Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pissed Off At Dante: "Virgil Got Screwed!"

I just finished Purgatorio, the second book of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.  Next week I will be having lunch with Brian Pauli who was part of the Dead Poet's Society book group at Camp Adder in Iraq.  Re-reading Dante in Iraq gave me new insight into this beautiful epic poem because I read it with younger soldiers.

Easily the biggest surprise I had was when most of the soldiers in the group got angry at Dante because of Virgil.  At the end of Purgatorio, just before Dante crosses Lethe and begins his ascent into Heaven, Virgil gets sent back to Hell.  Virgil, with other great and good pagans, gets to stay in Limbo, the penthouse of Hell.  Limbo has none of the torments of Hell proper, but it is Hell and has the greatest torment of separation forever from God.

The first time I read Dante, I remember feeling sad about Virgil, but the poet creates his own world so I accepted Virgil's condemnation.

But in human terms, the injustice is glaring.  Virgil was only in Hell because his birth pre-dated Christ.  This is consistent with the theology of the Catholic Church, but strikes modern readers as eternally cruel.  I can't remember which soldier said, but one said, "Virgil got screwed!"

I was surprised at the time, but have since come to agree with the group.  I will push on through the very Roman version of Heaven in Paradiso, but believing that the Virgil was, in reality, dealt with more justly than by Dante.