Next stop: Paradise
We made it! The final canto of Purgatorio is here and it’s short and sweet - but not any less rich in meaning.
Canto 33 revolves around a conversation between Dante and Beatrice. Finally, after several cantos-long preamble, our man is face to face with his beloved angel-woman (who unfortunately for him brother-zones him in this canto) without any more processions or saints or bizarre re-enactments getting in the way.
The conversation is introduced by a Latin quotation from Psalm 70, which refers to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC which was a representation of the victory of evil over God’s chosen people.
Hearing the psalm, Beatrice becomes visibly flustered - Dante tells us she changes like the Virgin Mary changed at the sight of her son on the cross. But then the red of her robes overtakes her appearance as if to suggest that she returns to her usual sense of self-possession with renewed force.
The dialogue between her and Dante has something of the familiar in it (despite Dante’s overt difficulty in grasping what she’s talking about half the time).
Beatrice calls the poet to her side, so that they can have an intimate conversation, and finally, she makes eye contact with him, an experience he describes as being “pierced” by her gaze. As if to emphasise his awkwardness, Dante also tells us that he still fails to address her properly, still unable to “get living voice behind [his] teeth”.
This description of his immediate reaction to their chat reminded me again of the contrast between Virgil and Beatrice that I was writing about a few weeks back. This inarticulate fool is a far cry from the wise journeyman who was ready to trust his judgment which Virgil praised in their last conversation.
And as if to put the last nail in the coffin of the old Dante, Beatrice continues to chide him: for his past failure to honour her memory by living a righteous life and for the intellectual vanity that has calcified around him closed-off brain and made him into the dummy now standing before her.
But as she speaks, Beatrice is smiling. The fact that Dante is unable at this point to fully understand the mysteries behind her words is not a measure of his inadequacy as much as it is a sign of his humanity. It’s understandable that his mind should fail to fully digest divine knowledge after a lifetime of living off of secular philosophy and science.
But what is she trying to tell him that he so miserably fails to understand?
Her first allusion seems to refer to the alliance between the Church and the kings of France, symbolized by the eagle as we saw last week - the “vessel that the serpent broke” refers to the bit of the performance in which the eagle flew down on the chariot.
This unholy alliance, she says, will not escape God’s revenge. She conveys this information through the rather cryptic (for the modern reader) reference to a feudal convention, according to which a murderer could escape revenge if he managed to eat a sop of bread while sitting on the victim’s grave for three consecutive days.
The point being, a day will come when the Church and the crown of France will have to reckon with their corruption and arrogance, respectively.
When or how this will happen is conveyed through a mysterious piece of numerological symbolism. To this day, despite many attempts, no one has been able to offer a plausible explanation of what FIVE HUNDRED TEN AND FIVE means.
In the second half of the canto, the inscrutable prophecies slowly fade into the background to make room for a return to description and narrative.
Beatrice explains that now that Dante has drunk from the Lethe, thus forgetting his “science” as well as his guilt, he will be ready to drink from Eunoe, the other river that flows from the Lethe’s source. Once that ritual is also complete, all intellectual barriers will be lifted and her words will become clear as day to Dante.
It falls on Matelda to complete this ritual - and this time she also gets explicitly named when Beatrice calls upon her to do so.
The canto ends with Dante’s admission that he couldn’t possibly describe the freshness of that river nor the effect of its waters upon him (which is ironic considering that Beatrice just told him to take care to write everything down for the rest of us!).
He does, however, tell us that he came back from the “holiest of waves”, remade, pure, and prepared to finally see the stars.
And that’s it!
I want to say a huge congratulations to everyone who has kept up with the book club for nearly 2 years!! This is the longest commitment I’ve made to anything that wasn’t a contractual obligation (lol) and I’m so proud of all of us for sticking to it every week.
What a joy it has been to go on this journey together x.