“Here force failed my high fantasy”

Cristian Ispir
3 min readNov 15, 2023
Salvador Dalí — Dante Arriving at Empyrean (Wood Block Print)

One of the most powerful moments in life and in art is the experience of climax.

It’s in these instances that the intensity of joy, accomplishment, love, or understanding reaches its zenith, leaving an enduring imprint on our memories and shaping the narrative of our existence.

Artistic climax seeks both to imitate life and to provoke, unashamedly, climactic experiences in those engaging with the art form.

And one of the most powerful climactic moments in literature is the last part of the last canto of the last division of Dante’s Comedy: the last verses of canto 33 of Paradiso, my favourite part of the Italian masterpiece.

The invocation of love that moves the Sun and the other stars is well-known and has always had a soundbite quality to it.

What is less known, or less acknowledged, however, is what happens to the one who experiences it firsthand. Unlike us readers, Dante the narrator and the self-cast character doesn’t need words and poetry to reach the climax of feeling and understanding.

Having transcended, mind and body, from heavenly circles to incorporeal spheres, Dante reaches the highest point, which is not a point, or a point in time. It is a state, as all experiences are, transcendentals beyond time and space.

He sees the source of all being, not with the eyes, which are no longer suitable for the ecstatic moment he’s about to experience, but with all his being. And at the heart of all existence is the human effigy, the origo and finis of all things that can be experienced by the human agent.

And there it all ends. In climax, in an explosion of plenitude that blows up all expectations and radiates the self with power as well as a sense of powerlessness:

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already — like
a wheel revolving uniformly — by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
(Paradiso 33:142–5)

Here the focus is less on the last line, which has its own closing power (though it’s nothing but a simile in the service of what comes before it), and more on the sense of having reached the end of human experience: the total experience, the object of a subject on the brink of self-collapse, on the cusp of losing all subjectivity. The ultimate alteration of consciousness: unable to relate, unable to move beyond the experienceable.

The story ends, not because everything has been told, but because the storyteller is no longer there to tell anything. The final act is the act of final self-emptiness. And the empty page.

The transformation is complete, the traveller has achieved il trasumanar.

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