Getting Anagogic

Nicola Masciandaro
Brooklyn College, CUNY

Analogy, Analogy (Produzione Ventotto, 1972), image modified

The question whether human thinking can reach objective truth—is not a question of theory but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the actuality [Wirklichkeit] and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. (Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach) [1]

Live more and more in the Present which is ever beautiful and stretches away beyond the limits of the past and the future. (Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing) [2]

[I]f a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, A Lecture on Ethics) [3]

Pleasant is the sward; heart-alluring is the air; pure is the wine:
Now, save the joyous heart, naught is wanting. (Hafiz) [4]

[1] This is it. There is no more. And it is forever. Today my remarks take aim at understanding anagogy as an essential, inevitable, and generally ignored dimension of hermeneutic experience. In open dialogue with some of its premodern concepts and instances, I mean to medievally think anagogy for the present, rather than demonstrate its past. This may be considered an attempt to study anagogy anagogically, to understand it in a manner that produces an anagogic sense of anagogy, a postmedieval foretaste of its presence. Mirroring the fourfold sense of scripture, I attempt this by speculatively splitting anagogy into literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. These I name Arrival, Constellation, Spice, and Now, respectively.

Literal Anagogy: Arrival, or, There is another world, the same as this one

[2] Anagogy is arrival in the literal sense of being an intersection between its etymological meaning and its position as the last and highest of hermeneutic senses, an intersection that situates finality in motion rather than stasis. Understood as the equivalent of sursumductio, ana-gogy (fr. Gk. ana 'up' + agein 'lead') signifies uplifting. But whereas uplifting is more generally thought from the earthbound perspective as elevation or raising, that is, with a reference that prioritizes the state left behind or what would otherwise remain below, anagogy inflects uplifting with an inverse transitivity that invests the terminus with motive agency. More precisely, anagogy is itself a transition within transitivity wherein subject/object and sign/thing boundaries directionally invert in a wonderful way. Such inversion typifies the Platonic principle of circulatory return. "The Good returns all things to itself ... All things are returned to it as their own goal," says Pseudo-Dionysius, whose mystical understanding of anagogy fused with the hermeneutic concept to form its general medieval sense: the conjunction of signification and experience of final reality. [5] That is, anagogy is the site where telic movement becomes intelligible only in the passive voice, [6] where signs become something like upsidedown repetitions of their own event, [7] and discourse is borne back upwards into its object, returning to by moving from its end, as Hugh of Balma says, carried upward by its own weight. [8] Such is the weird shape of this sense, elegantly defined by de Lubac as that "which does not allow anything else after it." [9] So in the modern world, anagogy survives, like much else of medieval theology, in the register of horror: "I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more... . When you have read these hastily scrawled pages you may guess, though never fully realise, why it is that I must have forgetfulness or death" (Lovecraft, Dagon). [10]

[3] Unpinning anagogy from its theological determination as participatory perception of an eternal beyond (a procedure whose imperative is retrievable from the way medieval discourse on anagogy is deeply about its metaphors), anagogy becomes intelligible as its own movement: the return of the word to itself. As Agamben explains, such return constitutes the word's overcoming of its own internal fracture (between expression and representation, saying and showing, etc.), in other words, language's self-fulfillment of its limitless secret prophecy (the end is nigh), the verbal undoing of the irresolution between telos and death: "Crossing over time and the scission that reveals itself in the place of language, the word must return to itself and, absolving itself of this scission, it must be at the end [essere alla fine] there where, without knowing it, it was already in the beginning; that is, in the Voice." [11] Literal anagogy, to echo Lacan, [12] is littoral, a stumbling forward of the letter over its own shore, the zone where the world your word was headed towards is breathlessly sucking you into this one. So Garnier of Rochefort (†1225) speaks of anagogy as the state where the mind "by advancing fails in a marvelous way, and then advances more when it has arrived at its failure." [13]

