Impressions of Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso (1320)
Yes, I have been a bit naughty. Years ago, I read J.D. Sinclair’s 1939 prose translation of Dante’s Inferno.. and then left it at that. Dante and Virgil clambering down Satan’s backside, and then up and out into Purgatory. The End. I was fully aware that this was only the first third of the Divine Comedy, but the impression I had always been given was that the next two books were much drier, and dare I say, boring. Besides, popular imagination has focused almost entirely on Dante’s Hell – culturally it is the most important part of the journey, even if in some respects its vision has become weirdly merged with Milton’s (hint: the deepest part of Dante’s Hell is a frozen lake, not fire and brimstone). I have previously had the fun of allocating George R.R. Martin characters there.
Anyway, I have now rectified this situation over the last month, working my way through Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise. Since these are the less well-trodden books, today I thought I would offer some thoughts on them. I would not presume to call this a review in the proper sense of the word – it’d be presumptuous in the extreme to “review” a seven hundred year-old cornerstone of Western literature (what next? giving Shakespeare marks out of ten?), but I can certainly offer some impressions as a first time reader. Overall, I would consider it a satisfying experience, and a decent insight into a medieval mindset quite different from our own.
(In both cases, the translation was Mark Musa’s).
Purgatorio starts with Dante and Virgil arriving at the island/mountain of Purgatory – located, curiously enough, in what we would today call the South Pacific (does this mean New Zealand gets a territorial claim…?). Whereas Inferno is a descent, Purgatorio is an ascent, as souls are gradually purged of the sins of Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust, in that order, before passing into the Earthly Paradise and thence to Heaven. As is normal for the Divine Comedy, Dante chats with the souls on each level, as they are getting purified – but unlike Inferno, there is no schadenfreude. Rather than punishment, this is a corrective purging, even if the actual mechanism isn’t actually that different on occasion (the treatment of Pride, Envy, and Lust would not be out of place in Hell).
The lack of schadenfreude and the replacement of punishment with correction makes Purgatorio a less fun read than Inferno. I also personally found the early stages of the ascent rather heavy-going, with multiple cantos devoted to each level. Fortunately, Purgatory – explicitly – gets easier the higher the climb, and by the end I think there is a genuine sense of aesthetic satisfaction. Purgatorio, being set on the Earth’s surface, is the only section of the Divine Comedy that interacts with time, and there are some lovely poetic descriptions of the geography. The high point (literally) for me was the gorgeous account of the Earthly Paradise, where we are treated to some delightfully bizarre commentary on the history of the Church, starring a griffon, an eagle, a fox, a dragon, a giant, and a prostitute (yes, really) . And a prophecy that people have been trying to figure out for centuries. And, of course, Beatrice, who will take over from Virgil as Dante’s guide for the rest of his journey.
For me, the weak point of Purgatorio was the character of Statius, a Roman poet, whom Dante turns into a Christian convert via poetic licence, and who has just completed his time in Purgatory when our protagonists meet him. Statius accompanies Dante and Virgil up the mountain, and into the Earthly Paradise, but he gets very little dialogue after his introduction, and it honestly feels like the poem forgets about him at various points – he’s a sort of invisible third wheel, who serves one purpose, and then outlives his welcome. But that’s a minor complaint. While I personally prefer Inferno, I can see why some prefer Purgatorio as their favourite book of the Divine Comedy.
Paradiso, Dante’s journey through Heaven, is the most ambitious and least user-friendly of the three stages, and I think most modern readers would be lost without accompanying notes and commentary. It is a journey through the Ptolemaic solar system, with each successive sphere – the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, and the Primum Mobile – representing a different type of heavenly soul (note, that this is only a representation. It is clarified early on that this is a structural allocation put on for our protagonist’s benefit). From there, Dante transcends the physical universe, encounters the celestial rose (it makes sense in context), and in the culmination of the poem, glimpses the face of God.
Paradiso is the least read part of the Divine Comedy, and I can see why. Whereas Inferno is fun, and Purgatorio is satisfying, Paradiso feels like a lecture in scholastic theology, with some on-the-nose political commentary thrown in. There is less sense of concrete location than earlier books – which is understandable (Heaven is an altogether more ethereal place) – but makes the book tougher to get your teeth into. I thought Dante carrying his politics into Paradise was also a bit much. Inferno and Purgatorio are fair game for such shenanigans, since punishment and purging inherently lend themselves to such things, but the succession of heavenly souls expressing their displeasure at earthly affairs gets tiresome after a while. It was also morbidly hilarious encountering Byzantine Emperor Justinian on Mercury. To modern eyes, it is rather like putting Josef Stalin in Heaven.
That said, while I enjoyed Paradiso less than Purgatorio, it is not without its charms. The imagery can be gorgeously surreal at times, what with the celestial rose, and the Eagle of Justice on Jupiter (again, it makes sense in context). Some of the theological questions Dante considers are also genuinely interesting, in the sense of addressing questions of natural (un-)fairness. Early on, Dante even attempts to consider more scientific issues, like the cause of dark patches on the Moon.
So yeah… Paradiso. Not quite the incomprehensible slog I have seen it characterised as, but not exactly light reading either. That said, a large part of the problem is the nature of what Dante is attempting to describe. As has long been noted, Hell is simply a more interesting subject than Heaven, and Dante is himself fully aware that he is trying to portray concepts that are literally beyond mortal ken (one almost wishes for a Lovecraftian take on Paradiso…). Moreover, Heaven is inherently devoid of the engine of story, since by definition it lacks conflict. In Inferno and Purgatorio we see souls suffering, but there is no suffering in Paradiso, only serenity. Dante uses theological and political discussion to fill the void.
Overall, I would say that reading the full Divine Comedy has given me a much better grasp of what Dante was actually trying to achieve with his work. Sure, the horrors of Inferno make for genuinely fun reading, but it is a mistake to treat this as the whole story, unless you want to limit yourself to a fantastical visit to the cosmos’ ward for the criminally insane. The full work, the one that Dante actually intended people to read, is a medieval mind trying to tackle key questions about the human condition, and as such, it’s well worth the attempt.