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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Purg. 19-28)

When Dante reaches the Garden of Eden in Canto 28, the as-yet-unnamed Matelda describes the two rivers Dante finds there: "On this side it descends and has the power / to take from men the memory of sin. / On the other it restores that of good deeds. / Here it is called Lethe and on the other side / Eno, but its water has no effect / Until they both are tasted" (Purg. 18:127-132). 

The River Lethe is well known from classical mythology. Plato famously describes it in his Myth of Er at the end of his Republic. Dante is the first to mention the River Eno, whose name means "good thought." How fitting it is to find these two rivers at the threshold between Purgatory and Heaven. There's one problem. The book of Genesis, from which Dante and the Christian and Jewish traditions learned of the Garden of Eden, describes neither Lethe nor Eno. Instead, that book lists four rivers in Eden: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Gen. 2:11-14). Is Dante deliberately misremembering? Has he seen something on his journey that contradicts the Biblical witness? Has his trip across Lethe caused him to forget, and if it has can we take anything else he has written seriously?

Another way to ask any of this is to ask how Dante sees his own relationship with the various traditions of literature and theology and philosophy that came before him. Needless to say, this is a vast topic, and I wont even pretend to do it justice here. Instead, I'd like to focus on Dante's relationships with his fellow poets in these cantos of the Purgatorio: Statius, Bonagiunta Orbicciani, Guido Guinizelli, and Arnaut Daniel. Through these interactions, Dante shows himself to be both thoroughly traditional and thoroughly revolutionary. And he offers a model for thinking with and shaping the tradition he inherits.

Lets start with Statius. First, when Dante meets Statius in Canto 21, it is not at all clear why the Roman poet should be there. There is no record of his conversion to Christianity. And Statius says that it was Virgil (!!) who converted him to Christianity: "Per te poeta fui, per te Cristiano" (Purg. 22:73). Statius goes on to explain that he was baptized but was a Christian secretly (Purg. 22.88-93). The fact that he pretended to be a pagan for so long was the reason he was on the terrace of the slothful. Statius shows his reverence for Virgil, and Dante shows his reverence for them both. Such reverence is traditional and fitting. But in another way, Dante is deeply irreverent here, at least as far as the history of poetry goes. No one would classify Statius as a poet of the same rank as Virgil, yet here we have Dante showing Statius outranks Virgil. If we take Dante's structure seriously, which I argued last time we must, then we as readers must take Statius more seriously than we take Virgil because Statius comes closer to the love of God than Virgil does. Although Statius' sins are being purged, he will be counted among the saved at the Day of Judgment. Virgil will not. Dante, of course, will travel farther than either of them.

Dantes interaction with Bonagiunta on the terrace of the gluttonous, brings Dante to one of his poetic forebearers. Bonagiunta says to Dante, "'My brother,' he said, 'now I understand the knot / that kept the Notary, Guittone, and meon this side of the sweet new style I hear. ' I clearly understand that your pens follow / faithfully whatever Love may dictate, / which, to be sure, was not the case with ours'" (Purg. 24:55-50). Bonagiunta is on a higher terrace of Purgatory than even Statius. Like Statius, he was a poet in his earthly life. Even though he wrote love poems, he implies that his pen did not follow faithfully whatever Love dictated. Dante, according to his near contemporary, has a new style that enables him to follow love correctly. Bonagiuntas' old style isn't fit for the task. Nor, one imagines, are the even older styles of Statius and Virgil.

When Dante meets Guido Guinizzelli and Arnaut Daniel on the terrace of the lustful in Canto 26, he learns something similar. Like Bonagiunta, Guido and Arnaut wrote verses of love. Dante tells Guido, "Your sweet verses, / which as long as modern custom lasts, / will make their very ink seem precious" (Purg 26:112-114). Guido responds, referring to Arnaut "'O brother,' he said, 'that one whom I point out / to you'--and he pointed to a spirit just ahead / was a better craftsman of the mother tongue. / In verses of love and tales of romance / he surpassed them all" (Purg. 26:115-119). Guido and Arnaut are guilty of sins of lust. They celebrate erotic love at the expense of Christian love. And they celebrate love in their native tongues. Here Dante combines the traditional and the revolutionary. He acknowledges that lust is a sin, and even acknowledges that poetry can lead to sin. (We saw that already in the Inferno.) But the vernacular poets Bonagiunta, Guido, and Arnaut occupy places closer to Heaven than the poet who wrote in Latin does. Yes, none of the vernacular poets hid their Christianity as Statius did (they didn't need to hide it), but I think this theological point serves a poetic purpose. Dante is arguing here that vernacular poetry can more properly speak about love than Latin poetry can. Vernacular languages offer a new way to carry on the tradition of writing poetry about love. These languages shape the tradition in a new way, even though Dante clearly wants to be faithful to that tradition. Perhaps this is the only way he could be be faithful to it.

