Saturday, August 2, 2008

Quote of the Day: Umberto Eco on Dante's "Paradiso"

So, I have been continuing to read Umberto Eco's On Literature, and he has a nice, very short, essay on Dante Alighieri's Paradiso, called "A Reading of the Paridiso." He argues that it has been misread and underestimated, in fact devalued, in the nineteenth century and this devaluation continued throughout the twentieth, with the Inferno and, to some extent, the Purgatorio gaining the most attention. In contrast, Eco argues that the Paradiso is the finest of all three canticas. He primarily sets it in the context of the medieval preference for bold, bright color to express themselves in daily life, refined by Dante in the Paradiso. But, what caught my attention is the Paradiso as amazingly modern, and, in fact, futuristic:
"Dante's Paradiso is the apotheosis of the virtual world, of nonmaterial things, of pure software, without the weight of earthly or infernal hardware, whose traces remain in the Purgatorio. The Paradiso is more than modern; it can become, for the reader who has forgotten history, a tremendously real element of the future. It represents the triumph of pure energy, which the labyrinth of the Web promises but will never be able to give us; it is an exaltation of floods and bodies without organs, an epic made of novas and white dwarf stars, an endless big bang, a story whose plot covers the distance of light years, and, if you really want familiar examples, a triumphant space odyssey, with a very happy ending. You can read the Paradiso in this way too; it can never do you any harm, and it will be better than a disco with strobe lights or ecstasy. After all, with regard to ecstasy, Dante's third cantica keeps its promises and actually delivers it."
This reminds me of one of my favorite literary critics of Dante, Erich Auerbach. Most of us know Auerbach from his magnum opus, Mimesis. But he was primarily a Dante specialist, and wrote a superb little book in which he argued that Dante, when he depicted hell, purgatory, and heaven, ironically became the first modern poet of secularity. See this fantastic book, Dante: Poet of the Secular World.

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