Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Fortune's sons: Francis and Caesar in Paradiso 11

We look at Francis's Povertà and see lack, vacancy. As when we try to look at the logic and conclusions of Providence:
La provedenza, che governa il mondo
con quel consiglio nel quale ogne aspetto
creato è vinto pria che vada al fondo,
The Providence, which governeth the world
With counsel, wherein all created vision
Is vanquished ere it reach unto the bottom, (11.28-30)
Every attempt to see the totality of the consiglio of Providence is overcome. Not defeated by logical argument, but vinto, overwhelmed like Ulysses's ship. Every created eye founders before fathoming the counsel employed by the governor of the world.

What makes Francis the solar force he is has to do neither with his teaching, nor with his lovely Canticle of the SunIt lies in his power to move men.

Thomas says of Francis and his lover:
La lor concordia e i lor lieti sembianti,
amore e maraviglia e dolce sguardo
facieno esser cagion di pensier santi;

tanto che 'l venerabile Bernardo
si scalzò prima, e dietro a tanta pace
corse e, correndo, li parve esser tardo.
Their concord and their joyous semblances,
The love, the wonder, and the sweet regard,
They made to be the cause of holy thoughts;

So much so that the venerable Bernard
First bared his feet, and after so great peace
Ran, and, in running, thought himself too slow.
Francis's joy in Emptiness caused people to pursue him. Such was the alacrity of his ardor for Povertà that those overcome by it had to learn to run. He occasioned holy thoughts in them. As Robert Hollander notes, the past tense of si scalzò changes to a narrative present as the dactyls (scalzasi . . . scalzasi) pick up the pace:
Oh ignota ricchezza! oh ben ferace!
Scalzasi Egidio, scalzasi Silvestro
dietro a lo sposo, sì la sposa piace.
O wealth unknown! O veritable good!
Giles bares his feet, and bares his feet Sylvester
Behind the bridegroom, so doth please the bride!
The speed of Francis's motion, and his power to move men, to turn the love of Nothing into the fertile (ferace means "fertile," pace Longfellow) source of holy thoughts is underscored by an astonishing parallel, found in the tale of Amyclas. The curious allusion to Lucan's story tends to be read as a straightforward, simple analogy: Amyclas is like Francis, and his story affirms the freedom of Poverty from fear and the enchantments of power and desire,

But does one really need Amyclas to exemplify a happy freedom from fortune? A closer look at this tale (see here for ease of reference) shows us a simple fisherman, to be sure. But in Lucan's scene, Amyclas is the one with a boat, a home, food and a fire. Caesar comes to unabashedly beg from him.

Caesar, known for his power to move men, and for his astonishing speed, comes alone to the poor fisherman's shack in dire need. Amyclas offers many sound and prudent reasons as to why taking to the stormy seas just then would be very risky. He says:
"The billows tumble. Judged by clouds and sky
'A western tempest: by the murmuring deep
'A wild south-eastern gale shall sweep the sea.
'Nor bark nor man shall reach Hesperia's shore
In this wild rage of waters." (Pharsalia 5)
That's just for starters. Amyclas goes on for quite a while, describing all the potential dangers. It is Caesar who, free from fear, says to the fisherman:
"Scorn the threatening sea,
Spread out thy canvas to the raging wind;
If for thy pilot thou refusest heaven,
Me in its stead receive. Alone in thee
One cause of terror just-thou dost not know
Thy comrade, ne'er deserted by the gods,
Whom fortune blesses e'en without a prayer.
Break through the middle storm and trust in me."
Overriding all the practical fellow's objections, Caesar has Amyclas embark on seas blasted by hurricane winds - to which Lucan's hyperbolic description does full justice. Indeed, so powerful is the storm that Caesar confronts the possibility of his own death:
" . . . if to the deep the glory of my fall
Is due, and not to war, intrepid still
Whatever death they send shall strike me down.
Let fate cut short the deeds that I would do
And hasten on the end: the past is mine."
Who here is less a thrall to Fortuna?* Is it difficult to see some of Lucan's Caesar in the man from Assisi? A little further on in Thomas's story, Francis, embarking on a boat fraught with danger not just to him, but to the political and religious tensions in the world at that time, heads across the sea to convert the Sultan. Nothing could be less like Amyclas.

