Friday, March 11, 2016

Paradiso 10: Mai da lei l'occhio non parte (3)

One is lost in conjecture as to the motive which impelled Dante, the admirer of Thomism, to place in the mouth of St. Thomas Aquinas the eulogy of Siger of Brabant, the apostle of Averroism. -- Catholic Encyclopedia.

After Dante returns from his momentary oblivion (mente unita), he and Beatrice see and hear 12 learned doctors of the Church, singing and turning around them.

It's a fair bet that anyone who's ever studied even a little of Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Peter the Lombard or Richard of St. Victor has not reflexively thought of them as dancing ladies. The audacity of the figure - one out of a profusion of tropes that serially proceed from one another in this scene - has been both admired and criticized.
Poi, sì cantando, quelli ardenti soli
 si fuor girati intorno a noi tre volte,
 come stelle vicine a' fermi poli, 
donne mi parver, non da ballo sciolte,
 ma che s'arrestin tacite, ascoltando
 fin che le nove note hanno ricolte.
As soon as singing thus those burning suns
  Had round about us whirled themselves three times,
  Like unto stars neighbouring the steadfast poles, 
Ladies they seemed, not from the dance released,
  But who stop short, in silence listening
  Till they have gathered the new melody.
Museo Archaeo Cagliari

Charles Singleton points to an Italian scholar's description of a ballata, a dance song:
He represents the customary manner of dancing to a
ballata, in which the lady who leads the song recites the
first stanza [the ripresa or ritornello], standing still;
when she has done this, the entire group of dancers moves in
a round dance, repeating the stanza, and when finished,
stops; then the lady of the song [i.e., who first began the
song], again standing still, sings the next stanza, which
ends rhyming with the first whereupon the group again does a round dance, singing again the stanza called ritornello.
Dante's dancers, let's bear in mind, are blazing suns. They are singing and circling, then they pause -- not released from the dance, but for a moment silent, suspending their motion; they listen, gather the nove note, the new notes, and begin again.

It might be a small point, but it seems to me the "ladies" of Dante's dance are not pausing to hear one of their own sing a known song. Rather, they all pause, in silence, listening, until they gather the new notes. These circling suns are giving themselves not to something they already know. They are silently attending to something new.

Is it too fanciful to see these dancers as listening to new notes of music, which then dictate the dance? In this way, they are replicating the pattern above, when Dante wrote several terzine about turning wheels, then paused, telling us to pause and attend to them, while he turned to listen to new words to write down in his role of scribe?

From guardando, the first word of the canto, on, the contemplative act -- looking at and listening to the Other, then noting (pensando dietro), writing, singing, dancing what is heard -- has been a unifying motif of canto 10. The poet tells us to vagheggiar ne l'arte - to contemplate with love the art, the turning heavens:
tanto che mai da lei l'occhio non parte.
The Maker's "eye" never parts from his Creation; later, Thomas Aquinas will say that one who listens well delights to see every good in the false world:
Per vedere ogne ben dentro vi gode
 l'anima santa che 'l mondo fallace
 fa manifesto a chi di lei ben ode.  
By seeing every good therein exults
The sainted soul, which the fallacious world
Makes manifest to him who listeneth well; (10.124-26)
To find such good, to hear something genuinely new, one has to attend with care to what is there and stop listening to oneself (Paradiso 10 a manifesto of close reading?). How does this motif, binding everyone from God to the poet to the lettor, play out with the dancers?

Aquinas introduces a considerable variety of authors who were also readers -- an historian, a mystic interpreter, a natural scientist, logicians, allegorists, philosophers, and even Siger de Brabant, whose rigorous Averroism put him at odds with his contemporary theologians, including Aquinas.

Aquinas begins his list with his "brother and master" Albertus, but even before Albertus we hear of Dominic, the shepherd whose flock contained the lambs called Thomas and Albertus. The strong sense of an obedient community and the bonds of a worthy teacher-student pair begin the list, which then broadens into a more diverse group spread across centuries and different lands, ending with Siger, whose contentious Averroism got him condemned by the Inquisitor of France.

