The end is just the beginning

Dante’s Empyrean, the end-point of all end-points, by John Flaxman, 1807

All good things must come to an end, all journeys must draw to a close. So that better ones may begin.

We always remember how a story ends, even when we remember nothing else about it. And the sacrilege of revealing the ending in the absence of appropriate rites is widely proscribed.

There are many ways to end a story, many ways to bring it home, to conclude a journey. Stories end when fuel runs out, when the thread is up, when the web is complete.

Some stories end before they begin, others take forever to consume. The best stories not only have the best plot and the best texture, but the ending is just right. Perfect timing, perfect dose. A gentle release or a violent jolt, the last words are, when the stars are aligned, simply the best.

And the stars of story-endings have never been more aligned than in the last canto of Dante’s Paradiso, the third and last section of the Divine Comedy’s tripartite odyssey. Canto 33 of Paradiso is also canto 100 of the Comedy as a whole. The numbers add up, closure is imminent. But you don’t see it until the very very end. Even in Heaven, peaceful and uneventful as it may be (compared to Inferno, at least), things can still happen. Throughout Paradiso, Dante travelled from less to more, from less virtue to more worth, from less light to more incandescence. But he also travelled from more to less, from multiplicity to simplicity, from more to less music, more to less action, more to less imagery.

And at the very end of the last canto, the nuclear reactor that had powered Dante’s way through the thick smoke of Hell and the thin air of Heaven, simply shuts down. The poet acknowledged the sacred weakness of the scribe faced with the ultimate experience, the final gesture containing all gestures. At the end of time and space, beyond space and time, the power of representation consumes itself:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa, he writes. Here force failed my high fantasy.

The power outage is involuntary. It is the result of too much, or too little, energy at the centre of existence. Nor is the observer’s willingness to push on and go further, even if that means no thoughts, or words, could ever capture the experience: ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle, but my
desire and will were moved already, the poet adds. The cost of transformation is huge for the writer, and the acceptance of it detonates into the best ending western literature has ever produced:

L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle, the Love that moves the sun and the other stars – the guarantee that, having left the quill behind, the pilgrim is finally home, moved by the same divine Love that set the universe in motion.

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