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The Paradox of Lyric as Song of the Self—Deflected to the Other

One of the main determinations of Dante’s approach to language and divinity in the Paradiso is that it is lyrical. What does it mean to approach language—not to mention divinity—lyrically? Lyrical experience, as described from early on in the modern lyric tradition, springs from the subject. It constructs itself by artifices of self-reflection. It is bound up with a psychology of narcissism. Yet Dante finds capacities for transcendence in the lyric which escape the reduction to solipsistic vanity that persistently menaces the lyric mode. He discovers that precisely this path through the self can become an opening to the most absolute experience of the other—even of the ultimate Other—and therewith a channel to the vision of divinity. The lyrical use of language testifies eminently to what is beyond language, namely, the experience of the Unsayable—in which all beings are held together in undifferentiated, unarticulated (dis) order. This aspiration is already evident in the lyric enterprise of Dante’s predecessors, the great lyric artists whom he studies, and imitates, and endeavors to surpass—particularly the Troubadours and their Italian, especially Sicilian and Tuscan, imitators. However, the potential of lyric experience for becoming Paradise in a fully theological sense is made palpable in unprecedented ways by the lyricism of the Paradiso.

A certain paradox about language as such becomes especially transparent in the case of lyrical language. It is by concentration on itself that lyric can best evoke what transcends it and is absolutely other than it, namely, God, in the Paradiso. Lyrical language concentrates particularly on its own audible and musical form in an effort to evoke the ineffable. The linguistic means is revealed as striving toward an end that it cannot express, but that is best intimated in and through this very inability. This paradox of speech about the unspeakable enacts a sort of dialectic in which negative poetics imitates negative theology.

The Paradiso thus embodies a dialectical logic based on the “coincidentia oppositorum.” In De vtdgari eloquentia I.xv.5, Dante alludes to a “commixtionem oppositorum”—an echo of the coincidentia oppositorum that in the Middle Ages was sometimes associated with the thought of John Scott Eriugena. Later, in the Renaissance, Nicholas of Cusa promotes this doctrine to an overarching paradigm of negative-theological

The Paradox of Lyric as Song of the Self 207 thought. Such a (negative) dialectical logic is driven, at least potentially, by a movement of transumption or sublation. This becomes fully explicit in its later Hegelian avatar with the concept of drive (Trieb) as an immanent conatus that pushes the dialectic always beyond any achieved form toward its other or opposite.1 The hybrid physical and psychic notion of Trieb has received especially suggestive development in Freudian psychoanalytical theory with Lacan, Kristeva, Ricoeur, and others. This dynamic aspect of the poem’s intrinsic motivation manifests itself as an opening beyond itself of every perfectly self-enclosed artifact. The problematic is pursued by thinkers, including Derrida and Agamben, under the rubric of “passion” as an excess inherent in thought.[1] It is developed in terms of a phenomenology of the experience of the erotic by Jean-Luc Marion. The very intensity and perfection of its self-enclosure brings on the lyric poem’s dialectical inversion into openness toward the Other. This movement is, in fact, ¡conically embodied in the metrical form of Dante’s Comedy. A stanza of terza rima begins and ends with the same rhyme, but in its middle verse it bears another rhyme, and precisely this “other” constitutes the impulse driving forward to its continuation as taken up in the ensuing stanza. Thus, the self-containment or reflexiveness of rhyme here has also its own self-transcendence built into it. The sameness achieved in any given tercet, with its rhyming first and third lines, requires yet another tercet in order to complete the rhyme of its other, indeed its central, verse. This always open-ended threefold rhythm has wide-ranging anthropological ramifications and psychoanalytical resonances.

  • [1] Stephan Grotz, Negationen des Absolute»: Meister Eckhart, Cusanus, Hegel (Hamburg: Meiner, 2009) traces this crucial thread of tradition. 2 Jacques Derrida, Passion (Paris: Galilée, 1993). Jacopo D’Alonzo, “Linguaggio e passioni nella filosofia de Giorgio Agamben,” Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio 7/1 (2013): 18-30. Accessed 1/9/2017. 3 Jean-Luc Marion, Le phénomène érotique (Paris: Grasset, 2003). 4 John Freccero, “The Significance of Terza Rima,” in Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 258-74. See, further, section 50 below. 5 Dennis Patrick Slattery, “Dante’s Terza Rima in The Divine Comedy: The Road of Therapy,” International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 17 (2008): 80-90.
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