Reading Dante’s Purgatory While the World Hangs in the Balance

Fifty years in the past, I used to be a visitor at the baptism of a buddy’s son in the historic church of a Tuscan hamlet. It was Easter, and lambing season. A Sardinian shepherd who tended the flocks of an area landowner got here to pay his respects to the new mother and father. He was a wild-looking man with matted hair whose harsh dialect was exhausting to grasp. Among our social gathering was a great thing about fifteen, an artist’s daughter, and the shepherd took such a elaborate to her that he requested for her hand. The lady’s father politely declined, and the shepherd, to indicate that he had no exhausting emotions, supplied us a lamb for our Paschal dinner. My associates have been penniless bohemians, so the reward was welcome. It got here, nonetheless, with a situation: we needed to watch the lamb being slaughtered.

The blood sacrifice passed off after the baptism. That morning, the child’s godfather, an expatriate author, had brought about a stir in the church, since none of the villagers, most of them farmers, had ever seen a Black man in individual. Some tried to the touch his arms, to see if the colour would rub off; there was a way of awe amongst them, as if one in all the Magi had come to go to. Toward the finish of the ceremony, the second got here for the sponsors to “renounce Satan and . . . all his seductions of sin and evil.” The godfather had been raised in a pious neighborhood, and he entered into the spirit of this one. His personal expertise of malevolence had taught him, as he wrote, that life “is not moral.” Yet he stood gravely at the font and vowed, “Rinuncio.”

I considered these scenes final spring after I started studying three new translations of Purgatory, being revealed to coincide with the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s demise, at fifty-six, in September of 1321. The speech of the hamlet had primed my ear for the poet’s tongue. “Di che potenza vieni?” an outdated farmer had requested the godfather: “From what power dost thou come?” Purgatory, like the different two canticles of what Dante referred to as his “sacred” epic, Inferno and Paradise, takes place throughout Easter week in 1300. In Canto I, the pilgrim and his cicerone, Virgil, emerge from Hell and arrive at the mountain “of that second kingdom where the human spirit purges itself to become worthy of Heaven.” Dante’s physique, nonetheless clad in its flesh, evokes marvel amongst the shades as a result of it casts a shadow. They mob him with questions: From the place has he come?

Dante was a superb companion for the pandemic, a darkish wooden from which the escape route stays unsure. The plagues he describes are nonetheless with us: of sectarian violence, and of the greed for energy that corrupts a regime. His medieval theology isn’t a lot comfort to a contemporary nonbeliever, but his artwork and its truths really feel extra needed than ever: that better love for others is an antidote to the world’s barbarities, that evil could also be understood as a sin towards love, and {that a} soul can’t hope to dispel its anguish with out first plumbing it.

An underworld the place spirits migrate after demise has at all times been a part of humankind’s creativeness. Nearly each tradition, together with the most historic, has a reputation for it: Diyu, Naraka, Sheol, Tartarus, Hades. But there isn’t a Purgatory in the Bible, or in Protestantism, or in Eastern Orthodoxy. In present Catholic dogma, it’s a state of being moderately than an precise realm between Hell and Heaven: an interior fireplace in the conscience of sinners that refines their impurities.

The idea of Purgatory was comparatively new when Dante was born; it got here into foreign money in the twelfth century, maybe amongst French theologians. This invention of a liminal area the place sinners who had repented however nonetheless had work to do on their souls was an amazing comfort to the trustworthy. It was additionally a boon for the Church. By the late Middle Ages, you possibly can shorten your detention by years, centuries, and even millennia by paying a hefty sum to a “pardoner,” like Chaucer’s pilgrim. A preferred ditty captured the cynicism this follow impressed: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / The soul from Purgatory springs.”

Before Dante, although, the notion of Purgatory was an empty lot ready for a visionary developer. His blueprint is an invention of beautiful specificity. A ziggurat-like mountain ringed with seven terraces, one for every of the cardinal sins, rises from the sea in the Southern Hemisphere, reverse the globe from Jerusalem, with the Earthly Paradise at its summit. According to Dante, this mountain was shaped by the impression of Satan’s fall to Earth. His descent introduced grief to the youngsters of Eve—these “seductions of sin and evil” that each godparent should resign. But it additionally created a stairway to Heaven.