Once again, Dante's staging provokes palpable surprise. The author of the "Siger" article in the Catholic Encyclopedia can't for the life of him understand what would prompt Dante to include an Averroist among these ardent suns. But perhaps there's a clue in that very article:
Siger was the adversary of Albertus Magnus and of St. Thomas Aquinas, "contra praecipuos viros Albertum et Thomam". His principal work (De anima intellectiva) called forth St. Thomas's treatise on the unity of the intellect (De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas). Siger in fact supported all the beliefs of the Averroist philosophy — the monism of the human intellect; one intellectual spirit for all men, separate from the body, is temporarily united with each human organism to accomplish the process of thought.
For sober theologians, the inclusion of Siger comes dangerously close to an endorsement of heretical thought. The author fully anticipates their surprise. But here in the canto of the Sun, we have diverse minds in motion, singing to each other harmonies that surpass their light:
più dolci in voce che in vista lucenti (10.66)
Something other than the intellect as source of declarative statements of truths is at work here. Consider this delicious irony: One of the salient points of Siger's thought was the unity of intellect. His assertion that we all share one immortal mind is a key reason others, including Aquinas, attacked him. The doctors of the Church, as learned as they were, spoke truth as they saw it, and apparently were least able to unite intellectually when it came to the question of intellectual unity.

Then there are the remarkable closing words of Aquinas's speech, again apropos of Siger:
"silogizzò invidïosi veri.”
"did syllogize invidious truths"  (10.138)
Dante, Beatrice, Siger and other Sapienti
Several translators and commentators (but not Longfellow or Sinclair) render this as "enviable truths." This sounds conciliatory, but makes no sense. If Siger's truths were enviable, what were those of Thomas or Boethius? We might say instead that his truths themselves were invidious -- not the thinker, but the thoughts. Siger is acknowledged as one whose truths wrought disharmony, dissonance within the Schoolmen and throughout the Church intelligentsia.

If so, this might help us see what is truly uniting Paradiso 10: not whether someone is narrowly, pedantically correct in what he states as truth, but rather whether the truth is offered in the contemplative spirit, and how, in that spirit, differences -- twists, inflections, conflicts from one point of view to another -- are generative of new, fertilizing insights. The temperate torque (torta) of the heavens is replicated in the turnings of the mind, arguing and doubting in the quest for truth whose depths exceed its furthest reach. Yes, the folle volo of Ulysses resonates here, but instead of heroic folly, lambs that grow fat as they quest.

The final simile transforms the music of the 12 turning sapienti into the inner workings of a clock. pushing and pulling, counting the hours, and awakening the Bride of God:
Indi, come orologio che ne chiami
ne l'ora che la sposa di Dio surge
a mattinar lo sposo perché l'ami,

che l'una parte e l'altra tira e urge,
tin tin sonando con sì dolce nota,
che 'l ben disposto spirto d'amor turge;
così vid'ïo la gloriosa rota
 muoversi e render voce a voce in tempra
 e in dolcezza ch'esser non pò nota
se non colà dove gioir s'insempra.
Then, as a horologe that calleth us
What time the Bride of God is rising up
With matins to her Spouse that he may love her,

Wherein one part the other draws and urges,
Ting! ting! resounding with so sweet a note,
That swells with love the spirit well disposed,
 Thus I beheld the glorious wheel move round,
  And render voice to voice, in modulation
  And sweetness that can not be comprehended,
Excepting there where joy is made eternal.   (Par. 10. 139-148)
The concatenation of music, mechanical action, time and lovemaking is the final surprise of the canto, and it returns us to the moment when we readers first were told to raise our eyes to the wheeling stars. There we saw not just the oblique angle of the ecliptic, but considered the virtue it imparts, rendering Earth fecund. In the X of the wheeling heavens lies the call and response of the sources of life -- water, light, heat, song, love, both human and divine, joy -- then foretasted, now right on time.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

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