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Lyric Poetics of Presence through Self-Reflection in the Paradiso

Each of the three canticles of the Divine Comedy features near its opening a significant passage that defines its distinctive poetics. In the Inferno, after the general introduction and preliminaries—including protasis, invocation, and a framing of the dramatic action of the poem—which take up its first two cantos, Canto III opens directly with the inscription over the Gate of Hell. It is relayed in four stanzas of terza rima beginning: “Per me si va ne la cittá dolente, I per me si va ne 1’etterno dolore, / per me si va tra la perdura gente” (“Through me one goes into the city of pain, / through me one enters eternal anguish, I through me one goes among the lost souls”). These words are presented at the canto’s outset without any form of mediation such as a discursive link or narrative transition. The effect of this abruptness is that the reader directly confronts, written in the text, exactly the same letters as Dante the protagonist sees inscribed on the infernal archway. In this performative manner, the text throws into relief the realistic mimesis that serves as its characteristic poetic mode. The Inferno claims to record what Dante as eyewitness saw (“ció ch’io vidi,” II.8) and directly or immediately experienced.

In comparison, the Purgatorio presents a reflectively interiorized realm of dream and imagination filtered through aesthetic transfigurations via the arts—plastic, pictorial, architectural, musical, rhetorical, etc. Its dominant poetic mode is allegory, in which reality is represented as veiled by images and as mediated by interpretive paradigms of cultural tradition. In Canto II of Purgatorio, the Exodus is evoked via Psalm 113 (In


This broad theoretical problematic is elucidated by Vladimir Jankélévitch, “Musique et Silence,” in La musique et ¡’ineffable (Paris: Seuil, 1983; originally Paris: A. Colin, 1961), 161-90, trans. Carolyn Abbate, “Music and Silence” in Music and the Ineffable (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 130-55.

exitu Israel de Aegypto, 11.46) sung in choral unison by souls arriving on board an angelic ferry at the shore of the mountain, where they will begin their purgation. Psalm 113 is a liturgical exemplum that calls for figural interpretation by the fourfold method of Scriptural allegoresis that Dante lays out in Convivio II.i.2-15. The traditional story of the Exodus figures in the text of Purgatorio explicitly as “written” (“scripto,” 11.48). The navigator angel (“celestial nocchiero,” 11.43) ferrying the souls is itself “inscribed” as “blessed” (“beato per iscripto,” 11.44). Its blessedness is a written figure. In all these ways, its textual mediation is built into the scene and foregrounded. This emblematic angel is endowed, moreover, with “eternal pinions” (“etterne penne,” 35) that are interpretable alternatively as “pens.” These superhuman aviational means are overdetermined as meaning-bearing “arguments” (“argument!,” 31).

In the Purgatorio, the Scriptural mode of typological poetics relies on messengers (angels) and on symbolic media of aestheticizing representation as characteristic expedients. True reality is not presented directly to the eyes and the other senses as a bald fact but is imaged, instead, via exemplary figures and types embedded in texts unfolding in dramatic scenarios. Hence also the sacred rite acted out in the valley of the princes (Purgatorio VII) and the biblical pagent performed in the terrestrial paradise (Purgatorio XXIX). Symbolic dreams, furthermore, serve as allegorical foreshadowings that punctuate Dante’s days and nights in Purgatory at intervals of approximately nine cantos each: Dante dreams of the eagle snatching Ganymede in IX; of the Siren figure at the opening of XIX; and of the Scriptural types Lea and Rachel in XXVII. In all these ways, Purgatorio constantly emphasizes subjective, symbolic, artistic, and scriptural mediation.

The poetics of the Paradiso, in contrast, return once more to a sort of immediacy, but it is not the immediacy of a purportedly literal, referential reality, as in the Inferno. Instead, it is the immediacy of the linguistic medium itself. The Paradiso's language is peculiarly designed not so much to represent Paradise as to presence it—to render it palpable as a sensuous plenitude in the experience of poetic language itself. The experience of Paradise is what no language can objectively describe or represent. The ineffability topos relentlessly insists on this from the beginning to the end of the cantica. The language of Paradise can no longer refer to or represent its highest and most proper object (divinity, the Absolute).

