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.