Reconsidering Dante's Paradiso

Robert Baird, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago and the co-editor of Chicago Review has an interesting essay at Slate about the most ignored part of Dante's Divine Comedy--Paradiso. He argues that the book is ignored laregely because we find Hell far more interesting than Heaven:

Dante's Paradiso is the least read and least admired part of his Divine Comedy. The Inferno's nine circles of extravagant tortures have long captured the popular imagination, while Purgatorio is often the connoisseur's choice. But as Robert Hollander writes in his new edition of the Paradiso, "One finds few who will claim (or admit) that it is their favorite cantica." (A cantica, or canticle, is one of the three titled parts of the poem.) The time is ripe to reconsider Paradiso's neglect, however, since three major new translations of the poem we know as the Divine Comedy are coming to completion. . . .

When it comes down to it, though, the real problem modern readers have with the Paradiso is the idea of heaven itself. T.S. Eliot noted almost 80 years ago that "we have (whether we know it or not) a prejudice against beatitude as material for poetry." As the quote suggests, our trouble with heaven is less a problem of belief than it is a problem of imagination. From the opening lines of Anna Karenina on down, all our best literature teaches us that narrative thrives on adversity, and so heaven presents itself as little more than a blank screen of beatific blandness, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. (Consider, by contrast, how successfully hell has been deployed as a metaphor for modern life: Under the Volcano, The Invisible Man, The Descent of Alette, not to mention "The Waste Land.")

Baird goes on to argue, however, that Dante's Heaven is anything but boring:

In fact, one of the major achievements of the Paradiso is that Dante is able to create drama out of people getting along. Contrary to the individualist slant of many contemporary visions of the afterlife, Dante's heaven is insistently social, and the souls of the blessed take great pains to show what a happy society they have up there, even to the point of performing stunning audiovisual choreographies . . .

But the real drama of the canticle is literally cosmic: It develops out of the tension between a perfect heaven above and a very imperfect world here below. After more than 10 years in exile, Dante was an expert on human imperfection. And even though he'd seen one after another of his political hopes crushed under the steel toe of history, he never gave up on the ideal of earthly justice. (In the Monarchia, written around the same time as the Paradiso, he argued that "the world is ordered in the best possible way when justice is at its most potent.") This is why, despite all their professed camaraderie and contentment, the souls of the blessed can't stop talking about what's happening on earth. The folly of the living brings them repeatedly to rage, as when St. Peter says of Pope Boniface VIII: "He … has made my tomb a sewer of blood and filth." Dante himself is not shy about joining in the general indignation. Looking down from the eighth sphere of heaven, he sees only "the little patch of earth that makes us so fierce."

Read it all here. Hat tip to Thinking Christian.

Comments (1)

Thanks for posting this. True that the Inferno is more fun. But the last verse of the Paradiso -- that lovely reference to "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle," ("the Love which moves the sun and the other stars") -- is one to which I often return.

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space