Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Difference in toto: Paradiso 32-33

Top: Birth of Dionysus Below: Triumph of Dionysus

ἢ ὥσπερ Σαπφώ, ὅτι τὸ ἀποθνῄσκειν κακόν·
οἱ θεοὶ γὰρ οὕτω κεκρίκασιν· ἀπέθνησκον γὰρ ἄν.

As Sappho says, death is a great evil
and the gods have judged it so: for they do not die

While reading Paradiso 32 I floated the idea that the two final canti of the Commedia stand in relation to each other, in their poetics as well as in other ways, in much the same manner as the Old Testament to the New:
Canto 32 is unadorned and fails to have an ending because it stands in relation to Paradiso 33 as the Old Covenant to the New. (Wounds of Time)
The thrust of canto 32 is toward the particular and unique. Each unbaptized infant has its own place, and all had been fixed before time began. We are given assorted proper names, individuals, but no clear sense of why these and not others. It displays the seemingly arbitrary predilection that the Old Testament God shows for his chosen people.

As we have seen, Paradiso 33 reaches a crescendo of polymorphic figuration teetering on open-ended linguistic arbitrariness. But there's more.

Canto 33 begins with Bernard's prayer, an act chosen in that moment to pray for Dante's accession to the totality. As when she chose in turn to consent to the wish conveyed by Gabriel, so Mary here chooses to consent to Bernard; Beatrice and all of heaven support the petition.

The freedom of the acts is fundamental: Dante's "wings" carry him upward, his gaze penetrates into the final vision, because they're propelled by the volition of the community of the saved. For one who had lived a life of exile, this vote of communal acceptance brings him into the longed-for fold.

Canto 33 dramatizes inclusion. In contrast, canto 32 has Bernard tracing all the differentiating walls and excluding fissures of divine providence,  the features and fixed destinies of the innocents. It's a discourse chilling enough in its precise fixities to evoke the immobilized denizens beneath the frozen lake of Satan's tears.

The possibility of Canto 33 issues from the Virgin's consent to the divine wish depicted in canto 32. The act of choice links the two canti, and it is choice that enables Dante ultimately to have his desire (il mio disio) moved with the will ('l velle) as the sun and the other stars (Barolini) are moved by l'amor. 

The full assertion of both singularity and totality, I believe, lies behind the charged syntax of the difficult tercet discussed in the previous post about canto 33. The insistence of differentiating oneness is never negated or subsumed -- in fact it betrays a certain trauma, even a frisson of sublime horror, as it beholds the totality:
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava. (112-114)
The vision of a gloria that moves all, yet chooses to allow piu e meno, subtends the Commedia from end to end.


There is no end to what one could say about this poem. I'll append one suggestion that seems relevant. Dante often echoes ancient myths solely in order to differentiate the nature of his world from that of the ancients. 

For example, the figure of wings recurrent in Paradiso both relates to his name -- ali-ghieri -- and to the power of heaven. The classical myth of Ganymede is all about desire and force -- the boy is so beautiful he's rapt by Zeus to serve the table of the gods.

Ganymede's will is negated in his trip to Olympus. He is prey. Dante has wings because we have will.

Yet that will is insufficient to reach the godhead.

When Dante the pilgrim and the alta fantasia of the poet cannot get there, 
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne:
 se non che la mia mente fu percossa
 da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne.
The fulgore comes from the other, yet its power fulfills the voglia of Dante.

Yet another myth brings us to a defining irony of the Commedia: When Zeus promised Semele her heart's wish, it meant the fulgore of her own destruction. From that insemination came the god of Tragedy, the anti-Apollo, the obliterator of difference.

The true story for this poet has it otherwise: Mary asks nothing of God. Courtly Gabriel asks her consent to bear the Son of God, and after a bit of questioning, she chooses to say yes. The absolutism of mythic power is not here.

Obliterating all trace of its origin, the fulgore grants a wish that Dante's wings couldn't actualize under their own steam. With the same respect for the other that was apparent at the Annunciation, the illimitable power leaves room for the comedic persistence of a certain Florentine, b.1265 - d.1321.

Friday, May 11, 2018

"iri da iri": Polysemy in Paradiso 33

Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza 
de l'alto lume parvermi tre giri 
di tre colori e d'una contenenza;  
e l'un da l'altro come iri da iri 
parea reflesso, e 'l terzo parea foco 
che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri.

Within the deep and luminous subsistence
  Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
  Of threefold colour and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
  As Iris is by Iris, and the third
  Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed. (33:115-120)

As we noted when reading Paradiso 33, the figuration used by Dante the poet to describe the final moments of the pilgrim's vision stands open to a nearly inexhaustible range of readings.

Two scholars have set themselves the task of exploring the myriad suggestions that bubble forth from close attention to the text. Their meticulous discussion, complete with manifold variations of geometric forms -- circles, spheroids, spirals, tori, cylinders, ellipsoids and more -- forms a study that succeeds admirably both in clarifying the interpretive variables as far as humanly possible, and in exhausting any merely human reader of their disquisition.

Arielle Saiber and Aba Mbirika's "The three giri of Paradiso XXXIII" explores the ambiguous folds of the text with rigor and richness. Indeed, they must have pored over it with the kindling intensity Dante describes as having possessed his own mind at this crucial threshold:
Così la mente mia, tutta sospesa
 mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
 e sempre di mirar faceasi accesa.
My mind in this wise wholly in suspense,
  Steadfast, immovable, attentive gazed,
  And evermore with gazing grew enkindled. (97-99)
Given that the object of his attention had just been described as un volume in which all the dispersed substances and accidents of the universe are bound together in love, it might not be too fanciful to find here, in this paeon to concentration, one of the finest imaginable descriptions of the mind in the act of close reading.

