The Dances of "Paradiso"

Joan Acocella (the name sings!), the dance critic of The New Yorker, has a stunning book review in the current issue.

She discusses (at welcome length) Robert and Jean Hollander's new translation of Dante's Paradiso, bringing to a close their epochal journey through the three cantiche of the Commedia.

Ms Acocella has the highest praise for Jean Hollander's translation. She is more reserved about Robert's voluminous notes, useful, she thinks, more for the graduate student than for the average reader.

Of Paradiso itself, however, she seems conflicted in a secular sort of way. There is, clearly, some magnificent poetry, but all that dusty scholasticism. Besides heaven can sound simply boring -- nothing but unreserved love.

Of course, she says it more breezily than that (this is The New Yorker after all):

[W]e live in an intermediate, tragic world. Paradise is not like that. Neither, accordingly, is the Paradiso.This lack of shading is the fundamental problem, poetically, with Heavens emotional life. The souls there are uniformlycharitable. Oh, here is one who will increase our loves! the spiritsin the sphere of Mercury exclaim when the pilgrim arrives there. Thesouls in the spheres of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter are just as glad tosee him, and as their greetings accumulate one starts to feel a littlenostalgic for the screaming and farting that went on in Hell.

Strangely, what is missing from this fascinating review, by the New Yorker's dance critic, is any sense of dance, of the joyful movement of persons in relation, of the moto spiritale of the individual, now fully freed to join in the highest form of love: true friendship.

It is telling that the word "communion" does not appear in Acocella's multi-page reflection. Yet, if one were to try, foolishly, to sum up Paradiso in a word, "communion" would, I think, be the closest approximation.

Finally, one of the scholastic questions she enumerates is this: "At the Last Judgment, will souls in Heaven get their bodies back?" And she leaves it at that: dry, distant, unanswerable.

But for the souls this is no scholastic disputatio. It is literally the heart of the matter. For it has to do with their integrity as persons, their familial relations, the significance of their (and all) history.

Without bodies, how can joy be whole? how can the dance be complete?

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.

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