Stan Szczesny currently studies literature in the Institute for Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas. His pursuit of the liberal arts began with an eight-year personal goal to read Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, which was followed by graduate studies at St. John’s College. His academic interests are broad, but they currently include studying Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Nietzsche, and Milton’s Samson Agonistes. Stan lives in Cedar City, Utah with his wife Lindsay and their five children, where he teaches literature, math, and music for Williamsburg Academy and researches Milton for his dissertation.
The Human Effigy Question in Dante’s Paradiso
Stan Szczesny, University of Dallas
Throughout The Divine Comedy, the pilgrim sees things that he cannot understand or that cannot be expressed to his readers, but for his questions he always records an explanation from Virgil, from Beatrice, or from some other shade, and for his visions he finds a way, usually through similes, for “the sacred poem” to “leap across” the limitations of language, “as does a man who finds his path cut off” (Paradiso 23.61–63). This long chain of questions and answers, of inexpressible visions and figures, climaxes in the final lines of the poem when one of the three circles of the Trinity seems to the pilgrim to be “painted with our effigy” (Paradiso 33.131), and he wonders “how our human effigy suited the circle and found place in it” (33.137–138). For the pilgrim, the answer comes when his “mind was struck by light that flashed” from the Divine Point (Paradiso 33.140-141), but no explanatory discourse on what the pilgrim learns is offered to the reader, because he could not find words for what he saw. “Force,” says the pilgrim, “failed my high fantasy” (Paradiso 33.142).
Dante’s readers may be tempted to conclude that they will have to ascend into heaven and receive their own flash of light if they wish to know the sublime answer to the pilgrim’s question, but the place of the question at the end of the poem, and the fact that the answer is the climactic insight of the pilgrim’s entire journey, suggests that representing the answer may be the point of writing the poem. Also, in spite of his claims that his poetic powers failed him, Dante includes three explanatory similes in the final lines: that he searched the human effigy that seemed painted on the second circle “as the geometer intently seeks to square the circle” (Paradiso 33.133-134), that the second circle of the Trinity was begotten and appeared in the first circle “as light reflected” (Paradiso 33.128), and that his desire and will moved after the revelatory flash “like a wheel revolving uniformly” (Paradiso 33.143–144). These images point to the possibility that Dante, with that final flash of light, realized he was staring at his own sublimated reflection.
Vittorio Montemaggi suggests that the human effigy could be “Christ, Dante, all individual persons” (Montemaggi 88), but he fails to recognize that Dante’s identification with the effigy is the final flash of insight. The mystery of the Incarnation is the easiest and the most expressible answer, for it is obvious that the second circle represents the Son who is wholly God and wholly man. Dante would have had a tradition of formulations about the Incarnation to draw upon to express that mystery. But it is only when Dante sees that the Son and the effigy are reflections of himself, that he is a reflection of them, and that he is seeing himself reflected in the eye of God, that he is able to fully realize the love of God and submit completely to His will. As Georges Poulet explains,
The final object of the poem is no longer an object around which one can turn and toward which one tends; it is an object one possesses, a point with which one coincides. And if one coincides with it, that is because it is no longer now an exterior and remote object. The divine Point is the very center of the soul; it is God interiorly possessed in a human moment. (Poulet 159)
The simile of the geometer seeking the squared circle clarifies the nature of the question. For Dante, his perplexity at the effigy is best expressed not in the language of Incarnation, but in the language of a paradoxical mathematics. He sees a Euclidean point in which all that “in the universe seems separate” is “into one single volume…conjoined” (Paradiso 33.85–90), a point that is also three circles (Paradiso 33.115), and one circle that is also, somehow, an effigy of man. These are not really poetic images, for no human mind can possibly picture such a conflation of shapes—a point-circle-effigy violates the law of non-contradiction and cannot possibly have an intelligible definition. Without a picture of what Dante sees, it is difficult to fully understand the nature of the question. So, in order to help readers understand the problem, Dante uses a simile between the classical problem of squaring the circle and the problem he is encountering—
As the geometer intently seeks
To square the circle, but he cannot reach
Through thought on thought, the principle he needs,
So I searched that strange sight (Paradiso 33.133–136).
The problem of squaring the circle takes two distinct and clearly defined concepts—circle and square—and attempts to find a specimen of one that is equal in area to a specimen of the other. The difficulty in finding such specimens arises from the incommensurability of the circle’s circumference to any possible side of a square. One must find the square root of pi. The problem of a point-circle-effigy is infinitely more paradoxical than a squared circle—the idea of finding equal areas between incommensurable shapes is more comprehensible than the idea of finding a point that is actually three circles containing an effigy—but the simile allows readers to compare the problem Dante faces with the known perplexity of mathematical incommensurability.
