Sunday, May 22, 2016

Boniface and Dante

As we get more deeply into the loving portrait of old Florence drawn by Cacciaguida in Paradiso 15-17, a couple of additional links to the biography of the poet have surfaced:

For whatever reason, here's a story about Boniface VIII, who according to this writer qualifies as "the worst pope in history:"
Not content with committing one mortal sin at a time, he was known for engaging in threesomes with a married woman and her daughter. If you’re keeping track, that’s three divine laws broken in a single night (adultery, incest, and breaking the vows of celibacy). Which is reprehensible or efficient, depending on your perspective. Link



And here's a snippet of another review of the new biography of Dante by Marco Santagata, a scholar from Pisa:

The central story, after all, is not the complexity of 13th- and 14th-century Italian politics. It is the extraordinary poet, with his endless ‘reflection on what he was doing’. Santagata teases out the many ways in which Dante was not merely self-obsessed, but also self-inventive. He came from relatively modest origins: his father was a moneylender. In Paradise, however, when Dante meets his crusading ancestor Cacciaguida, they both agree that Florence has been wrecked by mercantile shyster-bankers and money-men and that the world will only come to its senses when it is once again ruled by noblemen. So, though not himself an aristocrat, Dante writes as though he were one.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Paradisal roots: Canto 15

Paradiso 15 puts in place an elaborate setting for the meeting of Dante and Cacciaguida, the root (radice) of his Florentine stock. The great-great-grandfather invokes organic imagery, which we've seen elaborated in the Sun with the tale of St. Dominic, but radically simplified here:
“O fronda mia in che io compiacemmi 
pur aspettando, io fui la tua radice”
"O leaf of mine, in whom I pleasure took
E'en while awaiting, I was thine own root!"
(15.88-89)
Dante discovers that the root of his life was ahead of him, waiting for his arrival. Normally in organic systems, the leaves don't meet the roots. Here, on Mars, they connect. 

Faithful to the system of nourishment and energy that comes from a solar myth of gardens and flowers -- Cacciaguida emboldens the poet to let his voice resound secure, bold, and joyous:
la voce tua sicura, balda e lieta 
suoni la volontà, suoni 'l disio,
Now let thy voice secure and frank and glad
Proclaim the wishes, the desire proclaim,) (15.67-68)
Cacciaguida - the guide to the hunt - will go on to give Dante a view of the past of his city, how it changed as it absorbed people around it, and then divulge what the poet can expect in his future, which will involve a radical break with Florence. 

All of this -- the organic sense of growth, of a family and a city as a living thing -- forms a strong metaphorical armature for these central cantos of Paradiso. But there is another kind of root, another skein of imagery interwoven throughout these cantos, and it begins with Cacciaguida's first speech -- the language of number:
Tu credi che a me tuo pensier mei 
da quel ch'è primo, così come raia 
da l'un, se si conosce, il cinque e 'l sei;
Thou thinkest that to me thy thought doth pass  
From Him who is the first, as from the unit,  
If that be known, ray out the five and six; (15.55-57) 

Dante believes, Cacciaguida says, that he need not speak, because all his thoughts radiate from that which is primal, or at the root, even as 5 and 6 derive from 1. All numbers are implicated in 1 -- so long as you have 1, you can produce the rest.

Numbers appear even earlier -- with the first thing Dante understands Cacciaguida to say;
“Benedetto sia tu,” fu, “trino e uno, 
che nel mio seme se' tanto cortese!”
"Benedight be Thou, O Trine and One,
Who hast unto my seed so courteous been!" (15.47-48)
The poet in turn speaks of the central mystery of the Trinity in noting how mortals differ from those with a vision of the triune God:
Poi cominciai così: “L'affetto e 'l senno, 
come la prima equalità v'apparse, 
d'un peso per ciascun di voi si fenno,
Then in this wise began I: "Love and knowledge, 
When on you dawned the first Equality, 
Of the same weight for each of you became; (15.73-75)
Clearly the language of numbers and geometric figures (in 17 Dante will say he's tetragono -- foursquare, or four-angled -- against the whims of Fortune) present a second set of images, parallel to the organic metaphors of plants, seeds, roots and leaves, but quite different.

