I’m drawn to works of art that say things other than what they say they say. Milton’s unspoken sympathy for the devil is a particularly delicious example; more poignant is the veiled or transfigured longing in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop or Marianne Moore.
But surely there’s no weirder example of an artist contradicting his stated intentions through the very content of his artwork than the paradoxical presence of Virgil in Dante’s Commedia. This colossal poem narrates the journey of the still-living Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; the divine powers have selected Dante to make this singular pilgrimage, both so that he can give the world a first-hand account of the afterlife and so that he can save his own soul, which had evidently come perilously close to being lost. Virgil, the spirit of the great Roman poet, is his guide.
I’m drawn to works of art that say things other than what they say they say.
The only problem is that Virgil is, technically, one of the damned. As a pre-Christian poet, Virgil – to hear Dante tell it – put excessive trust in the power of the human intellect, and so lacked the vision-through-faith which would have helped him foresee the coming of Jesus Christ. It might seem harsh to condemn an otherwise-laudable human being to eternal damnation for failing to predict the future birth of Jesus, but them’s the breaks in Dante’s universe.
No matter that Virgil isn’t among the elect: he is chosen to be Dante’s tireless, faithful guide through Hell and through Purgatory. (For obvious reasons, he lacks the necessary qualifications to be a tour guide in Heaven.)
Treating Shadows as Solid Things is a musical setting, for a cappella chorus, of three selections from the Purgatorio, which is my favorite of the three canticles. It has always felt the most real to me, at once the most human and the most mysterious. In Hell, Dante makes point after gruesome point about the torments that await all sinners; in Heaven, he’s mostly interested in formulating a recondite medieval theology that I find exhausting. But in Purgatory – which is, in Dante’s cosmos, a real mountain on this earth of ours – we meet human souls who are still mid-journey, imperfect and lovable and recognizable. They are on their way to salvation, but for the moment they’re immersed in self-reflection about what they could have done better in life.
In my selection of texts, I focused on two mysterious aspects of Dante’s poem: the poignant relationship between Dante and Virgil; and the way that the spirits in Purgatory, whenever they meet Dante, marvel over the fact that he is still alive, that he possesses a living body. For a bunch of souls on their way to eternal salvation, these spirits seem curiously fixated on the miracle of the body, of the spirit being incarnate in flesh. In spite of the paradise that awaits them, they seem to desperately miss being alive.
The first selection is Virgil’s explanation of his fate: though he’s among the un-saved, he doesn’t suffer torments, as the denizens of the lower circles of Hell do. He’s in Limbo, which is a kind of eternal holding cell for spirits that did nothing particularly bad, but who failed to jump through some hoop or other in the cosmic bureaucracy. Virgil, greatest of Roman poets, is seen as the spiritual equal of infants who died before being baptized.
The second selection is Virgil’s address to a crowd of spirits who have gathered to stare curiously at Dante, wondering why his form, unlike theirs, casts a shadow on the ground. Yes, Virgil says, this is a living body you see before you. In a poem that’s supposed to be about eternal salvation, here is a brief, thrilling ode to the human body.
The piece’s last movement sets to music what is, for me, the most poignant moment of the whole Commedia. Virgil has encountered the spirit of Statius, a fellow Roman poet; Statius is a lesser artist, but (in Dante’s view) he is a soul on his way to salvation. When Statius realizes who he’s talking to, he falls to his knees and tries to embrace Virgil; but Virgil restrains him, telling him that “you are a shadow, and a shadow you see before you.” Statius stands up and tells Virgil that this is the ultimate sign of his love, and of the transformative power of Virgil’s art: that even on the verge of passing into Heaven, the sight of Virgil made him “forget our insubstantiality, and treat shadows as solid things.”