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IV Self-Reflection, Speculation, and Revelation

Modern Philosophy and the Linguistic Way to Wisdom in Western Tradition

Lacanian Psychoanalytics of Self-love: From the In-fantile to the Divine

Lyric repeats and realizes language in its origin and plenitude yet, at the same time, enacts also the exile of language from objectivized reality. The lyrical may situate itself within the symbolic order of language by employing signs as language-immanent symbols for extra-linguistic objects. Still, it tends to subvert the symbolic severance of word from object and to regress back to what Jacques Lacan calls the imaginary stage and even to evoke what he theorizes as the real, le réel—reverting to a stage before all structuring by signs.1 These pre-symbolic levels of consciousness are manifest especially in the destructuring of signs that is conceptualized by Julia Kristeva as “the semiotic” (“le sémiotique”).[1]

Dante features these regressive psycho-linguistic tendencies, dramatizing them in certain passages of the Paradiso. His own poetical language, at its lyrical height, regresses to an infantile stage of being one with the maternal breast in unruptured wholeness before speech—before division into subject and object:

Ormai sarà più corta mia favella,

pur a quel ch’io ricordo, che d’un fante che bagni ancor la lingua a la mammella.

  • (XXXIII. 106-8)
  • (By now my tale will be more brief,

even with respect to what I recall, than that of a babe

that bathes its tongue still at the breast.)

Curiously, Dante’s word fante here evokes the nursing infant literally as “speaking.” He compares his own condition of “speaking” via

expression of linguistic impotence in face of the ineffable with that of an infant whose tongue is “bathing” at its mother’s breast. The image (like that of the mother bird in Paradiso XXIII) is one of regression from symbolic activity (speech) to tactile contact and nourishment. Such expressions evince a consistent pressure of infantile impulses to break through the surface of language’s formal symbolism. An urge of this sort might be heard in the Tuscan form “mamme” (“mommies”) used to cry out for the mother or even for the wetnurse, the “ama.” These same subsemantic syllables are audible in low-vernacular speech as “Amme!” in the “Amen!” of souls expressing their longing for their bodies:

Tanto mi parver sübiti e accorti

e l’uno e l’altro coro a dicer “Amme!”, che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti: forse non pur per lor, ma per le mamme, per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme.

  • (Paradiso XIV.61-66)
  • (They appeared to me so suddenly and so keen,

both the one and the other chorus, to say “Amen!” that their desire for their dead bodies was manifest:

perhaps not only for their own but also for their mommies, for their fathers and for others who were dear before they became sempeternal flames.)

The intellectual significance of the sign is preempted by a corporeal crying out in chorus with voices that immediately manifest a visceral yearning.

Dante suggests in Paradiso XXXIII that his final vision can be expressed only as the “speech” of the speechless “fante.” The “fante” or “fantolin” (XXIII.121) is actually a speechless infant: yet only the negation of “speaking” (fans) enables this condition to be perceived and signified. In Purgatorio XXV.61-75, Statius describes how the human fetus develops from being an animal to being a human or a speaking soul (“Ma come d’animal divegna fante”) by being endowed with speech directly by God? Dante understands infant speechlessness from the speaking that is negated in the very word “in-fant.” Dante uses the word infanti in Inferno IV.30 and infantes in De vulgari I.i.2, but in Paradiso XXXIII. 107 the older form fante recalls the aphasia of the infant as itself

3 Vittorio Montemaggi, “In Unknowabilty as Love: The Theology of Dante’s Commedia,” in Dante’s Commedia: Theology as Poetry, 68-69, contextualizes Dante’s designation of speech as the threshold of humanity.

a kind of minimalist or disappearing speech.[2] The immediate identity of the infant with itself remains at some level intact even across and through the dislocations of the discursive construction of subjectivity that breaks and distances the subsequent relation of the self to the m/other. The immediacy of the infant’s relation with this Other is still the basis of the productive and fertile self-relation that Dante’s lyrical-paradisiacal poetry exploits metaphorically.

Narcissism can be connected psychoanalytically with a regression to the oral stage, where the infant becomes what it puts into its mouth. This immediate identity with the object is prior to symbolic rupture through the sign (which divides signifier from signified). The primary narcissism of a monadic universe is palpably embodied in the phonetic pattern of a line like: “De/ be//’Ovi/e Ov’iO dOrmi agne//O” (“the lovely sheepfold where I slept a lamb,” XXV.5). Such a line can be heard as expressing pre-symbolic unity with the real, or as mouthing a kind of transcendent Oneness. In voicing this verse, the speaker can close out the hostility of the outside world in order to exist rather in the lyrical embrace and fetal self-enclosure of the infantile O—lulled by liquid l’s. This Oral state offers a psycho-physiological matrix for the sublimated forms of the liturgical and rhetorical “O,” which is used already to great effect in Dante’s poem, for instance, in: “O elect company called to the great supper / of the blessed lamb ...” (“O sodalizio eletto alia gran cena I Del benedetto agnello ...,” XXIV.lff). These verses, in addition to featuring nourishment through their intellectual and spiritual content figuring a collective meal, become food for the ear in a material-auditory mode.

Behind these paradisiacal images of infancy lurk imponderable ethical, psychological, and theological questions about the nature of self-love. Thomas Aquinas gives a rational justification for self-love, which originates in infancy. For him, any love of the good is logically connected with its being “mine,” with its being proper to me. I participate in Being, which I love first and foremost as my own being: self-love is thus an enabling condition for me to experience Being as good. Convivio IV.xxii.8 similarly affirms that all love stems from self-love as the basis for loving others (“amando se principalmente, e per se 1’altre cose”). Only by way of my own proper being am I able to recognize being in general as

essentially desirable. Yet this necessary self-love at the root and origin of all love is anything but reducible to sterile egotism because what is most proper to one transcends one as cause of one’s being and truth. I am not the measure of all things, and they cannot be reduced to their utility for me, even though I know their goodness firsthand only to the extent that I know a goodness which is properly my own. To know what is genuinely most proper to oneself is to love one’s source and to do so in common with one’s fellows.

Saint Bernard (1090-1153), well before Thomas, shows self-love to be ineradicable in our nature and shows it to be the basis of a transcendent love. Even God himself loves us for himself. Self-love is presented by Bernard as a kind of affective cogito-. “I is affection” (ego affectus est) expresses a principle of self-reflection more basic than the cogito of thought. I is because I love.[3] Through affect, this first-person love is naturally transcended into a third-person love, and it is inevitably rooted in the flesh. Precisely this rootedness in the flesh marks and undergirds an inherent egoism of love. But it is not a vicious egoism. Redemption itself, in Bernard’s teaching, is effected through affective attachment to the flesh of Christ. Divine or agapeic love itself works through a sensuous force or passion.

The contradictions between self-love and other-directed love, however, prove more intransigent and disturbing in the view of Franciscan spiritualities, as is emphasized by Ernesto Buonaiuti. Buonaiuti brings to focus Dante’s reception of apocalyptic Franciscanism in the wake of Gioacchino da Fiore. For the Franciscans, self-love and love of other were opposed and even incompatible. A kind of reconciliation might be found, nevertheless, in divine folly. Folly marks divine wisdom as in excess of all rational calculation, and love in its madness contravenes all originally self-interested motives, sublating them into holiness.

An inherent and ineradicable narcissism may be the driving force even in the love that the human being directs toward God. For Kristeva’s Bernard, love is the idealization of our narcissism through identification with God (Histoires d’amour, 214). Yet this is not a calm, rational love such as is conceived by Aquinas or Spinoza, for whom love of self and love of God are fully aligned. This “narcissistic” love is lived, instead, in a “tearing away from oneself for the benefit of the ideal identification with the beloved” (“arrachement à soi au bénéfice de l’identification idéale

Lacanian Psychoanalytics of Self-Love 233 avec l’aimé,” 213). The flesh puts up, in fact, a resistance to idealization and thereby “opens love towards what escapes consciousness” (“ouvre l’amour vers ce qui échappe à la conscience,” 213): love strives, on this account, toward the unconscious.

Kristeva finds that Bernard’s psychology and theology of love describe the phenomenon in terms still fitting for our experience of love today: “The tense peace, this painful harmony, this Narcissism of the ‘Me-body’ (‘Moi-corps’) inflated to infinity in order to be emptied to the benefit of a violent identification with a sublime alter ego: this is love” (214). Understood psychoanalytically, self-reflective love is torn open from within and exposed to alterity in its own most intimate interior.

Derridaextendsthislineofthought,revindicatinga“righttoNarcissism,” with the provocative thesis that “narcissism has no contrary”: it does not exclude other-love and is in any case ineluctable.'1 This understanding of narcissism follows from the Lacanian troping of psychoanalysis by formal linguistics. The latter discipline furnishes essential insights for elucidating linguistic self-reflexivity as originating in relation to absolute alterity. Autonomous self-generation engenders relation to alterity and, in the case of Dante’s theological poem, performs a repetition of divinity.


Jacques Derrida, H. C. pour la vie, c’est-à-dire ... (Paris: Galilée, 2002), 100.

  • [1] Jacques Lacan, Encore, Le séminaire XX, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1975) explores this regression in religious language and mystic jouissance. 2 Julia Kristeva, La révolution du langage poétique (Paris: Seuil, 1974), Chapter 1: “Sémiotique et symbolique,” 17-100.
  • [2] Leo Spitzer, “Muttersprache und Muttererziehung,” Essays in Historical Semantics (New York: Vanni, 1945), 15-65 suggests how the infant’s non-verbal expression might be considered a sort of “native” speaking. 2 Gary Cestaro’s Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body brilliantly elaborates Lacanian and Kristevan perspectives in conjunction with a close reading of Dante’s texts wherever they touch on the themes of infancy and nurturing. 3 David M. Gallaghar, “Thomas Aquinas on Self-Love as the Basis for Love of Others,” Acta Philosophica 8/1 (1999): 23-44. Anthony T. Flood, “Aquinas on Self-Love and Love of God: The Foundations of Subjectivity and its Perfection,” International Philosophical Quarterly 56! (2016): 45-55.
  • [3] Julia Kristeva focuses Bernard’s view of love under the apt heading “Ego affectus est” in Histoires d’amour, 190-215. 2 Ernesto Buonaiuti, Storia del Cristianesimo, vol. 2: Evo Medio (Milan: dall’Oglio, 1960 [1943]). 3 Ernesto Buonaiuti, Dante come profeta (Modena: Guanda, 1936), especially Chapter V: “L’apocalisse Dantesca,” 115-63. 4 Nick Havely, Dante and the Franciscans: Poverty and the Papacy in the “Commedia” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 58-61.
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