ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
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Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 16 - Paradise I, II
Chapter 1. An Introduction to Paradise [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: We begin with Paradise, which clearly is different from the earthly paradise, two paradises. We went through the earthly paradise, this is — anyway, we begin the third canticle which is called Paradise.
As you read, you’ll find that Dante uses a Ptolemaic structure of the cosmos. A Ptolemaic structure means that for him, as for Ptolemy, the earth is at the center of the universe, unmoved, immobile, and there are a number of seven planets that circle around it. The Moon is thought of as a planet, Mercury, then Sun, and then there will be Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond that there is this — the Heaven of a so-called Fixed Stars and beyond that the Primum — the Empyrean, the heaven of fire, from which all motion begins, from which time starts. That’s really where the roots of time are found and they stretch out into the finite world; so that we really are in the shadows of the leaves of time, which means that they are always falling and being replaced.
Another thing we have to keep in mind as you go into Paradise is that Dante links the — each of the planets with — I have said this before, I know, but it bears repeating, with one of the liberal arts. And they’re respectively, the liberal arts are the seven liberal arts and then there are two more, since there are nine heavens. It begins with grammar in the planet of the Moon and so you have to expect that you will find the language of grammarians, grammar — the Moon and grammar the — a very wide definition of what grammar can be. It includes poetry; it includes history, it even includes some rhetorical tropes.
And then the Heaven of Mercury with dialectics and so you’re expecting to find the language of dialectics deployed and it’s going to be the — deployed throughout the canto. The Heaven of Venus and rhetoric, that probably is the least surprising, eros and rhetoric. They have an old kinship; they seem to entail each other. Then the Heaven of Mars, the god of war, which here Dante couples with music in the persuasion that music is a harmony made of discordant parts. So that there is this kind of simultaneously a pull and a strife within the Heaven of Mars, so that when music.
Then beyond it there’s geometry linked with the temperateness of Jupiter and beyond it astronomy of Saturn. The Heaven of the Fixed Stars is tied — is linked to ethics. Whereas, the Heaven of the Empyrean is really the heaven of metaphysics as Dante will call it and you will see the kind of interesting arguments that Dante will have, because in effect he has changed his mind when writing the philosophical text known as the Banquet, as you know now Il Convivio, he writes it in Italian. He had really claimed that ethics is the first of — and the most important of the arts. It’s really the discipline toward which all the art, to which all the other arts are subordinated and toward which they all point. When Dante writes the Paradiso he has changed his mind about that, though he also knows that in many ways you cannot quite separate ethics, whatever he means by ethics, with some theory about how the world is. They really are inseparable and Dante will go on back and forth in re-configuring the relation of those two disciplines.
The other thing that I should mention before we go on, is that much of the Paradiso really is going to come through as a way of — as a teaching. It’s already implied that this should be the thrust of Paradiso, by the very idea that there is the disposition of the arts and sciences in — through Paradiso, which means that the journey that Dante will have — this cosmological journey. It’s an interplanetary journey. He goes from planet to planet — is already an educational journey, that’s how he goes through grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, etc., etc., until he reaches metaphysics or beyond that there will be theology. It’s literally an educational journey. This is already understood, also it’s already carried out by the focus on the teaching that Beatrice will deliver.
I have to say a couple of things, that Dante’s teacher in Paradiso, and this is an innovative, very imaginative and highly unusual move on the part of a poet, is not some kind of abstract matron called Dame Philosophy. It’s not some kind of allegory of nature. You do have this kind of allegorical — didactic allegories where nature appears as larger than disheveled woman, wounded, because nature has fallen, teaching the pilgrim of the traveler about the secrets of nature and the wealth of nature. Here is a personal — his girlfriend to be sure, and it’s someone who really — who also replaces all the other likely candidates for this teaching which is — would be Aquinas, Boethius, Bonaventure, all figures that he’s going to meet.
It’s a mistake to believe, however, that, as some great scholars of Dante have said in the past, that Paradiso is really a journey to be Beatrice. That’s what they had said. That’s not the case because Beatrice will disappear from — she will still be within view up to a point in Paradise her role ends with Canto XXX of Paradiso and from that point on, a mystic by the name of Bernard, a historical figure, Bernard of Clairvaux, will take place.
So this leads me now to a further clarification. There may be the tendency in some of you to view the Paradiso as some kind of account of a mystical experience. You know what I’m saying, that Dante sort of goes beyond his own self, beyond any idea of rational understanding of the world, the surrendering of his own subjectivity to some insight into the whole. This, I don’t think that this is what’s happening here. Dante will preserve his rationality and his sense of distinction and separation from some kind of cosmological and cosmical hall the very end. There is a way in which Dante will deploy the language of the mystics and I want to give you some evidence of that, because I think it opens up an interesting chapter for your further readings, but it’s not — this is not to be read as a kind of transcription of a mystical experience where the text then goes on in some kind of random approximation or random copying of what the mystic saw and becomes ineffable.
Dante uses, occasionally, toward the end the language of ineffability but this is — remains a poetic construction, an imaginative projection into what is a journey into the absolute unknown into a space no other imagination had really traveled and it’s those — and have been those who have traveled there but they never really took — came back to tell us. Dante will play with that. His is, to use that language, a kind of — a way of getting into that which had been left inarticulate and silent. It’s really largely a battle against the — for a poet, threatening boundaries of silence. Something that threatens him with defeat, he will not be able to speak. And from one point of view that defeat for the Christian would also be of course a victory but Dante is suspended between the two poles.
