Thursday, January 14, 2016

Opening Paradiso 1-6: A working hypothesis

Raffaello Sorbi: Piccarda taken from the convent
Often close reading is a matter of attention to words -- their nuances, quirks of sense, their sound or metrical emphasis, even their literal appearance (their shape in letters and fonts). Sometimes a single word can connote a great deal.

In a recent post about Justinian's retrospective view of Roman glory, for example, we noticed certain features of his speech that didn't seem consonant with a vision of a secular state of mankind in harmony with the providential destiny of Christian souls. His dream of justice might be divine, but the reality of the armies of Rome racing behind the rapacious bird of prey seemed to fall short of that ideal.

Along the way in that speech, Caesar Augustus is called a baiulo, a porter. Whatever Augustus might have thought of that term, it does bump him down a bit. Behind this proletarianization of Rome's great emperor might lie the suggestion that humans taking credit for the existence of Justice in the world -- or historians who credit humans with such single-handed achievements -- risk falling into that irrelevant portion of law that Justinian calls il troppo e'l vano, and which he labored to excise.

A question for any reader is to consider what part of a story she/he might be missing. A good deal of commentary on the Commedia takes the canto as its basic unit. Each canto is read, annotated and commented upon, then one moves on.

Horizontal view across all three canticles

Some readers have begun to read the poem in a more dynamic mode. Hollander, for example, notes that the theme of Justice appears across all three canticles, precisely in canto 6 of each. Calling this a "horizontal" reading, he and others have illuminated how, as we progress from Ciacco to Sordello to Justinian, there's a recurrent concern with Justice, played out at different scales:
Inferno 6:  Ciacco -- city -- Florence
Purgatorio 6: Sordello -- nation -- Italy
Paradiso 6: Justinian -- empire -- Troy-Rome-Holy Roman Empire
The differences between Francesca, La Pia, and Piccarda in their respective cantos are similarly meaningful. Each canticle benefits from comparison with the others, and the sense of an exponential scaling up, from intimate local concerns (Ciacco's entire life revolves around his stomach) to a perspective that looks across all known time and space, contributes to the sweep of the Commedia as a whole.

So the reader will listen, compare, contemplate the echoes and differences across the canticles and find plenty to think about.

Dynamic development within groups of cantos

There's yet another way of approaching the poem to consider, one that breaks the cantos' frames to explore the movement between them in search of the structuring logic of larger "plot" components. As argued in several earlier posts here, the initial movement of the poem explores matters of knowing, illusion, and natural grounds for belief. it then moves to the nature of the will, which leads to an inquiry into the nature of vows.

Standing back to look at this development on a more macro level, we can describe a movement from interiority -- the self grappling with questions of what it can know and will -- to volitional acts -- nuns' vows as an example of all vows, intentions, promises -- which leads to a concern with external action, rule, judgment, and the deployment of power over the peoples of the world.

Formally the poem goes from early dialogue between Dante and Beatrice to the more drama-like encounter with Piccarda and Costanza, and Beatrice's clarification of doubts arising from their words. Then, passing from the fickle moon to self-concealing Mercury, we find no dialogue, but a compressed vision of history spoken by one speaker.

This development takes the form of the extraordinary leap from the cloistered consciousness of the nuns to the emperor who imposed reason upon the imperial code of laws. Dante has given us two extremes -- between them is the space given to human intellect and will to think, decide, and act.

So at least for now, given our reading of Paradiso 1-6, I offer a tentative working hypothesis that Dante opens the third canticle with a procession of themes that move from epistemology to praxis, contemplation to action, interior reflection to the imposition of rule -- and the rule of rules -- upon the world. The logic of the development is quite clear; I'd argue that it flows with an internal necessity. In a later post, I'll try to talk about why this is the case.

As this opening movement has unfolded we have seen the will as fire, the intellect as wild beast (fera in lustra). Although we are in Paradiso, beyond the earthly limits of time and space, what is under examination is the same human nature we find right here, right now, every breathing moment.

Nothing as of yet in the opening development of this canticle depends upon Revelation, divine grace, or power from a source beyond the human. Beatrice might find her truth in the Deity, but what she has taught us so far helps us understand ourselves, and see the lengthening shadow of mankind moving through time, on Earth.

Justinian: Mosaic at Ravenna

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