Dante on the beach (and the migrants)

One of the most beautiful expressions of mankind’s common condition and destiny is in the second canto of Dante’s Purgatorio. It also represents Dante’s criticism of xenophobia and nativism, themes which resonate, most loudly, with us today.

Canto 2 of Purgatorio is set on the beach between the funneled Hell and the conical Purgatory. It is the only level, 0% gradient position in the entire topography of Dante’s Commedia, as may be seen in an illustrated Dante manuscript from Oxford (below). On the beach, the poet and his guide Virgil encounter a boatful of travelers recently arrived at the foot of Purgatory Mount. The angel-manned boat brought the migrants from their exile on Earth to the promised land and the longed-for ascent towards their bliss.

E Virgilio rispuose: Voi credete
forse che siamo esperti d’esto loco;
ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete.

And Virgil answered: You may think
that we are quite familiar with this place;
but we are strangers here, just as you are.

(Purgatorio 2.61-63)

Virgil is essentially saying that they are all in this together, that no one has claim to the place; that the two poets and the newly arrived are fellow travellers, sharing in the same pilgrimage of life. For me, the key words here are come voi, just like you. I read this passage as an existential statement about humankind’s shared condition. Dante makes the same point elsewhere in the Comedy, but perhaps never more poignantly or more radically than here.

It is not a coincidence that Dante puts these words in Virgil’s mouth precisely at this point. The beach is not a random feature, however innovative it may be in Dante’s vision of the otherworlds. As I said, it is the only perfectly horizontal place in the Commedia. In Inferno, everything is going down, even the dark woods at the start and Hell’s icy bottom are declivities where balance, physical or metaphysical, is impossible. In Purgatorio, everything is an acclivity, and so is in Paradiso. The ante-purgatorial beach is the only place where the traveller can find momentary relief from an upward or downward movement. The beach is also located between darkness and light, decline and ascent. It is, I think, the most existentially human location in Dante’s topography. Set between Hell and Purgatory/Heaven, it is a space of human consciousness, where the pilgrim can look back (to death) or forwards (to life). The beach is human life itself. So Dante is perfectly right to emphasize not only the common human condition but also the foolishness of taking possession of something one does not own. On the beach as in life, there are no experts, no natives, no insiders and outsiders, no born-here and coming-from-elsewhere. All are joined in a common walk, all have claim, because no one has claim. Virgil knows well our (as readers and humans-in-the-world) common (and fallen) assumption that the resident has a claim to the place in opposition to the unknown outsider (who come, then as now, by boat) – and blows the assumption up. You may think you as an outsider and us as insiders, you as a migrant and us as natives, but you’re wrong. We are the same, let’s walk together. And then they walk, and, most importantly, they sing together.

Screenshot 2018-09-29 at 1.26.57.png
Oxford, Bodley, Holkham misc 48


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