If I had to define, and I have already given a kind of general definition, what kind of aegis, under which rubric should we try to go on reading this part of the poem, I really think this is really a poem about beauty, in the sense that Dante will try to understand what the beauty is. The beauty is the visibility of — Plotinus says this, it’s the visibility of being, he calls it, being life, the whole of life becomes visible only because we have perceptions and images of it so it’s — I think that Dante’s trying to see that, to explore what is it that lies beyond that which we see. What is this beauty skin deep, as it were, because that’s really one of the dangers of focusing on beauty that it’s really the surface of things, the appearance of things. And he will go between appearances, images, and the idea that they are essences lying beyond them.
Chapter 2. Canto I: The Glory; Light and Motion; Principle of Hierarchy [00:11:06]
I really have said more or less all I had to say in the mode of an introduction. I immediately get into Canto I. Let me just read Canto I a little bit with — in some detail, “The glory,” that’s the way it starts, “The glory of Him who moves all things penetrates the universe and shines in one part more and in another less.” That’s the first tercet, famous first tercet and I will read this in Italian so that you sense how even the rhythm of the poem completely changes.
The rhythm and even the syntactical structure of the poem, because you may recall and I say this knowing that you have already noticed that, that if you read Canto I of Inferno or Canto I of Purgatorio, the two exordiums of the other canticles, you know that the poet is immediately casting himself into the role of the agent. “In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself,” that’s really the very start of Inferno I, and in Purgatorio too, “To course over a better waters the ship — the boat of my genius now goes and I will sing,” you remember? Not so in Paradise.
There is a way in which, immediately, the first tercet, which has a sort of proemial value, seeks to bracket the idea of the self and the idea of the subjectivity. It emphasizes the question of — God becomes the agent here, to say it in a very direct — as directly as he says, “The glory,” it’s a circumlocution once again, but let me read it in Italian, so that I can give you a sense, as I said, of the new music that he has found. The new sense of the inner harmony that toward which language has to strive.
It’s rendered very faithfully by Sinclair. I don’t know the other translations but probably it can’t deviate from it very much, and I read it in Italian because also — and this is understandable to the eye, if not just to the ear for you, how he’s playing with — in line one, “The glory of him who all moves.” So God the mover I’ll talk about it in — later on, the one who moves all and that all then becomes one in the next line, universe. The all becomes that which is turned into one, that’s what etymologically — the universe. It goes on, “Penetrates the universe and shines in one part more and in another less.”
Well the tercet casts God — this is about God, as a circumlocution, it is not — it’s really a God who is visible through God’s effects, as God appears as kind of cause. Now then, if you really understand the effects, it means there is a causality. I don’t want to get into — too much into that but you know what I mean, that — simple, you only know the effects, you know the glory, we see the glory which is the light. Glory, it’s a semantic — the first thing we have to say, this is a shift, a change in the history of the word. That’s what poets do, that poets invent, reinvent language; that’s largely what they do. They change the meaning of words. Glory, in the classical time and all the way down to the Renaissance and the Romantic age, glory means fame. It means, it’s the child of Clio. It means, it’s the power we have to survive, not to have a posthumous life because of whatever noble deeds, heroes may have achieved. That’s not what it means here.
Glory means light, of course. It’s the light who wants fame, if you wish, but this is the light. Why do we know that? Because light now is linked to two verbs of the “glory of Him who… all things,” who moves all things, penetrates the universe, and shines. You see there is a metaphor of light that is conveyed here. So the first tercet presents God in a cosmological role which is double: one of motion and one of light, two things. Dante is combining an Aristotelian idea of God as the prime mover, one who imparts motion to all things. And in the second image is that God as the principle of light, a neo-Platonic idea.
He’s fusing together two contradictory, apparently contradictory, traditions: light and motion. One is talking in terms of causality and the other one really — I’m not going to go much further than this, the other one in terms of — because light does that, penetrates, shines all over, according to a principle of hierarchy: more and less. There is no uniformity in — with light, and I’ll come back to this notion in a moment. One idea casts God as the prime mover, according to the tradition of Aristotelian philosophy, the other one thinks of God as in the mode of light or participation. They are two different theological modes. God participates, is part of creation, the natural world is part of the supernatural world. There is not just a causality that begins all things and then somehow retreats in some sort of invisible and unknown non-space of its soul.
The other item in this first tercet is that of the — that I want to emphasize is the principle of hierarchy. Light shines more and less. I have been hinting at this, that this is really a great problem for Dante in other parts of the poem. You remember “to course over better waters,” Dante says in Purgatorio I, and that implies of course that there are bad, good, better, best — that we are in the principle of hierarchy. Differences are very crucial for Dante because they allow us to know things, only through differences, and also the — because these differences — and that’s the value of hierarchy. They are still combined in some kind of unified structure. Hierarchy is a structure that unifies all differences according to the principle of degree. More of this a little bit later, as we go on.
Chapter 3. Subjectivity; Desire [00:18:28]
Then Dante now, as I said, that he’s not a mystic. Subjectivity is not erased. Mystics tend — though they all claim a unique vision, they all end up resembling each other when they talk about the ineffable. And Dante introduces now the subject and he says, “I was in the heaven that most receives His light.” That is to say passed in the Empyrean, which is sort of spiritual, he as close to God as he could be, which will also be as far from God as it can be. “I was in the heaven that most receives His light and I saw things which he that descends from it has not the knowledge nor the power to tell again.”
No sooner does Dante introduce his subjectivity and his way of knowing out of this intimacy of — and closeness to the beatific vision, then he has also to cast himself as a visionary, has “the knowledge or the power to tell. I saw things,” and you will see how Dante goes on refining his eyesight, a little detail that you might really enjoy is that we do know that Dante would use lenses — glasses toward the end of the — had just been invented. There are books written about when were glasses invented, were they invented in Pisa? Were they invented in Padua? There have been wars going on about this claim, but Dante uses glasses, so he really had difficulty — that’s the point — in seeing.
