Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cthulhu in Paradise, or Reflections on Dante and Lovecraft

A bit late, but here I am for the final step of Dante's epic journey, as followed in Richard's read-along. As I explained earlier, my previous readings of The Divine Comedy consisted of a college course that covered Inferno and the first ten cantos of Purgatorio. There was a second one scheduled for the next semester but alas, I couldn't fit it into my schedule. (It was my senior year too.) So while I still had all my notes, as well as some pretty good background for the remainder of Purgatorio, I was left entirely on my own for Paradiso. I even had to find a new translation! For the Dante class we had used the Robert Durling editions for the first two canticles but unfortunately, his Paradiso isn't coming out until December 2010. (Of course I'll be pre-ordering.)

So I relied on the translation by Anthony Esolen instead, which managed to preserve some of the rhyme scheme, and, as an added bonus, included all of Gustave Doré's illustrations! Esolen put all the notes in the back, however, instead of conveniently at the end of each canto. This I found very annoying and ended up not using them at all. So regrettably, there was quite a bit that went over my head but I did my best.

We left off at the close of Purgatorio with Dante and Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise (Eden) at the summit of the Mountain all penitent souls must climb before final transcendence. Dante has been purified and is now ready to rise to his final destination. All three canticles end with images of stars, as the realm of God, the first and last home of humankind.

Whereas Hell had Nine Circles and Purgatory had Seven Terraces (corresponding to the seven deadly sins), Heaven has Nine Spheres surrounding the earth, based on the four cardinal virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude) and the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love). They are the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, the Primum Mobile. Finally, there is the home of God Himself, the Empyrean, a place composed of pure light and intelligence, the source of all Creation and beyond physical existence. Dante's ascent through each Sphere mirrors the soul's natural inclination to rise and seek what is good or, more particularly, the origin of all good. Recall in Purgatorio the discussion on spiritual and psychological maturity, in which Dante posits that it is humanity's innate desire for happiness and fulfillment that often leads us to sin, especially if we have not been properly taught discernment. This occurred in Canto 16 of Purgatorio, which is also Canto 50 of the entire Comedy, located directly in the middle and thereby indicating its significance to our understanding of Dante's cosmos.

From what I could understood of it, Paradiso is basically Dante expressing, in as many different and eloquent ways as he can, that this place is very bright and full of joy. There are also many, many metaphors involving hunger, nourishment, bows and arrows, and fruits and seeds. (This last one ties in with one of the motifs of Purgatorio, in which the souls are essentially "pregnant" with their new being.) The corruption of the clergy and present-day Florence are still very much present (and the subject of several long rants) but the overall impression is one of everlasting peace and contemplation. In other words, The Divine Comedy leans dangerously toward the "Evil is Cool/Good is Boring" tropes, although Your Mileage May Vary on that one. Paradiso is definitely the most abstract of the three, which is hardly surprising, considering that the whole point of Heaven is that these souls have found ultimate peace and enlightenment and have nothing left to overcome or strive for.

