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Talking about talking about Paradise

April 14, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Portrait of Dante by Sandro Botticelli

Portrait of Dante by Sandro Botticelli

My readers are probably, for the most part, familiar with Dante Alighieri’s Commedia; some may even have read it. It’s about heaven and hell, right?

Well, yes. The Commedia [Comedy; often called Divina Commedia, Divine Comedy] is an Italian poem some 14233 lines long begun around 1308 and left complete but unfinished at Dante’s death in 1321. Perhaps it helps to say that it tells the story of Dante’s journey through the after-life: he visits the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise, spending 33 cantos in each (cantos, akin to chapters, are on average 142 lines long; 33 cantos x 3 cantica + 1 prologue equals 100 cantos in all). But to say this is also quite deceptive. The Commedia is about personality, politics, poetry, and philosophy and much as it’s about the Catholic faith. Dante himself wrote (in his letter to his patron Cangrande della Scala):

For me be able to present what I am going to say, you must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. Which method of treatment, that it may be clearer, can be considered through these words: ‘When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion’. If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if from allegory, it means for us our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means to us the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory. And though these mystical senses are called by various names, in general all can be called allegorical, because they are different from the literal or the historical. Now, allegory comes from Greek alleon, which is Latin means ‘other’ or ‘different’.

Every poetic work, of course, can be read on multiple levels. But Dante claims to have purposefully put them there. You might think this would make it easier to talk about the multiple levels, but it actually makes it more difficult. In many works it’s quite easy to describe the connections between one level and another; not so for Dante.

To describe the Commedia is to indulge in paradox. It’s both an allegory of the soul journeying toward God, and the autobiography of a poet becoming more than an ordinary man. It’s both an epic alluding to pagan mythology drawn from the Latin classics, and a comedy about Christian theology written in a low style of vernacular. It’s both a visionary portrayal of the after-life, and a prophetic polemic against the politics of this world. It’s both a meticulously arranged poetic structure evoking the harmony of God’s creation, and an eclectic collection of interviews with dead people revealing the full reality of the human person. It’s both the culmination of the theological medieval world-view, and the beginning of the humanist Renaissance. Its author was both a devout Catholic who hated the pope, and an exiled Florentine who put all his political hopes in a dead German emperor.

How can we keep all these together in our thoughts? How can we examine the psychological nuances of, say, Dante’s portrayal of his encounter with Brunetto Latini in Inferno XV, while at the same time remembering the intricacies of the role Dante gives the subcircle of the “violent against Nature” in the moral logic of the afterlife?

This is a problem for all three cantica of the Commedia, but perhaps especially so for the Paradiso, the portion of the poem I’ve put on my exam list. Dante’s claim in the first two cantica, though astonishing, is quite definite: the journey he describes actually happened to him. But at the beginning of the Paradiso Dante warns us that what he experienced he cannot, strictly speaking, describe at all (I.67-72):

As I gazed on her, I was changed within,
as Glaucus was on tasting of the grass
that made him consort of the gods in the sea.

To soar beyond the human cannot be described
in words. Let the example be enough to one
for whom grace holds this experience in store.

So in addition to all the tensions I mentioned earlier, the Paradiso suffers from an additional strain: its subject matter supposedly cannot be communicated, and yet the poem does bring us to an experience of extraordinary power. What do our experience of the poem and the experience of heaven Dante claims for himself have to do with one another? What does the stately progression of the Ptolemaic (geocentric) heavenly spheres, on which Dante models the structure of his metaphorical heaven, have to do with the eternal rose of the timeless Empyrean? If the Commedia can be described as “the Summa [theologica] in verse”–an exaggeration, but there’s some truth to it–the Paradiso presses pretty hard on the Summa‘s first few questions, the ones about what knowledge of God is possible and what language we can use to describe him. Given what I said about my interest in Thomas’ Questions on God, you can perhaps imagine why I chose the Paradiso in particular.

There’s another reason I should mention. For the first two cantica Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by the shade of the poet Virgil, an allegory (in Dante’s polysemantic sense) for human reason unaided by divine revelation. But at the end of the Purgatorio Virgil is replaced by Beatrice, a Florentine woman who died an early death, and whom Dante had never met, but whom he had claimed to love from afar in his earlier autobiography-cum-poetry-collection La Vita Nuova [The New Life]. Before I settling on the Paradiso I considered putting La Vita Nuova on my list instead; it’s a fascinating work in its own right, engaging with the courtly love tradition, with its strange mixture of idealization and objectification, without fully subscribing to it. The Paradiso, too, always has courtly love in the background–with Beatrice as Dante’s guide, it can’t not–yet it’s also about the need to love God above all else. How can these two go together?

Perhaps what most sets Dante apart from other medieval poets is his confidence that they can: any contradiction can be resolved by an authority of sufficient poetic genius. When it comes to the compatibility of courtly eros and divine caritas I find the pessimism of the Middle English poem Pearl far more convincing, but Dante’s hubris is part of the thrill of the Commedia. By the end of the Paradiso Dante claims to have seen more of Heaven than any other living person ever has, with the possible exception of St. Paul. What could possess him to say such a thing? How seriously can we take it? If we don’t take it seriously, how can we allow the poem to matter to us? How can we not allow it to matter?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 14, 2014 2:15 pm

    Dante does seem a bit up himself in the Commedia. (His nearly blatant criticism of Italian politics is hard for even modern readers to miss.) But as you state, that’s part of the fun as well.

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