Monday, February 19, 2018

Binding incisions: Paradiso 32 (Part III)

The arc of the Paradiso has been a movement from the particular to the universal, moving towards the primo amore -- the source of all Being. We are brought up short in Paradiso 32 as we encounter, rather than a higher level of synthesis, a highly limited directory to 18 specific figures in the lineage from Adam through Christ to the present.

After establishing this curiously partial portrait of the Rose, the canto turns to the providential disposition of the innocent. Teodolinda Barolini has an insightful blog post about Bernard's disquisition on more and less excellent innocents, and why and how their places in Paradise, or Limbo, were determined by "the king" of this realm:
I find it extremely impressive that Dante manages to have a dubbio, that he can still be dubitando, even this high up in paradise, at the very threshold of the beatific vision.. . . His concern in Paradiso 32 relates to the justice inherent in diversity of grace, with respect to placing the infants in a hierarchy: how can it be just to order them hierarchically, when they did not live long enough to have any merit? 
The final dubbio of the Paradiso is essentially its first, and exhibits the same preoccupation with unequally proportioned grace that has troubled the pilgrim throughout his ascent. But the issue has never been more starkly raised than here, because never before has individual merit been totally excluded from the equation . . .
Two points here. First, we have noted the curious erasure of individual traits occurring in this canto as the 18 figures are named. Now we have this crucially difficult question: how can eternal damnation or its opposite can be justified without the innocent soul having any part in it?

Bernard is about to address this. But just now, as the pilgrim and the reader are suspended in doubt, we consider the innocent sons of Ugolino, locked in the tower, offering their bodies to stave off their Father's starvation. The horrific deaths of those innocents -- echoing Christ's words in their care for the father whose deeds consumed their lives and perhaps their bodies -- can only be reconciled with a sense of divine justice if in fact, while Ugolino gnaws the nape of Archbishop Ruggieri, his children sit among the glorified.

Bernard says:
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume,
locati son per gradi differenti,
sol differendo nel primiero acume.
Bastavasi ne’ secoli recenti
con l’innocenza, per aver salute,
solamente la fede d’i parenti;
poi che le prime etadi fuor compiute,
convenne ai maschi a l’innocenti penne
per circuncidere acquistar virtute;
ma poi che ’l tempo de la grazia venne,
sanza battesmo perfetto di Cristo
tale innocenza là giù si ritenne. 
Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness. 
'Tis true that in the early centuries,
  With innocence, to work out their salvation
  Sufficient was the faith of parents only. 
After the earlier ages were completed,
  Behoved it that the males by circumcision
  Unto their innocent wings should virtue add; 
But after that the time of grace had come
  Without the baptism absolute of Christ,
  Such innocence below there was retained. (Par. 32.73-84)
There are two different stories apparently being told here. One traces human history and finds it articulated in three segments. At first any child whose life was cut short could enter Paradise if his parents believed in the true God. With the Covenant with Abraham, a new contract superseded that arrangement: a literal wound -- the cutting of the penis -- opens the way to heaven. (Whether one goes with Mandelbaum* and others who believe line 80 should read pene, (penis), not penne (wings) doesn't change that literal circumcision is in question.) Then, with the arrival of the "time of grace," innocents who died without the baptism of Christ are no longer eligible for eternal salvation.

It is troubling to this reader to learn that the coming of the man/god whose sacrifice opened Paradise also rewrote the contract to eliminate innocents who died without his Baptism, but there it is. The fact, the effetto, faces every reader as it faced the poet. One might infer that Dante himself somehow came to terms. How?

Here's one thought: the effect of this state of affairs is to make the possibility of eternal life for our children dependent upon others, especially parents. This would make the bonds of love and family a constituent element of the binding (Lat. religare) that Augustine among others saw as the etymological root of the word "religion."

Such an interpretation works quite well with the evidence before our eyes. Religious duty is a means of forming a community, not of making it into the Hall of Fame. The binding that falls on the parent makes it possible to say that if Ugolino did fulfill his duty, he made possible his sons' salvation.

