Saturday, December 19, 2015

Truth, desire and doubt in Par. 4

In Paradiso 4, Beatrice has just completed a subtle explication of will -- its elemental power, its potential to collude with violence. She clarifies how one who submits to coercion is nonetheless culpable by choosing not to escape from submission should the opportunity offer.

Dante is grateful, and, taking in her explanation, he finds another dubbio, a doubt that leads to another question.

He introduces it this way:
Io veggio ben che già mai non si sazia
nostro intelletto, se 'l ver non lo illustra
di fuor dal qual nessun vero si spazia.

Posasi in esso, come fera in lustra,
tosto che giunto l'ha; e giugner puollo:
se non, ciascun disio sarebbe frustra.

Nasce per quello, a guisa di rampollo,
a piè del vero il dubbio; ed è natura
ch'al sommo pinge noi di collo in collo.   

I see well that our intellect is never satisfied unless the truth enlighten it beyond which no truth can range.

In that it rests as soon as it gains it, like a beast in its lair; and it can gain it, else every desire were vain.

Doubt, therefore, like a shoot, springs from the root of the truth, and it is nature that urges us to the summit from height to height. (Sinclair trans. Par. 124-132)

Here the intellect reflects upon its own activity. The fact that intellect non si sazia - never satisfies itself -- assimilates the mind's effort to know the truth to desire, appetite, to a restless urge. The only thing that will bring the mind to rest is if it is illuminated by a truth outside of which no truth can range (si spazia).

The mind and truth here are in erotic tension -- the only thing that can satisfy the craving of the mind is a truth beyond which no truth can be found. Spaziarsi connotes wandering, playfully enlarging one's walk, one's passegiare, because it's enjoyable (see spassare).

Like sparziarsi, "di fuor dal qual" offers a spatial figure: outside of which no truth can range suggests there is a limit, although what is intended has no limit. Finite space is invoked to annihilate finite truth.

The blandness of the spatial figure is curious. To render a notion of the ultimate truth, the poet could have offered a riot of images relating to sublime totality, to the godhead, to the absolute in its infinite grandeur. Instead, we get a kind of limiting illumination, setting a border beyond which, simply, no truth can play. In the context of erotic play of mind and truth, to suggest that truth is that which limits the play of truth has two possibilities: either truth is so satisfying that it is like the ultimate beloved whose presence obliterates all others, or truth kills the play of difference, otherness, in its sober, self-contained precision.

The passage speaks of the truth about truth, but offers us a teasing ambiguity about its nature - is it sublimely beyond all bound (then how can it be distinguished from falsity?), or is its exacting correctness so binding as to end all speech? The first opens the door to the plenitude of the infinite; the second shuts it within cold tautology that brooks no argument -- the only thing one can say about the ultimate truth is that it is the ultimate truth: A = A.

A fine line: Is truth unending erotic bliss, or is it the All as baleful punctum?

Such balanced equivalence, or ambivalence, does not seem typical of this work. This is a poet who is never willing to leave something undecided -- especially something as urgent as the nature of ultimate truth. Of course it's the character Dante, not the author, who makes this articulation.

But this is the canto that began with a hungry man facing an undecidable choice between two perfectly equivalent objects of desire. There it was a simile employing a series of hypotheses; here, though, the pilgrim is describing to Beatrice, the source of truth, the plight of the intellect in the act of pursuing truth. What if truth is both infinite plenitude and aloof inarguability?

At this critical moment, on this blade's edge, the passage turns from the nature of truth to finding nature in our pursuit of it. One astute commentator is struck by the metaphors drawn from nature that now appear. Benvenuto da Imola, whose fine commentary was composed around 1375-80, thinks the figure of the intellect which can repose in the truth "like a beast in its lair" is especially fine:
come fera in lustra; et est optima metaphora: sicut enim fera diu vagatur et venatur per sylvam, et post omnes labores requiescit in antro; ita intellectus in mundo diu speculatur et contemplatur, et numquam quiescit nisi in ipso fine suo;
In this bold metaphor something that strikes a chord for Benvenuto that resonates back to the very start of the Commedia -- a beast wandering, hunting in a forest (sylvam) -- both the pilgrim and what he encountered in Inferno 1, louring images of his own intellect, lost, hungry, frustrated in the selva oscura. (Also resonating: Apollo, muse of the Paradiso, racing through the forest in hot pursuit of Daphne.)

