Sunday, January 08, 2017

Saturn's crystal: Paradiso 21 and 22

Cantos 21-22 of Dante's Paradiso are in some ways rather forgettable. Not much happens, nor is there any especially heightened poetic imagery or drama -- at least not until the poet, addressing the reader from his new vantage point in the stars, turns and looks back upon his journey through the seven planetary spheres, down to the aiuola -- the threshing floor -- where his readers try to live.

The immediate effect of Saturn is of a cold, stark, almost frozen place -- canto 22 will open with the poet in a kind of shock -- Oppresso di stupore. The highest planetary sphere seems to partake of the realm of ancient gods and eld -- a place nearly forgotten, yet a place of origin, as Saturn is father to all the other Olympian deities.

A few notes on cantos 21 and 22:


The sphere is called cristallo (21:25). We learn in retrospect that silvery Jupiter tempers the heat of Mars, where all had a reddish hue, and the cold of Saturn. I take cristallo here to mean transparent -- i.e., no color. This would be in line with the absence of sensory cues here -- as the sphere lacks sound and music, it also lacks color.

It's probably more accurate to say whatever sounds it may have, the pilgrim cannot hear them. He's too close to the sacred to not need a shield, some sort of protective mediation, which suggests that the minimalist bent of Saturn works to imply, by its very paucity, something too large to take in.

That proximity to what, if apprehended, would shock or destroy the one who apprehends, is made explicit early when Beatrice explains why Dante will not see her smile. It's a motif often seen in Ovid -- think of Actaeon, or Semele:
                           ". . . s'io ridessi,”
 mi cominciò, “tu ti faresti quale
 fu Semelè quando di cener fessi:

ché la bellezza mia, che per le scale
 de l'etterno palazzo più s'accende,
 com' hai veduto, quanto più si sale,

se non si temperasse, tanto splende,
 che 'l tuo mortal podere, al suo fulgore,
 sarebbe fronda che trono scoscende.
                                    "If I were to smile,"
  She unto me began, "thou wouldst become
  Like Semele, when she was turned to ashes.

Because my beauty, that along the stairs
  Of the eternal palace more enkindles,
  As thou hast seen, the farther we ascend,

If it were tempered not, is so resplendent
  That all thy mortal power in its effulgence
  Would seem a leaflet that the thunder crushes. (21:4-12)


Saturn lies at the outermost edge of the planetary spheres -- the highest such sphere from Earth, named for the most ancient God, father of Zeus.

Throughout the cantos of Saturn, the pilgrim is made to intimate a sense that something lies between that which is available to his senses, and that which would destroy him if he were to see or hear it. It's as if there were a membrane, stretched very thin, between the absence of Beatrice's smile, the silence of no music, and something other which would be too much to bear. The austerity of Saturn is a an inverse sign of something intolerably powerful almost within reach. Just up the stairs.


Contemplation - I

The poem seems to verge on some entropic limit. Beatrice instructs Dante to turn the mirrors of his eyes to see the figure - figura - in the crystalline mirror of Saturn. The staircase is the logical image here -- it ascends and descends, but in fact, it's the same at every step -- a mise en abyme.

To contemplate is be always seeing yourself seeing.

With Peter Damian, this is linked to a kind of light that lifts him up out and up:
"On me directed is a light divine,
  Piercing through this in which I am embosomed,

Of which the virtue with my sight conjoined
  Lifts me above myself so far, I see
  The supreme essence from which this is drawn.

Hence comes the joyfulness with which I flame,
  For to my sight, as far as it is clear,
  The clearness of the flame I equal make.
“Luce divina sopra me s'appunta,
 penetrando per questa in ch'io m'inventro,

la cui virtù, col mio veder congiunta,
 mi leva sopra me tanto, ch'i' veggio
 la somma essenza de la quale è munta.

Quinci vien l'allegrezza ond' io fiammeggio;
 per ch'a la vista mia, quant' ella è chiara,
 la chiarità de la fiamma pareggio.  
(Par. 21: 83-90)
Peter Damian falls upward -- luce divina penetrates the light in which he is "enwombed." Unlike Semele, he's not destroyed. Like Dionysus, he's lifted up and out by the power of that light, joined with his seeing, "so that I may see the highest essence from which this light is milked"*

The result is a fusion of his elevated sight and the flame in which he spins -- each is made equal to the other, or, put another way, the flame mirrors the vision that is the mirrored fusion of divine light and human eye.

*"Milked" is apparently the root sense of munta, < mungere. Hollander cites this paraphrase of Paradiso 21: 83-90 from Bosco/Reggio:
“The light of grace descends on me, penetrating the light that wraps me round, in whose womb I am enclosed, and its power, conjoined with my intellect, lifts me so far above myself that I can see the supreme essence, God, from whom this light bursts forth. From this sight comes the joy with which I shine, since the splendor of my flame is as great as the clarity of my vision of God.”


