Tuesday, April 26, 2016

From geometry to rapture: Paradiso 14

Paradiso 14 begins with a geometric structure, captured in the rhetorical pattern known as chiasmus. The word pattern is reflecting, or mimicking, the echoic pattern of water moving in a round vase - from center to circumference, or vice versa, depending upon where something strikes it:
Dal centro al cerchio, e sì dal cerchio al centro
movesi l'acqua in un ritondo vaso,
secondo ch'è percosso fuori o dentro:
From centre unto rim, from rim to centre,
In a round vase the water moves itself,
As from without 'tis struck or from within. (Par. 14. 1-3)
The geometry is not only exact, it is also ineluctable -- the water (or a light, or a sound) will always behave this way. The structure of the circle is such that it will produce the same result each time something either strikes it on the outside, or drops from above.

Such patterns and their identification belong to the work of pattern recognition, which Dante draws our attention to (as we saw a few posts back) with regard to the patterns found in the night sky, and in the sphere of the sun. The reliability of knowledge, we learned, depends upon our capacity to detect formal patterns in nature as well as in language.

Sophie Germain
Some patterns occur in ways that are easily explicable. Others occur quite reliably, but seem less easily explained. Chladni plates (named for Ernst Chladni, whose research explored the invisible interface between sounds and visual patterns) offer evidence of relationships between grains of sand (or couscous) and different frequencies which manifest in distinct patterns at different vibrations. The relationships turn out to be mappable by equations (worked out by Sophie Germain and others) that describe wave dynamics:

Beyond the Sun

This pattern of pattern recognition is violated in Paradiso 14 right after Solomon explains how, after the Resurrection of the body, the souls will still have their glowing light, but now they will have their senses, newly strengthened and able to experience all things new.

No sooner does Solomon end his resonant (and very chiastic) account of this event (at line 66) than we hear Ed ecco -- behold! -- something new and unexpected occurs:
Ed ecco intorno, di chiarezza pari,
nascere un lustro sopra quel che v'era,
per guisa d'orizzonte che rischiari.
E sì come al salir di prima sera
comincian per lo ciel nove parvenze,
sì che la vista pare e non par vera,
parvemi lì novelle sussistenze
cominciare a vedere, e fare un giro
di fuor da l'altre due circunferenze.
Oh vero sfavillar del Santo Spiro!
come si fece sùbito e candente
a li occhi miei che, vinti, nol soffriro!
And lo! all round about of equal brightness
Arose a lustre over what was there,
Like an horizon that is clearing up.

And as at rise of early eve begin
Along the welkin new appearances,
So that the sight seems real and unreal,

It seemed to me that new subsistences
Began there to be seen, and make a circle
Outside the other two circumferences.

O very sparkling of the Holy Spirit,
How sudden and incandescent it became
Unto mine eyes, that vanquished bore it not!  (14.70-78)
The moment is mysterious -- a third circle, but not quite stable, begins to surround the other two. It glimmers like faint lights flickering at dusk, then suddenly becoming blindingly incandescent, overpowering the pilgrim's eyes, which had so far supported the potent rays of the Sun.

Joachim of Flora
Commentators have pondered he meaning of this third circle at length, relating it to the other circles as the Holy Spirit to the Father and Sun, and to prophecies of the Calabrian Joachim of Flora and the dawning of a third age.

What we can say for sure is that in this gloaming nothing is sure: The nove parvenze, or novel appearances, are said to "appear to begin to be seen,"
Si che la vista pare e non par vera,  
So that the sight seems real and unreal.
The canto moves from a realm of regular and predictable order (like the geometry of a vase of water) to a place where appearances are such that they suspend, put into question, our apprehension of pattern. This cognitive predicament, known to psychologists as apophenia, has been described as "the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data." To find a man or a face in the moon is a common example. The article goes on to note:
Apophenia has come to imply a universal human tendency to seek patterns in random information, such as gambling.
Paradiso 14 is quite clear in breaking with patterns it has produced. It's at line 67 for example that we expect to find another set of 33 lines reiterating the first two, whose clear structure was noted by early commentators like Benvenuto da Imola.

