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Social and Theological Perspectives—Language as Fallen and as Resurrected

Mikhail Bakhtin brings to fruition in telling ways the historical promise of the semiotic thinking that budded with the Russian formalists. He, of course, overturns their formalism by attending to the messy contents of history and to the irreducible, unformalizable multiplicity of language and its dialects. His exaltation of the novel and its subversively dialogical discourse is designed to challenge the traditional hierarchy of genres and the hegemony of poetry. For Bakhtin, the poetic word is not originary— not a recuperation of an original language of plenitude before the babelic fall into multiplicity. Poetry requires, instead, an elimination of the plurivocity inherent in social discourse and, consequently, a forgetting of history and its evolutionary mutations.[1] The poetic verse, in Bakhtin’s view, unlike the novelistic word, is anti-dialogical and harks back to a Ptolemaic universe that was exploded by the Copernican solar system opening to an infinite universe. If poetic language in its self-referentiality is regressive for Bakhtin, Dante further seeks out and accentuates certain regressive potentialities of the poetic word—notably, its access to infancy—in their profound psychological implications. Yet Dante is himself a revolutionary prophet of the radical plurivocity of the poetic word.

And he has himself been widely celebrated as inventor of the (theological) novel.[2]

For Bakhtin, language is without any intrinsic ontological foundation. It is suspended on the dialogue of social discourse that is always already a response. Bakhtin charges that poetic language forgets this by abstracting and absolutizing language in pure monological self-referentiality. However, Dante’s absolute language is infinitely transformative: it is not a static or even a determinable form of language so much as totally beholden to an absolute, indescribable Other. Bakhtin ignores the uncon-tainable plenitude of the poetic word that reflects the theological Word from which Dante’s poetic language in Paradise gushes. The poetic word for Dante becomes almost divinely creative as it penetrates beneath the world of objects to reveal things in their ontological emergence.

Dante does not resist the perspective of the social essence and production of language. In De vulgari eloquentia, he gives an account of the post-Babelic history of language in its differentiated development that coincides with the history of human society and its branching into different groups. Still, like Walter Benjamin, he envisages in biblical terms the theological unity of language before its shattering at Babel. The Divine Comedy enacts the rebirth of language, its “resurrection” (“la morta poesi resurga,” Purgatorio 1.7) in the poetic word. This original poetic language is, arguably, the “vulgare ¡Ilustre” that Dante so ingeniously hunts through all the regions and dialects and linguistic registers of Italy, in De vulgari eloquentia I.xi-xv.

The bases of Dante’s theological thinking about poetic language as Word and as revelation are to be found in his practice of poetry just as much as (if not more than) in the theories of his treatises. Dante’s aesthetic re-elaboration of theological thinking is particularly apt to exhibit the miraculous workings of language in question here. Theologically speaking, infinite Being can be approached only indirectly—through negative reference to finite beings. The infinite is found immanent within every being as the in-definable pure Being that sustains anything that is in being without ever becoming graspable in itself. This infinite abyss of being is what is evoked in the attenuated being of the sign, which exists only as a reference to something else. When this something else is erased

Linguistic Approaches to Self-Reflexivity 239 and the referentiality of the sign has nothing beyond itself to which to refer, it approaches signifying as pure being. The autonomy of the work of art becomes symbolic and exemplary of the absolutely free and unconditioned being of God. This is the creative being from which the universe and all its complex elaborations of sense emanate. The formalist view of language enables us to glimpse this creativity in act.

  • [1] Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) 3-40. 2 Dante’s Plurilingualism, Authority, Knowledge, Subjectivity, ed. S. Fortuna, M. Gragnolati, and J. Trabant (Oxford: Legenda, 2010).
  • [2] Vittorio Russo, Il romanzo teológico: Sondaggi sulla Commedia di Dante (Naples: Liguori, 1984). 2 For an analogous critique, see Renate Lachmann, “Bachtins Dialogizität und die akmeistische Mythopoetik als Paradigma dialogisierter Lyrik,” in Karlheinz Stierle and Rainer Warning, eds., Das Gespräch, Poetik und Hermeneutik XI (Munich: Fink, 1984), 489-523. 3 Walter Benjamin, “Über die Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen” (1916), in Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), vol. 2, pt. 1, 140-57, trans. Edmund Jephcott, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 314-32.
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