Thursday, February 18, 2010

Within My Fantasy

I am in the middle of teaching Dante's Divine Comedy (the "Divine" purportedly added by Boccaccio), and lines that catch my attention at every reading is in Purgatorio, which, by the way, is my favorite of the three cantica.

Of fantasy, you that at times would snatch
us so from outward things--we notice nothing
although a thousand trumpets sound around us--

who moves you when the senses do not spur you?
A light that finds its form in Heaven moves you--
directly or led downward by God's will.

Within my fantasy I saw impressed
the savagery of one who then, transformed,
became the bird that most delights in song;

at this, my mind withdrew to the within,
to what imagining might bring: no thing
that came from the without could enter in.

Then into my deep fantasy there rained
one who was crucified; and as he died,
he showed his savagery and his disdain.

(Dante, Purgatorio 17:13-27)

In this ode to fantasy, Dante is describing his dreams, but there is something else about it. Fantasy, a word repeated three times ("O fantasy," "my fantasy," "my deep fantasy") may be an adequate term to describe the creative act itself. It is something that begins in one's brain, one's mind: "my mind withdrew to the within." It recalls Augustine's Neoplatonic emphasis on interiority (as seen in my previous post) of God being within. But when Dante withdraws to the within, he does not see God. One might see a reference to the Trinity: the "one who was crucified." But as the subsequent--unquoted lines--indicate it is actually not Jesus, but Haman, an arch villain. Nonetheless, this passage has the Augustinian feel about it.

Nonetheless, Augustine's interiority is based upon a theory of memory (Confessions book ten), while it seems to me that Dante's interiority is based upon something else and "fantasy" captures it quite well. "Fantasy" is more than memory; it "anticipates" Montaigne's power of the imagination. I think, however, that this passage is metonymic of the entire Comedy as a whole: Dante travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven through his imagination, through his deep fantasy within himself. The fantasy within is the source of all creativity, and, thereby, the source of one's self.

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