John Ciardi’s Translation of the Commedia
When Knowledge Passes Away
Virgil’s long explanation of the genesis of souls and bodies poses a particular sort of intellectual challenge: this version of how human bodies develop reached its expiration date long before I was born, and there’s little chance that the refined-blood theory of human reproduction, wherein a man’s semen is substantially the same as his blood, but concentrated so that it can produce an entirely new human being, is going to make a comeback any time soon. Yet part of the glory of the Commedia is precisely its encyclopedic ambitions, combining geography and astronomy and logic and ethics and natural philosophy in one grand, magisterial poem.
If you’ve read very much, on the Internet or even in printed books, no doubt you’ve encountered some who simply dismiss all old books, arguing that a source unreliable on one point must not be worth much on others. These folks don’t interest me much, largely because the first progressive historians generally held positions on chattel slavery, European imperialism, women, and all sorts of other important questions that strike me as worse than some ancient and medieval alternatives. Thus if I hold older books in contempt on all points because of some points, I should probably do the same for Enlightenment and later-modern texts, but that would mean holding in contempt the idea that I should hold old books in contempt. Since that mess doesn’t hold up even under a blogger’s examination, I look for better options.
If the single rule that old means bad doesn’t work, the mirror image, that all new ideas are degenerations rather than improvements, also won’t work, and honestly, I’ve not met very many, even the most ardent conservatives, who subscribe to a notion of universal decline. Usually what happens, instead, is that some other ultimate term, be that term goodness or health or truth or progress towards some understanding of universal freedom, orders other and lesser goods, and as things happen to fall, either older ideas get the lion’s share of attention or newer ideas tend (generally but not universally) to crowd out the older ones.
For Dante, divine love, both in the sense that God is love and loves all creation and expects love; and in the sense that the way and the truth and the life is to love God and love neighbor, stands explicitly as the ultimate term, and such an order of things might provide some guidance to reading sections like Virgil’s biology lesson in Canto 25. Like the serpent-tailed King Minos and the grim centaurs guarding the shades of Inferno, and like the Roman luminaries providing exemplars of true human goodness on each terrace of Purgatorio, Dante seems to hold scientific theories like Aristotle’s and Galen’s as good but incomplete vehicles of God’s gift. For Dante, the advances in philosophy coming from Paris do not render the old theories inert, much less pernicious, so much as they take a partial gift and add to it, letting his contemporaries enjoy the older material not as they would use the most current knowledge but as occasion to be thankful that human knowledge does change and that, in the final coming of the Kingdom, we really might know in full because we see in full.
For the late-modern reader like myself, Virgil’s biology lesson might just take on that same role, reminding us that medieval natural philosophy, in its pre-biological way, does pay attention to relationships between bodily processes and the persistence of species, that although theories of cells and genetics are centuries in the future, the very human and the very European drive to theorize the world is on display here, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that the next great intellectual revolution will arrive without announcing itself, perhaps leaving what we consider scientific knowledge in 2015 in a bin right next to Dante’s over in the obsolete-theory wing of the museum.
In other words, a reader with a bit of historical perspective might just benefit from Dante’s Galenic account of things, knowing that the only difference between Galen and Pasteur is that Pasteur’s revolutionary successor still has not arrived yet.
Beatrice, Christ to Dante
Purgatorio ends with a pageant in the earthly Paradise, culminating in an apocalyptic vision of the Church’s future. But before that can begin, as in John’s Apocalypse, a figure must arrive who can open the scrolls of God’s doom for the poetic seer. And true to that sort of vision, Dante sees approaching, through the thick woods of the earthly Paradise, figures signifying the church of Jesus Christ, the four gospels, Saints Paul and Luke, and other visible signs of divine revelation.
The culminating image of the pageant is a chariot, whose passenger is hidden from view, a vehicle that a first-time reader (I haven’t been that for some years now) would likely expect to be Jesus. But in Canto 30’s great moment of unveiling, the chariot carries not the Jew from Nazareth but Dante’s own intercessor Beatrice.
Beatrice, who has driven Dante’s journey but only shows up as the second Canticle closes, is a troubling figure in all sorts of ways, and the trouble begins with the fact that she’s not Gemma Donati. I’m well aware of the medieval conventions of arranged marriage, the tradition of adulterous chivalric romance that Dante modifies here, and the other half-dozen reasons that I’m supposed to stop worrying and learn to love Beatrice. But the fact remains that the New Testament, and Saint Paul’s revolutionary teachings on marriage, have been around for more than a millennium when Dante writes, and the fact that his engine of transcendence is a young girl whom he loves more than his wife still troubles me.
Beatrice, of course, is the first character in the poem to speak Dante’s name, and she receives his confession as a priest would. (I wonder, now that I write that last sentence, whether a medieval reader would have found the marriage question or the penance question more troubling.) Once she has spoken Dante’s name, Virgil disappears from earthly Paradise, and at least during this stage of Dante’s journey, he cannot look on Beatrice without his senses failing, her divine light of love overcoming his capacity to receive divine love.
When she does light off the chariot and join the creatures of the earth, nymphs of the forest circle about her, once again letting Dante demonstrate that the old worship of virginal nature-goddesses are not enemies to be destroyed so much as gifts of God, images to be refined and completed when figures of true divine love such as Beatrice deign to join the mortal world. At every step before the apocalyptic vision, Beatrice brings to fullness the great Roman poems and mediates for Dante between his own earthly memory and the grand, soaring oracles of the Bible.
After the Dante apocalypse, which borrows elements from Daniel and from Revelation to tell the story of the Avignon papacy and other corruptions of the seat of St. Peter, Beatrice once more takes on the role of Dante’s priest, presiding over his dual baptisms in the rivers Lethe (forgetting the sins of his earthly life) and Eunoe (remembering the good works of his earthly life) and guiding him to his ascent into heavenly Paradise. As the second Canticle ends, Dante truly desires God, having been crowned and mitred (Canto 27) and thus able to rule himself without help from an emperor or a Pope.
Gemma troubles aside, the allegorical vision here once again presents some good food for though to folks like me who were taught early on to shut our eyes and just “be alone with God.” For Dante, alone with God only makes sense as a function of being with-God-as-member. Beatrice stands in for Church in the closing run of Purgatorio, making Dante name his sins while the faithful look on and guiding him in public rituals that prepare him to ascend. Rather than assuming, like so many of us Protestants do, that we’re already capable of “being with God” without mediation, Dante insists that the holy ones who go before us are nothing short of God’s gifts to us, providing not only examples (though those are important) but also loving us as mothers and as sisters as we rise to realities for which we’re not ready.
Without Beatrice I suppose Dante theoretically could have gotten to God, but Dante just isn’t interested in that theory. He’s much more concerned with the real stories of gracious intervention and wise teaching and ardent prayer that surround our Christian stories, and that social vision of the Christian journey is one of the real gifts that Dante gives us, challenging the habits of mind that lead too many of us (and that includes me) to regard other people’s involvement as a distraction rather than as grace.