Doing Time in the Purgatoreum
This will be a cross-generational dialogue -- like two dozen generations, give or take. And as is my usual custom in conversation, I will politely use my interlocutor as a springboard to pretty much say what I wanted to anyway.
But in my defense, A genuine vocation leads the writer to write only for himself: first out of pride, then out of humility (Don Colacho).
Nor are we approaching this in anything resembling an "academic" manner. To the contrary: A book does not educate someone who reads it to become educated (ibid.). Which explains a lot about the tenured.
And one of my favorite aphorisms of Don Colacho is that A work of art has, properly speaking, not meaning but power. That being the case, there is no need to fall back upon accepted interpretations, but to simply respond to the power that is being conveyed and felt.
SO, I have no idea how or where this will go. It will be a verticalisthenic exercise in unadulterated free association, which means that we must allow Bob's Unconscious to show us the way.
Now, the first thing that occurs to us is that Dante is a psychotherapist of sorts; or a pneumatherapist, to be more precise. To suggest that Freud "discovered" the unconscious with his 1899 publication of The Interpretation of Dreams is pure hubris.
Rather, what he did was give it a 19th century scientistic spin; basically, he snuck into the literature department, stole the concept, and proceeded to medicalize it. And then charge good money to get it back.
And before literature, it was the province of theology. Thus, we can even see a sort of fight over ownership of Dante's corpus. But for an undivided person who doesn't see any radical distinctions between art, science, and religion, we don't really care about these inter-departmental squabbles. Thankfully, nor does God.
It also occurs to us is that James Joyce no doubt saw himself as a modern day Dante. Finnegans Wake (FW) too is a descent into the underworld, only instead of writing about it as an observer, he forces you to be a participant. One of the fundamental polarities that structures FW is the eternal sibling rivalry between the man of thought and the man of action; the former is an extension of Mother, the latter of Father.
The Muse "is invoked by the poet: the poet does not invent his verses but discovers their materials in those deep layers of the psyche where lurk the infantile, buried reminiscences of the mother." Thus, the poet is Mom's favorite (Campbell & Robinson).
However, the genuine mama's boy, so long as he is true to his Muse, will never get to the bottom of himself. This is because the language of "her dreamlike enigmatic inspiration is not wholly clear to the waking eye, though deeply familiar to the soul" (ibid.). Here again: power, not meaning. Except that the power is the echo, aftershock, or recoil of a deeper Meaning that no one could have invented.
There can be no radical discontinuity between Inferno and Purgatory. As Will reminds us, the former must simply be a more extreme version of the latter.
It looks to me like Inferno is reserved for souls who either oppose God or who are completely passive as to their spiritual destiny, whereas Purgatory is for anyone who is actually using this life to better themselves. In fact, Pope Benedict reminds us that "anyone who honestly and passionately searches for truth is on the way to Christ."
In a very loose analogy, it's somewhat akin to the difference between a neurosis and a personality disorder (and I notice that ShrinkWrapped is doing a series of illuminating posts on the subject).
Basically, the neurotic is aware of his problems, and is conflicted and in pain about them. In contrast, the person with a personality disorder inevitably acts them out and inducts others into their psychodrama. In the latter case, they substitute action for thought. You might say that they are "embodied pathology," an ironic twist on the idea of Incarnation. They are the naughty word made flesh.
In Canto 1 of the Purgatory, Dante says that we have left behind / The cruel waters of the ocean deep. Whereas Inferno is structured in a series of concentric circles, you may imagine purgatory as a mountain -- or triangle -- sitting atop of the circle. At the apex of the triangle is Paradise.
This mountain is the second kingdom, / Wherein the human soul is cleansed of sin / And rendered worthy to ascend to heaven. In other words, it is here. It is not only this life, but the very purpose of this life.
And straightaway, Dante calls out to mama mia -- the muses -- for assistance: O sacred muses, since I am wholly yours / May this poem rise again from Hell's dead realm. (BTW, I'm going to liberally mix translations as kneaded in order to amplify my meaning.)
Dante contrasts the murky world of the unconscious with the bright world of the conscious mind: The aspect of the sky shone forth serene / From zenith to the rim of the horizon, / So that my eyes were filled again with joy / As soon as I had left that deadly air.
We can only write about what we know, and here again I see a kind of analogy with psychotherapy. After spending an hour disgorging the content of their unconscious, patients routinely feel "lighter" and less burdened after a session. It really is the movement from one world to another and then back again.
Dante next encounters a bearded fellow who alludes to what we stated above about the passivity or opposition of the souls below this plane: Who are you, that counter to the stream / Have fled from the eternal prison house?
This is an important point, for as we have discussed many times, man is situated between two attractors, one above and one below. In either direction, the further one proceeds on the basis of will, the more the will comes to be under the influence of the attractor at either pole.
So this bearded fellow wants to know how these two wanderers beat the cosmic system, and wonders if a "newer law" prevails, one he doesn't know about. For until now, it was more or less a one-way street, or nul de slack, in that direction; one could go in, but not out.
This is an obvious anticipation of Christ, who descended into Hell in order to liberate the souls there. Indeed, Pope Benedict writes that Jesus' baptism "envelops him from every side," and is "thus an anticipation of his act of descending into the underworld."
And "he does not descend merely in the role of spectator, as in Dante's Inferno," but "goes down in the role of one whose suffering-with-others is a transforming suffering that turns the underworld around, knocking down and flinging open the gates of the abyss" (ibid).
Dante is too fermisht to speak, so Virgil explains that I came not of myself; / From heaven came down a lady, by whose prayers / I helped this man and keep him company.
Virgil points out that Dante is not dead, and that he has yet to see his final hour. He came close, but turned his life around just in time. He has seen the wicked people, and Virgil now wants to show him the souls Who purge themselves of sin in your care.
Purgatory is a place of tests and trials. Note that Jesus' first activity upon his baptism is to confront a kind of purgatory, where he is tempted with all of the usual human rewards and compensations for losing God: "It is a descent into the perils besetting mankind, for there is no other way to lift up fallen humanity. Jesus has to enter the drama of human existence, for that belongs to the core of his mission; he has to penetrate it completely, down to its uttermost depths..." (ibid.)
So now, "God's will can conquer the downward pull of our selfishness and make us capable of the lofty height to which we are called," i.e., (↑).
Excuse me? You came from Hell?