Monday, October 23, 2017

Beatrice's "awkward" digression - Paradiso 29

To perceive means to immobilize... we seize, in the act of perception, something which outruns perception itself. - H. Bergson

Paradiso 29 covers a lot of ground, and seems designed to perplex. It runs a crooked path through vastly different tonal registers and material. Moving at maximum speed at the edge of created reality, Beatrice's discourse shifts from a placid account of the Creation to a sardonic tirade against bad readers -- Schoolmen and Churchmen whose inventions and misreadings debase the Word -- with a kind of ontological shudder.

The interest here is precisely in this destabilizing turn -- not what we were expecting just now, when some triumphal closure might be what the Commedia ordered. Instead, at this "end of the world" we hear about the Beginning. Then Beatrice turns, with some agitation, to the unfinished business of a flock inflated with hot air purveyed by con artists.

There is some symmetry, however. The twilight of the canto's opening does balance the twilight of Inferno 1. From that moment to this, despite all revelation and grace, humans remain in between darkness and dawn, uncertain, wondering what's coming, like the angels before they resolved their choice.

Within the paradigm of perfect balance with which the canto begins -- an image of the Earth, Sun and Moon poised between day and night, spring and fall -- are two modes of where and when.

The 12-line passage begins with the quando of astronomical time -- the movement of the sun and earth generating days, hours, seconds -- the continuous, ceaseless forward motion of temporality. The moment of perfect "balance" lasts no time at all. Parallel to and reinforcing this missing "when" is the tale of Latona, who has conceived divine offspring, but has no where (ubi) to bring forth her twins.

The passage ends with the second mode: the gaze of Beatrice, contemplating Totality, takes in every ubi and every quando, in a changeless present beyond the Primum Mobile.

As the tipping moment between these two quandos, Paradiso 29 is by turns serene and convulsive. The apparent symmetry of its lovely opening passage is belied in a twist -- its end is not its beginning. The first quando, the Italian vernacular, is of the passing time of Nature; the last quando, its Latin cognate, is of eternity. The latter happens to look just like the Italian vernacular, but it belongs to another linguistic realm. The first quando attempts to seize a moving point before it disappears in the stream of human time; the final quando names the point-lessness of eternal presence (no "when" when all is "now"). The passage moves from one to the other, but does not make a circle or a return. Between quando (it.) and quando (lat.) lies a break rendered invisible (eclipsed) by similarity of form.

The circular, symmetric structure of the passage is broken, and this rupture continues through the canto to its final asymmetry, the shattered mirror. To show this will require a far longer post than was first intended - apologies in advance.

Precisely the same opposition between human and divine modes of time and space can be seen in Beatrice's account of the Angels. They don't need memory, she explains, because they are, as it were, hard-wired to the totality of past, present and future:
però non hanno vedere interciso
da novo obietto, e però non bisogna
rememorar per concetto diviso;
Hence they have not their vision intercepted
  By object new, and hence they do not need
  To recollect, through interrupted thought.  (79-81)
Human perception and understanding, intimately intertwined with the sensory realm of space and time, here have the structure of something coming between (interciso) knower and knowable. Like an eclipse, mediation occludes as it reveals. Angels see Totality pure -- without concepts, language, or representation. Their field of vision will never be eclipsed by anything new (and, unlike us, they'll never feel curiosity, thirst to learn, or the joy of discovery).

