Saturday, August 14, 2010

Purgatorio: Part the Second

We've come to it at last: the end of my lecture notes and coursework from the Dante class I took in college. Since Canto 10 of Purgatorio I've had to forge ahead on my own with only my edition's footnotes as guide. It actually wasn't as difficult as I thought, since I had already started out with a strong foundation. (But don't expect much for Paradiso.) So instead of going canto by canto, as I've done for Inferno and the first 1/3 of Purgatorio, I'm just going to give a general outline of some of Dante's primary themes and ideas.

If Inferno was an exploration of sin and its eternal consequences, then Purgatorio, as its sequel, is an account of how to transcend and move beyond sin. As Richard noted, it's rather instructive in tone but I don't think I'd call it didactic. The methods of purging - which include lugging boulders nonstop (pride), having your eyes sewn shut (envy), and running through flames (lust) - are basically impossible to duplicate in life unless you're a particularly zealous ascetic. I'd say Purgatorio's overall feel is more contemplative. The contrapasso of Inferno was strictly a form of punishment without end. There is no hope in Hell ("abandon hope all ye who enter"), and no love or movement. It is a second death, the place where time has stopped. In Purgatorio, on the other hand, we are asked to consider the relationship between each sin and its corresponding atonement. Although all the souls here are Christians who repented before they died, they are prevented from advancing until they have been purified. What can we do, the canticle asks, to improve ourselves here and now and avoid this stopover that can last centuries?

As I discussed in my last post, Purgatorio shares with Inferno the notion of spiritual change (for better or worse) as physical metamorphosis based on the works of Ovid. But instead of monsters, serpents, and bleeding trees, we have worms becoming butterflies (Canto 10), the acquisition of virtue compared to the training and management of horses (Canto 13), and the desire to grow wings and fly (Canto 27). The metaphor is further expanded to include representations of pregnancy, childbirth, and human growth. Canto 16 (Canto 50 of the whole poem, located directly in the middle of the Comedy) establishes Dante's conception of the relationship between fortune, free will, corruption, and civic virtue. Although our "motions" have their origin in the stars, each human is born with a spark to "know good and evil" that must be properly developed in childhood (73-76).
          "Thus, if the present world has gone astray, in
you is the cause, in you let it be sought, and now I
will be a true spy of it for you.
          From the hand of him who desires it before it
exists, like a little girl who weeps and laughs
          the simple little soul comes forth, knowing
nothing except that, set in motion by a happy
Maker, gladly turns to what amuses it.
          Of some lesser good it first tastes the flavor;
there it is deceived and runs after it, if a guide or
rein does not turn away its love.
          Therefore it was necessary to set the law as a
curb; it was necessary to have a king who would
discern the tower at least of the true city.
          The laws are there but who lays hand to them?
No one, because the shepherd that leads can chew
the cud but does not have the cloven hooves;
          therefore the people, who see their guide
striking at the thing that they themselves are
greedy for, feed there and seek no further. (82-102)
In other words, Dante disagrees with the belief that humans are naturally inclined to evil. As creatures of God, we instinctively seek what is good, but our love is often misguided and with maturity must come discernment. Recall that many of the souls in Inferno were there because they made something other than God the final recipient of their highest love: Francesca in the Second Circle (her lover), Pietro delle Vigne in the Seventh Circle (Emperor Frederick II), and Ulysses in Eighth Circle (the glory of discovery at the expense of his and his men's lives). All this reminds me of that famous quote from Chaim Potok's The Chosen, which basically expresses the same idea.

(Also note the metaphor derived from Leviticus 11.2-4, which originally referred to Jewish dietary laws but which Christians interpret allegorically. The clergy are to be clean beasts who chew their cud [meditate on the Scriptures]. Despite their learning, however, they lack the necessary cloven hooves, which means they are actually unclean beasts who shepherd their flock - the Christian community - away from God towards baser things. The secular magistrate should be another source of restraint, via civic virtue and the law, but his role has been usurped by crooked popes. That Church and State must be separate was conceived long before the Enlightenment.)

