Narcissus and the Reality of Reflection

The fact that apparently reflected images prompt this effacement—and that self-reflective lyric language performs pure presence—places this canticle under the sign of Narcissus. The sequel, in direct continuation

5 I add emphasis to highlight certain sound patterns.

Self-Reflexion, Lyricism in Paradiso 9 from the text just cited, highlights this connection thematically by an express allusion to the Ovidian myth:

tai vid’io piii facce a parlar pronte:

per ch’io dentro a Terror contrario corsi

a quel ch’accese amor tra Tomo e ’1 fonte.

Subito si com’io di lor m’accorsi,

quelle stimando specchiati sembianti, per veder di cui fosser, li occhi torsi....

  • (III.16—21)
  • (I saw such multiple faces ready to speak:

for which reason I fell into the error contrary to that which ignited love between the man and the fountain.

Suddenly, as soon as I was aware of them,

thinking them to be mirrored semblances,

in order to see who they were, I turned back my eyes ... .)

Instead of the vain, deluded love of Narcissus for his own image, as in Ovid, Dante refers here to an ardent love “between” the “man” and the “fountain.” Reflection of the self and same is narcissistic, but it need not be immature, erroneous, or steril. It can also be generative of new life by reflectively connecting with its source or fountainhead (“fonte”). In this instance, the love ignited “between the man and the fountain” is described as reciprocal and potentially fertile. Dante dignifies Narcissus to the status of a “man” and transfers the immaturity of adolescence from Ovid’s youthful character to Dante himself, chided by Beatrice for his “puerile infatuation” (“piieril cotto,” 26) as he commits the error contrary to Narcissus’s.

We can begin to discern here a program of redeeming Narcissus that will be brought out fully later (in section 14) by comparing the thirtieth cantos of each cantica. In Christian theology, after all, God is the first Narcissist by virtue of his love for his own perfect image, his Son (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4). This Love between the first two persons of the Trinity is further reflected in the Holy Spirit, who is truly a person, a hypostasis or substance, in “herself” (to echo ancient Christian pneumatologies gendering the Spirit as feminine).

In the context of the Paradiso, this argument includes a claim that in Paradise signs take on substantial reality through reflection of the self and the same infused from on high with a spirit of engendering love. Dante takes the images he sees to be only “mirrored semblances” (“specchiati sembianti,” III.20), but he is brusquely corrected by Beatrice: they are, in fact, “true substances” (“vere sustanze,” III.29). Dante mistakes substances for mere signs. Signs or images in Paradise may be infirmed in their ability to signify, since the reality in question is supersensible and beyond representation, but what they are is significant beyond their power to say what that significance is. In the end, the very substance of paradisiacal being is to be nothing but the divine being reflected back upon itself. Thus Dante’s gazing at the substances before him and his taking them for mere reflected images is an inversion of the error committed by Narcissus, who took a mere image to be the real thing. Typical of artists is the error of taking their own image or creation to be real, but Dante’s Paradise presents images that are substantive revelations of a higher reality. The images before him are not just a poet’s figment or phantom: they are rather means of access to true and absolute reality.

Dante is emphatic that what appear to him are “true substances,” real presences. There is here an erasure of difference between appearances and reality because the invisible realities in question cannot as such appear as visible things. It is not as if there were some other visible thing to be seen standing behind him when Dante looks back over his shoulder. Dante, as character, makes the mistake of looking with his eyes for other persons behind the images that he deems to be their reflections, but in truth there is no one else. The images he sees and that talk to him are not representations of persons elsewhere, in another time or place. Instead, the real and (sempi)eternal persons are talking with him in and through these shapes and forms. They are real, substantial persons rather than just representations, and yet the persons in question cannot simply be identified with the phenomenal forms through which they are manifest. This is impossible because the very dichotomy of the real and the represented, the substantial and the accidental, is suspended and transcended by the being of the blessed. Their reality is to be one with God. However, they reflect the divine reality in varying degrees that can be illustrated in differentiated forms, which is exactly what the remainder of the canto goes on to explain and illustrate. Seeing the blessed is seeing absolute reality, the Infinite, refracted in finite form.

The notion of degrees of reality becomes a crucial concept in philosophy at precisely this moment of cultural history in the work of John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308). A major task of Part II of this book will be to show how Dante employs a new logic of representation in negotiating the relation of transcendence and immanence in ways that parallel and are illuminated by the philosophical reflection and metaphysical speculation of Scotus. Dante’s poetic thinking hails from the same cultural predicament in a newly critical age, with its novel resources and insights, yet Dante’s approach manifests also very revealing differences from Scotus’s. Scotus clears the path toward the development of modern science, whereas Dante’s poetic language opens new vistas for the humanities. Dante’s perspective develops along a genealogical line different from the mainstream producing our technical-scientific modernity. It evolves eventually into a kind of alternative Enlightenment based on an epistemology essentially poetic rather than numeric in nature. Parts II-V will trace this line through Nicholas of Cusa to Giambattista Vico and beyond.

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