Canto XXV: There Are No Stupid Questions in Purgatory

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate; 30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. 

– T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Yes indeedy, there will be time for all that. Or so we imagine as we spend our time, whose preciousness perhaps our pilgrim truly apprehends as he and Statius and the V-man whip around this cornice (following on XXIV:93, “It was an hour to climb without delay…”). And at the end of time, which gives substance in the remaining three dimensions to this flesh and its actions, this is what we find: the face unmasked.

Seems to me, that’s what this Canto is about: unmasking. Unmasking what is, through that divine and providential process (for Dante, scientific in his day) by which we come to know and see ourselves in our true seeming, and by which our true will is shown for what it is.

But first, let’s deal with the first few delightful lines of this Canto. A dense piece of cheesecake, methinks! OK, we’ve been dealing with gluttony here, n’est pas? As we’ve seen in the previous couple of Cantos, gluttony has to do, in a certain sense, with what we do with our mouths. We can fill our pie-holes with stuff we hope (in vain) will satisfy us. Or we can use them for both sustenance (in the right proportion)…and praise. We can also use them to ask. To seek. To know. (See line 19)

Throughout these last few Cantos, indeed throughout the whole DC, there’s a dialectic (and one that’s big for Dante to be sure) around the desire to know; a particular kind of appetite. For Dante, such desire is in a way akin to the glutton’s desire for food, the lust-driven for sex. What knowledge will really satisfy us? What is the purpose not only of hunger, but of that hunger of the mind called curiosity? What good is it to “know”? And I do mean to convey the whole range of meanings for that word…as in to “know” someone in the biblical sense. Because, check it out, there it is in line 128 (“I Know Not a Man” – the Whip of Lust). In that very specific sense, “knowing” serves the very most intimate purpose – both intimate and dangerous at the same time. But alas, I digress.

Dante wants to ask a question, because he’s curious. That Dante checks his appetite to know (i.e. to ask) is both a mark of his moral progress, still like a baby stork, that medieval symbol of new life. But it’s also a sign, I think, of his attempt at “continence” in his intellectual hunger. And tellingly – and typical of how things work as we keep getting closer and closer to heaven – Virgil picks up on the need of his companion, and invites him to ask about what he’s obviously bursting with. And thus to satisfy that sort of hunger. Clever indeed.

Apparently, little did Dante-the-pilgrim know that he’d be getting a lecture on the pre-reneassaince understanding of the birds and the bees. The process by which babies are made. But just to break it down for our purposes: this is a meditation, on the lips of Virgil and Statius, on how things are created, and more importantly, how they become what the are. As I alluded to in my blog entry last week – if we can join in the scientific naivete of our ancient compatriot, we might just find some spiritual wisdom for our time. (Just as the alchemists practiced bad science but good wisdom). Because, wheareas for Dante this Canto is all about science (in his time, a discipline in no way separate from theology), for us it’s a beautiful meditation on this very spiritual issue: how do we know ourselves for who we truly are?

The bottom line for Dante: death is the great unmasker. In death, again through the providential love and justice of the creator, we become who we truly are. Or perhaps more accurately (and surprisingly) we become who we will ourselves to be. In death, unfettered by the limitations of our flesh, our souls are free to take the form that reflects our true will.

I think Dante means for this Canto also to reflect us back to the very first shades we met, those residents of Inferno, as our Virgil, Dr. Ciardi, so aptly notes. As we learned in the first Canticle, the shades in hell desire to be there: their surroundings and form – and ironically their contrapasso – simply depict the true seeming of the essences and desires that governed them while still enskinned. And – again, so like the shades in this part of Purgatory are eager to move ahead, but for a very different reason – the shades headed for hell are eager to get there.

But here in purgatory, as Statius explains, there’s a twist. The will takes the form of its true seeming not for the sake of punishment, but for the sake of purgation. The purpose of unmasking the true appearance of a soul is for diagnosis, not to consign for (willful) self-punishment. And in Purgatory, the shades burning off their sins desire both heaven (the true essence of their desire) even as they experience the provisional desire for pain – which is experienced in a sort of odd sense as joy, since it is preparing them for a different kind of “seeming”.

I love this – abstract as it may be – for its “spiritual physics.” Dante, in the voice of Statius, speaks of God’s providential arrangement of the universe much like how physicists spoke of “ether” in the pre-relativity era: it’s the stuff in which stuff (matter, light, human souls) exist. God provides the substance that gives our souls (and more importantly, our wills) shape and form. It is the stuff onto which a “shade’s” form and sense is cast in the afterlife. And it’s there that, again, we are simply our essence.

Isn’t it interesting too, the specific example Dante is curious about: why are the gluttons…skinny…if in the afterlife “there is neither marriage or being given in marriage”; if in the afterlife, nobody needs to nourish the physical body? How interesting that just as those who struggle with anorexia perceive their true seeming as fat, those who are guilty of the sin of gluttony are seen in their true seeming: emaciated. Their sin springs from a (literal, in Dante’s case) self-image that is the opposite of the very-fleshy seeming in life: malnourished. Their downfall is the attempt to feed this need in the wrong way, to overcompensate for their lack.

What an irony: that in Dante’s version of the afterlife, we simply get what we want. And if we’re lucky, we have enough reason left – provided not by our own lights, but that great light that illumines the narrow path upward – we realize that the misguided desire that sidetracked us toward our truest destination is the very thing that wrecks us, and repairs us: all desires lead godward, ultimately.

And finally, how delicious that the only thing keeping someone in hell, or preventing them from getting to heaven, is our own desire; our own feeling of worthiness and freedom to deserve that destiny.

So, in that sense, maybe old T. S. had it right, and we can apply those words to purgatory too: it is the place and time to prepare a face for the faces that you’ll meet. Indeed.

[PS – I found a good website to use in reading the DC on the fly – much of the poetry preserved, but as prose… Check it out]

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About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: http://pclawrenceville.blogspot.com/ View all posts by jeffvamos

2 responses to “Canto XXV: There Are No Stupid Questions in Purgatory

  • bobsinner

    Excellent! Probing! Meaningful! Scary!!!! – Thank you, Jeff.
    “What an irony: that in Dante’s version of the afterlife, we simply get what we want
    … And finally, how delicious that the only thing keeping someone in hell, or preventing them from getting to heaven, is our own desire.”

    Dante and the old Chinese proverb:
    “Be careful what you wish for (you just might get it!).

    And … Death, not just the “Great Equalizer,” but the “Great Unmasker,” as well!

    Finally, just a possibly crazy thought, that you helped bring to fruition, – could Purgatory (which we Protestants do not accept as “valid”) be some sort of great “Venn diagram,” with the intersections of Heaven and Hell being in Purgatory?

    Not sure what that means yet, but thinking, thinking …
    Gracias, Bob

  • Eric Wolter

    Reminds me of this funny story. Bunch of souls are awaiting getting into Heaven’s Gate, which is manned by Saint Peter, who has a huge book of data. Next in line is Mother Theresa. The others in back of her eagerly anticipate her entrance.

    ST PETER: Ah, Mother Theresa!

    MT: Yes indeed. Well, here I go.

    ST. PETER: Whoops. I see here on June 2rd, 1950….

    MORAL: Ain’t NO guarantees folks!

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