Sunday, July 12, 2015

Disorienting dawn: Early surprise in the Purgatorio

When Dante and Virgil return to the "chiaro mondo" from hell, they are on the shore of Purgatorio where Dante looks out at the waters where Ulysses drowned. The pilgrim had met the hero a short time before, and now has to ponder how he, a Florentine of no particular epic abilities, has managed to arrive where Ulysses, despite Herculean efforts, did not.

The poets have just climbed down the hairy trunk of Satan, turned at the vermo reo's pelvis, and climbed back to the surface of Earth. Not exactly the heroic setting for a poem of Homeric glory.

From the start, Purgatorio presents things that seem slightly "off." Instead of a triumphal arch, a handshake and a happy meal, there's a beach by trembling waters, simple rushes grow near the shore. An old man with fierce eyes looks back at you from beyond his own suicide.

Professor Mazzotta of Yale makes many fine points in his first lecture on Purgatorio, including the observation that normally in poems of renewal or rebirth, one meets a young person -- their youth betokens their role as emblems of new life. Dante gives us old man Cato -- who less fit to signal the beginning of new, burgeoning, hopeful life than one who ended his existence by force of will?

We soon meet Casella, who is still sufficiently in love with his songs to sing beautifully until Cato scolds him and his auditors into making better use of time. Here, unlike in Inferno and Paradiso, time is of the fabric of the place, and with time, change. But can newly saved souls, who have been ferried across the world by an angel, be so blasé? And if Casella is blasé, what of Belacqua in Purgatorio 4, who sits toadlike under a rock and mocks the efforts of Virgil and Dante to understand the science of what they are seeing?

The first thing to notice is how unexpected everything is. Where we thought we'd regained our bearings, we are thrown. Where's the glory of eternal life and the torments of penitence? Where are the solemn nuns, the flagellant monks, the incense-toting priests and breast-beating penitents that one would expect in a story about Purgatory? Cato? Casella? Manfred? Belacqua? What are these curmudgeons, aesthetes, rock star warriors and slackers doing here? Did we miss our exit?

It takes supreme confidence to do what Dante is doing here.

In the vestibule of Eternal Salvation, we are meeting oddly regular people, the sort we've all known. None of them have anything on Plato, Odysseus, Julius Caesar, or Virgil, all of whom are damned, while the likes of Belacqua and Casella are saved. Before we think we've got a handle on all this, the poet wants us to stew for a while. The poem is disorienting us -- it would be a disservice to rest assured that we know the way.

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