Friday, January 29, 2016

The sin of synecdoche

A good deal of the story Beatrice tells in Paradiso 7 plays off of the question of direct versus indirect similarity, or proximity, or causality, of man to God. Before they sinned, Adam and Eve were good copies, or translations of God, she explains:
Goodness Divine, which from itself doth spurn
All envy, burning in itself so sparkles
That the eternal beauties it unfolds. 
Whate'er from this immediately (sanza mezzo) distils
Has afterwards no end, for ne'er removed
Is its impression when it sets its seal.
Whate'er from this immediately (sanza mezzo) rains down
Is wholly free, because it is not subject
Unto the influences of novel things.
The more conformed thereto, the more it pleases;
For the blest ardour that irradiates all things
In that most like itself is most vivacious. 
With all of these things has advantaged been
The human creature; and if one be wanting,
From his nobility he needs must fall.  
'Tis sin alone which doth disfranchise him,
And render him unlike the Good Supreme,
So that he little with its light is blanched,

And to his dignity no more returns,   (Par. 7.64-78)
Twice the passage uses the phrase sanza mezzo, i.e., without mediation, directly. It reappears a third time nearly at the end of Beatrice's speech:
But your own life immediately (sanza mezzo) inspires
Supreme Beneficence, and enamours it
So with herself, it evermore desires her.
The relation of immediacy made Adam and Eve similar to God in that they were free and immortal. But similarities can be deceiving.

God Envy

When the clever men of Greek mythology envied the Gods, they tried to steal their ambrosia, sleep with Hera, or defeat Death. They all ended up with signal eternal punishments in Hades.

With Adam, the fall is instantaneous: the moment the creature envied the Creator, he ceased to resemble that Being who, Beatrice says, doth spurn all envy. Enviously trying to assert his likeness, Adam proved his unlikeness; instead of a judicious translation of God, he produces a botched copy.

The similarity to God, it seems, veiled a vast difference -- a radical otherness. Instead of creating a perfect double of God, man discovers parody, and loses his standing, his dignified place in the universe. He goes into exile, a fallen creature in a fallen world. But unlike Tantalos or Sisyphus, he doesn't have to stay there.

Beatrice now tells of another translation, of divine Word into human flesh. It's not a simple story.

Ficca mo l'occhio, says Beatrice,
Ficca mo l'occhio per entro l'abisso
de l'etterno consiglio, quanto puoi
al mio parlar distrettamente fisso.
Fix now thine eye deep into the abyss
Of the eternal counsel, to my speech
As far as may be fastened steadfastly!
Man in his limitations had not power
To satisfy, not having power to sink
In his humility obeying then,

Far as he disobeying thought to rise;
And for this reason man has been from power
Of satisfying by himself excluded.
We need to be very attentive to Beatrice's words, her parlar, here.

Man's attempt to rise to the level of the Supreme made it quite clear that he had no concept of the Being whom he presumed to equal. The word "power," used three times, balefully intones the absence of any human power. Man doesn't even have the chops to lower himself to anything like the depth that would correspond to the absurd height to which he strove, in his follia, to rise. No amount of mere obedience will ever offset his egregious disobedience.

Yet the mistake the creature made is one we make all the time - the sin of synecdoche. Seeing that part of him was senza mezzo from God, he dreamt he had the power to become the whole - a total error of totalization. Man not only couldn't translate himself into the Divine; by presuming to try, he fell into an abyss deeper than any a human could create.

This abisso, Beatrice seems to say, is now to be found in her speaking. To listen to her is to see into that abyss, which in fact is where we always are.

Or where we would be, had God not found a way out. Man alone cannot excuse his transgression. God could forgive it - just cut him some slack - but that would not do justice to the dignity of the creature. And what Beatrice and Dante more than anything else are about in this canto is Justice, and God's other "way," mercy.
Therefore it God behoved in his own ways
Man to restore (riparar) unto his perfect (intera) life,
I say in one, or else in both of them. 
But since the action of the doer is
So much more grateful, as it more presents
The goodness of the heart from which it issues, 
Goodness Divine, that doth imprint the world,
Has been contented to proceed by each
And all its ways to lift you up again; 
Nor 'twixt the first day and the final night
Such high and such magnificent proceeding
By one or by the other was or shall be; 
For God more bounteous was himself to give
To make man able to uplift himself,
Than if he only of himself had pardoned;

And all the other modes were insufficient
For justice, were it not the Son of God
Himself had humbled to become incarnate. (Par. 7.103-120)

The doubleness of "such high and such magnificent proceeding" is truly a hall of reflecting mirrors (a mise en abyme, as the French say). 

God's problem is that his creature has to raise himself, even though man is clearly unable to do that without divine help. To merely act as God and grant a pardon would give the creature no part in his own rehabilitation. It would not accord any being worthy of recovery with the dignity of playing some role in that process.

