The Commedia gets harder as you keep reading. Dante is quite explicit about the challenge he poses the reader in Paradiso: at the beginning of Paradiso 2, he tells the reader to turn back to shore, lest we get lost as we follow him onto the watery deep.
One of the complexities of reading the Commedia is that as we go forward the textuality becomes more seamless, less divisible into nice narrative blocks. If you look at the Appendix on canto beginnings and endings in The Undivine Comedy, you will get an idea of how much harder it is to mark formal transitions in the second and especially the third cantica. In general, “plot” gets harder and harder to pinpoint. At the same time, we should make an effort to look for moments of “plot” in order to orient ourselves in what Dante himself will call, in the next canto, the “pelago” (ocean) of his text.
The first terzina of the Paradiso encompasses “the paradox of più e meno” (see the title of Chapter 8 of The Undivine Comedy): the paradox of how “more” (“più”) and “less” (“meno”)—in other words, the reality of difference—can coexist with Oneness. I use “difference” as Dante uses it (“In astratto significa il ‘differire’ tra due o più elementi” [Fernando Salsano, Enciclopedia Dantesca, s.v. “differenza”]), and much as St. Thomas uses distinctio: “any type of non-identity between objects and things. Often called diversity or difference” (T. Gilby, Glossary, Summa Theologia, Blackfriars 1967, 8:164). In other words, as is apparent from the discussion of time and difference in Chapter 8 of The Undivine Comedy, my usage is essentially Aristotelian.
In the opening three lines of the last cantica Dante poses both the borderless unity of the “universe” (whose etymology precisely stresses oneness) and the irreducible reality of difference:
La gloria di colui che tutto move per l’universo penetra, e risplende in una parte più e meno altrove. (Par. 1.1-3)
The glory of the One who moves all things permeates the universe and glows in one part more and in another less.
The theme of how oneness and difference coexist is the great theme of the Paradiso. This coexistence constitutes a paradox—the very paradox captured by Christian symbolism in the Trinity, which is both one and three.
At the beginning of Paradiso 1 we encounter the basic textual building blocks of Paradiso: moments of “plot” (what happened) are interspersed with the poet’s claims that he cannot recount what he saw (the “ineffability topos”) and with prayers/invocations for divine help in his arduous task.
These three narrative elements are immediately present. The second terzina introduces both plot (where the narrator was and what he saw: “fu’ io, e vidi cose” in Par. 1.5) and ineffability (“ridire / né sa né può” in Par. 1.5-6):
Nel ciel che più de la sua luce prende fu’ io, e vidi cose che ridire né sa né può chi di là sù discende . . . (Par. 1.4-6)
I was within the heaven that receives more of His light; and I saw things that he who from that height descends, forgets or cannot speak . . .
The third terzina potently reminds us that the journey we have been tracing in the Commedia is the journey of desire, and that it is the nearness of the goal that results in the failure of memory:
perché appressando sé al suo disire, nostro intelletto si profonda tanto, che dietro la memoria non può ire. (Par. 1.7-9)
for nearing its desired end, our intellect sinks into an abyss so deep that memory fails to follow it.
Prayers for help in this arduous poetic undertaking do not take long to follow. In Paradiso 1.15 we encounter the first of many prayers, in this instance to Apollo, to whom the poet turns for literal “in-spiration”: Dante uses the verb spirare here as he did in Purgatorio 24, where he defines himself as one who takes note when love breathes into him (“quando / Amor mi spira” [Purg. 24.52-53]).
The invocation to Apollo introduces as well the first of many Ovidian analogies in the Paradiso, the canticle where the great poet of change and transformation comes into his own. Here Dante refers gruesomely—reminding us of the linkage between vision and violence that I discussed with respect to the Ovidian dream of Purgatorio 9—to Apollo’s “unsheathing” of Marsyas from his body, in a kind of terrible ec-stasis:
Entra nel petto mio, e spira tue sì come quando Marsia traesti de la vagina de le membra sue. (Par. 1.19-21)
Enter into my breast; within me breathe the very power you made manifest when you drew Marsyas out from his limbs’ sheath.
The story-line as we left it in Purgatorio 33 is resumed in Paradiso 1.37, where a lengthy astronomical periphrasis alerts us to the fact that it is mid-day in purgatory when Beatrice looks up at the sun in verse 46; we note that Dante is “physically” still in purgatory at this point. The pilgrim imitates his guide, Beatrice, in verse 54 and looks up at the sun as well, which results in his seeing a doubling of light; he then looks back at Beatrice in verses 65-66.
