Monday, October 23, 2017

Beatrice's "awkward" digression - Paradiso 29

To perceive means to immobilize... we seize, in the act of perception, something which outruns perception itself. - H. Bergson

Paradiso 29 covers a lot of ground, and seems designed to perplex. It runs a crooked path through vastly different tonal registers and material. Moving at maximum speed at the edge of created reality, Beatrice's discourse shifts from a placid account of the Creation to a sardonic tirade against bad readers -- Schoolmen and Churchmen whose inventions and misreadings debase the Word -- with a kind of ontological shudder.

The interest here is precisely in this destabilizing turn -- not what we were expecting just now, when some triumphal closure might be what the Commedia ordered. Instead, at this "end of the world" we hear about the Beginning. Then Beatrice turns, with some agitation, to the unfinished business of a flock inflated with hot air purveyed by con artists.

There is some symmetry, however. The twilight of the canto's opening does balance the twilight of Inferno 1. From that moment to this, despite all revelation and grace, humans remain in between darkness and dawn, uncertain, wondering what's coming, like the angels before they resolved their choice.

Within the paradigm of perfect balance with which the canto begins -- an image of the Earth, Sun and Moon poised between day and night, spring and fall -- are two modes of where and when.

The 12-line passage begins with the quando of astronomical time -- the movement of the sun and earth generating days, hours, seconds -- the continuous, ceaseless forward motion of temporality. The moment of perfect "balance" lasts no time at all. Parallel to and reinforcing this missing "when" is the tale of Latona, who has conceived divine offspring, but has no where (ubi) to bring forth her twins.

The passage ends with the second mode: the gaze of Beatrice, contemplating Totality, takes in every ubi and every quando, in a changeless present beyond the Primum Mobile.

As the tipping moment between these two quandos, Paradiso 29 is by turns serene and convulsive. The apparent symmetry of its lovely opening passage is belied in a twist -- its end is not its beginning. The first quando, the Italian vernacular, is of the passing time of Nature; the last quando, its Latin cognate, is of eternity. The latter happens to look just like the Italian vernacular, but it belongs to another linguistic realm. The first quando attempts to seize a moving point before it disappears in the stream of human time; the final quando names the point-lessness of eternal presence (no "when" when all is "now"). The passage moves from one to the other, but does not make a circle or a return. Between quando (it.) and quando (lat.) lies a break rendered invisible (eclipsed) by similarity of form.

The circular, symmetric structure of the passage is broken, and this rupture continues through the canto to its final asymmetry, the shattered mirror. To show this will require a far longer post than was first intended - apologies in advance.

Precisely the same opposition between human and divine modes of time and space can be seen in Beatrice's account of the Angels. They don't need memory, she explains, because they are, as it were, hard-wired to the totality of past, present and future:
però non hanno vedere interciso
da novo obietto, e però non bisogna
rememorar per concetto diviso;
Hence they have not their vision intercepted
  By object new, and hence they do not need
  To recollect, through interrupted thought.  (79-81)
Human perception and understanding, intimately intertwined with the sensory realm of space and time, here have the structure of something coming between (interciso) knower and knowable. Like an eclipse, mediation occludes as it reveals. Angels see Totality pure -- without concepts, language, or representation. Their field of vision will never be eclipsed by anything new (and, unlike us, they'll never feel curiosity, thirst to learn, or the joy of discovery).

When Beatrice turns from angelic intelligence to human fallibility, we see her at her most acerbic. Of interest to us close readers is that her word for reading -- leggere -- appears twice as she pivots from the consistorio of perfect beings to the sons of Adam:
Ma perché 'n terra per le vostre scole
si legge che l'angelica natura
è tal, che 'ntende e si ricorda e vole,
ancor dirò, perché tu veggi pura
la verità che là giù si confonde,
equivocando in sì fatta lettura.
 But since upon the earth, throughout your schools,
  They teach that such is the angelic nature
  That it doth hear, and recollect, and will, 
More will I say, that thou mayst see unmixed
  The truth that is confounded there below,
  Equivocating in such like prelections.
Equivocation destabilizes meaning. Here below, we are either riddled with errant beliefs, or worse, pretend to believe in order to perpetuate utter rubbish ("fake news"):
sì che la giù, non dormendo, si sogna,
credendo e non credendo dicer vero;
ma ne l'uno è più colpa e più vergogna.
 So that below, not sleeping, people dream,
  Believing they speak truth, and not believing;
  And in the last is greater sin and shame.  (82-84)
Some of her strongest condemnatory language is reserved for those who knowingly perpetrate fraud in preaching, or with false indulgences:
per cui tanta stoltezza in terra crebbe, 
che, sanza prova d'alcun testimonio, 
ad ogne promession si correrebbe. 
Di questo ingrassa il porco sant' Antonio, 
e altri assai che sono ancor più porci, 
pagando di moneta sanza conio.
 For which so great on earth has grown the folly,
  That, without proof of any testimony,
  To each indulgence they would flock together. 
By this Saint Anthony his pig doth fatten,
  And many others, who are worse than pigs,
  Paying in money without mark of coinage. (121-126)
Conio is used of whores in Inferno 18.66 (panderers / seducers). The sellers of fake indulgences (compared to slugs, blank coins) will soon be joining the counterfeiters in the tenth bolgia of the eighth circle, last seen in Inferno 29-30, symmetrically enough.

