by Paul Mathers
Days after he began, after a whirlwind acclimation to a variety of elevations, and hundreds of pages after most carnal contemporary readers will have dropped out, we begin to see the point of it all. By that I don’t simply mean that we begin to see the point of Dante’s Divine Comedy, although that is certainly part of it, but rather that we begin to see the point of everything. The Arts speak to the higher aspirations of humankind and I am hard pressed to think of examples in art that aspire higher than Dante’s Divine Comedy. Even more astonishing, in light of the bar being set in astronomical spheres, might be that it is an entirely successful and satisfying work.
There was a time when the entirety of this work would be familiar to any educated person. As I’ve said before, I think it is a mark of the age in which we live that this is only true of Inferno now. In spite of how unfortunate I find that, I have to confess that it seems fitting in its way. It’s not a terribly original observation, but today it seems like every Bertha and Martin you meet in the public forum (internet, grocery stores, etc.) are ever-so-slightly veiled sadists who are willingly wallowing in their own filth. At the very least, every Christian should read this. While one hesitates to align one’s self with such glib terminology in such weighty matters, there have been scholars who have called this work “The Fifth Gospel.” That is because the work is an exercise in apokatastasis. Dante is leading us through the infernal to the divine where he, eventually, leaves us. This work has, over the centuries, become part of the DNA code of Christianity. I also feel that it should be a part of a general education because of its pointed demand of acknowledging something greater than one’s self. The universe of Dante is vast, highly populated, and full of variety.
“The glory of him who moves everything
Penetrates the universe and shines
In one part more and, in another, less.”
So begins our journey into caelestis. These lines sum up what we’ve just experienced (again, both in Dante and in our experience in existing) and sets us up for what’s to come. I should remark, here at the beginning, that Paradiso is where Dante’s poetic deftness shines at its brightest. What’s past is prologue and, indeed, we have an inkling that what we have seen thus far are, as the apostle put it, as through a glass darkly, which is to say those parts of the universe where the glory shines less. We are now entering the “best for last.”
Three motifs in Paradiso are the prevalence of discussion of the music of the spheres (astronomy/-ology), the talk of mathematical precision (specifically in architectural terminology and the recurrence of right angles. “Angles we have heard on high”), and the tendency towards abstraction. Dante spends a lot of the piece charmingly frustrated over the inadequacy of mortal words to contain what he has seen.
Another, possibly less overt, motif is the interconnectedness of the universe. Dante says, “Everything that is created is part of a mutual order, and that is the shape which makes the universe resemble God.” I have heard modern physicists make similar remarks. This interconnectedness reminds us of the damned and the purging, that the purpose of all of creation is the glory of God, a purpose which will not be foiled even where it’s only expression is in justice.
Also, the frequency in which Christ and Mary are mentioned by name increase exponentially as we ascend (I would hazard a guess that this is the case throughout the entire work. I noted before that Christ in never mentioned by name in Hell).
Dante’s first encounter with celestial citizens are, naturally, those in the bottom-most sphere of Heaven. Dante asks them if they wish that they were higher in Heaven. The spirits do not. They, as we see in all of Heaven, are perfectly content in spite of their slightly humiliated state. Their own will is silent in contentment over the prevailing of the divine will. There is no want in a state of perfection.
Dante’s vision gets squirrelly in Heaven. At one point he likens it to someone who stares directly at a solar eclipse, losing their vision in their desire to see it.
In the lower realms, we follow more of the pattern set by the earlier pieces. Dante is traveling through the realm, telling us what he sees, recording who is where and what they said to him. As we ascend, the abstractions increase as does the tendency towards talking about ideas rather than giving a travelogue. In Purgatorio, we are struck by Beatrice’s verbosity and her desire to discuss great concepts. This love for wisdom is the mark of the heavenly. We see that now as everyone in Heaven talks like Beatrice.
Just as Dante sinned in Hell and is purged in Purgatory, he goes through a redemption process in Heaven. He goes through a sort of protracted catechism through several cantos in which he is questioned by several lofty figures (including The Fisherman who holds the keys to the penthouse VIP lounge). But I contend that his true moment of redemption in Heaven is a moment in which he acknowledges us, the readers. When Cacciaguida commissions Dante to write The Comedy, Dante says:
“And if I am a timid friend to truth,
I fear to lose the life I may have among those
who will call the present time, ancient times.”
It struck me like lightning as I sat on the park bench by Little Chico Creek reading that line, that “those” is me.
There is also, in Heaven, a heaping helping of criticism towards the state of the church (naturally). The progenitors of monastic orders are disgusted by the fat pastors and sermons full of flip jokes. Theological showboating is condemned in the harshest of terms.
“Christ did not say to his first companions:
‘Go and preach rubbish to the world.'”
The good popes are well aware of the bad popes running around down there. But all of this, at this point, is punctuated by faith made manifest. No one is outraged in Heaven. Heaven is the death of outrage.
I cannot end without telling you that Canto XXXIII, the completion of the journey, especially in light of the entire journey we have just taken in, is one of the finest pieces of writing in existence. There is no better piece of poetry and very few equals.
Dante writes the piece as if he is back on Earth recalling the journey. At one point, he is commissioned directly by an ancestor in Heaven to write this book. Dante’s desire to return is consoled in his assurance that he shall. I suppose it must needs also find consolation is having experienced first-hand God working all things out for good. I can think of no better reason for a human on Earth to attain heavenly peace.
Next up, a book that I feel certain that I would have died never having read if I hadn’t undertaken this reading project.