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Saturday, 4 February 2012

Purgatory X


Christ in Limbo
: Fra Angelico, 1441-1442 (Convento di San Marco, Florence)
As, to support incumbent floor or roof,
For corbel, is a figure sometimes seen,
That crumples up its knees unto its breast;
With the feign’d posture, stirring ruth unfeign’d
In the beholder’s fancy; so I saw
These fashion’d, when I noted well their guise.

Each, as his back was laden, came indeed
Or more or less contracted; and it seem’d
As he, who show’d most patience in his look,
Wailing exclaim’d: “I can endure no more.”

Dante, Purgatorio X, ll. 119-128, trans. Henry F. Cary

It was that kind of day
men found themselves crouched beneath edifices of marble
monuments to their overweening pride
writing on invisible tablets
made of wrinkled skin
as you were saying
these words the wind again
rose, one could feel the flames
touching the other side of the paper

Purgatory X: Sandro Botticelli, 1490s (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

File:Chicago Board of Trade II.jpg

Chicago Board of Trade II: photo by Andreas Gursky, 1999; image by Hadams6, 18 July 2008 (Matthew Marks Gallery)

Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade I, 1997

Chicago Board of Trade I
: photo by Andreas Gursky, 1997 (Sprüth Magers, Berlin / London)

Andreas Gursky, Cocoon II, 2008

Cocoon II
: photo by Andreas Gursky, 2008 (Sprüth Magers, Berlin / London)

Andreas Gursky, Pyongyang I, 2007

Pyongyang I
: photo by Andreas Gursky, 2007 (Sprüth Magers, Berlin / London)

Hell: Hieronymus Bosch, 1500-1504 (Palazzo Ducale, Venice)


Conrad DiDiodato said...

"L'enfer, c'est les autres" has always been my favourite view of it.

TC said...


The Sartre line from Huis-clos was certainly influenced by circumstances at the time (1944) but comes dangerously close to retaining a more general application. And for that matter, perhaps, a retrospective application; Dante, after all, visited Purgatory (and Hell) only "on a visit". However, the images of the Board of Trade, the Cocoon Rave, and Pyongyang suggest something about a conglomeration view of "other people", as vs. other people as individuals. And indeed it does seem that, "in general", the ability to attract "mass audiences" has come to be the bottom-line indicator of cultural viability. A group, like a herd, is a mass. (One remembers Marvell's reference in Upon Appleton House to Davenant's "lowing herd", evoking, if willfully mis-applied, the sense of human groups as cattle.)

The problem of the dwellers in Purgatorio X was pride. That still exists, amazingly enough.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I also think of Frank Samperi, one of this century's greatest poet-Dantists, who in his "Diary" talks of the hellish San Francisco of the early 60s (he uses the phrase "hellish miasma") & the hope that his journey to Japan (for work, study and write) would take him a step further toward his own Dantean goal, which was later to materialize into his Trilogy. Conditions in Japan, however, turned out to be as inimical to "song" as the States. There was no escaping his hell.

When I read the "Diary" & his general writings I feel the hell of rejection, disappointment & continual criticisms by contemporaries and how close the "hellish miasma" was tied to the America of his day.

Anna said...

Have you read Paradise Lost by John Milton? I was originally going to write my thesis comparing the characteristics of Satan in The Inferno and Paradise Lost but decided to focus of Satan as the tragic hero of Paradise Lost by applying Aristotle's theory of Hamartia.

Paradise Lost a truly beautiful epic poem.

Nin Andrews said...

Yes, that still exists, amazingly enough!
Those edifices of marble monuments to overweening pride . . .

Purgatory. Yes.

I love this post.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...


I’ll drink to this post which led me to my own "monuments to their overweening pride"--thanks!

TC said...

Conrad, Anna, Nin,

You've helped me to see all this again, and think upon it.

Yes, we are too familiar with these things.

Hellish historical miasma, Hamartia, marble monuments to overweening pride.

Anna, yes Paradise is always being lost, again and again, and the angels are always falling, falling.

Interested to learn (by the way) that you are the only blogger in the entire universe (I checked) who has selected as a favourite film one of the greatest movies of recent years: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

That movie and this post share certain thematic ingredients.

In the film American history and mythology enter the realm of Dante and Milton. We learn to see the necessary elements in the oft-told Western tale -- treachery, betrayal, ressentiment -- as the tribulations of a soul in limbo.

