Remember when Dante sighed?
Out to buy figs, young Dante was in a rush to get to the market. As he walked, he imagined the smell of Sicilian lemons; of sweet sugar from Egypt; of perfumed vinegars and syrups made from grapes. Cherries, endives, oranges, spicy sausage; dried fruit, figs, dried fish, mint, orange blossoms and roses---cumin, peppers and of course Laura's saffron. Just thinking about the perfume of these things caused him to quicken his pace. And, turning the corner to the lively street that followed the great River Arno, he spotted her. Beatrice. It had been precisely nine years since the first time he had caught glimpse of her, at a time when they had both still been only children. But he recognized her in an instant.
And as a thousand birds took flight in his heart, the man stood there barely breathing. Time stopped. Breath quickened and he let out an amorous sigh (溜息→感嘆).
Too quickly, however, Beatrice's friend, with whom she had been walking arm-in-arm, urged her to continue walking. And so Dante's Lady walks away. Likened to Jesus' epiphany as he walked through the streets of Jerusalem, blessings are dispensed in her wake. And in this way, sighing deeply he knew he would never be the same again.
It was a sigh--make no mistake about it--that originated in the Body of Beatrice. For the vision of her created a
Seeing the world anew→ La Vita Nuova.
In an article from last year in the New York Review of Books, Robert Harrison, reviews Slavitt's new translation of La Vita Nuova.
Saved by the Vision of Beatrice, he says,
What appears to the eyes then becomes spiritualized and, as spirit, enters the onlooker's inner being, inspiring the soul to emit a sigh. From this sigh of inspiration--this culminating intake and exhalation of breath--the poem we are reading is born.
Nowadays we think of mood, spirit, dreams, love and behavior in terms of internal psychological states of being. But in medieval times, things were different, I think. Love and the spirits (其鬼不神), human destiny and the destiny of cities (the spirit of cities)--- all these things were inter-twined via shared moods and a "breathing and porous Medieval human heart.
Francois Jullien talking about daoist physiology brings up "breath phenomenon 氣象" and says that through one's in-haling and ex-haling, one breathes in landscape, atmosphere and social context and breathes out character, heart and correct behavior. It is not unlike a Confucian scholar whose meticulous actions-- perfectly attuned to the situation-- are guided by a Confucian sensibility, or sensitive negotiating of shared mood. It is the explanation for everything from falling in love, charisma and the heart's fascination to correct deportment and the Rites.
The ancients--East and West-- told us that it was the heart/mind (心）that mattered. The seat of spiritual power, it was equated with life itself. Thinking too much, they warned, will only give you a headache, and this fact was backed up by the finest research of Medieval physicians and theologians. Aristotelian philosophy had imparted to the Medievals that the heart was hot and dry-- often times burning hot; and that intelligence, emotion, passion and sensations all originated there, in that heat. Ibn Arabi further refined this by adding that, if the mind thinks (考）, the heart imagines （思・想）.
We find ourselves, therefore, back in a time when heart and imagination took center stage.
In addition to its heat, the Medieval heart was also believed to be extremely porous--something which inextricably connected inner with outer (and outer and inner). Heather Webb explains it thus:
It was thought that the air we breathed mixed with the blood in our hearts to form generative spirits that, sent back into the world, connected us to one another and to the greater circulating universe. According to the Aristotelian and Aquinian theory, the heart should imperfectly mimic the circulations of the heavens"
Through our breath, then, and our persistently beating hearts, we are connected to those around us and to the turning of the universe itself. (and yes, the heart does not make checklists).
To speak in daoist terms, our hero-pilgrim Dante Alighieri walks through a landscape. Florence is engulfed in shared sighs as the Lover sees his beloved- and in that moment, Dante breathes her in deeply in to his heart. Then, ex-haling in a sigh, the world is forever changed. Our man goes with the flow. He sighs and a poem is born.
In a dream later that night, The God of Love (恋神) commands Dante: 'Vide Cor Meum': Look upon your heart.
It all happens in the heart and like that of the ancient daoists, Dante's world was one largely un-interested in Nirvana or Enlightenment-- or any other project which saw our human lives as a resource to be shaped, utilized, improved and perfected. People didn't really seek to be the "best me they could be." Nor did they go to elaborate lengths to avoid pain. For those in Dante's world, one needn't empty oneself or seek to detach oneself from emotions as their world was not a world of independent self-enclosed brains. Dwelling in a world that itself was bleeding and wounded (wounded Christ heart), poets and philosophers considered that the best one could do was to bravely and vigiliantly, shape one's self around the recognition of necessity and keep an open heart-- a generous heart (Sacred Heart).
And from out of one's own heart's wounds art can be created; in sighs we are inspired and in dreams and visions we are re-born ～into la vita nuova and la dolce vita (The experience of this sweet life.)
Recommended: Alain Badiou: A Life in Writing
A classic word comes from the body, which expresses the emotion of absence (to sigh 溜息→感嘆 ): "to sigh for the bodily presence": the two halves of the androgyne sigh for each other, as if each breath, being incomplete, sought to mingle with the other: the image of the embrace 色 in that melts the two images into a single one: in amorous absence, I am, sadly, an unglued image that dries, yellows, shrivels--Barthes