Dante’s conception of Purgatory is remarkably like a wilderness boot camp. Its terrain is forbidding—extra like an alp than like a Tuscan hillside. Each of the rugged terraces is a setting for group remedy, the place supernatural counsellors dispense robust love. Their fees are sinners, but not incorrigibles: all of them embraced Jesus as their savior. But, earlier than dying, they harmed others and themselves, so their spirits want reëducation. They will graduate to the Earthly Paradise, and ultimately to Heaven, after nonetheless a lot time it takes them to transcend their mortal failings by proudly owning them.

For many college students of Dante, Purgatory is the Divine Comedy’s central canticle poetically, philosophically, and psychologically. It is, as one in all its greatest translators, the poet W. S. Merwin, famous, the just one that “happens on the earth, as our lives do. . . . Here the times of day recur with all the sensations and associations that the hours bring with them, the hours of the world we are living as we read.” And right here, too, he displays, there’s “hope, as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.”

The Dante we meet in the first traces of Inferno is a middle-aged man who wakes after an evening of terrors to search out himself in the wilderness. How did he get there? The Republic of Florence was his crucible. He was born in 1265, underneath the signal of Gemini. According to a current biographer, the Italian scholar Marco Santagata, he believed that his natal horoscope had destined him for glory as each a poet and a messiah who would save the world. There was little in his background to justify such grandiosity. Santagata calls Dante’s father, Alighiero, “a small-time moneylender.” His mom, Bella, got here from a wealthier household. Both mother and father have been respectable residents, although not members of the élite. Their son’s pretensions to the Aristocracy weren’t warranted by his start.

Dante was the youngest of his mother and father’ youngsters, and he was probably only a toddler when his mom died. His father died when Dante was about ten. The boy suffered from poor well being and unhealthy eyesight. The matches and visions that his works allude to might have been brought on by epilepsy. Yet his mind appears at all times to have been distinctive. However Dante was educated (possible in a plebeian public college, based on Santagata), he mastered Latin and have become “a great epistolographer”—a composer of clever letters, official and personal. When he waded into his metropolis’s roiling politics, that expertise anchored his profession.

Florence was a hub of banking and the wool commerce. By the late twelve-hundreds, two rival events, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, had been preventing for practically a century to dominate its authorities. The Guelfs have been allied with the Pope, the Ghibellines with the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1289, the Ghibellines have been defeated in a decisive battle at Campaldino. But the victors then splintered into two factions—the White Guelfs, with whom Dante sided, and the Black Guelfs, his sworn enemies.

Dante fought in the cavalry at Campaldino, and conflict should have given him a foretaste of Hell. But then he went again to civilian life, changing into a nova in Florence’s literary firmament. He made princely associates who admired his poetry. Among them was one other of Italy’s biggest poets, Guido Cavalcanti, though Dante wouldn’t spare his father from damnation for heresy.

By 1295, Dante had completed “Vita Nuova,” a stylized autobiography. Its writer is a self-absorbed youth with the leisure to moon after an aloof girl. He is aware of he’s a genius and might’t assist displaying off. Passages of prose alternate with sonnets and canzoni on the theme of affection, however the writer doesn’t belief us to grasp them. His didactic self-commentary has been hailed as the start of metatextuality, although it additionally appears to mark the introduction of mansplaining. The “Vita,” Dante tells us, in the penultimate chapter, is addressed to a feminine readership (one presumably unversed in poetics). “It is to the ladies that I speak,” he writes.

Several girls elicit Dante’s gallantry in the “Vita,” however just one, Beatrice, evokes his adoration. Her possible mannequin was Beatrice di Folco Portinari. Her father and husband have been wealthy Florentine bankers; she died in her early twenties. Details of her life are scarce, and Dante doesn’t provide many. Their households might have been neighbors. Her father’s testomony left her fifty florins. Dante claims that he was first smitten with Beatrice as a nine-year-old; she was just a few months youthful and dressed fetchingly in crimson. At that second, he “began to tremble so violently that even the least pulses of my body were strangely affected.” He subsequent catches sight of her at eighteen, now “dressed in pure white,” and when she greets him he feels he’s experiencing “the very summit of bliss.” That night time, he desires of her asleep, “naked except for a crimson cloth,” in the arms of a “lordly man.” The man wakes her, holding a blazing coronary heart—Dante’s—and compels her to eat it, which she does “unsurely.”

