Friday, October 16, 2009

Empire Now and Then

In Canto XVIII of Dante’s Paradiso, we enter a high heaven, that of Jupiter, where warrior saints have their space of manifestation. And up there, in a sphere already bright and silvery (the sixth of seven heavens) bright lights—but these lights are alive, they are the warrior saints—conjoin to print out a command in Latin, in the sky as it were, which means “Love justice, ye that judge the earth.” The final word of this command ends in the word TERRAM, and that word of course ends in M. Now as the canto develops, the lights begin to transform the final M of the command into the image of the Roman Eagle—a symbol that somewhat resembles the letter if the bird’s wings are lowered; you need but add a neck and head and elaborate the descending lines into wings and tail.

In Dante’s day the Roman Empire was dead, dead, dead—and I mean like the dodo. And its nostalgic revival, in the form of the Holy Roman Empire, just would not, would not hold together. But we are at a point (early fourteenth century) when the Renaissance is dawning. The world was turning its face toward the sensory; a great nostalgia for the glory that was Rome possessed our poet. He elaborates this feeling throughout the Divine Comedy, and he also elaborated it in less poetic form in his book on monarchy. Therefore this symbol of military power, might, and conquest is made to appear in a very high heaven. And nothing happens in those heavens without the absolute sanction of God. Therefore this eagle, and emphatically the Roman eagle, is a symbol of God.

The passionate and thick entwinement between this and a projected transcendental world is a characteristic aspect of Dante’s work—and greatly amusing to discover how very thickly populated with Italians are hell, purgatory, and paradise. Amusing to discover how keenly the noble, high, and long-since departed concern themselves with what we would now call the sordid, grimy politics of a corrupt era—or perhaps Dante’s visit gave them a welcome respite from the tedium of perpetual divine contemplation?

In any case, that damned Eagle startled me—not that I hadn’t gotten a bit uneasy in the pursuit of Paradise already. My view of Empire is much darker than Dante’s. I’m not taking my cue about Rome from Virgil, who wrote as Empire was just beginning and had barely any track record as yet. I see the whole bloodstained brutal history of Empire and live in a time that trends in the same direction once again. And of course, quite like Dante, I make the foolish mistake of looking backward with nostalgia to medieval and earlier times, entirely overlooking fact, seeing only those things that appeal. Recognizing this sort of habitual perception as a mere climate of emotions, waking up in the morning as I did, sobered and irritated, makes me sympathetic to a gnostic view served straight in a shot-glass.
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Image from the the Chauvin family linage site.

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