The silence of Saturn comports with the standard idea of contemplation. But then Dante introduces, in describing Peter Damian's cohort, the crows. We've just come from the figure of the Eagle on Jupiter, composed of the Just who sing in multiple voices, but which suddenly speaks in the first-person singular, subsuming all into one large, uncanny speaking entity. Here, instead of some even more solemn or seductive avian image, crows:
And as accordant with their natural custom
  The rooks together at the break of day
  Bestir themselves to warm their feathers cold;
Then some of them fly off without return,
  Others come back to where they started from,
  And others, wheeling round, still keep at home;
Such fashion it appeared to me was there
  Within the sparkling that together came, (21:34-41)
Here the image stresses the gaggle, the individual groups, each doing its own thing. If the eagle is the image of royal power, majesty, and top-down rule, these crows seem fairly common, independent, and unruly -- not unlike the actual creatures. Crows are also raucous, inharmonious, and have long been associated with bad news -- as in Ovid's tale of Apollo and the crow:
According to the mythological narration, Apollo sent a white raven, or crow in some versions to spy on his lover, Coronis. When the raven brought back the news that Coronis has been unfaithful to him, Apollo scorched the raven in his fury, turning the animal's feathers black. That's why all ravens are black today. (WP)
Crows are linked to secrets and baleful signs. They bring intelligence which may disconcert. One encounters them, as in Twa Corbies or Poe's "Raven," with foreboding.



If Saturn offers Dante's portrait of contemplation, rich in somber quiet and sober reflection, why the crows? And why the extraordinary grido - the unintelligible shout from those "crows" surrounding Peter Damian at the very end of Paradiso 21?

If we consider the attributes normally found in discussions of the sublime, this becomes less surprising. Thunder, high craggy mountains like those where Peter Damian went to live in solitude, discordant aesthetic effects all accompany the sublime, whether in Longinus or in Kant's Critique of Judgment. Indeed, the Paradiso might helpfully be informed by a reading that would see it as a movement from delightful forms and harmonies associated with beauty to these austere heights haunted by the unimaginable, terrifying power of sublimity.



What would link contemplation - in Dante's sense - to the sublime? For one thing, when two mirrors face each other, the result is a form of infinity. The sublime erupts when the mind, which is used to the framed world of finite beauties, encounters what exceeds its grasp:
però che sì s'innoltra ne lo abisso
 de l'etterno statuto quel che chiedi,
 che da ogne creata vista è scisso.  
Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
  Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
  From all created sight it is cut off. (21: 94-96)
Rudolf Otto writes about the blank stupor - a kind of paralyzing dread that accompanies apprehension of the other, in connection with Chrysostom's reading of a psalm:
When he gazes down into the immeasurable, yawning Depth of the divine Wisdom, dizziness comes upon him and he recoils in terrified wonder and cries : . . . "Thy knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, above my power (I am too weak for it: LXX)." The dizziness and the unique feeling of the uncanny, which we have called stupor and tremor, are here clearly noted by Chrysostom. (The Idea of the Holy Appendix 1)
"This is the voice not of the Platonist or Neo-Platonist ; it is the voice of antiquity itself," adds Otto.



I remember my first glimpse of mirroring mirrors -- it was in a barbershop, and when the phenomenon of endless iteration dawned on me, it was disorienting. One feels one could fall in. The golden stairs of Saturn, rising beyond mortal sight, disappoint the expectation of arrival -- instead of getting to a place, they simply repeat, step after step, no end visible.


Contemplation II

The empowered light of Peter Damian would appear to have the power to see far. But right after describing his joy, he unveils its limit, in response to Dante's question about predestination.
Ma quell' alma nel ciel che più si schiara,
quel serafin che 'n Dio più l'occhio ha fisso,
a la dimanda tua non satisfara,

però che sì s'innoltra ne lo abisso
de l'etterno statuto quel che chiedi,
che da ogne creata vista è scisso.
But that soul in the heaven which is most pure,
That seraph which his eye on God most fixes,
Could this demand of thine not satisfy;

Because so deeply sinks in the abyss
Of the eternal statute what thou askest,
From all created sight it is cut off. (21:91-96)
If the binding of luce divina and Peter's own seeing lifted him up, it also enables him to apprehend the deep abyss. Infinite height reflects an abyss without end. That the abyss is a "eternal statute" (etterno statuto) removes it from the realm of nature altogether. The statuto is there because a fiat -- a speech act -- decreed it there.

Human sight is scisso -- cut off -- or cut out -- here. It can apprehend, but not comprehend.

Peter is speaking in answer to Dante's question, "why you?" -- Why is it that Peter Damian greets Dante at this moment of his journey? Of course the question could be turned around; Peter could, with greater justice, reflect it back to Dante:"Why you, Ser Alighieri?" Peter's response -- that not even the highest Seraph knows -- provides the same absence of an answer for both.