There are, regrettably, no extra bare our bodies or scenes of erotic cannibalism in the “Vita”—it’s all courtly love from right here on. Dante chronicles his transient encounters with Beatrice on the avenue or in church (at present, one may say that he stalked her), fainting with pleasure if she acknowledges him and plunging into melancholy after a snub. He mourns her premature demise abjectly. But not lengthy afterward his head is turned by one other girl, “gracious, beautiful, young, and wise.” Why not console himself, he causes, “after so much tribulation”?

Cartoon by Kate Curtis

This “other woman” of the “Vita” was not the lady to whom Dante had been betrothed when he was not fairly twelve, and whom he had married as a younger man. His lawful spouse was Gemma Donati. Her household was nobler and richer than the Alighieris, they usually led the Black Guelfs. He mentions a number of of his spouse’s family in the Comedy. (One, the virtuous Piccarda, whose odious brother tore her from a convent and compelled her to marry, greets him in Paradise; one other, Forese, a buddy of his youth, is a glutton in Purgatory.) But he by no means acknowledged Gemma’s existence in any of his works. One want to suppose that Dante ghosted her out of discretion—she was beholden to his persecutors. Perhaps, although, the rueful shade of Ulysses hits upon the actual cause in Inferno:

Neither tenderness for my son,
Nor obligation to my outdated father,
Nor the debt of affection I owed Penelope,
To make her pleased, may compete
With my ardor to know the world,
And all issues human, base and noble.

If Gemma was Dante’s Penelope, Beatrice was his Athena—the divine protectress of his odyssey. And the remaining chapter of the “Vita” publicizes a future joint enterprise. The responsible swain vows to atone for his betrayal by writing of Beatrice “what has never been said of another woman.”

In 1301, the White Guelfs despatched Dante to Rome on a mission to safe the Pope’s assist for his or her trigger. But whereas he was away from Florence the Black Guelfs seized energy. They banished Dante in absentia and confiscated his property; he would burn at the stake ought to he ever return. He by no means did, even in 1315, when the metropolis supplied to commute his sentence if he repented publicly. Exile was preferable to abasement for a person of his temperament, which was reported to be useless and contentious. After leaving Purgatory’s terrace of delight, he worries that he’ll be remanded there after demise.

Dante spent the final nineteen years of his working life as an itinerant diplomat and secretary for the lords of northern Italy. The poem that he referred to as, merely, the “Comedy” (a Venetian version of 1555 added the adjective “Divine,” and it caught) is the work of an embittered asylum seeker. Its profoundest lesson could also be that love’s wellspring is forgiveness. Yet Dante by no means forgave Florence. Even in Paradise, he can’t resist a swipe at his fellow-citizens. They are “little brats who swat away their nurse’s breast though they’re dying of hunger.”

The Comedy is each an epic highway journey indebted to Homer and a medieval pilgrimage, although it’s also a landmark in Western literature: one in all its first masterpieces in a Romance vernacular. Dante’s artwork heralds the starting of the Renaissance for the similar cause that Giotto’s does. The two nice Florentines have been contemporaries, they usually might have been associates, regardless of a disparity of sophistication. According to legend, the painter spent his boyhood as a shepherd. (He would have recognized easy methods to butcher a lamb.) They each inherited an allegorical custom, and their themes are trustworthy to its doctrine, but their protagonists are radically human. A fresco on the partitions of Florence’s Podestà Chapel, attributed to Giotto, represents the saved in Paradise. Among them is a younger man presumed to be Dante, holding a e book. He is dressed sumptuously in purple, with an aquiline profile and a steely gaze. Dante celebrates Giotto’s fame, considerably sarcastically, in the eleventh canto of Purgatory. A lust for fame was one in all his personal failings.

As the narrator of the Comedy and its central persona, Dante wrestles along with his fellow-feeling for sinners condemned to torments that he has invented. Nowhere is the pressure between his orthodoxy and his nascent humanism extra acute than in Canto XV of Inferno, when a shade with options scorched by the flames clutches at the poet’s hem. “Brunetto, master, you are here?” Dante cries out, palpably shocked.

Brunetto Latini, a Florentine poet and statesman, had been Dante’s mentor after his mother and father’ deaths. He has been condemned to the Seventh Circle for working towards the vice of sodomy, about which, apparently, he was unrepentant. But the tenderness each males categorical, and their mourning for what they’ve misplaced in one another—a father and a son—is in its means a heretical rebuke to the implacable order that forbids their reunion in Heaven. “If all that I ask were fulfilled,” Dante says, “you wouldn’t be an outcast from human nature.”

