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Self-Reflexive Lyricism and Ineffability

Language, so understood as vital to the original disclosure of beings, shows up as theological revelation, the divine Word, in the light of Dante’s Christian faith. Dante explores language in the Paradiso as the revelation of the intrinsic structure of “being” and ultimately of “God.” He discovers language as a sort of a priori revelation of the divine Word that is incarnate in the matter or “flesh” of letters. Of course, strictly considered, the absolute simplicity of God’s being admits of no structure whatsoever. Indeed, the structure of language that Dante observes can only be the negation of God’s being. It works on the basis of the negative or “kenotic” (self-emptying) logic of the Incarnation. That God’s infinite being could, after all, be reflected in finite being (the universe) and in a particular being, a human individual, namely, Jesus Christ (the Word, the perfect image of God), is a miracle for which no mere logic can adequately account—unless it be something like the logic of the coincidentia oppositorum found in Eriugena and Eckhart and developed systematically by Nicholas of Cusa.

“Cusanus” (as he is called by his contemporaries writing in Latin) applied such a logic in De docta ignorantia (1440) to God as “absolute maximum” (Book I) contracted into the universe (Book II) and into the individual Jesus Christ (Book III). In the tradition which I call “apo-phatic,” it is precisely the ineffability of God and the inability of language to express what is truly real, let alone the ultimate reality of God, that best expresses what is most essential about language. This inability indirectly reveals—by obliquely alluding to—its source in what can only be (un)conceived as a divine Abyss.

Hence, “To thee silence is praise” (Psalm 65:2). Only silence does no dishonor to the divine. This is often observed in the broad medieval Scholastic tradition from Moses Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed 1:59 to Meister Eckhart’s Commentary on Exodus (paragraph 174). Standing in the middle between them is Aquinas’s famous experience of vision inducing silence at the culmination of his life’s work, which appeared to him as mere “straw”[1] —“paglia” as “Tommaso” echoes in Paradiso

XIII.34. Curiously, in every case, the linguistic focus reverses itself into an attention to the beyond of language.[2] Rhetorical and linguistic philosophy thought through to its limits becomes thought about the limits of language and its beyond, and this current, as just inventoried in section 2, offers some of the most pertinent paradigms for understanding Dante’s Paradiso. Semiological thinking, too, as developed by the likes of Charles Sanders Peirce and Umberto Eco, can illuminate language’s inexorable drive and destiny to probe the limits of its ability to conceptualize.

Dante insists throughout his culminating poem on ineffability as the foundational motif of his discourse. The immediacy of song, the pure presence of a plenum, does not say anything. It turns out to be indistinguishable from silence—as when the lark becomes silent in the contentment of the ultimate sweetness that satiates it (“race contento / de 1’ultima dolcezza che la sazia,” Paradiso XX.74-75; see section 8). Language must continually evade or negate all final determinations in order to remain infinite, and it is in silence that it realizes or returns to this state of indeterminacy, in which it most truly reflects divinity.

Ineffability has come more and more into focus as the source and core of Dante’s poetic discourse in the Paradisod Ineffability has long been linked, moreover, specifically with the lyricism of the Paradiso, for example, by Salvatore Battaglia: “The third cantica finds its initial lyric impetus in the very premise of the expressive insufficiency of the poet ... This stylistic drama is perhaps the most lyrical component of the third cantica” (“La terza cantica trova la sua prima emozione lirica nella stessa premessa dell’insufficienza espressiva del poeta ... Questo dramma stilistico e forse la componente piu lirica della terza cantica”). It is especially the lyrical quality of language that assumes the burden of expressing what language cannot say—what is in excess of its representational, discursive content. And this lyricism, consisting essentially in self-reflexive relations, is grounded by Dante eminently in the intimate life of the divine Trinity.

In what follows, I aim to sift the lyricism of the Paradiso by analyzing it as consisting essentially in self-reflexivity. I will suggest how this selfreflexivity becomes a primary mode of theological revelation in the poem. This will require critical readings of key passages of the poem, but also philosophical reflection engaged with Dante’s text in an original thinking that endeavors not to explain exactly what Dante thought and meant so much as to exploit the unique perspective his work affords for realizing the full meaning of our own intellectual predicament. By apprehending our own ideas in their emergence from their historical matrices, this reflection will show how we are Dante’s heirs even more than we can fully (and reflectively) realize.

Thus my further aim is to reveal the role of self-reflection in constituting our own inescapably modern manner of thinking and to sound our indebtedness in such thinking to modes of reflection that are poetically invented and superlatively performed in the text of Dante’s Paradiso. One caveat: the book makes no attempt to provide a comprehensive reading of the Paradiso but rather takes the lyricism of the Paradiso as profoundly revelatory of modern self-reflection. Ultimately, this will lead to recognition of possibilities for reopening the sealed and occulted theological horizons of modern thinking. It will expose certain theological underpinnings still inhering in even our most thoroughly secularized intellectual assumptions.

This way of reading Dante relates closely to the emerging movement in Dante studies forged by scholars, especially in Britain and the United States, working under the banner of “Dante and Theology” from their diversely radical or traditional perspectives. The 2013 encounter in Jerusalem mentioned in the Acknowledgments is one milestone that serves for orientation in this landscape. My 1996 book Dante’s Interpretive Journey was already moving in this direction. Theology is much more than a specialized science or doctrine: it pervades Dante’s entire intellection of the real. His poetico-theological framing of all of knowledge furnishes a model for humanities studies considered broadly, even universally, that is worthy of our emulation still today. Paradoxically, this humanistic, self-reflective framing hails from a theology of transcendence. Rendering this paradox intelligible is central to the task of this book.

  • [1] 2 silenzio di Tommaso (Monferrato: Piemme, 1998).
  • [2] On What Cannot Be Said, vol. 1, analyzes these cases and numerous others in just such terms. 2 This paradigm is worked out in its application to Dante by Raffaele De Benedictis, Wordly Wise: The Semiotics of Discourse in Dante’s Commedia (New York: Peter Lang, 2012). 3 The bibliography is daunting. As significant indications and instances of this critical trend, which is something of a groundswell, I would single out Marco Ariani, Lux inaccessibilis: Metafore e teología della luce nel Paradiso di Dante (Rome: Aracne, 2010) and Giuseppe Ledda, La guerra della lingua: Ineffabilitd, retorica e narrativa nella Commedia di Dante (Ravenna: Longo, 2002). I give more extensive bibliography on this subject in “Language and Transcendence in Dante’s Paradiso," in The Poetics of Transcendence, ed. Elisa Heinámáki, P. M. Mehtonen, and Antti Salminen (Amsterdam: Rodopi: 2015), 107-31. 4 Salvatore Battaglia, Esemplaritá e antagonismo nel pensiero di Dante (Naples: Liguori, 1975), 44-45.
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