Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internetby Margaret Wertheim
Cyberspace may seem an unlikely gateway for the soul. But as science commentatorMargaret Wertheim argues in this "marvelously provocative" (Kirkus Reviews) book, cyberspace has in recent years become a repository for immense spiritual yearning. Wertheim explores the mapping of spiritual desire onto digitized space and suggests that the modem today has become a… See more details below
Cyberspace may seem an unlikely gateway for the soul. But as science commentatorMargaret Wertheim argues in this "marvelously provocative" (Kirkus Reviews) book, cyberspace has in recent years become a repository for immense spiritual yearning. Wertheim explores the mapping of spiritual desire onto digitized space and suggests that the modem today has become a metaphysical escape-hatch from a materialism that many people find increasingly dissatisfying. Cyberspace opens up a collective space beyond the laws of physicsa space where mind rather than matter reigns. This strange refuge returns us to an almost medieval dualism between a physical space of body and an immaterial space of mind and psyche.
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Halfway along the journey of his life, the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri set out on what has become the most famous journey of the Middle Ages: a trip to the end of the universe and back. Centuries before the advent of science fiction, Dante soared beyond the realm of the earth, past the moon and sun, on through the planets, and out to the stars. He did not travel in a spaceship, or any other kind of craft; his only navigational aid was the timeless wisdom of his guide, the Roman poet Virgil. That Dante was accompanied by a man who had been dead for more than a thousand years signals immediately that we are not talking here about any modern kind of space travel. Yet space travel is precisely what the two poets were doing. Their journey, as depicted in The Divine Comedy, is an epic elucidation of the medieval cosmos. As Dante and Virgil travel from one pole of the universe to the other, we see through their eyes a detailed geography of the entire medieval spatial scheme.
Theirs is not only a journey through physical space (as in science fiction), but also through spiritual space, as conceived by the Christian theology of the time. It is, above all, the voyage of a Christian soul. Although Dante sets off on foot, seemingly in full physical form, at the end of his tale he wonders whether he has traveled in his body or out of it. This uncertainty results from a key feature of the medieval world picture. In this dualistic scheme, body-space and soul-space mirror one another. In a very real sense Dante journeys both with and without his body. As an embodied being he travels the length and breadth of the material universe as understood by the science of his day; but simultaneously, he travels through the immaterial domain of soul, the realm that for the medieval Christian existed independently of body in the afterlife beyond the grave.
Here then was the starkest difference between the medieval and modern world pictures. Where our scientific picture encompasses only the body, and hence only the space of the living, the world picture of the Christian Middle Ages included the spaces of both the living and the dead. As a report to the living on the land of the dead, The Divine Comedy is the ultimate map of Christian soul-space. It is this space that we will be exploring in this chapter.
Yet if soul was paramount to the medieval mind-set, body was by no means irrelevant. Contrary to widespread misconception, Christians of the late Middle Ages considered the body crucial to human selfhood. So important, in fact, that the final stage of beatification in the soul's journey through the afterlife was signaled by its longed-for reunion with the body at the end of time--the resurrection of each individual person that was prefigured in Christ's resurrection from the grave. Only through unification of body and soul, said the great thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, could man fully return to the state of grace in which he was conceived by the Creator of all things. Dante's poem takes us on a journey toward that beatified state.
Christian medieval soul-space was divided into three distinct regions or "kingdoms": Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, documented successively in the three canticles of The Divine Comedy--the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. As Dante depicts them, Hell is a chasm inside the earth (Figure 1.1), Purgatory a mountain on the surface of the earth (Figure 1.2), and Heaven is coincident with the stars (Figure 1.3). After death, each soul would either be taken by a demon to the gates of Hell, or ferried by an angel to the shores of Purgatory, which Dante located on an island in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere. Only the truly virtuous--the saints and martyrs--were destined to go directly to Heaven; regular Christians must always expect some form of punishment after death. For them, the "second kingdom" of Purgatory functioned as a kind of preparatory school for Heaven.
