Is Paradise a rose? Or a city? A theater? Or a garden?
All. Any. None. In Canto 31, this kaleidoscopic shimmer among images is the spectacle, and spectacular it is, of a poet, and a believer, employing poetry in all its magic to do what cannot be done in human language: give us the sense and sight of Heaven.
Poetry has is mystical to begin with. It seizes on our most human tool, language, that servant and master that issues from our lungs and our throats, teeth, nose, tongue, eyes, lips, fingers, and hands, our whole bodies, twisting and standing and knotting up, and somehow it speaks what’s in our minds. Or gets somewhere near. Or at least that’s the hope. Having seized it, poetry wrings yet more out of it, freighting each sound, rhythm, and shape with so much meaning we cannot catch up, meanings we can’t even be aware of, not as writers, not as readers, not as species.
So much about language escapes us, so much about even our own individual use of it. You’d think we’d have a feeling of ownership, and we do, yet, as even a moment’s reflection tells us, no, no one really owns this though all use it. And no one uses it, to the utter horizons of possibility and beyond, like the poet, and that brings a feeling of the unspeakable, what cannot be said, a feeling, also, of truth and truthfulness ordinary language cannot approach. Poetry, like all art, gestures, in its very existence and workings, toward Being, toward One, toward the Without-Time. I’m already verging on the poetic with those phrases, but they hardly go too far. No matter what else poetry is talking about (even when the poet speaks of God’s nonexistence, ironically enough), it is also always invoking the mystic.
That’s what’s crucial about the Commedia, and especially so in its last few, glorious, triumphant Cantos. I must say, few human achievements can be as wondrously assured and successful as this last stretch of the journey. We always have been moving forward, moving upward. Dante assiduously has been keeping track of time as long as time has lasted. Yet always he is maneuvering us toward a moment when we leave time and place, when our habit, indeed our error (itself redolent of the Fall) of distinguishing the then from the now, must fall away. Remember Canto XXIX, when Beatrice gets cross about the way we’re always going after appearances, and tells us we’re wrong, just wrong? We need appearances and can’t get along without them, but our reflexes of definition, analysis and synthesis, cubbyholing existence, the hot mind chugging away all it can, actually constitute a kind of lie. The bed is unmade, so we make the bed, but again the bed is unmade. We assume we are deathless and ever-right when we are blind and mortal. (“You say, ‘I am rich, and have put up great wealth, and am in need of nothing,’ and you do not know you are wretched, destitute, poor, blind, and naked.”) Dante reminds us, Beatrice and all the guides remind us, that what we’re trying to do we cannot actually do.
And so is Dante. And in the final Canto, he’ll let us know he failed, that he has to fail, being human. Meantime, to write poetry is trasumanare, either really to transcend our humanness, or to feel as if we have. Even if that were all poetry did, it’d be pretty good. But Dante wants it to lead to real transcendence.
My bold, slashing suggestion for this, my final log-in after three years of Dante with my beloved brethren, is: Dante believed poetry could actually get us there, get us to a direct experience of the divine, maneuver our spirits to the intersection of flesh and spirit that is the Incarnation. He definitely believed it could help us transcend our limits. The entire Commedia is based on that faith, and I think you’d have to say, after almost 700 years, it is doing a very good job. But in doing that job, Dante’s after the biggest moving project of all: to move us, as readers, into mystical contact with God.
So maybe transcending the human is essentially mystical. And writing poetry that seeks that transcendence is a mystical act. I’m going to swim up that waterfall as we proceed.
Dante, for the previous few Cantos, has been battering us with metaphors for Heaven. He’s trying to shift us into a mode of consciousness such that all his metaphors – the Theater, in which all of Heaven is arrayed as a whole before us, as on a stage; the Garden, a joyous, fertile, light-saturated region of eternal growth, union, and color; the City, that is, the New Jerusalem, the society of saints, angels, and Trinity, ordered in Divine Reason, reflecting (but also embodying) the goodness of eternal community; and the divine Flower, the white rose spirits in constant, ecstatic, eternal praise, infloresced around the integral, radiating Center – are not different ways of saying the same thing, but are, mystically and mysteriously, one thing, as the Trinty are One and One is Three. All the metaphors call on us to take on a total mental view of the vast, cosmic tapestry of Paradise, to see it as a whole. And . . . then . . . to collapse our notions of part and whole, and realize that Part and Whole are One. Dante is not different from Paradise and Paradise not different from Creation. Dante’s imagination shifts among these registers not as alternatives or parts but as constant, equal, interequilibrating, total truths. And if you can let your mind do what he’s urging it to do, you feel an expansion of the fabric of thought, a rising, an intimation of an impossible state we glimpse and perhaps, for an eye-blink, see.
