Monday, April 04, 2016

Processing similes and prophetic speech in Paradiso 12

Dante devotes five cantos to the Sun - Paradiso 10-14. We've looked at the first three to some extent (here, here, and here), and the remaining two will add to or alter our sense of the place of the sun in Dante's Creation.

Over the course of the 5 cantos, the chariot (biga) of the Bride of Christ, the church, is assembled through what might be described as the poesis of Paradise. Dante, Beatrice and the reader see a complex image composing itself: it starts with one wheel, adds a second, and, though it's supposed to be a surprise, we can disclose that a third mystery wheel appears before the travelers leave the Sun for Mars.

The composition begins with the appearance of one group of flashing lights (10.64) like ardent suns; a second circling group appears in 12; both groups become millstones, which are then transformed into the wheels of the biga as they are explicitly identified with Dominic and Francis:
Se tal fu l'una rota de la biga
in che la Santa Chiesa si difese
e vinse in campo la sua civil briga,

ben ti dovrebbe assai esser palese
l'eccellenza de l'altra, di cui Tomma
dinanzi al mio venir fu sì cortese.
If such the one wheel of the Biga was,
In which the Holy Church itself defended
And in the field its civic battle won,

Truly full manifest should be to thee
The excellence of the other, unto whom
Thomas so courteous was before my coming. (12.106-111) 
Francis and Dominic, it is argued, balance each other. The direction of the Church, spatially, temporally, administratively, takes its guidance from the interaction of the mendicant orders they founded.

To be balanced, however, the wheels should be equal -- whether one considers that by some measure of power, wisdom, zeal, or something else. But are they? We already know that these wheels are very different -- like East and West, heat and light, nature and culture.

With this question in mind we'll look at the initial appearance of the second wheel in Paradiso 12. It's a memorable apparition, presented through an enigmatic procession of nested similes and allusions that are sufficiently complex to call out for attention:
Come si volgon per tenera nube
due archi paralelli e concolori,
quando Iunone a sua ancella iube,

nascendo di quel d'entro quel di fori,
a guisa del parlar di quella vaga
ch'amor consunse come sol vapori,

e fanno qui la gente esser presaga,
per lo patto che Dio con Noè puose,
del mondo che già mai più non s'allaga:

così di quelle sempiterne rose
volgiensi circa noi le due ghirlande,
e sì l'estrema a l'intima rispuose.
And as are spanned athwart a tender cloud
Two rainbows parallel and like in colour,
When Juno to her handmaid gives command,

(The one without born of the one within,
Like to the speaking of that vagrant one
Whom love consumed as doth the sun the vapours,)

And make the people here, through covenant
God set with Noah, presageful of the world
That shall no more be covered with a flood,

In such wise of those sempiternal roses
The garlands twain encompassed us about,
And thus the outer to the inner answered. (Par. 12.10-21)
The question here is what is the relation of the first wheel to the second. Not in the sense of spatial arrangement this time, but as a matter of priority: what do firstness and secondness convey here -- is there in fact a primary wheel and a secondary one -- in which case, the bearing of the Biga might not in fact be quite balanced?

Warning: Some will consider this excursus anathema to jouissance du texte.

The simile begins by comparing the two wheels to two rainbows that originate in a command, an order given by Juno to her servant girl (ancella), sending Iris the messenger on a mission. In a tender cloud, two parallel and similarly colorful rainbows appear. Their parallelism makes them equal, yet the outer arc is born of the one within -- just as, and here begins a simile within the simile -- the speaking (a guisa del parlar) of "that wanderer" -- quella vaga (Echo) -- whom love consumed as vapors are consumed by the sun.

The mythological burden of the second simile is a surprise. The idea of one rainbow birthing another was a natural explanation provided by the science of Dante's time. Why bring in the myth of Narcissus -- one of the major myths from Ovid's book of changes -- to complicate that simple parent-child order of primacy?

Indeed, the myth of Echo is often read as a tale of secondariness: the origin of a voice from a love that is entirely fixated upon another - the other in turn being fixated by the love of his own image. While Echo wastes away, so does Narcissus, and in fact his love of his face, and her love of him, are in no way distinguishable -- in both cases, there is the utter fixation upon the face one loves. Narcissus's love is not more "primary" because he happened to fall in love with his own face -- indeed, he didn't know it was his own face until after he'd fallen in love with it.

Ovid's subtle tale makes clear that while Echo echoes the words of Narcissus, in speaking them her words take on new meanings. 
He runs from her, and running cries ‘Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours. 
She answers, only ‘What’s mine is yours!’ (Metamorphoses 3)
The story plays on ordinary notions of firstness and secondness, and about how they can be reversed, putting in doubt any order of priority. 

Also, the mythological realm of Echo and Narcissus is not secondary to the natural scientific language of rainbows birthing rainbows. Let's remember that the first rainbow is there because it is Iris, Juno's messenger, whom Juno sent to be there. Myth preceded science in this simile. 

