Saturday, April 22, 2017

Sun dogs? Adam's reticence in Paradiso 26

. . . out of Norse mythology and archaic names (Danish: solhunde (sun dog), Norwegian: solhund (sun dog), Swedish: solvarg (sun wolf)), . . . constellations of two wolves hunting the Sun and the Moon, one after and one before, may be a possible origin for the term. Sun Dog

As soon as Adam begins to speak in Paradiso 26, he wields a very fancy, learned Greek term, twice: parhelion -- image, copy, equal -- of the sun:
Indi spirò: Sanz' essermi proferta da te,
la voglia tua discerno meglio
che tu qualunque cosa t'è più certa;
perch' io la veggio nel verace speglio
che fa di sé pareglio a l'altre cose,
e nulla face lui di sé pareglio."
Then breathed: "Without thy uttering it to me,
Thine inclination better I discern
Than thou whatever thing is surest to thee; 
For I behold it in the truthful mirror,
That of Himself all things parhelion makes,
And none makes Him parhelion of itself.  (Par. 26: 103-108)
His claim to knowledge is exactly like that of Cacciaguida, Beatrice and others in Paradise - "I know your thoughts better than you do," because the interlocutor is looking directly into the mind of God - the mirror that cannot be mirrored.

Photo of an actual parhelion - or "sundog"

The use of parhelion -- such a showy word -- is arresting. First, it's Greek, and might remind us that Adam's doppelganger, Ulysses, would not even respond to someone who spoke to him in a tongue other than his own. The question of language is already in play before Adam addresses it in his answers to Dante's four questions.

There is nothing hackneyed in Dante's presentation of the first Man. No one else would have approached Adam in this way. First, the insistent recurrence of "firstness" - primaia - marks this passage as concerned with the question of what it means to be "number one" - how to us humans, it is simply unacceptable to be number two. At the root of Adams trapassar, there is this moment of negation - YOU are not number one, I AM. Milton runs endless variants upon Satan's negation, and Adam's.

Dante quietly raises the issue within an allusive passage that begins with the sun and parahelions. Whatever else one might make of this word here, two things are true - this is a hapax legomenon, except it isn't, because the rare word is used twice in two lines. Its eye-catching uniqueness is immediately undercut by the duplicity of its doubling repetition.

Dante is mimicking the sad lack of language -- the power of ontological origination does not lie within it or us. In the text of medieval astrology, the parhelion was equated with mock suns, also known as sun dogs. These mirrors of the sun were bright, but nothing in comparison with the real deal. We and our words are paltry doppelgangers, mockeries of a Maker whose variety infinitely exceeds our imagination.

If one asks where this deflation of duality occurs in Paradiso 26, the best reply might be, "once Adam opens his mouth -- everywhere." He's a dud. Far from the rhetorical power of Ulysses of Inferno 26, who with a very brief speech ignited an exhausted team to the ends of the Earth (devil take the hindmost), Adam sorts out the difference between gustar del legno and trapassar del segno, echoing his Greek descendant's decision to go beyond the segno of Hercules.

To trapassar il segno is to enter a world of conventional, un-Adamic language:
ché l'uso d'i mortali è come fronda
 in ramo, che sen va e altra vene.
Echoing our ineluctable mortality from the greatest poets -- Homer, Virgil, Horace -- links language not to Prometheus's stolen fire, but to the negation of it. To be human is not to be like Adam's words -- but to be true children of an ephemerality indistinguishable from them.

The shortcoming of the father of our species is as clear, and as powerful, as the structural ironies visited upon Francesca, Ugolino and other denizens of hell. Adam's transgression brought him the gift of counting. The proportions of Edenic bliss to earthly existence to time in Limbo are not only curiously precise, but tacitly comical. Mosquitoes live longer than Adam in Paradise. "Congratulations on toting that up -- you traded immortality for that?" Something of this grimaces over the scene.

In view of this, the reader needs ask: where is the recuperation of Adam? Where is the theology of the fortunate fall?

Here's one suggestion. With the number play in this canto, Adam is always clear about his, and language's, non-primacy. He might be an animal coverto, but he's hiding nothing.
"Nel monte che si leva più da l'onda,
 fu'io, con vita pura e disonesta,
 da la prim' ora a quella che seconda,
come 'l sol muta quadra, l'ora sesta.”

"Upon the mount that highest o'er the wave
  Rises was I, in life or pure or sinful,
  From the first hour to that which is the second,
As the sun changes quadrant, to the sixth."
Adam's loss of immortal bliss occurred shortly after the sixth hour of his Day 1, at the moment the second quadrant of the sun's journey begins. His exile occurs at the first hour of the second quadrant -- the one that followed  -- "seconda" -- the prim'ora of his bright nativity.

That this echoes the hour of the sun's journey in which the crucial Good Friday act of his (and Dante's) redemption began remains unspoken. Adam omits the inexplicable act of caritas that took him and us beyond the segno of mortality. The father of language has no words for that. One can charitably ask whether any Ulyssean encomium could more adequately convey the primal power of the Word than Adam's reticence.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Beast beneath the cover: Dante's Adam

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει

Many things are singular, none moreso than man

Told that the fourth light that has joined Peter, James and John is Adam, Dante speaks first: 
 E cominciai: “O pomo che maturo
 solo prodotto fosti, o padre antico
 a cui ciascuna sposa è figlia e nuro,

divoto quanto posso a te supplìco
 perché mi parli: tu vedi mia voglia,
 e per udirti tosto non la dico.”

Talvolta un animal coverto broglia,
 sì che l'affetto convien che si paia
 per lo seguir che face a lui la 'nvoglia;

e similmente l'anima primaia
 mi facea trasparer per la coverta
 quant' ella a compiacermi venìa gaia.
And I began: "O apple, that mature
  Alone hast been produced, O ancient father,
  To whom each wife is daughter and daughter-in-law,

Devoutly as I can I supplicate thee
  That thou wouldst speak to me; thou seest my wish;
  And I, to hear thee quickly, speak it not."

Sometimes an animal, when covered, struggles
  So that his impulse needs must be apparent,
  By reason of the wrappage following it; 
And in like manner the primeval soul
  Made clear to me athwart its covering
  How jubilant it was to give me pleasure.  (Par. 26:91-102)
To step back: Dante was blinded when, thanks to a false rumor, he tried to see the earthly body of John, the Bible's final inspired voice, the author of Revelation. When the pilgrim's sight returns, and judgment saves him from a kind of panic attack, the new lume turns out to be the first man -- the original first edition human to whom we owe exile from Eden, labor, suffering, sin and death, the entire aiuolo that Dante, when looking back on it, had to add, "that makes us so fierce."

Finding our general sire here, with the three apostles most loved by Christ, the pilgrim clearly is moved. Likening the first man, the prime template of anthropos, to a struggling covered animal comes out of a strange place. In a sense, to see Adam is to see us all, and more. In the image and likeness, says the Word, of the Creator, are we fashioned.

In fact the simile is complex (there's much more than what this post can address). Nicola Fosca offers a prose paraphrase that seems mostly on target:
Accade talvolta che un animale coperto (coverto) si agita (broglia), in modo che ciò che sente dentro di sé (l'affetto) appare di necessità all'esterno (convien che si paia), perché l'involucro che lo copre (la 'nvoglia) asseconda (per lo seguir che face) i movimenti del suo corpo (a lui); similmente l'anima del primo uomo (primaia), per il tremolio della luce che la copriva (per la coverta), mi faceva trasparire quanto essa fosse lieta (quant'ella... venía gaia) di soddisfare la mia richiesta (a compiacermi). Una similitudine molto strana . . .
This animal is agitated, says Fosca - Longfellow has "struggles." This sense of tumult appears to be a secondary meaning, though. The dictionaries suggest that the first meaning is "intrigue, fraud." The lines certainly convey strained movement, something working under duress, and the hint or coloration of fraud might deepen this first glimpse of Man, a covered creature, one whose dark workings might agitate his cover, but also conceal something we can't quite make out.

