Paradiso. Introduction [Robert M. Durling]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Robert M. Durling

Tratto da: The "Divine Comedy" of Dante Alighieri. Vol. 3

Editore: Oxford University Press, New York-Oxford

Anno: 2011

Pagine: 3-12

The first two cantiche of the Comedy are, for the most part, intuitively direct in their modes of representation, however these modes may be qualified; but this last cantica is far from being direct. Even the problem of dating the Paradiso is different, for although there is a general consensus that Dante allowed the Inferno to circulate by about 1314, and that the Purgatorio was completed soon afterwards (mostly because its topical references do not extend beyond 1315; see the introduction to our Purgatorio volume), the dating of the Paradiso is quite uncertain. Its topical allusions give no help: the latest of them are to the death of Philip the Fair in 1314 and possibly to the battle of Montecatini in 1315 (see the notes to 6.106—8 and 19.120); these are much the same limits as in the Purgatorio. Complicating factors are the mentions of the Paradiso in other late works by Dante (Eclogue 2 [“Vidimus in nigris”], Monarchia, and Epistle 13; though they are late, the dating of all three is disputed. Both of Dante's eclogues were probably written during the last eighteen months of his life, and it is striking that the first of them mentions the publication of the Paradiso as belonging to an indefinite future (lines 48-49); in their literary context, the lines are a clear indication that the Paradiso was still unfinished. The only definite certainty seems to be that Dante must have completed the Paradiso before his death in September 1321. However, there is a growing body of evidence that Dante released the Paradiso in stages, perhaps in groups of cantos, perhaps as single cantos (Veglia 2003); as our knowledge grows it may be possible to refine these conclusions.
In our view, this difficulty of dating probably reflects the fact that Dante was constantly working on the Paradiso—thinking about it and planning it, perhaps, even actively drafting it—while he was drafting both Inferno and Purgatorio, a view that also helps account for the intensive self-referentiality of the entire poem. For both of the first two parts of the Comedy include large numbers of references to the Paradiso, from the first announcement of the scope of the pilgrim’s journey (Inf. 1.120-23), to the account of the three ladies in Heaven who sponsor it (Inf. 2.70-126), to the references to the meeting with Beatrice and the constant references in the Purgatorio to the anxious yearning for Heaven of all the souls. The goal of the vision of God, the culmination of the Paradiso, is continually being referred to and is always assumed in the earlier cantiche, whether as what the damned have lost or as what the saved hope for. It is obvious that the planning of the Comedy included some kind of outline of the Paradiso from the beginning: the idea of the pilgrim’s journey to Heaven and his vision of God must have been part of the original kernel that eventually grew into the poem. Ina real sense, the Paradiso should be seen as the Alpha and Omega of the entire Comedy (see the general introduction in the Inferno volume, p. 20, and below, Additional Note 14).
The Paradiso takes the pilgrim—accompanied and instructed by Beatrice—on a vividly imagined ascent through the transparent celestial spheres of the medieval cosmos, meeting souls in each planet; in the heaven of the fixed stars, as the pilgrim draws closer and closer to the origin of all causality and reaches his own natal sign of Gemini, he is examined on the three theological virtues by the three chief Apostles (saints Peter, James, and John, founders of the Church) and meets Adam, the first father of all humankind. In the swiftness of the outermost celestial sphere, the undifferentiated primum mobile [first moveable], a vision of the nine orders of angels, rulers of the spheres, rises above material causality to its spiritual source, and the pilgrim’s passage beyond space and time into the Empyrean takes place with overwhelmingly vivid imaginings. There he sees the places prepared for all the blessed of all time—most of them occupied, for not much time remains—and finally, encouraged by the spirit of saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the famous Cistercian mystic, he raises his eyes to the supreme vision of the godhead.
The Paradiso is paradoxically both the most medieval and the most modern of the three cantiche of Dante’s masterpiece. It is the most medieval in setting forth—albeit with matchless imaginative sweep, clarity, and poetic eloquence—a philosophical-religious ascent based on a cosmology and scientific explanation of natural causality that have been left behind by hundreds of years of empirical scientific progress. The entire poetic enterprise of the Paradiso rests upon treating an already outdated version of the scientific and religious doctrines of Neoplatonic-Aristotelian Scholasticism (often hotly debated in the schools) as truths guaranteed by divine authority: by Beatrice, who is if only in part a kind of personification of divine revelation itself. But the Paradiso is also the most modern cantica of the Comedy in its unprecedented intellectual and linguistic freedom. The thoroughness and imaginativeness of Dante’s synthesis of an entire cosmos of thought and feeling was possible only because of his uncanny ability to detach himself from it.
But how is this journey to be read? Does it relate a mystical experience? Is it a form of science fiction? It is remarkable how many differing positions on this question have turned up over the course of the centuries. A convenient, really an unavoidable, point of departure presents itself; Dante’s Epistle 13 ( to Can Grande); its authenticity has been challenged, either as a whole or in part, by a number of scholars, but the weight of the evidence, much of which has only recently come to light, points toward its authenticity (see Hollander 1993, Azzetta 2003, Bellomo 2004).
The epistle seems to have been written in 1316 or 1317, on the occasion of Dante’s leaving Verona, where for a number of years he and two of his sons had enjoyed the generous hospitality of Can Grande della Scala, the leader of the Italian Ghibellines, and where Dante seems to have reached the midpoint of the composition of the Paradiso (including the tribute to the Scaligeri in Paradiso 17; on the whole question, see Petrocchi 1984). Epistle 13, which must have accompanied a copy of the first canto of the cantica, dedicates the entire Paradiso, proleptically, to Can Grande. After the expression of deep friendship and admiration as the motive of the dedication, the epistle has two main parts: a general introduction to the Comedy as a whole (§§4—41), and a detailed exposition of its “prologue” (ie., of Canto 1, lines 1-36, in §§42—88; this second part of the epistle is discussed in our notes on Canto 1), followed by a brief description (§§89—90) of the plan for the rest of the cantica.
In his general introduction, Dante explains in detail the traditional topics of the medieval accessus [lit. “approach’— introductory description of a work] as they apply to the Comedy as a whole and then to the Paradiso. These traditional topics are: the work’s subject, agent, form, purpose, and branch of philosophy; in the Comedy the agent is the writer; the form is double: (1) forma tractatus [form of the treatise; what we would call its physical form]: the poem is divided into cantiche, cantos, and terzine; and (2) forma tractandi [what we would call its expository procedure]: this is, Dante says, “poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, transumptive [i.e., metaphorical], as well as defining, dividing, proving, disproving, and positing of examples.” Finally, the purpose of the poem, Dante says, is to lead its readers from a state of misery to one of happiness; and its philosophical category is ethics.
So far, in spite of Dante’s medieval terminology, the meaning is clear. It is Dante’s statement of the subject of the poem that has puzzled critics. He begins by stating that the poem is “polysemous” [having plural meanings]—in fact that it is allegorical. Dante implicitly refers to his discussion in Book 2 of the Convivio, where he distinguishes between theological and poetical allegoresis. Theological allegoresis (what has become known as the “allegory of theologians,” though Dante does not use the expression) recognized the famous “four senses” of biblical allegory: the literal sense, relating the historical events (biblical accounts being taken, of course, to be true), and three allegorical senses giving the meanings behind the historical events. The chief difference between the two kinds of allegory consists in the fact that what is now called the “allegory of poets” rests on a fictitious literal sense and the figural allegory of theologians on a literally true historical sense, of which the events, not the words, carry the meaning. In the Epistle Dante exemplifies “allegorical” by the four senses of biblical exegesis, seeming to exclude from the poem, by omission, the “allegory of the poets” (the passage is quoted at some length in the Introduction to our Purgatorio, p: 12, as part of our discussion of Dante's figuralism). According to the Epistle, then, the subject of the entire poem, at the literal level, is “the state of souls after death,” and, at the allegorical level, “man as by doing well or ill using his free will he justly merits punishment or reward” (§8; §11 specifies the double subject of the Paradiso in repetitious terms: “the state of blessed souls after death” and “man as by doing well using his free will he justly merits reward”).
Two principal controversies have arisen because of Dante’s definitions. First, a number of scholars who accepted the authenticity of the Epistle have interpreted its definition of the allegory to exclude the allegory of the poets (that is, allegory based on a fictitious literal sense); we will return to this question later. Second, many readers have been left dissatisfied by this description of the poem as coming from Dante: it seems to leave out so much. Bruno Nardi, perhaps the most distinguished dantista of the twentieth century, took the most extreme position of any: he went so far as to deny the authenticity of the exegetical portion of the Epistle (though not the introductory portion dedicating the poem to Can Grande), primarily because of his dissatisfaction with its definition of the literal sense of the poem, as well as with the claim that the poem is allegorical:

