Ontological Resonances of Self-Reflection

Feeding one’s own brood in the nest—or reproducing oneself through nutritive action—is an extended enactment of self-reflection. So are the functions of celebration and aesthetic display of beauty, without which such acts would remain hidden. Finally, we can double back to the beginning of the series, according to the narrative sequence of the poem. The cloying concentration of reflexive verbiage in the falcon simile of XIX.34-39 clinches the key significance of self-reflexiveness for these lyrical interludes and reflects on the very essence of the lyric as self-reflexive:

Quasi falcone ch’esce del cappello, move la testa e con 1’ali si plaude,

voglia mostrando e facendosi hello vid’io farsi quel segno, che di laude

de la divina grazia era contesto,

con canti quai si sa chi la su gaude.

  • (XIX.34-39)
  • (Like a falcon that emerges from its hood,

moves its head and with its wings applauds itself, demonstrating desire and making itself glorious,

so I saw that sign form itself, which with praise

of the divine grace is woven together,

with songs self-known by those alone who rejoice above.)

The last of these verses in particular evinces the consonantal series of hard, clicking cs (joined by a likewise hard g and q) interwoven with sibillants that makes for an intensively self-reflexive sound pattern. This alliterative and assonantal repetition ties these passages together by an additional bond that binds them into Dante’s implicit theory of lyrical language as constituted by self-reflection.

The praise motif of “laude,” which echoes here in the reflexive verb “si plaude,” recalls Dante’s definition of lyric poetry as praise in Vita nuova XVIII.9 and resonates with the lark’s name. In Dante’s Italian, the word “al/odetta” itself contains an intimation of praise, including notably liturgical praise—lode. The name of the lark thus becomes a pure signifier that reflects the meaning it takes on in this context, as if its vocation to praise were written into it as an etymological index of its destiny finally reached in this poem.

The self-feeding of lyrical rapture produces a satiety that interprets itself ontologically as a sort of plenitude, or even surfeit, of being. Most explicitly portrayed in Dante’s skylark image in XX.73-78, this plenitude is a self-reflexive fullness that is produced by lyric song. It is the ultimate sweetness (“1’ultima dolcezza”) in which contentment can be attained only in the instant when singing becomes silence (“prima cantando, poi race contenta”).

This lyric singing transpires in time, with its before and after, its “prima” and “poi,” but it is no longer subject to the unfulfillment of time. Time is transcended but also retained—aufgehoben or sublated— into the contentment that suspends time and the activity of singing that has made this contentment possible. Singing fulfills itself in silence, and this is the moment of its truth. As the simile moves from vehicle to tenor, the ontological import of self-reflection is expressly asserted. Dante’s alodetta is described as “the image of an imprint” (“1’imago de la ’mprenta”), suggesting how this image produces itself out of its own reflected being. And yet, beyond itself and its own image, it still reflects “the eternal pleasure” (“1’etterno piacere”) of the divine Creator, who is well-pleased with what he has created, just as in Genesis 1:31.

The self-absorbed, but also other-inspired and self-propagating, joy of the lark’s singing has thus served as a reflection of the divine joy in creating—a pleasure in or by whose desire (“al cui disio”) everything becomes what it is (“ciascuna cosa qual ell’e diventa”). Each thing here is conceived out of the joy that is condensed in the lyric word. Such was also Adam’s first word—his primiloquium—spoken in joy (a gaudio) to his Creator, outside of whom is no joy (“nullum gaudium sit extra Deum, sed totum in Deo”) and who is himself all joy (“ipse Deus totus sit gaudium”), in De vulgari eloquentia I.iv.4. Lyric—and the creative joy that it embodies—reveals things in their emergence from their original ideation and conceiving in love by the divine Creator, who is pleased with them, pleased that they should exist.

From the outset of the cantica, Dante’s desire to know the Cause of his sensations in Paradise is ignited with unprecedented acuteness by the music of the spheres (1.82-84). This desire is satisfied self-reflexively through his own poetic creation. The perception of things in their ontological truth directly in and through pleasure at the source of their Creation by the loving regard of God is repeated and renewed in poetic creation as emblematized by the lark’s singing. Such creation by artistic mimesis incarnates its joy in motion and song and in beauty and praise. It is a mirroring that makes real rather than producing only a virtual ersatz or mere image.

Such reflection is, in some respects, like the mirror in the Roman de la rose that produces “all being” (“tot 1’estre”), “without deception” (“sans decevoir,” 1561) or illusion. The capacity of the mirror to totalize the being of the thing similarly registers in Geoffrey of Vinsauf, who in his Poetria Nova writes that in the mirror the “whole thing” is reflected (Ecce rei speculum; res tota relucet in illo, 712; see section 39). However, desire’s making all things what they are in Dante is a giant step beyond simply reflecting all things in their truth and wholeness. Transcendental philosophy, beginning with Duns Scotus and developing in a modern, Kantian sense, will provide one angle of perception on this step toward productive self-consciousness. These precedents and successors to Dante’s discourse of reflection will be explored in Parts II—IV.

We must not forget, especially in the context of Jupiter as the heaven of Justice, that the divine “imprint” that satisfies the eagle is, furthermore, the image of divine Justice. Justice is the supreme principle of order in the Creation and, even more directly, in the afterlife. This principle, reflected throughout the universe, reaches all the way to Hell, where the inscription over the gate announced: “Justice moved my high Maker” (“Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore,” Inferno III.4). It is the image of Justice, fundamentally, that each creature in Paradise enjoys as the idealized image of its own being. As Saint Augustine had observed in De trinitatis VIILix, the image of Justice in the soul impels it to become what it is. Augustine thereby articulated an important theological premise for just such a lyrical apotheosis as we find represented in Dante’s verses on this “ultimate sweetness.”

The affect of pleasure, in which things are originally created by a God who sees all that he creates, and sees that it is good (Genesis 1:10), can be recreated or repeated by the lyric ecstasy in which things are perceived anew in their emergence and are made to be what they are according to God’s good pleasure or love. And everything is what it truly is only in this timelessly creative vision leveraged from Love. Things are perceived, in turn, as all that they can be as refracted by the poet’s creative love and desire—and by their reflective repetition in the meditative and perceptive act of reading.

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