One reason that I can teach Purgatorio without the other two is because of its slow start. Since the poem is a third done when the Pilgrim finally gets into Purgatory proper, that allows me some class time to set up the big-picture stuff that one needs to make sense of the poem as a whole. There’s some good stuff going on in Ante-Purgatory, though, and this post will attempt to discuss some of the high points.
Another Lesson in Divine Rhetoric
When Virgil attempted classical rhetoric on Cato, he found quickly enough that appeals to pathos (in that case to Cato’s self-regard as a man of justice and to his affection for his departed wife) are no good among the saved. In Canto 5 Dante himself learns that oaths for the sake of emphasis are likewise useless in Purgatory. Surrounded by souls who want Dante to relay their need for prayer back to the land of the living, Dante attempts to swear that he will do so. In Musa’s translation, the unnamed soul who replies to Dante answers thus:
…We need no oath from you;
all of us here know you will keep your word,
unless some lack of power thwarts your will. (5.64-66)
The soul at the same time trusts Dante’s good will and acknowledges the power of contingency over the souls still among the living, a wonderfully sophisticated move packed into a very short span of lines. What Dante immediately realizes (anticipating Nietzsche, if one likes to read literature teleologically) is that, in a place where nobody has any desire to be duplicitous, the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (the bit about swearing oaths, of course) actually play out in the ways that these souls relate to one another. As with Virgil’s speech to Cato, Dante’s to the souls of those who died violently reveals that thinking about salvation means some radical adjustments in the ways that the classical philosophers (not to mention Dante’s contemporary conventions of speech) imagine reality. And he finds out not long after that some real limitations in the guidance that Virgil can give.
Prayer in Purgatory
A habit against which I always have to warn my students, and against which I must guard in myself, is reading Purgatorio as if it were responding to John Calvin. As it turns out, Dante had never read his Calvin.
Reading the requests of the saved to the Pilgrim in fourteenth-century terms, on the other hand, one gets the beginnings, in Canto 6, of a picture of prayer that’s undeniably compelling. Dante poses to his Mantuan guide the obvious question about prayer: if God’s will is by definition just, then why do people expect prayers for the dead to alter that already-just will? As with many passages in Dante, Virgil’s answer does not forsake logic so much as point to a logic that goes beyond the contractual and into a conception of justice unimaginable except as a function of a perfectly good God:
…What I once wrote means what it says;
yet, if you think about it carefully,
you must see that their hopes are not deceived.
High justice would in no way be debased
if ardent love should cancel instantly
the debt these penitents must satisfy. (6.34-39)
Thus the prayers for the dead are not the cynical bargaining chips that one associates with Johann Tetzel or other sixteenth-century figures; on the contrary, they’re the ways that love among the members of the body of Christ extend over that boundary between the living and the dead. God’s love and the love of the living for the dead both seem like valid referents for the “ardent love” in line 38, and in Dante’s poem, the two are always related to one another.
Virgil declines further explanation, leading the reader to wonder about how prayer works in this divine economy. (I’m going to do the same at this turn.)
The Serpent in the Night
Canto 8 presents an Ante-Purgatorial event that’s baffling for a number of reasons. As night falls on Purgatory, the shades awaiting entrance to Purgatory are either treated to a show or alarmed by the approach of an enemy. A serpent emerges into the open, only to be chased off by angels. Dante’s narrative voice plays coy with the identity of the snake in Musa’s translation:
But then Sordello clutched his arm and said:
“Behold our adversary over there!”–
he pointed to the place where we should look.
Along the little valley’s open side
a serpent moved–the very one, perhaps,
that offered Eve the bitter fruit to eat. (8.94-99)
The fodder for speculation is wild here: if this is “our adversary,” then who was the three-faced giant at the core of Inferno? If this serpent is not Satan, then why does Sordello refer to him as “our adversary”? And when the angels chase said serpent off with such ease, one must wonder where those angels were in Genesis 3!
Once again the challenge, especially for us modern readers, is to take Dante as an allegory-artist, a poet who is telling truth by means of symbol, not straightforward reportage. The poem invites the reader, in other words, to ponder precisely the contradiction between the two adversary-stories and to learn from the pair of scenes to see Satan, the satanic, and the serpentine in ways not readily available to one’s everyday cognition.
Let ’em In
The angel who guards the gate to Purgatory is the final bit that I’m going to explore here. My absolute favorite lines are from the angel, whom Saint Peter has entrusted with guarding the door to that realm. In introducing his role as keeper of the keys of Heaven, he relates a command that the first Pope gave him:
I hold these keys from Peter, who advised:
‘Admit too many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves at your feet.” (9.127-129)
I absolutely love that there’s the possibility for a few more souls to enter here, the scenario set up in which a soul might not have all the paperwork in line to get a shot at Purgatory but still might go in. Now I recognize that such a theological move will upset strong Calvinists and others with a tendency to argue for a strict economy of salvation in which Christ suffered JUST ENOUGH to save the EXACT NUMBER of the elect and didn’t suffer a jot more, but I’m a sucker for divine excess.
What can I say?
I’m a Dantean.
I’ve not hit a number of interesting bits, so chime in on the parts I did above, find your own niche in Cantos 5-9, or take on one of these:
- What do you make of the long rant against Italian politics in Canto 7?
- While talking to some shades, Virgil explains some of the divine structure of Limbo. How does that teaching strike you?
- Why, do you reckon, do people lose their motivation at night in Purgatory?
That’s all for this post, folks. Some time in the near future I’ll go ahead and write about Cantos 10-13. Y’all come back now, y’hear?