Beyond the Human

Jamie McKendrick

What do humans do in heaven? Not too much, though not too little, according to St Augustine, who foresees ‘leisure for the praises of God’ with ‘no inactivity of idleness, and yet no toil constrained by want’. But eternity is a fair stretch: over millennia, any activity might begin to pall. The 19th-century Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli claims in his sonnet ‘Er paradiso’:

                   in paradiso
Nun perdi tempo co ggnisun lavoro:
Nun ce trovi antro che vviolini, riso
E ppandescèlo

                    in heaven
you don’t waste time with any work:
there’s nothing but violins, laughter
and heaven’s bread

For Belli’s Roman worker, heaven mainly means not having to graft, and there’s the bonus of free food – a cross between communion wafers and panettone, his ‘ppandescèlo’ probably a nod to the ‘pan de li angeli’ in Dante’s Paradiso.

With Dante, though, it’s a different story. In the first canto of this third part of his Commedia, he links the words valor and lavoro, ‘worth’ and ‘work’, as near anagrams and almost synonyms. But Belli’s knowingly satirical rhyme, paradiso/riso, common since at least the 13th-century Sicilian sonneteer Giacomo da Lentini, is one that Dante employs often, and the almost interchangeable riso and sorriso (‘laughter’ and ‘smile’, though both are usually translated into English as ‘smile’) figure prominently in the Paradiso. Beatrice is constantly wreathed in smiles, as the sinister saying goes. Christina Rossetti, in a note to one of her poems, complains that both Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura ‘have come down to us resplendent with charms, but … scant of attractiveness’. These smiles at least partly offset that impression: they’re the encouraging accompaniment of what, for Dante, ascending through the Ptolomeic heavens, from the moon and the planets to the Empyrean, is a steep learning curve.

The Paradiso is the least read of the Commedia’s three cantiche, and the hardest work. If for no other reason, these two new English translations, one by Robin Kirkpatrick, the other by the husband and wife team of Robert and Jean Hollander, should be welcomed. Each edition is the final volume of a long labour, and each helps the reader see this last cantica in the context of the previous two. With Virgil as his guide, Dante has already spiralled down through hell, seen what goes wrong, and progressively wronger, with the human spirit, and has then been taken up in an opposite spiral through the rocky terraces of Mount Purgatory, where souls are gradually mended. Dante describes this movement with beautiful economy in Purgatory 23 as ‘salendo e rigirando la montagna/che drizza voi che ’l mondo fece torti’ (‘climbing up and turning round the mountain/which straightens you whom the world twisted awry’). Heaven, we’re told in Paradiso 16, is where our appetites are no longer twisted (‘là dove appetito non si torce’). So no wine and no panettone.

Beatrice takes over as Dante’s guide when Virgil reaches his permitted limit at the summit of Purgatory, in the Earthly Paradise, until she, in turn, is replaced by St Bernard for the last cantos. Along the way, she instructs Dante in the significance of what he beholds and of much else besides, including astronomy, the properties of light, theology, free will and the nature of God. If this makes the poem seem like a combined honours course, or several at once, the impression isn’t mistaken, for Dante himself undergoes an intense viva on the Christian virtues by Saints Peter, James and John. Beatrice begins one typical lesson by saying ‘secondo mio infallibile avviso’ (‘in my infallible opinion’) but her teaching is not only administered with smiles: she puts on a whole firework display of inner glowing. The words for light indefatigably multiply through the poem: luce, lume, raggio, sfavilla, baleno, scintilla, splendore, fulgore. In the notes accompanying his translation, Kirkpatrick makes helpful distinctions between Dante’s use of the first three, though this is far from exhausting the language of light in which the Paradiso excels. A representative line, from Canto 19, is ‘raggio di sole ardesse sì acceso’, where, apart from the two slender monosyllables, there’s no lightless word to cast a shadow.

