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The Eucharist
and self-knowledge

· Dante and Adam in Paradiso of the Divine Comedy ·

It is the very nature of the human to signify the transcendent: in his linguistic treatise De vulgari eloquentia, Dante says (contradicting Genesis) that Adam spoke at the moment of his creation, and that his first word necessarily was a name of God (El), whether as question or response, and as a cry of joy, in order to glorify God, and as a sign of the divinity in us (1.4.3-4; 1.5.1-2). In other words, Adam fulfilled what he was as a finite, created, image or sign of the divine. In a movement of praise and joy that was simultaneously a question and response to the mystery of (created) being, and hence of reciprocity between the divine and the human, between the infinite and the finite, conscious being — the ground of all reality — both manifested itself and designated itself through him. 

As Giuseppe Mazzotta has beautifully put it, for Dante human language is intrinsically theological, a movement of prayer and praise, which is a placing of self on the threshold of the abyss, of the abandonment of self. Poetry is the limit of praise, and praise of poetry, in an endless circulation, a fusion of the sacred and the profane, that together address the ultimate mystery of existence, of life and death. Prayer is not a representation of reality, but a performative utterance of gratitude and praise that enacts a reality, that signifies what it means without mediation: like the Comedy itself, the fruition of the poetry of praise into teodia (Pd 25.73), prayer constitutes the bridge from existential exile in the dark wood to the Empyrean rose, through an ever-deepening self-knowledge, in the process renewing the earth (cf. Giuseppe Mazzotta, “Conclusioni,” in Preghiera e liturgia nella Commedia, ed. Giuseppe Ledda, Ravenna: Centro Dantesco dei Frati Minori Conventuali, 2013, pp. 221-28; see also Mazzotta, “The Book of Questions: Prayer and Poetry,” Dante Studies 129, 2011: 25-46).

In Paradiso 26, Adam tells us that he first called God “I”, but that later, humans called the sommo bene “El”. Whatever else this shift might signify, in the Italian vernacular it cannot but conjure “a shift in theological perception whereby God is no longer seen as the first-person subject which is the intimate ground of all first-person subjects (compare Pd 29.13-15) but as a third-person object” (Vittorio Montemaggi, “The Theology of Dante’s Commedia as Seen in the Light of the Cantos of the Heaven of the Fixed Stars”, in Se mai continga....: Exile, Politics and Theology in Dante, ed. Claire E. Honess and Matthew Treherne, Ravenna: Longo Editore, 2013, p. 59).

The shift marks a failure of self-knowledge, an alienation or otherness from the divine, in that the human “I” no longer designates, is no longer one with, pure consciousness or being, the source and ultimate referent of every possible “I”. The name of God is unstable because humans are unstable signifiers of the divine.

That Adam was himself the fruit of the garden of creation, the image and embodiment of the sommo bene that he then sought outside of himself in the fronds of creation, thus condemning himself to a state of existential exile, is underscored by how the pilgrim Dante first addresses him: “O pomo che maturo / solo prodotto fosti...” (“Oh apple [fruit] who alone were produced ripe”; Pd 26.91-92). Adam was himself the apple that, through an eclipse of self-knowledge (pride, the illusion of autonomous, self-sufficient finite being) he then hungered for as “other.” The reference to Adam as “pomo” is the culmination of a long Dantean meditation on the pomo: already in Dante’s early Convivio, the pomo is emblematically the child’s first desire in its pursuit of happiness (4.12.16); in the Purgatorio, the pilgrim, conquered by Beatrice’s name come [...] fanciul [...] ch’è vinto al pome (as a child is won over by an apple; 27.45) re-enters Eden in a reversal of how Adam lost it. The “triumph of Christ” that opens the cantos of the Heaven of Fixed Stars is introduced as tutto il frutto / ricolto del girar di queste spere (all the fruit gathered by the turning of these spheres; Pd 23.20-21); those cantos culminate in the archetype of that fruit, the pomo Adam. The pomo is true self-knowledge, the self-revelation of the divine as not other than oneself, as the being of one’s being.

Adam explains that his exile from Eden was not caused by actually eating the apple: “Or, figliuol mio, non il gustar del legno / fu per sé la cagion di tanto essilio, / ma solamente il trapassar del segno” (Now, my son, the tasting of the tree [literally, “wood”] was not in itself what caused the great exile, but only the trespassing of the sign [boundary]; Pd 26.115-17). Il trapassar del segno means not only trespassing beyond a boundary, but also violating, transgressing, a sign: the two are one. Through an eclipse of consciousness and love in himself, Adam disfigured himself as sign or signifier of the divine, which was simultaneously to fruitlessly seek more from the senses, from the world, from explanation, than they can provide. Finite things cannot satiate the human instinct for infinity, for encompassing all of reality as oneself, no matter how much of the world one seeks to devour through the senses. Nor can the world provide a resolution to the mystery of life, because, as Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists. [...] The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.44, 6.4321; see also 6.4312, 6.432, 6.45, 6.371-372). The pomo-Adam refers to his past eating as il gustar del legno, the bitter, non-nourishing disappointment of trespassing/violating the sign, intrinsic to all human seeking and devouring born from pride, from the illusion of the self-subsistent finite self. Legno, trapassar del segno, of course conjure Dante’s Ulysses, who in his legno [ship] trespassed the sign of the Pillars of Hercules, seeking understanding (valore e canoscenza) through a little more esperienza, by exploring the world in the few days left to his senses (If 26.97-120). The wood of insatiable greed and of Ulysses’s futile quest for understanding is answered by the wood of self-sacrifice, of the Cross (Pd 19.105).

