Saturday, February 18, 2017

Peter's quiz and the human pleasures of faith: Par. 24

After the leap of Paradiso 23, Dante face a quiz. The one asking the questions is none other than Peter -- the first man to put faith in the living Christ and the first man whose faith in Christ, upon entering the empty sepulcher on Easter morning, was realized. 

If that weren't sufficiently intimidating. Peter, the rock of the triumphant throng that joyously spins around them, plays the role of the skeptic, the wily questioner, sparring with the poet to find any small trace of bad faith in him.

Yet this rite of passage is singularly free of nerve-wracking stress. Beatrice makes it plain that the poet enjoys her full confidence. By the end of the canto, Peter is whirling around Dante like happy squirrel in a cartoon, welcoming him with warm camaraderie.

The necessity for testing belief is brought home when Beatrice tells us that faith is the sine qua non for becoming a cive - a citizen (24:43) - of this kingdom.

Peter's questions and Dante's responses have the structure of a catechism exercise -- one with astonishing concision. In 96 lines, we have faith (a) defined and (b) formulated such that Greek reason, Hebraic inspiration, and Christian revelation are married in one system; (c) the pilgrim is asked whether he actually holds these beliefs, as opposed to merely imitating one who believes; (d) then he's asked where his faith comes from, and (e) what evidence he can adduce that his belief is not the result of statements that reference only themselves as proof.

One could spend a good deal of digital ink on this, which the commentators have done quite well. Two things bear quick note. First, in addition to the range of "content" of the doctrine covered, the canto also rings all the registers we tend to associate with faith. There is of course the "citizenship" aspect of the theological virtue. As the defining feature of the sect, this faith can and does acquire political, philosophical and religious tensions precisely because it creates a dividing line between those who share a belief that cannot be demonstrated on Earth, and those who fail to see anything other than a mystifying sort of folly.

But this canto seems to place the all-important Christian virtue next to other modes of faith we're all acquainted with -- common forms that operate in our daily lives. The faith that a friend will be there when one needs her or him; the faith in a beloved pupil that she/he will pass the exam; the trust placed in a person one has long known; the confidence that grows in oneself born of desire, effort, application, and proven results.

These modes of faith are all present in the canto -- in Beatrice's appraisal of her loyal follower; in his willingness to face the music; in the actual song that explodes when Dante offers the overpowering reason that the absence of all miracles would be the greatest miracle:
"Were the world to Christianity converted,"
  I said, "without miracles, this one
  Is such, the rest are not its hundredth part; 
Because that poor and fasting thou didst enter
  Into the field to sow there the good plant,
  Which was a vine and has become a thorn!" 
This being finished, the high, holy Court
  Resounded through the spheres, "One God we praise!"
  In melody that there above is chanted.  (24: 106-114)

 The Te Deum is a confession of faith:
Te Deum laudámus: te Dominum confitémur.
Te ætérnum Patrem omnis terra venerátur.

Tibi omnes Angeli; tibi cæli et univérsae potestátes.

Tibi Chérubim et Séraphim incessábili voce proclámant:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dóminus Deus Sábaoth.

Pleni sunt cæli et terra majestátis glóriæ tuæ.
We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. 
All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud : the Heavens, and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim : continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy : Lord God of Hosts; 
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty : of thy glory.

In addition -- and this picks up from what we noted in Canto 23 -- it is a mirrored representation in reverse -- those bursting into song are portrayed in the lyrics they sing:
The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world : doth acknowledge thee;
Once again, the distance between sign and meaning, copy and original, vanishes -- bringing me to my second point: Peter is the somewhat impulsive, uneducated, fumbling rock chosen by Jesus. An everyman who exhibits no special gifts, privileges, or qualifications for the job he gets. It's he who runs past John into the empty tomb, as the pilgrim says:
“O santo padre, e spirito che vedi
ciò che credesti sì, che tu vincesti

ver' lo sepulcro più giovani piedi,”
"O holy father, spirit who beholdest
What thou believedst so that thou o'ercamest,
Towards the sepulchre, more youthful feet," (24:124-126)
In that void, Peter experienced the resurrection of faith as truth.