Theologically, the middle kingdom of Purgatory stood between Heaven and earth, hence Dante represented it as a conical mountain, pointing upward toward God. In this middle kingdom, souls who were not sufficiently bad to be condemned to eternal damnation, but who had not led blameless lives, could work off the stain of their sin through the process of purgation--which entailed a series of cleansing torments. Yet despite these torments, souls in Purgatory were in a fundamentally different situation to those in Hell, because in Hell punishment was forever, whereas in Purgatory it was only temporary. In essence, Purgatory was "a Hell of limited duration." Theologically speaking, souls in the second kingdom were on the same side of the ledger as those in Heaven, and that is where they too would ultimately go.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante journeys successively through each of these three kingdoms, leading us on a personal guided tour of the landscape of the medieval afterlife. Beginning at the gates of Hell, he first takes us spiraling down into the heart of darkness, ever deeper into the maw of sin. On coming through this horror-zone, we emerge at the foot of Mount Purgatory ready to begin the upward journey of salvation. During the trek up the Holy Mountain our souls are purged of sin, and thus cleansed we arrive at the mountain's peak, where the lightness of being engendered by a purified soul takes us effortlessly into the heavens.
All this, Dante shows us in incomparable rhyming tercets. But if The Divine Comedy is first and foremost the archetypal journey of a Christian soul, it is also the story of a real historical man. Dante's genius was to weave together the Christian epic of "Man's" soul with the particular tale of his own unique life and times. Throughout, The Divine Comedy is peopled with real individuals whom Dante had known. As he travels through the afterlife, he converses with these souls, discussing the finer points of theology and philosophy, plus the intricacies of late thirteenth-century/early fourteenth-century Florentine politics. Even now, seven hundred years later, the partisans of Florence's bitterly warring political factions--the Guelfs and the Ghibellines--continue to regale us with their local squabbles. In this sense The Divine Comedy is a profound work of social commentary, a warts-and-all portrait of a fractious medieval community, at the center of which is Dante himself.
For Dante was not only a poet, but also--at least in the early part of his life--a deeply political animal. As a member of the Guelf faction, he seems to have thoroughly enjoyed the turbulent life of the Florentine political elite. Unfortunately, he got caught in the cross fire between the various factions and in 1302, while away on an ambassadorial mission to the papal court, he was tried in absentia by the opposing faction and sentenced to death. Unable to return to Florence, he never saw his beloved city again, and spent the rest of his life in exile.
Yet if exile was a bitter blow, it also turned out to be "a blessing in disguise," for it freed him to concentrate on his writing. No longer able to participate in politics, he embarked on the project of The Divine Comedy, determined to create nothing less than a new poetics--one that would weave together history, philosophy, and theology in an integrated whole. Written in vernacular Italian, rather than scholarly Latin, the poem is an extraordinary fusion of the secular and the divine, an audacious admixture unique in Christian history. Dante himself seems to have regarded the poem as something like a new Gospel, and from the beginning that is how it was received. No other non-canonical Christian text has been so read, so analyzed, or so loved.
Having been banished from his home and friends, Dante created in The Divine Comedy a new life for himself. Denied a voice in Florence, he recreated himself in fiction and gave this poetic "self" a voice that would ring through the ages. What we have in the poem is, in effect, a "virtual Dante." In fact we know far more about this virtual Dante (what literary critics call "Dante-pilgrim") than we do about the real historical person ("Dante-poet"). It is this virtual self who speaks to us across the centuries and is our guide through the landscape of medieval soul-space.
As many commentators have noted, one of the great appeals of Dante's epic is that its world is so thrillingly real. Slogging through the fetid ditches of the Malebolge or trekking up the crisp terraces of Purgatory, you feel as if you are really there. You can almost smell the stench of the muck in Hell, hear the choraling of angels in heaven. This may be a journey of the soul, but few works of literature evoke the physical senses so powerfully. One hears, sees, smells the world Dante portrays. So real does this world seem that during the Renaissance there was a thriving tradition making intricate maps of Dante's Hell, complete with precise cartographic projections and measurements (see Figure 1.4). Here, truly, was a rich "virtual world." As The Divine Comedy demonstrates so well, the creation of virtual worlds predates the development of contemporary "virtual reality" technology. From Homer to Asimov one of the functions of all great literature has indeed been to invoke believable "other" worlds. Operating purely on the power of words, books project us into utterly absorbing alternative realities. It is no coincidence the Bible begins with the phrase "In the beginning was the Word."
