From Salvador Dali's Divine Comedy watercolour series
'I crown you, and mitre you, over yourself'
Virgil’s plight in Canto XXVII of Purgatory is symbolic of sirenic foreclosure. ‘I have reached a place where I, by myself, can see no further’, he says, and contrasts his incapacity with the pilgrim’s open-ended quest.
In words that recall Canto XVI’s allegorisation of the Creation as an act of child-like spontaneity, Virgil insists that the pilgrim’s mind is as free as a child’s. ‘Take your delight for a guide’ he says, recognising the pilgrim’s freedom to choose spontaneously from his powers of reason within.
The pilgrim is described as being ‘free of the steep path, and the narrow’, recalling too the fulcrum point of the Comedy as a whole; the mind’s penchant for acts of creation that are unprompted by sense sensations and external influences, be they natural, social, cultural or political.
Approaching the Eden-like garden, Virgil eulogises over the ‘the grass, the flowers and the bushes, that the earth here produces by itself’, as though the flora and fauna were symbolic of the pilgrim’s capacity for spontaneity and choice.
Virgil tests the pilgrim’s will with a siren-call of foreclosure. ‘Here you can stay and sit down, or walk amongst all this.’
And to emphasise the pilgrim’s freedom of choice he adds, ‘free, direct and whole is your will and it would be wrong not to do as it demands: and, by that, I crown you, and mitre you, over yourself.’
This is an expression of explosive political significance. The pilgrim has attained the power of mind over which no secular or clerical authority can rule; a Socratic consciousness of gold.
The Pilgrim’s decision to go beyond the garden shows it is not just a point of arrival, but the necessary pre-condition for moral life. Under his own crown and mitre, his choice becomes a positive act of defiance that resonates with the ‘felix culpa’, the happy fall, of Augustine’s writings: ‘For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist” (Enchridion).
Dante is determined to explore beyond that which we see. Political, religious and psychological freedom coalesce. This is the very essence of mind, as it overcomes the Aristotelian confines of sense perception.
© John Dunn.