Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Unmasking heaven: Paradiso 30

It's often remarked that the late canti of Paradiso are redolent with Virgilian echoes, prompting commentators to ponder why, since Virgil ceded his guiding role to Beatrice in Purgatorio 30, his text seems to return with such sonorous and imagistic presence 30 cantos later.

An indirect approach might help. I'll break it into three parts - the critical impasse that the pilgrim experiences, and moves beyond, in Paradiso 30; the presence of some of Virgil's most far reaching passages in the canto, and finally an effort to read Dante's juxtaposition of his own poetic impasse with Virgil's tale of Orpheus's defeat and Aristaeus's renewal in the Fourth Georgic.

As noted previously, Paradiso 30 seems to partake more intimately of music than of statement, description, or question and answer. The muted opening scene of earth's shadow bowing to the sun is a sort of preludium that modulates into the equally quiet confession that the man who loved Beatrice since he first saw her perhaps half a century earlier, who would follow her still, cannot keep up -- she has risen to a level beyond his art.

ché, come sole in viso che più trema,
così lo rimembrar del dolce riso
la mente mia da me medesmo scema.

For as the sun the sight that trembles most,
  Even so the memory of that sweet smile
  My mind depriveth of its very self. (30.25-27)

The poet is about to have his power of sight strengthened to a point of being able to look unhindered at anything. But before that, just the memory of the changed Beatrice is overpowering -- it blots out the mind in the act of remembrance. Remembering dismembers.

The poem is interweaving antinomic extremities: On one hand, the poet says he's split, divided from his own memory, from his muse, from his mimetic powers as poet -- as his voyage brings him ever closer to that Reality which exceeds the realism of his artistry.*

Yet at the same time, in the very moment of this decisive defeat, his powers of vision are expanded and strengthened:

“Sempre l'amor che queta questo cielo
 accoglie in sé con sì fatta salute,
 per far disposto a sua fiamma il candelo.”

Non fur più tosto dentro a me venute 
queste parole brievi, ch'io compresi 
me sormontar di sopr' a mia virtute;

"Ever the Love which quieteth this heaven
  Welcomes into itself with such salute,
  To make the candle ready for its flame."

No sooner had within me these brief words
  An entrance found, than I perceived myself
  To be uplifted over my own power,   (30:52-57)

Led by Virgil to the top of Purgatory, the pilgrim there was crowned and mitered over himself (Purg. 27). Here the words of Beatrice enter the poet and empower a self-surmounting, a rising above oneself. Then,

e di novella vista mi raccesi
tale, che nulla luce è tanto mera,
che li occhi miei non si fosser difesi;

And I with vision new rekindled me,
Such that no light whatever is so pure
But that mine eyes were fortified against it. (30:58-60)

As extraordinary as this novella vista is, however, it merely permits the pilgrim to see foreshadowings (umbriferi prefazi) -- the river, the sparks and flowers. To see that which is foreshadowed by these figures, he still must "drink" of this light to cure a lack in himself.

Up to this point, one could argue that Paradiso has been accommodating itself to the Pilgrim's limitations. His vision is strong, but he's still seeing illusion, a mask.

After his eyelids drink in the river's light, the mask is removed, and the pilgrim beholds the glorious courts of heaven. We are now in the throes of the paradox built into the canto: coming from nature, we do not have the poetic means to extricate and explicate what lies behind the appearances of nature. Yet that apparent dead end has an unanticipated twist.

A look into the return of Virgil's text seems necessary here.

*For a very helpful distinction between the poetics of realism vs. the nature of reality, see the fine commentary, Dante and Reality / Dante and Realism (Paradiso) by Teodolinda Barolini. 

II. Virgilian echoes

The sense of intuiting divinity without being able to speak it is Virgil's limit -- he intimates a numinous reality within the natural world, but lacks the revelation to be able to speak it.

