Autore: Joseph A. Barber
Tratto da: Dante's Divine Comedy. Introductory readings. I. Inferno
Editore: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville
Like the earliest readers of the Divina Commedia, we have learned to view Dante's description of his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven both as a depiction of a literal journey and as a system of signs which point to a «hidden meaning» that, for lack of a better term, we might call moral truth. This view suggests a method of reading that we describe as allegorical, a method which applies to canto IX of Inferno as much as it does to the other cantos of the poem. In fact, one reader has suggested that canto IX of Inferno, with its strange complex of characters and events, provides a model for understanding Dante's use of allegory, for in this canto the poet takes the unusual extra measure of interrupting his tale and addressing his readers with an explicit instruction to look for hidden meaning (vv. 61-63):
O voi ch'avete li 'intelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s'asconde
sotto 'l velame de li versi strani.
Dante only takes this unusual measure here in canto IX and at one other place in his poem, a parallel invocation to the reader in canto VII of Purgatorio. So it is appropriate that a reading of the canto should depart from a discussion of the signs that the poet has built into his poem and of the doctrine hidden behind the veil of their obscurity.
The earliest readers of Dante's poem also noted that meaning unfolds as the journey progresses and that the reader is sometimes left in the dark about the significance of events until a later point in the journey, when subsequent events shed light on meaning that remained clothed in obscurity when the signs first appeared. The great American Dante critic, the late Charles Singleton, often referred to this characteristic of Dante's allegory as retrospective vision, or «vistas in retrospect.» In our reading of canto IX of Inferno we find that this phenomenon holds true here, that the full significance of the events that take place in this canto before the gates of the infernal city of Dis remains suspended until the reader has travelled with the pilgrim to another set of gates, the gates of Purgatory in cantos VIII and IX of the second cantica of the poem.
So my discussion of canto IX departs from the signs, and I will say at the outset that the principal signs are emotions: fear and terror, despair, anger, and their metaphorical and allegorical embodiments, blindness and sickness. The full impact of the events of canto IX of Inferno and the unfolding of the meaning of these signs culminate in cantos VIII and IX of the second cantica of the poem, when the pilgrim arrives at a second set of gates at the entrance to Purgatory.
Inferno IX opens at a dividing point in the architecture of Hell. In canto VII Virgil and Dante had been ferried by the boatman, Phlegyas, across the river Styx. They arrive at the gates of a walled city known as the city of Dis. In Dante's underworld, Dis is the division point between upper and lower Hell. Outside of Dis are punished sins of incontinence, or a failure to restrain desires such as passions and anger. Beyond the walls of Dis the sins are more serious and more permanent: basically evil dispositions such as bestiality and malice. They represent characteristics rather than tendencies or even isolated events such as Francesca and Paolo's act of love, described in canto V of Inferno.
When the pilgrim and his guide reach the gates of the city, they find that their progress is blocked by more than a thousand fallen angels. In an unusual move that forebodes pessimism, Virgil momentarily abandons Dante to approach the sinful army and convince them, in private, of the futility of blocking the pilgrim's progress. He meets with failure.
The demarcation between cantos VIII and IX is not dramatic. The ninth canto opens with a note of anxiety and fear in response to Virgil's failure to gain entrance to the city. Despite his efforts to reassure Dante, our pilgrim begins to have doubts about his safety and about Virgil's ability to guide him. In the traditional, and appropriate, interpretation, Dante is beginning to have doubts about the adequacy of his ancient guide's allegorical significance, human reason, in coping with the task of transcending the material world and raising the human soul to a divine level of spirituality. His justifiable fear is that human reason cannot succeed in the spiritual quest he has undertaken.
