‘The climb is less painful the higher you go’

On the occasion of reviewing a newly published anthology, After Dante: Poets in Purgatory, Judith Thurman ponders this thing called Purgatory, “this invention of a liminal space” where the repentant expiate their sings before their eventual ascension to Paradise. Like many of its more exotic creations unsupported by Scripture, the Catholic Church offers few details about God’s waiting room:

Before Dante, though, the notion of Purgatory was an empty lot waiting for a visionary developer. His blueprint is an invention of exquisite specificity. A ziggurat-like mountain ringed with seven terraces, one for each of the cardinal sins, rises from the sea in the Southern Hemisphere, opposite the globe from Jerusalem, with the Earthly Paradise at its summit. According to Dante, this mountain was formed by the impact of Satan’s fall to Earth. His descent brought grief to the children of Eve—those “seductions of sin and evil” that every godparent must renounce. But it also created a stairway to Heaven.

In my reading of The Divine Comedy before I started grad school, with John Ciardi’s crisp translation buttressed by helpful illustrations and footnotes, Purgatorio interested me least: a reprise of Inferno without Paolo and Francesca chasing each other, the Gorgons spotting Dante and Virgil approaching the city of Dis, Archbishop Ruggieri encased in ice gnawing on the head of Ugolino, and Guido de Montalfere’s dignified haunting reply to Dante which T.S. Eliot used as epigraph to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Depravity is more attractive for writers, as Thurman notes. But Paradiso, with its quaintly egalitarian notion of happiness, charmed me: even the souls in its remotest sections find peace because God shines on them anyway.

Mary Jo Bang’s apparently rock ‘n’ roll approach to translating Purgatorio has at least the virtue of novelty. “Bang’s remedy for elevation is philistinism,” Thurman writes with what I imagine a twinkle in her eye. “She almost jealously disrupts our immersion in Dante, and the poem’s unity, by bombing the text with jokey anachronisms.” And Bang doesn’t speak Italian? Sold. Into which circle of hell am I condemned?

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