viernes, 6 de agosto de 2010

The Divine Comedy II: Purgatorio #1

Purgatorio (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)
by Dante Alighieri [translated from the Italian by W.S. Merwin]
Verona, 1315

Per correr miglior acque alza le vele
omai la navicella del mio ingegno,
che lascia dietro a sé mar sì crudele;

e canterò di quel secondo regno
dove l'umano spirito si purga
e di salire al ciel diventa degno.

To course on better waters the little
boat of my wit, that leaves behind her
so cruel a sea, now raises her sails,

and I will sing of that second kingdom
in which the human spirit is made clean
and becomes worthy to ascend to Heaven.
(Dante, Purgatorio I, 1-6, w/English translation by W.S. Merwin)

Welcome back to our little Divine Comedy Readalong, amici!  Will you allow me a confession?  Although I'm not really sure where I got the idea, I had this longstanding notion that Purgatorio would showcase a completely different style of poem than Inferno and that Paradiso would spotlight a completely different style of poem than Purgatorio in accordance with their subject matter and themes.  While that turned out to be at least partially true in regards to the first two canticles when all was said and done, it still took me a while before I could put my finger on the specific types of differences in play.  For whatever this observation is worth then, suffice it to say that Purgatorio opens as a continuation of the quest narrative found in Inferno.  Sans the accounts of people being buried alive, the depictions of rivers of shit, the grisly scenes of cannibalism, etc., the actual movement of the characters on their journey towards Mount Purgatory still affords Dante and Virgil plenty of opportunities to run into historical and mythical personalities on their physical and spiritual ascent.  That being said, there seemed to be an increasingly evident shift in tone between the Commedia's first two canticles as time went on.  Where the Inferno was nightmarishly flashy in tone, Purgatorio seemed to exude more of a subdued, even an instructive vibe--as if now that Dante had shown us the horrors of hell, it was time for him to show us the way out of it (or perhaps how to avoid it in the first place).  Repeated references to both singing and weeping, the latter accompanying the expiation of sin in purgatory according to Dante's extra-biblical theology of purification, call attention to the alternately joyous and sorrowful score that's omnipresent in this second stage of the narrator's journey.  I won't dwell on it here, but mention of this singing reminds me that Dante's concern with language and the poetic arts remains one of the most fascinating continuities in the poem for me.  Psalms from the Bible, the works of the pagan poets, and the verses of the Provenzal troubadours all receive props in the Purgatorio, almost (and this is a big almost, of course) as if Dante were struggling to reconcile the poetic with the divine in anticipation of Renaissance humanism. Towards the end of this middle section of the Commedia, though, the angelic Beatrice enters the poem and the father-like figure of Virgil exits it.  To highlight the momentousness of the occasion, Dante the poet aggressively ups the narrative ante with some startling vision poetry that pays homage to the Old Testament prophets and the Book of Revelation.  Whatever you make of Dante's theology in particular or allegorical poetry requiring an exegetical interpretation in general, it's hard not to be impressed with his imagination and brio.  While the visual flair of the Inferno is pretty hard to beat to my way of thinking, I have to admit that the Purgatorio might have even more to offer from a poetic or a psychological perspective.  In any event, I have a couple of follow-up posts planned to touch on some issues (gender, language, W.S. Merwin) I ran out of time to mention today.  Hope you'll stay tuned but will understand if you don't, ha ha!  Ciao.

Dante and Beatrice

More on Purgatorio

7 comentarios:

  1. I'm still reading Purgatorio and I left my notes at home. (I'm on vacation and won't be back until Monday.) But I will have my post up sometime early next week.

    I'm only on Canto 7 but I've already noticed the same thing you did - that it's very subdued in tone compared to Inferno with a lot of emphasis on sighing and singing. But I'm sorry to hear that Virgil leaves!

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  2. I have to admit that the shift to "instruction" you mention is one reason I've avoided the final 2/3 of Dante's epic - I'm OK with creative punishments for wrong-doers, but getting lectured on theology has never been my cup of tea. Plus, saintly Beatrice, like Petrarch's Laura, seems boring boring BORING in my preconceptions. :-P That said, I'll be greatly looking forward to your follow-up posts to get a more accurate idea of what the second installment is all about!

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  3. *E.L. Fay: No rush--I think this is the month everybody else will be dropping out of the readalong anyway! I thought the change in tone might have been due to my change in translators at first, but then I caught on to what Dante was doing. Hope you enjoy the rest of your vacation!

    *Emily: Dante lectures here less than I might have led you to believe, but I hear you about not wanting any part of that type of "instruction" regardless! As far as Beatrice goes, the jury's still out on her for me. However, I will be writing about one instance where Dante's use/opinion of her as a model seems to be "problematic" in a way. Which may or may not be interesting to anybody other than me--but thanks for saying you'll follow along, my friend!

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  4. I managed to finish up Purgatorio just this afternoon, but I think I want to contemplate it a little before I really write my thoughts down. Hopefully I'll have a post up in a day or two.

    Now that you point it out, it's easier to
    see that the change in tone from Inferno into and throughout Purgatorio really is subtle rather than dramatic. Having just finished, it feels like the entire canticle was mostly philosophy/theology, but actually, the early cantos (canti?) were still about a journey. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Paradisio--I would expect much more theology/philosophy in Heaven, but the little sketch in the back of my book showing "the Universe of Dante" seems to indicate that there are multiple layers of the heavens to travel before the final arrival.

    There also seemed to be a change in tone with the arrival of Beatrice--upping the allegory/symbolism/imagery. Guessing that this is what Paradisio will be like, that would make Purgatorio a nice little bridge section.

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  5. *Amanda: It's interesting to see how similarly we reacted to various aspects of Purgatorio--will be excited to learn whether you enjoyed it, as I did, or felt let down by the differences between it and Inferno! In the meantime, thanks for the info/prediction on what lies ahead in Paradiso: I want to go back and take a second look at some things in the second canticle first, but what you say sounds intriguing. Cheers!

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  6. I wouldn't call much that Dante does "philosophy". Theology, maybe, in the sense that in Purgatorio and especially Paradiso Dante is completing his system. It is decidedly not a lecture, except perhaps in the new, heretical Cult of Beatrice.

    I mean, as Emily suspects, Beatrice-the-character is not so interesting. But Beatrice-the-object-of-worship is completely outrageous.

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  7. *Amateur Reader: I hear what you're saying, but Dante makes enough references to the more philosophy-loving Greeks that I can also understand people talking about his talking points as philosophy or theology. Love your Cult of Beatrice line, though, and intend to explore one tiny aspect of that perhaps as early as this weekend. It is "completely outrageous," as you so rightly say, ha ha!

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