Faith is an everyday act, but willed. It has to rest upon a solid base; it must be confessed and acted on -- or, as in Peter's case, enacted. His impetuosity -- in the tomb as well as on the Sea of Galilee -- flows from a faith so assured that its realization brings neither surprise nor triumph. The "good news" arrives, turns out to be true coin, as pleasant as good fellowship and the sincere happiness of a master whose pledge makes the grade:

Come 'l segnor ch'ascolta quel che i piace,
da indi abbraccia il servo, gratulando

per la novella, tosto ch'el si tace; 

così, benedicendomi cantando,

tre volte cinse me, sì com' io tacqui,

l'appostolico lume al cui comando
io avea detto: sì nel dir li piacqui!
Even as a lord who hears what pleaseth him
His servant straight embraces, gratulating
For the good news as soon as he is silent;

So, giving me its benediction, singing,
Three times encircled me, when I was silent,
The apostolic light, at whose command
I spoken had, in speaking I so pleased him. (24:148-154)

No better word to end a canto about faith than piacqui -- faith in others, and of others in us, is indeed a pleasing thing. The next canto brings James to the fore. While his main subject is hope, a reading of the epistle of James speaks to both faith and to doubt, and perhaps to how the three theological virtues intertwine.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Convien saltar: Leaping past mimesis in Par. 23

“Tu se' sì presso a l'ultima salute,”
cominciò Bëatrice, “che tu dei
aver le luci tue chiare e acute; 
e però, prima che tu più t'inlei,
rimira in giù, e vedi quanto mondo
sotto li piedi già esser ti fei;

sì che 'l tuo cor, quantunque può, giocondo
s'appresenti a la turba trïunfante
che lieta vien per questo etera tondo.”
"Thou art so near unto the last salvation,"
  Thus Beatrice began, "thou oughtest now
  To have thine eves unclouded and acute; 
And therefore, ere thou enter farther in,
  Look down once more, and see how vast a world
  Thou hast already put beneath thy feet; 
So that thy heart, as jocund as it may,
  Present itself to the triumphant throng
  That comes rejoicing through this rounded ether." (Par. 22:124-132)

This is the moment in Paradiso 22 when Beatrice explains to Dante why he must look back and take in all that he has experienced up to this point, at the threshold of the stars. Before you "in yourself further," (tu più t'inlei), she tells him, his eyes must be clear and sharp, so that having looked back upon all below, Dante's heart can present itself to the coming throng "as jocund as it may" -- quantunque può, giocondo.

The pilgrim's look back, then, is related to the capability of his heart to be giocondo as he turns to the joyous throng coming towards him. Giocondo suggests happiness, light-hearted ease. Its etymology goes back to a mixture of something that is both helpful and delightful - a playful lightness of being:

The poet describes the world beneath his feet as his vision gathers it in -- it seems one vast organism. When he turns back to the oncoming joyous throng, his vision again fails him. It's only when the "sun" (Christ) removes itself to a great distance that Dante begins to see. What is is about to see is the human mother of God. But it is a curious sort of seeing:
Il nome del bel fior ch'io sempre invoco 
e mane e sera, tutto mi ristrinse 
l'animo ad avvisar lo maggior foco;  
e come ambo le luci mi dipinse 
il quale e il quanto de la viva stella 
che là sù vince come qua giù vinse,  (23:88-93)
 The name of that fair flower I e'er invoke
  Morning and evening utterly enthralled
  My soul to gaze upon the greater fire. 
And when in both mine eyes depicted were
  The glory and greatness of the living star
  Which there excelleth, as it here excelled,
The poet doesn't say "Maria" here, but describes what the "name of the beautiful flower" does: it constrains him to gaze intently at "the larger fire." His experience of beginning to see Mary proceeds from her name, which, we learn, he invokes every morning and evening. The power of this word is such that "the quality and quantity of that living star, that conquers up there as it did down here, depicted itself upon both my eyes."

The strangeness of what's happening here bears noting. We have depiction - the greater fire's quality and quantity paints itself upon both his eyes. We could simply "see" this as another quaint flourish of poesy, but if we look closely, it's harder to say what's going on with this inversion. Instead of the poet's eyes, "unclouded and acute," presenting what is before him, that which is before him represents itself upon both (ambo) his eyes. The commentators appear to agree that what the poet "means to say" here is that his eyes reflect (rispecchiare, i.e., "mirror") what is before him. But if that's so, then we ought to be able to say what is being reflected. Here we are somewhat at a loss. Is it a beautiful flower, a greater fire, a living star, or . . .? Our commentators seem better prepared to state what the poet means to say than they are able to say what his saying actually means.

Instead of a mere reflection of a thing, we have something painting (dipinse) itself upon the eyes. Whatever else this suggests, it reverses the act of representation -- displaces the copyist, painter, or mirror from the eye, mind, memory and poetry of Dante to that which is standing before him. If anything, his eyes, rather than unclouded windows, are now the canvas, slate, or page upon which something is representing itself. And that's not the worst of it. That something in front of Dante could be fire (maggior foco). Fire is the necessary enabling condition of depiction, but what would it mean for fire to depict, i.e., re-present, itself? I'm sure I'd forego the risk of fire representing itself upon both my eyes.

Verisimilitude -- realistic or probable resemblance to any thing or act we can visualize or imagine -- here fails. The only actual thing the passage indisputably gives us is an indirect reference to a sound, the name of Mary. What appears upon his eyes unfolds from a name. The rest is figuration - but upon what ground?