All of Paradiso is about the refinement of sight and the refinement of vision. How you are going to be able to attune as it were your eyes to the objects around you. Anyway he casts himself now as a visionary with an internal vision. I’m not casting him as a Homer who is blind, and therefore he sees everything with the inner eye, but he wants to be a visionary poet, and “I saw things which,” that is to say one who sees things as a whole. That’s the difference between ear, there are great debates between the ear and the eye is that the ear you hear, and you hear always — only from one in a linear way. Things can come from all sides but you can only catch a thing at a time. With the eye you have — the eye is the organ that gives you the chance to — the organ of the contemplatives; it gives you a chance to see totalities.
“I saw things which he that has the sense from it has now the knowledge or the power to tell again and then he explains why. He explains the status of his poetic language. “I saw what is the relationship between language and vision? That’s the — if you want to put it in a very abstract way, how are the two related? “For our intellect, drawing near to its desire…” The intellect yearns, longs for the objects that it desires. So there is a desire of the mind, a desire — it’s not just a desire for the intellectual, “desire, sinks so deep that memory cannot follow it.” Very simple, forgetfulness intervenes so that the — he may have intuition, and insight into things, he cannot quite go on recalling.
“Nevertheless, so much of the holy kingdom, as I was able to treasure in my mind shall now be matter of my song.” Whatever he’s going to tell us is literally a shadow of things he manages to remember. It makes sense that he should not remember because part — one of the paradoxes of this poetic construction is the following, he has a beatific vision. How can he retain in his mind this sight, which is finite, that which is infinite? If not through vestiges and if not through shadows? How can you — how can my memory which is a metaphor of time, by definition, he remembers certain things, but how can I go on remembering and holding that which is without time, which is infinite? So the first paradox of — in the representation of Paradise.
Chapter 4. Apollo, God of Poets [00:22:56]
Let me go on with the next one, next paragraph now, Dante turns to god of poets, to Apollo. “O good Apollo, for the last labor make me such a vessel of thy power.” He casts himself into a passive mode, a vessel, one who receives. It’s the language of restraint. It’s a language of holding back. It’s in a sense it’s really the classical commonplace of asking the muse to breathe through us. “Sing to me o muse,” remember? The Iliad, and a variant of the same thing — a variation of the same thing happens in the Odyssey.
“For the last labor make me such a vessel of thy power as thou requirest for the gift of thy loved laurel.” What an extraordinary image. He was remembering the story of the god who chases Daphne, the object of his desire, which he cannot really obtain. That’s the story — you all know the story in the Metamorphosis. He can only obtain Daphne, which means laurel in Greek, but he only can obtain this young maiden Daphne in the form of a metaphor for the laurel crown. So it’s a sort of journey which somehow the object of which becomes — the possession of the object becomes dislocated, not quite what the god himself wanted, but this introduces something else about the Paradiso.
“Thus far, the one peak of Parnassus has sufficed.” You may remember this is a recall of the dream of Parnassus in Purgatorio that we saw when Statius and Virgil were flattered into believing that what they had dreamt is actually the simulacrum of the earthly paradise. Thus far, the one peak of Parnassus has sufficed me, but now I have need of both,” a language of humility, “entering on the arena that remains.”
There’s a struggle now. First of all, he had introduced this image of himself as a vessel receptive to the inspiration of Apollo, now the language of even violence “on the arena” where there is sports, where battles are fought, enter into the arena — now entering “on the arena that remains” and now look at this, “Come into my breast and breathe there as when thou drewest Marsyas from the scabbard of his limbs,” an echo of the struggle between the poet and the god. He does not want to be like Marsyas because Marsyas, out of presumption — now you understand the language of restraint and withholding — out of presumption, Marsyas had tried to outdo Apollo, and, of course, was defeated by Apollo and flayed by Apollo. Dante does not want to — what this is about the fear in the battle for the description of Paradise, the fear that he may be usurping God’s role. The fear that he may be transgressing and violating that which is the sovereign claim of the gods.
So he continues now: “O power divine,” so that’s one of the images of fear of blasphemy, fear of transgression, and this will continue. Remember the possibility of hubris, in other words. And then it continues, “O power divine, if thou grant me so much of thy self that I may show forth the shadow of the blessed kingdom imprinted in my brain, thou shalt see me come to thy chosen tree,” of laurel, “and crown myself then with those leaves of which the theme and thou will make me worthy. So seldom, father, are they gathered for triumph of Caesar or of poet — fault and shame of human wills — that Peneian bow must beget gladness in the glad Delphic god when it makes any long for it. A great flame follows a little spark,” etc.
And then, “The lamp of the world” — I’ll just give you this — Dante is approaching, he’s moving. He thinks he’s on earth and he discovers — I will not go on into details — he’s in the Heaven — of the Moon. So he describes here, this is the image at the bottom of page 21, line 65 and following: “Beatrice stood with her eyes fixed only on the eternal wheels, and on her I fixed mine withdrawn from above. At her aspect, I was changed within as was Glaucus when he tasted of the herb that made him one among the other gods in the sea.”
It’s a story of — clearly the pilgrim is moving into another level of experience and a level of being, and he remarks on the transformation that he is undergoing. The emphasis falls — and the distance between — the Ovidian account of Glaucus who believes that he’s immortal and jumps into the water of the tasting of some herbs, and Dante himself has indicated by that little preposition ‘within.’ The transformation occurs in Dante from within himself not in some literal way outside — on the outside.
