You are here
ITAL 310: Dante in Translation
- Purgatory I, II
In this lecture, Professor Mazzotta introduces Purgatory and proceeds with a close reading of Cantos I and II. The topography of Mount Purgatory is described, and the moral system it structures is contrasted with that of Hell. Dante’s paradoxical choice of Cato, a pagan suicide, as guardian to the entrance of Purgatory ushers in a discussion of freedom from the standpoint of classical antiquity, on the one hand, and Judaism, on the other. In his refusal to be enslaved by the past, both on earth and in the afterlife, Cato is seen to embody the virtues of exile, setting an example for the penitent souls of Ante-purgatory (Purgatory II), including the pilgrim, who still clings to the comforts of the past.
|Low Bandwidth Video
|High Bandwidth Video
Dante in Translation
ITAL 310 - Lecture 10 - Purgatory I, II
Chapter 1. Purgatory as an Idea and as a Poetic Construction [00:00:00]
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Today we will begin Purgatorio which is a word meaning place of cleansing, purification and is the middle section of the poem, literally a place of transition between the world of Hell, and all the evil that we have witnessed, and then, the realm of glory which is going to be Paradise.
Let me say a few things about Purgatory, both as an idea and as a poetic construction, Dante’s poetic construction. As an idea, the way Dante understands it, Purgatory is part of human geography. As you know, it’s located in the southern hemisphere. There are two hemispheres in medieval geography: the northern hemisphere, which is the one we inhabit, and then there is the southern hemisphere, and Purgatory is an island. I have tried to explain to you last time the origin of this place. In Dante’s medieval poetic thinking it’s an island that emerged from the northern hemisphere at the time of Lucifer’s fall. The earth trembles and retreats, that’s the idea, as Lucifer approaches and thus it creates the void which becomes Hades, the abyss, and the island — and the Purgatory emerges on the other side, in the southern hemisphere. At the top of the Purgatory, there is the island — there is — the peak is the Garden of Eden, there where God placed Adam and Eve.
So that from this point of view, Purgatory is part of human geography, but it’s historically inaccessible to human beings. One hero that we already met, Ulysses, in Inferno XXVI, tries to approach an island and retrospectively, we can understand that that was the island of Purgatory as if it were a place of immortality that Ulysses wanted to reach and could not. That journey of his ended in shipwreck and tragically. Inferno XXVI is the text for that kind of concern.
The other trait about Purgatory, a moral trait, since this is now — we are going to enter the realm of reconstruction of the human and this sort of makes of sense that Dante should place it immediately after Hell. It is as if only by knowing, only by experiencing more or less, as metaphorically as we can, through the poetry of Dante, the nature of evil and the horror of it, can we begin to have an appreciation of the good. The good toward which — now the pilgrim is going to climb.
The other thing that you should keep in mind about Purgatory, and the difficulties that the poet will have, is the following. The perception of moral life and political life in Inferno was so satanic, so narrow, so terrible that Dante’s going to have a lot of — quite a challenge to try to explain the usefulness and the possibility of reconstructing a moral world, then the political world. He came very close to a total rejection of the historical world and the political world, and now he has to find out how that reconstruction is going to be possible. The way he will do this is, literally, to go back to the natural world.
Do not expect Dante to imagine a place where there is some kind of redemptive intervention from the outside that can tell us, this is the way you do it. The natural world must be capable of producing within itself some — at least contain some seeds for a need to reconstruct — for a need for the good. This is going to be part of his strategy and his difficulties.
A further trait of Purgatory which was really completely missing in Inferno, we had never had a sense of time. Time was the biological clock of the pilgrim who was the only living creature, the only truly displaced figure, and he is the only displaced figure throughout the poem. In Purgatorio he will find — in Purgatorio, they’re all displaced figures. So it’s a more human world, but here, now, they have this sense of time. In fact, the first thing that we come to understand is how — what time is. It’s time understood as future oriented, as a projection in some kind of future, and, at the same time, this idea of time also turns out to be a return to the past. So that as the pilgrim is going ahead, he really discovers that he’s going backwards to the Garden of Eden: exactly there where Adam and Eve were placed at the top of Purgatory by God at the time — in the story that you have in Genesis, for instance.
This idea of time, this will become truly a leitmotif throughout Purgatory. The idea of what is the relationship between the past and the future, since the only real time is really the future from that point of view, which makes you understand that even the past was the future at some point, at least right? The future is the only thing that Dante is going to be interested in and the future will come in the possibility of a future, and the way it’s related to the past will become the object of his concerns, the object of his thinking openly as he goes through the various ledges of Purgatory.
Poetically, the Purgatory is divided into two — into three parts, I would say actually. The first part is the so-called anti-Purgatory, made of souls who are waiting. They’re not really penitent yet, but waiting to be assigned a particular place along the ledges. And then, the so-called penitents before going through the process of cleansing, beginning with pride, and ending up with lechery at — just before the pilgrim gets into the Garden of Eden. The ordering of sins is the exact reversal of the ordering of sins you had in Inferno. Here you begin with a spiritual sin or intellectual sin, the question of pride, and end up with the most physical and material of them all, lechery, which as you recall is the inverted image of what happened in Inferno with Lucifer and the sin of Lucifer being really a sin of pride at the end of Canto XXIV.
Chapter 2. Canto I: A New Departure [00:07:34]
Well, having said this maybe other things will come to mind as I go on today. Let me begin with some other — a couple of details as I — just as I get into — plunge into Canto I. What is the pilgrim now? The poem — the journey began on Good Thursday, as it’s called. Dante spends the first night but the journey — the real journey begins on Good Friday in a clear imitation of Christ’s harrowing of Hell and emergence into the light on Easter Sunday. That’s where we are now, Easter Sunday morning. If the Inferno begins at dusk therefore, the idea of the approaching night that stands for the unknowability of whatever he is going to confront. Dante’s fascinated with the idea of the night throughout Inferno. Imagine — remember Ulysses who travels following the sun and then ends up really gazing at the night, the unknowability of his destiny, the unknowability of the place even where he is.
