I read Canto X in bed last night, after I’d finished praying on my prayer rope. The prayers, I offered for one of you who had written me privately yesterday, telling me how much reading Dante is helping him through a severe personal crisis. He shared a number of details of his Job-like struggle with me, and said that our Purgatorio reading, coming at this moment, has struck him as nothing short of providential, and for that, he is so grateful.
I tell you, it knocked me flat to read that. It really did. Dante meant so very much to me when I was at the bottom of a deep well, and he lowered the ladder that allowed me to climb out. To learn that he is doing that for another reader is, to me, breathtaking. And to learn that this blog has played a role in the rescue is, well, very Dantean, in this sense: one of the great lessons of the pilgrim’s journey is learning that the same Love that moves the sun and stars binds us to each other, and obliges us to carry each other, to share each other’s sorrows, to revel in each other’s joys. The shades in Purgatorio ask Dante to tell everyone back home to pray for them, to help them move beyond their suffering, and closer to God. I have done that this week. Of course we the living ought to be praying for each other too. After receiving that letter last night, I did.
A strange request, but one I think is appropriate for our Lenten journey: would you readers who pray please, tonight, pray for the rest of us on the pilgrimage? In the Commedia, the Purgatorio is the beginning of the healing of communal and fraternal bonds that had been violently severed in Hell (and, allegorically, on earth, because of man’s egotism and sinfulness). The Dante scholar Harriet Rubin has written:
Dante’s entire masterpiece may be read at a deep level, one that Osip Mandelstam, a dissident writer in Stalin’s Russia, said works as a kind of literary medicine, curing those who read it of their self-created ills of ego and reckless opportunism. Mandelstam had such faith in the curative power of “The Divine Comedy” that he smuggled a copy into his prison cell.
In her new book Reading Dante, Prue Shaw writes that medieval commentators who found the Commedia unsettling treated it as
… an encyclopedia of sin and virtue … an orderly hierarchy of sins and punishments, reflecting an intellectual system which commands our understanding, rather than a psychological experience which engages our emotions.
But the pilgrim’s journey is a psychological journey, one of self-mastery, and of becoming more human by becoming more like God. If you understand too that Dante wrote the Commedia after he had been ruined — exiled under sentence of death, his riches taken from him, the corrupt head of the Church he loved and served his mortal enemy — the spiritual magnitude of his achievement becomes apparent, and his personal authority to speak to the hearts and minds of all us lost and wandering souls is revealed. Dante is one of the greatest intellectuals and artists who ever lived, but he is also one of us.
In Canto X, he finds himself on the terrace of Pride, the first of the seven terraces of Purgatory, and the one that’s the foundation of the others. In Purgatory, the worst sinful dispositions are punished farther down the mountain (as distinct from actual sins, which are punished in Hell). The climb, as the pilgrim has been told, gets much easier the higher one goes. This canto begins:
When we had passed the threshold of the gate
forever closed to souls whose loves are bad
and make the crooked road seem like the straight,
This is an important clue as to both the nature of sin, in Dante, and the effects of sin. Sin is a failure of love — not loving, loving too little, loving too much, loving the wrong things. And sin blurs our vision, leading us off the right path through life. This is why Dante found himself in the dark wood (though we never learn which sins led to his straying from the straight road).
Once on the terrace of Pride, Dante sees large marble carvings, incredibly lifelike, depicting examples of the virtue of Humility — the opposite of Pride. This is the first of a series of carvings the pilgrim will see on each terrace of the mountain. The first three are example of the virtue the penitent is meant to emulate; the next three are an example of the terrible vices to be purged. These carvings are meant to instruct the penitent morally by using aesthetics — that is, to use art to reveal moral truth to him. This, of course, is exactly what is happening to us as we read Dante’s poem.
The first carving Dante sees on the terrace of Pride is of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, in which she told the Angel, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” Then there is an image of King David, forgetting his royal bearing and dancing half-naked with joy before the Ark of the Covenant, “showing himself both more and less than king.” (A deftly ironic line; David behaved in a way beneath the dignity of a monarch, but showed himself to be greater than a monarch by humbling himself before the Lord in worshipful ecstasy). On that same panel, we see his first wife Michal, Saul’s daughter, looking down on her husband, both figuratively and literally, from a palace window. From II Samuel 6, here is how that episode concludes:
20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”
21 David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”
23 And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.
See how the queen’s pride cut her off from her husband, from God, and ultimately from life?
The third panel depicts the Emperor Trajan, in full regalia, marching off to war, or perhaps to some imperial ceremony. A poor widow bids him to stop and hear her plea for justice. Her son has been murdered; won’t he please see that justice is done? Trajan balks, but she persists. He then humbles himself, out of pity for the poor woman, and puts her request above his own desire.
That One for Whom no new thing can exist
fashioned this art of visible speech — so strange
to us who do not know it here on earth.
Was Dante the world’s first film critic?
At that moment, Dante turns to see a group of shades struggling in his direction. These are the Prideful, carrying heavy rocks on their backs, nearly crushed by their burdens as they stagger along, beating their breasts as a sign of penitence. Their bodies are bent toward the ground. They thought, in their pride, that they were above it all, but now they are forced to bend by the weight of their prideful disposition, facing the dust from which they forgot they came.
