Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Difference in toto: Paradiso 32-33

Top: Birth of Dionysus Below: Triumph of Dionysus

ἢ ὥσπερ Σαπφώ, ὅτι τὸ ἀποθνῄσκειν κακόν·
οἱ θεοὶ γὰρ οὕτω κεκρίκασιν· ἀπέθνησκον γὰρ ἄν.

As Sappho says, death is a great evil
and the gods have judged it so: for they do not die

While reading Paradiso 32 I floated the idea that the two final canti of the Commedia stand in relation to each other, in their poetics as well as in other ways, in much the same manner as the Old Testament to the New:
Canto 32 is unadorned and fails to have an ending because it stands in relation to Paradiso 33 as the Old Covenant to the New. (Wounds of Time)
The thrust of canto 32 is toward the particular and unique. Each unbaptized infant has its own place, and all had been fixed before time began. We are given assorted proper names, individuals, but no clear sense of why these and not others. It displays the seemingly arbitrary predilection that the Old Testament God shows for his chosen people.

As we have seen, Paradiso 33 reaches a crescendo of polymorphic figuration teetering on open-ended linguistic arbitrariness. But there's more.

Canto 33 begins with Bernard's prayer, an act chosen in that moment to pray for Dante's accession to the totality. As when she chose in turn to consent to the wish conveyed by Gabriel, so Mary here chooses to consent to Bernard; Beatrice and all of heaven support the petition.

The freedom of the acts is fundamental: Dante's "wings" carry him upward, his gaze penetrates into the final vision, because they're propelled by the volition of the community of the saved. For one who had lived a life of exile, this vote of communal acceptance brings him into the longed-for fold.

Canto 33 dramatizes inclusion. In contrast, canto 32 has Bernard tracing all the differentiating walls and excluding fissures of divine providence,  the features and fixed destinies of the innocents. It's a discourse chilling enough in its precise fixities to evoke the immobilized denizens beneath the frozen lake of Satan's tears.

The possibility of Canto 33 issues from the Virgin's consent to the divine wish depicted in canto 32. The act of choice links the two canti, and it is choice that enables Dante ultimately to have his desire (il mio disio) moved with the will ('l velle) as the sun and the other stars (Barolini) are moved by l'amor. 

The full assertion of both singularity and totality, I believe, lies behind the charged syntax of the difficult tercet discussed in the previous post about canto 33. The insistence of differentiating oneness is never negated or subsumed -- in fact it betrays a certain trauma, even a frisson of sublime horror, as it beholds the totality:
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava. (112-114)
The vision of a gloria that moves all, yet chooses to allow piu e meno, subtends the Commedia from end to end.


There is no end to what one could say about this poem. I'll append one suggestion that seems relevant. Dante often echoes ancient myths solely in order to differentiate the nature of his world from that of the ancients. 

For example, the figure of wings recurrent in Paradiso both relates to his name -- ali-ghieri -- and to the power of heaven. The classical myth of Ganymede is all about desire and force -- the boy is so beautiful he's rapt by Zeus to serve the table of the gods.

Ganymede's will is negated in his trip to Olympus. He is prey. Dante has wings because we have will.

Yet that will is insufficient to reach the godhead.

When Dante the pilgrim and the alta fantasia of the poet cannot get there, 
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne:
 se non che la mia mente fu percossa
 da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne.
The fulgore comes from the other, yet its power fulfills the voglia of Dante.

Yet another myth brings us to a defining irony of the Commedia: When Zeus promised Semele her heart's wish, it meant the fulgore of her own destruction. From that insemination came the god of Tragedy, the anti-Apollo, the obliterator of difference.

The true story for this poet has it otherwise: Mary asks nothing of God. Courtly Gabriel asks her consent to bear the Son of God, and after a bit of questioning, she chooses to say yes. The absolutism of mythic power is not here.

Obliterating all trace of its origin, the fulgore grants a wish that Dante's wings couldn't actualize under their own steam. With the same respect for the other that was apparent at the Annunciation, the illimitable power leaves room for the comedic persistence of a certain Florentine, b.1265 - d.1321.

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