Dante uses coverto twice: this is an animal that is covered by something other than its own native coat. The non-naturalness adds to the strangeness.

If ever a son had reason to have mixed feelings for a long lost father, it would be this poet, whose entire life has been a profound study of Adam's threshing floor.

If we consider, for a moment, the parallel here of Adam, the ill-fated trier of fruit, with Ulysses, his infernal counterpart who could talk anybody into anything, including the mad flight to know a mondo sanza gente - well, isn't that the literal "knowledge" that Adam acquired as he stepped out of Paradise into a world without people?

The figure of Ulysses as the Greek striver, actor, liar, hero (recall we how, within his flame in Inferno 26 there's a struggle for language to come forth) is enriched by this parallel. In the garden, Adam had everything except the knowledge that he had everything. That came with the awareness that he was uncovered, before exiting Eden into a world of lack.

John Hollander notes that Ulysses and his small crew "are the first mortals to see the mount of purgatory since Adam and Eve left it." To Ulysses, the empty garden is what the empty world beyond Eden was for Adam and Eve. Almost full circle.

Just prior to Adam's appearance, the pilgrim spoke to John of the leaves - fronde - that in this fallen world he can and does love, to the extent they are good:
"Le fronde onde s'infronda tutto l'orto
de l'ortolano etterno, am' io cotanto
quanto da lui a lor di bene è porto.”
Adam will speak of leaves and language, and men and death. Consider what might well up in a man who has seen the depths of human depravity, as well as the perfection of Eden, were he to confront his father, the prime mover of our fallen threshing floor. With this encounter, the pilgrim's talk of loving the fronde of the fallen world is put to the test.

The "strange simile" -- which some commentators judge harshly, while others approve -- returns us to the same ungrounded suspense that Dante described earlier, in comparing the return of vision to an awakening. Both moments in this canto bring us face to face with something not yet descried. With the covered animal we don't know what to expect -- it could be a monster, a wild beast, a madman. That moment of uncertainty is Dante's apprehension of something about our nature -- a quizzical, unruly, secretive, wild, insistent thing like nothing so much as what we find in Sophocles' ode to man: δεινὰ -- strange and wondrous, extravagant and wily, stubbornly doing things his way -- all suspended in the unknowing vehicle of the simile -- before resolving into Adamic bliss:
How jubilant it was to give me pleasure. 
quant' ella a compiacermi venìa gaia.
The oedipal moment passes, but this poet knows himself and us far too well not to sing, in the interval between tenor and vehicle, likeness and thing, our truth.

With these late cantos it's hard not to write long. The last part of this enigmatic canto seems unlikely to provide smoother sailing.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

"Those bites of love": Enter Adam

E come a lume acuto si disonna 
per lo spirto visivo che ricorre 
a lo splendor che va di gonna in gonna,  
e lo svegliato ciò che vede aborre, 
sì nescïa è la sùbita vigilia 
fin che la stimativa non soccorre; 
così de li occhi miei ogne quisquilia
fugò Beatrice col raggio d'i suoi,
che rifulgea da più di mille milia:

onde mei che dinanzi vidi poi;
e quasi stupefatto domandai
d'un quarto lume ch'io vidi tra noi. 
And as at some keen light one wakes from sleep
By reason of the visual spirit that runs
Unto the splendour passed from coat to coat,

And he who wakes abhorreth what he sees,
So all unconscious is his sudden waking,
Until the judgment cometh to his aid,

So from before mine eyes did Beatrice
Chase every mote with radiance of her own,
That cast its light a thousand miles and more.

Whence better after than before I saw,
And in a kind of wonderment I asked
About a fourth light that I saw with us.   (Par. 26:73-81)
At the center of Paradiso 26, the canto of love / caritate, Dante's vision returns - he sees "better after than before."

What preceded this moment with its showy simile has been the catachetical Q and A with John, the eagle of Christ, about love. Dante has just spoken of "those bites" - quei morsi - that turned his love towards God. They are some of the most beautiful lines in the Commedia, and speak of the fallen world, its devouring of our being, as a giant Edenic garden whose fronde - leaves - Dante avers he loves:
"quanto da lui a lor di bene è porto.” (66)

"As much as he has granted them of good."
"quanto . . . è porto": Proportion and number proliferate in this canto of love. Somehow caritate and our ability to see even our fallen world as Edenic seem to be bound up with quantity.

"He" of course is the ortolano etterno. The world we have -- our being and time -- has teeth that strangely turn us toward the garden's maker.

Dante's vision (vista) was consunta in trying to see the material body of John. Are we on earth devoured in our mad flight to grasp something we cannot possibly imagine, let alone experience?

Enter Adam

The loss of Eden surely is factored into those morsi. If we stand back a bit, we note that the entire sphere of the stars is bracketed by two moments. In both, Dante looks back upon Earth, upon the entire course of his journey. We've spoken of the first, in canto 22. In another post, we'll compare it with the latter retrospective gaze in 27.

The point now is, between these two moments of closure, of taking "it all" in (each time the "all" is, paradoxically, more) - Dante has this return to vision. He likens it to an awakening from unconsciousness that begins with the terror of total absence of judgment, of stimativa - a word that surely conveys the power of measure, estimation, as well as judgment.

More precisely, can we call it "vision" when we see nothing that our minds can make sense of? Dante is dramatizing a moment that isn't so much vision as a sort of blind seeing - he experiences a sensory datum devoid of any intellectual or cognitive dimension, and it provokes fear.

As Beatrice, with a radiance that shines more than mille milia, clarifies his sight, Dante realizes that the three figures of theological virtue have been joined by a fourth light. Beatrice's words introduce the first man:
E la mia donna: “Dentro da quei rai
vagheggia il suo fattor l'anima prima
che la prima virtù creasse mai.”  (26:82-84)
The primacy of Adam is underscored. Another eye-catching simile likens the pilgrim to a fronda - again a leaf or branch, in any case an offspring of a tree - being bent by wind, that now springs back by its own virtù:
Come la fronda che flette la cima
nel transito del vento, e poi si leva
per la propria virtù che la soblima,
The pilgrim reels, amazed - stupendo - but he gathers himself, burning with questions for Adam, questions he knows he need not ask.

The next simile is itself stupendous. It will be the incipit for the next post.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Paradiso 26 and undemonstrative enigmaticity

Our group meets every other week, but our progress in Paradiso has slowed. The cantos of the theological virtues might seem simpler than some of the earlier, more complexly plotted and allusive work we have already encountered, but no. They are devilishly closely written -- the poet has not lost any steam, or poetic "chops."

A poet who can write a tercet like this is clearly all there:
"Le fronde onde s'infronda tutto l'orto
de l'ortolano etterno, am' io cotanto
quanto da lui a lor di bene è porto.”
Longfellow tries, but is sensible enough to not attempt the intricate echoes:
"The leaves, wherewith embowered is all the garden
Of the Eternal Gardener, do I love
As much as he has granted them of good." (Par. 26:64-66)
It's tempting to see these cantos as somewhat didactic, or pedantically subservient to biblical texts that form the doctrinal elements of the pilgrim's encounters with Peter, James and John. But each canto offers much more than catechetic tedium. The poem, as we've argued here before, never simply states its burden. It acts out its import.

A clear example is how all is going well in Paradiso 25, until St. John appears. There's a haunting, uncanny moment of cessation of all Paradise -- likened to a ship whose oarsmen suspend their work. The pilgrim turns to Beatrice only to see he has been blinded by John's revelatory brighness. The canto ends with the pilrim's disorientation and fear. The mettle of his soul's hope is being tested.

Before looking at a couple of passages from Paradiso 26 in detail, it might help to spend a few words tracing a pattern that recurs when reading certain non-obvious parts of this poem.

