Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two kinds of infinity in Purgatorio 3

Reading Purgatorio 3, we found the canto brought into an interesting relation two radically distinct modes: the theoretical realm of intellect -- the solar sphere of signs and reading, associated by Virgil with Aristotle and the other noble Greeks and Romans in Limbo -- and the active realm of Manfred, where one blinding moment achieves something marvelous.

Is there some way to calibrate the relationship of these two distinct elements of the canto? It might help to see that while they can be said to be radically other, they do share one term.

Here is Virgil, on the madness of Reason that tries to bridge "the infinite way" of the ultimate mystery:
Matto è chi spera che nostra ragione
  possa trascorrer la infinita via
  che tiene una sustanza in tre persone.
Insane is he who hopeth that our reason
  Can traverse the illimitable way,
  Which the one Substance in three Persons follows!
And here is Manfred:
Orribil furon li peccati miei;
ma la bontà infinita ha sì gran braccia,
che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei.
Horrible my iniquities had been;
But Infinite Goodness hath such ample arms,
That it receives whatever turns to it.
Both speak of an infinite, but each seems to draw different inferences from his understanding of it. For Virgil, infinity is boundless, a spatial limitlessness that exceeds all powers of reason and its formal languages (such as mathematics) to subdue and make sense of. It dwarfs human aspiration, and all effort of the mind, however Faustian.

The infinity of Manfred's bontà is not a reference to size, or mathematical dimension. It is power, the power of the Good, figured in the Herculean image of "such ample arms" which can transcend any abyss, any moral distance between the corrupted soul and eternal bliss. Here infinity is precisely that which
possa trascorrer la infinita via . . . 
negating all privilege of meaning for the word "impossible."

The two parts of the canto, then, "meet" in the conceptual and dynamic space of infinite. Is this a meet or a miss? If Virgil, confronting the Mystery of the Trinity, feels the hopelessness of all who remain sospesi in Limbo sanze speme, Manfred would seem to answer him.

The juxtaposition of an Intellect that can conceive a limitless potential it can never grasp, on the one hand, with, on the other, Illimitable Goodness coupled with Infinite Power, would then seem equally to offer grounds for hope or despair. Manfred could prove the successful Palinurus who makes all the rest -- from the "real" Palinurus to Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and all the other Palinuri of pre-Christian epoch -- either types of incomprehensible loss, or candidates for incalculable gain.

The honesty of the Purgatorio lies in our being unable to decide the matter. The two parts of the canto lie tantalizingly near, yet remain in fact at an infinite distance. It is only through attempting to read their relation that we find it unresolved. This is remarkable in a poem in which all things appear to have been masterfully decided by an infinite creator. As such, it makes things more interesting for its readers.

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