Getting to the "root" of this dual series of figures -- one, organic, rich in natural attributes of nourishment, sunlight, and strength, the other a purely formal system that is nothing like Nature, and presents conceptions that Nature is incapable of -- is beyond this post. 

The only point to make here is that this second motif relates to the fact -- much remarked on in the canto -- that everyone who is moving along the radials of the cross is looking into a mirror that reflects what Dante thinks before he thinks it.

The poet will be emboldened to speak even though these thousands of militant warriors of the Church have already heard it. What's more, they will all grow silent in order to give him the will to speak:
Come saranno a' giusti preghi sorde 
quelle sustanze che, per darmi voglia 
ch'io le pregassi, a tacer fur concorde?
How unto just entreaties shall be deaf 
Those substances, which, to give me desire 
Of praying them, with one accord grew silent? (15.7-9)
The very act of speech is rendered unnecessary even as it it dramatically heightened by the vast, silent attention that presents itself. These armies present a thunderous silence. Radiating from one center, they will to hear Dante, redundant.

The irony and surprise, true to the Commedia, makes the ruddy martial sphere into that scene where the intimate, familial connectedness of all rises to our attention.

Friday, May 06, 2016

14th c. politics in new Dante bio

A new biography of Dante explores what it would be like for a man in exile, under sentence of death, to have the concentration to write one of the greatest long poems ever made amid the stresses and dangers of 14th century existence:
Santagata paints a dramatically different scene. We see a man with no fixed income, worried about that death sentence, dependent on the generosity of patrons who themselves are caught up in political turmoil. Dante is shown first scheming with White comrades to regain Florence, then currying favour with Black factions to be forgiven and allowed home, then switching allegiances to become a fervent Ghibelline. It is amazing he was able to concentrate enough to a write a sonnet, let alone the 14,233 lines of the Comedy.


The book, released in April, is Dante: The Story of His Life by Marco Santagata. Thanks to Peter D'Epiro for pointing us to Simon West's book review in the Australian.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Two predecessors to Cacciaguida

Many son-and-father stand behind Dante's encounter with Cacciaguida. He's certainly thinking of Phaethon's quest for knowledge of his father. And Brunetto Latini, Inferno 15, who, the poet says, taught come l'uom s'eterna (how man makes himself immortal) is highly relevant, if by contrast with the familial bond Dante discovers with Cacciaguida.

But the one that Cacciaguida's first words put before us is from Virgil. It's Aeneas's encounter with his father Anchises in the Underworld, Aeneid 6, 679 ff.

The long scene begins:
[679] But deep in a green vale father Anchises was surveying with earnest thought the imprisoned souls that were to pass to the light above and, as it chanced, was counting over the full number of his people and beloved children, their fates and fortunes, their works and ways. And as he saw Aeneas coming towards him over the sward, he eagerly stretched forth both hands, while tears streamed from his eyes and a cry fell from his lips: “Have you come at last, and has the duty that your father expected vanquished the toilsome way? Is it given me to see your face, my son, and hear and utter familiar tones? Even so I mused and deemed the hour would come, counting the days, nor has my yearning failed me. Over what lands, what wide seas have you journeyed to my welcome! What dangers have beset you, my son! How I feared the realm of Libya might work you harm!” 
But he answered: “Your shade, father, your sad shade, meeting me repeatedly, drove me to seek these portals. My ships ride the Tuscan sea. Grant me to clasp your hand, grant me, father, and withdraw not from my embrace!” So he spoke, his face wet with flooding tears. Thrice there he strove to throw his arms about his neck; thrice the form, vainly clasped, fled from his hands, even as light winds, and most like a winged dream.

Perseus VI.679-703:

At pater Anchises penitus convalle virenti
680inclusas animas superumque ad lumen ituras
lustrabat studio recolensomnemque suorum
forte recensebat numerum carosque nepotes,
fataque fortunasque virum moresque manusque.
Isque ubi tendentem adversum per gramina videt
685Aeneanalacris palmas utrasque tetendit,
effusaeque genis lacrimaeet vox excidit ore:
Venisti tandemtuaque exspectata parenti
vicit iter durum pietasDatur ora tueri,
natetuaet notas audire et reddere voces?
690Sic equidem ducebam animo rebarque futurum,
tempora dinumerans” nec me mea cura fefellit.
Quas ego te terras et quanta per aequora vectum
accipioquantis iactatumnatepericlis!
Quam metuine quid Libyae tibi regna nocerent!”
695Ille autem: “Tua megenitortua tristis imago,
saepius occurrenshaec limina tendere adegit:
stant sale Tyrrheno classesDa iungere dextram,
dagenitorteque amplexu ne subtrahe nostro.”
Sic memoranslargo fletu simul ora rigabat.
700Ter conatus ibi collo dare brachia circum,
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.

