Why Can’t Grad School Be Purgatorial?

No, good reader, that would be too easy.  Graduate school itself wasn’t much at all like Purgatory.  After all, the conditions for my leaving graduate school had little to do with desire for God and not much more to do with purging vices.  No, graduate school is a place where one earns one’s departure by writing and defending a dissertation, and I tip my hat to those still earning that exit.  One thought that never occurs to me, while I teach Dante, is that Purgatory is anything like graduate school or vice versa.

Rather, something occurred to me recently while planning a lesson on the Terrace of the Prideful in the Purgatorio.  (That’s stanzas 10 to 12, if you want to go read them now.  You really should.)  Graduate school isn’t Purgatory because one earns one’s way out of it, but it’s also not a place where a resident undergoes the same kind of moral formation that the saved undergo as they prepare for Heaven.  And that might be why we among the living don’t experience art as do the saved dead.

When I teach the middle Canticle of Dante’s Commedia, I frame Purgatory proper as one of the great medieval manifestos on art.  Dante is an Aristotelian most of the time, but with regards to art (along with several other questions, to be fair), he takes the best from Plato and from Aristotle.  On one hand, every terrace involves seeing or hearing stories of virtue, the sorts of narratives of which Socrates approves in the Republic.  On the other, the fear and pity that Aristotle recommends in the  Poetics as the defining features of the best tragedy are all over the stories that the saved souls encounter as they hear stories of their particular vices and their consequences.  In other words, Purgatory displays a robust Classical vision of the good things that art can do for the soul, and there’s room there for stories of goodness as well as stories of badness.

With all that, the art in Purgatory isn’t precisely like the art that readers, even those who read Dante, encounter in the world of the living.  After all, exemplars of vice and virtue come to the souls precisely as they need them, in forms that leave no room for ambiguity.  The good exemplars are good and the bad bad, and there’s not much dispute about which one is at play in any given moment.

In other words, art in Purgatory is completely rational.  But it’s not the entirety of the story.

Before You Get to Purgatory, You’ve Got to Raise a Little Hell

My hunch is that the Inferno, the Canticle that most folks read, provides another range of possibilities when it comes to art, but until one reaches Purgatory, that range doesn’t appear as a range but as a totality.  After all, from the time that Dante sees the souls in ante-Inferno racing after the flag, being stung by eternal insects and never stopping to settle into one camp or the other, artistic representations of one sort or another are always pointing the reader–the characters within the story as well as those of us enjoying it centuries later–towards spiritual relationships that, without the images and allegories, would remain obscure in the world of civil wars and inept tyrants and the daily struggles of the living.  What Dante calls contrapasso in the Inferno is one mode of art, the exposure of duplicity and corruption in the name of spiritual truth.  What masquerades as spiritual love gets exposed as lust, as full of wind as any vice; and to deal among the living in philosophies that deny the soul leads, in Inferno, to an eternity locked in a burning box, unable to transcend just as one denied transcendence among the living.

When I think about Inferno in light of Purgatorio, the earlier Canticle strikes me not as identical with but at least related to the hermeneutics of suspicion that was the warp and woof of my own graduate education in literature.  To be sure, there were moments–glorious moments–when the texts were there to teach us, not to be dissected, but many of my encounters with literary text happened for the sake of debunking, of suspecting, and generally of unmasking what was “really” going on with the political and social agendas of those texts most frequently anthologized.

Dante helps me realize that such a practice is not entirely bad.  For Dante, seeing the wickedness of the ancients and of his own contemporaries unmasked means that his descent past the nether parts of Satan becomes, by virtue of his sinking as low as one may sink, an ascent to more Heavenly things.  And, to read Dante allegorically, such might be a good course of things for a student of literature and philosophy and such: when the student faces without obfuscation the darkness that lies at the heart of every human enterprise, what remains at least has a chance of being genuine hope.  (There’s always a chance, perhaps an inevitability, that we only thought we had reached the bottom and that we allowed ourselves to turn back rather than to plow through, but that’s why learning goes on past one’s formal education, no?)

But one distinction remains between the damned and Dante in the Commedia, and I wonder whether we make too little of that in graduate school.

Suspicion as a Road Beyond Suspicion

The damned will never take a single step past the unmasking of evil; for them, all that remains is evil in all of its ugliness.  For Dante, by Heavenly grace alone, to be sure, something lies beyond.  But it’s not Heaven, at least not immediately.

Purgatory challenges my own sense of ambiguity in the world by insisting, at every turn on two realities: that human beings are authentically good and bad, better and worse than they could be; and that only a gift from Heaven will allow me to see what’s good and what’s bad.  Neither of those realities is comfortable, but both together constitute the structure of Purgatory.  Only after Dante moves through both of those realities, terrace after terrace, can he ascend, and only after the saved have come to desire what Heaven gives, and ultimately the Lord of Heaven, will they truly enjoy Heaven.  It’s a bit of an affront to those of us moderns who have internalized Hume’s dictum that beauty is a function of the one seeing an object, not the beauty of the object itself, to think that the seer needs transformed, but there it is.  And if one takes Dante seriously, the implication seems to be that anyone reading the poem isn’t there yet.

And that’s what takes me back to remembering graduate school.  All of my professors, on some level, seemed to have at least a sense that literary narratives and lyric poems and good novels might, for those who learn to be suspicious, carry us forward beyond the suspicion.  (Some of you readers might think I’m being naive again there.)  My suspicion is that, as a young graduate student, I just wasn’t ready to enter Purgatory yet.


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