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Posts tagged ‘Ulysses’

Ulysses between Homer and Dante Alighieri


The three kingdoms of the Divine Comedy are populated by people of different social classes. However, because it is also a pedagogical work, Dante prioritises exchanges with well-known characters, both mythical and real, in order to use them as universal examples.  Ulysses is one of the most prominent of these well-known figures.  So what do we know about him?  The legendary king of Ithaca appears in several classical works, but it is from the Odyssey, the epic poem which tells of his troubled return trip home after the Trojan War, that the collective consciousness learns of those peculiar traits which made him an icon. In this second poem we can barely recognize the warrior of the Iliad, in which he only really plays a marginal role. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, he is presented without the privileges befitting his royal rank, and he is forced to rely solely on his intelligence and cunning in order to survive. The most suitable Homeric adjective is polytropos (πολùτρoπoς), which we can translate as “someone having multiple faces”, or “many-sided”: in other words, someone who is able to face different situations and to adapt in order to survive and succeed. His craftiness and courage, his faith in himself and the innate curiosity driving him to plumb the depths of human understanding, make him a symbol of secular humanity, a kind of Vitruvian Man of literature, someone who is the measure of the creation that surrounds him.

In typical fashion, Dante chooses the person who embodies the highest form of these virtues, and then proceeds to show that without faith they amount to nothing. Which is why I believe that the Florentine author depicts his Ulysses as a catastrophic failure: according to Dante if man is guided by faith he can become a giant: “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8), but when he is alone he is like a reed bent by the wind, to use Pascal’s famous image. In fact, man’s inanity also leads the psalmist to write: what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8 again).

Because in the Bible it is the right hand of God that saves man from death on numerous occasions, Dante is able to link Ulysses’ spectacular fall to his blind faith in himself as a man. This new interpretation was only made possible by a drastic abandonment of the central Homeric tradition, which doesn’t tell us his death, but which predicts it in Book 11 of the Odyssey (as per the famous soothsayer Tiresia) as a death coming in old age, at home and from the sea. This compelled Dante to revive a second and less famous mythological vein, which is mainly attested in Seneca and Pliny the Elder, according to which our hero didn’t return to Ithaca at all but instead passed through the Pillars of Hercules.

In the Inferno, Ulysses tells Virgil and Dante his story from the moment of his departure from Circe, the sorceress who had hosted him for over a year and given him a son, Telegonus. He then continues to tell of how his fondness for his son Telemachus, his deep respect for his elderly father and his love of his wife Penelope (the strongest of human sentiments) could not surpass his burning desire (literally described almost as a fire) to be fully acquainted with man’s vices and virtues, the two poles that embrace the whole complexity of humankind. The search for knowledge is emphasised by recalling all the lands Ulysses passed through, but also by highlighting the old age of the man who has seen it all and who is now facing the ultimate and most coveted challenge, the Pillars of Hercules, the westernmost limit of the world, the crowning glory of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge. At this point Dante makes his brilliant move: while the Christian hero has an obvious (albeit not simple) choice to make between good and evil, Ulysses, like the other tragic heroes from classical antiquity, has to choose between two evils. The choice is either to obey God by not passing beyond the geographical limits of the world, thereby renouncing knowledge, or to disobey Divine prohibition but to live like a man: both choices lead to punishment. Ulysses’ choice will be the most significant of his entire life, and he wants to remain true to himself and indeed he does. And so, thanks to a refined syncretism, the Pillars of Hercules, near Gibraltar (see map above), become the metaphor for the limits given to man by God. In medieval theological thought, God supplied man with all that was necessary to live, but man had to accept the existence of a mystery he couldn’t understand and which he should not investigate. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas advised man to restrain his desire to know, even about the good!

Ulysses therefore makes his understandable but calamitous decision: to go beyond human limits. This has often been read as a moment of supreme human dignity, but also reflects a situation well known in the great 5 b.C. Athenian tragedy: hubris (ὕβϱις), where by his arrogance man fails to recognize the distance between his own nature and that of God. As with Greek tragedy, nemesis (νέμεσις), the equalising punishment of the gods, immediately springs into action and casts man down to a position so low  to make him wish he had never been born.

We find similar situations in the Bible, for instance in the book of Genesis, 2, 16-17: “The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat‘”. Of course, this prohibition is the equivalent of that regarding the Pillars of Hercules: a restriction on man’s freedom. But here the prohibition does not have an end in itself because “the moment you eat from it” – the Bible continues – “you are surely doomed to die”. The prohibition aims, then, to maintain a universal equilibrium, we could say a natural one, between divinity and creature, between the highest knowledge of God and those who can’t properly handle that knowledge.