The journey proper begins with an instantaneous ascent through the sphere of fire. Then there’s a Moon landing, where, after a dull lesson on Moon spots, Dante meets the not quite immaculate spirits who have failed to keep their vows. From there he and Beatrice ascend to Mercury, zone of the law-makers and politicos, and thence to Venus, where they meet the amorous and attractive Cunizza da Romano. Their next stop is the Sun, where the wise, such as Thomas Aquinas and Solomon, are congregated. Then they travel to Mars and meet heaven’s warriors, the Church Militant, including Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida. Jupiter is the heaven of justice; moving on to Saturn, Dante finds the contemplatives ascending and descending a Jacob’s ladder. In Canto 22, two-thirds of the way through the poem, Dante and Beatrice are assumed into the Heaven of Fixed Stars, where he is catechised on faith, hope and charity. There he meets Adam. Then they rise to the ninth heaven, the Crystalline Sphere and the Empyrean, which occupy the poem’s final seven cantos.

Paradise resounds with hymns and dances. Different spheres of the heavens are adorned with different arrangements of souls, so in the heaven of the just they take the form of an eagle, among the warriors that of a cross. For all its symbolism, this aspect of the poem comes across like an Olympic opening ceremony. And yet there is the complication that these figures reside in two places at once: both in their particular sphere and in the Empyrean, where at the end of the poem Dante will see them arrayed in the shape of a rose, in the presence of God. St Augustine wondered about hierarchy in heaven: ‘But what will be the grades of honour and glory here, appropriate to degrees of merit? Who is capable of imagining them … But there will be such distinctions; of that there can be no doubt.’ Dante proves capable not only of imagining them but of arranging them geometrically and, better still, has found a way to graduate these distinctions so as not to cause envy and resentment among the blessed.

God is forever about His own business. Even before the Creation, Dante is at pains to point out that He was occupied: ‘Né prima quasi torpente si giacque …’ This is translated by the Hollanders as: ‘Nor, before then, did He rest in torpor,/for until God moved upon these waters/there existed no “before”, there was no “after”.’ God had no time to waste since there was no such thing as time, but even in denial the line agreeably conjures up a loafing God. Those jobs that need doing are done by angels, who govern the movement of the heavenly spheres. Dante’s argument for their being coeval with the Creation is that had they been made earlier they’d have been redundant, a thing nature abhors. Paradise’s occupants have various time-saving devices, such as telepathy and accelerated travel, even though there is no time to save. Angels, according to Dante, have no language of their own, and the spirits of the blessed no need for words, but Dante is coaxed to express his thoughts anyway. This is a didactic device to help him formulate his ideas, and one that his readers profit by.

In Canto 1 Dante confronts the difficulties ahead with the tricky neologism ‘trasumanar’: ‘Trasumanar significar per verba/ non si poria … ’ This line, with its two opening four-syllable words capped with Latin, has a thundering grandeur that seems to achieve what it says is impossible. The Hollanders translate it flatly as ‘To soar beyond the human cannot be described/in words.’ Kirkpatrick highlights the linguistic in his version: ‘To give (even in Latin phrase) a meaning/to “transhuman” can’t be done … ’ and argues in his notes at the end that this verb ‘implies not the transcendence of humanity but its transference from one dimension to another’; in effect, its translation. It sounds like hedging, but I’d prefer the word to carry both these meanings at once. That way, it registers the tug between the transcendent and an obdurately held onto human state that the reader keeps sensing in the poem. The inadequacy of language to describe what occurs in heaven is a recurrent theme in Dante as it is in much Christian writing, from Acts onwards. At the beginning of the Inferno, Dante had protested: ‘Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono’ (‘I am not Aeneas, nor am I Paul’). Now he finally leaves the author of the Aeneid behind and outreaches Paul.