From his efforts to reassure Dante, we learn that Virgil has been this way before. Shortly after his natural death the ancient sorceress, Erichtho, summoned him from Limbo to retrieve a soul from the very deepest circle of Hell. Now he attempts to convince Dante that help is coming from Heaven, and wonders at the delay: «Oh quanto tarda a me ch'altri qui giunga!» (v. 9). Before the heavenly aid arrives, three Furies appear at the top of the tower at the gates of the city. These are horrendous, threatening figures from classical mythology that strike terror into the hearts of mortals. Feminine, they appear covered with blood (v. 38: «di sangue tinte»), their waists girded with snakes and their tresses entwined with serpents. From the top of the tower they tear at their own breasts with their nails and cry out for the Gorgon Medusa to appear and turn the travellers to stone. Virgil admonishes Dante to tum around and face his eyes in the other direction to avoid the sight of Medusa, that would destroy all hope of his ever returning to the world of the living or of continuing his journey through Hell. As an added assurance, Virgil rushes to cover Dante's eyes with his own hands.
Like the Furies and Phlegyas and the Styx and the City of Dis itself, Dante has taken the figure of Medusa from classical mythology and literature, where her power to turn all those who look upon her to stone is well documented. It was not uncommon for Dante and other medieval Christian writers to turn to classical antiquity for details on the composition of the underworld, as these are lacking in Biblical tradition. The pagan literature also provided better and more truly frightful examples of subhuman and superhuman personalities, monsters, witches and demons, that held a great deal of fascination and credence in medieval society in spite of their non-Christian origin.
The Medusa never appears, or if she does, we as readers are unaware of her appearance, for just as Dante turns, the angel of the Lord arrives like a noisy wind, driving the damned out of his path. With a touch of his wand, the angel blasts open the gates of Dis, leaving the way clear for Dante and Virgil to enter. Once inside the city, Dante and Virgil find themselves moving through the cemetery of open and burning tombs of the heretics, the first group of sinners punished inside of Dis.
The emotion dominating the scene in Inferno IX is fear. It begins with Virgil's unspoken fear that the divine help needed to overcome the obstacle presented by the gates of Dis will not be forthcoming. In spite of his effort to reassure the pilgrim, Virgil betrays his false confidence in his guarded speculation: «we have to overcome this obstacle ..., if now («se non»). He conveys to Dante a sense of doubt, reinforcing the fear that the pilgrim has already expressed in the preceding canto (vv. 10-13):
I’ vidi ben sì com' ei ricoperse
lo cominciar con l'altro che poi venne,
che fur parole a le prime diverse;
ma nondimen paura il suo dir dienne...
Fear progresses to terror with the advent of the hideous and threatening Furies and with their call for Medusa to come and turn the pilgrim to stone: «Vegna Medusa: sì 'l farem di smalto!» (v. 52). Medusa's threat is a moral threat as well as a physical one. In his rush to protect Dante from casting eyes on the mythical demon, Virgil emphasizes not the petrification, but the spiritual ramification of looking upon Medusa: «ché se 'l Gorgon si mostra e tu "l vedessi, / nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso» (vv. 56-57). There will be no hope of ever returning above or of progressing on the literal journey to Purgatory and Paradise, and of progressing on the allegorical journey to salvation. Scholars may differ somewhat in their precise interpretation of what the Medusa stands for in the poem, but there is universal agreement that the figure is a sign in the system of allegory. «Many solutions have been proposed,» Charles Grandgent wrote, «the most natural and appropriate interpretation makes the Furies symbols of remorseful terror and Medusa the emblem of despair.» When the Furies call out for Medusa they invoke her power of petrification, «sì 'l farem di smalto,» but in the canto as a whole and in the critical literature discussing the scene, the key word is blindness, the inability to see, to look forward, in the allegorical sense, to progress and grow. For Grandgent, the blindness that Medusa threatens is a sign of a lack of faith and of ignorance: «The only obstacle to God's grace is the dense atmosphere of ignorance and spiritual blindness that it must penetrate.» For another critic, the petrification and blindness of Medusa are a loss of the ability to see truth, a loss of «the light of conversion»: «Dante's terror, then, is so overwhelming here that there is a real danger that a Medusa will take shape in his own soul, bringing intellectual blindness to the truth, loss of the light of conversion.»
