Purgatorio by Dante
Maybe I’m subconsciously channelling Friedrich Nietzsche (who, in Ecce Homo, wonders how anyone can read during the day), but I’m finding it almost impossible to concentrate on Dante’s Purgatorio if I read it during the daylight hours.
I tore through several cantos on the night I picked it up, then stalled the next morning, lamely finishing one canto and wondering why I was so distracted. Then I took the book to the office, thinking I would get in a canto or two during lunch, but it say in my work area, untouched and uncommented upon by my co-workers. (I admit that, every time I looked at the Purgatorio, I told myself that Dante’s fundamentalism would put today’s Christian right to shame.)
I read a new translation of one of the canticles every year, so I can vouch for the Jean Hollander/Robert Hollander translation. I initially bought the book on the strength of its extensive notes, but the translation itself is quite readable, even if the language doesn’t evoke as many images as does the Inferno. The Purgatorio is more intimate than the Inferno, which might explain my frustrating lack of concentration. Dante makes a point of addressing the reader numerous times, and given the poem’s relative calmness, as compared to the violance and rapid-fire pacing of the Interno, Purgatorio reads like an interlude of sorts: if you managed to survive the horrors of hell, you’ll need purgatory to get the stench of sulfur off your skin.
But if the Inferno is awash in utter helplessness and despair, then the Purgatorio offers some much needed light and respite. Any arduous journey would likely force introspection, and that’s ultimately what the Purgatorio is: Dante and Virgil often analyze their motivations and the consequences of some of their choices. Whether you believe in God or not, Dante is one of those artists who is truly universal. Sure, the Divine Comedy is a product of its time, when high art was supposed to glorify the ways of God, and with the Purgatorio, Dante not only sings God’s praises with unmatched clarity and devotion, but he also makes you question whether or not you even you’re even ready for paradise. Don’t feel too bad if you can’t immediately answer that question–even Dante, perfectly aware of his own flaws, was full of self-doubt.
And that, I suppose, is what makes the Comedy one of the most human works ever written.