Friday, December 04, 2015

A few notes . . . concluded (more or less)

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

Paradiso 4 begins with three hypothetical exempla -- a man, a lamb, and a dog, each confronted with a need to choose one of two options. The needs are rooted in instincts -- hunger, self-protection, hunting -- but since the options offer no clue as to which is to be preferred, the ending in each case is death.

Why does Dante place this depiction of impasse, or undecidability, here? I can think of two reasons (both equally good, of course):

1. In cantos 1 to 3, Paradiso has followed a program that "ungrounds" the usual supports of intellect (as derived from the Greeks and scholastics). Perception, substance, and the modalities of space and time are not destroyed, but confidence in their use and verity is suspended. The pilgrim repeatedly has difficulty deciding whether what he is dealing with is here or there, or not here at all, or both here and there. Canto 4 will complicate that still further.

2. Taking a broader view, it can be seen that the pilgrim has developed from the soul lost in the selva oscura of Inferno 1 to the man who has been guided through Hell and Purgatory by one of the most learned classical minds, who releases him from his tutelage in Purgatorio 27 thus:
"Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:
per ch'io te sovra te corono e mitrio.”

"Expect no more or word or sign from me;
Free and upright and sound is thy free-will,
And error were it not to do its bidding;
Thee o'er thyself I therefore crown and mitre!"
Dante's schooling is not complete, but he has followed Virgil as far as one can via nature alone; his will is perfected. Having entered Purgatory as one who, Virgil tells Cato, liberta va cercando - "goes in search of liberty," Dante is now free to govern himself. 

It's this freedom that is found at an impasse at the opening of Paradiso 4:
Intra due cibi, distanti e moventi
d'un modo, prima si morria di fame,
che liber' omo l'un recasse ai denti;

Between two viands, equally removed
And tempting, a free man would die of hunger
Ere either he could bring unto his teeth.
The hungry man, poised exquisitely between equal feasts, cannot choose because he cannot tell which to prefer. His power to choose, though free, lacks traction -- dare we say because any methodologies of discernment have been subtracted from it.

Along with the loosening of the underprops of knowledge, there has been a concurrent concern in Paradiso 3 with will, illustrated in the stories of Piccarda and Costanza. What constitutes a vow, when is it effective, and what happens when one's intention to maintain a vow confronts a force that compels the one who wills to do other than she wills? The stories of the nuns, told in canto 3, are discussed and illuminated by Beatrice in canto 4.

St. Lawrence

Of course the predicament as described that the free man (and lamb and dog) is found in is not literally the case, but rather an analogy of the situation that Dante is actually confronting: two doubts assail him at once, making it impossible for him to speak, to ask Beatrice about one or the other:
da li miei dubbi d'un modo sospinto,
he is immobilized.

Both doubts involve reading. One has to do with whether the experience he's just had with souls in the Moon can be understood to support a literal reading of Plato's Timaeus. The other has to do with how to read the tales of those souls, Piccarda and Costanza -- to understand what they are saying about vows kept and broken. 

Beatrice's response to Dante says that to take the Timaeus literally, with its cyclical vision of souls determined by their planetary point of origin and return, would be a grave error -- indeed, it's the error that led to pagan polytheism, she avers. 

She contrasts such a literal reading of Plato with the statement that what Dante just experienced in canto 3 is a kind of sign. The souls appear and converse, but this is how Paradiso and Scripture fa segno -- make signs, which accommodate themselves to our limited faculties that depend upon the senses to arrive at knowledge.

So instead of being literal, the experience of the pilgrim is figural. Beatrice is unequivocal in setting up such a relation:

Souls in Paradiso : Pilgrim ::  Scripture : Human Reader*

Here the poem is making a meta-statement about its own reading.

This mode of "condescension" -- which, for example, attributes hands and feet to God and angels -- revises what the pilgrim has experienced -- both in canto 3 and throughout his voyage. Those angels he saw in Inferno 9 and throughout Purgatorio? We and the pilgrim "saw" them with human attributes, but now we learn that they were signs, i.e., figural accommodations to our limitations. We and the pilgrim have been experiencing allegory without being aware of it. 

If we thought we were on thin ice before, we are now in vertiginous territory. Looking back, we can no longer "see" those angels the same -- looking ahead, we are armed with the insight that all that we will experience will be other than what it truly is. If we were not told this, could we ever have discovered it for ourselves? Let's hold that question for now. The task of reading proceeds in this new "light."

This post is already longer than intended. A couple of quick observations relating this complex web of themes to certain poetic effects.

