Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 23 – forgetting and remembering

Dante, Matilda and Lethe. Immersion in Lethe takes away the memory of evil.
 by George Dunlop Leslie from Wikimedia Commons

Two streams from the same source flow through the verdant earthly paradise. Dante must get a dunking in both of them before he is ready to ascend to the stars.

After his evisceration at the hands of Beatrice, Matilda brings Dante to Lethe, the stream of forgetfulness, which purges him of all his shameful memories:

In classical mythology, which Dante borrows from extensively, Lethe is one of the five rivers of the underworld. In the Comedy it originates in the earthly paradise and flows down into the bowels of the earth, forming the hidden passage by which the poets escaped hell, before discharging into Cocytus, the frozen lake where Satan is trapped (see Note 13). All saved souls must immerse themselves in its waters before they can continue their journey.

Sure enough, in the final canto of Purgatorio it transpires that Dante can no longer recall his forsaking of Beatrice, his turning away from the face of Revelation:

Beatrice’s smiling reply plays with the ideas of remembering and forgetting. Then she turns to Matilda and asks her to take Dante to the other stream, Eunoe, to strengthen his memory of the good:

Enuoe: Dante drinks and remembers the good he has done. Dante drinking from the Eunoe River by Gustave Doré from Wikimedia Commons

A neologism derived from the Greek for “good” and “mind”, Eunoe is Dante’s invention. It’s a reminder that, despite his righteous anger at evil, he also affirms the good in human nature and, here, the idea that there is room, in the spiritual life, for pride in the good that we and others can do. This good is not only our contribution to the perfect world order that will, one day, come to be on our own dear earth, but also the key to our participation in the Supreme Good that awaits us in paradise. Our poet is definitely a via affirmativa chap.

After this the Purgatorio positively gallops to its close:

It’s neat of Dante to evoke “the curb of art” as his excuse for not going into more detail. Note also his recourse to a favourite trick  – doing something by saying he is not going to do it: we know already as much as we need to know about the “sweet draught” of which he tells us he won’t sing! But perhaps there is relief here too: relief at finishing the second part of his immense task, and an eagerness to embark on the third part – his ascent, with Beatrice at his side, through the heavenly spheres to his rightful place in the divine essence.

Dante, the perfected man, is filled with the newness of life. Join me next at the start of Paradiso, where we will see the whole created universe renewed and redeemed! “For behold I make all things new” (Revelations 21: 5). 

Genius line:
Puro e disposto a salire alle stelle. The second cantica, like the first, ends with the word “stars” and perfectly sums up the matter of Purgatorio – the soul’s purification and readying for divine knowledge.