When I was reading Inferno (part I of the Divine Comedy) , I could easily form translations in my mind for some of the examples (some that sounded nonsensical like philosophers and scientists being relegated to various circles) but it was woefully apparent to me that I needed to read the Bible and the Aeneid before I could truly grasp what he was talking about . But I decided to put it off for a later date and instead proceed to finish the series . Reading the Purgatory was far harder than Inferno without having any idea of the Bible. There was some hint of the tortures listed in the Hindu texts that I had read in my childhood , namely in the Mahabharata , the longest epic poem in the world . Yudhishtra , the oldest Pandava (who commits a sin by not stating the truth explicitly to his former teacher Drona about his son being dead) is led through hell just to glimpse its tortures as penitence for that one solitary sin. Another was a story in the Upanishads , a young boy named Nachiketa is led on a tour by the god of death himself . The imagery in both of these stories reminded me of Inferno .But Purgatory was a strange concept for me. It is like a waiting room before you are admitted to the next stage. As I plowed through , I realized that the Bible is not the only book that is a pre-requisite but also the Aeneid by Virgil , Ptolemy’s Almagest , the Metamorphoses by Ovid , Plato and Aristotle. The Almagest describes the Solar system that was the standard fare of astronomers before Copernicus found out that Sun is the center or the Heliocentric theory. Why is this useless information important to us for reading Dante ? The Almagest describes the earth as the center of the universe with all the other planets orbiting it . Dante informs us that God lives outside of the solar system and therefore we living on earth are the furthest away from God . It is a simple and convenient invention which derives its basis in 3rd century science thereby giving it greater credence. The revered and convenient dogma that Earth / Humans was farthest away from God would have come under attack once observation and science proved that Earth was not the center of solar system let alone the universe and who knows what would be next to fall. I finally see now why Copernicus was so terrified of revealing his heliocentric theory during his lifetime and why poor Galileo was imprisoned for the rest of his life . Drawing parallels into the Copernican system about God being at the edge of the solar system, Martians are closer to god and Venusians are further away from God (That is a John Gray joke!!! Please dont beat me up). Coming back to the Almagest, the entire structure of Inferno and Purgatory is mapped using principles similar to the Almagest so Dante can merely tell us what level he is referring to and we know instantly where they are located . I read some reports that 60% of the world’s population prefers a visual medium for learning , about 20% for aural and only 7% learn by reading . Long before people were aware of these predilections , Dante executes a stroke of genius using a visual map for his masterpiece.And it speaks volumes that 4 centuries after the demise of the geocentric model, the visual imagery of the Inferno/Purgatory is still alive and well.
Some of the visual imagery is gruesome , in Canto 13 , he describes the second cornice where the envious are to repent .The cornice is the color of a bruise because the souls of the envious are always bruised by the good fortune of their neighbors . To prevent more envy ,their eyes are sewn shut . What made it worse for me was Dante explains it by means of a simile , he says that their eyes were sewn shut like baby Falcons . Apparently that is common practice, sew the eyes of baby Falcons shut in order to train them. In Canto 22 , he discusses Gluttony where the sinners starve in the presence of a fruit laden tree , it reminded me of the punishment for Tantalus who had a fruit tree with ripe fruits hanging just over his head but when he tried to reach, the fruits would extend just outside his reach , there is a water fountain just under his mouth but when he bends down , the water recedes . That’s where we get our wonderful adjective , tantalizing.
Dante proceeds with an intriguing device as to how faith transcends the limit of reason . Though I am not one to believe in faith , I could not help but admire the effort and technique . Virgil is the voice of human reason that guides Dante through the Inferno and as they reach the end of Purgatory , Virgil disappears because according to Dante ,the sole purpose of human reason is to save us from earthly sins (I can only presume doctors in the middle ages prayed hard for patients to be cured) .When we reach the end of Purgatory, we have been purged of our earthly desires and urges and therefore no longer susceptible to earthly foibles . Goes to reason that human reason(Virgil is the epitome of reason) is vestigial and no longer required for Dante to proceed (It was ironical that Dante uses reason to deny the purpose of reason). A master stroke by a master craftsman!!!
There was a couple of times that I found an intriguing paradox , Beatrice is the woman that Dante loves and she is his guiding angel , she sends Virgil to guide him and on the other hand , he delivers invective about the way women dress in Florence and another time , he launches a tirade against widows re marrying. I suppose that the two can be reconciled if you set women on so high a pedestal that it would be impossible for them to survive as normal human beings .
All in all , the Purgatory is an feast of amazing imagery . A feat of incredible imagination that Dante guides us through his religious fantasy all the while passing judgement on popes and kings while we sit in the jury seats watching . Don’t forget to bring the popcorn .