When Beatrice turns from angelic intelligence to human fallibility, we see her at her most acerbic. Of interest to us close readers is that her word for reading -- leggere -- appears twice as she pivots from the consistorio of perfect beings to the sons of Adam:
Ma perché 'n terra per le vostre scole
si legge che l'angelica natura
è tal, che 'ntende e si ricorda e vole,
ancor dirò, perché tu veggi pura
la verità che là giù si confonde,
equivocando in sì fatta lettura.
 But since upon the earth, throughout your schools,
  They teach that such is the angelic nature
  That it doth hear, and recollect, and will, 
More will I say, that thou mayst see unmixed
  The truth that is confounded there below,
  Equivocating in such like prelections.
Equivocation destabilizes meaning. Here below, we are either riddled with errant beliefs, or worse, pretend to believe in order to perpetuate utter rubbish ("fake news"):
sì che la giù, non dormendo, si sogna,
credendo e non credendo dicer vero;
ma ne l'uno è più colpa e più vergogna.
 So that below, not sleeping, people dream,
  Believing they speak truth, and not believing;
  And in the last is greater sin and shame.  (82-84)
Some of her strongest condemnatory language is reserved for those who knowingly perpetrate fraud in preaching, or with false indulgences:
per cui tanta stoltezza in terra crebbe, 
che, sanza prova d'alcun testimonio, 
ad ogne promession si correrebbe. 
Di questo ingrassa il porco sant' Antonio, 
e altri assai che sono ancor più porci, 
pagando di moneta sanza conio.
 For which so great on earth has grown the folly,
  That, without proof of any testimony,
  To each indulgence they would flock together. 
By this Saint Anthony his pig doth fatten,
  And many others, who are worse than pigs,
  Paying in money without mark of coinage. (121-126)
Conio is used of whores in Inferno 18.66 (panderers / seducers). The sellers of fake indulgences (compared to slugs, blank coins) will soon be joining the counterfeiters in the tenth bolgia of the eighth circle, last seen in Inferno 29-30, symmetrically enough.

Money without official marking is faceless; it can be anything, or nothing. Its blankness is an equivocation, eclipsing any determination. Beatrice offers us a lesson in reading blankness when she speaks of how commentators have filled volumes debating whether the moon ran backward, or the sun dimmed itself, at the Crucifixion.
Non ha Fiorenza tanti Lapi e Bindi 
quante sì fatte favole per anno 
in pergamo si gridan quinci e quindi:  
sì che le pecorelle, che non sanno, 
tornan del pasco pasciute di vento, 
e non le scusa non veder lo danno.
Florence has not so many Lapi and Bindi
  As fables such as these, that every year
  Are shouted from the pulpit back and forth, 
In such wise that the lambs, who do not know,
  Come back from pasture fed upon the wind,
  And not to see the harm doth not excuse them. (103-108)
Fake food, fake coin, fake salvation: Where the Gospel is mute, jackanapes rush in, filling Florence with words, instead of contemplating even silences within the Word.

The irony here is quite complex. The Gospel is silent about the causes of the eclipse that occurred during the Crucifixion, which itself seemed to be the eclipse of God. One might give one's attention to the fact that at this moment, it got dark* -- that there was, at Christ's death, a terrifying blankness that would have shaken the faith of a Job, a Peter, a James, a John. To speculate on the "science" behind the event would miss precisely everything.

More than that: To infer that God has been defeated, or that Jesus was either an imposter or a madman, would be a peremptory act of interpretive closure -- a misreading of epochal proportions. Unlike Satan, who could not wait for light, the followers of Christ spent 36 hours in shock and incomprehension -- what they had seen with their own eyes defied everything they believed. Only after living the intensest imaginable loss did the apparent closure of Christ's life turn out to be something else. Anyone taking the advice of Job's wife would have missed the navicella.

For Beatrice, this too is reading -- and it is consequential. As Augustine noted, when reading a psalm we are amidst a temporal event whose full meaning, subtending the syllables unfolding in time, will not be revealed until the last syllable is spoken. Understanding -- of our lives, as well of Nature and Scripture -- requires a patience. Closure on Earth is fake, and nothing is more attuned to that insight than Beatrice's peppery vernacular. Here is someone who has no patience with some fulsome and false facade of an ending to her pilgrim's journey. Nothing ends here in this portrait of error, larceny, and fraud -- we are scolded, with caustic love, into becoming better readers.


. . .siam digressi assai, says Beatrice, "we've digressed quite a bit," not unlike all on Earth who do nothing but miss the true path:
Voi non andate giù per un sentiero 
Below you do not journey by one path
  Philosophising;  (85-86)
Those made uncomfortable by Beatrice's sharp words, those who find it aesthetically awkward, might at least consider that she has her reasons -- as did the poet -- for this digression. What matters here is how the final movements of the Commedia are to be read. Beatrice has reminded us in every possible way of our limitations, and of the dangers of premature closure.

What she then shares, with the same serenity she possessed before her digression, is a vision of Questa natura as something without number or determinable limit. Beatrice calls this unbounded field of light-filled beings "nature." In this instant, when Dante is told to see something that is not neither possible nor conceivable in the natural world -- something of infinite extent, and therefore not only unearthly and uncountable, but inherently asymmetric and unending -- it's an extraordinary touch that Beatrice simply says "questa natura."

