Genealogy plays an important role in the Commedia. We spent a good amount of time discussing how Dante has chosen his poetic fathers. His relationships with Virgil and Statius are central to the narratives of the Inferno and the Purgatorio. And some of the most interesting moments in those poems occur when Dante speaks with poets whose work has informed his own: his interactions with Brunetto Latini or with Guido Guinizzelli and Arnaut Daniel. We also see the importance of Florence as the land of Dante's fathers. Of course, all discussions of fatherhood take place in the context of the fatherhood of God.
In cantos 11 through 20 of the Paradiso, fatherhood moves from the metaphorical to the literal because we encounter Dante's flesh-and-blood ancestor Cacciaguida.The discussion of fatherhood begins in Canto 13 with the first human father. There Thomas Aquinas explains to Dante that God made Adam and Christ directly, and so "human nature never was nor shall it be --/ what it was in these two creatures" (Par 13:86-7). In Canto 14, Dante moves from the creation of Adam and Christ to the state of risen human bodies after the resurrection. Solomon says, "When we put on again our flesh, / glorified and holy, then our persons / will be more pleasing for being all complete, / so that the light, granted to us freely / by the Highest Good, shall increase, / the light that makes us fit to see Him. / From that light, vision must increase, / and love increase what vision kindles, / and radiance increase, which comes from love" (Par 14: 43-51). Dante notes that the choirs of souls around Solomon quickly shouted Amen after Solomon's words to express their desire for their dead bodies. "The flames in paradise don't desire their own bodies so much as they desire bodies, / for their mothers, / for their fathers, and for others whom they loved, / before they all became eternal flames" (Par. 14: 64-66). That is, to love another human being is to love an embodied human being. The love the flames have for their families will be more pleasing for being all complete when the flames are once again embodied.
I have no doubt that Dante's discussion of the first ancestor Adam in Canto 13 and the flames' desires for their mothers and fathers in Canto 14 leads up to Dantes encounter with his great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida in canto 15. The interactions with Cacciaguida in cantos 15 through 18 are some of my favorite lines in the entire Commedia. Part of what I find so moving is what Dante can understand and what Dante decides not to disclose. When he first meets Cacciaguida, he cannot understand everything his ancestor says. "Then, a joy to hear and a joy to see, / the spirit added to what first he said / words so profound I could not understand them. / Nor did he hide his thoughts from me by choice / but by necessity, for his conceptions / were set beyond out mortal limit" (Par 15: 37-39). Dante is clear here that he cannot understand Cacciaguida because of his mortality. I wonder, though, if the point here goes beyond the fact that Cacciaguida is in heaven and Dante is still alive.
I wonder, instead, if any of us truly understands the lessons our ancestors teach us. Is part of our mortal condition that we all too often neglect the lessons of those that came before us? But our ancestors, as Dante notes, make us who we are: "I began: You are my father, / You prompt me to speak with bold assurance. / You raise me up, so I am more than I (Voi mi levate s, chi son pi chio)" (Par 16:16-18). Who Dante is is inextricably tied up with what he does and what will happen to him. And so as he asked Virgil, he asks Cacciaguida about his future. Cacciaguida's reply comes in Canto 17, which, significantly, is the middle of the poem. Dante writes, "Not with cloudy sayings, by which the foolish folk / Were once ensnared, before the Lamb of God, / Who takes away our sins was slain / But in plain words and with clear speech / That paternal love replied, / Hidden and yet revealed in his own smile: / Contingent things, which do not extend / beyond the pages of your material world, / are all depicted in the Eternal Sight, / yet are by that no more enjoined / than is a ship, moved downstream on a rivers flow, / by the eyes that mirror it" (Par 17:37-42). A discussion of God's providence and human freedom should not detain us here, but it is enough to say that Dante sees no contradiction between a strong sense of both.
Cacciaguida's knowledge doesnt inhibit Dante's freedom. Cacciaguida's knowledge enhances both Dante's freedom and his poetic gifts, even if there are some things Cacciaguida tells Dante that Dante doesn't tell us. For example, "And you shall bear this written in your memory, / But shall not tell of it and he foretold events / That even those who witness them shall not believe" (Par 17:91-93). Cacciaguida's words are troubling. He tells Dante of the exile that awaits him and makes it clear that Dante will be alone. He will have to leave Florence, the land of his fathers, and a land whose inhabitants will read his poem. Indeed, Dante worries about whether he should tell of this harsh future, but Cacciaguida responds, "A conscience dark, / whether with its own or with a kinsman's shame, / is sure to feel your words are harsh. / Nonetheless, forswear all falsehood, / Revealing all that you have seen, / And then let him who itches scratch. / For, if your voice is bitter at first taste, / It will later furnish vital nourishment / Once it has been swallowed and digested" (Par 17:124-132). Cacciaguida tells Dante to forswear all falsehood even though the truth will seem harsh to dark consciences. The most important lesson that any of Dante's fathers have taught him is that the truth may be bitter at first taste, but it will offer vital nourishment.
Last weekend, my wife and I took our ten-month-old to visit his great-grandfather (my wife's maternal grandfather). Although fewer generations separate them than separated Dante and Cacciaguida, the joy in Grandpa's eyes mirrored the joy in Cacciaguida's. Like their Florentine forebears, there was a bit of a language gap. My son's waves and smiles responded to his great-grandfather's words. I'd like to think that when Dante writes that Cacciaguida "foretold events / That even those who witness them shall not believe," Cacciaguida was telling Dante about this meeting in New York. If Dante had told me about this meeting when I first read the Commedia I certainly would not have believed it.