God's solution: humble himself "to become incarnate." Translated into a man, the Verbo di Dio is humbled beyond measure -- even without the power to measure, one can see that this descent of God is at least equal to, and therefore a successful mirroring translation of, Adam's fatuous self-elevation of yore. 

At this point in Beatrice's story, we understand why Justinians's conversion from Monophysitism is deeply relevant, and we are now able to discern the subtle adequation of the balance of Justice. When the Word became flesh, it made Adam's abortive parody into something no longer absurd. Since God here is now double -- both God and a real man who teaches, is punished and killed -- He has, through sacrifice of Self, given the creature both the ownership of undergoing punishment and the dignity of playing a role in his own reparation. God doubles as man in order that man might accede to a dignity he lost when he tried to double as God. 

Are we satified?

Listening to Beatrice's parlar, we hear about the satisfaction of a debt, one that comes by surprise. A debtor satisfies his indebtedness thanks to his creditor's both assuming his debt and undergoing harsh pains to pay it off.  The question is, does this tale of satisfaction satisfy? If yes, then we're no longer in the abisso. 

If no, then why not? Is it that Adam's follia is here matched by the madness of God? The Greeks, who thought they knew gods, would probably think so. What god -- even the unknown one that Paul, on the Areopagus, said they acknowledged at Athens -- would contemplate such a thing? 

Paradiso 6 and 7 present a double account of history and of justice. From the Roman perspective of Justinian we gain insight into the workings of empire and its justification in the divinely orchestrated punishment and redemption of man. Beatrice's beatific vision takes us into the depths of that transaction. Either she persuades us to be satisfied with a surprising accounting -- an intricate juridical, ontological, and literally linguistic exchange that translates humanity into something more than a banished bad joke -- or, if we're not satisfied, leaves us at the brink of an abyss that could be nothing, or the lair of a mad god. We might not want to stare too long.


Pete D'Epiro said...

Tom--Thanks for bringing us to the edge of the abyss, but I think Beatrice's and Dante's God is the opposite of mad. I see him acting hyper-rationally, in the way mathematics (his creation) also must do. I would express the answer to your paradox ("A debtor satisfies his indebtedness thanks to his creditor's both assuming his debt and undergoing harsh pains to pay it off") as follows:

Infinite Justice/divided by Infinite Love = the Atonement.

We can compare this debt to human ones (just as the Bible always uses figures drawn from human life to express the ineffable), but the difference is that here the creditor is God, and that difference is quite simply infinite.

Tom Matrullo said...

Thanks Pete - that's a superb way of expressing the first alternative - "a surprising accounting." And I agree that Dante's sense of his God can be described as hyper-rational - he has Beatrice go through the logic of the Fall and Incarnation to explore how that might be in some detail. Once one brings in the Infinite (to a reader accepting of what that can be in this context), tensions tend to disappear. I'm not sure they have. Do you think the poet is gearing his writing to men and women are full-formed believers, or to people who perhaps wish to believe?

Pete D'Epiro said...

I think Dante gears his work to believers who don't quite understand (or never closely examined) the intricacies of Christian dogma. He's not trying to make converts out of heathens--that's for the Domini canes and Franciscans. He's explaining to the average literate Christian of his day exactly how he thinks the whole machinery of the universe works. He's also reinforcing the belief of those who already know. Remember that the whole world of Aquinian theology, crammed full of Aristotelian logic and "science," had only been unleashed on the Christian world when Dante was a boy--this was new heady stuff! Who knew of it in Florence or Europe? one person out of a thousand? If that.
Going back to the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption, I would say that God, being who he is, had no choice (from Eternity) of resolving man's debt to him in that way. Does Dante's God have choice? I think the term itself is alien to him, since his actions can be said to follow absolutely logically and consistently from his essence--if we only keep in mind his nature. But St. Anselm had already argued this in "Cur Deus Homo?" 200 years before the Paradiso.

Tom Matrullo said...

I would agree that there is a strong didactic component to the Commedia, but I think the poem, seen only as such, is open to being seen as a static tome without the dynamics of dialogue, doubt, and surprise. In addition to the pedagogic mission there is the autobiographical story of the sinner who journeyed from being near spiritual death in the dark wood through a series of challenges, lessons, questionings, hesitations and discoveries. I do not think Dante ever took anything as "gospel" simply because some Authority handed it to him - if nothing else, the recurrent motif of doubt as a key natural element of one's personal paideia - brings into play the necessity for mind and heart to probe and wrestle with stumbling blocks many share. A full unquestioning acceptance of the counterintuitive elements of revealed doctrine is not, for this poet, or this poem, something to be assumed. Rather, it is worked through. There are also the sharp tensions between the authorities of the ancients, including the basic assumptions about order and origins found Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, Plato, and others, vs. the revealed beliefs about a very different cosmos in the Hebraic/Christian tradition - tensions which Dante was too good a reader not to be fully sensible of. The Paradiso seems more interesting to me this time precisely because it has a dynamism in its development that gives it new life -- in short, I'm enjoying it more!