1. Intellect and Condescension. Condescension invites us to consider a mode of signification that is not rooted in nature. That is to say, when the power of the Lord is compared with mighty thunder, we are well within the tropes of the sensory, cognitive mirroring of the natural world. But when the Lord is given feet to walk in the Garden of Eden, or a mouth to speak with, there is no necessary natural link between the signifier (foot, mouth) and signified (Lord). From our perspective, as Beatrice says, such images are necessary to help our limited powers of apprehension; but from the perspective of what they "represent," they may be entirely arbitrary. We are faced with signs that neither depend on the senses nor can yield knowledge of what they signify by way of scientific experiment, logic, or any other mode of attention to their appearance. We are beyond mimesis leading to the question of how, given our limited intellects, such signs are to be read.

2. Will and Choice. In Canto 5, Beatrice will call the will's liberty the greatest gift (lo maggior don) that God made in creation. One can easily take the opening of canto 4 as an expression of crisis -- the will is paralyzed, the intellect is of no use, the hungry man dies. Following as it does from shocks to our abilities to be certain of what we know, it seems to put in question the very point of free will. For if it is impossible to decide what's better than what, our freedom comes to resemble that of the couch potato who has 500 channels, none of which offers discernible value -- meaningful difference -- over the others.

At root here is the nexus of knowledge and power, intellect and will. To have one without the other is to have nothing. One needs both power and a sense that can penetrate discerningly the intricacies of Nature, a mind that can accede to whatever lies beyond. 

Beatrice makes this all or nothingness clear with a play on words: 
li nostri voti, e vòti in alcun canto. (Purg. 3.67)
A vow (voto), if broken, is void (vòto). Humans act when performing promises, vows, which only exist so long as the will that made them is intact. We are in the realm that can perhaps benefit from an understanding of performative speech acts, in which meaning, being, and action may coincide.

If action without the guidance of intellect is chaos, and intellect itself is compromised by limits to our senses and understanding, and if signs no longer can be reliably interpreted to mean what they appear to be, the resulting paralysis might well lead to terminal frustration. As an aside, this can be linked with modern crises of faith, and post-modern gestures of futility. As we saw with Belacqua in Purgatorio 4 and now again with the "free man" who dies of hunger in Paradiso 4, Samuel Beckett's ghost is likely hiding under a nearby rock.

But in fact Paradiso 4 isn't riled by the sturm und drang issuing from these affronts to will and intellect. The pilgrim, so tied in knots by his dubbi as to be unable to speak, is resolved and restored to an energetic plenitude through the ministrations of Beatrice.


This is not to say the tragic dimensions of this crisis of knowledge and will are absent -- they are there, embedded for example in the allusions to Nebuchadnezzar and Alcmaeon -- powerful kings, trapped by signs.

The tales of foretold events relate to the asymmetry of intellect and will. Nebuchadnezzar wishes to know what his portentous dream means, and puts his interpreters to the test. Amphiaraus wishes to control events in light of a future event -- his own death, and imposes his will upon his son:

  • Nebuchadnezzar cannot understand his dream, but knows it portends something big about his future. In his frustration at being unable to decipher it, he demands that his soothsayers not merely interpret his dream, but first tell him what he dreamed, under pain of death if they fail -- an interpreter's nightmare if ever there was one.
  • Alcmaeon's father, Amphiaraus, foresaw his own death at Thebes, and imposed his will upon his son Alcmaeon: the impious killing of Alcmaeon's mother, Eriphyle, as soon as Amphiaraus's foreseen end took place. 

These nightmares of  violent madness and vengeful matricide trace the tragic potential of the "free man's" predicament in Paradiso 4. Such extremes are certainly implicit, but in the manner of distant tales, or islands seen safely from a seaworthy ship. The poet of the Paradiso wants his readers to be mindful of the darker implications of the crisis of intellect and will, but those resonances do not dictate the tonality of the song. The semantic and tonal complexity at work here might be compared to the burgeoning polyphony of the 14th century.

Near the end of canto 4, the pilgrim is inebriated with the light of Beatrice's teaching.
"O amanza del primo amante, o diva,”
diss' io appresso, “il cui parlar m'inonda
e scalda sì, che più e più m'avviva,

"O love of the first lover, O divine,"
Said I forthwith, "whose speech inundates me
And warms me so, it more and more revives me,
The "free man" of the start (aka Buridan's ass) is now seen more as a cartoon than as a doomed, tragic king. We might not yet know why we are firmly in the comic mode, but, in this reviving warmth, we know we are.

*John Freccero formulated it this way in a lecture many years ago.


PaulSarasota said...

Not so far away or hidden -- Dante and the Lobster.

Tom Matrullo said...

That amiable tale is free online here.