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Epilogue: Reflexive Stylistics in the Language of Paradiso

Dante seems to announce that there is, or at least that he wishes there to be, something unique and matchless about the poetic craft and/or inspiration of the third and final cantica of his great poem. Whereas one Parnassian peak sufficed for the two preceding cantiche, now the poet requires two:

Infino a qui 1’un giogo di Parnaso

assai mi fu; ma or con amendue

m’è uopo intrar ne 1’arringo rimasto.

  • (1.16-18)
  • (Up to here, one peak of Parnassus

was enough for me, but now both

are necessary as I enter the remaining ring.)

He entreats both Apollo and the Muses (science and poetry) to guide him across the never-before-traversed waters he embarks on with his ascent to the first heaven:

L’aqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse:

Minerva spira, e conducemi Apollo,

e nove Muse mi dimostran 1’Orse.

  • (II.7-9)
  • (The waters I embark on have never yet been sailed:

Minerva inspires and Apollo guides me, and the nine Muses show me the bears.)

Yet exactly what the specific difference of the style of Paradiso consists in is not obvious: it is not made explicit by the text. In order to understand what is special about the language of Paradiso, we might begin by testing the consistency of Paradise itself in Dante’s creation.

The navigation metaphor is a significant clue. Already broached at the opening of Purgatorio (“Per correr miglior acqua alza le vele I omai la navicella del mio ingegno, / che lascia dietro a se mar si crudele ...” 1.1-3) and in Inferno I’s reference to shipwreck (22-24), it is newly insisted upon in Paradiso, when Dante addresses the few (“voi altri pochi”) capable of reading the Commedia through to its highest reaches as those who can follow in his wake:

metter potete ben per 1’alto sale

vostro navigio, servando mio solco

dinanzi a 1’acqua che ritorna equate.

  • (11.13-15)
  • (you can well set sail on the high sea

with your ship in my wake

before the water returns to being level.)

The navigation metaphor resurfaces again in the poem’s finale with the allusion to Neptune’s astonishment to see the shadow of the Argo passing over him (XXXIII.94-96). This trope of navigation, as convertible with aviation, refers undisguisedly to the journey through the planetary spheres. Paradise (and sometimes even God himself) is repeatedly described as a kind of sea:

... Io gran mar de 1’essere ... (1.113)

(... the great sea of being...)

Ell’e quel mare al qual tutto si move ... (III.86)

(It is that sea toward which all moves ...)

The divine Presence thus appears, at least metaphorically, to resemble a watery sort of element. At the same time, it is a sea of light—a region penetrated by the radiance of God, as announced from the very first verses:

La gloria di colui che tutto move

per 1’universo penetra, e risplende

in una parte piu e meno altrove.

Nel ciel che piu de la sua luce prende

fu’ io ...

  • (1.1-4)
  • (The glory of him who moves all

through the universe penetrates and shines in some parts more and elsewhere less.

In the heaven that takes most of his light

I was ...)

To the poet of the Paradiso, the imageries of light and of water seem to feel so close as to bleed into one another and virtually coalesce:

parvemi tanto allor del cielo acceso

de la fiamma del sol, che pioggia o flume

Iago non fece mai tanto disteso.

  • (1.79-81)
  • (it then seemed to me that so much of the heaven was afire with the flame of the sun that rain or river had never made a lake so large.)

The same pairing and implicit equivalence of light and water images can be observed in the last two terzinas of Canto I, which illustrate how Dante’s ascent into heaven is as natural, first, as the descent of a river from the mountains, and then, as the upward propensity of a flame (1.136-41). This association is sustained throughout the whole cantica. For instance, in Canto XXXI the threefold light (“trina luce”) of verse 28 becomes in verse 93 an eternal fountain (“eterna fontana”). A similar message in this regard is conveyed by the rainbow and flood imagery of XII. 10-18 and again by the river of light in XXX.61-63.

