Several years ago I did a workshop at Green Gulch Farm, a working monastery that’s part of the San Francisco Zen Center, taught by the beat poet Michael McClure–pal of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac and other great beat poets of the 1950s. The workshop was based on what McClure called “Shannon’s law”. He offered an elaborate and delightful explanation of what “Shannon’s Law” was about, which boiled down basically to this: The more rules, the freer you can be.
What ensued was a delightful morning and afternoon of poetry writing not based on “free verse” – but instead, based on careful “rules” that constrained the writing. We discovered that the paradox was right: the more rules, the freer you can be.
In some ways, that is an apt description of a major theme of this “middle third” of the poem, the canticle called Purgatorio. It is a meditation on this: what are the rules that both bind and free at the same time? How can rules both oppress and set at liberty the human soul? Ultimately, one of the main questions at stake is this: what is human freedom? How does one attain sovereignty over oneself?
So…before we enter, we need to have a clear understanding of the “rules of the game.” Because, O reader, take note. We ain’t in hell no more. Different house. Different rules.
First of all: there’s weather. There’s a sunrise. Hey – there’s change! Growth! Hell is a place characterized by absence, just as Augustine characterized evil itself: it has no substance, but indeed is the absence of something, namely good. Therefore in hell, the most notable absence is that of change itself. It is a place where people suffer, and continue to repeat throughout all of eternity the very thing that creates that suffering. Hell is the place where suffering has no meaning. Hell is the place where people keep doing the same damn thing (literally) over and over again, expecting a different result.
Here, we learn, is different. We read that in Purgatory, the purpose of Dante’s pilgrimage is to witness the place of those “whose suffering makes them clean.” (I.66) In purgatory, people do not do what they are compulsed to do over and over; they do what they truly desire to do–what they will to do: to suffer. Their will is aligned with the work of suffering. Why? Because here, suffering gets you somewhere. Ultimately, it gets you to heaven.
And we shall see in some detail the means by which that can happen – through confession, contrition, and satisfaction. There are rules by which the soul becomes clean. Rules to make you free.
Dante is well aware that there seem to be rules of a different sort, rules that govern the universe. And there are rules governing the intricate schema he’s devised (or recorded, we might imagine) that describe how hell, purgatory and heaven function.
AND YET. Here’s a weird thing. We enter this brand new realm, Purgatory, and encounter a sight that should cause us to do a double-take at our programs. Dante and Virgil cast their gaze on the solitary figure of Cato, and we are meant to think, “Huh? That dude shouldn’t be here.” It’s a violation of the rules!
Cato’s presence in purgatory seems a violation of the careful plan that Dante has laid out, the very precise rules that govern the spiritual physics of the universe: how is it that this guy, a pagan, and a suicide to boot, gets the job of guarding purgatory–the place that in essence is heaven? Why does he get a free pass, and the other sots in limbo not get there?
Perhaps he would appreciate Emerson’s famous dictum, “A slavish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Because no, Dante is at his subtlest here in this first Canto of Purgatorio. He seems to invite us to reflect on the rules, how precisely reasoned they are. How we need a structure in which to be free. But rules are the scaffold, not the building. Therefore, they are meant at some level to be taken down. “Rules are meant to be broken”, as the cliche goes.
So, why is Cato the exception to the rule? Cato’s story itself is the obvious signal as to what Dante is up to here: Cato lived and died for the sake of freedom. Of liberty. As we read in our Ciardi, he opposed Caesar for the principle of freedom; fell on his sword rather than to lose his freedom.
So…what then is freedom? Is it just doing our own thing, whatever we want (or “will”)? Is the will indeed free if it’s just unfettered? Or is it possible that the lack of any structure in which to experience freedom – true freedom – can be a kind of jail? Can really be a kind of slavery?
At the very beginning, Cato realizes that one cannot escape hell on his own power, with one’s own sovereignty. “Who led you?” he asks Dante and Virgil. “Are the laws of the pit so broken?” In other words, “who changed the rules all of a sudden?”
Virgil explains to him, of course, that no. They are not breaking the rules because here is one who is “still to see his final hour.”
Things here are akimbo. A liminal state, an in-between place where the rules don’t quite make sense. Cato is an almost-saint, one who is not motivated by love, as much by authority. It’s not his former love Marcia that moves him, but the authority of Beatrice. Cato is one moved by what is proper and virtuous. One who follows the rules.
Note some other signs of things to come; other wonderful and beautiful gestures that allude to the things of our spiritual beginnings: Dante washes himself with the dew of a new morning – a reference to the baptism that washes away the sin. And as they begin a new journey, we have another allusion to a key ingredient of this process toward freedom: humility. They begin on a descent. To go up still means that you begin…by going down.
Final note: Hope there are some folk willing to add their own commentary on this canto, by replying here – or to respond to the main reflection. We’d love to hear from you!