Now we begin with dawn and therefore Canto I of Purgatorio becomes that which in Provençal literature is called an aubade, from the word, aube, alba in Italian, aubade. The song — the dawn song, a song that in many ways reverses the grand tradition of the erotic lyrics of Provençal poetry where the dawn becomes the unhappy time for the parting of lovers and here now its regained as the great time when, finally, the pilgrim can go on and the poet can go on mapping, literally now mapping the journey, sailing through or sending as the metaphor that he asks — that he adopts can be.
The poem — the second part of the poem, Purgatorio begins, first of all, with an image of water and therefore it carries further this motif of the cleansing and purification, but really with a better metaphor from our point of view. “To course over better waters the little bark of my wit now lifts her sails, leaving behind her so cruel a sea, and I will sing of that second kingdom where the human spirit is purged and becomes fit to ascend to Heaven. But here let poetry rise again from the dead, O holy Muses, since I am yours; and here let Calliope rise up for a while and accompany my song with that strain which smote the ears of the wretched pies so that they despaired of pardon.”
It’s an extraordinary proem to Purgatorio, for a number of reasons. First of all, Dante picks up the metaphor of the epic topos, the epic metaphor of the journey with which the poem began, ‘in the middle of the journey of our life,’ as you recall. But now this idea of the process as indicated with — first of all, it’s sailing, therefore literally recalling the sea voyage of Ulysses. That’s an oblique metaphor.
I want to draw your attention to the use of this adjective — a comparative adjective — that’s what we call it in grammar, as you recall: “the better waters.” It’s just Dante’s emphasis, exactly on the process and then the comparatively good. This is not the best of waters; it’s not the worst of waters; this is the better waters. We are really on the way to better things. It’s a world of degree that Dante introduces. Dante really believes in a sort of hierarchy and a hierarchy of values, of states, of powers, of beauty, of intellect. The world cannot be — it’s never a dualistic world between what’s bad and what’s good. There’s a lot of mediations, meditating steps along the way, and now he already introduces this whole question with the notion of the better waters.
“The little bark” with its — this is not only a journey; this is a journey of poetry. It is as if Dante now wants to highlight a motif which is going to be very crucial throughout the poem and in our reading of this poem. That the reading of this poem, and I have been addressing this issue to some of your questions, that there really is no sharp, no drastic discontinuity between the journey of the pilgrim and the journey of the poet. That the journey of the poet is an extension; it, in itself, is a journey — in of itself is a journey of knowledge and the journey of discovery. Dante makes large claims for poetry: poetry is a way of knowing. It’s just not a re-commemoration of the past.
Now here, he talks about the journey as being the journey of the poet, “the little bark of my wit.” It’s a conventional way of thinking about the bark of poetry with which he is — there seems to be a way of saying this is now more — at this stage, at least, he wants us to think about the journey of poetry and not just the journey that he himself will use — will undertake the journey of the pilgrim, the hard, difficult journey filled with fear that he was experiencing in Inferno.
I also want to draw your attention to another little detail of the text. This is — the first time now that Dante will use the future tense. “I will sing.” We’re in a world open to futurity and, if it’s open to futurity, the only way of thinking about futurity is made possible by a belief in the new. You have to — you cannot really think — yes, you can think of the future, but if the future is exactly as it is today, then you really have no future. Then you really think that all is released into the domain of sameness. If my day today is exactly what — the world that I experienced yesterday, there’s no new, no idea of the new. And Dante: here, uses the future, and clearly implying that there is an alternative, a difference, a possibility of doing things in ways that have not been done before.
This is going to be a new departure, a new departure for thought, a new departure for the imagination, and now he says it has to be also a new departure for poetry itself. I emphasize this idea of the future “will sing.” The first time that he — he wasn’t saying this in Inferno, of course he couldn’t even say that in the Vita nuova. You remember that I pointed out when we were reading that little autobiographical, great, text called the Vita nuova, at the beginning of the term, I indicated to you that there is never the future tense used in that text. It was all a book of memory with the difficulties and the dangers of memory. The dangers of memory being that memory changes, can draw us into a world of phantasms. That’s one of the — it’s not a rejection of memory, only a way of highlighting its possible dangers. And the belief that unless you live with some idea of danger, maybe we’re not really thinking hard enough.
Here now it’s the — the only time that the future was used in the Vita nuova was either in the idea of death, when Dante has a prophetic dream and he hears a voice that he perceives as a kind of soul. So truth laden it is in that voice that he thinks of it as a kind of prophecy, as a sort of oracle speaking to him: you too will die. Beatrice has just died and then the death of Beatrice brings to his mind the fear and threat of mortality to him. You too will die: that’s the way the future is going to be understood. Then the poem, the whole Vita nuova ends with a statement of hope, and hope to work and write things whereby I can say things about Beatrice that had never been said about any woman and so that becomes the two possibilities of the future. The only — literally once grammatically the future tense and the other with — through this periphrastic construction, this oblique construction about the hope, the verb use of the hope in — with the idea of the future indicated there.
Chapter 3. The Muses: Tonality and Orientation [00:16:35]
Then, “but here let poetry rise again from the dead,” and the prayer to the muses, very much in the style of the epic tradition and especially of the muses, to want the muse of epic poetry, Calliope. Then the focus of Calliope will really tell you something about the kind of — think retrospectively really explains, “but let dead poetry rise again from the dead.”
