Laughing through Purgatory

One of the many reasons I love the New Yorker is its writers, and the grace the magazine gives them not to revere great art so much that they must abandon their own personal vernacular to talk about it.

Judith Thurman is one of those writers and in the September 30 issue, she approaches several new translations of Dante’s Purgatory, the middle section of his “Divine Comedy.”

I’ve never read Dante. The one time I ventured into (translated) medieval Italian via The DecameronI don’t think I made it through The First Day, Story One, before closing the book. I still have it; apparently somebody intends to get back to it eventually.

It does seem I’ve a reluctance to go on 13th and 14th century allegorical journeys. I do not put my best foot forward.

However, if anyone could get me to start Dante, it’d be Judith Thurman. Her Critic At Large article, “Asylum Seeker: Seven centuries after Dante’s death, are we finally ready for Purgatory?” tells us about three new translations of Purgatory, not often addressed by scholars. Hell must be much more interesting to the reading public.

This is a wondrous, thoroughly absorbing and entertaining article, so go read it, in full. All I’m doing here is offering a few Thurman excerpts, portions of which made me laugh out loud. I’m thinking unselfishly: if I got such joy out of them, I should share them with you.

Dante was a good companion for the pandemic, a dark wood from which the escape route remains uncertain. The plagues he describes are still with us: of sectarian violence, and of the greed for power that corrupts a regime. His medieval theology isn’t much consolation to a modern nonbeliever, yet his art and its truths feel more necessary than ever: that greater love for others is an antidote to the world’s barbarities, that evil may be understood as a sin against love, and that a soul can’t hope to dispel its anguish without first plumbing it.

The concept of Purgatory was relatively new when Dante was born; it came into currency in the twelfth century, perhaps among French theologians. This invention of a liminal space where sinners who had repented but still had work to do on the souls was a great consolation to the faithful.

Before Dante, though, the notion of Purgatory was an empty lot waiting for a visionary developer.

Dante’s conception of Purgatory is remarkably like a wilderness boot camp. Its terrain is forbidding–more like an alp than like a Tuscan hillside. Each of the rugged terraces is a setting for group therapy, where supernatural counsellors dispense tough love.

By 1295, Dante had finished “Vita Nuova,” a stylized autobiography. Its author is a self-absorbed youth with the leisure to moon after an aloof woman. He knows he’s a genius and can’t help showing off. Passages of prose alternate with sonnets and canzoni on the theme of love, but the author doesn’t trust us to understand them. His didactic self-commentary has been hailed as the birth of metatextuality, though it also seems to mark the advent of mansplaining.

Dante claims that he was first smitten with Beatrice as a nine-year-old; she was a few months younger and dressed fetchingly in crimson. At that moment, he “began to tremble so violently that even the least pulses of my body were strangely affected.” He next catches sight of her at eighteen, now “dressed in pure white,” and when she greets him he feels he is experiencing “the very summit of bliss.” That night, he dreams of her asleep,”naked except for a crimson cloth,” in the arms of a “lordly man.” The man wakes her, holding a blazing heart–Dante’s–and compels her to eat it, which she does “unsurely.”

There are, regrettably, no more naked bodies or scenes of erotic cannibalism in the “Vita”–it’s all courtly love from here on.

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