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From Formalist Poetics to the Paradise of Poetic Language

I have described Dante’s lyric poetics as based on foregrounding language and on its calling attention to itself. This view derives from the broadly formalist conceptions that were given their most influential formulation by Jakobson. It leaves its mark on theoretical approaches to the poetics of the Paradiso such as Freccero’s and Dragonetti’s (see especially sections 5-11 below). I wish to give a different turn, with a theological twist, to this formalist view of Dante’s poetics and even in certain respects to reverse it into a kind of hyper-realist poetics. While calling attention to itself as language in some sense undermines referential or conceptual content, Dante’s language in the Paradiso is absolutely precise and painstaking in its conceptual elaborations. The commentaries (Hollander’s preeminently) show how every inflection of Dante’s language has a conceptual history behind it and implies a whole program of cultural convictions and ideological commitments. Every minute turn of Dante’s phrasing, and all of his lexical elections and inventions, evoke endless worlds of conception and belief as standing outside of or beyond the poem and as informing it. Perceiving this intricate conceptual structure is crucial to the incomparable experience of reading the Paradiso and understanding the matchlessly rare and subtle impressions it awakes.

Nevertheless, we must learn to perceive this realm of reference as projected from the poem itself rather than as ready-made and preceding it. Everything, as it appears in the poem, is given from a conceptual

Self-Reflexion, Lyricism in Paradiso 17 creation that the poem itself engenders and that actualizes Paradise as the immediate experience of divine presence. Dante’s Paradiso reveals the poetic word as the creative origin of language and therewith of the world as conceived and humanly experienced. This creativity cannot be experienced by referring merely to existing objects, but only in the creative event of language itself. In this event, the divine presence becomes palpable as Paradise.

Dante’s careful conceptual elaborations give his language a sense of stability as anchored to a reality that is beyond language. This reality, however, is not that of the empirical world of distinct, finite objects around us. In terms of such things and our perceptions and articulations of them, the ultimate reality of Paradise can only be indeterminate, for it is infinite. The reality of Paradise is also perfectly unified or one and therefore inexpressible. Not the differential articulations we apprehend in Dante’s concepts themselves (which are always only provisional), but the more mysterious and ineffable source of them—the source of all stability and dynamism—is ultimately the reality in question.

The poem opens access to—or puts us in touch with—this otherwise unsuspected domain of ineffable simplicity. It is a referential world that is opened up by language—but as independent of language and as superlatively real. It is a higher reality that is more true and constant than the world we apprehend in the things around us as perceived by our senses. Symbolically, such a higher reality is aptly represented as “Paradise.” But taken as prior to representation and its fictions, and apart from any myths of an other world, the functioning of language in Dante’s poem is itself an original (re)making of the world as turned toward and open to an unfathomable otherness of things that we inevitably miss in our ordinary experience of them.

Dante’s own theory of poetic language stresses stability, which he takes to be a natural telos and criterion of the nobility of language (Convivio I.v.7). It is achieved by tying words together in verse (De vulgari eloquentia II.iii.2-3; Convivio In the Paradiso, this stability becomes something uncanny. It is not just a relative power of endurance in time, such as Statius attributes to the name of the poet (“quel nome che piü dura e piü onora,” Purgatorio XXI.85). It is a supra-temporal power of disclosing a reality that underlies everything and “gives” it to be, as philosophers say with enriched meaning after the theological turn in phenomenology (see section 24). Beyond the temporal fluctuations of language itself—and even because of them—poetic language in the vernacular is able to evoke a changeless reality, or, more exactly, a reality beyond change, one that can be encompassed by no finite terms and that cannot as such be articulated. This higher reality of Paradise is discerned by the disclosures made through poetic language. So whenever I stress the erasure of referentiality effected through lyrical language, the emphasis is actually on another, richer, fuller reality beyond all empirical entities and separately definable essences. It opens up and is entered into by conceptual elaboration—yet it is posited as existing prior to and independently of Dante’s language of Paradise because it norms that very language. The world articulated by the language of Paradise is but the trace or witness of another, inarticulable, ineffable reality.

In the formal register that will be developed and analyzed philosophically in Part II, making a poem, with its ideal descriptions, can be a way of discerning a higher and more abiding reality. This method works largely by Dante’s making conceptual distinctions, but not as if they were just made up. He claims to interpret an authoritative revelation of how things really are. Most importantly, that Paradise is at all as an object for our experience or discernment first comes into view through discourse. Yet what counts finally are not the distinctions Dante actually details—for example, between those born before the institution of circumcision or after the sacrament of baptism, to parents with or without faith, etc.— but his orientation to an authority above him that really can make such distinctions. Its reasons for granting life or death, salvation or punishment, nevertheless, reach beyond our understanding. This is to understand oneself as really connected to and ruled by a higher source that is not of one’s own creation—even though this understanding itself results precisely from a realization of freedom in one’s own creative activity in responding to a higher, ineffable inspiration. The ability of language to make distinctions and to forge conceptions is itself revelatory. It is not the world of empirical things in which language functions pragmatically that is revealed, but a higher reality without differences from which this world devolves. The distinctions made by language and concept come not as derived from the world of empirical things, but as grounding it in another realm truer than all such things.

I work with and from versions of formalist theory of poetic language in this book, and I will continue to deploy some of its insights, but I turn them in a direction that is not envisaged by the usually secular models of such critical theory. As employed in the Paradiso, language works above all as a vehicle for the discernment of the reality of Paradise. The reality of Paradise is “substantial,” not merely empty form or pretense. Dante’s language in the Paradiso shows us this better than any other work I know of or can imagine. Dante builds on the Bible and on classical and vernacular poets, and he brings out the uncanny capacities latent in their languages. He shows fully what poetry on an epic scale, flushed with prophetic purport and lyrical intensity, has always aspired to be and do. The fact that poetry can project a kind of ideal world—in this case, Paradise—through poetic metaphor is not a new discovery. But Dante finds or invents some unprecedented ways to “make” this Paradise real and not just a formal construction or fantasy.

What is so extraordinary is that, by making formal distinctions, poetic language becomes a disclosure of a higher and more stable world, one more undeniably real than any reality to which we otherwise have access. Dante’s language suspends or diverts ordinary reference to external

Self-Reflexion, Lyricism in Paradiso 19 objects in order to restore reference on another level—to an otherwise inaccessible and largely unsuspected order of things. His language is suspended upon and supported by a reality that, without this language, could not be perceived as existing at all. His language is drawn up in the wake of a world that it itself first renders discernible as other than any world of perceived differences defined in language—as preexisting language and as underwriting all its distinctions. This uncanny dimension of a higher reality discerned by self-reflexive form will be brought into focus in Part II through comparison with Duns Scotus’s discovery of a comparable kind of formal reality. The ensuing Parts will then follow this self-reflexive philosophical insight forward to our own times.

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