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Revelation and Re-Veiling—From Purgatorio XXIX–XXXIII to Paradiso

The properly apocalyptic revelation of the Commedia comes not at the end of the Paradiso, and therewith of the poem, but rather at the end of the Purgatorio. Revelation, even final revelation, or revelation of the end, is not the ultimate stage of Dante’s journey. The Paradiso is more concerned with »«revealment than with ultimate and definitive revelation. Revelation is approached in the Paradiso in and through the failure of every attempt at revelation and disclosure—which failure itself becomes a sort of second-degree revelation or disclosure. In the end, there is something beyond revelation: the unrevealable that remains by its very

Language as Disclosure in Lyric Time 283 nature unmanifest and that can be experienced only as escaping from the regime of revelation. It is experienced only through deification, in which one becomes what one cannot know objectively.[1]

By “transhumanizing” (1.70), Dante is metamorphosed through the action of light. Paradiso describes both descent from the Father of lights and ascent through progressive stages or intensities of light uniting the creature to its Source. Yet even light turns out to be a veil for metaphysical being, which is not as such perceptible. Dante is thus operating an allegorical or a symbolic (even practically symbolist) poetics, to the extent that he represents at all what his rhetoric of ineffability relentlessly insists cannot be properly represented.

The program of an unveiling of truth in symbols comes to a climax in Purgatory, in the apocalyptic scenes shown to Dante and glossed by Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise. He receives detailed symbolic-apocalyptic revelations concerning the history of the Church and the world and their denouement. The Bible itself, as paradigmatic book of revelation, is presented in the form of allegorical figures (24 for the books of the Old Testament + 4 for the Gospels and 7 for the other books of the New Testament) paraded before Dante’s astonished eyes. Yet what is revealed turns out to be always itself just another veil. Each book of the Bible is dissimulated in the guise of an allegorical figure, while Beatrice herself appears veiled under so many layers of garments that she appears practically as her veils. She looms like a veiled sunrise:

Io vidi giá nel cominciar del giorno

la parte oriental tutta rosata,

e l’altro ciel di bel sereno addorno;

e la faccia del sol nascere ombrata,

si che per temperanza di vapori

1’occhio la sostenea lunga fiata:

cosí dentro una nuvola di fiori

che da le maní angeliche saliva

e ricadeva in giü dentro e di fori,

sovra candido vel cinta d’uliva

donna m’apparve, sotto verde manto

vestita di color di fiamma viva.

{Purgatorio XXX.22-33)

  • 284 Self-Reflection, Speculation, Revelation
  • (I have seen in the beginning of the day the oriental part of the sky all rosy and the rest adorned with beauty serene, and the face of the sun emerge shaded such that the tempering of the vapors allowed the eye to sustain it a long while:

just so, within a cloud of flowers

that rose up from angelical hands

and fell back down within and without,

on a white veil girt with olive

a woman appeared to me under a green mantle

dressed in the color of living flame.)

What the culmination of the Purgatorio in these cantos (XXVIII-XXXIII) in the Earthly Paradise brings to realization is that revelation is always also a re-veiling. Nevertheless, the Paradiso aims to go beyond this dialectic. The ultimate experience of the naked truth itself requires transcending the allegorical method toward a kind of degree-zero of literature. Poetic allegory, even apocalyptic allegory, remains always a form of representation and never pure presence itself. In the Paradiso, Dante pushes to and past the limits of representation in his final efforts to realize the awareness of God that he has been seeking from the outset, and yet, even in Paradise, Dante recurs obsessively to the figure of Narcissus.

In the Earthly Paradise, Dante sees himself in the river as in a mirror (“come specchio anco,” Purgatorio XXIX.67-69). This motif is not definitively transcended but is rather transfigured. The myth of Narcissus is perhaps a veil that knowledge and especially self-knowledge needs to keep wearing in order not to become completely void of express content. Dante considers the need for poetic veils in order to enjoy ineffable delights, and he blames Eve for having lost (or at least delayed) for him and for all other postlapsarian humans the delights of Paradise (“quelle ineffabili delizie”) by her not suffering to stay under any veil (“non sofferse di star sotto alcun velo,” Purgatorio XXIX.22-30). The tutelage of veils turns out to be always necessary for teaching us the ultimate unrevealability of the divine even in ourselves. This limit is especially perspicuous in the essentially—because textually—veiled revelations of literature.

In this sense, “revelation” re-veils in the form of poetic allegory, but now the veil itself becomes the revelation—a foretaste of Paradise. “The


Patricia Oster, Der Scbleier im Text: Funktionsgeschichte eines Bildes fur die neuzeitliche Erfahrung des Imaginaren (Munich: Fink, 2002) demonstrates this limit for experience of “the imaginary” in a wide-ranging cultural history that begins from Dante and passes through Petrarch, Tasso, Rousseau, and Goethe to Nerval and Proust.

Language as Disclosure in Lyric Time 285 paradox, of course, is that it is this veil which makes the transmission of meaning—the revelation—possible.” The veil interrupts self-reflection and breaks it open to reflection of the Other: the veil is unveiled as fundamentally the self-reflective medium of language. The Earthly Paradise is distilled thereby into the form of a text, the experience of which can be blessedness itself—the heavenly, purely spiritual Paradise, or the Paradiso experienced as poetry. The culmination of Purgatorio thus adumbrates what Paradiso shows more fully: in the Paradiso, myth will turn into real experience through the sense of song being fused with its sound and subsumed in a surpassing of the very form/meaning dichotomy.


Akbari, Seeing through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory, 9. Akbari traces the ramifications of this paradox through medieval Latin and vernacular tradition as it leads up to Dante and Chaucer.


  • [1] This movement is traced in detail by Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, 57-71. 2 Didier Ottaviani, La philosophie de la lumière chez Dante: Du Convivio à la Divine Comédie (Paris: Campion, 2004) focuses this thematic. 3 Marco Ariani, Lux inaccessibilis: Metafore e teologia della luce nel Paradiso di Dante (Rome: Aracne, 2010), especially section II: "Lux deificans,” recapitulates the immense Patristic and Scholastic tradition on which Dante builds.
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