Three times, recently, I’ve posted my ideas about Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’m exploring why a long poem coming up on its 700th birthday, one with a form and a theology that few people care about any longer, should have such enormous contemporary impact. The earlier stages of my investigation are here, here, and here, and again I have to thank Southwest Review, where these ideas appeared in a different form. Now, Paradise, with a sketch from Sandro Botticelli to begin with.
The Comedy’s last canticle demands a move away from the familiar. The realm of the Blest must come across as something else again, and it does, with glowing cross-galaxy swoops and landings that suggest computer animation, centuries ahead of its time. But then the subject has no truck with time; it exists outside time. Nor should anybody confuse actual Paradise with its faint simulacrum, the Earthly Paradise. The flowers and waters of the Empyrean, in the final cantos, recall the peak of Purgatory, but they’ve gone unearthly.
A key example, both for what’s special about Paradise and for my larger argument, is the “stream” that forms the border to Highest Heaven, in Canto XXX. In keeping with the mad experiment Dante conducts throughout the canticle, this stream is not a stream. Rather it’s a ribbon of mosaic, now jewels and now flames, an infinite flow of innocent sensuality and envy-free abundance. All this has been distilled, somehow, from the Celestial Rose beyond.
In Italian, the discovery resounds with the r and v of primavera, and the rolling of the lips may suggest flowers bursting at springtime. But in any language this foretaste of the Divine tastes strange:
And I saw light that was a flowing stream,
blazing in splendid sparks between two banks
painted by spring in miracles of color.
Out of this spring the sparks of living light
were shooting up and settling on the flowers:
they looked like rubies set in rings of gold.
Miracle builds on miracle: sentient glimmers leap onto starflowers that turn to heirlooms. Meanwhile there’s allusion to both the Old Testament (Daniel’s “stream of fire”) and New (the “river of the water of life” in Revelations). Image, sound, and concept come together to enhance the crossing of a final heavenly boundary. From here the Pilgrim will rise out of the spheres of Paradise and into the linked petals they all form together at their zenith. (To the right, that’s Dali’s version)
Also the crossing enacts a miracle within the point of view — a part of that mad experiment which distinguishes Paradise. Here again, the Dante character again understands something beyond ordinary understanding. The traveler has managed to “transhumanize” — as Musa renders trasumanar, the remarkable neologism from Paradiso’s first canto. Simply to enter Paradise, the Pilgrim needs to transcend to a fresh level of apprehension. 30 Cantos further up, on the verge of his greatest epiphany, he needs to acquire his fullest powers of perception. Therefore he undergoes a “transhuman” baptism, going beyond the earlier cleansings in Lethe and Eunoë.
Such constant heightening of consciousness presents an extraordinary artistic challenge. Yet Dante the poet, as opposed to his creation the Pilgrim, understands that the art of the last canticle mustn’t violate the drama of Inferno and Purgatory. The experience, however epic, must retain aspects of human scale. Thus a concluding image of Paradise, in dialogue with the two earlier ones I’ve looked at, sets forth a fundamental human concern, a psychological essence.
What’s most resonant about the Paradise image resides in the Italian word “lume.” This occurs in the first line quoted above, and the most precise translation isn’t “light” in the standard sense. That’s the English preferred by most translators, “light,” though the correct Italian in that case would be luce. Lume, which occurs a number of times during the closing cantos, connotes a relative weakness, an evanescence, as in the expression a lume di candela, by candlelight.
Dante’s reliance on lume can’t be put down, simply, to the technology of his time. He knows what luce is, and elsewhere in XXX he sets it in opposition to the softer word. When he’s finally ready to approach the Empyrean resplendence, he asserts that “nulla luce è tanto mera,” no light is so bright. Yet Beatrice, in preparing her guest, spoke rather of a candle and its flame.
Once the Pilgrim’s candle has been dipped into its stream of flame, his first impressions of highest Heaven beyond are full of biplay between the all-powerful luce and the more confined and temporary lume. In XXXI we have the “luce divina” and other direct references to elements of God. But the Pilgrim sees the faces of the Blest as “d’altrui lume fregiati,” “adorned in borrowed light.” Later, making one of the Comedy’s several references to Phaeton and his tumbling chariot, the narrator describes how “il lume si fa scemo;” he couches the smaller light in an idiom meaning to trick, to make a fool of. Everywhere, light that’s indirect or second-hand takes the edge off the thing itself, powerful enough to knock Phaeton from the sky.
Scholars have noted the pervading use of reflection and refraction. The way Singleton puts it, the newcomer to the Celestial Rose discovers he’s “been seeing by reflected light all the while.” Such a process makes a natural correlation with the Pilgrim’s need to transhumanize; he approaches the Divine via a series of smaller-scale models. So too, in the final tercets of Paradise, the supreme illumination of the Godhead makes a place for its flickering domestic stand-in.
When the Pilgrim looks finally into the “Light Eternal fixed in Self alone,” the poet rises to the occasion in an alliterative tour de force that depends on its manipulation of the light image — or rather, the degrees-of-light image. The indivisible Alpha and Omega is honored as “O luce etterna,” but soon after that the visitor addresses God made flesh, the man Jesus, in terms more vulnerable: “come lume reflesso,” “as light reflected.” Divine Love shines without source or end; its earthly embodiment glints and is gone.
At the close of the Comedy, the recurrent opposition of sunlight and candlelight creates dramatic tension, a counterpoint that nags at revelations. The play on words evokes, as the poet had read Derrida, the tenuousness of mystic experience. God’s house, in Dante’s construct, is free of blast and thunder.
The quiet lapping of luce and lume works against inflated rhetoric about the Omnipotent. Had our narrator gone for more stentorian affect, like an Italian Isaiah, we would’ve come to a briar patch rather than a rose, a place that would brook no transhumanizing. But Dante plays up the quieter side of his light-dialogue, with rhymes like candela and favilla, spark. His dappled closing visions call to mind a midnight Mass, and suggest as well another context, earthier — and with that, raise notions contrary to most of the past century’s Dante scholarship.