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Beyond the Letter

Everything I write on this blog seems to pivot around wherever I am in Dante.  We are at last out of Purgatory (although I enjoyed the read very much - especially the celebration of the arts!), and tomorrow we will discuss cantos 1 and 2 of Paradiso.  It has been a long road.  I am a little intimidated to venture into this territory.  There is so much scholarship behind all of Dante's writing, and nowhere more than Paradise, based on what I have read so far.  Inferno was a fun story with some neat literary support, Purgatorio ventured deeper into the academy, and I think Paradiso would be best approached after a few years in Dante's personal library.  There is a lot of curriculum on which I need to catch up.

Dante and Beatrice can fly in Paradiso!  It's so cool. 

There will be much to say about the text as we move forward, but I'm three pages in to an introductory article by my much admired professor Peter Hawkins and had to stop to make a note.  One of the biggest struggles I've had in divinity school (and always) has centered around biblical interpretation, and to what extent scripture is fiction, metaphor, allegory, figurative language, or if any of those categories even apply.  It's a challenging issue for me.  But Peter's article talks about Dante's approach to writing the Divine Comedy in ways that become apparent in the third and final canticle.  He cites Paradiso 4.43-45: 

"For this reason scripture condescends
to your capacity, and attributes hands and feet
to God, having other meaning."

"Scripture condescends to your capacity."  It takes something that is totally beyond language and creates a version of the truth that is still totally true but can be approached by language-dependant humans.  God doesn't actually have hands and feet, but scripture gives him hands and feet.  The fact that it is a "fiction," however, doesn't make it any less true.  What a tough concept!

Peter writes that the Commedia is, for Dante, an "extended biblical anthropomorphism."  "The canticle's claim to truth does not lie in any supposed mimetic correspondence between its language and the ineffable "other"; rather, the poem itself is a metaphor whose meaning wholly transcends its literal terms."

"The poem is a metaphor of a certain kind, for when the Holy Spirit speaks in Scripture of God's hands or feet - when, that is, the Spirit uses glaringly inappropriate language - it is precisely to remind us that there is finally no human speech adequate to the divine reality.  Thus for Augustine words that do not 'work' on a literal level are a sign that God is more fully expressed in our awed silence than in anything our voices can sound.  Such language calls the reader to go beyond the letter of every text.  If read aright, therefore, metaphor introduces an analogy between our speech and God's Word that will of necessity force the reader to see the insufficiency of language."(p. 216)

(This is from a chapter called "Augustine, Dante, and Ineffability" in Peter's book Dante's Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination.)

I am totally bowled over by this.  I spend a lot of time thinking about language and what it is exactly, and what on earth it means that Christ is the Word.  If language is an apprehensible expression of what God is, then is Christ best seen as the apprehensible "version" of God?  The God who does have hands and feet and eats and sleeps and speaks our language, but does so without "losing" any of his God-ness?  Is that what is means that Christ is the Word?  The version of God that can be comprehended over time?  I can feel myself slipping onto dangerous theological turf here because I don't want to imply that the Trinity exists for the sake of an object (which would be humans), so maybe this is merely a quality of the Word and not an explanation of it.  

This infuses every text with a fantastic need to go beyond itself, which is a precedent set by the Bible.  I am always trying to come up with a better image for this, but for now this is all I have: it's like those sponges or washcloths that are dried up and compressed into little bricks, and then when you add water they immediately increase in size about twenty times.  Only this would be like adding water to one of those little bricks and having it suddenly expand to become everything, including the entire created order and actually God Himself.  Okay, I need a better image.  I'll work on it.  

Basically this A) made me feel really cool about devoting my life to literary interpretation, and B) made me feel really good about the way I am naturally most comfortable reading the Bible, which is as a big textual anthropomorphism of God, making the ineffable able to be apprehended.  


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