Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Purg. 9-18)
Now that we have reached the middle of the Purgatorio and, therefore, the middle of the Commedia as a whole, I can't help but marvel again at how miraculous this poem is. It would be one thing to spin the story Dante spins, another to blend theology and philosophy and political history with narrative the way he does, yet another to mix without confusion and without syncretism the sacred and profane, the Christian and the pagan, as he mixes them, and still yet another to maintain a rhyme scheme and structure of the poem. Yet he does all this at the same time. I fear, of course, that I'm simply enthusing here, but I can't help but think such enthusiasm is the only proper response. And I also fear that Dante would only appreciate my enthusiasm if it led to repentance and prayer, to rightly ordered loves. As I read these last few days, I couldn't help thinking: only Dante can make James Joyce look sloppy.
Dante reminds us that order is necessary for delight. The more we recognize how deeply ordered the Commedia is, the more we enjoy it. I can't help but think that Robert Hollander has not wasted a minute of his scholarly life by working on Dante the way he has. Hollander makes explicit what Dante leaves implicit. The scholar uncovers the poet's order. I want to explore that order a bit here because reading the Purgatorio right after reading the Inferno has helped me notice things I hadn't noticed before. Most importantly, I've come to realize that the order of the Commedia has a moral as well as an aesthetic goal.
For starters, let's stick with the punishments that the shades suffer in Purgatory. As Dante and Virgil climb the mountain, the sins the penitents committed become increasingly less severe. Thus pride is worse than envy, which is worse than wrath, which is worse than sloth. The punishments are less severe as well. The proud, who in their earthly lives held their heads high and never deigned to look down to the level of others, must spend the time until the Day of Judgment with their books stooped looking down. The envious, who constantly gazed on others and wished bad for them, must await the Day of Judgment with their eyes sown shut. The wrathful, whose anger separated themselves from others, must pray unceasingly in community. And my favorite is the slothful who, because of their laziness in life, continually run on their level of the mountain! The point of all of these, of course, is to correct the behavior of the penitents. The shades in Hell continue in their sins because they did not accept God's love. The shades in Purgatory repent from their sins because they did accept God's love.
Dante too has changed. As when he was in Hell, Dante ever so slightly undergoes the punishments that the shades in Purgatory suffer. For example, he must bend over to talk to the proud. He promises to join his prayer with the prayers for the wrathful. Dante's literal sympathy with the shades in Hell and Purgatory underscore, I think, the idea that he is less interested in keeping score with his political friends and enemies than he is with learning from them so that he can transform himself. And he seems to be just as worried about us, his readers.
His concern for his readers shows itself in part in the Scholastic discussions of love in Cantos 17 and 18. Hollander notes that these discussions come at the numerical center of the entire Commedia, which clearly wasn't an accident. Virgil tells Dante, "Neither Creator nor His creature, my dear son, / was ever without love, whether naturalor of the mind, he began and this you know. / The natural is always without error, / but the other may err in its chosen goal / or through excessive or deficient vigor. / But when it bends to evil, or pursues the good / With more or less concern than needed, / Then the creature works again his Maker" (Purg. 17:91-102). Human beings don't choose whether or not they love, but they do choose what and how they love. We are at fault when we love with excessive or deficient vigor as well as when we err in what we love. Yet Virgil also notes, "The mind, disposed to love at its creation, / is readily moved toward anything that pleases / as soon as by that pleasure it is roused to act" (Purg. 18:19-21). Given that all human beings love, and given that the mind is readily moved toward anything that pleases it, the pressing issue for Dante is to offer a poem that directs his readers pleasures. And such direction can only occur as any athlete or musician or monk can tell you through an intense, structured training.
In other words, the miraculous order of Dante's poem aims to help his readers see what is worth choosing. (In this way, Dante's aims are the aims of all education worth the name.) There are countless precedents for such structure in the ancient world and in the history of Christian theology. One only need think of Bonaventure's Itinerarium or Thomas's two Summae. Thus, Dante passes along a venerable tradition in the Commedia, but in his hands the tradition takes a supremely beautiful form. The moral end of the form only heightens the aesthetic beauty. Today we separate the moral from the aesthetic. Dante would not have done that. I think Dante has convinced me we're wrong.
Helen asked in a comment on a previous post if there are any records of people changing their lives because of reading the Commedia. If there aren't (and I'm certain there are), it wasn't for a lack of trying on Dante's part. He, like Virgil and like Beatrice, can only offer instruction as lovely and lovingly as possible.
About the Author
Scott D. Moringiello is an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches classes on Catholic theology and religion and literature.