In reality the literal sense of the poem as a whole is another; that is, the “fatale andare” of Dante, lost, through Hell and Purgatory, up to the ancient wood of the Earthly Paradise, guided by Virgil; and then the ascent through the celestial spheres, in the wake of saint Paul, guided by Beatrice. And in this journey and ascent Dante carries with him his “stato civile,’ with all the richness of his humanity, all his aspirations— personal, literary, political, moral, religious—so that the personal pronoun I resounds throughout the poem, from the second line to the third from the last...and is ever present, at every stage, in every episode, at every moment. This is the literal sense of the poem from beginning to end. (1966a)

Nardi certainly put his finger on a vital aspect of the poem, so important an aspect that it must have had for Dante a theoretical status. It is also one that immediately engages the fascinated attention of every reader: the first-person narrator, which the Epistle seems to leave out of account, as it seems intentionally blurring the distinction between the author and his character. Nardi was so strongly persuaded that Dante spoke as a divinely inspired prophet that he argued that the epistle traduces the poem’s prophetic status that (to oversimplify) since Nardi essentially denied that the poem is allegorical, for him the exegetical part of the Epistle cannot be by Dante.
How can this issue be resolved? Let us take Dante’s authorship as the most probable hypothesis and approach the Epistle carefully. It states plainly that the subject of the poem must be literally true (as an instance of the allegory of theologians), and, as Dante and his readers knew and modern readers know, this could not be true of the pilgrim’s “literal” journey; therefore Nardi’s identification of the literal subject must be mistaken. But if the Epistle is by Dante, why did he not refer in it to what Nardi calls the “literal sense”? In our view he does (see below), but he insists (throughout the Epistle, not merely in §§7—8) on the theological meanings of the poem because they really are its central subject: that is, the theological truths set forth in the poem are to be taken literally, are its true literal sense; but they are not the first-person narrative.
If we take the Epistle at face value, the literal subject of the Paradiso exclusively concerns the souls the pilgrim meets in the various planets, those he sees in the Empyrean, and perhaps the extent to which the pilgrim’s own experiences in the Empyrean are represented as typical of the souls who arrive there after death. The allegorical sense—obviously, God’s justice as revealed in the state of the souls—includes the complexity of God’s providential governing of the sublunar through the agency of the angelic movers and the astrological influence of the planets, as well as God’s weighing of individual merits and his imparting of grace beyond merit. It is clear at once, then, that Beatrice’s statements of moral distinctions and philosophical, cosmological, and theological truths are literal expositions of aspects of God’s justice; in other words, they overlap what the Epistle defines as the allegorical sense. She explains the order of the universe and the role of secondary causes in Cantos 1 and 2; the structure of vows and their casuistry in Cantos 4 and 5; the rationale of the Atonement in Canto 7; the true place of souls and the metaphorics of the cantica in Canto 4. She ceremoniously mediates the pilgrim’s examination in the three theological virtues and announces the certainty of his salvation in Cantos 23–26; directs his view downward to the smallness of earth in Cantos 22 and 27; and elucidates the vision of God and the angels, including the instantaneous creation of the universe in Cantos 28–29, as well as her denunciation of frivolous preaching.
Such passages clearly exemplify the second half of the description of the forma tractandi: they define, divide, prove, disprove, and posit examples. The same is true of the frequent (and, again, literally stated) commentaries provided by the souls of the blessed encountered on the journey (Piccarda and Justinian on beatitude; Carlo Martello on planetary influences versus heredity; Justinian on God’s fostering of Rome; Aquinas and Bonaventura on the historical function of Francis of Assisi and Dominic of Calaruega; Aquinas on God’s inscrutability and Solomon’s wisdom; Solomon on the structure of beatitude and the glorified body; Cacciaguida on the decadence of Florence and the poet’s mission; the heavenly eagle on God’s absolute but inscrutable justice; Peter Damiani on the corruption of monasticism; saint Peter on the corruption of the papacy, and so forth).
Here we can distinguish between the doctrinal content of what Beatrice and the blessed souls say, which we can identify as intended to be accepted by the reader as literally true, and the means by which the pilgrim is represented as coming to understand these truths (the journey and the various discoursings of the dramatis personae), means that are obviously fictitious and/or metaphorical (for the figure of Beatrice, see Additional Note 1).
In this context Dante’s description of what he calls the forma tractandi [mode of exposition] of the poem is particularly interesting; as we have seen, in §9 the Epistle characterizes it as “poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, transumptive, as well as defining, dividing, proving, disproving, and positing of examples.” If we take this list of procedures seriously, we find that the terms that head the list—poetic, fictive, descriptive, and transumptive (i.e., metaphorical)—actually provide for the full development of a fictitious, metaphorical narrative in the service of representing the subject, “the state of souls after death” (in this respect our position agrees substantially with Cecchini 1997). We may note in passing that Psalm 113 itself is not really a narrative of the Exodus; it is a rapturous hymn of rejoicing at the event. One should keep in mind that only the event itself is technically subject to theological allegoresis, not the poetic, fictive, and transumptive poem about it. Dante’s very choice of this psalm as his example in the Epistle and in the Convivio may carry more meaning than critics have noticed.
