Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Purgatory Postponed

            Yesterday, before the Northeast Corridor shut down quailing in anticipation of a major blizzard, I was supposed to teach the second scheduled class in a six-week course on the Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri.  I shall hope to be able to get around to that next week. The venue is the Evergreen Forum, which is an admirable local “continuing education” institution encouraged by the Princeton Senior Center and mainly organized by highly competent volunteers.  My less reverent name is “Geezer College,” as most of the students are approaching my own age, and a few have already reached it.  Though it has courses—indeed an impressive array of them—it is a college without degrees or credits.

            Dante’s Divine Comedy is indispensable but not easy.  The meaning of divine in the title is theological.  As for comedy, that is an obsolete literary term for a narrative depicting a happy triumph over difficult and dangerous circumstances.  Of the more usual modern sense of absurdity or risibility there is little in Dante; but he does tell the story of a man who starts out in danger, fear, darkness and ignorance and ends up enlightened in awesome joy and a sea of dazzling photons.

            The poem’s structure is careful.  It has three long sections of roughly equal length devoted to the “kingdoms” of hell, purgatory, and heaven.  These sections are called in Italian cantiche (singular cantica).  Each cantica is divided into smaller divisions called cantos, averaging about a hundred and forty lines each.  The total number of cantos is 100: 34 in Inferno, 33 each in Purgatorio and Paradiso.  If we regard the very first canto as a kind of general introduction to the whole poem, a plausible accommodation, you find a wonderful tidiness of both trinitarian and centuple structure.

            I am often asked to identify my “favorite” cantica.  Certainly the Inferno is easiest of approach.  It is the logical place to begin the poem and by far the best known part among the general educatied population.  I am actually of the opinion that the three cantiche ascend in greatness as the pilgrim-narrator himself ascends.  Moral aspiration is often talked about in medieval texts in terms of a tripartite hierarchy.  Think of the “three lives” as personified in Piers Plowman: Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best.  That would mean that Paradiso is the “greatest,” but it still might not answer the question about “favorite”.

            Oversimplifying madly I think of the distinctive genius of the Inferno to be its geographies, that of Purgatorio its people, and that of Paradiso its ideas; but that is probably a personal idiosyncrasy.  Physical setting, human character, and extraordinary ideas are everywhere throughout the whole poem.  There is, however, one way in which the Purgatorio is imaginatively distinctive.  The descent into the Underworld is one of the “conventions” of the classical epic.  Even if Dante had not amazed us by importing Virgil as the second or third most important character in the Commedia, there’s plenty of textual evidence that the sixth book of the Aeneid (in which the hero visits the underworld) was ever in the Italian poet’s mind as he wrote.  Furthermore, visions of Heaven, though not quite a dime a dozen, are very common in Christian monastic literature, where they often derive from the “vision” of the Heavenly City in the Apocalypse, the final book of the Christian Bible.  So here, too, Dante had an established tradition to follow or to knowingly depart from.  But when it came to Purgatory, he was pretty much flying solo.

            The doctrine of Purgatory is not biblical, nor did it emerge as a consensus in the early Church.  The medievalist Jacques Le Goff, in a book called The Birth of Purgatory, dates it no earlier than the late twelfth century—that is, less than a century before Dante was born.  We may regard the doctrine as a requirement of developments in high medieval theories of the penitential economy, the practical system of salvation through the sacrament of penance.  Though salvation was open to all, most human lives—with the exception of those of a few heroically saintly ascetics—were so sullied that no soul could expect to move from deathbed to the presence of God without first getting in spiritual shape in a penitential Boot Camp.  What would this look like?  Dante’s imagination never failed him.  He saw a mountain with an ascending spiral ramp, the circling of which contracted the higher the pilgrim ascended.  You might say that as things got harder, they got easier, somewhat in the fashion of a cardiac stress test.  The mountain culminated not in a sharp peak but in a small plateau—upon which rested the Garden of Eden!  Many readers are probably familiar with the painting in the cathedral at Florence in which Domenico de Michelino gives a visual rendition of the Mount of Purgatorio from the early fifteenth century.  Joni Mitchell did something similar in song nearly five hundred years later: “…and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden..."