Only after telling us it has no known number, and that each individual being is unique thanks to its particular mix of conception and affect, does Beatrice invite us to actually look:
"Vedi l'eccelso omai e la larghezza
de l'etterno valor, poscia che tanti
speculi fatti s'ha in che si spezza,
uno manendo in sé come davanti.”
"The height behold now and the amplitude
  Of the eternal power, since it hath made
  Itself so many mirrors, where 'tis broken,
One in itself remaining as before."
A different model is counterpoised to the binary equilibrium of Latona's world. Here a god has not only conceived, but has also created place, time, and free will to an unquantified amplitude. Mirrors, each a being whose life began the moment it said "subsisto," break apart the One whom they reflect. Unlike gods destroyed by the many who wish to devour them, this god/father remains, beyond all mutation, all shattering, One in itself remaining as before.

The shattering (spezza) of the totality into infinite self-subsistent pieces renders impossible any mirroring, any specular symmetry. This is not classical equilibrium, not the closed physics of matter and energy. In fact it's not possible to imagine this open-endedness -- neither the One we do not see nor the broken infinitude that generatively re-in-flects it. Beatrice invites us to look. The science of this vision will be left to others.

*Remarks of Louis Martorella in our Classics group were very helpful with this passage.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Jarring note, asymptote: Par. 29

The last canto before the Empyrian presents artistic as well as interpretive challenges. Paradiso 29 opens in a heightened moment, right before the pilgrim and his guide leave the Created world. And it speaks of some of the highest things, as well as several of the lowest.

If one steps back from the interpretive musings of the commentators, the canto exhibits odd choices on the level of style and narration. It deals with weighty matters, including
  • how, when, and why Creation occurred;
  • the first moment of the angels' existence;
  • the fall of Satan and his followers, and 
  • the relation of grace and merit, intellect and affect, with regard to the angels who didn't fall. 
Each of these moments could have filled its own canto (or more, if you're Milton). Instead, this extraordinary matter is stated in summary form by Beatrice in a calm, authoritative manner. The sublime opening of Genesis is elided, none of the acts of creation, pride and fall are dramatized. Dante chose to move quickly and in summary fashion through this material, instead lavishing poetic exuberance on the image of equilibrium that heads the canto - the myth of Latona and the lights in our sky.

One needs to consider the reasons for such a choice. Recall the rich creation of the beasts in Paradise Lost. Surely Dante entertained such potent options, but in the end seems to have preferred a kind of askesis -- sacrificing poetic sublimity for something else. Why, and what something?

In terms of narrative arc, a problem loomed. If he took the time and space here to dazzle us with the way it all began, there'd be precious little room for the Empyrean. Plus, a heightened account of the Creation could weaken the impact of that final climactic scene. Narrative art necessitated something modest here, though the content involves big things.

There might be another reason as well. Throughout this canto (excluding the opening image), Beatrice is the sole speaker. If one were to graph her tone, a curious change would be noticeable. The descriptions of Creation and the angels' first moments are presented in a serene mode that bears none of the emotional or intellectual excitement of human witness. Beatrice is recounting what she has been given to see in the divine vision for a long, long time. Interestingly, Dante the pilgrim, who often describes his craving for knowledge as physical need - thirst, desire, etc. -- is silent. It's as if he's reaching the capacity to take in - to see -- what Beatrice sees, and to do so calmly, deeply, completely. Speaker and auditor share the wonders of origin in dispassionate, apodictic tranquility.

Suddenly, that spell gives way. Beatrice launches into a far more engaged diatribe against, among other things, poor readers, showy, self-aggrandizing preachers, fanciful and bogus interpretive curlicues performed for the sake of local adulation, and profound acts of fraud perpetrated by porcine churchmen in the act of peddling fake indulgences, which acts exploit and encourage the ignorance of their flocks.

She ticks off vivid examples of presumptuous readers spinning elaborate explanations of events told in the Gospels:
One sayeth that the moon did backward turn,
  In the Passion of Christ, and interpose herself
  So that the sunlight reached not down below; 
And lies;                (29:97-100)
A palpable gasp runs through the commentaries at this take-down of revered teachers: Dionysus, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas. It's suggested that mente in Italian of the day might just have meant "erred." Still, it's a barb, and rather acute.