Be that as it may, their scholarly paper is rich, thorough, mathematically informed, and describes many of the ambiguities latent in the text with regard to shape, motion, size, color, and configuration. It rewards the close attention it demands, before confessing, late in the essay, that
When we think of all the possible ways three circles could be linked, as we have done so far in this essay, a kind of vertigo begins to set in.
Indeed, although the essay doesn't address it directly, one can link the experiential delirium brought on by a superabundance of figuration to the preceding passage:
Non perché più ch'un semplice sembiante
fosse nel vivo lume ch'io mirava,
che tal è sempre qual s'era davante;
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava.
Not because more than one unmingled semblance
  Was in the living light on which I looked,
  For it is always what it was before;

But through the sight, that fortified itself
  In me by looking, one appearance only
  To me was ever changing as I changed. (109-114)
As challenging as this is to parse, and certainly to translate, it should be evident that the act of looking deeply -- mirare -- has shifted from the stability of line 98:
 mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
to his deeply looking into the vivo lume, yielding a vista -- the "object" of the gaze, one might say, that is no longer a stable object.

A poor effort at a literal rending might go something like:
but through the vista that was strengthening itself
in me looking, a single appearance,
I transforming, to me intensely was working (si travagliava
The lines fall outside Saiber and Mbirika's focus, but the bursting syntax forces what is seen to be asserted as a unified appearance even as its power seems to destabilize the seeing of it. In being seen, the object -- vivo lume -- subjects the vision of the subject to another power.

With extraordinary verisimilitude, Dante depicts what would happen if light were not the passive illumination we know, but alive. "Vertiginous" scarcely begins to suggest the condition of vision seeing living light. Yet it would be difficult to articulate this disarticulation in a manner more precise, or clear.

In his fine commentary, Nicola Fosca divides these two moments of sameness and transformation rather neatly into (1) the poet who knows in retrospect that the living light remained single, and (2) the pilgrim whose seeing is undergoing the throes of change. He puts it this way:
La luce divina non muta, ma quello che muta è la visione.
Divine light doesn't change, but that which changes is the vision. 
Neat, but perhaps too agile in sidestepping the potent action of an unassimilable other, the living travail of si travagliava.

Theodolinda Barolini is sensitive to this in her comment on the canto:
Dante believes in a transcendent One, but his One is indelibly characterized by the multiplicity, difference, and sheer otherness embodied in the “altre stelle”—an otherness by which he is still unrepentantly captivated in his poem’s last breath.

In all events, Saiber and Mbirika's work is itself first rate, and without it I would not have ventured into the multeity and polysemy herein.

Before leaving this part of the final vision, I would like to suggest one element that I've not seen mentioned in the commentaries. It immediately follows the passage under discussion:
Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza 
de l'alto lume parvermi tre giri 
di tre colori e d'una contenenza; 
e l'un da l'altro come iri da iri 
parea reflesso, e 'l terzo parea foco 
che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri. 
Within the deep and luminous subsistence
  Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
  Of threefold colour and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
  As Iris is by Iris, and the third
  Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed. (115-120)

First, there is the assertion that one of the giri appeared to be a reflection of another come iri da iri. The notion of mirroring true light is unusual here, since all of this light ought to be considered true, unreflected, and living, and therefore no prioritization into primary source and secondary reflection should be appropriate. Of course the text does not impose that prioritization, and in fact it can go both ways, as "one" and "other" are not univocally tethered to any "one" of the circles he is seeing. It is entirely ambiguous whether there is any difference between "one," "two," and "three." Dante is true to the violation of identity and number essential to the vision.

But when the reflection is expressed this way:
come iri da iri 
we are in the position of being uncertain whether the vehicle of the simile concerns a relation of rainbows, as many commentators apparently believe, or whether, in this final realm of the logos, the giri are as like as "iri" da "iri" -- a metalinguistic statement that this "reflection" is in fact repetition -- a purely linguistic iteration rather than an aesthetic phenomenon.

What's more, the reflection is now no longer a matter of light and appearance (Saiber and Mbirika spend some time on the optics of double rainbows), but of sound and grapheme. Whether one says "iri" or writes it, it can only be "iri."

Now this alone is worth pondering, but I would offer one additional twist: If we listen to the phrase come iri da iri, one might hear com' irid a iri, whose living sound yields iride, the Iris that's both the colored circle around the opening of the eye, and the flower long associated with Dante's earthly home, the iride Fiorentina:

Given the explosion of figurative and semantic possibility at this point in the text, is it reasonable to rule out yet one more instance? Might it not fall strangely right to hear in come iri da iri a sonorous tri-unity of eye, rainbow, and Florentine flower, also known as the Giglio celeste,* prefiguring the poet's heavenly home?

*Giglio celeste was also known as Giaggiolo, which happened to be the name of a castle linked to Paolo Malatesta, Francesca's lover.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Paradiso infinito

A while ago, our group began reading Dante's Paradiso aloud and discussing it -- the first post on this blog, entitled "A few notes on how the Paradiso begins," came on November 1, 2015.

Today, April 11, 2018, we read the final lines of Paradiso 33. As one of our group said, the experience leaves one thinking the thing to do is turn to canto 1, and perhaps read it for the first time.

Our plan isn't to go down to our piccoletta barca and once again pursue Dante's flight. But one thing we've learned is that the poem, rich at the level of the word or line, is also rich if one steps back and looks from a middle distance, and doubtless richer still if one were to attain some Archimedean point from which to see it whole.

Our thought is to have one more session, to look at cantos 32 and 33 as a unit, and I'll suggest we bring in Paradiso 1 as well, as we noticed today how much the last canto is intertwined with the first -- consider simply the relation of the first and last lines of the entire canticle:
La gloria di colui che tutto move (1.1) 
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle. (33.145)
In a sense, the poem is a meditation on motion. On what it can mean -- to move and, or, be moved -- in a universe seemingly bound by eternal laws.