Yet The Divine Comedy is more than a work of literature, and there is an important difference between the world Dante invokes and those of today's VR mavens. The crucial point is this: The "virtual worlds" being constructed on computers today usually bear little or no relationship to the world of our daily experience. For most VR pundits, escape from daily reality is precisely the point. Dante, however, was not trying to escape daily life; on the contrary he grounded his "virtual world" in real people, real events, and real history. Rather than trying to escape reality, he was obsessed with it. While it is true that in The Divine Comedy we find ourselves in a world populated by demons and angels, that we climb down the body of Satan and converse with the dead, we must remember that for Christians of the late Middle Ages all this was part of their reality. It was part of the grand metaphysical reality of which the physical world was just one small part. Rather than enticing us into an escape from reality, Dante invites us to see it whole, in all its vast dualistic scope.
Just as Dante grounded his epic in real human history, so also his realm of the afterlife is grounded in the physical cosmology and science of his time. His three kingdoms of soul-space beautifully parallel the general plan of the medieval physical universe. As in Figure I.3, that universe was geocentric, with the earth at the center surrounded by ten concentric "heavenly spheres," collectively carrying the sun, moon, planets, and stars around us. It is worth stressing that in this scheme the earth also was spherical. The notion of these sophisticated thinkers as flat-earthers is a myth, as historian Jeffrey Burton Russell has shown. No serious scholar of the late Middle Ages believed the earth was flat, and indeed The Divine Comedy is full of references to the spherical shape of our globe. At the end of the Inferno, for example, Dante refers repeatedly to the southern "hemisphere."
The basic plan of Dante's soul-space was that Heaven was coincident with the celestial realm, metaphorically surrounding and enveloping mankind in an ethereal embrace; Hell was inside the bowels of the earth, metaphorically speaking in the gutter of the universe; and Purgatory, as a mountain attached to the earth's surface, metaphorically pointed the way toward Heaven. All this was far from arbitrary; indeed the whole plan was governed by a rigorous logic internal to medieval cosmology and supported by the physical science of Dante's time.
As essential feature of medieval science and cosmology was the belief that the celestial domain of the planets and stars was qualitatively distinct from the terrestrial domain of man and the earth. On earth, everything was mortal and mutable, subject to death and decay, but according to medieval understanding the celestial realm was immutable and eternal. In the terrestrial realm everything was said to be composed of the four material elements--earth, air, fire, and water--but things in the celestial domain were supposedly made of the fifth essence, or quintessence, sometimes known as the "ether." The exact nature of this mysterious fifth essence was a source of much debate, but what is important here is that it was qualitatively different from anything in the terrestrial realm.
Medieval scholars believed that as one proceeded out from the earth, upward toward God, each celestial sphere became successively more pure and "ethereal" by virtue of its increasing proximity to the Supreme Being. From the earth to the Empyrean was thus a graduated scale of increasing purity and grace. Matter and spirit were in an inverse relationship, with pure matter (the earth) at the "bottom" of the universe, and pure spirit (God) at the "top." The whole cosmological scheme was like a great metaphysical onion, with the "lowliest" bit (the earth) at the core, and each consecutive layer gaining in perfection as one proceeded out and up. In effect, this universe encoded a metric of grace: The closer a place was to God, the more noble it was held to be, while the further away from Him, the less it was said to participate in divine grace.
Just as Heaven (the Empyrean), was at the top of the medieval cosmos, so, in the inherent logic of this system, the natural place for Hell was the rock bottom--that is, inside the earth as far away as possible from God. As the opposing spiritual pole to Heaven, Hell's location was inexorably determined by the logic of medieval cosmology. Purgatory, however, was a little more problematic. Because of the Middle Kingdom's association with sin, many authors located it underground, often inside a deep cave; but Dante chose a different (and rather imaginative) option. Befitting its status as the halfway house between Heaven and earth, he chose to envision Purgatory as a mountain thrusting upward toward grace.