As noted earlier, Bernard tells not one, but two stories by way of helping Dante understand the fate of innocents. The other begins earlier:
e però questa festinata gente a vera vita non è sine causa intra sé qui più e meno eccellente.  
Lo rege per cui questo regno pausa 
in tanto amore e in tanto diletto, 
che nulla volontà è di più ausa 
le menti tutte nel suo lieto aspetto creando, a suo piacer di grazia dota 
diversamente; e qui basti l'effetto.  
E ciò espresso e chiaro vi si nota ne la Scrittura santa in quei gemelli che ne la madre ebber l'ira commota.   
Però, secondo il color d'i capelli, di cotal grazia l'altissimo lume degnamente convien che s'incappelli.  
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume, locati son per gradi differenti, sol differendo nel primiero acume. 
And therefore are these people, festinate
  Unto true life, not 'sine causa' here
  More and less excellent among themselves. 
The King, by means of whom this realm reposes
  In so great love and in so great delight
  That no will ventureth to ask for more,

In his own joyous aspect every mind
  Creating, at his pleasure dowers with grace
  Diversely; and let here the effect suffice.

And this is clearly and expressly noted
  For you in Holy Scripture, in those twins
  Who in their mother had their anger roused.

According to the colour of the hair,
  Therefore, with such a grace the light supreme
  Consenteth that they worthily be crowned.

Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness. (32: 58-75)
There's a lot here, more than there's room to address. Barolini notes the principle of differentiation, of più e meno (more and less) harks back to the first tercet of Paradiso 1:
La gloria di colui che tutto move 
per l'universo penetra, e risplende 
in una parte più e meno altrove. 
We are about to enter that glory, but first we must learn that even the saved innocents are graded in an order of excellence, according to the "color" of their grace. Dante's daring conflation of hair color with divine favor points up the unavoidable fact that such differentiating of more and less even among embryos seems to us to be purely arbitrary.

Without going into all the curious turns in the tale of Esau and Jacob, note that the referenced story offers at least three relevant details: the color of the hair, present before birth, becomes a figure for the predetermined bestowal of grace; that Jacob is second in birth order, but supplants his brother's right of firstborn, fits the Scriptural pattern of last becoming first - temporal order is not the only order. And that Jacob surpasses Esau through his and his mother's wits underscores the final word of the entire passage:
Dunque, sanza mercé di lor costume, 
locati son per gradi differenti, 
sol differendo nel primiero acume. 
Without, then, any merit of their deeds,
  Stationed are they in different gradations,
  Differing only in their first acuteness.
Acume - the power to penetrate to the heart of things - turns out to be a clue to the differentiation with regard to grace. Rather than simply being as arbitrary as hair color, what is arbitrary is that some humans are sharper than others. The acuteness that cuts through appearances -- more than just intellect, heart as well is involved -- enables one such as Jacob to surpass another, who would seem to have advantages of precedence, wealth, class, etc.

Sharpness creates another form of separation -- leading me to restore the very individuality I earlier said was erased in the seemingly arbitrary differentiation of innocents. For Dante, the acumen to know one's right hand from one's left; to see through the glitter of princes and popes -- this is a grace that cannot be taught. Many of the learned do not have it; many a peasant has it in spades. This grazia, whether or not its owner has opportunity to exercise it in her or his life, results in the gradations of the innocenti.

We should note that acume appears as the last word of line 75, placing it at the very center of Paradiso 32.

This suggests a brief afterthought: For Dante, the journey to the beatific vision began in the moment he first saw Beatrice. He of course had no idea what it was about her that seized his heart and mind. Over the course of his journey, he discerns more and more about Beatrice, sees more of her beauty, and more of the reality to which she points. Beatrice is both mediatrix and sign of something more than herself. Dante's Commedia is the elaboration of a reading that began with a chance encounter with a sign, and ends in a realm where there is no possibility of chance. In Dante's lexicon another word for the tenacious rigor of such a reading might well be acume.

If so, then the canto's promise hinges on the capability of its own reading. Beginning in the most off-putting way, Bernard ignores the "big picture" to pick at nits. Yet each nit is from Scripture or the Church, and the lines of separation that he descries should give one pause. Why after all of human time are we still bothering with the slightest discretionary differences between one embryo and another? It's not a question to address here except by means of a question: without the differences that make each human being inescapably, knowably, unique, is community, communion, possible? If not, then are the scars on the face of heaven binding its fragments in glory?

*Mandelbaum's rendering of the passage:
In early centuries, their parents’ faith
alone, and their own innocence, sufficed
for the salvation of the children; when
those early times had reached completion, then
each male child had to find, through circumcision,
the power needed by his innocent
member; but then the age of grace arrived,
and without perfect baptism in Christ,
such innocence was kept below, in Limbo. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Fractured Rose: Paradiso 32 (Part II)

Paradiso 32 comes across as dry and devoid of embellishment when compared with the cantos immediately preceding and the stunning final canto 33.

