My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here is what you’ve heard about the Divine Comedy: the Inferno, with its poignantly vivid tortures and its cacophony of wicked voices, is the most entertaining canticle, beloved of various and sundry; the Purgatorio, with its wistful focus on the lives and ambitions of poets and its chastened mundanity, is of special interest to writers and artists; and the Paradiso, with its saints in chorus, its mystical refusals of imagery, and its long disquisitions on Scholastic philosophy, is appreciated exclusively by the faithful, and even they might nod off.
Being a contrarian by nature and a producer of “fresh content” by mission, I am supposed to tell you that everything you know is wrong. I will, eventually, but for now let’s give the devil his due: Dante’s Beatrice-guided tour of Paradise is depressingly devoid of drama. At one point when Dante seems to feel fear, Beatrice rebukes him and reminds him that nothing bad can happen in Heaven.
What can happen in Heaven? Dante can have the secrets of the universe revealed to him. Beatrice and a host of sometimes literal luminaries (St. Thomas Aquinas, the emperor Justinian, Charles Martel, St. Peter Damian, St. Bernard, and more) explain to Dante the nature and purpose of God’s creation, from the dark spots on the moon to questions of salvation. Dante doesn’t even have to ask, because everyone in Paradise can read his mind. The Paradiso, therefore, very often reads like a beautiful digest of medieval thought rather than much of a narrative or drama—interesting on historical grounds, but a good deal less exciting than Dante’s earlier rivals in epic poetry, Homer or Virgil.
As for Beatrice, I admire Dante’s Troubadour audacity in elevating his school crush to a level of holy authority just below the Blessed Mother, but Bea must be second only to Milton’s God in the annals of Christian poets’ divine disappointments. Unlike the solicitous and even maternal Virgil of the previous canticles, Beatrice lords it over Dante like a stern schoolmistress or martinette. She rarely—at least in translation—speaks a word in tenderness or spontaneity; comparing herself to Jupiter when he accidentally annihilated his mistress, she notes, “‘Were I to smile, then you would be / like Semele when she was turned to ashes'” (note the gender swap—Dante=Semele, Beatrice=Jupiter—more of which below). She sometimes seems like a machine programmed with the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas—as, to be fair, do the rest of the saints in Heaven. At times in reading the Paradiso, the incorrigible post-Christian reader feels a nostalgia for the agitations of the Inferno.
For the purposes of this piece, I am going to omit discussion of the Paradiso‘s philosophical particulars—if you would like to know why there are hierarchies among the angels or whether or not there are degrees of divine desert among unbaptized infants, the answers are there in the poem, even if I have not managed to hold them all in my mind or understand all their logics (“‘he who hears, / but does not hold what he has heard, learns nothing,” chides Beatrice—o mea culpa, bella donna!). Instead I will seek elements of literary (as opposed to philosophical) and human (as opposed to divine) interest.
Dante begins the poem with a petition to Apollo, lord of light and of boundaries. This is in fact a poem of light as it narrates Dante’s increasing powers of sight as he approaches the divine:
From this you see that blessedness depends
upon the act of vision, not upon
the act of love—which is a consequence…
It is also, like the trilogy of which it forms the final part, a poem of boundaries: Paradise, like Hell and Purgatory, is carefully ranked according to the merit of each of its constituent elements. God does not permeate the universe equally, and where His light shines lowest, matter is freest to take its errant course, hence the presence of those who have failed in some way even in the lowest layers of the heavens.
While Dante refers early in the Paradiso to “the mighty sea of being,” his Apollonian imagination inclines to nothing so chaotic as the ocean. (The aforementioned Semele, by the way, was pregnant with Dionysus—Apollo’s archetypal opposite—when she was incinerated by Jove.) When sea imagery recurs, Dante deploys it to make sure we as readers are kept in our place as possibly unworthy subordinates in his poetic armada:
O you who are within your little bark.
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,
turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail: you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.
The waves I take have never been sailed before…
Despite this adventuresome rhetoric, and despite a climactic comparison of himself to Jason, Dante’s poetic project is less an uncharted voyage than the charting of everything. Recall that Ulysses, reimagined as an irrepressible explorer, was damned. When Dante reaches the sphere of the Primum Mobile at the height of Heaven, he looks down at earth for the second time in his ascension. The first time, he noted that, from his height, the earth appeared “scrawny.” Now he overlooks the distant Mediterranean, as if to put Ulysses the secular quester in his place at last, far below the spiritual pilgrim:
I saw that, from the time when I looked down
before, I had traversed all of the arc
of the first clime, from its midpoint to end,
so that, beyond Cadiz, I saw Ulysses’
mad course and, to the east, could almost see
that shoreline where Europa was sweet burden.
Why does Dante disparage the earth, which he twice calls a “threshing floor,” the unglamorous site where godly wheat is separated from infernal chaff? As Beatrice explains, implying more than perhaps she means, the fault is time, the medium through which the errant will moves and matter decays:
“The will has a good blossoming in men;
but then the never-ending downpours turn
the sound plums into rotten, empty skins.
For innocence and trust are to be found
only in little children; then they flee
even before a full beard cloaks the cheeks.”
