24 September, 2007

I just got it!

I feel disgustingly triumphant at the moment. I was randomly reading Shadows of Ecstasy by Charles Williams (in what was unequivocally my spare time) and a watershed of realizations about Dante's Divine Comedy hit me all of a sudden.

This was provoked by the single quote, "that strange identification of Beatrice with Theology". It's amazing how much an appropriate line, read at the right time, can clarify and enrich an entire work of literature. I had had some hazy comprehension of this interpretation back when I was first reading it, but the ramifications of this simple "identification" never seemed this clear before.

I don't remember enough about the epic to back up my general ideas with a profusion of specific examples. But I do remember what is probably the most widely-known fact about the poem, namely, Beatrice's and Virgil's respective roles as Dante's guides throughout the afterlife.

In the arduous journey through hell Dante's guide is Virgil - a virtuous pagan who can nonetheless not move out of the outer (non-punishing) circle of hell. Virgil, who has been guided only by human reason in his pursuit of virtue throughout life, can only take Dante so far. He can discover through reason the necessity of punishment for those who are wicked on earth. The justice of hell is comprehensible and clear to Virgil's mind, as is the punishment in Purgatory.

Mercy is not so apparently comprehensible. Theology - the study of God and His relation to the world - presupposes revelation, and it is this Theology in the form of Beatrice, that reveals to Dante the beauty of a mercy which cannot be understood by unaided reason. Beatrice must show Dante the intended relation of mankind to God, a relation that culminates in an intimacy with the perfection of the very virtue which Virgil so consistently sought.

This development could go far beyond this; I'm only barely scratching the surface here. I can't wait to re-read the Comedy for my literature class.

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