It seems to me that much of the Commedia - certainly the Paradiso - is written "slant," as Dickenson might say. Certain cantos conjoin elements that, prima facie, have no business going together.

To get to the "fruit" (or frui) within the somewhat dry integumentum of these passages, it never seems to hurt to ask childish questions. This is not a task that the poem marks by drawing attention to itself. Unlike the famous appelli ai lettori (addresses to the reader) that direct us to read beneath the versi strani (Inf. 9.63), a canto like Paradiso 26 at first might not seem enigmatic. It takes a while just to notice its several parts don't quite hang together in ways that, from reading the poem, we have come to expect.

In 26, for example, how is it that some derivative platitudes about the Good and love are interspersed with extraordinary similes (a couple of which we'll look at below)? Of all people, what is Adam doing here? Why does Dante encounter him precisely here, after the pilgrim has "passed" his oral exams and experiences renewed, stronger sight? For that matter, what's with all the numbers and quantitative language in this canto? What does caritate - the greatest of the virtues - have to do with Adam, the fall, the length of time he spent on earth, his language and reflections on it, and the duration of his innocence before being sent into exile? Why are there echoes of Cacciaguida in Adam's conversation, and why does our general father open with one of the poem's strangest hapaxes -- parhelion (107-108) -- a double singularity if you will?

Dante was surely doing something other than showing off, or spinning wheels, or filling space before the big finale. When we come across a canto that seems to lose its thread, or veers to an unexpected close, or combines thematic materials from disparate and seemingly unrelated topoi, it's a good idea to ask why. As the imagination works on the question of how these seemingly unrelated elements connect, the result can be a sudden falling into place, acceding to a perspective from which all these disparate elements suddenly swim into signifying focus, often with an unexpected comic "pop."

The "empirical" pattern of such a reading might go something like:
  1. naive first reading
  2. childish questions
  3. noting unusual linguistic features
  4. attending to concurrent motifs through the canto
Now if all this is going well, but the text still seems a bit aimless or dispersed, that's pretty much how we felt after spending two entire sessions on 26, without even discussing the last several tercets in any detail. Of course along the way one consults the commentators, who often proffer excellent clarifications and suggestions. But most important is to stick with it:
5. careful re-reading
At some point -- usually thanks to the more unusual (often seemingly gratuitous) passages, images, or motifs -- something we'd not fully taken into account, something not properly weighed, or now seen from a different angle, moves into view. Often it's a connection between a highly leaned theme on one hand, and a very basic human, vernacular reality, common to all. The connection can be epiphanic, uncoiling with the impact of comedic surprise.

To attempt to pin down whether we're dealing with a specific genre, or mode, would take us far afield. Let's give it a simple name for now: Wisdom literature. Writing that draws upon all manner of indirection in order to challenge the reader, to drive us to our own hard-won "eureka moments" would be the sign and pleasure of this mode. It might not sing in epic tones, or seduce with lyric music, but it is always working on something that, when finally reached, yields a potent reward.

We'll look next at some moments in Paradiso 26.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dante's curious canto of hope - Paradiso 25

Paradiso 25 begins se mai . . .  -- if ever . . . - the strange foolishness of the phenomenon is all right there.

Does one "need" hope? Or is it something one cannot not have? What does hope know? Does it hope for something that it has reason to think will come true, or for precisely that which all rational thought and argument says is not going to happen?

Hope is more irrational even than Faith, which takes as true something that is received as such via language or some sign that points to that which is unverifiable this side of death. Hope, built upon Faith, adds emotive force -- we are moved by hope to expect that which others see no reason to expect. To have no expectation is to experience, as our center of gravity, the absence of motion and expectation. To be hope-less.

The Greeks - or our readings of them - appear to be of two minds about hope. Either it's what we have left after all the ills of Pandora have infested our world, or, it's what we're doomed to be unable to rid ourselves of, despite knowing, beyond all doubt, that it is blind, a useless sign.

At the end of Paradiso 25, the pilgrim in fact is blind.

The realm of the theological virtues is wholly different from what came before - they're not classical, not rational, not a matter of balance and reason and measure and justice.

It's easier to say what they're not than what they are. Unless, as the poet does, we simply repeat the definitions of Faith and Hope that we have from the Epistles and our catechisms.

Paradiso 25 raises more questions than it answers. It does not convey to this reader some buoyant, sanguine confidence that we can be sure of hope. We can be sure of its definition, which Dante the poet says was offered by Dante the pilgrim:
Like a pupil who answers his master, ready and eager in his subject that he may show his parts, "Hope" I said, "is a sure expectation of future glory, and it springs from divine grace and precedent merit." (25:64-69)
A similar scene of a pupil and master was evoked in Paradiso 24, when the pilgrim was asked about Faith.

These "supernatural" virtues are bound up with the event of learning from a teacher, and repeating the lesson learned.

Dante was probed by Peter as to whether he had the real coin of Faith in hand. James asks him from whence Hope came to him, and he points to David. Specifically, to Psalm 9, verse 11:
11 And let them trust in thee who know thy name: for thou hast not forsaken them that seek thee, O Lord. 
11 et sperent in te qui noverunt nomen tuum quoniam non dereliquisti quaerentes te Domine
One thing we can say is that it's usually not possible to know someone's name unless it is told to us. I.e., the appearance of a person, their eye color, hair, or complexion, doesn't scream "Jack," "Susie" or "Bob." To know a name, a few conditions must be met:
  1. The name must be shared with us via writing or speech.
  2. We must be able to tell, when we hear it, that it is a name, rather than a common noun. Usually this requires at least some shared sense of the language in which the name exists.
  3. Once we know the name, we can seek that which it represents - in this case, the Lord.
So at least we can say that acquiring a name is in some sense not unlike acquiring a definition of Faith, or Hope - someone verbally imparts it to us, we repeat it, and it becomes something we "know."

Interesting that the line of David's that Dante found helpful for his own grasp of Hope contains the word, and does so in a wish: "Let them hope" - Douay-Rheims says "trust," but the Vulgate of Dante's bible says sperent. Let them hope in thee who have learned your name. There is teaching, learning, naming, hope. That is, names must be taught because they are signs that are not imitations of things. There is no bond or relation of resemblance. And to acquire a name is to hope for what it is the name of, which suggests that it is not "in" the name. In a sense, when we learn a proper name, at that moment all we have is that -- it yields no knowledge beyond its own verbal form. To learn is to start by knowing only that we do not see what the name means -- we are blind as of yet. We hope our hopes will not be forsaken.

Dante is talking to James, who, he says, passed to him the inspiration of David. Psalm 9 goes on to speak of the weak, of those the Lord does not forget. This is a major theme in James -- the fatuity of the rich.

Psalm 9 is the first of the 150 psalms to have been broken into two parts and counted as 9 and 10 in the Septuagint, whereas it's one work (9) in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars (e.g., Robert Alter) say it shows the remains of an alphabetic scheme in which each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Some translations end Psalm 9 at verse 20, and begin Psalm 10 at verse 21 (see, e.g., this rendering), but Douay-Rheims keeps the psalm intact. 

Now, It is unlikely that one would hear the alphabetic scheme of letters if the song were sung aloud in Hebrew. It's an inscribed pattern -- broken because the text is corrupted, but still an inaudible pattern that comes back at the end. 

And it's the ending where perhaps James and David meet. For there we are told, in 9:38 in Douay-Rheims, that
38 The Lord hath heard the desire of the poor: thy ear hath heard the preparation of their heart. 
38 desiderium pauperum exaudivit Dominus praeparationem cordis eorum audivit auris tua
Because now we are told of a hearing that is well beyond the hearing of a name. It's a hearing of something inaudible - a pattern, an order.The Lord's ear hears desire; it hears the preparation of their (the poor's) heart. We are at a level of hearing well beyond the use of words, of verbal utterances.

