Sunday, June 04, 2017

The trajectory of furtive eros: Paradiso 27

Aside from an external preoccupation that's consumed a lot of my time recently, internal properties of the text have slowed our ascent to the higher reaches of Paradise. In the past six weeks, we've managed to eke through Paradiso 27 and have made it less than halfway through 28. It's the poet's fault.

The poem unfolds a series of thresholds bringing together so many textual skeins -- so many echoes, motifs, layers, metamorphoses and transitions -- that reading becomes excavation. Two weeks ago we read the opening of canto 28 -- the simile of the mirror and the doppiero. The other day we reread it, and found it new -- more richly complex than it had first seemed.

The notion of coming to the "end" of the Commedia is but a prospect, a hypothetical limit to which any reading is asymptotic. In a sense, the reading is the hunt, the caccia, for an elusive prey that was there before any reading came to be, and will always yield more than any single interpretation, however masterly and comprehensive. The totality of the text in relation to our reading might be proportioned as the originary luce e amore is to the pursuing creation striving to accede to it.

The notion of the hunt, the quest, with the desire to capture and possess the object of pursuit, runs throughout the text. In cantos 28 and 29 it will reach extraordinary scale. I want to note a few ways in which it's present in Paradiso 27.

This canto has to be one of the more astonishing ones simply in terms of sheer range of matter. Beginning with Dante facing the same four figures -- Peter, James, John and Adam -- we watch Peter grow red with anger at the degradation of his earthly succession. The entirety of heaven, which had seemed a moment before to smile, takes on the bloody hue. Beatrice's coloration clearly evokes Ovid's tale of naked Diana, surprised while bathing on Mt. Cithaeron, turning scarlet before the startled gaze of Actaeon (Metamorphoses 3). The goddess and Dante's guide turn . . .

the same colour which, through sun adverse,
  Painteth the clouds at evening or at morn,

Di quel color che per lo sole avverso
 nube dipigne da sera e da mane, (Par. 27: 28-29)

Peter continues fulminating that his keys and his own self have been degraded to mere figures on escutcheons and seals used by Boniface and others to wage war on the flock, or, as lies to be sold. That he who served as the very basis of the Church on Earth emits such blunt, unfettered rage and human frustration is itself striking, but Peter goes on, echoing Cacciaguida, to make sure the poet has his marching orders:

                                  "open thy mouth;
 What I conceal not, do not thou conceal."

                                      "apri la bocca,
 e non asconder quel ch'io non ascondo.” (65-66)

At this point, the entire host of heaven falls upward like snow in warp drive, and Beatrice directs Dante to take another look at Earth. The last time he'd done this, he had just arrived to the stars from Saturn (22: 133-154).

This new sight shows him the same threshing floor, aiuola, but from a different angle:

Since the first time that I had downward looked,
  I saw that I had moved through the whole arc
  Which the first climate makes from midst to end;

So that I saw the mad track of Ulysses
  Past Gades, and this side, well nigh the shore
  Whereon became Europa a sweet burden.

And of this threshing-floor the site to me
  Were more unveiled, but the sun was proceeding
  Under my feet, a sign and more removed.

Da l'ora ch'ïo avea guardato prima
 i' vidi mosso me per tutto l'arco
 che fa dal mezzo al fine il primo clima;

sì ch'io vedea di là da Gade il varco
 folle d'Ulisse, e di qua presso il lito
 nel qual si fece Europa dolce carco.

E più mi fora discoverto il sito
 di questa aiuola; ma 'l sol procedea
 sotto i mie' piedi un segno e più partito. (27:79-87)

The passage cries out to be compared with the earlier backward look, which took place right after he arrived in the stars. The planets with their pagan gods are gone. Now Dante sees two things: one is the eastern beginning and western edge of the European quest, from the moment of Europa's seduction to the mad pursuit of Ulysses. The other is his realization that the sun has traveled one quarter of its trip around the Earth since last he looked.

The bracketing of Dante's visit to the starry sphere by these two backward looks is pointed and calls for comment. The aiuola seemed closer in the first look, which retraced Dante's own voyage through the spheres of Paradise. The second spans the bounds of recorded history of the West, ending on a mad ship moving into the open sea, seeking it knows not what.

Why mark the origin of this wayward career with Europa? Of course she names the continent that is Dante's frame of reference. But perhaps there's a suggestive clue in Ovid's tale -- there usually is. The seduction of Agenor's daughter, the sister of Cadmus, begins like this:
Iamque deus posita fallacis imagine tauri
se confessus erat Dictaeaque rura tenebat,
cum pater ignarus Cadmo perquirere raptam
imperat et poenam, si non invenerit, addit   5
exilium, facto pius et sceleratus eodem.
Orbe pererrato (quis enim deprendere possit
furta Iovis?) profugus patriamque iramque parentis
vitat Agenorides Phoebique oracula supplex
consulit et, quae sit tellus habitanda, requirit.
(Meta. 3.19)
Now Jupiter had not revealed himself,
nor laid aside the semblance of a bull,
until they stood upon the plains of Crete.
But not aware of this, her father bade
her brother Cadmus search through all the world,
until he found his sister, and proclaimed
him doomed to exile if he found her not;—
thus was he good and wicked in one deed.
When he had vainly wandered over the earth
(for who can fathom the deceits of Jove?)
Cadmus, the son of King Agenor, shunned
his country and his father's mighty wrath.
The career of the West begins with furta, theft performed by the Lord of gods and men. Given the degree of calculated deception that went into the theft, translator Tony Klein's "deceits" is entirely justified. That humans cannot "fathom" the tricks of gods is a theme recurs throughout the Metamorphoses. The theft of Europa opens the story of the Minoan world of Crete and, through Agenor's order to his son, the world of Greece through the wanderings of Cadmus and founding of Thebes. The West was able track itself back to Phoenicia because writing, they say, was brought to Greece by Cadmus, who never did find his sister.