Giuseppe Mazzotta calls our attention to the fact that Dante the pilgrim does not recognize the shades at first sight. He tells Virgil, “I don’t know what they are, my sight’s confused.” Mazzotta finds it striking that Dante understood exactly what he was seeing, and what the meaning was, in the carvings he had been admiring, but when he sees actual people (so to speak) just like him, enacting a live scene of ghastly humility, he doesn’t know what to make of it until Virgil explains.
This prompts an anguished exhortation from Dante the poet, who breaks character, turns to the reader and says:
O haughty Christians, wretched, sluggish souls,
all you whose inner vision is diseased,
putting your trust in things that pull you back,
do you not understand that we are worms,
each born to form the angelic butterfly,
that flies defenseless to the Final Judge?
Mazzotta says it’s crucial to note here that Dante begins this admonition by speaking down to the reader, but then switches the pronoun to “we” — this shift telegraphing the conversion taking place in this instant. He chastises us, but then identifies with us: we are worms. But that’s not all we are. We are in transition, we are on a journey, we have an ultimate purpose: to change from our ugly, earthbound form into one of beauty and lightness, who flies through the air, innocent, free of our mortal and sinful weight, to God.
What Dante is saying to us is that the ascetic labors of the prideful penitents are a shock to us, but they are part of the transition process, what it means to be born again. If your defective inner vision leads you to take the wrong road, and to put your trust in “things that pull you back,” then you will delay, even reverse, your pilgrimage.
Dante concludes this canto by comparing these penitents to art — a corbel, a human form carved from stone, used as an architectural buttress. If you are using the Musa translation of Purgatorio, it features a corbel on the cover (see below). Dante writes:
Sometimes one sees a corbel, holding the weight
with chest pressed tightly down against its knees,
so that this unreality gives real
anguish to one who sees it — this is how
these souls appeared, and how they made me feel.
What is Dante’s understanding of art, then? It’s potentially dangerous, but there is an important role that art can play in altering our moral perception. In effect, form becomes a way to understand the moral world and the moral terms of your existence. This relationship between ethics and aesthetics is at the heart of Purgatory, and we’ll see this idea resurface many times in the cantos ahead. For now, Dante is giving examples of art and humility, of his mistakes, of his confused perception.
And it is his perspective on perspective that brings together these myriad concerns. Perspective is connected with the representation of art, and it means that I see the world according to the position that I occupy in it, and the position that I occupy in it reveals things to me that are unique and irreducible. For Dante, perspective is connected to an inner world. What is my perspective of myself? What is my sense of the measure of things? A misperception like that of Michal can lead one to pride, the primary sin in these cantos and the spiritual root of all evils. No wonder Dante makes such a big deal of this question of perspective. It means everything when it comes to Dante’s simultaneous aesthetic and ethical education in Purgatorio.
In thinking back on this canto, it’s remarkable how Dante appreciates the aesthetic qualities of the carvings, but it takes the disorienting experience of watching the suffering penitents to make the lesson real to him, to crack the stone of his heart and to pierce his moral imagination. This is the beginning of his conversion. He admired the beauty of the carvings, but he didn’t really begin to understand them until he saw the suffering of real people. It forced him to think back to art — the corbels — and to examine the relationship between art and experience, between abstraction and concreteness, between reason and faith. Faith, which can only be perceived by the heart, purifies reason. But reason purifies experience, in the sense that experience, passed through the reason of the individual in his perspective, may emerge as rational art. Dante seems to be saying here that art gains the power to truly change us, though, when it shocks us out of the realm of our abstracted reason and towards metanoia: a transformative change of heart brought on by a moment in which one grasps the true nature of one’s condition of separation from God.
Yet it works dialectically: recall that Dante only really began to grasp the power of the carvings when he experienced humility directly and emotionally, in the shocking sight of the penitents crushed by the weight of their burdens. What I can’t quite grasp at this point is whether it is a good or a bad thing that the sight of the penitents drove Dante to think of the corbels. Is it helping him to better understand the connection between art and morality, and a method of giving him insight into the inner condition of the penitents? Or is does it represent a flight into abstraction, a way of reducing the suffering that shook him badly to representation? Remember, he is a poet, a man who built his reputation on using words to convey and to evoke powerful emotions, and truths. Yet he seems to have forgotten the connection between art and life. If you read Inferno, you will recall that in Canto V, the pilgrim met Francesca, the adulteress damned because she and her lover Paolo fell for each other as they read love poetry together — poetry that included some of Dante’s. It appears that part of the pilgrim’s re-education in Purgatory is to rediscover the moral realities that are inescapably embodied in art, and to recover his own artistic and moral seriousness. It moves people to damnation, or it moves them to sanctification. But all true art moves people. Think of Rilke’s poem Archaic Torso of Apollo, translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so,
nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
If you are reading Purgatorio as I read it last fall, and as the writer of the moving letter is reading it now, experiencing metanoia through these cantos, you have a sense of what Dante is doing here, and what Rilke means. There is no place that the Commedia does not see you, and force you to see yourself in the light of its brilliance, shining with the grandeur of God. You must change your life.