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.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Parabasis in Paradiso 30

Forse semilia miglia di lontano
ci ferve l'ora sesta, e questo mondo
china già l'ombra quasi al letto piano,

Paradiso 30 does not reveal all its audacity at once. Its gentle opening gives no hint of what's to come. Strangely, it puts us squarely back on Earth -- questo mondo -- at dawn. We have been moving at accelerating speeds through the highest realms of stars and the crystalline sphere. Now, curiously, we're back on terra firma, watching the stars "lose their appearing" as the eastern horizon brightens.

The presentation of this dawn is literally down to earth -- we have no warrior gods or mutual titanic destructions of Night and Day, as Sophocles gave us in the gorgeous first ode of Women of Trachis. Indeed the bending, or bowing, of the shadow of night has a plainspoken quality. Today anyone can look into the heavens before sunrise and see the mezzo, the "middle" of the sky, gradually absorb the stars into profound depths, and think that this passage tells it just as it is.

The mode is heightened a bit by the figurative ancella del sol, but a handmaid is hardly cut from the cloth of the high style. The sense of granular gradation as the night's starry points vanish in morning light is meditative, calm, simple.

This is not what we might have expected, at this crucial transition from the maggior corpo of the Primum Mobile to the pura luce of the Empyrean. All sorts of dazzlement might not have seemed out of place here as we accompany the pilgrim on the final stage of his journey. The canto will soon touch themes of triumph and various kinds of overpowerings. In short order the pilgrim will abandon all hope of describing his guide; he'll be emblazoned in a blinding light that empowers him to see anew; he'll stand at the pool of light within the rose, whose layered tiers, soaring to unimaginable heights, mirror each other vertically as well as horizontally, and he'll hear Beatrice's final words as she tracks Pope Clement's damned soul's plummet into questo mondo, where gravity and momentum conspire to plunge the shaky ankles of Boniface VIII deeper into the bowels of hell.

The canto's puzzlingly erratic shifts in tone and styles of speech, and its rich phonetic effects, seem to work more as music than as any linear mode of statement. 

Erich Auerbach often marvels at Dante's command of a robust style that manages to encompass a lively vernacular while drawing upon a sublimity without seeming strained or resorting to empty rhetorical artifice. One might ask what other poet has ever sought to combine all these stylistic levels into a mere 148 lines. Who other than Alighieri would dare modulate from the humble prose of earth to the sublimity of the milizie -- the Courts and armies of the Heavenly rose -- only to leap from such glory into the low comic farce of papal simoniacs reaming new depths under Satan's towering shadow?

This audacity acquires a comic aspect when we consider that the poet also chooses this canto to admit artistic defeat:

Da questo passo vinto mi concedo
più che già mai da punto di suo tema
soprato fosse comico o tragedo:

Vanquished do I confess me by this passage
  More than by problem of his theme was ever
  O'ercome the comic or the tragic poet;

If the stars were overpowered ever so gently by dawn's entrance, the poet here steps out of his usual narrative mode in a kind of parabasis, and speaks openly, nakedly, of being overcome by his theme. Indeed he doesn't stop there - he goes on for 15 lines acknowledging with a craftsman's practicality that the job has now exceeded his tools and wit, before proceeding to tackle the series of astonishing poetic acrobatics I've just described.

That this congeries of disparate levels of materials works is due in part to the fact that we do not see it for what it is. The art hiding art here is in full view, in the form of the artist taking off his mask and telling us he lacks the artistry to keep up with deep change in both his theme and his mediatrix.

For Aristophanes, parabasis was a moment when theatrical illusion was dropped, and the chorus addressed the audience (as George Burns and Bertolt Brecht would do) as if they were sitting at a bar, outside of the mimetic world of the play, talking about things entirely irrelevant to the fiction being enacted. (For the New Testament, parabasis was a kind of error, a violation and break from the moral order.)

Dante comes at his parabasis from two sides: First he breaks the continuity of the forward motion of his journey to speak of his lifelong love for this woman. Then, as poet, he confesses that he's outclassed, and no longer can hope to represent the new state of her beauty.

Dal primo giorno ch'i' vidi il suo viso
 in questa vita, infino a questa vista,
 non m'è il seguire al mio cantar preciso;

ma or convien che mio seguir desista
 più dietro a sua bellezza, poetando,
 come a l'ultimo suo ciascuno artista.

From the first day that I beheld her face
  In this life, to the moment of this look,
  The sequence of my song has ne'er been severed;

But now perforce this sequence must desist
  From following her beauty with my verse,
  As every artist at his uttermost. (28-33)

Vidi . . . viso . . . vita . . . vista . . .the play of abiding and changing consonants mirrors on the level of sound how something so formally similar can become so radically other as to disrupt the ability of art to make anything of it.