[4] Anagogy leads me to follow it as a nomadic concept of arrival, one that deterritorializes both critical suspicion of arrival as completion and naïve celebration of arrival as contribution, that is, both coin-sides of its modern, statist concept. Anarchically free from the burden of these dues, anagogy actualizes the identity of hermeneutics and its own aufhebung, continually meets its end in new beginning, and thus defines the mode of a consciousness that pleasurably dwells on the perfect threshold of satisfaction and departure. [14] This funambulist state, whose interior is the inversely spacious post-abysmal dwelling of staying at the place where talk and silence never arrive (think Mr. Petit relaxing on the wire), might also be seen as thought's finally becoming, without ever falling into, song, its apotheosis as voice that always has enough and is ready to go. Ich habe genug, sings Simeon in the anonymous text of Bach's version of the final hymn from the Gospel of Luke's infancy narratives (the only composition he ever labeled cantata): "I have enough . . . Now I wish even today with joy to depart from here." [15]

2001: A Space Oddyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (MGM, 1968)

Allegorical Anagogy: Constellation, or, My God, it's full of stars

[5] Anagogy is constellation in the allegorical sense of being a signifying experience of the ever-new and unseeable unity of things, an immediate relation to the 'other' scale of being that never has to be brought from anywhere. This is the plural astral point of the final moment of Paradiso, not the content of the vision (whatever that is), but the already being moved by it: "Here power failed the lofty phantasy; but already my desire and my will were revolved, like a wheel that is evenly moved, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars" (33.142-5). [16] Unity is not totality or an absolute whole, but the principle according to which everything, even nothing, is with everything else only by virtue of being something. Unity is coincident with void, the space that grounds manifold otherness (Dante's l'altre stelle). Constellation is the prime exemplar of unity—a concrete image-event whereby vastly remote entities are conjoined in a unique form without touching their singularity. Such non-contradictory self-otherness is the generative foundation of the constellation's appearance as figural sign, the principle that makes the image original allegory, the speaking of one thing in the form of another (allos agoreuein). Allegorical anagogy is hermeneutic arrival at a fabric of reality that all image is allegory of, the unveiling of thought's object as face or reading of what was never written, [17] glossed by Agamben in the context of astral signatures as "the place where the gesture of reading and that of writing invert their relation and enter into a zone of undecidability." [18] This zone, the place of thought's binding to a new exterior, is definable as the living intersection of Benjamin's dialectical image—"Where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions—there the dialectical image appears" [19]—and Levinas's definition of religion as totality-breaching bond: "The void that breaks the totality can be maintained against an inevitably totalizing and synoptic thought only if thought finds itself faced with an other refractory to categories. Rather than constituting a total with this other as with an object, thought consists in speaking. We propose to call 'religion' the bond that is established between the same and the other without constituting a totality." [20] Constellation is the religion of life, or experience. Try talking to it. "Then he turns to tomb and talks to the corpse" (St. Erkenwald). "Seek his face always," comments Augustine (on Psalm 104.4), "let not the finding of the beloved put an end to the love-inspired search; but as love grows, so let the search for the one already found become more intense." [21]

Dune, dir. David Lynch (Universal Pictures, 1984)

