas!" quod he, "allas, that I was wroght!"
Therwith the teeris fillen from his yen.
The Monk, by contrast, makes us very much aware of the children—the eldest is scarcely five years old (2412)—the terrible hunger they suffer, their attachment to and dependence on the father, and the latter's apparent inability to communicate with them. At the death of the youngest, Hugelyn "for wo his armes two . . . gan to byte" (2444), whereupon the other two sons "wende that it for hunger was / That he his armes gnow, and not for wo" (2447–48)—a reminiscence of Ugolino in hell gnawing the nape of Ruggieri's neck, "just as he who's hungry chews his bread" ("come 'l pan per fame si manduca") —and offer themselves to be eaten by the father. Later, they lie down in his lap and die. The parodic Christian allegory here is somewhat different from that of the Inferno, at least in emphasis. Dante's Ugolino has a powerful psychological dimension that the Monk's lacks, and the Monk seems more preoccupied with the in-
comprehensible violence and death endured by the children, as part of his argument, I suggest, for the theme of the deus absconditus, the God of history whose face is hidden. We recall, in this connection, the last line of his tale, which is about Fortuna but ultimately points, I believe, to what for the Monk is the theological truth that God does not reveal himself in history: "For whan men trusteth hire, thanne wol she faille, / And covere hire brighte face with a clowde ."
In part, too, the Monk seems content to evoke the work of the miglior fabbro, to whom he pays a glowing tribute at the end of the story:
Of this tragedie it oghte ynough suffise;
Whoso wol here it in a lenger wise,
Redeth the grete poete of Ytaille
That highte Dant, for he kan al devyse
Fro point to point; nat o word wol he faille.
Not only is Dante's story difficult if not impossible to improve upon, but it also fits the Monk's purposes precisely, as I have tried to show. Finally, the Monk has in reserve a tale that as an allegorical coup de grace to Christian orthodoxy certainly matches Dante's Ugolino "fro point to point"! I am referring yet again to the Croesus story, which features at its center the protagonist's dream that the Monk omitted from his version of the Ugolino story.
We have already examined Croesus's dream and his interpretation of it, as well as that by his daughter Phania. It remains only to view both dream and its interpretations in the perspective of the crucifixion allegory to which Croesus's death on the tree indubitably points. I say "indubitably" because, as we have already seen in our discussion of the Nun's Priest's Tale, that tale, with its reference to Croesus's dream (VII.3138ff.), makes the crucifixion theme all but explicit. Croesus, then, is a Christus figure, and his dream a parodic version of the Crucifixion, which his daughter proceeds to debunk. And what the Monk's parody aims at here in particular is the idea of the Crucifixion as a cosmic and historic event by which both the world and time were transformed once and for all. Once again, furthermore, the classical deities, in this case Jupiter and Apollo, serve a multiple purpose, one of them being to suggest that the Church's view of the Crucifixion as a definitive event is itself a subtle form of paganism.
That it is also a form of wish-fulfillment and self-flattery, with the cosmos and time now dedicated to serving the interests of man, is indicated by Croesus's dream (and of course his interpretation of it). Here again we see how fully the Monk's Tale anticipates the Nun's Priest's Tale, rather than the latter being a "refutation" of the former. The dream provides the license for man's self-pleasing illusions, which in both tales the woman, Phania, Pertelote, criticizes, even if she cannot stop his believing them. As a self-debunking allegory of the Crucifixion, the Croesus story represents the Monk's climactic argument against a providential view of history. What his tale asserts, at least by implication, is that the Crucifixion did not change the course of history or the conditions of human existence, that impenetrable jumble of motives and causes best summed up in the term fortuna .
Fortuna, then, serves the Monk's purpose, as we have seen, in deconstructing a metaphysics or theology of history. As a catchall term for all sorts of political and other factors, it can mean just about anything—or nothing at all. And yet its function in the Monk's Tale is not entirely negative or critical, as I have been arguing. Earlier I made the point that the Monk is a man of literary sophistication, and I suggest that in linking the terms fortune and tragedy he is pointing not only to the Consolation of Philosophy, but also beyond Boethius to classical Roman, specifically Senecan, tragedy as the ultimate source of his tragedies. Thus when he says that he will
biwaille, in manere of tragedie,
The harm of hem that stoode in heigh degree,
And fillen so that ther nas no remedie
To brynge hem out of hir adversitee.
For certein, whan that Fortune list to flee,
Ther may no man the cours of hire withholde
he is describing in the first place a literary genre in which the protagonist's fall from prosperity may be irreversible but for the audience provides an insight into the conduct of life:
Lat no man truste on blynd prosperitee;
Be war by thise ensamples trewe and olde .
(1997–98; my italics)
Just what that insight involves beyond a prudential outlook is so far not clear. It is clear, however, that the tragedies are not an expression of cultural pessimism or despair, any more than the Inferno is.
Thematically, it has been said, the Inferno is the tragic part of the Comedy, and the hypothesis that the Monk's Tale is a "gloss" on this aspect of the canticle once again helps to illuminate both works. I have already suggested a link between the Monk's Tale and Senecan tragedy. Like the Monk's, Seneca's tragedies are at once political and philosophical. Their typical protagonists are conquerors and rulers who, as they extend and consolidate their mastery of the world around them, also show that world, philosophically speaking, to be obedient to man-made laws, to constitute a realm in which human beings can be in control. However, in asserting this distinctively human mastery, the Senecan heroes tend to overreach themselves and forget the fundamental law of their existence: the need for self-mastery, for awareness of limits of various kinds, personal, political, moral. The consequence is a fall whose cause may be ascribed to Fortune, but whose real cause lies within the hero, his need to go beyond the very restraints that his Stoic morality enjoins upon him.
Seneca's tragedies thus exploit a basic tension within Stoicism, between the ideal of human autonomy, on the one hand, and the acceptance of certain transcendent norms, on the other. In his assertion or discovery of an ever-increasing autonomy, the hero comes into conflict with these norms. But the disaster that results does not lead to a theophany that calls into question the idea of human autonomy; instead, it is ascribed to a failure of insight, of political or moral prudence. Senecan tragedy, then, so far from proclaiming
man's metaphysical dependence on the gods and the forces over which they preside, reinforces the idea of man's moral accountability and enlarges the empire of his autonomy.
The drama that most completely illustrates this pattern, Hercules Furens, at the same time displays a profound affinity with Dante's Comedy and so supports the theory that Senecan tragedy is the common ground on which the Monk's Tale and the Comedy meet. The play's action begins while Hercules is still in the underworld, performing the final labor imposed upon him by Juno of bringing Cerberus to the upper world. Juno is the first speaker, and with the very fact that the goddess speaks begins a whole series of dramatic ironies that run through the play.
Juno fears that Hercules, having successfully accomplished his mission and exposed the mysteries of Pluto's realm, will, once back on earth, attack the heavens, seize his divine father's sceptre, and "desire to rule in an empty universe" ("vacuo volet / regnare mundo," 67–68). Should Hercules succeed, that would mean the abolition of the gods, including Juno herself (though she has already left heaven because of Jupiter's affairs with other women), and the traditional sanctities. Another way of stating the matter would be to say that like the heroine of Spenser's Mutability Cantos, Hercules threatens a radical demystification of the world, which shows the gods to be superfluous, a purely human invention better replaced by simple categories of reason. That such demystification has already taken place on earth is intimated by Hercules' earthly father, Amphitryon, who speaks after the Chorus has announced the arrival of the new day. He begins, it is true, by praying to Zeus, the "mighty ruler of Olympus, judge of all the world" ("magne Olympi rector et mundi arbiter," 205), for an end to their troubles. But what really troubles him and the earth itself is the continued absence of his son, the great subduer of monsters:
orbe defenso caret.
sensere terrae pacis auctorem suae
abesse. rursus prosperum ac felix scelus
virtus vocatur; sontibus parent boni,
ius est in armis, opprimit leges timor.
(He is absent from the world which he defended. All the
earth has felt that the giver of its peace is lost to it. Once
again prosperous and successful crime goes by the name of
virtue; good men obey the bad, might is right, and fear
And Amphitryon concludes by lamenting the present situation of Thebes, where Lycus, taking advantage of the absence of Hercules, has slain Creon and usurped his throne:
quis satis Thebas fleat?
ferax deorum terra, quem dominum tremis?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
cuiusque muros natus Amphion Iove
struxit canoro saxa modulatu trahens,
in cuius urbem non semel divum parens
caelo relicto venit, haec quae caelites
recepit et quae fecit et (fas sit loqui)
fortasse faciet, sordido premitur iugo.
(Who could lament Thebes enough? O land, fertile in
gods, before what lord dost thou tremble now? . . . whose
walls Jove's son, Amphion, built, drawing its stones by his
tuneful melodies—to which not once alone came the
father of the gods, quitting the sky—this city, which has
welcomed the gods and has created gods and (may the
word be lawful) perchance will yet create them, is
oppressed by a shameful yoke.)
The dependent status of the gods, their fundamental irrelevance, even, to earthly affairs, could scarcely be stated more forcefully.
It is in the speeches of Megara, the wife of Hercules, and in Theseus's account of his journey, with Hercules, through the underworld, that the most striking parallels with Dante's otherworld pilgrimage appear. And though there are three separate judges to
pass sentence on the sinners in the underworld, the actual principle of punishment is the thoroughly Dantean (and shall we say Stoic?) contrapasso . As Theseus expresses it:
quod quisque fecit, patitur; auctorem scelus
repetit suoque premitur exemplo nocens.