The poem presents itself as Calliope, was the mother of whom? Anybody remember? Remember your mythology? Okay, no you don’t now, but it’s the mother of Orpheus, so let dead poetry rise again from the dead it’s — Dante presents himself as he were an orphic poet. He was not an orphic poet, but it’s really a poet in the tradition of Orpheus who wants to conquer death; that’s clearly not for him, that’s what the Orpheus descent into the underworld really is the way of conquering death. The belief that poetry can do the trick, that through poetry we immortalize ourselves, we conquer death, he is going to very soon to understand that that’s not the way he is going to do that.
Then something in the second paragraph I want to read it a little bit, because it really gives you a different sense of the tonality of Purgatorio, because not only do you have now morning and time, you also for the first time have light. Not the sort of spectacular shades of light, the blue, the reds, the green with which he experiences and dramatizes Paradise according to the lights emanating from the various planets, the red of Mars, the white of Jupiter, the blue of Saturn and so there is a kind of polychromic palette that is going to be deployed. Here it’s now a more human and natural world, the natural world, and listen to this and this enables me to say something else about the traits of Purgatorio.
“The sweet hue of the oriental sapphire which was gathering the serene face of the heavens from the clear zenith to the first circle, gladdened my eyes again as soon as I passed out of the dead air which had afflicted my eyes and breast. The fair planet that prompts to,” Venus, the morning star, “to love made all the east laugh, veiling the Fishes which were in her train. I turned to the right.”
You remember that I sort of tried to explain to you that, with one exception that I can’t explain, nobody can explain, and very few people have noticed the — Dante is now turning to the right, which is to say that even while going down, spiraling down in the world of Hell he actually was going to the right. Though he said that he was going to the left, and he was going to the left because he was upside down. Now he is right side up and so the directions of the human world are going to be regained.
“I turned to the right,” he will never use this image again, “and set my mind on the other pole, and I saw four stars never seen before but by the first people,” Adam and Eve. “The skies seem to rejoice in their flames. O widowed region of the north, since thou art denied that sight!” The northern hemisphere is where we are. Dante’s in the southern hemisphere. He is connecting with us, telling us what we are deprived of in — by not knowing, by having lost Paradise.
A couple of things that I will not — since Dante will go back to these images. The way he literally orients himself: the metaphor he uses is that of — is the oriental light, and the way he’s always orienting or reorienting himself. How do you know where you are, is now in Purgatorio and also in Paradise, when thinking about characters here on earth and recalling their lives it’s always by looking at the east. It’s always by looking in the light of the east, and from this point of view Dante really retrieves that most incredible metaphor that is available among the mystics, medieval mystics, and I’m thinking — or thinkers. I’m thinking of even Boethius, Cassiodorus — I hope they’re not just names for you — who think — who believe that you can only think, that we in the west, the western light, can only think by looking toward the east. That the way in which we can be orienting ourselves is by trying to capture the source of that light. I mean this in the most metaphorical, and as we shall see, the widest senses possible, but that’s all he is saying now.
But at the same time, in the language, it’s incredible how it has shifted between the first paragraph and the second paragraph. That which seems to be the excitement for the light, and now he’s experiencing again; it’s Easter Sunday. He understands the Resurrection, this is going to hit him very strongly now, but it’s also an elegiac — the tonality is elegiac, the idea of what we have lost, the widowed region of the northern hemisphere, the sense of general loss, though it’s a provisional privilege for him to see all this, but this indicates and introduces that the extraordinary tension, poetic tension in Purgatory. The dialectic between excitement for the future and an elegy for the past. The pilgrim is caught in between and we shall see the consequences between — this is still at the level of tonality I would call it, but we shall see what this really means in a moment.
As Dante approaches now, “When I have withdrawn my gaze,” and so on. This is line 25: “When I have withdrawn my gaze from them,” turning to the stars, “turning a little toward the other pole, where the Wain had already disappeared, I saw beside me an old man alone, worthy by his looks of so great reverence that no son owes more to a father; his beard was long and streaked with white, and his hair the same, a double tress falling on his breast,” etc.
Chapter 4. Cato [00:23:27]
This is going to be the encounter with Cato and I want to talk about Cato. Let me just give you a little bit of extra Dantesque information. I mean in a way, this is — you probably do not know that this representation, we call this descriptio of the old man with the beard or white — streaked with white but on two sides really is the paradigm — the model that Michelangelo writes — Michelangelo follows in his conception of Moses. Though Dante doesn’t lose sight of the fact that this is Cato. Just a little piece of how Michelangelo read this particular meeting.
Who is this Cato? Dante describes him as an old man, and we also know that he’s a Roman. He’s a pagan, and he’s not only a pagan, he’s a man of laws. The first thing that he wonders and he says, paragraph, “Who are ye that I have fled,” these are just people who have tried to literally escape from prison, “the eternal prison against the blind stream?’ he said…’Who has guided you or who was your lantern in coming forth from profound night that holds in perpetual blackness the valley of Hell? Are the laws of the abyss thus broken,” this is the Roman tradition of the law, “are there laws of the abyss.”
In a way this is a man who is a stranger to the world of Purgatory. He certainly doesn’t seem to understand the heaven may have been some grace that maybe Dante and his guide are here out of some providential intervention which is not to be explained by laws or by natural, or by the laws of nature, or by manmade laws.