My God, is it beautiful.
In the form of a white-hot Rose
The holy host showed itself to me
Which Christ through his blood had made his bride.
So the milizia, the “host” or (in a metaphoric way, military) ranks of Heaven, the assembled orders in limitless, spaceless eternity, show themselves to Dante, and we’re told that this host was made a bride through Christ’s sacrifice. That’s the basic teaching of the Harrowing of Hell, that Christ as God suffered mortal pain and death, thereby freeing the billions from their intermediary state and into Heaven. We recall, too, that the Church is also called the Bride of Christ, and as we’re told on many Sunday’s, also betrothed through that blood sacrifice. The blizzard of various yet unitary metaphors rains down: the stupefying candor of the white rose, the military, the wedding, the blood sacrifice. All of this feeds into the machinery of theater/garden/city/flower, a continuum, not a chain of separable visions. We may find the addition of violence disconcerting, but it fits. There is blood, there is punishment – and there is victory. And here you see it, in its singleness, all around you.
And now, if we can even bear it, we read:
But the other host, that flying, sees and sings
The glory of Him who enamors it,
And the goodness of Him that created it so wondrous,
As a swarm of bees that inflowers itself
One second and another returns
There where its labor adds sweetness,
Sank into the Great flower that adorns itself
With so many leaves, then rose again
There, where its love always sojourns.
All of them had faces of living flame
And golden wings, and the rest such a white
That no snow ever attains to that extreme.
When they let down into the Flower, from bank to bank
They carried something of the peace and ardor
They gained by fanning their flanks.
Nor did the interposing between the Flower
And what hovered over it
Of such a flying multitude
Impede the view or the splendor:
For the divine Light penetrates
Throughout the universe according to its merits
Such that nothing can stand obstacle to it.
Ravishing, and (for me) seductive, but also, in its constant process of metaphorization, of bringing each new way-of-seeing-one-thing-as-another into the whole, further expanding the aperture. The heavenly hosts either celebrate the Rose or fly into and out of it. Yet they never obscure the view of it, for they are of it and are not separable from it. Heaven is where Praise is at one with the Praised. The Light pervades and runs through all things, according to the degree to which those things merit the Light. Nor is the Light to be thought of as something that can be considered separate from the universe or the things the universe contains. The Light is the condition of the universe’s being. As is Praise of the light. Pure verb.
In this overpowering vision, we almost forget there’s a speaker, or that there has been a series of guides, or Beatrice. But Dante is moving us gently to the moment when we must let go even of her. We might feel sad, since she has been such a central fulcrum of all that’s gone on since Inferno: Through her we’ve been led out of the savage Abyss, through the grey regions of the Great Waiting, and now into this, the Empyrean.
Beatrice is our way to God, but is not God. She is our Lady, but she is not Our Lady. And Dante has come to the point at which he must relinquish his dynamo, his mirror and conduit of love and divinity, the human love that drove his poetry and drove him to the Divine. Why? Because now she is with Divinity, and he can see but not go there. And, despite the powers of his unexampled (and it is) poetry, he will fail, in the end, to say what he saw, even though what he says may bring us to that What.
I, that had come from the human to the divine,
From Time to the Eternal,
From Florence to a just and whole Community,
Into what a stupor must I have been thrown!
Truly, between this and the Joy
I was pleased not to hear and to stay mute. . .
Passenger through the living Light
I passed my eyes over all the variegations
Now up, now down, now circling round.
I saw faces of persuasive charity
Empowered by the Light and His Smile
In attitudes adorned by all graces.
My regard already had gathered in
The general sweep of Paradise
No aspect staying fixed or closed
And I turned around me with the renewed wish
To ask my lady of things
About which my mind was in suspense.
