Paradiso 26 falls into two parts: the first part consists of Saint John’s examination of Dante on charity/love, and the second consists of Dante’s encounter with Adam.
At the end of Paradiso 25 Dante stares at the refulgent light of Saint John, trying to ascertain whether Saint John already has his body, prior to the Last Judgment and to the general resurrection of the flesh. He is wondering whether Saint John, as some said, was assumed to heaven in the flesh when he died, like Christ and Mary. The fact that Christ already possesses His body was clarified when Dante saw Him arrive in glory in Paradiso 23: Christ arrives already possessed of His “lucente sustanza” (Par. 23.32).
As though he were staring at the sun in an eclipse, gazing at Saint John causes Dante to go blind, in the last verses of Paradiso 25. The pilgrim is like someone who, wishing to see, becomes sightless: “che, per veder, non vedente diventa” (Par. 25.120).
Paradiso 26 picks up with Dante worried about his extinguished sight, “lo viso spento” (1), and a reassurance from Saint John, who tells him that Beatrice will be able to restore his sight and exhorts him to compensate for his present lack of vision by speaking (6).
As the opening question in the examination on love, Saint John asks Dante “at what target does your soul aim”: “ove s’appunta / l’anima tua” (7-8). The answer, of course, is that Dante’s desired target is God, for God is the beginning and ending — the Alpha and Omega — of all his desire:
Lo ben che fa contenta questa corte, Alfa e O è di quanta scrittura mi legge Amore o lievemente o forte. (Par. 26.16-18)
The good with which this court is satisfied is Alpha and Omega of all writings that Love has—loud or low—read out to me.
Saint John follows up by asking “who directed your bow to such a target”: “chi drizzò l’arco tuo a tal berzaglio” (24). The pilgrim’s answer to the second query will return us to the textual authorities rehearsed so copiously in Paradiso 24 and 25: each examination canto has reiterated that the authorities are both classical philosophers, especially Aristotle, and Scripture.
In Paradiso 26 Dante states that he received his direction from “filosofici argomenti / e per autorità che quinci scende”: “from philosophical arguments and from authority that comes down from up here” (25-26), in other words, the bow of Dante’s love has been directed by philosophy (Aristotle) and by revelation (Scripture).
This same set of authorities is repeated and unpacked further in the passage that follows verse 38. In what follows, verses 38-39 refer most likely to Aristotle, and then there is a reference first to the Old Testament (40-42) and then to the New Testament (43-45):
Tal vero a l’intelletto mio sterne colui che mi dimostra il primo amore di tutte le sustanze sempiterne. Sternel la voce del verace autore, che dice a Moisè, di sé parlando: «Io ti farò vedere ogne valore». Sternilmi tu ancora, incominciando l’alto preconio che grida l’arcano di qui là giù sovra ogne altro bando. (Par. 26.37-45)
My mind discerns this truth, made plain by him who demonstrates to me that the first love of the eternal beings is their Maker. The voice of the true Author states this, too, where He tells Moses, speaking of Himself: “I shall show you all goodness.” You reveal this, too, when you begin your high Evangel, which more than any other proclamation cries out to earth the mystery of Heaven.
Thus, each terzina of the passage cited above refers to a written authority. The first terzina refers to a philosopher, difficult to pinpoint because of the generic nature of the ideas cited, but most likely Aristotle; the second terzina refers to the Old Testament, citing God’s voice speaking to Moses in Exodus 33:19; the third terzina refers to the New Testament. Since the pilgrim is addressing Saint John and referring to “your high Evangel”, he is indicating either the Gospel of John or the Apocalypse (in Dante’s time, John the Evangelist was believed to be author of both books). The Apocalypse has already been cited in the reference to Alpha and O[mega] in verse 17 of this canto.
The third question of the examination on love deploys the language of eros, indeed the language of Dante’s most erotic lyrics, the rime petrose. Saint John asks “con quanti denti questo amor ti morde” (Par. 26.51): “with how many teeth does this love bite you?” Here the poet is repurposing the erotic aggression of his canzone Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro, where too “the teeth of love” are featured: “co li denti d’Amor già mi manduca” (Così nel mio parlar 32).
In the context of Paradiso 26, the “bites of love” refer to the stimuli — first called “altre corde” (other cords) in verse 49 — that cause Dante to turn toward God’s love. Cords pull the soul towards God. Bites provide the stimuli that move the soul towards God.
Here we have conversio in bono: the turning of the soul toward God, rather than the turning of the soul toward secondary goods, as discussed so frequently in the second half of Purgatorio and as distilled in Beatrice’s rebuke of Purgatorio 30-31. No longer is the siren of Purgatorio 19 the source of the soul’s movement; now it is the love of God that provokes the soul to turn.
The transposition of the language of eros into the language of God’s bites is a beautiful example of the way that, in Paradiso, Dante recuperates the language of eros to express his love of God. (See my essay “Toward a Dantean Theology of Eros”, cited in Coordinated Reading, where I add the petrosa to the sources of Paradiso 26.)
