Is Dante Telling the Truth? [Christian Moevs]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Christian Moevs

Tratto da: The metaphysics of Dante's Comedy

Editore: Oxford University Press - The American Academy of Religion, Oxford-New York

Anno: 2005

Pagine: 175-185


1. Theologus and Poeta

Augustine’s spiritual-intellectual trajectory, as he himself traces it (principally in the Confessions), moves from an infatuation with language in itself, represented by rhetoric and the hypnotic and sensual lure of poets’ fables, through a conversion (in an act of reading) that is a renunciation of that infatuation, now seen as a perversion of intelligence and language through sensory desire and self-centeredness, arriving ultimately to feed on the “circumcised” Word of Scripture, on language that is not fable or fiction or an end in itself, but is rather, like Christ, an Incarnation of the Word, a soul of divinity or spirit given body by the letter of the text. That Scripture is the body or veil of spirit does not mean that some passages of Scripture are not figurative or allegorical even in their literal sense; it does mean that the letter of Scripture is not empty, worldly motivated imagining, not language contaminated by ego and desire, by a finite point of view. Indeed the attempt to read figurative passages of Scripture literally, blind to what they signify, is the death of the soul itself; it is to turn oneself from a human into an animal, not unlike Francesca reading the prose Lancelot. Since in Scripture letter and spirit are related as body to soul, to read only literally is to read carnally, not to see the divine in or through the finite, to see only externally into law and ritual, and not inwardly into revelation and life, to be nourished only by an external rain, without being directed by it to the internal fountain. It is a failure of self-knowledge, a failure to receive or awaken to Christ. As Paul reiterated, in a theme that determined a thousand years of meditation on reading, “the letter brings death, but the spirit brings life.”
Poets (and many of the “writers of the Holy Spirit” were poets or used poetic techniques) can write figuratively or metaphorically, weaving fictions that allegorically denote other meanings, but in such allegories (as in the “allegory of poets”) a finite ego or intelligence is veiling an intended meaning in a poetic invention; the invention gives way to what it denotes, which can be autonomously designated, as in a personification (like Lady Philosophy in the Convivio, or Lady Poverty in Paradiso 11). Here mere poetic (imaginative) allegorizing stops, and signifying ends; if, however, the poet is divinely inspired, a writer of Scripture, we have only just reached the true literal sense (what the author intends). Such an inspired text will typically, by the canons of medieval exegesis (laid out by Dante in Convivio 2.1.2–8 as the “allegory of the theologians”), have three further dimensions of meaning beyond this literal sense: an allegorical, spiritual, or typological sense; a moral or tropological sense; an anagogical, mystical, or revelatory sense. A pervasive medieval ditty explains these senses: Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, / Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia (“The letter teaches events [deeds], allegory what you should believe, the moral sense what you should do, anagogy what you should aim for”). In other words, the literal sense of an inspired text is, broadly conceived, historia, the actual events of sacred history, the unfolding of divine revelation in the world, and clearly distinguished from fabula, the inventions of secular poets. In those sacred events, which normally constitute the literal sense of an inspired text, one may discover a spiritual meaning, or lesson of faith, which is often more fully revealed through an analogous subsequent (or prior) event of sacred history, paradigmatically the life of Christ; thus, for example, many events of the Old Testament “typologically” foreshadow or “figure” events to come in the New Testament. This is the allegorical, spiritual, figural, or typological meaning. From the events of sacred history one may also draw precise moral lessons, practical guidelines for action; this is the moral or tropological sense. Finally, the events point to an ultimate revelation or unveiling to come, in which the fullness of their meaning will be disclosed: this is the anagogical meaning (anagogein means “to lead upward” or “to launch a ship”). Unlike the other three senses of Scripture, this meaning or revelation cannot be put into words: it is the sovrasenso (“oversense,” or meaning “beyond the senses” [Cv 2.1.7]), which transcends all thought, history, and language. It is usually indicated as the union of the soul with God, the happiness of heaven, the hope of future blessedness, the life of eternal glory, the salvation of the soul, the second coming, God’s providential plan, or, to use Dante’s own phrase in the Convivio (2.1.7), le superne cose de l’etternal gloria (“the supernal things of eternal glory”). It is the ultimate self-disclosure of the Spirit embodied in the letter of Scripture, in the events of sacred history.