Francis, like Caesar, is a kind of loose cannon -- neither man shrank in the face of more than human danger -- both were free from terror that would stop most men cold.

This seems relevant to the complex figuration of Francis as Sun. The heat of ardor, divorced from the light of contemplative reason, can pose a threat, even a danger, to established order. Francis's ecstatic love of Povertà threatened to turn the social and economic orders of the 13th century upside down. The man was a political force -- he had people, increasing behind him, who loved him, as the common Romans did Caesar. This might seem a far-fetched parallel, but we might keep it in mind as we consider it in tandem with Paradiso 12, which delicately mirrors and balances this canto.

Dante frames Francis by having Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant rationalist, tell his story. It's as if one invited a thoughtful writer -- Dorothy Kearns Goodwin or Bertrand Russell -- to narrate a "life" of Donald Trump.

To look ahead: The chiastic structures at work in cantos 11 and 12 -- the interplay of Thomas/Francis and Dominic/Bonaventura and many reflecting elements -- serve as one way a poet writing beyond the sun will use a musical architecture to speak about the sun, the earth, and the "Chi," the harmonious and fertile fusion of heat and light that gives life where otherwise nothing would be.

The dissonant twist that exchanges properties of St. Francis and Caesar packs a surprising punch that we have seen before in Paradiso. It breaks all rules, defies all normative expectations. We'll never get used to it, but that's how it should be. We might call it a poetics of surprise.

*(The commentator known as the Anonimo Fiorentino (14th c.) summarizes the story, noting that Caesar offers Amyclas a way out of poverty: Rispuose Cesare: Se tu mi farai questo servigio, io ti provvedrò sì che tu non avrai bisogno d'andare a tale servizio; e trarrotti di questa povertade. Cited in Toynbee.)

Amyclas and Caesar

This scene from book 5 of Lucan's Pharsalia is placed here for ease of reference for the discussion in this blog post. It's the story of Amyclas and Caesar that is alluded to in Paradiso 11. 

Fortune for his guide,
Alone he passes on, and o'er the guard
Stretched in repose he leaps, in secret wrath
At such a sleep. Pacing the winding beach,
Fast to a sea-worn rock he finds a boat
On ocean's marge afloat. Hard by on shore
Its master dwelt within his humble home.
No solid front it reared, for sterile rush
And marshy reed enwoven formed the walls,
Propped by a shallop with its bending sides
Turned upwards. Caesar's hand upon the door
Knocks twice and thrice until the fabric shakes.
Amyclas from his couch of soft seaweed
Arising, calls: ' What shipwrecked sailor seeks
'My humble home? Who hopes for aid from me,
' By fates adverse compelled? ' He stirs the heap
Upon the hearth, until a tiny spark
Glows in the darkness, and throws wide the door.
Careless of war, he knew that civil strife
Stoops not to cottages. O! happy life
That poverty affords! great gift of heaven
Too little understood! what mansion wall,
What temple of the gods, would feel no fear
When Caesar called for entrance? Then the chief:
' Enlarge thine hopes and look for better things.
' Do but my bidding, and on yonder shore
' Place me, and thou shalt cease from one poor boat
' To earn thy living; and in years to come
' Look for a rich old age: and trust thy fates
' To those high gods whose wont it is to bless
' The poor with sudden plenty.' So he spake
E'en at such time in accents of command,
For how could Caesar else? Amyclas said,
''Twere dangerous to brave the deep to-night.
' The sun descended not in ruddy clouds
' Or peaceful rays to rest; part of his beams
' Presaged a southern gale, the rest proclaimed
' A northern tempest; and his middle orb,
' Shorn of its strength, permitted human eyes
' To gaze upon his grandeur; and the moon
' Rose not with silver horns upon the night
' Nor pure in middle space; her slender points
'Not drawn aright, but blushing with the track
' Of raging tempests, till her lurid light
'Was sadly veiled within the clouds. Again
' The forest sounds; the surf upon the shore;
' The dolphin's mood, uncertain where to play;
' The sea-mew on the land; the heron used
' To wade among the shallows, borne aloft
' And soaring on his wings-all these alarm;
' The raven, too, who plunged his head in spray,
' As if to anticipate the coming rain,
And trod the margin with unsteady gait.
But if the cause demands, behold me thine.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Defective premises: Francis in Paradiso 11

The five cantos of the Sun (Par. 10-14) open with the Trinity, and with the chiastic (X-shaped) intersection of the celestial equator and the ecliptic.