Fat prelates

Peter's penetrating eye might not see why he's where he is, or Dante is where he is. But he sees through the opaque massiveness of the modern shepherds (moderni pastori). The layers of flesh and cloth try the patience of one whose life has been devoted to that virtue;
Cuopron d'i manti loro i palafreni,
sì che due bestie van sott' una pelle:
The victims of his caustic vision are mirror images of Peter's fusion of divine light and human eye, which lifts him up out of himself. Here the shepherds and their palfreys merge beneath a giant added "skin."

Suddenly, myriad little flames release a cry to which no earthly sound, even thunder, can be compared:
Dintorno a questa vennero e fermarsi,
 e fero un grido di sì alto suono,
 che non potrebbe qui assomigliarsi;
né io lo 'ntesi, sì mi vinse il tuono.
Round about this one came they and stood still,
  And a cry uttered of so loud a sound,
  It here could find no parallel, nor I
Distinguished it, the thunder so o'ercame me.
If music in the lower spheres interweaves in perfect rhythm with teachers and paragons of justice, this screech brings no beauty, or understanding, or closure. Paradiso 21 ends in a dissonance more disconcerting than the caw of crows.

Kant says the sublime can be painful, because it marks the moment when that which is apprehended exceeds what we may comprehend. He notes that when we find sublimity in the ocean, it's at the moment we are detached from what we know. The eye of the mind goes dark, and the sensory eye sees merely what strikes it:
if it (the ocean) is at rest, as a clear mirror of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything. (Analytic of the Sublime #29.)
The pilgrim experiences the grido as the overwhelming shock of mere sound -- né io lo 'ntesi -- "nor did I understand it."


Stupor II

Suppose one looked at the staircase with the same uncomprehending eye that Kant says sees the sublimity of the ocean. One would simply see a series of gradations extending upwards as far as that eye can see. Nothing beyond it, no destination, just stairs, stairs, stairs.

The staircase has been the structuring core of the Commedia. The entire arc and argument of the poem would have it mean something that we descend to the center of the created world, but then turn and ascend, higher and higher, through Purgatory, through the spheres, through the stars to the final destination, the alpha and omega. To have no beginning or ending, but just stairs -- this is the nightmare of nihilism -- perhaps the single most terrifying image of the poem: Horror vacui.


Contemplation III

Benedict muses in Paradiso 22 upon what looks all too much like fate:
The flesh of mortals is so very soft,
  That good beginnings down below suffice not
  From springing of the oak to bearing acorns.
Peter began with neither gold nor silver,
  And I with orison and abstinence,
  And Francis with humility his convent.
And if thou lookest at each one's beginning,
  And then regardest whither he has run,
  Thou shalt behold the white changed into brown. (22:85-93)
Longfellow translates tracorso as "run" - Sinclair offers "strayed," which seems a better fit -- wherever one looks, promising starts don't last, even when initiated by the likes of Saints Peter, Benedict, and Francis. The lapse Adam begat seems the one ineluctable pattern this contemplative can discern.



Benedict's vision of human life, at this crystal threshold before the poet is whisked high to the stars, earns every ounce of the term "saturnine." This ancient crack in God's once perfect world -- we heard about the old man of Crete in Inferno 14, himself cracked and weeping -- appears irremediable. The contemplative sees more clearly; there's much he can do to nurture i fiori e ' frutti santi. But true contemplation is contemplation of truth; this baleful, bottomless, abyssal errance of human intent seems inevitable, as well as impossible to un-see.

Beatrice is about to whisk him up beyond all the planets. He looks back. Down through the multiple layers of ancient gods and planets and powers in all their variety. One thing at its heart.

The poet calls it as he sees it:
L'aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci,

The little threshing-floor that makes us so fierce (Sinclair trans.)


Taking it in

The necessity of this terror, this congealed sense of everything coming to the same failed end, could account for Saturn's melancholia. Nothing mirrored in Saturn's crystal is quite what one hopes to see. Dante can sense the love Benedict and Peter bear him, but not why, nor why they in particular are there. Seeing even their faces is deferred -- yet to come, like the destination promised by all that he's experienced. Saturn feels incomplete because it is, especially if nothing lay beyond the stairs. This discordant ancient sadness and lack of closure is also of the sublime.

But Dante is already beyond the stairs when he looks back upon his odyssey to this point from the stars of Gemini. He's able to see the aiuolo with clearer vision than he's ever had. Paradiso 22 ends not with apprehension, but comprehension, as the poet takes in the scalar multiplicity of the planets -- take them in, as a whole, with crow-like wanderings.
And all the seven made manifest to me
How great they are, and eke how swift they are,
And how they are in distant habitations.
e tutti e sette mi si dimostraro
quanto son grandi e quanto son veloci
e come sono in distante riparo.

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