Nevertheless, man is often seduced by the desire to embrace absolute knowledge. In fact in Genesis 3, 4-5, “the serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.‘” By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve surrender to hubris and in doing so they lose earthly paradise forever, instead becoming acquainted with strain, pain and death, which may precisely be the knowledge from which God wanted Man to be spared. Ulysses can be read as the exact Dantesque parallel to this biblical episode: he accepts an impossible challenge. Man will always be inadequate in his relationship with God, and Ulysses is presented in the same terms. In fact, when facing his supreme challenge, he is described as an old man, accompanied only by a handful of weak friends and sailing an old ship, a remnant from a formerly glorious fleet, which Dante calls a “log”. In spite of this he refuses to exclude himself from the dream of absolute knowledge, and utters the famous ‘orazion picciola‘. This short speech is one of the best-known passages of Italian literature, a majestic tribute to the classical idea of oratory as the art of persuasion. The ‘orazion picciola‘ states non only Ulysses’ life essence, but also that of the whole of Greek culture:

And then I said: ‘O brothers, ye who now

have through a hundred thousand perils reached

the West, to this so short a waking-time

still left your senses, do not deny yourselves

experience of that world behind the sun

which knows not man! Consider the seed

whence ye have sprung; for ye were not created

to lead the life of stupid animals,

but manliness and knowledge to pursue.’

The Italian hendecasyllable’s musicality gives this passage great emotion and the result is never in doubt: Ulysses persuades his old friends to follow him. As a mark of respect for Ulysses, Dante prolongs his tragedy and as a last tribute to him, for a little time he gives him what he is looking for. For five months, in fact, our hero sails across a hemisphere that no living human had ever seen before, and he sees, just before the end, the incredible view of the mountain of Purgatory, whose enormity is in itself a symbol of divine disproportion relative to man, while the astonishment of the sailors is both amazement at the view and of the inevitable death to come. The eyes of faith, for Dante certainly, should be the only way for man to know God. Indeed, man, by his very nature is unable to see him face to face: in Exodus 3,6 we read “‘I am the God of your father – he continued – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God‘. But then comes the moment of retribution: a sudden wind rises from the island, forming a whirlpool, swallowing the ship and its passengers together with their load of unfettered knowledge, thus restoring the equilibrium between man and God.

This is what we can say about Ulysses as a character. But if we analyse this episode within the context of the work as a whole, we can see it also as a clear sign of the high esteem Dante held himself in as a poet. As early as the first Canto, he establishes himself as an enthusiastic follower of Virgil not only as regards the tragic style (the highest form of poetry) but also regarding the prophetic mission carried out through literature. This idea will be reaffirmed later in Paradise 25, when he describes the Divine Comedy as a work “that hath made both Heaven and Earth copartners in its toil”. Again in Inferno 4, when he visits Limbo, a place populated by the unbaptized, he is accepted by the five most celebrated classical poets (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Lucan) as one of their limited group, and this feels like a sort of official poetic investiture. Later on, in Purgatory 11, he runs through the most refined poets of contemporary (and only recently born) Italian literature and asserts that Guinizzelli’s greatness as a poet has already been surpassed by Cavalcanti’s, and that that of another poet (clearly Dante) is going to leave them both trailing in its wake. With respect to this aspect then, the episode of Ulysses is enlightening.  Just as Virgil, in recounting the conquest of Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid, is Homer’s direct successor, so Dante feels he is able to carry on from that Latin masterpiece, not only taking up one of its prominent characters, but also incorporating a novel death for Ulysses, and moreover giving it a deeper sense: that enlightened by faith.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info:

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3


The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke

Having looked at a few of the classics of ‘travel’ or adventure literature in Part 2, I thought it would be worth considering the outer limits of the genre in this post. After all, it seems logical that after the full extent of physical or spatial travel has been exhausted, humanity and therefore literature should turn towards other less obvious modes of travel. Where to go in fiction when the world is no longer a mystery in reality? This seems a preposterous question to ask in the 21st century, but would probably have been less so in the 19th century, when the possibilities of spatial travel must have excited the imagination in a way that is difficult to comprehend nowadays. In fact, a brief glance at Jules Verne’s bibliography betrays the progressive fetishisation of adventure: we have a simple enough start with Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, before we move swiftly to the more ambitious Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mr Verne is quite obviously pushing the boundaries both of physical travel and of our appetite for exploration literature generally, probably to breaking point and beyond.

Even in the 19th century, there must have been a threshold for the public’s endurance of adventure fiction. Once a hero or heroine has gone up and down and sideways as much as is humanly possible, where to next? The answer I think can be found in the clear progression from R.L. Stevenson’s romantic adventure novels of the 1880s (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) to H.G. Wells’ science fiction of the 1890s (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds). The first of H.G. Wells’ novels listed above represents a particularly interesting spin on the conventional spatio-temporal dimensions of the adventure novel. Indeed, the protagonist of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, explicitly remains in the same location (a laboratory in Richmond, Surrey) whilst simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery to the England of the distant future. This is thought provoking for a number of reasons. Firstly, in departing from the confines of spatial exploration, Wells subtly floats the notion that adventure is not merely the preserve of pirates and treasure hunters. In other words, whilst the Time Traveller remains locked in a laboratory, the adventure he undertakes is nevertheless very real.