Thoughtful commentaries by Teodolinda Barolini for these three canti are here:

Paradiso 1                  Paradiso 32                   Paradiso 33

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Barolini and Gassman on Paradiso 33

Two quick references to supplement our reading of Paradiso 33:

In "Paradiso 33: Invisible Ink", Teodolinda Barolini brilliantly outlines the architecture of the canto as well as a lively sense of how the final 100 lines present
three circular waves of discourse (like the rippling motion of water in a round vase that is compared to waves of spoken speech at the beginning of Paradiso 14): three circulate melodie, three “jumps” by which the poet zeroes in on his poem’s climax. He approaches and backs off, approaches and backs off again, and finally arrives.
And for the sonority of the language, see Vittorio Gassman's impassioned recitation. He introduces the reading for four minutes, then begins. This link begins with the actual recitation.

The intro and index to Barolini's blog are here, entitled Commento Baroliniano.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Wounds of time: Paradiso 32 -> 33

προαιρεῖσθαί τε δεῖ ἀδύνατα εἰκότα μᾶλλον ἢ δυνατὰ ἀπίθανα
What is convincing though impossible should always be preferred to what is possible and unconvincing. Aristotle, Poetics, 1460a

A final thought -- more like a trial balloon -- on Paradiso 32, in an effort to put this enigmatic canto in some "light" that takes note of its critical place in the Commedia.

The absence of voice, song, and light (luce appears not at all, and lume appears once in the canto - each word appears five times in canto 33) sets it apart from what we've been used to in the canticle.

Bernard carefully delineates the divisions that run like cicatrices through the Rose, but no systematic explanation for this order rather than any other is revealed. Historical facts are presented, but not illuminated by reason (logos). Also, the finite detail of these 18 beings stands in stark contrast to many precedent scenes of illimitable constellations of angels and souls.

Women from Eve down through the Old Testament form the wall, bracketed by Mary, linked through the piaga, the opening wound marking the genesis and inscription of human history upon flesh. The stories from the Old Testament involve love, wiles, violence, seduction, willingness to take heroic risks, and merciful, healing care.

Grandgent and others have noted that the "seating" in the Rose has no apparent order. Mary is clearly the solar pinnacle of the Rose; next comes Eve; the series continues, but disobeys categories such as historical or ethnic order. One can say that the persons in this wall (except Mary) are women whose names are found in the Old Testament.

Readers seeking rational closure will pull out their hair asking "why these people and not these people?" Bernard is a subtle and sophisticated interpreter of the Song of Songs and other Old Testament texts. But, when he says . . .
Ne l'ordine che fanno i terzi sedi,
siede Rachel di sotto da costei
con Bëatrice, sì come tu vedi.
Within that order which the third seats make
  Is seated Rachel, lower than the other,
  With Beatrice, in manner as thou seest. (32: 7-9)
. . . perhaps we've not learned to take him literally enough. If i terzi sedi make the order, then the third seats are the third seats because they are the third seats. There is no cryptic mystery here, no arcane interpretive decoding. Rather, the order is sì come tu vedi - such as you see. No point in asking why Ruth or Judith are listed. They are what you see because they're what you see.

The series of Old Testament figures stubbornly defeats neat ordering schemes, just as the history of the stiff-necked Jews is a broken tale, rich in promise, failure, disaster, and unforeseeable rescues. We are left with an incomplete, seemingly arbitrary, unspeaking, dimly lit congeries of names and events, which we call the word of God.
τούς τε λόγους μὴσυνίστασθαι ἐκ μερῶν ἀλόγωνἀλλὰ μάλιστα μὲν μηδὲν ἔχειν ἄλογονεἰ δὲ μήἔξωτοῦ μυθεύματος, 
so far as possible there should be nothing inexplicable, or, if there is, it should lie outside the story. Poetics 1460a.
The first and culminating figure in the wall, Mary, enjoys a pivotal place in the scheme of things. She is described -- not with mimetic sensory depiction, but with elation that suspends gravity:
Io vidi sopra lei tanta allegrezza
 piover, portata ne le menti sante
 create a trasvolar per quella altezza,

che quantunque io avea visto davante,
 di tanta ammirazion non mi sospese,
 né mi mostrò di Dio tanto sembiante;
On her did I behold so great a gladness
  Rain down, borne onward in the holy minds
  Created through that altitude to fly, 
That whatsoever I had seen before
  Did not suspend me in such admiration,
  Nor show me such similitude of God.   (32: 88-93)
With the affetto of this allegrezza, the silence of the canto turns to music. Courtly Gabriel gracefully enacts the anomalous grace of the Annunciation, bringing an unthinkable choice to receive the divine seed, logos spermatikos.

Zeus is not bearing off a bull-beguiled Europa; Apollo is not frustrated by unwilling Daphne; Hades is not dragging the virgin Persephone into the Underworld. The pivotal moment of human history hangs in this suspension, waiting upon the free consent of a young girl.
Nel ventre tuo si raccese l'amore,
 per lo cui caldo ne l'etterna pace
 così è germinato questo fiore.  (Par. 33:7-9)
When in the final canto Bernard echoes Gabriel's greeting, he puts into narrative form the betrothed virgin's's unforced assent to plant that seed in her ventre, grounding the fiore of immortal life in history.

What divine power would allow the fall, the damnation and so much suffering to flow from one couple's decision in a garden, then provide his beloved own son as sacrifice so that the species of those who killed him could accede to the possibility of a seat in heaven? You couldn't make this up --- it lies "outside the story."

As we stand with the pilgrim in the Rose, the realization of this order is self-evident, because we know what imposed that meaningful order from without -- ἔξωτοῦ μυθεύματος.

This is not what sensible people like Aristotle would describe as probable (mimetic) behavior. The twists and turns of the Jewish people, the story of the Virgin and her son and the entire history of Creation achieve intelligibility only if we accept an ebullient suspension, a wounding rift in the logic and conventions of history. It breaks into two covenants, one before, one after, Mary's assent.