(What each has done, he suffers; upon its author the
crime comes back and the guilty soul is crushed by its own
form of guilt.)
This underworld principle, especially in the phrasing of the Loeb translation—a more literal one might be "the offender is oppressed by his own example"—looks a lot like Dante's contrapasso, the term used by Bertrand de Born at Inferno XXVIII.142. In his note on this line Singleton observes that contrapasso is "often cited in discussion of the principle on which he [i.e., Dante] conceived the punishments of Hell," and he renders it as "retribution" (Mandelbaum has the more interesting "law of counterpenalty"). Seneca's, or Theseus's, formula comes a lot closer, in my opinion, to what Dante had in mind, namely, that the crime, or sin, is its own punishment by the way it distorts the human image here on earth. It is in this radical sense that I would interpret the idea of contrapasso throughout the Inferno, a matter I will discuss further in the next chapter.
Theseus's contrapasso formula also anticipates the conclusion of the Hercules Furens . In the blind fury aroused in him by Juno, Hercules killed his wife and children, thinking he was avenging Lycus's treachery during his absence. Now, when he awakens from his madness and realizes what he has done, he is ready to kill himself. His father, Amphitryon, threatens suicide should Hercules kill himself and at length persuades him to live. In allowing himself to be so persuaded, Hercules takes upon himself the ultimate burden of a moral autonomy whereby the individual is left to judge himself and, if possible, also to forgive himself. In Villy Sørensen's words, "The greatest labour of Hercules is left: to live like Hercules."
Now, the Monk's tragedy of Hercules does not fit very precisely into the pattern of Hercules Furens . There are various reasons for this. One, as was noted earlier, is that the Monk deliberately juxtaposes and parallels Hercules' tragedy with Samson's in order, once again, to undermine the biblical notion of history and thus remove God from the endless conflicts among tribes, nations, and dynasties. Samson is betrayed by "his lemman Dalida" (2063) and placed on an equal plane with that "noble champioun" Hercules, who is treated as a historical figure—"in his tyme of strengthe he was the flour" (2097)—and likewise falls because of a "lemman . . . / That highte Dianira, fressh as May" (2119–20). In fact, judging by the conclusions the Monk draws from their respective stories, he considers Hercules the more admirable hero. "Beth war by this ensample oold and playn," he says of Samson, "that no men telle hir conseil til hir wyves" (2091–92). As for Hercules, he concludes:
Ful wys is he that kan hymselven knowe!
Beth war, for whan that Fortune list to glose,
Thanne wayteth she her man to overthrowe
By swich a wey as he wolde leest suppose.
Possibly the Monk considers that the tragedy of two such entirely physical heroes cannot be taken with complete seriousness, but that would be an unlikely judgment from one who is himself such a "manly man, to been an abbot able" (I.167). It also lacks plausibility on other grounds, for the Monk parallels his heroes in a further, surprising way: both, he says, commit suicide. In the Senecan and tragic economy of his tale this means that they are not trivial figures but, on the contrary, are animated by a genuine heroic spirit prepared to assert its freedom and what the Stoics called autopragía, self-determination, at all costs. That Samson killed himself is bluntly
stated twice (2022, 2086), over against such authorities as Augustine and Aquinas, who regard it as an act ordered by God. Hercules' case is slightly more complex; when he puts on the shirt of Nessus,
his flessh was for the venym blaked.
And whan he saugh noon oother remedye,
In hoote coles he hath hymselven raked,
For with no venym deigned hym to dye.
Thus starf this worthy, myghty Hercules.
One's first reaction might be to suspect humorous intent in these lines, but on reflection they prove to point up the perfectly serious paradox in the idea of tragedy with which the Monk is concerned in his tale. We saw that the fall of the tragic hero has "no remedie" (1993), and that is precisely the predicament of Hercules in his poisoned shirt. Yet at that very moment he displays his autonomy or autopragía by choosing that he will die, and how, in other words, by finding a "remedy" where to all appearances there was none. This is the way of the Senecan tragic hero, like the Hercules of Hercules Oetaeus, like the historical Cato and Socrates—and like Seneca himself, as the Monk demonstrates, though rather ambiguously, in the tragedy of Nero. There Nero condemns Seneca to bleed to death in a bath,
But natheless this Seneca the wise
Chees in a bath to dye in this manere
Rather than han another tormentise;
And thus hath Nero slayn his maister deere.
(2515–19; my italics)
In the Hercules Oetaeus, similarly, Hercules, who is already dying from Nessus's poison, nonetheless orders a pyre to be prepared for him so he will die by his own choice rather than by a woman's hand (1176ff.).
But the Monk's statement "with no venym deigned hym to dye" may well involve another, more sublime Senecan allusion, to the essay "On Providence" and its enthusiastic praise of Cato's suicide.
One grisly detail of that encomium rather strikingly parallels Hercules' disdain for death by poison:
I am sure that the gods looked on with exceeding joy while that hero, most ruthless in avenging himself, took thought for the safety of others and arranged the escape of his departing followers; while even on the last night he pursued his studies; while he drove the sword into his sacred breast; while he scattered his vitals, and drew forth by his hand that holiest spirit, too noble to be defiled by the steel [indignam quae ferro contaminaretur ].
In similar fashion, Hercules on the pyre "rather burns than is burned," as Eugene Waith puts it; or, as Philoctetes says, "The one enemy on earth which he had not o'ercome, e'en fire, is vanquished."
The title of Seneca's essay might strike the reader as contradictory to my thesis that both the Monk's Tale and the Comedy draw on Seneca, especially Senecan tragedy, to "refute" a providential view of history. Beginning with the importance the essay ascribes to suicide, however, everything points to the conclusion that Seneca's version of Stoic providentia is a far cry indeed from the biblical-Christian notion of a divine Providence working in history, in fact that there is very little but the name they share. Let us consider the opening of the passage in which Cato's suicide is praised:
But lo! here is a spectacle worthy of the regard of God as he contemplates his works; lo! here a contest worthy of God,—a brave man matched against ill-fortune, and doubly so if his also was the challenge. I do not know, I say, what nobler sight the Lord of Heaven could find on earth, should he wish to turn his attention there, than the spectacle of Cato, after his cause had already been shattered more than once, nevertheless standing erect amid the ruins of the commonwealth. "Although," said he, "all the world has fallen under one man's sway, although Caesar's legions guard the land, his fleets the sea, and Caesar's troops beset the city gates, yet Cato has a way of escape; with one single hand he will open a wide path to freedom. This sword, unstained and blameless even in civil war, shall at last do good and noble service: the freedom which it could not give to his country it shall give to Cato! Essay, my soul, the task long planned; deliver yourself from human affairs. Already Petreius and Juba have met and lie fallen, each slain
by the other's hand. Their compact with Fate was brave and noble, but for my greatness such would be unfit. For Cato it were as ignoble to beg death from any man as to beg life."
The scene pictured by Seneca illustrates perfectly the Stoic vision of providential order. The gods are present, guarding the cosmic structure and its workings. Within the structure, which is a kind of vast theater, there is the arena of human politics and history—humanae res —where the fight goes on. Here the gods are mere spectators. They may be impressed, diverted, disgusted, or whatever, by what they see. But in any case they will not intervene to ensure an outcome that accords with one or another principle of morality. The specifically providential element, then, that human beings have to be thankful for is—aside from the stability of the cosmic theater—that they have been endowed with the moral and intellectual capacity to suffer, endure, and learn, and—this is the point Seneca returns to at the very end of his essay—to make a voluntary exit from the world stage if all else fails.
The act of suicide could thus be considered a kind of emblem or cornerstone of Seneca's philosophic, that is, fundamentally tragic, vision. We should not, of course, speak of suicide in this absolute way, as if there were only one kind. As Cicero observes in his praise of Cato's suicide, differences in character are of such force "that suicide may be for one man a duty, for another [under the same circumstances] a crime." In a very general way, we might differentiate between a noble or tragic suicide and an ignoble kind, depending on whether or not it is carried out in the name of a moral or political principle, like the opposition to tyranny that motivated Cato's suicide.
I believe it is no exaggeration to say that especially in the Inferno suicide is a much more pervasive theme than is generally recognized.
Arguably, the residents of hell have committed a kind of spiritual or psychic suicide—this is how I would interpret the Dantean contrapasso in its full, radical sense—and thus in their own way they have answered the question that arises at the beginning of the poem, when the Pilgrim is lost and terrified in the dark forest: Is life really worth living? The resemblance between the selva oscura of canto I and the mesta selva of the suicides in canto XIII is surely no coincidence. The residents of the latter forest carried out what the Pilgrim contemplated and what the other residents did to themselves in symbolic rather than expressly physical fashion.
Startling is the variety of perspectives in which the reader of the Comedy comes to see the subject of suicide. There is no question of the horror inspired by the pathless wood with its black leaves and harpies and the branch that bleeds and speaks to the Pilgrim, who broke it off. But the story told by the branch arouses intense compassion, so that the Pilgrim must depend on Virgil to ask the questions to which he seeks an answer. Gone is the sense of an utterly alien horror, nor does Pier della Vigna's story create a sense of the violence (forza ) against the self that earns him a place, in accord with Virgil's infernal classification (XI.28ff.), below the violent against neighbors and above the violent against God (blasphemers). Then there is Cato, who has been placed in charge of Purgatory and gruffly questions the pilgrims wanting to enter. His position, his appearance, and Virgil's deference to him suggest that he represents an ideal in the Comedy that is intimately connected with Dante's entire conception of Purgatory (which, as is well known, is almost entirely original with him). That this ideal is epitomized by Cato's suicide is evident from Virgil's words explaining the reason for Dante's appearance in the flesh:
libertà va cercando, ch'è si cara,
come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta.
