I’ve just finished reading Dante’s Paradiso. As in – literally just finished. I walked into the computer room, book in hand, reading the last few pages of notes, because I couldn’t wait to share the last few lines with you all…
Thither my own wings could not carry me
But that a flash of understanding clove
Whence its desire came to it suddenly
High phantasy lost power and here broke off
Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars
My will and my desire were turned by love,
The love that moves the sun and other stars.
So. Purgatory, then. I hope this will be coherent – but I’m worried that if I wait too long to write it, I’ll be distracted by Paradise (what a lovely sentence to take out of context), and won’t be able to do it justice.
I started this book with oddly mixed feelings. My own expectation, from having read the Inferno and Dorothy Sayers’ commentaries, was that I’d really enjoy it – in fact, I’d been impatient to get through the last half dozen or so Cantos (Canti?) of Inferno, so I could find out what the next bit was like – and yet numerous people had told me that Purgatory was less interesting, and even Sayers said that many people didn’t get past Inferno (and, I might add, she had no high opinion of such people!), so I wasn’t sure how I’d like it.
But, in fact, I think I liked it more than its predecessor. Inferno was interesting, certainly, but it lacked the theological fascination of Purgatory, at least for me. Perhaps this was a product of not having been brought up Catholic – Purgatory was not a concept I knew well, so it had an extra interest for me. Also, of course, circumstances combined to make the experience of reading it strangely topical and profound – while I may joke about Australia being Purgatory, I cannot deny that something visceral and indescribable was added to my reading when I noted the smoke in the air as I read about the smoky circle of Wrath, or read about the fire in the circle of Lust near the top of the mountain straight after reading of the bushfires in the Victorian Alps, or walked out of the office into a cool change just as Dante walked through the fire into the cool of the Earthly Paradise. And while Sayers tells me, and I believe her, that Dante could not have known about the Southern Cross when he described the constellations, I couldn’t help seeing them whenever the four stars in the sky were mentioned. I can’t tell you how all this affected my understanding of the book; I can tell you, though, that I believe it is more deeply lodged in my memory as a result – experiential learning, as one might say.
Here’s what I learned from reading The Divine Comedy: Hell, as translated by Dorothy Sayers: Purgatory is Australia! No, really, it is: in Dante’s literal (but not allegorical, as Miss Sayers would quickly point out) scheme of the universe, Hell is entered through a Dark Wood in the Northern Hemisphere, from which one descends deeper and deeper inside the earth to the bottom of the pit – the frozen 9th circle of Hell, where a morose Satan gloomily gnaws on the most perfidious traitors of all.