As he often does in his poem, Dante calls the reader's particular attention to the notion of blindness as a dominant sign by extending it beyond the specific reference to Medusa. Indeed, the inability to see pervades every facet of the canto and of the atmosphere before the City of Dis, making it the single most important characteristic of the scene. Our attention is called to the failure of sight at the canto's opening, when the poet tells us that Virgil is «listening» for evidence that the awaited help is coming, because in the dense (moral) atmosphere of the setting, «seeing» is not possible (vv. 4-6):
Attento si fermò com' uom ch'ascolta;
ché l'occhio nol potea menare a lunga
per l'aere nero e per la nebbia folta.
So too, it is appropriate that when the angel of God does arrive, his appearance is announced to the sense of hearing instead of sight. Dante describes the advent as a «fracasso d'un suon, pien di spavento» (v. 65). The angel moves through the dense atmosphere like a blind man, moving the fog out of his way with his arms in front of him: «Dal volto rimovea quell'aere grasso, / menando la sinistra innanzi spesso» (vv. 82-83).
It is a characteristic of the medieval philosophers that Dante studied that their works are meticulous in the particulars of the intellectual processes and the functioning of sensation. They understand, for instance, the relationship of sense to intellect and the importance of the faculty of sight in the knowledge acquisition process. But these same philosophers are sometimes vague in their understanding of emotional issues. Emotions can be intellectualized, as Guido Guinizelli does with that most powerful of all emotions, love, in his doctrinal poem, «Al cor gentil ripara sempre Amore,» or as Dante does himself in the Convivium, addressing his poem to «Voi ch'avete intelletto d'Amore.» Sometimes emotions can be equated with passions and sins, such as lust and violence.
Fear, on the other hand, is an emotion that the medieval philosophers discuss in some detail. It is an unhealthy state, the first step on the road through terror to that most dangerous and most incurable of diseases that St. Thomas Aquinas and the other Fathers of the Church call desperatio, or despair. In the Summa, Aquinas describes despair as incurable; he quotes Isodore of Seville in equating despair with descending into Hell. In his Moralia, St. Gregory presages Virgil's admonition to Dante in this canto. Virgil tells Dante that the sight of the Gorgon will block all hope of returning above; St. Gregory declares that desperatio «cuts off the way of return.» What begins as fear leads through terror to hopelessness and insanity.
Blindness, ignorance, insanity, these are the issues that the Gorgon Medusa represents in Dante's system of signs, They are characteristics of a moral sickness, and it is because we are dealing with a sickness that the poet Dante, when he steps back from his narration and asks his readers to consider the hidden meaning of the episode, addresses himself not to the enlightened minds or the learned minds, or even to the blessed minds, but to the «intelletti sani» (v. 61), to the healthy minds of readers free from sickness, to use the definition from the Zingarelli Dictionary, of readers «of good physical and psychic health.» For it is clear that the afflicted, the sick minds, even the pilgrim Dante at that point in his journey and at that point in his spiritual growth, are unable to discern the truth that hides under the veil of the «versi strani.» Dante's inability to look forward, to see, to cast his eye on and beyond the Medusa, is a sign of sickness, the symptom of illness.
Intermingled with the fear and the terror that dominate the scene presented in canto IX is a more ambiguous yet unmistakable motif of anger. We recall that in canto VIII the poet describes the punishment in the muddy Styx of the wrathful spirits who were unable to control their anger. The guardian of Styx, Phlegyas, is the epitome of uncontrolled anger as he rushes to Dante and Virgil, mistaking them for new arrivals among the damned, «Or se' giunta, anima fella!» (VIII, 18). He suppresses his anger when Virgil informs him of his mistake (VIII, 22-24):
Qual è colui che grande inganno ascolta
che li sia fatto, e poi se ne rammarca,
fecesi Flegiàs ne l'ira accolta.
From a purely therapeutic standpoint, anger, unlike fear, is not an emotion. Psychiatrists describe it as the symptom of an emotion. Generally, they tell us, anger is the expression of suppressed fears. It can be healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy anger often results in violence, but healthy anger can be an effective means of overcoming the fears that haunt us.