This moment of sunset takes place just as Dante and Beatrice, before they even know it, leave the sun and with it the confidence owed to its clarity. In this darkling moment nothing is certain. If the new circle contains dottori, learned authors, it's unclear how many authors, let alone who they might be. It's all indistinct, says Benvenuto:
non tamen plene et manifeste sicut primae, sed confuse, quia hic erat maximus numerus doctorum quos autor non poterat nominatim numerare, sicut fecerat superiores, nec distincte; sed sub involucro comprehendit omnes.
A new circle appears to appear, and the passage puts stress not upon the solid form of a new circumference, but rather seems to find astonishment that what had been the circumference seems surpassed (sublated, i.e., cancelled and transcended)  by a new circumference -- yet one whose borders remain vague, with the possibility of containing millions of sussistenze in its sparkling (sfavillar). 

The challenge of not knowing is not trivial. It's at this moment that Dante and Beatrice are translated to the sphere of Mars, and now the pilgrim seems to fall back upon his own powers. He raises his eyes, and, as he does so, he and Beatrice are raised up; he now performs a sacrifice in his breast. He is doing these things unprompted and undirected. The action brings results -- a glowing redness in the new sphere appears to answer and approve his internal holocaust.

Close attention to the remainder of the canto will show that the language of action, of performative utterance, supplants the descriptive language of pattern. As the vast galaxy within Mars appears, the vision seems boundless, open-ended, and what the pilgrim begins to experience are, not patterns, not meanings that are understood, but potent beauties that seize the soul:
E come giga e arpa, in tempra tesa
di molte corde, fa dolce tintinno
a tal da cui la nota non è intesa,

così da' lumi che lì m'apparinno
s'accogliea per la croce una melode
che mi rapiva, sanza intender l'inno.
And as a lute and harp, accordant strung
With many strings, a dulcet tinkling make
To him by whom the notes are not distinguished,

So from the lights that there to me appeared
Upgathered through the cross a melody,
Which rapt me, not distinguishing the hymn. (14.118-123)
Three times in quick succession we hear that something is non intesa -- not understood. To go from the Sun to Mars is to go from an aesthetic of beauty to that of the sublime. Perhaps nothing makes this more "clear" than the simile that juxtaposes the vast armies that seem to move along the flashing crossbeams to specks and motes moving at random in a sunbeam. The beam shines through an artificial shade devised by human cunning and art to shield us from the harsh sun. Ingenio e arte provide a glimpse of what was always there, unseen in the full light of day:
così si veggion qui diritte e torte, 
veloci e tarde, rinovando vista, 
le minuzie d'i corpi, lunghe e corte, 
moversi per lo raggio onde si lista 
talvolta l'ombra che, per sua difesa, 
la gente con ingegno e arte acquista.
Thus level and aslant and swift and slow
We here behold, renewing still the sight,
The particles of bodies long and short,

Across the sunbeam move, wherewith is listed
Sometimes the shade, which for their own defence
People with cunning and with art contrive. (14.112-117)
The random specks are not caught up in some Chladni pattern - they remain random. And, of course, they are tiny, compared to the galassia and the giant cross, and the figures moving along its beams. This is perhaps as Miltonic as Dante gets -- vast and small, order and unforced happenstance, equated in a heightened moment of sublime apprehension -- not of pattern, rather a new rapture, potent and uncircumscribed by finite meaning.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Just a few quick questions: Paradiso 14

Paradiso 14 provokes questions - here are just a couple:

The canto unfolds in two segments of 33 lines each. The first segment has Beatrice asking a question Dante didn't even know he had, and the wheeling followers of Francis and Dominic dancing joyously. All is clear, circumscribed -- it even opens with a lovely simile of water in a vase, moving along radii from center to circle and back.

That first segment ends, followed by a new voice -- one who answers Beatrice's question, which concerns the resurrection of the body. That speaker, not named but presumed to be Solomon, is introduced this way:
E io udi' ne la luce più dia
del minor cerchio una voce modesta,
forse qual fu da l'angelo a Maria,
 And, in the lustre most divine of all
  The lesser ring, I heard a modest voice,
  Such as perhaps the Angel's was to Mary,  (14.34-36)

The "modest" voice might be mild, but as the voice of the Annunciation, it's uttering words that spoke of Word becoming flesh. Mild voice, large impact.

The canto offers various images that seem disproportionate - later, the vast motions of lights on Mars will be compared to specks of dust in a sliver of sunlight. These similes are working in a different way, one that will deserves some attention and interrogation.