These moments offer another ground, a new beginning that has consequences for the poet's strategy, his poetics. As he explains in Paradiso 10, no one has ever been able to look at the sun, so to describe anything brighter than it is not within our powers:
Perch' io lo 'ngegno e l'arte e l'uso chiami,
sì nol direi che mai s'imaginasse;
ma creder puossi e di veder si brami.
E se le fantasie nostre son basse
a tanta altezza, non è maraviglia;
ché sopra 'l sol non fu occhio ch'andasse.
I, though I call on genius, art, and practice,
Cannot so tell that it could be imagined;
Believe one can, and let him long to see it. 
And if our fantasies too lowly are
For altitude so great, it is no marvel,
Since o'er the sun was never eye could go.
In part, this means we get to hear more than we see. We hear the learned dottori of the Church speak and sing. They are lucid and aware enough of the limits of their understanding to sing from the same hymnal, as it were.

In Paradiso 11, there's another new jumping off point -- having brought up the "invidious" syllogisms of Siger near the conclusion of Paradiso 10, the new canto opens with a critique of practical logic:
O insensata cura de' mortali,
quanto son difettivi silogismi
quei che ti fanno in basso batter l'ali!
O Thou insensate care of mortal men,
How inconclusive are the syllogisms
That make thee beat thy wings in downward flight! (11.1-3)
The passage proceeds to describe various human pursuits, some based in books (law, medicine, priesthood, sophistry), some in crime (theft), some in ambition (politics), some in pleasure.

The idea that human beings and their choices are driven by a kind of logic susceptible to being faulty is quite Aristotelian. One can invent such syllogisms as:
Power is good
Political leadership brings power
I will pursue political leadership.

Ghirlandaio, Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinita

The problem is that the first principles of these practical logical arguments are often difettivi. Longfellow's rendering of difettivi as "inconclusive" might miss the target here -- in the example just now, equating political leadership with power begs the question of whether all modes of power are good. Without first demonstrating that, the reasoning can be called defective. That is, it certainly leads to a conclusion, it just happens to be an erroneous one, as anyone following politics these days can affirm!

Basing life choices on defective logic can cause wings, which normally help the soul defy gravity, to fly in basso.

This knowledge of how logic errs precedes Aquinas's tale of St. Francis -- a man whose cura might not take the form of a syllogism, but whose ardor qualifies him as a solar being. It's a tale of a son choosing to love Povertà, who is anathema to his wealthy merchant father. The son removed the fine silk attire that brought financial security, and stood unclothed before his father and the city.

Povertà becomes Francis's cura, his first premise -- a highly vulnerable premise of owning, having, positing, nothing. His life will unfold with the unique logic that flows from such a principle.

To be continued . . .

Friday, March 11, 2016

Paradiso 10: Mai da lei l'occhio non parte (3)

One is lost in conjecture as to the motive which impelled Dante, the admirer of Thomism, to place in the mouth of St. Thomas Aquinas the eulogy of Siger of Brabant, the apostle of Averroism. -- Catholic Encyclopedia.

After Dante returns from his momentary oblivion (mente unita), he and Beatrice see and hear 12 learned doctors of the Church, singing and turning around them.