He speaks of questa vita, as he spoke of questo mondo, at the very moment he is moving beyond "questo" entirely. He's speaking to us from a place that is neither the location of the pilgrim who is outside space in the mimesis of the poem, nor of the poet making that mimesis. This speaking is placeless and timeless -- a voice that is "in" the text, but breaks with the mimetic illusion to offer a meta-comment about an absence in the text -- to admit that nothing in his powers can represent Beatrice, who was his mediatrix -- his mezzo -- up to this point. For the remainder of Paradiso 30 we hear Beatrice, but don't see her (we'll get another view of her in a later canto), just as we here read the poet's words that spell the end of the mimetic mode we have experienced up to now.

It's as if the persona, or mask, of the pilgrim has fallen away, and poetic technique has failed, leaving only this pointing to a thisness spoken by one who can only speak of this life, this world, because he is neither alive nor in this world.

We'll look at a second occurrence of parabasis in Paradiso 30 in the next post.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Uno intendëa, e altro mi rispuose: Bernard in Par. 31

Mankind is engaged in a continual conversation with tradition - Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Part of the work of the Commedia lies in its interaction and conversation with prior texts. These range from Virgil's earliest works to the late Latin poets, through Old and New Testaments to the doctors of the Church, the works of saints like Francis of Assisi and Bernard of Clairvaux.

To encounter a figure in Dante is to encounter the text of that figure, and a reading of that text. Bernard, as he takes up the mediating role of Beatrice, presents a vast spectrum of life and work. Late in Paradise he appears as one more human exemplar -- in this case, a man whose life encompassed action as well as contemplation. In both, his powers of persuasion were consequential. A few links below may be of use.

Saint Bernard and the Duke of Aquitaine, by Marten Pepijn

Bernard of Clairvaux

Monday, October 23, 2017

Beatrice's "awkward" digression - Paradiso 29

To perceive means to immobilize... we seize, in the act of perception, something which outruns perception itself. - H. Bergson

Paradiso 29 covers a lot of ground, and seems designed to perplex. It runs a crooked path through vastly different tonal registers and material. Moving at maximum speed at the edge of created reality, Beatrice's discourse shifts from a placid account of the Creation to a sardonic tirade against bad readers -- Schoolmen and Churchmen whose inventions and misreadings debase the Word -- with a kind of ontological shudder.

The interest here is precisely in this destabilizing turn -- not what we were expecting just now, when some triumphal closure might be what the Commedia ordered. Instead, at this "end of the world" we hear about the Beginning. Then Beatrice turns, with some agitation, to the unfinished business of a flock inflated with hot air purveyed by con artists.

There is some symmetry, however. The twilight of the canto's opening does balance the twilight of Inferno 1. From that moment to this, despite all revelation and grace, humans remain in between darkness and dawn, uncertain, wondering what's coming, like the angels before they resolved their choice.

Within the paradigm of perfect balance with which the canto begins -- an image of the Earth, Sun and Moon poised between day and night, spring and fall -- are two modes of where and when.

The 12-line passage begins with the quando of astronomical time -- the movement of the sun and earth generating days, hours, seconds -- the continuous, ceaseless forward motion of temporality. The moment of perfect "balance" lasts no time at all. Parallel to and reinforcing this missing "when" is the tale of Latona, who has conceived divine offspring, but has no where (ubi) to bring forth her twins.

The passage ends with the second mode: the gaze of Beatrice, contemplating Totality, takes in every ubi and every quando, in a changeless present beyond the Primum Mobile.

As the tipping moment between these two quandos, Paradiso 29 is by turns serene and convulsive. The apparent symmetry of its lovely opening passage is belied in a twist -- its end is not its beginning. The first quando, the Italian vernacular, is of the passing time of Nature; the last quando, its Latin cognate, is of eternity. The latter happens to look just like the Italian vernacular, but it belongs to another linguistic realm. The first quando attempts to seize a moving point before it disappears in the stream of human time; the final quando names the point-lessness of eternal presence (no "when" when all is "now"). The passage moves from one to the other, but does not make a circle or a return. Between quando (it.) and quando (lat.) lies a break rendered invisible (eclipsed) by similarity of form.

The circular, symmetric structure of the passage is broken, and this rupture continues through the canto to its final asymmetry, the shattered mirror. To show this will require a far longer post than was first intended - apologies in advance.