The suggestion of savagery -- the beast can rest in its lair now because it's dined well upon the truth, or raped it -- hangs over this passage, which, unlike the beast, does not come to rest. Rather the pilgrim Dante asserts two things:
1. Intellect can join with the truth (giunto from giungere: "unite, couple with," noting that if it could not so conjoin, desire itself would be in vain), and,
2. At the moment the mind and truth join, new doubt springs up at its foot like a rampollo (seed, offshoot, or a natural spring of water).
The passage eludes being transfixed by the undecidable nature of truth by finding the truth of nature:
                                       . . . è natura
ch'al sommo pinge noi di collo in collo.   
As Benvenuto says, whatever else Nature is or does, it impels us (ad summam veritatem et felicitatem impellit nos). Our nature is to desire, desire spawns a quest until it kills what it desires; from that death spring new quests. We leap from peak to higher peak. This is the motion of a vibrant, active entity, a mind that is not spoon-fed, but freely hunts; a mind that's not reduced to abashed silence by knowledge, but is ever seeking. Doubt spurs us to conquer doubt.

Beatrice had said it is natural to rise and that we are part of nature. There is nothing especially noble about the quest for truth -- every flower turns toward the sun. Here Paradiso asserts its relevance and place in the quest of every human being, not just those gifted with divine revelation. We'll see this canticle proceed by leaps and bounds.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Labyrinth as trap or choice

A thoughtful post on classical and medieval uses of the labyrinth:
 Daedalus’ construction of a labyrinth is referred to by Virgil as an ‘inextricabilis error’ (Aen. 6.27) in the epic tale of the Aeneid. The poet recounts that the inventor fled Crete and went to Cumae, where he chiseled a drawing of his labyrinth on the temple doors that opened onto the passage into the underworld. Not long thereafter, Aeneas is warned that while it is easy to enter the underworld, it is much harder to find your way out. Daedalus’ creation of the Labyrinth was not without its problems. In his Metamorphoses (8.167-8), Ovid reminds us that the builder almost got lost in his own creation: “He, himself, was scarcely able to return to the threshold” (vixque ipse reverti ad limen potuit). Even the creator was not omniscient.

Sarah E. Bond's post ends with a provocative question about the difference between unicursal and multicursal labyrinths:

Tellingly, the multicursal labyrinths hinge on the choices of the individual, whereas the unicursal labyrinth hinges on the choices of the creator. It was not until the Renaissance of the 15th century that humanists began to depict non-symmetrical, chaotic, and more confused labyrinths. This was perhaps a direct reflection of new way of thinking about human agency and the divine.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tolstoy said it well

In reading Dante, one ought to know one is grappling with this:

"For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite"

Friday, December 04, 2015

A few notes . . . concluded (more or less)

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the opening movement of Dante's Paradiso.
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3    Part 4     Part 5

Paradiso 4 begins with three hypothetical exempla -- a man, a lamb, and a dog, each confronted with a need to choose one of two options. The needs are rooted in instincts -- hunger, self-protection, hunting -- but since the options offer no clue as to which is to be preferred, the ending in each case is death.

Why does Dante place this depiction of impasse, or undecidability, here? I can think of two reasons (both equally good, of course):

1. In cantos 1 to 3, Paradiso has followed a program that "ungrounds" the usual supports of intellect (as derived from the Greeks and scholastics). Perception, substance, and the modalities of space and time are not destroyed, but confidence in their use and verity is suspended. The pilgrim repeatedly has difficulty deciding whether what he is dealing with is here or there, or not here at all, or both here and there. Canto 4 will complicate that still further.

