The sweetness of elevated existence

La Dolce Vita – Dante style. The words ‘dolce vita’ appear in all manuscripts of Dante’s Paradiso, canto 4, verse 35. Here they are in one of the most celebrated illustrated manuscripts of the Commedia, British Library’s Yates Thompson MS 36, produced in northern Italy in the 1450s. A contextual image showing where the text occurs may be found at the bottom of this post.

You know you’re in the presence of a masterpiece once you’ve realised that every time you return to it, it finds a new way of speaking to you. That’s at least one reason why the classics are classic. The word is an instantiation of a fleeting thought, an evanescent feeling, but it represents a permanence that has the power to forever draw one to it. A vocational quality that calls (in the sense of vocare, to call) to it. We return freely, and often we don’t know why, we just do.

There is a common misunderstanding which tends to frame the third part of Dante’s Comedy (yes, Dante again!) as the death of movement, the dissolution of drama and the instauration of a gentle dictatorship of dogmaticism and drab scholasticism. Paradiso is the least read part of the Comedy. I know enough people who praise Dante for his genius and power of expression but have never read the account of Dante’s flight to the stars and beyond space and time, which is what Paradiso focuses on.

If the first two parts, Inferno and Purgatorio, are full of bodies busy in their bounded or unbounded struggle, of souls overwhelmed by the load of their embodiment and overburdened by the debt of their all-to-exacting grounding, Paradiso is pure mindfulness, the radical proposal of a project that Dante calls, with a word whose echoes have the capacity to rent the veil separating the 14th and the 21st century in two: trasumanar. So disconcertingly easy to render in modern languages that even a child’s guess would carry: transhumanising, transcending the human condition, which, for Dante, had been the human project all along.

Paradiso is the architecture of an elevated existence whose phenomenological sweetness, the way it is experienced, puts to shame all other projects of finding fulfilment and plenitude. It is out of this world, for sure, and it takes the storified Dante 33 cantos to reach it – at the edge, not of the world, but of being itself. Rather than left behind (as in many impoverished and impoverishing traditions), the body is transformed, the mind becomes the body and the body becomes the mind, that is a sign, an effigy, a seal, the minter’s matrix containing all and yet transcending all.

And the result of that existence is what Dante refers to, again making a mockery of modernist expectations, using the enduring words of dolce vita, the sweet life. This is not the Fellini dolce vita per se, though the intimations are there, and Dante, the Florentine champion of dolce far qualcosa, knew a thing or two about the sweet life (on Earth), though that was not the only life he experienced. But he also knew there was an upper echelon of existence, the focal plane where all contradictions come to collapse, the space of one containing all multiplicity, the ground of grounding and the space of centredness. The dolce vita of those resting in that space, those who sense the ‘eterno spiro’, the eternal emanation, the sempiternal breathing. The dolce vita of contemplation where the self loses itself in all-encompasing release.

London, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 135r

ma tutti fanno bello il primo giro,
e differentemente han dolce vita
per sentir più e men l’etterno spiro

But all those souls grace the Empyrean;
and each of them has gentle life—though some
sense the Eternal Spirit more, some less.
(Paradiso 4: 34-36, trans. by Allen Mandelbaum)

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