Precisely the same opposition between human and divine modes of time and space can be seen in Beatrice's account of the Angels. They don't need memory, she explains, because they are, as it were, hard-wired to the totality of past, present and future:
però non hanno vedere interciso
da novo obietto, e però non bisogna
rememorar per concetto diviso;
Hence they have not their vision intercepted
  By object new, and hence they do not need
  To recollect, through interrupted thought.  (79-81)
Human perception and understanding, intimately intertwined with the sensory realm of space and time, here have the structure of something coming between (interciso) knower and knowable. Like an eclipse, mediation occludes as it reveals. Angels see Totality pure -- without concepts, language, or representation. Their field of vision will never be eclipsed by anything new (and, unlike us, they'll never feel curiosity, thirst to learn, or the joy of discovery).

When Beatrice turns from angelic intelligence to human fallibility, we see her at her most acerbic. Of interest to us close readers is that her word for reading -- leggere -- appears twice as she pivots from the consistorio of perfect beings to the sons of Adam:
Ma perché 'n terra per le vostre scole
si legge che l'angelica natura
è tal, che 'ntende e si ricorda e vole,
ancor dirò, perché tu veggi pura
la verità che là giù si confonde,
equivocando in sì fatta lettura.
 But since upon the earth, throughout your schools,
  They teach that such is the angelic nature
  That it doth hear, and recollect, and will, 
More will I say, that thou mayst see unmixed
  The truth that is confounded there below,
  Equivocating in such like prelections.
Equivocation destabilizes meaning. Here below, we are either riddled with errant beliefs, or worse, pretend to believe in order to perpetuate utter rubbish ("fake news"):
sì che la giù, non dormendo, si sogna,
credendo e non credendo dicer vero;
ma ne l'uno è più colpa e più vergogna.
 So that below, not sleeping, people dream,
  Believing they speak truth, and not believing;
  And in the last is greater sin and shame.  (82-84)
Some of her strongest condemnatory language is reserved for those who knowingly perpetrate fraud in preaching, or with false indulgences:
per cui tanta stoltezza in terra crebbe, 
che, sanza prova d'alcun testimonio, 
ad ogne promession si correrebbe. 
Di questo ingrassa il porco sant' Antonio, 
e altri assai che sono ancor più porci, 
pagando di moneta sanza conio.
 For which so great on earth has grown the folly,
  That, without proof of any testimony,
  To each indulgence they would flock together. 
By this Saint Anthony his pig doth fatten,
  And many others, who are worse than pigs,
  Paying in money without mark of coinage. (121-126)
Conio is used of whores in Inferno 18.66 (panderers / seducers). The sellers of fake indulgences (compared to slugs, blank coins) will soon be joining the counterfeiters in the tenth bolgia of the eighth circle, last seen in Inferno 29-30, symmetrically enough.

Money without official marking is faceless; it can be anything, or nothing. Its blankness is an equivocation, eclipsing any determination. Beatrice offers us a lesson in reading blankness when she speaks of how commentators have filled volumes debating whether the moon ran backward, or the sun dimmed itself, at the Crucifixion.
Non ha Fiorenza tanti Lapi e Bindi 
quante sì fatte favole per anno 
in pergamo si gridan quinci e quindi:  
sì che le pecorelle, che non sanno, 
tornan del pasco pasciute di vento, 
e non le scusa non veder lo danno.
Florence has not so many Lapi and Bindi
  As fables such as these, that every year
  Are shouted from the pulpit back and forth, 
In such wise that the lambs, who do not know,
  Come back from pasture fed upon the wind,
  And not to see the harm doth not excuse them. (103-108)
Fake food, fake coin, fake salvation: Where the Gospel is mute, jackanapes rush in, filling Florence with words, instead of contemplating even silences within the Word.

The irony here is quite complex. The Gospel is silent about the causes of the eclipse that occurred during the Crucifixion, which itself seemed to be the eclipse of God. One might give one's attention to the fact that at this moment, it got dark* -- that there was, at Christ's death, a terrifying blankness that would have shaken the faith of a Job, a Peter, a James, a John. To speculate on the "science" behind the event would miss precisely everything.

More than that: To infer that God has been defeated, or that Jesus was either an imposter or a madman, would be a peremptory act of interpretive closure -- a misreading of epochal proportions. Unlike Satan, who could not wait for light, the followers of Christ spent 36 hours in shock and incomprehension -- what they had seen with their own eyes defied everything they believed. Only after living the intensest imaginable loss did the apparent closure of Christ's life turn out to be something else. Anyone taking the advice of Job's wife would have missed the navicella.

For Beatrice, this too is reading -- and it is consequential. As Augustine noted, when reading a psalm we are amidst a temporal event whose full meaning, subtending the syllables unfolding in time, will not be revealed until the last syllable is spoken. Understanding -- of our lives, as well of Nature and Scripture -- requires a patience. Closure on Earth is fake, and nothing is more attuned to that insight than Beatrice's peppery vernacular. Here is someone who has no patience with some fulsome and false facade of an ending to her pilgrim's journey. Nothing ends here in this portrait of error, larceny, and fraud -- we are scolded, with caustic love, into becoming better readers.