This seems to be getting at the idea that the scientists of the 19th century were just as ambitious in their quest for discovery as the explorers of the geographic world. Within the context of the adventure story, the idea that a man or woman could emerge from a confined space and claim to have encountered something previously unseen and unheard of must have been nothing short of revolutionary, bordering on the mystical. And yet, that is of course what scientists have always done. In a way, this makes their exploration all the more authentic and noble: scientific explorers cannot always count on the admiration of a timid public when they emerge from their adventures; more often they are greeted with a general lack of understanding and dismissive mockery. This introduces another fascinating element to the classic adventure tale: the idea of the returning traveller shunned for having the temerity to look behind the veil of accepted reality. The Time Traveller cannot be fully understood or believed, which is presumably one of the reasons he chooses to embark on another quest the day after his dinner party, this time never to return. Once again we encounter a hero in the Ulyssian mould, a man driven by a lust for knowledge and adventure, but also perhaps alienated from his peers in mainstream society. It is not hard to imagine, after all, that Ulysses, having returned home to Ithaca after ten years of travel, would have struggled to convince Penelope that he had been kidnapped by a Cyclops.

The frustration of not being fully understood is the universal curse of the keen reader. When a reader emerges from the solitary world of book-reading, there will almost inevitably be a gulf between that reader’s appreciation of reality and everyone else’s. However much a book is dissected, explained and shared with others, the reading of it is inevitably a deeply personal experience. This is, of course, both terrifying and exhilarating: no one can do the reading for you, just as no one can visit Southeast Asia for you, which is why summaries and SparkNotes unfailingly miss the point. And when the heavy-lifting is done, when War and Peace lies conquered on your bedside table, no one is there to congratulate you or admire your newly-found intellectual acumen (or newly-found sense of existential despair). Any sense of triumph is purely your own, like a lone Himalayan climber who, having successfully reached a summit during the day, is forced to dig a one-man shelter in the side of the mountain at night.

The Editors

Roomful of Mirrors

The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto 26 – Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Inferno is a book about sin and punishment, set within a staggeringly complex Aristotelian framework.  It’s also a platform for the poet to pass judgment on his contemporaries, and he pulls no punches in choosing who to condemn – there is a special pit in the eighth circle for Popes.  The twenty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno – Ulysses’ canto – on the other hand, is really all about what the Italian poet sees of himself in the Greek hero, or at least in his conception of the Greek hero, which is based on the Roman interpretation of Homer’s character, that is to say deceitful rather than just cunning.  Ulysses is allegedly in the eight circle of hell because of a series of acts of deception committed whilst on earth, including the Trojan horse.  This is not, however, the focus of the canto, which moves on from the sin of deception and looks at the events surrounding Ulysses’ death.

Here, Dante makes good use of poetic licence to kill Ulysses off in an inventive and previously unheard of manner: Ulysses reaches the end of his epic journey back from the Trojan war, concluding twenty years of war and adventure, and yet, at the moment when he should be settling down to rest on his hard-earned laurels, he baulks at the prospect and urges his men to follow him on yet another quest, this time on a voyage of exploration beyond the edge of the ancient world, demarcated by the mythical Pillars of Hercules between Spain and Africa.  All of this so that he can become an “expert of the world”.  Unfortunately for Ulysses this mission is abruptly cut short when he gets to the other side of the world, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, only for he and his crew to be engulfed by a whirlpool, taking the Greek hero straight down to the eighth circle of hell.

To cut to the chase, and for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Inferno, Dante himself is also on a voyage, actually two voyages: a poetic journey, on the one hand, and on the other a literal journey to hell and back.  Furthermore, both journeys are the culmination of a life of learning, as Dante had previously written in his main philosophical work: “all men desire to know.”  This means that Dante’s encounter with Ulysses is a deliberately self-conscious one – both men had a passionate desire to know as much as possible.  And yet, Ulysses languishes in hell whilst Dante is granted divine protection as he undertakes a quest in the name of spiritual enlightenment; a classic Dantean paradox, possibly even the Dantean paradox.  Dante recognises that there is an insurmountable tension between his own intellectual adventure and a distinctly Christian sense of obedience and stability – it is a tension that cuts all the way back to Genesis and the Tree of Knowledge.  Can it be resolved? Not really, other than to say that Dante is not quite Ulysses, he is on an epic journey, but not purely for reasons of personal illumination, he is travelling for the benefit of mankind generally, which is in itself almost a far worse transgression for the poet to make.  In any case, the fact that Dante’s is a recorded journey means that he is never the only person on it – it is a perpetual, shared journey, started every time someone picks up a copy of The Divine Comedy.  If Dante’s sin reflects Ulysses’, he is not the only one to be drawn in – we are all, as readers, complicit.

What relevance does this have to us in the modern world, devoid to a large extent of the burden of religious obligation?  For starters, that reading is like travelling.  Both are extremely personal, even selfish, experiences, often carried out for the purpose of learning, entertainment and self-reflection.  Both offer a detachment and escape from the mundane reality of our lives, but both carry a risk, albeit remote, of alienation and self-absorption.  It is a risk that can be tempered by self-awareness, and Inferno 26 is, if nothing else, one of the greatest exercises in literary self-awareness ever performed.

The Editors