More here and below

Translating up to Cacciaguida

The figure and voice of Cacciaguida holds forth for three cantos at the center of the Paradiso. He is an ancestor/father who call himself the radice, i.e., root, of Dante's bloodline. He'll have a good deal to say about blood as he describes old Florence and its early families in cantos 15 through 17.

Before Cacciaguida speaks, the poet modulates from the sublime thunder of Paradiso 14 to a hushed arena where the pilgrim is given the attention of a vast audience of souls, who grow quiet to help him acquire that which he needs to learn from his forebear.

Dante manages this transition to a pregnant calm as only he can. There is the remarkable moment, in 14, as he's already moving from the Sun to Mars, when he speaks within himself in a kind of universal tongue:
Con tutto 'l core e con quella favella
ch'è una in tutti, a Dio feci olocausto,
qual conveniesi a la grazia novella.
With all my heart, and in that dialect
Which is the same in all, such holocaust
To God I made as the new grace beseemed; (14.88-90)
It's a passing moment, but it's also a kind of exquisite play on the act of translation. Dante says he used "that speech that is one in all" to make his holocaust, and as Hollander notes, this harks back to the old idea that humans share a kind of universal vernacular:
Dante is evidently referring to mental constructions, pre-verbal thoughts, which match one another perfectly until they are put into expression in various languages, when they may have small resemblance to one another. See John of Serravalle (comm. to vv. 88-90): “Conceptus mentis sunt idem in omnibus hominibus, loquela vero non sic” (Mental constructs are identical in all humans, but not the words [that are used to express them]). Dante is perhaps suggesting that there exists an ideal universal vernacular innate in all of us.
In another formulation, Noam Chomsky's theory of grammar rests on the notion that we share a "deep structure" that is generative of and common to all languages, however superficially different they may seem. Another way of putting this is, at this moment of transition, or translation,* as Dante chooses to put it, the distinction between lexis and logos comes to the fore:
Quindi ripreser li occhi miei virtute
a rilevarsi; e vidimi translato
sol con mia donna in più alta salute. (14.82-84)
Lexis of course concerns the specific linguistic vesture that clothes the idea or meaning (the logos). Lexis is the entire complex of linguistic features -- the particular language, the choice of words, their specific phonemes, rhythm, pitch, tone, aural and even visual articulation -- that carries the ideational content intended by the speaker.

That is to say, the very thing that gets in the way of perfect translation -- the lexical features of any specific utterance -- is here consumed, just as the lexical features of Dante's Italian verses are sacrificed in order to present their sense to speakers of Longfellow's tongue. The possibility of any translation whatsoever from one speaker to another in fact relies on our positing a third "tongue," a deep core of structure and meaning that is the shared basis and interface between any two sets of linguistic vestments. Any act of translation, after all is said and done, is an act of faith.

At the very moment of leaving the visual, circumscribed world of the Sun for something new and unknown, as a third circle begins to flicker and flash around Beatrice and Dante, the poet speaks of a third tongue that enables translation to occur. Without such a common "speech" -- invisible, inaudible, and unwriteable -- subtending all human languages, how else could translation occur? Remove the Logos and what's left is Babel.

The clothing metaphor I used a moment ago ("linguistic vesture") is traditional -- John of Serravalle resorts several times to it in his commentary on this tercet -- but here it also echoes another significant moment of this canto -- Solomon's remarkable account of the souls' condition -- first in the now, prior to the final resurrection, and then, when they will be reunited with their glorified bodies:
            “Quanto fia lunga la festa
di paradiso, tanto il nostro amore
si raggerà dintorno cotal vesta.

La sua chiarezza séguita l'ardore;
l'ardor la visïone, e quella è tanta,
quant' ha di grazia sovra suo valore.

