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Purgatorio, Canto II

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A great companion in this journey is Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta of Yale University, whose Reading Dante collection of course notes is a terrific help. You can take Prof. Mazzotta’s famous Yale Dante course online for free, here — and download notes.

I looked in on Mazzotta today to see if there was anything I ought to have said in yesterday’s Canto I entry. Indeed there were some things. For example:

1. Notice that in Purgatorio, the order of sins to be overcome, and their severity, is reversed. We start with the hardest sin, Pride (a sin of the intellect), near the base of the mountain, and work up to the easiest sins to overcome, sins of the flesh, near the top. Question for the room: Is this right? Are sins of the intellect/spirit harder to overcome than sins of the flesh? I think so, but I think a good case can be made that it’s the other way around.

2. Purgatorio begins at dawn on Easter Sunday, in the chronological frame established by Dante. The journey through Inferno parallels Good Friday and Christ’s harrowing of Hell. Dante and Virgil emerge, allegorically, from the tomb into a world in which redemption has entered. In a broader sense, Purgatorio covers the time from the Resurrection to the Ascension.

3. Unlike Inferno, Purgatorio has a sense of Time as a leitmotif. There is no time in Hell; nothing ever changes. But in Purgatory, everybody is moving, or waiting to move. They are going somewhere — to Paradise, ultimately. Mazzotta:

This opening is also the first time that Dante uses the future tense in the text: “I will sing.” We’re brought into a world open to futurity, and the only way of thinking about futurity is a belief in the new. If the future is exactly like today, then you really have no future, since everything would be released into the domain of sameness. Dante uses the future to imply that there is an alternative, a difference, a possibility of doing things in ways that have not been done before.

About Cato as the first man they encounter in the Purgatorial world, and Time, Mazzotta writes:

Now there is an obvious relationship between freedom and the future. You cannot conceive of freedom unless you have an idea of beginnings and of the future. Nor can you conceive of novelty unless you have ideas of both the future and freedom. The notion of originality, even poetic originality, is impossible unless it’s tied to a certain idea of freedom ,the notion that things can be different. If I am slave to the past, if I am a slave to a political order, if I am slave to my own vices, as internalized as that quest can be, then I really have no freedom. Cato embodies one who refuses to live if that means living under the tyranny of civil war and violence, and thus in the impossibility of a moral life. We can also explain the notion of the old man here. Dante wants to draw our attention to the fact that the search for the future is not an alternative to the past but rather grows out of the past, so that the idea that there may be some sharp distinctions between the two is rejected. The seeds of the future are already contained in the past, in a figure like an old man, like Cato.

So, on to Canto II. Dante and Virgil remain on the beach, wondering about what to do next, when they see a bright light rushing at them from across the sea. It is the Angel of the Lord.

Closer and closer to our shore he came,

brighter and brighter shone the bird of God,

until I could no longer bear the light

We will see this sort of thing much, much more on the road ahead, especially in Paradiso: the idea that the holiness of God is a bright, the intensity of which one cannot bear until one has been purified.

The angel pilots a boat filled with the recently dead, bound for Purgatory. They are singing Psalm 113, about the deliverance of Israel from the bonds of slavery in Egypt. This signals to us that the climb up the mountain will be akin to the wandering in the desert, when the wayward Israelites had to have their memory of Egypt purged before they could reach the Promised Land (compare Virgil to Moses, the guide who could not cross over). Throughout the journey up the mountain, Dante will be conscious of the temptation to return to the security of “Egypt” when the road to freedom becomes hard. Mazzotta says the “secular knowledge” the dead carry with them are like the gold the Israelites brought with them ought of Egypt; there is always the possibility that they can make a golden calf, an idol of them. Life was so much easier back in Egypt, they will lie to themselves, trying to throw off the yoke of freedom.

Dante faces the temptation to idolatry right away, when the new arrivals disembark. Everyone stands around, trying to figure out where to go. Suddenly, Dante sees someone he recognizes: Casella, a musician he had known back in Italy.

I said, “pray, sing, and give a little rest

to my poor soul which, burdened by my flesh,

has climbed this far and is exhausted now.”

Casella begins to sing some of Dante’s own poetry, and everyone present falls under its spell, “deeply lost in joy.” Suddenly, Cato appears, and reads them the riot act.

“What negligence to stand around like this!

Run to the mountain, shed that slough which still

does not let God be manifest to you!”

The penitents scatter. This is a shocking moment. Cato has told them that now is not the time to rest, that the beautiful music and verse is an impediment to their sanctification. It’s not that music and poetry are bad; it’s that they are bad in this context, because they distract the people from their mission. The penitents are there to make themselves capable of uniting to God. Dante can’t even bear the sight of the bright angel at this stage. If he stays on the beach listening to music, he might never be able to reach home.

Cato stands on our Lenten strand, telling us that now is not the time to pine away over the comforts we are supposed to have put behind us. Run toward the mountain! You will not see God if you sit here indulging yourself in comfort rather than carrying out your mission.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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