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Divine Narcissus

The project of the Paradiso demands to be read as one of “transhumanizing” and redeeming Narcissus finally into “our effigy” (“nostra effige,” XXXIII. 131) limned in Christ, the human face of God. God is himself a Narcissus by virtue of his total love for his own image in his only-begotten


Moevs’s The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy revolves around contemplation passing through self and beyond to God. The Narcissus motif in particular is discussed on page 150.

Son, as well as in the Creation, where he is more darkly and imperfectly reflected in a material substrate. Dante’s characteristic rhetoric, first and foremost his rhetoric about God, is intensively self-referential and narcissistic. Dante emphasizes precisely the self-love and self-contemplation of God in capillary fashion throughout the whole of the Paradiso, perhaps most emphatically at the crowning height of his vision in the Empyrean:

  • O luce etterna che sola in te sidi, sola t’intendi, e da te intelletta e intendente te ami e arridi.
  • (XXXIII. 124-26)
  • (O eternal light, who in yourself alone reside,

yourself alone comprehend, and by yourself contemplated and contemplating smile on and love yourself.)

Can it be an accident that, after the references to Narcissus in the thirtieth cantos of both the Inferno and Purgatorio, in precisely the thirtieth canto of the Paradiso the whole of heaven, comprising the choirs or militias of the blessed, narcissistically mirrors itself in God?

E come clivo in acqua di suo imo

si specchia, quasi per vedersi adorno, quando e nel verde e ne’ fioretti opimo, si, soprastando al hime intorno intorno, vidi specchiarsi in piu di mille soglie quanto di noi la su fatto ha ritorno.

  • (XXX.109-14)
  • (And like a hillside that from its bottom in water mirrors itself, as if to see its own adornments, when it is rich and flowers and verdant,

so, standing over the light all around

I saw mirrored in more than a thousand thresholds as many of us as have returned above.)

Dante has taken over and theologized a narcissism intrinsic to the whole courtly world as reflected preeminently in the Roman de la rose, with its lyric landscape and its idealizing of love as a reflexive, self-mirroring passion. The imagery of flowery adornment echoes Leah’s pleasing herself before her mirror (“Per piacermi a lo specchio, qui m’addorno,” 103) in Dante’s biblically based allegorical dream in Purgatorio XXVII. The Paradiso follows up with a constant stream of images of mirroring and self-reflection.

Narcissus, as rhe founding myth for self-reflection, is a keystone structuring the architecture of Western tradition in its entirety—from its remote, unconscious origins to its most recent reverberations. The following reflections delve into self-reflection’s metaphysical logic in Parts II—IV before returning in Part V to the Narcissus myth’s further ramifications in and around Dante’s work. Part II outlines the medieval emergence of modern self-reflection momentously in Dante and Duns Scotus among the Scholastics. Parts III and IV trace the structure of self-reflection excavated from Dante’s texts forward through exemplary applications revealing its purport in modern thought and literature. Over the course of these comparisons, the issue of self-reflection serves as fulcrum for discerning a disastrous distorting of humanity’s selfunderstanding entailed by reducing the medieval metaphysical and theological vision of an analogical cosmos constituted by and grounded on divine self-reflection to a modern, technological world picture framed by and subservient to the self-reflection of a self-abstracted individual subject. Tragically lost is an intrinsically relational understanding of being and of being human.

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