. . .siam digressi assai, says Beatrice, "we've digressed quite a bit," not unlike all on Earth who do nothing but miss the true path:
Voi non andate giù per un sentiero 
Below you do not journey by one path
  Philosophising;  (85-86)
Those made uncomfortable by Beatrice's sharp words, those who find it aesthetically awkward, might at least consider that she has her reasons -- as did the poet -- for this digression. What matters here is how the final movements of the Commedia are to be read. Beatrice has reminded us in every possible way of our limitations, and of the dangers of premature closure.

What she then shares, with the same serenity she possessed before her digression, is a vision of Questa natura as something without number or determinable limit. Beatrice calls this unbounded field of light-filled beings "nature." In this instant, when Dante is told to see something that is not neither possible nor conceivable in the natural world -- something of infinite extent, and therefore not only unearthly and uncountable, but inherently asymmetric and unending -- it's an extraordinary touch that Beatrice simply says "questa natura."

Only after telling us it has no known number, and that each individual being is unique thanks to its particular mix of conception and affect, does Beatrice invite us to actually look:
"Vedi l'eccelso omai e la larghezza
de l'etterno valor, poscia che tanti
speculi fatti s'ha in che si spezza,
uno manendo in sé come davanti.”
"The height behold now and the amplitude
  Of the eternal power, since it hath made
  Itself so many mirrors, where 'tis broken,
One in itself remaining as before."
A different model is counterpoised to the binary equilibrium of Latona's world. Here a god has not only conceived, but has also created place, time, and free will to an unquantified amplitude. Mirrors, each a being whose life began the moment it said "subsisto," break apart the One whom they reflect. Unlike gods destroyed by the many who wish to devour them, this god/father remains, beyond all mutation, all shattering, One in itself remaining as before.

The shattering (spezza) of the totality into infinite self-subsistent pieces renders impossible any mirroring, any specular symmetry. This is not classical equilibrium, not the closed physics of matter and energy. In fact it's not possible to imagine this open-endedness -- neither the One we do not see nor the broken infinitude that generatively re-in-flects it. Beatrice invites us to look. The science of this vision will be left to others.

*Remarks of Louis Martorella in our Classics group were very helpful with this passage.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Jarring note, asymptote: Par. 29

The last canto before the Empyrian presents artistic as well as interpretive challenges. Paradiso 29 opens in a heightened moment, right before the pilgrim and his guide leave the Created world. And it speaks of some of the highest things, as well as several of the lowest.

If one steps back from the interpretive musings of the commentators, the canto exhibits odd choices on the level of style and narration. It deals with weighty matters, including
  • how, when, and why Creation occurred;
  • the first moment of the angels' existence;
  • the fall of Satan and his followers, and 
  • the relation of grace and merit, intellect and affect, with regard to the angels who didn't fall. 
Each of these moments could have filled its own canto (or more, if you're Milton). Instead, this extraordinary matter is stated in summary form by Beatrice in a calm, authoritative manner. The sublime opening of Genesis is elided, none of the acts of creation, pride and fall are dramatized. Dante chose to move quickly and in summary fashion through this material, instead lavishing poetic exuberance on the image of equilibrium that heads the canto - the myth of Latona and the lights in our sky.

One needs to consider the reasons for such a choice. Recall the rich creation of the beasts in Paradise Lost. Surely Dante entertained such potent options, but in the end seems to have preferred a kind of askesis -- sacrificing poetic sublimity for something else. Why, and what something?

In terms of narrative arc, a problem loomed. If he took the time and space here to dazzle us with the way it all began, there'd be precious little room for the Empyrean. Plus, a heightened account of the Creation could weaken the impact of that final climactic scene. Narrative art necessitated something modest here, though the content involves big things.

There might be another reason as well. Throughout this canto (excluding the opening image), Beatrice is the sole speaker. If one were to graph her tone, a curious change would be noticeable. The descriptions of Creation and the angels' first moments are presented in a serene mode that bears none of the emotional or intellectual excitement of human witness. Beatrice is recounting what she has been given to see in the divine vision for a long, long time. Interestingly, Dante the pilgrim, who often describes his craving for knowledge as physical need - thirst, desire, etc. -- is silent. It's as if he's reaching the capacity to take in - to see -- what Beatrice sees, and to do so calmly, deeply, completely. Speaker and auditor share the wonders of origin in dispassionate, apodictic tranquility.