In the second 33-line segment, the new voice speaks to the pilgrim of how grace, ardor, vision and brightness each increase the other -- using a perfect chiasmus to display a system of mutual strengthening that itself will be made more potent when the saved souls - substances, now dressed in light - will once again wear their resurrected flesh.

The segment thus begins with the Incarnation and speaks of the final Resurrection of the body, compressing two events, beginning and end, that are mutually intertwined -- the word of the angel putting in motion the sacrifice that conquered death.

The word for overcoming and conquest -- vincere -- appears four times in the canto -- but this militant conquest is tied intimately to the Word.

Interestingly, there appears to be no self-contained third 33-line segment in the canto. At line 99, where the third segment would end, we're in the middle of a simile that involves the Galassia -- the Milky Way; the pattern breaks to an open-ended vista -- one so vast it that makes wise men doubt.

We've moved beyond the clear and distinct ideas of the men of the Sun into a murkier realm -- harder to see, to know. Lots of questions.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Non Bacco, non Peana: Glimpsing Par. 14

A brief look back at the Sun, and a quick look ahead to Mars.

The main story of the five cantos of the Sun delineates in great detail the solar force of the Church. It composes itself before our eyes as a series of layers, creating a complex image of a chariot of the Sun. Like the actual sun, it nurtures life through heat and light. But these attributes of the Church are not merely physical, nor do they rest upon philosophical first principles. From the first, the cantos of the Sun debunk the power of logic as the arbiter of judgment and basis of wisdom.

Rather than axioms, the true first principles of the Church are individual lives -- specifically, Francis and Dominic -- they are at one point called principi, and are the living embodiments of primal ardor and intellect. They are the wheels of the Church's solar chariot at work in historical time, and their 24 disciples actively extend their powers (even those who preceded them chronologically, apparently).

As the set of five solar cantos concludes, we see even more clearly how pattern recognition, which is basic to knowledge, is both insisted upon and shown to be utterly imperfect as a model or sign of the truth. The necessary imperfection of the sublunar world is the way things are, and nothing the human mind can construct or imagine will offer more than an approximation. The 24-line opening of canto 13 ends with:
poi ch'è tanto di là da nostra usanza,
quanto di là dal mover de la Chiana
si move il ciel che tutti li altri avanza.
Because it is as much beyond our wont,
As swifter than the motion of the Chiana
Moveth the heaven that all the rest outspeeds.
In discussing, we didn't address what immediately comes after this awareness of the sketchiness of our awareness:
Lì si cantò non Bacco, non Peana,
ma tre persone in divina natura,
e in una persona essa e l'umana.
There sang they neither Bacchus, nor Apollo,
  But in the divine nature Persons three,
  And in one person the divine and human.  (13.25-27)
The canto opened, we recall, with numbers -- the 15 stars, the 7, the 2 -- we combined them to get the sum of the disciples of Francis and Dominic. This is arithmetically coherent. But now, here's a new math, in which three persons can be one, which in turn can be two. The austere, rigorous system elucidated by every mathematician from Euclid to Fibonacci is scrambled. Our rational capacity to count is broken.

The Trinity was evoked by Thomas, but here it seems to mark a rupture with everyday reality. Not Apollo, not Dionysus. A song beyond anything the ancients imagined, Revelation outside number, beyond ecstatic dream.

Canto 14 will conclude the enlightenment of the Sun with an account of the resurrection of the body, after which Dante and Beatrice will be translated (translato - used at 14.81 for the only time) to the next realm of Paradiso, to a vast red galaxy that sweeps us into the sublime:
Come distinta da minori e maggi
lumi biancheggia tra ' poli del mondo
Galassia sì, che fa dubbiar ben saggi;
Even as distinct with less and greater lights
Glimmers between the two poles of the world
The Galaxy that maketh wise men doubt . . .

Friday, April 15, 2016

Preparing to go beyond the sun: Par. 13

As the cantos of the Sun come to an end with Paradiso 13-14, the density and richness of the text seem to grow exponentially. There is simply not enough time to get into the close detail that would do justice to canto 13. For now, a few observations that perhaps will help appreciate what seems to be a major transition that takes place between the clarity of the Sun and the distinctly indistinct realm of Mars that begins with canto 14.