Numerous critics have noted its "wooden," coldly depersonalized affect. "It is a plan which must seem to us pedantic and unimaginative and out of keeping with the visionary rapture of this part of Dante's pilgrimage," notes John D. Sinclair. And G.L. Bickersteth describes the focus on the construction of the edifice of the Rose as "an intellectual process resulting in a static formal image, mercilessly formal in its absolute symmetry, a mere geometrical design, lifeless . . .."

We might ask ourselves why, at this penultimate moment when all is tending upward toward the light, toward love and synthesis of the Alpha and Omega, we are treated to a set of names, familiar figures from the Testaments and from Church history, but here like icons in niches, more inert than the figures on along the paths of Purgatorio which the poet beautifully calls visibile parlare.

None who are named speaks, none is described, or has anything of the vivid individuality and animation of souls met throughout this journey. Something besides their historical personhood is of concern here. When Benedict promised Dante that he would see the blessed con imagine scoverta, little did we think this unveiling would drain their presence to a set of letters spelling their names.

The effect is skeletal, as if we are experiencing not the plenitude of the Rose, but rather the barest bones of Scripture inscribed in the Rose. The names have a somber, distanced air -- as if chiseled on a gravestone.

The Rose, all ebullience in the previous cantos, is now dissected by Bernard. The order he limns marks the breaking points of the strange interface between terrestrial man and his Creator: Those Before and After Christ; the matrilineal line, or wall, from Eve to Christ -- itself a jagged line that crosses boundaries of ethnicity and nationhood, and women without children, and women who killed kings. Then, three classes of innocents.

The one person from the Old Testament whose words - "miserere me" - we hear quoted by Bernard is David, the king who took another man's wife, and arranged that man's death. David not only committed a grave sin, for which he sang many a penitential psalm. With Bathsheba he fathered Solomon.

We're moving toward the close of the Commedia. That the final canto is coming is certain. Before we arrive, one last walk through a valley of wounds, balm, and the deepest doubt. What a remarkable artistic calculation: the poet has us with him, no one is going to stop reading his poem now. We've experienced some of the lowest and highest characters, tales and perils a reader could wish for. But Paradise is not only about God's sacred totality. It is also about the wounds, sins, and sorry history of the creature whose eternal life was purchased at horrific cost.

The face of heaven is broken, not unlike the broken god that provided human access there. The geometry of the Rose is disfigured by these markings of difference, this wall of nurturing, devious mothers, one assassin, and the horrors of sin issuing from the original piaga opened by Eve.

Piaga - "wound" - is given high prominence by Bernard - so high it is striking:
La piaga che Maria richiuse e unse,
quella ch'è tanto bella da' suoi piedi
è colei che l'aperse e che la punse.
Preceding even the name of Maria, la piaga opened by Eve, closed by Mary, stains the canto. The geometry of the Rose is crossed by lines of human error that disfigure it. The face of Heaven bears the sutures of a care incomprehensibly extended in the wake the nightmarish incisions of human history. To approach heaven without having contemplated this agony, this unaccountable rescue; without having confronted still more troubling doubts is not to approach this poet's sacral place at all.

The canto next turns to a last, deepest doubt: what of the children who died before their choices had authority to decide their fates? Doubts accompanying the pilgrim since he was lost in the wood.

This will be next.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Cold discretion: Paradiso 32: 1-57

By the standards of USian hero movies, Paradiso 32 ought to be the victory lap. Entering the stadium having passed every test, the Hollywood hero is invariably greeted with an ecstatic applause and adulation. Instead, the canto falls on this reader with a forbidding strangeness and baleful silence.

Bernard has directed Dante to look up.

The saint then assumes the role of dottore, and presents a lecture full of words signifying division, or separation: dirimendo, parton, cerna, discrezioni. He's focused on tracing the major structuring separations within the Rose -- which seems odd, as we keep trying to remind ourselves that in the Empyrean, space and time are no longer supposed to operate as important categories.

Bernard begins by tracing the line of Hebrew women from Mary down -- a line he calls a wall -- il muro / a che si parton le sacre scalee ("the wall by which the sacred stairs are divided" (20-21)). He then describes the location of those who lived before Christ to the left of Mary, and those who lived after to her right. This Rose, we come to realize, is structured like Biblical human history. But the people named -- major figures of Hebraic and Christian faith -- do not speak, or move. Their names -- 18 of them -- stand in spectral isolation from their living being.