To hear "the preparation of the heart" is an extraordinary thing to say. What might be such preparation? Could it be the very thing Dante and James are talking about? Hope might be blind, but apparently it's not mute to the Lord's ear. If it is heard, says David, the poor are not forgotten.

Unlike the Gentiles:
32 For he hath said in his heart: God hath forgotten, he hath turned away his face not to see to the end.
32 dixit enim in corde suo oblitus est Deus avertit faciem suam ne videat in finem
One can assume God forgets. Or not. From David to James, Dante hears something bearing on hope. In Italian, "I hope" is spero. In this canto, Dante hears a lot of breathing -- in Italian, spiro. David breathes, James breaths, Dante breathes. Inspiration. In the most basic sense, if we're breathing, we're hoping.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Augustine on figure

Right at the beginning of On The Trinity Augustine sets forth a theory of the mode of the Bible. It is made for little people, even children. It has not avoided words from any class or level of speech or style; it runs the gamut from humble materiality to transcendent divinity, and it speaks of both corporeality and spirituality. 

Augustine is essentially describing the Biblical mode of speaking as unlimited in range, capable of speaking of anything -- much as Erich Auerbach has noted, particularly in the first chapter of Mimesis. Th Bible's books, unlike the stately aristocratic artifice of Homer, Pindar, or the Greek tragedians, does not impose any linguistic policing upon style or content. It depicts God, man, creation and history without suppression or privilege.
In order, therefore, that the human mind might be purged from falsities of this kind, Holy Scripture, which suits itself to babes has not avoided words drawn from any class of things really existing, through which, as by nourishment, our understanding might rise gradually to things divine and transcendent. For, in speaking of God, it has both used words taken from things corporeal, as when it says, "Hide me under the shadow of Your wings;" and it has borrowed many things from the spiritual creature, whereby to signify that which indeed is not so, but must needs so be said: as, for instance, "I the Lord your God am a jealous God;" and, "It repents me that I have made man."
Vt ergo ab huiusmodi falsitatibus humanus animus purgaretur, sancta scriptura paruulis congruens nullius generis rerum uerba uitauit ex quibus quasi gradatim ad diuina atque sublimia noster intellectus uelut nutritus assurgeret. Nam et uerbis ex rebus corporalibus sumptis usa est cum de deo loqueretur, uelut cum ait: Sub umbraculo alarum tuarum protege me. Et de spiritali creatura multa transtulit quibus significaret illud quod ita non esset sed ita dici opus esset, sicuti est: Ego sum deus zelans, et: Poenitet me hominem fecisse. (De Trinitate 1.2)
There is, however, one thing -- or order of things -- that's off limits:
But it has drawn no words whatever, whereby to frame either figures of speech or enigmatic sayings, from things which do not exist at all.   
De rebus autem quae omnino non sunt non traxit aliqua uocabula quibus uel figuraret locutiones uel sirparet aenigmata. 
Note that what is translated as "frame" is the verb figurare -- to form, fashion, shape -- which happens to be cognate with the Italian verb figurar that Dante uses in speaking of his own modes of representation. Upon reaching the stars, having made a leap beyond the spatio-temporal bounds of realism, naturalism, historical mimesis, the poem states that it now cannot speak except in figure -- there is no possibility of literal, or proper, representation, except in the sole instance of this precise metapoetic, or metalinguistic statement. To say "all is figure" is a proper, literal description of the condition and predicament of being unable to speak properly or literally.

One philological sidenote: Augustine says that the Bible uses no words, whether as locutions or enigmas, drawn from things that have no reality whatsoever. There is no Chimera, for example. Curiously, the manuscript uses a word that has puzzled commentators: sirparet (or scirparet) is not, as far as anyone seems to find, an actual Latin word. One suggestion that has been accepted by some is that the text is corrupt, and that Augustine meant to write spissaret -- literally, to thicken or condense, which could here be used figuratively to describe the semantic opacity of enigmatic expressions.

The Bible, says Augustine, would not use enigma where the actual sense or referent of the enigma does not in fact exist. This would appear not to rule out enigmas concerning things that do exist. Of course, given that either way it's enigma, the difficulty of ascertaining whether the ontological status of the mystery hidden beneath a given enigmatic speech can properly be decided might at times be problematic.

To be sure, the author of a 15-book treatise on the Trinity -- surely one of the greatest enigmas of the Judeo-Christian tradition -- would understand the importance of being able to tell the difference between a real enigma and a Chimera. The status of his own text in fact requires him to be rigorously clear about it. The point of this brief post is not to unravel that complexity in Augustine, but rather to suggest that Augustine's precept about the representational, figural, and allegorical range of Biblical language does appear a worthy description of the robust vernacular Dante chose as the vehicle for his own journey. As we proceed from the stars to realms even further from Nature, we should be prepared for locutions, figures and perhaps enigmas that go beyond what the Commedia has hitherto employed.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Peter's quiz and the human pleasures of faith: Par. 24

After the leap of Paradiso 23, Dante face a quiz. The one asking the questions is none other than Peter -- the first man to put faith in the living Christ and the first man whose faith in Christ, upon entering the empty sepulcher on Easter morning, was realized. 

If that weren't sufficiently intimidating. Peter, the rock of the triumphant throng that joyously spins around them, plays the role of the skeptic, the wily questioner, sparring with the poet to find any small trace of bad faith in him.

Yet this rite of passage is singularly free of nerve-wracking stress. Beatrice makes it plain that the poet enjoys her full confidence. By the end of the canto, Peter is whirling around Dante like happy squirrel in a cartoon, welcoming him with warm camaraderie.

The necessity for testing belief is brought home when Beatrice tells us that faith is the sine qua non for becoming a cive - a citizen (24:43) - of this kingdom.

Peter's questions and Dante's responses have the structure of a catechism exercise -- one with astonishing concision. In 96 lines, we have faith (a) defined and (b) formulated such that Greek reason, Hebraic inspiration, and Christian revelation are married in one system; (c) the pilgrim is asked whether he actually holds these beliefs, as opposed to merely imitating one who believes; (d) then he's asked where his faith comes from, and (e) what evidence he can adduce that his belief is not the result of statements that reference only themselves as proof.

One could spend a good deal of digital ink on this, which the commentators have done quite well. Two things bear quick note. First, in addition to the range of "content" of the doctrine covered, the canto also rings all the registers we tend to associate with faith. There is of course the "citizenship" aspect of the theological virtue. As the defining feature of the sect, this faith can and does acquire political, philosophical and religious tensions precisely because it creates a dividing line between those who share a belief that cannot be demonstrated on Earth, and those who fail to see anything other than a mystifying sort of folly.

But this canto seems to place the all-important Christian virtue next to other modes of faith we're all acquainted with -- common forms that operate in our daily lives. The faith that a friend will be there when one needs her or him; the faith in a beloved pupil that she/he will pass the exam; the trust placed in a person one has long known; the confidence that grows in oneself born of desire, effort, application, and proven results.

These modes of faith are all present in the canto -- in Beatrice's appraisal of her loyal follower; in his willingness to face the music; in the actual song that explodes when Dante offers the overpowering reason that the absence of all miracles would be the greatest miracle:
"Were the world to Christianity converted,"
  I said, "without miracles, this one
  Is such, the rest are not its hundredth part; 
Because that poor and fasting thou didst enter
  Into the field to sow there the good plant,
  Which was a vine and has become a thorn!" 
This being finished, the high, holy Court
  Resounded through the spheres, "One God we praise!"
  In melody that there above is chanted.  (24: 106-114)

 The Te Deum is a confession of faith:
Te Deum laudámus: te Dominum confitémur.
Te ætérnum Patrem omnis terra venerátur.

Tibi omnes Angeli; tibi cæli et univérsae potestátes.

Tibi Chérubim et Séraphim incessábili voce proclámant:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dóminus Deus Sábaoth.

Pleni sunt cæli et terra majestátis glóriæ tuæ.
We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. 
All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim : continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Hosts; 
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory.