This spiraling dialectic between Beatrice and everything else in paradise will be fundamental to how things “happen” in Paradiso: vision is triggered by the dynamic whereby Dante first follows Beatrice in looking upward, then looks back at her, then looks upward again, and so on.
What happens now as a result of looking at Beatrice (“Nel suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei”, “In watching her, within me I was changed” ) is that Dante experiences “trasumanar” (Par. 1.70): this extraordinary coinage, “tras” + “umanar” (a verb made from “umano”), signifies “to go beyond the human” and is typical of how Dante will describe the undescribable. He will make new language.
And he will use Ovid. Here the “essemplo” (example, analogy) given by Dante to help us understand what it is to experience trasumanar is that of the fisherman Glaucus, who plunges into the sea upon eating the metamorphic herb that makes him a sea-god:
Nel suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei, qual si fé Glauco nel gustar de l’erba che ’l fé consorto in mar de li altri dèi. (Par. 1.67-69)
In watching her, within me I was changed as Glaucus changed, tasting the herb that made him a companion of the other sea gods.
This is the point at which Dante “leaves” Purgatory and “goes to” Paradise. (You see what I mean about paying close attention to finding the “plot”.)
Does he go in the body or not in the body? St. Paul, Dante’s biblical model for raptus (again, see Purgatorio 9), states the question in this way:
Scio hominem in Christo ante annos quatuordecim, sive in corpore nescio, sive extra corpus nescio, Deus scit, raptum huiusmodi usque ad tertium caelum (2 Cor. 12:2)
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows) was caught up to the third heaven.
Dante echoes St. Paul:
S’i’ era sol di me quel che creasti novellamente, amor che ’l ciel governi, tu ’l sai, che col tuo lume mi levasti. (Par. 1.73-75)
Whether I only was the part of me that You created last, You—governing the heavens—know: it was Your light that raised me.
Dante makes evident throughout the Commedia that he took his journey in the flesh. He is not here recanting but simply expressing his radical claim in the veiled and Pauline manner adopted by his biblical predecessor: “Dante is deliberately following his avowed and greatest model, St. Paul, whose ambiguity regarding the corporeality of his raptus did not prevent the early Church fathers from viewing it as a real event” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 148, and see Chapter 7 for this issue).
Dante does not understand what has occurred, and Beatrice explains: “Tu non se’ in terra, sì come tu credi” (You are not on the earth as you believe [Par. 1.91]). Her explanation only provokes more curiosity: how is it possible that he has risen above these light bodies, the spheres of air and fire (Par. 1.97-99)?
Frequently, the narrative rhythm of the Paradiso will involve the following dynamic. The pilgrim poses a question that could be answered locally and succinctly. Instead it is taken as an opportunity for the poet, in the voice of the pilgrim’s interlocutor, to take a deep breath, take a long step back, and deal with the explanation not at the local level but starting from first principles.
That dynamic now comes into play, as Beatrice takes Dante’s question as an opportunity to explain the order of the universe, how all created beings return to their individual “ports” in the “great sea of being”: “lo gran mar de l’essere” (Par. 1.113). According to this cosmic order, Dante’s rising is not remarkable; rather, it would be remarkable if he were not to rise, now that he is free of all impediment (Par. 1.139-40).
In The Undivine Comedy I discuss the surpassing difficulty of expressing unity and oneness and simultaneity through language, a medium that is differential and time-bound and linear. Already in this first canto of Paradiso we see some of Dante’s strategies. These strategies are, in that he is a writer, all ultimately linguistic and depend on a poetic virtuosity that he pushes to remarkable limits.
Dante has at his command singular resources of metaphoric language: only metaphor is able to placate the tension between the one and the many. The great ontological metaphor of the “gran mar de l’essere” in which the più and the meno of creation is all embraced, each at its own proper port, is an example of the kind of metaphoric language that Dante will use to express the oneness of creation.
The “gran mar de l’essere” was anticipated by the Ovidian example of Glaucus, who became “consorto in mar de li altri dèi” (consort in the sea of the other gods [Par. 1.69]). For Dante, the word “corsorte” has its full etymological sense of one who shares a destiny (“con” + “sorte” = destiny, from Latin “sors”). The sea is, for Glaucus too, the unifying medium that absorbs him and renders him similar to the other gods, their “con-sort” in the waters of being, alike them in his sorte, no longer different.
 Universe = “the whole world, cosmos,” from Old French univers (12c.), from Latin universum “the universe,” noun use of neuter of adj. universus “all together,” literally “turned into one,” from unus “one” + versus, past participle of vertere “to turn”.