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!