Dante’s son Pietro, like other early commentators, sought to “deny the undeniable”: to convince readers that a poem whose world they could not help treating as real, as historia, was really all a fiction. This was intended to save Dante from charges of heresy (which by law would have ruined Pietro too), for it was only too evident that the claim that he had penetrated the secrets of God, that he was another writer of the Holy Spirit, was implicit (when not explicit) in Dante’s enterprise. The task of the commentators was more arduous in face of what Teodolinda Barolini has called the Comedy’s “ubiquitous truth claims,” which aim at placing the Comedy on the same ontological footing as physical reality and as Scripture. Padoan underlines the audacity of these claims in a medieval context and concludes that to “minimize or deny all this means giving up the attempt to understand why Dante could call his poem ‘holy’ [sacro]; it means running the risk of a total misunderstanding of the Comedy.”
We have seen that the traditional ecclesiastical view of poetry was clear enough: to quote Robert Hollander, “secular literary activity was at the very best both suspect and limited in its possibilities.” In no case did it have access to the truths of theology; any truth it did contain was restricted and approximate. As Hollander summarizes the point, “poets were and are liars.” Dante’s inversion of this attack, while part of a medieval tradition of poetic self-defense and of a late-medieval translatio auctoritatis, a transference of authority to the vernacular and secular, is breathtaking in its audacity: “I, poet, am the voice of truth, my fantastic narrative (Geryon and lizard-thieves included) reveals truth, is true, and will live forever in the world; you, corrupt clergy, false custodians of the Word which I reveal, are liars: you conceal, distort, disguise, eclipse truth, and you will be swept away by the fortuna to come, in the wake of truth’s self-defense (of which my Comedy is the first thunderbolt).”
Dante’s challenge was designed to offend everybody. In fact, from his day to ours, everyone has had an interest in ignoring it or defusing it: those who wanted to defend the Comedy from the church’s attack; those who wanted to defend the church from the Comedy’s attack; the defenders of the church’s privileged position as sole dispenser of revealed truth; those who wanted to appropriate the Comedy as a voice of the church; the lovers of secular literature, who, as the new humanism took hold, gloried more and more in the fantastic nature of poetry; those whose traits and actions were attacked by the Comedy (almost everyone); and those who were made uncomfortable by the idea that the Comedy has any “message” or revelation at all, any implicit or explicit challenge to their own understanding or life. It took only a few years, and the arrival of the Renaissance, to defuse the “prophetic” urgency of the Comedy and reduce it to poetic fancy. In Padoan’s words, “Between Dante the prophet and Dante the poet, it was the second who belonged to the future; but thus redimensioned, he was already no longer the true Dante.”
As Barolini has observed, the sleeping dog of Dante’s truth-claims lay largely undisturbed for six centuries until Bruno Nardi kicked it rudely in 1941 in an essay called “Dante profeta.” Nardi’s fundamental point is that Dante considered the Comedy not “poetic fiction” or “literary artifice,” but the account of a “true prophetic vision” (285), and that to refuse or fail to accept this is to misunderstand Dante’s poema sacro (295). Nardi concludes that Dante “treats the objects of his vision as reality,” not as a bella menzogna (311), not as a beautiful lie to “represent a moral idea” (316): Dante believed he saw Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise “as they truly are in reality” (308).
Nardi’s formulations raise a problem that persists in much discussion about how the “allegory of theologians” requires us to treat the literal level of Dante’s poem as “true,” as historia: he gives no coherent account of what that claim comes to, what it is asserting. We must remember that in medieval metaphysics, the human intellect, when dissociated from the body (as in prophetic dreams or visions), is assimilated to angelic intelligence, which means that finite form can arise within it without a mezzo (duality), without the interposition of the bodily senses; such form is not less real than the physical world. What makes such a vision “real” or “true”? How is it related to physical reality? In what sense is the spatiotemporal world, that great modern guarantor of truth-claims, itself true or real? What the Comedy is claiming by claiming to be true or real is by no means obvious. Indeed, that is the point of the poem.
