Thursday, March 23, 2006

In Praise of Purgatorio

For my lenten reading, I've finally overcome my stalling and continued Dante's Divine Comedy past the Inferno. I had pedantically wished to continue in the Durling billingual translation, but since he has been slow to produce the next two books I turned to Allen Mandlebaum's translation, which has its own charms.

The contrast between the end of the Inferno, the lowest circle of hell, and the hopefulness of the first glimpse of Purgatory is stunning. The Purgatorio is a poem "rising again from Hell's dead realm." Among Dante's first words of Canto I, we find signs that not death but life lies ahead:

"The gentle hue of oriental sapphire
In which the sky's serenity was steeped--
its aspect pure as far as the horizon--
brought back my joy in seeing just as soon
as I had left behind the air of death."

Hell is literally sheol, the abode of the dead, and Purgatory the place of those on their way to assured eternal life. As if speaking directly to my Coloradoan heart, Dante's guide Vergil describes the mountain of Purgatory as of such sort
"...that climbing it is hardest at the start;
but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind.
Therefore, when this slope seems to you so gentle
that climbing farther up will be as restful
as traveling downstream by boat, you will
be where this pathway ends, and there you can
expect to put your weariness to rest. (Canto IV)

These words impel the reader upword. This yearning for ascent towards heaven begat in me a powerful motivation for turning the next page just to see what comes next. Moreover, the Purgatorio acted as a truly Lenten reflection, provoking myself to self-examination and even minor penance. I am putting off the Paradiso until Easter to further increase my Lenten expectation.

I must remark on the topic of teaching Dante in a secular university, springboarding off a far more studied thinker:
"The type of translation characteristic of modernity generates in turn its own misunderstanding of tradition. The original locus of that misunderstanding is the kind of introductory Great Books or Humanities course, so often taught in liberal arts colleges, in which, in abstraction from historical context and with all sense of the complexities of linguisitic particularity removed by translation, a student moves in rapid succession through Homer, one play of Sophocles, two dialogues of Plato, Virgil, Augustine, the Inferno, Machiavelli, Hamlet, and as much else as is possible if one is to reach Sartre by the end of the semester."
-Alasdair MacIntyre, "Tradition and Translation," Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

Reading through the first two books, I've realized a pitfall of any education syllabus that includes Dante. The Inferno is almost always the only work of Dante assigned, so students will only get the Christian dystopia of a hopeless Hell. Even the Purgatorio doesn't portray the Christian ideal, but only those in the journey towards it. A reader won't encounter an encomium to true sanctity until the final book, the Paradiso. Thus, anyone in a "great books" course which tries to cram the whole Western canon into a semester will rarely encounter any depiction of a Biblical hero or Christian saint even if Dante is on the book list! A good instructor will point out this limitation, but will be ignored. As MacIntyre notes, Dante is abstracted and amputated. Worse, Heaven itself is excised by such cavalier treatment of the Christian epic.

"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi intrate", "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" is as much a motto of the modern university humanities department as it is for Dante's gates of Hell. I hope a purgation is on the horizon.

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