In addition -- and this picks up from what we noted in Canto 23 -- it is a mirrored representation in reverse -- those bursting into song are portrayed in the lyrics they sing:
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge thee;
Once again, the distance between sign and meaning, copy and original, vanishes -- bringing me to my second point: Peter is the somewhat impulsive, uneducated, fumbling rock chosen by Jesus. An everyman who exhibits no special gifts, privileges, or qualifications for the job he gets. It's he who runs past John into the empty tomb, as the pilgrim says:
“O santo padre, e spirito che vedi
ciò che credesti sì, che tu vincesti

ver' lo sepulcro più giovani piedi,”
"O holy father, spirit who beholdest
What thou believedst so that thou o'ercamest,
Towards the sepulchre, more youthful feet," (24:124-126)
In that void, Peter experienced the resurrection of faith as truth.

Faith is an everyday act, but willed. It has to rest upon a solid base; it must be confessed and acted on -- or, as in Peter's case, enacted. His impetuosity -- in the tomb as well as on the Sea of Galilee -- flows from a faith so assured that its realization brings neither surprise nor triumph. The "good news" arrives, turns out to be true coin, as pleasant as good fellowship and the sincere happiness of a master whose pledge makes the grade:

Come 'l segnor ch'ascolta quel che i piace,
da indi abbraccia il servo, gratulando

per la novella, tosto ch'el si tace; 

così, benedicendomi cantando,

tre volte cinse me, sì com' io tacqui,

l'appostolico lume al cui comando
io avea detto: sì nel dir li piacqui!
Even as a lord who hears what pleaseth him
His servant straight embraces, gratulating
For the good news as soon as he is silent;

So, giving me its benediction, singing,
Three times encircled me, when I was silent,
The apostolic light, at whose command
I spoken had, in speaking I so pleased him. (24:148-154)

No better word to end a canto about faith than piacqui -- faith in others, and of others in us, is indeed a pleasing thing. The next canto brings James to the fore. While his main subject is hope, a reading of the epistle of James speaks to both faith and to doubt, and perhaps to how the three theological virtues intertwine.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Convien saltar: Leaping past mimesis in Par. 23

“Tu se' sì presso a l'ultima salute,”
cominciò Bëatrice, “che tu dei
aver le luci tue chiare e acute; 
e però, prima che tu più t'inlei,
rimira in giù, e vedi quanto mondo
sotto li piedi già esser ti fei;

sì che 'l tuo cor, quantunque può, giocondo
s'appresenti a la turba trïunfante
che lieta vien per questo etera tondo.”
"Thou art so near unto the last salvation,"
  Thus Beatrice began, "thou oughtest now
  To have thine eves unclouded and acute; 
And therefore, ere thou enter farther in,
  Look down once more, and see how vast a world
  Thou hast already put beneath thy feet; 
So that thy heart, as jocund as it may,
  Present itself to the triumphant throng
  That comes rejoicing through this rounded ether." (Par. 22:124-132)

This is the moment in Paradiso 22 when Beatrice explains to Dante why he must look back and take in all that he has experienced up to this point, at the threshold of the stars. Before you "in yourself further," (tu più t'inlei), she tells him, his eyes must be clear and sharp, so that having looked back upon all below, Dante's heart can present itself to the coming throng "as jocund as it may" -- quantunque può, giocondo.

The pilgrim's look back, then, is related to the capability of his heart to be giocondo as he turns to the joyous throng coming towards him. Giocondo suggests happiness, light-hearted ease. Its etymology goes back to a mixture of something that is both helpful and delightful - a playful lightness of being:

The poet describes the world beneath his feet as his vision gathers it in -- it seems one vast organism. When he turns back to the oncoming joyous throng, his vision again fails him. It's only when the "sun" (Christ) removes itself to a great distance that Dante begins to see. What is is about to see is the human mother of God. But it is a curious sort of seeing:
Il nome del bel fior ch'io sempre invoco 
e mane e sera, tutto mi ristrinse 
l'animo ad avvisar lo maggior foco;  
e come ambo le luci mi dipinse 
il quale e il quanto de la viva stella 
che là sù vince come qua giù vinse,  (23:88-93)
 The name of that fair flower I e'er invoke
  Morning and evening utterly enthralled
  My soul to gaze upon the greater fire. 
And when in both mine eyes depicted were
  The glory and greatness of the living star
  Which there excelleth, as it here excelled,
The poet doesn't say "Maria" here, but describes what the "name of the beautiful flower" does: it constrains him to gaze intently at "the larger fire." His experience of beginning to see Mary proceeds from her name, which, we learn, he invokes every morning and evening. The power of this word is such that "the quality and quantity of that living star, that conquers up there as it did down here, depicted itself upon both my eyes."

The strangeness of what's happening here bears noting. We have depiction - the greater fire's quality and quantity paints itself upon both his eyes. We could simply "see" this as another quaint flourish of poesy, but if we look closely, it's harder to say what's going on with this inversion. Instead of the poet's eyes, "unclouded and acute," presenting what is before him, that which is before him represents itself upon both (ambo) his eyes. The commentators appear to agree that what the poet "means to say" here is that his eyes reflect (rispecchiare, i.e., "mirror") what is before him. But if that's so, then we ought to be able to say what is being reflected. Here we are somewhat at a loss. Is it a beautiful flower, a greater fire, a living star, or . . .? Our commentators seem better prepared to state what the poet means to say than they are able to say what his saying actually means.

Instead of a mere reflection of a thing, we have something painting (dipinse) itself upon the eyes. Whatever else this suggests, it reverses the act of representation -- displaces the copyist, painter, or mirror from the eye, mind, memory and poetry of Dante to that which is standing before him. If anything, his eyes, rather than unclouded windows, are now the canvas, slate, or page upon which something is representing itself. And that's not the worst of it. That something in front of Dante could be fire (maggior foco). Fire is the necessary enabling condition of depiction, but what would it mean for fire to depict, i.e., re-present, itself? I'm sure I'd forego the risk of fire representing itself upon both my eyes.

Verisimilitude -- realistic or probable resemblance to any thing or act we can visualize or imagine -- here fails. The only actual thing the passage indisputably gives us is an indirect reference to a sound, the name of Mary. What appears upon his eyes unfolds from a name. The rest is figuration - but upon what ground?

Ground is missing here. Part of the lightening of being, the condition of giocondità, is the jettisoning of gravity.

We have been prepared for this. Dante told us earlier in the canto that his poem has to make a leap to even begin to speak of what's coming in the final ten cantos of the Paradiso:
e così, figurando il paradiso, convien saltar lo sacrato poema, come chi trova suo cammin riciso. (23:61-63)
Mere representation, mimesis, is out of the question. What's coming cannot be described, painted, represented. His first apprehension of the mother -- the human being who became the queen of heaven -- presents us with this impossibility via a passage so strange and difficult to read as to defy mimetic interpretation. And, being Dante, this undoing of representation is performed through the the language of mimesis:

The word depinse is used here not to depict anything, but to turn representation inside out.

Nothing is quite what it seems here amid the stars. Vision is made possible by the removal of light. Properties of entities -- il quale e il quanto -- paint themselves. One's finger burns before it's put into the flame. Nothing comes before or after; representation and presence intermingle. Fire leaps up, pursuing a greater fire.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Quanto mondo: Dante's backward look

If Paradiso 22 is the stark, solitary realm of thunder and sublimity, canto 23 is another realm altogether. It is necessary to appreciate the artistic cogency with which the poet articulates all that is implicated in this move from the staircase of Saturn to the stars.