Suddenly, that spell gives way. Beatrice launches into a far more engaged diatribe against, among other things, poor readers, showy, self-aggrandizing preachers, fanciful and bogus interpretive curlicues performed for the sake of local adulation, and profound acts of fraud perpetrated by porcine churchmen in the act of peddling fake indulgences, which acts exploit and encourage the ignorance of their flocks.

She ticks off vivid examples of presumptuous readers spinning elaborate explanations of events told in the Gospels:
One sayeth that the moon did backward turn,
  In the Passion of Christ, and interpose herself
  So that the sunlight reached not down below; 
And lies;                (29:97-100)
A palpable gasp runs through the commentaries at this take-down of revered teachers: Dionysus, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas. It's suggested that mente in Italian of the day might just have meant "erred." Still, it's a barb, and rather acute.

But this sort of learned misreading bothers Beatrice less than the "fables" (favole) spewed forth from the pulpits, filling the preachers' flocks with wind:
Now men go forth with jests and drolleries
  To preach, and if but well the people laugh,
  The hood puffs out, and nothing more is asked.
But in the cowl there nestles such a bird,
  That, if the common people were to see it,
  They would perceive what pardons they confide in, 
For which so great on earth has grown the folly,
  That, without proof of any testimony,
  To each indulgence they would flock together. 
By this Saint Anthony his pig doth fatten,
  And many others, who are worse than pigs,
  Paying in money without mark of coinage.
Beatrice here is working up a lather -- the endless varieties of deforming the Word, using it to get laughs, or nice meals, or money -- exercise her in a way that seems out of place. Consider the context: We're nearly at the edge of time and space, and instead of looking back with some cumulative, totalizing gaze -- as we saw the pilgrim do twice, in cantos 22 and 27 -- we get a sardonic lambasting of hypocritical scumbags. It feels jarring.

Dante (the poet) never seems anything but sure-handed. One can look at virtually any scene, any tercet in the entire Commedia and find a mature artist who knows exactly what's called for at every metric step. Yet here, as the pilgrim is about to exit the created world, that masterful balance seems to be jolted. We've dashed through some of the biggest questions of existence, then excoriated a bunch of Boccaccian scoundrels at nearly the last instant before the pilgrim is ripped Marsyas-like from the sheath of his muscles, tendons, and skin.

Within the larger movement of the narrative, something seems off. Where is the reassuring sense of closure, the triumphal achievement, the anticipatory excitement that one might expect here at the asymptotic edge? Has Dante finally missed a beat?

Or, is this disequilibrium, this apparent loss of total control -- both on the part of Dante's serene mediatrix, and of the text itself -- precisely the right thing? Nothing is more obvious in terms of tone and style than that this canto began with the most exquisitely balanced series of binary oppositions -- a polished classical vision of a totally symmetrical system in the moment of ineluctable eclipse. But we're leaving that, and doing so in jangled, heated discord. What if that apparent dislocation of tone and control, from a certain angle, is entirely the point?

One thing seems clear: the magnificent picture of equilibrium that opens this canto is not the model Beatrice follows. She herself calls her tirade a digression, pulls up short, and returns us to a contemplative moment that deserves more attention than it perhaps has received. She turns us from the fat fraudulent friars to consider the relation of "the act of conception" to love and sweetness:
 Onde, però che a l'atto che concepe segue
l'affetto, d'amar la dolcezza 
diversamente in essa ferve e tepe.  
Vedi l'eccelso omai e la larghezza 
de l'etterno valor, poscia che tanti 
speculi fatti s'ha in che si spezza,
uno manendo in sé come davanti.” 
Hence, inasmuch as on the act conceptive
  The affection followeth, of love the sweetness
  Therein diversely fervid is or tepid. 
The height behold now and the amplitude
  Of the eternal power, since it hath made
  Itself so many mirrors, where 'tis broken,
One in itself remaining as before."     (29:139-145)
Another post will consider the resonance of this last image in light of the extraordinary gamut run by this canto, its tranquility and febrile censoriousness, and ponder whether that seeming lapse in decorum and control might serve an unexpected artistic purpose.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Mortal brinksmanship: Niobe, Satan, and artistic hubris

What madnesse is it (quoth she) to prefer the heavenly rout
 Of whome ye doe but heare, to such as daily are in sight? 
Or why should Laton honored be with Altars? Never wight
To my most sacred Majestie did offer incense. Yit
My Father was that Tantalus whome only as most fit
The Gods among them at their boordes admitted for to sit.
A sister of the Pleyades is my mother. Finally 
My Graundsire on the mothers side is that same Atlas hie
That on his shoulders beareth up the heavenly Axeltree.
Againe my other Graundfather is Jove, and (as you see)
He also is my Fathrinlawe, wherein I glorie may.
The Realme of Phrygia here at hand doth unto me obay.
In Cadmus pallace I thereof the Ladie doe remaine
And joyntly with my husbande I as peerlesse Princesse reigne
Both over this same towne whose walles my husbands harpe did frame,
And also over all the folke and people in the same.
 ~ Metamorphoses 6.170-79
The speaker is Niobe, queen of Thebes. The prophetess Manto has been urging the women of her country to worship Latona, and they are obeying. Niobe, angered, says the people should be worshiping her own royal self, and offers many reasons - her beauty; her lineage through Tantalus to Zeus; her husband, Amphion, also descended from Zeus. But most of all, her maternal glory. She has 14 children -- Latona has only two.