Tu 'l sai, ché non ti fu per lei amara
in Utica la morte, ove lasciasti
la vesta ch'al gran dì sarà si chiara.
(he goes in search of liberty—so precious,
as he who gives his life for it must know.
You know it—who, in Utica, found death
for freedom was not bitter, when you left
the garb that will be bright on the great day.)
What is curious here is that the freedom Virgil sees as the goal of the Pilgrim's journey through Purgatory is hardly the same as that which the souls in Purgatory are seeking to attain. Their goal, in Singleton's terms, is "freedom from the stains of sin" (n. to l. 66), and this freedom is made to appear strictly instrumental, a means by which souls can make the transition to another, better place. Thus the poet announces, at the start of the Purgatorio,
canterò di quel secondo regno
dove l'umano spirito si purga
e di salire al ciel diventa degno.
(I will sing of that second realm where the human spirit is
purged and becomes fit to ascend to heaven. [S])
And Statius, to give another example, explains the shaking of the mountain of Purgatory as a sign that a soul has completed its penitential climb and is now ready to move on:
Tremaci quando alcuna anima monda
sentesi, sì che surga o che si mova
per salir sù.
(It trembles here when some soul feels itself pure so that it
may rise or set out for the ascent. [S])
Cato's suicide, on the other hand, and the freedom it asserts (rather than seeks), is not a way of transcending the past or history, not a way of reaching a higher stage or state of being. Rather, it is a fully historical act by which, as Seneca's praise of it indicates, the individual preserves his dignity and nobility, his autonomy and freedom in a personal as well as a political sense.
Cato, I suggest, represents a "Senecan" subtext in the Purgatorio, which subverts the notion of an otherworld Purgatory as a stage in
the soul's ascent to Heaven. Instead, this subtext helps us to see the Purgatorio as parallel to the Inferno in its examination of the human scene, but from a vastly different perspective. The residents of Hell, I suggested earlier, are viewed as having committed suicide in one way or another. In the Inferno, that is to say, sin means that by a moral choice individuals have abandoned or utterly disfigured their human image. But in the Purgatorio sin is not viewed in this final, "suicidal" perspective; instead, it is seen as an inescapable aspect of historical existence for which the sinner can repent and render a kind of compensation, even as he attempts to regain the integrity of his image.
The parallelism between Inferno and Purgatorio is well brought out in an observation by Jacques Le Goff in his study of the history of Purgatory:
[Dante's] Purgatory is indeed the place where sins are expiated, but Dante seems at least partly to have neglected the teachings of the theologians on this score. The sins expiated in Dante's Purgatory are not venial sins, about which the poet has little to say save perhaps for an allusion to excessive love for one's own kin, one of the "slight" sins mentioned by Augustine. Essentially, the sins purged on the seven cornices of Dante's Purgatory are the seven capital sins, the same sins punished in Hell. Dante, who always kept the underlying logic of Purgatory in view, clearly saw it as a Hell of limited duration. It is a reprise, in a minor key, of the infernal torments appropriate to each class of sin.
But if Dante's is "a Hell of limited duration," it is a hell with a difference. To quote once more from Le Goff's chapter on the Comedy :
If I am right in thinking that Dante more than anyone else made Purgatory the intermediate region of the other world, then it follows that he rescued Purgatory from the infernalization to which the Church subjected it in the thirteenth century. Dante was in a sense more orthodox than the Church, more faithful to Purgatory's underlying logic. He depicts Purgatory as a place between two extremes, but closer to one of them, straining in the
direction of Paradise. For him it is a place of hope, of initiation into joy, of gradual emergence into the light.
Its character as "intermediate region" and "place of hope" makes Dante's Purgatory an apt analogue of the historical world, especially when we add to this the fact that in this canticle time is the absolutely dominant dimension. And there is yet another factor noted by Le Goff that, to my mind, decisively points Purgatory in the direction of history. That is the emphasis on the will as crucial to the process—it should rather be called the "drama"—of purgation. Le Goff cites Statius's explanation of the quake that shook Mount Purgatory, from which I have already quoted, to illustrate his point:
De la mondizia sol voler fa prova,
che, tutto libero a mutar convento,
l'alma sorprende, e di voler le giova.
(Of its [i.e., the soul's] purity the will alone gives proof,
which takes by surprise the soul, wholly free now to
change its convent, and avails it to will. [S])
The statement that the individual will is the "proof" of the soul's purity, it seems to me, effectively distances the idea of purgation from notions of sin as defilement and impurity and moves it closer to the world of Senecan tragedy, where the soul is tutto libero a mutar convento, that is, entirely free to change its dwelling place in Cato's fashion. I am not saying, to be sure, that that is the primary meaning of Dante's phrase—Singleton, ad loc., interprets convento as referring to Purgatory and Paradise respectively—but the wording seems sufficiently ambiguous to permit of just such an overtone. In any case, however, even as an "eschatological" moment that takes the soul by surprise, it depends to a surprising degree on that soul's act of the will.
Cato, then, seems to me an ideal link between the two worlds of the Inferno and the Purgatorio, looking back to the one where suicide in its various forms is apparently final, and looking forward to the other, where suicide, like every other human act, is to be judged morally, to be sure, but by a morality aware of its limitations, aware
of the sheer complexity of human existence. And it is here, I suggest, that the Monk's Tale is perfectly in tune with the Purgatorio 's perspective. Earlier, I spoke of Samson's, Hercules', and, more ambiguously, Seneca's, suicides as indicating a tragic heroism (in the Senecan manner). But in fact the Monk leaves the judgment of these suicides up to his audience, and this is not a matter of his moral indifference, his willingness to treat his protagonists as so many "cases," but an implicit acknowledgment that moral judgment, though perhaps inescapable, will always be inadequate.
Most interesting in this connection is the tragedy of Nero, who is characterized at the very outset as no less than satanic:
Although that Nero were as vicius
As any feend that lith ful lowe adoun,
Yet he, as telleth us Swetonius,
This wyde world hadde in subjeccioun,
Bothe est and west, [south], and septemtrioun.
Morally, the Monk tells us, Nero is no better than a fiend in hell, and yet this is, we must remind ourselves, his tragedy. In what sense, we ask, can it be a tragedy and Nero a tragic protagonist? Is the Monk not serious after all, but playing with the idea of tragedy as Fortune does with Nero, when first she "as his freend hym wolde obeye" (2478) and in the end "lough, and hadde a game" (2550) after Nero has killed himself? A degree of playfulness, even frivolity—though at the expense of abstractions presuming to explain the course of history—must be conceded to the Monk, and this Fortune provides a particularly good example of such an abstraction in its mythological guise. Midway through the Nero story she decides to behave as she is supposed to behave in the Boethian scheme, that is, in the service of a superior morality to which in another, popular, sense she is a total stranger:
Now fil it so that Fortune liste no lenger
The hye pryde of Nero to cherice,
For though that he were strong, yet was she strenger.
She thoughte thus, "By God! I am to nyce
To sette a man that is fulfild of vice
In heigh degree, and emperour hym calle.
By God, out of his sete I wol hym trice;
Whan he leest weneth, sonnest shal he falle."
Naturally, the Monk loses no time in deconstructing this Fortune by in effect equating her with the Roman populace, which, in the very next stanza, decides to rebel:
The peple roos upon hym on a nyght
For his defaute, and whan he it espied,
Out of his dores anon he hath hym dight
Allone, and ther he wende han been allied,
He knokked faste, and ay the moore he cried,
The fastere shette they the dores alle.
Tho wiste he wel, he hadde himself mysgyed,
And wente his wey; no lenger dorste he calle.
The peple cried and rombled up and doun,
That with his erys herde he how they seyde,
"Where is this false tiraunt, this Neroun?"
For fere almoost out of his wit he breyde,
And to his goddes pitously he preyde
For socour, but it myghte nat bityde.
For drede of this hym thoughte that he deyde,
And ran into a gardyn hym to hyde.
I cite both stanzas because they seem to me an extraordinary feat of narration, which manages to convey simultaneously the atmosphere of the rebellion and Nero's changing states of mind: his fear, his sudden recognition that he is alone, his terror leading to his thoroughly uncharacteristic prayer to his gods, his decision to hide in the garden. The climactic change, a sudden reversal, really, occurs in the last stanza when, instead of hiding, Nero wants to be killed:
And in this gardyn foond he cherles tweye
That seten by a fyr, greet and reed.
And to thise cherles two he gan to preye
To sleen hym and to girden of his heed,
That to his body, whan that he were deed,
Were no despit ydoon for his defame.
Hymself he slow, he koude no bettre reed,
Of which Fortune lough . . .
