Friday, November 06, 2015

Revising the Man in the Moon: Paradiso 2

Our detailed look at Beatrice's language in Paradiso 2 the other day made clear that Dante wasn't kidding when at the opening of the canto he told folks following his wake in little boats to turn back for fear of getting smarriti. As in Inferno 1.3, smarrito means lost, but here, on the vast sea of being, hopelessly so.

The address to the reader makes reading this canticle, and recursively this canto in particular, a journey fraught with peril. To err here - to miss the tracks that lead the way -- could set one adrift without a guide.

If this caveat lector seems a bit hyperbolic, it's in keeping with a certain aura of irony in Paradiso 2. Barely has the pilgrim reached the moon before he's deep into moon spots, mirrors and, ultimately, a vision of an intelligent universe, all conveyed through the interplay of light, medium, and eye. To anyone expecting solemn anticipations of the Beatific Vision, the oddly mundane "science" of moon spots has to be slightly jarring.

Take that sense of being jarred a bit further. When one is expecting one thing but gets another, that defeat or surprise can occasion consternation. It can also be the source of comedy. Dante is amazed by the violation of earthly physics that allows him to co-occupy the same "place" as the moon. It doesn't seem that the moon penetrates his body, yet somehow his body and the moon's body are conjoined.

He goes on to ask Beatrice about the moon's spots, alluding in passing to the figure of the Man in the Moon, fabled (favoleggiare) in Italy to be Cain carrying a bundle of thorns (the thorns appear in the Commedia's other reference to Cain, in Inf. 20.126ff):

Ma ditemi: che son li segni bui
di questo corpo, che la giuso in terra 
fan di Cain favoleggiare altrui?  
But tell me, what are the dark signs on this body which make men on earth below tell the tale of Cain? (Par.49-51)
The question will provoke Beatrice's quite elaborate thought experiments in which both razor-sharp logic and the appeal to empirical experience are employed to present a very literal argument (about light and mediating substances) leading to what she confidently sees as a demolition of any hypothesis that "sees" variations in the heavens as rooted in mere degrees of material density.

But is there not also some playfulness here? First, the pilgrim asks not about spots, but about segni - signs - and says such signs make people tell fables of Cain. I.e., these fabulists are misreading signs and coming up with wild notions in which the second human born to Eve (in some traditions, Cain was not the son of Adam, but of Satan) forever carries a bundle of thorns, on the moon alone, unable ever to return to the community of men.

For men on earth, Cain is "the man in the moon," and this is a wildly inaccurate idea of the actual moon that springs from seeing signs (spots) and inventing a story that holds the place of a hypothesis -- it purports, however playfully, to explain what the signs mean. It is a humorous errant reading of these signs, possible in part due to the great distance between human eyes and the moon's spots.

The joke gets better: Dante has just told us that at this very moment, he was literally "in" the moon -- we have an actual (if literary) man in the moon alluding to the fabulous fictional man in the moon, and he's basically saying, "since we're here, can you help me see what these signs really are?"

We then get the tortuous proof of what they are not -- the display of logical reasoning is difficult, dense, and borders on a parody of scientific reasoning -- but the negative power of the insight leads to a change of mind which Beatrice (smiling throughout) foretells via this marvelous simile:

"Or come ai colpi delli caldi rai
della neve riman nudo il suggetto
e dal colore e dal freddo primai

cosi remiso te nell'intelletto
voglio informar di luce si vivace
che ti tremolera nel suo aspetto."
"Now, as smitten by the warm rays, the substance of the snow is left bare both of its former color and its cold, so I want to inform you, left thus bare in your mind, with a light so alive that you'll scintillate in its view." (Par. 2. 106-111)*
Beatrice gives us the metamorphosis of phase change as metanoia. The limpid waters of the mind will then be in- or re-formed by living light enabling a vision of the universe as divine intelligence self-explicating by gradations:
così l'intelligenza sua bontate
multiplicata per le stelle spiega,
girando sé sovra sua unitate.

so the Intelligence unfolds its bounty, multiplied through the stars, itself wheeling on its own unity.
An intelligence like a scintilla of joy in the pupil of an eye:

Per la natura lieta onde deriva,
la virtù mista per lo corpo luce
come letizia per pupilla viva.
By the joyous nature from which it springs, the mingled virtue shines through the body as joy through the living pupil. (Par. 2. 142-44)
Beatrice has erased Dante's misreading of the signs on the moon, which turns out to have been quite as aberrant as the fables of the people about Cain. She's replaced that materialist fable with a new vision that revises both what one can see, and how one sees.

Note that she does not use the word "angel" at any point. The word only appears in the phrase "pan delli angeli" in line 11. To "informar" our unfrozen minds, she employs words that speak of power (virtu) and joy, eyes and light -- simple human words. The argument is crucial to the project of the Paradiso. For what replaces the lunatic screed of Cain and dense and rare is the image and seal -- l'image e . . . suggello -- of the mente profonde. (131-32).

Instead of marks, spots, Cain, or signs that indicate material density, the heavens regard us with mind, peace, joy. There is a gleam in the pupil which, recursively, shines in Beatrice's eye, reflected in Dante's eye. 

Paradiso as poetic enterprise stands or falls depending upon whether we in our little boats come to experience this happy peace, this regard. Our reading, our standing, our falling. 

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