THE simplest questions about Dante’s Divine Comedy are often the best. Did Dante really believe in a brutal, never-ending damnation? What is purgatory for? Wouldn’t paradise, with its everlasting delight, become boring? These issues and more are addressed by Denys Turner in his characteristically provocative and philosophical style.
When it comes to hell, Turner argues that the Inferno is an “anti-narrative”. The effect of the first canticle of Dante’s masterpiece is to show that an eternal hell couldn’t exist. It is simply not possible for souls to will the unlimited, pure negativity that such a state would require, no matter how lost or trapped they have become. At the very least, the business of continuing to exist introduces a minimal level of good into this undoubtedly dreadful darkness. Eventually, the good of being will point in the only direction that it can, towards God.
I think that Dante intentionally shows his readers how this will come about, too, by facing the darkness without reserve. This is the purpose of his journey through hell. He experiences seemingly relentless suffering, as the worst psychological conditions in this life can also instil, to see how love and understanding are stronger.
The purpose of purgatory reflects this priority of the good. As Turner explains, God’s grace is the key agent of human conversion. A person in purgatory, a condition that may also be experienced in this life, is remembering who they really are. By overcoming false convictions about themselves, which is typically a painful process, they are readied for the reception of the love and light for which they are made.
In his chapters on the Purgatorio, Turner includes a discussion of why Beatrice chastises Dante so severely when the two finally meet at the top of Mount Purgatory, a perennial question among Dante scholars. He concludes that Beatrice must destroy the last vestiges of Dante’s moral self-satisfaction in order for him to be made capable of paradise, though my sense is that she must ensure that Dante can overcome his immensely powerful love for her, so as to be open to the source of all love.
Throughout the book, Turner weaves in thoughts on why poetry matters so much to theology, which becomes clearest when considering paradise. In particular, the reason that paradise won’t be boring is captured in a discussion of the part played by smiles and music in the Paradiso. As poetry can be, too, smiles and music not only are signs of delight, but themselves participate in the timeless delight of which they are manifestations.
That coincidence reveals the excessive source of all that is truly lovely and meaningful, which exceeds all manifestations, because it is their origin. It can be our joy to learn about this in mortal life, as it will be eternally to find it realised in heaven.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. He is author of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”: A guide for the spiritual journey (Angelico Press, 2021).
Dante the Theologian
Cambridge University Press £29.99
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