The poem’s impulse to go beyond the human makes the question of what humans do in heaven beside the point. Doing belongs to the earthly realm, being to heaven. The drama and narrative of the first two cantiche, dependent on the past doings of the souls Dante meets, are for the most part gone. The individual’s biography, so often asserted in the Inferno, recedes. In Canto 19, the Eagle, representing the heaven of the just, hovers between first person singular and plural pronouns, as it does between sight and sound:

I saw and heard that Eagle’s beak form words
that rang, in what they voiced, as ‘I’ and ‘mine’,
although in meaning they were ‘we’ and ‘us’.

(Kirkpatrick)

This syntactical fusion, combined with a kind of synaesthesia (‘I saw and heard’), is one of Dante’s devices to take us outside our usual mode of perception. Another is a whole series of neologisms with the prefix ‘in-’. One example of how confounding this can be to a translator occurs in Canto 13:

ché quella viva luce che sì mea
dal suo lucente, che non si disuna
da lui né da l’amor ch’a lor s’intrea

Kirkpatrick doesn’t shy away from the problems:
For Living Light, which, from the Fount of Light,
cascades in ways that do not disunite it,
from Him or from the Love en-three-ing them

The Hollanders offer something that sits more happily in English, but sacrifices some of the oddness of the original:

For that living Light, which so streams forth
from its shining Source that it neither parts from it
nor from the Love that is intrined with them

(Let he who has tried a canto of the Paradiso cast the first stone.) Apart from any numerological significance, these invented words erode the whole notion of a singular identity. Such being is beyond earthly powers to describe, but Dante dedicates his verbal skills to giving the reader a glimpse – or rather a progression of ever expanding glimpses – of what this beyond might be like.

Both translations know the difficulty of the enterprise they have undertaken. When I read Kirkpatrick’s Inferno I thought he’d been hampered by the regularity of his iambic pentameters, but reading his Paradiso I’m not so sure. Given that the original’s terza rima is jettisoned, having some sustained rhythmic structure to stand in for Dante’s hendecasyllables now seems to me a good method. The Hollanders’ translation is far looser metrically and can vary from five to 13 syllables per line, though it’s based on a pentametric scheme. This gives it a certain flexibility which often has the advantage of clarity.

The accompanying introductions and notes are the product of a life’s work on the part of Kirkpatrick and Robert Hollander, and both are supremely knowledgable about the text. Hollander’s vast notes succeed in summarising the many knots and disputes of almost seven hundred years of commentary. He can be quirky (as when he introduces, in the context of a Chaucerian remake, a fond note on Some Like It Hot, ‘one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films’), but there’s a fairness in his accounts of other scholars’ positions, with only the odd asperity. One small example of his precision will have to stand for a multitude: the problematic word ‘aiuola’, which Dante uses to describe the Earth when, in Canto 22, in one of the great moments of the poem, he is invited by Beatrice to look down from the Heaven of Saturn, and sees ‘L’aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci’. Kirkpatrick gives this as ‘That little threshing floor that makes men fierce’, Hollander as ‘The little patch of earth that makes us here so fierce’. Hollander’s notes explain why ‘threshing floor’, first introduced by Longfellow, is dubious, tracing the word back to the Latin diminutive areola, ‘a small area’. Still, the image of the threshing floor has a biblical resonance which is not out of keeping. Occasionally, Kirkpatrick’s passionately argued notes are the fuller, as when he deals sorrowfully with the jarring, anti-Judaic sneer in Dante’s otherwise humane and subtle argument for the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice. Hollander is silent here, but elsewhere, as if to defend Dante from the taint of medieval prejudice, he observes drily: ‘It will come as a shock to some readers to learn that fully half of those in Paradise are, in fact, ancient Hebrews.’

Milton begins Paradise Lost by pronouncing that his epic ‘with no middle flight intends to soar/Above th’ Aonian Mount’, and is careful throughout to establish a pious hierarchy of Christian and classical imagery: ‘For thou art heavenly, she an empty dream.’ This principle can be found in Dante too, but the mix is more volatile. Again and again, Dante grafts a classical onto a Christian or biblical image, and the classical image often seems richer in resonance. Here it’s not necessarily a case of divided loyalties, but a desire to have both, to sacrifice nothing from the accumulated poetic tradition he is heir to. The desire to have both leads Dante to ask whether pagans can be saved, thus putting exclusionary Christian doctrine into question and betraying a deep regret for the fate of his former guide. The reply he receives is unsatisfactory, though it seems that in special circumstances God can find ways round some of the rules He created (or at least the rules according to St Paul).

