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

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