Ground is missing here. Part of the lightening of being, the condition of giocondità, is the jettisoning of gravity.

We have been prepared for this. Dante told us earlier in the canto that his poem has to make a leap to even begin to speak of what's coming in the final ten cantos of the Paradiso:
e così, figurando il paradiso, convien saltar lo sacrato poema, come chi trova suo cammin riciso. (23:61-63)
Mere representation, mimesis, is out of the question. What's coming cannot be described, painted, represented. His first apprehension of the mother -- the human being who became the queen of heaven -- presents us with this impossibility via a passage so strange and difficult to read as to defy mimetic interpretation. And, being Dante, this undoing of representation is performed through the the language of mimesis:

The word depinse is used here not to depict anything, but to turn representation inside out.

Nothing is quite what it seems here amid the stars. Vision is made possible by the removal of light. Properties of entities -- il quale e il quanto -- paint themselves. One's finger burns before it's put into the flame. Nothing comes before or after; representation and presence intermingle. Fire leaps up, pursuing a greater fire.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Quanto mondo: Dante's backward look

If Paradiso 22 is the stark, solitary realm of thunder and sublimity, canto 23 is another realm altogether. It is necessary to appreciate the artistic cogency with which the poet articulates all that is implicated in this move from the staircase of Saturn to the stars.

This begins at 22:100, when the pilgrim, at one sign (cenno) from Beatrice, suddenly accedes to the starry sphere. The use of hysteron proteron underscores the rapidity, and also does away with the tyranny with which time and causality are always linked (first cause, then effect), and seeing is distinct from being. Addressing the reader he says,
tu non avresti in tanto tratto e messo 
nel foco il dito, in quant' io vidi 'l segno 
che segue il Tauro e fui dentro da esso.
Thou hadst not thrust thy finger in the fire
And drawn it out again, before I saw
The sign that follows Taurus, and was in it. (22:109-111)
The simultaneity here signals a different temporal order, as well as a different mode of presence. Note that he sees and is within the sign of the Twins -- the sign (segno) no longer just re-presents the constellation, rather it is it.

Along with the erasure of temporality comes an almost casual sense of plenitude. No longer is there one star, one planet - there are migliaia - an immeasurable amount.

This is marked poignantly when, at Beatrice's direction, the poet turns back for one final look at where he has come from, taking in the entirety of creation beneath the stars:
I with my sight returned through one and all
  The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe
  Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance; 
And that opinion I approve as best
  Which doth account it least; and he who thinks
  Of something else may truly be called just.

I saw the daughter of Latona shining
  Without that shadow, which to me was cause
  That once I had believed her rare and dense. 
The aspect of thy son, Hyperion,
  Here I sustained, and saw how move themselves
  Around and near him Maia and Dione. 
Thence there appeared the temperateness of Jove
  'Twixt son and father, and to me was clear
  The change that of their whereabout they make; 
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. 
The threshing-floor (aiuolo) that maketh us so proud,
  To me revolving with the eternal Twins,
  Was all apparent made from hill to harbour!
Then to the beauteous eyes mine eyes I turned.  (22:133-154)
The repeated forms of "appear," "see," "manifest," "all" (tutto), "how great," "how swift," and "all apparent," coupled with the insistence on the genealogy of the gods, parents and children, with the highest three -- Mars, Jupiter, Saturn -- forming a pagan trinity, produces a totality completely in sync with the nature of the sub-starry universe. Planet-gods wander solitary through heavens; they have parents, they have children, they have stories, and all converge at the deepest point, the threshing floor where daughters and sons of gods/God make choices that determine their immortal ends.

A single gaze is able to represent this totality only because it is superliminal -- it speaks from the vantage point of the stars. Nature, in which individuals hash out their histories and die, giving rise to succeeding generations, here reaches its boundary. When Dante looks down from the stars, his mind is not overwhelmed by the vastness of Being, or by the turbulence of history, or the multiplicity of orbits and habitations. He is neither awed nor dizzied nor dazzled. His retrospective gaze has the serenity of a being taking it all in, with that smile --
io sorrisi del suo vil sembiante;
I smiled at its ignoble semblance;  (22:135)
-- a retrospective smile not unlike those on graves.

Hirst: "For the love of God"

Dante's Odyssean journey through Nature is ended. The ability to look back and take it all in is the ability of the narrator who has survived -- it's the moment when Odysseus can tell his tale in the court of Alcinous, and Aeneas can represent himself at Dido's palace.

Homer and Virgil's heroes of course had much more to see and do after their autobiographic moments, as does Dante's pilgrim. From this point on, the Christian poet will struggle with how to figurar that which is beyond Nature.