This begins at 22:100, when the pilgrim, at one sign (cenno) from Beatrice, suddenly accedes to the starry sphere. The use of hysteron proteron underscores the rapidity, and also does away with the tyranny with which time and causality are always linked (first cause, then effect), and seeing is distinct from being. Addressing the reader he says,
tu non avresti in tanto tratto e messo 
nel foco il dito, in quant' io vidi 'l segno 
che segue il Tauro e fui dentro da esso.
Thou hadst not thrust thy finger in the fire
And drawn it out again, before I saw
The sign that follows Taurus, and was in it. (22:109-111)
The simultaneity here signals a different temporal order, as well as a different mode of presence. Note that he sees and is within the sign of the Twins -- the sign (segno) no longer just re-presents the constellation, rather it is it.

Along with the erasure of temporality comes an almost casual sense of plenitude. No longer is there one star, one planet - there are migliaia - an immeasurable amount.

This is marked poignantly when, at Beatrice's direction, the poet turns back for one final look at where he has come from, taking in the entirety of creation beneath the stars:
I with my sight returned through one and all
  The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe
  Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance; 
And that opinion I approve as best
  Which doth account it least; and he who thinks
  Of something else may truly be called just.

I saw the daughter of Latona shining
  Without that shadow, which to me was cause
  That once I had believed her rare and dense. 
The aspect of thy son, Hyperion,
  Here I sustained, and saw how move themselves
  Around and near him Maia and Dione. 
Thence there appeared the temperateness of Jove
  'Twixt son and father, and to me was clear
  The change that of their whereabout they make; 
And all the seven made manifest to me
  How great they are, and eke how swift they are,
  And how they are in distant habitations. 
The threshing-floor (aiuolo) that maketh us so proud,
  To me revolving with the eternal Twins,
  Was all apparent made from hill to harbour!
Then to the beauteous eyes mine eyes I turned.  (22:133-154)
The repeated forms of "appear," "see," "manifest," "all" (tutto), "how great," "how swift," and "all apparent," coupled with the insistence on the genealogy of the gods, parents and children, with the highest three -- Mars, Jupiter, Saturn -- forming a pagan trinity, produces a totality completely in sync with the nature of the sub-starry universe. Planet-gods wander solitary through heavens; they have parents, they have children, they have stories, and all converge at the deepest point, the threshing floor where daughters and sons of gods/God make choices that determine their immortal ends.

A single gaze is able to represent this totality only because it is superliminal -- it speaks from the vantage point of the stars. Nature, in which individuals hash out their histories and die, giving rise to succeeding generations, here reaches its boundary. When Dante looks down from the stars, his mind is not overwhelmed by the vastness of Being, or by the turbulence of history, or the multiplicity of orbits and habitations. He is neither awed nor dizzied nor dazzled. His retrospective gaze has the serenity of a being taking it all in, with that smile --
io sorrisi del suo vil sembiante;
I smiled at its ignoble semblance;  (22:135)
-- a retrospective smile not unlike those on graves.

Hirst: "For the love of God"

Dante's Odyssean journey through Nature is ended. The ability to look back and take it all in is the ability of the narrator who has survived -- it's the moment when Odysseus can tell his tale in the court of Alcinous, and Aeneas can represent himself at Dido's palace.

Homer and Virgil's heroes of course had much more to see and do after their autobiographic moments, as does Dante's pilgrim. From this point on, the Christian poet will struggle with how to figurar that which is beyond Nature.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Mothers, suns, and figural leaps in Paradiso 23

The stunning figure of the bird that opens Paradiso 23 speaks of ardent expectation - of light, which will enable this mother to see the aspetti disiati, the longed-for sight, of her nestlings, and then have visibility to go find food for them.

The overall thrust of the passage lies in the anticipation, through the long night "that hides things from us," of the enabling light. The bird will not be given food,;she will be given the sight of her newborns, and sufficient light to find food for them.

Many critics hear echoes of Paolo and Francesca -- of the disiato riso they were reading about; of the lovers now endlessly in flight, but coming at a call like a bird to her nest. John Freccero pointed out that for the damned lovers, there was no nest, no point of closure. Unlike the lovers, the bird of the simile will return to the nest, but only after having garnered food. She is giving life, as mothers do.

There's a more chilling echo here, perhaps less noted. Through the night, this mother cannot see the faces of her chicks, who are hungry. This blindness is temporary, unlike the hunger-blindness of Ugolino, when, after he and his starving sons hear the tower door nailed shut, he gropes in the dark, saying nothing to the children who beg him to eat them so he might live.


Beatrice is the bird, ardent even before she sees the light that sets her face aflame. The sky lightens, and she tells him what is coming:
                            “Ecco le schiere
del trïunfo di Cristo e tutto 'l frutto
ricolto del girar di queste spere!”
There are schiere, bands or ranks of troops -- and the fruit harvested (ricolto) from the wheeling of these spheres. Here, we have no idea what Beatrice is actually seeing, but her figures bring together the instruments of triumph and of triumphal procession, and the image of a bountiful harvest.

The harvest builds upon the imagery of millstones, threshing floors, and bread woven throughout the canticle, prefiguring this moment. When the poet, at Beatrice's word, turns to see, we get more similes -- at first the bright sun making all the stars shine:
vid' i' sopra migliaia di lucerne
un sol che tutte quante l'accendea,come fa 'l nostro le viste superne;
Saw I, above the myriads of lamps,
  A Sun that one and all of them enkindled,
  E'en as our own doth the supernal sights,
We might recall that on Jupiter, this figure of the sun illuminating the stars appeared at the opening of Paradiso 20. But now it's not a simile, yet it is still a figural sun brightening the starry sphere. This Sun not a "real" sun; this shining substance (lucente sustanza) too powerful for the poet's eyes is emanating from Christ, and the harvested fruits are souls. Are they also, here in the starry sphere, stars?

The fact that this light, as powerful as it is, is not the actual vision of Christ is underscored by the simile that introduces it - the "Sun" is introduced figuratively as the moon -- as Trivia, linked with Diana, accompanied by shining nymphs:
Quale ne' plenilunïi sereni
 Trivïa ride tra le ninfe etterne
 che dipingon lo ciel per tutti i seni,
As when in nights serene of the full moon
  Smiles Trivia among the nymphs eternal
  Who paint the firmament through all its gulfs,
Beatrice describes what Dante is not able to look at as "a power (virtù) from which there is no shelter." This is the power, and wisdom, acting in human time,
ch'aprì le strade tra 'l cielo e la terra
 onde fu già sì lunga disïanza.”
that opened the roads between heaven and earth
for which of old there had been such long desire.

To connect roads that had been blocked, broken, cut off implies that at one time the way was intact. Before the Fall, heaven and earth were linked, and now, thanks to Christ, the road is restored. The introductory figure of Trivia now becomes legible in a new way: just as the goddess Hecate linked the three realms (Tri-via) of the pagan world (as Cynthia, Diana, and Persephone), so Christ acted in time to open the way for the children of men to return to their true home.

To bring together disjunct realms within sacred history is much what poets do with metaphor: they unite, though the exchange of attribute, disparate entities. The poetic function of figure, whether simile, metaphor, or other trope, yokes unlike things. If David the singer of Psalms was the archetypal poet-ruler, Christ is the new David, re-joining earth and heaven in his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.


What's remarkable is that after speaking of this irresistible power that restored a path for men to go from earth to heaven, the poet undergoes a metamorphosis. He can't remember it, but he knows it took place because he is stronger. Without trauma, he looks at Beatrice, who is smiling.

He then goes on to say how, had he the inspirations of all the muse-suckled poets who ever sung, he could not begin to describe the beauty of Beatrice's smile, and, since this is the case, he is at an aporia with regard to "picturing Paradise."
 e così, figurando il paradiso, 
convien saltar lo sacrato poema, come chi trova suo cammin riciso.
And therefore, representing figuring Paradise,
  The sacred poem must perforce leap over,
  Even as a man who finds his way cut off;
In becoming able to see his guide fully, the poet has become stronger, but this very strength enables him to see his weakness -- the inadequacy of his ability to represent her smile. He has more than that to "figure" -- there is il paradiso. For that, the poem must "leap," like a man whose path is cut off. The poet does not have a way to do what he must do, what the savior did -- convey us, in figure, to il paradiso. Yet Beatrice tells him to turn from her and see:
Quivi è la rosa in che 'l verbo divino
carne si fece;
There is the Rose in which the Word Divine
Became incarnate;
The "battle of the feeble brows" begins again - and he begins to figurar il paradiso.

