Language as Revelation or Revealment

Language, the Word, is revelation. This holds for Heidegger and for Wilhelm von Humboldt because language by its nature is disclosure of a world. For Christian poets like Dante, it holds for yet a further reason. The word manifests and mirrors the real because the theological Word, which was in the beginning with God and which was God, creates the world (Gospel According to John 1:1-3). In the Paradiso, Dante seeks to recover the essence of language as itself revelation of the divine Word. We should perhaps say that he highlights there this quest, since the whole Divine Comedy participates in the revelation of language. However, in the Paradiso in particular, Dante attenuates reference in the attempt to reveal the essential nature of language. The reference that is surpassed is reference in an ordinary sense, not reference to an indeterminate higher realm projected from sense. Superseded is empirical reference, but not signification as projection of meaning that is created by the word self-reflexively in the image of the divine Word.

Dante employs empirical reference, but he uses it to refer to or to evoke another world beyond the range of the senses. Dante’s language has perfectly clear empirical sense, yet it also brackets this sense in order to indicate some other world beyond the range of ordinary sense and reference. This other space or domain is suggested and evoked self-reflexively by language. Dante thereby anticipates modern symbolist poetics in which language itself becomes the ambit of an original experience of unprecedented reality that can be experienced only in and through the experience of the essence of language itself.1

What is, insofar as it can be spoken, comes to be in language. What Dante achieves is to show, in words of the later Heidegger, that “language speaks” (“die Sprache spricht”).[1] He lets the saying that is intrinsic to language come forward in lyrical form. This saying is not what we say by means of language, but what it says, for language is itself a saying. It communicates something beyond what any of us use it to communicate.

This is to recognize the transcendence of the medium with respect to any of the messages it is made to bear. In Marshall McLuhan’s pithy dictum, “the medium is the message.”[2] The medium is already in and of itself laden with significance that no one can command because it rather commands all that we can say in language. Language thus inaugurates our history and destiny in ways that Heidegger magisterially theorizes.

We have to pay attention particularly to the limits of language in order to fathom its revelation of an invisible realm beyond the world. Heidegger’s thinking revolves around the concealment inherent in unconcealing, and in this he is anticipated by medieval thinking that focuses on the allegorical veil in order to contemplate what the veil keeps hidden and yet enables to be indicated as hidden and invisible.

  • [1] Hans-Jost Frey, Studien über das Reden der Dichter (Munich: Fink, 1986) interprets symbolist poetics of Hölderlin, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé in this ontological register. 2 Heidegger, “Die Sprache,” Unterwegs zur Sprache.
  • [2] The catchphrase first occurs as the title of Chapter 1 of Understanding Media. 2 Boulnois, Au-delà de l’image (Beyond the Image} traces this dialectic in medieval tradition.
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