Thus, the simile does not really describe the image of the Trinity at all. Rather, it is an image of Dante’s thought process. Throughout Paradiso, Dante has seen the laws of physics (Aristotelian) and of Geometry (Euclidean) violated—for example, he rises, in spite of being a weight, towards the Heavens (Paradiso 1.98–99), he sees the Divine Point as both center and circumference of the Cosmos (Paradiso 30.10–13), and he learns that, contrary to experience and logic, celestial circumferences spin faster as one approaches the divine center of the universe (Paradiso 28.45)—has had explanations from Beatrice of how the laws of physics and geometry are really grounded in desire, will, and love (e.g. Paradiso 1.103–141), and has been told that all the order he sees in Paradise is made of constructs “suited to your mind, since from the senses only can it apprehend what then becomes fit for the intellect” (Paradiso 4.37–42). In spite of these experiences, Dante is still trying to discursively reason about the Trinity and the human effigy it contains. He must stop such linear thinking before he can move “like a wheel” (Paradiso 33.144) in accord with God. In reality, God is not a point-circle-effigy at all. Dante only sees Him as such because he sees Him as a reflection of his own thought processes. Dante can’t see how the effigy suits the circle because effigies and circles are artificial constructs “suited” by God (Paradiso 4.37–42) to the human mind. Geometric reasoning, what Dante calls “my own wings,” is “far too weak” to resolve the problem (Paradiso 33.139), but Dante can see God “as he is,” and sees that he is “like him” (1 John 3:2), when he gives up on seeing God as a reflection of his own reasoning power (Paradiso 33.139–140).
The simile of the circle that is “begotten” and “appeared…as light reflected” (Paradiso 33.127-128) provides the greatest hint that Dante sees his own image reflected in the second circle. The second circle in which Dante sees the effigy both reflects the first circle and is a reflection in that circle. Throughout the Paradiso, God is described as a mirror, as when He is called “that mirror where, before you think, your thoughts have been displayed” (Paradiso 15.61–63) and “the Truthful Mirror that perfectly reflects all else, while no thing can reflect that Mirror perfectly” (Paradiso 24.106-109), but the final vision of the poem reveals that that characteristic is especially true of the circle in which Dante sees the effigy. In other words, when he sees the effigy, Dante is staring into a mirror, which means he would see his own reflection.
Dante is staring into a mirror, but it may be useful to think of him as staring into the Divine eye. Throughout Paradiso, eyes are referred to as mirrors, as when Beatrice tells Dante to “let your eyes be mirrors for the figure that will appear to you within” (Paradiso 21.17–18) the mirror of Saturn, or as when Dante washes his eyes in a river of light in order “to make still finer mirrors of my eyes” (Paradiso 30.85), preparatory to his seeing “all of us” “mirrored” (Paradiso 30.106–114) in the circles of the White Rose. Dante has stared into Beatrice’s eyes throughout his ascent and has seen Divine truths reflected there, which has served as a sort of preparation for gazing into the reflections in the eye of God and seeing himself reflected there. Staring past all the saints of the White Rose and straight into the eye of God, Dante first sees the circle of the Son, the first and supreme reflection of God, and then sees his own image superimposed on that circle, just as one sees one’s image superimposed on the circular cornea and lens of an eye.
This notion that Dante sees himself reflected in God’s eye recalls the myth of Narcissus. Narcissus is alluded to in the thirtieth canto of Inferno, of Purgatorio, and of Paradiso, which suggests that Dante wants readers thinking about that myth prior to each of the final revelations of the three realms. In Inferno, before entering the final circle of hell, Dante stares intently at a fight between Sinon and Adam. The fight ends with Adam mocking Sinon’s eternal thirst for self-love under the image of his greedily licking “the mirror of Narcissus” (Inferno 30.129). Virgil rebukes Dante for staring too long at the quarrel, as if Dante is a Narcissus staring lovingly at a hellish distortion of his own image. In Purgatorio, before witnessing the mystical processional of the Griffin, Dante, rebuked by Beatrice for his self-love, lowers his eyes in shame and catches sight of his reflection in Lethe. Quickly, “as a corrected Narcissus” (Brownlee 637), he averts his eyes again, this time to the grass rather than to Beatrice. Finally, in Paradiso, before casting his eyes upon the White Rose emanating from God, Dante washes his eyes in a river of light “to make still finer mirrors of my eyes” (Paradiso 30.85). As he looks down into the water, Dante sees that the river is “no longer straight” but forms “a round” (30.90). The metamorphosis of the river anticipates and mirrors Dante’s final flash of insight, for there he must acknowledge the inadequacy of his linear, geometric reasoning before intuiting and according with the true nature and meaning of the paradoxical circles of God. Also, as Dante stares into the changing river of light, his own image would be reflected in the circular stream, preparing him to later recognize his image on the circle of God’s eye.
