Friday, December 08, 2017

Bernard's familiar voice

(An interpolation - I do intend to get back to the question of parabasis in Paradiso 30)

As noted previously, the final cantos of the Paradiso come to life through the voice of Bernard of Clairvaux. I've not read more than a smidgen of Bernard's works, but this was a man who richly lived - a man on fire. Many of his works are readings of sacred texts, including The Song of Songs, which Bernard explored in 86 chapters.

I will just point to two aspects of Bernard's writing: First, it's a strong common style, accessible to anyone; second, when he reads, he quotes -- not just from the text in question, but from the Bible and other texts --  so liberally that one soon believes he must have had photographic memory.

To read the Song of Songs is to move through a wide range of subjects and styles, from great intimacy to worldly grandeur, the entire gamut seemingly in play at the same time. Anyone curious to see how Bernard reads such a poem might choose a chapter of his text at random. I happened upon Chapter 31, "The Various Ways of Seeing God." Reading it in conjunction with Paradiso 30-31 offers a rich set of accords; Bernard is wrestling with the same general problem of how to represent how one of human limitations can see God, and is thinking through some of the same modes of apprehension that Dante pilgrim experiences in the language of Dante poet. Try it out - read Paradiso 30, then Bernard's chap. 31, and see if you're not reminded of Dante's poetics.

Bernard is clearly a thoughtful reader. See what he does with the first lines of the Song, in chapter 1.
Tell us, I beg you, by whom, about whom and to whom it is said: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.'' How shall I explain so abrupt a beginning, this sudden irruption as from a speech in mid-course?  
The interpretive strategy bears upon the understanding of "mouth" and a full meditation on what mouths do - they speak, and in this case, the speaking is not just of words, but of the Word. Bernard is thinking through a complex intercourse of flesh, spirit, and the power of language. He should know, as his mouth launched the Second Crusade, the one that both summoned Cacciaguida and ended his life.

The connection between Dante and Bernard thus is personal, as well as stylistic and interpretive. One can perhaps even see a shadowy preface of Dante's bold treatment of the pontiffs in Bernard's startling familiarity with the living Pope in his De Consideratione:

Bernard is one of those writers whose voice leaps off the page with vivacity, as indeed it will in Paradiso 33. To Dante, this contemplative of the Word was, in life and in writing, a stylist to emulate.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Parabasis in Paradiso 30

Forse semilia miglia di lontano
ci ferve l'ora sesta, e questo mondo
china già l'ombra quasi al letto piano,

Paradiso 30 does not reveal all its audacity at once. Its gentle opening gives no hint of what's to come. Strangely, it puts us squarely back on Earth -- questo mondo -- at dawn. We have been moving at accelerating speeds through the highest realms of stars and the crystalline sphere. Now, curiously, we're back on terra firma, watching the stars "lose their appearing" as the eastern horizon brightens.

The presentation of this dawn is literally down to earth -- we have no warrior gods or mutual titanic destructions of Night and Day, as Sophocles gave us in the gorgeous first ode of Women of Trachis. Indeed the bending, or bowing, of the shadow of night has a plainspoken quality. Today anyone can look into the heavens before sunrise and see the mezzo, the "middle" of the sky, gradually absorb the stars into profound depths, and think that this passage tells it just as it is.

The mode is heightened a bit by the figurative ancella del sol, but a handmaid is hardly cut from the cloth of the high style. The sense of granular gradation as the night's starry points vanish in morning light is meditative, calm, simple.

This is not what we might have expected, at this crucial transition from the maggior corpo of the Primum Mobile to the pura luce of the Empyrean. All sorts of dazzlement might not have seemed out of place here as we accompany the pilgrim on the final stage of his journey. The canto will soon touch themes of triumph and various kinds of overpowerings. In short order the pilgrim will abandon all hope of describing his guide; he'll be emblazoned in a blinding light that empowers him to see anew; he'll stand at the pool of light within the rose, whose layered tiers, soaring to unimaginable heights, mirror each other vertically as well as horizontally, and he'll hear Beatrice's final words as she tracks Pope Clement's damned soul's plummet into questo mondo, where gravity and momentum conspire to plunge the shaky ankles of Boniface VIII deeper into the bowels of hell.