So here's my trial balloon: Canto 32 is unadorned and fails to have an ending because it stands in relation to Paradiso 33 as the Old Covenant to the New. The literal features of canto 32 -- the obvious lack of poetry -- stripped of imaginative fire, of light, of sonority -- lend a forbidding aspect to this bewildering tale that arrives at no conclusion.

What other poet would do what Dante does here? At the portal to the godhead, Canto 32 remembers the human experience of being in the dark. When, like Ugolino, we are imprisoned, groping in darkness, discovering to our horror that we are stumbling on the bodies of our children whose death is our paternal legacy, the canto leaves one thing left to do: To act, to pray with all one's affetto.
E cominciò questa santa orazione:
Canto 32 is to Paradiso 33 as the Old Testament is to the New, or as the dim human realm is to exorbitant splendor and sweetness of the Rose. One turns, as the Creator did, to the Virgin and asks for help.

Note there are no male heroes named in 32. No Joseph, no Abraham. Moses and David get a sideways glance. The wings of this poet are powered by the oriafiamme. Cherchez la femme.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Binding incisions: Paradiso 32 (Part III)

The arc of the Paradiso has been a movement from the particular to the universal, moving towards the primo amore -- the source of all Being. We are brought up short in Paradiso 32 as we encounter, rather than a higher level of synthesis, a highly limited directory to 18 specific figures in the lineage from Adam through Christ to the present.

After establishing this curiously partial portrait of the Rose, the canto turns to the providential disposition of the innocent. Teodolinda Barolini has an insightful blog post about Bernard's disquisition on more and less excellent innocents, and why and how their places in Paradise, or Limbo, were determined by "the king" of this realm:
I find it extremely impressive that Dante manages to have a dubbio, that he can still be dubitando, even this high up in paradise, at the very threshold of the beatific vision.. . . His concern in Paradiso 32 relates to the justice inherent in diversity of grace, with respect to placing the infants in a hierarchy: how can it be just to order them hierarchically, when they did not live long enough to have any merit? 
The final dubbio of the Paradiso is essentially its first, and exhibits the same preoccupation with unequally proportioned grace that has troubled the pilgrim throughout his ascent. But the issue has never been more starkly raised than here, because never before has individual merit been totally excluded from the equation . . .
Two points here. First, we have noted the curious erasure of individual traits occurring in this canto as the 18 figures are named. Now we have this crucially difficult question: how can eternal damnation or its opposite can be justified without the innocent soul having any part in it?

Bernard is about to address this. But just now, as the pilgrim and the reader are suspended in doubt, we consider the innocent sons of Ugolino, locked in the tower, offering their bodies to stave off their Father's starvation. The horrific deaths of those innocents -- echoing Christ's words in their care for the father whose deeds consumed their lives and perhaps their bodies -- can only be reconciled with a sense of divine justice if in fact, while Ugolino gnaws the nape of Archbishop Ruggieri, his children sit among the glorified.

Bernard says:
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume,
locati son per gradi differenti,
sol differendo nel primiero acume.
Bastavasi ne’ secoli recenti
con l’innocenza, per aver salute,
solamente la fede d’i parenti;
poi che le prime etadi fuor compiute,
convenne ai maschi a l’innocenti penne
per circuncidere acquistar virtute;
ma poi che ’l tempo de la grazia venne,
sanza battesmo perfetto di Cristo
tale innocenza là giù si ritenne. 
Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness. 
'Tis true that in the early centuries,
  With innocence, to work out their salvation
  Sufficient was the faith of parents only. 
After the earlier ages were completed,
  Behoved it that the males by circumcision
  Unto their innocent wings should virtue add; 
But after that the time of grace had come
  Without the baptism absolute of Christ,
  Such innocence below there was retained. (Par. 32.73-84)
There are two different stories apparently being told here. One traces human history and finds it articulated in three segments. At first any child whose life was cut short could enter Paradise if his parents believed in the true God. With the Covenant with Abraham, a new contract superseded that arrangement: a literal wound -- the cutting of the penis -- opens the way to heaven. (Whether one goes with Mandelbaum* and others who believe line 80 should read pene, (penis), not penne (wings) doesn't change that literal circumcision is in question.) Then, with the arrival of the "time of grace," innocents who died without the baptism of Christ are no longer eligible for eternal salvation.

It is troubling to this reader to learn that the coming of the man/god whose sacrifice opened Paradise also rewrote the contract to eliminate innocents who died without his Baptism, but there it is. The fact, the effetto, faces every reader as it faced the poet. One might infer that Dante himself somehow came to terms. How?

Here's one thought: the effect of this state of affairs is to make the possibility of eternal life for our children dependent upon others, especially parents. This would make the bonds of love and family a constituent element of the binding (Lat. religare) that Augustine among others saw as the etymological root of the word "religion."

Such an interpretation works quite well with the evidence before our eyes. Religious duty is a means of forming a community, not of making it into the Hall of Fame. The binding that falls on the parent makes it possible to say that if Ugolino did fulfill his duty, he made possible his sons' salvation.

As noted earlier, Bernard tells not one, but two stories by way of helping Dante understand the fate of innocents. The other begins earlier:
e però questa festinata gente a vera vita non è sine causa intra sé qui più e meno eccellente.  
Lo rege per cui questo regno pausa 
in tanto amore e in tanto diletto, 
che nulla volontà è di più ausa 
le menti tutte nel suo lieto aspetto creando, a suo piacer di grazia dota 
diversamente; e qui basti l'effetto.  
E ciò espresso e chiaro vi si nota ne la Scrittura santa in quei gemelli che ne la madre ebber l'ira commota.   
Però, secondo il color d'i capelli, di cotal grazia l'altissimo lume degnamente convien che s'incappelli.  
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume, locati son per gradi differenti, sol differendo nel primiero acume. 
And therefore are these people, festinate
  Unto true life, not 'sine causa' here
  More and less excellent among themselves. 
The King, by means of whom this realm reposes
  In so great love and in so great delight
  That no will ventureth to ask for more,

In his own joyous aspect every mind
  Creating, at his pleasure dowers with grace
  Diversely; and let here the effect suffice.