“Are the laws of the abyss broken or has a new decree,” he wonders, “been made in heaven that, being damned, you come to my cliffs?’ My leader,” Virgil. The two Romans talk now and I who myself, “Then answered him: ‘Of myself, I came not. A lady,” Beatrice, a recapitulation of Inferno I, “descended from Heaven for whose prayers I succoured this man with my companionship; but since this is thy will to have it made more plain how in truth it stands with us, it cannot be mine to deny thee. This man never saw his last hour, but by his folly was so near to it that little time was left to run. I was sent to him … I have shown him all the guilty race and now purpose to show him those spirits that cleanse themselves under thy charge. How I have led him would be long to tell thee; there descends from above virtue which aids me in bringing him to see thee and to hear thee. May it please thee to be gracious to his coming. He goes seeking liberty which is so dear, as he knows who gives his life for it.”
And the reference is clearly to Cato himself who, historically — a historical figure — actually committed suicide in the civil war and refusing to take sides between Pompey and Caesar, as is told in the great epic by Lucan, the Roman Spanish poet, who wrote the so-called Civil War. A text that is very polemical, in between-among other things — with Virgil.
“Thou knowest it, since death for it was no bitter to thee in Utica,” in North Africa, “where thou didst leave the vesture,” the body, “which in the great day will be so bright. The eternal edicts are not broken for us, for this man lives and Minos does not bind me; but I am of the circle,” Limbo, “where are the chased eyes of thy Marcia,” his wife, “who in her looks still prays thee, O holy breast, that thou hold her for thine own. For her love, then, do thou incline to us, allow us to go through thy seven kingdoms. I will report to her thy kindness if thou deign to be spoken of there below.”
And he responds, “Marcia so pleased my eyes while I was yonder,’ he said then, “that whatever kindness she sought of me I did; now that she dwells beyond the evil stream she cannot move me more, by the law which was made when I came forth from thence. But if a lady,” etc.
This is an amazing from — in substantial terms, an amazing beginning in the poem because Dante meets Cato whom he defines — we are being told there that he’s an old man, a pagan, and a suicide. There are traits that Virgil singles out, obliquely referring to his adventures and that clearly contradict the world of Purgatory, because the Purgatory is a Christian canticle. This is Easter Sunday, why have it inaugurated by the presence of the pagan who knew nothing of the incarnation? Why have it — it’s the Rome of a renewed life, why start it with a suicide? Someone who — we saw what Dante thought of the suicides when — in a complicated way throughout Inferno, there were a number of suicides inhabiting various aspects of — various regions of Hell, but especially among the — with the violent against nature Inferno XIII and so, an old man, a suicide, and a pagan: why does he do this?
A figure that he draws out of the world of Lucan; what we are told about him this is — usually whenever you have representations of the beyond, you always have a young man, for instance a juvenis, or this is a character, the Latin term meaning the young, in Alain de Lille for example there’s always a young man or a young woman who is welcoming to indicate the renewed life, the novelty, the freshness of a life. You certainly don’t have an old man and you certainly do not have a suicide.
Chapter 5. Suicide; Purgatory as the Domain of Freedom [00:30:14]
Now the question of the suicide is probably the easiest to determine because Cato’s suicide is a suicide for freedom. Let me say a couple of things about freedom because it’s — I call Purgatory, really, the domain of freedom. It’s really the place of freedom. He begins here explaining, as it were, a political, but also moral state. It’s political because it’s a refusal of the disarray and chaos brought in by the war between Pompey and Caesar, at the time of the civil war, but it is also a moral state, because Cato decides to put an end to his life in a sort of sacrificial move; as if to draw attention to the way in which the state had been killed, had been destroyed by the rivalry between these two great figures who have not opposed, but have a rivalry about power.
Freedom is to the fundamental problem, it’s a Roman issue let me just say. Dante wants us to think of it at the very beginning of Purgatorio, in pagan intellectual terms, freedom. The whole Purgatory ends up with the pilgrim regaining and being crowned, as he’ll say, with the attainment of free will, so the whole poem really moves this idea of Cato’s search for freedom, press for freedom, and the pilgrim’s attainment of free will.
Now there is an obvious relationship to begin with between freedom, on the one hand, and, I would say, the future on the other. The poem begins with the future and now we are going to be said what are they — what is the virtue of the future? You cannot conceive of freedom, unless you have an idea of the future. You cannot — you understand the connection between the two? You cannot conceive of a novelty unless you have an idea of the future and unless you have idea of freedom. The notion of originality is actually, even poetic originality, is impossible, unless it’s tied to a certain idea of freedom. It presupposes them all, so that the attainment of freedom really means poetic originality, the idea of the future. The notion that things can be different.
If I am slave to the past, if I am a slave to a political order, if I am slave to my own vices, as internalized as that quest can be, then I really have no freedom. Cato embodies one who refuses living — if living means living in a state of tyranny to civil war, violence, and therefore to the impossibility of a moral life. That’s easy to determine, that’s easy to explain.
I even think that the notion of the old man can be explained. Dante wants to draw our attention, first of all, that somehow the search for the future, he’s — it’s not an alternative to the past, it grows out of the past so that we — he’s rejecting the idea that there may be some sharp distinction between the two and that the seeds of the future are already contained in the past, in a figure such as an old man, Cato.
The third problem is the question his being a pagan, and this brings me back to that which is the project, Dante’s project, in Purgatorio. The project is that there is — he must make a careful distinction, which St. Augustine could not make in the City of God. Dante will make it, that’s his — that’s Dante’s target, polemical target. Augustine really distinguishes between the earthly city and the heavenly city. And the heavenly city may live on earth, but it’s really a pilgrim church going on toward the beatitude and the encounter with God. The earthly city is corrupt and in many ways not assimilable to the world of the Redemption. This — if you are an Augustinian and you have very supple view of Augustine — may strike you as crude, but I don’t think that it really violates the essence of that dual idea between the earthly city and the heavenly city.
Dante is literally talking against the Augustinian dualism. There is in nature, that is within the pagan secular historical world, there are seeds that can become crucial for the making of the political, for the making of a new moral life that will be really consonant with, not dissonant with, in accord with the Redemption, and the Christian Redemption, that he will be actually seeking. Keep this very much in mind.