The director, as it happens, Andrew Dominik, and the man whose music contributes strongly to the film's haunting tonal affect (he also sings The Ballad of Jesse James in the bar scene), Nick Cave, are Australian.

American history and mythology are often more dispassionately viewed through non-American eyes.

Possibly pertinent to these reflections, some telling scenes.

The nocturnal entry to the Underworld:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Train Robbery Scene)

And paralleling Milton's tableau of the disgruntled angels exchanging philosophical insights:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Charlie Ford: "Poetry don't work on whores")

The anticlimactic moment of transgression at the heart of the purgatorial myth:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (The assassination)

The cowardly assassin (Casey Affleck) and his rueful brother (Sam Rockwell), on a theatrical tour of show-biz limbo, re-enact the killing on stage for petty profit, over and over; a miserable purgatorial ritual:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Theater Scene)

Robert Ford, sinking ever deeper into his lamentable mythic fate (not unlike some desolate soul encountered by Vergil and Dante), grasping at history for exculpatory straws, can come up with only one pitiably small detail to correct in the ballad of his infamous deed:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ("It was two children not three")

He will have no Florentine poet to ennoble his legend:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (No Eulogies: Ending)

ACravan said...

It would probably be best to boil it down to what Nin says: "I love this post," and it will live inside my copy of the Purgatorio, which I keep on my night table. It will be impossible to get to/through this work's many implications for a long time. The Fra Angelico is a remarkable enough beginning - about as powerful a start as one can imagine. Thinking about the flames, the other side of the paper, and the crouching corbel figure is vivid, humbling and revelatory. Even if the thoughts aren’t immediately cheerful, it’s nice to find someone seeing and thinking “big” and outwardly in a world that is growing increasingly small, insular and nasty. By chance, I found myself spending time with a corbel figure the other day, so this came as a very interesting and helpful surprise. Curtis

TC said...


Many thanks.

And here is a Romanesque corbel that, if relocated south of the limbo line, might have made even Purgatory a friendlier-seeming place... to be crouching.


Apologies -- Blogger had hid away your comment from plain sight until -- plop! -- out it popped, like that legendary, surprising Egg of Pride once laid by the Bride of the Swan of Mammon!

ACravan said...

Love your corbel. My corbel guy (who is waiting to make his showbiz debut after years, I expect, hiding in storerooms of the Victoria & Albert) is more of your typical, tortured sort, but probably perfectly nice if people would get their feet off his back. The Bjork get-up is a SuperBowl commercial in and of itself. Astonishing. What was it you said -- a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do? Curtis

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I did write a thesis aeons ago on Milton; in fact, I tried some fancy Derridean deconstruction on it. And what I found was that some poems, poets, literary monuments are just too big, significant and beautiful for puny poststructuralism. I was one of those "les autres" who contributed to the hellish nightmare that most contemporary literary criticism is.

I'd say the same for Shakespeare.



Just back from the mountains with Johnny, where there is precious little white on the peaks this year, alarming to think what will unfold around here if the rain and snow don't arrive -- some version of Dante's Purgatorio perhaps, updated for twenty-first century warming? Meanwhile,

"as you were saying
these words the wind again
rose, one could feel the flames
touching the other side of the paper"


light coming into sky above black plane
of ridge, shadowed green leaf on branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

measuring on the other hand,
as with two relations

the second, variant element,
may be chosen at will

shadowed edge of peak in pale blue sky,
green of trees on ridge across from it

Nora said...

The interesting thing to me about Dante's Purgatory (and his cosmology in general) is that hell isn't other people -- it's complete self absorption. Which is what makes me like (or maybe like isn't the word. Feel for) his devil.

TC said...


The old saw about a cold day in hell perhaps needs updating --

measuring on the other hand,
as with two relations

the second, variant element,
may be

no snow?

(But the radar shows a front moving in now, e'en as we speak...)


Perhaps it's unfortunate that Dante's variously-hued images of diabolical self-involvement have been coloured-over in later epochs by the somewhat less elaborate conceptions of the sulky demonic in Milton.

Still the same divided-sympathies thing goes for all those poor self-absorbed devils, or so it seems from here.

Certainly over the past few centuries more people have been feeling for than against the version of Satan to be found in Paradise Lost.

Is this because the world (and we) are growing more and more satanic -- or because, as William Blake suggested in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it" -- ?