The enigmatic, sinister picture of the "cherles" sitting in apparent silence by the big fire strikes me as magnificently "Dantean" in its miniaturist's skill of creating the most powerful suggestions with a tiny scene and the simplest details. Nero's request to have his head cut off, out of what seems a confused desire to save his body from mutilation, is doubly ironic in view of the "pitous aray" he put his mother in, "For he hire wombe slitte to biholde / Where he conceyved was" (2483–85), but it fits with the theme of suicide we have been pursuing. However paradoxical, Nero's concern for the (partial) integrity of his body in death accords with a heroic or tragic suicide, which is about the preservation of one's human image, though not primarily in the physical sense of that phrase.
Despite its dismissive ring, therefore, Hymself he slow, he koude no bettre reed, must in light of the Monk's Senecan perspective be taken as a grudging concession of respect. I am not claiming that Nero's is to be regarded as on a par with Cato's or Samson's or even Hercules' suicide. But I believe it is presented as sufficient to make even the fiendish Nero into a tragic hero, somewhat in the manner of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in that both acknowledge responsibility for what they have done and pass judgment on themselves.
The point seems to gain support from a curious feature in the account of Nero's death: the garden where he first thinks to hide from the angry mob and then asks the two churls to kill him. In the Roman de la Rose, generally considered the primary source of the Nero story, it is an orchard (vergier, l. 6436) where Nero seeks refuge with two of his slaves. The change to a garden seems designed to evoke an echo of the gospel stories of Jesus' retreat to a garden (hortus, John 18.1) shortly before the Crucifixion; in three of the gospels he expresses great fear and foreboding and prays, "O my
Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26.39). This, I suggest, may be reflected in Nero's fear and praying; the remainder of the scene with the churls and the great fire (Purgatorial?) might recall the variant account, in John's gospel, of Jesus in the garden going directly to meet Judas and his band of soldiers by the fitful light of their "lanterns and torches" (John 18.3).
The same gospel narrative notes that when he stepped toward Judas, Jesus knew "all things that should come upon him" (18.4). One might conclude, as the Monk does with Samson, that Jesus' death was also a form of suicide. In any case, however, it should be clear by now that for the Monk suicide of the kind we have been discussing involves not merely a sacrifice for the sake of a greater good, but also the affirmation of the human image in the dimension of its autonomy and freedom. That such an affirmation is also a commitment to the inescapable moral ambiguity of human existence—especially in its "historical" aspect—is again, I believe, made clear in the Nero story. I am thinking in particular of the ironies that play around the character of Seneca, who, as we saw earlier, threatens to steal the show from Nero. He is introduced in terms that echo the description of Hercules:
In yowthe a maister hadde this emperour
To teche hym letterure and curteisye,
For of moralitee he was the flour,
As in his tyme, but if bookes lye.
(2495–99; my italics)
A kind of culture hero in the moral realm, he achieved in later centuries, when people still knew that books do not lie, the apotheosis of an unquestioned auctorite . There is, therefore, more than a touch of irony in the spectacle of the learned "maister" for all his "maistrye" going down to inevitable defeat before his political master. Seneca's program of moral education, the wording suggests, not only was doomed from the start but might even have contributed to the viciousness his imperial pupil eventually displayed:
And whil this maister hadde of hym maistrye,
He maked hym so konnyng and so sowple
That longe tyme it was er tirannye
Or any vice dorste on hym uncowple.
In retrospect, at least, a character that is "konnyng" and "sowple," even without their modern overtones, has ominous possibilities. And those dogs implied in that last image will be all the more vicious for the control Seneca temporarily exercised over them. In the next stanza the Monk underscores the bathos of a moral stance in the context of political tyranny:
This Seneca, of which that I devyse,
By cause Nero hadde of hym swich drede,
For he fro vices wolde hym ay chastise
Discreetly, as by word and nat by dede—
"Sire," wolde he seyn, "an emperour moot nede
Be vertuous and hate tirannye—"
For which he in a bath made hym to blede
On bothe his armes, til he moste dye.
The brutal irony here is yet again in the service of demonstrating the total incommensurability of moral ideals and historical experience. But such a formulation itself involves an unnecessary and ultimately false antithesis. The Monk's Tale affirms moral ambiguity as a basic fact of existence, so that there can be no question of a coincidence of real and ideal, only the attempt to bring about an approximation of the two.
The Monk's Tale thus represents, I would say, an emphatic repudiation of any system of otherworld justice as something that does violence to the fabric of human existence. Now, in this, the reader will note, it goes not so much counter to the Comedy as simply one radical step further. For in the Comedy, as I have been arguing, Dante constantly deconstructs the very system he is creating. Nonetheless, for Dante the otherworld is still a valid fiction for coming to terms with life—and death. One reason, presumably, for its validity is that it is necessary to make moral judgments even if we recognize that these are fictions, since our knowledge is always partial and incomplete and human reality is constantly changing. Thus we have, in the Inferno, the fiction of Pier della Vigna, self-condemned in the
forest of suicides. To Pier, I believe, the Monk opposes the example of Seneca in the Nero story, less as a corrective than as an alternative interpretation of Pier's kind of suicide.
Before examining this possibility, I will discuss another instance of Dantean self-deconstruction that occurs just before the Ugolino episode and, like it, bears directly on the theme of moral ambiguity in the Comedy . My reason for doing so here is that I suspect the reader will have most trouble with this part of my argument, which is yet central to the purpose of this chapter, namely, to demonstrate the intimate intertextuality between the Inferno and the Monk's Tale.
The scene I will discuss is the curiously brutal one between the Pilgrim and Bocca degli Abati in Inferno XXXII. Bocca is in the ring Antenora of the ninth circle, one of the "traitors to homeland or party," who are stuck up to their necks in ice. As he walks along the Pilgrim deliberately kicks this spirit in the face, who
Piangendo mi sgridò: "Perché mi peste?
se tu non vieni a crescer la vendetta
di Montaperti, perché mi moleste?"
(Weeping, . . . chided then: "Why trample me?
If you've not come to add to the revenge
of Montaperti, why do you molest me?")
The Pilgrim tells his maestro Virgil to wait for him while he clears up a "doubt," which turns out to be the question of Bocca's identity. To this Bocca replies with a question of his own, and here I cite the remainder of the episode so far as it concerns my argument:
"Or tu chi se' che vai per l'Antenora,
percotendo," rispuose, "altrui le gote,
sì che, se fossi vivo, troppo fora?"
"Vivo son io, e caro esser ti puote,"
fu mia risposta, "se dimandi fama,
ch'io metta il nome tuo tra l'altre note."
Ed elli a me: "Del contrario ho io brama.
Lèvati quinci e non mi dar più lagna,
ché mal sai lusingar per questa lama!"
Allor lo presi per la cuticagna
e dissi: "El converrà che tu ti nomi,
o che capel qui sù non ti rimagna."
Ond' elli a me: "Perché tu mi dischiomi,
né ti dirò ch'io sia, né mosterrolti
se mille fiate in sul capo mi tomi."
Io avea già i capelli in mano avvolti,
e tratti glien' avea più d'una ciocca,
latrando lui con li occhi in giù raccolti,
quando un altro gridò: "Che hai tu, Bocca?
non ti basta sonar con le mascelle,
se tu non latri? qual diavol ti tocca?"
("And who are you who go through Antenora,
striking the cheeks of others," he replied,
"too roughly—even if you were alive?"
"I am alive, and can be precious to you
if you want fame," was my reply, "for I
can set your name among my other notes."
And he to me: "I want the contrary;
so go away and do not harass me—
your flattery is useless in this valley."
At that I grabbed him by the scruff and said:
"You'll have to name yourself to me or else
you won't have even one hair left up here."
And he to me: "Though you should strip me bald,
I shall not tell you who I am or show it,
not if you pound my head a thousand times."
His hairs were wound around my hand already,
and I had plucked from him more than one tuft
while he was barking and his eyes stared down,
when someone else cried out: "What is it, Bocca?
Isn't the music of your jaws enough
for you without your bark? What devil's at you?")
Commentators have been delighted with the irony of Bocca's companion betraying his name but, perhaps as a consequence, have over-looked the unwitting accuracy of his question, "qual diavol ti tocca?" In this entire episode the Pilgrim behaves like a devil, and the poet is almost reckless in the way he inverts the expected moral order so that the despised traitors seem possessed of a humanity—for all the insistence on their doglikeness—that is largely absent from the Pilgrim.
There are of course various explanations for the Pilgrim's behavior. One of them is that toward such sinners as he faces in the ninth circle one can only be brutal. Another possibility is that the Pilgrim is spiritually exhausted after his long descent through hell, with its endless spectacle of human depravity, and so not fully in command
of his emotions. These and other explanations doubtless have a certain validity, but I do not think that they get to the heart of the matter. Above all, they miss the poetic crux of the passage, namely, that a distinction that elsewhere in the Comedy is carefully maintained breaks down here. I am referring to the distinction between Pilgrim and Poet. With the boast that he is alive and can confer fame on Bocca by setting his name "tra l'altra note" (93), the Pilgrim suddenly identifies himself as the author in the process of gathering "material" for the poem he is writing.
This interpretation obviously hinges on the term note . Translators like Mandelbaum translate it as "notes"; others, like Singleton and Sinclair, make a verb of it: "that I note your name among the rest." Obviously sensing a difficulty, Singleton glosses "tra l'altre note" rather elaborately as "In the book of my memory where this journey is recorded." I am arguing that note refers to the poem that Chaucer correctly perceived as Dante's own "house of fame" (see chapter 2). The point receives support from the Geryon passage in Inferno XVI that was discussed in chapter 3. In that passage, it will be recalled, the Poet swears to the truth of his vision of the monster "per le note / di questa comedìa" (127–28). The author retrospectively—and quite comically!—vouches for the "truth" of what, as pilgrim, he experienced, by the (poetic) record he has made of it. Here, then, poet and pilgrim are kept distinct, though not altogether securely so, since note can be taken in a self-referential sense as the "musical notes," "strains" of the Comedy, which as such make no claim to any truth that is external or anterior to them.