Samuel Johnson’s complaint that in Paradise Lost ‘the want of human interest is always felt’ is one that could also be aimed at the Dante of the Paradiso, yet so could one of Johnson’s resounding tributes to Milton: ‘He … delighted to form new modes of existence.’ Dante never fails to humanise even his heavenly figures, such as the irefully blushing St Peter. And then there is the problematic figure of Cacciaguida, who occupies the poem’s central cantos. Dante’s great-great-grandfather, a belligerent, masculine presence, perhaps a counterweight to Beatrice, is a crusader and a representative of what we come to realise are for Dante the ancient and vanished Florentine virtues of honesty, simplicity and integrity. He arrives dramatically, leaving the constellation of the cross to appear like the play of lights on a spaceship’s dashboard: ‘Nor did that gemstone leave its bezelled rim,/but ran a length along the radial beam,/as fire behind some alabaster screen,’ in Kirkpatrick’s version. He begins speaking in Latin, but the rest of his speech is vigorous Tuscan vernacular, and it includes very earthly itches that need scratching. His account of the dilution of Florentine blood by the arrival of neighbouring folk looks unappealingly like an argument for a homogeneous state (‘the city’s bloodline, now mixed/with that of Campi, of Certaldo, and Figline,/was then found pure in the humblest artisan,’ in the Hollanders’ version). In his essay ‘Dante and Florence’, the historian John Najemy maintains that here Dante is at least partly sympathising with the city’s guilds (‘the humblest artisan’) and taking account of the devastation wreaked on Florentine society by the warring aristocratic families – a reading that allows for a more subtly shaded politics.

Cacciaguida’s long speech delineating sections of Florentine history includes a heraldic roll call of families that has been compared, rather generously, to Homer’s list of ships. Though Dante evidently feels an atavistic thrill in meeting his noble forebear, it’s hard to find anything in Cacciaguida that makes him more admirable than Ulysses, who is stuck in hell among the Evil Counsellors; and a contemporary reader might think justice better served by having them swap places. After all, despite Kirkpatrick’s valid claim that Ulysses’ quest is destructive to himself and to others, he didn’t set out to kill the infidel. An even fitter candidate for eviction from Paradise, though, would be Folco of Marseilles, the Provençal poet-turned-bishop whom Dante encounters on Venus and who in life spurred on the Albigensian crusade; in the afterlife he reproaches the pope for not being proactive enough in the ‘Terra Santa’.

It may seem odd that a long discourse on Florence should occupy the middle regions of heaven, but Dante’s bitter relation to his lost city wasn’t to be erased by a visit to the civitas dei. The poem is far from being all sweetness and light: after St Peter Damian concludes his tirade against the corruptions of the Church, the souls of the contemplatives unite in a heaven-shaking, angry shout. Paradise is not just the abode of bliss but is full, too, of vituperation and anger – principally against Florence and the Church. In a famous passage, Cacciaguida prophesies Dante’s exile, and the griefs that he had already tasted at the time of writing: ‘Tu proverai sì come sa di sale/lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle/lo scendere e ’l salir per l’altrui scale.’ In the Hollanders’ translation:

You shall learn how salt is the taste
of another man’s bread and how hard is the way,
going down and then up another man’s stairs.

