Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More Purgatorio

The fire of the terrace of the lustful reverses the fires of earthly lust, purifying and undoing the sins with which those lower fires raged. Apparently, the reverse sexuality of Dante's entrance into the fire has not been noted (according to my desultory research into various commentaries, anyhow), which gives me a chance to quote and translate some more. Dante, having a body (hence still subject to bodily desire), hesitates to breach the surface of the refining fires from which the love poets have spoken to him, Arnault Daniel most recently. In Canto 27 Virgil urges him to enter into the fire, despite his physical body:

"Pon giù omai, pon giù ogne temenza;
volgiti in qua e vieni: entra sicuro!".
E io pur fermo e contra coscïenza.

Quando mi vide star pur fermo e duro,
turbato un poco disse: "Or vedi, figlio:
tra Bëatrice e te è questo muro".

Come al nome di Tisbe aperse il ciglio
Piramo in su la morte, e riguardolla,
allor che ’l gelso diventò vermiglio;

così, la mia durezza fatta solla,
mi volsi al savio duca, udendo il nome
che ne la mente sempre mi rampolla.

Ond’ei crollò la fronte e disse: "Come!
volenci star di qua?"; indi sorrise
come al fanciul si fa ch’è vinto al pome. (Purgatorio XXVII, 31-45)

"Now put away, now put away all fear:
and come this way, with trust in your safeguard"
And me just standing firm, conscience unclear.

And when he saw me standing firm and hard,
a little vexed he said, "Look here, my son,
by this sole wall from Beatrice are you barred."

As at the name of Thisbe, his life done,
Pyramus looked up at her, his body sloughed,
his blood too, the red mulberries begun;

Just so, my hardness instantly made soft,
I turned to my wise leader, my mind's chapel
a source whence always that name wells aloft.

He shook indulgent brows, and feigned to grapple
with the question: "Standing pat then, are we?"
then smiled, as at a boy won with an apple.

This is Virgil already mothering him, teasing him affectionately rather than commanding him, and the same little boy ("fanciul") will turn to Virgil as to his mother later -- to Virgil who is gone.

But here I want to note the sexuality of the lines.  Dante won't enter the fire, he feels in some sense impotent to do so: impotent with lust, paradoxically, because the lust that brought him here in Beatrice's pursuit makes him inappropriately firm and hard -- he has a human body, and so human appetites, and the fire will burn him, punish him with physical pain, as it won't the pure images who are its denizens and who love the fire and who disappear into its depths.  His conscience is unclear: he feels bodily desire.  But Virgil assures him that it's this wall that separates him from Beatrice -- and that wall is hymenal.  It's as though crossing the never broken wall of flame is to suffer the pain of regaining virginity, a shared virginity with her, the wall between them no longer an issue.  That regaining virginity means suffering a wound that reverses the loss of virginity, means suffering an anti-wound as it were, is clear in the reference to Pyramus and Thisbe.  The wall separated them, and now Pyramus stabs himself, undergoes symbolically what in the more standard, reversed course of events Thisbe would undergo.  "The wall is down" that parted them, and the result of this is not their sexual union but their union in death, which is the painful guarantee of their virginity.

Virgil sees that Beatrice will win Dante to this anti-sexuality: the reversal now is that he can only enter the fire when his hardness is made soft ("la mia durezza fatta solla"), and the sound of Beatrice's name is like an easy bribe to an innocent boy, won with an apple - not the apple of the tree of sexual knowledge and original sin, but the apple that tempts him back to childish sexual innocence, painful as that might be.

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