Paradiso Canto 1: The Still Point of the Turning World

How to begin, when any beginning would be a failure.

How to speak, when any speech would be inadequate.

How to do justice to the place that is no place, only a shadow of the light that gives it any reality in the realm of sense.

A humble blogger (do I speak for us all?) calls upon powers greater than himself. Longfellow, Sayers, Pinsky. Alighieri.

And so we enter the realm of paradox, where punctuation will be convoluted, questions will become statements, reality will be folded into itself and human consciousness will be twisted – or I should say untwisted – so that what seemed unnatural will make perfect sense, in the ultimate discovery of the nature of that which powers the universe: love.

Hey, hell was easy: it’s literally stuck to the ground, too vivid, too sensical in its nonsense. Purgatory is the place where we rejigger our senses, where we forget in order to remember, and begin with a clean slate, a second infancy. Here we’re dealing with the opposite stuff: the place beyond sense altogether, which we can only get to through our senses. The place beyond words, which can only be apprehended in words, the parlance of human consciousness. (Stuff modern neuroscience is still trying to figure out). How speak trans-human change to human sense? (1:69)

I guess as good a place to begin as any is here: at the beginning. The very first line of this third Canticle indicates the source of its meaning:

The glory of Him who moves all things rays forth
through all the universe and is reflected
from each thing in proportion to its worth
(Canto 1:1,2)

As I think of this beginning, I can’t not think of another poem I have been studying the past couple weeks with a small band of pilgrims at the church I serve: Eliot’s Four Quartets. (Our own John Timpane is doing the heavy lifting as teacher of the class). The reference here in Canto 1:1 is to a popular concept in the medieval Thomistic theology, borrowed from Aristotle, from which he’ll be borrowing heavily: the unmoved mover, which gives the whole universe motion, that “still point of the turning world” from which all things ray forth, and which at the same time is centered in our own consciousness. Seems to me that there’s even more Dante in Eliot than I had ever realized.

Erhebung has everything to do with it. Using aesthetics, the beautiful, to represent, to reflect the good, in the impossible task of expressing it. “Ennobling elevation beyond the senses.” At the still point of the turning world, there is the dance that Dante will find, his love by his side.

So, as we begin, let’s sift out a few themes (just a few among so many) that are so very distinct in this Canto, and give us very concrete clues about what Dante will be up to in this final section of his masterwork.

Dante calls upon not just the muses (as he does at the very beginning of the whole enterprise), but this time upon Apollo, the master of the Muses. And not just him – but all his minions. Why not call on God himself, one might wonder? Ah – a clue. Apollo, the pinnacle of the pagan pantheon (sorry), a provisional figure to bear witness to the ultimate revelation which comes after him. Fitting indeed to inspire what can only be a provisional description of what cannot be described.

We have then also the image of light, which will be so important in what proceeds forth from here. Light, and our ability to perceive it through our sense of sight, serves as a metaphoric foil to describe the larger process that’s happening here, having to do with the re-attunement of a mortal soul. Just as we would never stare at the sun (here I’m remembering those pin-holed cereal boxes we held in the air during the solar eclipse of 1972 to see a tiny reflection of what was going on – and our mothers’ warning never to stare directly at it), Dante does just that. Beatrice can look at it, no problem. Somehow that Dante reflexively imitates her action (a “reflection” of her action) and does not go blind indicates that something has already changed in him: he is capable of seeing “it” – although not for long, and not the true “it”, but a second version, a second sun.

That we’re dealing with the problem of the senses here – not just light, but sound – is evident in the next few lines, where Dante detects the true motion of the universe, the “Primum mobile” that is the physical origin of all movement and life. That movement vibrates; it makes a sound that every creature is capable of detecting: the music of the spheres that betrays the essential harmony of the universe, but unheard by our normal mode of listening and hearing. What’s needed is a complete re-orientation not just of our senses, but our perception, dull with “false imaginings” that “do not grasp what would be clear but for your preconceptions.” Heaven requires a whole new paradigm, baby.

Finally, we return at the end of this canto to the very themes upon which Dante muses at the very beginning of his journey: the nature of desire, the mystery of free will that allows for imperfection in the art of a perfect maker. Here we hear once again that this place toward which we are navigating, toward which the whole universe is impelling us – whether we know it or not – is that place where our desires are truly satisfied:

Thus every nature moves across the tide
of the great sea of being to its own port
each with its given instinct as its guide.

I’m somehow reminded of C.G. Jung’s contention in the realm of psychology: that all beings tend toward wholeness (though not all of us get there).

But at least we can know the place, if now only by its reflection in a medieval poet’s words, as that which is the real object of human desire. So here’s the claim: it’s the place where we belong – in all multivalent richness of that word. Where being and longing are truly satisfied, where we BE LONG; that place that is

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.

Onward!

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About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: http://pclawrenceville.blogspot.com/ View all posts by jeffvamos

8 responses to “Paradiso Canto 1: The Still Point of the Turning World

  • bobsinner

    Well said, Jeff! Well begun! Will we storm the Gates of Heaven?
    No, I think not, but we will continue our pilgrimage in Dante’s wake.

