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Poetic Self-Referentiality as Creative Source—From Paradiso to les Symbolistes

Dante, like Geoffrey, poetically expresses a non-objectifiable reality: paradisiacal lyric imitates the invisible and unrepresentable. This is one important element perhaps in spiritual poetry and in art generally. As Paul Klee wrote, “Art does not render the visible but renders visible” (“Kunst gibt nicht das sichtbare wider, sondern macht sichtbar”).1 Among language arts, poetry is at its intensest in lyric because of the attenuation of referential content, which tends to be subsumed into pure form. Even rich representation in lyric counts more for its form than for its content. This is especially true of poetry that pursues a vocation to become pure poetry, poésie pure—as in the French symbolistes and especially for their tutelary god, Stéphane Mallarmé. It holds still for their self-elected heir, Paul Valéry, for whom all creation comes from the “inexhaustible Me” (“inépuisable Moi,” “Fragments du Narcisse”).[1]

This recognition leads, however, in two opposed directions. Mallarmé’s Narcissus figures (particularly Narcisse and Hérodiade) circle upon themselves in the void, where “nothing will take place but the place” (“rien n’aura lieu que le lieu,” Coup de dès). To this ironie and mythic treatment, André Gide counterposes the saturated symbols of an autoerotic religion in his 1891 Le traité du Narcisse: Théorie du symbole, dedicated to Paul Valéry as author of “Narcisse parle” (1891). Gide’s Narcissus is a contemplative mystic, “grave et religieux.” For Gide, narcissism is the basis of an aesthetic religion expressed in a generalized symbolism. 5

Already in the Paradiso, for all its richly political, autobiographical, and religious content, Dante is pursuing the poetic word in its purity, the-matizing poetry itself as, at some level, the subject of the poem. His lyric language makes language itself the theme of poetry in ways that modern poetry will never cease to repeat and explore. His writing “poetry about

poetry” begins in an autobiographical vein in the Vita nuovad This process continues in the Commedia, where Dante names and elaborately singularizes, historicizes, and personalizes the voice that sings in lyric. It is autobiographical, yet it also transcends this determination in order to become anonymous and hymn-like. The poetry of the Paradiso rises to the height of devotional music offering up a liturgy in celebration of the Creator.[2]

The God who is so celebrated is, in theological terms, transcendent, but poetically he is made absolutely immanent. God as Word is revealed and concretely actualized or made verbally incarnate through self-reference in poetry as epitomizing a fundamental aspect of the nature of language in general. This makes the divine word also transcendent of every object within the world—for reasons that we have been at pains to demonstrate. Self-reference, as it emerges specifically in Dante’s language, enacts an inclusive logic of immanent self-transcendence.

Self-reference in Dante’s language draws attention to the taking-place of language, to the “place” where language originates—to the enunciating in which meaning becomes incarnate and truth is revealed. Dante’s obsessive linguistic self-consciousness calls continually to mind modes in which language takes place and shapes human life and consciousness. His whole Paradiso makes this manifest. But there is one passage where Dante deliberately and explicitly treats this self-reflexivity of language in conjunction with its theological ground. He understands this self-reflexivity in overtly linguistic terms, and he expounds an express doctrine of self-reflexivity as the source of all creation:

Non per avere a sé di bene acquisto,

ch’esser non pub, ma perché suo splendore potesse, risplendendo, dir ‘Subsisto’, in sua etternitá di tempo fore,

fuor d’ogni altro comprender, come i piacque, s’aperse in nuovi amori 1’etterno amore.

Né prima quasi torpente si giacque;

ché né prima né poseía precederte

lo discorrer di Dio sovra quest’acque.

  • (XXIX.13-21)
  • (“Not in order to have for itself an acquired good, which cannot be, but in order that its splendor in shining back might say ‘I subsist,’

in its eternity outside of time,

outside of all comprehension, as pleased Him, the eternal Love opened itself in new loves.

Nor did it lie as if torpid before that, since neither before or after proceeded the discoursing of God over these waters.”)

Divine Creation is grasped by Dante as a discursive act of self-reflection (“lo discorrer di Dio sovra quest’acque”). He thus presents a self-reflexive grounding of the Absolute as a linguistic act of self-grounding, an act of saying “I am,” “I subsist.” However, this act is also the creative source of all: the imagery of (dis)coursing over the waters recalls the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters in Genesis 1:2. Not, finally, an act of terminal self-enclosure, self-reflection is the original act of Creation that gives birth to the entire cosmos. Beatrice, in her capacity as theological revelation, explains that God could acquire nothing by creating, but that he wished for his reflected light, his splendor, to be able to say in its shining: ‘‘I subsist.” This act of self-reflection occurs outside of time and outside of all understanding except God’s own. It has therefore no before or after. Nevertheless, it is an act that is described as speech—as “discorrer.”

The language act of Creation is the original template for all created speech acts, including the original speech act of human self-consciousness, the primiloquium, which is the archetypal example Dante adduces of selftranscending self-reflection in created being. Adam begins existing in joy (“inciperet a gaudio”), rejoicing in his own being and turning in praise to the divine Being who freely gave it to him (“qui gratis dotaverit”) and who is Himself nothing but total Joy (“ipse Deus totum sit gaudium,” De vulgari eloquentia I.iv.4; I.v.2). His first act of self-consciousness turns Adam to his Source in transcendent Being, who can only be felt through Adam’s feeling his own joy in being.

  • [1] Klee, Schöpferische Konfession (1918). Kunst-Lehre: Aufsätze, Vorträge, Rezensionen und Beiträge zur bildnerischen Formlehre, ed. Günther Regel (Leipzig: Reclam, 1991), 60. 2 René Fromilhague, “Sur la poésie pure de Paul Valéry,” Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France 76/3 (May-June, 1976): 393-441. 3 Kristeva, Histoires d’amour, 170, treats Gide from this angle.
  • [2] Winfried Wehle, Dichtung Uber Dichtung. Dantes Vita Nuova.- die Aufhebung des Minnesangs im Epos (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1986), especially 127-50. 2 Piero Boitani, “Poesía e poética della creazione,” Dante e il suo futuro (Rome: Storia e Letteratura, 2013), especially 130-46.
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