Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Urge to Purge


I am writing this essay in the interstices of a busy week, one destined to become busier still with the crescendo of the Princeton University reunions at week’s end.  I have spent most of the daylight hours of the past few days at Palmer House, the elegant mansion usually used by the University to feed and water visiting trustees and other big-shot guests, engaged in elevated thinking about the central section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio.  The occasion is the current gathering of Professor Robert Hollander’s remarkable “Alumni Dante Seminar” that used to hold biennial meetings in Tuscany.  I don’t expect even those “loyal readers” of my vain imagination to recall a post of June 30, 2010 dedicated to this amazing event, but its consultation would provide some useful background. 

 Palmer House: Not a Tuscan castle, but still not too shabby

            In my not infrequent forays out of the ivory tower during my active career—to post offices, sports events, religious services, etc.--I soon learned that “real world” people had very little idea of what an English professor does for a living—if anything.  A common reaction to learning that I was an English professor was, “Well, I’d better watch my grammar.”  It’s very touching that many people still believe that someone is invigilating grammatical usage in the Republic—touching, but as even a cursory review of the public press will demonstrate, hopelessly na├»ve.  What English professors do, or at least did, was to attempt to teach people to read well.

            The truth is that many commonly shared experiences of daily life—cooking a meal, driving a car, mowing the lawn, having sexual relations, playing a game, using a computer—can be done more or less well, with superior or inferior competence, and with greater or less satisfaction.  The variable factors include native ability, formal training, the clarity of volitional investment, and the amount of experience or practice.  All these elements, and others, come into play in reading a book, especially if the book has been written by a genius who makes serious demands upon his readers.  Such a man is Dante, and such a book his Divine Comedy.

            Most people, if they think about medieval Christianity at all, are likely to think of it as a tissue of irrationalities.  In fact much of what seems strangest and most extravagant to many follows remorselessly from the typical medieval obsession with logic.  Take the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, for example—not to be confused, as it often is even in the middlebrow press, with the Virgin Birth.  Though the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was formalized only in the nineteenth century, the idea had been around for a long time and became especially popular among the Franciscans of the thirteenth century.  The Immaculate Conception became necessary in order to neutralize another teaching, never officially dogmatized, concerning the inheritability and transmission of original sin.  If Jesus was to be free of it, his human parent must likewise be free of it.

            Something very similar probably accounts for the roughly contemporaneous birth of Purgatory, which was a logical necessity of developments in twelfth-century moral theology.  It was nearly impossible that a human soul, however strenuously mortified by ascetic practice, could move directly from the sordid hurly-burly of human life to the experience of the Beatific Vision.  For souls in hell it was too late.  They were doomed for eternity, and time had for them no meaning.  But souls destined for salvation needed a time-based place where they could clean up their acts, a kind of spiritual decompression chamber.  The theologians called this place “Purgatory”.  There were dozens of classical and early medieval literary visions of heaven and hell, but Dante was on his own in devising an imaginary geography of Purgatory—a tall mountain with encircling pathways of ascent, at the top of which was the biblical earthly paradise!

            Purgatory did not survive in the churches of the Reform.  One of the thirty-nine “Articles of Religion” minces few words in expressing the Anglican opinion:  “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory…is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”  So far as Dante is concerned you would have to say that it is brilliantly invented.  The same might be said of Robert Hollander’s alumni seminars.  A scholar of international reputation, Hollander is one of the most erudite and productive students of Dante in the world.  But he is also a master-teacher whose students often want to continue reading with him decades after their graduation.  
Il professore in action, May 2013: photo Maryanne Maletz

            A few years ago he and his wife Jean—both of them poets themselves—published a new three-volume edition of Dante’s poem that combines a graceful and scrupulous English version with what is in effect a discreet encyclopedia of annotation.  It is a format that can encourage a beginner, yet satisfy a hardened veteran.  Medieval spiritual writers were keenly aware of the variety of gifts and capacities displayed by the human condition.  Speaking of the human soul’s thirst for divine grace, Thomas Aquinas says roughly the following: it doesn’t matter what size bucket you have so long as your bucket is full.  Gregory compares the sacred text to a watercourse.  It is a gentle stream in which the lamb can safely wade; it is a deep river in which the mighty elephant can frolic.

Translators at work

            It is sufficiently obvious that Dante intentionally set out to weave a web of similar complexity.  I suppose it is possible to enjoy the Purgatorio as a fast-paced “buddy flick” in which in which two poetic sidekicks, Dante and Virgil, share some pretty far-out adventures.  By all means do so if you are so inclined.  But then you might want to drop by the Home Depot to pick up a larger bucket.