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An Otherness Beyond Objective Representation and Reference

This cluster of bird images intimates the power of self-reflection to gesture toward—and even to imitate and incarnate through artistic creation—a dimension that otherwise simply eludes rational comprehension. As Dante put it in XIX.44-45, the Creator’s Verbum remains in infinite excess (“in infinito eccesso”) of any of His created works. A kind of power of signifying or of revealing in lyric language surpasses the scope of ordinary reference ad extra not necessarily by nullifying it so much as by restructuring it. The self-reflexivity of language need not be a means of reducing everything to just language. It can, instead, be a revelation of an otherness that transcends language in a more fine and sublime way than that of straightforward referendality to terminal, finite objects in an external world. Such self-reflexivity may point to the presence (always compounded also of absence) of something unrepresentable, something absolutely other than and beyond (or before) conceptual language, something therefore that the ordinary linguistic function of reference can never quite capture. In effect, it can only be figured. It admits of no direct or adequate statement. And the most appropriate figurations are self-reflexive because they enact its own inherent dynamism. Self-referentiality is recognized by a millenary theological tradition—and is recognized also poetically by Dante—as the key to figuration of the unrepresentable.

The absolutely Other is unsayable, and it can only be evoked, since it cannot be properly referred to or conceptually grasped. It can be evoked by self-reference—by language that turns attention reflexively on itself and points up its own inadequacy rather than pretending to be transparent to things. This is language that has no proper object besides language. Or better, its “object” is what language projects as its own “beyond.” It is what language cannot designate and describe but nevertheless gestures toward as beyond its reach by the failure of its ordinary referential function.

Evocation through self-referentiality is a more indirect way of relating to something other, something absolutely other—which is what we ourselves are in our own transcendent Ground. As if miraculously, in lyrical language, self-reflexivity becomes the reflection of a transcendence and, as such, an immanent presence of what Dante understands theologically as the Trinitarian divinity. Dante also unfailingly notes that this experience cannot be gathered into his words, that it transcends them and can be fathomed only by those for whom the direct experience of Paradise is reserved (1.72; X.70-75, 145-48; XIV.26, 106; XIX.39; XXI.19-24, 141). Only they will have the keys necessary for deciphering the Paradiso's figures. Still, the fact that these figures gesture towards something other, not in what they refer to, but precisely by turning reference back in a circle upon itself, indicates the circuitous shape of this path to transcendent otherness. This otherness cannot be signified as something completely or determinately outside all relation to the sign. It is indeterminately manifest in the sign itself, hence not in what the sign signifies but in the ongoing act and energy of signifying. Paradoxically, the ultimately unsignifiable otherness of God can be signified only as non-other to signifying itself.

Language turned back on itself and exposing the nullity of its finite, representational contents can itself become manifest as the infinite medium in and out of which all things come to be (objectively). Starting from the poem’s opening tercet (“La gloria di colui ... in una parte piü e meno altrove”), Dante discovers through language the oneness of things along with their differential articulations, their unity in diversity, in what amounts to a linguistic monism and even a kind of aesthetic monotheism. All is grasped in and through language in its oneness as coming from and inhering in what cannot but be imagined as one supreme source or transcendent principle in which all things are connected. In language, everything is potentially connected with everything else and in a certain sense becomes one. Such a poetic vision involves a kind of linguistic mysticism. It delivers through language a revelation that is experiential rather than dogmatic. To this extent, there is an immanent presence of divinity in language. Especially lyrical language, such as Dante invents it in the Paradiso, is apt to reveal this presence and can make it to be felt in poetic-linguistic experience. Apart from this intimate experience, such a transcendent presence is inexpressible and perhaps even imperceptible. A kind of immanence and presence are attained precisely in and through the experience of transcendence of the Source and of the absence of determinate form.

To the extent that it registers in language in the first place, the “wholly other” can only be relatively or negatively so. The metaphysics of selfreflection are such that through self-reflection we relate to an Other—or even to a Whole that cannot be fathomed except as wholly other. The oneness in question is the whole of everything, but that precisely is what is categorically other with respect to all our finite, linguistic, human means


A paradoxical logic of God as the “non-other” is worked out in depth and detail by Nicholas of Cusa in De non aliud (1462). I expound it in Chapter 3 of On the Universality of W'hat is Not: The Apophatic Turn in Critical Thinking (Notre Datne: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), 93-96.

Otherness Beyond Objective Representation 69 of representing—and even of conceiving a whole. This whole of reality in its infinity is concentrated into one as God. Such is the paradoxical figure produced by the reflection in which a self first makes itself whole but at the same time also renders itself imaginary and experiences itself as “not-all,” the “pas-tout” (Lacan). It is broken open to relation with a beyond. Such reflective speculation on flight toward the transcendent takes wing, being launched by the bird images in Jove. But there is yet another simile of a bird that homes in on the goal toward which all these images converge. It occurs in a later heaven, the eighth, that of the fixed stars, which Dante enters into in Canto XXII. 100 and expounds in Canto XXIII. This aviary emblem also belongs, albeit belatedly, to the representation through bird figures of lyrical self-reflexivity in its theological implications. In certain outstanding ways, this figure is the climax of the series. The theme of joy in creation as transcending time in the eternal shape of the lyric circle traced out by self-reflection in a Void is wrought to its highest pitch of emotional ecstasy and is brought to the furthest speculative reach of its theological significance in this exquisite vignette.


Dominik Finkelde, Excessive Subjektivität: Eine Theorie tathafter Neubegründung des Ethischen nach Kant, Hegel und Lacan (Freiburg im Breisgau: Karl Albert, 2015) demonstrates the transcendent grounding of pure self-relation (“die Transzendenz der reinen Selbstbeziehung”) in German Idealism and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis in parallel.

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