Come la carne glorïosa e santa
fia rivestita, la nostra persona
più grata fia per esser tutta quanta;
                   "As long as the festivity
  Of Paradise shall be, so long our love
  Shall radiate round about us such a vesture. 
Its brightness is proportioned to the ardour,
  The ardour to the vision; and the vision
  Equals what grace it has above its worth. 
When, glorious and sanctified, our flesh
  Is reassumed, then shall our persons be
  More pleasing by their being all complete;  (14. 37-45)
The souls will radiate light as long as Paradise lasts; this light radiates from the love they have within -- it is the vesta, the garment that is the expression of each soul's love, which in turn is proportioned to its vision, itself an expression of grace. Grace is external, from above, and it sets in motion vision, love, and radiance in a generative chain. Put another way, each is a figure, a translation of each other -- in a sense, to be in Paradise is to be translated to a condition of always translating.

And this process -- the opposite of Babel -- doesn't end with the resurrection of the body, for the soul, which now wears light, will be covered -- rivestita -- with the body that is now covered by earth. But since the radiance will remain, we cannot see the glorified body as opaque, as another outside of mere flesh. It has at least to be translucent, a further fold in the series of vestments, or translations.

Obsessive types (guilty as charged) might ask at this point how the glorified persons (persona) will be "all complete." That is, the body that once held that soul is brought up and put on, like a new suit, and allows the light to come through, such that grace, vision, ardor and radiance are now complemented by glorified flesh. But since each is already a translation of the others, is there a sense in which we can find it meaningful to say the entities are now "all complete" (tutta quanta)?

The reunited body is yet another translation, no? It might be the perfect conclusion of the itinerary of the soul, from conception to resurrection, all rooted in the Annunciation and Resurrection of Christ, but it's still another outside, another covering, or expression. When something is a translation, what can it mean to say it's "all complete," given that the original of which it is the embodiment is precisely what is not present -- at least, not directly.

Somehow, Dante wants to have it both ways -- the souls reflect, emanate, translate grace which comes from God; yet once they have bodies, they will be "all complete." Translations as totalities, or as, in some sense, embodiments of what is not body, not soul, not measurable, not finite. There's a tension between the metaphor of dress, of translation, and the assertion of a total completeness in the phrase per esser tutta quanta.

Dante is treating of all this with concepts and images we can understand -- but the tools of his vocabulary might be approaching a critical moment, a breaking point. It's here that Cacciaguida -- the "guide of the chase" -- enters, and for three cantos inserts Dante, who still has his body, into the living context of history.

*Hollander notes that this is the sole instance of the word translato in the Commedia, and that it appears twice in the Pauline epistles, once in reference to Enoch (Hebrews 11.5), the other time in Colossians 1.13:
13 qui eripuit nos de potestate tenebrarum et transtulit in regnum Filii dilectionis suae
13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

From geometry to rapture: Paradiso 14

Paradiso 14 begins with a geometric structure, captured in the rhetorical pattern known as chiasmus. The word pattern is reflecting, or mimicking, the echoic pattern of water moving in a round vase - from center to circumference, or vice versa, depending upon where something strikes it:
Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centro
movesi l'acqua in un ritondo vaso,
secondo ch'è percosso fuori o dentro:
 
From centre unto rim, from rim to centre,
In a round vase the water moves itself,
As from without 'tis struck or from within. (Par. 14. 1-3)
The geometry is not only exact, it is also ineluctable -- the water (or a light, or a sound) will always behave this way. The structure of the circle is such that it will produce the same result each time something either strikes it on the outside, or drops from above.

Such patterns and their identification belong to the work of pattern recognition, which Dante draws our attention to (as we saw a few posts back) with regard to the patterns found in the night sky, and in the sphere of the sun. The reliability of knowledge, we learned, depends upon our capacity to detect formal patterns in nature as well as in language.

Sophie Germain
Some patterns occur in ways that are easily explicable. Others occur quite reliably, but seem less easily explained. Chladni plates (named for Ernst Chladni, whose research explored the invisible interface between sounds and visual patterns) offer evidence of relationships between grains of sand (or couscous) and different frequencies which manifest in distinct patterns at different vibrations. The relationships turn out to be mappable by equations (worked out by Sophie Germain and others) that describe wave dynamics:




Beyond the Sun

This pattern of pattern recognition is violated in Paradiso 14 right after Solomon explains how, after the Resurrection of the body, the souls will still have their glowing light, but now they will have their senses, newly strengthened and able to experience all things new.