These observations can be recast in the language of sacrament, paradigmatically the Eucharist: the pomo is the Eucharist, the true food. This is suggested by how we meet Adam in Dante’s Paradiso: in the Heaven of Fixed Stars (Pd 23-27), the “exams” on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (which orient the soul to its true goal and prepare the vision of God) culminate in the great hymn of thanksgiving and praise, the Sanctus, which in turn introduces Adam, as the Sanctus in the canon of the Mass introduces the Eucharist. The parallel with the canon of the Mass is noted by Bosco-Reggio in their commentary (Pd 26.69). A sacrament is in a sense a stable sign, a sign redeemed from the flux of change, because it is a sign that participates in, enacts, the reality it denotes: it is what it signifies. That is the nature of the human as it was created to be, it is the nature of the redeemed Adam, it is the nature of Christ, the new Adam in whom, through whom, human nature was made new. It is thus also true language, the anchor of all signifying, in which the sign is transparent to, embodies, what it denotes, a perfect fusion of a soul of meaning in a sensible body. Language approaches this ideal to the extent that it becomes Adamic, a language of praise born from perfect self-knowledge, in which, through which, it is ultimately the ground of all reality, pure consciousness or being (intellectus - esse), that says “I,” because the finite “I” knows that it has no reality apart from, other than, that primordial self-subsistent “I”; the sign is perfectly configured to manifest it, express, it. In such language, the human and the divine, earth and heaven, the finite and the infinite, become one: it is logos. Insofar as the Comedy transfigures Dante’s early stilo della loda (poetry of praise) into teodia, into the pure praise born from repentance, conversion, and surrender of self, on the model of David, to that extent it becomes sacramental, Eucharistic, a sacrato poema linking heaven and earth, e cielo e terra (Pd 23.62, 25.1-2). Throughout the Comedy, Dante assimilates himself to David. For example, the pilgrim Dante’s first word in the Comedy is “Miserere” (If 1.65), citing David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 50 (51); the Miserere is cited again in Pd 32. 12, thus bracketing the Comedy.

New life, new rhymes, are one (hence the title of Dante’s early book of verse, the Vita Nova): for Dante, novo carries the force of unprecedented, never before seen, hence revelatory. But all creation is revelatory, new, if we know how to read, if we are awake to the world and to ourselves: we ourselves are a revelation, our very being is revelatory.

An account of how we are novo, how we are signs embodying/denoting the transcendent, is offered in Dante’s Purgatorio by Statius, whose final liberation from purgatorial penance, saturated with Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection imagery, assimilates him to Christ (Pg 20.122-51, 21.1-13). His liberation dramatically interrupts the narrative of the Comedy, as his own awakening to the transcendent, to Christ, in a sense interrupted — made a misreading of — his reading of Vergil (he says he became a Christian by reading — actually misinterpreting — a passage of the Aeneid [Pg 22.37-45, 64-90). In effect, he saw in Vergil’s text what could not be there, because it was too present, too absent, to be there, it was the very condition of meaning itself. Statius tells us that the processes of nature produce a fetus, a living sensitive animal organism. But these processes of generation are dramatically interrupted by the intrusion of the transcendent, an infusion of the self-awareness that makes an animal a fante, a human being (a “speaker”), and that parallels the in-spiration that makes Dante go signifying as poet (Pg 25.37-84; 24.49-57). As Aristotle already knew, all self-awareness or consciousness can only come from beyond the order of nature, because it is a sharing in the ultimate ontological principle: all nature is a product of consciousness or nous, and not vice versa.8 The Prime Mover, il motor primo, Satius says, turns in joy to such a great work of nature (the fetus), and breathes into it a new spirit, spira / spirito novo, that subsumes into itself the animal, making a nexus between spirit and matter, consciousness and manifestation, the transcendent and the natural, the divine and the human, l’umano e ’l divino, so that the fetus now lives, and feels, and sé in sé rigira, becomes conscious of itself (Pg 25.67- 81). This nexus or fusion between the divine and the natural, between consciousness and matter, that makes of the animal a human being, a speaker, is itself the condition, the essence of all language, of all signifying: intelligibility embodied in/as manifest signs. Its paradigm is Adam, himself the language of God, image of Christ, the logos, the sign through which the divine speaks and is itself. To the extent that we know ourselves, awaken to what we really are or can be as human beings, we become Adam, become the Eucharist, signifiers of the divine, in our being and thus in our speech, which will become, like Dante’s great poem, a hymn of praise, a teodia.

Christian Moevs
professor of Italian studies at the university of Notre Dame
and author of the book The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy 




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 23, 2018