Friday, April 15, 2016

Preparing to go beyond the sun: Par. 13

As the cantos of the Sun come to an end with Paradiso 13-14, the density and richness of the text seem to grow exponentially. There is simply not enough time to get into the close detail that would do justice to canto 13. For now, a few observations that perhaps will help appreciate what seems to be a major transition that takes place between the clarity of the Sun and the distinctly indistinct realm of Mars that begins with canto 14.

First, as many note, the five cantos of the Sun have many instances of the x-shaped crossing (or ring structure) of chiasmus. One can only appreciate this patterning after completing all five cantos, of course. Indeed, one could say that appreciation of chiastic form, especially on the level of larger segments of text, always requires that the reader look back, and remember what has come before, in order to identify the pattern.

For example, the command to imagine, repeated thrice at the opening of canto 13, balances Thomas Aquinas's insistence on being attentive and holding things in memory at the end of canto 11, introduced by three "if"s:
Or, se le mie parole non son fioche,
se la tua audïenza è stata attenta,
se ciò ch'è detto a la mente revoche,
Now if my utterance be not indistinct,
If thine own hearing hath attentive been,
If thou recall to mind what I have said,  (11.133-35)
Thomas is talking about the pilgrim's understanding of his discourse, but the "if"s hold true for the reader as well -- turning the leaves of a book, the reader is taking in the words, which are like seeds. But the work of reading involves more than just taking in -- it involves remembering, reflecting, and attending to patterns to mill and bake and eat the bread of the angels.

So canto 13 beings with a fascinating passage too complex to explore here. But we can note that the reader is now invited to do more than remember; one is to imagine what the poet describes : 15 of the brightest stars from all over the night sky, plus the 7 of the Wain (the Big Dipper), plus two at the mouth of the horn (the Little Dipper) -- moving from a process of selection by brightness to a selection by form to a selection of part of a whole, anchored in the North Star -- all adding up to 24 stars.

The poet is giving the reader an exercise in pattern recognition, a kind of rebus or puzzle that makes us work across different kinds of patterns before reaching a totality of 24, which equals the number of teachers revolving in two wheels around the poet and Beatrice, as well as the number of lines it takes the poet to provide us with the opening movement of canto 13.

The passage of course is more complex -- once we shape the images we've been told to imagine -- we then must imagine those stars turning into two wheeling signs like a doubled crown of Ariadne:
aver fatto di sé due segni in cielo,
qual fece la figliuola di Minoi
allora che sentì di morte il gelo;
To have fashioned of themselves two signs in heaven,
Like unto that which Minos' daughter made,
The moment when she felt the frost of death;
Our envisioning of the key stars in charting the navigation of the seas -- signs used by Ulysses and all mariners -- is metamorphosed into new signs, like those of the girl who helped Theseus navigate his way into and out of the lethal Daedalian labyrinth of Crete.

And, after we've done all this at the poet's behest, we learn that our imagined vision relates to the reality Dante experienced the way the Chiana, a sluggish Tuscan stream, compares to the fastest celestial sphere, the Primum Mobile.

Chiana, we note, contains "chi," and the entire 24-line passage is a chiasmus that begins with the promise that our imagining will give us "who desire to well understand what the poet saw" something verisimilar to the reality, and ends with the deflating assurance that our mental image is about as close to the truth as night is to day.

The irony of making us work so hard for what is very small is undeniable. There's also death here, coming with a cold shock. One could (and should) explore the ramifications of a passage from navigational clues -- constellations -- to circling signs that are "like" the figure made in the sky by the daughter of Minos. Interwoven here are Ulysses and Theseus, two of the ancient questers who, by the light of their culture's wisdom, were successful.

Throughout the Commedia, the pilgrim/poet has been both like and unlike these heros (as well as Aeneas). Are we reminded here of how those questers in fact failed? We recall Ulysses' own tale (in Inf.26) of leaving behind the North Pole, and the vortex that consumed his ship. And Theseus, who owed his conquest of the Minotaur to the clues of Ariadne, left his guide behind, to be claimed by Dionysus, who constellated her crown at her death.

Here that single circle of stars is doubled, yet is still called a sign. It's a new sign, a double dancing "true constellation" that is not visible to sailors on Earth, but to questers who read and remember the visions and histories and allegories of the 24 teachers, grouped according to their leanings toward Francis and Dominic.

We return to the two wheels of the chariot/Church, also the two wheels of the Ark, but now they are likened to a doubled crown put in the sky by Dionysus.

This reference to the God of wine and ecstasy should, as Thomas A. says, be kept in mind. We're about to get a comprehensive lesson from Thomas about creation, which will treat in some detail the imperfections of "wax" that cause diversity and flaws in Nature. It turns out that form, here below the moon anyway, is always compromised, never without contingency and dross:
Se fosse a punto la cera dedutta
 e fosse il cielo in sua virtù supprema,
 la luce del suggel parrebbe tutta;
ma la natura la dà sempre scema,
 similemente operando a l'artista
 ch'a l'abito de l'arte ha man che trema.
If in perfection tempered were the wax,
  And were the heaven in its supremest virtue,
  The brilliance of the seal would all appear;
But nature gives it evermore deficient,
  In the like manner working as the artist,
  Who has the skill of art and hand that trembles.  (13.73-78)
At this moment in the lesson of the Sun, Thomas acknowledges that Nature is inherently errant, like the hand of a master artist that trembles. (Hollander and others convincingly refer to Ovid's Daedalus building the wings that will enable him to escape from Crete, but at the cost of Icarus: "The father's hands trembled," (Metam. 8.211)). Greek genius always involves loss, just as the forms of Nature always involve dross. The limits of the visible, of image and form, are being driven home in canto 13.

The last lines of canto 13, suggesting the generous capacity even the wisest men have for error, chiastically reflect the opening of canto 11, the insensata cura of mortals and their vain syllogisms. As we leave the Sun, the limits of the Apollonian -- of realizable pattern and hence formal knowledge -- are being demarcated.

The question of how do we go on -- by what signs to navigate once we've crossed beyond the solar light of logic, history, science, philosophy and wisdom -- is taken up in canto 14.

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