It's a fair bet that anyone who's ever studied even a little of Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Peter the Lombard or Richard of St. Victor has not reflexively thought of them as dancing ladies. The audacity of the figure - one out of a profusion of tropes that serially proceed from one another in this scene - has been both admired and criticized.
Poi, sì cantando, quelli ardenti soli
 si fuor girati intorno a noi tre volte,
 come stelle vicine a' fermi poli, 
donne mi parver, non da ballo sciolte,
 ma che s'arrestin tacite, ascoltando
 fin che le nove note hanno ricolte.
As soon as singing thus those burning suns
  Had round about us whirled themselves three times,
  Like unto stars neighbouring the steadfast poles, 
Ladies they seemed, not from the dance released,
  But who stop short, in silence listening
  Till they have gathered the new melody.
Museo Archaeo Cagliari

Charles Singleton points to an Italian scholar's description of a ballata, a dance song:
He represents the customary manner of dancing to a
ballata, in which the lady who leads the song recites the
first stanza [the ripresa or ritornello], standing still;
when she has done this, the entire group of dancers moves in
a round dance, repeating the stanza, and when finished,
stops; then the lady of the song [i.e., who first began the
song], again standing still, sings the next stanza, which
ends rhyming with the first whereupon the group again does a round dance, singing again the stanza called ritornello.
Dante's dancers, let's bear in mind, are blazing suns. They are singing and circling, then they pause -- not released from the dance, but for a moment silent, suspending their motion; they listen, gather the nove note, the new notes, and begin again.

It might be a small point, but it seems to me the "ladies" of Dante's dance are not pausing to hear one of their own sing a known song. Rather, they all pause, in silence, listening, until they gather the new notes. These circling suns are giving themselves not to something they already know. They are silently attending to something new.

Is it too fanciful to see these dancers as listening to new notes of music, which then dictate the dance? In this way, they are replicating the pattern above, when Dante wrote several terzine about turning wheels, then paused, telling us to pause and attend to them, while he turned to listen to new words to write down in his role of scribe?

From guardando, the first word of the canto, on, the contemplative act -- looking at and listening to the Other, then noting (pensando dietro), writing, singing, dancing what is heard -- has been a unifying motif of canto 10. The poet tells us to vagheggiar ne l'arte - to contemplate with love the art, the turning heavens:
tanto che mai da lei l'occhio non parte.
The Maker's "eye" never parts from his Creation; later, Thomas Aquinas will say that one who listens well delights to see every good in the false world:
Per vedere ogne ben dentro vi gode
 l'anima santa che 'l mondo fallace
 fa manifesto a chi di lei ben ode.  
By seeing every good therein exults
The sainted soul, which the fallacious world
Makes manifest to him who listeneth well; (10.124-26)
To find such good, to hear something genuinely new, one has to attend with care to what is there and stop listening to oneself (Paradiso 10 a manifesto of close reading?). How does this motif, binding everyone from God to the poet to the lettor, play out with the dancers?

Aquinas introduces a considerable variety of authors who were also readers -- an historian, a mystic interpreter, a natural scientist, logicians, allegorists, philosophers, and even Siger de Brabant, whose rigorous Averroism put him at odds with his contemporary theologians, including Aquinas.

Aquinas begins his list with his "brother and master" Albertus, but even before Albertus we hear of Dominic, the shepherd whose flock contained the lambs called Thomas and Albertus. The strong sense of an obedient community and the bonds of a worthy teacher-student pair begin the list, which then broadens into a more diverse group spread across centuries and different lands, ending with Siger, whose contentious Averroism got him condemned by the Inquisitor of France.

Once again, Dante's staging provokes palpable surprise. The author of the "Siger" article in the Catholic Encyclopedia can't for the life of him understand what would prompt Dante to include an Averroist among these ardent suns. But perhaps there's a clue in that very article:
Siger was the adversary of Albertus Magnus and of St. Thomas Aquinas, "contra praecipuos viros Albertum et Thomam". His principal work (De anima intellectiva) called forth St. Thomas's treatise on the unity of the intellect (De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas). Siger in fact supported all the beliefs of the Averroist philosophy — the monism of the human intellect; one intellectual spirit for all men, separate from the body, is temporarily united with each human organism to accomplish the process of thought.
For sober theologians, the inclusion of Siger comes dangerously close to an endorsement of heretical thought. The author fully anticipates their surprise. But here in the canto of the Sun, we have diverse minds in motion, singing to each other harmonies that surpass their light:
più dolci in voce che in vista lucenti (10.66)
Something other than the intellect as source of declarative statements of truths is at work here. Consider this delicious irony: One of the salient points of Siger's thought was the unity of intellect. His assertion that we all share one immortal mind is a key reason others, including Aquinas, attacked him. The doctors of the Church, as learned as they were, spoke truth as they saw it, and apparently were least able to unite intellectually when it came to the question of intellectual unity.