Light and water, as reflective mediums, have certain properties in common which may have recommended them to the poet’s sensibility as the most appropriate vehicles for conveying to the imagination his conception of Paradise, a conception also known to us as articulated by him in doctrinal terms. There is a kind of unity, a continuous flow, in a body of water or region of light—each is incomposite, without discrete parts—yet with varying degrees of depth and intensity throughout their whole expanse. Thus, a sea of light is the ideal way of imagining Paradise defined as a graduated resplendence of God’s glory, for it is at once completely continuous, without breaks or separations, and yet smoothly variable, with each different point illuminated or submerged more or less than the next. All the inhabitants of Paradise enjoy union with God, all dwell in the Empyrean by contemplating Him, and yet each possesses a distinct grade of beatitude, according to their different capacities, their “virtu diverse” (11.139; 11.70).

This characterization of the imaginative substrate of the realm of Paradise helps us to recognize and individuate crucial features of the homonymous poem’s style. The elements of water and light share in common a diaphanous quality, which is surely one of the distinguishing marks of Paradiso’s poetry. It is seen and heard in descriptive lines such as those cited at the outset (section 1) sounding the stylistic keynote for the canticle:

Quali per vetri trasparenti e tersi, o ver per acque nitide e tranquille,

non si profonde che i fondi sien persi,

tornan de’ nostri visi le postille

debili si, che perla in bianca fronte

non vien men tosto a le nostre pupille ....

  • (III.10-15; emphasis added)
  • (As in transparent and polished glass,

or in pure and tranquil water,

not so deep that the bottoms vanish,

the reflected images of our faces return

so weak that pearl on a white forehead

does not strike our pupils more ... .)

Particularly striking here is the delicateness of the images (like pearl on a white background), and the same can be said of the sounds of the words as well. A subtle harmony plays in the intricate interlacing of assonances and alliterations in the symmetrically paired words “trasparenti” / “tersi,” “nitide” / “tranquille,” “profonde” / “fondi” of the first terzina. The verses are themselves just as tenuous (“debili”) as the images seen, which to Dante-protagonist seem so insubstantial that he falls into the error opposite to Narcissus’s and takes what are real (they are qualified as “vere sustanze” by Beatrice in verse 29) for mere reflections:

tai vid’io piii facce a parlar pronte:

per ch’io dentro a Terror contrario corsi a quel ch’accese amor tra 1’omo e ’1 fonte.

Subito si com’io di lor m’accorsi,

quelle stimando specchiati sembianti, per veder di cui fosser, li occhi torsi....

  • (III. 16-21)
  • (I saw such multiple faces ready to speak:

for which reason I fell into the error contrary to that which ignited love between the man and fountain.

Suddenly, as soon as I was aware of them,

thinking them to be mirrored semblances,

in order to see who they were, I turned back my eyes ... .)

Still, Dante is not deceived as to the ethereal nature of these beings, and he learns shortly hereafter that they have shown themselves in the heaven of the moon only for his benefit, while actually they reside continuously in the Empyrean (IV.31-39). Beyond this reflection in Dante’s experience, the very reality of Paradise in the end turns out to be a kind of reflected image. Virtually all events and encounters which transpire there are compounded of complex mirroring phenomena. Accordingly, the words mirror and reflect, or respond antiphonally, to one another, here in lines whose tonic chord is sounded by gutturals plus open vowels— “error contrario corsi,” “di lor m’accorsi,” and “veder-fosser-torsi”— alternating with less sonorous, more clicking and sibillant verses: “tai vid’io piü facce,” “quel ch’accese,” “stimando specchiati sembianti.” This is roughly the difference between horns and percussion, and the symphonic effect is integral to Paradiso's often highly musical style—a kind of musical mirroring.