Dante, of course, is not a therapist. But he does seem to recognize the power of healthy anger and he does seem to suggest a level of relationship between anger and fear. Remembering that his journey through Hell is an allegory for spiritual growth, it seems appropriate that as he crosses through the wrathful souls beneath the muddy Styx, when the condemned soul of the Florentine Filippo Argenti rises up out of the mud to implore the pilgrim for compassion and pity, Dante's reaction is one of anger and disdain: «Con piangere e con lutto, / spirito maladetto, ti rimani; / ch'i' ti conosco, ancor sie lordo tutto» (VIII, 37-39). It is appropriate too, that the pilgrim's guide and therapist on this journey, Virgil, heartily approves of Dante's angry outburst, himself moving to violently push the soul back to the depths of the Styx, «con li altri cani.»
That anger can be healthy, a sign of spiritual growth, is not foreign to the teachings of the medieval church. Aquinas, for instance, distinguishes in his Summa between sinful rage, such as that which characterized the lives of the damned in Styx, and the righteous indignation of the Christian when faced with evil. Dante seems to be breaking new ground though, in suggesting, if even implicitly and equivocally, a relationship between anger and fear, a role for righteous indignation in the growth process of learning to deal with the fear of evil and the risk of despair.
The poet suggests this relationship in Inferno IX, where the notion of anger, the «ira,» that dominated the tone of canto VIII continues to play an important role. Virgil calls attention to this role early in the episode, as he waits with the pilgrim outside the gates of Dis, telling Dante that anger («ira») will be needed for them to enter (vv. 31-33):
Questa palude che 'l gran puzzo spira
cigne dintorno la città dolente,
u' non potemo intrare omai sanz'ira ...
Anger also characterizes the arrival of the angel of the Lord to help the travellers gain entrance to the city of Dis. His energetic crossing of the Styx, accompanied by rumbling and thunder and panic among the fallen angels who flee «like so many frogs from the enemy snake,» is not unlike the angry arrival of Phlegyas in canto VII. His angry epithet to the sinners, «O cacciati dal ciel, gente dispetta» (v. 91), echoes the epithet which Phlegyas levelled at Dante and Virgil, mistaking them for condemned souls arriving to Hell. The pilgrim marvels at the power of the angel, who with a disdainful touch of his wand, «pien di disdegno,» blasts open the gates of Dis, making nothing of the frightful obstacles posed by the Furies and Medusa, these same obstacles that struck terror in the heart of Dante and brought him to the very threshold of despair.
The formula is imprecise, but in his coupling of anger and fear in this episode, I believe that Dante is suggesting a relationship in the equation of spiritual growth and salvation. The similarities between Phlegyas, the evil, wrathful guardian of sin, and the angel of the Lord, the haughty, disdainful protector of the travellers, suggest an allegorical embodiment of sinful anger and violence on the one hand, and of righteous indignation at the sight of evil, of Medusa, on the other. The contrast between the pilgrim's cowering terror and near despair at the appearance of Medusa and the angel's angry confidence suggests a lesson by example. In the equation of spiritual growth, fear of the power of evil is an improper response that can lead to despair. By contrast, the angel suggests a way of overcoming fear: substitute righteous indignation for wrathful anger, substitute disdain of evil for the fear of evil, This is the way of progress, of spiritual growth, and of health. To react with fear is a sickness, a disease, and the road to recovery is through righteous indignation.
Many volumes of critical literature have been written about Dante's use of allegory. Dante himself wrote little treatises on allegory which have contributed to an understanding of the question, but which have also been a source of ambiguity. It is not necessary here to go into the subject in detail, but it is worthwhile to review a few generalities which have attracted a broad consensus of support among readers of the poem.
Whatever our precise understanding of allegory may be — whether it is a tool for poets or a tool for theologians, or the same tool for both or different tools for each — it is clear that by the term allegory we mean more than a clever way of writing, more than simply a system of conveying meaning that is made more interesting by challenging the reader to look for the hidden «truth» behind the signs of words and events. Indeed, for the medieval Christian writer (and reader), allegory is more than a way of writing; it is, as Singleton and others have pointed out so well, a universal law of history and a way of life.