Then he continues, “The passing beyond the humanity cannot be set forth in words; let the examples suffice, therefore, for him to whom grace reserves the experience.” The experience the pilgrim is having is unique and irreducible, and the poem can only be read as an example, as an account of what has happened to him.
Then he continues, “If I was only that part of me which Thou createdst last, Thou knowest, Love that rules the heavens, who with Thy light didst raise me.” Your notes, your footnotes will tell you that this is a reference to the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter XII, by Paul, by St. Paul, where he also tells the story of his being rapt to the third heaven. We have then two accounts in Canto I of experiences — one is that — of encounters with the divine. One is that of the profanation by Marsyas and the other one is by St. Paul, who as you recall, Dante casts as one of the possible models for him. He says, when at the beginning he has to set out on a journey, he says, “I’m not Aeneas, I’m not Paul.” Now we see how Paul comes into play. Who am I then? That was the whole thrust of the poem.
What happens to Paul? Paul goes to the third heaven and people have a way of — had a way in the Middle Ages especially, so how many heavens are there? The third heaven — what is meant by the third heaven was the third mode of vision. There are levels of vision that they emphasize. There is a literal level, the carnal worldly level. There’s an imaginative vision, and then there is the ecstatic vision that Paul had. The thing is, in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, is that Paul went to the third heaven, had the vision of God, the beatific vision, he returned and could not speak about it, because what he saw had to be kept wrapped in silence.
This is now — Dante is between, on the one hand Marsyas and that fear of profanation, and now Paul. It is as if he also is transgressing the teaching of Paul. The whole of Paradise is about limits and the impossibility of establishing clear limits. He will do what Paul himself could not do. Paul kept quiet in the belief that the silence was the proper language of his sublime experience. Dante will go on speaking until it’s possible for him to do so — until finally he really has forgotten everything that he has seen. You see how he is casting himself? His own poetic powers, his own subjectivity between two different modalities. He doesn’t want to go as presumptuously far as Marsyas did. He does not want to retreat as Paul did.
Chapter 5. Dante’s Introductory Letter to Paradise [00:32:16]
I really think that I should let you know — ;it’s a little digression, before we go into the second part of the canto. In Cantos I and II where Dante is really going to face a peculiar issue, the universe I’m in. Is it a material universe? That’s the thrust of Canto II. Is this a natural — part of the natural world or not? Of course, he goes on talking about the spots on the Moon, etc., we’ll come to that. Here in Canto I, we shall see that he’s going to discuss the arrangement of the cosmos. You have to know, I want you to — I want to share with you a couple of paragraphs of a letter that Dante writes to introduce Paradise.
This is what had happened. He lives in Ravenna when he is writing. He’s probably in Ravenna by the time he writes the earthly paradise. As you know, he makes references to the Garden of Eden in terms of the park, the pinewood, the wood of pine trees around the city, and we do know that he would live and die in Ravenna. He decides to send the first ten cantos of Paradise to the so-called Cangrande, the great dog of Verona, who had been his patron for a number of years and he introduces those ten cantos that he sends with the letter called, The Letter to Cangrande in Italian. It’s the — Dante writes — you know that, this is the tenth letter of a number of letters that he writes.
This is the — let me just read this — it’s a kind of glossing. It explains the genre of the poem explains what his models have been, and how it has to be read. Look what he says about this circumlocution here about Paul the Apostle. This is from Paragraph 27. It’s not a really long letter but I couldn’t read the whole thing without putting you all to sleep.
“The philosopher presents an argument consonant with the above in the first book On Heaven,” the philosopher meaning Aristotle, “where he says that a heaven has material more honorable than that of other heavens, beneath it to the extent that it has this more distant than they from the earth.” The nobility in the hierarchical structure. The nobility of matter will depend on its proximity to the source of light and life. “To this might be added what the Apostle told the Ephesians concerning Christ, who ascended above all the heavens that he might feel all things. This is the heaven of the Lord’s pleasures to which pleasures Ezekiel refers, in accusing Lucifer, ‘thou wast the seal of resemblance full of wisdom and perfect and beauty. Thou wast in the pleasure of the Paradise of God.’ After having said, in this circumlocution, that he was in the part of Paradise, he continues,” meaning, meaning I, himself, “by stating that he saw things which he in this sense cannot relate. And he gives the cause of this saying that the intellect goes so deeply into its desire itself, which is God that the memory cannot follow.
To understand what this means it should be noted that in this life, the human intellect, because of the affinity it has, for the separated intellectual substance with which it shares its nature, reaches such a height of its exaltation, when it is exalted, that upon its return to itself, having transcended the ordinary capacity of men, memory fails. This idea is implied to us by the Apostle addressing the Corinthians,” the passage I just read, “where he writes, “I knew a man, whether in the body or out of the body I know not, God knoweth, who was caught up to the third heaven and who heard secret words who it is not granted to man — which it is not granted to man to author. See, when the intellect had passed beyond the bounds of human capacity, in its exhaltation, it could not remember what happened outside these bounds and the same idea is implied to us in Matthew where the three disciples fell down on their faces and told nothing about it afterwards as if they had forgotten.
And it is written in Ezekiel, “I saw and I felt upon my face.” But if these passages don’t satisfy the skeptical, let them read Richard of St. Victor and his book on contemplation, or Bernard of Clairvaux, in his book on consideration, or Augustine, in his book on the capacity of the soul, and they will be no longer skeptical. Or if they should bark out against the possibility of such exaltation, because the sinfulness of the speaker, they should read Daniel where they would find that even Nebuchadnezzar, by divine permission, saw something which was a warning to sinners and then forgot it. For he who make the Sun to rise upon the good and bad, and reign it upon the just — and the unjust — manifests His Glory to all the living, no matter how evil they are, sometimes mercifully, for the sake of the conversion, sometimes harshly as a punishment and to a greater or less degree according to his will.”
