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Language of the Other as Reflection of Trinitarian and Incarnational Theology

Especially in the Paradiso, Dante creates a poetic language that makes vividly and palpably manifest the necessary self-involution of language, its self-reflexive thematizing of its own nature as language. However, this involution is geared precisely to being able to make the gesture of pointing beyond itself and opening toward an Other, someone absolutely other to all that can be articulated. Interpreted theologically, this means the nameless and unsignifiable: “God.” Even the gesture of subverting conventional referential or objective signification is still a roundabout and negative manner of signifying: it turns signification toward the infinite and (for us) indeterminate. What is not as such signified, and yet lies at the base of the activity and of the very possibility of signifying, can be interpreted theologically. It can also be interpreted simply as “nonduality” by further negating even this theological language and its rhetoric of otherness.

Dante obsessively performs just such self-reflexive interpretation opening upon theological transcendence. The contemplative San Pier Damiani, for example, speaks of the divine light above him that, conjoined with his gaze, lifts him above himself so far that he sees the highest essence, God:

Luce divina sopra me s’appunta,

penetrando per questa in ch’io m’inventro

la cui virtu, col mio veder congiunta, mi leva sopra me tanto, ch’i’ veggio la somma essenza de la quale e munta.

  • (Paradiso XXL83-87)
  • (The divine light brings itself to a point above me, penetrating into this light in which I am enwombed, whose virtue, conjoined with my seeing,

raises me above myself so much that I see the highest essence from which it is milked.)

Santagata, L’io e il mondo: Un’interpretazione di Dante (Milan: Il Mulino, 2011), recognizes in Dante’s attitude of “autoriflessione” (53) the characteristic profile of the modern intellectual. This burgeoning branch of research is overviewed in the Forum “Dante and Biography” coordinated by Elisa Brilli in Dante Studies 136 (2018): 133-231.

The structure of correspondence, and even of mutual entailment, between self-enclosure (“io m’inventro”) and elevation beyond and above the self (“mi leva sopra me”) to a transcendent divinity (“la somma sapienza”), which in turn acts reflexively, is embodied in the reflexive verb “s’appunta.” This neologism renders verbal and reflexive the image of the “point” (“punto”)—as which Dante sees God in the penultimate and ultimate heavens (XXVIII. 16; XXIX.9; XXX.ll; XXXIII.94). Such a self-reflexive/self-transcending structure is clearly indicated here and in many other places throughout the Paradiso. Paradoxically, the way beyond the self passes through a reflexive turning back upon the self. That is the pattern of self-reflection that miraculously turns language—at least as it is exhibited in Dante’s Paradiso—into theological revelation.

And herein lies the real argument of this book. Crucial for understanding the apotheosis of lyric in the Paradiso is the realization that its lyrical selfreflectiveness is at the same time a reflection of theological transcendence. The poem reflects a transcendent order of being, as well as a personal divinity who is present as an ineffable “Other”—other to any possible language—in the reflection performed by lyrical language. It is paradoxical that the self-enclosure of lyrical language, which doubles back on itself—words calling attention to themselves as words and even as mere sounds—should create an opening toward the transcendent Other and specifically toward a language-transcendent divine Person. Yet that is exactly what we have to imagine in order to understand the significance of lyrical language at its most inspired and far-reaching.

Language achieves transcendence by collapsing into the radical immanence of sound, which says nothing, and eventually yields to silence. In some sense, the most important destination of lyric in all ages is silence, the ultimate “other” of every sound and speech. How many lyric poets, from Leopardi to Giorgio Caproni, or from Hölderlin to Rilke and Celan, not to mention Rimbaud and Mallarmé, or Emily Dickinson, pursuing their projects to their furthest limits, have demonstrated this! Witness T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets turning on “the still point of the turning world.” And witness the hecatombs of books and courses consecrated to the poetics and aesthetics of silence. Silence, in varying degrees, is apt to become the essential destination of lyric in most any age. Silence marks the ineluctable limit to expression of a poetics of transcendence such as Dante’s.

Transcendence—the soul’s elevation to God—through self-reflexivity is the basic project and the driving force behind the lyric as Dante discloses it. This project’s reflection of the Transcendent is achieved in two ways corresponding respectively to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Paradiso enacts at once a trinitarian-reflexive and a sacramental-incarnational poetics of the lyric. The two fit together in the way that “our effigy” (“la nostra effige”) is inscribed within “That circling which conceives itself” (“Quella circolazion ehe si concerta”). They unite as the “reflected light” (“lume reflesso”) fits into the compenetrating three circles (“tre giri”) at the end of the Paradiso (XXXIII. 115-32).

The poetic verse or “versus,” in its etymological sense, is a turning. In lyric verse, this turning clearly entails a turning back upon itself and thereby a foregrounding of its own being as language. Yet it is also, at the same time, a turning toward transcendence at its own (empty) center. All language, and most conspicuously lyrical language, tends to turn upon itself, which is why tropes—literally “turnings”—are so peculiarly at home in the lyric and, in fact, make up its very substance rather than being only adventitious embellishments.

But when the signifier turns toward itself, it is no longer simply itself as a determinate quantity. It has transcended itself toward its own universality, its being as language, the Logos. In this self-reflexivity, lyric language resembles or mirrors the Supreme Being, the paradigm of all being—the Trinity. It models reflexive attachment to and even love of itself. And this turning upon itself is what makes its sense sensuous, incarnate. The sounds and shapes of language, the signifiers in which it manifestly consists, draw attention to themselves as signifiers in all their material concreteness. Lyric self-reflexivity renders thought sensuous, the idea material, the Logos incarnate.

This is to take language as a phenomenon that, in itself, reveals Being. In biblical terms, words are understood to be made and to operate in the image of the divine Word. This is the faith of poets belonging to a certain lyric tradition in which poetry becomes practically a religion. But it finds its most powerful and seminal expression in Dante’s Paradiso. This is the faith that language reveals the essences of things and that it does so in itself, and not just as an instrument or as a transparent medium serving simply to refer to something else beyond itself. Language not only reveals the essences of beings: it also gives us our only means of understanding Being, including Trinitarian, divine Being in its inherent self-reflexivity. Language’s sensuous rendering of meaning or spirit simultaneously illuminates the divine Word’s incarnateness. In fact, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation themselves may be understood—and were often understood in Patristic tradition, for example, by Augustine—on the basis of analogy with language in its intrinsic self-reflexiveness and sensuous ideality.

The doctrine of the Trinity is interlocked with that of the Incarnation in the final images of the Paradiso and also in numerous ad hoc descriptions such as:

Li si canto non Bacco, non Peana, ma tre persone in divina natura, ed in una persona essa e 1’umana.

  • (XIII.25-27)
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Such a confluence of medieval metaphysics with modern poetics is expounded theologically by Olivier-Thomas Venard, moving from Thomas Aquinas to Arthur Rimbaud, in Littérature et théologie: Une saison en enfer (Geneva: Ad Soient, 2002).

There one sings of neither Bacchus nor Paean but of three persons in divine nature and in one person the divine and the human.

Bringing divine self-relatedness together with incarnation of spirit in matter and history is one of the momentous, world-historical achievements of the Christian religion, and Dante’s work repeats it in terms of his own medieval culture. Acute realization of lyric plenitude and of the abyss of Godhead are both necessary to him for this purpose.

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