II. What does it mean to speak?
Socrates' EKPHRASIS (ἔκϕρασις) : « Tell me truly what you mean »
« and if you take the upward journey and sight of the things above as the soul's road up into the intelligible region, you won't miss what I trust, since you have desire to hear about this. But doubtlessly a god sees if it happens to be true. » (Plato, Republic, 517b)
What does it mean to speak? (Video link ; transcript upon request)
A God over illusions is the human counterpart of the God of nature. Yet, Vico's Latin fragment invites a doubt: is not nature—God’s artifact—a divine illusion? And further: is the God over nature the mask of a God over all illusions? And is not this God, man himself—artificiorum Deus? Is the divine illusion the prototype for all other illusions? But as a prototype of human artifacts, is not the divine artifact that which must be presupposed in order to understand human artifacts? And would this presupposing not hold also between divine art and human art? Is the divine not presupposed by the human? “Presupposed” as stage for our self-understanding! But what if one were truly to understand himself? Does our self-understanding make God expendable? Is the divine stage for human self-understanding a merely provisional stage? Is the divine prototype simply a mirror in which alone man may return to himself, but that man may dispense with upon awakening to himself, or to the true nature of the divine? Is the divine art, and therewith the God of nature, an artifice we need in order to master ourselves and our own art as determinations of infinity, or as divine transpositions into the human? But are we then to conclude that human self-mastery no longer presupposes anything, or that ultimately human creation is ex nihilo? Is God’s freedom none other than the perfection of human freedom—a perfection that we attain to by awakening to the true nature of our freedom? But is God’s creation really ex nihilo, or presupposition-less? Does God’s freedom not presuppose, or is it not to be understood in terms of human freedom? Is the divine prototype more than a necessary similitude of human perfection? Are we then to understand human perfection as presupposing a further perfection in the manner of the God of nature? Or does human perfection point behind itself, albeit not to “something”? Is human perfection disclosed in imperfection, incompletion, or absence of unity? Would the one God presuppose a community or order of men beyond any human imitation of the divine? Does the God of nature point back to an atheistic society, a multiplicity that no longer presupposes unity, by constituting unity—by remaining indifferently open to unity? This multiplicity would be a perfect community or order; its perfection would rest in its imperfection or incompleteness—in its unity-in-disunity, i.e. in its “not-stopping” on any determination, and thus in its existing in a purely-reflexive act, a reflexive act that does not resolve itself in anything, including its unity, which, accordingly, must remain in question. Our perfect community may be said to be “ideal”—a community of ideas presupposed by both God and man; this community’s “freedom” would constitute the essence of human and divine freedom, as un-creative. We now face freedom, not as the creation of “something,” but in the absence of creation or creativity—as order itself, beyond self-determination. This “final shore” beyond self-determination suggests that the essence of freedom is disclosed in the absence of any “self,” or in the disclosure of the permanent order necessarily underlying any “self” (or act of self-determination). Self-determination is transcended in terms of its pre-existential ground.
We intuit the ground of all possible self-determinations—standing as common basis for both God and man, for both divine and human freedom—as the-thing-itself, the res ipsa beyond any particular perspective, or even beyond all perspectives. The determination of anything being something’s appearance presupposes a basis for that something’s appearances (for anti-Platonists, the basis in question is cut off from, or utterly incommensurate with its appearances). The appearance is not rooted in a perspective; rather, every perspective is anchored in an appearance: every perspective determines itself in a determination of the-thing-itself, which is none other than the ontological fullness of “something”—that something’s permanence beyond appearances-and-perspectives. As we attempt to grasp or conceive of something, we determine ourselves in our conception, as in a shadow of the something we are after—the something that invites us out of our uncertainty or indetermination. Not knowing the source of the signs we hear, we tend to imagine them ready-at-hand, as determinations of our will—as if what we saw responded to what we had called for: “what we see is for us to grasp; it responds to our drive to grasp.” Or so we suppose, blinding ourselves to the actual source of every appearance, and therewith of every self-determination. For what we see is that determination of a thing in which we fix or determine ourselves. No sooner do we see something by transporting ourselves in our vision, than we seek beyond our vision for a broader frame of reference—for a horizon of vision saving us from being engulfed by our vision; and as we move out of our determination, our vision converts into a new one in which we re-determine ourselves in search for a determination beyond indetermination—a safe-haven where we are no longer subject to being overcome by appearances, or where we are no longer limited by our determination, precisely insofar as this one contains all others. So we err in search for God, the determination beyond which there is no determination. To be engulfed by God is not to be overcome, but to be saved—to be raised to the contemplation of all appearances. The divine vision alone frees us from subjection to all visions. Unlike other visions, the divine one does not compel us to escape it, leaving it outside of ourselves. The divine vision alone satisfies our desire for vision, our quest for terminal self-determination, or for the-thing-itself. The divine determination would then seem to coincide with the actual source of every appearance.