Singleton was fond of pointing out that the medieval poet is essentially an imitator who draws his work from two models, the book of life which is God's creation and the book of Scripture, which is the Old and New Testaments, God's writing. Both books represent, as St. Augustine wrote, the unfolding of God's word in time. Creation has a purpose and a destiny in God, and the events that take place in this life point to a salvation for mankind, with God as the guide. Human history and individual lives are a progression. Events are literal happenings that actually occur in time, and at the same time they are signs that point to the progression or unfolding of God's masterplan. On the global level, the masterplan is the salvation of mankind, on the individual level, it is the spiritual growth of the pilgrim and the reader.
The Bible complements creation as a record and mirror of this progression. The words of the Old Testament tell of literal events that actually occurred in historical time, and they also point ahead, with the events, as signs of the advent and life of Christ and the redemption that the New Testament describes. The Old Testament looks forward to the New Testament, and the New Testament, by reflection, looks back to and fulfills the Old Testament. It is important to keep this notion of looking forward and looking back in mind as we relate the episode that ‘takes place before the City of Dis to the events that take place in Purgatorio VII and IX.
In these cantos, Dante and Virgil accompanied by the spirit of the poet Sordello approach the gates of Purgatory as evening nears. They are welcomed by two of the souls who, with the others around them, are biding their time in peace and harmony, awaiting the appropriate moment for each to enter Purgatory proper and begin cleansing his soul of the vestiges of sin, preparing to enter Paradise. Both of these souls played prominent roles in the life of Dante: Nino Visconti was a great political figure in Tuscany and an ally to Florence, and Conrad Malaspina is a member of a prominent ruling family in central Italy that had played host to Dante on at least one occasion.
As evening falls and the souls prepare to take rest, two angels descend from Heaven to protect them from the serpent of evil. Each takes a position of vigilance on either side of the valley. When the serpent approaches in the night to bring temptation to the sinners, the angels drive him away with a quickness and ease that almost startles the poet (Purg. VII, 103-108):
Io non vidi, e però dicer non posso,
come mosser li astor celestiali;
ma vidi bene e l'uno e l'altro mosso.
Sentendo fender l'aere a le verdi ali,
fuggì 'l serpente, e li angeli dier volta,
suso a le poste rivolando iguali.
After the angels have driven off the serpent of evil, Dante, as he does on each of three nights he spends on the island of Purgatory, sleeps. During his sleep he dreams that he is being carried up by a golden eagle through the sphere of fire that separates the earth's atmosphere from the sphere of the moon. The dream itself is a sign of an actual literal and spiritual ascent, for when Dante awakens he finds himself transported to the very threshold of Purgatory, and he learns that in the night St. Lucy, who helped him at the beginning of his journey in Inferno II, came for him again here and carried him up while he slept.
Dante finds that the threshold of Purgatory is marked by three stone steps, each of a different color, and that the gatekeeper, the «cortese portinaio» (Purg. IX, 92), is an angel to whom God has entrusted the keys. The gatekeeper inscribes the letter «P» seven times on Dante's forehead with his sword, with each letter an emblem for one of the seven capital vices that must be cleansed in Purgatory. After this, he unlocks the gate, and Dante and Virgil enter, welcomed by the sounds of the hymn in praise of God, Te Deum laudamus.
It is appropriate that at this point in his journey, which occurs in the structure of the poem in the cantos of the second cantica that numerically parallel Inferno IX,11 the poet invites the reader to look back to the earlier episode before the City of Dis and reflect on how the events there point forward to what occurs here, and vice-versa, how these events recall and relate to what occurred there. Besides the general structure of the events, the arrival at gates that mark a division point within the two realms, the threat of evil in the form of serpents that want to block the journey, the serpents that entwine the tresses and waists of the Furies in Inferno and the «biscia, / forse qual diede ad Eva il cibo amaro» in Purgatory (VIII, 98-99), and the protection offered to the travelers by angels from heaven, to blast open the gates of Dis in Hell and to drive off the serpent in Purgatory, Dante gives an explicit invitation to the reader to see the two scenes as parallel by again stepping back from his poem, asking the reader to consider the allegory behind the veil of the verses (Purg. VIII, 19-21):
Aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero,
ché 'l velo è ora ben tanto sottile,
certo che 'l trapassar dentro è leggero.