The reason why I want to share this passage with you is that it really places with some clarity — it casts, it projects a light of — that makes things clear about the status of the poem. The poem invokes a number of models which are all in the contemplative philosophical tradition. Or again, Dante is not a student of the prophetic tradition, but he makes them agree with the same mode of the visionary. You see, that’s what the prophets do, they see in order to speak. If you are readers of the Bible, you probably have heard and you may be right, and if you were to believe, that there really is no necessary link in the Bible between vision — between the mystics, those who have visions and those who are prophets. They are different experiences of two different states, not so for Dante. It may be true in the Bible that they are two — Dante thinks that the two will go together. You have to have vision in order to speak and that’s really what the — it helps us understand the sense of poetry with which Dante invokes here at the beginning of Paradiso.
Chapter 6. Traveling at the Speed of Light; Refining the Picture of the Universe [00:39:20]
Let me go now, Dante has to go on — tries to find out on lines 90 or so — how, asks the question about what has been happening to him. How has he been moving — he thought he was on Earth and the earthly paradise, now he seems to be on another planet. Line 95: “If I was freed from my perplexity,” Beatrice dismisses some fancies of his, “thou makest thyself dull with false fancies, so that thou canst not see as thou wouldst if thou hadst cast them off. You are no longer on earth as you think, but lightening flying from its own place, never ran so fast as thou returnest to thine.”
The journey — Dante is traveling so fast, the speed of light, to go from the earthly paradise to the Moon. “If I was freed from my perplexity, by the brief words she smiled to me, I was more entangled in a new one and I said: ‘I was content already, resting from a great wonder, but now I wonder how I should be rising above these light substances.”
Two or three things, one that I should mention to you and I will never mention them again, but Paradiso is all — unfolds the whole — the narrative economy with the pilgrim experiencing perplexities and doubts, which Beatrice will clarify and in turn those responses go on triggering new doubts. It’s really a question of doubts and answers in an unending process of the mind enlarging itself and always filled with wonder, and that’s really the language that I want to start emphasizing for you here. How Dante is using this figure of admiration, he calls it, line 97: “I was content… resting from a great wonder, now I wonder.”
And this — you will see, it continues throughout the beginning of Paradise. What is this wonder? It is, first of all, a definition of the aesthetics of Paradise. Wonder translates the Latin, admiratio, that’s the Italian word, in English, ‘admiration,’ which actually is to be understood, admiratio, the Latin; English, admiration, but for the Middle Ages, it’s nothing less than the sublime. If you wanted to translate, the medieval admiratio, or admiration, into an equivalent English — an aesthetic English term would be the ‘sublime.’ The Pseudo-Dyonisius idea of the sublime, it’s not a romantic idea, it’s probably — you are led to believe it’s an old idea. It’s a Greek notion of — indicating the mind that is overwhelmed with the spectacle of things that dwarf the mind. Things that the mind cannot quite comprehend, that’s the sublime. They can be the sublime in nature, they can be the sublime in art, they can be other forms of the sublime.
Dante’s mode of Paradise is indeed — this is the oscillation of a mind that is opening up, full of doubts, which really now that’s where he becomes subjective, critical, and then the experience of the sublime overwhelming him. This idea of the sublime now introduces a picture of the universe the way Beatrice will deliver it.
“She, therefore, after a sigh of pity,” I love her I must say, the way she’s going to treat Dante like a child at this point, “bent her eyes on me with a look of a mother, a look a mother casts on her delirious child.” Delirious in the etymological sense. I don’t think that he’s really actually crazy delirious, or the word English, the word we use delirium seems to me — simply means ‘getting off the furrow.’ Lirum, in Latin, means the furrow. Whatever you go off rut, as it were, of some — the furrow that you are tracing then you are delirious, you are going off on your own, in some kind of silly direction.
“And she began…” That’s the first picture of the universe. We are going to find that this picture is going to be refined in a number of ways, but this is what he can understand now. “All things, whatsoever, have order among themselves — that’s the premise in Dante’s cosmos. I will just add for you, and she continues, “And this is the form that makes the universe resemble God.” This is — so that the universe has a likeness to the divinity. Two things to be said immediately: the word order, in case you don’t know, is ordo — means beauty. It’s the idea that it’s the symmetrical arrangement of proportionate, full of light and clarity, structure of all — of the whole: ordo. Even the word forma, one of it means form, means that there’s a shape to things but it translates the Latin pulchritudo, another synonym for beauty.
The picture of the universe that Dante — that Beatrice evokes for Dante is one of beauty, which in turn, implies vision, because beauty is defined as that which is seen gives me pleasure. This is the famous definition of Aquinas that which is seen gives pleasure, that’s beauty. It’s a sort of subjective idea of beauty. Here of course, Beatrice thinks of an objective order of the world. It’s not the fact that I like it only, though Aquinas also gives that explanation of beauty, that which seen, pleases, that implies a self, a taste, a personal taste, a very rich medieval understanding of the aesthetic experience, but there is also an objective idea of the whole universe laid out in order, shape, clarity. These are the number, proportion, clarity; these are the attributes of beauty and this cosmological beauty.
