There are many arresting things about Dante’s Purgatorio. You can no longer sin – unlike in Inferno, where everything you do is sin, to compound and perpetuate the sin for which you have been damned. But in Purgatorio, you can sin no longer, only do things that expiate sin, a hopeful, gratifying sign that in Purgatorio, you are within the skirts of grace. You can and do suffer, however, both externally (as in corporeal agony and the physical work of climbing up the winding terraces of the mountain) (which, beautifully enough, gets easier and lighter as you climb, signifying an increase of grace and a nearness to Paradise) and internally – through shame. And as we see throughout this astonishing, strange, twilit poem, shame agonizes as bad as fire. The denizens “add to their burning with their shame,” hastening their self-purification toward Paradise.
In Inferno, Dante sees many burning in endless torment for lust, and for unnatural or excessive brands of sex. Paolo and Francesca, two of the most admired characters in the entire Commedia, are in hell. So why are they in hell, but Sodomites and Hermaphrodites and poets of desire here in Purgatorio?
Because in hell you can’t feel shame. Paolo and Francesca capitulated to the kind of desire in which you cease to care. They abandoned station, compassion, and conscience; they literally let their passion (stoked, remember, by love poetry!) burn them up until there was nothing left. They ceased to feel the shame that is the voice of conscience calling. And in Inferno they feel no shame, either. Shame is, of course, pointless once you’re in hell. You can feel regret, bitterness, and fury – and since these will be directed at God, they, too, will be sins. Paolo and Francesca didn’t care and still don’t. They are beautiful in a way, because of the totality of their passion, and also because of its source. But shame implies you care, and they didn’t then, and they don’t now that they’re in Inferno.
So it’s not sex, or the kind of sex, or the mere fact of sex, that damns. It’s a particular, familiar kind of crime, an immersion past conscience in the luxurious blandishments of physical pleasure. We recall that the Latin verb pervertere, from which we get “perversion,” really means “a turning away,” possibly a relic of a time in which face-to-face sex was the only kind thought to be allowed, and so any turning away from the partner was a perversion – but much more probably an acknowledgment that any kind of perversion, as when we pervert parenthood, or fiscal probity, or social responsibility, or trust, or love, or food, involves a turning away from God.
So those who are here at the Seventh Cornice, those so close to the top, to the embrace of the Lord, they are those who fell through lust, but retained a conscience throughout. From here (2011), it may seem a small thing, but it’s dispositive, the utter difference. The Lust we encounter in Purgatorio is not mortal, not the soul-destroying, God-alienating evil lust (or any sinful behavior) can be.
Think of Dr. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s play. When he gets close to hell, Faustus prays to feel remorse – and he can’t. Prayer is futile. Efforts at reform, repentance, metanoia, useless. It’s gone. When Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, kneels to pray, he does so knowing his repentance is incomplete. He feels some sorrow that he killed his brother . . . but he still wants the things he got via the murder – his brother’s kingdom and his brother’s wife. Wanting these, he knows, means he doesn’t want to pray, doesn’t want to get any better. The intention isn’t there, so you might as well get up, Claudius, and go your way, because you’re cooked. Conscience is gone. “Words without thoughts, never to heaven go.” God won’t hear them because what you’re saying aren’t words – they’re noises without meaning or sense.”
By contrast, the way the Sodomites and Hermaphrodites and poets of desire – all the while burning in the terrible fire to Dante’s left – mingle praise (of Mary, of chaste Diana, etc.) and shout out their crimes in shame demonstrate how far we’ve come from hell. That’s how the Whip of Shame works, the Whip of Lust. Passing in different directions, exchanging kisses of greeting with one another, the homosexuals cry out “Sodom and Gomorrha!” and the straights repeat the tale of Pasiphaë. Shame, the capacity to feel shame, shows conscience is still alive; once shame dies, your soul dies, too. So, as Dante and Virgil wind their way along the Seventh Cornice, they hear the alternating shouts of physical agony and cries of personal grief at transgression, which amounts, in an uncanny, surreal way, to an ecstasy, a possession by the spirit of grace.
I don’t think Dante is saying you can screw around and still be all right. He’s saying, reasonably enough, that sin and intention and conscience lie across a certain range, for almost all sins. Yes, for some sins, to commit, even to consider, is to self-condemn. But the great mass of human failings stretch across a spectrum, and that includes lust.
Jimmy Carter will join me in the part of Purgatorio (I hope) dedicated to those who have lusted in their hearts.