Arthur Golding's 1567 translation captures something of the haughty Royal tone. But it's hard to beat Ovidian concision. The passage opens:
quis furor, auditosinquitpraeponere visis caelestes?"
"What madness," she said, "incites you to put hearsay Gods before those you see?"
Niobe is not merely contemptuous of Latona. Even as she brags of her relation to Zeus, she rehashes the cliched materialism of the non-believer. Put your faith in what you know from experience, she says. Size matters. Number matters. Being right here matters. Latona couldn't even book a room for her labor, etc.

A recurring motif of the Metamorphoses is precisely this brinksmanship, this willingness of supremely gifted mortals to contend with the divine. Ovid's immediately preceding story told of Arachne's challenge to Athena, and Thebes was still "howling" (fremit) from that news. Another tale of art and hubris, Marsyas's contest with Apollo, follows. Niobe's metamorphosis of the natural honor of motherhood into hollow, virulent pretension elevates her to an elite class of mortals doomed to suffer forever. It's a small group, but it includes, of course, her father.

The dangerous reach of Dante's art is readable as presumption; Niobe is his Medusa.

Niobe's disdain for the goddess is in play here in the Primum Mobile, precisely the threshold separating what one hears about the divinity from what one may experience for oneself. This is the final juncture toward which the poem, and all of creation, are moving. Dante and Beatrice aim beyond time and space with the escape velocity of Seraphic ardor.

To question that something -- the Empyrean, e.g. -- exists beyond this outermost bound of the Primum Mobile is to challenge what one has heard -- through Scripture, family, revealed truth. If modest Latona parallels the Creator, Niobe poses the classical counterweight to Satan. (For a persuasive reading of Satan's fall from a doctrinal perspective, see Alison Cornish, "Planets and Angels in Paradiso XXIX: The First Moment," discussed briefly here. My point is that Dante's use of ancient myth -- here the tales of Latona and Niobe -- adds substance from rich classical sources of philosophy and poetry.)

Apply Ovid's brief introduction to the tale of Satan, which we just touched upon, and the consistency is clear: To prefer what is seen to what is spoken of is, in the language of this canto (l.28), to seize upon a slice of the spectrum, the realm visible through light, at the expense of the totality (the triforme effetto) -- the invisible, or not-yet-visible, all the effect of its maker (suo sire).

Light of course is essential to our sensory reality, but to equate all of reality with what light enables us to see is to center reality within our sensory selves, and to deny the possibility that something more than is currently accessible is yet to come. Our narrow axis of experience lies in us; all else is old wive's tales.

As a story of materialism vs. something more, the tale of Niobe is about substituting oneself as center in place of an other we've only heard tell of. It's Augustine and Beatrice's basic choice: we are arrows of love -- do we aim for the other, or for ourselves?

The highest created being in the Commedia ends spun from the Empyrean, frozen in his tears, as immobile as Ovid's queen of Thebes:
Childless— she crouched beside her slaughtered sons,
her lifeless daughters, and her husband's corpse.
The breeze not even moved her fallen hair,
a chill of marble spread upon her flesh,
beneath her pale, set brows, her eyes moved not,
her bitter tongue turned stiff in her hard jaws,
her lovely veins congealed, and her stiff neck
and rigid hands could neither bend nor move.
her limbs and body, all were changed to stone.
Yet ever would she weep: and as her tears
were falling she was carried from the place,
enveloped in a strong and stormy whirlwind
far to where, in her native land, fixed upon
a mountaintop, a stone turns liquid --
even now marble drips tears.
~ Metamorphoses 6:300-312 (Brookes More, trans. (the last four lines have been modified by me.)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Twilight intelligence in Par. 29:1-12

(One paragraph was revised on 10.1.17, as noted)
Paradiso 29:1-12
Quando ambedue li figli di Latona,
coperti del Montone e de la Libra,
fanno de l'orizzonte insieme zona,

quant' è dal punto che 'l cenìt inlibra
infin che l'uno e l'altro da quel cinto,
cambiando l'emisperio, si dilibra,

tanto, col volto di riso dipinto,
si tacque Bëatrice, riguardando
fiso nel punto che m'avëa vinto.

