Posted by: mmkelly | November 3, 2009

Dante’s Purgatorio

Through some quirk of literary history, Dante’s Inferno has been raised up above the rest of the trilogy in popular consciousness. Perhaps because of the accessible voyeurist lure of its strange punishments and fearsome beasts or perhaps because of the imaginative allure of strange and foreign places or perhaps even because it is, simply, the first book, the Inferno has risen to a place of special preeminence in the Divine Comedy. This is unfortunate because it may cause readers to ignore the Comedy’s most relevant book for a human audience, Purgatorio, which features an almost parallel world to human earth, where individuals strive forward in the effort to achieve salvation. Whereas one notices again and again the strangeness of the Inferno, one cannot help but feel a connection, a sense of intimacy, with Purgatorio; where the Inferno is magical and mythological, Purgatorio feels real.

Part of this quality derives from Dante’s enhanced ability to empathize with the punishments of the inhabitants in Purgatory, as opposed to the sinners of Hell. In the Inferno, Dante cannot really understand the pain and suffering that the sinners experience, beyond a generic sense of horror. He is apart from their experience, separated from their moral decrepitude, more apt to give them sermonizing morality speeches than pity. In contrast, Purgatory essentially reflects a purified life on Earth—that is, life on Earth if everyone suddenly chose to seek salvation. Dante shares this desire, and so his travel up the mountain parallels the journeys of everyone else in Purgatory—though his shadow constantly identifies him as someone who does not belong in Purgatory, his spiritual search seems profoundly at home.

Perhaps Purgatorio’s attractiveness comes from the sincerity of its subjects. There is an earnestness in Purgatory. Virgil constantly goads Dante up the mountain, giving him very little time to talk; angels goad all of the penitent (“What is this, laggard spirits? What negligence, what delay is this? Haste to the mountain to strip you of the slough that allows not God to be manifest to you” an angel shouts at the climbing citizens of Purgatory in Canto II). All of the shades they meet along the way are hard at work shedding their sins and they request, almost without exception, that Dante ask the people on Earth to pray for them so that they can expedite their entry into heaven. In contrast to Hell, where everyone seems to have their own agenda and their own feelings—the occupants of Purgatory seem downright staid and monochrome. They all share the same focused goal, and they each approach it with the same intensity and singleness of purpose.

In contrast to a Hell filled with individuals, each unique in their own moral degradation and decay, there is a real sense of community in Purgatory. In Hell, no one could be trusted and each person suffered, traveled, and endured on their own. Punishments were divvied up as to make each individual unique—crimes matching punishment, often on a case-by-case basis, making sure that no sin would be neglected. In Purgatory, however, each person passes through the same rings and, though some rings affect individuals more than other, they all share the same experience. They all also face the same destination: every individual in Purgatory will eventually walk through the fire into Eden and Heaven beyond.

This sense of connection eventually violates the image of Purgatory as a parallel world to Earth, because those on Earth have a powerful effect on the inhabitants of Purgatory. The penitent constantly request that Dante convince their earthly relatives to aid their path to salvation through constant prayer. One man, for example, asks the poet to “do me the courtesy to beg them in Fano that good prayers be made for me, only that I may purge away my grevious sins” (Canto V). Purgatory is more than just a mirror for the City of God on Earth, but is part and parcel with earth as well–the two worlds intertwining and linked intimately.

Yet, though there is this sense of community and connection (connection even with the temporal world, where individual Christians still affect the fate of those in Purgatory), each individual is empowered and centered on their individual goal of salvation. In a way, the community only exists because all of the individuals share the same goals and therefore find communal travel the best way of ensuring that they all eventually get to where they want to go. In Canto XVIII, a group of the penitent explain their rush up the mountain, saying “We are so filled with desire to keep moving that we cannot rest.” Though individuals, they share this real desire and so form a community. Yet, still, each is in charge of their own lives and, because of this, no one seems particularly bothered by their various burdens. They accept their burdens as justice and continue their penance—indeed, they almost embrace their burdens because that is the one way in which they know they can eventually erase all burdens by entering into Heaven.

One way we can see the growing individuality of humans in Purgatory is through Dante’s growing independence from Virgil. In Hell, there were dangers to face and things to hide from—deceit and violence around every corner. In Purgatory, the only danger is from the inside—the fear that one might not have enough will to erase their sins. Purgatory requires great inner human strength, it necessitates a powerful enough will to climb the mountain that seemingly has no end. Yet, it features no dangers outside of one’s own tendency to distraction. The scene in which Virgil departs from Dante’s company is particularly affecting. Saying, “No longer expect word or sign from me. Free, upright and whole is they will and it were a fault not to act on its bidding; therefore over thyself I crown and mitre thee” (Canto xxvii), Virgil leaves Dante as an equal. This egalitarian quality of Purgatorio—where every man becomes responsible for himself—is foreshadowed by an earlier interaction between Virgil and the poet Statius. When Statius realizes who Virgil is, he immediately bows his head. But Virgil raises him up, saying with poetic beauty, “Brother, do not do so, for thou art a shade and a shade thou seest” (Canto XXI). In Purgatory, all are brothers, all are shades, and all are equals.

Finally, the Purgatorio is lovely in that it is filled with hope. Whereas the Inferno is filled with remorseless sinners who will remain there, tortured, into eternity, those in Purgatory have the opportunity to strive forward into a better life. Humans in Purgatory are “worms born to form the angelic butterfly that soars to judgment without defense?” (Canto X). Even the intellectual terms that Dante uses to express sin and salvation are transformed between Hell and Purgatory: critic E G Gardner notes that “Whereas in the Inferno sin was considered in its manifold effects, in the Purgatorio it is regarded in its causes, and all referred to as disordered love.” (139)

Only once, in Canto XII, does Dante overtly compare Purgatory to Hell, and in this passage he clearly explains the two as very different places. “When we were turning our steps there, ‘Beati paupers spiritu’ was sung in such tones as no words would tell. Ah, how different these passages from those of Hell, for here the entrance is with songs and there with fierce lamentations!” Though comparing a relatively superficial set of circumstances in the two realms, this passage has greater symbolism, for Hell and Purgatory have profound differences despite often artificial similarities. Even though they both include sinners, even though they both include arduous and painful punishments—the type of sinner and the goal of punishment are very different.

Ultimately, as Sinclair explains in his comments, the profundity and accessibility of Purgatorio stems from its closeness to temporal human experience: “The life of Purgatory is the Christian life, life under the dispensations of grace and under some of the limitations of the earth; and in approaching a scene so expressly Christian as the Valley of the Princes, where the atmosphere is all of penitence and prayer and spiritual aspiration” (103) one cannot help but feel the passage’s powerful relevance to temporal life. As Sinclair summarizes, “the whole subject of the Purgatorio is the perfecting, by penitence and fellowship and prayer, of the life of man among men” (445-6). And for this reason, because we are in this modern age predominantly concerned with the life of humans among humans, Purgatorio deserves more recognition.

Some further notes:

I’m pretty sure I didn’t get all of the weird symbolism in the end. The concept of Beatrice makes no sense to me. Why is this woman, who died when Dante was 9, so important to him? Why does she occupy such a prominent place in Heaven and why does she send Virgil to guide Dante along the way?

As always, Dante inserts his own personal life into the story. Particularly notable is his criticism of Italy in Canto VI (“Ah, Italy enslaved, hostel of misery, ship without pilot in the tempest, no princess among the provinces but a brothel!”), and his very personal connection with those who suffer (like himself) from pride and anger.


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