In both cantos the invocation to the reader comes at the same point, just before the angels of the Lord arrive.
As we have come to expect from a poet as precise and as technically adept as Dante is, the poet builds into his poem many, many signs that tell the reader to look back to Inferno IX and see this passage into Purgatory in the context of and in contrast to the entry into the City of Dis. And as we might also expect, the signs recall each other in their similarity but are set in contrast to each other, in order to underscore the difference of the ambient. It is as if to say that Purgatory is different from Hell; the state of the souls in Purgatory is different than the state of the souls in Hell. Those were damned, these are on the road to salvation. There the «velame» was thick and the verses strange, impenetrable to the sick mind teetering between terror and fear; here it is a thin veil, so transparent that «'l trapassar dentro è leggero» (v. 21). Whereas the serpent-bound Furies and Medusa posed a mortal threat to the travellers in Hell, bringing them to the brink of despair, here the souls watch the episode between the angels and the serpent as curious onlookers to a spectacle that serves as a reaffirmation of their faith in the Lord. Not for one minute is Sordello or Dante or Virgil frightened or doubtful about the outcome.
The contrast extends also to the emotional level of the two cantos. The fear and doubt that we noted as the dominant feelings in Inferno IX are here replaced with the chorus of souls reciting «sì divotamente» the Te lucis ante, a prayer to the Lord imploring his protection, and the hymn of praise that greets the travellers as they pass through the gates of Purgatory, Te Deum laudamus. Virgil's fearful questioning of the angel's delay in Inferno IX contrasts here with Dante's marvel at the case and speed with which the two angelic guardians of the valley drive off the evil serpent. The fear that cast a threat of despair over the events before the City of Dis contrasts with the feelings of faith, hope, and harmony that characterize the evening spent before the gates of Purgatory.
The anger that characterized the Medusa scene also has its counterpart here in Purgatory. That counterpart is peace and serenity. The souls of Purgatory, like the «più di mille» that blocked the entrance to Dis, resemble an army, but the poet tells us that here it is a «gentle army» (Purg. VII, 22-24):
Io vidi quello essercito gentile
tacito poscia riguardare in sue,
quasi aspettando, palido e umìle.
The angel who arrives to help the pilgrim in Inferno IX comes with the violence of thunder and wind. The poet describes him as «pien di disdegno.» Here in Purgatory, the angels descend amidst the hymn of praise, singing that Dante describes as «sì dolci note, / che fece me a me uscir di mente» (Purg. VIII, 14-15). The poet tells us that the swords they carry are blunted, deprived of their points, for anger and violence have no role in the second realm (Purg. VIII, 25-27):
e vidi uscir de l'alto e scender giùe
due angeli con due spade affocate,
tronche e private de le punte sue.
The hideous and violent ranting of the Furies who guard the City of Dis contrasts with the gentleness of the angel who is custodian of the gates of Purgatory, the «cortese portinaio,» as Dante describes him.
And if the metaphorical embodiment of the sickness of despair was blindness, not secing, the inability to look forward, its counterpart in the second realm — where the intellects are indeed on the road to recovery, to becoming completely «sani» — is seeing, looking forward towards the salvation that awaits at the summit of Purgatory. The dense air that obscured everything in Inferno becomes the thin veil of transparency.
The signs that contrast blindness and secing abound in Purgatorio VII and IX. It is evident from the very openings of the two cantos that the physical and moral ambient has changed. Inferno IX opened in visual obscurity, with Virgil and Dante having to listen for the arrival of the angel through the dense atmosphere that was impenetrable to the sense of sight. In Purgatorio VIII the opposite holds true. Dante tells us that he was so overcome with the serenity and tendermess of the closing day, so overwhelmed with visual awareness, that he began to lose consciousness of sounds. The soul has to indicate his desire to speak to the poet's sense of sight (Purg. VIII, 1-9):
Era già l'ora che volge il disio
ai navicanti e ‘ntenerisce il core
lo dì c'han detto ai dolci amici addio;
e che lo novo peregrin d'amore
punge, se ode squilla di lontano
che paia il giorno pianger che si more;
quand' io incominciai a render vano
l'udire e a mirare una de l'alme
surta, che l'ascoltar chiedea con mano.
