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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Par. 1-10)

Heaven is won-der-ful, isn't it? That was the answer one of my students gave when we began our class discussion of the Paradiso a couple of years ago. Thinking about what heaven is like turns out to be a more difficult exercise than you might have expected. My students expect people in heaven to be happy, and they imagine that heaven is a place where everything works out in the end (or something like that). Sometimes they mention harps or clouds or people in white robes. All in all, it's a rather inchoate picture, which makes reading and discussing and writing about Dante's Paradiso all the more challenging and fun.

Part of the challenge is that of the three poems in the Commedia, the Paradiso is the most philosophically and theologically dense. The shades Dante meets, although they are important, are less important than the theological points Dante makes with them. Unlike the shades in the Inferno and the Purgatorio, the shades in the Paradiso are in harmony with themselves and God's will. The only thing they lack is their bodies (which is a big deal, to be sure), but they know their souls will join with their bodies at the day of Judgement.

Another part of the challenge is that most of the narratives we read have character development. Character development is what makes a narrative a narrative. In the Inferno and Purgatorio, the development came from the vices or virtues of the shades he encountered. These vices or virtues progressively moved away from or moved toward the love of God. This led, of course, to greater despair or greater hope. But, as I mentioned in my last post on the Purgatorio, the shades we meet in the Paradiso are already perfectly attuned to God's will. As Piccarda explains to Dante, "Brother, the power of love subdues our will / so that we long for only what we have / and thirst for nothing else / And in his will is our peace. / It is to that sea all things move, / Both what His will creates and what nature makes" (Par. 3:70-72; 85-87). If the essence of narrative is personal struggle, Dante has written a narrative in which the people no longer struggle.

The only real precedent for the Paradiso is Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, a poem Dante didn't know. Only Lucretius dared to put a philosophical system to verse in the way that Dante has dared to put theology into verse. Lucretius' goal was to make an unpalatable philosophy palatable. He uses the metaphor of putting honey on a wormword cup. Dante's goal is to convey the joy of heaven in human words. As Charles Martel says to Dante, "All of us desire to bring you pleasure / so that you may in turn delight in us" (Par. 8:32-33).

The shades in heaven share this delight with each other. In fact, because they all share the same delight, each shades' thoughts are completely transparent to everyone else. Isn't this the very essence of friendship? The best moments of friendship are when one friend doesnt need to say anything to the other friend. They can share in each other's delights or sorrows wordlessly. But again, this is a problem for a narrative. If there is nothing to say, what can there be for us to read?

When Dante meets Falco in Canto 9, he asks Falco why Falco wants him to speak (I love how the Hollanders have translated these lines). "'God sees all, and your sight is so in-Himme'd / bless'd spirit,' I said, 'that no wish of any kind / is able to conceal itself from you / together with the singing of those loving flames / that form their cowls from their six wings, / not offer my desires their satisfaction? / I would not await your question / If I in-you'd me as you in-me'd you.'" (Par 9:73-81).The answer to Dante's question must be that Falco and Dante speak to each other because of us, the readers, so that one day we too will be able to commune with them without words. So what we too can, as Falco puts it, "contemplate the craft that beautifies / such love, and here discern the good / with which the world above informs the one below" (Par. 9:106-108). But in order for us to be able to have such contemplation and discernment, we must follow the words Beatrice says to Dante: "I shall now reshape your intellect / thus deprived, with a light so vibrant / that your mind will quiver at the sight" (Par. 2:109-111). In Inferno and Purgatorio, Virgil sought to reshape Dante's (and our) will. Now Beatrice will attempt to reshape his intellect.This, I think, is what my students and I have always found difficult. The Paradiso even more than the other two poems works itself on us because the shades Dante encounters no longer need to work on themselves. It is easy enough to imagine what living virtuously would look like, but the joy Dante attempts to convey is beyond our understanding in part because its beyond any narrative we can tell. Narratives need struggle and they need time.

At the end of Canto 10, where Dante meets Thomas Aquinas, he says, "thus I saw that glorious wheel in motion, / matching voice to voice in harmony / and with sweetness that cannot be known / except where joy becomes eternal" (Par. 10:145-148). Wonderful indeed. Almost too wonderful to describe.

Sorry I've been a bit lax with posting. I'll post again early next week. There is so much to puzzle over in the Paradiso!

[For part one of our discussion of the Purgatorio, see here. For part one of our discussion on the Inferno, see here.]  

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Just as I was beginning to read the Paradiso a friend unaware that I was reading Dantes Divine Comedy sent me this YouTube video, Father Guido Sarducci Explains the After-life.http://www.youtube.com/embed/0AKvRvL5r3A?rel=0Sarducci confirms Dantes insight that there are different levels in Heaven quite humorously.The Paradiso is heavy-duty reading, at least for me. Even though I have a graduate degree in Theology I had to read some of the sections two or three times. It is difficult to understand what part of Dantes theology corresponds to the thinking of his day and what part can be attributed to his vivid poetic imagery. Dante certainly lived during the height of the Scholastic tradition, but his theology is a far cry from the logical thinking of Aquinas with his references to Scripture, the Fathers, and Aristotle.The section about religious vows in Canto V interested me. Dante notes that vows made to God can never be broken but can be dispensed with by the Church. The examples he gives are of two women religious who were forced to marry against their will. So they are in the lowest place in Paradise. I suppose that he could have denied them any place in Paradise. It makes me wonder if Dante would have preferred that they be martyrs rather than give up their vows. Perhaps he is issuing a warning to those who would take such vows frivolously that they are in for a rude awakening. I got a bit of a laugh in Canto X, when Dante mentions Thomas Aquinas I was one of the lambs of the holy flockthat Dominic leads on the roadwhere they fatten well if they do not stray.Interesting image! Was Dante aware that Aquinas was obese? Even Medieval and Renaissance paintings show him to be enormously heavy.

The Paradiso is more enjoyable than I expected or remembered, though I think it requires a different kind of reading. Since there isn't a lot of narrative development, in some ways it can't be read as quickly--there isn't the "story" to carry one along--but focusing more upon the language means, for me, actually worrying less about the notes and about understanding every detail: I'm finding that I really enjoy reading a canto with the kind of attention that I give to a lyric poem, enjoying the language and the imagery and not turning to the scholarly apparatus much. So I'm probably reading each canto at about the same speed, but I'm not propelled forward to the next one as swiftly. (In practical terms, what this means is that it's hard to read the Paradiso as I read the other two poems, where I'd fall behind and then sit down and read six or eight or twelve cantos at a go! The Paradiso would, I think, ideally be read one canto at a time.)There's a lot of self-reflexive poetic business going on, what with Dante's addresses to the reader, descriptions of heaven which are also apologies for the indescribability of heaven, reinventions of the traditional invocation of the muses, and some beautiful and at other times homely and funny similes. (There are parts of the poem that are surprisingly funny.)My strongest desire, at 10 cantos in, isn't to brush up on my theology so much as it is to work up my Italian to the point that I could read the poem in the original and more fully appreciate its poetry.

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.