No sooner does Solomon end his resonant (and very chiastic) account of this event (at line 66) than we hear Ed ecco -- behold! -- something new and unexpected occurs:
Ed ecco intorno, di chiarezza pari,
nascere un lustro sopra quel che v'era,
per guisa d'orizzonte che rischiari.
 
E sì come al salir di prima sera
comincian per lo ciel nove parvenze,
sì che la vista pare e non par vera,
 
parvemi lì novelle sussistenze
cominciare a vedere, e fare un giro
di fuor da l'altre due circunferenze.
 
Oh vero sfavillar del Santo Spiro!
come si fece sùbito e candente
a li occhi miei che, vinti, nol soffriro!
And lo! all round about of equal brightness
Arose a lustre over what was there,
Like an horizon that is clearing up.

And as at rise of early eve begin
Along the welkin new appearances,
So that the sight seems real and unreal,

It seemed to me that new subsistences
Began there to be seen, and make a circle
Outside the other two circumferences.

O very sparkling of the Holy Spirit,
How sudden and incandescent it became
Unto mine eyes, that vanquished bore it not!  (14.70-78)
The moment is mysterious -- a third circle, but not quite stable, begins to surround the other two. It glimmers like faint lights flickering at dusk, then suddenly becoming blindingly incandescent, overpowering the pilgrim's eyes, which had so far supported the potent rays of the Sun.

Joachim of Flora
Commentators have pondered he meaning of this third circle at length, relating it to the other circles as the Holy Spirit to the Father and Sun, and to prophecies of the Calabrian Joachim of Flora and the dawning of a third age.

What we can say for sure is that in this gloaming nothing is sure: The nove parvenze, or novel appearances, are said to "appear to begin to be seen,"
Si che la vista pare e non par vera,  
So that the sight seems real and unreal.
The canto moves from a realm of regular and predictable order (like the geometry of a vase of water) to a place where appearances are such that they suspend, put into question, our apprehension of pattern. This cognitive predicament, known to psychologists as apophenia, has been described as "the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data." To find a man or a face in the moon is a common example. The article goes on to note:
Apophenia has come to imply a universal human tendency to seek patterns in random information, such as gambling.
Paradiso 14 is quite clear in breaking with patterns it has produced. It's at line 67 for example that we expect to find another set of 33 lines reiterating the first two, whose clear structure was noted by early commentators like Benvenuto da Imola.

This moment of sunset takes place just as Dante and Beatrice, before they even know it, leave the sun and with it the confidence owed to its clarity. In this darkling moment nothing is certain. If the new circle contains dottori, learned authors, it's unclear how many authors, let alone who they might be. It's all indistinct, says Benvenuto:
non tamen plene et manifeste sicut primae, sed confuse, quia hic erat maximus numerus doctorum quos autor non poterat nominatim numerare, sicut fecerat superiores, nec distincte; sed sub involucro comprehendit omnes.
A new circle appears to appear, and the passage puts stress not upon the solid form of a new circumference, but rather seems to find astonishment that what had been the circumference seems surpassed (sublated, i.e., cancelled and transcended)  by a new circumference -- yet one whose borders remain vague, with the possibility of containing millions of sussistenze in its sparkling (sfavillar). 

The challenge of not knowing is not trivial. It's at this moment that Dante and Beatrice are translated to the sphere of Mars, and now the pilgrim seems to fall back upon his own powers. He raises his eyes, and, as he does so, he and Beatrice are raised up; he now performs a sacrifice in his breast. He is doing these things unprompted and undirected. The action brings results -- a glowing redness in the new sphere appears to answer and approve his internal holocaust.

