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The beatification of Dante Alighieri
Last week I wrote about the Virgil-Beatrice dichotomy and the hierarchy between the intellectual and spiritual knowledge they respectively represent. There was still room at that point to argue that a sound intellect is a necessary stepping stone toward spiritual enlightenment - in other words that Virgil’s work was vital to Dante’s current meeting with Beatrice.
But in canto 31 we see Beatrice tear Dante apart, in a way that undoes all of the confidence that Virgil encourages in him when he says his goodbye at the end of canto 27.
The canto starts with Beatrice directing the “sword point” of her words at Dante. This is a continuation of the chastisement she began in the previous canto, where she reproached Dante his ease in forgetting about her after her death in favour of another mistress, namely intellectual work. Here, she reprises some of the same themes.
In order for Dante to progress on his journey beyond the earthly paradise, Beatrice demands that he confess his sin, which, as we saw last week, consists in having consciously refused to take the right path in life, despite being blessed with the skills and talents necessary to first of all identify a life compatible with the will of God and then remain on that path.
But Dante, ever the flawed hero, fails to speak. Although he seems to understand pretty quickly that the act of confession is necessary to completing the purgation process, Dante is so overwhelmed, both by the sight of his beloved and by guilt, that he cannot physically utter a word.
At this, Beatrice continues to elaborate the ways in which he failed to lead a righteous life. Particularly, she explains that his desire for her, which should have led him to a greater understanding of love, and by extension God, was not strong enough to outlast her physical presence. Soon after her death, Dante sought refuge in the “easements, profits, gain or benefit” that came with the approval of his contemporaries, she says.
Dante, a slobberig mess by this point, manages to acknowledge that seeking earthly accomplishments was weak of him and Beatrice seems appeased. She explains that sin cannot be forgiven until uttered by the sinner and until the latter sits with a sense of “proper shame”. This is a catholic poem after all, and what would catholics be without their shame?! (besides happier, ofc).
In order to make him feel this proper shame, she goes on to elaborate on how he should have lived his life after her death, which she begins with the delightful tercet:
‘Never had art or nature shown to you
such beauty and delight as did those limbs,
in which I was enclosed…’
Might go ahead and use this to describe myself from now on.
But back to Dante, who, admonished by Beatrice at length, tells us he is at this point simply standing before her, dumb with shame, like a little boy. Juxtaposed to this personal description, Beatrice calls out to him to “raise his beard”, which is ostensibly a marker of maturity. At this point in the canto we reach a climax in the undoing of Dante I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
The Dante Virgil left us with was dignified and confident - that was the intellectual Dante. Here we have the spiritual Dante, who can only begin to take shape once he does away with the arrogance that comes from the intellectual confidence Virgil instilled in him.
At this point of total obliteration of the self, Matelda pops up out of nowhere again and finally drags him through the river Lethe, from which once submerged he ends up drinking.
I’ll take a moment here to remind you of the parallels we drew between the Leah/Rachel and Matelda/Beatrice duos. Just like Leah represented the pragmatic dimension of life and Rachel the intellectual/spiritual one, so Matelda enacts the practical part of Dante’s salvation, after Beatrice carried out the spiritual one.
Now on the other side of the river, Dante is welcomed by the female incarnations of the virtues, who introduce themselves as nymphs, stars and Beatrice’s maids, and they lead him face to face with her. Beatrice, who has until this point kept her face hidden behind her veil, finally reveals her face, chiefly her incredibly bright “emeralds” - her eyes.
Here, Dante presents us with a gorgeous piece of imagery. Reflected in Beatrice’s eyes he sees the image of the Gryphon, which as we already discussed is a symbolic incarnation of Christ. A lot has been written about this moment, and I invite you to read as much criticism as you like. Personally, I prefer to indulge in the aesthetic beauty of these last few cantos.
The same goes for the last phase of the canto, in which, upon request from the divine entities present, Beatrice finally turns her gaze upon Dante. The meeting of their eyes triggers a moment of aphasia in Dante. It’s not just that he is speechless - he does ironically go on and on about how he doesn’t have the words to express what he sees. He is faced with the unexplainable, the unnameable beauty of the perfected, divine version of the woman that had already been on par with angels for him.
Not only this - having drunk form the Lethe, he has also forgotten his former sinful existence. The very concept of sin has been washed away from his person, thus clearing his soul for the purest of sights. And such visions cannot be expressed in earthly terms.