It’s the eyes, silly. George Cochrane’s illustrated manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy

There are only a few works in world literature whose density is so great that they can, on their own, incapsulate and manifest the entirety of the culture which produced them. Dante’s Commedia must stand as chief amongst these.

The Divine Comedy is so rich, so expansive, so all-encompassing, that it serves as a placeholder for the whole medieval culture which gave rise to it. Encyclopedic in nature and universal in scope, Dante’s magnum opus brings to itself all the energies of its generative universe. And its insight is unprecedented.

Insightful, that is perhaps one of the most useful ways to describe the Commedia. In fact, vision and the eye as the operative metaphor of that vision, is the focal point of the entire work. Reading is seeing, but reading is ancillary to experiencing. The author wrote it down because the pilgrim experienced it. And everywhere, the eye of the mind, the mind of the eye, the eye of the body, which is an embodied vision of the world and of self, permeates the work, fertilizing its every canto.

Radical insightfulness, that is the symptom of what may be called Dante’s oculocentrism, the elevation of sight and its capacity for self-transcendence to a position of existential preeminence. To know is to see, and to see is to experience, but there is a kind of seeing and an insightful capturing which goes beyond looking. The eyes are never abandoned, though vision may sometime fail, or turn out to be something else completely. Looking at Beatrice, Dante sees the universe, but he also sees Beatrice in love and self-offering grace. Thus, one of the most striking acts of looking in the Comedy, the gaze that has the power to create and transform, is captured in only a few lines:

Then Beatrice looked at me with eyes so full
of sparks of love, eyes so divine that my
own force of sight was overcome, took flight,
and, eyes downcast, I almost lost my senses. (Paradiso 4)

The eye is an instrument, but it is also the convergence plane of all knowing. It is a means of self-reflection, of contemplation but also of self-abandonment, that kind of kenosis or self-emptying whereby the self is so centered and so full of transcendent love that it willingly forgoes itself in acts of radical self-sacrificing.

Dante’s oculocentrism plays out in ways which lead to a reframing of the self’s salient landscape – a constant reworking of what really matters, what really matters to the author-pilgrim-reader’s self in its pursuit of wisdom and connection to the rest of creation.

At the heart of the I is the divine eye, within and without the experiencing agent, the aspirational insightfulness of a life committed to elevation and self-realisation, never on its own, but in the relational love that re-perspectiving sight and participatory vision afford.

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