Interpretation, signs and
Upon meeting Adam in the eighth heaven of Paradise, Dante has no need to voice his questions, for, as Adam explains, the poet's intentions are already perfectly reflected in the 'veracious Mirror' of God.1 A redeemed soul, entirely consonant with God's will, Adam knows Dante's thoughts with far more certainty than Dante can know the most elementary truth; his perception of the poet's mind is immediate, unhindered by language; and when he begins to answer, explaining the true cause of the Fall, Adam's hermeneutic mastery is no less complete. He deftly distinguishes between signum and res significata, informing us that the eating of the fruit merely indicated what was at issue, namely 'the trespass of the sign', a failure to observe the proper limits assigned to man by God. In short, Adam offers us a model of perfect understanding, one in which language can be mastered and in which intentions can easily be recovered, whether human or divine. How ironic, then, that the ideal Adam represents is withheld from us precisely because of Adam's sin. For as the canto explains, although Adam's trespass was chiefly moral in character it was also a trespass of the linguistic sign - a desire for unmediated knowledge - and the sign of this disobedience is none other than the mutability of all signs. In Paradise, wholly one with God who stands above language as the 'Alpha and Omega of all scripture', Adam now enjoys immediate knowledge in the manner approved by God, and for him interpretation poses no problem. On earth, however, the consequences of the Fall are still felt: man is no longer the master of signs but is frequently mastered by them,
1 Dante, Paradiso. The Temple Classics (1899; rpt. London: J. M. Dent and Sons,
1965), Canto XXVI, line 106.