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. (Dante simply called it his Comedy; in what was perhaps the founding instance of publishing hype, divine was added by a Venetian printer in 1555.) Hollander’s edition, produced with his wife, Jean, was published this summer, and two more are due out next year: one by Robin Kirkpatrick and the other—the one I’m holding out for—by Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez.
What keeps people from the Paradiso? For one, it lacks the Inferno’s irony. The characters Dante meets in hell know the circumstances of their sins, but with few exceptions, they can’t see the justice in their punishments. The tension between their knowledge and ours generates a kind of dramatic irony familiar to modern readers: the irony of the unreliable narrator. Another problem is narrative: The Purgatorio is almost too successful in wrapping things up, so that by the end of the second canticle, Dante has done almost everything that seemed worth doing. He’s crossed hell and climbed Mount Purgatory, he’s purged himself of his own sins, and he’s come face to face with Beatrice, the woman on account of whom his whole journey was undertaken. It doesn’t help matters that for most of the Paradiso,Beatrice acts more like a schoolmarm than a lover, delivering long speeches that read like lectures in Scholastic theology.
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, Invisible Man, The Descent of Alette, not to mention “The Waste Land.”)
At first glance, Dante’s nine spheres of heaven look to be exactly the kind of bright, boring place we’d expect. When the pilgrim meets Piccarda in the heaven of the moon, the lowest of the nine, he asks why she doesn’t wish to be higher up, to be nearer to God. Piccarda replies (in Jean Hollander’s translation), “Brother, the power of love subdues our will/ so that we long for only what we have/ and thirst for nothing else.” A statement like this would seem to drain the Paradiso of all possible interest: wanting only what one has may be admirable in life but it hardly bodes well for literature.
Dante’s heaven is certainly bright—light is the central metaphor of the canticle—but it’s far from 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 like this one, which spells out the opening words of the biblical Book of Wisdom:
… radiant within their lights, the holy creatures
sang as they flew and shaped themselves
in figures, now D, now I, now L.
DILIGITE IUSTITIAM—these letters,
placed together, verb and noun, came first,
QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM, last.
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.”
The most famous example of the drama forged from the contrast between heaven and earth occurs in the heaven of the sun. There Dante meets St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, the two great medieval theologians, both of whom belonged to mendicant religious orders. The friars take turns narrating the hagiographies of the orders’ founders, but with a twist: Thomas (a Dominican) tells the story of St. Francis, and Bonaventure (a Franciscan) tells the story of St. Dominic. After praising St. Francis, Thomas goes on to denounce his own order, complaining that the number of living Dominicans who have stayed true to their founder “are so few/ that a tiny piece of cloth can furnish all their cowls.” (Bonaventure delivers a similar denunciation of the Franciscans.) Thomas and Bonaventure are each liberal in their praise, but to understand just how extraordinary their double gesture is, we have to consider it against the backdrop of life on earth, where the two orders were often in competition.
In a sense, the cosmic drama of the Paradiso inverts the dramatic irony that’s so attractive in the Inferno. Dante’s hell flatters us: It allows us to stand in judgment, to delight in the friction between what we know and what the damned don’t—to see things, in other words, from the perspective of God. Paradiso, however, puts us back in our place. Though the poet labors mightily to “show the merest shadow/ of the blessèd kingdom stamped within my mind,” he never lets us forget that it is only a shadow. Once we follow him to heaven, it’s we who lack the inside information, we who stand on the wrong end of the irony. Previously we judged hell; now heaven judges us.
The idea of a heaven that stands in such uneasy tension with earth is what gives the Paradiso its dramatic power, but it is also what makes Paradiso so alien to our sensibilities. As Adam Kirsch argued several years ago, contemporary writers like Alice Sebold and Mitch Albom treat heaven as essentially therapeutic, “a chance to get our inner lives right at last.” The way these writers see heaven echoes the way they think about literature: Sebold says that “part of my work is motivated by wanting to give us all permission to feel what we feel and not judge ourselves so harshly for it.” For the same reasons that he looked to heaven for justice rather than therapy, Dante rejected this comforting view of literature. He wanted his poem to save your soul, not to salve it.