We can hardly overestimate just how pervasive and important the imagery of mirrors and reflections is to the workings of the Paradiso. It is inextricable from the light and water imagery because water is a reflecting medium, momentously in the Narcissus story. Phenomena of light, moreover, constitute the paradigm on the basis of which all metaphors of reflection are understood. It is possible here to enumerate only a small selection of the instances of Dante’s continual resorting to structures of mirroring at almost every juncture in the exposition of his paradisiacal journey. The first heaven features the three-mirrors experiment described in 11.97-106 in conjunction with Dante’s wrong explanation of the moon spots. In the last physical heaven, Dante’s first glimpse of divinity as a point of light is mirrored in the eyes of Beatrice:

Come in lo specchio fiamma di doppiero

vede colui ehe se n’alluma retro,

prima ehe 1’abbia in vista o in pensiero,

e se rivolge, per veder se ’1 vetro

li dice il vero, e vede ch’el s’accorda

con esso come nota con suo metro,

Cosi la mia memoria si ricorda

ch’io feci, riguardando ne’ belli occhi

onde a pigliarmi fece Amor la corda.

  • (XXVIII.4-12)
  • (As in a mirror the flame of a torch

is seen by one illuminated from behind

before he sees or even thinks of it,

and he turns himself to see whether the glass

is telling him the truth and sees that it agrees

as does a musical note with its measure,

So my memory recorded

that I did in looking into the beautiful eyes

whence Love made the cord to capture me.)

There is, furthermore, the mirroring of the whole creation, past, present, and future, including Dante’s very thoughts, in God—“the mirror / in which before you think your thought is displayed” (“lo speglio / in che prima che pensi, il pensier pandi,” XV.61). And the blessed themselves are “so many mirrors” (“tanti speculi”) of “the eternal value” (“1’eterno valor,” XXIX.142-43; cf. also XXX.l 12-14)—like Saint Thomas, who gazing into the eternal light (“riguardando nella luce eternal”), shines with the resplendence of its beam (“del suo raggio resplendo,” XI.19-21).

Beyond multiplication of specific occurrences of this pervasive mirroring-of-reflections structure, of which we have seen numerous instances, there is also a general sense in which it embraces the whole cantica. Indeed all of the Paradiso is to be understood as the adumbration of Paradise reflected in the poet’s mind (“1’ombra del beato regno / segnata nel mio capo ...,” 1.23-24). There are constant reminders of this fact (including the passage from Canto XXVIII just cited), which was stated explicitly at the very outset:

Veramente quant’io del regno santo ne la mia mente potei far tesoro, sarà ora matera del mio canto.

  • (1.10-12)
  • (Truly as much of the holy realm

as I was able to treasure up in my mind

will now be the matter of my song.)

The stylistic implications of this fact that Paradiso in its entirety and in its component parts is a reflected image are myriad, but perhaps the most significant of all is this: Dante’s style in treating the realm of God’s illumination aspires to mirror the divine, which is understood as pure form. God is pure form, which is to say pure actuality, according to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the mediating Arabic and Scholastic traditions. Dante imaginatively expresses this idea in the image of God as pure radiance and shining, which his own poetry then imitates.

The delight in sheer form is everywhere to be found in the Paradiso-. for example, in articulating the orders of the angels, who are themselves beings consisting in form without matter, and also in formally correlating them with the hierarchical order of the heavens (XXIX.98-139). Similarly, the structures of arguments become objects worthy of contemplation in their own right, as when Beatrice explains to Dante the exact form of her refutation of his theory of moon spots (11.82-84). In such cases, structure itself becomes poetic essence. Where the question of form and matter comes up in V.43-54 with regard to religious vows, the upshot is that form is what counts, whereas matter is commutable. In XXIX.22-36, when the creation of pure form, pure matter, and their conjunction is described, the top of the world is reserved for pure forms or “pure act,” that is, the angels (“e quelle furon cima / nel mondo, in che puro atto fu prodotto”).

Even just at the terminological level, there is an unmistakable fascination with words of purely structural significance, as in

Quelli altri amori che ’ntorno li vonno,

si chiaman Troni del divino aspetto,

per che ’1 primo ternaro terminonno.

  • (XXVIII. 103-5)
  • (Those other loves that circle around them

are called thrones of the divine

and with them the first triad terminates.)

