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  • Celestial Discords: The Music of Dante’s Paradise
  • Maurice Slawinski (bio)

The music that I am concerned with in the present paper is not that of angelic choirs and lyre-strumming seraphim (though of course there is that too in Paradiso). Rather, it is the music of Dante’s poetry, and more precisely, the relative lack of a particular kind of word-music that one might expect to feature in an account of Paradise: the music of ecstasy, or jouissance. Because if one of the poem’s aims is to communicate the experience of someone who claims actually to have been there, then it might be suggested, to adapt an elegant phrase of Roland Barthes, that Dante’s is a somewhat sparing ecstasy, a jouissance parsimonieuse.1

Setting aside the fraught issue – the subject of animated debate to this day – of whether Dante had actually experienced a vision of some kind, and therefore believed his account of the Hereafter to be in some sense ‘factual’, there is no doubt that in writing the Paradiso he intended somehow to represent the state of bliss, an intent to which he refers with the polysemic verb figurare, meaning at one and the same time depict, imagine and, in accordance with contemporary allegory and typology, identify in the things pertaining to this world intimations of the transcendent truths of the next. If therefore Dante is sparing in his celestial jouissance this is in part because the demands of earthly representation are such that the state of blessedness, and even Heaven’s more transient effects on the ‘still flesh-and-blood’ Dante-character, can only be adumbrated, rapidly suggested and just as rapidly left off. At the root of Dante’s achievement, as Auerbach taught us to recognize, is his extraordinary skill as a story-teller, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Paradiso, where, beyond time, there is in a sense no celestial story to tell. Dante fills that void with a variety of earthly stories instead: exemplary human lives and the history of mankind generally as a journey whose end-purpose is the celestial city; scientific, philosophical and theological narratives explaining how everything in creation exists [End Page 57] and operates to fulfil that end-purpose; the story of Dante’s own progress through the heavens.

This representational strategy is explicitly declared by the poet at the ascent’s outset, when he tells us how the process of ‘Crossing beyond humanity [trasumanar] could not be signified / through words; therefore let the example [essemplo] suffice / for those to whom grace reserves the experience’ (I: 70–72).2 Here essemplo combines at least three meanings: Dante’s own example as someone who claims to have been there; the stories told by the Blessed; and a series of similes and metaphors conceived in their turn, we shall see, as micro-narratives. Together, these stand in place of that future ‘experience’ which ‘grace’ will make possible. But the essemplo is by definition inadequate, it has to suffice rather than being sufficient, the outward sign of that inner compulsion to experience and know which is Paradiso’s key structuring device, and brings all its stories together into what Lino Pertile has called a ‘drama of desire’.3 It is no surprise then that Dante should deal with his materials sparingly (in one of the most tightly organized, carefully structured narratives of the Western canon), or that this ‘drama of desire’ should not unfold in any simple, linear fashion. Like mystery, the quest for some extraordinary hidden truth to which desire is closely connected, jouissance is arguably best approached indirectly, represented only glancingly, its attainment hinted at rather than enacted.

To this extent, Dante’s parsimony is both intentional and successful. But it is not perhaps as simple as this. In the first place, of the (only) four episodes of the Paradiso which could be said to make celestial jouissance their specific theme, three are each in their respective ways halting, perverse even (in a sense akin to that of psychoanalysis: pursuing an impossible satisfaction through objects other than what is really desired). I will review them rapidly, and in the process attempt to tackle the question that...


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pp. 57-80
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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