Instead of going over the language, philosophy, political context and so forth, I thought I'd focus instead on what impressed me throughout The Divine Comedy, especially in Paradiso. In my last Dante post I described his images of divinity as "reverse-Lovecraftian." In explanation, let us first begin by recognizing Dante's vision of Heaven as distinctly neo-Platonic. God is the beginning and the end, the birthplace and final resting place of all that is just and worthy. When examined by Saint John on love, Dante contends that,
"Arguments of philosophy," said I,
      "and heavenly authority that descends
      to men on earth, have stamped such love on me;
For good, as it is good, and known as good,
      enkindles love, and lights love all the more
      according to the good it comprehends.
So toward that Being, so superior
      that every other good a man may find
      is only a reflection of His splendor,
More than toward any others the keen mind
      must move in love - when once it should detect
      the truth whereon this argument is built.
He lays this bare before my intellect
      who demonstrates to me the primal love
      of all everlasting substances.
The voice of the true Author, speaking of
      Himself to Moses, also lays it bare,
      saying, "I shall reveal myself all worth to you." (26.25-42)
Much of what Dante sees in Heaven can be expressed in no human language, not even by calling down the power of the Muses or the invoking the glory of Mount Thessalian. The light is simultaneously illuminating and blinding, one of many seeming contradictions made unified, like the idea that three Beings are One (the Trinity) who is both the Alpha and Omega.
Here memory conquers any wit of mine,
      for that cross lightninged forth the form of Christ -
      I find for it no metaphor so fine -
But who takes up his cross and follows Christ
      will pardon what I pass by in this place,
      seeing in that bright tree the light of Christ. (14.103-108)
In fact, language itself, including the elevated language of poetry, is but a mere collection of signs trying to signify and communicate aspects of reality. (I think there's a postmodernist argument in there somewhere. Was it Derrida?) Having risen to the Empyrean Sphere, Dante admits that,
. . . From this pass I must concede
      myself more overcome than ever was
      tragedian or comic at the peak
Of difficulty: as the sun in eyes
      that tremble weakly, so my memory
      of [Beatrice's] sweet smile now robs the intellect
And leaves me at a loss. From the first day
      I saw her face until this vision now,
      my road to song has not been cut away,
But here, as every artist, I must bow
      to my last power, and cease to follow on
      her loveliness by signs in poetry.
Such beauty I must leave to a clarion
      more brilliant than my trumpet to unite
      clear words and arduous truth. . . (30.22-36)
This is where faith comes in, as the individual must place their trust in the inscrutable and unknowable will of the Divine, knowing not where He will take them but only that He acts out of the purest of love. Faith, Dante says in response to Saint Peter's examination,
"is the substance of things hoped for and
      the argument of things not come to light.
      This is its essence, as I understand."
At that I heard, "Your thoughts are just and right,
      if you can tell me why he posits it
      as substance first, then as an argument."
And I responded, "The profundities
      of Heaven I have been generously shown
      are so deeply concealed from human eyes,
Their essence is a matter of faith alone,
      whereon our high hope builds its testament,
      so 'substance' is a proper term, for one;
And from the tenets of faith we draw
      conclusions - with no other sight to see.
      Thus it is justly called an 'argument.'" (24.64-78)
Dante's universe is an ordered one built on hierarchies and universal truths. It stands in opposition to the discordance of Hell, the deviation from the straight path, where language is garbled and the human form (the image of God) is distorted, degraded, and bestial. By conforming to certain beliefs and behaviors, humanity rests assured that a benevolent omniscience has their best interests at heart and will award them once they have moved beyond physical life. Even the unknowable is ultimately good.

In other words, it is the complete opposite of H.P. Lovecraft's cosmic horror stories. The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. . . [S]ome day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. The universe is a vast, sanity-shattering chaos. Humanity is but a newborn species on a measly little planet in one of many dimensions. Humanity is insignificant. There is no such thing as heaven or divinity or nirvana: the being worshiped as a god by that arcane cult is really just a super-evolved extraterrestrial. To even begin to comprehend the unspeakable horrors laid out in the Necronomicon is to start on a slow descent into pure, unadulterated madness. But it's only incidental, really. That Eldritch Abomination didn't even do it on purpose. You're not worth the effort. Your pitifully fragile human mind just can't bridge the deep black gulf of unspeakable terrors from the hideously unimaginable realms of non-Euclidean geometry.

(Actually, too much exposure to most exalted Paradise has a similar effect in the Danteverse. At one point, Beatrice even explains to Dante that she cannot smile at him until his perceptive abilities have been expanded, as the sight would literally destroy him, "like Semele / reduced to ashes by the power of Jove, . . . " [21.6-7]. Later in the canto, Peter Damien says that he and the other souls have stopped singing for the same reason: "Your hearing is as mortal as your eyes" [21.61].)

To understand how two authors from more or less the same background (Western civilization) can articulate such divergent views, one must look at the great developments in Western thought that occurred during the six hundred years that separate them. I did a review a few weeks back on Ingrid Winterbach's To Hell with Cronjé in which I discussed the clash between the traditional and modernist worldviews at the turn of the twentieth century. The era saw many new revelations regarding the evolution of life, the enigma of the human brain, the immensity of our planet's history ("the scale almost ungraspable by the human mind"), and the sheer vastness and mystery of the cosmos. To some, this new science represented a liberation from the metaphysical order imposed upon the universe by the old moralists, philosophers, and theologists. Radical and innovative movements in art, literature, and music were born, inspired by Einstein's theories of space-time, Freud's theories on the primal subconscious, and the speed and ubiquity of technology. Indeed, it has been said that Modernism was the greatest burst of human creativity seen since the Renaissance.