Throughout this cantica we see the pleasure in playing with linguistic form to make new words at its most exuberant. The examples proliferate: “s’imillia,” “s’interna,” “ ‘mparadisa,” “s’invera” (from Canto XXVIII); “s’ingrada” (XXIX), “si trasmoda,” “s’immigli” (XXX), to list the novelties produced by just one of Dante’s favorite types of innovative verbal formations. All are reflexive verbs. Their reflexivity highlights and celebrates pure form. The description of the most heavenly of the heavenly spheres, the Empyrean, uses the reflexive device of beginning each line with the last word of the line preceding (the form of repetition known in rhetoric as “anadiplosis”):

... ciel ch’e pura luce:

luce intellettual, piena d’amore;

amor di veto ben, pien di letizia;

letizia che trascende ogni dolzore.

  • (XXX.41-42)
  • (... the heaven that is pure light, intellectual light, full of love;

love of true good, full of felicity;

felicity that transcends every sweetness.)

“Luce,” “amore,” and “letizia” used thus abstractly, without any specifying articles or pronouns, are all Platonic-like essences. Most often in Paradiso, latinisms and neologisms serve to extricate language from its embodiment in everyday speech, or at least to highlight its formal possibilities of meaning beyond the practical communicative function. Just as the reflection of an object preserves only the form without the matter, so also when Dante recontextualizes familiar words in novel compounds—for example, “oriafiamma” (XXXIII.127)—he turns two material elements like gold and flame into an intellectual essence, a new creation existing only in poetry. The strange, often precious or gorgeous and numinous, locution nonetheless has the same transparency that is common to light or water. The component words are still perfectly visible, but now they are seen as reflected into a rarer linguistic medium created by conscious artistry. The effect is often one of sublimity:

La concreata e perpetua sete

del deiforme regno cen portava

veloci quasi come ’1 ciel vedete.

  • (11.19-21)
  • (The co-created and perpetual thirst

for the God-like kingdom carried us

almost as speedily as the heavens you see.)

The magnificence of “concreata” and “deiforme,” which are virtually archetectural constructions in words and which are both introduced by Dante into the vernacular, as well as of “perpetua” from the Latin liturgy, matches the glorious heights of his subject. Moreover, in the first line of this tercet the two adjectival qualifiers transfigure a common bodily need—thirst—by their metaphysical resonance. The concepts of creation and eternity that they respectively evoke with their concordant spiritual solemnity turns a physical lack into endless divine desire.

We may also observe in the verses mentioning Narcissus previously quoted from Canto III how language becomes progressively ratified by virtue of paraphrastic syntax that avoids naming and delays directly presenting a concrete subject. Although Dante’s reaction is immediate (“Subito”), the very last information given is the act itself (“gli occhi torsi”). First comes the development in highly allusive terms of something less tangible—his misjudgment. This works together with syntactical inversions such as “a parlar pronte” (“to speak ready”) and “dentro a Terror contrario corsi” (“into the contrary error I ran”) to help keep the sense suspended as long as possible. In the Paradiso, everything is determined by its goal or telos, which in every case is God—the way an arrow’s trajectory, barring deviation or deflection, is determined by the target at which it is aimed (11.23-24).

These remarks are intended to serve as illustrations of the style and technique Dante forged in order to be able to write about a realm of experience transcending that ordinarily accessible to human beings. All three worlds beyond the tomb, of course, are in this sense transcendent, but Paradise in particular concerns a register of feelings and perceptions that can be reached only in the highest flights of speculative and contemplative spirituality, and only by divine grace. In a substratum consisting of nothing but reflections imaged principally in the elements of water and light, the pure form toward which the poet and every created intelligence aspires can only be dimly shadowed. This rarefied world, in turn, is reflected in a rarefied style often featuring extreme lightness and delicacy of images and language, with a constant accent on purely formal qualities, whether of language, logic, or the cosmos. Dante never ceases to remind us of the impossibility of expressing what he has experienced. Yet mirror-like self-reflexivity furnishes means of manifesting at least this gap and thereby expressing the transcendence that inhabits the self and cleaves it open to limitless relations with others.

Postscript on Method

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