Monday, February 13, 2017

Convien saltar: Leaping past mimesis in Par. 23

“Tu se' sì presso a l'ultima salute,”
cominciò Bëatrice, “che tu dei
aver le luci tue chiare e acute; 
e però, prima che tu più t'inlei,
rimira in giù, e vedi quanto mondo
sotto li piedi già esser ti fei;

sì che 'l tuo cor, quantunque può, giocondo
s'appresenti a la turba trïunfante
che lieta vien per questo etera tondo.”
"Thou art so near unto the last salvation,"
  Thus Beatrice began, "thou oughtest now
  To have thine eves unclouded and acute; 
And therefore, ere thou enter farther in,
  Look down once more, and see how vast a world
  Thou hast already put beneath thy feet; 
So that thy heart, as jocund as it may,
  Present itself to the triumphant throng
  That comes rejoicing through this rounded ether." (Par. 22:124-132)

This is the moment in Paradiso 22 when Beatrice explains to Dante why he must look back and take in all that he has experienced up to this point, at the threshold of the stars. Before you "in yourself further," (tu più t'inlei), she tells him, his eyes must be clear and sharp, so that having looked back upon all below, Dante's heart can present itself to the coming throng "as jocund as it may" -- quantunque può, giocondo.

The pilgrim's look back, then, is related to the capability of his heart to be giocondo as he turns to the joyous throng coming towards him. Giocondo suggests happiness, light-hearted ease. Its etymology goes back to a mixture of something that is both helpful and delightful - a playful lightness of being:

The poet describes the world beneath his feet as his vision gathers it in -- it seems one vast organism. When he turns back to the oncoming joyous throng, his vision again fails him. It's only when the "sun" (Christ) removes itself to a great distance that Dante begins to see. What is is about to see is the human mother of God. But it is a curious sort of seeing:
Il nome del bel fior ch'io sempre invoco 
e mane e sera, tutto mi ristrinse 
l'animo ad avvisar lo maggior foco;  
e come ambo le luci mi dipinse 
il quale e il quanto de la viva stella 
che là sù vince come qua giù vinse,  (23:88-93)
 The name of that fair flower I e'er invoke
  Morning and evening utterly enthralled
  My soul to gaze upon the greater fire. 
And when in both mine eyes depicted were
  The glory and greatness of the living star
  Which there excelleth, as it here excelled,
The poet doesn't say "Maria" here, but describes what the "name of the beautiful flower" does: it constrains him to gaze intently at "the larger fire." His experience of beginning to see Mary proceeds from her name, which, we learn, he invokes every morning and evening. The power of this word is such that "the quality and quantity of that living star, that conquers up there as it did down here, depicted itself upon both my eyes."

The strangeness of what's happening here bears noting. We have depiction - the greater fire's quality and quantity paints itself upon both his eyes. We could simply "see" this as another quaint flourish of poesy, but if we look closely, it's harder to say what's going on with this inversion. Instead of the poet's eyes, "unclouded and acute," presenting what is before him, that which is before him represents itself upon both (ambo) his eyes. The commentators appear to agree that what the poet "means to say" here is that his eyes reflect (rispecchiare, i.e., "mirror") what is before him. But if that's so, then we ought to be able to say what is being reflected. Here we are somewhat at a loss. Is it a beautiful flower, a greater fire, a living star, or . . .? Our commentators seem better prepared to state what the poet means to say than they are able to say what his saying actually means.

Instead of a mere reflection of a thing, we have something painting (dipinse) itself upon the eyes. Whatever else this suggests, it reverses the act of representation -- displaces the copyist, painter, or mirror from the eye, mind, memory and poetry of Dante to that which is standing before him. If anything, his eyes, rather than unclouded windows, are now the canvas, slate, or page upon which something is representing itself. And that's not the worst of it. That something in front of Dante could be fire (maggior foco). Fire is the necessary enabling condition of depiction, but what would it mean for fire to depict, i.e., re-present, itself? I'm sure I'd forego the risk of fire representing itself upon both my eyes.

Verisimilitude -- realistic or probable resemblance to any thing or act we can visualize or imagine -- here fails. The only actual thing the passage indisputably gives us is an indirect reference to a sound, the name of Mary. What appears upon his eyes unfolds from a name. The rest is figuration - but upon what ground?

Ground is missing here. Part of the lightening of being, the condition of giocondità, is the jettisoning of gravity.

We have been prepared for this. Dante told us earlier in the canto that his poem has to make a leap to even begin to speak of what's coming in the final ten cantos of the Paradiso:
e così, figurando il paradiso, convien saltar lo sacrato poema, come chi trova suo cammin riciso. (23:61-63)
Mere representation, mimesis, is out of the question. What's coming cannot be described, painted, represented. His first apprehension of the mother -- the human being who became the queen of heaven -- presents us with this impossibility via a passage so strange and difficult to read as to defy mimetic interpretation. And, being Dante, this undoing of representation is performed through the the language of mimesis:

The word depinse is used here not to depict anything, but to turn representation inside out.

Nothing is quite what it seems here amid the stars. Vision is made possible by the removal of light. Properties of entities -- il quale e il quanto -- paint themselves. One's finger burns before it's put into the flame. Nothing comes before or after; representation and presence intermingle. Fire leaps up, pursuing a greater fire.

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