Medieval exegetes acknowledged the frequency of biblical metaphor, exemplified by Beatrice in 4.40–45 (one notes that for them the literal sense of such an expression as “the hand of God” is not what today is called the “vehicle” of the metaphor (hand), but its “tenor”: i.e., God’s influence or power). The most extreme type of such metaphorical exegesis was that regularly practised on the Canticle of Canticles: although modern readers take the literal sense of these marriage songs as referring to earthly lovers and the religious references as an allegorical sense, the monastic exegetes, such as saint Bernard of Clairvaux (Bernard of Clairvaux 1998, 1.2–4), explicitly excluded such a view; for them the book was metaphorical but not allegorical; it was an elaborate tissue of metaphors whose literal sense (i.e., whose tenor) referred exclusively to the love between the soul (or the Church, or the Virgin Mary) and God. For Bernard, to see these metaphors in any way as references to human sexuality would be blasphemous, and for this reason monastic novices were not allowed to read the Canticle of Canticles until they were fully trained in exegesis (such strict severity is of course foreign to the metaphorics of secular lyric in both Latin and the vernacular). Dante was aware of all these traditions and expected his readers to be familiar with them as well, but he utilized them freely and was the prisoner of none of them.
The pilgrim’s journey is to be thought of, then, as a metaphorical fiction (poeticus, fictivus, transumptivus, narrated by the poet-narrator); it is a system of metaphors for the process by which a living man, on earth, comes to understand the nature of the cosmos and the state of souls after death. For instance, the repeated description of instantaneous translation from one planet to the next (as in Par. 5.91–93, 8.14–15, 10.28–36) is, as the last passage suggests, a spatial metaphor for instantaneous intellectual understanding (see also our note on 2.25–36). All this amounts to saying that the fictitious literal narrrative (what Nardi was describing), with its metaphorical senses, which Nardi denied, is, pace Nardi, an instance of the “allegory of the poets,” as announced in the Epistle’s term fictivus. From this point of view the poem can be seen as a combination of the allegory of the poets as described in the Convivio (a metaphorical narrative sense), serving an allegory of the theologians (a true ultimate literal or historical/theological sense, all metaphors stripped away). The matter becomes urgent in the Paradiso, for the idea that Dante thought that his account of spatial ascent up through the heavenly spheres to the Empyrean was literally true is not only wildly mistaken, it distracts attention from the depth and complexity of Dante’s achievement.
As we pointed out in our introduction to the Purgatorio (p. 12), it is erroneous to assert, as Singleton repeatedly did, that only figural allegory, in which the literal sense was historically true, was capable of possessing allegorical (in the narrow sense), tropological, and anagogical meanings. It was clearly recognized in the Middle Ages that Christ’s parables, though fictitious, had allegorical meanings (Wailes 1987). Nor should one forget that Dante is a master at evading rigid, restrictive categories. The angelic boat in Purgatorio 2, in which the souls sing Dante’s exemplary Psalm 113, is a good example: it foregrounds the figuralism of the poem, but it is transparently a poetic invention included in the fictitious narrative, and it thus emphasizes the poet’s freedom to interweave all the various modes of signification at his disposal.
It may be worthwhile to devote a few pages to the question of how closely the double subject announced in the Epistle to Can Grande is related to the entire thematic sweep of the Paradiso. The astrological theme is a good point of departure. That Dante treats the souls of the blessed according to the planets where the pilgrim meets them is no mere convenient classifying device: in each of the seven planets, he encounters souls whose lives have typified the nature of the planet’s influence; they are, according to the virtually universal medieval belief, the “children” of their respective planets. We need not go into individual cases here; it will suffice to mention the obvious facts that the preachers we meet in the sun were equipped for their calling—that of illuminating the faithful—by the influence of their planet (always remembering that the intellect itself is directly infused by God), and that the Crusaders were physically and temperamentally equipped to fight for the faith by their planet, Mars, and so forth (for further discussion, see Additional Note 14). This theme is an integral part of the theme of God’s justice as revealed in the state of the blessed. Dante sets forth an elaborate theory of the interaction of astrological influences with the souls’ freedom of choice, on which their fate depends (a theme broached with a major statement by Marco Lombardo in Purgatorio 16). The astrological theme explores the extent to which one is not responsible for one’s basic gifts and inclinations; one’s place in the afterlife depends upon the degree to which one becomes self-directed under God’s guidance—the extent to which one achieves true freedom of action and fulfills one’s higher potential. Thus the astrological theme also confronts the limits on human freedom and the determining part played by God’s grace and his inscrutable choosing of individuals for special roles and special status.