In the Bocca episode, however, the fiction of the two Dantes is deliberately exploded as the poet-pilgrim insists on getting Bocca into his poem, name and all, by any means. Now, one reason for this is to make the obvious enough point—pace Singleton and his followers—that the poem is not the record of a past experience on which the poet is now looking back. The much more important reason seems to me an admission by the poet of something that has been implicit from the start in his otherworld fiction, namely that the imaginative construction of a hell—for fellow human beings!—however nobly motivated it may be by a yearning for justice, is ultimately an act of violence, of vengefulness, involving a risk to one's very humanity, hence the question qual diavol ti tocca ? is by no means without its justification.
All of this, to be sure, is conveyed in a scene of grotesque comedy, even farce, in which the expected values are rudely inverted: a pitiless, vicious Dante over against a weeping sinner, who with a certain dignity and justice rebukes Dante for his absurd and, in the circumstances, pathetic offer of fame. What the offer suggests, if only momentarily, is not that the poem exists for the sake of exploring the awful mystery of human evil but rather that the evil, and its mystery, exist for the sake of the poem. But it is the violence that most emphatically marks the scene as farce. The kick in the face and the threat to pull out all the hair from his skull are absurd when we consider that the intended victim is a disembodied spirit. To be sure, Dante's otherworld is constructed on the allegorical premise that physical events have moral and spiritual correlatives, but the present scene is unlike others in the Inferno in that the Pilgrim's violence appears to be gratuitous, that is, allegorically inconsequential, and transgresses the boundary separating living flesh and blood from the dead souls—a boundary that is crossed regularly by speech, however.
These "violations" of the poem's fictive premises draw special attention to the Pilgrim, who, as was said, is stepping out of his established role and into that of the poet, or rather of the person who somehow encompasses the roles of both poet and pilgrim. As a result, the Inferno becomes in a peculiar way the poet-pilgrim's confession. Not just that many if not all the sins represented, analyzed, and punished there are also his, but that the very act of imagining and transcribing his vision of hell has been an expression of his rage, vindictiveness, pride, pettiness, murderous violence, to name but a few of the more questionable motives.
The episode, then, brings out what I have been emphasizing all along, namely, that Dante's epic is an intensely personal poem which, for all the philosophical, theological, literary, and other authorities it invokes, represents an individual vision with all the moral ambiguity that necessarily attaches to such an enterprise. And with that we return to the question of suicide as treated through the "vignettes" of Pier della Vigna (Inf . XIII), Seneca (in the Nero tragedy), and Cato (Purg . I and II). I list the three in this order because it seems possible to see the Monk's Seneca as a fairly precise median between the two extremes of the damned Pier and the glorified Cato. Like Pier, furthermore, Seneca is a courtier—Pier even refers to his master, Frederick II, as Augustus (68) and his court as "Caesar's
household" ("l'ospizio / di Cesare," 64–65); like Cato, he is an ancient Roman, and both are defeated, in one way or another, by a Caesar.
In actual fact, of course, neither the damnation of Pier nor the glorification of Cato is by any means unqualified. An allusion to Cato in the canto following Pier's (XIV.15) slyly indicates that the subject of suicide has another side remaining to be considered, and the mesta selva where Pier is now (106f.) recalls the selva oscura of the Pilgrim's own suicidal feelings; having heard Pier's story, the Pilgrim is so overwhelmed by pity that he has Virgil ask him questions (84). Indeed, the entire Pier episode raises questions to which no final answers are forthcoming. As for Cato, he may have sacrificed his life for the sake of liberty, but the picture we get of him at the start of the Purgatorio is of a rigidly legalistic puritan who in his own being seems free in a very limited sense.
It follows from this that the Monk's Tale is less a critique than a gloss or an interpretation of the Comedy . In specific terms, the Monk's Seneca has a heroic constancy which is made to seem a trifle unimaginative, not unlike the excessive gravity of Dante's Cato, and a readiness to spare himself further, or other, torment (as the Monk, with a touch of unkindness, suggests), which makes his suicide something less than heroic. Conversely, by juxtaposing Seneca with Pier we are enabled to see that Pier—or Dante—has it both ways, that his suicide can be interpreted as a self-condemnation and as a heroic or tragic assertion of freedom in the face of tyranny.
An especially dazzling feature, indeed, of the episode is that in it the two perspectives are inextricably intertwined: in the very act of justifying himself, that is, Pier also "damns" himself. At first, certainly, he does not appear to view his suicide in a heroic light. On the contrary, he is rare if not unique among the residents of hell in regarding his decisive act as an unjust one and condemning himself for it, though the self-condemnation is not unqualified:
L'animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,
credendo col murir fuggir disdegno,
ingiusto fece me contra me giusto.
(My mind, because of its disdainful temper,
believing it could flee disdain through death,
made me unjust against my own just self.)
These lines are characteristic of Pier's account in that they describe his suicide as resulting, not from compelling outward circumstances, such as we witnessed in the case of all the other suicides we discussed, but as the consequence of a character flaw ("disdegnoso gusto") and of a miscalculation or mistaken belief ("credendo col murir fuggir disdegno"). His battle is, in other words, with himself and not, as with the others, a response to an opponent, the world at large, or a sudden reversal of fortune. In fact, the "Caesar" whom he served so faithfully and tirelessly and who turned against him receives nothing but praise:
vi giuro che già mai non ruppi fede
al mio segnor, che fu d'onor sì degno.
(I swear to you . . . / . . . I never broke my faith with him
who was so worthy—with my lord.)
By turning the story of his suicide into a grand moral and psychological drama, Pier emerges as a tragic hero who preserves his personal integrity and autonomy even as he does hopeless battle with the antagonists in his own soul. And the "proof" of the tragedy is that the Pilgrim reacts in proper Aristotelian fashion by being overcome with pity—and fear (cf. l. 45).
Yet Pier's highly mannered narrative, possibly reflecting a literary fashion at the Sicilian court of Frederick II, also creates ambiguities that tend to undermine his presentation of himself as a tragic protagonist. Let us consider the lines already quoted:
L'animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,
credendo col morir fuggir disdegno.
We assume that it is his "disdegno" he is trying to escape from. But Singleton's gloss to line 71 is right on target as the other meaning that Pier simultaneously hints at and backs away from: "Seeking to flee a life that has become unbearable because of the scorn of others and especially that of the emperor, Pier, like other suicides, chooses death as the lesser of two evils."
Even when he does acknowledge actual enemies, it is as though
they are agents in a psychodrama. They are "li animi tutti" ("all minds," 67) of the court, inflamed against him, and they in turn inflamed "Augustus" ("e li 'infiammati infiammar sì Augusto," 67). And what inflames them is not scorn but presumably envy, "morte commune e de le corte vizio" ("the death of all and vice of every court," 66). And is he saying that even the emperor envied his counselor? Here again Pier implicates himself, for whether he means scorn or envy, he just insisted that he had near-exclusive ownership of the keys to Frederick's heart, "che dal secreto suo quasi ogn' uom tolsi" ("that from his secrets I kept almost every one" [S], 61 [italics added]).
The conclusion seems inescapable that Pier maintains a heroic posture by purging his narrative of any sense of actual persons and concrete circumstances as well as of the physical horrors he had to endure, of which the commentators remind us: especially his unjust incarceration and blinding. By turning all this into "psychodrama," he creates for himself an unwarranted degree of moral autonomy and of independence from historical events. The Pier episode, then, is really about the limits of human autonomy, of the individual's ability to transcend his historical situation, and thus, in a certain sense, also an exploration of the nature of the human soul.
This would explain the puzzling intertextuality with Book III of the Aeneid, to which Virgil himself draws attention in his highly convoluted and enigmatic apology to Pier: "S'elli avesse potuto creder prima,"
rispuose 'l savio mio, "anima lesa,
ciò c'ha veduto pur con la mia rima,
non averebbe in te la man distesa;
ma la cosa incredibile mi fece
indurlo ad ovra ch'a me stesso pesa."
(My sage said: "Wounded soul, if, earlier,
he had been able to believe what he
had only glimpsed within my poetry,
then he would not have set his hand against you;
but its incredibility made me
urge him to do a deed that grieves me deeply.")
By way of Virgil's obscure apology to Pier, I suggest, Dante is subtly correcting the master's idea of the human soul as it is expounded in the underworld by Anchises. In their passage from the underworld to the upper world, Anchises tells his son Aeneas, the souls, which are also the universal seeds of things, go through successive cycles of incarnation and purification extending over millennia (Aen . VI.713ff.). What specifically concerns me in Anchises' account is its Platonic-Stoic dualism: the souls exist in a state of purity when separated from the body, but once joined with or imprisoned in it, they become tainted by corporeal vices like the passions and need to be purified when again separated from the body. I cite the critical portion of Anchises' exposition:
igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo
seminibus, quantum non noxia corpora tardant
terreni hebetant artus moribundaque membra.
hinc metuunt cupiuntque, dolent gaudentque, neque
dispiciunt clausae tenebris et carcere caeco.
quin et supremo cum lumine vita reliquit,
non tamen omne malum miseris nec funditus omnes
corporeae excedunt pestes, penitusque necesse est
multa diu concreta modis inolescere miris.
ergo exercentur poenis . . .
