Monday, October 16, 2017

Jarring note, asymptote: Par. 29

The last canto before the Empyrian presents artistic as well as interpretive challenges. Paradiso 29 opens in a heightened moment, right before the pilgrim and his guide leave the Created world. And it speaks of some of the highest things, as well as several of the lowest.

If one steps back from the interpretive musings of the commentators, the canto exhibits odd choices on the level of style and narration. It deals with weighty matters, including
  • how, when, and why Creation occurred;
  • the first moment of the angels' existence;
  • the fall of Satan and his followers, and 
  • the relation of grace and merit, intellect and affect, with regard to the angels who didn't fall. 
Each of these moments could have filled its own canto (or more, if you're Milton). Instead, this extraordinary matter is stated in summary form by Beatrice in a calm, authoritative manner. The sublime opening of Genesis is elided, none of the acts of creation, pride and fall are dramatized. Dante chose to move quickly and in summary fashion through this material, instead lavishing poetic exuberance on the image of equilibrium that heads the canto - the myth of Latona and the lights in our sky.

One needs to consider the reasons for such a choice. Recall the rich creation of the beasts in Paradise Lost. Surely Dante entertained such potent options, but in the end seems to have preferred a kind of askesis -- sacrificing poetic sublimity for something else. Why, and what something?

In terms of narrative arc, a problem loomed. If he took the time and space here to dazzle us with the way it all began, there'd be precious little room for the Empyrean. Plus, a heightened account of the Creation could weaken the impact of that final climactic scene. Narrative art necessitated something modest here, though the content involves big things.

There might be another reason as well. Throughout this canto (excluding the opening image), Beatrice is the sole speaker. If one were to graph her tone, a curious change would be noticeable. The descriptions of Creation and the angels' first moments are presented in a serene mode that bears none of the emotional or intellectual excitement of human witness. Beatrice is recounting what she has been given to see in the divine vision for a long, long time. Interestingly, Dante the pilgrim, who often describes his craving for knowledge as physical need - thirst, desire, etc. -- is silent. It's as if he's reaching the capacity to take in - to see -- what Beatrice sees, and to do so calmly, deeply, completely. Speaker and auditor share the wonders of origin in dispassionate, apodictic tranquility.

Suddenly, that spell gives way. Beatrice launches into a far more engaged diatribe against, among other things, poor readers, showy, self-aggrandizing preachers, fanciful and bogus interpretive curlicues performed for the sake of local adulation, and profound acts of fraud perpetrated by porcine churchmen in the act of peddling fake indulgences, which acts exploit and encourage the ignorance of their flocks.

She ticks off vivid examples of presumptuous readers spinning elaborate explanations of events told in the Gospels:
One sayeth that the moon did backward turn,
  In the Passion of Christ, and interpose herself
  So that the sunlight reached not down below; 
And lies;                (29:97-100)
A palpable gasp runs through the commentaries at this take-down of revered teachers: Dionysus, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas. It's suggested that mente in Italian of the day might just have meant "erred." Still, it's a barb, and rather acute.

But this sort of learned misreading bothers Beatrice less than the "fables" (favole) spewed forth from the pulpits, filling the preachers' flocks with wind:
Now men go forth with jests and drolleries
  To preach, and if but well the people laugh,
  The hood puffs out, and nothing more is asked.
But in the cowl there nestles such a bird,
  That, if the common people were to see it,
  They would perceive what pardons they confide in, 
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.
Beatrice here is working up a lather -- the endless varieties of deforming the Word, using it to get laughs, or nice meals, or money -- exercise her in a way that seems out of place. Consider the context: We're nearly at the edge of time and space, and instead of looking back with some cumulative, totalizing gaze -- as we saw the pilgrim do twice, in cantos 22 and 27 -- we get a sardonic lambasting of hypocritical scumbags. It feels jarring.

Dante (the poet) never seems anything but sure-handed. One can look at virtually any scene, any tercet in the entire Commedia and find a mature artist who knows exactly what's called for at every metric step. Yet here, as the pilgrim is about to exit the created world, that masterful balance seems to be jolted. We've dashed through some of the biggest questions of existence, then excoriated a bunch of Boccaccian scoundrels at nearly the last instant before the pilgrim is ripped Marsyas-like from the sheath of his muscles, tendons, and skin.

Within the larger movement of the narrative, something seems off. Where is the reassuring sense of closure, the triumphal achievement, the anticipatory excitement that one might expect here at the asymptotic edge? Has Dante finally missed a beat?

Or, is this disequilibrium, this apparent loss of total control -- both on the part of Dante's serene mediatrix, and of the text itself -- precisely the right thing? Nothing is more obvious in terms of tone and style than that this canto began with the most exquisitely balanced series of binary oppositions -- a polished classical vision of a totally symmetrical system in the moment of ineluctable eclipse. But we're leaving that, and doing so in jangled, heated discord. What if that apparent dislocation of tone and control, from a certain angle, is entirely the point?

One thing seems clear: the magnificent picture of equilibrium that opens this canto is not the model Beatrice follows. She herself calls her tirade a digression, pulls up short, and returns us to a contemplative moment that deserves more attention than it perhaps has received. She turns us from the fat fraudulent friars to consider the relation of "the act of conception" to love and sweetness:
 Onde, però che a l'atto che concepe segue
l'affetto, d'amar la dolcezza 
diversamente in essa ferve e tepe.  
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.” 
Hence, inasmuch as on the act conceptive
  The affection followeth, of love the sweetness
  Therein diversely fervid is or tepid. 
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."     (29:139-145)
Another post will consider the resonance of this last image in light of the extraordinary gamut run by this canto, its tranquility and febrile censoriousness, and ponder whether that seeming lapse in decorum and control might serve an unexpected artistic purpose.

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