“The Divine Comedy” is one of the great imaginative creations that have been put onto paper. It is sometimes considered the greatest Catholic poem as “Paradise Lost” by Milton is the great Protestant poem. It forms the basis of Italian literary education; and in the North American mind it has both cognitively and emotionally colored and consensually built a common conception of Heaven and Hell. It all proceeded from Dante’s view of mortal existence as a testing, a preparation of the soul for its possible bliss. Once this is accepted, his cosmogony- Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, follows almost by necessity.
Evil must be consigned to its everlasting quarters; the souls to be saved must be scrubbed clean and made presentable and then assigned to celestial seats hopefully with a good view of he stage. His great discovery was that he could turn his philosophical speculations into a narrative, a fiction, by using the simple and ancient device of the journey. In order to speak to all, he must tell the story of one, a man transcending death, visiting the world of the dead and returning with a message for the living.
Things were going smoothly for Dante, in terms of narrative until he entered the third part of the trilogy, Paradisio. After an almost science-fiction dissertation on fire and brimstone, and a form of house arrest/grounding in purgatory, the fresh air and metaphysical purity of ecstasy had the great writer scrambling for words to fill up what had been conceived as a section in equal length to the previous. However, in Heaven, time passes slowly. Heaven, immutable, timeless, the traveler’s movements are spiritualized almost beyond the reach of sense. In place of sharp drawn backgrounds we perceive only a shining haze.
His theme in Paradisio is the human soul’s approach to God. God is not merely power and wisdom, but also love; especially if you are Christian since its good to share the same faith as the almighty. God is the First Essence, the one cause of all, and every human soul, even the stiff-necked ones deep down, yearn to return to this first loving essence, to die into eternal life. And so the whole great poem rolls and roars to its frothy conclusion.
At each stop Dante, the inquisitive reporter meets some of the joyful and exuberant elect, poses questions and take notes. Its an inquiry into the everlasting difficulties that trouble the believer. For instance, how can a peasant by the banks of the river Indus, who has never heard the name of Christ be condemned for his infidelity? The answer is basically that God moves in mysterious ways, we have this special ingredient called the Primal Will , and other techniques of question dodging bordering on threats, blackmail and immoral suasion.
Again Dante takes up the old agonizing problem of the resolution of predestination and free will. The whole course of his poem seems to sustain our free will, or freedom to sin or choose virtue. No Maimonides here with that elusive middle way. Punishment or reward; no deals arguing , bargaining or squabbling. IOU’s not accepted. So, he is forced to celebrate the mystery of predestination ; Dante has not resolved the opposition; but no else has either unless they are keeping it for themselves.
Finally, Dante is admitted ot the very presence of God; Moses II; a triumph of the poetic imagination. The world of matter fades; we are held in a weightless world of light. God, the source of the light, appears as a triple ring of three ineffable colors, a celestial spectrum. …
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