Friday, July 17, 2015

Purgatorio 2: No time for Orpheus

There is so much going on in each canto of the Commedia as to confound exposition. The Purgatorio can seem more straightforward. It's certainly less spectacular than either the Inferno or the Paradiso (at least until its climax), but the apparent simplicity is belied by the care with which Dante interweaves thematic motifs and suggestive allusions into the bare bones narrative.

Purgatorio 2 for example offers a simple "plot":  The new souls, fresh from the Angel-driven boat, ask Dante and Virgil which way to go. Virgil frankly tells them that he and his companion are just as new -- the band of newcomers then notices Dante's breathing, and stares hard at his face (viso)
as if forgetting to go and make themselves beautiful.
quasi obliando d'ire a farsi belle.
At this moment a shade breaks from the crowd seeking to embrace Dante, who tries to reciprocate, but Casella is a shade. When he speaks, Dante knows him, and a moment later Casella is singing a song he once composed with Dante's words. At this point Cato shouts at them,
Che e cio, spiriti lenti? 
What is this laggard spirits?
At which the souls including Dante and Virgil scatter like a flock of frightened doves.

One motif that clearly comes into play is that of deviant attention. The souls become fixated upon Dante's breathing - his presence as a living man arrests them. A moment later, they are all equally fixed upon Casella's song:
Lo mio maestro e io e quella gente  
ch'eran con lui parevan sì contenti,  
come a nessun toccasse altro la mente.
My master and I and those people
that were with Casella appeared so satisfied
as if no other thing touched our minds. 
In the most casual way, Dante introduces the motif of the enchantments of art -- of music and poetry, and continues the motif of surprise. The delight in the note of the song, and in Casella's voice, captures the attention of all who hear it, not unlike the creatures and even the trees that used to crowd around Orpheus.
Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti 
a le sue note
       We were all motionless and fixed upon
       his notes

Notice the wit of this poetic "performance": Casella recognizes his old friend, who is in fact, improbably, here in the afterlife in the flesh. It's the dream of Orpheus, except in reverse -- here it's the singer whose body eludes the vainly seeking arms. The song now is not an enchanting device to recall Eurydice from the dead, but the celebration of reunion with a loved one who is unexpectedly alive.

But such motionless attention to earthly things, no matter how beautiful, is out of place here. As Casella sings, he is performing an Orphic act -- recalling the plenitude of living fullness from the past. But here at ground zero of Purgatory, neither a return to some past good nor the stasis of mere aesthetic pleasure is what's called for. The song does not enchant Cato. By the time they reach the garden atop Purgatory, these souls will understand why the old man prods them into running.

The disorientation of the soul at the base of Purgatorio makes it possible for the sinners to err and to be corrected, not damned. The beauty they will make themselves (farsi belle) is not the narcissistic bellezza of artistic form -- as least as far as Cato is concerned. Broken from the poise of perfect aesthetic balance, they scatter like birds -- in contrast to the Angel who powered the boat that brought them there, and who wastes no time:
ed el sen gi, come venne, veloce.
and he took off as he had come - swiftly. 
This scattering dissonance will eventually chase these doves to a new kind of beauty.

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