Shadows and Lights

While reading the first nine Cantos of Dante’s Paradiso, I was reminded of shades/ombras/shadows by the contrasting lights.

When he spoke with us, Dr. Herzman referenced the biblical Paul’s letter to the Romans, how it mentioned that God left traces of himself in the universe to lead us back to him. With this, we were discussing the first few lines in the first Canto:

The glory of the One Who moves all things
penetrates all the universe, reflecting
in one part more and in another less.

I was struck by the use of the word “traces,” and immediately thought of the character Joe Trace in Toni Morrison’s Jazz. These opening lines of Canto I tell us that God is in everything; therefore, there is God in Joe Trace. The souls that are in Paradise seem to shine/glow when Dante’s Pilgrim encounters them; they are full of light. But the souls in the Inferno have God in them, too.

We must think back to our discussion the other day that every human is more complex than good/bad, light/dark, hero/antagonist. Many people, including myself, have a difficult time moving past the harm of one act that a person has committed. In the last chapter of Jazz, there are many allusions to kinds of light that make contact with Joe’s character. For example, Violet sees this divine light reflected in Joe while they are lying together; she puts her hand “on his chest as though it were the sunlit rim of a well” (225). This image does a fantastic job of giving the reader the impression of balance between shadow and light in one being.

There is a section at the beginning of Canto V which circles back to Jazz as well.

“If, in the warmth of love, you see me glow
with light the world below has never seen,
stunning the power of your mortal sight,

you should not be amazed, for it proceeds
from perfect vision which, the more it sees,
the more it moves to reach the good perceived.

I can see how into your mind already
there shines Eternal Light which, of Itself,
once it is seen, forever kindles love;

and should some other thing seduce man’s love,
it can be only some trace of this Light,
misapprehended, shining through that thing.”

In the third tercet, Dante even uses the word “trace.” These verses make me think of Violet and her relationship to her husband. She does not seem to blame him for his infidelity, but rather Dorcas. Instead, she seeks to win him back. I wonder, then, if Morrison is invoking Canto V by allowing Violet to see the “Eternal Light” which, “once it is seen, forever kindles love” (V. l 8).

The point to be made here, I think, is that everyone contains both light and shadow. Both good and bad. It is very rare, if at all, that someone be wholly good or wholly bad. I anticipate, then, that as we move into reading Morrison’s Paradise this semester, it is likely that we will see even more light. We will not, though, be entirely devoid of shadow.

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