Virgil later elaborates in Canto 17:
          And he to me: "The love of the good, falling
short of what is right, is here restored; here they
ply and ply again the oar they did ill to slow.
          But that you may yet more clearly understand,
turn your mind to me, and you will take some
good fruit from our delay.
          Neither Creator nor creature ever," he began,
"son, has been without love, whether natural or of
the mind, and this you know.
          Natural love is always unerring, but the other
can err with an evil object or with too much or too
little vigor.
          As long as it is directed to the first Good and
moderates its love of lesser goods, it cannot be a
cause of evil pleasure,
          but when it turns aside to evil, or when with
more eagerness or less than is right it runs after
some good, it employs his creature against the
Creator." (85-102)
Again, note the last few lines, which liken the deluded soul to a child who innocently seeks happiness. Lust and gluttony are downright infantile, as emphasized (according to some commentators) by Canto 23's denunciation of the Florentine women and the wanton display of their breasts. But, if baptism and conversion are forms of rebirth ("born again"), then it can also be said that the souls here in Purgatory are "pregnant" with their new being (like a worm becomes a butterfly emerging from the cocoon).
          We went with careful, slow steps, and I walked
intent on the shades, whom I heard piteously
weeping and lamenting;
          and I happened to hear one ahead of us calling
out, weeping: "Sweet Mary!" as a woman giving
birth will do, . . . (20.16-21)
This image can also be applied to the transformative effect of Christ's sacrifice on earthly society: the Roman poet Statius, an early convert, recalls that "the whole world was pregnant with the / true belief, sown by the messengers of the eternal kingdom" (22.76-78). (His crediting Virgil's poetry with leading him to Christianity also inverts Francesca's blaming of a book for the adulterous affair that damned her.) Meanwhile, the earthquake in Canto 20, explained in the following canto as a soul's ascension to the next terrace, recalls the universe's "birth pangs" in Roman 8.22. Nearing the end of his purgation in Canto 28, Dante's entry into the Earthly Paradise is likened to his original entry into the material world (first birth), as reinforced by his initial inability to see.

Referring back to Canto 17: at that point, Dante and Virgil were located on the Third Terrace, where the wrathful wander in thick smoke that demonstrates the blinding effect of anger (which also connects back to Frederick and Vigne). This fits easily with Purgatorio's continuation of Inferno's association of sin with blindness and immobility, and of light, speech (especially beautiful, ordered speech), and forward/upward movement with hope and salvation. As such, Purgatorio is replete with such images, only this time in the form of spiritual advancement, as opposed to cautionary tales or ever-present peril. As Dante makes his way closer to the mountaintop, his perception of divine light is gradually expanded. Upon encountering an angel in Canto 15,
          . . . when I felt my brow weighed down by the
brightness much more than at first, and the things
unknown amazed me;
          so I raised my hands above the ridge of my
brows and made myself a sunshade, that pares
away excessive light.
          As when from water or a mirror the ray jumps
toward the opposite direction, rising in the same
          as its descent, departing from the fall of a stone
by an equal angle, as experience and science show;
          so it seemed that I was being struck by light
refracted there ahead of me, so that my sight was
quick to flee it. (10-21)
The experience of the light is so heavy that Dante must shield himself to remain in relative darkness. (This passage also draws on neo-Platonic light metaphysics). Purgatorio's overall linking of physical need and physical movement with spiritual need and spiritual movement has its final expression in the arrival of Beatrice, accompanied by a heavenly procession straight out of the Book of Revelations. At first Dante cannot even see her as she is bathed in brightness and hidden behind a veil. The very end of Purgatorio, leading directly to Dante's heavenly ascension, is sort of reverse-Lovecraftian in its inability to fully depict in human language a cosmic reality beyond human comprehension. Instead of the nameless horror we have the inexpressible joy or maybe an "unbearable lightness of being." Instead of describing Beatrice's face, Dante can only ask himself and us:
          O splendor of eternal, living light: who has
become so pale beneath the shadow of Parnassus,
or has drunk so deeply from its well,
          that he would not seem to have a laboring mind,
attempting to portray you as you appeared there,
where, harmonizing, the sky is your only veil,
          when you disclosed yourself to open air?" (31.139-145)
Two cantos later, we're entering Heaven itself.

Now obviously there's a lot more going on in Purgatorio than what I discussed here. I didn't even touch on Statius and the power and glory of poetry or Dante's ideas on the growth of the body and soul from embryo to afterlife or all the trippy stuff that happens in the final few cantos. But Dante has the capacity to cram a single sentence with multiple ideas from and allusions to literature, philosophy, and the Bible, and to fully everything out would fill an entire book and require degrees in multiple disciplines. Hopefully other readers will be able to expand upon what I've written. Now on to Paradiso!

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Cantos 1-8
Cantos 9-17
Cantos 18-26
Cantos 27-34

Purgatorio, Cantos 1-10

Please check back September 3-5 (or thereabouts) for Paradiso and the conclusion of Richard's read-along!


Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading your thoughts on Purgatorio. There certainly is a lot to consider in the poem. Especially as I approached the end of the canticle, I was depending more and more upon my footnotes. If Paradisio continues on this path, it could quite a challenge indeed!

Eileen said...

Just checked back over at Richard's blog . . . Looks like you and I are the only two Dante read-alongers left standing!

When it got to the last three or four cantos, not even my footnotes could explain what the heck was going on. It was like one big LSD trip.

Anonymous said...

Well, Dante does seem to get more challenging the further he gets from Hell! I guess torment is more interesting than purification.

I have to admit, I'm a little nervous about Paradisio because I'm afraid it will be more like those last few cantos--difficult to understand. We'll see how this goes...

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