Dante's Visibile Parlare
“Visible Speech” (visibile parlare) is a term Dante Alighieri adopts to refer to the divine Word or Logos, consummation of all poetic imitations.
What does poetry imitate? Antiquity teaches us that poetry imitates nature. This lesson is partially eclipsed by the medieval call to imitate Christ (imitatio Christi), and completely eclipsed with the modern abandonment of the Christian understanding of Grace as building on, rather than destroying nature. It is thus with some difficulty that we try making sense of the lesson of classical antiquity.
In order to understand what antiquity means by poetic imitation and what by nature, we must first of all bracket the modern mechanistic understanding of nature and its imitation--an understanding that draws its initial inspiration from ancient materialist philosophers (most notably Democritus and Epicurus).
According to ancient materialists, nature is an unconquerable “vortex” or “chaos”--a fateful flux that we cannot imitate, but only abide by. Nor does modern materialism allow for imitation in the ancient sense of the term, but merely a “mechanical replication” (via a mechanical “grasping” of a shadow of nature) that attempts to replace, not to discover its prototype (its res extensa).
We must then take leave of materialists, if we are to regain sight of antiquity’s positive lesson concerning the poetic imitation of nature.
The Latin term natura, as the Greek physis, entails at once generation and its accomplishment. The nature of something is at once that something’s becoming and its being.
Poetic imitation or mimesis entails an attempt to “measure”--and thereby to “retrace”--the coincidence of becoming and being, the unity of nature.
Naturally, poetry has its limits, which prevent poets from completing their work once and for all. Poetry fails to gather its course into one moment without ceasing to remain poetry--without dying.
In the attempt to reach a conclusion, poetry converts into painting: the poetic stream, the poet’s canto, is frozen into an image, a “silent” mythical form concealing its own coming-into-being.
Just as poetry leaves static unity outside of itself, so does painting fail to resolve fluid multiplicity within its own form.
Given their mutual irreducibility, neither poetry alone, nor painting alone, but poetry and painting together, constitute the true imitation of nature--an imitation that is at once accomplished and open-ended, at once determined and undetermined, limited and unlimited, finite and infinite.
Dante’s divine “visible speech” reconciles poetry and painting as the perfection of our imitation of nature--a perfection that is nature itself in the eternal unity of its generation. The divine Logos is nature’s boundary; in the eternal Logos, nature is one and as one it transcends all measures. Fixed in eternity, the visibile parlare or ars divina serves as immense, immaculate cradle for the split and reconciliation of image and discourse, of painting and poetry.
Visibile parlare emerges as perfect witness to our twofold imitation of nature, confirming that our mythical images are not merely external, but immanent with respect to our speech “about” them. Our speech emerges as “logical” articulation of its pre-verbal or pre-logical “mythical” end--an articulation originally seated at the silent heart of myth itself.
Speech, then, emerges out of an image in which it inheres originally and to which it constantly returns, as a circular stream.
No more does poetry speak merely “about” images, than does the painter impose his images upon speech ex machina.