But this sort of learned misreading bothers Beatrice less than the "fables" (favole) spewed forth from the pulpits, filling the preachers' flocks with wind:
Now men go forth with jests and drolleries
  To preach, and if but well the people laugh,
  The hood puffs out, and nothing more is asked.
But in the cowl there nestles such a bird,
  That, if the common people were to see it,
  They would perceive what pardons they confide in, 
For which so great on earth has grown the folly,
  That, without proof of any testimony,
  To each indulgence they would flock together. 
By this Saint Anthony his pig doth fatten,
  And many others, who are worse than pigs,
  Paying in money without mark of coinage.
Beatrice here is working up a lather -- the endless varieties of deforming the Word, using it to get laughs, or nice meals, or money -- exercise her in a way that seems out of place. Consider the context: We're nearly at the edge of time and space, and instead of looking back with some cumulative, totalizing gaze -- as we saw the pilgrim do twice, in cantos 22 and 27 -- we get a sardonic lambasting of hypocritical scumbags. It feels jarring.

Dante (the poet) never seems anything but sure-handed. One can look at virtually any scene, any tercet in the entire Commedia and find a mature artist who knows exactly what's called for at every metric step. Yet here, as the pilgrim is about to exit the created world, that masterful balance seems to be jolted. We've dashed through some of the biggest questions of existence, then excoriated a bunch of Boccaccian scoundrels at nearly the last instant before the pilgrim is ripped Marsyas-like from the sheath of his muscles, tendons, and skin.

Within the larger movement of the narrative, something seems off. Where is the reassuring sense of closure, the triumphal achievement, the anticipatory excitement that one might expect here at the asymptotic edge? Has Dante finally missed a beat?

Or, is this disequilibrium, this apparent loss of total control -- both on the part of Dante's serene mediatrix, and of the text itself -- precisely the right thing? Nothing is more obvious in terms of tone and style than that this canto began with the most exquisitely balanced series of binary oppositions -- a polished classical vision of a totally symmetrical system in the moment of ineluctable eclipse. But we're leaving that, and doing so in jangled, heated discord. What if that apparent dislocation of tone and control, from a certain angle, is entirely the point?

One thing seems clear: the magnificent picture of equilibrium that opens this canto is not the model Beatrice follows. She herself calls her tirade a digression, pulls up short, and returns us to a contemplative moment that deserves more attention than it perhaps has received. She turns us from the fat fraudulent friars to consider the relation of "the act of conception" to love and sweetness:
 Onde, però che a l'atto che concepe segue
l'affetto, d'amar la dolcezza 
diversamente in essa ferve e tepe.  
Vedi l'eccelso omai e la larghezza 
de l'etterno valor, poscia che tanti 
speculi fatti s'ha in che si spezza,
uno manendo in sé come davanti.” 
Hence, inasmuch as on the act conceptive
  The affection followeth, of love the sweetness
  Therein diversely fervid is or tepid. 
The height behold now and the amplitude
  Of the eternal power, since it hath made
  Itself so many mirrors, where 'tis broken,
One in itself remaining as before."     (29:139-145)
Another post will consider the resonance of this last image in light of the extraordinary gamut run by this canto, its tranquility and febrile censoriousness, and ponder whether that seeming lapse in decorum and control might serve an unexpected artistic purpose.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Mortal brinksmanship: Niobe, Satan, and artistic hubris

What madnesse is it (quoth she) to prefer the heavenly rout
 Of whome ye doe but heare, to such as daily are in sight? 
Or why should Laton honored be with Altars? Never wight
To my most sacred Majestie did offer incense. Yit
My Father was that Tantalus whome only as most fit
The Gods among them at their boordes admitted for to sit.
A sister of the Pleyades is my mother. Finally 
My Graundsire on the mothers side is that same Atlas hie
That on his shoulders beareth up the heavenly Axeltree.
Againe my other Graundfather is Jove, and (as you see)
He also is my Fathrinlawe, wherein I glorie may.
The Realme of Phrygia here at hand doth unto me obay.
In Cadmus pallace I thereof the Ladie doe remaine
And joyntly with my husbande I as peerlesse Princesse reigne
Both over this same towne whose walles my husbands harpe did frame,
And also over all the folke and people in the same.
 ~ Metamorphoses 6.170-79
The speaker is Niobe, queen of Thebes. The prophetess Manto has been urging the women of her country to worship Latona, and they are obeying. Niobe, angered, says the people should be worshiping her own royal self, and offers many reasons - her beauty; her lineage through Tantalus to Zeus; her husband, Amphion, also descended from Zeus. But most of all, her maternal glory. She has 14 children -- Latona has only two.

