The human race should not
put all of its eggs in one basket--or on one planet--Stephen Hawking.
Left: Suloni Robertson, Manfred. In
Purgatorio 3, Manfred is a sheepish believer in
about excommunication and burial rites, ideas that inhibit his spirit from
climbing to heaven as it should. Dante proposes that in promoting itself
improperly the church poses obstacles to the realization of human
Beyond baby talk
the pilgrim Dante meets Oderisi of Gubbio (c. 1240-1299), a
once-celebrated manuscript illuminator who is discouraged
because his style has been superseded. As he laments the
transitory nature of popular fashions in art, Oderisi asks the pilgrim:
A thousand years from now, how much
more acclaim will you have if your flesh falls off when it is old,
than if you had died before you finished saying ‘pappo’ and ‘dindi’?
He means that in a thousand years Dante's poems will
have turned into gibberish, so in terms of his lasting fame Dante
may as well write baby talk.
Oderisi is one of the multitude in Purgatory whose work has taken
him as far as he can go.
He is in Purgatory, not Inferno, because he aspires to join the
immortals, but he does not suppose that he is worthy to go higher, so he is circling
the mountain, reflecting with regret for his past vanity, and not
making any progress upward.
The poet Dante, however, is not Oderisi. Though his
language necessarily has become antiquated and occasionally obscure,
reputation keeps going
Today, at age 700, he still looks, as much as anyone can look, like a true prophet. That
is, he addresses the universal questions with results that remain
both visionary and stimulating. Not
Virgil, nor any writer prior to Dante, tells
so essentially the epic of our species from supersession of animal
nature through the greater development that remains necessary for
future migration from earth to more lasting forms of life in
and beyond the heavens. This account of the human situation and
challenge is prescientific but its
interest is more than historical. Maybe a thousand years after Dante, there still
will be avid readers of the Commedia, and some will believe that
the poet speaks to their
survival as purified spirits independent of mother earth.
Dante's Eurasia stretches
around half of the globe, and it with Africa is the habitat of all living people.
This land mass and all human life are shaped especially by one
prehistoric event, a cosmic catastrophe. In the time before people, a portion of the heavens fell burning toward the earth,
brightest of the falling objects, known as Lucifer, scored a direct hit,
dead center in Eurasia at the place now
Inferno is the impact crater, a pit that seems as if it had been designed as a series of ever-narrower,
ever-deeper rings down to the center of earth's core. Since the creation of
humankind and continuing into the present, human spirits of earth-bound
desire have fallen into this hole, where they
remain until the end of the world lodged in order of worldliness, like
deposits sorted by weight.
Though not Lucifer's victims, these fallen people are physically his followers.
Some of them can wiggle a little, but like him they aren't ever going
Opposite from the impact site, in the midst of a great sea
in the southern hemisphere, Lucifer's crash pushed up an island, topped
with a huge mountain ringed with seven
inverse inferno, Mount Purgatory, reaches through the clouds
toward the moon, and it is traversable, enabling human spirits to climb out of their terrestrial death
trap and acquire significance in the cosmos.
Dante's humankind is
endangered but not
consigned to a place of inevitable extinction. Those who will adapt to
extra-terrestrial life must transform themselves, however, and this work is
the subject of Purgatorio.
Left: Dore's Oderisi misleadingly suggests that by
carrying his weight through Purgatory he is making progress toward
heaven. This is true only from the point of view of Oderisi, not
pilgrim Dante or the guide Virgil.
Dante may not have believed in
situational ethics, but his cosmology provides the context
for his morality. The salient feature about earth, for Dante, is that it
supports life only temporarily. His question is: what are doing about
it? What have we been doing about it? Vice, in Dante's scheme, is
behavior that keeps
human beings from flying up to heaven as their cosmological situation
requires. The opposites of vices are
disciplines that can neutralize the bad behaviors; as such, they may be
preconditions for earthlings to surmount the attractions of earth, but
they are not ends in themselves. Oderisi has been proud; disillusion
with pride allows him a place above Inferno, but his humility is not raising him toward Paradise.
The seven terraces on Purgatory do not
comprise a spiral. Each one is a flat ring around the mountain, and to rise above
it requires the use of stairs. Preoccupied with their
individual terraces, the Purgatorians all seem to know where the
stairs are located in order to ascend to the next level, but none of
them deem themselves worthy of heaven. They do not accept the
invitations of angels positioned beside each stairway entrance.
Remorse weighs them down.
Before there was science, there was science fiction.
It had begun at least by the time of Gilgamesh (see my
page), and it was well expressed Homer, whose Hephaestus is an
inventor of robots and automobiles. The gods' eye-view of mortal affairs
runs through much of western heroic tradition to Dante who, at the end
of Purgatorio envisions Eden as the meeting ground between
extra-terrestials and human visionaries, including himself and his
Dangers of prophecy
The unfortunate mutability of language in our fallen world is a
favorite theme of Dante, who aspires to the stable communication of
the original language of Adam.
Since, therefore, all our language (except that created by God along
with the first man) has been assembled, in haphazard fashion, in the
aftermath of the great confusion that brought nothing else than
oblivion to whatever language had existed before, and since human
beings are highly unstable and variable animals, our language can be
neither durable nor consistent with itself; but, like everything
else that belongs to us (such as manners and customs), it must vary
according to distances of space and time. Vernacular Eloquence I ix