Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 21 | Summary

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Summary

Beatrice has now grown so beautiful she must refrain from smiling, lest she burn Dante to ashes on the spot. The two arrive at Saturn, the seventh heaven and the abode of the contemplatives. These are souls who, exemplifying the virtue of temperance on the cold planet, devoted themselves in life to prayer and penance. Dante beholds a golden ladder "stretching upwards" into space. Souls—or, as Dante now calls them, "brilliancies"—descend the ladder and wait for Dante's questions. The light nearest to Dante begins to shine out with a special brightness, beckoning Dante to speak. Why, Dante asks, has this soul deigned to approach so near, and why is there no music in this sphere, as there is elsewhere in Paradise?

In answering Dante's first question, the soul engages him in a discussion of providence and predestination, ultimately concluding these are mysteries too sublime for human minds. His second question—why no music?—is easier to answer: music is present in this sphere, but it is too heavenly to be perceived by Dante's mortal ears. Finally, the soul introduces himself as Peter Damian (c. 1007–72), a monk and Church reformer known for his ascetic lifestyle. After some sharp words about the luxurious living of "modern" clergy, Peter falls silent. The other souls, glowing like flames, circle around him and utter a piercing cry. Dante ends the canto in a state of perplexity.

Analysis

Images of seeing and hearing are used throughout Paradise to indicate Dante's receptivity to God's grace. The pilgrim-poet is frequently dazed—and in one case, temporarily but completely blinded—by the brightness of the souls he meets. These are mere reflections of God's glory, so Dante's situation is akin to viewing God through a camera obscura, yet still being dazzled by the light. Likewise, Dante is enraptured by the songs these souls sing, but he is often overpowered by their beauty and sometimes unable to discern their words. Being a human in Paradise is, as Dante portrays it, a constant experience of too-muchness. Spiritual progress is measured by one's ability to adapt.

Canto 21 underscores the extreme nature of Dante's sensory experiences in Paradise. He learns there are sights so bright as to be not just disorienting, but harmful—as Beatrice's radiance would become if she smiled. The notion of God (or, in polytheistic cultures, of a god) being too bright to behold is widespread among the world's religions. Paul, in his first epistle to Timothy, gives this idea its definitive expression in the Christian context:

[God] only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see.

Beatrice, however, is a mere spark or glint of this "unapproachable light," as are the rest of the saints. If she can immolate Dante with a smile, his spiritual vision must therefore be relatively weak and easily overpowered. Yet vision, for Dante, is not merely the ability to tolerate bright lights. It also involves the ability to discern fine details, even at a great distance. In this sense, too, Dante's vision is still limited since he cannot see the end of the contemplatives' ladder. By the time he reaches the Empyrean, his sight will be so purified and perfected that everything will appear in total clarity. He is moving back in time and moving higher all the time, into ever more rarified atmosphere preparatory to God and the final destination.

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