Cadmus, Harmonia and the Ismenian Dragon

Canto 27 interweaves motifs questing and hunting throughout, as well as the seductive snares of the gods. In addition to Europa carried off by Zeus and hunted by Cadmus, there is the horrific reversal that follows Diana's reddening -- Actaeon the hunter becomes the conscious prey his dogs tear apart.

In a moment, after the pilgrim turns back from regarding nearly the whole of Europe, the pilgrim will rise to the Primum Mobile. The sun has shifted one quadrant, or six hours, from his last look, so Dante's time in Gemini matches Adam's entire unfallen life in the garden. Adam lost Paradise shortly after noon, which happens to be the same time of day that Actaeon stopped his hunt, walked into the wood, and angered a naked divinity at a spring. It would not have been lost on Dante that Actaeon's tale repeats that of his ancestor, Cadmus, who, searching for Europa on the same Mt. Cithaeron, followed the heifer that led him to the spring where his men were attacked by the Ismenian dragon.

The enchanted world of the Metamorphoses where unassuming mortals are lured, seduced, transformed and destroyed by encounters with devious sacred beings stands behind Dante's text in meaningful juxtaposition. Dante has just finished speaking to Adam, who is fully conscious that his act of eating of the tree was a conscious choice:

Or, figliuol mio, non il gustar del legno
 fu per sé la cagion di tanto essilio,
 ma solamente il trapassar del segno. 

Now, son of mine, the tasting of the tree
  Not in itself was cause of so great exile,
  But solely the o'erstepping of the bounds. (Par. 26. 115-117)

When the pilgrim turns back from the aiuola to Beatrice, he is captured in a way Europa would have perfectly understood:
And if or Art or Nature has made bait
To catch the eyes and so possess the mind,
In human flesh or in its portraiture,

All joined together would appear as nought
To the divine delight which shone upon me
When to her smiling face I turned me round.
e se natura o arte fé pasture
da pigliare occhi, per aver la mente,
in carne umana o ne le sue pitture,

tutte adunate, parrebber nïente
ver' lo piacer divin che mi refulse,
quando mi volsi al suo viso ridente.  (27: 91-96)
All the beauty of all the lures the world holds are nothing to these eyes, this smile that charmed him so long before, and set him aflame.

The poet's own experience of Eros in the world is one way he knows that the ancients and their poets were on to something important. More important is that he show how different the result of the hook (amo) of Amor can be. It might be a power, a trap, but it isn't necessarily a doom.

The virtue that her look endowed me with
From the fair nest of Leda tore me forth,
And up into the swiftest heaven impelled me.

E la virtù che lo sguardo m'indulse,
del bel nido di Leda mi divelse
e nel ciel velocissimo m'impulse. (97-99)

The entire physical universe, which he is about to leave behind, is here summed as the bel nido di Leda. He is literally torn from it by the virtù gazing at him. The ancients knew that nest as the cradle of noble, beautiful, tragic demi-gods and mortals. On the same night Leda slept with her husband King Tyndareus, she was fertilized by a divine dissimulator. 

Some say Zeus impersonated a swan and took Leda; others say Venus pretended to be an Eagle pursuing Zeus in his fake swan persona; some say he pretended to fall into the lap of Leda (others say Nemesis) and swooned there in her protection until she fell asleep -- myths speak of divine beings, but have the waywardness of mortals. 

If canto 27 is haunted by tales of divine abductions and elaborate ruses and rapes, there is reason. The potent charms of Beatrice don't simply engage his devotion -- they uproot him from the beautiful nest because his actual origin is elsewhere. The verb describing this rooting, divellere, is quite strong -- it suggests a total tearing up, wounding, forcible dismemberment:

The word could describe what happened to Actaeon, or to Marsyas, or to Pentheus, another scion of Cadmus who at the end of Metamorphoses 3 is shredded by Bacchantes let by his mother. All these divine acts of destruction in Ovid occur within the nest of Leda. But the uprooting that happens to Dante here tears him out of that nest, beyond Gemini, beyond all location. As the new Actaeon, the new Ulysses, the new Icarus, the new Orpheus, the new Europa, the poet makes sure we know how much those tales of Eros meant to him, and to us.

We've not yet even mentioned the latter portion of canto 27. Its ambit is wide.

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