I give up with this Canto, I really do. So much goes on, you just sort of have to give up.
OK, I’ve stopped giving up now.
The first eight cantos reorient us, so to speak, to being in, or being about to be in, a place called Purgatory. It’s something of an overture. The Purgatorio itself doesn’t really get rolling until we leave Ante-Purgatory, go through the gates, and enter the terraced mountain proper.
And we need a running start, because it is here we begin to face what Purgatorio, the place, is really all about: repentance, penitence, metanoia (Greek for something like “getting a new mind”).
Our age, in which we set ourselves up so often as unimpeachable beings, does less well with notions of personal fault and repentance than, possibly, with any other issue. Death we can do. Sex we gladly do. Money saturates our worlds. Add to this that most of us live in democracies, whose citizens have the right to express themselves as they wish, without fear of being suppressed. We can live, largely, any way we want. Society, except in the case of crime, is forbidden from intervening and forcing us in any direction. Rule of law is supreme – but rule of self is utterly private. And since no one can tell me what to do (how often have we heard that somewhere around us, or perhaps from our own lips?) , the matter of being my best is a private matter, too. It’s up to me to know when I’ve messed up and take steps (if I want to) to clean up the mess, and get better, and get righter.
The entire Comedy is pervaded, from heights to depths, with an awareness of personal fault and human fault. Not a popular way to see things as of 2011.
But those three little steps across the threshold at the gate to purgatory – they remind us.
That eagle – like dreams generally in the Comedy, it has an explicit function, but, like the dreams of the Siren and of Leah and Rachel later, it’s ultimately unexplainable. It is an astonishing moment, an experience, numinous and resistant to interpretation. To be sure, it is the exhausted, fleshly Dante dreaming of being taken by a magnificent bird that carries him almost to the Sphere of Fire, which, burning Dante, wakes him up. We get overtones here of the Icarus myth, in which he flew too near the sun and perished, and although the dream here is obviously different, there is a sense of lack and failing in Dante, a sense of being unable to approach the Sphere of Fire, a sense of having to turn back.
The dream is parallel to what’s happening in the waking world of Purgatorio, that is, Lucia transporting him physically to the foot of the Gate. But the dream goes well beyond that role, fascinating as it is.
Once again we get a dawn scene here, not the first in Purgatorio. This is a place, unlike Hell, where you can have dawns. But light alternates with night here, reminding us that we’re not altogether out of the darkness, but that we are somewhat closer to the light. Which, in turn, reminds us that life on earth, subject to the laws of physics and the turnings of the universe, is maculate, imperfect, only fitfully in the light.
And add to this what Lucia is. Patron saint of the blind. Her very name derives from Latin lux or light. She tends to pop up when Dante needs transfer from a state of less wisdom toward a state of more. She is yet another of his escorts toward the light.
But the poetry and imagery are so vivid . . . this is another example of something that emerges out of a poem and just is itself. The power of the raptor, the helplessness of the taken. Some of what the dreaming Dante thinks and says within the dream don’t make especial sense. His comparison of himself top Ganymede is apposite enough . . . but what is this “Perhaps his habit is /to strike at this one spot; perhaps he scorns / to take his prey from any place but this.” Sure, many commentators have had a crack at this, but what is he talking about, and why does it matter? Has anyone ever heard of a free-wheeling eagle striking in only one place? The eagle has wings of gold, is “terrible as a lightning bolt” and snatches him “up high as the Sphere of Fire,” and all this time “It seemed that we were swept up ina great blaze/and the imaginary fire so scorched me/my sleep broke.” Whirling all about are images of dazzling luminescence, of fire, of light. So, in part we are allowed to imagine that the luster and luminosity of Lucia as she holds the slumbering Dante is somehow working into his dream. But the uncanny vividness and clarity of the dream are so striking that no one, I believe, will ever really understand why this dream, why now.
The three steps across the threshold are haunting: penitence, contrition, resolve.
As a Catholic, I was always taught to take Lent especially to heart, especially hard. And this year they really smeared the ashes all over my head, about a pound of scorched palm frond. Whether it’s habit or whether it’s personal tuning, I can’t resist doing my Lenten duties with an especially profound sense of limitation, fault, and grief. Like most people, I want to do better, I want to be better, and like all people, sometimes I improve in this or that instance, but mostly, I flail and welter. It’s not that I never improve; it’s that the struggle is never over.
Whatever else is true, it seems evident that penitence is more than being sorry. Sorrow would be understandable: it’s senseless to pretend this is all a party, or that there isn’t a dark side, a down side, to human life. But clearly, penitence is a state of clearsightedness, rejecting delusion, an ac ceptance of things as they really are, oneself as one really is.
I hereby submit an old poem of mine:
Maker of makers
I always was
In your hand
All that I have
All that I’ve had
All that’s worth having
You have given
Therefore I regret
That I have added
As much to your burden
As I have
For you work
And you work
And it is so far from me
And so deep within
That I hope it does not hurt
If all I can muster
For your sake
I will try
To learn to
Errors like nebulas
Along the uncertain way.
It’s important to accept that we add to the burden, and if we accept that, we also accept the sadness of the terrific weight of which are a part.
And that entails getting a new mind, re-penting, rethinking, seeing anew. Renewal is not the flip side of being sorry – renewal is the main point, the main idea, personal resurrection as an image of what Christ has offered the world. And that can lead to all kinds of gratitude and even elation . . . but not so fast. The main point is that renewal is far from free. It’s hard. It can break you. (That’s why the keeper of the Gate asks them to identify themselves, because, if they aren’t meant to be here, they could get hurt. Once he learns Lucia brought Dante, he’s good with it.)
So there is a heaviness to Lent, and it’s a good thing, a building thing, a challenge, a chance to lose the delusion that we are fine, perfect, don’t need to work on anything. What will we see when we straighten up and, with unclouded, sober eye, see the world, and ourselves in it, as it really is? What will we do to get even closer to the light?