In a previous Verdicts post, Dominic Preziosi asks whether book reviews or even criticism are necessary any more. Dominic points to Michael Bournes argument that what we need are mini-essay[s] using the book under review as the focal point of a larger, more interesting story. I'm sympathetic to this approach. We should just make sure we recognize that the best books will always outflank us, that their stories will always be larger and more interesting than ours. As Flavia noted in the comments to my last post, What I'm loving about Dante is the way he illustrates both how pleasurable it is not to fully know or understand certain mysteries and how much scope there is for exploration and creativity even within the theological system he inherits. Dante teaches us that to pass on a tradition is always to shape it. And he reminds us that the shaping is itself a criticism of the tradition. Every critic and every poet needs to navigate carefully the River Lethe and the River Eno. The best critics and the best poets not only navigate themselves but steer us, the readers, as well.

Sorry for the delay in posting. I'll write another post this weekend to finish the Purgatorio.

[For part two of our discussion of the Purgatorio, see here. For part one of our discussion see here, with links to discussion of the Inferno.]   

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I've just finished the Purgatorio, and it's late, so a few thoughts now and hopefully more fully formulated ones later. Like you, Scott, I'm most interested in the question of Dante's relationship to tradition, especially the Classical tradition. Dante's relationship with Virgil I get: that combination of love and regret and rejection, born both of the recognition that the virtuous pagans still don't have the one thing necessary for salvation and (on perhaps a more repressed level) the need to clear some artistic space for themselves, is familiar to me from many of the Renaissance writers I know better than Dante. But I can't quite get my mind around Statius for all the reasons that you note: although some Christians did make exceptions for Virgil, it's definitely not a surprise to find that he's not saved in Dante's poem. But not only is Statius not as good a poet as Virgil, there seems to be no evidence or even tradition that he was a Christian! (And of course the same is true for Cato, minus the poetry part.) I'm actually not sure I've ever seen anyone do this: just declare a specific Classical writer a Christian while rejecting, on all the traditional grounds, the salvation of many better-known and more-beloved figures. (Plenty of Christians, of course, hoped that ALL the virtuous pagans might eventually be saved, but that's a comprehensible work-around.)I only have two theories, neither of them especially compelling. One is that Statius (like Cato) just reflect the mysteriousness of God's mercy, and the fact that one can never know, as an outside observer, who is and isn't saved. That seems a good enough reading, as far as it goes, but I'd feel more convinced by it if Dante hadn't consigned quite a lot of specific individuals, on no more evidence, to circles of hell. My second theory is more autobiographical and speculative, and has to do with whatever anxieties Dante might have had about Virgil's literary dominance and influence. But. . . I don't actually find that line of argumentation very interesting, and it doesn't do justice to the complexity of Dante's portrait of Virgil.I guess I need to read the poem a few more times!

I must have been dreaming about Dante, because I woke up thinking more about Statius!It occurs to me that one other thing Statius does--which maybe resolves the tension between the two theories I articulated yesterday--is that he actually justifies Virgil's presence as guide through hell and purgatory, and Dante's great love for him. If Statius could come to Christianity through Virgil, then surely Christians can't dismiss the worth of writers like him, and must in fact take him (and maybe by extension that of all the virtuous pagans) more seriously. At the same time, Virgil remains firmly secondary to Christian writers (like Dante himself).The fact that Virgil is brought through purgatory all the way to the garden of Eden, and that he seems now, in the afterlife, to fully recognize the truth of Christianity, makes me wonder whether Dante did perhaps, in his heart of hearts, believe in or hope for something like Originism, at least in the case of the virtuous non-Christians.

Dante has a wonderful way of organizing the 7 sins. They are all related to LOVE, disordered or perverted in some way very Augustinian. He has ordered them from worst, pride to least, lust. From time to time in our Catholic heritage, it seems as though some people would place lust as the worst. (Perhaps, I am being a bit facetious here.)Two other issues in theses cantos have given me pause: In canto XXI Dante describes a natural event that happens whenever a purified soul ascends to heaven. The earth quakes. (Hmm so did the earth at the time of the death of Jesus.) The soul is now unencumbered by sin and is light enough to rise. At each event all the penitents give a shout of joy. It shows that the souls in purgatory are being purged of self-centeredness and it is a sign of hope for that possibility for each of them.Canto XXV fascinated me. In fact, I had to read the section on procreation several times. Statius, the pagan who converted to Christianity, provides us with this poetic sex education class. What part comes from the understanding of the biology and theology of Dantes time and what part originates in his poetic imagination is difficult to discern. For Dante what we call conception comes about with a merging of blood originating in the heart of the active male and the passive female. But wait, it is not a human being until later when the effects of a developed brain are obvious. It is then that the Prime Mover (God) breathes into it a new spirit and it becomes a human being.

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.