Virgil, who died twenty years earlier than Christ’s coming, can also be excluded from Heaven, but he bears that sorrow stoically. He tells Dante that it’s a presumption to query divine justice, even when it appears unfair, and to confuse “piety” with “pity” (the similar phrase in Italian, pietà). Salvation, Dante will uncover, requires the give up of exactly that attribute to which he’s most connected as an artist, a lover, and a person: his ego.

As Dante and Virgil make their arduous circuit of Purgatory’s terraces, they ask instructions from the shades, who share their tales and clarify their penances. Like birds of prey being tamed by a falconer, the envious have their eyes sewn shut. The gluttons are mortified by hunger amid tormenting aromas. The lustful should go by a wall of flames. The proud stagger beneath a sack of boulders, and the slothful atone with manic exercise. But Dante is an embed, moderately than a mere vacationer. A sword-wielding angel scarifies his forehead with seven letters—“P”s, for peccato, or sin. Once he understands a sin humbly and viscerally, he ascends to the subsequent terrace, and a “P” is erased. Fear and exhaustion generally tempt him with dejection, however, Virgil tells him,

This mountain’s nature
Is to appear steepest from beneath;
The climb is much less painful the larger you go.

Finally, in the Earthly Paradise located at Purgatory’s summit, Dante reunites with Beatrice. She has descended from her place in Heaven, close to the Virgin Mary’s, to not welcome however to confront him:

. . . In your wishes for me,
Which led you to like the good
Beyond which one can’t aspire,
What ruts or chains in the highway
Forced you to ditch any hope
Of development?
And what bribes or lures
In others’ eyes enticed you
To dally so idly there?

“Answer me!” she instructions, as Dante cowers mutely. He compares himself to a naughty little boy being scolded.

No one has advised Beatrice that, based on St. Paul, ladies are forbidden to show males. She chastises Dante with a pontifical authority that few members of her intercourse would have then dared to vaunt. In her excellent magnificence and knowledge, she explains, she embodies God’s love, so Dante’s fickleness towards her is ingratitude to the Creator. His repentance in the end wins her absolution and consummates their love story.

But, for all her endearing feistiness, Beatrice is uniquely implausible amongst Dante’s main characters. She’s an summary mouthpiece for her creator’s philosophy who lacks her personal important substance. (The Virgin Mary, by comparability, is a relatable girl who has labored and suffered.) In that respect, the poet’s in any other case incomparable powers of creativeness slight Beatrice and us.

Even as a figment, nonetheless, Dante’s Beatrice has a permanent status as the object of a person’s ardent longing. Did her halo of romance tantalize the poet’s daughter? Dante and Gemma had not less than three youngsters. Two of their sons have been amongst the Comedy’s first commentators. The boys’ youthful sister, Antonia, turned a nun in Ravenna, the place Dante died and is buried in a splendid tomb. She is claimed to have taken the identify Suor Beatrice. The poignancy of that element haunts me. Antonia was a child when her father was exiled, so she grew up with out realizing him—craving, it might appear, to be worthy of the love that he had vowed so publicly to an excellent girl.

Since Dante’s demise, greater than 100 writers in English have produced a model of the Comedy in half or complete or have channelled it into their very own work. It’s a roll name of the huge weapons: Chaucer, Milton, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Longfellow, Swinburne, and the Brownings, to call just a few. Dante impressed Pound and Eliot to write down a few of the twentieth century’s best poetry. He was additionally a Virgil to Beckett, Joyce, Yeats, Auden, Robert Lowell, and the Nobelists Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney. Robin Kirkpatrick, a Cambridge don, did a masterly translation for Penguin Classics. But two of my favorites are Dorothy L. Sayers, the crime novelist, and C. H. Sisson, a civil servant, like Dante, whose modernist tercets seize the Comedy’s austere depth. (“I think Sisson / Got it, don’t you?” his buddy Donald Davie wrote. “Plain Dante, plain as a board / And if flat, flat. The abhorrent, the abhorred / Ask to be uttered plainly.”)

That saga of translation resembles the slopes not a lot of Mount Purgatory as of Mt. Everest, suffering from the particles of the climbers who’ve tried to summit, some coming nearer than others. But reaching Dante’s Heaven by following faithfully in his footsteps isn’t potential in English, which lacks the luxuriance of rhyme native to Italian. The epic’s terza rima is a propulsive schema of three-line stanzas in a chain-linked sample (aba, bcb, cdc) that Dante invented. It acts as a vessel—in the sense not solely of a container however of a conveyance for the narrator’s passage towards sublimity. (James Merrill in contrast the schema’s momentum to the movement of oars.) His phrases and music are inextricable.

