As a child , one of my fantasies of paradise was rivers of milk and honey(more honey and less milk) and candy trees (anybody remember the song ‘Big Rock Candy mountain’) , in adolescence these imaginary rivers ran full of honey or coke and … whisky or dark rum (preferably more alcohol and less of the sweet stuff) ;in short paradise is a place where I could drink and drink and drink and have no hangover. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks , the media was buzz with the concept of 64 virgins and the hijackers believing that was their ordained rewards , 64 virgins in the afterlife !!! 64 !!! All I could conclude was that these attackers probably had never been around women. Can one imagine the cacophony that would ensue with 64 women competing for your attention and the jealous cat fights and the “You looked at her longer than you looked at me ” and so on and so forth .. So thank you , but no thank you , I will sin enough on earth to ensure that I don’t get that kind of a paradise. Hard to imagine that anybody would call that paradise least of all somebody who had to live with 64 virgins.
Coming back to rivers of whisky , there is the river Styx in Inferno which transports the souls, the river Lethe in Purgatory which washes away your sins but to my great disappointment there is no river in Paradiso . No river which gives me license to sin in Dante’s paradise , apparently all of your thirst is automatically sated so no more drinkies!! On the plus side there are no 64 virgins waiting for you either . Dante’s paradise is one where you are on your way to merging with god . It is a beautiful concept that once you let go of your earthly desires , you are free from the noise and can listen to your own inner calling , what Dante calls the voice of god , or the divine seal ; if one chooses to ignore the religious aspects , one could still interpret that as the voice of our one true calling and I found myself mesmerized with that thought. Interestingly there is one passage where Dante cannot view god and he is granted divine sight by the Virgin Mary because one cannot view god with mortal eyes . I could not help but draw parallels to the Bhagwad Gita where Arjuna has to be endowed with divine vision by Krishna because it is not possible to view god with mortal eyes . I had to conclude that Joseph Campbell’s theory of these myths springing up simultaneously in different unrelated cultures had to be true . The other hypothesis is that Dante was influenced by Indian culture but there is no evidence that is indeed the case . If anything there seems to be an underlying contempt for Indians , Ethiopians and other heathens in his writing .
As we ascend levels , Dante uses the same Ptolemaic model but now he focuses on virtues rather than sins , it is a brilliant re-use of the same structure used in Inferno and Purgatario, had Dante not become a politician and a poet , he would have made an excellent engineer .It was evident that he had also used some of the ideas from Astrology as well . He associates Mercury with ambitious spirits , Venus with lovers , Sun with Intelligence(Theologians and Philosophers) , Mars with heroism ( martyrs) etc . I did have a brief shock when I read that he was ascending towards the Primum Mobile .My first instinct was that this was a typo , surely they did not have Premium Mobile(cellphones) in heaven .
On a touching note , with all the theological melodrama that Dante is unfolding for us to, he hangs tight to his beloved Beatrice . It is surely a subtle (or not so subtle ) indication of (earthly) love lasting forever , even as he makes it change guise into a more ethereal kind of love in paradise .
Canto IV was one of my favorites , he talks about how a man when given free choice between two equally favorite foods would starve to death (Anybody who has read Sheena Iyengar will say he is right on the money 7 centuries ago) . Beatrice informs him that his wish and doubt was tearing him two ways . Another verse in Canto VIII goes as follows
That ever revolving nature whose seal is pressed into our mortal wax does its work well but takes no heed of where it comes to rest
In short talent knows no home , it can show up in the richest or most plebeian of places for no reason whatsoever .
What nature gives a man , fortune must nourish concordantly or Nature like any seed out of its proper climate cannot flourish
If the world below would learn to heed the plan of Nature’s firm foundation and build on that, it then would have the best from every man
But into holy orders you deflect the man who was meant to strap the sword and shield and make a king of one whose intellect is given to writing sermons and in this way, your footprints leave the road and go astray
Dante packs tons of wisdom in short bursts and even partly digested can be quite a revelation.
Dante does play fast and loose with his rules , for e.g. the emperor Justinian , a champion of Christianity is accorded paradise but Justinian was a ruthless man who in one notable incident slaughters 30000 protesters at the Hippodrome in Constantinople during the Nika riots. Even from a theological perspective , Justinian had raised doubts about Jesus being the son of god but royal decrees have a way of according pardon and rewriting history.
I had to wonder what is so comedic about this classic. I learned that a comedy is defined as a happy ending (not the $20 happy ending that one is accustomed to get in Thailand) , if one was expecting Jerry Seinfeld or his 13th century equivalent doing a standup routine as the grand finale, I am afraid we are going to have to ask for our money back though this is a no refund deal. Rather this is one of a kind , a happy ending where Dante is united with God in Paradise.
Reading the last 33 cantos of Dante’s masterpiece is not much of a walk in Paradise .While it is definitely a hard work to read (the folks at my book club are thankful that they are moving to something easier , Othello!!), Dante leads us through a magnificent journey that is extremely worthwhile. I imagine that the pleasure of reading a work like Dante multiplies when one reads the pre-requisites but it is certainly navigable by itself without any aids but one’s own imagination .