Even more, Dante has Charles Martel, in Paradiso 8, explain that the astrological influences on the embryo in the womb are ordained by God in order to overrule heredity, to prevent children from being mere copies of their parents, because otherwise the diversity of talents necessary to the division of labor in organized society would not be fully realized. In other words, the fundamental structure of the cosmos is designed to serve the needs of human society, which in turn fosters, or should foster, the full development of each individual (an important theme also in the Monarchia).
The centrality of the astrological theme (only slowly is its omnipresence and fundamental importance being recognized by Dante scholars) leads inescapably to—and is in fact virtually coterminous with—the cosmological theme, whose elaborate statement begins in the very first canto, where another major theme emerges, closely related to those mentioned so far: the knowledge of God that is attained through contemplation of the universe, his creation. How did God create the universe, and why? How does he maintain relation with it? What is the nature of the causes that govern the universe? Thus the theme of “the state of souls after death,” explored fully, leads to the theology of Creation and to theodicy (the theory of God’s justice in his dealings with man). And, of course, part of the joy of the blessed, who see all things in God, is that they more fully contemplate the universe and all history as revealing him. At this level the evolution of the pilgrim intersects the theme of the state of the souls of the blessed. For, as the pilgrim rises higher and higher through the spheres, he more and more becomes an example of experiences all the blessed pass through, and this is especially perceptible in the last cantos, those that take place in the primum mobile and Empyrean: the welcoming of the soul by the Church Triumphant (cf. Conv. 4.28.5), the entrance into the transfigured vision of Glory (Beatrice points out in 30.52–54 that all the blessed encounter these “shadowy prefaces,” as lines 76–78 call them), the contemplation of all the other blessed souls in their orders and degrees, and above all, the direct vision of God. What the pilgrim experiences is an anticipation of the experience the blessed have already enjoyed to an even fuller extent. But the literal sense of the pilgrim’s narrative is fictitious and allegorical.
Thus the universe as radiating from God; his power reflected by the angels governing the spheres; astrological influences as the instruments of God’s Providence, with the corresponding limitations on and assertion of difficult human freedom; the contemplation of God in his creation as essential to beatitude; the deeper and deeper understanding of causality and history; the transfiguration of all modes of experience in the experience of the blessed—all these interrelated themes are implied in the extraordinarily condensed statement of the double subject of the poem in the Epistle to Can Grande. Once the poem and the epistle are juxtaposed in this way, the terseness of the epistle takes on quite a different and very suggestive aspect: the themes of the poem are expansions of what the Epistle tersely sets forth, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the early phases of Dante’s planning of the poem as a whole must have involved representations and formulae of a comparable terseness, of which the epistle may well retain traces.
It is often said that the uniqueness of the Paradiso lies in its imaginative undertaking to express visions that transcend mere human experience. Such a view is potentially very misleading. It is true that the Paradiso repeatedly appeals to the so-called “inexpressibility topos” to describe the intense feelings the intellectual ascent and the associated increasing beauty of Beatrice instill in the pilgrim. But there is no vagueness or superhuman transcendence in the doctrinal content of the poem, in what the pilgrim learns about the nature of the cosmos or about God and his justice; even the grandiose, highly imaginative light shows in the sun and the upper planets are clearly and rationally devised. And the intellectual content of the final imagined vision of God is dictated by Dante’s rational theological concepts; such matters as the metaphysical nature of the cosmos, the relation of the Persons of the Trinity, the presence of the incarnate Christ, and the principle of the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ are traditional, plainly designated, and founded in rational theology, although the actual content of these illuminations, the grasp of their truth, is said to transcend the pilgrim’s memory. In other words, accepting a mainly orthodox, Neoplatonic-Aristotelian, Trinitarian theology, Dante imagines an intellectual ascent that directly experiences itas true and as productive of immeasurable joy.
We argue, then, that the Epistle to Can Grande accounts for much more of the poem than at first sight appears. But it is true that, except for the highly condensed description of the forma tractandi, the epistle has little to say about the narrator, whose journey Nardi thought the literal sense of the poem. It should be clear by now that in our view there is nothing of actual “mystical” experience in the Paradiso. Every doctrine and virtually every imagined experience it represents can be shown to derive from Dante’s meditation on his voluminous reading, and this is nowhere more evident than in his description of his imagined direct vision of God. Like the rest of the Comedy, the Paradiso is a literary creation, impassioned and matchlessly imaginative, but linguistic, not supralinguistic. In every line, the reader feels Dante’s firm, purposive artistic planning and control and his conscious linguistic mastery.