One thing is clear: one cannot reduce such claims to some notion of objectively reporting prior spatiotemporal events. As the Comedy’s cosmology demonstrates, such events or things, taken in themselves, are at the opposite extreme from truth or being: they are brevi contingenze, brief contingencies. Matter in the medieval world is potentiality, an extreme qualification of being into ephemerality, limitation, and contingency: insofar as a thing is material, it does not exist, is not true, and is not actual or real. To say that the modern Western world tends to see things differently is an understatement. As long as modern readers unproblematically identify reality or truth with brevi contingenze, the sublunar events or things that Dante calls ultime potenze (Pd 13.61– 66), they will not fully penetrate the Comedy, its poetics, or its truth-claims. In medieval metaphysics, all determinate form, including the sensible world, is in some sense fiction: it is non-self-subsistent, a “new thing,” and only partially, relatively, and contingently participates in, or manifests, truth, reality, or being.
The crucial principle is supplied to the Middle Ages by Aristotle and quoted in the Letter to Cangrande (14): sicut res se habet ad esse, sic habet se ad veritatem (“as a thing is related to being, so is it related to truth”). As the Letter explains (14–16), to be is not the same as to be this-or-that: a thing is true insofar as what it is (its essence) is not other than that it is (its being). The two are identical, of course, only in God, Intellect-Being itself. We could say, then, that in Dante’s context a poetic narrative is true to the extent that it is “transparent to,” not other than, what is. A narrative is true or real that embodies, mediates, or unveils the ultimate subject or ground of experience: this can only mean that through such a narrative, the divine, reflected in or as the intelligence of the reader, recognizes itself and awakens to itself. Thus the Comedy presents itself as the presenter (not representer) of God’s own self-revelation through word and image, from transcribing God’s own writing on the gate of Hell into terza rima (If 3.1–9), to transcribing God’s purgatorial sculpture or “visible speaking” (whose first subject is His self-revelation or Incarnation in the world) into poetry (Pg 10.28–45, 94–96), to transcribing God’s “sky-writing” in the Heaven of Jupiter—words written with things (individual souls), which become a visual image, which in turn speaks, revealing its message—into and as the Comedy itself (Pd 18.70–111, 19.7–148). The world, and every embodied intelligence, is simultaneously a sunrise and a sunset: creation simultaneously reveals and disguises, manifests and eclipses, pure Form or Being. Read with eyes that see, Scripture and the Comedy are meant to be, like Mary who gives birth to Christ, unambiguous sunrises, overpowering the sunset on the same horizon (Pd 31.118–120) to reveal the ground of reality. Such texts turn evening knowledge into morning knowledge; they free human intelligence bewitched by complete self-identification with the body, by the experience of the world as “other.” As Dante will come to see it, this is the awakening to new life invoked in, but not delivered by, the Vita Nova; it is the awakening traced in the arduous journey of the Comedy.
It is not surprising, then, that Dante’s great definition of poetry in the De vulgari eloquentia makes no mention of content: si . . . recte consideremus [poesis] nichil aliud est quam fictio rhetorica musicaque poita (“if we consider correctly poetry is nothing but an invention or fiction composed through rhetoric and music”). Although poetry for Dante will normally have a subject matter and various possible interpretations, including allegorical meanings, it has no content, because its content is no thing. If a poem cannot bear anagogical interpretation (as presumably the poems of the Vita Nova and Convivio, whose “sense” Dante at least partially “opens” in prose, cannot), its “content” could be termed dolcezza or armonia; if it can (as in the Comedy), that content could be indicated as the ground and source of all things, of oneself. When Dante calls the forms that poetry gives to reality fictio (invention or fiction), he is not opposing them to, but aligning them with, the brevi contingenze that constitute human experience. Both are relatively unreal, contingent, ephemeral, and illusory, yet in a lyric poem both can communicate at least dolcezza or armonia, the intuition of infinity and unity in the multiple and particular (even if the result may be, as in Casella’s song of Purgatorio 2, to mesmerize us and suspend our journey toward understanding); in a divinely inspired narrative that signifies with things and events as Scripture does, both fictio and brevi contingenze can be seen—by those who can see—to embody truth, to reveal truth. Forms that endure in time, like the myth/history of the Argonauts (to use Dante’s own example), or Icarus, or Dante’s own Geryon or Empyrean rose, share in—and in the hands of the inspired poet can reveal—being, at least as much as any ephemeral physical detail or event of our own lives or of our collective life, which is why Dante makes no distinction between history and myth. At least in principle, Dante’s early and open-ended definition of poetry is not superseded by the “prophetic claims” of the Comedy; it is their foundation, the key to the poem’s transcendent enterprise and truth-claims. There is no distinction between theologus and poeta in the Comedy because the Comedy has no content, no teaching or message that can be put into words, except as the Comedy itself. Understanding or revelation is not a set of ideas: it is to awaken to oneself, which is to encompass the world.