Moral Anagogy: Spice, or, The sleeper must awaken

[6] Anagogy is spice in the moral sense of being an absolutely savory imperative for conscious creative action. Anagogy's special status, in all senses of the word, is extractable from the way the four exegetical senses form a constellation with the fourth (anagogy) as their paradigmatic star, the part of the whole that is simultaneously part and whole. Anagogy is exemplary sense, the spice of sense, the materialization of the flow of all four. This meta-positionality is reflected in the way medieval metaphors for the exegetical senses double and fold themselves when they hit anagogy, as if to make new matter of the metaphor itself. If the senses comprise a wine cellar containing four large jars, explains Alexander of Canterbury (fl. 1120?), then anagogy, the furthest from the door and the sweetest, is located "quasi in angulo" [as if in a niche], i.e. the cellar of the cellar, and even the tiniest taste will make you instantly drunk. [22] If the senses are dyed fabrics, says Stephen Langton (†1228), then anagogy is twice-dyed scarlet, signifying charity, which is dipped in the present and in the future. [23] If they are the gardens at the end of the Song of Songs, explains Hugo of Saint Cher (†1263), then anagogy is the "garden of spices, in which is given a certain foretaste of eternal things." [24] Anagogy is paradigmatically spicy. Just as "it is impossible to clearly separate an example's paradigmatic character—it's standing for all cases—from the fact that it is one case among others," [25] so spice is both genus and species, or as Mortain says, "a Möbius strip ... It is as if the universal were on the side of the particular itself." [26] Anagogy is proportionally both means and end of the four senses, the terminal term that, by being beyond the abyss between signification and perception of something, carries the operation of sense itself. Being the identity of its twofold meaning, [27] anagogy is erotic apprehension of the body of the image of thought. It encodes the desiring of signifying sense, its always being a movement into some presence or actuality, the pursuit of a trackless path that paradoxically proceeds by staying with its scented breath: "I' mi son un che, quando / Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo / ch'e' ditta dentro vo significando" (Purgatorio 24.52-4) [I am one who, when Love breathes in me, takes note, and in the way it is spoken within I go signifying]. Pay attention. Anagogy is where hermeneutics wakes itself up and becomes world. So Rupert of Deutz (†1129) recommends getting as anagogic as the biblical whore Ooliba who "carried her harlotry further" (Ezekiel 23:14) by taking Chaldean warriors for lovers upon seeing paintings of them, who knows how to open her eyes: "And I say to you: even as that woman ... opened her eyes to see men depicted on a wall, to see the images of the Chaldeans expressed in painted colors, to see their belts, their crowns, and their bodily beauty, so now you—open your eyes, your interior eyes, to see this Beloved, to see his golden head, his brilliant eyes, his awe-inspiring cheeks, his radiant and glorious lips, his smooth and golden hands, his ivory stomach set with sapphires, his upright legs. And touch his throat, surpassingly sweet, in accord with the words: 'Taste and see how sweet the Lord is' (Ps. 33)." [28] Moral anagogy is the active appropriation and restoration of idea or image consumption for more profound (higher and deeper) appetites, the profaning reversal of the site of (capitalist) separation from reality into the decisional present of eternal return, [29] in other words, atheological liberation theology, or vice-versa, depending wholly on your taste: "Liberation, in the context of the anagogical imagination," writes Garcia-Rivera, "consists not so much in concretely overthrowing a reigning system of abusive power, but, rather, subverting the foundations of the imagination of such power which perpetuates its 'pseudo-existence'." [30] Moral anagogy, or spice, makes anything taste good.

Fred Tomaselli, New Jerusalem (1998)

Anagogical Anagogy: Now, or, Behold I make all things new

[7] Anagogy is now in the anagogical sense of being a stretching open of the present beyond the past and the future, an extensional space taking place on the inside of a perforation of the temporal boundary between life and death. Essentially suspensional, anagogical anagogy appears in two flavors. One negative: "An soo he herd an horne blowe as it had ben the dethe of a best. 'That blast,' said Balyn, 'is blowen for me, for I am the pryse, and yet I am not dede.'" [31] One positive: "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Yet, at the level of the event of the sign, in the deictic interim of the blowing of the horn and the speaking of today, [32] in the middle of the passion of the word wherein, as Julian says, "sekyng is as good as beholding for the tyme that He will suffer the soule to be in travel" [33]—here there is so much sameness in this difference that the distinction carries no more weight than the infinite square root (under the sign of the new) of the space between two always and equally true statements of the speaking mortal: I am dead, but I still have to live and I am alive, but I still have to die. In fact the now of the sign—the only time of facts (cf. Peter Damian)—is exactly the space explored by commentary on Christ's today (hodie), which questions whether the word refers only to the moment of discourse (I say to you today ...) or to the moment it signifies (... today you will be with me in paradise). [34] This temporal openness of the word, like a radio telescope scanning the universe for the location of paradise, is the essential domain of anagogy, the place of its return to itself. Anagogical anagogy, the anagogy of anagogy, is the now itself, the site of our all-too-actual apophatic suspension—"Wher Joves wol me stellyfye? / Or what thing may this signifye"" (Chaucer, House of Fame, 586-7)—and thus the universal rubric of all discourse and understanding whose authenticity, whose do-it-yourself truth, does not reside in the dead subjects to which it would for ungiveable approval backwardsly refer, but in the torturously active present into which we are always arriving. [35]

The End


[1] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, trans. Easton and Guddat, in Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), thesis 2, p. 99.

