by Dante Alighieri
Anyone who has followed the Comedy this far knows that Dante is pretty confident. He's a little arrogant. He's been able to flaunt and relish in his pride all throughout our journey through Hell and (somewhat) in Purgatory.
Here, in Paradise, we finally see Dante humbled. His pride has fewer opportunities to shine because Dante doesn't know as much as he thinks he does. (Ha! Take that, Dante!) We still see glimpses of gloating Dante, but most of the time he's so humbled by either Beatrice's beauty or her impressive knowledge that he becomes quiet.
But there are at least two big instances where Dante's nose goes up into the air and his pride rating shoots right off the scale. Let's take a quick look at each one.
In Canto II, Dante serves up his favorite metaphor—the one about life being a journey across the sea and the individual being a ship—but this time, there's something different. He tells us not to follow him (or his ship) because the journey has just gotten a lot harder and we readers might get lost along the way. As intelligent readers, our first reaction is to disagree. What's more frustrating is that it's obvious he considers himself one of the elite who "turned [their] minds… unto the bread of angels" (Par. II, 1-15) worthy of continuing on into Heaven. What does that make us? Before you get all worked up, we're going to make a suggestion: Dante has a point.
Do you remember what happens in Canto II? Dante takes a shot at explaining why the moon has moon spots. Although he makes a reasonable guess, that it has to do with denser versus lighter matter, Beatrice does the rhetorical equivalent of laughing in his face and retorts with some unintelligible response about the order of the universe.
Granted, Canto II is packed with some pretty hefty philosophy and is designed to be a test for Dante's readers. But, after reading that, do you really understand it? Exactly. It's not an easy read and we can see why Dante would warn us about it. It's a warning issued with sincerity because it's obvious that this kind of mind-twisting theology is not everyone's cup o' tea. So perhaps we can forgive Dante for this seemingly stuffy outburst.
The other point where Dante gets a bit arrogant is after meeting Cacciaguida, who tells him about his noble bloodlines. At that, Dante gets all googly-eyed over Cacciaguida and starts addressing him by the formal pronoun, voi. It's usually reserved for lords, ladies and royalty, but Dante throws it out at Cacciaguida. Even when Beatrice coughs politely to tell Dante, ahem, you're getting a little too big for your britches, Dante ignores her. That's our first hint that Dante is getting a little conceited. The other is big and blaring: he comes straight out and says "I too felt such pride" (Par. XVI, 1-15).
But wait. Dante softens that statement with an immediate corollary along these lines: this kind of pride is futile because it doesn't last; families die out:
I mean in Heaven, I too felt such pride.
You are indeed a cloak that soon wears out,
so that if, day by day, we add no patch,
then circling time will trim you with its shears.
My speech began again with you, the word
that Rome was the first city to allow,
although her people seldom speak it now;
at this word, Beatrice, somewhat apart,
smiling, seemed like the woman who had coughed –
so goes the tale – at Guinevere's first fault. (Par. XVI, 1-15)
And remember that Cacciaguida spends almost no time naming ancestors, only asking Dante to pray for his great-great-great-grandfather in Purgatory. He even says that "silence, not speech, is more appropriate." This is a not-so-subtle hint to Dante to stop talking about his illustrious lineage and prove his worth some other way.
Dante learns a lesson about pride and it seems like he comes away with a good idea of its sinfulness. So, we're going to conclude that Dante shows much more humility in Paradiso than in the other cantiche, having learned his lessons so well that he's either conscious of his flaws or rightfully confident in his abilities.
Impossibilities of Dante's Poetic Mission
Reflect on the book for a moment. How many times do you remember Dante saying: "It was beyond my ability to describe" or "Words escaped me" or "God, please let me remember this moment"? Pretty much all the time.
This is a recurring theme in Paradiso and puts a slight crimp in Dante's mission. (Refresher: In Purgatorio, Beatrice tells Dante his mission, ordained by God: he's to go to Heaven and write down everything he sees to the best of his ability so that he can bring testimony back to Earth.) If things are too beautiful or too holy, or too amnesia-inducing, Dante can't write about them. So, let's put ourselves in Dante's position. How does one go about writing about something that human language can't express?
Here's the easiest answer. Take a deep breath. Eye the impossible task. Then say, "I'm going to do it," and dumb it down to the human level. In essence, this is Dante's answer. Because he's writing for humans, he has to make Heaven as comprehensible as possible to us. So he puts something that is immaterial, timeless, and paradoxical into concrete, temporal, spatial, and logical terms for our benefit.
But, like any good researcher, Dante acknowledges the limitations of his skills. He tells us countless times that this or that event is way better than what he's just said. He acknowledges the limits of the human language. He shows how often he's blinded by unimaginable beauty or deafened by holy music.
But to really see how Dante creates this superhuman world in more subtle and convincing ways, we have to take a step back to see the big picture. After all, it's not just character-Dante that drives the story. Author-Dante makes the big decisions on how things should be told.
One example is how he gives us readers fewer clues with which to keep track of the time passing in the narrative. In both Inferno and Purgatorio, observant readers could basically set their watches to the constellations and stars that Dante tells us about. We know exactly how long it takes character-Dante to travel through Hell and Purgatory. But here in Heaven, there are fewer mentions of passing time, and we're left with little idea of how long it takes Dante to reach the Empyrean. This lack of info gives the journey a sense of timelessness, of suspended animation—appropriate to Heaven, which is itself eternal and a place unaffected by human notions of time. Details like this help create the atmosphere of divinity.
Our particular favorite is Dante's mention in the Empyrean that all the blinding brilliance there is the result of a single ray of light from God. Talk about awe-inspiring. Such details make us feel absolutely ant-sized. These are but a few of the ways Dante creates the illusion that we're traveling through a Heaven too complex for man to understand. Can you find any more?Dante Alighieri Timeline