Daily Archives: March 21, 2011

Canto 12. Perverted Love and Undeserved Help

 

Architecture of Purgatory from La Comedia Divina de Dante Aligheri, "Il Purgatorio"

The sins caused by ‘perverted love’ set the scene for the first three terraces of Purgatory.  As the Twelfth Canto opens, we find Dante contemplating the yoked sinners about him.

These are the sins of “love’s harm” done to others. As Jake has noted in his penetrating exploration of Canto XI, the first of these sins (in order and significance) is Pride.   On this terrace, where proud souls are purged of their sins, Dante and Virgil see beautiful sculptures. These carvings present the cardinal virtue of humility, pride’s natural opponent.    Humility can be seen as ‘not thinking less of yourself, but rather, as thinking of yourself less. It is a spirit of self-examination.

Jake pointed out that “the prideful must give back what they never had in the first place, and prayer is the vehicle for returning stolen goods.” And, to do this, they first must realize that they never had them.  Tis ‘a bit of a Conundrum for the children of Eve, to say the least.

As Dante proceeds, he continues to note so many souls, all condemned by their own excessive, defiant pride – their hubris. He lists them all, from the great fallen angel, Lucifer, himself, to the magnificent wreckage of the city of Troy (‘sad, proud Ilium‘).    And, among those he noted was Nimrod and the ruins of his great tower.

 

Nimrod's Tower by Breugel The Elder

[Compare to images of Purgatory itself, above]

“I saw Nimrod in Shinar overseeing the proud builder

at the foot of his great tower.”

Dante is among the first to connect Nimrod and the Tower of Babel.

A product of his time, Dante viewed pride as inseparable from the human condition; from being virtually synonymous with the original transgression – the disobedience of Adam and Eve.   Dante is familiar with Aquinas’ great “Summa Theologiae”: “The mark of human sin is that it flows from pride.” (3a.1.5) Everything ill flows from pride.

Now Pride is normally considered a cardinal (mortal) sin, and we found it well represented among the damned of the “Inferno.”  So, why are these “overly proud souls “ here in Purgatory?  Shouldn’t they be in hell?  Ah, but these “proud souls” have repented sufficiently to have been given a second chance to save their souls.  And, hence, they carry their burdens up, around the spiral ramps of Purgatory.

Dante made progress, as well.  He ascended to the second cornice much faster than he had to the first. Why is this?   Virgil points out that the “Angel of Humility” has removed one of the peccatum from his forehead.   The angel had brushed Dante’s forehead with his wings, erasing one letter “P” (peccatum), the one representing pride.  It seems that its weight had been an extremely heavy one.

Humility's Angel (Blake)

And, the angel wondered:

Why do people so seldom respond to this invitation?

You are born to fly, so why fall down in a little wind?”

It is then that Dante notes the glorious sound of the singing of “Beati pauperes spiritu” (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” –  Matthew 5:3.)

“We set out on the climb, and on the way

‘Beati paupers spiritu’ rang out,

more sweetly sung than any words could say. (109-111)

Dante is hearing a Beatitude being sung.

While The Ten Commandments dealt with human actions,” The Beatitudes” deal with attitudes that can lead to actions.

In essence, “Christian Law” is summarized in The Beatitudes, in Christ ‘s command to love God, and one’s neighbor as oneself  (see Matthew 5:3 – 12; Luke 6: 20-26).  Therefore, Dante is hearing Divine Law being sung – and, it is praising humility and the desperate.

In Matthew, the first and most important Beatitude is:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit:

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

And, so, in his awe, Dante’s spirit rose,

and he moved ahead and upward, lighter afoot,

with rather undeserved assistance.

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Canto XI: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

…The poet loves that someone loves his shadow: this is the poet’s pride…

All this talk of pride and stone calls to mind an aphorism from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books:

 Even if one cannot hew a house out of a granite cliff, one could perhaps hew the ruins of a house out of it at no very great expense, so that posterity would be forced to believe a palace had stood there.

The poet is a constructor of ruins (would Eliot like this formulation?).  He may wish to hew a house, to carve his grand project from the raw cliff of the tongue, but the expenses—solipsism, exhaustion, rejection, (madness perhaps)—are too great.  Time is well spent instead on the delicate crafting of shambles.  Let all who hear or read rebuild the world that was never there to begin with. 

As the poet himself implies: the glory goes to whoever can scrap together the best nest.  (XI:99)

Don’t be fooled by all the tiers, the terraces, the cornices.  This is no complete world.  Only a couple of poets climbing a pile of stones and prayers ringing in the air.

Prayer, in the marvelous phrase of the philosopher Jean-Louis Chrétien, is the wounded word.  It is an act that opens a gap, that tears the subject, by putting one in a place that is other than oneself, before God.  Chrétien (in The Ark of Speech) discusses the way in which the voice is the element, in all of speech, which does not belong to us.  It is always out before us, circulating in the world outside of us.  In prayer we offer what we do not possess.  Chrétien: ‘The human voice becomes a place in which the world can return to God.’ 

The canto begins in medias preces—in the thick of prayer.  The prideful, cowed under slabs of rock, offer their paternoster.  In this way they are each an Atlas, hoisting the world up to the sun.  Except it is their voices that bear the world, not their backs.  The prideful must give back what they never had in the first place, and prayer is the vehicle for returning stolen goods.  Another way of saying this—returning stolen goods—is giving thanks. 

It is here, in Canto XI, that I sense a crucial distinction between the poet and the pray-er. 

The poet offers up his carefully hewn ruins and requires posterity to contrive the palace.    The one who prays, at the very first Our Father, shoulders the entire world back to God.

The poet must bring his tiresome chisel to bear (terza, terza, terza) on the granite and wait for posterity to award its laurels; the pray-er heaves the whole slab of his voice in a direct line to the One who has hewn the world and causes all laurels to brown and grass to wither. 

Perhaps this is why the poet stoops down to the level of the prideful supplicant to ‘better know his state’: he wishes to return with a measure of that world-hefting humility.

I fear the poet can never pray and remain a poet.