And this is clearly and expressly noted
  For you in Holy Scripture, in those twins
  Who in their mother had their anger roused.

According to the colour of the hair,
  Therefore, with such a grace the light supreme
  Consenteth that they worthily be crowned.

Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness. (32: 58-75)
There's a lot here, more than there's room to address. Barolini notes the principle of differentiation, of più e meno (more and less) harks back to the first tercet of Paradiso 1:
La gloria di colui che tutto move 
per l'universo penetra, e risplende 
in una parte più e meno altrove. 
We are about to enter that glory, but first we must learn that even the saved innocents are graded in an order of excellence, according to the "color" of their grace. Dante's daring conflation of hair color with divine favor points up the unavoidable fact that such differentiating of more and less even among embryos seems to us to be purely arbitrary.

Without going into all the curious turns in the tale of Esau and Jacob, note that the referenced story offers at least three relevant details: the color of the hair, present before birth, becomes a figure for the predetermined bestowal of grace; that Jacob is second in birth order, but supplants his brother's right of firstborn, fits the Scriptural pattern of last becoming first - temporal order is not the only order. And that Jacob surpasses Esau through his and his mother's wits underscores the final word of the entire passage:
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume, 
locati son per gradi differenti, 
sol differendo nel primiero acume. 
Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness.
Acume - the power to penetrate to the heart of things - turns out to be a clue to the differentiation with regard to grace. Rather than simply being as arbitrary as hair color, what is arbitrary is that some humans are sharper than others. The acuteness that cuts through appearances -- more than just intellect, heart as well is involved -- enables one such as Jacob to surpass another, who would seem to have advantages of precedence, wealth, class, etc.

Sharpness creates another form of separation -- leading me to restore the very individuality I earlier said was erased in the seemingly arbitrary differentiation of innocents. For Dante, the acumen to know one's right hand from one's left; to see through the glitter of princes and popes -- this is a grace that cannot be taught. Many of the learned do not have it; many a peasant has it in spades. This grazia, whether or not its owner has opportunity to exercise it in her or his life, results in the gradations of the innocenti.

We should note that acume appears as the last word of line 75, placing it at the very center of Paradiso 32.

This suggests a brief afterthought: For Dante, the journey to the beatific vision began in the moment he first saw Beatrice. He of course had no idea what it was about her that seized his heart and mind. Over the course of his journey, he discerns more and more about Beatrice, sees more of her beauty, and more of the reality to which she points. Beatrice is both mediatrix and sign of something more than herself. Dante's Commedia is the elaboration of a reading that began with a chance encounter with a sign, and ends in a realm where there is no possibility of chance. In Dante's lexicon another word for the tenacious rigor of such a reading might well be acume.

If so, then the canto's promise hinges on the capability of its own reading. Beginning in the most off-putting way, Bernard ignores the "big picture" to pick at nits. Yet each nit is from Scripture or the Church, and the lines of separation that he descries should give one pause. Why after all of human time are we still bothering with the slightest discretionary differences between one embryo and another? It's not a question to address here except by means of a question: without the differences that make each human being inescapably, knowably, unique, is community, communion, possible? If not, then are the scars on the face of heaven binding its fragments in glory?

*Mandelbaum's rendering of the passage:
In early centuries, their parents’ faith
alone, and their own innocence, sufficed
for the salvation of the children; when
those early times had reached completion, then
each male child had to find, through circumcision,
the power needed by his innocent
member; but then the age of grace arrived,
and without perfect baptism in Christ,
such innocence was kept below, in Limbo. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Fractured Rose: Paradiso 32 (Part II)

Paradiso 32 comes across as dry and devoid of embellishment when compared with the cantos immediately preceding and the stunning final canto 33.

Numerous critics have noted its "wooden," coldly depersonalized affect. "It is a plan which must seem to us pedantic and unimaginative and out of keeping with the visionary rapture of this part of Dante's pilgrimage," notes John D. Sinclair. And G.L. Bickersteth describes the focus on the construction of the edifice of the Rose as "an intellectual process resulting in a static formal image, mercilessly formal in its absolute symmetry, a mere geometrical design, lifeless . . .."

We might ask ourselves why, at this penultimate moment when all is tending upward toward the light, toward love and synthesis of the Alpha and Omega, we are treated to a set of names, familiar figures from the Testaments and from Church history, but here like icons in niches, more inert than the figures on along the paths of Purgatorio which the poet beautifully calls visibile parlare.

None who are named speaks, none is described, or has anything of the vivid individuality and animation of souls met throughout this journey. Something besides their historical personhood is of concern here. When Benedict promised Dante that he would see the blessed con imagine scoverta, little did we think this unveiling would drain their presence to a set of letters spelling their names.

The effect is skeletal, as if we are experiencing not the plenitude of the Rose, but rather the barest bones of Scripture inscribed in the Rose. The names have a somber, distanced air -- as if chiseled on a gravestone.

The Rose, all ebullience in the previous cantos, is now dissected by Bernard. The order he limns marks the breaking points of the strange interface between terrestrial man and his Creator: Those Before and After Christ; the matrilineal line, or wall, from Eve to Christ -- itself a jagged line that crosses boundaries of ethnicity and nationhood, and women without children, and women who killed kings. Then, three classes of innocents.

The one person from the Old Testament whose words - "miserere me" - we hear quoted by Bernard is David, the king who took another man's wife, and arranged that man's death. David not only committed a grave sin, for which he sang many a penitential psalm. With Bathsheba he fathered Solomon.

We're moving toward the close of the Commedia. That the final canto is coming is certain. Before we arrive, one last walk through a valley of wounds, balm, and the deepest doubt. What a remarkable artistic calculation: the poet has us with him, no one is going to stop reading his poem now. We've experienced some of the lowest and highest characters, tales and perils a reader could wish for. But Paradise is not only about God's sacred totality. It is also about the wounds, sins, and sorry history of the creature whose eternal life was purchased at horrific cost.

The face of heaven is broken, not unlike the broken god that provided human access there. The geometry of the Rose is disfigured by these markings of difference, this wall of nurturing, devious mothers, one assassin, and the horrors of sin issuing from the original piaga opened by Eve.

Piaga - "wound" - is given high prominence by Bernard - so high it is striking:
La piaga che Maria richiuse e unse,
quella ch'è tanto bella da' suoi piedi
è colei che l'aperse e che la punse.
Preceding even the name of Maria, la piaga opened by Eve, closed by Mary, stains the canto. The geometry of the Rose is crossed by lines of human error that disfigure it. The face of Heaven bears the sutures of a care incomprehensibly extended in the wake the nightmarish incisions of human history. To approach heaven without having contemplated this agony, this unaccountable rescue; without having confronted still more troubling doubts is not to approach this poet's sacral place at all.

The canto next turns to a last, deepest doubt: what of the children who died before their choices had authority to decide their fates? Doubts accompanying the pilgrim since he was lost in the wood.

This will be next.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Cold discretion: Paradiso 32: 1-57

By the standards of USian hero movies, Paradiso 32 ought to be the victory lap. Entering the stadium having passed every test, the Hollywood hero is invariably greeted with an ecstatic applause and adulation. Instead, the canto falls on this reader with a forbidding strangeness and baleful silence.

Bernard has directed Dante to look up.

The saint then assumes the role of dottore, and presents a lecture full of words signifying division, or separation: dirimendo, parton, cerna, discrezioni. He's focused on tracing the major structuring separations within the Rose -- which seems odd, as we keep trying to remind ourselves that in the Empyrean, space and time are no longer supposed to operate as important categories.

Bernard begins by tracing the line of Hebrew women from Mary down -- a line he calls a wall -- il muro / a che si parton le sacre scalee ("the wall by which the sacred stairs are divided" (20-21)). He then describes the location of those who lived before Christ to the left of Mary, and those who lived after to her right. This Rose, we come to realize, is structured like Biblical human history. But the people named -- major figures of Hebraic and Christian faith -- do not speak, or move. Their names -- 18 of them -- stand in spectral isolation from their living being.

It's as if, in this place beyond space and time, Bernard is fixated upon denoting specific features of space, time, and individuals not for their own sakes, but for where they fit into some larger matrix.

The effect is more strange coming as it does after Paradiso 30-31, where we experienced plenal joy, light, and motion unified via the fluent master metaphors of flower, bees and sun. To go from that delightful innocence of sweetness and light to Bernard's stark isolating list -- a paltry series of names which seems trivially incidental to his lecture. For Bernard, who is intensely focused on Mary such that the first word of the canto is Affetto, this lack of affect with regard to these particular souls seems odd.

What's missing here? Instead of animated motion and sound, instead of the kind of balance and symmetries we've been accustomed to from the divine architecture all along this journey, we have several bare names and periphrases, and hints of a crazed order within the Rose. It feels dislocating. The pilgrim will in a moment experience profound doubt.

C.H. Grandgent senses this, I think. He contrasts our puzzlement here with the clear categorization of souls in Inferno and Purgatorio, and the divine justice that caused them to be where they are:
In the rose itself we are informed of the great vertical and horizontal divisions, and the position of a few of the souls; and we may infer that proximity to Mary or to John the Baptist is a sign of honor. Beyond that, all is mystery.
However, this "mystery" is not bathed in the lush wonderment and erotic and epistemological suspense that often accompanies the word. Grandgent goes on to make this clear by failing to convince us of his next point:
Gazing upon this vast assembly, Dante finds satisfaction of the desire expressed in Canto XXII, ll. 58-60, to behold the Elect uncovered.
Turning to that passage, in which Dante and St. Benedict speak of the fulfillment of the highest sphere, it indeed seems highly relevant:
E io a lui: “L'affetto che dimostri
 meco parlando, e la buona sembianza
 ch'io veggio e noto in tutti li ardor vostri,

così m'ha dilatata mia fidanza,
 come 'l sol fa la rosa quando aperta
 tanto divien quant' ell' ha di possanza.

Però ti priego, e tu, padre, m'accerta
 s'io posso prender tanta grazia, ch'io
 ti veggia con imagine scoverta.”

Ond' elli: “Frate, il tuo alto disio
 s'adempierà in su l'ultima spera,
 ove s'adempion tutti li altri e 'l mio.

Ivi è perfetta, matura e intera
 ciascuna disïanza; in quella sola
 è ogne parte là ove sempr' era,
And I to him: "The affection which thou showest
  Speaking with me, and the good countenance
  Which I behold and note in all your ardours, 
In me have so my confidence dilated
  As the sun doth the rose, when it becomes
  As far unfolded as it hath the power. 
Therefore I pray, and thou assure me, father,
  If I may so much grace receive, that I
  May thee behold with countenance unveiled." 
He thereupon: "Brother, thy high desire
  In the remotest sphere shall be fulfilled,
  Where are fulfilled all others and my own. 
There perfect is, and ripened, and complete,
  Every desire; within that one alone
  Is every part where it has always been;
Bernard's lecture so far has given us something less than Benedict's promise:
"There perfect is, and ripened, and complete,
Every desire . . ."
Of course he's not finished -- he will go on to make clear to Dante that the very criteria for the eternal salvation of children shifted three times in human history -- from parents to circumcision to baptism -- and then he'll cap it off with:
Dentro a l'ampiezza di questo reame
casüal punto non puote aver sito,
Nothing here is by chance. All fits:

ci si risponde da l'anello al dito;

                           so that closely
The ring is fitted to the finger here.

