Friday, May 11, 2018

"iri da iri": Polysemy in Paradiso 33

Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza 
de l'alto lume parvermi tre giri 
di tre colori e d'una contenenza;  
e l'un da l'altro come iri da iri 
parea reflesso, e 'l terzo parea foco 
che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri.

Within the deep and luminous subsistence
  Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
  Of threefold colour and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
  As Iris is by Iris, and the third
  Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed. (33:115-120)

As we noted when reading Paradiso 33, the figuration used by Dante the poet to describe the final moments of the pilgrim's vision stands open to a nearly inexhaustible range of readings.

Two scholars have set themselves the task of exploring the myriad suggestions that bubble forth from close attention to the text. Their meticulous discussion, complete with manifold variations of geometric forms -- circles, spheroids, spirals, tori, cylinders, ellipsoids and more -- forms a study that succeeds admirably both in clarifying the interpretive variables as far as humanly possible, and in exhausting any merely human reader of their disquisition.

Arielle Saiber and Aba Mbirika's "The three giri of Paradiso XXXIII" explores the ambiguous folds of the text with rigor and richness. Indeed, they must have pored over it with the kindling intensity Dante describes as having possessed his own mind at this crucial threshold:
Così la mente mia, tutta sospesa
 mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
 e sempre di mirar faceasi accesa.
My mind in this wise wholly in suspense,
  Steadfast, immovable, attentive gazed,
  And evermore with gazing grew enkindled. (97-99)
Given that the object of his attention had just been described as un volume in which all the dispersed substances and accidents of the universe are bound together in love, it might not be too fanciful to find here, in this paeon to concentration, one of the finest imaginable descriptions of the mind in the act of close reading.

Be that as it may, their scholarly paper is rich, thorough, mathematically informed, and describes many of the ambiguities latent in the text with regard to shape, motion, size, color, and configuration. It rewards the close attention it demands, before confessing, late in the essay, that
When we think of all the possible ways three circles could be linked, as we have done so far in this essay, a kind of vertigo begins to set in.
Indeed, although the essay doesn't address it directly, one can link the experiential delirium brought on by a superabundance of figuration to the preceding passage:
Non perché più ch'un semplice sembiante
fosse nel vivo lume ch'io mirava,
che tal è sempre qual s'era davante;
ma per la vista che s'avvalorava
in me guardando, una sola parvenza,
mutandom' io, a me si travagliava.
Not because more than one unmingled semblance
  Was in the living light on which I looked,
  For it is always what it was before;

But through the sight, that fortified itself
  In me by looking, one appearance only
  To me was ever changing as I changed. (109-114)
As challenging as this is to parse, and certainly to translate, it should be evident that the act of looking deeply -- mirare -- has shifted from the stability of line 98:
 mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,
to his deeply looking into the vivo lume, yielding a vista -- the "object" of the gaze, one might say, that is no longer a stable object.

A poor effort at a literal rending might go something like:
but through the vista that was strengthening itself
in me looking, a single appearance,
I transforming, to me intensely was working (si travagliava
The lines fall outside Saiber and Mbirika's focus, but the bursting syntax forces what is seen to be asserted as a unified appearance even as its power seems to destabilize the seeing of it. In being seen, the object -- vivo lume -- subjects the vision of the subject to another power.

With extraordinary verisimilitude, Dante depicts what would happen if light were not the passive illumination we know, but alive. "Vertiginous" scarcely begins to suggest the condition of vision seeing living light. Yet it would be difficult to articulate this disarticulation in a manner more precise, or clear.

In his fine commentary, Nicola Fosca divides these two moments of sameness and transformation rather neatly into (1) the poet who knows in retrospect that the living light remained single, and (2) the pilgrim whose seeing is undergoing the throes of change. He puts it this way:
La luce divina non muta, ma quello che muta è la visione.
Divine light doesn't change, but that which changes is the vision. 
Neat, but perhaps too agile in sidestepping the potent action of an unassimilable other, the living travail of si travagliava.

Theodolinda Barolini is sensitive to this in her comment on the canto:
Dante believes in a transcendent One, but his One is indelibly characterized by the multiplicity, difference, and sheer otherness embodied in the “altre stelle”—an otherness by which he is still unrepentantly captivated in his poem’s last breath.

In all events, Saiber and Mbirika's work is itself first rate, and without it I would not have ventured into the multeity and polysemy herein.

Before leaving this part of the final vision, I would like to suggest one element that I've not seen mentioned in the commentaries. It immediately follows the passage under discussion:
Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza 
de l'alto lume parvermi tre giri 
di tre colori e d'una contenenza; 
e l'un da l'altro come iri da iri 
parea reflesso, e 'l terzo parea foco 
che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri. 
Within the deep and luminous subsistence
  Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
  Of threefold colour and of one dimension,

And by the second seemed the first reflected
  As Iris is by Iris, and the third
  Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed. (115-120)

First, there is the assertion that one of the giri appeared to be a reflection of another come iri da iri. The notion of mirroring true light is unusual here, since all of this light ought to be considered true, unreflected, and living, and therefore no prioritization into primary source and secondary reflection should be appropriate. Of course the text does not impose that prioritization, and in fact it can go both ways, as "one" and "other" are not univocally tethered to any "one" of the circles he is seeing. It is entirely ambiguous whether there is any difference between "one," "two," and "three." Dante is true to the violation of identity and number essential to the vision.

But when the reflection is expressed this way:
come iri da iri 
we are in the position of being uncertain whether the vehicle of the simile concerns a relation of rainbows, as many commentators apparently believe, or whether, in this final realm of the logos, the giri are as like as "iri" da "iri" -- a metalinguistic statement that this "reflection" is in fact repetition -- a purely linguistic iteration rather than an aesthetic phenomenon.

What's more, the reflection is now no longer a matter of light and appearance (Saiber and Mbirika spend some time on the optics of double rainbows), but of sound and grapheme. Whether one says "iri" or writes it, it can only be "iri."

Now this alone is worth pondering, but I would offer one additional twist: If we listen to the phrase come iri da iri, one might hear com' irid a iri, whose living sound yields iride, the Iris that's both the colored circle around the opening of the eye, and the flower long associated with Dante's earthly home, the iride Fiorentina:

Given the explosion of figurative and semantic possibility at this point in the text, is it reasonable to rule out yet one more instance? Might it not fall strangely right to hear in come iri da iri a sonorous tri-unity of eye, rainbow, and Florentine flower, also known as the Giglio celeste,* prefiguring the poet's heavenly home?

*Giglio celeste was also known as Giaggiolo, which happened to be the name of a castle linked to Paolo Malatesta, Francesca's lover.

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