What form does this figuration of Paradise assume? When he turns from Beatrice, the poet resorts to simile: sunlight breaking through clouds, rendering vibrant a meadow; so far, it's a simile "like" his actual experience of Matilda in Eden. But then, he sees a Rose that is a living star, the mother of Christ, regina coeli. Is he now seeing Mary in her glorified flesh?

Certainly brilliant readers do see it this way. Instead of dwelling on it, however, the poet speaks of how this could occur: It's possible, he says, because Christ has "leapt" up far enough -- a distance so vast that the poet is no longer blinded by his light.
O benigna vertù che sì li 'mprenti,
 sù t'essaltasti per largirmi loco
 i li occhi lì che non t'eran possenti.
O power benignant that dost so imprint them!
  Thou didst exalt thyself to give more scope
  There to mine eyes, that were not strong enough.  (23:85-87)
The sacrato poema proceeds because the Sun recedes. If in sacred history Christ advanced to restore the road, here he allows the sacred poem to jump the aporia by retreating. He performs a sacrifice of light that empowers vision rather than annihilating it.

This ought to alert us to read the next passage with particular care. The poem has made a leap. If we take it "at its word," then something other than the customary tropes could be at work. We'll see.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Saturn's crystal: Paradiso 21 and 22

Cantos 21-22 of Dante's Paradiso are in some ways rather forgettable. Not much happens, nor is there any especially heightened poetic imagery or drama -- at least not until the poet, addressing the reader from his new vantage point in the stars, turns and looks back upon his journey through the seven planetary spheres, down to the aiuola -- the threshing floor -- where his readers try to live.

The immediate effect of Saturn is of a cold, stark, almost frozen place -- canto 22 will open with the poet in a kind of shock -- Oppresso di stupore. The highest planetary sphere seems to partake of the realm of ancient gods and eld -- a place nearly forgotten, yet a place of origin, as Saturn is father to all the other Olympian deities.

A few notes on cantos 21 and 22:


The sphere is called cristallo (21:25). We learn in retrospect that silvery Jupiter tempers the heat of Mars, where all had a reddish hue, and the cold of Saturn. I take cristallo here to mean transparent -- i.e., no color. This would be in line with the absence of sensory cues here -- as the sphere lacks sound and music, it also lacks color.

It's probably more accurate to say whatever sounds it may have, the pilgrim cannot hear them. He's too close to the sacred to not need a shield, some sort of protective mediation, which suggests that the minimalist bent of Saturn works to imply, by its very paucity, something too large to take in.

That proximity to what, if apprehended, would shock or destroy the one who apprehends, is made explicit early when Beatrice explains why Dante will not see her smile. It's a motif often seen in Ovid -- think of Actaeon, or Semele:
                           ". . . s'io ridessi,”
 mi cominciò, “tu ti faresti quale
 fu Semelè quando di cener fessi:

ché la bellezza mia, che per le scale
 de l'etterno palazzo più s'accende,
 com' hai veduto, quanto più si sale,

se non si temperasse, tanto splende,
 che 'l tuo mortal podere, al suo fulgore,
 sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende.
                                    "If I were to smile,"
  She unto me began, "thou wouldst become
  Like Semele, when she was turned to ashes.

Because my beauty, that along the stairs
  Of the eternal palace more enkindles,
  As thou hast seen, the farther we ascend,

If it were tempered not, is so resplendent
  That all thy mortal power in its effulgence
  Would seem a leaflet that the thunder crushes. (21:4-12)


Saturn lies at the outermost edge of the planetary spheres -- the highest such sphere from Earth, named for the most ancient God, father of Zeus.

Throughout the cantos of Saturn, the pilgrim is made to intimate a sense that something lies between that which is available to his senses, and that which would destroy him if he were to see or hear it. It's as if there were a membrane, stretched very thin, between the absence of Beatrice's smile, the silence of no music, and something other which would be too much to bear. The austerity of Saturn is a an inverse sign of something intolerably powerful almost within reach. Just up the stairs.


Contemplation - I

The poem seems to verge on some entropic limit. Beatrice instructs Dante to turn the mirrors of his eyes to see the figure - figura - in the crystalline mirror of Saturn. The staircase is the logical image here -- it ascends and descends, but in fact, it's the same at every step -- a mise en abyme.

To contemplate is be always seeing yourself seeing.

With Peter Damian, this is linked to a kind of light that lifts him up out and up:
"On me directed is a light divine,
  Piercing through this in which I am embosomed,

Of which the virtue with my sight conjoined
  Lifts me above myself so far, I see
  The supreme essence from which this is drawn.

Hence comes the joyfulness with which I flame,
  For to my sight, as far as it is clear,
  The clearness of the flame I equal make.
“Luce divina sopra me s'appunta,
 penetrando per questa in ch'io m'inventro,

la cui virtù, col mio veder congiunta,
 mi leva sopra me tanto, ch'i' veggio
 la somma essenza de la quale è munta.

Quinci vien l'allegrezza ond' io fiammeggio;
 per ch'a la vista mia, quant' ella è chiara,
 la chiarità de la fiamma pareggio.  
(Par. 21: 83-90)
Peter Damian falls upward -- luce divina penetrates the light in which he is "enwombed." Unlike Semele, he's not destroyed. Like Dionysus, he's lifted up and out by the power of that light, joined with his seeing, "so that I may see the highest essence from which this light is milked"*

The result is a fusion of his elevated sight and the flame in which he spins -- each is made equal to the other, or, put another way, the flame mirrors the vision that is the mirrored fusion of divine light and human eye.

*"Milked" is apparently the root sense of munta, < mungere. Hollander cites this paraphrase of Paradiso 21: 83-90 from Bosco/Reggio:
“The light of grace descends on me, penetrating the light that wraps me round, in whose womb I am enclosed, and its power, conjoined with my intellect, lifts me so far above myself that I can see the supreme essence, God, from whom this light bursts forth. From this sight comes the joy with which I shine, since the splendor of my flame is as great as the clarity of my vision of God.”


The silence of Saturn comports with the standard idea of contemplation. But then Dante introduces, in describing Peter Damian's cohort, the crows. We've just come from the figure of the Eagle on Jupiter, composed of the Just who sing in multiple voices, but which suddenly speaks in the first-person singular, subsuming all into one large, uncanny speaking entity. Here, instead of some even more solemn or seductive avian image, crows:
And as accordant with their natural custom
  The rooks together at the break of day
  Bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold;
Then some of them fly off without return,
  Others come back to where they started from,
  And others, wheeling round, still keep at home;
Such fashion it appeared to me was there
  Within the sparkling that together came, (21:34-41)
Here the image stresses the gaggle, the individual groups, each doing its own thing. If the eagle is the image of royal power, majesty, and top-down rule, these crows seem fairly common, independent, and unruly -- not unlike the actual creatures. Crows are also raucous, inharmonious, and have long been associated with bad news -- as in Ovid's tale of Apollo and the crow:
According to the mythological narration, Apollo sent a white raven, or crow in some versions to spy on his lover, Coronis. When the raven brought back the news that Coronis has been unfaithful to him, Apollo scorched the raven in his fury, turning the animal's feathers black. That's why all ravens are black today. (WP)
Crows are linked to secrets and baleful signs. They bring intelligence which may disconcert. One encounters them, as in Twa Corbies or Poe's "Raven," with foreboding.



If Saturn offers Dante's portrait of contemplation, rich in somber quiet and sober reflection, why the crows? And why the extraordinary grido - the unintelligible shout from those "crows" surrounding Peter Damian at the very end of Paradiso 21?