Indeed, the Paradiso constitutes one of the most remarkable struggles with the limits of language in world literature, constantly pushing against them in the interest of greater and greater exaltation. A considerable arsenal of means is brought into play, of which we attempt to take account in our commentary: daring metaphors; neologisms (mostly verbs); periphrases; Grecisms, Hebraisms, and Latinisms (mostly from the Latin liturgy and from scholastic philosophical vocabulary); mythological allusions; elaborate and difficult rhetorical figures such as hysteron proteron, annominatio, catachresis, gradatio; elaborate syntactical inversions and other patterns; special effects with rhyme; systematic, recurrent but extremely varied exploitation of basic metaphors involving light and mirrors, archery, the book, astronomical and meteorological phenomena, agriculture (especially the idea of harvest), circles, spheres, and wheels—all held together by his unsurpassed craftmanship and his extremely varied use of the inexpressibility topos.
Like the Inferno and Purgatorio, however, this third cantica of the Comedy lives up to the comedic stylistic norm of including all levels of style (cf. the Epistle to Can Grande, §§30–32), not merely the high style we have catalogued in the foregoing paragraph: from familiar, colloquial patterns of speech to the scornful, quasi-scatological diatribes against corrupt prelates and monks of saint Peter, Peter Damiani, and others, which continually measure the decadence and corruption of life on earth against the purity of heavenly standards, achieving a highly original inclusiveness and balance. Nothing remotely resembling it will appear until Joyce.
The theme of the status of the pilgrim’s body in his journey through the heavens, which has been rather hastily oversimplified by a number of recent commentators (Sapegno, Picone in LDT 3, Chiavacci Leonardi), provides a good example of the care with which Dante treats the fictitiousness of his narrative. In Inferno and Purgatorio, the presence of the pilgrim’s body is insisted on in a variety of ways (see especially Inf. 1.28–30, 5.142, 12.29–30 and 80–96; Purg. 3.16–45, 9.10–42, 19.1–39, 27.14–17 and 91–114: all these cases involve weight, shadow, and sleep, associated with the element earth, along with the detailed and emphatic Purg. 26.58–60). In the Paradiso, however, once we leave the earth, there is a striking difference: the closest approaches to a bodily reference, as opposed to visual or auditory representations, occur in 3.6 and 25.34, where the pilgrim “raised [his] head to speak,” and in 30.55–96, where the pilgrim bathes “the eaves of [his] eyes” in the river of light. Like the many other references to speech and to the two “highest” senses, sight and hearing, these passages avoid naming any part of the body other than the head, except for 22.128–29: “see how much world I have already placed under your feet” [“vedi quanto mondo / sotto i piedi già esser ti fei”] (on the background of this passage, see our notes). Although such a passage as 27.64–65, “and you, my son, … because of your mortal weight will go back down again” (spoken by saint Peter), may seem to imply the literal presence of the pilgrim’s body in the heavens, its real import is the continuing pull of the body still on earth: all visionary experience is limited by the earthy body (cf. below, on 32.139–41, and our notes). Indeed, the references to the pilgrim’s body are carefully problematized by Dante (see the notes on 3.10–24), and he treats the dividing line between allegory and metaphor with great fluidity and freedom.
This is because the entire journey through the heavens in Dante’s conception takes place in the pilgrim’s head, that is, in his imagination. After the pilgrim and Beatrice have met the souls of inconstant nuns in the moon, Beatrice explains that the souls were not “really” in the moon; that they were mere staged appearances, their “actual” location being the Empyrean (4.28–60). But when we arrive beyond place and time in the Empyrean itself (where, the pilgrim is told, he will see saint Benedict of Nursia’s face openly—22.58–63), what do we find? The pilgrim will not see the souls as they are, but as they will be after the Last Judgment (30.43–45). In other words, the souls are shown to the pilgrim’s imagination. As saint John says (25.122–29), only Christ and the Virgin are in Heaven in the body, but the text makes no distinction between the Virgin’s bodily appearance and that of all the other souls, and the final vision does not make the “painting” of “our effigy” (33.131) seem like an actual human body.
These seeming contradictions have all been provided for by Beatrice’s initial explanation (4.40–42), a major key to the representations of the poem: “It is necessary to speak thus [i.e., with images] to your [human] understanding, for it takes from sense perception alone what later it makes worthy of intellection.” This statement, like saint John’s in 25.122–29, applies a fortiori to the pilgrim himself: he imagines his voyage to the other world. And as Aristotle had observed (De anima 3), fantasies of sense perception, images, are always present in even the most abstract human thought. The poem itself provides a theory of imaginative “vision” on the terrace of anger in Purg. 15.85–114 and 17.19–45, where the pilgrim has two series of “ecstatic visions” (explicitly associated in the latter passage with sleep and dream):

