Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lenten Meditations on the Divine Comedy: Our Story So Far

It's Lent, and so on DarwinCatholic it's time to return to Dante's great Christian spiritual epic, the Divine Comedy. Over the last two years we've worked through the Inferno and the first twenty-one cantos of the Purgatorio. This year we'll cover at least the remaining 12 cantos of the Purgatorio, and hopefully a good chunk of the Paradiso as well. But first a little review, as a help for readers old and new, and also to get myself back in the Dantean groove.

Too many people recall the Divine Comedy, if they recall it at all, as that weird, dark, violent medieval poem that they had to wade through in college, written by that dour Italian guy who put all his enemies in hell. This image is hardly helped by the fact that while many people are assigned to read at least parts of Inferno, few read Purgatorio and fewer still read Paradiso. And yet this really is too bad, because it is only through reading all the way through Dante's great work that his purpose comes fully into view.


A Catholic to the core, Dante's story which ranges from the torments in the deepest, frozen pits of hell (for Dante's hell has indeed frozen over) to the beatific vision, is at core a story of conversion and the cleansing of sins. The first lines of the Inferno read:

Halfway through the journey we are living
I found myself deep in a darkened forest,
For I had lost all trace of the straight path.
(Inf. I, 1-3)


At middle age, the in the jubilee year of 1300, Dante finds himself off the path towards Christ, and lost in a wood of sin and attachment to sin. He tries to struggle back to the path unaided, but is overcome by the figures of the vices he is attached to. And from thence he is rescued by Virgil, the great Roman poet, released from Limbo by command of a lady in heaven to guide Dante through hell, up the mountain of purgatory, and at last to heaven. Virgil must lead Dante through the first two thirds of his journey, because Dante has lost his faith so thoroughly that it is through the humanism of art and natural virtue, as symbolized by the great pagan poet in whose work many in the Middle Ages saw prophetic echoes of the messiah to come, that he must rediscover the nature of sin and, rejecting it, develop virtue.

Thus, as the poets descend through hell Dante comes to understand the nature of sin. In upper levels of hell, where the sins of indecision (see: The Lost) and mis-placed love (see: Swept Away by Sin) are punished, Dante often finds himself sympathizing with the damned and questioning how God could be so hard as to punish them thus. But as they travel deeper and Dante's vision becomes clearly, he comes to see the repulsiveness of sin. Yet along the way humanity is never lost. Dante has a tearful conversation with one of his old teachers among the burning sands of the sodomites. And in the frozen lake at the center of hell we read the equal parts pitiable and shocking story of betrayal and hate feeding upon itself.

At last the poets and the reader as well are battered and sobered by all the horrors they have seen. They reach the very deepest part of hell, where Satan himself, giant in size and chewing on the souls of Judas, Brutus and Cassius -- history's three greatest traitors. To leave hell the poets climb down Satan's shaggy fur, through a channel in the ice, until they pass the center of the globe and reach a winding stair that leads them up to the other side of the world where Mt. Purgatory stands.

While Inferno is increasingly dark and terrible, Purgatorio seems saturated with sunlight as it opens. A ship of souls approaches the shore, driven by an angel whose flapping wings send the vessel skimming over the water. As the souls disembark, they are soon running at full speed down the beach, eager to make progress towards the salvation they are not certain of.

The poets follow them, and as they do so meet groups of souls who are purging themselves of those vices which keep them from God. First among these are the late repentant and those so enwrapped in earthly power and glory that they paid little attention to God until their deaths. Traveling up the mountain, the poets meet those purging pride, envy, wrath, sloth, and greed.

And there, with Dante's upward journey, I will be resuming. The path through purgatory spiral ever upward until Dante reaches the earthly paradise which serves as a launching pad towards heaven, where images of sin and its purgation are replaced with example of virtue, drawing ever closer to the beatific vision, in whose presence Dante's artistic powers at last fail him:

As the geometer who sets himself
To square the circle and who cannot find,
For all his thought, the principle he needs,

Just so was I on seeing this new vision
I wanted to see how our image fuses
Into the circle and finds its place in it,

Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
(Para. XXXIII, 133-145)


I do this first of all because I enjoy doing it. I look forward to it each year, though somehow when the discipline of Lent falls away, my ability to keep up the Dante posts falls away as well.

And I hope in the process to share some of the text and images and lessons of one of the greatest literary works of Catholic culture. The Commedia is beautiful both as an artistic and humanistic work, but also as a work of devotion and a guide to the spiritual path, from that gloomy wood halfway through life's journey to the eternal vision of God, which we are called to tread.



Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by AllenMandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

10 comments:

rhinemouse said...

My belief: the Paradiso has one of the ten best closing lines in all of literature. (I have yet to figure out what the other nine are.)

Hannah said...

I read the Inferno in high school, as an angry and very atheistic teen - I think I may have to actually try reading the whole thing now!

bearing said...

Please, I beg you:

Do any of the editions have the annotations and commentary placed on the same page as the text?

You may think this is silly, but I swear that having to turn back to endnotes CONSTANTLY, interrupting my flow of reading, is what defeated me last year (I was working with John Ciardi's translation).

As I write this it occurs to me that I could solve the problem by (a) tearing the endnotes out and keeping them in hand as I read or (b) making a photocopy of them or (c) buying another copy of the book, but. STILL. I want footnotes, not endnotes. Help!

Rick Lugari said...

You're not alone, Bearing. I despise end-notes. I don't care if footnotes take up half the page...put them on the page!

Donald R. McClarey said...

I first read the Purgatorio in high school, through a used copy I purchased at a Good Will. I was stunned by the beauty of the writing and fascinated that something about theology could be so intellectually intriguing. It awaked a life long interest in theology in me. Of course the historical allusions peppered throughout the work were icing on the cake for me. I kept on the lookout for the Inferno and Paradiso, and snagged them eventually. However, I remain part of that small band of Dante enthusiasts who believe Purgatorio is the best part of the work.

mrsdarwin said...

Donald, I agree with you. I love Purgatorio. We were just saying last night that you can't read Inferno in isolation -- you have to follow on to Purgatorio, which is its mirror image. Paradiso is beautiful, but somehow doesn't resonate with me the way that Purgatorio does.

Donald R. McClarey said...

Purgatorio forever MrsD!

bearing said...

Um, hopefully not quite forever Donald.

Donald R. McClarey said...

Good point bearing, although if I attain Purgatory, please God, I fear it may be close to forever!

lisa said...

Glad to have found your blog... now I think I'll have to go and get a copy of Dante for myself. It has been far too long I have put off reading this classic. Thank you for the inspiration.