McMahon also traces parallels between Ovid’s version of the Narcissus myth and Paradiso 33, suggesting that Dante wants readers especially attuned to Narcissus prior to reading the final vision of the effigy. After listing several parallels between Ovid’s images and Dante’s, McMahon says, “Where Narcissus gazes down at his insubstantial image, the pilgrim peers up toward his substantial Original” (McMahon 80). As he looks at the three circles of the Trinity, Dante addresses God, saying “You love and smile upon Yourself” (33.126), a concept Dante learned from his theology, and an image that suggests that God resembles Narcissus. But God is not a narcissist. For Dante, the final flash of revelatory light sublimates God’s self-love into all-love. Dante realizes that God loves and smiles upon Dante, that Dante is himself the reflection in the eye of the Divine, that he is like Him (1 John 3:2), that his own reflection is perfected only in God’s reflection of him because God is “the Truthful Mirror that perfectly reflects” Dante, while Dante can reflect neither himself nor “that Mirror perfectly” (XXVI.106–109), that the difference between himself and God is erased, that Dante is in the Son as the Son is in the Father, that the Father is in the Son as the Son is in Dante, and that they are ultimately “into one single volume…conjoined” (Paradiso 33.85–90).
In the final simile of the poem, Dante, after stating that he cannot explain what he learned in the flash of light, says, “But my desire and will were moved already—like a wheel revolving uniformly—by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso 33.142–145). This simile is an image of the point-circle-effigy, or rather, of what it really represents. In the simile, Dante’s will becomes a circle, just as he has seen his own shape mysteriously identified with the Second Circle. From the beginning of The Paradiso, and throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante has appeared to ascend in roughly a straight line towards God, as if he were ascending towards the vertex of a cone. When he marvels at the ascent, Beatrice explains that “all things…possess an order…that makes the universe like God” and that “every nature has its bent, according to a different station, nearer or less near to its origin” (Paradiso 1.103-111). In other words, Dante rises because he is taking his proper place in the cosmos relative to God. But Beatrice’s answer does not describe an ascent, but a “station.” Dante doesn’t realize this fact until the final flash of light. Then he realizes that he always has been, is now, and always will be “moved already” in uniform revolution about God. The linear ascent was an illusion “suited to his mind” (Paradiso 4.37). Dante is never nearer to God than where he already is, for he is in God, reflected there in the eternal Second Circle that is also the Divine Point. All people who resemble the effigy—even Satan—are also revolving about God, for God is the center from which and in which all things move and have their being. But only those who learn the content of the flash of light acknowledge that revolution, desire it, and themselves will it through Love.
Dante’s final revelation is that the effigy he sees is his own reflection, and this fact can be intuited by readers who ponder the images and similes throughout Paradiso, especially the three similes that immediately surround the description of “the light that flashed” (Paradiso 33.140). The simile of squaring the circle helps readers realize that Dante’s confusion about reconciling the effigy and the circle is really a problem of the inadequacy of the most rigorous human thinking. One must let go of the definitions and postulates that lead to the incommensurability between God and one’s self. The simile of the second circle appearing as reflected light in the first circle recalls the mirror imagery that runs throughout Paradiso and reminds readers that Dante is staring into the perfect mirror. Finally, following the flash of light the simile of Dante’s will and desire being “moved already like a wheel revolving uniformly” (Paradiso 143-144) represents Dante’s will as a circle that subjects itself to God. That subjection is the same as the subjection of Him who said and says, “Thy will not mine be done” (Luke 22:42).
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. London: David Campbell, 1995. Print.
Brownlee, Kevin. “Narcissus.” In The Dante Encyclopedia. Edited by Richard H. Lansing and Teodolinda Barolini. New York: Garland, 2000. Print.
McMahon, Robert. “Satan as Infernal Narcissus: Interpretative Translation in the Commedia.” In Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality. Edited by Madison U. Sowell. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991. Print.
Montemaggi, Vittorio, and Matthew Treherne. Dante's Commedia: Theology as Poetry. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. Print.
Osiek, Carolyn (Ed.). Anselm Academic Study Bible. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic/Christian Brothers Publications, 2013.
Poulet, Georges. “The Metamorphoses of the Circle.” In Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by John Freccero. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965. Print.
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