2. Anagogy

The patristic exegetical tradition bequeathed to the Middle Ages a sense, variously interpreted, that Scripture is the Word Incarnate, spirit embodied in the letter, a soul of spiritual sense veiled or given form by a body of literal meaning. For Augustine as for Dante, language, as used by the center of desire (cupidigia) that is the individual ego, tends to become simply body, eclipsing soul: such language is the emblem of temporality, mortality, ephemerality, changeability; it is the instrument of narcissism, finite self-absorption, sensual untruth, sterile and fruitless virtuosity. To echo R. A. Shoaf ’s meditation on language as currency in Dante, instead of being exchanged for meaning, opening itself to the Other, language and image tainted by desire become fraudulent, falsified, a coin that usurps the place of reality and is greedily appropriated for its own sake as desire reified. It is the falsification of intellect, of the divine in the human (or perhaps, as Wittgenstein would say of most philosophy, it is the bewitching of intelligence by means of language). Such are the fables of poets, sensuous and hypnotic images of human desire obsessed with itself, a “dying in wanting,” like Narcissus, instead of a “dying to wanting,” like Paul (240). This is the realm of hypnotic and alluring untruth. But in the hands of the writers of the Holy Spirit (selfless love), of those who mirror reality as themselves without projecting self and desire into it, who are dead to self-interest and awakened to Christ, who open their mouths to praise and not to consume, language remains currency, figures and images that, though they necessarily obscure the light or soul (as the letter must always veil the spirit), yet “disfigure” and cancel themselves: they may be exchanged, cashed in, for what they promise. Such language is one with faith, with openness or expectation, a currency stamped with the image of Christ: in Shoaf ’s version of an ancient phrase, it “purchases invisibles with visibles” (88). Such language is true, reveals truth, mediates truth, gives form to truth, and embodies truth. In Augustinian terms, to communicate the Word in words is to mediate the eternal point or now of divine self-knowledge into the temporality of human language and experience, as soul or spirit uneclipsed by body or the letter. It is again Augustine’s own experience of conversion through reading, and the precise inversion of Francesca’s reading.
To put it yet another way, in terms drawn from A. C. Charity: the letter of Scripture is the story of the progressive self-disclosure of the divine in history, in human experience, in the world. The literal sense of Scripture is the account of the self-manifestation of the divine in things, in concrete experience; it is not simply words that seek to designate or describe the divine, allegorically or otherwise: Scripture signifies in rebus, not in verbis. (Wittgenstein would say that what is higher makes itself manifest in life and action and our use of language; it cannot itself be put into words.) The life of Christ, seen typologically as the fulfillment or transfiguration of history, an event that reveals the significance of every other event, also makes a claim on every other event: it reveals the role and ultimate aim of each particular, what it tends toward, its anagoge. This is to say that history, read scripturally or typologically as the selfdisclosure of the divine, makes a transformative demand on us as part of history: we ourselves are called to be part of that self-disclosure. As Charity puts it, typology is not merely descriptive of parallels between sacred events; such events have an “afterlife,” an application both in history as a whole, and specifically in each individual, in the present moment. That application or “subfulfillment” is not speculation or philosophy or beliefs; it is facts, things, events, as real and concrete as those of the literal sense of Scripture, as the world. In other words, the claim of history, or of a narrative that typologically discloses the meaning of history or human experience, can only be conversion, awakening, becoming what one is revealed to be, which is to conform one’s life to Christ’s. To use another Wittgensteinian phrase, Scripture seeks to prevent understanding unaccompanied by inner change. The phrase applies perfectly also to the Comedy.
