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19 june 2014

For a considerable swath of the Western intellectual tradition, especially high modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Dante's Purgatorio is the most important of the three books of the Divine Comedy. Given that Inferno is the famous one and that Paradiso would seem to be the big payoff, expressing a preference for Purgatorio is kind of like saying that The Two Towers is your favorite Tolkien book, or Larry your favorite Stooge.

I'm not sure that Purgatorio is my favorite third of the Comedy, but every time I read it, my appreciation deepens, and was further deepened by using Allen Mandelbaum's translation as a guide. Dante's Purgatory lacks the deep red-purple passages of his Hell or the sublime mysticism of his Heaven. It's a place, by definition, of consciousness of sin and evil, but also of hope (without smugness) in redemption. Its denizens want to be punished, are drawn to their suffering, because they recognize the sin in themselves, and the evil they've inflicted on others. Their will is being drawn to that of the Universe as they climb the stair. Which sounds like the Stockholm Syndrome, but with the crucial difference that their will was free all along and continues to be. There's no turning back once you're within the gates of Purgatory: you can't be demoted for bad behavior. But you can be kept in the fire a very long time till you actively choose your own ascent. It's still up to you, and it's no bed of roses.

And Dante pretty much invented the place. Evidently the concept of Purgatory predated Dante by centuries in extremely sketchy terms, and for a few decades as part of Catholic doctrine as established at the first Council of Lyons in 1245 (as extensive Googling has informed me):

The souls of those who after a penance has been received yet not performed, or who, without mortal sin yet die with venial and slight sin, can be cleansed after death and can be helped by the suffrages of the Church, we, since they say a place of purgation of this kind has not been indicated to them with a certain and proper name by their teachers, we indeed, calling it purgatory according to the traditions and authority of the Holy Fathers, wish that in the future it be called by that name in their area.
Dante was born 20 years after that council in Lyons, and wrote his Comedy largely between 60 and 70 years after, during which time the Western imagination hadn't done much to flesh out the bare notion of "a place of purgation of this kind." To construct the Purgatory that has remained paradigmatic ever since, Dante inverted his Hell, and organized its structure more systematically around the seven sins that are purged away (as they are erased from Dante's brow, where an angel has temporarily tattooed them).

Children are innocently good, and want things in this life that are good, and God wants us to have those things – but properly directed and in moderation. Want something too much and you want sin; want it to the exclusion of loving God and others, and you end up in the first volume of Dante's poem. But few are the people who can grow into adulthood without going overboard a bit. If they repent their excesses or shortcomings, they're on the road to Heaven, but it may be a long road, and the grade is considerable.

Or to let Dante say it, in words (later imitated by Eliot) that he gives to Marco Lombardo, an otherwise obscure speaker who inhabits the terrace of the angry in Purgatory:

Esce di mano a lui che la vagheggia
prima che sia, a guisa di fanciulla
che piangendo e ridendo pargoleggia,

l'anima semplicetta che sa nulla,
salvo che, mossa da lieto fattore,
volontier torna a ciò che la trastulla.

Di picciol bene in pria sente sapore;
quivi s'inganna, e dietro ad esso corre,
se guida o fren non torce suo amore. (16:86-93)

[Issuing from His hands, the soul—on which
He thought with love before creating it—
is like a child who weeps and laughs in sport;

that soul is simple, unaware; but since
a joyful Maker gave it motion, it
turns willingly to things that bring delight.

At first it savors trivial goods; these would
beguile the soul, and it runs after them,
unless there's guide or rein to rule its love.] (149)
"Love," of course, is a pervasive word in the Comedy, the force that moves the sun and other stars, the "first love" that built the gates of Hell. It means a lot of things to Dante, and it is invoked by the damned and the saved alike. Purgatory is where the force of love takes a physical turn toward the better. Dante's spiritual, emotional, and frankly bodily love for Beatrice has led him to aspire to heaven, but after her death "volse i passi suoi per via non vera [he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path]" (30.130, p. 285) and she had to arrange the whole journey-through-Hell thing to put the fear of God back into him. But in some sense it's all the same force: the desire for other people in every way, the desire for the goods of the world (esteem, riches, power, food), the desire to act charitably toward others (a prime concern of the purged souls), and the love of God.

As many readers have noted, there aren't many memorable characters in Purgatory. Marco Lombardo, who has the best lines in this third of the poem, is just some guy invoked for the purpose of putting them in his mouth; the same goes for Oderisi of Gubbio in the eleventh canto, and his lovely lines on the persistence of fame ("La vostra nominanza è color d'erba [Your glory wears the color of the grass]," 11.115, p. 101). The Purgatory is more about great language than great people – possibly because, as Dante rises, everybody is more and more on the same page, and comes to sound alike. The greatest characters, at least thanks to the use that modernists made of them, are La Pia in Canto 5 and Arnaut Daniel in Canto 26 – and it's remarkable how very little they have to say.

That line of Oderisi's from Canto 11 shows translator Allen Mandelbaum at his best too, and points to an odd feature of his English versions: often, for a line at a time, he comes up with something in English that possibly sounds better than Dante's line does in Italian. Over even a tercet, the effect fades, because it is really next to impossible to replicate anything like Dante's sentence construction, in the braided form of terza rima, with anything like his impact: and not for want of trying by translators. Mandelbaum tries instead to be accurate and compact, and once in a while throw up a glittering line that replicates the effect, if not the means, of Dante's most memorable tercets.

The weakest part of the Purgatorio, for me, is the very ending, cantos 32 and 33, when Dante lapses into an allegorical menagerie of beasts and virtuous ladies that includes a griffin and an upside-down tree and what-not. This is the passage that feels most "medieval" in the sense of embroidered and cluttery. The rest of the poem is medieval in the best sense: a fascinating attempt to make sense of a universe that doesn't seem well-ordered to the naked eye and the unaided sense of justice.

Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Drawings by Barry Moser. 1982. New York: Bantam [Random House], 2004.