2. Taking a broader view, it can be seen that the pilgrim has developed from the soul lost in the selva oscura of Inferno 1 to the man who has been guided through Hell and Purgatory by one of the most learned classical minds, who releases him from his tutelage in Purgatorio 27 thus:
"Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno;
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:
per ch'io te sovra te corono e mitrio.”

"Expect no more or word or sign from me;
Free and upright and sound is thy free-will,
And error were it not to do its bidding;
Thee o'er thyself I therefore crown and mitre!"
Dante's schooling is not complete, but he has followed Virgil as far as one can via nature alone; his will is perfected. Having entered Purgatory as one who, Virgil tells Cato, liberta va cercando - "goes in search of liberty," Dante is now free to govern himself. 

It's this freedom that is found at an impasse at the opening of Paradiso 4:
Intra due cibi, distanti e moventi
d'un modo, prima si morria di fame,
che liber' omo l'un recasse ai denti;

Between two viands, equally removed
And tempting, a free man would die of hunger
Ere either he could bring unto his teeth.
The hungry man, poised exquisitely between equal feasts, cannot choose because he cannot tell which to prefer. His power to choose, though free, lacks traction -- dare we say because any methodologies of discernment have been subtracted from it.

Along with the loosening of the underprops of knowledge, there has been a concurrent concern in Paradiso 3 with will, illustrated in the stories of Piccarda and Costanza. What constitutes a vow, when is it effective, and what happens when one's intention to maintain a vow confronts a force that compels the one who wills to do other than she wills? The stories of the nuns, told in canto 3, are discussed and illuminated by Beatrice in canto 4.

St. Lawrence

Of course the predicament as described that the free man (and lamb and dog) is found in is not literally the case, but rather an analogy of the situation that Dante is actually confronting: two doubts assail him at once, making it impossible for him to speak, to ask Beatrice about one or the other:
da li miei dubbi d'un modo sospinto,
he is immobilized.

Both doubts involve reading. One has to do with whether the experience he's just had with souls in the Moon can be understood to support a literal reading of Plato's Timaeus. The other has to do with how to read the tales of those souls, Piccarda and Costanza -- to understand what they are saying about vows kept and broken. 

Beatrice's response to Dante says that to take the Timaeus literally, with its cyclical vision of souls determined by their planetary point of origin and return, would be a grave error -- indeed, it's the error that led to pagan polytheism, she avers. 

She contrasts such a literal reading of Plato with the statement that what Dante just experienced in canto 3 is a kind of sign. The souls appear and converse, but this is how Paradiso and Scripture fa segno -- make signs, which accommodate themselves to our limited faculties that depend upon the senses to arrive at knowledge.

So instead of being literal, the experience of the pilgrim is figural. Beatrice is unequivocal in setting up such a relation:

Souls in Paradiso : Pilgrim ::  Scripture : Human Reader*

Here the poem is making a meta-statement about its own reading.

This mode of "condescension" -- which, for example, attributes hands and feet to God and angels -- revises what the pilgrim has experienced -- both in canto 3 and throughout his voyage. Those angels he saw in Inferno 9 and throughout Purgatorio? We and the pilgrim "saw" them with human attributes, but now we learn that they were signs, i.e., figural accommodations to our limitations. We and the pilgrim have been experiencing allegory without being aware of it. 

If we thought we were on thin ice before, we are now in vertiginous territory. Looking back, we can no longer "see" those angels the same -- looking ahead, we are armed with the insight that all that we will experience will be other than what it truly is. If we were not told this, could we ever have discovered it for ourselves? Let's hold that question for now. The task of reading proceeds in this new "light."

This post is already longer than intended. A couple of quick observations relating this complex web of themes to certain poetic effects.

1. Intellect and Condescension. Condescension invites us to consider a mode of signification that is not rooted in nature. That is to say, when the power of the Lord is compared with mighty thunder, we are well within the tropes of the sensory, cognitive mirroring of the natural world. But when the Lord is given feet to walk in the Garden of Eden, or a mouth to speak with, there is no necessary natural link between the signifier (foot, mouth) and signified (Lord). From our perspective, as Beatrice says, such images are necessary to help our limited powers of apprehension; but from the perspective of what they "represent," they may be entirely arbitrary. We are faced with signs that neither depend on the senses nor can yield knowledge of what they signify by way of scientific experiment, logic, or any other mode of attention to their appearance. We are beyond mimesis leading to the question of how, given our limited intellects, such signs are to be read.