Poetry is painting’s vital self-articulation insofar as, throughout its entire course, poetry sings of an “unerring mind” (the mente che non erra of Dante’s Inferno II), a “silent” form hiding unmoved within speech, as speech’s mythical Northern Star.
Where poetry and painting are integral to each other, it would be misleading to say that poetry is in dialogue with painting. Poetry itself must be the dialogue of painting, a dialogue that takes place within a painted image.
Evidently speech can depart from an image, but it never escapes the confines of all images. Necessarily speech runs its course within some one image. Revolving within its own image--as within its beginning, middle and end--to that same image, as to its first criterion or primum verum, speech refers all other images that stand in its way.
Insofar as poetry fails to resolve painting within itself, the former fails to be simply true. The truthful poet remains mendax, a liar, even as he bespeaks the true or original boundary of his speech. Conversely, the painting necessarily shrouds its poetic prelude in silence--if only for the sake of illuminating it.
Such is the case of a painting that strives not merely to conceal, but to vindicate its poetic genesis, by serving as its true vicar.
A painting can be--or a true painting is--testimony to a life truly lived, a life that begs to be remembered, to be saved from oblivion. But the painter strives to achieve more than a record of the past.
Fixing the past in the present is only accidental to the painting in which its past or coming-into-being gathers to reflect that which is eternal in the midst of change.
For all motion has a form that, as form, does not move: the eternal seated at the heart of the temporal.
Motion constantly strives to attain to its unchanging, eternal form--to conquer its limit, to reach its proper end. In this respect, all motion is poetic.
Sung or written poetry is an extension of “physical” poetry--an extension in which the body survives its demise, as if in a Limbo, awaiting to be fully resurrected by a future reader.
Insofar as in poetic speech the form of the body appears dominant or “abstracted” over bodily motion, we can transcend the impediments our bodies are subject to, albeit not absolutely, but by transmigrating into ever-new bodies. Thanks to speech, we can live on after death, or even resurrect long after our demise--in a future reader.
Evidently, the end that motion achieves is a fiction that invites a novel motion, a novel quest for stillness.
The fiction in which motion as poetry awaits resurrection is a forged image, a painting the proper function of which is not to end motion (for the proper end of motion antedates any painting), but to conserve motion for a future spring, a future quest for its proper end.
Just as the painting emerges as vehicle for the rebirth of the poet, so does poetry naturally seek its end in a painting, a form that is no longer merely latent in poetry, but revealed above poetry, insofar as poetry gathers itself under it.
In the painting, poetry prepares its comeback. In poetry, the painting takes shape to reflect the “eternal exile” of the poet, of the immortal virtue--virtus poetica--that guides poetry from within prior to its being revealed above all motion.
The painting’s proper reflection awakens in us a sense of the immortality of our own strength, a sense that our will is not originally subject to the demands of the body, but that it can govern the body freely.
The genuine painter, then, prepares us to set out ever-anew on the poet’s quest for an eternity that is not merely outside of poetry (for such would be a mere painting), but that hides at the heart of poetry as the strength or vis mentis in virtue of which form remains forever irreducible to motion, just as minds reign over bodies unfettered.
St. Francis on nature's beauty?
""Multi enim locum contemplationis convertunt in otium, et
eremiticum ritum, qui animabus perficiendis inventus est, in sentinam
transferunt voluptatis. Talis horum temporum anachoretis constitutio est, vivere unumquemque pro libitu. Non pro omnibus istud; scimus enim sanctos in carne viventes (cfr. Gal 2,20) optimis eremo legibus vivere. Scimus et eos qui praecesserunt patres flores solitarios exstitisse. Utinam non degenerent nostri temporis eremitae ab illa pulchritudine primitiva, cuius iustitiae laus manet aeterna!"" (St. Francis of Assisi)
Following medieval Christian Platonism, Francesco refers to luminous heavenly bodies as beautiful, and to the sun in particular as metaphore of "my Lord" presiding over all physical things. (Recent decades' interpreters who read the "per" of Francesco's central stanzas in the sense of "through"--suggesting that the Lord is mirrored in physical phenomena--fail to adequately account for the application of "per" to "our physical death," which for Francesco is a blessing in disguise, rather than a reflection of God; cf. Sorrell 1988).