For Christian medievals there was an ineluctable interweaving between the physical cosmos and the spiritual cosmos--the space of body and the space of soul. But since the spiritual realm was, for them, the primary reality, Christians of the Middle Ages oriented themselves first and foremost by a spiritual compass rather than a physical one. That this was so is evident from maps of Dante's time. Before the age of math-based cartography, European mappa mundi routinely depicted just a single landmass, the Northern Hemisphere, with Jerusalem in the middle. On these maps the Earthly Paradise (or Garden of Eden), was often drawn as an island off the far east coast, a detail gleaned from the Bible. For Dante and his contemporaries, the physical world was always and ever a reflection of the "true" underlying realm of soul, and it was into this primary reality that Dante would so memorably venture. Since his is a story of redemption, a journey up toward grace and light, naturally enough it begins at the bottom of the cosmos. Thus our exploration of soul-space begins with his, at the gates of Hell.
Above the entrance to the infernal kingdom Dante and Virgil are greeted by the famous warning popularly paraphrased as "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." For souls who cross this threshold, hope indeed becomes a thing of the past. Once a soul enters Hell its fate is sealed; it is condemned to punishment until the end of time and can dream neither of alleviation nor atonement. Ahead lies only torment and suffering for evermore. With the die thus cast, the human narrative ends. In Hell, there is literally no future. In Christian terms, the abandonment of hope is synonymous with the forfeit of redemption. By the magnitude of their sins, souls in Hell have thrown away the most basic Christian right, the salvation promised to all mankind by God's sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ.
Dante's journey through Hell is a "descent" into sin, a downward spiral away from grace. The path he and Virgil follow is indeed a literal spiral that takes them winding down a long day's journey into night. Twenty-four hours is the precise length of time they spend in this metaphorical heart of darkness, a place where the sun never shines and where putrefaction reigns. Just as the medieval heavenly realm is structured in increasing levels of perfection as one proceeds upward through the celestial spheres toward God, so Dante's Hell is structured in decreasing levels of perfection as one proceeds down toward Satan. These are the famous nine "circles" of Hell. In essence, Dante's Hell is the infernal reflection, or negative, of his heavenly domain. Where the external space of the heavens encodes a hierarchy of grace, so, reciprocally, the internal space of Hell encodes a hierarchy of evil. As one descends into the Inferno, the magnitude and concentration of sin becomes ever greater, until at the bottom is Satan himself.
True Hell begins not in the first circle--a no-man's-land for the unbaptized and uncommitted, known as "Limbo"--but at the entrance to the second circle. It is here that every sinner must face the judgment of the monstrous Minos, the first of Dante's memorable cast of demons. As each soul approaches this ghastly creature,
He sees what place in Hell is suited for it;
And whips his tail around himself as many
Times as the circles the sinner must go down.
As soon as we pass by Minos' baleful glare we know immediately by the anguished cries that rend the air we have entered the infernal kingdom. And the deeper we descend the more dreadful will the wailing become.
In Dante's Hell, each circle is associated with a particular class of wickedness: In descending order they are lust, gluttony, greed, wrath and sloth, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery. The deeper one goes the worse the sins are rated. (From our contemporary perspective, it is interesting to note that for the medievals lust was the least heinous crime.) As befits the general logic of medieval soul-space, punishments in the Inferno are suited to the crimes, and get more severe as we descend. Thus in the uppermost circle of the lustful, the punishment for illicit lovers is to be buffeted hither and yon by a bitter stinging wind. Their fate, so to speak, is to be endlessly blown by the uncontrollable winds of desire. By contrast, deep down in the eighth circle we find souls mired in boiling pitch, where they are mercilessly torn at by demons with hooks if they try to escape. As we drop deeper, both the torment and desperation increase. This is truly a descent into despair.
Spiraling down the abyss, each circle of Hell also gets progressively smaller as the sin becomes more concentrated. This increasing putrefaction of the soul is signaled in the environment itself, which becomes ever more dark, dank, and foul-smelling. More so even than the torments, it is the ambience of Dante's Hell that is so awful. One feels smothered by the inescapable rankness. The very space seems to be festering, and the sense of claustrophobia soon becomes unbearable. But contrary to the fire-and-brimstone image often associated with Hell, Dante's Inferno gets colder as one approaches the dark core where Satan resides. In the final circle, known as Cocytus, the souls of the treacherous are embedded in a lake of ice with only their heads poking out. Denied the possibility of motion, they cannot even try to run from their torment. The worst sinners don't have even their heads free; they are totally immersed in the ice--"like straws in glass"--condemned forever to freezing stasis.