There is, I think, a deliberate echo of this in Milton’s lament for his blindness at the beginning of Book III of Paradise Lost: ‘Taught by the heavenly Muse to venture down/The dark descent, and up to reascend,/Though hard and rare … ’ This sense of the hardness, sharpness and steepness of exile, embedded as it is in the middle of heaven, oddly makes heaven itself a site of exile, with its own staircases belonging to Another. And Paradiso is full of moments of acute homesickness, as when Dante recalls the ‘ovile’ (‘sheepfold’) where he was born, and the church where he was baptised. One of the most astonishing of these moments is that image of Earth seen from outer space, the ‘aiuola’, which emphasises the world’s puniness, but also carries a frisson of nostalgia, as the small scale of home plays off against the magnificence of heaven.

One of the most celebrated lines in the Paradiso is the poignantly childlike ‘tin tin sonando con sì dolce nota’ (translated by Kirkpatrick as ‘its “ting-ting” sounding with so sweet a note’), which brings the heavenly choirs back down to earth and the local clock tower. When, on the threshold of the modern age, Baudelaire attempts something similar in his late poem ‘L’Imprévu’ – ‘Le son de la trompette est si délicieux,/Dans ces soirs solennels de célestes vendanges’ – the effect is comparatively remote and grandiose. Only Antonio Machado in his ‘Alborada’, and then by imitation, gets close with his ‘Tin tan, tin tan,/las campanitas del alba/sonando están.’

The Paradiso is itself an inexhaustible source of light for future generations of poets. In its pages we keep meeting the future: in English poetry alone there are Chaucer (whose Troilus looks down from ‘the eighth sphere’ at ‘this little spot of earth that with the sea/Embracèd is’), Milton and Shelley (in whose ‘Triumph of Life’ Eliot rightly saw ‘some of the greatest and most Dantesque lines in English’). Within Italian poetry the debt is incalculable, and continues. Surely Canto 12, with its ‘nostre muse,/nostre sirene’ and its ‘due archi’ (‘twin rainbows’ in Hollander), lies behind ‘la sirena … ai nostri mari,/ai nostri estuarî’ and other details of ‘The Eel’, one of Eugenio Montale’s finest poems.

If heaven is where the human reaches beyond itself and the divine begins, where time ends and eternity begins, the challenge for Dante is to write about a state of fulfilment and yet to keep the account moving, in both senses, and interesting. Simone Weil touches on the difficulties of the task when she writes: ‘Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating. Therefore “imaginative literature” is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both).’ Dante’s Paradiso is the nearest thing we have to a refutation of this aphorism.

The final cantos deliver a spectacular vision. Virgil’s Lethe, from the Aeneid, is transformed into a technicolour river of light which, even if allegorical, breaks out of the bounds of its theological referents with its sheer vividness. From this point on, the writing has such intensity and power that the final canto’s image of Neptune staring up to see the keel of the first ship, the Argo, passing overhead, could stand for the reader’s experience. This image of wonder brings to a climax all the Commedia’s ship imagery, and the many images that in the Paradiso deal with vision through water, and it marries the classical with the Christian worldviews. Where we expect a crescendo, Dante is raptly staring at the ‘semplice sembiante’ (‘the simple appearance’) of the light. This word ‘semplice’ most likely has behind it Aquinas’s complex arguments of God as ‘simple’, in his disputation ‘On the Divine Simplicity’. But the reader doesn’t need this theological prompt: this is a vision that has shed, or rather condensed, all the complexities of light in the intervening heavens, all the machinery of their rotating spheres, the vertiginous intricacy of Dante’s own construction, with its numerological and geometric co-ordinates, and dissolved them into this mysterious simplicity, a single point of light, which moves him and his poem into the circular pattern of the final lines:

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’ amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

Hollander:

                 like wheels revolving
with an even motion, were turning with
the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.

Dante set out in his poem to go beyond human experience, to ‘trasumanar’, but the process has not been entirely one-way. He didn’t arrive empty-handed. He came to heaven armed with the vernacular, with an image of the woman he loved and of the city he grew up in, and also with an attachment to classical literature that he wasn’t going to let Christianity deprive him of. Putting his own people there, he came to heaven to humanise – and Tuscanise – the place.