In the laudatory composition, beautiful is also "fire," insofar as it is luminous. Thus, "our mother earth," for example, is not referred to as beautiful.
Francesco's manner of speech has ancient precursors, of course. One need not look further than Plato's Republic to find physical light "signifying" metaphysical light.
Returning to Francesco's earth, she "sustains and governs" plants, whereas--two verses thereafter--we read: "blessed are those who will sustain in peace, for by you, the Highest, they shall be crowned." Whereas "mother earth" sustains vegetative life, blessed men, crowned by the creator of the earth, sustain genuine civil/moral order (peace). Blessed men are defined independently of earth, since (in their beatitude) they are ultimately indifferent to physical death (all corporeal things as such are blessings in disguise, since no sooner are they considered in a moral/human context than they acquire a metaphysical sense). What counts for the blessed as blessed, rather than as merely "living," is moral death, which is contravention of the divine will that makes a man blessed, that crowns him, or in whose name every blessed man contributes to sustaining the moral order.
What is beautiful in the physical realm is only the ensemble of luminous signs of the perimeter sanctifying the moral order: nowhere do we find even the remotest suggestion that "nature is beautiful"; nowhere does "nature" reflect God. Francesco's divine "most holy wills" ("santissime voluntati," notably in the plural) constitute the crown (Francesco's "incoronati"--"the crowned ones"--suggests a placing within the crown) or luminous perimeter within which we can sustain an immortal or eternal moral order (independent of physical death), which must coincide with the community of the blessed. Accordingly, Francesco's God may be said to create, but not to embrace the earth. What is embraced by divine "wills", is, properly speaking, the sphere of morality, or the properly human/political universe. Thanks to his Lord (the term God, or any cognate of "Deus," does not appear in Francesco's text), the blessed may conquer himself, but not nature.
The question is left open as to what extent every blessed man may coincide with his God, or as to what extent the divine crown may be none other than the community of the blessed. Does St. Francis conceive Platonism's "community of ideas" as Platonism's "isle of the blessed"? Does he conceive volition as ultimately taking precedence over intellect?
Pasted below is the original text of the "Cantico."
« Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore,
tue so’ le laude, la gloria e l’honore et onne benedictione.
Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfàno
et nullu homo ène dignu te mentovare.
Laudato sie, mi’ Signore, cum tucte le tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate sole,
lo qual’è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore,
de te, Altissimo, porta significatione.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora luna e le stelle,
in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per frate vento
et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
per lo quale a le tue creature dai sustentamento.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sor’Aqua,
la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.
Laudato si’, mi Signore, per frate Focu,
per lo quale ennallumini la nocte,
et ello è bello et iocundo et robustoso et forte.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,
la quale ne sustenta et governa,
et produce diversi fructi con coloriti flori et herba.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per quelli ke perdonano per lo tuo amore,
et sostengo infirmitate et tribulatione.
Beati quelli ke 'l sosterrano in pace,
ka da te, Altissimo, sirano incoronati.
Laudato si’ mi’ Signore per sora nostra morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo vivente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali
beati quelli ke trovarà ne le tue santissime voluntati,
ka la morte secunda no 'l farrà male.
Laudate et benedicete mi’ Signore' et ringratiate eserviateli cum grande humilitate.»
