Dante’s Purgatorio

by Paul Mathers

ImagePurgatorio begins with hope. The first words of the first canto are:

“To run on to better water now, the boat

Of my invention hoists its sails and leaves

Away to stern that cruel stretch of sea;

And I will sing of this second kingdom

In which the human spirit cures itself

And becomes fit to leap up into heaven.”

We begin with the return to hope, abandoned by all (except for Dante… and Christ I suppose) in the previous realm. Indeed, it is elegantly put at one point that by Christ’s sacrifice, the daggers of sin are removed from a soul, which leaves only for the wounds made by sin on that soul to be healed before they can attain the realm of perfection. Purgatory is not overtly mentioned in scripture, although there have been many over the course of history who have contended for its deductive presence based upon some passages. It certainly explains a few problems with Christian theology from the human perspective. If you’re a good, faithful, pious, earnest Christian, how does that look, from a human perspective of justice, placed next to rank sinners who convert on their deathbed, or the all too familiar Christians who behave extraordinarily badly in this life? As the angels say, marveling at our inability to grasp the purpose of all existence:

“O human race, born to fly upwards,

Why do you fall at such a little breeze?”

If you thought Limbo was a gutsy move on Dante’s part, you will most likely share with me astonishment at the audacity of putting Cato on the shores of Purgatory (not the mention that more astute readers will instantly catch that Cato died before Purgatory was, for lack of a better word, active. Perhaps he simply spent a lonely 150+ years on the shores of Purgatory before anyone showed up to explain). In Dante’s universe, Cato is too sublime even for Limbo and must, at the very least, wind up on the shores of Purgatory, closer to God than any of the other ancients (although barred from ever actually entering the gates of Purgatory). Again, I understand this impulse. It is, however, all too human.

One of the emerging, unspoken themes I am finding in The Divine Comedy is our human needs in the afterlife. Dante undertakes the startlingly brave task of putting his own sense of cosmic justice on the dock. He does this even while discussing our fallen sense of justice. It becomes one of the key conflicts of the piece, although never addressed directly. We see him place people in certain areas, essentially judging them, knowing full well that we do the same. Think of a person who you found utterly deplorable (for good reasons, of course) who died within your lifetime. Think of a dear friend of yours, a wonderful human being, who was not a baptized believer in the Christian faith. Now go and write your version of the afterlife through the Judeo-Christian lens and see if you don’t end up inserting similar prejudices.

The mountain of Purgatory lies on the other side of the planet from the known world of that time. In the famous fresco in the Florence Cathedral, one can see the mountain behind Dante:

ImageIt is an inversion of Hell, sort of like a molehill that was created when Lucifer fell like lightning feet first into the center of the Earth. The top of the molehill is the Garden of Eden, that place on Earth which is closest to Paradise. It is also an inversion in the circles of sinners. The base is a place marked by violence while the topmost region is for the promiscuous (and one remembers that the leopard at the beginning of Inferno was the beastie that particularly hounded Dante, suggesting that Dante’s own personal battles may have tended towards the libidinous).

A key difference between the previous realm and this is the attention to the marked changes in Dante himself. He encounters sweetness of existence that he states still sounds within him at the time of composing the cantos. He frequently falls into reveries, visions, and unbidden dreams as he grows ever closer to the divine. Dante seems to have a difficult time with maintaining conventional levels of consciousness while in Purgatory. In a passage that is close to the climax, the nettle of repentance stings Dante in Purgatory upon finally seeing Beatrice again, just as Dante sins in Hell (by being too interested in disputes). He is, in a manner of speaking, being infected by the nature of place. Doing as a Roman, as it were. In order to travel on, he must partake of the waters of forgetting sins and remembering good, those most potent of purgatives.

Another key difference is that we spend less time consumed with meeting people and more time discussing the nature of good and evil, the music of the spheres, or, to put it more succinctly, the big ideas. Love and mercy purge envy. Goodness, divided among many, has the peculiar quality of making those many all the richer regardless of how much further it spreads. Light plays an enormous role in this portion (and, one imagines, even more so in the final third) of this piece. Human Free Will is sort of presented as if you were to give a bleeding person a bottle of rubbing alcohol and then watch in horror as they open it and chug it. There are examples of specific torments germane to the specific errors (people laying prone with their backs towards heaven, people in extreme thirst, people whose faces say “OMO”, etc.) and there are specific historical personages who make appearances. However, the poem as a vehicle to discuss higher ideas becomes more apparent in these latter portions.

It also seems as though Dante is going to bear a huge weight after this experience, even more so than witnessing the tortures (albeit just ones) of Hell. Early on I noticed the most frequent request made by those who dwell in Purgatory. It is some variation on: “Pray for me.” One of the key differences between the sufferings of those in Hell and the sufferings of those in Purgatory is that, in the latter, there is something you can do about it. I imagine that to one who contained within them the heart of a true Christian who actually believed in such a place, it would cause tremendous guilt whenever they did anything but pray and work for the springing of souls from perdition.

One of the first people Dante encounters is the slothful to repent (i.e. those who converted on their deathbed). In spite of the eventual hope in this place, I found it heartbreaking to find, even here, the character of humans so petulantly engrained that they encourage passersby to tarry. “What’s the rush? We’ll all make it up there eventually anyway! Sit a spell.”

However, we also notice a difference in the denizens of Purgatory from those in Hell in that they are drawn to the novelty of a living man in their midst (to the point of celebrity even). He is a bit like a doctor in a leper colony or, indeed, Christ in a crowd of diseased people, crowded at points with mendicant souls desperate for the prayers of the living. This did not happen in Hell. In Hell, everyone was so wrapped up with their own drama and emotions that Dante essentially had to grab people by their collars before he would gain an interview with them. Again, I find myself haunted by the mirror this holds up to the character of the nation and time in which I live.

There is a lot more that I will leave unsaid as we melt into heavy allegory at the end of the piece. I have reason to believe that we will have occasion to discuss the character of Beatrice better in the realm in which she resides. As for the rest of the specifics, you really should read it for yourself if you haven’t. I have to say that I have suddenly become an avid devotee of Dante.

The lesson behind our time in Purgatory is placed, rather offhandedly I would say, in the middle of the piece, but it is one that we would all do well to carry with us throughout our daily lives, one that we ought to always have in front of us as we travel through this life making choices:

“Reflect that this day will not dawn again.”

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