The catechism of God’s bites follows. The pilgrim begins this catechism by declaring that his turning toward God — his “volgere a Dio” or conversio toward God — was brought about by the specific “morsi” or “bites” that he will subsequently rehearse: “Tutti quei morsi / che posson far lo cor volgere a Dio, / a la mia caritate son concorsi” (My charity / results from all those things whose bite can bring / the heart to turn to God [Par. 26.55-57]).
The pilgrim then rehearses three bites: 1) “l’essere del mondo e l’esser mio” (the world’s existence and mine [Par. 26.58]), 2) “la morte ch’el sostenne perch’ io viva” (the death that He sustained that I might live ), 3) “e quel che spera ogne fedel com’ io” (and that which is the hope of all believers ). That for which all faithful believers like Dante hope is, of course, eternal glory.
These three bites, together with the before-mentioned understanding (61) that God is the first love of all created beings (38-39), drew Dante from the sea of twisted love and put him on the shore of right love: “tratto m’hanno del mar de l’amor torto, / e del diritto m’han posto a la riva” (these drew me from the sea of twisted love / and set me on the shore of the right love [Par. 26.62-63]).
These extraordinary metaphors of the “sea of twisted love” and “the sea of right love” continue the metaphorizing of the oceans that is a feature of the third cantica, moving the metaphors from the existential and universal, as in “lo gran mar de l’essere” (the great sea of being) of Paradiso 1.113, to the moral: the opposition between the sea of amor torto and the sea of amor dritto takes us back to Purgatorio and to Purgatorio 17’s explanation that all human behavior is grounded in love, whether that be evil love or good love.
The examination on love ends in verse 66.
The Commedia is made of many encounters, as the pilgrim meets soul after soul on his journey through the afterlife. His last encounter full encounter, by which I mean an encounter in which the pilgrim asks questions about the soul, is with Adam, the first human being. This combination of first with last is Paradiso 26’s narratological variant and echo of the universal Alpha and Omega with which this canto begins.
In a common dynamic of Paradiso, Adam is able to intuit Dante’s questions (his “voglia” or desire in verses 95 and 104) without the pilgrim having to express them. Dante’s four questions are articulated by Adam in verses 109-14:
- how much time has passed since God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, that is, how much time has elapsed since creation;
- how much time did Adam spend in the Garden of Eden;
- the true cause of God’s anger at Adam, that is, the true cause of original sin;
- the language that Adam used and made.
Needless to say, the answers to these questions are exceptionally important.
Adam answers the third question first. The pilgrim’s desire to know “la propria cagion del gran disdegno” (the true cause of God’s great anger ), calls forth a quintessentially Ulyssean terzina, one moreover that offers the necessary gloss to Inferno 26.108: “dov’ Ercule segnò li suoi riguardi” (where Hercules set up his boundary stones).
Adam explains that his exile from the Garden of Eden was caused not by the eating of the tree but by the trespass of the boundary placed by God:
Or, figluol mio, non il gustar del legno fu per sé la cagion di tanto essilio, ma solamente il trapassar del segno. (Par. 26.115-17)
My son, the cause of my long exile did not lie within the act of tasting of the tree, but solely in my trespass of the boundary.
Of course, the information that Adam’s sin was not in the literal act of eating but in the trespass that the eating signifies is not new. The metaphorical expansiveness of the sins of incontinence is a hermeneutic staple of the second half of Purgatorio, culminating in Purgatorio 32, where the griffin is celebrated for having resisted eating of the tree (Purg. 32.43-45). Subsequently, in Purgatorio 33, we learn of the “interdetto” or prohibition that was placed by God upon the tree (Purg. 33.71). At this point, Beatrice offers a moral interpretation of the tree and its prohibition, explaining that, when interpreted “morally” (“moralmente” [Purg. 33.72]), the tree must be understood as a representation of “la giustizio di Dio” (Purg. 33.71): God’s justice.
In other words, the tree and the prohibition to eat of the tree must be understood in terms of the limits it represents, the obedience required to respect those limits, and the consequent justice of the punishment meted to those who transgress. In short, the temptation to which Adam and Ulysses succumb is the temptation that the griffin resists.
We have known long before arriving at Paradiso 26, therefore, that Adam’s sin, recast in Dante’s personal mythography as Ulysses’ sin, was transgression: “il trapassar del segno” (Par. 26.117). There is nonetheless great satisfaction in having Adam speak so clearly, and in language that concisely ties Adamic trespass to the Ulyssean lexicon of Inferno 26. And the sense of tying up the threads continues into the next canto, Paradiso 27, where Dante will refer to “Ulisse” by name one more time.
Looking at the four questions that the pilgrim puts to Adam, we see that they can be grouped as follows: questions 1, 2, and 4 deal with temporality and the corruptibility of all that exists in time, and question 3 deals with the root cause, from a Christian perspective, of that corruptibility, which is the fall and original sin.
