Dante’s Big Bang

Un punto vidi che raggiava lume…

One of my favourite scenes in the Commedia is that of Paradiso 28 where Dante, arriving in the proto-heaven of the Primum Mobile, describes his experience of reaching the engine of the universe, a place of strong ontological instability, thus pushing the envelope of poetic expression to the limit.

Dante’s implicit metaphysics requires that the Empyrean be not a place, a thing, a moment. In the neighbouring Primum Mobile, Dante is just a step away from no-thing.

William Egginton has shown how, since the 19th century, mathematicians have understood Dante to conceive of the universe as a hypersphere, a finite yet curved space – actually not so much a space as a mode of being. Creation, Christian Moevs tells us in The Metaphysics of Dante, is not a materialist coming into existence of matter, but an inflection or restriction of the verb ‘to be’, which lies, forever in the infinitive, in the mind of God. The Creation of the world doesn’t happen in time, because this declension of the infinitive Form, itself creates the fabric of space-time, allowing matter to embody the form. Reaching the Primum Mobile, Dante is on the verge of the describable, on the edge of the infinitive becoming present tense, of Oneness falling into multiplicity.

Dante’s creation of the world is the projection of the extensionless point of the Divine Nous, which generating space and time, spawns the hypersphere and the heavenly orbs. When Dante experiences this foundational moment, he has before his eyes an inside-out view of the universe, a re-enactment of its dawn – and the image is quite striking:

I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,

and any star that, seen from earth, would seem
to be the smallest, set beside that point,
as star conjoined with star, would seem a moon.

Around that point a ring of fire wheeled,
a ring perhaps as far from that point as
a halo from the star that colors it

when mist that forms the halo is most thick.
It wheeled so quickly that it would outstrip
the motion that most swiftly girds the world.

That ring was circled by a second ring,
the second by a third, third by a fourth,
fourth by a fifth, and fifth ring by a sixth.

(Paradiso, 28:16-30, Mandelbaum’s translation)

096v_ful

The earliest extant manuscript of Dante’s Comedy dates from just before 1335 and is Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Ashburnham 828, known by Dante scholars as ASH. Folio 96v starts the passage quoted above: ‘un punto vidi che raggiava lume’

The best modern approximation of this image is that of the Big Bang. Emanative rather than explosive, the Dantean universe comes into existence through the paradox of a process outside time which itself creates time and space. Although outside time, the blinding punto generates so much energy and speed that no words can describe the appearance of its velocity to the poet’s eyes. At the centre of the Ptolemaic-scholastic cosmos  is the potentiality of form and matter which emanates being, desire and virtue to the rest of created space, informing the hierarchy of matter. The heavenly spheres are engendered out of this emission, and they begin to spin through Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Scientific American contributor Davide Castelvecchi has some interesting insights about Dante’s universe and the findings of the ‘New Cosmology’ here.

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