Monday, January 30, 2017

Mothers, suns, and figural leaps in Paradiso 23

The stunning figure of the bird that opens Paradiso 23 speaks of ardent expectation - of light, which will enable this mother to see the aspetti disiati, the longed-for sight, of her nestlings, and then have visibility to go find food for them.

The overall thrust of the passage lies in the anticipation, through the long night "that hides things from us," of the enabling light. The bird will not be given food,;she will be given the sight of her newborns, and sufficient light to find food for them.

Many critics hear echoes of Paolo and Francesca -- of the disiato riso they were reading about; of the lovers now endlessly in flight, but coming at a call like a bird to her nest. John Freccero pointed out that for the damned lovers, there was no nest, no point of closure. Unlike the lovers, the bird of the simile will return to the nest, but only after having garnered food. She is giving life, as mothers do.

There's a more chilling echo here, perhaps less noted. Through the night, this mother cannot see the faces of her chicks, who are hungry. This blindness is temporary, unlike the hunger-blindness of Ugolino, when, after he and his starving sons hear the tower door nailed shut, he gropes in the dark, saying nothing to the children who beg him to eat them so he might live.


Beatrice is the bird, ardent even before she sees the light that sets her face aflame. The sky lightens, and she tells him what is coming:
                            “Ecco le schiere
del trïunfo di Cristo e tutto 'l frutto
ricolto del girar di queste spere!”
There are schiere, bands or ranks of troops -- and the fruit harvested (ricolto) from the wheeling of these spheres. Here, we have no idea what Beatrice is actually seeing, but her figures bring together the instruments of triumph and of triumphal procession, and the image of a bountiful harvest.

The harvest builds upon the imagery of millstones, threshing floors, and bread woven throughout the canticle, prefiguring this moment. When the poet, at Beatrice's word, turns to see, we get more similes -- at first the bright sun making all the stars shine:
vid' i' sopra migliaia di lucerne
un sol che tutte quante l'accendea,come fa 'l nostro le viste superne;
Saw I, above the myriads of lamps,
  A Sun that one and all of them enkindled,
  E'en as our own doth the supernal sights,
We might recall that on Jupiter, this figure of the sun illuminating the stars appeared at the opening of Paradiso 20. But now it's not a simile, yet it is still a figural sun brightening the starry sphere. This Sun not a "real" sun; this shining substance (lucente sustanza) too powerful for the poet's eyes is emanating from Christ, and the harvested fruits are souls. Are they also, here in the starry sphere, stars?

The fact that this light, as powerful as it is, is not the actual vision of Christ is underscored by the simile that introduces it - the "Sun" is introduced figuratively as the moon -- as Trivia, linked with Diana, accompanied by shining nymphs:
Quale ne' plenilunïi sereni
 Trivïa ride tra le ninfe etterne
 che dipingon lo ciel per tutti i seni,
As when in nights serene of the full moon
  Smiles Trivia among the nymphs eternal
  Who paint the firmament through all its gulfs,
Beatrice describes what Dante is not able to look at as "a power (virtù) from which there is no shelter." This is the power, and wisdom, acting in human time,
ch'aprì le strade tra 'l cielo e la terra
 onde fu già sì lunga disïanza.”
that opened the roads between heaven and earth
for which of old there had been such long desire.

To connect roads that had been blocked, broken, cut off implies that at one time the way was intact. Before the Fall, heaven and earth were linked, and now, thanks to Christ, the road is restored. The introductory figure of Trivia now becomes legible in a new way: just as the goddess Hecate linked the three realms (Tri-via) of the pagan world (as Cynthia, Diana, and Persephone), so Christ acted in time to open the way for the children of men to return to their true home.

To bring together disjunct realms within sacred history is much what poets do with metaphor: they unite, though the exchange of attribute, disparate entities. The poetic function of figure, whether simile, metaphor, or other trope, yokes unlike things. If David the singer of Psalms was the archetypal poet-ruler, Christ is the new David, re-joining earth and heaven in his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.


What's remarkable is that after speaking of this irresistible power that restored a path for men to go from earth to heaven, the poet undergoes a metamorphosis. He can't remember it, but he knows it took place because he is stronger. Without trauma, he looks at Beatrice, who is smiling.

He then goes on to say how, had he the inspirations of all the muse-suckled poets who ever sung, he could not begin to describe the beauty of Beatrice's smile, and, since this is the case, he is at an aporia with regard to "picturing Paradise."
 e così, figurando il paradiso, 
convien saltar lo sacrato poema, come chi trova suo cammin riciso.
And therefore, representing figuring Paradise,
  The sacred poem must perforce leap over,
  Even as a man who finds his way cut off;
In becoming able to see his guide fully, the poet has become stronger, but this very strength enables him to see his weakness -- the inadequacy of his ability to represent her smile. He has more than that to "figure" -- there is il paradiso. For that, the poem must "leap," like a man whose path is cut off. The poet does not have a way to do what he must do, what the savior did -- convey us, in figure, to il paradiso. Yet Beatrice tells him to turn from her and see:
Quivi è la rosa in che 'l verbo divino
carne si fece;
There is the Rose in which the Word Divine
Became incarnate;
The "battle of the feeble brows" begins again - and he begins to figurar il paradiso.

What form does this figuration of Paradise assume? When he turns from Beatrice, the poet resorts to simile: sunlight breaking through clouds, rendering vibrant a meadow; so far, it's a simile "like" his actual experience of Matilda in Eden. But then, he sees a Rose that is a living star, the mother of Christ, regina coeli. Is he now seeing Mary in her glorified flesh?

Certainly brilliant readers do see it this way. Instead of dwelling on it, however, the poet speaks of how this could occur: It's possible, he says, because Christ has "leapt" up far enough -- a distance so vast that the poet is no longer blinded by his light.
O benigna vertù che sì li 'mprenti,
 sù t'essaltasti per largirmi loco
 i li occhi lì che non t'eran possenti.
O power benignant that dost so imprint them!
  Thou didst exalt thyself to give more scope
  There to mine eyes, that were not strong enough.  (23:85-87)
The sacrato poema proceeds because the Sun recedes. If in sacred history Christ advanced to restore the road, here he allows the sacred poem to jump the aporia by retreating. He performs a sacrifice of light that empowers vision rather than annihilating it.

This ought to alert us to read the next passage with particular care. The poem has made a leap. If we take it "at its word," then something other than the customary tropes could be at work. We'll see.

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