Dante’s Parabola


In this pleasing contrite wood-life which god allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not and see it not.

– Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days with a new baby, a lovely new baby. This special infant evoked lucid memories: adults making fools of themselves, the smells of spit-up and sweet baby skin, the rule of chaos in everything including time, and the utter vulnerability in which our species is born. But this time I noticed something else too. The little baby boy was staring very intently at one thing after another. Trying to make sense of the world.

Wordsworth claims that babies come into the world “trailing clouds of glory” and that former babies forget as the shabby realities of the world override the wonders of heaven. Be that as it may, surely babies are trying to make sense of what must seem like a confusing world. And we big folks work to convince them it’s a noble effort and that there is any sense to it all. We teach them labels for things (“Mama”) and, when they respond, we think they’ve really learned something. Maybe. In any case, babies often look intent and perplexed. This one certainly did.

In some cases it seemed the baby had figured things out – or been born knowing them. Our grandson certainly was able to communicate hunger or discomfort of any kind. And we watched him testing how much control he had over his own body – although whether he differentiated his body from his mother’s was unclear. Mostly our baby had a curious and puzzled look on his little face – and that got me thinking again about Dante’s parabola of human life.

If life is a parabola (related to the Greek word parabolē, which also gave us parable), it might be an interesting exercise to ponder the mathematical definition of a parabola, which is: “a curve where any point is an equal distance from a fixed point (interestingly call the focus) and a fixed line (called the directrix).” You can see a good diagram of this here.

In such a model, our lives would travel through time along what we would normally call the x-axis, which in this case is called the directrix – from birth to the left through death to the right. And we might note here that directrix is the archaic feminine form of the director. The directrix is the feminine axis of time. The three Fates were also women: Clotho, the spinner, Lachesis, the allotter, and Atropos, the unturnable.

So, if time (the directrix) is the horizontal axis, what is the vertical axis?   If Dante is right, it is the measure of perfection. And he says that it crests in the thirty-fourth year. Maybe true, at least in Dante’s day. Or might it be that with better sanitation and medical help, the peak might have migrated a little to the right? Does it matter? The point is that life’s trajectory goes up – and then goes down. But whatever we call it – growth, development, maturity – it goes through the same levels (think y-axis) going down as it went through going up.

Here’s another way to look at it: the distance from the focus is always changing, but there is always one point going up and one coming down where the distance is the same. A correspondence with an identical point on the y-axis. Birth with death, for instance. And certainly poets have been known to compare the process, the labor of being born with the labor of dying. Could there be other correspondences – menopause and adolescence, for example? Marriage with widowhood or divorce? Steady debilitation in old age with the steady development of children? Can we make comparisons? Can we take lessons from the first time we crossed these vertical markers and use them when we are on the same level on our way down? And what is that still point in the middle, the focus, from which all is measured?

One might think of the Buddha’s enlightenment. After trying to gain nirvana (or at least lasting peace and happiness) through severe ascetic practice – starving himself until he would touch his spine by putting his hand on his stomach – he suddenly remembered a moment from his childhood. As a young child, Siddhartha went to a ploughing festival with his father and was left to sit in “the cool shade of a rose-apple tree” – alone and safe and soon in a kind of self-induced rapture. It was not a rapture born of deprivation; it was a function of deep contentment. And in his adulthood he remembered and re-learned this lesson from his youth. He went back to learn something which taught him how to go forward. The rose-apple tree turned into the bodhi tree. An even better example might be Proust and the memory of the taste of a cookie he dipped in tea when a child. This memory at age fifty-one triggered the Remembrance of Things Past, a review of his life and a masterpiece. A taste and a memory. Parallel moments. Baudelaire said genius was “nothing more than childhood recovered at will.”   Think about that.

And think about the newest baby in our family trying to make sense of the world and more than a little perplexed by it all. And about the oldest member of our family who is also perplexed and getting more so every day. At the same horizontal point on the parabola perhaps, but headed in different directions.

I have attached a story, “Like Heaven,” about a woman at two points on her own parabola. I wrote this tale long ago when I was first thinking about the parabola parable. I am currently working on a novel where I pair diary entries over the course of a lifetime to explore whether the same issues come up as we rise along the arc of life and as we venture down the other side. It isn’t scientific and I’m not even sure the metaphor even holds, but, as I said, it is worth thinking about.

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