Arthur Golding's 1567 translation captures something of the haughty Royal tone. But it's hard to beat Ovidian concision. The passage opens:
quis furor, auditosinquitpraeponere visis caelestes?"
"What madness," she said, "incites you to put hearsay Gods before those you see?"
Niobe is not merely contemptuous of Latona. Even as she brags of her relation to Zeus, she rehashes the cliched materialism of the non-believer. Put your faith in what you know from experience, she says. Size matters. Number matters. Being right here matters. Latona couldn't even book a room for her labor, etc.

A recurring motif of the Metamorphoses is precisely this brinksmanship, this willingness of supremely gifted mortals to contend with the divine. Ovid's immediately preceding story told of Arachne's challenge to Athena, and Thebes was still "howling" (fremit) from that news. Another tale of art and hubris, Marsyas's contest with Apollo, follows. Niobe's metamorphosis of the natural honor of motherhood into hollow, virulent pretension elevates her to an elite class of mortals doomed to suffer forever. It's a small group, but it includes, of course, her father.

The dangerous reach of Dante's art is readable as presumption; Niobe is his Medusa.

Niobe's disdain for the goddess is in play here in the Primum Mobile, precisely the threshold separating what one hears about the divinity from what one may experience for oneself. This is the final juncture toward which the poem, and all of creation, are moving. Dante and Beatrice aim beyond time and space with the escape velocity of Seraphic ardor.

To question that something -- the Empyrean, e.g. -- exists beyond this outermost bound of the Primum Mobile is to challenge what one has heard -- through Scripture, family, revealed truth. If modest Latona parallels the Creator, Niobe poses the classical counterweight to Satan. (For a persuasive reading of Satan's fall from a doctrinal perspective, see Alison Cornish, "Planets and Angels in Paradiso XXIX: The First Moment," discussed briefly here. My point is that Dante's use of ancient myth -- here the tales of Latona and Niobe -- adds substance from rich classical sources of philosophy and poetry.)

Apply Ovid's brief introduction to the tale of Satan, which we just touched upon, and the consistency is clear: To prefer what is seen to what is spoken of is, in the language of this canto (l.28), to seize upon a slice of the spectrum, the realm visible through light, at the expense of the totality (the triforme effetto) -- the invisible, or not-yet-visible, all the effect of its maker (suo sire).

Light of course is essential to our sensory reality, but to equate all of reality with what light enables us to see is to center reality within our sensory selves, and to deny the possibility that something more than is currently accessible is yet to come. Our narrow axis of experience lies in us; all else is old wive's tales.

As a story of materialism vs. something more, the tale of Niobe is about substituting oneself as center in place of an other we've only heard tell of. It's Augustine and Beatrice's basic choice: we are arrows of love -- do we aim for the other, or for ourselves?

The highest created being in the Commedia ends spun from the Empyrean, frozen in his tears, as immobile as Ovid's queen of Thebes:
Childless— she crouched beside her slaughtered sons,
her lifeless daughters, and her husband's corpse.
The breeze not even moved her fallen hair,
a chill of marble spread upon her flesh,
beneath her pale, set brows, her eyes moved not,
her bitter tongue turned stiff in her hard jaws,
her lovely veins congealed, and her stiff neck
and rigid hands could neither bend nor move.
her limbs and body, all were changed to stone.
Yet ever would she weep: and as her tears
were falling she was carried from the place,
enveloped in a strong and stormy whirlwind
far to where, in her native land, fixed upon
a mountaintop, a stone turns liquid --
even now marble drips tears.
~ Metamorphoses 6:300-312 (Brookes More, trans. (the last four lines have been modified by me.)