(Fiery is the vigour and divine the source of those life-
seeds, so far as harmful bodies clog them not, nor earthly
limbs and earthly frames dull them. Hence their fears and
desires, their griefs and joys; nor discern they the light,
pent up in the gloom of their blind dungeon. Nay, when
at their last day life is fled, still not all quit them utterly;
and it must needs be that many a taint, long linked in
growth, should in wondrous wise become deeply
ingrained. Therefore are they schooled with penalties . . .
[Loeb trans. slightly modified])
At this point the intertextual situation becomes especially complex. Canto XIII of the Inferno evokes Anchises' underworld dialogue with Aeneas and the Polydorus episode of Book III, and in juxtaposing these two in the reader's mind it invites the reader to reflect on alternative notions of the soul-body relationship, with the possibility that one represents a corrective to the other. What, after all, is the self against which the suicide perpetrates his violence? Where does
his soul end? his body begin? Is the hand an instrument preeminently of the soul?
As Aeneas asks Anchises, so Virgil asks Pier to explain the fate of the souls that have become part of the forest of the suicides, and while his question literally concerns the postmortem condition of the suicides, it is ultimately a general question, surely, about the body-soul relationship. "Spirito incarcerato," he says to him,
"ancor ti piaccia
di dirne come l'anima si lega
in questi nocchi; e dinne, se tu puoi,
s'alcuna mai di tai membra si spiega."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
may it please you to tell us something more
of how the soul is bound into these knots;
and tell us, if you can, if any one
can ever find his freedom from these limbs.")
The trunk holding Pier's soul responds with what I would call a mildly parodic version of Anchises' disquisition:
"Quando si parte l'anima feroce
dal corpo ond'ella stessa s'è disvelta,
Minòs la manda a la settima foce.
Cade in la selva, e non l'è parte scelta;
ma là dove fortuna la balestra,
quivi germoglia come gran di spelta.
Surge in vermena e in pianta silvestra."
("When the savage spirit quits
the body from which it has torn itself,
then Minos sends it to the seventh maw.
It falls into the wood, and there's no place
to which it is allotted, but wherever
fortune has flung that soul, that is the space
where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts.
It rises as a sapling, a wild plant.")
This reincarnation of the suicide's soul in the form of a sapling (vermena ) is precisely what happens to Polydorus in Book III of the Aeneid . But Polydorus is neither a suicide nor trapped in alien vegetation. Polydorus's spirit has become a part of the Thracian land-
scape, and it is only by a bit of subtle wordplay that his vegetative reincarnation is made to appear sinister, a reflection of the cruel fate he suffered. Let us consider his story.
During the siege of Troy, King Priam, lacking confidence in his army, secretly sent his son Polydorus to Thrace with a quantity of gold—like a latter-day dictator setting up a private bank account in Switzerland. After Troy was conquered and Fortune withdrew—"opes fractae Teucrum et Fortuna recessit" (53)—the Thracian king killed Polydorus for the gold. Some time later, Aeneas lands with his people in Thrace and, being in search of a new homeland, promptly founds a city, named Aeneadae after himself. In the course of doing sacrifice to his mother Venus, Aeneas pulls up some saplings from "a mound, on whose top were cornel bushes and myrtles bristling with crowded branches" ("tumulus, quo cornea summo / virgulta et densis hastilibus horrida myrtus," 22–23; my italics). From the saplings issues black blood, and then from the depth of the mound a voice that identifies itself as Polydorus's warns Aeneas to flee the cruel land: "Here an iron harvest of spears covered my pierced body, and grew up into sharp javelins"—"hic confixum ferrea texit / telorum seges et iaculis increvit acutis" (45–46; my italics). As in the forest of suicides, Polydorus's unnatural death produces the counternatural growth of death-dealing weaponry. But this image is anticipated by the myrtle Aeneas sees, "densis hastilibus horrida"—"bristling with [crowded] spear-shafts." At this point in his career, every unfamiliar landscape holds a certain terror for Aeneas.
In the context of the Inferno, the Polydorus scene has a rather different meaning. There it implies, I suggest, the inseparability of soul, personal destiny, and place in the world, over against Anchises' vision of the souls as disembodied and eventually purged of all earthly "taint." In death Polydorus has become part of the landscape and still bears the marks of his origin and his final destiny.
In a wonderfully paradoxical way, this is also true of our unfortunate Pier. By the most perfect of contrapassi he ends up where he has been all along, inside an alien integument that to him has nothing "natural" about it. Being, Dante implies, of Anchises' dualistic persuasion, Pier was from the start a "spirito incarcerato," as Virgil calls
him (87), dwelling in a "carcere caeco," as Anchises calls the body (Aen . VI.734). It is thus no wonder that Pier makes no mention of his terrible fate of being blinded and in prison: he was there all the time. His physical fate merely confirmed what his mind had told him long ago.
And now we can see why Pier's thornbush imprisonment is the supreme contrapasso of the Inferno . It is surely no coincidence that the Inferno itself is called cieco carcere (Inf . X.58–59) in direct translation of Anchises' phrase. For, as I have been arguing, it applies to all the living who would turn the flesh and the world into a prison house or a torture chamber either by their actions or by virtue of some belief.
Belief is, I believe, the key word for Pier and his episode. The question of belief is introduced with Virgil's curious apology to Pier for the "wound" inflicted on him, which I quote again, emphasizing the words involving belief:
"S'elli avesse potuto creder prima,"
rispuose 'l savio mio, "anima lesa,
ciò c'ha veduto pur con la mia rima,
non averebbe in te la man distesa,
ma la cosa incredibile mi fece
indurlo ad ovra ch'a me stesso pesa."
("If he, O wounded spirit, had been able to believe before,"
replied my sage, "what he had never seen save in my
verses, he would not have stretched forth his hand
against you; but the incredible thing made me prompt
him to a deed that grieves me." [S])
With a certain amount of absurdity to cover his confusion, Virgil is here confessing his lack of belief in what his poem, by way of the Polydorus episode, implies. Virgil's own belief, the implication is, tends toward Anchises' notion of the human soul, but in any case, the further implication seems to be that for Virgil belief is largely
an imaginative, poetic matter, which can tolerate change and contradiction; it is not carved in stone.
The case is different with Pier. For him belief is a life-and-death matter, more important, as we have seen, than either life or death, and it does not distinguish sharply between his earthly and his heavenly lord, as his oath to the pilgrims at the end of his story demonstrates:
"Per le nove radice d'esto legno,
vi giuro che già mai non ruppi fede
al mio segnor, che fu d'onor sì degno."
(73–75; my italics)
("By the new roots of this tree I swear to you that I never
broke faith with my lord, who was so worthy of honor.")
And finally it is his belief that he could escape from himself—"credendo col morir fuggir disdegno" (71)—his "corporeal" passions, the world itself. But in the "otherworld" he is still entangled, not in the world of the court, but rooted in the soil of the forest, which in some ways may be intended to recall the court, and feeling intensely the physical violence done to him, as evidenced by his bitter reproach to the Pilgrim, rather like Bocca degli Abati's in canto XXXII. But the clearest evidence of his total entanglement still with the world of the living is his continuing concern with his reputation or "fame," which Virgil shrewdly, not to say insidiously, exploits in his dialogue with Pier (cf. 52–54 and 85–86). This is a theme that runs through, not just the Inferno, but the entire Comedy, and it seems to me powerful support for the argument I have been
pursuing here that in the poem's scheme the human soul is worldly, not otherworldly.
Further evidence of its worldly, contingent character—that is, of the limits of the soul's autonomy—is provided by the Harpies, birds with women's heads, who nest in the forest of suicides and feed on its black leaves. They are, we might say, the winged doubles of the souls that have entered the thornbushes, emblems of the fact that the soul cannot escape its bodily constituent. As they feed on the leaves, they "cause pain and for that pain provide a vent" ("fanno dolor, e al dolor fenestra," 102), and in this they curiously mirror the Pilgrim breaking off the branch. But whereas they form part of a closed masochistic circle—one interpretation of suicide—the wound that the Pilgrim inflicts does open a window (fenestra ) through which Pier's pain can be seen and understood. Pier's indignant questions, "Perché mi schiante?" ("Why do you tear me?" 33), "Perché mi scerpi?" ("Why do you break me off?" 33), are the very questions a suicide might ask himself in flagrante delicto .
The wound, which allows blood and words to flow, will not lead Pier to any new insight, to be sure. He maintains his grimly dualistic view, even declaring (ll. 103ff.) that when all other souls regain their flesh, the souls of the forest will not be able to take up again their cast-off bodies (103; spoglie, meaning anything stripped off, like spoils), which will hang "ciascuno al prun de l'ombra sua molesta" ("each on the stump of its vindictive shade," 108). As Cesare Angelini has noted, Pier's belief even leads him to revise orthodox Catholic doctrine, according to which all souls are destined to return to their bodies at the Last Judgment.
The Harpies also constitute yet another link with the account, in Book III of the Aeneid, of Aeneas's wanderings in search of a homeland. They "chased the Trojans from the Strophades" (Inf . XIII.11), a reference to one of a number of occasions, the Polydorus episode in Thrace among them, when Aeneas and his people found themselves on hostile soil and were forced to move on. Their wandering
continues, as everyone knows, until they reach the "promised land" of Latinus, the future site of Rome.