A sign of this incredible tension — time, the meaning of freedom, the value of the pagan world, the insistence on the secular as capable of producing some kind of seed for the future — emerges really in the second paragraph, when finally Virgil, to bend to the harshness, to temper the harshness of Cato, says look, let us go through because I know your wife. Very Italian, I know your wife and I’m going to go very back, that is to say I know who you are so do me a favor because I’ll be doing her a favor, let me go and Marcia — let Marcia — I will go there and they will tell her what a great man you are, what a good man you are.
What he is doing he’s appealing to Cato’s effective memory and it is an appeal, it’s a solicitation that Cato refuses. She can do nothing for me: he refuses to be determined by the past. You see the ambiguities that are running through. Dante understands that you have to go through some other poet and the figuration understands that you cannot really have a sense of the future without being rooted in the past and then here you have Cato who can only make sharp distinctions, she can do nothing about me.
I could tell you that this is a very — the appeal to Marcia’s memory for Cato can become also — is full of ironies and I will only tell you — we can’t — it would take us too far afield, I can tell you that in effect, in the history of Cato, Marcia had left. She had asked Cato to divorce her because she wanted to marry somebody else, and at the death of the other husband Marcia asks Cato to take her and he will. And Dante is — Dante recounts this whole story in the Banquet and views it as a sign of the extraordinary generosity of this man.
There is all of that lore in the background of this reference to Cato, but from our point of view then, it is a question of the power of memory and the limits of memory. And then finally the — he will go on saying — giving some — Cato will go on giving some rules that he has to follow in the process of cleansing: you go and wash yourself from the stain of Inferno, he will tell him, and gird your loins. They will be there. He will mention and go to the desert shore, therefore go and — this is the last paragraph: “The dawn,” here is the dawn song, “was overcoming the morning breeze which fled before it, so that I descried far off the trembling of the sea. We made our way over the lonely plain, like one who returns to the road he has lost and, until he finds it, seems to himself to go in vain. When we were at a part where the dew resists the sun and, being in shade, is little dispersed, my Master gently laid both hands outspread on the grass. I, therefore, aware of his purpose reached toward him my tear-stained cheeks.” That’s the ritual of purification which he, the pilgrim, must undergo. “…and on them he wholly restored the color which Hell had hidden in me. We came then on the desert shore that never saw men sail its waters, who after had experience of return.”
Whom are you suppose to overhear here? What is the reference to? Anybody? Absolutely, he makes it very clear that Cato and Ulysses are the two pagans. There is a difference: he intrudes — he insinuates a distinction within the body of pagan culture. Ulysses, on the one hand, and his own transgressive search for knowledge, in the belief that really there is no knowledge without transgression, which is considerable and would be worth considering, and on the other hand, the experience of Cato himself. Now we are here with a different pagan. “There he girded me as the other had bidden.” That’s a phrase that comes straight out of Inferno XXVI. “O marvel! for as was the lowly plant he chose such did it spring up again immediately in the place where he had plucked it.”
So Dante has to gird himself the way journeymen would whenever they undertake a journey in antiquity. Whether it is the biblical journeyman or the Romans — the gird — they put this girdle around themselves. They gird their loins. It’s a moment of containment of self and that’s the ritual he has to undergo. From my point of view, though, the emphasis falls on the power of the natural world to restore itself, because immediately — and there is an emblem of the Resurrection here now, but we’re still in the natural world. There is no element of grace: the nature of the plant — in an inversion of what had happened in Inferno XIII — the plant is — rises again, is born again.
Chapter 6. Canto II: Purgatory as the Antipodes of Jerusalem: Exodus [00:40:42]
And now we come to Canto II. The situation changes somewhat, but let me just begin another point of — it starts with another search for orientation and I mean that in — it’s an easy pun. The east, the Orient, and orientation for the pilgrim and now it becomes more clearly Jerusalem, and we’ll see the reason why it’s going to be Jerusalem, in a moment. Well, one reason why, let me just say it immediately because it has nothing to do with the — this has to do more with let’s say the myth rather than with the text, is that Hell and that Purgatory is at the antipodes of Jerusalem, against the feet of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was known as the navel of the earth and now we are in its — in Purgatory at its antipodes.
It starts, “Already the sun had reached the horizon, whose meridian circle covers Jerusalem,” so Jerusalem will become the point of reference, “with its highest point, and night, circling opposite to it, was issuing from the Ganges with the Scales, which fall from her hand when she exceeds the day…” etc. “I was, white with rosy cheeks of fair Aurora, with her increasing age, were turning orange. We were still beside the sea, like those that ponder on the road, who go in heart and in body linger.” An extraordinary image of this location of being both being body and mind and aware of a break between the two, who have expectations and hopes of moving ahead, and yet, they are kept in place by the heaviness of the body.
“And lo as on the approach of morning Mars grows ruddy through the thick vapors low in the west over the ocean floor, so appeared to me — may I see it again! — a light coming so swiftly over the sea that no flight could match its speed.” Here he sees a boat, a fast boat bringing, carrying the souls of penitents who are reaching the banks of Purgatory. The very opposite of what we saw with Charon’s boat in Hell, the boat of, you remember, of the sinful souls.
And then an angel of God, “Then as the divine bird came towards us more and more, he appeared brighter, so that my eyes could not bear,” line 38, “I cast them down and he came on the shore with a vessel so swift and light that the water took in nothing of it. On the poop stood the heavenly steersman such that blessedness seemed written upon him, and more than a thousand spirits sat within.”
