Series Index for 2015 Dante Read-Through
Being a bit of a troublemaker, one of the things I like most about reading Dante every year is telling people that I’m on to the Purgatory canticle. Now folks who know me will simply smile and nod, but on occasion I still get someone naive enough to ask the obvious question: “You don’t actually believe in Purgatory, right?” And of course, since I’ve been doing this for nine years (as long as I’ve been married), I’ve got my stock answer ready in my pocket: “When I read Dante I do.” If I get a shake of the head and a roll of the eyes, fine, but I’ve got a follow up ready as well if there’s some genuine concern: “That’s alright; when I read The Chronicles of Narnia, I believe in talking lions.”
This school year I get my first crack at teaching this poem that I love so much, and rather than put Inferno on my syllabus, I’m going to have my students read Purgatorio. (Before anyone objects that I should teach the whole poem, it is a survey of Continental literature from Homer to the Renaissance, so I do have to do things other than Dante.) I know that some of my students (at a relatively conservative evangelical college) will find this odd, but having become a lover of Dante’s journey, I think that my students stand to learn more from this middle section than from the other two.
Right at the outset of the Canticle, the pilgrim (who gets called Dante at the end of the Canticle) gets a flurry of signs to add to the sense that he’s been building through the Inferno that God’s order is going to defy mortal expectations. In the circle of virtuous pagans in the Inferno, Dante has seen Julius Caesar, signaling that the dictator-for-life is among the virtuous despite being born out of season. Then, among the wicked counselors, he runs into Curio, who counseled Caesar to lead his armies into Rome without delay. Curio receives a far more severe punishment than did Caesar himself. Then, in the deepest part of the lowest circle of Hell, Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed and murdered Caesar, receive the harshest of all the punishments, forever ground between the teeth of Satan. But then, as Dante approaches the shores of Mount Purgatory (which, in Dante’s geography, is a grand mountain directly opposite Jerusalem on the global sphere–yes, Virginia, they knew the earth was round in 1308), guarding the place where the limits of pagan virtue meet the gifts of special grace, there stands Cato of Utica.
Cato’s case, of course, is one of Plutarch’s noble Romans and a compelling story: a fierce conservative and defender of the Republic, he opposed Caesar in the early days of his seizure of Rome, and when it became clear that the resistance to Caesar’s invasion were going to fail, rather than live under a tyrant, he committed suicide in the city of Utica, whose name became attached to his legend. Since most folks who are reading the first Canto of Purgatorio just came out of Inferno, just about everyone realizes that something screwy is going on here: Cato is a suicide, and they get their own place in Hell. He opposed Caesar, and most of those who did have their places. And he’s famous (in Plutarch’s account) for having regicidal urges as early as the Sulla years, hardly compatible with Dante’s imperialism. But none of that matters: in Dante’s Purgatory, he’s the gatekeeper.
Also strange about Purgatory is that, at night, the serpent from Genesis still roams the base of the mountain. Angels drive it off whenever it menaces those who wait outside the gates to Purgatory proper (because they died violently without having opportunity to confess their sins or because they were wrongly excommunicated), but the presence of danger that is not, as far as I can tell, illusory always makes me scratch my head, but it also reminds me that, for Dante, Purgatory is capped not by any final “test” at the “Pearly Gates” but with Earthly Paradise, the garden from which God drove Adam and Eve. In other words, to get rid of the vices that earthly life drives between the soul and the soul’s desire for God, the soul spends time ascending to the innocence that Adam and Eve enjoyed.
It’s no surprise that T.S. Eliot was a great admirer of Dante. Anyone familiar with his idea of the objective correlative in poetry need look no further than Purgatorio to see the roots of the idea. Rather than lecture at the souls to educate them away from their vices or even narrate entire stories from the Bible and from classical antiquity, each level of Purgatory flashes before the souls still images from these stories, invoking the souls’ imaginations, and by sending brief phrases from those stories to invoke their memories of the full tales. In other words, these fragments become the primary educational programme that cleans from these souls their disordered desires.
Desire, of course, is the very heart of Purgatory. There is a guard keeping some people out in this Canticle (unlike Inferno or Paradiso), but there’s nobody stopping anyone from ascending to Heaven at any time. Rather, those souls which remain on the mountain of Purgatory simply do not yet want to be in the presence of God yet. For some this is for guilt, for others because of residual desires for earthly things, for others still a residual sense of autonomy from God. But when a soul’s desires become unified, when the soul rises from Purgatory, all the men and angels in this realm rejoice, and that’s one of the really memorable moments in the journey: whereas in Hell the souls ignored or even attacked one another, everyone in Purgatory loves everyone else and rejoices when others benefit.
In sum, because the souls in Purgatory are there for a while, then depart, it remains the most accessible of the three Canticles. Sandwiched between two realms where the passage of time does not mean anything, Purgatorio presents a picture of struggle, the strife that comes to those who seek to serve God but find their own vices interfering. I know that the standard argument against Purgatory is that it’s not in the Bible, and I can grant that. But poetically, it does a great service to how I imagine the strong disconnect between how I live and how my thoughts operate and even the paucity of my desire for the divine, and I still live as one in debt to Dante for that.