Yet again, this is in keeping with a rigorous internal logic. As we descend into the Inferno what we find is that souls are increasingly confined by their sins until those at the bottom, trapped in ice, are completely immobilized by the magnitude of their iniquity. Dante's message, poetically rendered, is that sin imprisons. And for no one more so than Satan. In the middle of Cocytus we find God's former right-hand angel, "the creature which had once been so handsome," buried up to his chest in ice. A huge hairy giant with three monstrous faces, each mouth gnawing on a sinner, the beating of Satan's six great bat wings generates the chilling wind that keeps all Cocytus frozen. It is thus the evil one's own actions that keep him imprisoned. Here, at the heart of sin, we learn that Hell is a place we make for ourselves. And this is one of Dante's most powerful messages. By showing us how truly evil stifles, he hopes to help sway the reader back to the path of virtue.
If Dante's journey is first and foremost a spiritual journey, John Freccero alerts us that his descent into Hell may also be interpreted psychologically. "The inner space of Hell," he writes, "may be said to stand for the interior distance of a descent within the self." For the late medievals the concept of "soul" encompassed not only those aspects of man that might relate to God, but also what we moderns would call the "emotions." In this pre-Freudian age the notion of a purely secular "psyche" was still half a millennium away, and the medieval discourse of "soul" ranged across a broad field that included many aspects of what we now know as "psychological" phenomena. Thus while Dante's journey is couched primarily in theological terms, it must also be seen as a metaphor for psychological transformation. Following the Augustinian injunction to "Descend, so that you may ascend," Dante also travels to the dark heart of himself. Only after deep scrutiny of his own "inner life" can he reach "the zero-point" from which psychological healing can begin. For Dante, that healing begins at the foot of Mount Purgatory.
Literary scholar Ronald R. MacDonald has argued that like the epic writers of Greece and Rome, Dante understood very well this psychological dimension of his text. Citing Dante, Virgil, and Aeschylus, MacDonald writes that "All these thinkers and poets teach in one way or another that through struggle and suffering and reflection, by submitting the self either individually or collectively to the worst as well as the best that lies buried within it, it is possible to effect a passage from a state of barbarity and disorder to a state of integration and harmony." The journey out of Hell, and up the stairway of purgation to Heaven, must also therefore be seen as a kind of medieval psychotherapy.
Call it "purgation" or call it "therapy," the result is not just a purified soul but also a healed mind. In Freudian terms we could say that the journey out of Hell and up to Heaven represents the shedding of the ego, the letting go of that oh-so-heavy burden that weighs men down. For Dante, literally so--since his journey is at heart a quest for the perfect lightness of being. During the process of psychological healing enacted in The Divine Comedy, the inner space of mind is transformed from a hellish state of chaos and despair (metaphorically signified by the squalor of the Inferno) to a heavenly state of order and joy (signified by the blissful beauty of the Paradiso). Long before Freud, Christian theology encoded within it a sophisticated understanding of human psychology--as indeed do most religious and mythological systems.
For Dante, the process of psychological and spiritual transformation is enacted during the journey up Mount Purgatory, at whose base he and Virgil arrive after climbing back up to the surface from the bowels of Hell. After the stifling foulness of the Inferno, here in the Middle Kingdom his lungs fill with fresh air, the grass is green underfoot, and the sky shines blue overhead. The very environment vibrates with a palpable sense of optimism; one smells the scent of hope in the air. Here, as Dante tells us, "the human spirit cures itself, and becomes fit to leap up into Heaven."
Because Purgatory was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the question of its exact location and nature was a source of much debate during the Middle Ages. Dante chose to locate it in the middle of a vast ocean in the Southern Hemisphere, directly opposite the globe from Jerusalem (note Figure 1.3). In the logic of The Divine Comedy, the line joining these two holy places defines an axis of salvation through the earth. By enduring torments on the Holy Mountain souls in the medieval afterlife atone for their sins, stripping away layers of wickedness in an ineluctable journey toward grace. As Jacques Le Goff notes, here "the ascent is twofold, spiritual as well as physical." In The Divine Comedy, Mount Purgatory is, in effect, a medieval stairway to Heaven.
