Tuesday, April 26, 2016

From geometry to rapture: Paradiso 14

Paradiso 14 begins with a geometric structure, captured in the rhetorical pattern known as chiasmus. The word pattern is reflecting, or mimicking, the echoic pattern of water moving in a round vase - from center to circumference, or vice versa, depending upon where something strikes it:
Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centro
movesi l'acqua in un ritondo vaso,
secondo ch'è percosso fuori o dentro:
From centre unto rim, from rim to centre,
In a round vase the water moves itself,
As from without 'tis struck or from within. (Par. 14. 1-3)
The geometry is not only exact, it is also ineluctable -- the water (or a light, or a sound) will always behave this way. The structure of the circle is such that it will produce the same result each time something either strikes it on the outside, or drops from above.

Such patterns and their identification belong to the work of pattern recognition, which Dante draws our attention to (as we saw a few posts back) with regard to the patterns found in the night sky, and in the sphere of the sun. The reliability of knowledge, we learned, depends upon our capacity to detect formal patterns in nature as well as in language.

Sophie Germain
Some patterns occur in ways that are easily explicable. Others occur quite reliably, but seem less easily explained. Chladni plates (named for Ernst Chladni, whose research explored the invisible interface between sounds and visual patterns) offer evidence of relationships between grains of sand (or couscous) and different frequencies which manifest in distinct patterns at different vibrations. The relationships turn out to be mappable by equations (worked out by Sophie Germain and others) that describe wave dynamics:

Beyond the Sun

This pattern of pattern recognition is violated in Paradiso 14 right after Solomon explains how, after the Resurrection of the body, the souls will still have their glowing light, but now they will have their senses, newly strengthened and able to experience all things new.

No sooner does Solomon end his resonant (and very chiastic) account of this event (at line 66) than we hear Ed ecco -- behold! -- something new and unexpected occurs:
Ed ecco intorno, di chiarezza pari,
nascere un lustro sopra quel che v'era,
per guisa d'orizzonte che rischiari.
E sì come al salir di prima sera
comincian per lo ciel nove parvenze,
sì che la vista pare e non par vera,
parvemi lì novelle sussistenze
cominciare a vedere, e fare un giro
di fuor da l'altre due circunferenze.
Oh vero sfavillar del Santo Spiro!
come si fece sùbito e candente
a li occhi miei che, vinti, nol soffriro!
And lo! all round about of equal brightness
Arose a lustre over what was there,
Like an horizon that is clearing up.

And as at rise of early eve begin
Along the welkin new appearances,
So that the sight seems real and unreal,

It seemed to me that new subsistences
Began there to be seen, and make a circle
Outside the other two circumferences.

O very sparkling of the Holy Spirit,
How sudden and incandescent it became
Unto mine eyes, that vanquished bore it not!  (14.70-78)
The moment is mysterious -- a third circle, but not quite stable, begins to surround the other two. It glimmers like faint lights flickering at dusk, then suddenly becoming blindingly incandescent, overpowering the pilgrim's eyes, which had so far supported the potent rays of the Sun.

Joachim of Flora
Commentators have pondered he meaning of this third circle at length, relating it to the other circles as the Holy Spirit to the Father and Sun, and to prophecies of the Calabrian Joachim of Flora and the dawning of a third age.

What we can say for sure is that in this gloaming nothing is sure: The nove parvenze, or novel appearances, are said to "appear to begin to be seen,"
Si che la vista pare e non par vera,  
So that the sight seems real and unreal.
The canto moves from a realm of regular and predictable order (like the geometry of a vase of water) to a place where appearances are such that they suspend, put into question, our apprehension of pattern. This cognitive predicament, known to psychologists as apophenia, has been described as "the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data." To find a man or a face in the moon is a common example. The article goes on to note:
Apophenia has come to imply a universal human tendency to seek patterns in random information, such as gambling.
Paradiso 14 is quite clear in breaking with patterns it has produced. It's at line 67 for example that we expect to find another set of 33 lines reiterating the first two, whose clear structure was noted by early commentators like Benvenuto da Imola.

This moment of sunset takes place just as Dante and Beatrice, before they even know it, leave the sun and with it the confidence owed to its clarity. In this darkling moment nothing is certain. If the new circle contains dottori, learned authors, it's unclear how many authors, let alone who they might be. It's all indistinct, says Benvenuto:
non tamen plene et manifeste sicut primae, sed confuse, quia hic erat maximus numerus doctorum quos autor non poterat nominatim numerare, sicut fecerat superiores, nec distincte; sed sub involucro comprehendit omnes.
A new circle appears to appear, and the passage puts stress not upon the solid form of a new circumference, but rather seems to find astonishment that what had been the circumference seems surpassed (sublated, i.e., cancelled and transcended)  by a new circumference -- yet one whose borders remain vague, with the possibility of containing millions of sussistenze in its sparkling (sfavillar). 

The challenge of not knowing is not trivial. It's at this moment that Dante and Beatrice are translated to the sphere of Mars, and now the pilgrim seems to fall back upon his own powers. He raises his eyes, and, as he does so, he and Beatrice are raised up; he now performs a sacrifice in his breast. He is doing these things unprompted and undirected. The action brings results -- a glowing redness in the new sphere appears to answer and approve his internal holocaust.

Close attention to the remainder of the canto will show that the language of action, of performative utterance, supplants the descriptive language of pattern. As the vast galaxy within Mars appears, the vision seems boundless, open-ended, and what the pilgrim begins to experience are, not patterns, not meanings that are understood, but potent beauties that seize the soul:
E come giga e arpa, in tempra tesa
di molte corde, fa dolce tintinno
a tal da cui la nota non è intesa,

così da' lumi che lì m'apparinno
s'accogliea per la croce una melode
che mi rapiva, sanza intender l'inno.
And as a lute and harp, accordant strung
With many strings, a dulcet tinkling make
To him by whom the notes are not distinguished,

So from the lights that there to me appeared
Upgathered through the cross a melody,
Which rapt me, not distinguishing the hymn. (14.118-123)
Three times in quick succession we hear that something is non intesa -- not understood. To go from the Sun to Mars is to go from an aesthetic of beauty to that of the sublime. Perhaps nothing makes this more "clear" than the simile that juxtaposes the vast armies that seem to move along the flashing crossbeams to specks and motes moving at random in a sunbeam. The beam shines through an artificial shade devised by human cunning and art to shield us from the harsh sun. Ingenio e arte provide a glimpse of what was always there, unseen in the full light of day:
così si veggion qui diritte e torte, 
veloci e tarde, rinovando vista, 
le minuzie d'i corpi, lunghe e corte, 
moversi per lo raggio onde si lista 
talvolta l'ombra che, per sua difesa, 
la gente con ingegno e arte acquista.
Thus level and aslant and swift and slow
We here behold, renewing still the sight,
The particles of bodies long and short,

Across the sunbeam move, wherewith is listed
Sometimes the shade, which for their own defence
People with cunning and with art contrive. (14.112-117)
The random specks are not caught up in some Chladni pattern - they remain random. And, of course, they are tiny, compared to the galassia and the giant cross, and the figures moving along its beams. This is perhaps as Miltonic as Dante gets -- vast and small, order and unforced happenstance, equated in a heightened moment of sublime apprehension -- not of pattern, rather a new rapture, potent and uncircumscribed by finite meaning.

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