Poi cominciò: “Io dico, e non dimando,
quel che tu vuoli udir, perch' io l'ho visto
là 've s'appunta ogne ubi e ogne quando.
                              . . .  
At what time both the children of Latona,
Surmounted by the Ram and by the Scales,
Together make a zone of the horizon,

As long as from the time the zenith holds them
In equipoise, till from that girdle both
Changing their hemisphere disturb the balance, 
So long, her face depicted with a smile,
Did Beatrice keep silence while she gazed
Fixedly at the point which had o'ercome me.

Then she began: "I say, and I ask not
What thou dost wish to hear, for I have seen it
Where centres every When and every 'Ubi.'
Alison Cornish does a marvelous job explicating this passage in her article entitled "Planets and Angels in Paradiso XXIX: The First Moment." The elaborate spatial architecture is both an image of balance and a figure of instantaneity -- of the nothing that is the nevernow between one instant and the next.

Cornish sorts out the ambiguities and equivalences arising out of the astronomy, then with great perspicacity relates the passage to what comes after it -- the account of the creation of the angels and their fall. The nature of time as it derives from celestial motion turns out to be integral to a long and significant interpretive tradition of the timing and manner of that fall.

Augustine and Aquinas grappled with the question of the first instant of the angels' existence, and how it came to pass that these first creatures both became self-aware and, seemingly without delay, exercised their will once and for all either to remain faithful to their Creator, or to turn away.

Cornish teases out her reading with formidable learning and delicacy. Without straying from her analysis, she provides insights into Augustine and Aquinas' somewhat abstruse thinking about time and angelic consciousness. Indeed, the question of how long the rebellious angels remained unfallen seems to require Aquinas to distinguish angelic time from celestial time. The essay is a tour de force.

I'll try to add a couple of "grace notes" to Cornish's interpretive work, deriving from two elements built into the passage that were not her focus: the classical resonances of the figure of Latona, and Dante's structuring use of quando, which begins and ends the passage.

The passage paints an image of equilibrium that's a mini-summa of the ancient world. The embattled mother of Apollo and Artemis, the zodiacal references, the symmetrical structure of the equinox, the crepuscular moment between day and night, the thresholds of spring and autumn are all rooted in the world of Aristotle and Virgil, a Cosmos precariously poised between opposing forces that seem equally matched. Libra invokes the balance of Justice and judgment -- think of Zeus holding the scales above the world of men --  as well as the delicacy of Euripides' Sophrosyne, the sound self-control of the well-balanced soul.

Of course the "balance" is eternally elusive. Cornish rightly notes that the "when" of the passage has no duration in time, any more than a point has any extension in space. Dante has painted an elaborate image that extends through time to speak of a quando ("when") that has no measurable time at all.

The classical model is a symmetrical system of binary oppositions whose mirror-like ambiguity is thorough and undecidable. As Cornish, Hollander and others point out, it's impossible to tell which child of Latona is under which sign. If Apollo/Sun is found under Aries (Montone, interestingly, seems to be a wether rather than a ram) Spring is dawning in Rome. At the exact same moment, with the Artemis/moon under Libra, Fall is deepening into dusk in the antipodes. (If the Sun is under Libra, all this is reversed.) Total equilibrium is both a model of specular symmetry, and in this celestial configuration, the precise moment of eclipse.

From Cornish, "Planets and Angels"

Why Latona?

As already noted, the latter part of Cornish's essay addresses the theology of the angels' creation and fall, and it is very rich. But the classical elements of the passage (which, by the way, is not a simile, but a portrait of a celestial position used to elicit the duration of Beatrice's "painted" smile) are not mere window dressing. Why is this story invoked here?

Leto or Latona is the goddess of motherhood, who undergoes extremities of parturitive labor. Jealous Hera decrees that the modest goddess, impregnated by Zeus before Hera became his spouse, will not be allowed to bring forth children on earth or sea. Latona seeks a refuge where she might safely bring her children into the world. The myth spares nothing in detailing her search:
Apollo protects Leto from Tityus
In her wanderings, Leto came to Crete, to Athens, to the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, to Athos in Thrace, to Mount Pelion in Thessaly, to the Aegean island of Samos off the western coast of Asia Minor, to the island of Peparethus north of Euboea, to Mount Ida, to the city of Phocaea in Asia Minor which is between the Elaitic and the Hermaean Gulfs, to the island of Imbros in northern Aegean Sea, to Lemnos, to the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea opposite the coast of Asia Minor, to the island of Chios off the coast of Ionia in Asia Minor, to Mount Mimas opposite Chios, to the rock Corycius on the coast of Asia Minor in Cilicia, to Clarus near Ephesus, to the promontory Mycale in Ionia on the mainland opposite Samos, to Miletus in Caria, to Cos off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor, to Cnidos, Naxos, Paros, and many other lands, looking for a place to give birth.
The floating island of Delos, neither earth or sea, eventually becomes the sacred locus, the opening for Latona to give birth to her twins.