In the wake of Auerbach, Singleton, Charity, Hollander, Padoan, Mineo, and Sarolli, among others, it seems evident (though not all would agree) that the Comedy means to signify as the Letter to Cangrande says it does: by the “allegory of theologians,” scripturally, typologically, and figurally. This claim has much less to do with the application of fourfold allegory (which in fact the Letter does not attempt) than with the text’s character, motivation, and authority. Based on my analysis of Dante’s text and his philosophical context, one can conclude that in Dante’s own understanding, the Comedy is not simply a poetic fable, although it is indeed in some sense a fictio or invention; the poem’s literal sense is not ontologically deracinated and discardable, not simply a poetic cipher for doctrines, beliefs, or teachings that could be autonomously expressed (hence the Letter to Cangrande makes little attempt to express the spiritual and anagogical meaning in its own exegesis, or does it in banal cliche´s); the poem is instead grounded in history, the history of one, many, and all human beings, in the totality and individuality of human experience, which of course includes myth, art, literature, and all psychic life; the narrative discloses the sense of that history or experience typologically and Christically; its literal sense is thus presented as no less real than what it figurally signifies, both in the paradigmatic life of Christ and in the reader’s; that literal sense, whether “the state of souls after death” or Dante’s own emblematically transfigured biography, is a narrative that discloses the meaning of the events and things it recounts through projection into past and future history, both individual and universal; this projection, through which history and the individual are unveiled to themselves as a disclosure of the transcendent in the contingent, is meant to make a transformative claim on each reader and each age; this is to say that by signifying with things, with the concreteness of experience, and not simply with words, images, or ideas, the poem is meant to bear an anagogical sense or thrust, which no philosophy, theology, or mere poetic invention could bear, and which is one with the the practical, ethical claim the poem makes on the reader; the author of the poem, therefore, is situating himself not as a finite ego or intelligence, a voracious and distorting center of desire, but rather as the prophetic voice of the seer, a selfless mirror of reality, awakened to Truth, to the ground of all things, capable of being all and shedding all, a mouth that praises and does not consume; in other words, the author is presenting himself as a scribe of the Holy Spirit, of selfless love, which is in fact what he says he is.
As Charity observes, the typology of Scripture makes a claim on the reader that must be answered, or rather is answered, in the reader’s response, and that response is either yes or no. Christ is a mirror to oneself; to ask Christ who He is is meaningless, for the answer can only be, “Who do you say that I am?” In the same way, the Comedy’s outrageous challenge—like that of Scripture— enacts a response: whether the Comedy is what it would have us accept it to be is in practice answered by each reader with yes or no; undecidedness, intellectual detachment, scholarly skepticism, “scientific objectivity,” or an aesthetic response that is not simultaneously ethical is of course no. The Comedy’s incarnational poetics reenact in the reader the moment of cosmic equilibrium evoked in the Primo Mobile through the opening simile of Paradiso 29: within the terms the Comedy has established, our acceptance or rejection of its authority, of its claim on us, is an acceptance or rejection of Christ, of ourselves; it is to recognize or fail to recognize the ground of our own being. To accept is itself conversion, sunrise, a self-recognition of the divine in us; it is a typological conformation of our life journey, through self-surrender and redemption, to that of the pilgrim, which in turn is typologically conformed to Christ’s. In other words, the Comedy mirrors us to ourselves and places us where we place ourselves. It balances us on the pivot of the Primo Mobile: yes means we have—or rather something in us (that is not a thing) has—recognized the Empyrean as its home; no means we live with Francesca and Ulysses in the flux of the ephemeral, that their world is our world, that we have lost the “1” in front of the world’s string of zeroes. In the same way, Augustine says, he would know that Moses spoke the truth in Genesis not from Moses, but from himself: “within me, in the innermost dwelling of my thought, Truth, neither Hebrew nor Greek nor Latin nor barbarian in speech, without mouth or tongue as instrument, without audible syllables, would say: ‘He speaks the truth.’”
