Friday, August 19, 2011

Purgatorio XXVI: His body's not fictitious!

The terrace of the lustful - the last and least blameworthy of the sinners are near the top of Purgatory, just as the lustful have been near the top of Inferno.  After all, their crime is love!  So of course is everyone's, at every level, but the lustful love others, not themselves, and love those others to get what they conceive of as good: love the others to have the experience of love as well.  Lust is for Dante the most generous, the least perverted of sins.

So it's appropriate that among the lustful, Dante's living body becomes an issue again.  (This after Statius's long and fascinating lesson in Purgatorio XXV about the meaning of the spectral bodies of the dead, the forms infused into the intellectual soul by the nature they once inhabited and absorbed and refined.)  Here are the lustful, and here is a man with a sexual body, not the mere shades who kiss each other turn by turn, in chaste conformity with Paul's rule in Romans, as they do their endless contra-dance.  A real body, and the lustful in their counterlustful flames can see him:

feriami il sole in su l'omero destro,
che già, raggiando, tutto l'occidente
mutava in bianco aspetto di cilestro;

e io facea con l'ombra più rovente
parer la fiamma; e pur a tanto indizio
vidi molt'ombre, andando, poner mente.

Questa fu la cagion che diede inizio
loro a parlar di me; e cominciarsi
a dir: «Colui non par corpo fittizio»;

poi verso me, quanto potean farsi,
certi si fero, sempre con riguardo
di non uscir dove non fosser arsi.  (XXVI. 4-15)

My shoulder stung by sunshine on the right,
I saw those rays already change the West,
its azure aspect now transformed to white;

my shadow caused strange glowing, for the crest
of flames shone brighter in the shade I cast --
those Shades to this strange sign their minds addressed.

So was it that they spoke to me; first massed
together they said, at this strange sight,
"His body's not fictitious!" From the blast

were certain who approached, as close as might
comport with keeping wholly to the fire:
nor for a moment sought they to take flight.

At the height of Purgatory the difference between allopathic punishment (the correcting "contrapasso" or counter-suffering by which Purgatory purifies you for heaven) and the Inferno's homeopathic punishment (you wanted this? You'll have it in spades, you'll have it to the nth degree), begins to vanish.  Heaven, like hell, gives its denizens what they always wanted in the way they wanted it.  At the end of Purgatory, the flames of purification and the flames of love become one (as do gay and straight: Dante is very clear about this).  And in those flames they burn to know more about Dante, whose real presence (in the theological sense too: "Colui non par corpo fittizio!") is what makes this frankly fictitious word one that matters.  It's no wonder that Dante is about to name himself.

The other to all worlds, says Blanchot about literary space.  And to that fictional world comes this non-fictitious person, like K. to the bleak world of the Castle ("what but the desire to stay here could have brought me to this desolate place?") and in it, in exile, he can find a home.  The love here is the love of the real for the fictional, which when strong enough is self-requiting.

(Of course this will interfere with the theology, so alas Virgil, fictional being and real purveyor of fictions, and who loves him most, is about to disappear, in favor of the Christian Beatrice, in the realm where there are no bodies, fictional or otherwise.)


  1. Very Auerbachian point! (Erich, not me.) But I wish this attitude continued through Paradise, which at least from my perspective it doesn't.

    Also, any connection here to Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies? A book I have only skimmed. Because it is so darn long.

  2. I don't think of it as related to Kantorowicz, though I suppose the whole "body natural" idea would come in somewhere - and the body of the Church as a different sort of body. But I think it's more Statius's scholastic lecture on embryology that's animating (so to speak) Dante.

    I think the last terrace of Purgatory, where Dante meets the poets and then parts with them, is about the peak of fiction, which is orthogonal to the "truth" of Paradiso. You're interested in Dante's crossing of Lethe, I know, so it seems worth pointing out that Guido Guinizzelli tells Dante a few lines later that even crossing Lethe will not cause him to forget the impression Dante's words make on him.

    And Dante greets Guinizzelli -- father of the sweetness and light of modern poetry -- by comparing himself to the sons of Lycurgus's wife in a scene from Statius - who is right there. So the poets stay in the fictional world, the world of bodies. Those in Paradise have no bodies and no memories (everything is always present to them so they need none). No poetry in heaven then, so Purgatory is the culmination of poetry. And to leave it, as Dante recognizes when he mourns the disappearance of Virgil, is a genuine loss.

  3. Tinkering with the translation, jetzt verbessert, Ich glaube, I realized that the voluntarily burning souls of these lovers must allude to yet another fictional character, fictional body: Dido.