Purgatorio, Canto XXV
That’s my daughter Nora and her favorite hen, Violet, in hand. We had just finished listening to the BBC’s one-hour radio play of Dante’s Inferno, and I think Nora needed reassurance. Follow that link and spend a terrific hour in Hell. Seriously, this thing is extremely well done and intense. You feel the terrible grandeur of the story. Nora told her mom, “It was as scary as it was good.” Yep. You have one week to listen to it on the BBC’s website. Next weekend: Purgatorio. Can’t wait!
We have reached Canto XV, in which Dante ascends to the final terrace before reaching the Earthly Paradise (Eden): the terrace of Lust. I confess to you that I found this entire explication of Scholastic biology hard to grasp. Fortunately, I have various commentaries near to hand, which make it more clear. So let’s walk through this.
Dante asks why it is that the souls on the terrace of Gluttony grew so meager when they exist in spirit form — and don’t, therefore, need to eat to maintain their health. Virgil says that the two aren’t apparently connected, but in fact they are. Statius undertakes a lengthy discourse on embryology, explaining how God breathes intellect into human flesh unseen within the womb of its mother, uniting spirit and flesh. Statius gives us a beautiful analogy:
“And, that you may be less bewildered by my words,
consider the sun’s heat, which, blended with the sap
pressed from the vine, turns into wine.”
Basically, all of this complicated medieval philosophical theory is invoked to explain what Etienne Gilson called “the ontological status of the shades.” That is, to make clear why the shades appear to suffer as mortals do, though they have no flesh. One implication of this reasoning is to show how the Holy Spirit works through matter to transform it. Another implication is that unlike mortals, shades cannot hide who they are. What you see is their true inner natures, unconcealed by flesh. Ciardi says, “This doctrine applied retrospectively, especially to the souls in Hell, will immediately suggest another dimension to be considered when reading Dante’s descriptions of the souls he meets.”
Giuseppe Mazzotta advises reading this canto as Dante’s take on the process of matter, spirit, and incarnation. Dante is setting us up for the next canto, in which he will discuss the genesis of poetry, and its purification. It seems that Dante is saying here that a higher poetry is one that more closely unites form with content — something that he has done near-miraculously in constructing the Gothic cathedral in verse that is the Commedia. More on this tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the three pilgrims — Dante, Virgil, and Statius — ascend to the terrace of Lust, where the shades are purified inside a wall of flame.
UPDATE: I found an insight into this canto this afternoon while reading The Figure Of Beatrice, by Charles Williams, who was one of the Inklings. In his introduction, Williams says that Dante, in his Convivio, teaches that
the young are subject to a “stupor” or astonishment of the mind which falls on them at the awareness of great and wonderful things. Such a stupor produces two results — a sense of reverence and a desire to know more. A noble awe and a noble curiosity come to life. This is what had happened to him at the sight of the Florentine girl, and all his work consists, one way or another, in the increase of that worship and that knowledge.
Williams goes on to say that the image of Beatrice stayed in Dante’s mind all his life (remember that Dante, as a boy, first glimpsed Beatrice on the streets of Florence), and that we should remember two things about this image: 1) Dante saw something outside of himself, something that was really there; and 2) Dante understood that image as a symbol, that is, pointing to something beyond itself. Now, Beatrice wasn’t merely a symbol, but a flesh and blood person, fully herself. Yet Dante saw in her flesh and her blood and in her smile a holy icon, a window to the ultimate reality, which is God.
There are two ways to God, Williams continues: the Way Of Rejection, which is to deny all images except that of God Himself; and the Way Of Affirmation, which is to approach God through images. For the fullest expression of this Way, says Williams, the Church had to wait for Dante:
It may be that the Way could not be too quickly shown to the world in which the young Church lives. It was necessary first to establish the awful difference between God and the world before we could be permitted to see the awful likeness. It is, and will always remain, necessary to remember the difference in the likeness. Neither of these two Ways indeed is, or can be, exclusive. The most vigorous ascetic, being forbidden formally to hasten his death, is bound to attend to the actualities of food, drink, and sleep which are also images, however brief his attention may be. The most indulgent of Christians is yet bound to hold his most cherished images — of food, drink, sleep, or anything else — negligible beside the final Image of God. And both are compelled to hold their particular Images of God negligible beside the universal Image of God which belongs to the Church, and even that less than unimaged reality.
Our sacred Lord, in his earthly existence, deigned to use both methods. The miracle of Cana and all the miracles of healing are works of the affirmation of images; the counsel to pluck out the eye is a counsel of the rejection of images. It is said that he so rejected them for himself that he had nowhere to lay his head, and that he so affirmed them by his conduct that he was called a glutton and a wine-bibber. He commanded his disciples to abandon all images but himself and promised them, in terms of the same images, a hundred times what they had abandoned. The Crucifixion and the Death are rejection and affirmation at once, for they affirm death only to reject death; the intensity of that death is the opportunity of its own dissolution; and beyond that physical rejection of earth lies the re-affirmation of earth which is called the Resurrection.
As above, so below; as in him, so in us.
There has been no greater Way of Affirmation of Images than in Dante, claims Williams. Dante’s Way involves three things:
1. An experience (say, a woman, like Beatrice)
2. The environment of that experience (say, a place, like Tuscany)
3. The means of understanding and expressing that experience (say, intellect and poetry, such as we see in Virgil)
All these images work with each other, says Williams; all must lead, ultimately, to one’s unity with God.
This is what Dante’s journey from the dark wood, through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is about: regaining his sight, purifying his vision, so that he can see as God sees, know as God knows, and in so doing, experience Reality as it truly is. In his long chapter about Purgatorio, Williams characterizes the purification of Dante’s mind like this:
Sin has been fully apprehended [in Inferno]; “all is seen.” This is a new movement — the discovery of the quality of eternity. The quality of eternity is discoverable by man only by two capacities — “repentance and faith.” These, in action on the Way of the Affirmation of Images, mean the purging of the Images; or, more strictly, of the mind that sees the Images. Those Images are not properly seen until the stars are reached — which in are in some sense they. But the mount of recollection and of reconciliation is on earth always before the soul that wills. It must cease to know the Images as it chooses; it must know them as they are; that is, as God chose them to be; that is, it must (in its degree) know them as God knows them in their union with him. Its duty, therefore, is to put off all evil knowledge and to put on all good; this, heavenly, it chooses here to do.
In light of all this, consider Statius’s biology lesson. Remember, according to Christian teaching, we humans are made in the image of God. Once that image is impressed onto flesh, it is not lost once the flesh falls away; its personality remains, because the personality is the unique creation of God. The image must be purified of all the deformations of fleshly passion before it can be reunited with its Creator. Similarly, if the poet is to be able to see as God sees, and to create images (or words) that point to reality beyond themselves, his vision, and therefore his mind, must be purified.