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22 july 2014

A few years ago, Robert Baird asked in Slate "Why doesn't anyone read Dante's Paradiso?" Baird agrees with T.S. Eliot that "we have … a prejudice against beatitude as material for poetry." We assume that Heaven is boring. Trapped in our assumptions, we can't perceive the drama and the urgency of Dante's vision of salvation. Eliot and Baird make a good point, and Dante understood it, too. Again and again in the Comedy he slaps his forehead over people who prefer far lesser goals and pleasures to the beatific vision:

Bene è che sanza termine si doglia
chi, per amor di cosa che non duri,
etternalmente quello amor si spoglia.

[Then he may grieve
indeed and endlessly—the man who leaves
behind such love and turns instead to seek
things that do not endure eternally.] (XV: 10-12; p. 129)
Free will is Dante's great theme, but of course only an idiot would choose Hell when he or she has been shown the alternatives, as Dante generously does. Therefore, as Piccarda Donati puts it in the second-most-famous line in the Paradiso,
E 'n la sua volontade è nostra pace

[And in his will there is our peace] (III: 85, p. 25)
The will of the blessed aligns itself with God's, not because there's nowhere else to go (there are millions of other ways to go), but because the enlightened spirit positively delights in doing what every other enlightened spirit is doing. Hence the imagery that Robert Baird finds so awesome in Paradiso, its "stunning audiovisual choreographies." Chief of them is the beatific vision itself in Canto XXXIII, closing with the most famous line of all: "L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle."

And there is much to admire in Paradiso's mystical passages, which, if somewhat repetitive, have the incantatory and irrational qualities that move the reader far more than rational discourses on the benefits of Heaven might. In fact, one great weakness of the Paradiso is that it has so much rational discourse. (Another is that Dante's blessed can be so nastily judgmental, though I suppose being perfectly aligned with the will of the Judge means they're perfectly entitled to be.)

Much of the Paradiso takes the form of abstruse explanations of questions we weren't interested in to begin with, like a guided tour conducted by a badly-trained docent. (Sorry, Beatrice.) Some of the issues that come up are the stuff of late-night dorm arguments. The Eagle in Canto XIX, a sort of combination of the Holy Spirit and the Roman Empire, launches into one of these pre-emptively, accusing Dante of harboring snarky puzzlers that the poor poet hasn't even brought up. "I know what you're thinking," says the Eagle (I'm paraphrasing here), "you're wondering how some poor schnook in India who's a great guy but never heard of Jesus can be damned for all eternity on a technicality."

Maybe that is kind of interesting, come to think of it, but the answer, of course, is God's to Job out of the whirlwind: STFU.

Or tu chi se', che vuo' sedere a scranna,
per giudicar di lungi mille miglia
con la veduta corta d'una spanna?

[Now who are you to sit upon the bench,
to judge events a thousand miles away,
when your own vision spans so brief a space?] (XIX: 79-81, p. 171)
At least that's a cosmic smackdown. Later in Paradiso, we get a full-scale taxonomy of angels – not exactly how many can dance on the head of a pin, but darn close. In Canto XXVIII, we learn that St. Gregory had been wrong about the ordering of angels in the heavenly spheres, and that Pseudo-Dionysius got it right. For instance, Thrones should be seated in the sphere of Saturn, not of Venus. Right.

One can of course say that the medieval mind is different from ours and cared about such non-existent things, but Dante doesn't make dramatic use of them: his angels fall into the categorizing, encyclopedic part of his project, which aims to make epic poetry into a sort of authoritative reference book. In a sense he doesn't care about the order of angels either; he just wants to fussily get it right. I prefer Milton's adaptation "Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers," which seems to aim for sonority and dread and follows the logic of verse, not scholastic syllogism.

But I'm being fussy too. Dante himself remarks, over and over, how hopeless the task of writing Heaven can be, even if one does think that beatitude is material for poetry. "Oh ineffabile allegrezza!" he exclaims in Canto XXVII: "Oh gladness words can never speak" (l. 7, p. 243). Paradoxical rapture, the stuff of the best parts of Paradiso, only goes so far without cloying. Robert Baird argues that there's drama in the other parts, as when St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican, praises Francis, and St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan, praises Dominic. I suppose if you are really, really into hagiology, that's an exciting twist on the order of having Derek Jeter praise Ted Williams while David Ortiz lauds Joe DiMaggio. But thrilling for most readers it is not.

St. Bernard's prayer to the Virgin Mary (XXXIII: 1-39) is thrilling, though, and once in a while Dante touches on an intellectual matter less foreign to our sensibilities. Adam is in Heaven, for instance, more to show God's mercy than to celebrate anything he'd done (though I suppose a lifetime of penance made up for his better-known sin). Adam anticipates that Dante, quite the linguist, is interested to know what language he and Eve spoke in Eden. (Adam, like everybody else in Heaven, of course speaks fluent Tuscan now, but not even Dante is chauvinist to suggest that the language of Florence was the language of Paradise.)

Forget about it, says the father of us all. That was a long time ago, and besides, the dialect is dead: "la lingua ch'io parlai fu tutta spenta" (XXVI, l. 124). And anyway, it is Language, the linguistic capacity, that is special to humans, not the casual expressed version we happen to use at a given moment.

Opera naturale è ch'uom favella;
ma cosìo così, natura lascia
poi fare a voi secondo che v'abbella.

[That man should speak at all is nature's act,
but how you speak—in this tongue or in that—
she leaves to you and to your preference. (XXVI: 130-132, p. 241)
And all of a sudden we see an idea that is so modern that a lot of the world still hasn't fully caught up to it.

Dante Alighieri. Paradiso. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Drawings by Barry Moser. 1984. New York: Bantam [Random House], 2004.