Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A few notes . . . (part 4 with minor changes)

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

After Beatrice tells Dante in Paradiso 4 that Piccarda and all souls in Paradise "make beautiful the primal circle," that is, they are always with the Empyrean, she continues:
Qui si mostraro, non perché sortita
sia questa spera lor, ma per far segno
de la celestïal c'ha men salita.
They showed themselves here, not because allotted
This sphere has been to them, but to give sign
Of the celestial which is least exalted. (Par. 4. 37-39)
The reason the souls show themselves is to give a sign (far segno) and Beatrice likens this sign making to something Scripture does. It condescends.
Così parlar conviensi al vostro ingegno,
però che solo da sensato apprende
ciò che fa poscia d'intelletto degno.

Per questo la Scrittura condescende
a vostra facultate, e piedi e mano
attribuisce a Dio e altro intende;
To speak thus is fitted to your mind,
Since only through the sense it apprehendeth
What then it worthy makes of intellect. 
On this account the Scripture condescends
Unto your faculties, and feet and hands
To God attributes, and means something else;  (Par. 4. 40-46)
She goes on to say that the same holds true of how Scripture depicts the angels. The radical voiding -- not merely of orientation in space, but of space itself -- is linked to the figurative condescension of the language of Revelation, which conviensi al vostro ingegno, i.e., "thus fitted to your mind."

The mind -- that seat of faculties that brought the ancients to the godlike feat of systematically understanding the universe -- the pride of Plato, Aristotle, and all those in Limbo, is here brought down to the level of a severely compromised, blind actor, like Tobit -- noble, trying to do the right thing, but clueless that the guiding helping hand of Raphael is there, unasked for, within reach.
e Santa Chiesa con aspetto umano
Gabrïel e Michel vi rappresenta,
e l'altro che Tobia rifece sano.
And Holy Church under an aspect human
Gabriel and Michael represent to you,
And him who made Tobias whole again. (Par. 4. 46-48)
While a physical universe seems to appear in Paradiso, the actual model, Beatrice says, is that of a text. Space and time do not hold, presence is meaningless, anthropomorphism is a child's tale: Abandon all trope ye who enter here.

Tobias, Tobit and Raphael

Condescending to Marsyas

An attempt to sum up might go something like this: Paradiso is structured the way Scripture makes signs. Unlike similes, metaphors and other cognitive tropes that are rooted in the senses (using aesthetic properties and relations of likeness, difference, part/whole, contiguity, etc.), Scripture uses real things to "mean something else," and this altro may be beyond all imagining.

If Paradiso is structured like a text, what does this mean for us readers? Dante has already warned those seeking to follow in little boats to take care -- his boat will leave no track, though it is all the trace we have.

By the end of canto 4, the confident, scientific clarity of Beatrice's mirror experiment of canto 2 has been upended with the advent of a potentially limitless indeterminacy.

The usual faculties of the human intellect -- the tools and faculties of science -- are placed alongside another mode of signification unlike what we can safely say we know. A mode that gives hands and feet to all that is radically indeterminate and outside of earthbound space and time through a sign-making that, says Beatrice, condescends (condescende). 

Beatrice's empirical experiment might carry little weight as an example of antiquated science, but it has force in putting the claims and ambitions of intellect -- whether applied through experimental inquiry or logic -- into play. These claims are not negated, but reduced, compromised and complicated within a text that attempts to embrace and encompass both hard science and Scriptural revelation. Tensions in this and build, as the stakes mount up.

Flaying of Marsyas, Antonio de Bella

We might now relate this to Dante's choice of Marsyas as the name and figure both for the experience of Paradiso and for the song of that experience. To be drawn from the sheath of one's members is not just to leave behind an earthly husk: it is to have everything one has always used to see, hear, measure and know stripped away. After this, nothing will be what it seems, and when something seems to be what it seems, it's likely to be quite other. We very well might just be out of our senses.

Lewis Carroll had nothing on this.

To be continued . . .

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