Money without official marking is faceless; it can be anything, or nothing. Its blankness is an equivocation, eclipsing any determination. Beatrice offers us a lesson in reading blankness when she speaks of how commentators have filled volumes debating whether the moon ran backward, or the sun dimmed itself, at the Crucifixion.
Non ha Fiorenza tanti Lapi e Bindi 
quante sì fatte favole per anno 
in pergamo si gridan quinci e quindi:  
sì che le pecorelle, che non sanno, 
tornan del pasco pasciute di vento, 
e non le scusa non veder lo danno.
Florence has not so many Lapi and Bindi
  As fables such as these, that every year
  Are shouted from the pulpit back and forth, 
In such wise that the lambs, who do not know,
  Come back from pasture fed upon the wind,
  And not to see the harm doth not excuse them. (103-108)
Fake food, fake coin, fake salvation: Where the Gospel is mute, jackanapes rush in, filling Florence with words, instead of contemplating even silences within the Word.

The irony here is quite complex. The Gospel is silent about the causes of the eclipse that occurred during the Crucifixion, which itself seemed to be the eclipse of God. One might give one's attention to the fact that at this moment, it got dark* -- that there was, at Christ's death, a terrifying blankness that would have shaken the faith of a Job, a Peter, a James, a John. To speculate on the "science" behind the event would miss precisely everything.

More than that: To infer that God has been defeated, or that Jesus was either an imposter or a madman, would be a peremptory act of interpretive closure -- a misreading of epochal proportions. Unlike Satan, who could not wait for light, the followers of Christ spent 36 hours in shock and incomprehension -- what they had seen with their own eyes defied everything they believed. Only after living the intensest imaginable loss did the apparent closure of Christ's life turn out to be something else. Anyone taking the advice of Job's wife would have missed the navicella.

For Beatrice, this too is reading -- and it is consequential. As Augustine noted, when reading a psalm we are amidst a temporal event whose full meaning, subtending the syllables unfolding in time, will not be revealed until the last syllable is spoken. Understanding -- of our lives, as well of Nature and Scripture -- requires a patience. Closure on Earth is fake, and nothing is more attuned to that insight than Beatrice's peppery vernacular. Here is someone who has no patience with some fulsome and false facade of an ending to her pilgrim's journey. Nothing ends here in this portrait of error, larceny, and fraud -- we are scolded, with caustic love, into becoming better readers.


. . .siam digressi assai, says Beatrice, "we've digressed quite a bit," not unlike all on Earth who do nothing but miss the true path:
Voi non andate giù per un sentiero 
Below you do not journey by one path
  Philosophising;  (85-86)
Those made uncomfortable by Beatrice's sharp words, those who find it aesthetically awkward, might at least consider that she has her reasons -- as did the poet -- for this digression. What matters here is how the final movements of the Commedia are to be read. Beatrice has reminded us in every possible way of our limitations, and of the dangers of premature closure.

What she then shares, with the same serenity she possessed before her digression, is a vision of Questa natura as something without number or determinable limit. Beatrice calls this unbounded field of light-filled beings "nature." In this instant, when Dante is told to see something that is not neither possible nor conceivable in the natural world -- something of infinite extent, and therefore not only unearthly and uncountable, but inherently asymmetric and unending -- it's an extraordinary touch that Beatrice simply says "questa natura."

Only after telling us it has no known number, and that each individual being is unique thanks to its particular mix of conception and affect, does Beatrice invite us to actually look:
"Vedi l'eccelso omai e la larghezza
de l'etterno valor, poscia che tanti
speculi fatti s'ha in che si spezza,
uno manendo in sé come davanti.”
"The height behold now and the amplitude
  Of the eternal power, since it hath made
  Itself so many mirrors, where 'tis broken,
One in itself remaining as before."
A different model is counterpoised to the binary equilibrium of Latona's world. Here a god has not only conceived, but has also created place, time, and free will to an unquantified amplitude. Mirrors, each a being whose life began the moment it said "subsisto," break apart the One whom they reflect. Unlike gods destroyed by the many who wish to devour them, this god/father remains, beyond all mutation, all shattering, One in itself remaining as before.

The shattering (spezza) of the totality into infinite self-subsistent pieces renders impossible any mirroring, any specular symmetry. This is not classical equilibrium, not the closed physics of matter and energy. In fact it's not possible to imagine this open-endedness -- neither the One we do not see nor the broken infinitude that generatively re-in-flects it. Beatrice invites us to look. The science of this vision will be left to others.

*Remarks of Louis Martorella in our Classics group were very helpful with this passage.

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