Nowhere in Francesco's "Cantico" do we find “nature” reflecting God. Why? Nature, the physical world, could reflect God only on condition that political/moral life were divined as gathered absolutely, or without remainder, into a single form. Then, human life would no longer stand “in the way” between nature and God, between all that is physical and all that is metaphysical. Instead, the human “geometrical” medium would be absorbed into the realm of metaphysics, making it possible for us to look upon all that is physical as direct sign of the divine. However, Francesco’s hymn invokes physical entities in a familiar manner, not as standing below, but as partaking in conventional, familial relations. Nature is brought to partake in moral predicaments. Far from resolving the moral tension between nature and the supernatural, Francesco’s, or more generally medieval Christianity’s hypostasis of human life in God extends moral tension over nature, forestalling any eventual apokatastatic conflation of good and evil. What we are presented with is no conquest of nature into the heavens, but a welcoming of nature as providential medium for moral consummation—for beatitude. Corporeal death itself is invoked as a blessing (in disguise), since it invites us to raise our attention to what is good beyond survival or pleasure.
It is true that for Francesco and medieval Christian theology in general the moral order is one in God, but it is equally true that for the Gospels and their faithful inheritors, the distinction between good and evil is not effaced, but radicalized by divine intervention. Christianity’s Final Judgment (as apokalypsis/revelation) leaves no place for any doctrine of apokatastasis, but in Hell’s fire. Somehow, Christianity’s gathering of political life in God—Christianity’s “resolution” of the political/moral hiatus between body and mind—does not make mediation between nature and the supernatural expendable. No sooner are we invited to behold moral life in God, than we are presented with an extraordinarily magnified vision of our ordinary moral predicament, whereby the tension between body (the physical) and mind (the metaphysical) is manifested as the subject matter of our whole lives. Far from marking any abandonment of ordinary morality, the Christian elevation of moral life into the divine signals the relevance of morality for eternity. Nature is not looked down upon, but radically mutated (transubstantiated) insofar as its tension with metaphysics is eternalized: the eternalizing of morality entails a transposing and “freezing” of physics within the moral order itself. Nature appears in terms of mythical forms, integral to the moral order. The distinction between spherical earth (terra) and the civil and plane world (mundus), for instance, is virtually effaced, almost entirely obscured. In short, the eternalizing of the moral order makes it extremely difficult to see nature in its ordinary sense; the independence of nature from morality comes to be held as unimaginable—even as a forbidden evil (G.B. Vico will have much to teach in this regard). For to make nature independent of the moral order is eo ipso to deny, or at least to seriously question, the eternity of the moral order. By the same token, the “internalizing” of nature within the moral order entails an eclipse of the original, artful (derivative or provisional) sense of moral life. In the light of the eternalizing of morality, it appears senseless to ascend from morality to a supra-moral order of things transcending all natural obstacles to morality.
No matter how much it tends to absorb nature within the moral order, medieval Christian theology does not, for it cannot, ignore a lingering distinction between the physical and the moral. Striking evidence of this is medieval Christianity’s demonizing of certain aspects of nature. Witches and other demonic victims of medieval exorcism or immolation—not to speak of programmatic concealment, if not outright bonfires of ancient dangerous writings—remind us of the vivid awareness among Christian medieval theologians of the enduring difficulty of accounting for nature in moral terms, or of integrating nature within the universe of moral or human things. The Christian eternalizing of the moral order remains unconvincing without reference to a Final Judgment, or to the divine promise of an end-time fulfillment. At least until “then,” the more nature is conceived within the moral universe, the more suspicion grows against it. The “idealized” nature of Immaculate Mary stands side by side and in striking contrast with the martyrized body of Mary Magdalene. Nature is at once invited into our temples and exiled into the desert—at once revered as sublime and despised as abject. In any case, nature cannot be an unqualified sign of the divine; only nature insofar as it is “purified”—nature as the Immaculate one—may signal the divine. Otherwise, certain special physical entities, most notably “luminous” ones, may serve derivatively as signs of the divine. These physical entities that we have failed to “domesticate” (heavenly lights are too far, and ordinary fire remains an everyday peril, even when attempts are made to “adopt” it within our homes)—but by extension and more generally speaking, all that is wild—may otherwise be invoked as allegory of numinous ends.