Close attention to the remainder of the canto will show that the language of action, of performative utterance, supplants the descriptive language of pattern. As the vast galaxy within Mars appears, the vision seems boundless, open-ended, and what the pilgrim begins to experience are, not patterns, not meanings that are understood, but potent beauties that seize the soul:
E come giga e arpa, in tempra tesa
di molte corde, fa dolce tintinno
a tal da cui la nota non è intesa,

così da' lumi che lì m'apparinno
s'accogliea per la croce una melode
che mi rapiva, sanza intender l'inno.
And as a lute and harp, accordant strung
With many strings, a dulcet tinkling make
To him by whom the notes are not distinguished,

So from the lights that there to me appeared
Upgathered through the cross a melody,
Which rapt me, not distinguishing the hymn. (14.118-123)
Three times in quick succession we hear that something is non intesa -- not understood. To go from the Sun to Mars is to go from an aesthetic of beauty to that of the sublime. Perhaps nothing makes this more "clear" than the simile that juxtaposes the vast armies that seem to move along the flashing crossbeams to specks and motes moving at random in a sunbeam. The beam shines through an artificial shade devised by human cunning and art to shield us from the harsh sun. Ingenio e arte provide a glimpse of what was always there, unseen in the full light of day:
così si veggion qui diritte e torte, 
veloci e tarde, rinovando vista, 
le minuzie d'i corpi, lunghe e corte, 
moversi per lo raggio onde si lista 
talvolta l'ombra che, per sua difesa, 
la gente con ingegno e arte acquista.
Thus level and aslant and swift and slow
We here behold, renewing still the sight,
The particles of bodies long and short,

Across the sunbeam move, wherewith is listed
Sometimes the shade, which for their own defence
People with cunning and with art contrive. (14.112-117)
The random specks are not caught up in some Chladni pattern - they remain random. And, of course, they are tiny, compared to the galassia and the giant cross, and the figures moving along its beams. This is perhaps as Miltonic as Dante gets -- vast and small, order and unforced happenstance, equated in a heightened moment of sublime apprehension -- not of pattern, rather a new rapture, potent and uncircumscribed by finite meaning.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Just a few quick questions: Paradiso 14

Paradiso 14 provokes questions - here are just a couple:

The canto unfolds in two segments of 33 lines each. The first segment has Beatrice asking a question Dante didn't even know he had, and the wheeling followers of Francis and Dominic dancing joyously. All is clear, circumscribed -- it even opens with a lovely simile of water in a vase, moving along radii from center to circle and back.

That first segment ends, followed by a new voice -- one who answers Beatrice's question, which concerns the resurrection of the body. That speaker, not named but presumed to be Solomon, is introduced this way:
E io udi' ne la luce più dia
del minor cerchio una voce modesta,
forse qual fu da l'angelo a Maria,
 And, in the lustre most divine of all
  The lesser ring, I heard a modest voice,
  Such as perhaps the Angel's was to Mary,  (14.34-36)



The "modest" voice might be mild, but as the voice of the Annunciation, it's uttering words that spoke of Word becoming flesh. Mild voice, large impact.

The canto offers various images that seem disproportionate - later, the vast motions of lights on Mars will be compared to specks of dust in a sliver of sunlight. These similes are working in a different way, one that will deserves some attention and interrogation.

In the second 33-line segment, the new voice speaks to the pilgrim of how grace, ardor, vision and brightness each increase the other -- using a perfect chiasmus to display a system of mutual strengthening that itself will be made more potent when the saved souls - substances, now dressed in light - will once again wear their resurrected flesh.

The segment thus begins with the Incarnation and speaks of the final Resurrection of the body, compressing two events, beginning and end, that are mutually intertwined -- the word of the angel putting in motion the sacrifice that conquered death.

The word for overcoming and conquest -- vincere -- appears four times in the canto -- but this militant conquest is tied intimately to the Word.

Interestingly, there appears to be no self-contained third 33-line segment in the canto. At line 99, where the third segment would end, we're in the middle of a simile that involves the Galassia -- the Milky Way; the pattern breaks to an open-ended vista -- one so vast it that makes wise men doubt.

We've moved beyond the clear and distinct ideas of the men of the Sun into a murkier realm -- harder to see, to know. Lots of questions.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Non Bacco, non Peana: Glimpsing Par. 14

A brief look back at the Sun, and a quick look ahead to Mars.

The main story of the five cantos of the Sun delineates in great detail the solar force of the Church. It composes itself before our eyes as a series of layers, creating a complex image of a chariot of the Sun. Like the actual sun, it nurtures life through heat and light. But these attributes of the Church are not merely physical, nor do they rest upon philosophical first principles. From the first, the cantos of the Sun debunk the power of logic as the arbiter of judgment and basis of wisdom.