First, as many note, the five cantos of the Sun have many instances of the x-shaped crossing (or ring structure) of chiasmus. One can only appreciate this patterning after completing all five cantos, of course. Indeed, one could say that appreciation of chiastic form, especially on the level of larger segments of text, always requires that the reader look back, and remember what has come before, in order to identify the pattern.

For example, the command to imagine, repeated thrice at the opening of canto 13, balances Thomas Aquinas's insistence on being attentive and holding things in memory at the end of canto 11, introduced by three "if"s:
Or, se le mie parole non son fioche,
se la tua audïenza è stata attenta,
se ciò ch'è detto a la mente revoche,
Now if my utterance be not indistinct,
If thine own hearing hath attentive been,
If thou recall to mind what I have said,  (11.133-35)
Thomas is talking about the pilgrim's understanding of his discourse, but the "if"s hold true for the reader as well -- turning the leaves of a book, the reader is taking in the words, which are like seeds. But the work of reading involves more than just taking in -- it involves remembering, reflecting, and attending to patterns to mill and bake and eat the bread of the angels.

So canto 13 beings with a fascinating passage too complex to explore here. But we can note that the reader is now invited to do more than remember; one is to imagine what the poet describes : 15 of the brightest stars from all over the night sky, plus the 7 of the Wain (the Big Dipper), plus two at the mouth of the horn (the Little Dipper) -- moving from a process of selection by brightness to a selection by form to a selection of part of a whole, anchored in the North Star -- all adding up to 24 stars.

The poet is giving the reader an exercise in pattern recognition, a kind of rebus or puzzle that makes us work across different kinds of patterns before reaching a totality of 24, which equals the number of teachers revolving in two wheels around the poet and Beatrice, as well as the number of lines it takes the poet to provide us with the opening movement of canto 13.

The passage of course is more complex -- once we shape the images we've been told to imagine -- we then must imagine those stars turning into two wheeling signs like a doubled crown of Ariadne:
aver fatto di sé due segni in cielo,
qual fece la figliuola di Minoi
allora che sentì di morte il gelo;
To have fashioned of themselves two signs in heaven,
Like unto that which Minos' daughter made,
The moment when she felt the frost of death;
Our envisioning of the key stars in charting the navigation of the seas -- signs used by Ulysses and all mariners -- is metamorphosed into new signs, like those of the girl who helped Theseus navigate his way into and out of the lethal Daedalian labyrinth of Crete.

And, after we've done all this at the poet's behest, we learn that our imagined vision relates to the reality Dante experienced the way the Chiana, a sluggish Tuscan stream, compares to the fastest celestial sphere, the Primum Mobile.

Chiana, we note, contains "chi," and the entire 24-line passage is a chiasmus that begins with the promise that our imagining will give us "who desire to well understand what the poet saw" something verisimilar to the reality, and ends with the deflating assurance that our mental image is about as close to the truth as night is to day.

The irony of making us work so hard for what is very small is undeniable. There's also death here, coming with a cold shock. One could (and should) explore the ramifications of a passage from navigational clues -- constellations -- to circling signs that are "like" the figure made in the sky by the daughter of Minos. Interwoven here are Ulysses and Theseus, two of the ancient questers who, by the light of their culture's wisdom, were successful.

Throughout the Commedia, the pilgrim/poet has been both like and unlike these heros (as well as Aeneas). Are we reminded here of how those questers in fact failed? We recall Ulysses' own tale (in Inf.26) of leaving behind the North Pole, and the vortex that consumed his ship. And Theseus, who owed his conquest of the Minotaur to the clues of Ariadne, left his guide behind, to be claimed by Dionysus, who constellated her crown at her death.

Here that single circle of stars is doubled, yet is still called a sign. It's a new sign, a double dancing "true constellation" that is not visible to sailors on Earth, but to questers who read and remember the visions and histories and allegories of the 24 teachers, grouped according to their leanings toward Francis and Dominic.

We return to the two wheels of the chariot/Church, also the two wheels of the Ark, but now they are likened to a doubled crown put in the sky by Dionysus.