Aeneas's (allegorical) wanderings serve as a perfect analogy to the Pilgrim's otherworld journey. The Pilgrim, too, as we have seen, has contemplated suicide, and like Aeneas he wanders through lands of unlikeness in search of a place where the soul is no longer alien, an exile in its own body. And this raises a question with respect to a contention central to this chapter, for Aeneas's career has traditionally been viewed as the gradual and painful fulfillment of a providential scheme endorsed by Jupiter's promise at the beginning of the epic (I.257–96). Is it not reasonable to assume, therefore, contrary to what I have been arguing, that both poems contain a providential design? Like Aeneas, the Pilgrim, a Christian Aeneas, though not on a historical mission, completes his divinely enjoined journey, which could serve, at the same time, as a paradigm of history as well.
My hesitations about this line of argument begin with the Aeneid . Its treatment of the gods seems to me too skeptical and the poem as a whole oriented too much toward tragedy—as Dante recognizes when he has Virgil refer to "l'alta mia tragedìa" (Inf . XX.113) —to make a convincing case for a theodicy with a teleology of history. As for the Comedy, its intertextuality with the Aeneid is selective and (I believe) unsystematic, and to the extent that it allegorizes the Aeneid, as in canto XIII of the Inferno, it also tends to negate its "historicity." There remains the much-discussed idea of Rome in its role as world empire and consummation of history in the Aeneid and in the Comedy .
It would be foolish to minimize the importance of this idea in either poem. At the same time, I do not believe that there is any warrant for assuming the "providentiality of the establishment of the Empire as of all history" in the Comedy . Interestingly, the
assumption is formulated in the article on Cato in the Enciclopedia Dantesca, for here, of all places, we might have expected a different perspective. The author notes that Caesar's role was crucial in the "providential design" of establishing the Empire, and so he is faced with the question How could Dante make Cato, one of Caesar's greatest antagonists, into the embodiment of "un ideale supremo dello spirito dantesco"? Caesar himself is not presented in a very favorable light, as a warrior "who made the whole world afraid? (Par . XI.69), and Curio punished as a schismatic in hell for advising Caesar to cross the Rubicon (Inf . XXVIII.112) also presents a problem. All the same, the author remains unshaken in his assumption of Caesar as an agent of divine Providence, which makes well-nigh incomprehensible the elevation of his historical enemy to lord and judge of Purgatory and model of the liberty for which the Pilgrim quests (Purg . I.71–72).
Even if one believes, as I do, that Fubini's assumptions concerning Caesar and Empire do not apply to the Comedy, this is not to say that their role in the poem is without puzzles. One of these concerns the prominent place given Caesar's assassins Brutus and Cassius in Lucifer's mouths alongside Judas. Does this odd detail provide grounds for regarding Caesar as equivalent in the secular political sphere to Christ in the spiritual and ecclesiastical sphere?
Here I turn back to the Monk's Tale, which provides, I think, a resolution of this puzzle, but one that proceeds by the indirection of narrative and thus will require a somewhat circumstantial exposition of its own. Julius Caesar is given a tragedy by the Monk, but one he is forced to share with his enemy Pompey the Great —an intriguing parallel to the Caesar-Cato problem Fubini finds in the
Comedy . Unlike Dante's, the Monk's Caesar becomes an emperor; like Dante's, he is a great conqueror, who defeats Pompey, "Thurgh which thou puttest al th'orient in awe" (2685), a close echo of "colui ch'a tutto 'l mondo fé paura" (Par . XI.69) in rhythm and in sense, because before this Caesar had already won "al th'occident by land and see" (2674). Next, leaving Caesar to one side for a moment, we recall that the Monk begins his tale with the tragedy of Lucifer and ends it with the tragedy of Croesus, whose death on the "tree" is a parody of the Crucifixion, reinforced by the name (Croesus, Christus, crux, crucis ). The placement of these three tragedies is, I think, quite deliberate and allows us to draw certain preliminary conclusions. For the Monk, history can be regarded as a form of tragedy whose pattern is set by the fall of Lucifer and includes the Crucifixion, which generically is not different from Caesar's or Pompey's assassination or Cato's suicide.
An analysis of Dante's Lucifer in canto XXXIV can lead, I believe, to very similar conclusions as far as Dante's view of history is concerned. Singleton's observation that Lucifer is not "a kind of pole of absolute Evil counter-balancing that of the Supreme Good at the center and end of Paradiso" has not received the attention from commentators that it deserves. This is surely a most unusual Satan, not a creature of the theologians, the painters, or the folkloric imagination, but rather a complex literary emblem, an emblematic grotesque like Geryon, with whom he shares the feature that for all the terror he inspires, he actually furthers the Pilgrim's progress, not by anything he does, but by his hairy legs. But if, as I contend, this Lucifer is an emblem, the extraordinary thing is that it is by no means clear what precisely he is an emblem of and that, indeed, there may be no simple or single answer to this question. Even the account of him is indirect and tentative:
S'el fu sì bel com 'elli è ora brutto,
e contra 'l suo fattore alzò le ciglia,
ben dee da lui procedere ogne lutto.
(If he was once as beautiful as he is ugly now, and lifted up
his brows against his Maker, well may all sorrow proceed
from him. [S])
"If" indeed! Nothing in this statement is quite clear or what we would expect. What is the reason for his fall and transformation? How much of an understatement is it to say he raised his eyebrows against God? And did he do whatever that phrase implies? Some critics will say that all that is needed to answer these questions is a little bit of medieval theology. But that hardly seems a solution, given the unconventionality of Dante's Lucifer and of the poet's attitude toward him, with the almost anticlimactic and tender conclusion that if he did raise his eyebrows against God, then Lucifer must be the source of all—grief, sorrow, lutto !
I suggest at this point that we take seriously the Monk's idea of a tragic Lucifer, which on the conventional face of it is absurd. But it makes sense if we see him the way the Monk sees him, as the originator, with his fall, of history as a series of catastrophes in the course of which human beings nonetheless continue in their attempts to establish their collective autonomy, to control their collective destiny, to found an empire where the human word will be law. Dante's Lucifer, it seems to me, is the complex emblem of this complex idea, combining, that is, the continuously renewed aspiration, dream, or attempt to create such an empire and the cause as well as consequences of its failure. For that reason he combines, as emblem, opposites at every point: royal and imperial associations with a sense of impotence, paralysis, and futility; heartless brutality with suffering and grief; awe-inspiring stature and structure with absurd and repellent features. And another curious, even disconcerting feature, but one totally characteristic of the Inferno, is the fact that within the emblem, so to speak, the reader is made to sense the presence of a person, a sentient being.
This Satan, I believe, provides a satisfactory explanation for the identity of the three sinners on which his three mouths are chewing. But before I discuss this matter, I want to consider the first and in some ways most startling conjunction of opposites, Virgil's ironic citation, with which the canto begins, from Venantius Fortunatus's hymn on the Crucifixion, "Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni" ("the banners of the king of hell advance" [needless to say, inferni is Virgil's addition]). It combines with his later title as "Lo 'mperador del doloroso regno" ("the emperor of the despondent kingdom," 28)
to give us a sense of somber majesty. However, in case we missed the allusion to the Crucifixion in the Latin hymn citation, Virgil alludes to it again when he exclaims "Ecco Dite" ("Behold Dis!" 20), mimicking Pilate's "Ecce homo!" "Behold the man" Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe (John 19.5). Even allowing for the element of parody—which is all the easier to do since Virgil is an outsider to Christianity—the identification of the crucified Christ with Lucifer frozen in place in the pit of hell is startling indeed. The implication as I read it is twofold and thoroughly in the spirit of the Monk. The first is that like all historical events the Crucifixion is a unique event and yet also representative of what happens throughout history. The second is that Dante's Lucifer is an emblem of the suffering victim as well as of the arrogant conqueror and tyrant, for which he earns the triple face, parodic symbol of the Trinity.
The meaning of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius in Satan's mouths is now clear. It has nothing whatever to do with the elevation of Caesar to a level of "metapolitical" sanctity. Rather, the Crucifixion and the assassination of Caesar are perceived in their distinct ways as moments of decisive failure in mankind's efforts to change the course of history. And what is most remarkable in this grotesque image of the three betrayers being tortured is our, the readers', divided response: the sense that the traitors are getting what they deserve, and the horror at what they are being subjected to in those monstrous mouths. And this takes us to the possibility that, like Saturn and Ugolino (who in the Monk's Tale has three rather than four sons), Lucifer is the father who cannot quite get himself to swallow his sons.
Allegorically, this makes perfect sense. As embodiment of the spirit of envy, of thwarted ambition and resentment, Satan would be the father of all those who betray and try to bring down their "maker" (fattore ), benefactor, superior. And yet, such are the moral paradoxes or imponderables of history, another way of viewing that Satanic spirit is as the urge for freedom and independence that, so I argued a moment ago, is a part of the Luciferan emblem. As Dante was well aware, Brutus and Cassius, like Cato, were also revered as defenders of republican liberty, and conversely Cato had his detractors too. Judas has not had any notable apologists, and yet there is
one important detail that links him with the other two: like Brutus and Cassius, Judas commits suicide. What is more, it might be argued that Judas's suicide, which coincides with his repentance for having betrayed "righteous blood" ("sanguinem justum," Matthew 27.4), fits better into the pattern of tragedy we have been discussing than that of the other two.
