I wrapped it up yesterday afternoon, reading the last cantos of Paradiso and closing the book until 2009. The realities of fallen mortals and our attention spans struck me as ironic this time: although the Pilgrim continued to rise into realms of increased energy and joy, my own eyes and concentration waned as canto after canto rolled on.
Nonetheless, I did see things this time around that before I hadn’t. I noticed early in the section that Dante’s troubles formalizing and versifying his experience come not only from their distance from his human experience (presumably Hell did the same) but also from the fact that memory, a faculty entirely dependent on the passage of time, had no power in a realm outside of time’s operations. He drops hints as he goes that what goes by in narrative time in the reader’s mind actually is happening atemporally, taking zero time. And when “looking about,” much less “having a conversation,” stop having meaning, the poet still must write poetry. So he does.
I also finally caught (I can’t see why this escaped me before) that when the Pilgrim reaches the final sphere, not only Peter but also David and James and John (in other words, several biblical authors) present the questions on his faith. And only after they finish does Adam appear and answer his questions about prelapsarian existence.
The lower spheres (the moon, Mercury, and Venus) still strike me as some of the most depressing stuff in the poem (what kind of heaven still holds grudges?), but it’s affecting me less each time I read it. Perhaps Dante’s hierarchical universe is sinking into my head after all these years. Or maybe I see in their inclusion in the grand scheme for folks who just didn’t quite get it right here on earth but nonetheless get grabbed by divine grace.
I still get goosebumps when Dante rises to the seventh sphere and everything goes blank on him. The music of heaven stops playing, Beatrice’s face becomes a mask, and everyone speaks in hushed tones. When he asks the spirit of St. Benedict what has happened, the old monk tells him that the music and the beauty of this sphere is actually greater than any of the six before, but for a mortal, even one saved, to behold it would destroy him with the intensity of its harmony and splendor. I know some people would prefer a more egalitarian Heaven (sometimes I would too), but that’s pretty darn cool.
Overall, I still think that Dante’s Comedy is the best ever, and I think that enjoying this poem in its fullness is itself a pretty splendid reward for pursuing an education. But then again, I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation prospectus, so I reckon I’m the kind of person who would say that, ain’t I?
The summer can be over now. Bring on the school year.