This "fit" - however matrimonial the image - seems far from the exuberant promise of Benedict (pace Grandgent), and equally far from the joyous harmony of cantos 31-32. 

Bernard, the impassioned devotee of Mary, here seems intent to eke out certain fissures defining an order. But instead of leading us to an accession of philosophical insight or mystical vision, his lecture suggests an incessant and trivial fitting of something to something else more typical of obsessive compulsive disorder.

So far, canto 32 sets itself apart from everything we might have anticipated from what we know of Paradise. The poem's power to surprise is intact. There is in this canto a disconcerting absence of meaning, of totality -- a squinting concern with races and gender and accidents of time and lineage that in fact are the fully intended results of Providence. The effect is cold, spectral, unheimlich

But we're barely at line 57.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Unmasking heaven: Paradiso 30

It's often remarked that the late canti of Paradiso are redolent with Virgilian echoes, prompting commentators to ponder why, since Virgil ceded his guiding role to Beatrice in Purgatorio 30, his text seems to return with such sonorous and imagistic presence 30 cantos later.

An indirect approach might help. I'll break it into three parts - the critical impasse that the pilgrim experiences, and moves beyond, in Paradiso 30; the presence of some of Virgil's most far reaching passages in the canto, and finally an effort to read Dante's juxtaposition of his own poetic impasse with Virgil's tale of Orpheus's defeat and Aristaeus's renewal in the Fourth Georgic.

As noted previously, Paradiso 30 seems to partake more intimately of music than of statement, description, or question and answer. The muted opening scene of earth's shadow bowing to the sun is a sort of preludium that modulates into the equally quiet confession that the man who loved Beatrice since he first saw her perhaps half a century earlier, who would follow her still, cannot keep up -- she has risen to a level beyond his art.

ché, come sole in viso che più trema,
così lo rimembrar del dolce riso
la mente mia da me medesmo scema.

For as the sun the sight that trembles most,
  Even so the memory of that sweet smile
  My mind depriveth of its very self. (30.25-27)

The poet is about to have his power of sight strengthened to a point of being able to look unhindered at anything. But before that, just the memory of the changed Beatrice is overpowering -- it blots out the mind in the act of remembrance. Remembering dismembers.

The poem is interweaving antinomic extremities: On one hand, the poet says he's split, divided from his own memory, from his muse, from his mimetic powers as poet -- as his voyage brings him ever closer to that Reality which exceeds the realism of his artistry.*

Yet at the same time, in the very moment of this decisive defeat, his powers of vision are expanded and strengthened:

“Sempre l'amor che queta questo cielo
 accoglie in sé con sì fatta salute,
 per far disposto a sua fiamma il candelo.”

Non fur più tosto dentro a me venute 
queste parole brievi, ch'io compresi 
me sormontar di sopr' a mia virtute;

"Ever the Love which quieteth this heaven
  Welcomes into itself with such salute,
  To make the candle ready for its flame."

No sooner had within me these brief words
  An entrance found, than I perceived myself
  To be uplifted over my own power,   (30:52-57)

Led by Virgil to the top of Purgatory, the pilgrim there was crowned and mitered over himself (Purg. 27). Here the words of Beatrice enter the poet and empower a self-surmounting, a rising above oneself. Then,

e di novella vista mi raccesi
tale, che nulla luce è tanto mera,
che li occhi miei non si fosser difesi;

And I with vision new rekindled me,
Such that no light whatever is so pure
But that mine eyes were fortified against it. (30:58-60)

As extraordinary as this novella vista is, however, it merely permits the pilgrim to see foreshadowings (umbriferi prefazi) -- the river, the sparks and flowers. To see that which is foreshadowed by these figures, he still must "drink" of this light to cure a lack in himself.

Up to this point, one could argue that Paradiso has been accommodating itself to the Pilgrim's limitations. His vision is strong, but he's still seeing illusion, a mask.

After his eyelids drink in the river's light, the mask is removed, and the pilgrim beholds the glorious courts of heaven. We are now in the throes of the paradox built into the canto: coming from nature, we do not have the poetic means to extricate and explicate what lies behind the appearances of nature. Yet that apparent dead end has an unanticipated twist.

A look into the return of Virgil's text seems necessary here.

*For a very helpful distinction between the poetics of realism vs. the nature of reality, see the fine commentary, Dante and Reality / Dante and Realism (Paradiso) by Teodolinda Barolini. 

II. Virgilian echoes

The sense of intuiting divinity without being able to speak it is Virgil's limit -- he intimates a numinous reality within the natural world, but lacks the revelation to be able to speak it.

This sense of something looming behind is present from the richly Virgilian echoes in the canto's opening:

quando 'l mezzo del cielo, a noi profondo,
 comincia a farsi tal, ch'alcuna stella
 perde il parere infino a questo fondo;

When the middle of the heavens, to us profound,
  Begins to make itself such that here and there a star
  Ceases to appear so far down as this depth,

This is a modified form of Longfellow's translation - the original is here: Par. 30:4-6. The link of cielo . . . profondo prompts many commentators to point to a passage that seems to have its own profundity in Virgil's fourth Georgic:

His quidam signis atque haec exempla secuti  220
esse apibus partem divinae mentis et haustus
aetherios dixere; deum namque ire per omnes
terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum.
Hinc pecudes, armenta, viros, genus omne ferarum,
quemque sibi tenues nascentem arcessere vitas;  225
scilicet huc reddi deinde ac resoluta referri
omnia nec morti esse locum, sed viva volare
sideris in numerum atque alto succedere caelo.

