How can you ask a question in Paradise?
Quite a question in and of itself. You’d have thought Paradise was where all questions have been answered. Was itself the answer to all questions. The garden in which all questions come to rest, without need for more.
Um, no. Not Dante’s Paradise.
More than once I’ve heard people say something to the effect of, “If I ever get to heaven, I’m going to have a few questions for the Almighty.” Understandable. Let’s say you find yourself in the Promised Beyond. All is One. All is revealed. All is known. A lot of us might well be like the Dante of the Paradiso. We might start asking, “OK, this is great. So how does it all work? And why does it work this way?”
In that (celestial?) light, it makes sense that so much of Paradiso is a question-and-answer session between Dante and his beloved pipeline to the Divine, Beatrice. Dante’s a lover, a poet, a scholar, a sinner, and in each of these roles he is amped, hyper-pumped, and supercharged with desire to know. As in know everything. Now’s his chance, and he’s going to make the most of it. He writes of the “longing” that is “enflamed” to “see” how it all works, our “inborn, perpetual thirst” that compels us forward and upward. And that has been the spur to the creation of this vast epic journey in the first place.
To begin, he reminds us no other poet has written a poem like his: “The waterway I take never was coursed before.” I love the opening lines, with Dante sailing in his boat, and warning other writers, in effect, not to try this at home. You might get lost!
Heaven, we soon see, is a hierarchical place. You can be closer or farther away from God, according to the virtue shown in your life. Like many of us, Dante is bothered by this, and he wants to know more. In Canto II, he is in the lowest sphere of heaven, that of the Moon. He writes, beautifully, “Beatrice looked upward, and I on her” (Beatrice in suso, e io in lei guardava). As a character in his own poem, Dante has always relied on someone, but really, his real guide has always been Beatrice, what she represents, the love of his life, and the Love toward which he and all things progress. His dependence on her is really, in the end, his dependence, the dependence of all existence, on God. He keeps forgetting that, and she keeps having to remind him.
So the question is: Why do we on Earth see black marks on the moon? If the moon is part of Heaven, why wouldn’t everything be perfect? Constant? As we learn, we are now in the lowest sphere of Heaven, that of the Moon, and this sphere, although still celestial, is characterized by inconstancy. With its changing phases, the moon was a symbol of the inconstant, the changeable, and Dante finds it a little unsettling to discover what appears to be inconsistency in the celestial realm.
Now, Dante had no telescope. But his question is one we still ask. We see the physical cosmos all around us, and we’re amazed by its vastness and beauty. But we also see signs of randomness, chaos, destruction. How, we ask, does this reflect the caress of the creating Hand? Dante’s question has resonance for 2012, no doubt about it.
Dante has some theories about varying densities of matter, and he runs them by Beatrice. It’s already pretty clear he’s wrong. Beatrice smiles indulgently “for a moment,” then remarks that Dante, knowing that human reason makes a lot of mistakes, and also knowing that “even when supported by the senses, reason has short wings.”
Wow. Dante and Beatrice take for granted the very truth our own age finds so repugnant, and which many people argue against with all their might: reason, even when the senses give reason evidence, has “corti l’ali,” short wings, a circumscribed ambit. To understand Paradise, to understand matters spiritual and divine, you have to think with more than reason. You have to augment reason with ways of knowing that connect with divinity, with hope, with virtue. To echo George Michael, to whom I never thought I’d be referring in any context whatsoever, “You Gotta Have Faith.”
It’s important for those of us with faith to acknowledge that those who reject faith do so for good reasons. Our reason and our senses are all we’ve got, or it can seem like that. These amazing tools help us solve our problems every moment of every day. When we’re asked to leave them, or to augment them, or to modify them — or when we’re told, as Beatrice tells Dante here, that they are inadequate — it seems an outrage, an affront. Little wonder when faith makes people feel disoriented or insecure.
But let’s be serious here. We employ faith all the time. “Object permanence,” the stage of infant thinking in which we asumme that objects that disappear momentarily from view still exist (as in a blanket withdraw from view momentarily), begins our long, innate, and necessary dependence on faith of all sorts. We can’t think or reason, ironically enough, without various levels of faith. That doesn’t invalidate the insistence that we honor reason, the senses, and the rules of evidence and argument. But it does make it seem silly to insist that we hold ourselves to only those things.
Beatrice, for one, is a big fan of reason and evidence. She even, in a wonderful, premodern moment, recommends that Dante conduct experiments to test his theories: “You can be set free from this quandary through experiment — if you ever want to try it — which is the font of the river of your arts” (“Da questa instanza puo deliberarti/Esperienza, se gia mai la provi,/Ch’esser suol fonte ai rivi di vostri’arti“). And by “arts” she means the arts and what we’d call the sciences. So both she and Dante are enthusiastic fans of science and reason.
But both insist that reason has those short wings. And this canto demonstrates it. She answers Dante’s question about the spots on the moon, but neither the substance of his question, nor, really, her answer, is the canto’s real point.
The real point is that Dante, in asking the question as he did, fails to understand. He fails because Heaven cannot be understood. Not, at least, without understanding the limits of understanding.
The last seven stanzas, among the most beautiful in the whole Paradiso, depict a cosmos deriving from the Intelligence behind it, which distributes intelligence throughout the universe as befits the bodies and levels of being in the cosmos:
Thus Intelligence multiplies its goodnesses
Among the scattered stars
Revolving itself upon its own unity.
Varying power makes diverse connections
With the precious matter it enlivens, in which –
As it does with life in you – it binds.
Thanks to glad nature from which it derives,
This mingled power shines throughout the body
Like gladness through the living pupil [of the eye].
It’s both not much of an answer (God mingles with everything, and everything shines according to God’s best plan), and a great answer, since it brings all questions back to the Light, to the Intelligence, in which human reason participates but from which it remains far distant, and of which it is but a circumscribed version. Dante, once again, has forgotten the dependence of all creation on the Light. That led him to ask the question. (Thus Beatrice’s smile!) Our one way even to approach the truth of the Truth is to have faith, and to see through faith — indeed, as the glad light of Intelligence shines through the living pupil.