Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Merkur on Dante and Angels, Allegory, encounters between Gnosis and Platonism
Because love poetry accommodated several orders of interpretation, it remained available to facilitate repeated encounters between gnosis and Platonism in the history of Christian mysticism. Consider, for example, the case of Dante. Dante's early work, La Vita Nuova, belonged to the European tradition of love poetry; and Dante seems actually to have envisioned Beatrice in much the same ecstatic manner that Ibn al-'Arabi had beheld the girl Nizam. However, the mysticism of the Divine Comedy was an elegant critical response to gnosis. Dante's poetic journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven drew heavily on Ibn al-'Arabi's account of the Mi'raj tradition, while explicitly condemning Muhammad, Averroes, and Islam. Dante rejected the imaginal hermeneutic of gnosticism in favor of the allegorizing hermeneutic of biblical and patristic tradition. St. Bernard of Clairvaux had taught, for example, that ministering angels undertook "the construction of certain spiritual images in order to bring the purest intuitions of divine wisdom before the eyes of the soul" in the form of "visions and dreams ... parables and figures of speech ... [and] the very beauty of the angels." Dante paired allegorical visions with experiences of ecstatic nothingness in a variant of the pseudo-Dionysian tradition, which similarly concerned two different types of spiritual experience: a communion with "Jesus who is transcendent mind, utterly divine mind," and the nothingness of "the divine unity beyond being."35 In substituting allegorical visions for communion experiences, Dante remained an impeccably Catholic mystic.