It's as if, in this place beyond space and time, Bernard is fixated upon denoting specific features of space, time, and individuals not for their own sakes, but for where they fit into some larger matrix.

The effect is more strange coming as it does after Paradiso 30-31, where we experienced plenal joy, light, and motion unified via the fluent master metaphors of flower, bees and sun. To go from that delightful innocence of sweetness and light to Bernard's stark isolating list -- a paltry series of names which seems trivially incidental to his lecture. For Bernard, who is intensely focused on Mary such that the first word of the canto is Affetto, this lack of affect with regard to these particular souls seems odd.

What's missing here? Instead of animated motion and sound, instead of the kind of balance and symmetries we've been accustomed to from the divine architecture all along this journey, we have several bare names and periphrases, and hints of a crazed order within the Rose. It feels dislocating. The pilgrim will in a moment experience profound doubt.

C.H. Grandgent senses this, I think. He contrasts our puzzlement here with the clear categorization of souls in Inferno and Purgatorio, and the divine justice that caused them to be where they are:
In the rose itself we are informed of the great vertical and horizontal divisions, and the position of a few of the souls; and we may infer that proximity to Mary or to John the Baptist is a sign of honor. Beyond that, all is mystery.
However, this "mystery" is not bathed in the lush wonderment and erotic and epistemological suspense that often accompanies the word. Grandgent goes on to make this clear by failing to convince us of his next point:
Gazing upon this vast assembly, Dante finds satisfaction of the desire expressed in Canto XXII, ll. 58-60, to behold the Elect uncovered.
Turning to that passage, in which Dante and St. Benedict speak of the fulfillment of the highest sphere, it indeed seems highly relevant:
E io a lui: “L'affetto che dimostri
 meco parlando, e la buona sembianza
 ch'io veggio e noto in tutti li ardor vostri,

così m'ha dilatata mia fidanza,
 come 'l sol fa la rosa quando aperta
 tanto divien quant' ell' ha di possanza.

Però ti priego, e tu, padre, m'accerta
 s'io posso prender tanta grazia, ch'io
 ti veggia con imagine scoverta.”

Ond' elli: “Frate, il tuo alto disio
 s'adempierà in su l'ultima spera,
 ove s'adempion tutti li altri e 'l mio.

Ivi è perfetta, matura e intera
 ciascuna disïanza; in quella sola
 è ogne parte là ove sempr' era,
And I to him: "The affection which thou showest
  Speaking with me, and the good countenance
  Which I behold and note in all your ardours, 
In me have so my confidence dilated
  As the sun doth the rose, when it becomes
  As far unfolded as it hath the power. 
Therefore I pray, and thou assure me, father,
  If I may so much grace receive, that I
  May thee behold with countenance unveiled." 
He thereupon: "Brother, thy high desire
  In the remotest sphere shall be fulfilled,
  Where are fulfilled all others and my own. 
There perfect is, and ripened, and complete,
  Every desire; within that one alone
  Is every part where it has always been;
Bernard's lecture so far has given us something less than Benedict's promise:
"There perfect is, and ripened, and complete,
Every desire . . ."
Of course he's not finished -- he will go on to make clear to Dante that the very criteria for the eternal salvation of children shifted three times in human history -- from parents to circumcision to baptism -- and then he'll cap it off with:
Dentro a l'ampiezza di questo reame
casüal punto non puote aver sito,
Nothing here is by chance. All fits:

ci si risponde da l'anello al dito;

                           so that closely
The ring is fitted to the finger here.

This "fit" - however matrimonial the image - seems far from the exuberant promise of Benedict (pace Grandgent), and equally far from the joyous harmony of cantos 31-32. 

Bernard, the impassioned devotee of Mary, here seems intent to eke out certain fissures defining an order. But instead of leading us to an accession of philosophical insight or mystical vision, his lecture suggests an incessant and trivial fitting of something to something else more typical of obsessive compulsive disorder.

So far, canto 32 sets itself apart from everything we might have anticipated from what we know of Paradise. The poem's power to surprise is intact. There is in this canto a disconcerting absence of meaning, of totality -- a squinting concern with races and gender and accidents of time and lineage that in fact are the fully intended results of Providence. The effect is cold, spectral, unheimlich

But we're barely at line 57.