Purgatorio, Canto VI
Roscoe and I are enjoying this warm spring day, sitting on the back porch. He’s keeping the squirrel hordes at bay while I read and write.
The Commedia is a highly political poem, something that newcomers to Dante will not have seen yet in Purgatorio — until Canto VI. Crudely put, the message of this canto is the personal is political. This requires some unpacking.
Dante wrote the Commedia as an exile from Florence, his home. He had been a political leader in the city, and had fought in the factional struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and later in the clash between the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs. When the White Guelphs, Dante’s faction, lost, he was sent into exile. He never returned; today, you can visit his tomb in Ravenna, where he died.
In Dante’s time, political factionalism had destroyed the peace of life both in Florence and throughout Italy. There was a titanic struggle between forces loyal to the Pope (who was also a secular political ruler) and the Holy Roman Emperor. Throughout the Commedia, Dante excoriates the sitting Pope, Boniface VIII, for meddling in affairs of state, and destroying both the church’s moral witness and civic peace. But he also tears into his fellow Italians for preferring private gain to the common good. In the poem, he longs for a political savior to restore the Roman Empire, and bring peace and good government to Italy.
For Dante, public disorder — factionalism, economic exploitation, civil war — is the inevitable fruit of private disorder. If you want peace on earth, start with your own heart — that is a deeply Dantean sentiment. In Canto VI, the poet writes with great and savage passion in condemnation of his countrymen. An embrace is the catalyst for the prophetic discourse:
But Virgil went straight up to him and asked
directions for the best way to ascend.
The shade ignored the question put to him,
asking of us, instead, where we were born
and who we were. My gentle guide began:
“Mantua …” And the other, until then
all self-absorbed, sprang to his feet and came
toward him: “O Mantuan, I am Sordello
of your own town” — and the two shades embraced.
That does it. That sets Dante off. He calls Italy a “whorehouse of shame,” and that’s just for starters. Dante says to see two Mantuans embrace upon meeting in the afterlife calls into stark relief the way Italian civic life has become a war of all against all, where everyone is driven by selfish passion, not reason or compassion. Read on:
For all the towns of Italy are filled
with tyrants: any dolt who plays the role
of partisan can pass for a Marcellus.
It’s unclear to which Marcellus of ancient Roman history Dante refers, but the point is simply that the times are so debased that anybody who is capable of pumping up passions behind a partisan cause looks like a noble Roman. More, addressed to Florence:
Some men have justice in their hearts; they think
before they shoot their judgments from the bow —
your people merely shoot off words about it!
One wonders what Dante would make of contemporary American politics in the cable news and online era.
There is no order in Florence, no sense of continuity or stability, says Dante:
… by the time November is half done
the laws spun in October are in shreds.
How often within memory have you changed
coinage and customs, laws and offices,
and members of your body politic!
I’m reminded of the poor souls in the antechamber to Hell, who are blown about, shrieking in pain. They wouldn’t take a stand on anything, but followed the crowd. Heaven won’t take them, but nor will Hell, because if they were allowed into the Inferno, the damned who earned their condemnation by taking a stand for the wrong things would feel superior to these miserable wretches. The comparison is not perfect; I think Dante would condemn his fellow Florentines and Italians for particular sins. Still, chaos and self-interest reign, and is dragging Italy into a temporal Hell. Dante’s high sarcasm at the end of this prophetic canto mocks Florence for being so rich and self-satisfied that it doesn’t even appreciate how it’s destroying itself and its own character.
If you read Inferno, you’ll have noticed that it’s a place where nobody can trust anybody else. Everybody is alone, eternally, even if bound together. As we’ve seen in Purgatorio, Dante gives us the beginning of political community by showing us shades greeting each other out of compassion and fellow-feeling, as brothers and fellow countrymen, not enemies. Note that Sordello, who in real life was a poet, turns up at the same place in Purgatorio that the arrogant statesman Farinata appears in Inferno. Farinata insists on maintaining in Hell the prideful distinctions of his earthly life; he doesn’t grasp that in the afterlife, none of that matters; it’s all pretense. The humble Sordello, in Purgatory, understands the levelling reality of eternal life.
Similarly, in Canto V, we saw Dante and Buonconte, who had fought each other on the battlefield, greeting each other as friends. And here, amid the shades of men who died violently in Italian civil strife, seeing the charity with which Sordello greeted Virgil, not knowing he was Virgil, but only that he was a fellow Mantuan, is more than Dante can take.
Dante, remember, has seen Hell. The meeting of Sordello and Virgil, embracing as fellow Mantuans, brought to my mind what it was like to live in New York City immediately after 9/11. New Yorkers, as you know, are famously combative. But as the smoke belched from the hole that autumn and winter, everyone enjoyed a truce. It didn’t seem to matter what your politics were; suffering and death so close to us all made everyone understand that we were brothers and sisters, beneath everything. Of course the veil returned, and everything became as it once was. We forgot who we were. On the road to Paradise, everybody knows, and nobody forgets.
UPDATE: Readers, I’m pleased to say that I’ve just heard from my agent, and he will be passing my Dante book proposal around to editors at publishing houses very soon (this week, I think). If you are finding this blog’s reading and discussion of Dante’s Purgatorio interesting and helpful, please say so in the comments boxes, or drop me a note at rod (at) amconmag.com. My agent would like to include them in the proposal, to show editors that there is an audience for this kind of thing. Mind you, the book I propose to write will be far more focused than these blog posts have been; here, they’re mostly just notes for conversation. But the idea of reading Dante with the idea of changing our own lives from the wisdom we find in his verses — well, if you think this is worthwhile, I’d like to hear from you.