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The Problem of Theophany in Paradiso 33

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 27, 2011
pp. 61-78 | 10.1353/ems.2011.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Now to discover the poet and father of this all is quite a task, and even if one discovered him, to speak of him to all men is impossible. . . . But if we provide likelihoods [εικότας] inferior to none, one should be well pleased with them, remembering that I who speak as well as you my judges have a human nature, so that it is fitting for us to receive the likely story [εικότα μύθον] about these things and not to search further for anything beyond it.

Plato, Timaeus

In the first of the Paradiso's direct addresses to its readers, Dante offers a warning that seems to recall the one that Ulysses failed to acknowledge as he left behind the confines of the Mediterranean Ocean to set out on the final, "folle volo" ["mad flight"] that Dante invented for him in Inferno 26:

O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d'ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,
tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.
L'acqua ch'io prendo già mai non si corse;
Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l'Orse.

(Paradiso 2.1-9)

[O you who in little barks, desirous of listening, have followed after my ship that sails onward singing: turn back to see your shores again, do not put out on the deep sea, for perhaps, losing me, you would be lost; the waters that I enter have never before been crossed; Minerva inspires and Apollo leads me, and nine Muses point out to me the Bears.]

But while Paradiso's first direct address warns of the poem's power to seduce and destroy, its second offers a hope of a safe wake for those who crave "the bread of angels:"

Voi altri pochi che drizzaste il collo
per tempo al pan de li angeli, del quale
vivesi qui ma non sen vien satollo,
metter potete ben per l'alto sale
vostro navigio, servando mio solco
dinanzi a l'acqua che ritorna equale;
que' glorïosi che passaro al Colco
non s'ammiraron come voi farete,
quando Iasón vider fatto bifolco.

(Paradsio 2.10-18)

[You other few, who stretched out your necks early on for the bread of angels, which one lives on here though never sated by it: you can well set your course over the salt deep, staying within my wake before the water returns level again; those glorious ones who sailed to Colchos did not so marvel as you will do, when they saw Jason become a plowman.]

As other commentators have noted, the allusion to the Argo in this second direct address is recalled in the culminating canto of the Commedia when Dante's poetic persona is represented as reflecting on the Pilgrim's prior vision of "la forma universal" (Paradiso 33.91) in which

Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l'universo si squaderna:
sustanze e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch' i' dico è un semplice lume.

(Paradiso 33.85-90)

[In its depths I saw internalized, bound with love in one volume, what through the universe becomes unsewn quires: substances and accidents and their modes as it were conflated together, in such a way that what I describe is a simple light.]

In reflecting on this experience, the poetic persona recalls the allusion to the Argo, claiming:

Un punto solo m'è maggior letargo
che venticinque secoli a la 'mpresa
che é Nettuno ammirar l'ombra d'Argo.

(Paradiso 33.94-96)

[One point alone is greater forgetfulness to me than twenty-five centuries to the enterprise that made Neptune marvel at the shadow of the Argo.]

In a certain sense, then, both the warning to the many and the promise to the few in Paradiso 2's direct addresses are fulfilled in Paradiso 33, for the poet here describes his un punto solo as a point of letargo—as Peter Dronke puts it, "the coma of oblivion" and "a divine ailment, a self-forgetfulness in ecstatic wonder, which is not an obstacle to the highest seeing...

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