The Paradiso can rely neither on direct realism nor on allegorical signification. It must, instead, create an experience of the Absolute in language—especially through the breakdown of language at the limits of its expressive powers. This is a kind of return to immediacy, but of a different order and at a higher level. The immediately perceptible objects presented throughout the canticle are metaphors of a heightened, invisible reality that is effulgently present and yet, at the same time, sublimely out of reach. This is illustrated strikingly and effectively in the Heaven of Jove, particularly in Paradiso XVIII.70-136, with the spectacular display

Self-Reflexion, Lyricism in Paradiso 7 of written language, specifically Scripture—DILIGITE IUSTITIAM— blazoned across the scene of the heaven. This vision features letters and their composition and explosion as a kind of fireworks made up of ensembles of soul-sparks flashing written characters “painted” (“dipinto”) on the canvas of the heaven. The divine love “was there” (“1’amor che li era”) and yet still only in the form of writing, which entails and foregrounds difference and distance.[1]

Language signifies by difference, not by positive, absolute terms. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) demonstrates this magisterially in texts that remain indispensable for modern linguistics and language theory, but the crucial insights were already well known to Dante and to the highly sophisticated medieval semiological science to which he was heir. Most importantly, Dante knows theologically that he must go beyond significant speech and representation altogether in order to convey something of the ultimate experience of God, since God is without difference and is, strictly speaking, unsignifiable. Dante cannot represent God as an object. He can only imitate absolute being in poetic language that takes language to the zero degree of representation in producing, instead, a dynamic, self-reflexive presence in language itself.

Most basically, it is by repeating sounds of the same vowel or consonant in patterns of alliteration and assonance that poetic language calls attention to its own being as language. By concentrating self-reflexive verbal structures of repetition of the same—as with the same sounds and measures repeated in rhythm and rhyme—poetic language affirms itself as an immediate sensory presence in its own right rather than only serving as a vehicle or medium of representation. Such self-referentiality of language characterizes the “poetic function” as theorized by Roman Jakobson and as exemplified by the slogan “I like Ike,” which calls attention to language itself. By such means, language makes itself felt for its own positive, tangible qualities. It is not just a conveyance for content of another nature, being itself reduced to a self-erasing vehicle. It is not just a transparent medium for its object. Instead, language imposes a viscous being—an ontological density—of its own. Modern poetry considered very broadly has continued in this quest to realize its being in and as the presence of language itself. This insight, expressed in the simplest, stripped-down terms, lurks within Archibald McLeish’s well-known prescription for poetry: “A poem should not mean / But be” (“Ars Poetica”).

An intensively lyrical poetics of presence in the Paradiso is felt fully and is brought to the center of attention in Dante’s first encounter with souls in Paradise. Specifically the presentation in Canto III of the barely discernible faces of the souls appearing in the Heaven of the Moon, with its emphatically alliterative and assonantal diction, makes the language of poetry itself a hauntingly audible presence. This passage defines the characteristic poetic mode of the third cantica in parallel with the already-noted programmatic passages near the outset of the previous two canticles that establish and illustrate their respective poetic modes.

Quali per vetri trasparent i e ter si,

o ver per acque nitide e tranquille,

non si profonde che i fondi sien persi,

tornan de’ nostri visi le postille

debili si, che perla in bianca froMte

non vien men tosto a le Mostré pupille ... .s

  • (Paradiso III.10-15)
  • (As in transparent and polished glass,

or in pure and tranquil waters,

not so deep that the bottoms vanish,

the reflected images of our faces return

so weak that pearl on a white forehead

does not strike our pupils more ... .)

The faces here are at risk of being effaced: they are nearly imperceptible, for lack of sufficient differentiation against their background. The distinct appearance of faces and forms throughout most of Paradise is on the verge of being blended out by the overwhelming presence of pure, metaphysical being, with its dazzlingly refulgent light. Analogously, the binary differences on which meaning in language is based tend to be erased through language’s occurring not as a means of reference so much as an immediate presence. Language itself, by its concrete presence in its poetic function, upstages and outshines the differentiated contents that it only indirectly represents by means of its referential function. Such language evokes and even enacts an undifferentiated presence of the divine.

  • [1] I interpret this passage in “Scripture as Theophany in Dante’s Paradiso,” Religion and Literature 39/2 (2007): 1-32. 2 Rita Copeland and Ineka Sluiter, in Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory AD 13-1475 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), provide translations of source texts from this vast tradition. 3 Thomas Sebeok (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960), 350-77. Citation 357. 4 Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language, ed.
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