It’s just my luck to draw this Canto. Action-packed, ain’t it? You got the Eagle, The Griffin, the Giant and the Whore. You have Beatrice, seated on the ground near the Apple Tree. Most of all, most active of all, most turbulent of all, is the speaker’s mind, going in and out of consciousness, in and out of full and half-awareness, now focused like a laser to only one thing, now overloaded.
Even more than most is what lies just beyond all this . . . Paradise. Purgatorio is a strange, frustrating poem, written to be frustrating, to feel awkward and balked, thwarted, thirsty, wondering, agonizing. It’s the last assertion of the clog of the flesh, the asymmetrical axis of spirit and body, the sense of the human soul, caught in time, gravity, infirmity, and sin, not really fitting in anywhere, ever caught, ever in a state of painful between-ness.
As Purgatorio is! The ultimateTweenLand!
It’s hard to describe, after the hard descent of Inferno and the hard ascent up the terraced mountain of Purgatorio, how moving, how sad, how Lenten, the sight of the Tree is when we first see it. I realize that allegorically this Tree symbolizes the Earthly authority of the Church – but even here we have echoes of the Edenic tragedy. And later, when we see the allegory of the corruption of the Church by greed and political intrigue, we see the expression of original fallenness even in the institution (the Church) that should be teaching us the way.
The Tree has been here all along. Everything we are must pass this way. We can be good, we can be wonderful, but everything we do must pass through our original fallenness. The Tree need not be a bar, need not be impassable, but it can be. That’s what it was in Inferno, where reside those who in their personal lives replicated the angelic fall from grace that created Inferno. The Tree was there, too, all along. It’s one of two Trees essential to Christian iconography – the other being the Tree on which Christ was grafted in exquisite, ecstatic agony. That second Tree lies in the shadow cast by the first; the first made the second necessary.
And how consistent Dante has been in stressing, and lashing, the corruptions of wealth and power. We saw it at all levels of Inferno, and we’ve been seeing it at all Terraces of Purgatorio. It’s pervasive, it’s everywhere, it ruinedFlorence, it ruinedRome, and if we’re not careful it will ruin us and the Church. Dante looks around at the evils of what was, for him, modern Europe, and he depicts a battle of mythic beings, the long, tortured history of the Church, from the Rome of Constantine toAvignon.
I admire how bumbling Dante is throughout this canto – and yet, how full of pathos and dramatic irony his situation is. He sees Beatrice full in the face, and stares too long, and (once again) is yelled at. Of course, we’d all do the same. This guy has made a confession, been admonished for wasting his gifts, been criticized for weeping over the loss of Virgil . . . he can’t do anything right.
Except follow Beatrice. He knows she can show him the way, show him the Divine as the Divine really is. Even if Dante messes up a lot – and he does, in ways he can’t anticipate – he doesn’t know the rules – I mean, who does? – he is saved by his belief he can be saved. Beatrice is the mystery of Divine Guidance, revelation, the hints, clues, and teachings in earthly life that lead to God. Seeing Beatrice in the face prefigures the moment, at the end of Paradiso, when Dante beholds all the leaves of the universe bound into a transcendent book.
It’s also a comment on human love, as Dante says it came into his heart, and how, through the image of the Divine in the beloved, led him to the Divine. Neoplatonism was more than an intellectual game to Dante – it was an attempt to connect the transcendent, life-changing power of human love with the Love that moves the universe, literally linking the two. In a poem such as “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” which we saw performed earlier in Purgatorio, Dante magnificently and repeatedly lets us know that My Lady is more than My Lady. She’s herself, of course, and I love her for herself, but she is also Light. She is also a portal of Love. She “strengthens our faith, / for such was ordained from eternity.” She, if we stay awake and alive and alert to it – she – whoever She is for us – is how we learn in this life, and this body, and this intellect, of the Love that is God.
Dante has said throughout his poem that the good person pays attention, and commits to memory (and to heart!) the lessons strewn, like bread on a forest road, throughout our existence. It’s both a medieval alertness for reality as a series of signs and a timeless awareness that God has structured existence to speak continually of the Divine, if one is a good enough person to recognize that, read it, and follow it.
It makes me wonder how many of us are that alert, that aware, that mindful. Poetry, music, and scholarship – and my job as a journalist – all of these rely heavily on notions of being aware, being in the midst of the world, cultivating a nuanced, omnidirectional alertness. Engaged and informed. Alert and aware. That’s what being alive is – and it obligates us to lead moral, humble lives, because without those, we’ll have no hope of seeing clearly.
And when Matilda calls on a dozing Dante to “Arise!” we definitely remember Lazarus. We remember the Transfiguration. We remember Easter. We remember Ephesians, with “Sleeper, awake!” It is a rising from the dead, a small version, a personal Resurrection.
And you know? I find his little personal awakening far more haunting, far more moving, far more Lenten, than the massive smash-up with Eagle, Chariot, and so on. The fate and history of the Church seems less moving than the spiritual fate of Dante. If such a bumbler, such a time-waster, such a political failure, such a trembling, flailing mess can see Beatrice and be blessed and be taken to Paradiso, anyone can.
That’s not true, of course. Not anyone. Inferno showed us those who can’t. But what counts here is that sense of hope, for the little person in the midst of a vast universe in which sin and goodness battle moment to moment. If Dante, then why not me? Maybe I will have my own Beatrice. Maybe — if I but saw it rightly — I already do.
That hope, that hopefulness, is extended to all by Dante though Dante, that feeling that we can achieve the sight of the Divine, if we stay open, work to be alert, follow the signs . . . and keep climbing.