This reference to the God of wine and ecstasy should, as Thomas A. says, be kept in mind. We're about to get a comprehensive lesson from Thomas about creation, which will treat in some detail the imperfections of "wax" that cause diversity and flaws in Nature. It turns out that form, here below the moon anyway, is always compromised, never without contingency and dross:
Se fosse a punto la cera dedutta
 e fosse il cielo in sua virtù supprema,
 la luce del suggel parrebbe tutta;
ma la natura la dà sempre scema,
 similemente operando a l'artista
 ch'a l'abito de l'arte ha man che trema.
If in perfection tempered were the wax,
  And were the heaven in its supremest virtue,
  The brilliance of the seal would all appear;
But nature gives it evermore deficient,
  In the like manner working as the artist,
  Who has the skill of art and hand that trembles.  (13.73-78)
At this moment in the lesson of the Sun, Thomas acknowledges that Nature is inherently errant, like the hand of a master artist that trembles. (Hollander and others convincingly refer to Ovid's Daedalus building the wings that will enable him to escape from Crete, but at the cost of Icarus: "The father's hands trembled," (Metam. 8.211)). Greek genius always involves loss, just as the forms of Nature always involve dross. The limits of the visible, of image and form, are being driven home in canto 13.

The last lines of canto 13, suggesting the generous capacity even the wisest men have for error, chiastically reflect the opening of canto 11, the insensata cura of mortals and their vain syllogisms. As we leave the Sun, the limits of the Apollonian -- of realizable pattern and hence formal knowledge -- are being demarcated.

The question of how do we go on -- by what signs to navigate once we've crossed beyond the solar light of logic, history, science, philosophy and wisdom -- is taken up in canto 14.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Processing similes and prophetic speech in Paradiso 12

Dante devotes five cantos to the Sun - Paradiso 10-14. We've looked at the first three to some extent (here, here, and here), and the remaining two will add to or alter our sense of the place of the sun in Dante's Creation.

Over the course of the 5 cantos, the chariot (biga) of the Bride of Christ, the church, is assembled through what might be described as the poesis of Paradise. Dante, Beatrice and the reader see a complex image composing itself: it starts with one wheel, adds a second, and, though it's supposed to be a surprise, we can disclose that a third mystery wheel appears before the travelers leave the Sun for Mars.

The composition begins with the appearance of one group of flashing lights (10.64) like ardent suns; a second circling group appears in 12; both groups become millstones, which are then transformed into the wheels of the biga as they are explicitly identified with Dominic and Francis:
Se tal fu l'una rota de la biga
in che la Santa Chiesa si difese
e vinse in campo la sua civil briga,

ben ti dovrebbe assai esser palese
l'eccellenza de l'altra, di cui Tomma
dinanzi al mio venir fu sì cortese.
If such the one wheel of the Biga was,
In which the Holy Church itself defended
And in the field its civic battle won,

Truly full manifest should be to thee
The excellence of the other, unto whom
Thomas so courteous was before my coming. (12.106-111) 
Francis and Dominic, it is argued, balance each other. The direction of the Church, spatially, temporally, administratively, takes its guidance from the interaction of the mendicant orders they founded.

To be balanced, however, the wheels should be equal -- whether one considers that by some measure of power, wisdom, zeal, or something else. But are they? We already know that these wheels are very different -- like East and West, heat and light, nature and culture.

With this question in mind we'll look at the initial appearance of the second wheel in Paradiso 12. It's a memorable apparition, presented through an enigmatic procession of nested similes and allusions that are sufficiently complex to call out for attention:
Come si volgon per tenera nube
due archi paralelli e concolori,
quando Iunone a sua ancella iube,

nascendo di quel d'entro quel di fori,
a guisa del parlar di quella vaga
ch'amor consunse come sol vapori,

e fanno qui la gente esser presaga,
per lo patto che Dio con Noè puose,
del mondo che già mai più non s'allaga:

così di quelle sempiterne rose
volgiensi circa noi le due ghirlande,
e sì l'estrema a l'intima rispuose.
And as are spanned athwart a tender cloud
Two rainbows parallel and like in colour,
When Juno to her handmaid gives command,

(The one without born of the one within,
Like to the speaking of that vagrant one
Whom love consumed as doth the sun the vapours,)

And make the people here, through covenant
God set with Noah, presageful of the world
That shall no more be covered with a flood,

In such wise of those sempiternal roses
The garlands twain encompassed us about,
And thus the outer to the inner answered. (Par. 12.10-21)
The question here is what is the relation of the first wheel to the second. Not in the sense of spatial arrangement this time, but as a matter of priority: what do firstness and secondness convey here -- is there in fact a primary wheel and a secondary one -- in which case, the bearing of the Biga might not in fact be quite balanced?

