Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Paradiso, by Dante Alighieri


Dante continues his journey with Beatrice as his guide (Virgil having returned to Limbo). This paradise is a series of concentric circles corresponding to various heavenly bodies--the moon, the planets, the fixed stars, etc.  This ascent is a bit trickier than the progress in Inferno and Purgatorio, as all the souls in heaven are supposedly perfect.  It becomes problematic, therefore, to categorize them by what would normally be considered flaws (inconstancy, ambition, intemperance, etc.).  The idea seems to be that rather than possessing a negative attribute (which would imply sin), these souls were deficient in a positive attribute.  Still, I think the concept falls a bit flat--it certainly does not work as well as the seven deadly sins in Purgatorio or the nine levels of Inferno

I also struggled with the idea of heaven being in 'outer space', as it were.  Although heaven is traditionally located 'in the sky', the idea of heaven being in an among planets and stars does not really gel with my mythical or symbolic idea of heaven.  Heaven is, at least in most literature, a place of comfort and welcome--full of light and life and warmth.  Space, on the other hand, is cold and empty and hard.  Heaven is fantasy.  Space is science fiction.  So while Dante's imagery was striking and his creativity laudable, there was, for me, a disconnect between the symbol and the substance.  Of course,  in the 14th century, space may have been a much more mystical place.  But to my modern sensibilities, the placement of heaven out among planets and stars is jarring, to say the least.

Paradiso also suffers from its more Marian focus.  Such a thing is to be expected from 14th century Catholic, but it still leaves a sour taste in my Protestant mouth.  Dante's otherwise accurate presentation of the gospel is marred by his belief that Mary is the ultimate go-between for man and God, and that she is the most elevated among human creation.  His theology of heaven is at times problematic, as there seems to be some idea of arrangement by relative merit--that is, souls are placed according to their works.  There is some reference to God's sovereign (and incomprehensible) choice, but Dante's obsession with men's actions (which served him so well in Inferno and Purgatorio) becomes a liability when discussing the residents of heaven, who have arrived through no merit of their own but purely by the grace of God.

Still, it's a masterful work, and undeniably creative.  Images of lights and roses are less compelling to me than the vivid descriptions of torment and punishment for sins that permeated Inferno and Purgatorio, but Dante was grappling with difficult subject matter.  And some images--like the souls arranged in the shape of an eagle and moving as one--are striking in their modernity.  As with the other parts, it works well read aloud, and a good (and well-annotated) translation--like Ciardi's--is a must.

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