Sunday, November 22, 2015

A few notes . . . (part 3)

This is the third in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5

If the faces in the Moon in Paradiso 3 turn out to be "really there," as opposed to being mere images or reflections, that reassuring sense of a determinate position in space gets turned on its head in canto 4, when Beatrice explains how Piccarda and the others whom Dante has just encountered are always actually in the Empyrean:
ma tutti fanno bello il primo giro,
e differentemente han dolce vita
per sentir più e men l'etterno spiro.
But all make beautiful the primal circle,
And have sweet life in different degrees,
By feeling more or less the eternal breath. (Par. 4. 34-36)
The literal ground Dante and the others stand "in" - the moon, falls away. Beatrice's words scramble the concept of presence. Instead of the polarity of presence/absence, we are invited to entertain another medium or mode, which Beatrice will call "condescension."


Before we get to that, I'd like to try, however tentatively, to trace a recurrent gesture in Paradiso:
  • In canto 1, the poet makes sure we understand that the text we are reading (or listening to) is but a shadow of a shadow of an experience, an experience he no longer can recall.
  • Something to cling to arrives in canto 2. Beatrice makes sure Dante understands that moon spots are not simply to be understood as variations in material density. Indeed she offers a replicable, empirical scientific experiment using mirrors to help demonstrate that a simple material principle will not explain the rich diversity of all that is.* Empirical knowledge and logical reasoning here are held up as authoritative ways for human beings to speculate about things they cannot directly experience.
  • That apparent gain in epistemic stability is challenged in canto 3, when Dante, now in the Moon, finds the very notion of "ground" has become problematic. The labile medium of the Moon makes it hard to tell how he, others, and the Moon occupy the same space. The faces that are suddenly before him seem reflections, appearing as if reflected on shallow water, and later disappear into seeming watery depths. The medium has no fondo, no ground -- one moment it seems shallow, the next moment profound. But it is not a reflective surface. Beatrice assures the pilgrim that Piccarda, Costanza and the others are vere sustanze.
  • The assurance of vere sustanze is further complicated when Dante learns in canto 4 that Piccarda and all souls in Paradiso are always actually in the Empyrean. It's not that Piccarda could be speaking to him either from a few feet away or from a point infinitely beyond all distance. Entangled, both are true at once: the vere sustanze are "here" and "there." The structure of Paradiso is really not a structure as we normally think of it, something resting on a foundation that rests on terra firma situated in space. Here, like the earth under Amphiaraus at Thebes, ground falls away. We're shading into the Uncanny, and certain elements in cantos 3 and 4 evoke its frisson.


If one were to attempt to characterize more concisely a pattern in these opening cantos, a figure in the carpet, it is perhaps something like this:
  • Canto 2: A gain in perceptual knowledge (illumination) is posited using negative proofs from the sensory realm.
  • Canto 3: That illuminating gain is then complicated as sense perception is put in question, leaving us lacking in sense certainty, but confident at least of the underlying reality of substance.
  • Canto 4: Substance is complicated, scrambled. It turns out that Paradiso is not a "place" subject to space and time. Rather, signs are being made
The effect is not unlike a recurring, self-effacing oscillation: Each time we think we've got a purchase on Paradise, there's a loss of certitude, a vanishing of grounds for judgement. For the visitor, it's not unlike being out to sea:
metter potete ben per l'alto sale
vostro navigio, servando mio solco
dinanzi a l'acqua che ritorna equale.
Well may you launch upon the deep salt-sea
Your vessel, keeping still my wake before you
Upon the water that grows smooth again. (Par. 2. 13-15)
The opening cantos have put the pilgrim and us on an epistemological roller-coaster, and the ride is not yet over. Like the wake that is the only trace of the poet's vessel, a trace soon erased, so the proper (object) of Paradiso keeps receding.

It's not that with each loss comes some compensatory gain, as if automatically. Rather, it's sink or swim: loss opens the way to the possibility of acceding to another kind of apprehension. It's up to you. As Beatrice says to Dante at one point, watch your step:

“Non ti maravigliar perch' io sorrida,"
mi disse,“appresso il tuo püeril coto,
poi sopra 'l vero ancor lo piè non fida,

ma te rivolve, come suole, a vòto:"
"Marvel thou not," she said to me, "because I smile
at this thy puerile conceit,
Since on the truth it trusts not yet its foot,
But turns thee, as 'tis wont, on emptiness." (Par. 3. 25-28)

If the senses and substance -- the reliable earthly bases of Aristotle's understanding of Nature -- are not sure guides to the mansion of God, what is? The ground is more quicksand than terra firma.

The opening movement of Paradiso conducts us to a carefully orchestrated cognitive crisis. By the time we reach the account of condescending in canto 4, it is an open question whether, like poor Nebuchadnezzar, we can even begin to say what we are experiencing, let alone penetrate to what it means. We might even have a spasm of sympathy for the king's murderous frustration with his "magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers." Lunacy impends.

The stakes for the poet, the poem, and its readers, have never been higher.

*For a parallel contemporary account of popular astronomy, see Ethan Siegal, Beyond the Galaxy. Chapter 1 here is free. 

To be continued . . . 

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