Warning: Some will consider this excursus anathema to jouissance du texte.

The simile begins by comparing the two wheels to two rainbows that originate in a command, an order given by Juno to her servant girl (ancella), sending Iris the messenger on a mission. In a tender cloud, two parallel and similarly colorful rainbows appear. Their parallelism makes them equal, yet the outer arc is born of the one within -- just as, and here begins a simile within the simile -- the speaking (a guisa del parlar) of "that wanderer" -- quella vaga (Echo) -- whom love consumed as vapors are consumed by the sun.

The mythological burden of the second simile is a surprise. The idea of one rainbow birthing another was a natural explanation provided by the science of Dante's time. Why bring in the myth of Narcissus -- one of the major myths from Ovid's book of changes -- to complicate that simple parent-child order of primacy?

Indeed, the myth of Echo is often read as a tale of secondariness: the origin of a voice from a love that is entirely fixated upon another - the other in turn being fixated by the love of his own image. While Echo wastes away, so does Narcissus, and in fact his love of his face, and her love of him, are in no way distinguishable -- in both cases, there is the utter fixation upon the face one loves. Narcissus's love is not more "primary" because he happened to fall in love with his own face -- indeed, he didn't know it was his own face until after he'd fallen in love with it.

Ovid's subtle tale makes clear that while Echo echoes the words of Narcissus, in speaking them her words take on new meanings. 
He runs from her, and running cries ‘Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours. 
She answers, only ‘What’s mine is yours!’ (Metamorphoses 3)
The story plays on ordinary notions of firstness and secondness, and about how they can be reversed, putting in doubt any order of priority. 

Also, the mythological realm of Echo and Narcissus is not secondary to the natural scientific language of rainbows birthing rainbows. Let's remember that the first rainbow is there because it is Iris, Juno's messenger, whom Juno sent to be there. Myth preceded science in this simile. 

The first rainbow is a messenger speaking under command of the God. Unlike Echo she is not a vaga - a wandering being - because she is an ancella whose duty it is to convey the message of the God. In effect: Iris's speech is secondary, derived from the words of the Goddess whom she is echoing, while Echo's transformative echoes of Narcissus express the truth of her own primal love.

The structure is a procession of three similes: The wheels are like Iris, a rainbow which generates its own image in cloud and sun; this second rainbow is like the voice of Echo, born of self-consuming love, who vanishes like vapor consumed by the sun, and with it, the rainbows. What remains after this tale of self-generation and self-consumption is the voice, the invisible double that tells the tale.

If that were all, we would already have enough to at least make a case that the two wheels are in fact parallel, and that the apparent temporal priority of the inner rainbow is rendered less secure by its being likened to a tale in which firstness and secondness are reversed, or suspended. 

Except that's not all, because this entire little tale is contained in a parenthetical tercet between the rainbow ordered by Juno, and the third tercet's rainbow ordered by Noah's god. The rainbows are now "like" the rainbow that was given as a sign "to people here" that God would never again send a flood to destroy all life on Earth. (A big deal to someone like the poet, who nearly drowned in Inferno 1!)

With this new rainbow as permanent, unevaporable promise, the question of precedence is irrelevant. As promise, it stands outside of time and decay: it is an act, a signature that ratifies a covenant between Maker and man. The sign in the sky makes man presaga -- able to say before, to prophesy -- a future truth for all time. 

To prophesy is the opposite of the banal sense of an echo as a mere repetition of a prior sound. At this point, the question of primacy is undone. The inner circle might be the parent to the outer, as inner rainbow to encircling arc, but the outer has become a speech act that doesn't re-present something prior. Rather, it already "knows," or posits, something that has yet to be given the possibility of being known. Its speaking is its own primacy.