If, then, Lucifer is the spiritual father of these three traitors, the one who showed them the way to betrayal and murder, he also weeps for them. His tears, gushing grotesquely from his six eyes and down his three chins, recall those of another infernal emblem of history, the statue of the Old Man of Crete (Inf . XIV.113ff.). Its tears, their source unstated, but presumably suffering mankind, drip down the fissure of the statue and gather to form the three rivers of hell. History, we are left in no doubt, is seemingly endless grief, is a form of hell. But Satan's tears come from himself as spectator and "source" of history, a sign that as tragedy it can create a sense of humanity even in the pit of hell.
Those tears suggest that as tragedy history triumphs even over the satanic principle itself. A spectacle of betrayal and inexplicable suffering, it nonetheless inspires a paradoxical hope for the future of mankind. In their very propensity for criminality and self-assertion human beings may yet come to recognize not only their potentialities for good as well as evil but also their interdependence, their human solidarity, their responsibility toward and for each other. This is a point that seems to me implicit in the Inferno and also in the Monk's tragedies, but one that the Knight seems not to understand when he breaks into the Monk's narrative with uncharacteristic abruptness, "Ho! . . . good sire, namoore of this!" To the Monk's supposed pessimism, he opposes what seems an astonishingly simplistic optimism. What is going on here?
We are not dealing with a naively optimistic Knight over against a darkly brooding Monk. From his tale we know the Knight to be pretty much the Monk's equal in philosophic and literary matters and, if anything, less optimistic than the Monk. "What is this world? what asketh men to have? / Now with his love, now in his colde grave / Allone withouten any compaignye" (2777–79), the mortally wounded Arcite asks. No clear-cut answers are forthcoming, but the implication is that the world is a place hostile to human aspirations, and on top of that, as he himself said earlier in the tale, "We woot nat what thing that we prayen heere" (1260). Arcite's tragedy—and
it provokes more than its share of tears and clamor—is very different from the tragedies in the Monk's Tale. Much more truly than the latter, it is a tragedy of Fortune, whose protagonist is the victim of an accident, not a hero who achieves or asserts his ultimately indefeasible human autonomy.
The problem of the Knight's interruption is thus compounded. Given his own not exactly cheerful view of the human condition, why should he object to the Monk's "hevynesse" (2769), as he chooses to call it? And why should he state his objection in terms of a preference for success stories in which people climb up rather than fall down? By way of an answer to these questions, I will recapitulate the discussion in the preceding chapter of the Knight's perspective as a storyteller in terms of Francis P. Pickering's thesis, that all medieval narrative, whether historical or fictional, involved a choice between an Augustinian and a Boethian model. In the Augustinian model, history is essentially that of the Church on earth guided by divine Providence, whereas Fortune is "little more than a talisman, of pagan Rome, now fallen and superseded by the Rome of Peter and Paul." The Boethian model, contrariwise, deals with the workings of Fortune and the secular, dynastic history that Augustine in the City of God dismisses as irrelevant. Now, the Knight portayed in the General Prologue as a fighter for "the victories of the faith over the heathen" belongs to the Augustinian model, and he is faithful to Pickering's thesis in that for his tale he chooses the Boethian model, so that its pagan characters have, aside from their gods, only a philosophy outside the Christian theological framework to guide and console them. Refusing to tell where Arcite's soul went upon his death (I.2809ff.), the Knight guards his tale against the intrusion of theological considerations but at the same time leaves no doubt that as narrator he speaks and views his tale from an Augustinian perspective. This perspective accounts for the detached, ironic tone of his tale and its disconcerting shifts from high drama to bathos and outright flippancy. For at its extreme the Augustinian perspective discounts what happens in the secular realm—and by definition that would include the ancient world of paganism—as of no real consequence. The Knight, in other words, is not vitally engaged in the proceedings of his tale but regards them with an amused condescension. What, after all, is to be expected of people who con-
fuse God's Providence with Fortune—as Arcite does (l. 1252)? And so the Knight can, without a sense of impropriety, juxtapose a completely heartless description of Arcite's mortal illness (2743ff.) with the same character's extremely moving speech of farewell to Emily and Palamon (2765ff.). These incongruities are his way of indicating that the matters at issue in his tale are not to be taken with full seriousness, since they belong to a relativistic realm in which no final truth can be found.
Given this attitude, it may still seem odd that the Knight should react as he does to the Monk's tragedies, which, except for a couple, deal with figures from profane history. And equally odd are the terms in which the Knight expresses his viewpoint:
I seye for me, it is a greet disese,
Whereas men han been in greet welthe and ese,
To heeren of hire sodeyn fal, allas!
And the contrarie is joye and greet solas,
As whan a man hath been in povre estaat,
And clymbeth up and wexeth fortunat,
And there abideth in prosperitee.
Swich thyng is gladsom, as it thynketh me,
And of swich thyng were goodly for to telle.
Let us consider the second point first. The Knight's words seem to me those of someone who understands only too well that his own intellectual position has been under attack and who is now impatient to end the argument. He thus introduces a completely nonphilosophical observation about his personal preference, designed to take the wind out of the Monk's polemical sails.
There is a certain analogy here with the conclusion of his own tale. The "happy ending" of Palamon's marriage to Emily—"For now is Palamon in alle wele, / Lyvynge in blisse, in richesse, and in heele" (3101–2)—might be considered the Knight's concession to Christian optimism about the world of everyday. Not a very satisfactory concession, unless we are prepared to abstract the conclusion almost entirely from the rest of the narrative, as the Knight is perhaps willing to do. But the reader is bound, I think, to feel its unsatisfactoriness, since Palamon and Emily are entirely the passive actors in a script of Theseus's devising. Their marriage fulfills his
scheme to "have fully of Thebans obeisaunce" (2974), and so it is with his political triumph that the tale ends as it began.
It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that there is really only one complete character in the Knight's Tale, and that is my point: in spite of himself and of his staunchly Augustinian principles, the Knight believes in the pagan Theseus and in the necessity of his triumph. If he has reservations about Theseus's at times ruthless grip on the instruments of military and political power, he keeps them implicit and in the final analysis looks up to him as representative of those who play an essential part in the great design of history. This, I would argue, fits with some of the ambiguities that, the General Prologue hints, the Knight's own campaigns have been involved in. In the General Prologue we also read, "Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre" (I.47), a statement that leaves unresolved whether the heavenly or the earthly lord is intended. Like Pier della Vigna, the Knight may not always be interested in making too fine a distinction in the matter.
I surmise, therefore, that his identification with Theseus is what prompts the Knight's impatient outburst against the Monk's catalogue of the fall of mighty lords and conquerors. As Athens's "lord and governour, / And in his tyme swich a conquerour, / That gretter was ther noon under the sonne" (861–63), Theseus is of course just the military-political type whose downfall the Monk's tragedies simultaneously "bewail" and celebrate as evidence of mankind's problematic and heroic attempts to achieve autonomy. This, as we have seen, represents a very different vision of history from the Knight's, challenging the latter's assumption that the world must be divided into conquerors and conquered, rulers and ruled. The unruly, unpredictable Fortune who keeps cropping up in the tragedies can take the form of people rebelling against a tyrant, or she can demonstrate, as she does in the Consolation of Philosophy, how rhetoric can serve the most varied uses of deception. With her for guide it becomes possible, for example, to deconstruct Theseus's impressive "Boethian" oration as startlingly analogous to the pious tears that in Fortune's example Aemilius Paulus sheds over the calamities of a man he himself holds prisoner. Theseus can speak of "this wrecched world adoun" (2995) and of "this foule prisoun of this lyf" (3061), for he helps to make it such, as when he sends Palamon and Arcite, whom his pillagers found half-dead on the
battlefield, "To Atthenes, to dwellen in prisoun / Perpetuelly,—he nolde no raunsoun" (1023–24). The arbitrariness and the finality of this action have something of the force of natural law!
It would be wrong, I think, to conclude this chapter with the implication of a total opposition between Knight and Monk. Part of the "symposiastic" scheme of The Canterbury Tales, it seems to me, is to suggest that just as there is no tale-teller who can presume to be in possession of the truth, so there is no one whose tale does not shed some light on the truth. In addition, one of the subtleties of Chaucer's poem, as I have tried to show, is that its characters—and I am referring primarily to the pilgrims—are not fixed types but like actors in a play who reveal, as does Dante's Pilgrim, various facets of themselves in the course of their performance. With the exception of the Host, the Knight appears most frequently on stage, and there are hints that his outlook and conception of himself are changing as the pilgrimage proceeds. One hint, I believe, is the curiously "Boethian" language in which he couches his objection to the Monk's Tale, as well as the un-Boethian optimism he expresses in wanting to hear of one who "clymbeth up and wexeth fortunat, / And there abideth in prosperitee" (2776–77; my italics). Earlier I criticized this statement as a sign of the Knight's refusal to engage the Monk on a philosophical level, but it could, I admit, be read very differently. With its reference to worldly prosperity and the thoroughly un-Boethian and therefore unphilosophical notion that there can be permanence in such prosperity, we might well see it as a sign that the Knight has begun to realize that, whatever his ultimate destiny, he is a part of the "sondry folk, by aventure yfalle / In" an all-too-brief earthly "felaweship."