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Circles of (Self-)Reflection from the Core of Creation to the Trinitarian Godhead

The Paradiso thus thematizes its self-reflexive structures in ricocheting and reverberating forms, including the form of the circle conceived as a perpetual return upon itself.2 This return veers beyond itself narrowly considered by reaching toward its transcendent point of origin. The circling self-reflexiveness of language, as evoking a transcendent origin or destiny in silence, is itself a reflection of the self-reflection of the Father in the Son. Their relation of exemplary self-giving is echoed and reflected in turn by the procession of the Spirit.

The underlying pattern is that of Neoplatonic emanation from and return to origin in the (ineffable) One beyond Being: processus and reditus (npooSoc, and £7ucrrpo

Not only locomotion in the heavenly spheres, but the very shape of knowledge, moreover, is circular inasmuch as it is encyclopedic? Knowledge, or its quest, is the internal motor and vehicle of the voyage through Paradise. The circle is one particularly apt and well-recognized figure for what, at bottom, is a logic of self-reflexivity. Roger Dragonetti points out in an essay on “The Sense of the Circle and the Poet” that “for Dante rhythmic movement is a perpetual analogical radiating of the same” (“pour Dante, le mouvement rhythmique est un perpétuel rayonnement analogique du même”)? The very vowels of language—AEIOU—that,

  • 2 For broad consideration of the intellectual significance of the circle, see Georges Poulet, Les metamorphoses du circle, excerpted as “The Metamorphoses of the Circle,” in John Freccero, ed., Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), 151-69.
  • 3 The circular shape of knowledge and encyclopedias is explored by Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) and Zygmunt Baranski, “Dante e le epistemologie medievali,” Dante e i segni: Saggi per una storia intellettuale di Dante Alighieri (Naples: Liguori, 2000).
  • 4 Roger Dragonetti, “Le sens du cercle et le poete,” Romanica Gandensia 9 (1961): 90.

according to Convivio, form a ring (“si rivolve e torna”) and tie (“figura di legame”) speech together in a circle (“nell’O”), imitate analogically the repeated return to the same.

As this circle of vowel sounds suggests, Paradiso brings its circular forms to realization not only in its overarching structure and theme of the return of the soul to its true home, but also in the microstructure of its versification, in its syllabification and vocalization—or, in other words, in the lyrical quality and texture of its language. However, it needs not to be forgotten that this return to the same is also a breaking out toward the absolutely other, that is, the Unknowable. The circle back to self entails also an infinite deepening, a turning to or spiraling into an abyss.

The risk of falling into the trap of Narcissus—of a reductive and deadly circularity—is held in check and is countered, figuratively, by the circle’s being broken open into a chiasmus. A chiasmus forms a sort of cross—like chi (X), the twenty-second letter of the Greek alphabet. There is a cross lurking in the midst of Dante’s circles, which consistently open into some form of chiasmus. His return to himself is not an unbroken upward spiralling flight, but is rather crossed by every imaginable adversity, beginning with his downward descent into the depths of negativity in the Inferno. In the end, the whole poem contrives to cross itself out (X) by the silence of ineffability.

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