- Apology for this excursus -

An exercise such as this one rather laboriously unpacks what Dante's own unparalleled sense of story coiled within some allusions and similitudes, and might seem to go against the idea of reading as the pleasure of the text, the enjoyment one receives from simply "experiencing" the poet's language. And according to certain notions of "experience," that's true! But with a text like the Commedia, one enters a resonant work of imagination that is both telling a new story and engaged in active combat with the tales of prior potent texts. Dante read and loved Ovid, Virgil, Lucan, and the other poets named in Inferno 4, but in creating his tale of eternal life, he often evoked their works as grist for his own mill, his powerful reading of how they got it wrong. Poets aiming at truth are always, on some level, having dogfights. Like Dominicans.

Domini cani

The simile of the rainbows suggests that, just as in nature a parent precedes a child, so divine speech makes it possible to speak of a thing before the thing exists. Messengers of the gods share that knowing with mortals, and Dominic, whose embryonic mind was powerful enough to make his mother dream omens, appears to be one those messengers:
Ben parve messo e famigliar di Cristo: (12.73)
As such a messenger, Dominic was a torrential flood, destroying the arguments, the theological gardens of sundry heretical sects. But he remained true to the sign in the sky, and his flood was tempered:
Poi, con dottrina e con volere insieme,
con l'officio appostolico si mosse
quasi torrente ch'alta vena preme;

e ne li sterpi eretici percosse
l'impeto suo, più vivamente quivi
dove le resistenze eran più grosse.

Di lui si fecer poi diversi rivi
onde l'orto catolico si riga,
sì che i suoi arbuscelli stan più vivi.
 Then with the doctrine and the will together,
  With office apostolical he moved,
  Like torrent which some lofty vein out-presses; 
And in among the shoots heretical
  His impetus with greater fury smote,
  Wherever the resistance was the greatest. 
Of him were made thereafter divers runnels,
  Whereby the garden catholic is watered,
  So that more living its plantations stand.   (12.97-105)
The cantos of Dominic and Francis are balanced in detail. Each man gets 33 tercets of narrative of his life. The parts of their narratives balance each other in turn. If the passion of Francis knocked the sandals off his followers, Dominic nurtured his disciples and raised them in the light of deeply disciplined knowledge.

The construction of Dante's work is uncanny. Perhaps by chance, the central line of Dominic's canto is that defining description cited a moment ago:
Ben parve messo e famigliar di Cristo: (12.73)
The center of Francis's canto, perhaps by chance, evokes the ferocious constancy of Lady Poverty:
né valse esser costante né feroce (11.79)
In the interaction of these utterly dissimilar men (and their orders) -- a sort of nuclear fusion -- lie the potent love for and defense of the reinvigorated Bride.

The wheels balance and move as one. Perfectly. As two eyes move at a whim:
pur come li occhi ch'al piacer che i move
conviene insieme chiudere e levarsi;
(Even as the eyes, that, as volition moves them,
  Must needs together shut and lift themselves,)

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Torrential cultivation: Dominic in Paradiso 12

In Paradiso 12, a second wheel appears, encircling the first. We do not yet know who belongs to this group, and the other day we had difficulty with the question of the relative turnings of these wheels. Do they move together, as one? Or in opposite directions? Or even at an angle to one another?

At least one sensitive commentator, John Carroll, thinks the second wheel moves opposite to the first. Nicola Fosca quotes his observation:
. . . two circles go in opposite directions, partly because of the figure which, I think, was before Dante's eyes. He pictured the two circles very much, if I may use a mechanical illustration, as if they were two cog-wheels, the teeth of which fitted into and drove one another in opposite directions. 
Carroll has a thoughtful explanation as to why this oppositional relation would work in this context:
The teeth are the rays which each had, says Dante, 'within the other.' When we remember that they are the rays in the one case of knowledge, in the other of love, we will not wonder at their contrary movements. In this world, at least, head and heart often seem to move, even in religion, in opposite directions, to have different methods of work, and to arrive at conclusions hard to reconcile. In the world above, the great reconciliation takes place: . . . If this interpretation is correct, nothing could better show Dante's conviction that these two types of theology belong together and complete each other - their rays fit into one another, and their apparent contradictions produce that swift movement which means intense yearning for a still deeper knowledge and love of God.
It is clear that Dante is devoting two cantos here to two very different "champions" of Christ: Francis the wild lover, Dominic the disciplining teacher, each helping define the heart and head, the heat and light, of the nurturing solar power of Christian faith.

