Thursday, March 10, 2016

Paradiso 10: Mai da lei l'occhio non parte (1)

Paradiso 10 begins a new moment in this canticle. We are in the Sun, and no shadow from Earth reaches this far -- as such, it is a place of absolute lucidity, and we readers are directly told to raise our eyes and look at the circling heavens - the celestial equator and the ecliptic.

When we do so, he notes, we are not seeing a parallel, symmetric, or perpendicular alignment. One wheel is torta -- twisted, turned 23.5 degrees (axial tilt) -- with respect to the other.

Vedi come da indi si dirama
l'oblico cerchio che i pianeti porta,
per sodisfare al mondo che li chiama.
Che se la strada lor non fosse torta,
molta virtù nel ciel sarebbe in vano,
e quasi ogne potenza qua giù morta;
e se dal dritto più o men lontano
fosse 'l partire, assai sarebbe manco
e giù e sù de l'ordine mondano.

Behold how from that point goes branching off
The oblique circle, which conveys the planets,
To satisfy the world that calls upon them;

And if their pathway were not thus inflected,
Much virtue in the heavens would be in vain,
And almost every power below here dead.

If from the straight line distant more or less
Were the departure, much would wanting be
Above and underneath of mundane order. (Par. 10. 13-21)
The axis of Earth remains oriented in the same direction with reference to the background stars regardless of where it is in its orbit. Northern hemisphere summer occurs at the right side of this diagram, where the north pole (red) is directed toward the Sun, winter at the left.
Dante is drawing the reader's attention to an astronomical fact. He had already written about this in Book 3 of the Convivio, citing Albertus Magnus and Lucan, as well as the ancient astrologers, as sources. Here's the prose account:
. . . the sphere of the Sun revolves from west to east, not directly aligned counter to the diurnal movement of day and night, but obliquely to it; so that this ecliptic, equidistant between the poles of its sphere, on which the body of the Sun is situated, cuts the celestial equator between the celestial poles, into two opposing regions, that is at the first point of Aries and the first of Libra, and diverges from it along two semicircular arcs, one towards the celestial north and the other towards the south. The points marking the centres of these arcs are at equal distances from the celestial equator on each side, and at an angle of twenty three and a half degrees to it; the one point is the first point of Cancer, and the other the first point of Capricorn. 
Ecliptic red, celestial equator blue
The apparent motion of the Sun along the ecliptic (red) as seen on the inside of the celestial sphereEcliptic coordinates appear in (red). The celestial equator (blue) and the equatorial coordinates (blue), being inclined to the ecliptic, appear to wobble as the Sun advances.
Note that this 23.5-degree angle explains the variation of the seasons regardless of whether one envisions the Earth or the Sun at the center of the solar system.

The two circles form the Greek letter Chi, or X -- something which was noted at least as early as the Timaeus, where the Craftsman (demiurge) joins two parts of his prepared matter:
he divided lengthways into two parts which he joined to one another at the center like the letter X, and bent them into a circular form, connecting them with themselves and each other at the point opposite to their original meeting point; (Timaeus 36)
If any classical text posits a benign Creator, it's the Timaeus, which Dante either had read directly or as carried over in other works. As soon the demiurge completes his work, Timaeus says,
When the Father and Creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; . . . wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity . . . and this image we call time. For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also. (Timaeus 37)
The poetic version in the Commedia doesn't speak of the X, upon which later Christian thinkers superposed Christ and the cross. But it goes beyond simply describing the astronomical situation when it offers an interpretation leading to a strong inference. To whit: were it not for the twist (torta) or oblique angle of the ecliptic vis a vis the celestial equator, Earth's seasons would not exist -- extreme temperatures would make Earth inhospitable to life.

All of this forms part of the elaborate 21-line apostrophe to the lettor, the reader, who is directly called upon twice -- the only time this occurs in the 21 times the reader is addressed in the Commedia, according to Hollander. We receive three commands from the Poet:
1. Leva, dunque, lettor, all'alte ruote . . . la vista: Raise then with me, reader, to the lofty wheels your sight . . .
2. Vedi come da indi si dirama: See how from there branches the oblique circle that carries the planets . . ..
3. Or ti riman, lettor: Remain now, reader . . . 
Here's the last part:
Or ti riman, lettor, sovra 'l tuo banco,
dietro pensando a ciò che si preliba,
s'esser vuoi lieto assai prima che stanco. 
Messo t'ho innanzi; omai per te ti ciba;
ché a sé torce tutta la mia cura
quella materia ond' io son fatto scriba.
Remain now, Reader, still upon thy bench,
In thought pursuing that which is foretasted,
If thou wouldst jocund be instead of weary. 
I've set before thee; henceforth feed thyself,
For to itself diverteth all my care
That theme whereof I have been made the scribe. (Par. 10. 22-27)
As readers, we need to ask, what is this meal? Is there another Convivio, a philosophical banquet, of which we just had a foretaste? This foretaste links thought with taste, much as in line 6 above, the contemplation of the art of the Trinity is linked with the enjoyable taste (gustar) of the godhead. How, when, and why will we become jocund (lieto) by "thinking behind" (dietro) what we've been given to attend to?

Before we can ask these questions, the poet peremptorily tells us to feed ourselves; his cura is turning him back to his theme. Longfellow uses "diverteth," which is accurate in sense, but Dante's word is torcere, the same verb whose past participle, torta, earlier described the angle of the ecliptic.

Imagine a scroll being unrolled: The poet is telling the reader to think about what he's just read, even as he himself is being turned, torqued to move on and attend to the materia of which he is the scribe. The poet's experience of Paradiso is dictating, and Dante as scribe is at his bench, writing it down, even as he is addressing us. Or more consequentially, if he's a scribe, who -- or what -- is addressing  us?

We'll look more closely at the relation of this address and its commands of looking up, attending, following, in relation to Paradiso 10 as a whole. We are tracing a unifying motif -- one that comes with a twist. Think Möbiusly.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

No comments: