Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Dantesque Simile (notes)

Philosophy and poetry have imagination in common.

The unit of imagination is the image, a particular likeness.

I've been putting together a list of what I think are synonyms for the literary correlate of this aesthetic moment.

Pound's "luminous ideograms" and Wittgenstein’s "perspicuous presentations" are the ones I feel closest to.

But their sense of detail is certainly matched in Nabokov’s "rain-sparkling crystograms" and Borges' "Dantesque essays".

It is the imagined detail that is important.

I picked up J. H. Whitfield's Dante and Virgil the other day. He emphasises the image of a flame devouring a piece of paper, which is used as a simile for the merger of a man and a serpent (p. 84; cf. Inferno, XXV, 64-66). I knew I had read about it before and found it again in the prologue to Borges' Nine Dantesque Essays. It's a textbook example, no doubt.

(If anyone knows of other critics who mention it--I was sure I had seen it also in something by Eliot--please let me know.)

Whitfield uses it as a point of departure for discussing what he calls the "dantesque simile" (p. 86). Borges calls it "comparison", as Pound does in the Spirit of Romance (in order to include both simile and metaphor in a broad sense).

All of them talk about the importance of "detail" in the Divine Comedy (all of them also use Milton for contrast).

Consulting a few dictionaries and handbooks I confirmed my suspicion that "image" and "simile" and "imitate" are etymologically related. All indicate "likeness".

I think there is a difference between a philosophical likeness and a poetic one, though both are "imaginary", and you can’t have one without the other. (An issue Eliot deals with his essay on Dante.)

I think it is the task of the philosopher and the poet to display likenesses of various orders. In what sense, for example, is a piece of paper with black marks on it "like" a human body? (Wittgenstein, PI§364)

My brother in law and his wife gave me William Gaddis' The Recognitions for Christmas. In the first chapter he recounts the dispute that was settled at the Council of Nice over whether the Trinity is composed of one substance (homoousia) or of like substances (homoiousia).

"The dantesque simile," says Whitfield, "is in the main something which establishes identity, not something which enhances it" (p. 86).

No comments: