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Self-Reflexivity in Paradiso and the Secular Destiny of the West

The historical structure of self-reflection, as bequeathed by Italian humanist and German idealist traditions alike, entails both solitariness, or sufficiency unto oneself, and an orientation to a transcendent Source. Reflexivity can be a form of self-enclosure that lyric language epitomizes most intensively in certain modern Romantic avatars (sections 64-65). But self-reflection can also be a fruitful movement radiating out from a center to create and illuminate the universe. Medieval models are most apt to call this to mind. Such self-reflexiveness is made in the image of divine goodness and bounty, which in its self-love knows no envy. It unstint-ingly sparks (sfavilla) or speaks (favella) into existence eternal beauties:

“La divina bonta, che da se sperne

ogne livore, ardendo in se, sfavilla

si che dispiega le bellezze etterne”


The divine goodness, which by itself spurns all envy, burning in itself, speaks/sparks in such manner that it unfolds the eternal beauties.

This tercet refracts the Neoplatonic idea of an emanation from the Good, generating love or desire self-reflexively. The trope is based on Plato’s stipulating that there is no envy in God (Timaeus 29e). The underlying paradigm to which this self-reflexivity conforms is the myth of Narcissus, but reversed or turned inside out. Together with a number of other Ovidian myths, Narcissus is alluded to from early on in the Paradiso (III. 16-21). The self-reflexive, narcissistic structure of love is (re)discovered by Dante not as supplanting and excluding the orientation to transcendence. Instead, self-reflective self-love first enables an opening to transcendence by becoming itself a reflection of the transcendent. The history of lyric reconstructed here suggests how an orientation to transcendence and even—in a literal sense—to “otherworldliness” generates a self-reflexive humanism that only later turns against and destroys its own source in theological transcendence.

Dante defines an autonomous sphere for art. Everything can be artistically mediated and so be made part of a single, coherent order such as the Divine Comedy astonishingly projects. Yet, while discovering the capacity of art to become itself absolute, Dante does not foreclose the possibility of the radical otherness of the absolute. He envisages a true and inexpressible world in comparison to which this artistically mediated world is illusion or even a lie. This is programmatic throughout the Divine Comedy starting from the Inferno, where Dante deals with fraud and highlights especially hermeneutic or interpretive fraud and violence in his own writing and poetry.1 In fact, precisely artistic perfection calls this self-annihilation forth and enacts an effacement of itself. Dante’s absolutizing of his art is taken as a gesture not of excluding an other, higher, divine reality but of eliciting a relationship to it by “imitation.” His is a self-consuming artifact that nevertheless persists as a sign of the absolute Other that it is not. The poem is about its own ongoing erasure, by which it asymptotically approaches the absolutely Other.

Truth is in the hands of the transcendent—recognized by Dante as God. Yet this recognition authorizes Dante to traffic here and now in images. On this basis, a suspect value such as semblance can be revalued as a path back to the truth of our being. The lyric signs and images that Dante creates become, in the end, sacramental. Transcendence can be achieved by the lyric’s remaining within the formal and self-enclosed sphere of pure feeling, even while allowing for an objective reality transcending it. Lyrical language is informed, pervaded, and rejoiced by the real precisely because it does not define a relation to any real referent and so does not representationally objectify the reality that inspires it. For this reason, lyrical language makes possible the real presence of the transcendent in concrete elements of form and material signifiers?

The Paradiso is uncontestedly a superlative achievement of lyric art. This does not mean that it does not contain much discursive exposition as well: the poem is a consummate expression of the self in the plenitude of language as both song and sense. Paradiso is, moreover, an absolute peak in the literature of the quest for the ineffable Other. Lyric self-reflexivity, indeed, for Dante still represents an imitation and communication of transcendent divinity. Dante’s Paradiso embodies the unity of aesthetic and religious values that in later periods of Western culture will fall apart and come to seem irreconcilable. It was prepared for in the two centuries [1]

Paradiso and Secular Destiny of the West 267 immediately preceding Dante by the Troubadours, where the new valorization of an autonomous, self-reflexive personality, defined not only by universal, rational desire but also by individual, subjective passion, emerges into distinctness. The religious inspiration of this new secular consciousness is still patent and far from extinct.

Dante is becoming aware of human autonomy not as a curtailment of divine prerogatives and authority, but rather as their fulfillment. He is rediscovering human freedom in the concrete, historical sense in which it is a realization of infinite, self-determining creativity. His work has proved to be a vital inspiration and compelling witness to this continuing power to emancipate individuals, even in the most oppressive conditions, through relation to a transcendent ideal.[2] There has been a long-standing debate between those, such as Erich Auerbach, who find in Dante the prophet of the modern, secular world, and those who, like Charles Singleton, insist on keeping Dante in his medieval context and thus resist the temptation to read Dante as our contemporary. But both angles of approach are necessary in order to fathom Dante’s creation in its awesome power to disclose our world poetically.

Much of the Paradiso is taken up by Dante’s affirmation of his own historical existence. This is poignantly true in the autobiographical drama at its center in the Heaven of Mars (Cantos XIV-XVIII). There Dante encounters his noble ancestor Cacciaguida, who nostalgically evokes a virtuous Florence of old. Still, Dante’s focus on himself does not eclipse divinity and its radical otherness. Quite the opposite. Dante’s own story is inscribed into salvation history and reflects the fact that, historically, the individual self is born in and through its relation to a transcendent divinity. This divine origin of the individual is progressively forgotten in the modern age. Nonetheless, the individual emerges together with transcendence discovered by self-reflection, that is, by the ability of the self to transcend its world and “turn itself back upon itself”—“se in se rigira”—in the chiseled formula of Purgatorio XXV.75. This structure of self-reflection traces back to the Axial Age: only much later does it tend to become the dead-end of narcissistic self-enclosure.

Centering on the autobiographical disclosures of Dante’s encounter with his great great grandfather, the heroic martyr-warrior Cacciaguida, in the

Heaven of Mars, the Paradiso unfolds an apotheosis of the self. But, at the same time, Paradiso is entirely consecrated to a vision of God. The self is discovered precisely as a mediation of God through such human encounters.6 In the Paradiso, the immediately concrete and subject-centered world appears as but a mediation of an other world. Remarkably, in this respect, the medieval worldview agrees with the postmodern dismantling of the world order of the subject—yet without any dogmatic rejection of the possibility of a true world elsewhere. Both medieval and postmodern (or post-secular) worldviews are contrary to the typically modern secularist view, which tends to exclude God from the world forged by individual protagonism and human mastery. Dante’s discovery of the human world as all a mediation of an other world deconstructs this given world’s apparent concrete reality, but it opens a passage toward the possibility of a true reality, one that we can receive even as our possibility. The fact that anything “other-worldly” likely rings false to modern ears should be heard as a warning siren signaling dogmatic bias and closure on our part.

While the characteristic experience of the modern world, as proclaimed by its prophets Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, is rushing in the opposite direction, Dante’s discovery of the self and its autonomy or freedom is the locus of a new revelation of God. He begins to articulate this vision in a humanistic key with triumphalistic prose in his early works. The Convivio’s affirmation of human nobility as surpassing even that of angels recognizes man as “almost another incarnate god” (“quasi sarebbe un altro Iddio incarnate,” IV.xxi.10) and celebrates self-love as the principle on which love of all else is based (“amando se principalmente, e per se 1’altre cose,” IV.xxii.8). This paeon culminates in the concentrated theological lyricism of the Paradiso. The consummate theological poem is still based on these dynamics of self-reflection.

The great achievement of self-reflexivity in the mystic experience of the Paradiso is the emergence of the self. Paradoxically, Dante derives his affirmation of autonomous human selfhood from his journey to the point of self-annihilation in God. This point is also the origin of the self in the radical sense of subject-transcendent selfhood. Only so can the self discover its radical grounding in transcendence.7 Dante’s mystical-poetic ascent, accordingly, enacts a kind of transcendental deduction of the divine Ground of being. This is what brings together Dante’s mystic absorption

Age transformations with changes in medieval society is drawn by Peter Brown, “Society and the Supernatural: A Medieval Change,” Daedalus 104/2 (1975): 133-55.

  • 6 The compenetration of human encounter with theological revelation is argued programmatically by Vittorio Montemaggi, Reading Dante’s “Commedia as Theology: Divinity Realized in Human Encounter” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). Matthew Rothaus Moser, Love Itself is Understanding: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of the Saints (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), sheds further light that makes metaphysical theology humanly manifest in the practice of prayer and charity by the saints.
  • 7 This is demonstrated in detail by Christian Moevs, who describes salvation or “enlightenment” as an act of self-reflexive, metaphysical self-consciousness:

Paradiso and Secular Destiny of the West 269 in God and his realistic, insistently autobiographical emphasis. Dante’s “transcendental deduction” of divinity from the possibility of human experience as self-reflective has ultimately a poetic sense. This critical-poetic insight is in agreement with a deep-flowing stream of metaphysical thought that can be traced through Eriugena and Neoplatonism to Eckhart and Scholasticism. These traditions lucidly declare the ultimate metaphysical Ground to be indefinable, unnamable, and unknowable. It can only be reflected—as in a mirror—and this is exactly what language does in Dante’s tradition of imagination.

  • [1] I argue this in The Revelation of Imagination, 343-74 (“Deep Hermeneutics of Complicity and Conversion: Inferno IX-XVII”). 2 Douglas Hedley’s Living Forms of the Imagination (London: T&T Clark, 2008) captures this presence of the transcendent especially in English lyric poetry. Hedley’s The Iconic Imagination (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) traces aesthetic expressions of divinity through Cambridge Platonists and Romantic poets, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and displays the astonishing breadth of these cultural counter-currents apprehending imagination as “a vehicle of Divine Revelation” (83).
  • [2] Such witness is borne diversely, but concretely, by Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011) and Primo Levi, Se questo e un uomo (Turin: Einaudi, 1958 [1947]), particularly the chapter “11 canto di Ulisse.” 2 Dante criticism has often remarked this tension: for example, Dante Della Terza, “La critica dantesca in America: la lezione singletoniana,” Letture Classensi 18 (1989): 131-44. 3 On transcendence in the Axial Age, see Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas, eds., The Axial Age and Its Consequences (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012) and Chapter 8 (“Apophasis and the Axial Age: Transcendent Origins of Critical Consciousness”) of my On the Universality of What is Not, 201-34. An analogy of Axial
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