This sense of something looming behind is present from the richly Virgilian echoes in the canto's opening:

quando 'l mezzo del cielo, a noi profondo,
 comincia a farsi tal, ch'alcuna stella
 perde il parere infino a questo fondo;

When the middle of the heavens, to us profound,
  Begins to make itself such that here and there a star
  Ceases to appear so far down as this depth,

This is a modified form of Longfellow's translation - the original is here: Par. 30:4-6. The link of cielo . . . profondo prompts many commentators to point to a passage that seems to have its own profundity in Virgil's fourth Georgic:

His quidam signis atque haec exempla secuti  220
esse apibus partem divinae mentis et haustus
aetherios dixere; deum namque ire per omnes
terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum.
Hinc pecudes, armenta, viros, genus omne ferarum,
quemque sibi tenues nascentem arcessere vitas;  225
scilicet huc reddi deinde ac resoluta referri
omnia nec morti esse locum, sed viva volare
sideris in numerum atque alto succedere caelo.

Led by these tokens, and with such traits to guide,
Some say that unto bees a share is given
Of the Divine Intelligence, and to drink
Pure draughts of ether; for God permeates all—
Earth, and wide ocean, and the vault of heaven
From whom flocks, herds, men, beasts of every kind,
Draw each at birth the fine essential flame;
Yea, and that all things hence to Him return,
Brought back by dissolution, nor can death
Find place: but, each into his starry rank,
Alive they soar, and mount the heights of heaven.
Bees exemplify the kind of sign that lends credence to a reading of the world as instinct with divine motion through all things, leaving no place for death. Such passages make Virgil much more than the singer of Roman history and conquest.

Virgil had used the same phrase in the Fourth Eclogue:
Adgredere o magnosaderit iam tempushonores,
cara deum subolesmagnum Iovis incrementum!
Aspice convexo nutantem pondere mundum,         50
terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum!
Aspiceventuro laetentur ut omnia saeclo!
Assume thy greatness, for the time draws nigh,
dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove!
See how it totters—the world's orbed might,
earth, and wide ocean, and the vault profound,
all, see, enraptured of the coming time!
The tone carries prophetic power -- the foresense of a child whose birth will shake the fixed contours of earth and sea and sky, leading to a paradisal new epoch.

Dante is summoning these heightened, luminous moments in Virgil's text, moments in which something shines through a teeming world filled with tears, violence, and war. At the end of the Fourth Eclogue, the poet calls upon a child and its mother to smile, because in this mutual smile he sees the sign of a better future. Juxtaposed with the smile of Beatrice, along with the Virgin and Child, these lines might have struck Dante as harboring an extraordinary premonition, that of a seer doomed never to know what his prescience so vividly foretells. 

If Dante shared the then-common view of Virgil's poetry as vatic, its profundity was in the mode of the pilgrim's novella vista of the river, sparks, and flowers -- a realm of umbriferi prefazi beneath the mask of nature.

When that mask is removed, as occurs after the pilgrim, like a famished infant, "drinks" from the river, there is no longer a translucence of something discerned obliquely in the depths. Taking off a mask is an instantaneous act in which the veil is not seen through, but lifted away -- a literal act of revelation:
Poi, come gente stata sotto larve, 
che pare altro che prima, se si sveste 
a sembianza non süa in che disparve,  
così mi si cambiaro in maggior feste 
i fiori e le faville, sì ch'io vidi 
ambo le corti del ciel manifeste. 
Then as a folk who have been under masks
  Seem other than before, if they divest
  The semblance not their own they disappeared in, 
Thus into greater pomp were changed for me
  The flowerets and the sparks, so that I saw
  Both of the Courts of Heaven made manifest. (91-96)
The moment in a plot when a key player is unmasked often pivots the tale. It can "turn into" a comedy, if the "boy" desperately in love with the male protagonist turns out to be a beautiful woman; it turns tragic if the honest friend turns out to be Iago. Moments of unmasking are moments of truth. Depending on that truth is the determination as to what genre of literature, what sort of story, we have.

For readers of the Commedia, the unmasking of heaven is that moment. The pastoral world of Virgil's Elysium -- that pregnant dream -- is peeled back, replaced by a maggior feste beyond his Roman guide's ken.

Virgil's text here suffers a destiny much like the starry night at the canto's opening -- its lights are dimmed by a divine light that doesn't move through the world, but rises from a place beyond, dispatching the stars into the depths of a brightening sky.
e come vien la chiarissima ancella
del sol più oltre, così 'l ciel si chiude
di vista in vista infino a la più bella.
And as advances bright exceedingly
  The handmaid of the sun, the heaven is closed
  Light after light to the most beautiful; (30:7-9)

This has already become too long. The third part will be in a subsequent post.