Much time and space here was given to Paradiso 18 for two reasons - first, it traces a clear change in the poet's power to speak (and speak truth to power); next, it begins the second half of the Paradiso, and one argument I'll be making is that Dante deliberately wishes us to see Paradiso 17 as a center and a threshold between two different aspects of Paradise.
To see what's happening before and after the center more clearly, it's helpful to note that the cantos on either side of 17 balance each other. For example, 15 and 19, 14 and 20, etc. each have parallel elements, creating a kind of nested ring structure around the center. However, Dante's "rings" have torque -- the differences between cantos 15 and 19 (or 14 and 20) are deeply germane to an expansion or transformation occurring through the canticle. An architectonic whose rings turn to something more.
An example or two might help.
We can see this "symmetry with a difference" in cantos 15 and 19 as an example. Each stands two cantos removed from 17. In 15, Cacciaguida appears before Dante and tells him "I am your root." Between the two is established an organic connection -- the ties of family, of Firenze, of culture and history connect them like root and branch of a single tree. In canto 18, Cacciaguida's closing speech will note that all of Paradise is a series of sills, or thresholds (soglia) of a tree that "lives from the top":
dell'albero che vive della cima
e frutta sempre e mai no perde foglia
of the tree which lives from the topThe organic tree of life rooted in earth, time, and history is replaced by this tree, that clearly stands outside of nature. One finds upside down trees, or trees fed from above, in esoteric lore and in the Kabbalah (e.g., the sephirot) and other wisdom traditions.
and is always in fruit and never sheds its leaves. (18:29-30)
The encounter with Cacciaguida is rich in warmth, human connection, memory and history, neighborhood gossip and love of city, patria, and God. Canto 15 ends with Cacciaguida detailing the virtues and great citizens of their city:
Saria tenuta allor tal maraviglia
una Cianghella, un Lapo Salterello
qual or saria Cincinnato e Corniglia.
As great a marvel then would have been heldIn Canto 19, Dante is facing a giant composite of just souls who are subsumed within the image of the head and wings of an eagle. The image stuns the poet when it speaks -- indeed, its speech is unlike any ever recorded, because instead of saying "we," all the voices in unison say "I."
A Lapo Salterello, a Cianghella,
As Cincinnatus or Cornelia now. (15:127-29)
This is the eagle that came from the "M" in canto 18 -- an eagle born of letters. The souls that form it are described as conserte, that is, interwoven. The poet introduces that astonishing description of the plural speaking as "I" -- a grammatical violation of number -- with an echo of Paul's echo of Isaiah:
But as it is written:Paul, who was also taken up to Paradise, is saying that nothing our senses have ever offered can prepare us for what awaits us. But it's worth noting that Paul is not saying this, he's citing Isaiah 64.4. Dante is introducing this giant segno, this eagle that has nothing to do with natural birds, via a text citing a text citing a text.
“What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” (1 Cor. 2.9)
The eagle speaks with authority about the limitations of human vision and intellect. The entire canto is steeped in words for seeing, the eye, the ocean floor that the eye cannot penetrate. What the eagle does say is that the limit to our vision is what enables us to discern that its origin is far beyond all that it can see. Thanks to this very limit, or failure, human vision (veduta) "sees" that its origin must derive from something unseen and unseeable.
Dunque vostra veduta, che convene
essere alcun de' raggi de la mente
di che tutte le cose son ripiene,
non pò da sua natura esser possente
tanto, che suo principio non discerna
molto di là da quel che l'è parvente.
In consequence our vision, which perforce
Must be some ray of that intelligence
With which all things whatever are replete,
Cannot in its own nature be so potent,The double negative form of the statement suggests that the very thing that the poet and many of his fellow humans view as a frustrating obstacle to our wish to see and know is not so powerful as to blind us to this truth of our origin. If our vision were greater, we might fail to see how far we are from our actual root. The evidence of our senses, in its paucity, proves that we begin beyond the senses. (One hears intimations of immortality here found in other writers -- Descartes and Wordsworth, for example.)
That it shall not its origin discern
Far beyond that which is apparent to it. (19:52-57)
The turning around of the canticle began in Paradiso 17 with the appearance of writing, which is itself re-presenting Scripture. The Eagle is a profoundly rich image that, yes, is linked with the symbol of Rome and empire, but, like Homer's "winged words," it is also the sign of signification itself, rooted precisely not in sensory mimesis.
That the figure of a natural creature known for having the sharpest sight demonstrates the limits of our vision makes for the comic irony here. First we learn that our powers of seeing are limited, and we are shown that this tells us something important about us. The eagle-eyed speaker then goes on, not unlike Cacciaguida did with Florentines, to look at a series of kings.
We can see the parallels here - the figure Dante is speaking with is reviewing actual personages of history. But the differences are equally telling:
- Cacciaguida described the modest citizens of Florence past, the virtuous city. The Eagle speaks at a higher level of power, and about larger aggregates of people - it speaks of kings, the heads of nation states.
- Cacciaguida speaks of fellow citizens - people of his own background, some from his own experience. The Eagle speaks of rulers of far flung nations, which it has the eyes to see, but we do not. In fact, though, the eagle is not seeing them at all. It's reading about them in a volume filled with the infamies of these kings. As commentators note, this is scripture depicted in the Apocalypse (20:12) that records the foul deeds of the damned. Hence the irony - the Eagle is not "seeing" these figures, but reading about them in a book that, though it appears at the end of days, in fact already contains all the deeds and horrors of human history.
- Cacciaguida is recounting people of the past; the Eagle is reading of events which had not yet occurred in 1300.
Che poran dir li Perse a' vostri regi,
come vedranno quel volume aperto
nel qual si scrivon tutti suoi dispregi?
Lì si vedrà, tra l'opere d'Alberto,
quella che tosto moverà la penna,
What to your kings may not the Persians say,If Cacciaguida praised and criticized his fellow citizens and then went forth on Crusade to the Holy Land, the Eagle is looking out at a time when the kings of Europe will shame their lands before the non-Christian peoples. The perspective has radically shifted with the substitution of written records for lived experience.
When they that volume opened shall behold
In which are written down all their dispraises?
There shall be seen, among the deeds of Albert,
That which ere long shall set the pen in motion, (19:112-116)
Note the repeated use of segnare:
Vedrassi al Ciotto di Ierusalemme
segnata con un i la sua bontate,
quando 'l contrario segnerà un emme.
Be seen the Cripple of Jerusalem,Frederick's contribution to the hall of shame qualifies him for lettere mozze -- mutilated letters (134), abbreviations.
His goodness represented by an I,
While the reverse an M shall represent; (19:127-129)
Writing of course is a vast abbreviation, based on signs we learn in order to record what is no longer visible or in any other way available to the senses. When the plenitude of the sensory realm is subsumed into a sign, a word or missive that can fly from hither to yon, and speak of what no longer is, or of what is not yet, one is in a different modality from mimesis, from representation.
We can look at more implications of this point in Paradiso where vision and knowledge end, and nations have heads without sense or vision. Whatever else, what comes to the fore must be the irrepressible modalities of faith and hope.