Here too, dead poetry will rise
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Now back to us…
After a tumultuous journey through the darkest dark, the pilgrims emerge into the light of day. With hell, or as he calls it in verse 3, “gulf that proved so cruel” behind him, Dante tells us he is ready now to sing about the second realm with renewed purpose.
There are a few structural elements that remind us of Inferno: the invocation of the muse, the maritime imagery, and the astronomical details that Dante often used in Inferno to create the illusion that hell was a real place with real geographical coordinates.
Despite this Purgatorio is not a mere sequel to Inferno, but rather an opportunity for rebirth and resurrection.
It is also an opportunity for Dante to create a whole realm of the afterlife from scratch. Unlike heaven and hell, which have their roots in ancient literature from all around the globe, purgatory was an entirely Christian invention.
Its very existence is based on the idea of expiation, which is strictly Christian both in its inception and its function.
Atonement is not just an invention of Christianity but the whole religion depends on it - the most attractive (and, in my opinion, very problematic) promise of Christianity is that humans can be perfected. Although fundamentally flawed, people can strive for and achieve the cleansing of the spirit that would eventually grant them entry into God’s Paradise.
At the time of Dante’s writing, therefore, Purgatory is a relatively new concept, which gives him carte blanche when it comes to imagining the physical space that will personify it.
So it will come as no surprise when I tell you that Dante is responsible for every mental picture of purgatory the modern reader might have. Mount Purgatory was his invention; the representation of the expiation of one’s sins as an ascent up the mountain and the placement of the Garden of Eden at the top of the mountain are also all his.
But the way the modern reader might “feel” about purgatory is significantly different from the way Dante envisioned it.
In popular culture, the concept of purgatory has, for the most part, the same dreary connotations as hell. Although a step above hell, it is still a place of dehumanising suffering.
If like me, you grew up as a hardcore fan of the TV show Supernatural, you will remember purgatory as the place God created to lock away his monsters (why did God create monsters in the first place remains a mystery just like in every other text that raises this question). You will remember Dean coming back from purgatory a destroyed man, eyes still full of the atrocities he saw there.
For Dante however, Purgatory is a place of possibility. Throughout the poem, he works to emphasise humans’ capacity for redemption and to reveal the qualities that have thus far been eclipsed by sin.
This is the place where all souls are working to become “new” again: innocent as at birth, innocent as the human race in the Garden of Eden.
As he explains in Inferno, canto 34, Mount Purgatory took shape when Lucifer fell from grace, and literally fell onto our planet, piercing the earth and pushing the land mass of the mountain into the southern hemisphere. Then God placed the garden of Eden at the top of the mountain, presumably to ensure that the tragic fall of Lucifer would serve some good purpose by providing an idyllic abode for Adam and Eve (although as we all know, that didn’t last long).
The Garden of Eden - or earthly paradise, as Dante refers to it in the geography of his purgatory - remained at the top of the mountain as a symbol of the happiness that the first humans experienced and which, through expiation of their sins, other humans may come to experience again.
Going down the mountain, we have seven terraces, each of them populated by sinners who have committed one of the seven capital vices, or so-called deadly sins.
At the very bottom of the mountain, we have the area just outside of the seven terraces, called Ante-Purgatory - and you will remember there was an Ante-Inferno as well.
But before he can proceed in his journey upwards, Dante must first get past his first potential obstacle, namely Cato of Utica (or Cato the Younger).
As he and Virgil land on the sunny shore at the bottom of the mountain, Dante describes coming across a man with a long greying beard and hair which flows upon his beard in two braids. Before even speaking to the man, Dante gets the impression that this person is “deserving of all respect”. To make his appearance even more awe-inducing, the man’s face is bathed in the golden light of four holy stars.
Before Dante and Virgil can say anything the man asks them to explain themselves: who are they and where do they think they’re going?
He’s seen them come out of the hole that connects the beach of purgatory with the 9th circle of hell, so he wonders if perhaps the laws of the universe have broken down and now the sinners of hell can just walk out of there as they please.
As soon as Cato starts speaking, Virgil grabs Dante by the back of the neck (it’s not specified but this is how I like to imagine it) and pushed him down to his knees with gestures that he should show reverence to the speaker.
Then, he begins explaining what we already know: Virgil didn’t just take it upon himself to defy God’s will and leave his assigned place in hell. A lady came from heaven who told him to go help the kneeling human, who is not yet dead, although he did come very close “through his own stupidity” (v.59).
Virgil proceeds to do what my high school Italian teacher loved to call “captatio benevolentiae” - essentially he says that Dante is on a quest for freedom, hoping that this would resonate with Cato and even flatter him.
This is because Cato himself chose to commit suicide in the name of freedom. Long story short, Cato was a staunch supporter of the Roman Republic, so when he saw that Julius Caesar was quickly advancing his plans to create an empire, he decided to take his own life. Living under a regime that ensnared him to an emperor was not an option.
Virgil also tries to gain Cato’s favour by mentioning his wife Marcia, who dwells in the same region of hell as Virgil. He tells Cato that Marcia still thinks of him and that he would be more than happy to pass her a message from Cato if he lets them continue the journey.
But Cato replies in an admonishing tone that while he never once went against his wife’s wishes in life, in death she has no power over him. Now that they reside in separate realms, their bond is eternally severed.
Cato’s little speech here sets the scene for the emotional landscape we will come across in purgatory. All the ties that the individual had in life must be destroyed in order for them to access heaven. From here on out everything anyone does must be for and through the love of God.
So, Cato tells Virgil that there’s no need for “fine words”. If it’s true that this lady from heaved has ordered this journey, then they can go ahead.
But first, he tells them that Dante’s face must be washed. It’s not appropriate that he comes face to face with a heavenly creature while still bearing the dirt of hell on his face.
He also says that Virgil must tie a belt made from one of the reeds that grow on the seashore.
This last part has had different interpretations, but the general consensus revolves around the theme of the ritual. In order for Dante to move forwards into the new realm, he needs to undergo this moment of washing, which is reminiscent both of baptismal rites and of the various instances of washing of feet in the New Testament.
As for the binding, the most compelling interpretation for me is the reading of the reed as a symbol of humility. This plant that bends to the ground without breaking conveys the idea of humility and perseverance necessary to all the atoning souls of purgatory. The punishments they have to undergo here are both painful and humiliating, so the ability to withstand them is key to progress.
Another thing that I think is worth noting here is the fact that Cato is a pagan. Throughout Inferno, we got used to seeing him gush over thinkers, artists and politicians who never knew God and had no hope of ever leaving hell. We accepted Dante’s respect for them because ultimately they were in hell, getting punished in a way that was coherent with the rest of the world he built for them.
But now, in purgatory, a place described with such lightness and hope, it’s hard to justify the presence of pagans. One theory is that for all his religious devotion, Dante will forever be a classic literature fanboy. Another is that, in order to justify Virgil’s access to this realm, he had to populate it with other “worthy” pagans.
But whether the fact that there are other pagans in purgatory means that there’s still hope that Virgil may one day leave hell and begin his own ascent towards heaven is unclear.
I guess we’ll have to keep reading and see what happens. See you next week x