Where Hell was characterized by the death of hope, Purgatory could be defined as the place of hope. For the condemned, there is no exit from Hell, but "souls in Purgatory are on the move," constantly working their way up and out to Paradise above. In opposition to the atemporal stasis of Hell, Purgatory is a place where time still has meaning. The process of purgation may be long and hard--one soul Dante speaks with has spent more than a thousand years there--but it is definitely a positive place. Here the Christian narrative continues as the soul advances toward God. And from bottom to top the mountain resonates with hymns lifted in thanks to the Lord. Here, angels rather than demons guard each level.
As with Hell, Dante's Purgatory is also divided into nine distinct levels, known as "cornices," each more purified than the ones below. Again, the very structure of the space encodes the spiritual transformation being enacted, the "passage from a state of barbarity and disorder to a state of integration and harmony." The first level is the ante-Purgatory, where souls who repented late must serve out a period of waiting before being admitted to the mountain proper. This is the purgatorial equivalent of Limbo. Moving into Purgatory proper, souls ascend through seven successive levels of purgation, or spiritual cleansing. Each level or "cornice" is associated with one of the seven venal sins, starting this time with the worst and moving up to the least heinous. In ascending order, they are pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. As in Hell, so in Purgatory punishments are fitted to the crimes. In the first cornice, for example, sinners carry stones on their backs, metaphorically atoning for the "burden" of pride. In the cornice of sloth, souls must counter their living lethargy with constant running, and in the cornice of gluttony the punishment is constant hunger.
But unlike Hell, Purgatory is not a nightmare. In contrast to the slime and filth of the Inferno, the Holy Mountain is carved into a series of crisp marble terraces, each adorned with elegant carvings depicting exemplars of virtue. Where the overall impression of Hell is messy and squalid, in Purgatory we find order and cleanliness. One immediately senses that here the war over chaos is being won. And where the path through Hell spirals down to the left--in Italian the word is sinistre--the spiral path around Mount Purgatory winds up to the right. Thus the very geometry of Dante's path through soul-space again encodes the moral meaning of his journey.
As a soul ascends up the Holy Mountain and the burden of sin is lifted, it becomes ever lighter. "In the Christian myth," Freccero notes, "it is sin rather than matter that weighs down the soul." In other words, sin is the gravity of soul-space, the leadening force that pulls the soul away from its "true home" with God. With increasing lightness of being engendered by the process of purgation, the soul is drawn inexorably toward the heavenly Empyrean above. In Purgatory, then, the gravitational (downward) pull of sin is transmuted into "the levitational, `God-ward' pull of sacred love." After rising through all seven layers--thereby washing itself clean of each offense, --the soul emerges at the top of Mount Purgatory into the "Earthly Paradise"--the biblical Garden of Eden. As Dante scholar Jeffrey Schnapp explains, in Purgatory "the course of time is reversed, sin erased, the divine image restored." Purgation thus unwinds the spiral of sin and takes us back to Eden, the cradle of our innocence.
The inescapably Christian context of Dante's journey is put into sharp relief by his and Virgil's arrival at top of the mountain. Here in the Earthly Paradise, Dante must leave behind his beloved guide, who for his part must now return to Limbo. According to medieval theology no one but a properly baptized Christian could enter into Heaven. In the flowering woods of Eden, then, Virgil is replaced by a Christian guide, Dante's own personal "savior," the beautiful Beatrice. Object of perhaps the greatest-ever unrequited love story, Beatrice becomes here a universal symbol of Christian love. Again, however, the actual historical woman, Beatrice de Folco Portinari, is transformed into a virtual version of herself. And again, it is this virtual Beatrice we know today, far more so than the living woman, about whom we know almost nothing. With this heavenly lady as his guide, the virtual Dante, now metaphorically purged of his own sins, is "clear and ready to go up to the stars."
