Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 26 – I am the other, the other is me

Today’s campaigners often adopt a victim’s identity when protesting against the violence caused by the politics of division. Paris rally in support of Charlie Hebdo victims, 2015. Photo by Fred PO via Wikimedia Commons

The souls in the heaven of Venus enjoy spiritual telepathy – wordless communication made possible by their participation in each other’s minds through the all-knowing mind of God. Dante invents new verb forms to convey their ecstatic mingling of identities.

Venus is the third and last heaven on which the earth casts a shadow. Here are lovers who loved “too well” – their passion just a tad too exuberant (and since you ask, Dante does not tell us where the limits should lie!). In Paradiso 8 and 9, Dante interacts with three such souls:

Charles Martel of Anjou (1271-1295). Grandson of Charles I of Anjou, a powerful friend to the Guelf cause in Italy, Charles Martel visited Florence with his parents in 1294, when he was already King of Hungary and heir to the Kingdom of Naples and the County of Provence. Handsome and wealthy, he would doubtless have been popular with the women and seems to have become firm friends with Dante during this visit. He was expected to play a great part in the affairs of Europe but, tragically, died of the plague a year later, in 1295.

Cunizza da Romano (ca 1198-1279). Married four times and famous for her love affairs, Cunizza was the sister of a violent tyrant, Ezzelino da Romano (seen boiling in blood in Inferno 12). Ezzelino was the regional bully boy in the Veneto, where he became notorious for his cruelty and use of torture. Cunizza, in contrast, was known for her kindness and for coming to the aid of her brother’s victims. She became the mistress of the poet Sordello, whom we meet in Purgatorio 6, and spent her last years in Florence as a guest of the Cavalcante family, close friends with Dante.

•  Folco of Marseilles (ca 1150-1231). A troubadour poet for the first part of his life, Folco was reputed for his romantic adventures when young. After a religious conversion he renounced love poetry and joined a Cistercian monastery. He became bishop of Toulouse and played an active part in the Albigensian Crusade to stamp out the Cathar heresy. Towards the end of his life he helped found the University of Toulouse.

Where better than in the heaven of love to explore the theme of wordless communication, so often the way of lovers?

Dante meets souls in the heaven of Venus. Woodcut of Paradiso Canto IX.

Let’s start with our two protagonists, Dante and Beatrice. In Paradiso 1, Beatrice is “she who saw me as I saw myself”, while in Paradiso 2 she is “she from whom my thoughts could not be hid.” Now it is Beatrice’s increased beauty that tells the poet, wordlessly, that they have arrived in the sphere of Venus:

Likewise, the souls Dante meets here communicate their joy at interacting with him by shining more brightly. We see this first in Charles Martel, who signals his familiarity with the poet by quoting Dante’s ode, Voi ch’intendendo il terzo ciel movete, “You who by understanding move the third heaven”. Touched, Dante asks who he is, whereupon Martel’s light “increases in size and brightness”.

Cunizza takes this a stage further, brightening to indicate her wish to please Dante, whereupon Beatrice wordlessly communicates her agreement to this, through her eyes: 

In his first words to Cunizza, Dante explicitly raises the issue of spiritual telepathy and asks her to prove to him that he can do it too:

In fact, though, he already knows how: at the end of his dialogue with Martel, Dante conveys his understanding that the medium of communication between these loving souls is the vision they enjoy of God:

Lucidity and transparency of thought are achieved by participating in the divine light. The souls themselves – their individual features – are concealed in their own splendour. This is the reverse of how things are in the material world, where we see the external form but the interior mostly remains hidden.

On earth, human affection and kindness increase the chances of telepathy, because the souls concerned are already close to one another and can empathize. To make his account of telepathy in paradise more convincing, Dante chooses souls that he felt had these qualities in life, including two that he himself had known and liked. In the case of Martel, the poet picks up where he left off in an easy friendship the two had enjoyed in Florence nearly 20 years ago, in happier times when Dante was the leading poet of his generation as well as a rising politician. In the case of Cunizza, he may be remembering her conversation as an old lady in the Cavalcante household, which he would have visited in boyhood. In her he is dealing with someone known for her kindness as well as her sensuality.

Cunizza refers to Folco warmly, as “this brilliant and precious jewel of our heaven”. And he too brightens, turning ruby red with joy when Dante addresses him:

Few translators render this passage literally, as I have tried to do. Dante’s invented verb forms – s’ inluia, m’intuassi, t’ inmi – would have sounded as strange to native speakers of his time as they still sound to us. According to Sinclair, they are

“Dante’s bold and most characteristic way of telling of the soul’s inner fellowship, divine and human, as of a mystery that cannot be told in common speech… It is in the heaven of Venus that we discover that this power of spiritual telepathy belongs to the vision of God which is the enlightenment of all the saints in Paradise.”

Talking about Sufism (the mystical tradition of Islam), the poet Adonis said,

“It’s related to a revolutionary idea – that the other is me; that I am the other. If I travel towards myself, I must go through the other.”

Dante shows that, in paradise, this is not an aspiration, but an actuality – the true state of affairs for those living the perfect contemplative life of love, the apotheosis of empathy.

Genius line:
S’io m’intuassi, come tu t’ inmii. Dante’s invented verb forms capture the fluidity of identity in paradise, the way souls glide in and out of each other in perfect communion.