Let me just continue because this line, that the universe resembles God, seems to be such a nice way of thinking about the universe, but if you really think about it, it’s really heretical proposition. The universe is like God? What about the evil that there is in the universe? Is it the idea that there is a continuity between God’s transcendence and God’s imminence, what’s he saying? I know that he used to be a little bit like Marsyas and he just doesn’t like — he just likes to be a little better than Paul, at least he’s going to talk. But now this is really a strange statement and therefore has to be clarified and I think she will.
I talk like this because I have to explain that I just was looking at an old, a great text of — in view of my class today. Last night, I was reading a great text by A.O. Lovejoy, some of you may know him, he was a great — one of the truly great — an inventor, if one can speak this, of the whole idea of the history of ideas in the United States, he used to be a great professor in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s at Johns Hopkins and he wrote a great book, which I still advise people to read, The Great Chain of Being, because that’s really the idea. The Great Chain of Being, it’s this — what is this great chain of being? It’s this virtual metaphor of the continuity between the world of unity and the world of multiplicity and plurality. It implies that we are only — that the universe is — this arrangement, the chain, an invisible chain. It’s the idea that reappears in the eighteenth-century English literature Pope, for instance, he uses — I read this in Lovejoy.
The — but it also implies — it’s a strange idea as it implies that the value of things, the values of every entity depends on the position one occupies in the various rings of the chain. So that if you are an angel then you’re really above human beings who are made of both — who are beastly and angelic at the same time. We have this kind of paradoxical quality of being spiritual and animal at the same time. Then we, according to that idea, though some of you may doubt it, we are better than dogs and dogs are better than stones, and so on. It’s in a kind of hierarchy, a system of degrees, and he, Lovejoy, goes on saying, well this is really the moment when Dante has — is adopting the idea of the great chain of being, and this great chain of being makes him really unorthodox. I want to tell you that that’s not true because I think we should read more carefully this passage.
This is the beginning here, talking about this resemblance, how the universe resemble God. “Here,” Beatrice continues, “the higher creatures see the impress of the Eternal Excellence which is the end for which that system itself is made. In the order I speak of all natures have their bent,” we all have our own specific gravity. We’re all drawn, we all are drawn by our desires. We go where our desire takes us, our desires, and so there’s a kind of natural instinct, the natural movement in this way in which a stone, if you drop it, falls always to the ground naturally, because of its specific gravity and the fire, if you light a candle, the fire will always go up, instinctively. All things move according to their weight, according to their specific weight. It’s a spiritual gravity.
Are we like that? Is that really what Dante’s saying? He seems — that’s what he seems to be saying, “according to their different lots, nearer to the source and farther from it; they move, therefore, to different ports over the great sea of being, each with an instinct given to it to bear it on: this bears fire up towards the Moon,” by the way, this is really the passage — Dante’s rewriting a passage from Augustine’s Confessions, “this is the motive force in mortal creatures, this binds the earth together and makes it one. Not only the creatures that are without intelligence does this bow shoot, but those also who have intellect and love,” meaning us. We have intellect and love. Remember the famous great poem from — about “women who have intellect and love”? Now we all have it, she says, “The providence that regulates all this makes forever quiet with its light, the heaven within which turns that of the greatest speed,” on top, the Primo Mobile, “and thither now as to a place appointed the power of that bowstring is bearing us which aims at a joyous mark.”
“It is true,” now, that’s the correction to Lovejoy’s interpretation, “it is true that, as a shape often does not accord with the art’s intention because the material is deaf and unresponsive, so sometimes the creature, having the power, thus impelled, to turn aside another way, deviates from this course, and, as fire may be seen to fall from a cloud,” lightening for instance, light does not go always up, light can go also down, “and as fire may be seen to fall from a cloud, so the primal impulse, diverted by false pleasure, is turned to the earth.”
In other words, within the description of the order of the cosmos, Beatrice goes on to say that human beings are the odd figures, that we, somehow, have the power to deviate from this pattern of order. That we can undo. We have this paradoxical freedom that makes us either stay within a particular idea of what God may have meant or really for us, or really breach that particular order. Human beings are the absurd elements in this ordered portrait of the universe. That is the whole statement of freedom; so that Dante is removing from a deterministic, that’s what would make it into a heretical text, a deterministic idea of what the cosmos then.
“Then she turned her face again to the sky.” Let me go — I’ll go a little bit quickly on Canto II and so — but I will need a few minutes. Canto II, Dante now is on this fear of the Moon, if you know that, and there will be a discussion on the spots. There’s this whole medieval legend: if you look at the Moon, a full Moon you see the dark spots and the legend was that Cain — the medieval legend — that Cain riding away from the knowledge of the murder of his brother had actually, with the help of God, God had removed him from the earth and had taken refuge there, and whatever we see there is just the imprint of Cain.
Dante dismisses this legend and goes on talking about science. She, Beatrice, will have a scientific discourse, and the question is: is this a natural cosmos or not? Do we see shades on the Moon simply because there’s a density or not a rarity of matter? Or is it because, therefore, light has a way of going through this matter of the Moon? According to the principle, more or less, the rarity and density? Or is it because there’s a different way in which light is distributed? The solution Dante gives, or Beatrice will give, is the second one. We see the shadows on the Moon simply because there is a different source of light.
In other words, the natural cosmos has to be understood in terms of its metaphysics. The physics has only — that can only be understood in terms of metaphysics, but what I want to stress to you is that the natural and the supernatural are always seen by Dante as holding hands together. They are not two separate worlds. They are not two separate dimensions. They are two different ways of looking at the same thing.