But not everyone embraced cutting-edge culture, as explored in Winterbach's novel with the vehement opposition of the protagonists' religious comrades. (The two main characters are a geologist and a biologist.) As one contemporary, Mabel Dodge, recalled, "The world is full of lost souls, creatures who have lost their moorings, who have broken out of the pattern of established life and are whisked along with no sense of either past or future." In place of the spiritual assurance promised Dante, and most Christians for a long time after him, was constant motion, flux, the inundation of information, and multitudes of questions and controversies raised each time science made a new discovery. Even as late as 1965, Alvin Toffler's Future Shock was arguing that the accelerated rate of change in a "super-industrial" society was disorienting and psychologically destabilizing. (It was Toffler who coined the phrase "information overload.")

But to return to the early twentieth century, this is where Lovecraft comes in as an inverted Dante. I think Lovecraft was definitely responding to what was happening in the culture around him, and "updating" established tropes in fiction and theology to make them relevant to modern readers. Maybe I'm being too negative, but that spiritual faith Dante talked about - that ardent trust in things unseen and the final triumph of a benevolent will - is largely absent today. The belief that goodness (as we understand it) is the ultimate standard of the universe seems so remote. We can't even conceive anymore of the universe as humanocentric, a concept that started going out of style with Copernicus. The unknown doesn't have to be terrifying, as Lovecraft liked to imagine, but, as T.S. Eliot put it, "All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance." Despite its often grim subject matter, The Divine Comedy as a whole seemed suffused with a sense of peace and confidence that added so much to its appeal. Dante's masterpiece is a great cultural artifact as well as a literary treasure and I loved reading it. A special thanks to Richard!

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Cantos 1-8
Cantos 9-17
Cantos 18-26
Cantos 27-34

Purgatorio, Cantos 1-10
Purgatorio, Part the Second


Richard said...

Thank you for reading along with me, E.L. Fay--I was glad to have the company! Of the many interesting things you say here, I'm most taken with what you say about the ordered paradise vs. the chaotic hell. It's so obvious in a way, and yet I completely missed that given all the abstruse scholastic "examinations" and mindbending mysticism I was trying to keep up with. I look forward to reading all of The Divine Comedy again at some point, but I'm glad you enjoyed the experience as well. That's just awesome. Cheers!

Emily said...

Wow, very interesting parallel (or comparison) between Dante & Lovecraft, EL Fay! And fascinating that, despite his more peaceful worldview, even Dante recognizes the potential danger/horror in being exposed to an unfiltered supernatural while still in mortal form. I've always assumed that the Paradiso would be much duller than the Inferno, but you and Richard are tempting me to pick it up at some point. Thanks!

Eileen said...

Richard: Are Amanda and I the only ones left standing? I'm really glad I had at companions in taking on this daunting task! I gave up trying to follow the mysticism and medieval theology. I should reread this when Durling's translation comes out with the notes at the end of each canto instead of all the way in the back.

When it comes to "mindbending," Dante has nothing on Lovecraft.

Emily: Paradiso actually is much duller than both Inferno and Purgatorio. The former has the advantage of being basically horror, while in the latter the characters still have struggles and conflicts to overcome. In Heaven they just kind of hang out and sing. All the descriptions of light and joy really get monotonous after awhile, despite Dante's best efforts.

Richard said...

Claire's still plugging away, too, but won't be finishing anytime soon the last I heard. Other than that, you (finished) and Amanda (almost finished) are indeed the only others who hung in there all the way through!

Anonymous said...

I find it really interesting the way we all seem to take something different away from Dante. The comparisons you bring between Dante and Lovecraft are interesting, both for the realization of how much has changed in 700 years, but also for stark relief the contrast places on Dante's worldview. It was easy for me to get caught up in just trying to make my way through Paradiso and forget to look at it as a whole picture--to see the worldview, and how what was commonly accepted in 1300 has changed over time.

(I'm glad too, to have had companions on this journey--I'm not sure I would have finished otherwise!)

Tom C said...

What an extremely insightful post. I have never read Dante and rather baulk at the thought of doing so. However, you have made the book accessible here, so who knows

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