Daily Archives: March 14, 2011

Canto 6 – Divine Justice: “Are Your Righteous Eyes Turned Elsewhere?”

“And if it is lawful to ask, O Jove on high,

you who were crucified on earth for us,

are your righteous eyes turned elsewhere,

or, in your abyss of contemplation,

are you preparing some mysterious good,

beyond our comprehension? ”  (VI, 118-126)

Salvador Dali: Purgatorio, Canto VI: "Men Who Died Violent Deaths"

In this canto, Dante deals with many issues.

The sixth canto, “Ante-Purgatory: Those who Died by Violence,” opens with Dante’s speculation about the crowding shades all about him, pushing, shoving, imploring. Why do these souls bother him so, to pray for them?

He dwells on how people gamble so foolishly with their lives, when only the winner seems to profit from it.

He then questions Virgil about the power of prayer for others.  He wonders why the poet now states prayer for others is effective (lines 25 – 28), when, in the “Aeneid,” Virgil had written: ”prayer may not alter Heaven’s fixed decree.” It would seem the poet clearly stated prayer has no effect on Heaven.  Virgil prevaricates a bit, but notes that he wrote the epic before he knew the Christian era.  The question here arises, how can Justice be served, when prayers of others are credited to the soul of one who has passed beyond the test of life?

But, then, in the final section of the canto, Dante moves into an extended rant and lament.  Justice is certainly a central question here.   Dante feels his ‘beloved Italy’ has been betrayed.  Betrayed “by Caesar” [Holy Roman Emperor Albert], and, even by God.

Dante was a supporter of a united Italy, under rule of the Holy Roman Emperor.

So, he asks: “My Caesar, why do you not keep me company?”  [Cesare mio, perchè non m’accompagni?].

In doing so, he echoes Christ calling in despair from the cross:

“My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matt. 27:46)

And then, Dante launches into a full diatribe:

“O German Albert, who abandon her

now that she is untamed and wild,

… In that far land, both you and your father,

dragged along by greed, allowed

the garden of the empire to be laid waste.

… Come, cruel one, come and see the tribulation

your nobles suffer and consider their distress.

… Come and see your Rome and how she weeps,

widowed and bereft, and cries out day and night:

My Caesar, why are you not with me?’

Come and see your people, how they love

one another, and, if no pity for us moves you,

come for shame of your repute.” (VI, 97 – 117)

But, Dante ventures further.  The Emperor alone is not to blame.  Dante dares to question whether or not God is any longer paying attention to His “Roman” Christians.  Has Christ, perhaps, like The Father before Him (in the case of Jerusalem: The Babylonian Captivity), turned away from His people?  {see opening verses, above)

“For each Italian city overflows with tyrants

and every clown that plays the partisan

thinks he is the new Marcellus .“ (VI, 118 – 126)

In fact, Dante’s lament reminds one of those found in the Book of Lamentations (the only Book in the Bible that consists entirely, and solely, of laments).

“Lamentations”   bemoans the horrors of the Babylonian seizure of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem. This Book’s recital of the tragedies is an intricately woven fabric of “poetic wrestling” with “the ways of God,” as well as a description of His method of dealing with wayward people.  Dante sees many parallels between Judah’s fate and conditions of his beloved Italy.

“How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!

How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!

She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.

Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks.

Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her.

All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.

After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile.

She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place.

All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”

[Lamentations 1, 1-3]

What have the Italian Christians done to be treated so?

One suspects that Dante is treading a very fine line here – he is approaching blasphemy.    These passages show how, at the nadir of his political despair [similar in some ways to that of Machiavelli some two centuries later), Dante questions even God.

He KNOWS that Italy has been abandoned by its Caesar [Albert /

Henry VII].

But, why also by Divine Providence?

Indeed?

Is there a message here for our time and place?

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Canto 5: A Notebook

by Jake Willard-Crist

Suppose there was one whose body allowed light to pass through it, and he or she walked among us.  What would our reaction be to a disturbance in the taken-for-granted opacity of normal life?  What if light not only passed through the body but also collected there, pooled inside and pressed against the wrapper of the skin?  The clothes of such a stranger would be dazzling, as radiant as Christ’s appeared to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration—not because of any pure blanching of the fabric, but because of its transparency, its openness.  The body, normally shut, normally in the business of occlusion—blocking light, taking up space, absorbing sound and scent—becomes an open door, or at least, for a fraction of a second, a door ajar.

In Purgatory, where the souls are doors ajar, in states of fluctuating openness, where the souls can at once appear to be bolts of lightning and also wild horses, where the souls slide within luciformity and solidity:  here, a body casting a shadow is a Transfiguration.   Like Peter who wanted to enshrine the blistering moment on the mountaintop, building tabernacles on the spot, the souls of Purgatory cluster around the living poet, wanting to detain him, to win his favor, to tell their stories, to solicit his assistance in gathering prayers on the other side.

It is the job of the poet to find the bodies of the murdered and give them peace.

No matter what the great poets say, no matter what Virgil says, the poet, though he may be heading to Paradise, should never stop enjoying the distraction of his own shadow.

In the final moments of our death, will we be as concerned about the shape of our blood?  Will the manner in which it left us (or clotted within us) become as crucial to the narration of our death as it is for Jacopo and Bonconte of Montefeltro?  How it pools out of our veins?  How it leaves a trail?

We do not pay enough attention to our blood or our shadows.

Andre Kertesz: Place de la Concorde, Paris (1928)

The souls of Purgatory are wonderfully sensitive to solidity, to opacity, to corporeality.  And, come to think of it, so were the souls of Hell, who noticed the way the poet could move his surroundings, could manipulate, by contact, the physical world of the inferno.  What is the root of such fine perception?  The souls of purgatory can see the poet’s corporality, his ‘living-ness’, because their perception is completely awash with hope.  They are creatures being tuned, warping toward a future in which their Miserere opens into anthem. They know what it means for one who lives to step into their world.  Theirs is an overwhelming optimism; they have nowhere to look but forward, and because of the trajectory of their desire, because of the shimmering concentration of their metanoia, they can spot a shadow from a mile away.

We need an anthropology of Purgatory.  Someone needs to get in there along with the poets and record the behavior of the dwellers.

We could spot a transfiguration if our senses were circuited with hope.

To Virgil:  it’s not enough to be a ‘tower of stone’ or a ‘lofty crown unswayed’.  It’s not enough when the poet can be the north face, the tree the lightning loves.

The poet loves that someone loves his shadow; this is the poet’s pride.