Chapter 7. Canto II: An Invitation to Stay Close; Jason [00:55:36]
But, let’s see how he introduces the canto, which I think is important for a number of reasons. Canto II: “O you who in a little bark,” the language of humility is suspect at this point, because we know that the sublime is the mode, is the trope that he will use, “O you who in a little bark, you,” he’s addressing us; he’s beginning to address readers, “eager to listen, have followed behind my ship, that singing makes her way, turn back to see your shores again; do not put forth on the deep, for, perhaps losing me, you would be left bewildered. The waters I take were never sailed before.”
That’s — it gives poignancy to the little bark. It’s a little bark that is doing something, so mighty; I’m doing such a magnificent, extraordinary adventure. “The waters I take were never sailed before. Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me, and the nine Muses show me the Bears.”
And then, a restriction of the agents that he has been addressing: “You other few,” a kind of reductive apostrophe, the very few here. It’s the crème de la crème, he would say of you guys. A very few who really know and are interested in the mysteries in the most esoteric, arcane sciences that he’s going to put out here. “You are the few that reached out early,” the language actually says, “turn your neck.” This is really a poor translation. I don’t know what other translators say. “You are the few who turn your neck,” because it’s the whole idea, another form of presumption.
You may have heard, you may recall, in the Bible about the stiff neck. Of course, the neck is always the emblem of conversion when you want to — for Plato, you reach a conversion you really turn the neck, that’s all you do. Not for Dante, Dante you can turn upside down, but in Plato, you turn the neck and you know where the source of light is. The biblical counter to that is there may be the stiff neck, those who do not — who lack humility. Behind this metaphor, there is the whole idea that what makes a human being — that what confers dignity to a human being, is the power that we, among all animals have, to look up at the sky and see and look at the stars and therefore wonder. All other animals are always looking down. We are alone.
Of course, there are other people who believe that what makes human beings — particular dignity to human beings — is something else. Of all of them, as those who said, that we speak of course, but of all of them, the one I really like is that we are capable of laughing. That’s the explanation: it’s an Aristotelian idea, but it’s explanation of comedy. Here, that’s the allusion though, you are — the few who could be also implying, like me, do not be too arrogant about this. “…who reached out early for angels’ bread,” knowledge, for knowledge, “by which man here lived but never come from it satisfied, you may indeed put forth your vessel on the salt depths, holding my furrow before the water returns smooth again. Those glorious ones who cross the sea to Colchis were not amazed,” once again the language of admiration, the language is sublime; I’ll come to this in a moment, “as you shall be when they saw Jason turned ploughman.”
Well, the metaphor of the journey by water, to describe now an aerial journey, so an anti — Dante is clearly thinking of that metaphoric compression that we saw in Ulysses. You remember the sailing that became a mad flight, now here it’s the flight that becomes a sailing. The notion that he is guiding us, so the sense of his responsibility is turning us back, unlike Ulysses; we dispose of that mythic resonance very quickly. What he’s really saying is that the journey we’re undertaking, which is the reading of this book, can become extraordinarily dangerous. The reason it’s dangerous is because he is traveling over water that leaves no wake behind it. This is the — what I would call the danger of the seafaring. In seafaring, you have no pre-established routes. There is no way, no road, no path that can be there fixed and you can find, so he’s inviting us to keep very close to him, but we might be losing him at the same time. The journey by water is not exactly like the journey by land, because there are no pre-established directions marked for us.
Then finally, this allusion to Jason; so he’s not like — Ulysses is like the hero of the Argonauts, who has gone looking for the golden fleece. And it’s an image that he appears at the end of Paradiso XXXIII, where Dante has the god Neptune from the depth wondering at the extraordinary power of the human imagination, the human will. They wonder at the heroics of Jason. Neptune is without — he can’t quite believe what he sees. It’s clearly an allusion for what Dante himself is going to do, in seeing God face to face, and then returning to the earth.
What I want to emphasize, and here really I will stop and give you a chance to ask me some questions, the — is that we probably never read — I think we skipped Canto XVIII of Inferno. I think we did, I don’t think that I asked you to read it, and I don’t presume that you would go and read what I don’t ask you to read. You never really did, but in Canto XVIII, Dante — if you go and read Canto XVIII of Inferno, you will find Jason punished among the flatters and the seducers, because he is famous for seducing Hypsiphyle and abandoning her. It’s a version of what happened to Theseus and Medea, it’s one of the great fixations of Greek — one of the great situations of — repeated situations of a Greek tragedy.
An interesting thing is that Dante now is distinguishing between the ethical judgment of Jason, who is behind in Inferno XVIII, and the imaginative aesthetic value of the adventure itself. Now, is he saying therefore, that the good and the beautiful are really two distinct things? He’s warning us about that and that’s where I want to pick up the conversation next time when we are going to be talking about the value of images and the ethics of images.
Chapter 8. Question and Answer [01:03:21]
Let me finish here now and see if there are some questions which I will try to answer. Please.
Student: Dante has — turning their minds to a bread of angels and then he talks about the image of water and all images and symbols that come in. It seems a little shaky to me in talking about [inaudible], is that you’re turning your mind to bread, it’s very strange thinking. I was just wondering if you could talk about that symbolism or significance of that, of turning your mind to bread.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is about explaining the image of bread in the beginning of Canto II of Paradise, where Dante says, addressing the readers, that they are turning their neck too early to the bread of angels.” I have a question for you; in what way do you find it strange?
Student: I just mean — well I have “eyes” instead of “turning your neck, but just talking about the intellect with the bread —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Okay, all right. The — well the bread of angels, so I would see the bread of angels, and the bread of angels is knowledge, so I think that the implied — the transference, the metaphorical reading by Mandelbaum is accurate. I wish it were more literal, but just as I think that — my own translation of course — Sinclair also, it’s one of the few times that he deviates from the literal burden, because the literal burden of the metaphor has a number of resonances which I think are valuable, like exactly the stiff neck, the turning of the neck.