Then there are the remarkable closing words of Aquinas's speech, again apropos of Siger:
"silogizzò invidïosi veri.”
"did syllogize invidious truths"  (10.138)
Dante, Beatrice, Siger and other Sapienti
Several translators and commentators (but not Longfellow or Sinclair) render this as "enviable truths." This sounds conciliatory, but makes no sense. If Siger's truths were enviable, what were those of Thomas or Boethius? We might say instead that his truths themselves were invidious -- not the thinker, but the thoughts. Siger is acknowledged as one whose truths wrought disharmony, dissonance within the Schoolmen and throughout the Church intelligentsia.

If so, this might help us see what is truly uniting Paradiso 10: not whether someone is narrowly, pedantically correct in what he states as truth, but rather whether the truth is offered in the contemplative spirit, and how, in that spirit, differences -- twists, inflections, conflicts from one point of view to another -- are generative of new, fertilizing insights. The temperate torque (torta) of the heavens is replicated in the turnings of the mind, arguing and doubting in the quest for truth whose depths exceed its furthest reach. Yes, the folle volo of Ulysses resonates here, but instead of heroic folly, lambs that grow fat as they quest.

The final simile transforms the music of the 12 turning sapienti into the inner workings of a clock. pushing and pulling, counting the hours, and awakening the Bride of God:
Indi, come orologio che ne chiami
ne l'ora che la sposa di Dio surge
a mattinar lo sposo perché l'ami,

che l'una parte e l'altra tira e urge,
tin tin sonando con sì dolce nota,
che 'l ben disposto spirto d'amor turge;
così vid'ïo la gloriosa rota
 muoversi e render voce a voce in tempra
 e in dolcezza ch'esser non pò nota
se non colà dove gioir s'insempra.
Then, as a horologe that calleth us
What time the Bride of God is rising up
With matins to her Spouse that he may love her,

Wherein one part the other draws and urges,
Ting! ting! resounding with so sweet a note,
That swells with love the spirit well disposed,
 Thus I beheld the glorious wheel move round,
  And render voice to voice, in modulation
  And sweetness that can not be comprehended,
Excepting there where joy is made eternal.   (Par. 10. 139-148)
The concatenation of music, mechanical action, time and lovemaking is the final surprise of the canto, and it returns us to the moment when we readers first were told to raise our eyes to the wheeling stars. There we saw not just the oblique angle of the ecliptic, but considered the virtue it imparts, rendering Earth fecund. In the X of the wheeling heavens lies the call and response of the sources of life -- water, light, heat, song, love, both human and divine, joy -- then foretasted, now right on time.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Paradise 10: Mai da lei l'occhio non parte (2)

Between the address to the reader in Paradiso 10 and the next line, which begins
Lo ministro maggior della natura
The greatest of the ministers of nature, (10.28)
the poet realizes that he is already in the Sun, without having sensed motion or time. He "sees" the Sun as a minister, that is, as one who carries out the commands of a ruler. In imprinting the world and measuring time, the minister is performing tasks assigned to him:
che del valor del ciel lo mondo imprenta
e col suo lume il tempo ne misura
Who with the power of heaven the world imprints
And measures with his light the time for us,
Unlike earlier evocations of Nature as an elemental force, e.g., fire's indomitable upward tendency, Nature here seems closer to a royal court.

In figuring the Sun as a subordinate, Dante might be taking a leaf from Ovid's tale of Phaethon in Metamorphoses 2, whose father is a god, but one with a job, a sort of bureaucratic functionary charged with keeping control of his chariot's horses, so that light, heat, and time keep their measured courses.

