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Ineffability in the Round—and its Breakthrough

Canto XXIII, with its mother bird, is a key canto also for the ineffability topos—and not just by accident. It anticipates the Empyrean by granting Dante vision of the whole cohort, metaphorically “all the fruit” (“tutto ’1 frutto,” XXIII.20), of the blessed, the Church Triumphant together with Christ himself, whose shining substance (“lucente sustanza,” 32), like the sun, is not sustainable to Dante’s eyes. Robert Hollander describes this as “a liminal space, at the border of the infinite” and discerns here “the direct presence of Eternity,” as in the Empyrean two heavens later. Hence the “jump” of Dante’s “sacred poem” in “figuring Paradise” (“figurando ¡1 Paradiso / convien saltar lo sacrato poema,” XXIII.61-62). Dante addresses here in some unprecedented ways the breakthrough to eternity, yet he does so precisely through circling reflexivities. Paradoxically, the circle of self-reflection becomes Dante’s means of reaching out beyond self toward the absolutely other. Concretely, this means experiencing in and through the porousness of the self.

Paradiso XXIII features the triumph of Maria celebrated by the angel Gabriel descending like a torch formed as a circle shaped into a crown to fête her (“formata in cerchio a guisa di corona,” 95). The angelic “torch” (“facella”) descends through heaven (“per entro il cielo”) to encircle Mary (“cinsela”) and self-reflexively “turns itself around her” (“girossi intorno ad ella,” XXIII.95-96). Thus “the circulated melody” closes upon or “seals itself” (“Cosi la circulata melodia / si sigillava,” 109-10). This self-enclosed circularity creates a completeness and plenitude that propagates itself with a generative power reaching beyond itself by issuing in further creation and salvation. This is the nature of God as imitated in structures of self-fulfilling fullness that become creative. In God’s image, individual selves in turn reach out over their own boundaries in relating to others. Like infants reaching their arms up to their “mamma” once they have taken their milk, so the flames of the souls that have descended from the Empyrean stretch upward with their flaming tips (“ciascun di quei candor in sù si stese / con la sua cima”)


Robert Hollander, ed., Paradiso (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 574.

Ineffability in the Round 81 showing outwardly their “deep [or high] affection” (“alto affetto”) for Mary (XXIII. 124-26).

Divine agape is the model for this expansive dynamic of love. The voice and singing light identifies itself by first-person reference as speech of the “angelic love” that circles around the exalted delight emanating from the virgin womb, where the Lord was lodged. This womb harbors the object of desire of all souls in the redeemed world of Paradise:

Io sono amore angelico, che giro

  • 1’alta letizia che spira del ventre che fu albergo del nostro disiro;
  • (XXIII. 103-5)
  • (I am the angelic love, that circles

the high happiness that breathes from the womb that lodged the object of our desire.)

Canto XXIII offers lyric images of the triumphs of Christ and Mary— a Garden under the ray of the sun (“raggio di sol,” 79). Both glorious visions descend from above and then withdraw again back into the higher heavens. They leave a void in their wake, but they have engendered a powerful affect by their apparition—love drawn on by the vacuum. Christ is the Word incarnate in images—eminently the “rose,” in which he became flesh—and redolent in the lilies that disseminate his words and works:

Quivi e la rosa in che ’1 verbo divino came si fece; quivi son li gigli al cui odor si prese il buon camino

  • (XXIII.73-75)
  • (Here is the rose in which the divine Word became flesh; here are the lilies by whose odor the right path is taken)

In these images, the divine becomes sensuous. Spirit is dispensed as a sweet fragrance.

Dante’s technique of self-reflection illustrates the means by which human beings are able to imitate God, who is one and who reflects himself—and only himself—in all reality. This movement is modeled, above all, by lyric language as a melody that circles upon itself (“la circulata melodia,” XXIII.109). By imitating God in self-reflection, humans transcend themselves and are drawn closer to the template in whose image they are made. This lift upward toward transcendence marks the fertility of contemplation, as articulated by San Pier Damiani in lines (“Luce divina sopra me s’appunta,” etc., XXI.83-87) replete with womb imagery that were quoted in the last subsection of the Introduction as encapsulating the Paradiso’s underlying dynamic of transcendence through self-reflection.

What an extraordinary fiction Dante has created of himself rising through the degrees of paradisiacal blessedness to the vision of God by contemplating the beauty of his ladylove, alias theological revelation. The fruitfulness of contemplation is a fruitfulness of self-reflection—an exercise of perfecting one’s own image, a reflection that is emphatically fecund.

The heaven of the contemplatives stresses how Pier Damiani’s “contemplative thoughts” (“pensieri contemplativi,” XXI.117) have filled this heaven with saints in a most fertile manner (“fertilemente,” 119). This spiritual fecundity of contemplation is a further realization of the pattern of self-reflection that issues in an orientation to the Other. It produces holy fruits and flowers (XXII.48) by heat and gel, by devoted ardor and strict discipline. Dante himself dilates like a rose in its full “potency” (“possanza”) under the sun (55-57). Contemplation involves a withdrawal from the outside world and a reflexive concentration inward—but therewith a redoubling of (erotically charged) energy that opens outward and transcends upward. Christ, as incarnate object of desire, brings to earth “the truth that so exalts [or sublates] us” (“la verita che tanto ci soblima,” XXII.42).

Contemplation, so understood, repeats the pattern previously outlined concerning lyric and its reflexivity. Lyric, in its circularity, drives toward an ineffable wholeness of self, but also spirals in self-transcendence toward an Other. Throughout the canticle, circles of self-reflection break open—outward and upward. They serve to open the way toward the absolutely Other. They enable Dante to break ground toward his ultimate (Un)Ground.

At the outset of Canto XII, Dante describes the circling of the wise spirits as the wheeling of a holy millstone (“santa mola”). This ring is itself encircled by another, thereby forming twin concentric rainbows. Dante specifies that

the outer one is born from the inner

like the speech of the nymph

whom love consumed as the sun does vapors.

  • (nascendo di quel d’entro quel di fori, a guisa del parlar di quella vaga ch’amor consunse come sol vapori.)
  • (XII.13-15)

Echo’s reflective presence operates to metamorphose the Narcissus myth from a story of self-loss into a mystic apotheosis of self-reflection refracted toward transcendence. The nymph is subsumed into the

Ineffability in the Round 83 triumphant fest of the second garland or corona of dancing and singing souls in the Heaven of the Sun that engenders yet a third at the beginning of Canto XIV. This third ring is hailed as the true sparking of the Holy Spirit (“Oh vero sfavillar del Santo Spiro,” XIV.76), forming into a circle again radiating from transcendent divinity.

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