Rather than axioms, the true first principles of the Church are individual lives -- specifically, Francis and Dominic -- they are at one point called principi, and are the living embodiments of primal ardor and intellect. They are the wheels of the Church's solar chariot at work in historical time, and their 24 disciples actively extend their powers (even those who preceded them chronologically, apparently).

As the set of five solar cantos concludes, we see even more clearly how pattern recognition, which is basic to knowledge, is both insisted upon and shown to be utterly imperfect as a model or sign of the truth. The necessary imperfection of the sublunar world is the way things are, and nothing the human mind can construct or imagine will offer more than an approximation. The 24-line opening of canto 13 ends with:
poi ch'è tanto di là da nostra usanza,
quanto di là dal mover de la Chiana
si move il ciel che tutti li altri avanza.
Because it is as much beyond our wont,
As swifter than the motion of the Chiana
Moveth the heaven that all the rest outspeeds.
In discussing, we didn't address what immediately comes after this awareness of the sketchiness of our awareness:
Lì si cantò non Bacco, non Peana,
ma tre persone in divina natura,
e in una persona essa e l'umana.
There sang they neither Bacchus, nor Apollo,
  But in the divine nature Persons three,
  And in one person the divine and human.  (13.25-27)
The canto opened, we recall, with numbers -- the 15 stars, the 7, the 2 -- we combined them to get the sum of the disciples of Francis and Dominic. This is arithmetically coherent. But now, here's a new math, in which three persons can be one, which in turn can be two. The austere, rigorous system elucidated by every mathematician from Euclid to Fibonacci is scrambled. Our rational capacity to count is broken.

The Trinity was evoked by Thomas, but here it seems to mark a rupture with everyday reality. Not Apollo, not Dionysus. A song beyond anything the ancients imagined, Revelation outside number, beyond ecstatic dream.

Canto 14 will conclude the enlightenment of the Sun with an account of the resurrection of the body, after which Dante and Beatrice will be translated (translato - used at 14.81 for the only time) to the next realm of Paradiso, to a vast red galaxy that sweeps us into the sublime:
Come distinta da minori e maggi
lumi biancheggia tra ' poli del mondo
Galassia sì, che fa dubbiar ben saggi;
Even as distinct with less and greater lights
Glimmers between the two poles of the world
The Galaxy that maketh wise men doubt . . .


Friday, April 15, 2016

Preparing to go beyond the sun: Par. 13

As the cantos of the Sun come to an end with Paradiso 13-14, the density and richness of the text seem to grow exponentially. There is simply not enough time to get into the close detail that would do justice to canto 13. For now, a few observations that perhaps will help appreciate what seems to be a major transition that takes place between the clarity of the Sun and the distinctly indistinct realm of Mars that begins with canto 14.

First, as many note, the five cantos of the Sun have many instances of the x-shaped crossing (or ring structure) of chiasmus. One can only appreciate this patterning after completing all five cantos, of course. Indeed, one could say that appreciation of chiastic form, especially on the level of larger segments of text, always requires that the reader look back, and remember what has come before, in order to identify the pattern.

For example, the command to imagine, repeated thrice at the opening of canto 13, balances Thomas Aquinas's insistence on being attentive and holding things in memory at the end of canto 11, introduced by three "if"s:
Or, se le mie parole non son fioche,
se la tua audïenza è stata attenta,
se ciò ch'è detto a la mente revoche,
Now if my utterance be not indistinct,
If thine own hearing hath attentive been,
If thou recall to mind what I have said,  (11.133-35)
Thomas is talking about the pilgrim's understanding of his discourse, but the "if"s hold true for the reader as well -- turning the leaves of a book, the reader is taking in the words, which are like seeds. But the work of reading involves more than just taking in -- it involves remembering, reflecting, and attending to patterns to mill and bake and eat the bread of the angels.

So canto 13 beings with a fascinating passage too complex to explore here. But we can note that the reader is now invited to do more than remember; one is to imagine what the poet describes : 15 of the brightest stars from all over the night sky, plus the 7 of the Wain (the Big Dipper), plus two at the mouth of the horn (the Little Dipper) -- moving from a process of selection by brightness to a selection by form to a selection of part of a whole, anchored in the North Star -- all adding up to 24 stars.