Many readers don’t get farther with Dante than Inferno, for apparent causes: depravity is a extra compelling topic than advantage, as you uncover while you attain Paradise. Inferno’s denizens are our familiars—we meet their avatars day by day. It’s a spot, as Merwin put it, the place “the self and its despair [are] forever inseparable,” a predicament we consider as trendy, maybe as a result of it suggests the claustrophobia of narcissism.

Translators have additionally most well-liked Inferno: its tableaux of carnage are so thrillingly obscene. In a well-known passage, Dante meets Muhammad in the “bedlam” of the Eighth Circle, the place the sowers of discord get their comeuppance. (Muhammad’s “sin” was to have lured his followers away from the true church. Dante was a fierce critic of the papacy however a militant defender of Catholic theology.)

I by no means noticed a barrel burst aside,
Having sprung a hoop or slipped a stave,
Like that man break up all the way down to the place we fart,

His guts between his legs, his physique splayed,
Its organs hanging out, amongst them that foul sac
Which turns to shit all that we eat.
As I beheld this gore he checked out me
And even wider tore his breast aside
“See how I spread myself,” stated he.

Evil is rarely banal in Dante’s depiction. Nor are the traitors, counterfeiters, rabble-rousers, thieves, hypocrites, corrupt pols, charlatans, flatterers, pimps, blasphemers, usurers, sodomites, suicides, plunderers, murderers, heretics, spendthrifts, melancholics, gluttons, intercourse addicts, or, at the threshold of Hell, these apathetic souls whose sin was ingratitude for the life pressure they have been born with. Each one is indelibly particular person. Yet, if Dante can present a bodhisattva’s compassion for the sufferings he has devised, he’s additionally inclined to that almost all human of responsible pleasures: Schadenfreude. At each alternative on his journey to beatitude, he settles a rating.

For Dante’s septicentennial, nonetheless, the newest crew of translators has chosen to assault Mount Purgatory. They embody the American poet and professor Mary Jo Bang; the Scottish poet and psychoanalyst D. M. Black; and the sixteen contributors to a brand new anthology, “After Dante: Poets in Purgatory,” edited by Nick Havely, a prolific Dante scholar, with Bernard O’Donoghue, an eminent authority on medieval literature. Perhaps it’s Purgatory’s second as a result of, in an period of cataclysmic strife, climate, and unreason, hope is as treasured as it’s scarce. But, earlier than one asks how they measure up, one has to marvel why they might attempt to.

In my very own pilgrimage by Dante, it was revealing to see what number of of the passages I underlined evoked the angst of a primary draft—

I’m conquered right here by my defeat
In satisfying what my theme calls for
More so than all earlier than me in no matter style.

—or the ephemeral elation of reaching what Dante calls “significando”:

I’m one who pays shut heed
When love evokes me, then as bidden
I proceed inwardly making which means.

It was a solace to me that the biggest of poets was usually stymied, overwhelmed, or speechless. Even with the muses’ assist, he writes, in Paradise, “I’d still not reach one-thousandth of the truth.” It isn’t shocking, then, that the Comedy has been translated for seven hundred years. It’s a author’s bible.

It’s additionally an outdated mansion that invitations renovation. Mary Jo Bang was discouraged, she tells us in an introduction, by the “elevated register” of earlier variations, as a result of it was “a continually distracting reminder of the fact that the poem was written in a long-ago era.” Her Purgatory is a retranslation—she doesn’t communicate Italian. In locations, although, her terse syntax generates traces that glide with the grace of a scull:

“I’m going to leave you alone with this avocado, and you can either eat it right away and have an underripe avocado or wait a little while and have a completely rotten avocado.”

Cartoon by Meredith Southard

The curtain over the actual is so skinny
The mild makes sure you’ll be able to see inside.

But I’m leaving out the first sentence of that tercet:

Here, Reader, hold your eye on the prize.