And they sing a psalm, “In exitu Israel de Aegypto” — Psalm, according to the Vulgate, 113. It’s the psalm in which the Jews are remembering their exodus from the bondage, the slavery in Egypt to Jerusalem. That’s really the story. This book of Exodus, “In exitu Israel de Aegypto.” You understand retrospectively the reference to Jerusalem that gives a kind of unity to this whole canto.
It’s a psalm that — there are a number of things about this. It’s the only text that Dante sites, textually cites. He might make references to the Bible all the time, but the only text of the Bible that Dante really cites literally and takes from textually, is always the Book of Psalms. Probably an acknowledgment that it’s poetry and that he responds to that poetry; but especially, he does so, not only because — it’s probably the text where — for the first time, we have a representation of subjectivity in Western countries. It’s the story of someone who is looking inward and finding out the diseases of self, the appetites, the passions, etc. That may be one reason, since he’s engaged in that kind of — he himself, that pilgrim — is engaged in that sort of quest.
But there is another reason, I believe, because the Psalms are basically lyrical recapitulations of the story of Exodus. Dante’s saying that Exodus is the figure, that the Divine Comedy is the lyrical representation of the story, the biblical story of Exodus, that he too — that this human history is engaged in that search, a search from slavery to liberty.
Let me just pursue this a little bit, from another point of view. In Canto I of Purgatorio we saw that it was a vision of Roman political, moral liberty. Now we have an idea that the whole of history is really engaged in this exodus, a journey toward liberty. Two types of liberties: a Roman one and a Jewish one, to which Dante wants to connect. It is as if he understands that there are two traditions, both of which are based on a quest for liberty. That there is a sense of, in both of them, though in different ways, a sense of beginning that he must try to harmonize, he must try to explore and probe in depth. What do they mean and what are they about? One, a kind of legal idea, moral, political idea of liberty — Cato — that comes to the point of self-destruction, and the other one, the question of spiritual exodus.
By the way, a second thing I can say about this reference to Psalm 113 is that Dante uses it as the basis for explaining his use of allegory. You remember that I spoke about the allegory of poets and allegory of theologians? And that the difference was the historical basis of the narrative? The story of Exodus for Dante is historically true: it’s an event. So this gives a kind of biblical, figural aura to Dante’s representation — his allegorical representation, at least.
The third thing that I have to say is that the story of Exodus in many ways embodies — crystallizes the real, intellectual issues of Purgatory. What is the story of Exodus about? The leaving behind the house of bondage, as they call it, the house of bondage, the taking along the gold of the Egyptians which really means the secular knowledge. That secular knowledge is also part of what we must carry with us in the journey toward freedom. But it also means that they stay in the desert; the Jews stay in the desert for forty days. They feel that they’re abandoned by Moses who has come up to receive the tables of the law, and while they’re abandoned they engage in idolatry.
This is the story of Exodus, a story of a people caught between idolatry and revelation and promises, and prophetic promises; prophesy and idolatry. The idolatry shows itself as a statement or as an experience of nostalgia: that’s what the making of the golden calf is. A statement — a way of — desperate as they may be, because they are now leaderless and they will be for a while, then they engage in an act of desire, a longing for at least the safety or what they perceive as the safety of the dwelling in Egypt, mindless of the fact that they were in bondage. It is as if safety, the safety of living were preferable to them even in — if that is the safety provided, procured, and in the shadow of tyranny, of bondage. These are the concerns that Dante will have as he comes into Purgatory.
The whole of Purgatorio is literally a journey of a way of looking back and forth between the future and the past, and the future and the past are rivaling with each other for the control of the mind of the pilgrim. Let’s see how this is going to be developed and I hope I have time to go — give you time for questions because I’m really — I realize that I am saying a lot of things and there are a lot of things I’m not even saying.
Chapter 7. Internalizing the Narrative; The Exilic Condition; Casella [00:49:46]
The poem, the canto, shifts from these grand historical concerns, these reflections on how the pagan world experiences beginnings and new departures, only with an ideology of freedom, and this idea, biblical idea of a new beginning which is really a break with slavery, the retrieval of the idea of freedom in — a general one, in a historical way. Now it shifts, the narrative shifts, and it’s all internalized. The pilgrim moves within himself and the first statement is that he does not know where he is and that’s an — that is to say a way of alluding to this exilic predicament he has. He literally has — he does not know where to go. He already had indicated that his state of mind as that of one who with the mind keeps going towards someplace, but with the body he’s kept behind.
Remember that line which clearly dramatizes this split with a kind of inner self dislocation for the pilgrim and now he just is — now in meeting these penitent souls, who are as lost as he is, about the place and they all ask him for directions. Which — where they are singing “In exitu… ” they’re in the desert, the desert — to be in the desert. What is the desert? The desert where one is, the desert if you don’t know which way to go, the desert is the unmapped space between Egypt, typologically speaking, and Jerusalem. It’s some space in between. You have no roots; you have no paths. There are no carvings or markers left for you, and so they ask him. Can you? Lines 6 and following: “If you know, show us the way to go to the mountain.’ And Virgil answered, ‘You think, perhaps we are acquainted with this place, but we are strangers.”
That’s what it means to be an exile and that’s what it means to write this poetry of exile that Dante will write. This Purgatorio is this place of the desert, there is a spirituality even of the desert, and certainly the statement of the exilic condition. We really don’t belong here. We are always displaced and going somewhere else and the — at the basis of Dante’s own religious longing, there is the sense of displacement. There is the sense of we are somehow out of — that our hearts are out of where they should be.
“We came but now, a little while before you, by another road which was so rough and hard that now the climb will seem to us as a pastime.’ The souls, who had perceived from my breathing that I was still in life, turned pale with wonder, and as to a messenger who bears an olive branch that people crowed to hear the news and no one heeds the crush, so every one of these fortunate souls fixed his eyes on my face as if forgetting to go and make themselves fair.”