The first rainbow is a messenger speaking under command of the God. Unlike Echo she is not a vaga - a wandering being - because she is an ancella whose duty it is to convey the message of the God. In effect: Iris's speech is secondary, derived from the words of the Goddess whom she is echoing, while Echo's transformative echoes of Narcissus express the truth of her own primal love.

The structure is a procession of three similes: The wheels are like Iris, a rainbow which generates its own image in cloud and sun; this second rainbow is like the voice of Echo, born of self-consuming love, who vanishes like vapor consumed by the sun, and with it, the rainbows. What remains after this tale of self-generation and self-consumption is the voice, the invisible double that tells the tale.

If that were all, we would already have enough to at least make a case that the two wheels are in fact parallel, and that the apparent temporal priority of the inner rainbow is rendered less secure by its being likened to a tale in which firstness and secondness are reversed, or suspended. 

Except that's not all, because this entire little tale is contained in a parenthetical tercet between the rainbow ordered by Juno, and the third tercet's rainbow ordered by Noah's god. The rainbows are now "like" the rainbow that was given as a sign "to people here" that God would never again send a flood to destroy all life on Earth. (A big deal to someone like the poet, who nearly drowned in Inferno 1!)

With this new rainbow as permanent, unevaporable promise, the question of precedence is irrelevant. As promise, it stands outside of time and decay: it is an act, a signature that ratifies a covenant between Maker and man. The sign in the sky makes man presaga -- able to say before, to prophesy -- a future truth for all time. 

To prophesy is the opposite of the banal sense of an echo as a mere repetition of a prior sound. At this point, the question of primacy is undone. The inner circle might be the parent to the outer, as inner rainbow to encircling arc, but the outer has become a speech act that doesn't re-present something prior. Rather, it already "knows," or posits, something that has yet to be given the possibility of being known. Its speaking is its own primacy.

- Apology for this excursus -

An exercise such as this one rather laboriously unpacks what Dante's own unparalleled sense of story coiled within some allusions and similitudes, and might seem to go against the idea of reading as the pleasure of the text, the enjoyment one receives from simply "experiencing" the poet's language. And according to certain notions of "experience," that's true! But with a text like the Commedia, one enters a resonant work of imagination that is both telling a new story and engaged in active combat with the tales of prior potent texts. Dante read and loved Ovid, Virgil, Lucan, and the other poets named in Inferno 4, but in creating his tale of eternal life, he often evoked their works as grist for his own mill, his powerful reading of how they got it wrong. Poets aiming at truth are always, on some level, having dogfights. Like Dominicans.

Domini cani

The simile of the rainbows suggests that, just as in nature a parent precedes a child, so divine speech makes it possible to speak of a thing before the thing exists. Messengers of the gods share that knowing with mortals, and Dominic, whose embryonic mind was powerful enough to make his mother dream omens, appears to be one those messengers:
Ben parve messo e famigliar di Cristo: (12.73)
As such a messenger, Dominic was a torrential flood, destroying the arguments, the theological gardens of sundry heretical sects. But he remained true to the sign in the sky, and his flood was tempered:
Poi, con dottrina e con volere insieme,
con l'officio appostolico si mosse
quasi torrente ch'alta vena preme;

e ne li sterpi eretici percosse
l'impeto suo, più vivamente quivi
dove le resistenze eran più grosse.

Di lui si fecer poi diversi rivi
onde l'orto catolico si riga,
sì che i suoi arbuscelli stan più vivi.
 Then with the doctrine and the will together,
  With office apostolical he moved,
  Like torrent which some lofty vein out-presses; 
And in among the shoots heretical
  His impetus with greater fury smote,
  Wherever the resistance was the greatest. 
Of him were made thereafter divers runnels,
  Whereby the garden catholic is watered,
  So that more living its plantations stand.   (12.97-105)
The cantos of Dominic and Francis are balanced in detail. Each man gets 33 tercets of narrative of his life. The parts of their narratives balance each other in turn. If the passion of Francis knocked the sandals off his followers, Dominic nurtured his disciples and raised them in the light of deeply disciplined knowledge.

The construction of Dante's work is uncanny. Perhaps by chance, the central line of Dominic's canto is that defining description cited a moment ago:
Ben parve messo e famigliar di Cristo: (12.73)
The center of Francis's canto, perhaps by chance, evokes the ferocious constancy of Lady Poverty:
né valse esser costante né feroce (11.79)
In the interaction of these utterly dissimilar men (and their orders) -- a sort of nuclear fusion -- lie the potent love for and defense of the reinvigorated Bride.

The wheels balance and move as one. Perfectly. As two eyes move at a whim:
pur come li occhi ch'al piacer che i move
conviene insieme chiudere e levarsi;
(Even as the eyes, that, as volition moves them,
  Must needs together shut and lift themselves,)

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