Beatrice's words make clear to the poet that this Sun, for all its brilliance, is but a visible servant of another. And this triggers a remarkable bit of playfulness, which hits us when we realize that the usual cliche, the blinding of the human eye that looks at the Sun, is missing from this canto. One would expect it to at least be alluded to at the moment of arrival in the sun, but it isn't:
E Bëatrice cominciò: “Ringrazia,
ringrazia il Sol de li angeli, ch'a questo
sensibil t'ha levato per sua grazia.”
And Beatrice began: "Give thanks, give thanks
Unto the Sun of Angels, who to this
Sensible one has raised thee by his grace!"
 And then, it is:
Cor di mortal non fu mai sì digesto
 a divozione e a rendersi a Dio
 con tutto 'l suo gradir cotanto presto,

come a quelle parole mi fec' io;
 e sì tutto 'l mio amore in lui si mise,
 che Bëatrice eclissò ne l'oblio.
Never was heart of mortal so disposed
To worship, nor to give itself to God
With all its gratitude was it so ready,

As at those words did I myself become;
And all my love was so absorbed in Him,
That in oblivion Beatrice was eclipsed.
Instead of having his eyes extinguished by the physical light of the sun, the poet is blinded by a twist, or trope: Beatrice is "eclipsed" when she speaks his being raised by the grace of il Sol de li angeli. Dante is flooded by grateful love of God, and Beatrice, who is brighter than the visible Sun, for an instant is blotted out.

Note that it's Beatrice's speaking that brings about this oblio. She speaks, he hears, and in hearing, experiences love. That her word inspires the poet with love echoes the first tercet of the canto, where the Father and the Son (Word) mutually breath love.

And it is her laughing eyes that return the poet to the multiplicity of things from the obliteration of what he calls the mente unita:
                                    ma si se ne rise
che lo splendor de li occhi suoi ridenti
mia mente unita in più cose divise.
                                    but she smiled at it
So that the splendour of her laughing eyes
My single mind on many things divided.  (10.61-63)
In the poet's education in Paradise, this split-second supersensory eclipse is a foretaste of a something greater, beyond the senses, to come. It will urge him on, just as he told us readers that our contemplation of the heavenly wheels would provide us with a foretaste of joy.

This brings us back, in a way, to the preliba, the "foretaste" the reader was told he will experience if he really paid attention to the wheeling skies above. Can the reader be said to have foretasted joy, as Dante assured him would happen? Has that promise been fulfilled? Perhaps not yet. There's the rest of the canto to attend to.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Paradiso 10: Mai da lei l'occhio non parte (1)

Paradiso 10 begins a new moment in this canticle. We are in the Sun, and no shadow from Earth reaches this far -- as such, it is a place of absolute lucidity, and we readers are directly told to raise our eyes and look at the circling heavens - the celestial equator and the ecliptic.

When we do so, he notes, we are not seeing a parallel, symmetric, or perpendicular alignment. One wheel is torta -- twisted, turned 23.5 degrees (axial tilt) -- with respect to the other.

Vedi come da indi si dirama
l'oblico cerchio che i pianeti porta,
per sodisfare al mondo che li chiama.
Che se la strada lor non fosse torta,
molta virtù nel ciel sarebbe in vano,
e quasi ogne potenza qua giù morta;
e se dal dritto più o men lontano
fosse 'l partire, assai sarebbe manco
e giù e sù de l'ordine mondano.

Behold how from that point goes branching off
The oblique circle, which conveys the planets,
To satisfy the world that calls upon them;

And if their pathway were not thus inflected,
Much virtue in the heavens would be in vain,
And almost every power below here dead.

