Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Non pur ne'miei occhi": A poet's doubt (Par. 18)

At the very moment in Paradiso 17 that the poet has finished listening to Cacciaguida's foretelling of his future, and immediately preceding the advice the old man will give him about the poem he'll go on to write, we have the image of weaving:
Poi che, tacendo, si mostrò spedita
l'anima santa di metter la trama
in quella tela ch'io le porsi ordita,
When by its silence showed that sainted soul
That it had finished putting in the woof
Into that web which I had given it warped, (17.100-102)
The image is of a tela - a web, or textile, which serves as the metaphor for the text they both are weaving. The poet puts down the warp (ordita), the old man provides the woof, or weft (trama). 
 Paradiso 17 ends with Cacciaguida's heartfelt encouragement to 
Make manifest thy vision utterly,
  And let them scratch wherever is the itch.
At this key moment of the canticle, we might assume that with these marching orders, the poet needed no further resolve to complete the poem, the very reason he was shown, in fact,
                                within these wheels,
Upon the mount and in the dolorous valley,
Only the souls that unto fame are known.
So it's all the more surprising when, at the opening of the next canto (18) we hear the poet, still on Mars, still tasting his great great grandfather's bittersweet word (verbo), now speak openly of abandoning his task:
Not only that my language I distrust,
  But that my mind cannot return so far
  Above itself, unless another guide it.
non perch' io pur del mio parlar diffidi,
ma per la mente che non può redire
sovra sé tanto, s'altri non la guidi.  (18.10-12)
Not only is Dante, like Theseus, helpless here to find his way back to memory without an Ariadne, he's also diffident about his parlar - his speaking. For one whose mission is to bring back his journey, a guide is on hand -- but for a poet to lack trust in his own speaking, this sounds like a crisis of faith.

To further complicate things, the guide whom he turns to -- "the Lady who to God was leading me" -- mirrors such love and beauty that he is entranced to the point of seduction:
her again beholding, my affection
  From every other longing was released.

While the eternal pleasure, which direct
  Rayed upon Beatrice, from her fair face
  Contented me with its reflected (secondo) aspect,
rimirando lei, lo mio affetto
libero fu da ogne altro disire,

fin che 'l piacere etterno, che diretto
raggiava in Bëatrice, dal bel viso
mi contentava col secondo aspetto.
Beatrice, the guide and symbol whose precise mission is to lead the pilgrim beyond himself, comes perilously close here to turning into the obstacle -- a Siren, Calypso, or Ariadne -- who threatens to waylay the hero, freeing him from desire to go beyond her.

Quite a predicament: a poet whose mastery of his own speech is uncertain; who, even if he felt secure, would yet be unable to remember what to say unless he has a guide; a guide who in this case happens to be so inherently beautiful as almost to blot out anything beyond her luminous self. Indeed, Beatrice verges on the opposite of a translucent symbol, teetering on becoming an end in herself, a Medusa before whom the poet would seize up, speechless, and end his odyssey right here.

This is not at all what canto 17 set us up for. At the same time, despite the clear details that would render some poets entirely aphasic -- the segmented self lacking confidence in his ability to be at one with speech and memory, entranced by a secondo who's so perfect her smile could persuade us she's the primo -- the text does not exhibit anything like the shattering doubt and anxiety found in Inferno 9, when the Furies called on Medusa to end the poet's progress then and there, once and for all.

All the threats a poet might fear are in play here, but Beatrice is no Siren. Instead of holding him captive, she directs Dante to look away from the very thing he just said he could not do without -- herself:
Conquering me with the radiance of a smile,
  She said to me, "Turn thee about and listen;
  Not in mine eyes alone is Paradise." 
Vincendo me col lume d'un sorriso,
ella mi disse: “Volgiti e ascolta;
ché non pur ne' miei occhi è paradiso.”
Non pur ne'miei occhi, says Beatrice. "Not in my eyes alone." If the poet were not who he is, we might hear him say, "Not a problem - you're paradisal enough for me."

Beatrice's direction is the opposite of what Virgil instructed him to do before Dis:
"Turn thyself round [i.e., away from Medusa], and keep thine eyes close shut," 
“Volgiti 'n dietro e tien lo viso chiuso;"
Here in Paradise, as Beatrice directed, he turns away from her, and sees Cacciaguida do something unprecedented in the poem: The old man speaks a name, and the hero so named shoots across the radius of the giant cross on the red planet. Words assume power, speech and act are one. 
né mi fu noto il dir prima che 'l fatto.

nor noted I the word before the deed.
For a poet struggling with his own power over his art, this would be a powerful thing to witness. The poet's last word about Cacciaguida -- who is singing, his face lit up with his soul's fervor -- is "artista."

The poet is openly coming to grips with the challenges to his power over his medium. Now that he's been given the warp and weft of his place in history, his future, and his mission as artist, it's as if he needs more than ever to make sure that he, as poet, can finish the job. He needs confidence, guidance, faith, and courage. In another post we'll see how the rest of canto 18 speaks to these literally literary matters.

1 comment:

Pete D'Epiro said...

Excellent discussion of a pivotal point in the Paradiso. After the central episode with Cacciaguida, the poet has to recharge his batteries for the steepest part of the ascent to his REAL home (not Firenze matrigna) in the ultimate epic nostos. Here the danger is that the Muse becomes his goal instead of merely his inspiration and mentor, but Beatrice sets him straight. It also reminded me of a painter's model becoming his lover rather than remaining strictly his subject matter, possibly waylaying his dedication to his art (though Picasso, for example, had no problem having it both ways, whereas Raphael's ardent Fornarina was popularly rumored to have caused his early demise, and Fra Filippo Lippi apparently had to be locked in his studio by Cosimo de' Medici to keep his mind and eye on his painting rather than on various Florentine beauties--see Browning's poem).