Metaphorical Poetics of Invisible Presence

Some of the most recent, well-informed, and astute critics today, ones writing from the point of arrival of vast traditions of commentary, consider Dante’s claim that he sees “true substances” to be meant not with all precision and earnestness and indeed to be “misleading.” It seems to contradict Beatrice’s statement a little later in the next canto that the true dwelling place of all the blessed is in the Empyrean (IV.28-36). Beatrice explains there that the souls have only appeared in the heaven of the moon for Dante’s sake—in order to signify (“far segno”) to him the nature and degree of their blessedness. What such criticism overlooks or underplays is the transcendence of determinate, objective vision by paradisiacal vision of all things in God. Dante in Paradise is “seeing” (however dimly and partially) souls as they truly are in the view of God, and this transcends every kind of physical, phenomenal form. This is indeed to see their “true substance,” just as Dante says, but this true being of theirs cannot be limited to any given time or physical space. It is “ultra-substantial” in terms of the ordinary substances with which we are acquainted empirically.

As we learn more clearly later, for the blessed souls to be “in” the Empyrean is to be outside of time and space. Saint Benedict in the heaven of the contemplatives mentions that the Empyrean “is not localized and does not turn on a pole” (“non e in loco e non s’impola,” XXII.67). Dante invents a metaphorical construct for spatially imagining what it is to see a purely spiritual reality. Admittedly, the forms he sees are but metaphors. Yet what he really “sees”—albeit metaphysically and metaphorically—is the invisible substance of the souls and ultimately an aspect or expression of the only absolutely true substance, God. The “appearances” are metaphors not in the sense of being something other than this one substance, but rather of being invisible Being itself that is signified under a certain visible aspect and from a certain perspective. The apparently reflected images are not what Dante “really” “sees.” They simply give local habitation and a form to something that is not physical at all. Dante’s “vision” here is rather of an invisible reality. In his medieval outlook, what is empirically verifiable by material sight and the senses is only a shadow of the absolute reality of “true substance.”

The Letter to Cangrande explains that by intellect we see many things for which verbal signs are lacking (“Multa namque per intellectum videmus quibus signa vocalia desunt,” Epistola XIII.84). It finds this predicament confirmed by Plato’s resort to the use of metaphors for what is seen by the light of the intellect—what words are not able properly to express (“quod satis Plato insinuate in suis libris per assumptionem metaphorismorum;


Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez, eds., Paradiso (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 76.

multa enim per lumen intellectual vidit que sermone proprio nequivit exprimere,” Epistola XIII.84). For Aristotle, all our cognition, and consequently signs, come only from sensible things (“nihil in intellecto nisi prius in senso”). But Paradise proper (the Empyrean) is not sensible, even though Dante signifies his experience of it by sensible images. Even God uses such images to convey to Dante’s understanding the state of the souls he encounters. Dante did not at first realize that he was seeing true substantial reality, since what appeared to him were still at least marginally sensible forms, but Beatrice corrects him. He sees invisible substances in sensible forms in the first heaven and all through his ascent, even in the Empyrean. What changes is the way—more than what—he sees. Beatrice gives him to understand that the form of appearance is merely an accommodation to his human faculties (IV.28-63). In fact, the whole cosmological ascent through the nine physical heavens is an accommodation for making visible an experience of invisible reality.

The faces might, to this extent, be called “absolute metaphors.” They bring into being something that exists as a perceptible thing only in and through themselves rather than referring indirectly to something other than themselves. What is alluded to in the absolute metaphors of the Paradiso, finally, is reality as absolute and therefore as ungraspable and ineffable, not a discrete quality or a definable, isolable thing at all. Poetic metaphor in Paradise is ultimately a means of evoking undifferentiated and unsignifiable divinity. This entails, for example, that the visibility of the souls in Paradise is blinding, as becomes explicit in the case of Justinian in V.133-39. They are seen only enough to suggest something ««seen that is the true nature of their substance. All that Dante actually sees as determinate form, even in the Empyrean, consists only in “shadowy prefaces of their truth” (“di lor veto umbriferi prefazii,” XXX.78).