The canto's puzzlingly erratic shifts in tone and styles of speech, and its rich phonetic effects, seem to work more as music than as any linear mode of statement. 

Erich Auerbach often marvels at Dante's command of a robust style that manages to encompass a lively vernacular while drawing upon a sublimity without seeming strained or resorting to empty rhetorical artifice. One might ask what other poet has ever sought to combine all these stylistic levels into a mere 148 lines. Who other than Alighieri would dare modulate from the humble prose of earth to the sublimity of the milizie -- the Courts and armies of the Heavenly rose -- only to leap from such glory into the low comic farce of papal simoniacs reaming new depths under Satan's towering shadow?

This audacity acquires a comic aspect when we consider that the poet also chooses this canto to admit artistic defeat:

Da questo passo vinto mi concedo
più che già mai da punto di suo tema
soprato fosse comico o tragedo:

Vanquished do I confess me by this passage
  More than by problem of his theme was ever
  O'ercome the comic or the tragic poet;

If the stars were overpowered ever so gently by dawn's entrance, the poet here steps out of his usual narrative mode in a kind of parabasis, and speaks openly, nakedly, of being overcome by his theme. Indeed he doesn't stop there - he goes on for 15 lines acknowledging with a craftsman's practicality that the job has now exceeded his tools and wit, before proceeding to tackle the series of astonishing poetic acrobatics I've just described.

That this congeries of disparate levels of materials works is due in part to the fact that we do not see it for what it is. The art hiding art here is in full view, in the form of the artist taking off his mask and telling us he lacks the artistry to keep up with deep change in both his theme and his mediatrix.

For Aristophanes, parabasis was a moment when theatrical illusion was dropped, and the chorus addressed the audience (as George Burns and Bertolt Brecht would do) as if they were sitting at a bar, outside of the mimetic world of the play, talking about things entirely irrelevant to the fiction being enacted. (For the New Testament, parabasis was a kind of error, a violation and break from the moral order.)

Dante comes at his parabasis from two sides: First he breaks the continuity of the forward motion of his journey to speak of his lifelong love for this woman. Then, as poet, he confesses that he's outclassed, and no longer can hope to represent the new state of her beauty.

Dal primo giorno ch'i' vidi il suo viso
 in questa vita, infino a questa vista,
 non m'è il seguire al mio cantar preciso;

ma or convien che mio seguir desista
 più dietro a sua bellezza, poetando,
 come a l'ultimo suo ciascuno artista.

From the first day that I beheld her face
  In this life, to the moment of this look,
  The sequence of my song has ne'er been severed;

But now perforce this sequence must desist
  From following her beauty with my verse,
  As every artist at his uttermost. (28-33)

Vidi . . . viso . . . vita . . . vista . . .the play of abiding and changing consonants mirrors on the level of sound how something so formally similar can become so radically other as to disrupt the ability of art to make anything of it.

He speaks of questa vita, as he spoke of questo mondo, at the very moment he is moving beyond "questo" entirely. He's speaking to us from a place that is neither the location of the pilgrim who is outside space in the mimesis of the poem, nor of the poet making that mimesis. This speaking is placeless and timeless -- a voice that is "in" the text, but breaks with the mimetic illusion to offer a meta-comment about an absence in the text -- to admit that nothing in his powers can represent Beatrice, who was his mediatrix -- his mezzo -- up to this point. For the remainder of Paradiso 30 we hear Beatrice, but don't see her (we'll get another view of her in a later canto), just as we here read the poet's words that spell the end of the mimetic mode we have experienced up to now.

It's as if the persona, or mask, of the pilgrim has fallen away, and poetic technique has failed, leaving only this pointing to a thisness spoken by one who can only speak of this life, this world, because he is neither alive nor in this world.

We'll look at a second occurrence of parabasis in Paradiso 30 in the next post.