Angels (apolitical, asexual as they are), though not men, might look upon nature as direct revelatory sign of God. Accordingly, medieval Christian theology reads designated physical bodies (from rocks, rivers and heavenly lights, to beasts and plants of all sorts) in terms of allegories, rather than as direct expressions, or icons of the divine. Christian allegories are constitutionally mediated by discourse, and thus by logoi (forms of linguistic articulation). The allegories are to be taken, as it were, with a grain of salt, or without forgetting the role of human discourse and reason in mediating the physical sign and its metaphysical meaning. In the allegory, the physical term that we would otherwise fail to make sense of morally is freely or rationally chosen to mean something metaphysical and thereby to serve as reminder of the primacy of the moral/political order over all that is natural/physical.
If what is natural or physical can be made to bespeak, however indirectly, the divine principles of the moral order, we may find confirmation in nature itself of the feasibility of our moral challenges. The “pre-civil” would then serve us as inspiration to pursue the conquest, not of nature, but of ourselves: the “dark side” of the moral order may be heeded as opaque intimation, even as dark mirror, of our purely “bright side”—an intimation, a mirror requiring interpretation.
For medieval Christian theology, our body wants to bespeak or signify eternity, but its voice falls into oblivion without the mediation of human logoi, artful “mathematical” forms constituting a “ladder” or hierarchy between the physical and the metaphysical—between ends mistaken for means and ends in themselves. By failing to reach its heavens in unmediated fashion, the body places itself at once in the hands of mediating logoi. This way, error fuels, rather than endangering conventional authority. Without error, virtue would be allowed to take precedence over external authority as governor of logoi, or as guide in mediating the physical and the metaphysical, bodies (i.e., physical movements) and their proper, transcendent or “separate” forms. Yet, the logoi themselves are, in their essential constitution, none other than “instantiations” of virtue. In the absence of virtue, the logoi would vanquish altogether. Far from dispelling virtue, error is then a mere and momentaneous eclipsing of the role, the constant agency of virtue in the determination of logoi, and thereby in the consolidation of their authority, as laws. The error or eclipse in question at once invites a renewed intervention of virtue, or recourse to virtue as agent capable of amending error by applying logoi to it. Error is then not so much the eclipse of virtue, as the effect of an eclipse produced by a prior consolidation or “ossified presence” of logoi. Where the moral order becomes oppressive for our nature, we yearn to withdraw from it in search of its vital source. We thereby compel ourselves to err, to go astray, where our error is formally justified by a need to sustain the moral order.
Evidently, the Christian “appropriation” of nature into the moral order does not dispel nature as problem for the moral order; instead, the problem of nature comes to press upon morality from within: morality becomes an “inner commandment,” where “conscience” itself points us towards a divine end. Accordingly, in Francesco what signals our divine end is not the physical world as such, but the natural only insofar as it is conceived allegorically or as integral to the moral order, cast in familial relations. The natural is then conceived in human discourse, not merely in the respect that we name it, but in the sense that we approach nature as an ensemble of conventional, moral forms. In a word, the physical world is hierarchized objectively or explicitly. As a consequence, nature cannot, for it is officially not permitted to signal the divine simply “sensorially,” or physically, but only reflectively, or allegorically, in a specifically clerical/ecclesiastical context—a context of authority under a Signore, a Lord. The problematicity of nature for morality has seemingly fused with the problematicity of morality itself. Yet, nature is problematic in a further respect. Memory of a pre-Christian nature, awareness of the lingering problematic “vulgar” sense of nature, remains vivid for Francesco and his contemporary theologians. The nature Francesco’s “Cantico” invokes is also the one it tries to “convert”—to entice, to charm—insofar as it still belongs to and speaks in the tongue of the vulgate.
(published on the 22nd of March, 2014)
KLEIN, Jacob. "The Nature of Nature" (Ch. XIII of Klein's Lectures & Essays).
SORRELL, Roger D. St. Francis of Assisi and Nature: Tradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes towards the Environment (Oxford UP, 1988)
© 2016 by M. A. Andreacchio. All rights reserved