In the context like Paradise, where Dante starts out by clearly locating himself within some contradictory possibilities: the possibility of a transgression or the possibility of trespassing, in the case of Paul. So where exactly is he? That image is his — by the image of the turning of the neck early for the bread of angels is also — reverberates with anxieties that he has about his own adventure and his own enterprise. That’s — I don’t know if this answers your perplexity but —
Student: So the bread of angels is really knowledge and then —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Knowledge, the bread of angels is knowledge. Yeah, that which — the idea — it’s the idea that you find in the Banquet, that why do philosophers — well I’m sure that it’s literally true that there is nothing better for a great philosophical conversation than a glass of wine, and you sit around and you talk, but it clearly is — it’s the food of the mind, the food of knowledge, the taste of knowledge, etc., all those metaphors.
Student: Also can you just kind of [inaudible]?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes. Since — that’s very good, that’s very good, because I think — can that be also grace? Yes, that’s very good, because we are here in the world of Paradise and I know that I’m giving a sort of philosophical emphasis, but there is also the — with Paul, there is also the theological — we are dealing with the poetic, more than the philosophical — the poetic and the theological to that. Absolutely, very good, thank you. Other questions? Please.
Student: In the beginning of Canto I when he describes how God sheds more or less più e meno light on different parts, the phrase più e meno is also used in Purgatory to describe different aesthetic perspectives, is Dante trying to bring that in here or is he just talking about the hierarchy of who God chooses to shed light on?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Well good — the question is in line 3 of Paradiso I, Dante uses a phrase, “more and less,” talk about the light that shines on creation according to the principle of more or less. Then the concern is that Dante uses this phrase quite often in Canto X of Purgatory, where, in the context of art, there is that phrase about — I call it, approximation. Is Dante joining the two? Does he want us to put the two things together?
Let me answer that. Far be it for me ever to say, no Dante, does not want us to do that. The whole reading, if there is a principle to the way I read, is that the more echoes you can find the better, I think, that we serve — the better we understand the poem and we reserve — I take it to be the intention of the poet. I had never really conjoined the two in my own mind for one simple reason, because here I think it’s — Dante’s asserting the principle of hierarchy.
I think that in Purgatorio Dante is doing something completely different since the context there is pride, he’s really reversing all forms of — what is the measure of the human beings? How do we measure human beings? I could say that this is actually a problem that was here. Every time you have a hierarchy I’m really placing myself in between an order, a rank of different values, and so I can say that that is also happening in Canto I. Frankly, the context will not allow me to go too much beyond this. Yeah, there is a way in which every time I talk of hierarchy I’m talking about a rank ordering, and therefore, the sense of my place it’s a little bit removed from the concerns here of — it’s there but not the most compelling argument for me.
You may prove me wrong, of course, then I would say this issue appears. We join things together; let’s try to keep also each entity in its own specificity, so that we really understand that the — how far his thinking can go with the representation of a scene — then another. I like that, good. I like the fact that you joined, you combined. Yes?
Student: I had a question, who is this audience? Homer, Virgil and later Shakespeare, we know that they are writing or speaking with a wide range of people [inaudible]. But now when we read him in Paradise, I’m so aware of how much one would need to know about philosophy and theology and poetics before you appreciate what he did.
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: That’s — the question is who on earth could Dante’s audience be? We know who the audience of Homer, Virgil can be — or is, but what about the audience, whether someone has to know philosophy, theology, and so on.
My answer is you’re right, that we do know roughly about Homer, because after all, there are — there is always the Modicus in the Odyssey who is singing to the audience at court until Ulysses appears and rhapsodes and Homer is one of the rhapsodes, or maybe the one who stitches together the voices of the rhapsodes. That gives us a miniature account of an audience. With Dante it’s a little bit more difficult to understand. It’s, I think, I can tell you now contemporary poets think that Dante’s poem, especially Inferno, ought to be read in the streets like raps odes going on the ancient Greece, they would go from one fair, one marketplace, and the day of the market to another, and gather people together, the feast days of the community, but I can be a little bit more romantic.
I think it’s true, but that Dante probably did read some of his cantos when he was in Ravenna or Verona to the — in the evening gathering, the circles of courtiers, but I don’t think of Dante as a courtier. He doesn’t seem to have the values. He has aristocratic values of the mind of course, but he doesn’t seem to share the social problems of the court. I can think of some aspects of Shakespeare being the poet of the court. The poet who would be read by the queen and he wants — he wants the queen to read his text, or the theatre, we know about the theatre.
A part of Paradiso was not known at all to some people — the first ten cantos were sent to the patron who probably gave what today we would call a grant, you apply for a grant. He would give him a gift for the great, extraordinary dedication, and that’s what patrons would — the role they would play. I think that Dante — and this is going to be very romantic — à la Benjamin now — I think that Dante writes this kind of poetry at the end for God. I don’t think that he could care. I don’t think he has an empirical audience in mind. He really means the few. I don’t think it’s a rhetorical strategy at the end: you few who are going to read that.
And it’s too much written — it’s written too much in the mode of a quest for God. A prayer, actually it’s a moment at one point where language bends into a prayer and — with a language of a longing that goes with prayer, that I really think it’s meant for God. I mean it in a very serious way, and it ends with a prayer: the great Canto XXXIII is an extraordinary prayer. That’s my answer.
I’m sure that the — I have a dear friend who wants to make a movie about reading Dante in the streets. That’s fine, but I’m not sure that that’s what Dante thought. I mean I’m really not sure about that. Great question, thank you, we’ll see you next time.
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