Can we stand it, I wonder? Who else could have the towering, powerful, triumphant gust to write, or to have a character claim that “My regard already had gathered in / the general sweep of Paradise?” No aspect stays fixed or closed: Heaven always moves, ever takes the shape of music and song and praise. No sense of separability, of Time, of change. It is not change as we know it but a necessary, joyous movement, growth, and fructification. And persuasion: Who can resist those “faces of persuasive charity”? How could you resist Charity, when Heaven shows what Charity does?
But then he looks for Beatrice, as he’s done throughout the poem. And she is no longer at his side. She is seated, her crown reflecting the One, at the Third Level, below Christ and the real Queen of Heaven, Mary. When Bernard of Clairvaux appears as Dante-pilgrim’s final guide, he directs him to see her, who is both infinitely far from him, and not separated at all:
No mortal eye is so far removed
From the region in which the on-high thunders
Or no matter how deep the sea sinking
As my view was from Beatrice,
But I was not dismayed, because her image
Did not reach down to me through any obscuring medium.
Dante joyfully acknowledges his far remove from Beatrice, but it is a remove of ontology, of intrinsic degree of relation to the Divine, not a remove of physical distance. No mediation in Heaven. Ranks and realms and differing relations, but nothing separate. There is no place. Beatrice is sharp and clear, and acknowledging the differing realms is but, once again, to Praise. In fact, all verbs in Heaven are one verb, Praise.
Dante utters an absolutely gorgeous poem of thanks to his Beatrice, and asks for her continued grace, and then Bernard directs him to see Mary. And, if Dante was amazed before, he is now stupefied by the sight on which all are focused.
I saw smile there . . .
A beauty, a gladness
Such as was in the eyes of all the other saints.
And if I had as much skill in speaking
As in imagining, I wouldn’t dare
To try the smallest part of it.
This announces that language, from here on in, fails. Once Beatrice leaves us, so does the power of language to explain, to present, to mediate. Dante-pilgrim lets us know that the Commedia has given us the sweep of Heaven, the one view of the One . . . and has moved us past words, time, place. We are at the end of the poem and the end of Time. What we see in the next Canto is the unity of all things.
The Commedia has been nothing but language. But language is never nothing but language. Language can move people, change them, bring them new places. Imagination is body as well as mind. Where language takes us, all of us go. Whether Dante wishes us to be absolutely literal-minded, or whether he is conjuring with the ineffable through utterance, courting an inevitably failed enterprise (as he himself just told us!), as of Canto 31, we’re transported into a realm of ecstasy, where all moves, and where movement makes a whole, a drama, a city, a host, a sacrifice, a garden (without walls!), a Flower. We move, but not from place to place. We move as praise and joy and justice move. That Holy Stasis invoked at the end of Paradiso is an ever-growing, ever-sweetening, ever-burgeoning realization of perfection, endless and endlessly unfolding. It is the reality beyond speech to which poetry, all art, all thought, all our ultimate best, ever gesture. As Dante-pilgrim tells us, we’re always there already. Our desire, and our wish to be good, to be with the good, to be of God and with God, happens all the time, continually furnishes us with intimations and glimpses of the Unity within and through all things, so finely pervaded throughout that, although we use terms such as “hidden” and “elusive,” perhaps we really should use terms such as “superpresent” and “superfamiliar” and “supraverbal.” The fire and the rose are one.
Ah, Lent, you are long. But it is spring, and it is a good thing to reflect on our distance yet to travel and how far we have come. Those of us (I’m one) who think we’re always already there don’t think that solves everything. When infinity separates, you can’t span the gulch — except by spanning it. The somber reality of Lent, that we are flesh and make mistakes and keep making them, that our physical destination is as humble and dirty as our origins, can merge with the joy that precedes Lent (that of Christmas) and the unworded ecstasy in which it ends, that of Easter. But we can’t get to Easter unless we minister to the Easter within, let it guide us to the Easter up, down, all round. It’s a journey outside of time and across much other than space. We cannot possibly traverse it, except by traversing it. Dante has shown us.
Thanks, Jeff, for letting me be part of this. And my other brothers and sisters in this beautiful task.