Led by these tokens, and with such traits to guide,
Some say that unto bees a share is given
Of the Divine Intelligence, and to drink
Pure draughts of ether; for God permeates all—
Earth, and wide ocean, and the vault of heaven
From whom flocks, herds, men, beasts of every kind,
Draw each at birth the fine essential flame;
Yea, and that all things hence to Him return,
Brought back by dissolution, nor can death
Find place: but, each into his starry rank,
Alive they soar, and mount the heights of heaven.
Bees exemplify the kind of sign that lends credence to a reading of the world as instinct with divine motion through all things, leaving no place for death. Such passages make Virgil much more than the singer of Roman history and conquest.

Virgil had used the same phrase in the Fourth Eclogue:
Adgredere o magnosaderit iam tempushonores,
cara deum subolesmagnum Iovis incrementum!
Aspice convexo nutantem pondere mundum,         50
terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum!
Aspiceventuro laetentur ut omnia saeclo!
Assume thy greatness, for the time draws nigh,
dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove!
See how it totters—the world's orbed might,
earth, and wide ocean, and the vault profound,
all, see, enraptured of the coming time!
The tone carries prophetic power -- the foresense of a child whose birth will shake the fixed contours of earth and sea and sky, leading to a paradisal new epoch.

Dante is summoning these heightened, luminous moments in Virgil's text, moments in which something shines through a teeming world filled with tears, violence, and war. At the end of the Fourth Eclogue, the poet calls upon a child and its mother to smile, because in this mutual smile he sees the sign of a better future. Juxtaposed with the smile of Beatrice, along with the Virgin and Child, these lines might have struck Dante as harboring an extraordinary premonition, that of a seer doomed never to know what his prescience so vividly foretells. 

If Dante shared the then-common view of Virgil's poetry as vatic, its profundity was in the mode of the pilgrim's novella vista of the river, sparks, and flowers -- a realm of umbriferi prefazi beneath the mask of nature.

When that mask is removed, as occurs after the pilgrim, like a famished infant, "drinks" from the river, there is no longer a translucence of something discerned obliquely in the depths. Taking off a mask is an instantaneous act in which the veil is not seen through, but lifted away -- a literal act of revelation:
Poi, come gente stata sotto larve, 
che pare altro che prima, se si sveste 
a sembianza non süa in che disparve,  
così mi si cambiaro in maggior feste 
i fiori e le faville, sì ch'io vidi 
ambo le corti del ciel manifeste. 
Then as a folk who have been under masks
  Seem other than before, if they divest
  The semblance not their own they disappeared in, 
Thus into greater pomp were changed for me
  The flowerets and the sparks, so that I saw
  Both of the Courts of Heaven made manifest. (91-96)
The moment in a plot when a key player is unmasked often pivots the tale. It can "turn into" a comedy, if the "boy" desperately in love with the male protagonist turns out to be a beautiful woman; it turns tragic if the honest friend turns out to be Iago. Moments of unmasking are moments of truth. Depending on that truth is the determination as to what genre of literature, what sort of story, we have.

For readers of the Commedia, the unmasking of heaven is that moment. The pastoral world of Virgil's Elysium -- that pregnant dream -- is peeled back, replaced by a maggior feste beyond his Roman guide's ken.

Virgil's text here suffers a destiny much like the starry night at the canto's opening -- its lights are dimmed by a divine light that doesn't move through the world, but rises from a place beyond, dispatching the stars into the depths of a brightening sky.
e come vien la chiarissima ancella
del sol più oltre, così 'l ciel si chiude
di vista in vista infino a la più bella.
And as advances bright exceedingly
  The handmaid of the sun, the heaven is closed
  Light after light to the most beautiful; (30:7-9)

This has already become too long. The third part will be in a subsequent post. 

Friday, December 08, 2017

Bernard's familiar voice

(An interpolation - I do intend to get back to the question of parabasis in Paradiso 30)

As noted previously, the final cantos of the Paradiso come to life through the voice of Bernard of Clairvaux. I've not read more than a smidgen of Bernard's works, but this was a man who richly lived - a man on fire. Many of his works are readings of sacred texts, including The Song of Songs, which Bernard explored in 86 chapters.

I will just point to two aspects of Bernard's writing: First, it's a strong common style, accessible to anyone; second, when he reads, he quotes -- not just from the text in question, but from the Bible and other texts --  so liberally that one soon believes he must have had photographic memory.

To read the Song of Songs is to move through a wide range of subjects and styles, from great intimacy to worldly grandeur, the entire gamut seemingly in play at the same time. Anyone curious to see how Bernard reads such a poem might choose a chapter of his text at random. I happened upon Chapter 31, "The Various Ways of Seeing God." Reading it in conjunction with Paradiso 30-31 offers a rich set of accords; Bernard is wrestling with the same general problem of how to represent how one of human limitations can see God, and is thinking through some of the same modes of apprehension that Dante pilgrim experiences in the language of Dante poet. Try it out - read Paradiso 30, then Bernard's chap. 31, and see if you're not reminded of Dante's poetics.

Bernard is clearly a thoughtful reader. See what he does with the first lines of the Song, in chapter 1.
Tell us, I beg you, by whom, about whom and to whom it is said: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.'' How shall I explain so abrupt a beginning, this sudden irruption as from a speech in mid-course?  
The interpretive strategy bears upon the understanding of "mouth" and a full meditation on what mouths do - they speak, and in this case, the speaking is not just of words, but of the Word. Bernard is thinking through a complex intercourse of flesh, spirit, and the power of language. He should know, as his mouth launched the Second Crusade, the one that both summoned Cacciaguida and ended his life.

The connection between Dante and Bernard thus is personal, as well as stylistic and interpretive. One can perhaps even see a shadowy preface of Dante's bold treatment of the pontiffs in Bernard's startling familiarity with the living Pope in his De Consideratione:

Bernard is one of those writers whose voice leaps off the page with vivacity, as indeed it will in Paradiso 33. To Dante, this contemplative of the Word was, in life and in writing, a stylist to emulate.