[2] Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing (Beacon Hill, Australia: Meher House Publication, 1963), no. 37.

[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein, "A Lecture on Ethics," The Philosophical Review 74 (1965): 3-12.

[4] Hafiz, Divan, trans. Wilburforce Clarke, 243.6

[5] "'Anagogy' served for the contemplation of celestial things to come. It focused on the final stage of the spiritual journey, as fulfilled on the individual or on the cosmic level. In the Greek speaking world, Pseudo-Dionysius gave it a new theological relevance as a technical term with Neoplatonic connotations, meaning the 'return' of spiritual beings 'up' to the heavenly hierarchies. The Pseudo-Dionysian legacy was to play a major role in the Latin Middle Ages, being quoted by Thomas Aquinas more often than Augustine himself" (Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, 1.257).

[6] Commenting on "you will be uplifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is above everything that is" (Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystical Theology 1000A, Complete Works, p.135), Paul Rorem writes: "The passive voice is also typical. Neither Timothy nor the Areopagite nor any other Dionysian character makes this ascent on his own; rather, Timothy 'will be uplifted' by the generous power above him, all in good order. In this text, ecstasy and anagogy are one and the same movement, standing out of one's self and being lifted up to God" (Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence [New York: Oxford University Press, 1993], 186).

[7] As René Rocques explains, anagogic inversion is a kind of upsidedown repetition of the event of the sign: "to discover the profound meaning of the symbols ... we should undertake the inverse movement of that which gave them birth: the divine condescension has disclosed to us its unity in multiplicity, its identiy in changing figures, its purely spiritual and simple nature in material and composite forms: by a movement rigorously inverse, our intelligence ought to know how to return from these complex and impure forms to the pure simplicity of God, from their instability to his inalterability, from the multiplicity of their components to his unity. It is necessary that the anagogy correspond to the condescension" (L'Univers dionysien, cited and translated in Paul Rorem, Biblical and Liturgical Symbols within the Pseudo-Dionysian Synthesis, 64).

[8] "Just as a stone pulled by its own weight is naturally drawn down to its own center, so the apex of the affectus by its own weight is carried up to God directly and unmediatedly, without any oblique tangientiality" (Roads to Zion, Difficult Question par. 34, in Carthusian Spriituality: The Writings of Hugh of Balma and Guigo de Ponte, trans. Dennis D. Martin [New York: Paulist Press, 1997], 165)

[9] Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, trans. E.M Macierowski (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 2.32.

[10] Vide Eugene Thacker, "Nine Disputations on Theology and Horror," Collapse IV: Concept Horror (2008): 55-92.

[11] Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, trans. Karen E. Pinkus with Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 93.

[12] "[Between] knowledge [savoir] and jouissance, there is the littoral that only turns into the literal on condition that this turn may be taken in the same way at any time" (Jacques Lacan, "Lituraterre," in Autres écrits [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2001]).

[13] "miroque modo proficiendo deficit, et tunc magis proficit, cum venerit ad defectum" (Sermones, Sermo 23, PL 205:730).

[14] Cf. "only if one is capable of entering into relation with unreality and with the unappropriable as such is it possible to appropriate the real and the positive" (Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, xix).

[15] "Ich habe genug / ... nun wünsch ich noch heute / mit Freuden von hinnen zu scheiden" (Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata BWV 82).

[16] "A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa; / ma già volgeva il mio disio e 'l velle / sì come rota ch'igualmente è mossa / l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle."

[17] "The historical method is a philological method based on the book of life. 'Read what was never written,' runs a line in Hofmannstahl" (Walter Benjamin, "Paralipomena to 'On the Concept of History'," Selected Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006], 4.405).