O imaginativa, che ne rube
talvolta sì di fuor ch’om non s’accorge
perché dintorno suonin mille tube,
chi move te, se ’l senso non ti porge?
moveti lume che nel ciel s’informa,
per sé o per voler che giù lo scorge.
(Purg. 17.13–18)

[O imagination, that sometimes so steal us from
the world outside that we do not hear though a
thousand trumpets sound around us,
who moves you, if sense offers you nothing? A
light moves you that is formed in the heavens, by
itself or by a will that guides it downward.]

To an observer, the visionary taken up so completely by the vision will seem asleep, as Virgil observes of the pilgrim in Purg. 15.121–23. The chief example in the poem, other than the pilgrim himself, is saint John the Evangelist, who is seen in the procession in the Earthly Paradise as “un vecchio solo / venir dormendo, con la faccia arguta” [an old man walking alone, asleep, with alert face] (Purg. 29.142–45). The commentary tradition on the Apocalypse allowed for the possibility of the saint’s vision taking place during sleep (manuscript illuminations often represented him asleep, see Schiller 1991, vol. 5, part 2, plates 10, 12, 20, 23, 25, 43, 46, 67, 68; cf. Emmerson and McGinn 1992; Grosjean, Christe, and James 1981).
As the pilgrim begins his ascent, the narrating poet exclaims: “If I was solely that part of me which you created last [i.e., only the soul; cf. Purg. 25.67–75], O Love who govern the heavens, you know” (1.73–75); in other words, he claims not to know. Dante’s model here is saint Paul’s protestation that he does not know whether he was rapt to the third heaven in the body or not, God knows (2 Cor. 5.2: “sive in corpore nescio, sive extra corpore nescio, Deus scit”). This statement of the narrator should be taken as a characterization of the intensity of the pilgrim’s imaginings; it is deeply misleading to suppose that Dante would claim, even in his fiction, a status superior to saint Paul’s. “If I was a body” in 2.36–39 is equivalent: the reader is being challenged to exercise his wit as well as his imagination (see below, p. 17), and Beatrice’s long explanation of the pilgrim’s motion in Canto 1 (lines 97–141), with its analogy with lightning, is meaningful only insofar as it is understood to refer to the pilgrim’s mind and imagination: the pilgrim’s physical body, being predominantly composed of the elements water and earth, is only partly fire; his spirit is fire (metaphorically), however, especially if illuminated by the Holy Spirit. One should consider carefully Dante’s statement of the nature of trasumanar:

