Saturday, December 19, 2015

Truth, desire and doubt in Par. 4

In Paradiso 4, Beatrice has just completed a subtle explication of will -- its elemental power, its potential to collude with violence. She clarifies how one who submits to coercion is nonetheless culpable by choosing not to escape from submission should the opportunity offer.

Dante is grateful, and, taking in her explanation, he finds another dubbio, a doubt that leads to another question.

He introduces it this way:
Io veggio ben che già mai non si sazia
nostro intelletto, se 'l ver non lo illustra
di fuor dal qual nessun vero si spazia.

Posasi in esso, come fera in lustra,
tosto che giunto l'ha; e giugner puollo:
se non, ciascun disio sarebbe frustra.

Nasce per quello, a guisa di rampollo,
a piè del vero il dubbio; ed è natura
ch'al sommo pinge noi di collo in collo.   

I see well that our intellect is never satisfied unless the truth enlighten it beyond which no truth can range.

In that it rests as soon as it gains it, like a beast in its lair; and it can gain it, else every desire were vain.

Doubt, therefore, like a shoot, springs from the root of the truth, and it is nature that urges us to the summit from height to height. (Sinclair trans. Par. 124-132)

Here the intellect reflects upon its own activity. The fact that intellect non si sazia - never satisfies itself -- assimilates the mind's effort to know the truth to desire, appetite, to a restless urge. The only thing that will bring the mind to rest is if it is illuminated by a truth outside of which no truth can range (si spazia).

The mind and truth here are in erotic tension -- the only thing that can satisfy the craving of the mind is a truth beyond which no truth can be found. Spaziarsi connotes wandering, playfully enlarging one's walk, one's passegiare, because it's enjoyable (see spassare).

Like sparziarsi, "di fuor dal qual" offers a spatial figure: outside of which no truth can range suggests there is a limit, although what is intended has no limit. Finite space is invoked to annihilate finite truth.

The blandness of the spatial figure is curious. To render a notion of the ultimate truth, the poet could have offered a riot of images relating to sublime totality, to the godhead, to the absolute in its infinite grandeur. Instead, we get a kind of limiting illumination, setting a border beyond which, simply, no truth can play. In the context of erotic play of mind and truth, to suggest that truth is that which limits the play of truth has two possibilities: either truth is so satisfying that it is like the ultimate beloved whose presence obliterates all others, or truth kills the play of difference, otherness, in its sober, self-contained precision.

The passage speaks of the truth about truth, but offers us a teasing ambiguity about its nature - is it sublimely beyond all bound (then how can it be distinguished from falsity?), or is its exacting correctness so binding as to end all speech? The first opens the door to the plenitude of the infinite; the second shuts it within cold tautology that brooks no argument -- the only thing one can say about the ultimate truth is that it is the ultimate truth: A = A.

A fine line: Is truth unending erotic bliss, or is it the All as baleful punctum?

Such balanced equivalence, or ambivalence, does not seem typical of this work. This is a poet who is never willing to leave something undecided -- especially something as urgent as the nature of ultimate truth. Of course it's the character Dante, not the author, who makes this articulation.

But this is the canto that began with a hungry man facing an undecidable choice between two perfectly equivalent objects of desire. There it was a simile employing a series of hypotheses; here, though, the pilgrim is describing to Beatrice, the source of truth, the plight of the intellect in the act of pursuing truth. What if truth is both infinite plenitude and aloof inarguability?

At this critical moment, on this blade's edge, the passage turns from the nature of truth to finding nature in our pursuit of it. One astute commentator is struck by the metaphors drawn from nature that now appear. Benvenuto da Imola, whose fine commentary was composed around 1375-80, thinks the figure of the intellect which can repose in the truth "like a beast in its lair" is especially fine:
come fera in lustra; et est optima metaphora: sicut enim fera diu vagatur et venatur per sylvam, et post omnes labores requiescit in antro; ita intellectus in mundo diu speculatur et contemplatur, et numquam quiescit nisi in ipso fine suo;
In this bold metaphor something that strikes a chord for Benvenuto that resonates back to the very start of the Commedia -- a beast wandering, hunting in a forest (sylvam) -- both the pilgrim and what he encountered in Inferno 1, louring images of his own intellect, lost, hungry, frustrated in the selva oscura. (Also resonating: Apollo, muse of the Paradiso, racing through the forest in hot pursuit of Daphne.)

The suggestion of savagery -- the beast can rest in its lair now because it's dined well upon the truth, or raped it -- hangs over this passage, which, unlike the beast, does not come to rest. Rather the pilgrim Dante asserts two things:
1. Intellect can join with the truth (giunto from giungere: "unite, couple with," noting that if it could not so conjoin, desire itself would be in vain), and,
2. At the moment the mind and truth join, new doubt springs up at its foot like a rampollo (seed, offshoot, or a natural spring of water).
The passage eludes being transfixed by the undecidable nature of truth by finding the truth of nature:
                                       . . . è natura
ch'al sommo pinge noi di collo in collo.   
As Benvenuto says, whatever else Nature is or does, it impels us (ad summam veritatem et felicitatem impellit nos). Our nature is to desire, desire spawns a quest until it kills what it desires; from that death spring new quests. We leap from peak to higher peak. This is the motion of a vibrant, active entity, a mind that is not spoon-fed, but freely hunts; a mind that's not reduced to abashed silence by knowledge, but is ever seeking. Doubt spurs us to conquer doubt.

Beatrice had said it is natural to rise and that we are part of nature. There is nothing especially noble about the quest for truth -- every flower turns toward the sun. Here Paradiso asserts its relevance and place in the quest of every human being, not just those gifted with divine revelation. We'll see this canticle proceed by leaps and bounds.

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