Dante dramatizes such exposure of vision as a veil over true reality when he arrives in the Empyrean. His eyes are flooded with living divine light “shining all around” (“circunfulse,” recalls Saint Paul’s blinding vision in Acts 22:6), and it enables them to surmount their own powers (XXX.49-57). He sees a river of light with sparks rising from and returning to flowers on its banks. But after he drinks the river in with his eyelids, in order to make his eyes better mirrors (“per far migliori spegli,” 85), the scene metamorphoses. The river becomes round (90) and his vision is reshaped as his perspective is rounded from that of linear time into eternity modeled as a spherical amphitheater. The sparks and flowers are “unmasked” (“sotto larve ... manifesto,” etc., 91-96) as the “two courts” of heaven—angels and blessed souls. Of course, these forms


Hans Blumenberg, Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie—Archiv fiir Begriffsgeschichte 6 (I960): 7-142; 301-5 is the source of much reflection on the idea of absolute metaphor. For application to Dante, see Marco Ariani, “‘Metafore assolute’: Emanazionismo e sinestesie della luce fluente,” La metafora in Dante, ed. Marco Ariani (Florence: Olschki, 2009), 193-219.

Self-Reflexion, Lyricism in Paradiso 13 for describing the substances he sees are again metaphors for what is in itself infinite and formless. Only letting determinate form disappear can intimate divine simplicity.

Dante wants to honor the distinct reality of the persons he meets, even though ultimately their reality is to be one with God. Still, this oneness is a free act and not simply a fact. Every individual has to freely will to be (re)made in the divine image. It is not a simple given that is flatly perceived but an eternal act of total giving of oneself. It is a self-reflective act of letting absolute being be reflected in one’s own finite being by relinquishing to the core all particular ownership even of oneself. We have the ability to really let God be—in ourselves. Still, what causes confusion is that we are used to reasoning about individuals as if they were fully independent substances, whereas in Dante’s Christian metaphysics all that exists, except God, is dependent being. All distinguishing traits, at this ultimate ontological level, where all being derives from God, disappear as merely modes of the realization of the one true substance.

Dante is juggling with just such a minimal, disappearing, virtually invisible difference in the passage quoted above as Leitmotif, in which he sees what seem to be apparitions of faces. These are the first appearances to him of the denizens of Paradise, and Dante’s description says something about the nature of description itself as it applies to such beings or “substances.” Dante marks here a minimal, barely perceptible difference of pearl on a white forehead (“perla in bianca fronte”) in order to evoke the moment in which difference disappears altogether because it is the moment in which the divine Absolute “appears.” Eternity, or divinity, can only be experienced mystically in the erasure of difference between the mind and its object, which in this case is the mind’s divine Source and Ground. Such is the self-transcending realized through the unio mystica.

This metaphysical event has been apprehended as a purely poetic experience, for example, by Arthur Rimbaud, that “mystic in the savage state” (“mystique à l’état sauvage”), as Paul Claudel dubbed him in the Préface to his 1912 edition of Rimbaud’s Oeuvres. Rimbaud’s “Éternité” portrays the exquisite moment of erasure of difference that issues in mystic rapture, when the sea, vanishing with the sun, suddenly dissappears into the night:

Elle est retrouvée

Quoi? L’éternité.

C’est la mer allée

Avec le soleil.

(It is found again

What? Eternity.


Arthur Rimbaud, Poésies complètes, ed. P. Claudel (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 5.

It is the sea gone

With the sun.)

Rimbaud imagines a moment at which, with the setting of the sun and the disappearance of light, there is no longer any perceptible difference on the horizon of the visual field, no line of demarcation between sea and sky, but simply an undifferentiated All. The speaker is reimmersed without difference in something like what Dante calls “the great sea of being” (“’1 gran mar de 1’essere,” 1.113). Dante is borrowing the image of the sea (“pelagus”) for the Divine Being, or “He Who Is,” from John of Damascene (De fide orthodoxa 9). The image is relayed to him presumably by Thomas Aquinas in his commentary On the Sentences of Peter Lombard: “Thus Damascene does not say what God is but signifies a certain sea of infinite substance as indeterminate” (“et ideo dicit Damascenus, quod non significat quid est Deus, sed significat quoddam pelagus substantiae infinitum, quasi non determinatum”).[1] The sea is an image signifying not exactly what God is so much as suggesting that he is beyond determinate signification (“non determinatum”). The poem, like language in general, can speak and signify only by virtue of difference, but its divine “object” is without difference and so is not even distinguishable as an object. It is like Rimbaud’s sea— vanished along with the setting sun. Scripturally, this recalls “the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17, echoed by Dante in Convivio IV.xx.6).