To his astonishment, Dante finds that with the weight of sin lifted from his soul he is so light he rises effortlessly into the celestial domain. Just as a river naturally moves down a mountain, so the virtual Beatrice explains that the unimpeded soul moves naturally up toward God. Dante's journey through the celestial realm is not a trip to other physical "worlds," as in modern science fiction, but a kind of ecstatic cosmic dance through an increasingly abstract realm of light and motion. Here, luminescent choirs of angels fill the celestial space with heavenly harmonies--the mythical "music of the spheres."
Signaling that we have left behind the realm of flesh and pain, souls in Dante's Paradiso do not appear to him with their material forms--as they do in the first two kingdoms--here they are merely glowing forms of light. Moreover, following the Neoplatonic association of light with grace, both the individual souls and the whole celestial environment become progressively more radiant. Light, as both fact and metaphor, is a distinguishing feature of the Paradiso. As also is motion. After the lugubrious plod through Hell and the slow climb up Mount Purgatory, the Paradiso puts the soul into warp speed. Dante and Beatrice zing through this heavenly space like "arrows" loosed from a bow.
As with the two lower kingdoms, this final region of Dante's soul-space is also organized into a ninefold hierarchy, this time melding naturally with the medieval hierarchy of celestial spheres. In the Paradiso we thus encounter an exquisite fusion of science and religion as Dante weaves together theological meaning and cosmological fact. Here, for example, the sphere of the moon is said to signify faith. But because the moon changes its appearance as it waxes and wanes, it becomes for Dante a symbol of faith blemished by inconstancy--as in the case of monks and nuns who deviate from their vows. Just as in the Inferno and the Purgatorio each level of the hierarchy was associated with a particular sin, so in the Paradiso each heavenly sphere is associated with one of the major Christian virtues: along with faith are hope, love, prudence, courage, justice, and moderation.
Yet if a hierarchy of sinners seemed justifiable in Hell, Dante is initially troubled by the celestial hierarchy of blessed souls. Surely, he suggests, every soul that is saved deserves to be as close as possible to God? Surely they should all be on the same level? In answer to Dante's queries Beatrice explains that each soul resides in the sphere that best matches its own spiritual nature. All are eternal, all are blessed, some just have a finer sensitivity to grace. This hierarchy is important for Dante, because the one feature his heavenly realm shares with his infernal realm is that both are spaces where time has effectively ended. As in Hell, souls in Paradise move neither up nor down the hierarchy; they are fixed forever in their spheres. Heaven, like Hell, is a dead end--a joyous and blissful dead end to be sure, but nonetheless a place where time has ceased.
Of all three regions of the afterlife, Heaven is the only one Dante has trouble describing. Where the Inferno and the Purgatorio each present a well-defined landscape and imagery, the Paradiso is famous for being so nebulous. In both lower kingdoms, the trials of the flesh provide the imagistic fuel, but the blissful state of the souls in the Paradiso offers few visual handles. As Dante and Beatrice make their ascent there are lots of joyous lights and great swathes of glowing mist, but there is no real geography. We are now in the realm of pure spirit, a space that, Dante admits, ultimately defies description. In the closing cantos of the Paradiso, when he at last enters the Empyrean, words finally fail Dante. The message--both concrete and metaphorical--is that in the presence of God we reach not only the limits of time and space, but also the limits of the language. Heaven might be the apotheosis of medieval soul-space, but precisely because of its perfection it is ultimately beyond human words. This is the realm of the ineffable.
The essential stasis of Heaven and Hell meant that the linchpin of medieval soul-space was really Purgatory. Only in the second kingdom did time continue to flow in a meaningful way. According to many medieval theologians purgatorial time was in fact the same as earthly time, the two spaces being bound together in the same temporal matrix. Moreover, medieval theology allowed that the purgatorial process could be affected by the actions of the living. In effect, the boundary between the land of the living and the second kingdom of the afterlife was surprisingly permeable. To quote Le Goff, Purgatory established "a solidarity ... between the dead and the living," setting up a bond between the two worlds and serving as a convenient bridge between physical space and spiritual space.
Meet the Author
Margaret Wertheim is a science journalist and commentator and author of the book Pythagoras' Trousers.
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