Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Cold discretion: Paradiso 32: 1-57

By the standards of USian hero movies, Paradiso 32 ought to be the victory lap. Entering the stadium having passed every test, the Hollywood hero is invariably greeted with an ecstatic applause and adulation. Instead, the canto falls on this reader with a forbidding strangeness and baleful silence.

Bernard has directed Dante to look up.

The saint then assumes the role of dottore, and presents a lecture full of words signifying division, or separation: dirimendo, parton, cerna, discrezioni. He's focused on tracing the major structuring separations within the Rose -- which seems odd, as we keep trying to remind ourselves that in the Empyrean, space and time are no longer supposed to operate as important categories.

Bernard begins by tracing the line of Hebrew women from Mary down -- a line he calls a wall -- il muro / a che si parton le sacre scalee ("the wall by which the sacred stairs are divided" (20-21)). He then describes the location of those who lived before Christ to the left of Mary, and those who lived after to her right. This Rose, we come to realize, is structured like Biblical human history. But the people named -- major figures of Hebraic and Christian faith -- do not speak, or move. Their names -- 18 of them -- stand in spectral isolation from their living being.

It's as if, in this place beyond space and time, Bernard is fixated upon denoting specific features of space, time, and individuals not for their own sakes, but for where they fit into some larger matrix.

The effect is more strange coming as it does after Paradiso 30-31, where we experienced plenal joy, light, and motion unified via the fluent master metaphors of flower, bees and sun. To go from that delightful innocence of sweetness and light to Bernard's stark isolating list -- a paltry series of names which seems trivially incidental to his lecture. For Bernard, who is intensely focused on Mary such that the first word of the canto is Affetto, this lack of affect with regard to these particular souls seems odd.

What's missing here? Instead of animated motion and sound, instead of the kind of balance and symmetries we've been accustomed to from the divine architecture all along this journey, we have several bare names and periphrases, and hints of a crazed order within the Rose. It feels dislocating. The pilgrim will in a moment experience profound doubt.

C.H. Grandgent senses this, I think. He contrasts our puzzlement here with the clear categorization of souls in Inferno and Purgatorio, and the divine justice that caused them to be where they are:
In the rose itself we are informed of the great vertical and horizontal divisions, and the position of a few of the souls; and we may infer that proximity to Mary or to John the Baptist is a sign of honor. Beyond that, all is mystery.
However, this "mystery" is not bathed in the lush wonderment and erotic and epistemological suspense that often accompanies the word. Grandgent goes on to make this clear by failing to convince us of his next point:
Gazing upon this vast assembly, Dante finds satisfaction of the desire expressed in Canto XXII, ll. 58-60, to behold the Elect uncovered.
Turning to that passage, in which Dante and St. Benedict speak of the fulfillment of the highest sphere, it indeed seems highly relevant:
E io a lui: “L'affetto che dimostri
 meco parlando, e la buona sembianza
 ch'io veggio e noto in tutti li ardor vostri,

così m'ha dilatata mia fidanza,
 come 'l sol fa la rosa quando aperta
 tanto divien quant' ell' ha di possanza.

Però ti priego, e tu, padre, m'accerta
 s'io posso prender tanta grazia, ch'io
 ti veggia con imagine scoverta.”

Ond' elli: “Frate, il tuo alto disio
 s'adempierà in su l'ultima spera,
 ove s'adempion tutti li altri e 'l mio.

Ivi è perfetta, matura e intera
 ciascuna disïanza; in quella sola
 è ogne parte là ove sempr' era,
And I to him: "The affection which thou showest
  Speaking with me, and the good countenance
  Which I behold and note in all your ardours, 
In me have so my confidence dilated
  As the sun doth the rose, when it becomes
  As far unfolded as it hath the power. 
Therefore I pray, and thou assure me, father,
  If I may so much grace receive, that I
  May thee behold with countenance unveiled." 
He thereupon: "Brother, thy high desire
  In the remotest sphere shall be fulfilled,
  Where are fulfilled all others and my own. 
There perfect is, and ripened, and complete,
  Every desire; within that one alone
  Is every part where it has always been;
Bernard's lecture so far has given us something less than Benedict's promise:
"There perfect is, and ripened, and complete,
Every desire . . ."
Of course he's not finished -- he will go on to make clear to Dante that the very criteria for the eternal salvation of children shifted three times in human history -- from parents to circumcision to baptism -- and then he'll cap it off with:
Dentro a l'ampiezza di questo reame
casüal punto non puote aver sito,
Nothing here is by chance. All fits:

ci si risponde da l'anello al dito;

                           so that closely
The ring is fitted to the finger here.

This "fit" - however matrimonial the image - seems far from the exuberant promise of Benedict (pace Grandgent), and equally far from the joyous harmony of cantos 31-32. 

Bernard, the impassioned devotee of Mary, here seems intent to eke out certain fissures defining an order. But instead of leading us to an accession of philosophical insight or mystical vision, his lecture suggests an incessant and trivial fitting of something to something else more typical of obsessive compulsive disorder.

So far, canto 32 sets itself apart from everything we might have anticipated from what we know of Paradise. The poem's power to surprise is intact. There is in this canto a disconcerting absence of meaning, of totality -- a squinting concern with races and gender and accidents of time and lineage that in fact are the fully intended results of Providence. The effect is cold, spectral, unheimlich

But we're barely at line 57.

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