Thus, from its outset, in defining its peculiar poetic mode, Paradiso envisages the erasure of even the minimal difference necessary to signify something. Dante repeatedly employs figures of vanishing linguistic difference, for example, in describing the emptiness of broken vows by virtually the same word in Piccarda’s explanation that her “vows” (“voti”) were “void” (“voti”) in some respect (“li nostri voti e voti in alcun canto,” III.57). Again, when Beatrice tells Dante to “say, say” (“Di, di”) his question and to believe the souls as gods (“dii”), whatever they answer (“Di, di I sicuramente, e credi come a dii,” V. 122-23), these acoustically equivalent locutions show language losing its grip on the differences between things by using similar and virtually indistinguishable signifiers for them. Joan Ferrante delineates Dante’s use of such verbal coincidences and homonym rhymes, or repetition of words with different, often subtly gradated shades of meaning, to suggest the deep unity of things beyond their apparent differences. Dante thereby imitates the unity of diversity, the intricate connection of all in God, declared from the outset of the Paradiso.

Such language that verges upon indistinction suggests how in general the distinctions between things made by language are relative and highly labile. These distinctions marked by virtually identical signifiers become discernible only self-reflexively. Like a spark moving within flame or voice within voice (“E come in fiamma favilla si vede, / e come in voce voce si discerne, / quand’una è ferma e altra va e riede,” VIII. 16-18), the poem vibrates as the purely self-reflexive difference of same from same that is made by artifice so as to metaphorically signify the unsignifiable, the absolutely undifferentiated. In the deepest core of reality—in God— there is no difference. These subtle verbal plays are possible in the living language of the vernacular more than in Latin, given the latter’s comparative rigidity, which suggests one reason why Dante shifts to Latin when mentioning what he cannot express: “Trasumanar significar per verba / non si poria,” I. 70 (“Transhumanizing cannot be expressed per verba”).

In the apparitions at the outset of Canto III, Dante describes forms that tenuously take shape by virtue of lyrical repetition. The persons here are presences and even real presences. Still, they appear evanescent and vanishing because their true reality is not identical with their visible form. Yet neither do these forms signify something else in the manner of an allegorical representation. They are traces of real presences of something that cannot be phenomenally manifest as such. Their real presence is in the Empyrean, but that means nowhere in space and time. So their apparent spatial location is merely a “condescending” to Dante’s subjective limitations (IV.28-■48), not an objective reality. They are not in any place that can be objectively signified. What appears to Dante is indicative of a wholly different order of reality—“true substance”—one not in space and time at all.

It is more appropriate to speak of metaphor than of allegory for Dante’s technique in the Paradiso, since the images he uses are mediated through subjective experience instead of consisting in strictly objective relations among orders of things. In this respect, Dante is anticipating modern perspectives and poetics. His metaphors are subjective, perspectiva! ways of relating to an ultimate reality. The shapes that Dante sees are metaphors for an ineffable and indeterminable reality. They all take shape against the background of God, who is absolutely unrepresentable. The “what” that is indicated remains a mystery.

Julia Kristeva constructs a genealogy of Western subjectivity in its derivation from Neoplatonic and Christian interpretations of the Narcissus myth." She suggests that what Dante the character initially rejects as merely narcissistic images—such as poets are notoriously prone to produce—are rehabilitated by Beatrice. Dante’s theologically enlightened guide presents images as true realities belonging to this realm in which

ed. Aldo S. Bernardo and Anthony L. Pellegrini (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1983), 115-32, especially 125-26.

11 Julia Kristeva, Histoires d’amour (Paris: Denôel[Folio], 1983), 164-66.

“light” itself, the divine, becomes the substantial reality of the souls. The images Dante sees reveal to him the truly real that he is journeying toward, and they make up the progressive stages of his journey beyond the visible world to the experientially revealed truth of an invisible reality. For Dante, as a subject advancing in his knowledge of the reality of God, Beatrice’s mediation is essential. She alone authorizes taking these images not as narcissistic illusions reflecting just himself, but rather as indicators of the reality of the Other toward which he is summoned.

Dante’s employment of allegorical invention had climaxed already at the end of the Purgatorio with the apocalyptic scenes unfolding from XXXII. 106 to XXXIII.78. The Paradiso continues Dante’s journey beyond apocalyptic representation and its disclosures into the realm of the unrepresentable and unrevealable. It seems that only self-reflexivity can fathom and express the shadow of this realm (“1’ombra del beato regno”) that is “etched” in Dante’s “head” (“segnato nel mio capo,” 1.23-24). In the Paradiso, Dante represents no separate object per se but rather a reflective redoubling and projection out of himself in contact with an absolute reality. This turns the protagonist into a living, transfigured incarnation of the invisible world—a transcendent Other. Such is the putatively miraculous experience that gives rise to the metaphorical renderings of Paradise.

  • [1] 2 Joan M. Ferrante, “Words and Images in the Paradiso: Reflections of the Divine,” Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. Studies in the Italian Trecento in Honor of Charles S. Singleton,
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