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Dante’s Narcissus Redeemed—A Perennial Paradigm for Contemporary Thought

There are many warnings in the Middle Ages against a self-generating, incestuous sort of production of sense in the language of lyric. John of Salisbury and others, relaying Patristic admonishments, had spelled out moral strictures concerning the narcissism inherent in ornately rhetorical and particularly in lyrical language. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is a beautiful and profound dramatization of the characteristic narcissistic dilemmas of lyric speech in a medieval perspective.[1] Dante was anything but blind to these moral risks and pitfalls. There is a conscious endeavor on his part to use lyrical language in a way that does not reduce it to the self but rather opens it to a dimension of spiritual and theological transcendence. By pursuing this project, he undertakes symbolically to redeem Narcissus. This means that he endeavors to accord a foundational and a fertile role (rather than a degenerative one) to the basic structure of self-reflexive affection in language and love alike.

From God all the way down through the creation, self-reflexivity is highlighted and affirmed as the original mode of being of both Creator and creation. The climactic vision of the celestial rose in the Empyrean features the simile of the hillside or slope (“clivo”) mirroring itself in the water at its base, as if to admire its adornment, rich in greenery and blossoms (XXX.109-14). This stands for the blessed souls of the celestial rose mirroring themselves in the river of God’s light. All of Paradise is manifest in these verses (quoted at the end of Part I, section 14) as a narcissistic self-reflection of divinity in the blessed souls. Throughout the poem, the sublimest truths of Christian doctrine are distilled into such forms of self-reflection.

The Empyrean is described with a concentration of lyrical and specifically pastoral imagery filtered through the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation. The river of light (compare Revelation 22:1 and Daniel 7:10, as well as Psalms 36:9; 46:5; 65:10; and Isaiah 66:12) between flowery banks, which will be transmogrified into the celestial rose, suggests that

a lyrical content is the most appropriate for adumbrating the ineffable reality of which these images are the “shadowy prefaces” (“umbriferi prefazii,” XXX.78). This essential experience is condensed, however, into the untranslatable lyrical quality of the verses.[2] Even more decisively than at the thematic level, self-reflection determines the Paradiso in its linguistic and poetic form. This is what the poem cannot directly say but rather does and is. It registers ineffably in the experience of the poem, so it lends itself little to belabored exegesis. This register invites, instead, to theoretical reflection.

Nonetheless, the major theoretical concepts—like incarnation—find themselves instantiated feelingly in sensuously lyrical verses. Dante presents, as one supreme and original instance of lyric, the angelic annunciation of the Incarnation. The “circulata melodia” of XXIII. 109 resurfaces in the “divina cantilena” of XXXII.97, which makes reference again to the Archangel Gabriel as

... quello amor che primo 11 discese,

cantando “Ave Maria, gratia plena,”

  • (XXXII.94-95)
  • (... that love which first descended there,

singing “Ave Maria, gratia plena,”)

Among the exquisitely lyrical verses that are paramount for conveying the thoroughgoing lyricism of the Empyrean—its lyrical consistency and essence—are those in which Beatrice first defines for Dante this heaven of pure light:

“Noi siamo usciti fore

del maggior corpo al ciel ch’ e pura luce:

luce intellettual, piena d’amore;

amor di veto ben, pien di letizia;

letizia che trascende ogni dolzore.”

  • (XXX.38-42)
  • (“We have now left

the largest body of the heaven that is pure light, intellectual light, full of love;

love of true good, full of felicity;

felicity that transcends every sweetness.”)

It is especially the lyrical interlacing of the verses, folding the end of each verse back in order to begin the next (rhetorically speaking, “anadiplosis,” literally “double-folding up”), in which semantic and phonetic elements become inextricably interwoven, that makes them a realization of oneness. Difference is evoked at the end, but as transcended in a whole integrating both poles (delight and pain). Such is the synthetic nature of lyric as our reflections have discovered it.

Lyric reflexivity is everywhere indissociable from Dante’s presentation of the Empyrean, since Paradise proper is beyond representation. We can only chart the ways of representation that Dante employs in order to suggest—working under its impress—what lies beyond representation. We can do so only in exemplary readings of the lyrical quality of language in the Paradiso. Light and love together comprehend and make up the consistency of the Empyrean in self-reflective ways that the Epilogue undertakes, one final time, to refract.

  • [1] I show this in Secular Scriptures, Chapter 2, section II on Troilus and section III on “Truth and the Lyrical” (52-69).
  • [2] On the lyricism of Canto XXX, see Egidio Guidubaldi, “Lettura del canto XXX del ‘Paradiso’,” Aevum 36 (1962): 46-76 and Riccardo Scrivano, “Poesia e dottrina nel XXX canto del ‘Paradiso,’” Critica letteraria 62 (1989): 3-16: “la minuta filigrana di ripetizioni, ora fondate su elementi semantic! ora su elementi fonici” (8).
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