We have said that in medieval interpretation only a text rooted in life, history, and experience, a text that does not signify only with words, images, and ideas, but with the fabric of life itself, can bear an anagogical sense, a revelation that transcends thought and experience, a meaning that cannot be put into words, a transformative claim on the future, that is, on each reader. This study has shown that the anagogical meaning of such a text, the future and final self-disclosure of what has simultaneously veiled and unveiled itself in an “inspired” narrative of history and human experience, can be understood as the awakening of Intellect-Being-Love to itself, in the reader, as the ground and totality of all finite being, apart from which nothing is. It is to awaken to oneself as everything and nothing, as in time and out of time, as in the world and beyond it. It is the revelation the Christian tradition calls “Christ.”
The anagogical import of the Comedy is thus the restoration and fulfillment of the original and “intended” condition of man, before he lost himself in the bewitching flux of multiplicity and change. This is why Adam says, in Paradiso 26 (133–138), that in Adam’s original language, in the garden of Eden on Mount Purgatory, God named Himself/was named I, which is the root of io (“I,” as well as “one”); as we saw in Paradiso 29, eternal love re-reflected itself to itself in finite intelligences so that it could say Subsisto, “I am.” It is in fact how God was to name Himself to Moses too, on another mountain, Mount Sinai. Only later, says Adam, after the Fall, after the loss of Eden, and in the flux of ephemerality that submerges all things, including language and signs (124–132), did God’s name become El, the “Other,” “He,” “That.” Indeed, says Adam, human language is like fronda / in ramo, leaves on a tree, which come and go (137– 138). Adam lost Eden by seeking himself—he himself was the “the apple created fully ripe” (91–92)—as “other” than himself, in the fronds of the tree of creation (64–66), thus trespassing the mark (117) or horizon that divides inside from outside, praise from cupidigia, selflessness from selfishness, morning from evening, self-knowledge from insatiable desire, eternal AwarenessLove from its reflection as finite form. The prophetic stance of the Comedy is one with its anagogical import; the poem’s prophecies (veltro, DXV, fortuna) coincide to say that the divine cannot and will not permanently eclipse itself in the world and in human experience, but by its own nature must reawaken to itself, by whatever mechanism and in whatever time that awakening occurs. To deliver that message is itself to effect the awakening, to make others see what, or rather as, the prophet sees.
From what has been said here, we can imagine that Dante would smile appreciatively at Singleton’s famous phrase, “the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not fiction,” but he would answer: “you have not seen the point, the punto.” The poem’s poetics, its typological and anagogical thrust, the basis of its claim to prophetic truth and its claim on the reader, is grounded in its metaphysical ontology: in the self-experience of the subject of all experience, the awakening to what is not in the world, but lies outside it. The thrust of the Comedy is that its letter is ontologically continuous with Scripture, physical reality and history, while at the same time it also points to itself as artifice, representation, fictio, myth, a body or veiling of soul or spirit. Perhaps the most vivid example of this self-unmasking of the letter as fraudulent, as an eclipse or theft of what it reveals, in this most self-conscious of literary texts, is Dante’s introduction of Geryon (If 16.124–132). Geryon is a ver c’ha faccia di menzogna (“a truth that has the face of a lie”), but Dante guarantees that he actually saw Geryon by swearing per le note / di questa comedìa (“by the notes of this comedy”). As Hollander has observed, Dante lays the veracity of the entire Comedy on the line to back up the veracity of this “poetic object that has every appearance of being a lie, a poet’s fiction.” This is appropriate, for, as Hollander points out, “if [Dante] did not actually see Geryon he did not actually see anyone or anything else.” However this is not a trivial irony, an “authorial wink,” as Hollander suggests, but a profound revelation of the nature of the poem and its import.
Barolini’s revision of Singleton’s formula is exact: “the Commedia is a nonfalse error, a non falso errore, not a fiction that pretends to be true but a fiction that IS true.” This is Dante’s understanding of his own poem. It is also—and this is the fundamental point—his understanding of all finite reality, of all human experience: contingent form in time disguising and yet revealing (in the proper narrative) the timeless and dimensionless act of being in which it alone and entirely consists. This is also the nature of Scripture, which must “communicate” or “reveal” non-contingent self-awareness (Truth) through spatiotemporal contingencies (Pd 4.40–48). It is also—as embodied in an “inspired” narrative—the nature of myth, art, poetic invention, the imaginative and psychic life of humanity. An “accurate report of how things are in spacetime,” like the pseudo-concept “scientifically observable facts,” would be simple fiction, body without soul, letter without spirit, zeros without a “1,” contingent ephemera without meaning or being. It would be to exchange a picture of reality for reality. The Comedy is telling us that although all language, thought, image, and finite experience is (in relation to the ground of being) fraudulent, in the proper narrative—as in Scripture or the Comedy itself—it can also come to reveal what it eclipses, present what it steals away.