If we consider the attributes normally found in discussions of the sublime, this becomes less surprising. Thunder, high craggy mountains like those where Peter Damian went to live in solitude, discordant aesthetic effects all accompany the sublime, whether in Longinus or in Kant's Critique of Judgment. Indeed, the Paradiso might helpfully be informed by a reading that would see it as a movement from delightful forms and harmonies associated with beauty to these austere heights haunted by the unimaginable, terrifying power of sublimity.



What would link contemplation - in Dante's sense - to the sublime? For one thing, when two mirrors face each other, the result is a form of infinity. The sublime erupts when the mind, which is used to the framed world of finite beauties, encounters what exceeds its grasp:
però che sì s'innoltra ne lo abisso
 de l'etterno statuto quel che chiedi,
 che da ogne creata vista è scisso.  
Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
  Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
  From all created sight it is cut off. (21: 94-96)
Rudolf Otto writes about the blank stupor - a kind of paralyzing dread that accompanies apprehension of the other, in connection with Chrysostom's reading of a psalm:
When he gazes down into the immeasurable, yawning Depth of the divine Wisdom, dizziness comes upon him and he recoils in terrified wonder and cries : . . . "Thy knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, above my power (I am too weak for it: LXX)." The dizziness and the unique feeling of the uncanny, which we have called stupor and tremor, are here clearly noted by Chrysostom. (The Idea of the Holy Appendix 1)
"This is the voice not of the Platonist or Neo-Platonist ; it is the voice of antiquity itself," adds Otto.



I remember my first glimpse of mirroring mirrors -- it was in a barbershop, and when the phenomenon of endless iteration dawned on me, it was disorienting. One feels one could fall in. The golden stairs of Saturn, rising beyond mortal sight, disappoint the expectation of arrival -- instead of getting to a place, they simply repeat, step after step, no end visible.


Contemplation II

The empowered light of Peter Damian would appear to have the power to see far. But right after describing his joy, he unveils its limit, in response to Dante's question about predestination.
Ma quell' alma nel ciel che più si schiara,
quel serafin che 'n Dio più l'occhio ha fisso,
a la dimanda tua non satisfara,

però che sì s'innoltra ne lo abisso
de l'etterno statuto quel che chiedi,
che da ogne creata vista è scisso.
But that soul in the heaven which is most pure,
That seraph which his eye on God most fixes,
Could this demand of thine not satisfy;

Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
From all created sight it is cut off. (21:91-96)
If the binding of luce divina and Peter's own seeing lifted him up, it also enables him to apprehend the deep abyss. Infinite height reflects an abyss without end. That the abyss is a "eternal statute" (etterno statuto) removes it from the realm of nature altogether. The statuto is there because a fiat -- a speech act -- decreed it there.

Human sight is scisso -- cut off -- or cut out -- here. It can apprehend, but not comprehend.

Peter is speaking in answer to Dante's question, "why you?" -- Why is it that Peter Damian greets Dante at this moment of his journey? Of course the question could be turned around; Peter could, with greater justice, reflect it back to Dante:"Why you, Ser Alighieri?" Peter's response -- that not even the highest Seraph knows -- provides the same absence of an answer for both.


Fat prelates

Peter's penetrating eye might not see why he's where he is, or Dante is where he is. But he sees through the opaque massiveness of the modern shepherds (moderni pastori). The layers of flesh and cloth try the patience of one whose life has been devoted to that virtue;
Cuopron d'i manti loro i palafreni,
sì che due bestie van sott' una pelle:
The victims of his caustic vision are mirror images of Peter's fusion of divine light and human eye, which lifts him up out of himself. Here the shepherds and their palfreys merge beneath a giant added "skin."

Suddenly, myriad little flames release a cry to which no earthly sound, even thunder, can be compared:
Dintorno a questa vennero e fermarsi,
 e fero un grido di sì alto suono,
 che non potrebbe qui assomigliarsi;
né io lo 'ntesi, sì mi vinse il tuono.
Round about this one came they and stood still,
  And a cry uttered of so loud a sound,
  It here could find no parallel, nor I
Distinguished it, the thunder so o'ercame me.
If music in the lower spheres interweaves in perfect rhythm with teachers and paragons of justice, this screech brings no beauty, or understanding, or closure. Paradiso 21 ends in a dissonance more disconcerting than the caw of crows.

Kant says the sublime can be painful, because it marks the moment when that which is apprehended exceeds what we may comprehend. He notes that when we find sublimity in the ocean, it's at the moment we are detached from what we know. The eye of the mind goes dark, and the sensory eye sees merely what strikes it:
if it (the ocean) is at rest, as a clear mirror of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything. (Analytic of the Sublime #29.)
The pilgrim experiences the grido as the overwhelming shock of mere sound -- né io lo 'ntesi -- "nor did I understand it."


Stupor II

Suppose one looked at the staircase with the same uncomprehending eye that Kant says sees the sublimity of the ocean. One would simply see a series of gradations extending upwards as far as that eye can see. Nothing beyond it, no destination, just stairs, stairs, stairs.

The staircase has been the structuring core of the Commedia. The entire arc and argument of the poem would have it mean something that we descend to the center of the created world, but then turn and ascend, higher and higher, through Purgatory, through the spheres, through the stars to the final destination, the alpha and omega. To have no beginning or ending, but just stairs -- this is the nightmare of nihilism -- perhaps the single most terrifying image of the poem: Horror vacui.


Contemplation III

Benedict muses in Paradiso 22 upon what looks all too much like fate:
The flesh of mortals is so very soft,
  That good beginnings down below suffice not
  From springing of the oak to bearing acorns.
Peter began with neither gold nor silver,
  And I with orison and abstinence,
  And Francis with humility his convent.
And if thou lookest at each one's beginning,
  And then regardest whither he has run,
  Thou shalt behold the white changed into brown. (22:85-93)
Longfellow translates tracorso as "run" - Sinclair offers "strayed," which seems a better fit -- wherever one looks, promising starts don't last, even when initiated by the likes of Saints Peter, Benedict, and Francis. The lapse Adam begat seems the one ineluctable pattern this contemplative can discern.



Benedict's vision of human life, at this crystal threshold before the poet is whisked high to the stars, earns every ounce of the term "saturnine." This ancient crack in God's once perfect world -- we heard about the old man of Crete in Inferno 14, himself cracked and weeping -- appears irremediable. The contemplative sees more clearly; there's much he can do to nurture i fiori e ' frutti santi. But true contemplation is contemplation of truth; this baleful, bottomless, abyssal errance of human intent seems inevitable, as well as impossible to un-see.

Beatrice is about to whisk him up beyond all the planets. He looks back. Down through the multiple layers of ancient gods and planets and powers in all their variety. One thing at its heart.

The poet calls it as he sees it:
L'aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci,

The little threshing-floor that makes us so fierce (Sinclair trans.)


Taking it in

The necessity of this terror, this congealed sense of everything coming to the same failed end, could account for Saturn's melancholia. Nothing mirrored in Saturn's crystal is quite what one hopes to see. Dante can sense the love Benedict and Peter bear him, but not why, nor why they in particular are there. Seeing even their faces is deferred -- yet to come, like the destination promised by all that he's experienced. Saturn feels incomplete because it is, especially if nothing lay beyond the stairs. This discordant ancient sadness and lack of closure is also of the sublime.

But Dante is already beyond the stairs when he looks back upon his odyssey to this point from the stars of Gemini. He's able to see the aiuolo with clearer vision than he's ever had. Paradiso 22 ends not with apprehension, but comprehension, as the poet takes in the scalar multiplicity of the planets -- take them in, as a whole, with crow-like wanderings.
And all the seven made manifest to me
How great they are, and eke how swift they are,
And how they are in distant habitations.
e tutti e sette mi si dimostraro
quanto son grandi e quanto son veloci
e come sono in distante riparo.