2. Will and Choice. In Canto 5, Beatrice will call the will's liberty the greatest gift (lo maggior don) that God made in creation. One can easily take the opening of canto 4 as an expression of crisis -- the will is paralyzed, the intellect is of no use, the hungry man dies. Following as it does from shocks to our abilities to be certain of what we know, it seems to put in question the very point of free will. For if it is impossible to decide what's better than what, our freedom comes to resemble that of the couch potato who has 500 channels, none of which offers discernible value -- meaningful difference -- over the others.

At root here is the nexus of knowledge and power, intellect and will. To have one without the other is to have nothing. One needs both power and a sense that can penetrate discerningly the intricacies of Nature, a mind that can accede to whatever lies beyond. 

Beatrice makes this all or nothingness clear with a play on words: 
li nostri voti, e vòti in alcun canto. (Purg. 3.67)
A vow (voto), if broken, is void (vòto). Humans act when performing promises, vows, which only exist so long as the will that made them is intact. We are in the realm that can perhaps benefit from an understanding of performative speech acts, in which meaning, being, and action may coincide.

If action without the guidance of intellect is chaos, and intellect itself is compromised by limits to our senses and understanding, and if signs no longer can be reliably interpreted to mean what they appear to be, the resulting paralysis might well lead to terminal frustration. As an aside, this can be linked with modern crises of faith, and post-modern gestures of futility. As we saw with Belacqua in Purgatorio 4 and now again with the "free man" who dies of hunger in Paradiso 4, Samuel Beckett's ghost is likely hiding under a nearby rock.

But in fact Paradiso 4 isn't riled by the sturm und drang issuing from these affronts to will and intellect. The pilgrim, so tied in knots by his dubbi as to be unable to speak, is resolved and restored to an energetic plenitude through the ministrations of Beatrice.


This is not to say the tragic dimensions of this crisis of knowledge and will are absent -- they are there, embedded for example in the allusions to Nebuchadnezzar and Alcmaeon -- powerful kings, trapped by signs.

The tales of foretold events relate to the asymmetry of intellect and will. Nebuchadnezzar wishes to know what his portentous dream means, and puts his interpreters to the test. Amphiaraus wishes to control events in light of a future event -- his own death, and imposes his will upon his son:

  • Nebuchadnezzar cannot understand his dream, but knows it portends something big about his future. In his frustration at being unable to decipher it, he demands that his soothsayers not merely interpret his dream, but first tell him what he dreamed, under pain of death if they fail -- an interpreter's nightmare if ever there was one.
  • Alcmaeon's father, Amphiaraus, foresaw his own death at Thebes, and imposed his will upon his son Alcmaeon: the impious killing of Alcmaeon's mother, Eriphyle, as soon as Amphiaraus's foreseen end took place. 

These nightmares of  violent madness and vengeful matricide trace the tragic potential of the "free man's" predicament in Paradiso 4. Such extremes are certainly implicit, but in the manner of distant tales, or islands seen safely from a seaworthy ship. The poet of the Paradiso wants his readers to be mindful of the darker implications of the crisis of intellect and will, but those resonances do not dictate the tonality of the song. The semantic and tonal complexity at work here might be compared to the burgeoning polyphony of the 14th century.

Near the end of canto 4, the pilgrim is inebriated with the light of Beatrice's teaching.
"O amanza del primo amante, o diva,”
diss' io appresso, “il cui parlar m'inonda
e scalda sì, che più e più m'avviva,

"O love of the first lover, O divine,"
Said I forthwith, "whose speech inundates me
And warms me so, it more and more revives me,
The "free man" of the start (aka Buridan's ass) is now seen more as a cartoon than as a doomed, tragic king. We might not yet know why we are firmly in the comic mode, but, in this reviving warmth, we know we are.

*John Freccero formulated it this way in a lecture many years ago.