Barolini has analyzed the narrative strategies through which “the Commedia makes narrative believers of us all” and how it is that the text forces us to “accept the possible world... that Dante has invented.” She shows how Dante draws us into the Comedy’s frame of reference so deeply that we are unable to question the premises or assumptions of that world except on its own terms, which really amounts to a failure to recognize that there are any such assumptions at all. In light of our study, we can imagine that Barolini’s “de-theologizing” exegesis would again make Dante smile, and this time he would answer, “Yes, but go further.” The hypnosis or loss of perspective that makes us accept the Comedy’s world as real, that draws us into its hall of mirrors, is precisely what draws us into the hall of mirrors that is the sensible world, and makes us accept it as non-contingent and non-ephemeral, that is, as unqualifiedly “real.” It is what makes us think of physical reality as a selfsubsistent “thing” autonomous from our own being, and makes us consider ourselves ephemeral things within that world. The analysis Barolini has applied to the Comedy is the analysis the Comedy asks us to apply to all of our experience. The narrative techniques that force our assent to the Comedy’s “possible world” are not just tricks: they are what make illusion possible, what make finite experience coextensive with the field of our vision, so that we cannot see through it, around it, or beyond it to see our own seeing. They are what make the world “real” and God a concept or abstraction in that world. Like the world, the Comedy makes us accomplices in its fiction, so that we cannot “suspend our suspension of disbelief.” The Comedy reveals the roots of our bewitchment by reenacting that bewitchment.
How does one begin to see beyond the limit of the world, to awaken to oneself? The Comedy’s answer is: by assimilating as oneself, through poetic re-creation, the entire breadth of possible experience in space and time, as concrete, particular, inescapable reality. To reveal truth such poetry must be written and read by selfless love, as Augustine required, by an “I” willing to shed all in order to become all; only then will the narrative typologically point to and embody the self-disclosure of the ground of being in the world and become the account (cosmological, political, moral, artistic, psychological, spiritual) of an awakening—the narrator’s and the reader’s both—from the confining limits of that world. The narrative of the Comedy places all finite form on the same ontological level: ancient history, mythology, art, literary inventions, current events, Scripture, and personal experience. It is a relentless assault on the conventional boundary between reality and fiction; it annihilates the careful medieval distinction among historia, argumentum, and fabula, among what happened, what could have happened but did not, and what could not have happened. It fictionalizes historical characters and historicizes fictional characters until we can no longer say which is which. Having been led to experience the sense in which fiction is reality, the reader is thus simultaneously led, like the pilgrim, to experience the sense in which finite reality is fiction. The identification with the totality of possible experience, ontologically equalized, becomes an exercise of love, a de-petrification of the finite intelligence, which begins to dissolve its exclusive self-identification with a particular finite identity and its attachments. This expansion of love and understanding is the journey of moral transformation traced in the narrative, a journey of selfexamination, of transfigurative suffering or self-sacrifice, of progressive surrender, and of contemplation. Philosophical-theological inquiry, fused as one with the moral journey and with poetic experience, dissolves conceptual illusion, the distortions in understanding that impede awakening; beauty, the substance of poetry itself (sweetness, harmony, music), suspends the mind from concepts, judgment, and fear to mediate an intimation of the infinite in the particular, to deliver the awakening shock of the transcendent, to focus the human thirst for freedom and being. Gradually gaining perspective, the subject of all experience, reflected as a finite power of awareness and love, begins to awaken to itself, ultimately to discover itself, on the threshold of the Empyrean, as an extensionless point, immune to and yet containing as itself all space and time, the horizon and nexus between contingency and self-subsistence. This is the sunrise of revelation on the horizon of the human soul through which one enters the Empyrean, fully free, and sees the entire cosmos as a limited whole, wholly contained within one’s own being. It is to experience oneself as one thing, all things, and no thing, through the love that moves the sun and other stars.

Date: 2021-12-23