The Paradiso is a politically as well as religiously didactic poem. Dante does envision a political solution to the corruptions of earth. Beatrice continues: “‘on earth no king holds sway; / therefore, the family of humans strays.'” Dante deplored the political conditions obtaining in Europe around the turn of the 14th century. He believed that the church had been corrupted into a worldly and temporal power, even as the rightful temporal power—the secular emperors—were weak. Division is again the solution: let the church tend the spirit and the state discipline the body. Charles Martel complains to Dante:
“But you twist to religion one whose birth
made him more fit to gird a sword, and make
a king of one more fit for sermoning…”
These political issues are not abstractions to Dante. His own city has fallen into moral ruin, and he himself has been exiled from it. In Paradise he meets his ancestor Cacciaguida, who gives a lyric portrait of Florence’s golden age, and, in some of this canticle’s best-known lines, prophesies Dante’s banishment:
“You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others’ stairs.”
Upon reaching the court of Heaven, where the highest saints and the angels are arrayed as the white rose of Paradise around the blinding Borgesian aleph that is God, Dante, despite his conviction that the temporal and spiritual powers must be kept apart, cannot help but see the sight as a barbarian’s first glimpse of the finest political order, the Roman Empire itself:
If the Barbarians, when they came from
a region that is covered every day
by Helice, who wheels with her loved son,
were, seeing Rome and her vast works, struck dumb
(when, of all mortal things, the Lateran
was the most eminent), then what amazement
must have filled me when I to the divine
came from the human, to eternity
from time, and to a people just and sane
from Florence came!
His final guide, the mystic St. Bernard, introduces the personae of Paradise as “great patricians / of this most just and merciful empire.” Spiritual and secular authority, which Dante had taken pains to separate, here collapse back into each other so that Paradise is an ideally ordered empire. Dante seems to be at the verge of the post-Christian world, very nearly imagining, like Hegel or Marx, that God might be nothing other than the imagination’s projection of good governance onto the heavens.
Though Dante was thus (to use an anachronistic term) a totalitarian, he was no phallocrat. Writing in the mariolatrous Middle Age—St. Bernard, reports one of Allen Mandelbaum’s endnotes, did much to revive the cult of Mary—and nearly deifying his first love, Dante places an ideal image of woman at the center of his vision and pictures Paradise as centered upon a rose, not a phallic but a vulvic image. No wonder the Apollonian male poet allows himself to be figured by his beloved as Semele, mother of Dionysus.
These initially puzzling slippages of our poet’s ordered intelligence, which seems to confuse sacred/secular and male/female when it had been so concerned throughout the poem to separate their spheres, are explained when Dante finally does behold God, or the Eternal Light:
In its profundity I saw—ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered…
God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.
By conceiving his self, his book, and his universe as a unity, Dante accomplishes the transfiguration of epic into lyric that will become the mark of modern poetry from Wordsworth to Whitman to Walcott. But if epic is imperial, lyric is personal, the staging of a psyche in motion, as when Dante, just before mounting up to God, records his struggle to recall and write his vision:
As one who sees within a dream, and, later,
the passion that had been imprinted stays,
but nothing of the rest returns to mind,
such am I, for my vision almost fades
completely, yet it still distills within
my heart the sweetness that was born of it.
I have never read a better analogy for the attempt to write poetry or fiction than that of trying to remember a dream whose emotional impression colors the whole day even after its events have faded from the mind. In the endnotes to Mandelbaum’s translations, the editors comments on this passage:
Dante, the poet attempting to record his vision, is like a man awakening from a dream he does not remember, filled with the emotion of a dream, but with no clear recollection of its particulars. We are reminded of Coleridge’s preface to “Kubla Khan,” where the poem itself is presented as the recollection of a dream. Reading this last canto, it is easy to see how the Romantic poets were attracted by Dante. The stupendous tension of the remainder of the poem derives in large part from Dante’s dramatization of his present struggle to recollect (i.e., imagine) and describe (i.e., create in words) the content of his final vision.
Earlier in the poem, Beatrice explains to Dante that God—whom we know from his sculptures in Purgatory to be an artist—created the universe for the same reason that any artist creates, not for company and certainly not for gain but merely to affirm that what exists exists:
“Not to acquire new goodness for Himself—
which cannot be—but that his splendor might,
as it shines back to Him, declare ‘Subsisto,’
in His eternity outside of time,
beyond all other borders, as pleased Him,
Eternal Love opened into new loves.”
Not just a static affirmation then, but one in motion. God seeks “new loves”—should this not be foreclosed by Beatrice’s logic when she claims God seeks no “new goodness”?—and so blossoms as the rose does. Again, we suspect that Dante can’t do it: he cannot separate divinity from nature, nature from art, though Aristotle or Aquinas tell him he must. God is a rose is an artist.
Dante’s final vision is of the Trinity, specifically of its second person; he beholds a man inscribed into a circle, our effigy fused with divinity in the Incarnation. At the center of the universe and the middle of the rose, he finds the figure of the human. So in his archaic, forbidding poem, we might find ourselves, “more truly and more strange.”