    As to being “a humble blogger (do I speak for us all?)” – Yes, I believe you do indeed; or, at least, methinks it so.

    But, I also agree words are inadequate when attempting to describe, to comprehend … Paradise.

    And “paradox” – what of all the paradoxes?

    Dante’s Paradise is indeed, the “realm of love,” and as such, it must also be “the realm of paradox.”

    Then, is not our Christian God the ultimate paradox?

    Even the love that a couple, ‘when two become as one,’ is paradoxical.

    Erich Fromm noted five decades ago that “…in love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.” This, he emphasized, should not to be confused with symbiotic love (Erich Fromm, “The Art of Loving”).

    And what of the paradox of “love and pain,” as noted by Mother Theresa? “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

    Paradox is always fascinating and frustrating.
    Journalist blogger Anaya M. Baker has noted that the problem of any paradox in the modern (“Western”) world is that
    … “the Aristotelian viewpoint tells us that something cannot both exist
    and not exist. A cannot both be A and the negation of A.” …

    While,
    “the deepest, most pressing need of mankind is to overcome a sense
    of loneliness and separation. As humans, we possess the unique
    characteristic of self-awareness.”
    … The prison of aloneness can only be transcended through a sense of union, in the connection with the Other.”
    (See Anaya M. Baker @ http://anayambaker.hubpages.com/hub/When-Two-Become-One-Erich-Fromms-Symbiotic-Love)

    As to the task ahead (as opposed to those already done) Hell was indeed “easy,” much easier to picture, to encompass, to grasp. And Purgatory is also a place/concept designed for human comprehension. Besides, we all want a second chance don’t we … or, rather, a million chances.

    As to the canticle’s opening it is small surprise that we return to the Aristotelian (Thomasine) world as we ascend to Paradise. “The Unmoved Mover” was a (The ?) central concept to Dante’s time.

    And, of Apollo, I guess I should not have been surprised, Greco-Roman myth permeated The Inferno and The Purgatorio, but I must admit I was somewhat caught off guard to find an Apollonian understanding in Paradise.

    I envy you Jeff, being “allowed” to have viewed a solar eclipse when young. I was denied that prospect in 1950, when my mother caught me prepping for it and sent me indoors. “One does not look at the brightest star in the heavens” – Right Dante?

    As to the prospects of that to come, it is both intimidating, and overwhelmingly enticing. Peeking ahead, especially to Canto IV, The entire issue of predetermination and/or free will is tantalizing.

    From “The Still Point of the Turning World,” Onward indeed! Bob

  • John (intellectual dilettante and rabble-rouser extraordinaire)

    Yeesh – “according to its worth?” What happened to the meek inheriting the Earth…? Dante’s love of the classics may have ingrained a bit of Romanized thinking there. I wonder what Dante would have thought of “On the Imitation of Christ.”

    Sometimes I think, like Blake, Dante created his own personal theology to fit his own vision and creative aspirations.

    Jeff – who was Dante writing for? Himself? If for others, what was he really trying to say – or was he just having a bit of intellectual fun?

    • jeffvamos

      John,

      Good questions. Yes. Yes. And yes. (Cheeky. Sorry.)

      I think you hit the mark right here: I think Dante IS writing for himself, a “cut and bleeding soul in search of God,” as Augstine would have it. And – he realizes, he’s got skills. Keep in mind that one of the sins he’s trying to purify himself of in Purgatory is Pride. (And…um…lust too). But he realizes that such skill can guide other pilgrims.

      And – despite a bit of moxy (you’re right), he realizes his skills are tools in someone else’s hands. The one who enables the ship to move is the Prime Mover. And…having fun? Intellectual fun? That too, methinks. You can sense that there’s a mind here – the same kind of mind that delights in finding out how the puzzle fits together, figuring out the connections.

      But anyway – about the pride thing – can any of us be “clean” in our dabbling in God’s domain: creation? Can any artist be free of all ego? I think that’s in many ways a theme old D is struggling with through the whole poem.

      In the end – the test should be: despite what Dante may or may not be doing, is there gospel here? Is this giant prayer wheel of tens of thousands of words helping me Godward? I guess that’s how I think of it.

      Good stuff, John my man. Keep it coming.

  • John (intellectual dilettante and rabble-rouser extraordinaire)

    “But anyway – about the pride thing – can any of us be “clean” in our dabbling in God’s domain: creation? Can any artist be free of all ego?”

    Now – there is an interesting question. Only relevant to artist of course. The rest of us get to enjoy the art, while the artist pays the price for his pride – assuming there is one.

  • bobsinner

    Jon, aren’t we all artists of some sort? Bob

  • John (intellectual dilettante and rabble-rouser extraordinaire)

    Not all. I think an artist like Dante creates art because he/she thinks – albeit subconciously – that the world is an incomplete creation. They are filling in the “gap” somehow. I know many people who see the world in purely transactional terms – with nothing needed to complete it – or fullfill it. Call them shallow – but they seem no less happy than others.

  • bobsinner

    Hmm. I suppose I have always considered the world incomplete, unfinished myself, but while I like to tweak and tinker, find connections, I always feel I fail to create. artist, Artist … ? Interesting point. Bob

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