It's hardly by chance that this tale of labor, persecution and escape is evoked here, just before an account of serene divine creation that takes "place" outside of time, space, pregnancy, and labor. When contemplated together, the manifold differences between these two accounts are mutually illuminating.

Both treat of divine making, and the "children" in both accounts are immortal. The tale of Latona stresses the delay, the impedance blocking her infants from coming forth at the natural time. According to the logic of the passage, inhibiting the twins' birth would be nothing less than the simultaneous eclipse of both sun and moon!

Beatrice's description of the creation of the Angels couldn't be more different. There is nothing of labor there, nothing of embryonic development and birthing, no mechanism or natural process to account for the act. A"splendor" is put into the world from a place outside of the world -- a speaking, self-aware being:
Non per aver a sé di bene acquisto,
ch'esser non può, ma perché suo splendore
potesse, risplendendo, dir 'Subsisto,'
Not to acquire some good unto himself,
  Which is impossible, but that his splendour
  In its resplendency may say, 'Subsisto,'  (Par. 29:13-15)
The first act of this new, limitless legion of unique beings is an act of intelligence: each enunciates its being. The creature does not say "I am happy," or "I love corned beef," or "I vote for Satan." The first moment is not seeing, or loving, or desiring, or willing. It's the act of saying subsisto.

In Italiansussistere seems to suggest simple being: to exist in oneself. The Latin form, subsistere, tends to a wider range of meanings, including but not limited to: to take a stand, to stay, to subsist, to withstand, to stand firm, to sustain, to halt, to oppose, to exist under some larger entity. The prefix "sub" seems to promote a sense that one's standing, or remaining, is in relation to something else. Not just standing, but withstanding.

The distinctive feature of a reflection is precisely its derivative nature: entirely dependent upon an other, it doesn't speak, let alone demonstrate intelligence of existence. Here, each splendor, complete with vocabulary, grammar, syntax, phonemes and voice, speaks. Saying "I am" presumes articulation. A direct intuition of existence might need nothing -- it can exist in itself (sussitere). But to be able to speak this knowing presumes features of grammar, syntax, phonemes -- a complex, shared set of rules that it uses but does not create. In saying "I am," a knowing being puts itself instantly into the world. But something other than itself is inextricably necessary to that self-positing.  (This paragraph was revised 10.1.17.)

As an aside: The "when" of the angels' choice to stand or fall is understood to be distinct from this moment. Citing Aquinas, Cornish says this distinction might be not temporal, but logical. The point here is simply that Beatrice is quite clear that in this prime moment, a being is articulating its being. This "precedes" (logically or ontologically) all else, including light. As we'll see in a moment, it happens on the cusp, in twilight, the exquisitely poised balance between day and night upon which the Latona passage turns.

Beatrice moves seamlessly from this originary moment to the threefold creation of the world:
così 'l triforme effetto del suo sire
 ne l'esser suo raggiò insieme tutto
 sanza distinzïone in essordire.
So from its Lord did the triform effect
Ray forth into its being all together,
Without discrimination of beginning. (29:28-30)
The highest sustanze, pure act, are put there totum simul with mere matter (pure potentiality) and the world of matter and form (what we see). In that raggiò, the whole scala of creation was given, from formlessness through the physical universe to quadrillions of sustanze saying "subsisto." 

The text's description of a total, instantaneous act gains power from contrast with the nearly unending labors of Latona, whose difficulties don't cease even after she's given birth.

The angels' choice to stand or fall is given a thorough going-over by Cornish. I will just note an interesting intratextual gloss that comes earlier in the canticle, as it relates suggestively to the "when" of the Latona passage: In Paradiso 19, the Eagle is expatiating on the theme that no degree of perspicacity will enable creatures to see all, and says:
E ciò fa certo che 'l primo superbo,
che fu la somma d'ogne creatura,
per non aspettar lume, cadde acerbo;
And this makes certain that the first proud being,
Who was the paragon of every creature,
By not awaiting light fell immature. (Par. 19:46-48)
This can only be the moment that Beatrice has been speaking of, here played out with the figure of Satan, who -- in the precarious twilight before he could know whether what was coming was the darkness or the light -- didn't wait to see, and so fell into eclipse without end. It's also the moment in which Paradiso 30 begins.

The figure of Niobe, disdainer of Latona, is treated in the following post.