Sunday, November 01, 2015

A few notes on how the Paradiso begins

First in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso. 
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5

The first tercet of the Paradiso puts into play three ways that la gloria manifests:

La gloria di colui che tutto move
per l'universo penetra, e risplende
in una parte più e meno altrove. 

These modes are in tension. One might think of gloria as light, but it is also power. It has three attributes: it moves all, it penetrates all that exists, and it shines back in some parts more, less in others.

It will take Dante the rest of the canticle to fully work out the implications of this tercet. A few notes:

As all authors must, Dante has to establish early on the sources of his authority and set out the scope of his argument. Paradiso offers the eyes and voice of Beatrice, and the inspiration of "Apollo." Canto 1 makes clear that the poet's experience is compromised severely: he can't actually remember more than a shadow of this voyage. Unlike the old Ulysses, not only will this new seafarer among the stars not have a simple tale to relate; he also can't be sure to what extent what he does relate represents what he experienced.

In Canto 2, Beatrice offers an experiment** to help Dante see that the variations in the visible universe cannot be explained by a simple materialist model with one differentiating principle, i.e., density.

The use of a replicable experiment along with the logic of her argument seems to provide some grounds for hope that mankind may possess some reliable knowledge of the heavens.

But this apparent clarity will be challenged in the first circle. In Canto 2.37-39, he finds himself in the moon -- somehow his body (corpo) and the Moon occupy the same point in space:

S'io era corpo, e qui non si concepe
com' una dimensione altra patio,
ch'esser convien se corpo in corpo repe,

If I was body, (and we here conceive not
How one dimension tolerates another,
Which needs must be if body enter body,)

And, if he can't quite understand his body's relationship to the moon, it gets more complicated.

In Canto 3 he meets Piccarda, one of several faces that appear in the moon's pearly . . . one can't quite say surface, since he and they are less "on" the moon than in it. The faces at first seem a kind of mirror image of Beatrice's mirror experiment from Canto 2. They seem reflections (3.10-15):
Quali per vetri trasparenti e tersi,
o ver per acque nitide e tranquille,
non sì profonde che i fondi sien persi,
tornan d'i nostri visi le postille
debili sì, che perla in bianca fronte
non vien men forte a le nostre pupille;
Such as through polished and transparent glass,
Or waters crystalline and undisturbed,
But not so deep as that their bed be lost,

Come back again the outlines of our faces
So feeble, that a pearl on forehead white
Comes not less speedily unto our eyes;
But the faces turn out to be not reflections (risplende) but rather, like Dante, somehow have penetrated (penetra) the moon (3.16-24): 
tali vid' io più facce a parlar pronte;
per ch'io dentro a l'error contrario corsi
a quel ch'accese amor tra l'omo e 'l fonte.
Sùbito sì com' io di lor m'accorsi,
quelle stimando specchiati sembianti,
per veder di cui fosser, li occhi torsi;

e nulla vidi, e ritorsili avanti
dritti nel lume de la dolce guida,
che, sorridendo, ardea ne li occhi santi.

Such saw I many faces ready to speak,
So that I ran in error opposite
To that which kindled love 'twixt man and fountain.
As soon as I became aware of them,
Esteeming them as mirrored semblances,
To see of whom they were, mine eyes I turned, 
And nothing saw, and once more turned them forward
Direct into the light of my sweet guide,
Who, smiling, glowed in her holy eyes.
In a marvelous, delicate allusion (3.16-18), the poet tells us that his dis-covering that the images are not images - turning around to see the source of the reflections, he sees nothing (nulla)* - was an error the precise opposite of that which ignited Narcissus's love.

Can we see a pattern developing here? What do the scientific rigor of Beatrice's mirror experiment and the entire question of the man in the moon have to do with the pilgrim's profound corporeal and spatial disorientation in Canto 3, and with perhaps more fundamental indeterminacies opened up in Canto 4?

to be continued . . .

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso. Here are the other parts: 
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4

*Note that the pilgrim's mistake in Paradiso 3 can productively be read in relation to a different mistake made by him in Purgatorio 3, which we examined in some detail here and here -- the moment when he doesn't see Virgil's shadow, and infers (falsely) that his guide has abandoned him.

**Thanks to Paul Johnston for sharing this representation of Beatrice's thought-experiment from Mark Musa's Paradise: Commentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004. p. 23.

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