Now he, Dante, becomes the object of temptation for the penitent souls. They should be going somewhere, they should be going up the mountain and yet, they stop where they are. So another way of thinking about forgetfulness and the sense of a name, of a place to reach. Let’s see how this is developed.
“I saw one of them come forward with so many — so much affection to embrace me that it moved me to do the same. O empty shades, except in semblances. Three times I clasped my hands behind him, and as often brought them back to my breast. Wonder, I think, was painted in my looks, at which the shade smiled and drew back and I, following him, pressed forward. Gently, he bade me stand; then I knew who it was, and begged me that he would stay a little and talk with me.”
This little detail of the embrace, the failed embrace, is one of the three failed embraces; a way of acknowledging for the pilgrim an asset knowledge that there really — the souls you have no substantiality that we can grasp. This is the first, and there will be two more that I will talk about as we proceed. “He answered me, “Even as I loved thee in my mortal flesh, so do I love thee freed; therefore I stay. But thou, why are thou on this journey? ‘My Casella.’”
Dante meets a friend from his youth, a musician, a musician who probably had even set to music Dante’s own poetry. A man from Siena who clearly has died. So it’s to relieve the hardship of the journey. This is apparent: a moment of indulgence, a way of meeting with a friend, a little pastoral interlude if you wish, to break up the hardness of the desert and the implications of that metaphor. The world of, not a quest but now a pause, the pause of reflection, the pause of relief, and the aesthetic relief that this can give him.
“My Casella, to return another time, where I am I take this road; but from thee how has so much time been taken.’ And he said… ‘No wrong is done me,” he explains how he got here. “And I: ‘If a new law does not take from thee memory or practice of the songs of love which used to quiet all my longings,” this clearly is a reflection on the power of aesthetics and on the limits of aesthetics, “may it please thee to refresh my soul with them for a while, which he so spent coming here with my body.” And so Casella starts singing a song which is a poem that Dante himself wrote and now he sets it in music as he probably may have done in this life.
“Love that discourses to me in my mind,’ he began then, so sweetly, that the sweetness sounds within me still.” Here sweetness is to be understood as the attribute of musical harmony. I know the sweetness, and I indicated this when talking about the gluttons, it’s always the language of the palate and the savoring, a certain savoring that goes on with the gluttons. Here it’s really a musical attribute: the quality of the sound.
And, “My Master and I and these people who were with him seem as content as if nothing else touched the mind of any. We were all rapt and attentive to his notes, when lo,” Cato, “the venerable old man, crying: ‘What is this, laggard spirits? What negligence, what delay is this? Haste to the mountain to strip you of the slough that allows not God to be manifest to you.”
Okay, so here is an aesthetic enclosure. The poet listens to his own song, with a little touch of narcissistic temptation, that his Casella is playing up to him, reassuring him, giving him a sense that this is you and I know who you are. And they’re all rapt and they forget about the ascent and then of course Cato comes, the ethical voice, the voice of the law. So you may have a kind of — you may even want to write about this scene as a sort of conflict between aesthetics and ethics. How are they working against each other?
One thing is clear here, that Dante is forgetful of the real lesson that he has learned in the encounter with Cato. It just happened that Cato himself — therefore he intervenes and his anger is the anger of the teacher, because he says, I just explained to you what the problems are. Cato — Virgil had approached Cato, who had hoped that Cato could be swayed by the memory of the past and Cato had rejected the power of that memory. He — the affection even and the pleasure of that memory.
Dante comes in Canto II and he’s involved in — let’s call it even an idolatrous moment, the moment where he just witnesses something that he has been making, that he has built, he has composed, is taken in by it but essentially that has the power to distract him from his own ascent. He has forgotten the reasons why he is here in Purgatory and so the whole of Purgatorio begins with the explicit statement about the importance of new beginnings, new departures. The recognition that everything new in the future can only come out of some sense of the past and then the discovery that the past can interfere, can intrude, and therefore the steady process of a continuous quest, that a continuous rethinking opens up in front of the pilgrim and in front of us.
The interesting thing, and here I stop, Cato uses one word: what kind of negligence is this? You know what the word means? Negligence? We are all negligent. What are we when we are negligent? What does the word contain since they were talking about beginnings with — when we talk about etymology, which is the language of beginnings? Negligence means not to choose: what Cato is reproaching Dante and his guide, and all the other souls, he’s reproaching the power of poetry to produce this atmosphere of non-choice. And obliquely, that’s then what his ethics is, and we are always engaged in an act of choice. He speaks from the perspective of freedom which literature, the poetic text that Dante evokes, has the power to tame and somehow, for a moment, at least here, neutralize. You see the extraordinary degree of self-reflection and self-reflexiveness of Dante, from all points of view.
Chapter 8. Question and Answer [01:00:29]
Let me stop and see if there are questions and I hope to be able to answer some of these elements in the introduction of Purgatorio. Yes?
Student: In the beginning of Canto I when he talks about leaving behind her so cluelessly and he’s talking about the bark of his intellect leaving —
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The bark of his wit, it’s called in English, yes.
Student: His wit — is it also a reference to past poetry and the epic tradition, because I read it as sort of he’s looking behind Inferno, but it is also reference to how he’s leaving behind and excelling a past epic tradition?
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: The question is, the metaphor, at the beginning of Purgatorio when the poet says that he’s leaving behind such a cruel sea, that cruel sea seems to be — and is, actually, we can agree easily, a reference to Inferno, but then the question is, can it be also a reference to past epic traditions? It could be, but you would have to be a little more specific about what you mean. You mean the Odyssey for instance, or the Aeneid, journeys by sea. Dante is — the Divine Comedy is constantly imbricated with these other poems. And in fact, the great poem that he recalls, a past epic tradition is Lucan and he chooses Lucan, because Lucan is — so I’m coming back to your question and trying to welcome it and say that indeed, it’s possible, but I have to explain why I think it’s possible.