The focus on seeing, on visual awareness, continues particularly in the poet's invitation to the reader to read the allegory in the setting, with Dante telling us to «sharpen our eyes to the truth» («aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero»). He continues in the verses immediately following this invitation, opening each of the two tercets that follow with the verb, «I saw»: «Io vidi quello essercito gentile / ... / e vidi uscir de l'alto e scender giùe / due angeli con due spade affocate». And when the Medusa threatened, Virgil rushed to prevent the pilgrim from looking upon her. How different this is from Sordello's interrupting Dante's conversation with the souls in Purgatory to explicitly direct his vision to the threatening serpent that approaches in the night: «vedi là 'l nostro avversaro» (Purg. VIII, 95).
Afterwards, in Purgatorio IX, when Dante awakens from his sleep and dream, it is through his sense of sight that he knows that he has been transported to a different place, and, seeing, he readily finds comfort and solace in Virgil's explanation — in stark contrast to the scene in Inferno where Virgil's vain attempts to reassure the pilgrim only served to heighten his sense of fear and uncertainty (Purg. IX, 64-68):
A guisa d'uom che ‘n dubbio si raccerta
e che muta in conforto sua paura,
poi che la verità li è discoperta,
mi cambia' io; e come sanza cura
vide me ’l duca mio ...
The pilgrim continues with his guide and again, it is through his visual awareness that his understanding grows. Again, the poet describes the scene in tercets constructed around the verb «to sce»: «vidi una porta / ... vidil seder sovra 'l grado sovrano, / tal ne la faccia ch'io non lo soffersi» (Purg. IX, 76, 80-81).
The acute attention that the poet calls to the clarity of his visual apprehension of the events and meaning in the episode is a powerful allegory of spiritual growth, whose opposite in Inferno IX was blindness, sickness, and ultimately, the insanity of despair. His focus on visual perception throughout the episode before and at the gates to Purgatory is subtle. Were it not for his explicit invitation to relate the scene to the earlier events before the City of Dis in his invocation to the reader, we might not even notice the predominance given to the sense of sight and its contrast to the blindness that prevailed in Inferno. But coming as it does at the beginning of the episode in Purgatory, it is an invitation to «see» the one scene in relationship and in contrast to the other. The recall is sealed at the end of the episode at the gates, where again it is so overt that the reader cannot avoid interpreting it as an invitation to exercise his retrospective vision. At the gates of Dis, when the Furies called for Medusa, the threat was in looking forward. Dante's thoughts throughout the episode were of turning back; Virgil rushed to turn the pilgrim around and cover his eyes. The inability to look forward, upon and beyond the Medusa represented an inability to look towards the goal of the journey, salvation, and to trust in the promise of spiritual growth. In Purgatory, just the opposite holds true. As Dante and Virgil pass through the gates of Purgatory the angel admonishes them to look forward always to the path that lies ahead. It is looking back, as fear and doubt had driven them to do before Dis, that will block their progress and cause them to lose hope of reaching the journey's goal. «Intrate,» the angel says, «ma facciovi accorti / che di fuor torna chi 'n dietro si guata» (Purg. IX, 131-132). Our retrospective vision contrasts this admonition with that of Virgil in Inferno (IX, 55-57):
Volgiti ‘n dietro e tien lo viso chiuso;
ché se 'l Gorgòn si mostra e tu ‘l vedessi,
nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso.
The change in behavior is not due solely to a change of locale. The external setting and the new «rules» of behavior are signs of progress on the journey within. The setting is different; the signs are different and «hide» different meanings; and the pilgrim is different. In the allegorical journey of the heart and mind a spiritual change that is all pervasive has taken place, a spiritual growth from blindness to insight, from fear to faith and hope, from sickness to health.