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11 How to Do Things with Words Poetry as Sacrament in Dante’s Commedia D E N Y S T U R N E R In this essay I propose to conduct two lines of conversation of different sorts. The first, which forms the substance of my essay, is a sort of trialogue—constructed more or less hypothetically (you might say that I invent it)—between three near contemporary theologians: Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart.1 The second forms the point of my doing the first, and is an actual and continuing dialogue with some propositions about Dante as theological poet that I derive primarily from the work of Vittorio Montemaggi.2 Not all of these propositions are his alone, of course, though it is through his work that I have learned to be convinced of them. The propositions in question are four. The first is that the theological significance of the Commedia is to be found at least as much in Dante’s poeticization of the theological act itself as in any theology which is done, or referred to, in the poem. The second concerns the nature of Dante’s apophaticism. That apophaticism pervades so much of the Commedia as to constitute its very nature as poetry, and the proposition is that in the Commedia, the ultimacy of the divine mystery, its unknowability , is to be found only in its conjunction with Dante’s more widely acknowledged cataphatic impulses; and that both—the apophatic and the cataphatic—play out their interactions across the whole extent of the Commedia’s range, across its epistemology, its ethics, its cosmology, and, most importantly, its theology. The third proposition is that this interplay of the cataphatic and the apophatic is to be found primarily in the man286 ner in which human language—the phrase is a pleonasm for Dante— reflects and at every juncture is formed and shaped by the incorrigibly mysterious interactiveness of human persons. In this sense, Dante’s apophaticism is a discovery of God’s unknowability within the unknowability of the human other. Dante’s apophaticism is, in short, an ethical apophaticism. Rooted in the principle enunciated in De vulgari eloquentia that “in homine sentiri humanius . . . quam sentire” (1.5.1) [it is more truly human for a human being to be perceived than to perceive], this third proposition is best expressed in Dante’s own words: “nulla vedere e amor mi costrinse” (Par. 30.15) [seeing nothing and love constrained me], a text Montemaggi interprets as meaning that in the love transacted between self and other, our perception of God is made vulnerable to constant redefinition and modification. The fourth proposition brings the first three together: if the Commedia is to be seen as a conscious “poeticization” of the theological act, then it is also to be seen, whether as poetry or as theology, both as an account of and as in its own way an instance of language as rhetorically “performative” in character, as possessing in its own terms that same character of “interactiveness.” The language of the Commedia, precisely as poetic, creates and transforms the realities of interaction of which it speaks—it enacts that of which it speaks. And this character of the sign, which somehow makes to be that which it discloses, is, I argue, “quasi-sacramental”—for, as Thomas Aquinas says, following a tradition through Hugh of St. Victor back to Augustine, it is in the nature of a sacrament that it “efficit quod figurat,” it “effects what it signifies.”3 I do not propose to defend these propositions by a detailed exegesis of the text of the Commedia. Rather, coming at them from a more theoretical height, I will attempt to show that they follow consistently from certain general principles of theological method, which appear to be shared by Thomas Aquinas and by Meister Eckhart. This, of course, will prove nothing about how to read Dante theologically. But, if these principles are convincing as general considerations, they might add some degree of antecedent plausibility to the four propositions outlined above. They might also contribute to the removal of certain frequently encountered assumptions about the nature of Dante’s theological indebtednesses, which, it seems to me, are unwarranted. But first, some general remarks about the nature of theological rhetoric in Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart. How to Do Things with Words 287 Theological Rhetoric Anyone who has had the least acquaintance with the work of Thomas Aquinas and of Meister Eckhart will...


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