Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio


You don't need me to tell you that these are good books to read. Nevertheless, I'm telling you anyway, because if I don't do it, who is there who will.

Inferno read for fun and sheer imagination and for a chilly frisson, particularly in the vast plain of Cocytus. Interestingly, the very last canticle is the only one in which Satan is featured at all and he is mentioned only briefly, and chiefly to talk about the fate of three famous sinners Cassius, Brutus, and Judas. And then he's used as a ladder to climb through the pit of Hell and up to Purgatory.

Purgatory is interesting for a variety of reasons. The first thing you learn about Purgatory is that people do take some time to get there--they loiter about until the weak will they established on Earth finally manifests itself in a tug toward purgatory. Secondly, there is much suffering in purgatory, but contra Hell, no torment because there is never any doubt about where you will end up.

But the most interesting thing about Purgatory is the person who greets Virgil and Dante as they arrive. Cato, a suicide during the period of chaos involving Pompey and Caesar, is the first guide to purgatory. It is interesting that we have both a pagan and a suicide (who one would think would be in the sixth circle wood of suicides). In fact, Ciardi notes this with a seeming question as to why Cato escapes this fate, while one equally worthy does not. And the end of that matter is that Cato's suicide was not a matter of despair, escape, or hopelessness, but, in a certain sense a blow for freedom and for sensibility. The person whose story is recounted in Inferno commits suicide to escape further torture at the hands of the gentle ministers of Frederick II. Cato, on the other hand, is viewed somewhat like the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the war. His action is a positive statement somehow.

Dante is nothing if not partisan, and his partisanship and personal involvement is one of the great delights of the poem. Purgatory, while not as ghastly as Hell, has its share of interesting poetically apropos disciplines. And the ascent of the Mountain in the southern seas, quite opposite the site of Jerusalem in the Northern hemisphere is a journey worth learning about.

Don't think of it as a classic, think of it as an adventure!

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 5, 2007 7:51 AM.

A Dantean Invocation for the Day was the previous entry in this blog.

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