Wednesday, April 25, 2018

and All the Other Stars

Bernard's vision of the Virgin: fra Lippo Lippi

Very often the subjects of these little essays published on a Wednesday morning are determined by something pressing on my mind on a Tuesday, and I suppose I probably ought at least occasionally to report on how that mini-emergency or passing fancy worked out.  We did get up to NYU for the opening of our son Rich’s exhibition on the “Lotería de la Migración” and found the panel discussion addressing it very illuminating.  Panel discussions are by no means always reliable or efficient instruments of pedagogy, but this one really did work.  This week’s Tuesday preoccupation is of a very different sort, one arising from what is not there.  For the last six weeks I have been trundling off each Tuesday to talk about Dante’s Paradiso with a bunch of really nice people, but that course is now finished.  At the breaking of the seventh seal, “there was silence in heaven for what seemed half an hour”.

The Paradiso is a very hard poem, and long before the sixth week everybody in the class knew it.  Most of the students, like the poet himself, were stretching their minds and their imaginations.  If ever there were poet or poem reaching for the stars that poet is Dante and that poem the Divine Comedy.  The Italian word for “stars” (stelle) is indeed the final word in all three of its major sections.  It is Dante’s final word, literally and figuratively, and that is entirely fitting.   Dante’s Paradiso is deeply, technically committed to astronomy.  That would be hard enough for a modern reader even were Dante’s astronomy our own, but it isn’t.  Dante’s astronomy is that of the ancient Ptolemaic system, that “discarded image” of which C. S. Lewis has written so brilliantly.  Dante himself expresses the impossibility of his task by invoking the ancient mathematical conundrum of “squaring the circle”.

“Here my exalted vision lost its power.  But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving, with an even motion, were turning with the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”  Has expressed poetic failure ever been more powerful or moving than in the thirty-third canto of the Paradiso?  For me this poem about a religious experience once became religious experience itself in a most extraordinary way.  Some years ago I was lucky enough to be invited by my friend Robert Hollander, one of the world’s premier Dante scholars, to be a spear-bearer in his summer seminars of the Princeton Dante Reunion—so called because its members are primarily alumni of several generations of his undergraduate Dante course.  The spectacular setting for this event was a thirteenth-century castle, tastefully and unextravagantly renovated as a small conference center, midway between Florence and Siena, not too far from Certaldo, Boccaccio’s hometown.

Hollander’s work as a Dante scholar has been lauded in Italy with the prizes, awards, ceremonial medals, magnificent lectureships, and honorary degrees that it deserves; and he is on familiar terms with all the greats and near greats of the Italian Dante industry.  One of these is the Oscar-winning movie star Roberto Benigni, who has made it a not unremunerated part of his life’s work to bring the national poet to his fellow citizens with a huge program of lectures, recitations, and videos called Tutto Dante.  Try to imagine an analogous cultural endeavor devoted to Herman Melville by, say, Brad Pitt.

During one of the summer sessions of the Hollander seminars devoted to the Paradiso, Mr. Benigni made a surprise dinner visit to the castle.  The domestic staff essentially went ape, and Benigni won my heart by the enthusiasm and proletarian bonhomie with which he had his photograph taken with every chambermaid, sous-chef, and groundskeeper in the place.  It was a lovely, soft Italian evening, and as twilight fell we dined in the castle courtyard al fresco, feasting on the simple but exquisite regional food that was the specialty of the place.  A small classical music group had been hired from Florence.  These were beautiful young people, a couple of them with old instruments.  After dinner, gathering our chairs into a semicircle on the baked and graveled courtyard, we formed an audience.  I cannot remember the particular pieces these delightful youngsters played, and in truth the standard probably fell somewhat short of Carnegie Hall or the Salle Pleyel; but in that mellow moment it sounded like a quintet of archangels.

Then it was announced that Mr. Benigni would “do something”.  What he did I shall not soon forget.  With candles still flickering on the abandoned dining tables, he rose in the gathering velvet gloom and began reciting—from memory, of course—the concluding thirty-third canto of the Paradiso.   This famously begins with Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin and the paradoxes of the Incarnation:  Virgine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio, umile e alta più che creatura  “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, more humble and exalted than any other creature…”  Few poems are more audacious—or more risky—but Dante pulls it off, and Benigni did too.  As he recited, a few marvelous Italian birds—swallows, swifts, house martins?—would swoop out of the darkness and into the faint penumbra of light.  Benigni at length reached the end of his recitation—the end of the canto, the end of the poem, and as it seemed to me for a moment, the end, period.  “But now my will and my desire, like wheels revolving with an even motion, were turning with the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”  And at that final word stelle I looked up toward the perfectly timed first twinkling in the night sky.