Lyric Self-Reflection and the Creation of Time

Let us dwell for a moment longer (like the bird) on these rich nourishments. They require some time to digest. This lyric elaboration, for which the bird is a symbol, anticipates time (“previene il tempo”) during the night by reaching back into an open region—concentrated on the “open branch” (“aperta frasca”)—of creativity where all things exist as emergent in the origin of their being. This moment before time— before the time of day and of ontological differentiation—is sustained in affection (“ardente affetto”) and in expectation of the rising sun (“il sole aspetta”) as the Source of life and energy and, in Platonic symbology, of being itself.

These interior states, where time is first projected, cannot be properly reckoned in terms of chronological or chronometric time as we know it in an already formed, phenomenal world. They are represented, consequently, as having something of the changelessness of eternity, as suggested by the bird’s fixedly gazing in search of the break of day, literally the “birthing” of dawn (“fiso guardando pur che 1’alba nasca”). Dante will require the same fixed gazing for his final vision (“mirava fissa, immobile e attenta,” XXXIII.98). It is not, of course, the case that an historical individual can definitively escape time through withdrawing


Emil Staiger, “Lyrik und lyrisch,” in Zur Lyrik-Diskussion, ed. Reinhold Grimm (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1966), 75-82.

into inner experience, but neither is this inner dimension of time-synthesis calculable in terms of any outwardly perceptible or worldly type of time.[1]

As Dante says of Beatrice, when they ascend together to the Heaven of the Sun, her act of leading him from good to better does not “stick out in time” (“1’atto suo per tempo non si sporge”). In other words, her act in ascending the heavens is so rapid that it takes no span of time:

É Beatrice quella che si scorge

di bene in meglio, si súbitamente

che 1’atto suo per tempo non si sporge

  • (X.37-39)
  • (It is Beatrice who guides from good to better, and so suddenly that her act is not extended in time.)

Dante’s poetic journey into the sun (in the fourth heaven) takes him beyond solar measures of time. He enters into a dimension of time as prescience and pregnancy. Three heavens later and higher, Dante invents the word “s’inventre” (“enwombs itself” or “makes pregnant with itself”), using his typical reflexive verbalizing of nouns (as also in “s’impola,” XXII.67; “s’infiora,” XIV.13; “s’inzaffira,” XXIII.102, etc.) to suggest a self-reflexive bringing to birth of blessedness. The action and emotion of the lyric happen in a certain sense outside of time, for they take place before the assignation of sense or meaning in terms of external objects. The “lived time” of lyric—temps vécu in Henri Bergson’s vocabulary—is immune to objective time as measured in the external world. Lyric forms time into a meaningful shape of its own making.

The lyric substitutes a satisfaction immanent to language for the fulfillment that ordinarily comes from some extralinguistic object or event that is referred to or indicated. The lyric thereby takes into its own creative shaping or making the temporality of experience. No longer waiting for time to happen, that is, for the “awaited” to come in its own time, the lyric institutes a temporality of immediacy, in which it is already its own fulfillment, even while at the same time remaining suspended in anticipation toward a future fruition of a Paradise to come.

The lyric, with its circularity of self-reflection or return to the same, models how language generates time. Time requires a self-reflective structure of closure—of some moment, some span of time, being “over” and gathered into a completed whole. Passage of time can be apprehended only from within a certain framework of stability joining beginning and end. And yet such a fixed framework, in effect, annuls time in its openness as essentially free flow. Self-reflexivity, taken as an ideal structure, on the one hand, closes the circuit of self-identity but, on the other hand, taken as an existential act, opens infinitely into the Open. Any emergence of self into identity through reflection is (un)grounded upon such an open abyss." This is also the structure that we found to be coded into the traditional teaching of the Christian Trinity, with its mysterious recess in the Father, its revelation through the Word, and its issuing in the procession of the Spirit.

In the Paradiso, language, through the synthetic unity of syntax drawing separate elements into a sentence, points to what is, in effect, eternity. Augustine works this analogy out elaborately in his Confessions (IV.x and, where the eternity of God’s Word is compared to the meaning of a complete sentence that is realized in time only through the temporal vanishing of each component word and syllable. For Dante, writing in the Paradiso inhabits the threshold between time and eternity because it encompasses all that can be said and so be, even while remaining unencompassable in its own being, since it is an ongoing, everopen creating. What language can do is reflect on itself, but in doing so, it is not essentially an object. Self-reflection on its own creative act opens rather into an abyss that cannot properly be represented. Nevertheless, the experience of this “abyss” can be figured. Self-reflexive figurings can round this emptiness out into thought or sensations that are very real for us.[2]

Self-reflexivity of lyric language, accordingly, exposes the intersection of time and eternity. Lyric self-reflexivity reflects the point where the Trinity (as an eternal relation within the Godhead outside of time) and the Incarnation (as the eternal Godhead entering into time and renewing history) fit together. The dovetailing of these two theological mysteries is the final note on which the Paradiso ends—or rather the synthesis toward which it yearns all along in the very texture of its lyrical tercets. The Divine Comedy, through its circles of lyric self-enclosure, ensconsed in linear narrative leading up to apocalypse, embodies the original transcending of time that makes time possible as a perceptible, intelligible phenomenon and a significant history.

  • [1] 2 Bergon’s L’évolution créatrice (Paris: Alcan, 1928), 1-8, expounds lived time as “duration” (“la durée”). In The Creative Mind (La Pensée et le mouvant, 1946), Bergson theorizes pure perception of time by intuition as freeing subjective, lived time from normal, objective constraints.
  • [2] This point will be amplified and nuanced in Part IV, section 51, by reference to Agamben’s discussion of “The End of the Poem” (“La fine del poema”). 2 Karlheinz Stierle, Zeit und Werk: Prousts A la recherche du temps perdu und Dantes Commedia (Munich: Hanser, 2008) analyzes the poetic work, medieval (Dante) to modern (Proust), as giving eternity a sensible shape in time.
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