But the figural system of this canto might offer an even richer imaginative structure that satisfies Carroll's thesis equally well, if not better. 

The first tercet makes clear that to the circle of dancing ladies -- the garland, the ardent suns of canto 11 -- one now, at the beginning of canto 12, must add la mola, the millstone:
Sì tosto come l'ultima parola
la benedetta fiamma per dir tolse,
a rotar cominciò la santa mola;
e nel suo giro tutta non si volse
prima ch'un'altra di cerchio la chiuse,
e moto a moto e canto a canto colse;
Soon as the blessed flame had taken up
The final word to give it utterance,
Began the holy millstone to revolve,

And in its gyre had not turned wholly round,
Before another in a ring enclosed it,
And motion joined to motion, song to song; (Par. 12.1-6)
As millstones, these wheeling theologians interact. Their weighty masses transform grain into flour by rubbing against one another. There are various configurations of millstones; what's essential is that they are exquisitely balanced to grind the fruits of the Earth into fine powder.

Flour mill stones

It is precisely in the oppositional interaction between these wheeling forces -- whether it's Thomas Aquinas and Siger, or Bonaventura and Joachim, or Francis versus Dominic, as different as ardent action and coolly radiant thought --
due campioni, al cui fare, al cui dire
that the living faith, the bride of Christ, is husbanded.

The process of the mill as rendered here remains central to the canto just as both heat and light are necessary to the nurturing power of the Sun.  Shortly the 24 figures of the two circles will become metaphorical plants, surrounding the seed that Dominic seeks to protect. He didn't go to the Pope seeking some crooked means of cheating the poor, according to Bonaventura.

addimandò, ma contro al mondo errante
licenza di combatter per lo seme
del qual ti fascian ventiquattro piante.
He asked for, but against the errant world
Permission to do battle for the seed,
Of which these four and twenty plants surround thee.
The point for Dominic is to fight for the seed, which Christ himself said is the "word of God" (Luke 8.11).  The seed (lo seme) is that from which germinate champions like Francis and Dominic and the 24 who encircle Dante and Beatrice -- these groups of thinkers and doers are one one hand the sources of grain, and on the other, the very millstones that grind it.

Mill stones
This metaphorical structure of the mill then supports an entire heroic vision -- fighting for the Word, which is sown, grown, threshed, and milled into the stuff of life. Dante takes this a step further by turning this hero, this champion of l'esercito di Cristo (the army of Christ) into the agricola, the laborer (not the boss) in the vegetable garden (orto) who works to grow the fruits of the earth. Then the poet takes it another step by transforming Dominic into the element that makes all life possible: 
Poi, con dottrina e con volere insieme,
 con l'officio appostolico si mosse
 quasi torrente ch'alta vena preme;

e ne li sterpi eretici percosse
 l'impeto suo, più vivamente quivi
 dove le resistenze eran più grosse.

Di lui si fecer poi diversi rivi
 onde l'orto catolico si riga,
 sì che i suoi arbuscelli stan più vivi.
Then with the doctrine and the will together,
With office apostolical he moved,
Like torrent which some lofty vein out-presses;

And in among the shoots heretical
His impetus with greater fury smote,
Wherever the resistance was the greatest.

Of him were made thereafter divers runnels,
Whereby the garden catholic is watered,
So that more living its plantations stand.  (12.97-105)
There's much more to Paradiso 12 -- will try to get to a bit of it in an additional post. But at this point, it's worth pausing to contemplate the marvelous architecture of Dante's figuration, as he goes from millstones to grain, to seed and gardening and water, all feeding one of the most basic figurative fields of the Western tradition -- the act of cultivation, the work of culture. If Francis was a natural force, Dominic is a champion in an army that is tilling fields, sowing seeds, irrigating -- at times with torrential militant force.

It fits that Dominic was born in the West, cooled by the temperate Zefiro, the "sweet West Wind":
In quella parte ove surge ad aprire
 Zefiro dolce le novelle fronde
 di che si vede Europa rivestire,
Within that region where the sweet west wind
Rises to open the new leaves, wherewith
Europe is seen to clothe herself afresh,
Rising in the East, burning with love for Povertà, Francis removed his clothes in the midst of the city. Out of the West, Dominic clothes the Bride, and nourishes the novelle fronde -- leaves authored by a new army of teachers and defenders of the faith.