That this state involves agony is inescapable. When the souls in the wall of flame realize Dante is mortal, they want to know why and how he’s here, and one cries out to him: “Answer me, who burns in thirst and fire.” Burning, surely, is apposite for the crime of lust. And in the next Canto, Dante himself will, after hesitating cowardly, plunge face-first into fire that will make him write, “I would have cast myself into molten glass to refresh myself, so measureless was the burning there.” This is serious fire, people, and even Dante, to get to Beatrice, to Paradise, to God, must go through the same fire as all mortals, suffer what all Purgatorio’s denizens suffer.
As a matter of fact, actual representations of lust and perversion are somewhat light in this Canto. We see Pasiphaë, who had intercourse with a bull, but this is a type, and besides, anyone who knew the myth knew she did it because she was driven mad in a curse from Poseidon, so that rather dilutes the intentionality implicit in excessive lust. (I mean, if bulls are your fancy, fine.) There’s also passing reference to Caesar’s homosexual dalliance with Nicomedes, King of Bithynia. But, especially compared to parallel depictions in Inferno, it goes light.
We get to see and hear much more of the poets of passion. We are not told why these poets are here, specifically . . . there seems to be an implication that, having written of lust, they must burn a little for lust. Guinizelli does speak for the “hermaphrodites” (which apparently means the heterosexuals who indulged too much), that they are here because “we did not serve human law, following appetite like beasts,” but adding that they had “repented before the final hour,” showing conscience and presumably landing their souls here. Strangely, though, I must say (and maybe because he’s a poet), Dante’s evident reverence for Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel seems, tonally, to balance out our consciousness of their punishment.
Now it’s time to talk about poets. The entire Commedia is a job application, in a way. Dante is well aware that he’s a well-known, much-praised poet, and he’s working, quite self-consciously, in a groundbreaking fashion, writing epic poetry in the vulgar tongue, not Latin. He’s using a language, if you will, that still isn’t used to being poetry, a language still controversial, still a challenge to taste and propriety. And he, Dante, is bent on showing how this language can rank with the great literary tongues of all time, that is, with Latin and Greek. Dante takes up the Commedia, in part, to show that what became “Italian” was a suitable language to sustain the greatest themes, the most profound investigations. Much like the Virgil who leads him through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante is an urban, self-conscious “modern” (he even calls his style of poetry “l’uso moderno,” “the modern fashion,” to distinguish it from the classical writers), who shoulders the vast tasks of ancient poetry (tales of God, man, sin, good, evil, and redemption) both to echo the ancients and to make something new. He thinks of what he’s doing as modern, as being of his moment. And he knows he’s putting himself forward as a poet without precedent. Thus he rubs shoulders with Statius, Virgil,
We get to meet a forerunner in writing verse in Italian, Guinizelli. I’m always amazed by just how good these writers were: Guinizelli, Cavalcanti, Dante . . . incredibly complex stanza forms, complex ideas, wit, and music. Dante calls Guinizelli “father of me and of others better than me.” Really the founder of the “sweet new style.” Dante had already written love poetry in La Vita Nuova and Il Convivio , poetry good enough to establish a reputation, and here, he continues, professionally, aggressively, expansively, to go for the very top.
These things mean a lot to him. We get a little literary-critical argument about poets with undeserved reputations, such as Guittone, or Girault de Bornelh. I don’t know Guittone much, but I’ve translated a bit of Girault, and I think he’s pretty good. But Dante clearly reverences Arnaut Daniel more. John Ciardi seems to sniff at this taste, but others don’t. Ezra Pound called him one of the greatest poets of all time, and T.S. Eliot loved him, too. So do I, for a lot of reasons. You’ll note that Arnaut speaks to Dante in Provencal, and although Ciardi might be right, that Dante would have heard this as antique and old-timey, I rather think he also thought of it as “great” poetry, and the moment his beloved Arnaut addresses him, in the revered language of his poetry, is a moment at which Dante pretty much crowns himself an equal of the greats.
And that’s where we end. We still have a ways to go in the Seventh Cornice, including a cannonball into the Wall of Flame itself. But we have to go there. Dante has to suffer it to get to Beatrice (Virgil even incentivizes him with “I can almost see her eyes now!”). It’s a minor personal Purgatory within the greater scheme of Purgatorio – almost as if the poet knew that he, along with the passionate poets he reveres, will pay a price for their art beyond their earthly lives. Yet they are also “souls sure of having, whenever it may be, a state of peace.”