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Quest for the Origin of Language—From De vulgari eloquentia to the Paradiso

Repetition has emerged here as an eminent way of reactualizing origins. What linguistic self-reflection most essentially aims to reflect is the source or origin of language. This is indeed a paramount concern for Dante early and late. In his treatise on the vulgar tongue, Dante approaches the origin of language “historically” by speculating on the original language of Adam. At this stage, he accepts the Patristic view that it was a God-given form of language (“certain formam locutionis a Deo cum anima primam concreatam fuisse,” identical with Hebrew. But the theme is taken up again in Paradiso XXVI, where Adam attributes to human beings a natural capacity to fashion language as they fancy (“natura lascia / poi fare a voi secondo che v’abbella,” 131-32). In this later version, Adam spoke a language that disappeared in the course of evolution, since all things that are humanly produced are transient and perishable. In its fallen state, language is capable of mirroring divinity only poetically— thanks to its self-reflexivity.

Accordingly, Dante treats language not only as a mythical theme in his representations of its origins. Even more momentously, a certain quest for the origin of language as built into Dante’s overall project is made manifest specifically in his meticulous practice of writing. Refracting the origin of language turns out, for him, to belong to the most essential purposes of poetry. The art of poetic representation, as practiced in the radically searching and experimental mode of Dante’s Paradiso, enfolds a constant effort to discover and disclose the sources of representation. These sources of language are also the founts or springs of being itself.

Theologically, of course, the source of both language and being is “God”: being comes from the Creator, and language reflects the divine Word. But how can poetry become transparent to its divine source— both as language and as being or event? The two are inseparable, since poetry’s being is language. The answer given by Dante and by a discernible tradition of poetic thinking that can be organized around him is: self-reflection. For in its self-reflexivity, what language reflects is not only itself but also its Source, its transcendent ground in Trinitarian self-reflexivity. Yet this source is equally a “nothing,” since it cannot

Quest for the Origin of Language 219 be apprehended as any thing. Its divine simplicity and wholeness utterly defy expression and are betrayed by any articulation. Only Dante’s constant declarations of ineffability are able to signal this inaccessible Fount or Ground.

This sort of philosophical reflection on language as self-reflexivity opens to a transcendence that is also an abyss to our understanding. Such reflection is at work preeminently in Dante’s poem and, specifically, in its undertaking to find or recreate language in something akin to its original state. In De vulgari eloquentia, Book I, Dante hunts after the vulgare ¿Ilustre as an Ur-language at the origins of language. He stalks it under the elusive figure of the panther that is present, leaving its scent, in all languages and yet is distinctly identifiable in none (“pantheram ... redolentem ubique et necubi apparentem,” I.xvi.l). In Book II, rather than surveying historical languages and contemporary dialects, Dante shifts to considering the illustrious vernacular as literary language used by the “doctores ¡Ilustres” writing poetry in the various regions of Italy. Continuous with this approach, the Paradiso experiments with a poetic discourse that recreates language anew so as to disclose its hidden origins—or rather the hiddenness of its origins.

The present reading of the Paradiso attempts to follow Dante’s theological presentation of self-reflexivity as disclosing the origin of language. This turns out to be a disclosure of an ineffable mystery hidden in the bosom of God—occulted in the self-reflexive relations of the Trinity within itself. These otherwise unrepresentable relations are already coded into Dante’s declaration of his theological-lyrical poetics given in answer to Bonagiunta in Purgatory, with its threefold (Trinitarian) trace of one Source of poetic dictation that is inspired by Love or animated by Spirit that then disseminates itself in an ongoing production of signification:

E io a lui: “F mi son un che, quando

Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo

ch’é ditta dentro vo significando.”

(Purgatorio XXIV.52-54)

And I to him: “I am one who, when

Love inspires me, take note, and in that manner

which is dictated within I go signifying.”

As origin of language, however, the Trinitarian divinity must be apprehended most profoundly as nothing that language can articulate.

In essence, lyric language is a revelation of nullity—so far as any stateable or comprehensible being is concerned. Lyric language in particular can wholly abstract from content outside language and song. Lyric discloses the origin of language in what has no articulable content. We have already seen this demonstrated for lyric language from its origins in modern literature with the Troubadours. It is precisely this adventure of language in the lyric that is brought to a spectacular culmination and theological apotheosis in Dante’s Paradiso, where this “no-thing” of lyric experience is expounded as the God who is revealed in the Bible and refracted through the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

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