If from the straight line distant more or less
Were the departure, much would wanting be
Above and underneath of mundane order. (Par. 10. 13-21)
The axis of Earth remains oriented in the same direction with reference to the background stars regardless of where it is in its orbit. Northern hemisphere summer occurs at the right side of this diagram, where the north pole (red) is directed toward the Sun, winter at the left.
Dante is drawing the reader's attention to an astronomical fact. He had already written about this in Book 3 of the Convivio, citing Albertus Magnus and Lucan, as well as the ancient astrologers, as sources. Here's the prose account:
. . . the sphere of the Sun revolves from west to east, not directly aligned counter to the diurnal movement of day and night, but obliquely to it; so that this ecliptic, equidistant between the poles of its sphere, on which the body of the Sun is situated, cuts the celestial equator between the celestial poles, into two opposing regions, that is at the first point of Aries and the first of Libra, and diverges from it along two semicircular arcs, one towards the celestial north and the other towards the south. The points marking the centres of these arcs are at equal distances from the celestial equator on each side, and at an angle of twenty three and a half degrees to it; the one point is the first point of Cancer, and the other the first point of Capricorn. 
Ecliptic red, celestial equator blue
The apparent motion of the Sun along the ecliptic (red) as seen on the inside of the celestial sphereEcliptic coordinates appear in (red). The celestial equator (blue) and the equatorial coordinates (blue), being inclined to the ecliptic, appear to wobble as the Sun advances.
Note that this 23.5-degree angle explains the variation of the seasons regardless of whether one envisions the Earth or the Sun at the center of the solar system.

The two circles form the Greek letter Chi, or X -- something which was noted at least as early as the Timaeus, where the Craftsman (demiurge) joins two parts of his prepared matter:
he divided lengthways into two parts which he joined to one another at the center like the letter X, and bent them into a circular form, connecting them with themselves and each other at the point opposite to their original meeting point; (Timaeus 36)
If any classical text posits a benign Creator, it's the Timaeus, which Dante either had read directly or as carried over in other works. As soon the demiurge completes his work, Timaeus says,
When the Father and Creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; . . . wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity . . . and this image we call time. For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also. (Timaeus 37)
The poetic version in the Commedia doesn't speak of the X, upon which later Christian thinkers superposed Christ and the cross. But it goes beyond simply describing the astronomical situation when it offers an interpretation leading to a strong inference. To whit: were it not for the twist (torta) or oblique angle of the ecliptic vis a vis the celestial equator, Earth's seasons would not exist -- extreme temperatures would make Earth inhospitable to life.

All of this forms part of the elaborate 21-line apostrophe to the lettor, the reader, who is directly called upon twice -- the only time this occurs in the 21 times the reader is addressed in the Commedia, according to Hollander. We receive three commands from the Poet:
1. Leva, dunque, lettor, all'alte ruote . . . la vista: Raise then with me, reader, to the lofty wheels your sight . . .
2. Vedi come da indi si dirama: See how from there branches the oblique circle that carries the planets . . ..
3. Or ti riman, lettor: Remain now, reader . . . 
Here's the last part:
Or ti riman, lettor, sovra 'l tuo banco,
dietro pensando a ciò che si preliba,
s'esser vuoi lieto assai prima che stanco. 
Messo t'ho innanzi; omai per te ti ciba;
ché a sé torce tutta la mia cura
quella materia ond' io son fatto scriba.
Remain now, Reader, still upon thy bench,
In thought pursuing that which is foretasted,
If thou wouldst jocund be instead of weary. 
I've set before thee; henceforth feed thyself,
For to itself diverteth all my care
That theme whereof I have been made the scribe. (Par. 10. 22-27)
As readers, we need to ask, what is this meal? Is there another Convivio, a philosophical banquet, of which we just had a foretaste? This foretaste links thought with taste, much as in line 6 above, the contemplation of the art of the Trinity is linked with the enjoyable taste (gustar) of the godhead. How, when, and why will we become jocund (lieto) by "thinking behind" (dietro) what we've been given to attend to?

Before we can ask these questions, the poet peremptorily tells us to feed ourselves; his cura is turning him back to his theme. Longfellow uses "diverteth," which is accurate in sense, but Dante's word is torcere, the same verb whose past participle, torta, earlier described the angle of the ecliptic.

Imagine a scroll being unrolled: The poet is telling the reader to think about what he's just read, even as he himself is being turned, torqued to move on and attend to the materia of which he is the scribe. The poet's experience of Paradiso is dictating, and Dante as scribe is at his bench, writing it down, even as he is addressing us. Or more consequentially, if he's a scribe, who -- or what -- is addressing  us?

We'll look more closely at the relation of this address and its commands of looking up, attending, following, in relation to Paradiso 10 as a whole. We are tracing a unifying motif -- one that comes with a twist. Think Möbiusly.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3