Nel suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei
qual si fé Glauco nel gustar de l’erba
che ’l fe consorto in mar de li altri dèi.

[Gazing at her I became within what Glaucus
became tasting the herb that made him a consort
of the other gods in the sea.] (Italics added.)

The pilgrim’s experience in the Paradiso is inward: as Benvenuto glosses, “dentro, that is in his intellect, since his body is not changed.”
Thus the poem qualifies its own representations, and we know that alert readers among the poet’s contemporaries were able to put his hints together. Benvenuto da Imola grasped Dante’s meaning clearly: the pilgrim does not ascend to the “essential paradise” (the Empyrean itself), but to its intellectual, spiritual, and moral significance: “Our poet, though on earth, was in Heaven in his contemplation” (Benvenuto da Imola 1887, 4:318–19), or, as we would say, in his mind and imagination. And when the reader reflects on the way the Paradiso has indicated the subtlety of its forma tractandi, he will grasp the essential point that it has been equipping us to rethink the earlier parts of the poem as well. Dante expects careful reading from his public, and the indirection of his metaphorical narrative is no doubt one of the principal interpretive traps he warns against in the address to his readers in 2.1–18 (for Dante’s setting of interpretive traps, see Durling 2001a and 2003).
Almost at the end of the poem, Dante puts in the mouth of his last guide, saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a reason for abbreviating the list of the blessed presented to the pilgrim’s view: “But because the time is fleeting that holds you asleep [“il tempo fugge che t’assonna”], here we will make an end, like a good tailor who makes the garment according to the cloth he has; and we will direct our eyes to the first Love” (32.139–42). It is noteworthy not only that the saint appeals to the activity of an artisan for the limits of the length of the poem (the reference is to the bounds established by the poet’s craftsmanship; cf. the similar passage in Purg. 33.136–41), but also that he clearly states that the pilgrim is held asleep.
Saint Bernard’s words in fact show that the entire poem can be understood under the category of dream, an idea that is introduced, albeit understatedly, at the beginning of the Inferno, when the pilgrim comes to himself after having been “full of sleep” (Inf. 1.1–12): from the Romance of the Rose onward, the genre of dream-vision regularly begins the dream with an awakening; it may be referred to again in the heaven of Mars, when Dante has his ancestor Cacciaguida say, “make manifest all your vision” (17.128). Prophetic dreams figure largely in the Purgatorio (Cantos 9, 19, and 27), and we are reminded of the idea of dream-vision at the end of the Purgatorio (30.133–35) and in the very last canto of the poem, where the pilgrim is explicitly compared to a dreamer:

Qual è colüi che sognando vede,
che dopo ’l sogno la passione impressa
rimane, e l’altro a la mente non riede:
cotal son io, ché quasi tutta cessa
mia visïone, e ancor mi distilla
nel core il dolce che nacque da essa.