The poet is giving the reader an exercise in pattern recognition, a kind of rebus or puzzle that makes us work across different kinds of patterns before reaching a totality of 24, which equals the number of teachers revolving in two wheels around the poet and Beatrice, as well as the number of lines it takes the poet to provide us with the opening movement of canto 13.

The passage of course is more complex -- once we shape the images we've been told to imagine -- we then must imagine those stars turning into two wheeling signs like a doubled crown of Ariadne:
aver fatto di sé due segni in cielo,
qual fece la figliuola di Minoi
allora che sentì di morte il gelo;
To have fashioned of themselves two signs in heaven,
Like unto that which Minos' daughter made,
The moment when she felt the frost of death;
Our envisioning of the key stars in charting the navigation of the seas -- signs used by Ulysses and all mariners -- is metamorphosed into new signs, like those of the girl who helped Theseus navigate his way into and out of the lethal Daedalian labyrinth of Crete.

And, after we've done all this at the poet's behest, we learn that our imagined vision relates to the reality Dante experienced the way the Chiana, a sluggish Tuscan stream, compares to the fastest celestial sphere, the Primum Mobile.

Chiana, we note, contains "chi," and the entire 24-line passage is a chiasmus that begins with the promise that our imagining will give us "who desire to well understand what the poet saw" something verisimilar to the reality, and ends with the deflating assurance that our mental image is about as close to the truth as night is to day.

The irony of making us work so hard for what is very small is undeniable. There's also death here, coming with a cold shock. One could (and should) explore the ramifications of a passage from navigational clues -- constellations -- to circling signs that are "like" the figure made in the sky by the daughter of Minos. Interwoven here are Ulysses and Theseus, two of the ancient questers who, by the light of their culture's wisdom, were successful.

Throughout the Commedia, the pilgrim/poet has been both like and unlike these heros (as well as Aeneas). Are we reminded here of how those questers in fact failed? We recall Ulysses' own tale (in Inf.26) of leaving behind the North Pole, and the vortex that consumed his ship. And Theseus, who owed his conquest of the Minotaur to the clues of Ariadne, left his guide behind, to be claimed by Dionysus, who constellated her crown at her death.

Here that single circle of stars is doubled, yet is still called a sign. It's a new sign, a double dancing "true constellation" that is not visible to sailors on Earth, but to questers who read and remember the visions and histories and allegories of the 24 teachers, grouped according to their leanings toward Francis and Dominic.

We return to the two wheels of the chariot/Church, also the two wheels of the Ark, but now they are likened to a doubled crown put in the sky by Dionysus.

This reference to the God of wine and ecstasy should, as Thomas A. says, be kept in mind. We're about to get a comprehensive lesson from Thomas about creation, which will treat in some detail the imperfections of "wax" that cause diversity and flaws in Nature. It turns out that form, here below the moon anyway, is always compromised, never without contingency and dross:
Se fosse a punto la cera dedutta
 e fosse il cielo in sua virtù supprema,
 la luce del suggel parrebbe tutta;
 
ma la natura la dà sempre scema,
 similemente operando a l'artista
 ch'a l'abito de l'arte ha man che trema.
If in perfection tempered were the wax,
  And were the heaven in its supremest virtue,
  The brilliance of the seal would all appear;
But nature gives it evermore deficient,
  In the like manner working as the artist,
  Who has the skill of art and hand that trembles.  (13.73-78)
At this moment in the lesson of the Sun, Thomas acknowledges that Nature is inherently errant, like the hand of a master artist that trembles. (Hollander and others convincingly refer to Ovid's Daedalus building the wings that will enable him to escape from Crete, but at the cost of Icarus: "The father's hands trembled," (Metam. 8.211)). Greek genius always involves loss, just as the forms of Nature always involve dross. The limits of the visible, of image and form, are being driven home in canto 13.

The last lines of canto 13, suggesting the generous capacity even the wisest men have for error, chiastically reflect the opening of canto 11, the insensata cura of mortals and their vain syllogisms. As we leave the Sun, the limits of the Apollonian -- of realizable pattern and hence formal knowledge -- are being demarcated.

The question of how do we go on -- by what signs to navigate once we've crossed beyond the solar light of logic, history, science, philosophy and wisdom -- is taken up in canto 14.