[18] Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method, trans. Luca D'Isanto with Kevin Attell (New York: Zone, 2009), 56.

[19] Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), N10a, p. 475.

[20] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1960), 40.

[21] Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, trans. Maria Boulding, 6 vols. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003), 5.186.

[22] PL 161: 707-8, discussed in de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 191-2.

[23] Signifying "caritatem, que in presenti tingitur et in futuro" (cited from Beryl Smalley, "Stephen Langon and the Four Senses of Scripture," Speculum 6 [1931], 63n1).

[24] "Quartus anagogicus, hic est hortus aromatum, quo quaedam traditur praegustatio aeternorum" (Hugo of Saint Cher, In Libros Proverbiorum, Ecclesiastae, Canticorum ... [Venice, 1703], comment on Song of Songs 8:13).

[25] Agamben, Signature of All Things, 20.

[26] Timothy Morton, The Poetics of Spice, 33-5. See also Nicola Masciandaro, "Becoming Spice: Commentary as Geophilosophy," Collapse VI: Geo/Philosophy (2010): 20-56.

[27] "The standpoint of the first anagogy is objective and doctrinal; that of the second pertains to subjective realization; in other words, the one is defined by its object, and the other by the manner of apprehending it" (Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 2.181).

[28] Rupert of Deutz, Commentum in Cantica Canticorum, PL 168.929-30, trans. cited from Ann W. Astell, The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1990), 69.

[29] See Giorgio Agamben, "In Praise of Profanation," in Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort [New York: Zone, 2007], 73-92; Benjamin Noys, "Separation and Reversibility: Agamben on the Image," available at <> and published in Slovenian as 'Separacija in reverzibilnost: Agamben o podobi', trans. Rok Benčin (Slovenian), Filozofski Vestnik 30.1 (2009): 143-159.

[30] Alex Garcia-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), 186.

[31] Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver, 55-6.

[32] On anagogy as interim, "the reality of salvation ... inserted in history and immediately offered to us, the night illumined as day, etc. see de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, 2.183ff.

[33] Julian of Norwich, Shewings, ed. Georgia Roman Crampton (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institue, 1993), 10.406-7.

[34] The Greek Gospel of Nicodemus actually transposes the words to fit the former reading. A brief review is provided in Richard Chenevix Trench, Studies in the Gospels, 306-309. Augustine's topological solution, based on the omnipresence of the divine person, is orthodox: "Wherever, then, paradise is, whoever of the blessed are there, they are there with him who is everywhere" (Epistulae, letter 187). Cf. Anselm, Orationes 42, where this line is read as problem of paradise, solved by saying that paradise is where one is with the lord, the space of "mecum". Cf. Aquinas, Summa, 3.52. 4.

[35] Cf. Jameson's critique of Frye: "The essentially historical interpretive system of the church fathers has here been recontained, and its political elements turned back into the merest figures for the Utopian realities of the individual subject. A social hermeneutic will, on the contrary, wish to keep faith with its medieval precursor in just this respect, and must necessarily restore a perspective in which the imagery of libidinal revolution and of bodily transfiguration once again becomes a figure for the perfected community" (The Political Unconscious [London: Routeledge, 1983], 59). Anagogy is practical mysticism, undoer of the religious separation of God and man: "[The] anagogy of the 'negative way' ... offers no 'religious experiences' other than those which arise from participation in a community devoted to 'doing the truth'; it allows us to articulate our hunch that the reality we seek to actualize is not represented by the signs"; "the ground on which apophatic anagogy is based: the understanding that individual development and theophany are not opposed, but are united through the kenotic negation of both divinity and humanity" (J.P. Williams, Denying Divinity: Apophasis in the Patristic Christian and Soto Zen Buddhist Traditions [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000], 13, 211). Such truth-doing is the proper act of beings who admit to their own torture, the crucifixion of the moment: "The philosophy of cruelty, in this sense, inaugurates the opportunities of grounding ethics on a new definition of being unshackled from the priority of its ontological necessity and mobilized by its chains to that which is exterior to it – the universal" (Reza Negarestani, "Differential Cruelty," Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 14 [2009]: 82).