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The Self-Reflective Structure of Language Made Manifest

This theme of God as absolute Self-Reflection reflected into the created order from the lowest up to the highest echelons of the universe stretches as an overarching theme of Dante’s poem from beginning to end. Yet even before or below this explicit, thematic level, the divine self-reflection is at work in Dante’s poem itself simply as a poem and in the very language it employs. We can gain a different, and in some ways a more penetrating, view into self-reflection by considering how it operates in Dante’s language itself. At this level, the poem embodies the dynamics of self-reflexivity not just in what it says and represents, but also in what it actually is and does in and through its working as language. The ineffable burden of the poem is delivered in the form of its own self-reflexive poetic process in a more immediate and intimate way than by any thematic declarations or expositions. Even more directly than the self-reflexivity of the created universe, the self-reflexive creativity of language as such reflects and embodies the supreme SelfReflection in the Word, the Logos, who is the divine Creator himself (John 1:3). Paradise is accessible to Dante (at least as the poet of the Paradiso) essentially in and through language, especially lyric language, with its heightened intensity of self-reflectiveness. God, as he is experienced in and through Dante’s Paradiso, is reflected primarily in language and only secondarily in the cosmos that this language refers to and represents.

Thus, in a sense that would have been evident to Dante and his contemporaries, the self-reflexive structure of the Trinity is embodied in the immanent order of language even more immediately than in the outward order of Creation, whether of the physical or of the spiritual universe. The essential ground of the universe and of language alike is the divine Word “by whom all things were made” (navra Si’ avrov sysvsro, John 1:3). Human language depends on and reflects this divine Word, which is the Son, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the perfect


Eugene Vance, Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press: 1986), 310, demonstrates the bases of this medieval mentality giving priority to language as the immediate embodiment of divinity. The Incarnation of the Word is directly reflected as incarnation in words. Marcia L. Colish, The Mirror of Language: A Study in the Medieval Theory of Knowledge, rev. ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983) traces the impact of this divine Logos theology through the medieval sign theories of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas to Dante.

reflected image of the Father. Human language, too, accordingly, cannot but be self-reflexive in its essential nature, even though it is imperfect, having been corrupted by sin (De vulgari eloquentia I.vii). This reflexivity of language is key to its becoming in Dante’s poem a vehicle of transcendence leading to God. In essence, the poem aims to become God the Word’s own self-reflection. To be a perfect reflection of God, language itself must become perfectly self-reflective. Such a goal for poetic language is approached asymptotically in the Paradiso.

The discovery and display particularly in lyrical poetry—or more exactly in poetic lyricism—of language’s inherent self-reflexive powers, with its capacities to be and to give being, intelligibility, pathos, sweetness, beauty, and sublimity, manifests a submerged theology of poetic language with roots in the Christian theology of the Word by whom all things were made. Poetry thus becomes an exploration in service of and in devotion to the divine Word.[1] Even apart from using human words for the purpose of communicating human meanings, poetic language can be a revelation of the divine truth and meaning of the being and destiny of human life and history. Poetry is thereby destined to reassume a prophetic vocation such as it already had in the Bible—conspicuously in the sublime rhetoric of certain passages of the prophetic books and of Job that are chock-full of lyrical fantasy and emotional transport. Dante’s lyric poetics of self-reflection implicitly realizes such a prophetic revelation.

Even if language per se is not explicitly thematized in this particular passage at the opening of Paradiso X, it is nevertheless the vehicle here, as elsewhere, of every theme throughout the poem, and this condition is made explicit in other passages. Most conspicuously, language is spectacularly displayed in the Heaven of Jove in Canto XVIII.70-126, with its theophany of letters: DILIGITEIUSTITIAM QUIIUDICATIS TERRAM. Its role as medium and as mediation is brought to the center of attention and becomes itself the immediate object of contemplation. This dramatic reversal of roles between vehicle and tenor, between language as the medium of the divine vision and as itself an object of contemplation, is the fundamental gesture of the Paradiso as an apotheosis of language. Especially through its lyricism, the poem is able to project language in an extraordinary way rendering it in an eminent sense a protagonist of the poem.

  • [1] Michael Martin, The Incarnation of the Poetic Word: Theological Essays on Poetry & Philosophy (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2017) explores modern continuations in this key. 2 My “Schrift als Theophanie in Dantes Paradiso: Das Medium als Metapher für die göttliche Unmittelbarkeit,” Schrift und Graphisches im Vergleich, ed. Monika Schmitz-Emans, Linda Simonis, and Simone Sauer-Kretschmer (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2019), 59-70, elucidates this reading.
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