Bang’s treatment for elevation is philistinism. She virtually jealously disrupts our immersion in Dante, and the poem’s unity, by bombing the textual content with jokey anachronisms. These “contemporizing moments,” as she calls them, embody allusions to baseball, Candy Land, Wall Street, hustlers, Houdini, animation, “West Side Story,” and the Little Red Hen. Where Dante’s poetry doesn’t suffice, Bang throws in a few of Shakespeare’s. She additionally samples, amongst others, Amy Winehouse, Allen Ginsberg, and Elton John.

Although Bang’s license is excessive, each translator of Dante makes some compromise with the authentic. (Any passages from the Comedy in any other case uncredited listed here are mine.) You haggle with the Italian in each line. How a lot of the poetry will you concede for semantic constancy? How a lot constancy for the music or the type? How far are you able to go in modernizing the tropes? As the editors of “After Dante” counsel in their introduction, answering such questions might require the collective bargaining of a “community.” In truth, the Comedy itself is one. As Dante and Virgil make their means towards Paradise, they communicate with or evoke the spirit of poets whose craft they revere—their “singing-masters,” in Yeats’s phrase.

The Comedy’s neighborhood of translators isn’t not like a monastery, the place the religious ambitions of the ordained vie (at the same time as Dante’s did) with their career of humility. The title “After Dante” alerts us to these conflicts, and the polyphony of its voices could also be extra instructive than their harmonies.

There are too many nice translations right here to quote. But in braving Canto XVIII, in which Virgil enlightens Dante on the nature of affection, Jonathan Galassi easily turns a lock that others have pressured. Lorna Goodison, a former poet laureate of Jamaica, summons the panorama and speech of her island to highly effective impact. At the finish of Canto XII, the place a chastened Dante leaves the terrace of delight, she imagines the a great deal of rocks that bow the backs of its penitents as the burdens of her personal folks,

who don’t discover that they
nonetheless bear the weight of slavery days on their heads

A. E. Stallings finesses Canto III in terza rima. Her diction captures a high quality of Dante’s sentences that Erich Auerbach marvelled at in 1929, when he referred to as them as “simple as the lines of a primer . . . which pierce the heart”:

And simply as, from the fold, come sheep—
first one, then two, then three; the flock
stand meek, and faces earthward hold,

and if one walks, the relaxation will stroll;
and when he stops, huddle in place,
meek, gentle, not realizing why they balk

That passage jogged my memory of the Sardinian shepherd, coaxing a ewe and her suckling from the flock. He selected a lamb with a fleece of pure white and was cautious to not bloody it. (He may promote the fleece later, he defined, to line a cradle.) The mom adopted mutely and trustingly till he slit the lamb’s throat. Then, with heart-piercing bleats, she charged us.

D. M. Black’s Purgatory is the most satisfying full translation since Merwin’s. Black is a South African-born Scot who has studied Eastern religions, taught philosophy and literature, and revealed seven collections of his personal poetry. He has practiced psychoanalysis in London, and he was drawn to the Comedy, he writes in an illuminating introduction, partly as a result of he reads it as “a sort of gigantic encyclopedia of human motives” which examines the nature of psychic battle. Black admits that Dante wouldn’t have learn his poem that means, since his “ultimate concern is with Christian ‘salvation,’ ” and never “with understanding what impedes someone from living a fulfilling life.” Yet that, I think, is precisely why Dante nonetheless speaks to us. The afflictions that Freud baptized “the psychopathology of everyday life,” and that Dante calls “the senseless cares of mortals,” are sins towards love; like Satan, they dupe a person into rejecting, perverting, violating, or despairing of it.

The Comedy is a morality story designed, in half, to scare its readers straight, to not free them from their hangups. But in Purgatory Dante describes a course of—gradual and arduous, like evaluation—of unriddling the mysteries of self-sabotage. As Beatrice places it to him:

From dread and disgrace I would like you
To evolve, so that you now not communicate
As in a dream.

In his commentary on the poem, Black likens the terraces the place the penitents “go round and round” to the “circling thoughts of those who can’t let go of the past.” That describes most of historical past. There appears to be no escape from our worst natures; it might take a miracle no deity has ever wrought.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” James Baldwin wrote, “and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” But Dante (right here in Black’s considerate rendering) invitations us to imagine that we will banish our demons, alone and collectively, if we resist unconsciousness:

As a person dismayed who turns to face the info
adjustments his worry to belief in his personal energy
when to his eyes the reality has been uncovered
So I modified; and when my chief noticed me freed
from these anxieties, up by the rampart
he moved, and I behind him, towards the peak. ♦


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