Lucan’s Pharsalia is a unique text, in the epic tradition, because it deliberately places itself as a historical work. The polemic of Lucan towards Virgil is that Virgil — sure he had been talking about the foundation of Rome and for the Roman there is nothing more historical than that — as you know, the Romans are the — some practical people that will count — will calculate history from the foundation of the city. There’s never a scheme about the Garden of Eden, or Bede who starts writing about unknown events in the past, or whatever. The Roman starts with the foundation of the city, Livy. So Virgil writes about the origin of Rome and from that point of view, he’s a historical author. He mixes his historical accounts as so much myth making that Lucan rejects that form of poetry and he writes an epic about the civil war.
Lucan writes about Caesar and Pompey, which clearly is a way of adumbrating another more pressing civil war, that between Antony and Augustus, and alluding to the one between Sulla and Marias and the whole sequel of civil wars that had punctuated and given its — it’s the quality, the distinctiveness of Roman history. In a way, I would say that Dante is rejecting a certain type of epic poetry that deals with some kind of generalized metaphorical account. Though for instance, he’s going to be Jason; he’s going to be Aeneas. Now we have to keep that in mind. It would be a turn to, at least in Canto I, a turn toward a historical world, a way of making Purgatory part of history, because that’s really the secret of Purgatory.
Purgatorio began by saying that it’s part of human geography, do you remember? But not of human history: Dante wants to make it part of human history. We really can’t go back to the Garden of Eden, if not directly through some reconstruction and shadowy refiguration, something that looks like the well being of the Garden of Eden, something like a — not really utopia, but something that can approach the order of the Garden of Eden. I must have confused you with this answer and if so — good, thank-you, well, of course not. I think that I was going five different directions and I apologize if I did. Yes?
Student: In the beginning, you were talking about how the journey of poetry is really important, and so if poetry has the power too you can work your way to [inaudible], and then you were just talking about how aesthetics can get in the way and how that poetry can have a mutual [inaudible] effect. Can you just talk a little bit more about the tension what he thinks the proper role of poetry should be, what was it — let you act and the community towards action and then what’s [inaudible].
Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta: Yes, great question and the question is, that I was — I began by talking today about the journey of poetry and really ended with the idea of the danger of poetry that aesthetics have — confrontation that the poet Dante has with a poet of his own youth. So what gives about this tension since I’m talking about a tension between two modes of poetry. I claim on the one hand that poetry is for Dante a way of knowing and then here seems to get in the way, a scandal in a sense. It really stumble — makes him stumble. What is this — the connection between these two forms? That is really a great question.
I think that Dante understands that, first of all, let me just give him a great deal of credit. By the time Dante writes, poetry was still by and large a little game that the Provençal poets were playing in the courts of Provence and northern Italy, were little games about secret love stories, little games about hunting, etc., or the great poems of the so-called Goliards, the gluttonous ones, the belly worship.
Dante comes along and says, no, this vernacular poetry can really become the medium for knowing everything that we can humanly can know about ourselves, about God and about all the things that we can — we believe in and the things that we would like to believe in. All the hopes and defeats that we have, so that’s the great idea what it means. From that point of view, Dante engages poetry within this circle of knowledge, of what I call the encyclopedic compass of knowledge. So he involves all the sciences, but at the same time, you ask me to think about that dialectic, one is not conceivable without the other. In order to really know, the first thing that poetry has to do is show that it knows itself. Usually the way — the reason why poetry is treated as a lowly art, because it’s meretricious, it doesn’t — it gives itself to everybody.
I’m saying all of this because the scene of Canto II really recalls a great scene. We haven’t got time to go into that. It recalls another great scene and I think that Dante’s really rethinking the famous opening scene of Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, which I don’t know if you have read, but I have mentioned it, but you will. You look like someone who would go to the library now and pick up the — it’s really a book — no I’m serious. It’s really a book where the philosopher is sick in bed. He is — he does not know he’s diseased. In order to find comfort he picks up a book of poetry, the muses go to him. It’s a book of poetry which probably is what most people would do if they got the flu. It’s time to read good poetry, right? Then all of a sudden, Lady Philosophy appears and banishes these muses, get thee hence you harlots, he calls them, of the theatre because you don’t give any real remedy, you just only provide provisional solace. What Dante is doing is — the whole of the Boethius is philosophy is really better than poetry, a way of recasting the old Platonic quarrel as we know from even the Republic, right, between — the debate between poetry and philosophy.
What Dante is doing is — no, no, poetry may have these dangerous temptations and possibilities but that’s what makes it part of its own self-knowledge. I want to — I cannot guarantee or promise that poetry will lead you to knowledge, unless I show that the medium that I use, knows itself, it knows its own temptations. It knows its own meretricious possibilities, you see what I’m saying? It always accompanies one — he says, you want me to highlight the reasons of that dialectic, that tension. And the only answer that I can give is that one flanks the other constantly, so that the voice of Cato and the voice of Casella there, at the same time they belong, necessarily belong together in the unfolding and the articulation of Dante’s own voice.
This is — you cannot expect to have one say, well then if this is really dangerous, can I have something else? No it’s not either-or, it’s both-and. The either-or, the ethical or aesthetic and ethical, as if there were two opposed forms just will not do. Okay, other questions? I wish you had another hour here, so that I could really talk about some of these details in the beginning of the poem. Well since I hear none — no other questions, thank you. See you next time.
[end of transcript]Back to Top