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Eclipse of Trinity and Incarnation as Models of Transcendence through Self-Reflection

In Dante’s poetry, the theological doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation appear as inseparable and serve as paradigms that guide Dante’s invention of a lyrical poetics. They become practically the same doctrine turned toward different aspects of the revelation of the one God in the immediate reflexivity of poetic language. In straining toward theological transcendence, Dante develops both a poetics of self-reflexivity of the Trinity and a poetics of thought becoming sensuous in the poetic word based on the model of the Word made flesh in the Incarnation. The inspiration of the Spirit is also crucial in Dante’s key formulations of his lyric poetics, notably in Purgatorio XXIV, where he emphasizes precisely the “inspiration” of Love (“quando Amor mi spira,” 53).

But in order to fully appreciate Dante’s distinctive achievement, we must pay attention also to other values assigned to lyric language in medieval literature, values that counterpoint these theological significances. Lyric is also often considered to embody the vanity of language as employed by fallen human beings, who are thenceforth tainted in all their undertakings. Dante is anything but immune to these more pessimistic perspectives. They are symbolized traditionally by the figure of Narcissus. In the end, nevertheless, Dante’s “argument” highlights the way that lyric self-reflexivity can become a positive enactment and revelation of the very being of God as constituted by self-reflexive relation. This is a vision that is largely lost in secular modernity, with its more pragmatic outlook on language as an instrument of communication serving to express only our own thoughts. But Dante can help us to see something more in language as a revelation that is theological and poetic at the same time. Dante teaches us to understand the lyrical self-reflexivity of language as specifically “theological” in nature.

Dante’s world-shattering insight is encapsulated in the lesson that selfreflection can be a reflection of transcendence, a vehicle to a beyond of language opening it to others and even to a divine Other. Self-reflection turns out to be quite the opposite of a closed circle of vanity that collapses the self upon itself. In a monotheistic vision of reality, the only true and absolute being is the one God. What is most proper to anyone’s individual being, then, is what most transcends one, the ultimate Cause of one’s being. Not what one has or even objectively is, but what makes one to be is one’s own most proper essence or highest truth. Only once the modern fiction of an ontologically autonomous self has been accepted and even become self-evident does the proper seem to be only a transformation of property—something that an individual possesses. At that point, one’s apparently ownmost being remains within the boundaries of what has been staked out as one’s own over against what belongs to others.

In contrast, in a certain medieval metaphysical view, what is most proper to me is what most transcends me. It is the Being which causes or, even more fundamentally, creates and sustains my being. It is also what I share in common with all other beings, inasmuch as they, too, are created. The Trinity is a model of self-love that manifests its fertility in creating others in an act of unlimited love. The circuit of love within the Trinity eventually issues in all created others, the whole cohort of created beings. In their turn, all created beings reach out toward reconnection with the Cause of All. Self-love can be sterile for humans because, as isolated selves, they are lacking in true being and are thus caught up in a merely narcissistic delusion. But the prototype of love in the Godhead models, instead, a fertile, creative self-love. The Trinitarian Creator Word enacts linguistic self-reflection that engenders other loves (“nuovi amor”) in the panoramic exposition of Paradiso XXIX.13-21 (quoted in section 40). This is a model that humans in their self-reflexive conscious being and acts are well advised to imitate for the purpose of creatively shaping their own world through interactive reciprocity and ethical engagement.

Without this redemptive redirection toward self-transcendence, the narcissistic self-reflexivity of language that is interested only in itself leads to skepticism and nominalism and eventually to nihilism. This syndrome is especially typical of modern times and becomes starkly evident soon after Dante in an already new age of culture with Chaucer. As the eagle that wisks Geoffrey off to the House of Fame suggests, words can be reduced to mere sounds:

Soun ys noght but eyr ybroken;

And every speche that ys spoken,

Lowd or pryvee, foul or fair,

In his substaunce ys but air ...

(House of Fame, 765-68)

Such a view of language coheres with the nominalist thinking that surged to prominence in Chaucer’s England and became a pivotal issue for him.[1] Although Dante, in his intellectual eclecticism, may very well have been receptive to such views of the intellectual avant-guard, which were

Eclipse of Trinity and Incarnation 95 being developed already in his time,[2] he is far more deeply committed in his poetry to a view of language not as empty but as saturated with reality. Above all when used poetically, words in some sense contain or convey the realities they represent and make present as unsoundable mysteries—albeit precisely by their sound! They may also be used in vain to signify nothing, but this misfiring is to be explained rather as the moral failure of the agents who use them. Even if it is the nature of words, as we use them humanly, to be empty and meaningless—“vanity of vanities”—their true being is anchored in a higher order of reality that rather saturates them with meaning. This higher order cannot be accurately represented in language, but it can be ritualistically enacted and “repeated,” as will be argued in Part III.

  • [1] The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). 2 Sheila Delany, Chaucer’s House of Fame: The Poetics of Skeptical Fideism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).
  • [2] See Maria Corti, Dante a un nuovo crocevia (Florence: Sansoni, 1982) for discussion of Dante’s reception of views of Siger de Brabant and other radical Aristotelians. 2 Steven Botterill, “Dante’s Poetics of the Sacred Wood,” in Philosophy and Literature 20/ 1 (1996): 154-62.
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