We remember the bleak lesson of Paradiso 16.79: “Le vostre cose tutte hanno lor morte” (All things that you possess, possess their death). All things that are possessed and made by humans are corruptible and mortal. In the Commento on Paradiso 16 I noted that “vostre cose” of verse 79 include:
- cities (Luni, Urbisaglia, in Par. 16.73-75)
- family lineages (“le schiatte” in Par. 16.76)
- language (the emphasis on Cacciaguida’s earlier form of Florentine in Paradiso 15)
The corruptibility of language is specifically highlighted in the pilgrim’s fourth question to Adam, in which Dante desires to know from the father of humanity about the language that he used and constructed: as Adam puts it, “l’idioma ch’usai e che fei” (what idiom I used and shaped [Par. 26.114]).
By using the verb “I made” — “fei” or “feci” is the past absolute in the first person of fare, to make — Adam affirms that he (not God) was the creator of his language, Hebrew. Humans make language, and Dante has Adam affirm that this act of creation is one that also pertains to the first human.
Adam’s statement with respect to Hebrew is notable, because Dante is here revoking the exemption that he assigned to Hebrew in De Vulgari Eloquentia. In the linguistic treatise, written in the first decade of the fourteenth-century, before he began the Commedia, Dante treats Hebrew as special among all languages, stipulating that it was co-created by God when He created Adam. Since it was created by God, Hebrew was eternal, exempted from the corruptibility of all things created by humans.
But now, in Adam’s account in Paradiso 26, Hebrew was dead before Nimrod set about building the tower of Babel:
La lingua ch’io parlai fu tutta spenta innanzi che a l’ovra inconsummabile fosse la gente di Nembròt attenta: ché nullo effetto mai razionabile, per lo piacere uman che rinovella seguendo il cielo, sempre fu durabile. (Par. 26.124-29)
The tongue I spoke was all extinct before the men of Nimrod set their minds upon the unaccomplishable task; for never has any thing produced by human reason been everlasting—following the heaven men seek the new, they shift their predilections.
The reference to Nimrod and his “ovra inconsummabile” (unaccomplishable task ) reminds us that human arrogance and transgression were inscribed into linguistic production early on in human history, according to the Bible. The result of the tower of Babel, as discussed in the Commento on Inferno 31, was the linguistic diaspora visited upon humans by their creator. God condemned us to speak many different languages as punishment for our transgression.
In Paradiso 26 Adam affirms the radical mortality of all language, a human creation, when he includes his own language — Hebrew — among the mortal things that are condemned to change and die. But, at the same time that Adam affirms the mortality of all language, he also affirms human creativity — human inventiveness — and he does so emphatically with the verb “fei”: the language that I made.
Adam’s statement that Hebrew was extinct before the Tower of Babel is also very consequential, for it effectively deprives the Tower of Babel of its sting. In Paradiso 26 Dante effectively eviscerates the causal logic that makes the destruction of the Tower of Babel God’s punishment of our hubris:
With the death of Hebrew announced by Adam comes the death of Babel. In other words, the extinction of Hebrew also extinguishes the causal logic, present in the story since the Genesis account, whereby our sinful pride was punished by linguistic “confusio”: the “confusion of tongues” — diversity of language — that was meted out as punishment for our transgression. The result of Paradiso 26’s acceptance of the radical historicity of all human language is nothing less than the excision of the causal link that makes the myth of Babel so powerful. (“Difference as Punishment or Difference as Pleasure: From the Tower of Babel in De vulgari eloquentia to the Death of Babel in Paradiso 26,” in Dante’s Multitudes, p. 171)
In the essay cited above, I go further, showing how Dante imports into Adam’s speech the cadences of Aristotle in his existential treatise De generatione et corruptione (On Coming to Be and Passing Away), thus moving Adam’s declarations toward a different authority and a different vision of human existence:
The philosophical account of Paradiso 26 that takes the place of Babel removes the premise of our sinfulness and instead insists
on the laws that govern all created being: the laws of time and mutability that encompass the corruption and passing away of all created things as well as the coming to be of new created things. These facts of existence may make us sad (and there may be a tinge of melancholy to Adam’s speech), but they are also free of the terrible abjectness that permeates the Babel narrative. (“Difference as Punishment or Difference as Pleasure”, p. 174)
It seems that Dante was thinking not of difference as punishment when he wrote the section at the end of Paradiso 26, but rather thinking and feeling something else, closer to the pleasure of creation — the pleasure of difference — even in mortal, human hands. Do we not also feel the pleasure of linguistic creation in verses like these?
Opera naturale è ch’uom favella; ma così o così, natura lascia poi fare a voi secondo che v’abbella. (Par. 26.130-32)
That man should speak at all is nature’s act, but how you speak—in this tongue or in that— she leaves to you and to your preference.
 Another figure mentioned in each canticle is Phaeton, not a sinner in the Commedia but a further emblem of the problematic that both Ulysses and Nimrod represent.