[As is one who sees in dream,
and after the dream the passion impressed
remains, but the rest does not return to the mind:
so am I, for almost all my vision
has ceased, but still there trickles
into my heart the sweetness born of it.]

In fact Benvenuto’s comment on this passage is: “And here note how this elaborate simile of the dreamer in its literal significance declares the intention of the author in this final canto, that he had his entire vision in a dream, as he testified in the first canto of the entire work.”
Although, as we have said, Dante is a past master at evading restrictive categories (including that of dream), the affinities of the Comedy with dream-vision are significant. A principal advantage of dream-vision as a literary genre was that it allowed for an extremely flexible mixture of realistic representation, suspension of physical law, and allegorical techniques, all with the acknowledged presence of the author’s conscious meditation and verbal craftmanship. In many parts of the poem, such as the rapid progress of the pilgrim through Purgatory, the category of dream helps lessen the scandalous unreality; and the question of two bodies occupying the same space—2.37–39—once it is raised, is probably best explained as referring to dream. The affinities occurred to contemporaries: a number of the earliest illuminations of Inferno 1 represent—often in the same frame—both the poet asleep and his dream-imago confronting the beasts in the dark wood, a style that recalls the iconography of the Apocalypse (see Brieger, Meiss, and Singleton 1969, plates 6b, 7, II; Battaglia Ricci 1996).
As is well known, Dante studied Vergil’s Aeneid with great care. In this connection it would not have escaped him that Vergil both represents Aeneas’s visit to the Other World as taking place in the body (in Aen. 6.413–14 the hero’s great weight makes Charon’s bark sink in the water, a passage echoed by Dante in Inf. 8.26–27) and also suggests that the visit is to be thought of as dream or imagined vision, for it is through the ivory gate of false dreams that Aeneas and the Sibyl return to the upper world (6.897–98). When questioning his worthiness for the journey, the pilgrim mentions that Aeneas “ad immortale secolo andò, e fu sensibilmente” [went to the immortal realm and was there with his senses] (Inf. 2.14–15); the term “sensibilmente” may well mean that Aeneas was in the other world not “in the body” but “through imaginary sense experience.” Indeed, Dante seems to attribute to the Aeneid his own representational code as set forth in Paradiso 4. Like Vergil, Dante does not insist on the dream-vision possibility, but he plainly advances it for the benefit of his more observant readers (for the sixteenth-century controversy over the Comedy as dream, see Weinberg 1961 and Hathaway 1962).
The Paradiso, then, relates the imaginative and intellectual journey of progressively higher insight into the complex of problems represented in the epistle’s “double subject”: the state of the blessed and its basis in God’s justice. This “forma tractandi” is extremely flexible, as befits the combination of the two types of allegory: everything is represented as it appears to the poet’s imagination; intellectual understanding is treated as inseparable from sensory imaginings. The figure of Beatrice, whose growing beauty lifts the pilgrim higher and higher through the heavens, in an instantaneous flash of understanding at each successive level, also expresses the joy every man (for the pilgrim is also an Everyman) can attain, with God’s grace, in his journey toward God. Read in this way, the Paradiso is an enduring monument to an extraordinary moment in European cultural and religious history and an evermore compelling meditation on the power of the poetic imagination.
Many dimensions of the Paradiso are not mentioned here because of limitations of space. Perhaps the most important is the question of the degree to which Dante’s stirring expression of religious faith in God’s justice gives expression to his experience of the incomprehensible injustices, as he saw them, of actual human life. Confronted by widespread venality and corruption, by the power-hungry dynastic politics of the emerging nation-state wearing the mask of religious orthodoxy and zeal, by virtually universal hypocrisy and fraud in the service of greed and materialism, especially in the cynical papacy, not to speak of the thwarting of his hopes for the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire by the resistance of the popes and the death of Henry of Luxembourg, God’s anointed, Dante often seems unable to imagine a future of true christianity and justice except in terms of the direct intervention of God, of which he hoped his great poem was the beginning.

Suggested Introductory Readings on the Paradiso

(See also pp. 23–24 in our Inferno.)

Carroll, John S. 1971. In Patria: An Exposition of Dante’s Paradiso. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat.
McMahon, Robert. 2006. Understanding the Medieval Meditative Ascent: Augustine, Anselm, Boethius, and Dante. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
Rorem, Paul 1993. Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Date: 2023-01-13